It was night, not that that meant much. Night came early during those days in Germany, especially in the fall and winter. Dry leaves rustled, stirred by a nipping wind. I could see their dark forms scattering before me like mice, rustling around my ankles and darting away into the darkness.  I stood, eying my target.

It was the Canteen. A low dome rose in the woods.  Cut into the outer edge was a dark ledge of steps going down and coming back up the other side – a line bisecting the dome. It was overgrown with grass; you couldn’t see it was concrete and alive ‘down there’. But I could make out the steam rising from the vents, smell the cooking. Occasionally a man would stagger out, ascending the stairs from the slits which cut into the dome’s great big blister, calling back to someone inside. You would see the yellow light briefly gleam on his face – usually thickset with heavy German features. I stood and watched from my position behind a tree, wondering if I should go in.

It was more of a ‘dare’ than anything, this thing I was about to do. No one had done it yet – no one had been allowed to. It was forbidden to go into the dome, the “German Canteen”. This was an installation on a military post, and only Germans were allowed in there. They were all German contractors, these men – some thick, some thin, and all with that thick guttural German accent when they spoke to us. Some were rather mean, but most were kind and friendly – however, they would be directing you elsewhere, always. With a firm command and a stern face if you hesitated or disobeyed. Their punishments weren’t harsh – they’d just turn you over to your parents. Usually that was all it took. However, in some cases – such as this one . . .

Darting forward through the scattered shadows in the darkness, I could see the bright lights and pinpricks of barracks and military installations all around. In the distance there were some streetlights. While this was ‘in the woods’, technically it was almost like a park – just a few acres around – with the German bunker in the center.  The ring of woods were clean of woods debris, for the Germans kept them painstakingly clean. They also kept their own woods – their own forests – ‘clean’, meaning you as you went strolling through their woodlands and parks you would see cords of wood stacked up, usually between some trees. The woods themselves were bare of scrub and undergrowth, rotting wood or fallen logs. All that would have been ‘cleaned up’ by the Germans – scouring the woods for firewood and stacking what they found. I was amazed by the thing. And it was the same on base. Everything was kept nice, clean, and orderly. Just like the Germans were.

As I darted forward, I became aware of a thumping – soft and persistent.  It it resembled an “omp-pah” band. The German kind. As I grew closer to the underground building the thumping grew louder, resolving itself into music – a lively German band.   The sounds were distorted by the thick steel doors resting loosely against their jambs – and the concrete slots they lay in – but I could hear the music faintly rising from the building underground.

It was an old World War II bunker. Like the base we were on, occupying our former enemy’s installations. Living in their barracks, working in their rooms, and in some cases using their old leftovers and equipment when ‘we’  or the US Army could. Bombs could still be found sometimes when they were doing excavations – they’d find that kind of thing – and explosive device, sometimes in a five hundred pound bomb – just waiting for something to set it ticking with a bump or a thump of some kind. Occasionally stashes weapons were found. like a case of hand grenades.  You never knew – or knew who might find them.  All us children had been trained – both in how to use them and avoid them.  That was part of our job.  It was a well known fact – you didn’t go around sticking a shovel in the dirt until you knew what lay underneath – especially in some places, where the Allied bombing had been good.  Or bad, depending upon your way of looking at it.

But this base – this was the one with seven underground levels (or so we were told). It was a ‘secret’ base for some time, then bombed to hell by the Allies. However, the Germans (it was said) had been prepared for that and had moved their planes underground. And they’re still there (it was said), deep under water – for the Germans had a pipe to a river somewhere, and they used it to flood the field, concealing it from the Allies by pretending it was a pond (it was said) – and then drain it off the shallow lake chase the bombers with their planes from underground – bringing them up on elevators and launching them from the hanger domes.

However, this had nothing to do with the mission I was on. I had been ‘sent’ on this mission by some of my friends – a small group of them, bored boys looking for something to do, myself included. I had a couple marks in my pocket (German money) which I had earned hauling trash for a ‘living’. I narrowed my eyes, looking at the dark opening and coming to my final decision – when to move.

I darted down the stair like a hawk, feet pounding. I didn’t want to miss a step. One wrong move and I might get caught. That would cause problems for my father – who (along with his wife) would cause some pretty bad problems for me.   But I was fairly confident.  I could duck and weave.  We’d already analyzed this, how this mission was going to go. I had visualized it in my head.

Legs pounding, knees high, I came to the steel door. It pulled outwards, its heavy handle a long slashof steel. I pulled on the door as hard as I could. To my surprise, it swung easily open. It wasn’t like the steel doors I’d trained on – the same kind as this – but they had felt much heavier, maybe because they weren’t used as much as these.  I desperately wrenched at it to keep it from clanging against the concrete shaft’s side, but once started, it was too heavy to stop.  It clanged anyway.  I darted in.

The building was moist and warm from all the German cooking, and the smell of sauerkraut and bratwurst hung in the air. The air was thick from smoke and cooking, and there stood about a dozen tables or so – rough thick legged things was my impression, covered by checkered clothes, glasses and food.   The light was dim and yellow.  A jukebox stood along the wall I was on, and already I could see the men turning to see who had come in.  Behind a long bar I could see a heavy waitress – a thick German woman, wide and broad. She was turning from the glasses on the back wall as I paused, looking for my goal.  Spotting it, I sped along the wall like a little rat, dressed in a thick green G.I. jacket and jeans.

I sped to the machine, passing the thumping wailing jukebox with its warm light and chrome. The men were turning back around again, though quite a few were keeping their eyes on me. I could see the German woman looking up in my direction. Quicker than I could say “breathe!” she started to move, coming around the counter with a surprising swiftness for a woman her size . . .

I looked away, and taking two marks in my hand (I had come prepared, shoving the marks from my pocket to my fist as I ran) – I slammed them in the machine – ‘clink!’ ‘clink!’. A moment later after I heard the coins hit some distant mysterious bottom, I grabbed a worn silver knob on the machine and pulled, looking over my shoulder at the woman and measuring her pace as she came on.

She was rounding the end of the bar in the corner of the room and proceeding rapidly my way, her mouth open and her thick arms coming up . . . I could hear her yelling . . .

I turn, looked, saw my choice had arrived – grabbed my purchase and ran, darting towards the equally thick door on the other side. Crashing it open with a big bang, I took those steps flying, two and three at a time, feet pumping, heart pounding, my ‘precious’ purchase gripped in my hand. Distantly I could hear shouting and laughter as the door behind closed, then it popped open briefly again – but I think seeing my shagging behind, the woman turned and went back to her business . . .

I ran through the woods to the edge where my friends stood, and I stopped, bent over and gasping, winded, and looked down at my hand. There it was.  In the palm of my hand. I had done something forbidden – not just once, but four times over. Once in going to get them – two in where they lay – three in having bought them – four in where they lay now: in my possession.  They were forbidden, extremely so . . . they were for me! – for me and my friends . . .

And we divvied it up with my friends the next day.

(This is part 1 of 2.  I shake my head, wondering how I came to that decision and kind of knowing why – and wishing I didn’t – any of it. It affected my life in so many ways – meaning core values, things I do every day – it became a ‘part’ of me.

You’ll see in Part Two.)

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