Spoils of War

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I’m close to the end of my life now, and as you reach your twilight years mostly all you have left is memories. Especially since I lost my wife of more than 50 years, Katie, I spend most of my time looking back.: my youth in Nebraska; my brief spell as a college football star; the first time I ever saw Katie, and fell in love with her; and, of course, the War.

The Second World War, as it came to be known, was, apart from Katie, probably the thing that made the greatest impact on my life. I guess it’s much the same for most of the guys who went through it. Naturally I have a lot of memories from that period: the men I trained with; the rush of adrenalin that came with the excitement and fear of battle; D Day and the push to Berlin; the friends I saw die; and other sights I try not to remember, in case the nightmares start again. But, much as I want to put it out of my mind, there was one incident in that war I can never forget. One which I’ve never told to another living soul, not even Katie — especially not Katie. Until now.

It was in late ’44 in an area of France called the Ardennes, which borders with Belgium. I wasn’t a career soldier, I’d been an insurance clerk before the war. But by then I was Sergeant First Class Clayton Winterbourne, a battle hardened 23-year old. My platoon had gotten into a fire fight with some Nazi skirmishers. We were outgunned and had to pull back, but somehow I got separated from the rest of the guys and found myself alone, low on ammunition, and with three miles of German held territory between me and the Allied front line. I figured the best thing I could do was find somewhere to stay out of sight, and try to make it back to safety at nightfall.

I picked my way through a wooded area, and saw what looked like an abandoned farmhouse maybe 80 yards away. The place was pretty beat up — it looked as if half the roof was missing — and to get to it I was going to have to make it across an open field, making me easy meat for any Germans (we called them krauts back then) who happened to be around. I said a quick prayer — my religion was very important to me in those days — and ran hell for leather, expecting a bullet in the back at any moment. By the time I fell against the wall of the building I was sobbing for breath, my lungs on fire. I squatted behind the cover of what appeared to be a stone animal pen and recovered my composure. Then, warily, I made my way into the farmhouse.

It smelt dank and musty, and the only light came from a couple of small windows, their glass and frames long disappeared. Nervously pointing my M1 carbine ahead of me, ready to fire at the first hint of trouble, I picked my way carefully across a kitchen furnished only with a sturdy old wooden table. I trod carefully, trying not to make a noise among the broken glass and general trash which littered the floor. My heart leapt as I heard a rustle, then a goddamned rat skittered across the floor. I resisted the instinct to blow its brains out. I checked the place out room by room. The stone staircase to what had been the upper floor ended at the fourth tread, the ceiling open to the sky, which made the task easier. As I approached the final room I began to relax: it looked as if I had found a safe hiding place. Then, my heart stopped beating in my chest.

I could her someone breathing in that room. It was quiet, but in the still of the day, following the earlier gunfire, my ears were super sensitive. There was definitely someone in there. Wishing I’d removed my pack, I pressed my back to the wall, and edged towards the open doorway. Convinced the top of my skull was about to be blown away, I peered carefully into the room. There was a metal-framed single bed beneath the window, with a grubby mattress — and on it knelt a man. He had his back to me, staring out of the window, but was clearly a German infantryman. His tunic lay beside him on the bed, with his helmet, revealing his uniform shirt and suspenders. My first thought was to blow the SOB’s head clear through the window. But who knew how close the nearest enemy patrol was? In this quiet rural setting the sound of gunfire could arouse interest hundreds of yards away.

I hesitated for seconds that felt like hours. Then I made my decision. Gripping my rifle more tightly, I swung into the room and hissed “Hände hoch”, one of maybe a half dozen German expressions I knew. The guy froze for a second, then slowly complied, raising his hands high above his head. He carefully shuffled backwards on the bed and placed his feet on the floor, then slowly turned to face me. I noticed that his boots lay on the floor, and his feet were covered by thick gray woollen socks. Great, I thought: I’ve taken a prisoner, alone, miles into enemy territory, surrounded by thousands of his kamaraden. Nice going, Clay.

I quickly scanned him and the room around me for weapons. I saw none. He didn’t appear to be a sniper then, left to mop up any Allied troops dumb enough to get lost there — like me. I jumped as he spoke, in clear, almost accentless English. “It is all right sergeant. I am unarmed, and I promise I am no threat coffeedonutfest.com to you.” His voice was light, almost feminine. I stared hard at him. He was no more than a kid — I guessed 18 or 19. About the same height as me — five-feet ten — but skinny, probably 30 pounds less than me in weight. He had white blond hair, and a pale complexion, in contrast to my black curls and my swarthy face. With his back to the window, I could see little more.

