The following was written in anticipation for my thesis. The final copy is heavily changed.
“And I’d just like to thank Hitler for everything before us,” Ma says slightly drunk. Outside the rain pours on and on while inside the chicken broth bubbles, the French fondue froths, and smiles are passed around with ease. As far as Oma can remember and as much as she ensures us that we’ll never forget, it is the first Christmas where we all find ourselves together.
The lack of snow doesn’t even matter. Not much does. The whole thing is simply beautiful, even as Pa stuffs his face with fish and chips. Grease licks the sides of his lips. He looks like a child with a brand new toy – even though his hair is unkempt and his skin is covered in scars and he coughs every once and a while. “Gas, my boy. Gas,” he tells me.
I am happy to have him home. He keeps calling me my boy and keeps telling me the wonders of the world not known to the North of Germany – wonders a person can only imagine in their dreams. Men flying in the sky. Gold palaces. Armies so large that even from a distance a person couldn’t squish them with their fingertips. It sounds so unbelievable. Just when I’m trying to digest what it all, he adds that there are things stronger in this world than a pair of hands coming together to work. I tell him I’ll never work then. He laughs and says laughter is one of those things.
He is chuckling now as Ma tries to continue over the booming voices and clattering forks. The tumultuous crowd of easily forgetful hungry, dirt-ridden faces pay little heed. Almost disrespectfully, Uncle Francis suddenly shouts exuberantly, “For Hitler!”
“For Hitler!” Everyone else chimes in happily. I even whisper it over the hollers and food and laughter.
Boys. This isn’t an easy mission. I won’t lie to you. I won’t even try to sugarcoat the gravity of the scenario. We are alarmingly out-gunned. On the other side of this hill is the enemy. They are relentless. They are merciless. They are American.
But I will tell you that we are fighting today so others don’t have to tomorrow. We are fighting so that one day the world will be a better place – with or without us.
The blood and suffering of this revolution is steep on both sides. There is no longer right or wrong. That’s for people to decide long after us. People with nothing but time on their hands and questions in their heads. People with long beards and whose greatest pain in their life is a simple paper cut. For us men, there is do or do not, shoot or be shot, live or die.
Know that you are not machines. You have the compassion of an entire nation in your step and the years of struggles and triumphs etched in your uniform. Your loved ones are asleep somewhere, hoping for you to come back. So regardless what you feel about this mission or even this goddamn war, fight with me my fellow countrymen, my friends, my brothers.
Fight for your families. Fight for your nation. And fight for Hitler.
For Hitler, they shout back.
Two weeks have passed and I have yet to hear from Pa. Ma says not to worry. I have school to attend. Classes to study for. A whole list of chores that at this rate, I won’t finish until the next World War. She pats my head and smiles. “Don’t worry, son. He’s fine. An Eckart always is.” And then she watches the ashes burn down to smolders.
Christmas feels so long ago but I can’t complain – or at least I’m told I can’t and that I’ll understand when I’m older. In a way, I like to think that I already understand. I remember how it was before. Ma looked so old all the time. Pa came home drunk. Our house was smaller. Food was scarce. The world was different. It was poorer, harder, more uncertain. My brother died of cholera, or typhoid, or both and we used to fight over the clean clothes and when he died, his few shirts and pants didn’t fit quite like I remembered.
Now, I have my own clothes and room and bed. Dinner is served every day. We have electricity. Maybe all I really understand is that the world is better because our world is better.
I wonder how long it’ll all last. The happiness. This feeling of worth. I hope forever, but I know that such a wish is my inner child talking. I’m 13 now. I’m old. I’m a man. Pa said so.
Pa also said he’d come back eventually. He said that until that happens, I’m the man of the house and all I can do is wait and count the number of days that pass.
What words can I say that haven’t already been said? There will be no parades. There will be even less salutes. Together, we are alone. I’d like to be silent, but I feel I have to say something. Anything.
I guess I should start by saying that they absolutely leveled our forces. I’m sorry for leading us into a battle already lost. If I knew the extent of it, if I knew what we were walking into, I would’ve done things differently.
Wouldn’t we all?
We didn’t stand a chance. I blame myself but it goes without saying that under the barrage of machine gun fire and mortar, we couldn’t stand anyways. I guess chance didn’t really matter at that point then. Maybe, though, the slim chance that you and I survived was all we had. It was minuscule. It was an inch. But it was enough. For the men we lost, I wish it wasn’t.
What’s that? Ya. I agree. Both sides suffered. We just suffered more, I guess. I think that’s supposed to make me mad. I think that’s supposed to make me want revenge. But I forgot what I am fighting for – in fact, I don’t even want to fight anymore.
You too? Ha. Ya. We’re evolved creatures that have evolved more sophisticated ways of massacre. Funny. I like that. You’re a private, right? I didn’t get your name. Sorry again. Egon Eckhart? If I can be anything at this point, Egon, I’m proud to meet you and serve with you.
And no, you don’t have to call me your commanding officer anymore. You don’t have to call me anything. Where we are going, where the enemy soldiers are leading us, we have no name, no identity. We are a number – a number of hours and minutes, a number of breathes, a number of memories, a number of missed opportunities, a number of shots fired, a number of people killed, a number of regrets. All and all, we are a number that has a beginning and an end and we can only wait and count the number of days that pass.
My teacher says Hitler is losing because good guys always finish last. No matter what, they will always be defeated. “Prayers are wasted on the bad,” he says.
Pa still hasn’t come home, so I guess I wasn’t bad enough either. I tried and I tried to be good. To make Pa proud in anyway I could. I cleaned. I got a job delivering newspaper. I was a man and everyone in town said so. “What a big boy you’ve become,” said a neighbour. “Oh my. You’ve turned into a fine man,” said another. My Ma even looks at me like a man with her eyes all beady and wide and distant.
