This is the last of Chapter 5. On Thursday, we'll have the first installment of Chapter 6.
Walter found Erich in one of the tenement courtyards, playing a game that involved bouncing a ball off the brick walls of the building and periodically rushing in to tag the wall itself. For a few moments he watched the game, until a shouting match suddenly broke out.
“I touched the wall first.”
“You did not,” Erich said. “You’re out.”
“Are you calling me a liar?”
“I’m saying the ball hit the wall first, if you aren’t telling the truth that’s your own affair.”
Walter sensed that blows were about to fly and grabbed his brother by the collar. “Erich, I was looking for you.” Erich struggled but Walter held firm to his collar.
“What? You talk big and then get rescued by big brother?” the other boy demanded. “Stand up for yourself, coward.”
Erich made another lunge to get free, but Walter held onto him while fixing a stern eye on his antagonist. “Is that any way to talk in front of an adult, Herbert? Do I need to speak to your father about your respect for authority?” The father in question was free with his hand, towards both wife and children.
Herbert drew himself to attention. “No. I’m sorry, Herr Heuber.”
“I need Erich to come with me now. You two think about your differences over Sunday and if you need to fight it out go meet somewhere next week out of sight and fight it out like men. None of this scuffling in courtyards.”
He let go of Erich’s collar, and his brother straightened his jacket and gave Walter a resentful sidelong glance.
“All right, you two. Shake hands,” Walter ordered, determined that since he had been thrust into the role of arbitrator he would observe all the formalities.
The other boys gathered around to watch the adult-brokered peace. Erich and Herbert each took a step forward and cautiously shook hands.
“Good. Come on, Erich.” He led his younger brother away from the rest of the group. As they left the courtyard he could hear the ball begin to be bounced off the wall again.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Erich said, his shoulders hunched and his hands thrust deep in his pockets as he walked. “I could have taken him. And he was lying.”
“Well, take him later. I’m going to the Stadtschloss to see if the Kaiser addresses the crowd from the balcony tonight, and I thought you’d want to come.”
With the speed that still marked the thirteen-year-old as a boy rather than a youth, Erich’s sulky demeanor instantly fell away and a spring returned to his step. “We’re going to the Stadtschloss? Is there war news?”
“I heard the mobilization order an hour ago. I’ll have to leave first thing on Monday.”
“It’s war! It’s war! I knew it! When do you get your uniform?”
“Not till I get to the depot. I need to get back to Schneidemuhl, where the regiment is based.”
They continued on for some time this way, Erich peppering his brother with eager questions, Walter answering and basking in the admiration and excitement which was focused on him. At last they saw a street car which wasn’t already packed, heading towards the city center and climbed aboard. With each stop more people climbed on, until the press was shoulder-to-shoulder, but while on a normal day this would have been an impersonal crush of people moving about their separate business, today strangers turned to each other and exchanged news in the confidence that all shared a single set of concerns.
“Did you hear the mobilization order?”
“Yes. I’m glad my son isn’t old enough.”
“I just saw an evening paper before getting on. We’ve declared war on Russia.”
“Of course, there’s no choice. I heard that a Russian dirigible bombed Gumbinnen.”
“It’s true. The Russians and the French didn’t give the Kaiser any alternative. We’re attacked from all sides.”
Walter and Erich got off the streetcar at the New Market stop, as did nearly all the other occupants.
Since the thirteenth century, the New Market’s wide square had been packed with wood and canvas stalls. In the dark early morning hours, heavy wooden carts had rolled along the cobbled city streets and stopped to unload the vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, fruit, flowers and other fresh goods which were then sold throughout the day. Now, with the opening of the modern indoor market hall at the Alexanderplatz a few blocks away, the smells of fish and sounds of haggling could be contained within a glistening edifice of steel girders and plate glass, and the city planners had determined that the New Market square should be beautified. Paving stones had been pulled up in favor of grass and trees, creating a peaceful spot within the bustling city, but the most prominent change had been the building of the Luther Memorial. Atop this, a large statue of Martin Luther stood holding a bible and gazing off towards the horizon, apparently unmoved by the newsboys standing on the lower steps of the monument hawking evening editions whose headlines all announced: WAR!
