Today's story is longer than usual (and I’m told my posts are too lengthy, anyway), but I hope you’ll stick with me through the entire tale, which takes us back to the terrible days of World War II. It’s called POW:
A steel door banged somewhere in the bowels of the Schloss. Private Max Hackler shuddered. They were coming for him. Fighting a wave of terror, he gripped the frame of the iron bunk bolted into the concrete wall of his cell. As the driver for an important general, he would be suspected of having vital information. How could he convince them the Old Man had plucked him out of an infantry platoon and made him a substitute driver less than a week before he was ambushed on a minor personal errand for his new boss?
Hackler had been whisked to a farmhouse where he was roughly questioned by a heavy-handed sergeant before being trundled off to this forbidding old Rhine castle and locked into a dank, cold cell. Since then, he’d been ignored except for an occasional food tray delivered through a slot in the rusted, iron door.
The sound of heavy boots halted outside his cell. He stood, squared his shoulders, and sought to stop trembling. A sergeant entered and beckoned him outside where a squad of four men conducted him up long, curving flights of stone steps to a carpeted marble hallway. The cold, moist atmosphere turned pleasantly warm and dry. The detail halted before a carved oak door that was likely ten times older than Hackler’s twenty years.
Inside a large, airy office, he was shoved into an antique chair and left alone in the room. Hackler lurched to his feet and scrambled to a casement window that in another age had probably served as an archer’s slot. To his dismay, the walls fell in a sheer drop of at least fifty feet.
“Quite a jump,” a deep, commanding voice said in Hackler’s own tongue. Startled, he whirled to find an officer had entered the room from a side door. “Not one you’d survive, I’m afraid.”
Drawing to attention, he regarded the man. Crisp uniform. Spit-shined boots. Ramrod posture. Handsome. Athletic. If he understood the foreign insignia correctly, this man was a major.
Without the slightest accent, the Major ordered him into a chair in front of a broad desk. “My name is Luebke. Major Karl Luebke. You may address me as Major or Sir. Understood?” He paused while Hackler gave a nervous nod.
Luebke took a seat and examined a thin folder on the desk. “You are Pvt. Max A. Hackler. I understand that you are the driver for a very important commander. Correct?”
Hackler responded with name, rank, and serial number.
Luebke waved his hand. “Come now, let’s dispense with that nonsense. What harm is there in admitting that you drive for a general officer? After all, you were captured in his personal vehicle. Am I to believe you stole it?”
“No, sir, I was just going on an errand.”
His interrogator’s half-smile alerted him to his mistake.
They verbally jousted over the errand and his duties until the officer brought his hand down sharply on the desk. Hackler jumped an inch off the creaky chair. Instantly, Luebke leaned back and drew a long cigarette from a silver case. “May I offer you one?”
Determined to make no more blunders, Hackler shook his head.
“Very well. I am sure you have heard a thousand horror stories about what happens to prisoners of war. Some of them are true, but while you are here at the Schloss, there will be no such unpleasantness. Provided you are of some use to me. You must justify my keeping you out of a POW camp. Admit to me that you are his driver, and that will suffice for the moment.”
To his eternal shame, Hackler nodded his head.
“Good. You will be returned to your room and fed.”
He nodded again and rose as the door behind him opened. The detail hustled him back into the dark dungeon of the massive stone fortress where the walls glistened with icy moisture. Huddling on the bunk beneath a thin woolen blanket, he mulled over his interview with Major Luebke.
The next day, a sergeant – a man called Goetz – and a corporal came for him. Instead of turning toward the stairwell, they dragged him into a room at the end of the dark, musty corridor. His heart almost failed when he saw what it contained. He could put no name to most of the contraptions, but they were undoubtedly instruments of torture. This couldn’t be! The major had promised.
“Strip!” Goetz ordered, shoving him inside. His knees buckled, dumping him against a metal mummy. A sharp edge tore into his forearm painfully. Blood quickly soaked his sleeve. The pain revived him, reminded him he was a man. Fuck ‘em! Let them do their worst.
Hackler lost some of his bravado when he stood naked and shivering on the cold stone floor. His heart pumped too fast, leaving him giddy. Goetz walked a circle around him, inspecting him like a side of beef at market before grabbing him and throwing him onto a table. A special kind of table. He had seen enough films to know the name of this diabolical contraption. The rack.