I waved him away from the window with the barrel of my M1. I didn’t want him between me and the door; but the initial adrenalin rush from the situation had faded, and I suddenly felt very tired and, I don’t mind admitting, pretty scared. I saw no reason why he should sit on the bed while I stood. I nodded when he reached the center of the back wall of the room, halfway between window and door. He asked, with a polite smile, “May I please put my hands down now?”

My eyes locked on him, I edged round to the bed and slowly sat. “Put them on top of your head, and sit on the floor, with your legs crossed.”

He sighed, but did as I ordered, resting his back against the wall. Unbuckling my pack and laying it beside me, together with my helmet, I asked, “So what are you, a lookout, a deserter, what?”

He smiled again. “Like you sergeant, I am simply a dislocated part of the general flotsam and jetsam of this conflict.” I was in no mood for smartass comments, and stiffened. Gauging my reaction, he quickly clarified. “I am not a deserter…exactly. I am just a coward. I don’t support that Austrian lunatic in Berlin, and I have no intention of dying for him. So when your patrol came upon my group I decided to take a few hours here to relax from the rigors of war. When I am ready I will go and collect my armaments and my pack from their hiding place, and return to my unit, with the cover story I have ready. At least, that was my plan.”

I nodded, slowly, trying to look as if I was in control of the situation. As I did, the kid began to circle his elbows, as if they were cramping up. I gestured with my rifle and said, “Okay, I guess you’d better put your hands down. But don’t make any sudden moves or I might just get nervous.” He smiled his thanks and lowered his arms, rubbing them. I didn’t have the slightest idea how to handle this. Vacantly, I stared at my prisoner. Now the light from the window was on him, I could see his face was quite stunning. If he had been a woman, I’d have said beautiful. He had long, pale eyelashes surrounding pale blue eyes. High cheekbones, a small, thin nose, a wide mouth with full, sensuous lips, and a stubble-free pointed chin. Jesus, I thought, reflecting on my description, it was too long since I’d seen my Katie.

I rubbed my hand tiredly down my face. It was only a momentary loss of concentration, but it would have been enough for the kid to jump me if he’d wanted to. But he remained in the same position, hands cupped in his lap, smiling at me with what almost seemed a sympathetic expression. I thought I had better play this by the book. Expecting the usual name, rank and serial number, I asked him, “What’s your name, kid?”

Still giving me that smile — it was beginning to freak me out — he replied, “Rainer. Rainer Hausmann. And yours?” I stared coldly at him. He shrugged nonchalantly, and continued, “So sergeant, what happens now?”

“What happens now, ” I told him, “is you shut up, and you sit there in silence. Until nightfall.” He started to reply, but I jerked the carbine at him and he clammed up with another shrug. For nearly 10 minutes.

When he spoke I was dangerously close to falling asleep. He said, “Sergeant, may I ask you something?”

“What?” I snarled, angry that he might have realized how weary I felt.

“Are you seriously expecting to hold me as your prisoner for the next,” he checked his wristwatch, “maybe six hours, then take me back to the US lines? You can’t possibly expect that plan to succeed. Do you realize how many patrols we have in this sector at night? With attack dogs. These animals are not trained to locate and restrain fugitives, sergeant, they are trained to go for the throat — to kill. Even if I were to co-operate, and neither resist you physically nor make a sound, you would have no chance.”

My eyelids felt heavy, my brain dull. He was almost certainly right, but I was damned if I was going to fall into the Nazis hands when they were months, maybe weeks, from defeat. I snapped back, “No? Okay, so what do you suggest?”

He shrugged simply. “Well, you could always let me go.”

“The hell I could,” I growled, sounding like John Wayne, years before he developed his stereotypical screen persona.

Rainer sat forward. I prodded my gun towards him, warningly, but he didn’t ease back. “Think about it. You can’t take me back with you, you’re tired and isolated, and sooner or later one of our patrols will find you. On your own, you just might have a chance of making it back to your own forces. I told you I am no threat to you. I don’t want to be responsible for anybody’s death in this senseless slaughter. I swear to you that I will not betray you to my comrades.”

I couldn’t think straight. I shook my head angrily. “Shut up, just shut up and sit back.”