Several men stopped to buy copies before setting off down the Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse towards the Stadtschloss. The crowd heading in that direction was so large that it spilled off the sidewalks onto the street. Slightly taller than the average, Walter could see the crowd stretching off ahead as a sea of hats. Their variety showed that indeed all of Berlin had turned out this sunny first day of August: flat straw boaters, homburgs in summer grey or brown, working men’s caps, and sprinkled here and there women’s hats blossoming like flowers among the drabber tones around them.
Above them, up ahead, rose the copper domes of the Berlin Cathedral, topped with gold-plated crosses which shone with almost painful brightness. The Cathedral, like so much else in the capitol, was new, completed only nine years before. The huge domed structure, a replacement for the more modest baroque church which had stood on the same ground for two hundred years before, was deemed a suitable Protestant counterweight to far away St. Peters. The domes were only just beginning to show in places the green weathering out copper exposed to the elements.
As they crossed the bridge over the River Spree and came even with the church, they were at last able to see the square in front of the Stadtschloss. The crowd was huge, far larger than the march back on Tuesday. Almost the entire paved square was packed, with the press only starting to thin out as it neared the Lustgarten and the Cathedral.
“I hadn’t realized there would be such a big crowd,” Walter said, wondering if he had set Erich up for disappointment. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to hear the Kaiser at this distance, even if he does come out and speak.”
“We could get closer.” Erich stood on tiptoe trying to see over the heads of the crowd better. “I’m sure we could get closer”
Though skeptical that they could make much progress in such a huge crowd, Walter allowed his younger brother to take his hand and lead a threading way through the crush of people. Erich’s youth and enthusiasm drew a better response from those around him than such an effort by an older and more staid person would have. His repeated explanations of, “Please! I want to hear the Kaiser. Please! My brother is being called up to fight for Germany. Please!” drew smiles of encouragement and a slight shifting which allowed the brothers to make their way forward, gradually, towards the palace.
They had made progress but were still only halfway through the crowd when activity could be seen on the Stadtschloss’s central balcony overlooking the square. Several figures appeared, and then one approached the stone railing. He raised his right arm in a wave of acknowledgement, a movement so slow it had the air of a benediction. The crowd cheered. Tens of thousands of hats were waved excitedly in the air.
Then a quiet fell that radiated out like an inverse explosion, the people nearest the palace’s baroque facade going quiet first and the silence spreading outwards from there. Walter could just barely hear the words of the distant Kaiser, on his balcony, his voice carrying across the sudden silence of the square.
“...your loyalty and your esteem. When it comes to war, all parties cease and we are all brothers. One or another party has attacked me in peacetime, but now I forgive them wholeheartedly. If our neighbors do not give us peace, then we hope and wish that our German sword will come victorious out of this war!”
This was met with a roar of approval all the louder for having been preceded by near total silence. The Kaiser gave another slow, benediction-like wave, and then disappeared back into the palace. The doors of the balcony were closed, the curtains drawn, and at last the cheer began to die down. Near the edges of the crowd, people began to disperse.
Erich sighed. “I can’t believe I got to hear the Kaiser. He’s the commander of all our soldiers, and I got to hear him myself.”
Walter experienced an opposite set of feelings: There was something terrible and awe-inducing about the size of the crowd that had gathered, and the way it had as one organism cheered and fallen silent. This was some tiny hint of the giant thing that was moving. Mobilization meant that millions of men would be on the move, on train, on foot. Millions of men in their grey uniforms and spiked helmets. The idea of a nation on the move, of so many people who normally went about their days with no common interest or coordination suddenly starting to move in concert, was almost too much to grasp. Compared to that movement of millions suddenly made one, hearing a single man address them, even the Kaiser, seemed utterly inconsequential. Perhaps there was something to Berta’s ants and bees. This war would be the action of the many, not the individual.