Arms and legs secured to shackles, his body jerked full length when the sergeant turned a wheel. The man paused when Hackler’s shoulder joints gave small pops. He was helpless but not unreasonably uncomfortable … yet. He swallowed audibly as Goetz’ appeared above him. Despite the chill, sweat popped out on his forehead and leaked from his exposed armpits. The air turned close from the stink of fear.
“I thought you might need to stretch a little.” The sergeant laughed at his own crude joke before turning serious. “I hear you been giving the Major a hard time. He asks you simple questions, and you give him attitude.” Unlike the Major, the NCO had a heavy accent. “No more, you understand? You answer him in a respectful tone, or you’ll be back here for some serious stretching. First the ligaments rip … and the muscles. Then the joints tear apart. Pop like busted balloons. The condition you come off this table is the way you’ll be for the rest of your miserable life.”
“The…the Major promised me this wouldn’t happen.” Hackler forced the words out, fearful his bladder would give way. Or worse yet, his bowels.
“He won’t find out nothing about it. You behave yourself, you don’t never see this place again. You don’t cooperate, and we’ll have a little session down here all by ourselves. You can scream your head off, and he’ll never hear you.”
A voice barked from the doorway. “Sergeant, what’s going on here?”
The two enlisted men snapped to attention.
“Just a little softening up, sir! No harm done.”
The Major came into view. He took a long moment to examine Hackler from head to toe and then indicated the cut on the prisoner’s arm “Who drew blood from this man?”
The sergeant’s voice held a sneer. “He fell against the Iron Maiden, sir.”
“Clean him up and take care of that cut. Then bring him to my office. Snap to it!”
Freed from the frightful machine, Hackler staggered off the table and turned away to dress. By the time he finished, the Major was gone.
“You lucked out this time, punk.” The sergeant sneered. “But next time ….”
An hour later, Goetz delivered him to the Major’s office on the third level of the castle. Hackler remembered reading the higher you go in a castle, the closer you are to the baron or lord or whatever. Where the hell that thought came from?
Luebke dismissed the sergeant and motioned Hackler to a chair. “Are you ready to cooperate?” he demanded. When Hackler began reciting his name, the Major slammed the desk and stood. “Enough! You are privileged to be held here in this intelligence headquarters. But you will remain only so long as you are of value to me. Is that understood?”
Hackler nodded and spread his hands helplessly. “But I don’t have any information. I only drove the General for a few days.”
“Private, you will let me judge what has value. And you will address me as sir.”
For an hour, Luebke asked questions while Hackler sat mute except for giving name, rank, and serial number. At last the officer lost patience.
“Very well, I gave you every opportunity. Sgt. Goetz will ship you to the nearest POW camp immediately. I happen to know that place. You will not do well there.” He raised his voice for the sergeant.
Goetz pulled him out of the office and shoved him down the hallway toward the narrow, winding stone stairs “Glad you was crazy enough to tell him to fuck off,” the man said. “Now I’ll get an hour alone with you. Just one hour, and I’ll know everything there is to know about you. Then I’ll send what’s left of your sorry ass to the camp where they’ll kill you slow.”
The non-com’s words turned Hackler’s guts to liquid. There was one thing he did know. Something he’d overheard by accident. Something the enemy could never learn about.
The Private struggled to pull himself into something approximating a proper military posture and tucked his chin. Then he marched resolutely down the hall, leaving the detail struggling to catch up. When he reached the stairs and looked down the steep well, he knew what he had to do. He drew a deep breath before pitching headfirst down the long, steep flight of stone steps.
Karl Luebke stepped out into the bright morning sunshine and pulled his greatcoat close about him. The previous night’s snow was rapidly melting. Soon winter would be hard upon them. The American major turned and gazed at the flag flying from a distant rampart of the old castle. The Stars and Stripes always stirred his blood.
Too bad about the German boy, but there would be an unending stream of Teutonic men for him and Sgt. Goetz to break before this terrible war ended.
That’s it for this week. Hope you got something out of the story. Not a pretty one, but not all that unusual for the times, and a reminder that fear can take us in unexpected directions.
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