He slumped back against the wall. We were silent for maybe another 10 minutes, during which time I must have glanced out the window behind me 50 times. Then Rainer asked, “Sergeant, I don’t suppose you have any cigarettes you could spare?”

As it happened I did have some smokes in my pack. I wasn’t much of a smoker, and if it shut him up I was happy to let him have them. Watching him carefully, I dug them out, and a book of matches, and slung them across to him. He pulled out a cigarette and lit it, then drew on it slowly, gratefully. I thought at least if he had that in his mouth he wouldn’t say anything for a while. I was wrong.

He took a long lungful of smoke, released it slowly, then said reflectively, almost as if speaking to himself, “I suppose the only other alternative is for you to kill me.”

I stared at him open-mouthed, amazed that he would want to put the idea in my mind. I shook my head again, and said, “Relax Rainer, I’m not gonna kill you, okay?”

He gave me a long, cold look. “If you can’t make it back to your lines with me, and you can’t trust me not to give you away if you release me, I don’t see what alternative you have.” I hated to admit it, even to myself, but he had a point. As if delivering an academic lecture, he continued. “But how would you do it? The obvious way would be to shoot me. However, as I’m sure you’ve already realized, the sound might bring Wehrmacht patrols running, so it’s a big risk. You have a knife, and that would be much quieter. You could simply come up behind me, press it to my throat, and…”

Jesus! To this day I can still hear the wet gurgling noise he made to simulate the action. He went on, “But I’ve always felt, if a man, a real man, is to kill somebody in a one-to-one situation, he faces up to him, and looks him straight in the eye. I suppose that means stabbing me in the chest, or manual strangulation.” Rainer must have seen the look of horror on my face. “Have you ever killed a man Sergeant? I don’t mean just firing into a group of soldiers, or a coppice where gunfire is coming from, and knowing you may have hit someone. I mean actually walking up to another person and wilfully taking his life. I imagine it is not as easy as one might think, especially for an intelligent, civilized man. No, I think that you, like I, simply do not have it in you.”

Before he could continue, I bawled, “Jesus, will you for the love of Christ shut up! I’m not killing you, okay? I am a serving member of the United States Army, and unlike your side I believe in the Geneva Convention.”

Rainer shook his head sadly. “The Geneva Convention is for nice conventional situations. But we both know, this isn’t one of those. In your circumstances, I…”

“Okay, that’s enough,” I snapped. “Jesus, don’t you ever get tired of the sound of your own voice? Now, shut the fuck up, or I swear I will beat you to death with the stock of this gun.”

Rainer settled back against the wall once more, his eyes cast to the ground. “Oh yes,” he said quietly, “that’s one I hadn’t thought of.”

It was probably another two hours before either of us spoke again. Fighting hunger, fatigue and fear, I was desperately trying to stay awake. I recited to myself the list of US presidents, the NFL champions, family birthdays and anniversaries, my mom’s recipe for maple walnut cookies…

Just as I felt my eyelids droop, Rainer cleared his throat. My head jerked up. Although it was not yet dark outside, the room was pretty dim. I could see little more of my prisoner than an outline against the wall and the red glow of the tip of his latest cigarette. His voice was quiet, almost hypnotic, as he said, “Sergeant, how long is it since you’ve been with a woman?”

That was a new one. I sat more upright on the bed, wondering what the hell he was playing at. “What?” I asked gruffly.

Rainer appeared to lean forward — the cigarette bloom moved slightly closer. “I don’t mean just some backstreet whore who gives you her affection until your money or your nylons run out. Or a local village girl you’ve raped. No, wait, I’m forgetting, it’s the Ivans who do that, isn’t it, not Uncle Sam’s clean-cut boys.”

I had never been with a whore in my life, or with any other woman since three weeks before I left the States. When it had been clear I was soon to be shipped out I got a wedding license and Katie and I married immediately. I’d had just a week with my darling before we were separated again. Although I’d fooled around in college, we’d both been virgins until our wedding night. When the other guys in my company had gone out looking for the cheap pleasures on offer from European girls reduced by the war to selling themselves in order to eat, I had stayed in camp, with my letters from my beloved wife and my bible. I’d heard guys in the john too, releasing their stress with their own hands, and I’d resisted that as well. Rainer continued his monologue.