The sound of his mother entering the flat a bit after two in the morning was one which Walter was so used to hearing through his sleep and ignoring that he seldom recalled it afterwards. That night, however, he was determined to wake when his mother came home. Having told himself that he must wake when he heard that sound, all manner of sounds woke him, and his sleep was disturbed several times an hour: factory whistles, the sound of someone stumbling through the tenement corridor outside, raised voices out in the courtyard.
At last it was the sound of the door and his mother’s quiet step that woke him. He sat up. It was almost completely dark, only the diffuse light of the city and of the waxing gibbous moon coming in through the thin fabric of the summer curtains. He could hear his mother re-locking the bolts and then hanging up her coat.
A soft step and he could see Frau Heuber, her face and white blouse visible, ghost-like, in the dim light but her dark skirt fading into the shadows around her.
“Can you not sleep, Walter?”
He got up and stepped close to her so as not to wake Erich in the other bed by speaking too loudly, the threadbare rug feeling cool and smooth under his bare feet. “I’d planned to wake up when you got home. Have you heard the news?”
“Frau Bruhn told me when she brought back our dinners. Walter, will you have to go?”
He could not tell if the tremor in her voice was fear or pride or some inseparable women’s mixture of the two. “Yes, Mother. I hope you won’t be angry with me…” They were not a family much given to physical affection, but he put his arms around his mother. Her small, slightly bony figure pulled close against him was an unfamiliar feeling, and for a moment he felt her shoulders tense, but then she leaned against him. “Yesterday Herr Meyer asked me to sign a form to be exempted from service because of my work at the factory, but I refused. I told him that if I was called up, I wanted to serve the Fatherland. So now I have to go. I’ll have to leave for Schneidemuhl first thing on Monday.”
He felt her hand reach up and stroke his hair, a gesture he realized was familiar from long years ago when he was shorter than she. “My brave boy. I wouldn’t have expected anything else of you. My brave, brave son. You would never run away from your duty.”
The words could be as much a commentary on his father’s actions towards the family as on his own choice to serve, but it was nonetheless something gratifying to hear.
They stood thus for a moment longer, and then Frau Heuber shook her son’s embrace off. “We should go to church tomorrow, with you going off to the army, and then I must help you pack.”
If going to church made his mother feel comfort then it was a good enough use of a couple hours. “I won’t need to do much packing, Mother. The army will provide all the clothes I need, and anything else is just more weight in the pack. Maybe if you could send some food.”
“Of course. Anything you need. Now you’d better get some sleep.”
She patted his shoulder as if sending a much younger boy off to bed.
It was seven when the boys’ mother woke them, not as late as on a normal Sunday but still much later than on a working day. Erich grumbled at having to get into his best clothes and go to church, but Frau Heuber bundled them all out the door early. It was as well, as the service proved to be far more heavily attended than usual.
The minister spoke of how the Kaiser had attempted to make peace, but being surrounded by deceitful enemies, Germany would have to rely on the Christ-like sacrifice of her soldiers. At the end he offered a long prayer for all the young men who would soon be facing the test of battle. As the organ thundered out the final hymn Walter saw his mother lower her head, so that her face was obscured from him by her wide-brimmed hat, and reach into her bag for her one, lace-trimmed, Sunday handkerchief.
Much of the rest of the day was spent in preparations, interspersed at times with sudden embraces or turnings away by his mother. It was a relief, at the end of the day, to slip away to go see Paul and Berta.
The street still had the peacefulness of a Sunday evening, the shadows gradually lengthening and people still in their Sunday clothes out for leisurely strolls. Walter unwrapped one of the cigars which an elderly neighbor who had served in the war in ‘71 had given him. “Make all us old men proud, my boy. Paris before the leaves fall!”