So, like a man, I’ve been listening and I heard some things about what’s going on in the War. Apparently, the Americans and the rest are winning. They call themselves the Allies. We, on the other hand, are the Axis of Evil. I don’t understand why. What did I do wrong? Why am I evil? What did Germany do? Didn’t the war stop Pa from drinking all our money away? Didn’t it help to give him a job? Didn’t we find a home? Didn’t we have a Christmas together as a family? Weren’t we all happy?
Maybe. I’m not sure. But I know that if being happy is evil, then I don’t want to be good.
Egon, don’t you dare die on me. We’ve gone too far now to just die. To quit forever. You’re stronger than that. You’ve proven it time and time and time again. Keep your eyes open, dammit. Egon Eckart – are you listening to me? Snap out of it. Only a bit farther, and we’ll be in Germany again. Come on. We’ll be home soon.
No, no. Don’t worry. We out ran those American gooks a long time ago. Who would think that two years in a POW camp would make us faster and more determined? Must be the capitalism and democracy that is making the Americans complacent.
What? No. Stop. You’ll make it. You aren’t finished yet. You can’t be. Please.
Don’t. I beg of you.
Egon… this. This is… Egon. With all my heart, I promise you he’ll get it.
Save your breath. I’ll stay here the whole time.
Don’t worry about those things now. You can’t wonder why you did it. You had to. We all did.
For what it’s worth, doing what you had to doesn’t make you evil. Because if what you did was evil, from defending your country to listening to orders to making your son happy to allowing your wife the luxuries she deserves to fighting so others will never have to, then I don’t want to be good.
It’s raining just like it was during Christmas. I can’t help but stare out the window nowadays. I’m waiting and my pulse is the only clock that seems to count right.
The rain tap dances on the shutters and in the blurred cityscape that I’m sure is soon to be fleeting especially given the news of the approaching armies, is a man. Although it’s hard to tell, his clothes are torn and his face is unshaven. He stands solitarily in the rain, either unphased by the overwhelming downpour or enjoying it for its ill omen. As he trudges through the water, he looks like my father.
But it isn’t him, for no more than three eternities later his scraggy face greets me with a hesitant smile. He then speaks and Ma cries and I hold her hand. I nod. I nod. I nod. It shows I’m okay. It shows Ma and the man and anyone else that everything will be okay.
He hands me a letter. He looks deep into my eyes – eyes that are unwavering and stoic – and he’s crying. He’s like Ma. I’m the only man here. I’m the only man anywhere.
Because men never cry.
He then nods goodbye. The rain pours inside our home as I watch him go.
My unit tells me that we are likely to move in a few days. England seems to have gained momentum from the American surge in Belgrade. It’s only a matter of time until they reach our hold.
But this is not meant to be a somber letter. Nor do I want to scare you with what may be a potentially senseless worry. Our officer tells us that the Americans are nothing worse than bohemians who couldn’t win a war with an ant colony. I don’t know if I believe it because at this moment, most of our defences are being squashed like bugs.
I guess I’m sending this letter in hopes that through it, I am able to move my heart miles. Needless to say, you are a man now. You may not want such affection. I understand that the world works that way sometimes. Some boys become men; some men never stop thinking that they are boys. I am sorry it worked out that way.
If I can do anything now, if I can be the father that I may never get to be, I’d like to. I’d like to write you a world of lessons, pride, and honour. I’d like to be there to see you get married and cry with you when your first child is born. I’d like to watch you play catch, or dolls, or whatever you want because I hope I raised you to be open to try new things. I’d like you to take care of me like I took care of you. In the end, I’d like to love you like I was meant to.
But maybe I’ll never get the chance. People come and go like light switches and we are meant to shine as bright as we can before our fuse goes out.
Shine bright, son. Shine bright.
Yet just because I don’t have forever with you and just because my words are fleeting now does not mean I have to race to the end. So I’ll start at the beginning: this war changed everything. I am not sure what we are fighting for, but like it made a man out of you, it made a better man out of me. I stopped drinking. I could love your mother. I found a job. We moved. Life became better. It makes you think that the war and Hitler and everything else that is happening are good, if only for certain people. I’d call them “good people” but after what I’ve done, I’m not sure that applies anymore.
I’m not sure of a lot of things. War does that to people. War does that to good people and bad people alike. That I’m sure of, at least.
For what it’s worth, I will write down the few other things I am sure of, things I want you to remember:
Questions like why are irrelevant when questions like what, when, where, and how come into play.
Find something you enjoy doing, even if that something enjoys doing you.
Sometimes people fall in love with one another, but they aren’t meant to be together.
Shave in one direction and ensure to apply after wash.
War can be a disgusting thing. Not because people are ordered to act like animals but because people act like animals without orders.
At the same time, war can be a serene thing. Seeing worlds you’ve never seen, people you’d never have a chance to meet otherwise. The Norse themselves thought that it was the most beautiful thing to die in battle. Some people here think that too.
Listen to your mother. If she disagrees with any of this and tells you to think otherwise, she is right even when she is wrong. Especially when she is wrong.
Love your children and ensure that you do not disappoint them like I disappointed you once. And if you do disappoint them, change – even if it takes a war to do so.
I wish I could write more but we must move now. How can I end a letter that may be my last? I guess like all letters: in the hopes that I’ll begin again someday.
The rain pours on as I fumble through the words. Ma is sitting behind me waiting for something. She has finally stopped crying. Her face is completely emotionless. I look at her, and she looks at me, and she tightens a picture in her hand, and I say, “He’s fine. An Eckart always is.”