“No, I mean when was the last time you were with someone you really cared about, and who cares about you? We’re both soldiers now, we know how it is. You spend every moment of every day wondering if it’s your last day on earth; wondering if you will ever again be with the one you love, feel their lips on yours, their soft caress on your skin, the pleasure as you and they…”

“For the last time, shut up!” I hadn’t meant it to emerge as a scream, but I was dog tired, and this German kid, with his delicate body, his pretty face, his soft voice and tantalizing words, was really getting to me.

Ignoring my outburst, in little more than a whisper, he said, “I know how it feels Sergeant, I feel the frustration, the isolation, too. And I can help you with it. I want to offer you a deal.”

I didn’t understand what on earth he meant. Even if I’d wanted any woman other than my Katie, there was nothing for miles around expect bombed out farmsteads, trees, and lots of grey uniformed bastards who would kill me in an instant. Wearily, I said, “What the hell are you talking about, what goddamn deal?”

The cigarette tip glowed red for a long time, as he took a deep pull on it. Then, still in that half-heard, seductive voice, he said, “If you set me free, I will help you get back to your lines. And I will let you fuck me.”

I leapt from the bed in a fury. “You goddamn fruit! Do I look like some kind of queer to you? I’m a married man, you little faggot. Shut up right now or I’ll knock your fucking teeth down your throat.” I stood shaking with rage, panting with the animation of my outburst.

Rainer was unmoved by my show of anger. Taking another drag on his smoke, he said, “You can’t tell me you’re not just a little bit interested, Sergeant. I know I’m attractive, to both sexes. I’ve seen the way you’ve been looking at me. I’ve seen that look from lots of men. And I’ve satisfied many of them, men tired of this war, tired of being scared all the time, just looking for a little affection, a little release from the constant tension they feel. Yes, I’m a faggot, as you put it, I have been for years. But fucking me wouldn’t make you one, you’re just a normal man with a healthy sexual appetite needing to be satisfied. Nobody need ever know, and, believe me, you really would feel better for it.”

I strode over to him, grabbed him by his shirt collar, and hauled his face to within inches of mine. “Now you listen to me, and you listen good, you fucking fairy. You shut up right now, otherwise I swear to God I will shoot you, and to hell with the chance of anyone hearing.”

I threw him back to the ground. Rainer just crossed his arms, leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. “Okay then, we wait for nightfall. Then we go, and at least one of us, probably both, gets killed.”

I stomped back to the bed. I couldn’t remember ever feeling more furious than I did at that moment. But, as I sank back down onto the mattress, I was also scared; not of the war, this was a different kind of fear: fear of the way I was feeling. I tried to suppress, but I couldn’t, the thought that, in that exact situation, if Rainer had been a female, who looked exactly like he did, offering exactly what he’d offered, at that moment I would probably have take him up on it, and worried later about the crucifying guilt I would have felt towards my sweet, beloved Katie, waiting for me back home in Omaha. I was even more scared of the fact that, as Rainer had talked, about what I was missing, and about what he had to offer, my body had reacted in ways I couldn’t control, my cock slowly stiffening in my pants, to the extent that if he’d reached out and grabbed it when I was close to him I just might have had trouble pushing his hand away. I sat miserably trying to think about happier times, with my mom and dad, my brother and sisters, Katie…

The fire in the grate at home radiated warmth towards me. Katie was beside me. Gently she stroked my hair from my forehead…I awoke with a start. Jesus! Lord only knew how long I’d been asleep. I realized with a shock that a warm hand, with long, slim fingers, really was stroking my forehead. Groggily I glanced sideways, at a beautiful face, creased with concern for me. In shock I brushed Rainer’s hand away, and muttered, “Get away from me, you fairy.” He sat back, but remained inches from me on the bed.

I realized with horror that my rifle was nowhere to be seen. I reached for my knife, to find it was also gone. Rainer placed a hand on my shoulder, as if to reassure me. “It’s okay, I put them in a safe place. I’ll get them for you before we leave here. Look, I’ve got you some food from my pack. It’s only cheese and bread, but I’ve made us coffee as well.” I stared at the food in bewilderment. I glanced out of the window. It was night. The heat I had felt came from a small fire he had built in the middle of the room. He’d actually left the room, hidden my weapons, and gathered together the makings of a fire. Why hadn’t he killed me? Why, at the very least, hadn’t he taken his chance to escape? I glanced again at the food. God, but I was hungry. Putting aside my questions, and my unease at the change in the situation, I fell on the food, guzzled the coffee greedily.

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