Walter rolled it between his fingers before lighting it, savoring the pungent smell.
When he reached Paul and Berta’s tenement, he found Paul standing outside the stairwell with two friends, smoking and talking.
“Walter!” Paul greeted him with a wave of his short, stubby pipe. “Meet Heinrich Fischer, he works over at the Kaufmann Textilfabrik and helped run their unionization drive. And this is Franz Klein.”
Walter shook hands with the two strangers.
“A cigar? Moving up in the world,” Paul said.
“One of the neighbors gave some to me when he heard I was being called up.”
Paul nodded but did not respond. Did he not know what to say?
“I have to be back at my regiment’s depot by Tuesday, so I’m leaving first thing tomorrow morning. I’ve written a letter to the Cycleworks to tell them that I’ve been called up. If anyone asks…” He let that hang, a half question.
“I’ll tell people. Meyer won’t care. He’ll be too busy rubbing his hands and waiting for war work to come in. The question is: will he let you have your job again when you get back.”
Walter shrugged. He couldn’t repeat the conversation with Meyer on the topic without explaining that he’d accepted the foreman position. “I asked. He wouldn’t make any promises.”
Heinrich spat. “Typical. If they lock you out when you’re back, come see us at the union and we’ll try see if we can find you a place at one of the unionized shops.”
“Everyone says it won’t be long,” Paul offered. There was a pause, then Paul reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry to see you go. Stay safe.”
Walter nodded. References to danger seemed strange. No one had spoken of it, other than his mother’s recurring moments of wordless sadness. And yet Paul’s words were a comfort; they gave him hope for his other purpose.
“I was hoping that I could say goodbye to Berta. Is she home?”
Paul shook his head. “She and a few friends went off for their Sunday walk. If you want to hang around a bit, they’ll be back some time in the next half hour.”
On any other day he would have shrugged it off and left to try his luck some other day, but there was no other day. Tomorrow morning he would have to get on the train and head east. He could feel the weight of the white tissue paper package with the combs wrapped in it inside his coat pocket.
“I’ll stay around for a bit.” He leaned back against the grimy brick wall of the tenement and savored the cigar, listening as the other men’s conversation resumed.
It was indeed nearly half an hour before Berta arrived, accompanied by three other women.
“Walter! I didn’t expect to see you here. Have you joined the unofficial committee?”
Paul laughed. “Berta’s little joke for when we organizers spend time together socially.”
“Half the time they’re at the beer hall. We could call them the disorganizing committee.”
“Walter came to say goodbye for a while. He’s being called up with this mobilization,” Paul explained.
“Oh, then you won’t be coming to any more of our workers weekends for a while. But I suppose you’ll be getting plenty of hiking with the army,” Berta said, drawing a laugh from two of her companions.
The conversation, in front of five other people he didn’t even know, was not going as Walter had imagined.
His plans, such as they had formed during the many interruptions of his sleep the night before, had been based on the many different responses Berta might have to the news that he was going off to war. If she turned pale and stepped back, shaken, he would comfort her with confident words and promises to write. If she flushed and took his hand he would envelope her hands in his own and look into her eyes. If she cried he would reach out and brush the tears from her cheek. He had not, however, prepared a plan if she made a joke about it to amuse her friends. He wanted to leave immediately, throw the combs in the canal and forget that he had ever humiliated himself in this way.
No, he was being unfair. Surely he could not have deceived himself so completely. He had not given her the chance to really respond. And how could she, in front of all these people.
He struggled to think of something to say that would provide the proper opening.
“I enjoyed that outing so much. It hardly seems possible it was only a week ago. So much has happened since then.” He stopped, waiting to see if this would bring forth any response. Berta smiled back, a look that might have been confusion on her face but still none of the reactions he had imagined. “I will miss having the chance to spend time with you,” he paused more briefly but there was still no reply so he amended, “and with Paul, and everyone.”
She smiled at him, a slight crease of confusion still visible on her forehead. “We were glad to have you. Perhaps, when you get back, you can join us again some time.”
And that was all. He felt a sick weight in the pit of his stomach and was determined to leave before the extent of his mistake could be pressed upon him any further. He said some words of farewell which afterwards he could never remember. Paul shook hands with him. Then he was walking down the street, leaving them all behind. He could still feel the heavy, flat little package wrapped in tissue in his coat pocket, a reminder of his failure that bumped against his chest with every step. He wanted to throw it away, put the reminder as far from him as possible, but the memory of the thirty Marks which had gone into them made that impossible, and so there they remained.
Walter’s bags were packed: underclothes and all of the food luxuries that could be gathered on little time and less money. The package of cigars, four tins of smoked herring, a dry sausage, a bottle of cherry brandy, a jar of jam. Frau Heuber had talked endlessly of the fact she could not bake cakes.
“Those round oat cakes I made for you when you left for your two years service, and sent to you in every package. Do you remember those?”
“Of course, Mother.”
“Back when we had the house in Eickstedt, living like respectable people, we had an oven. That’s what hurts, is not being able to bake my own son oat cakes.”
“It’s all right, Mother.”
“Living like paupers without a proper kitchen. It’s not for nothing they call these flats barracks.”
“You know, Mother, you could go back,” Walter said, seeking to at least move the conversation away from the lack of a kitchen in the flat he had been able to afford. Fire was a constant danger in the massive tenement blocks, and so to decrease the risk as well as to save on space and money there were no ovens in the flats, only the single portable spirit burner which though against the rules nearly every resident bought. “I’m sure Uncle Krem or one of your sisters would let you stay, just while I’m away with the army. And then you wouldn’t have to pay the rent on my army pay.”
His mother’s mouth had formed into a tight-lipped line. “No. Don’t worry about us, Walter. We’ll find a way to get by without turning into poor relations.”
The preparations for leaving seemed insufficient to the magnitude of the change. By nine o’clock, every possible kind of preparation was done. There was nothing left to do but to sleep, get up the next morning, and say goodbye. So little to do, and yet these simple actions meant a break with all that had happened since they had come to Berlin, and the beginning of some new kind of life, whatever it might bring.
Walter lay down, but found it difficult to sleep. The night before, every little noise had woken him because he was waiting not for the familiar factory whistle but for the sound of his mother returning some hours before. Tonight he was waiting for nothing but morning, and he knew he needed rest, but the knowledge that tomorrow he would be leaving hung over him in sleep, and every hour he found himself awakened by something.
At four he woke again. The twilight of approaching dawn was gathering outside the window. He thrashed around for a moment, trying to settle more comfortably. Rolling over, he started. There was a pale form, ghost-like, a few feet away. In an instant he was wide awake, his heart pounding. However, as quickly as surprise drove sleepiness from his mind, the ghostly vision resolved itself into his mother, her hair down around her shoulders and her nightgown pale in the dim light.
She shook her head, and in the dim light he saw the reflection of tears tracing down her cheeks just before she reached up a hand and rubbed them away.
“I didn’t mean to wake you,” she said.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m just…” There were not words for the mixture of feelings that his mother felt, looking at her son, on the night before he left for war. Even had she found the words, it was not in the capacity of a young man to understand those feelings. “I’m so proud of you,” she said.
She reached a hand out and touched his shoulder, and Walter, sensing if not understanding what went unspoken, reached up and took her hand.
Morning came. Walter’s plan had been to leave at the same time he would normally leave for work. It came naturally, and it avoided drawing the goodbye out unnecessarily. The only difference from routine was that Erich and his mother got up and had breakfast with him. His mother made a pot of coffee on the spirit burner. And then at last, and yet too soon, they were all standing by the door. Walter’s pack lay on the flood by his feet. They exchanged final embraces.
As he hugged his mother, Walter felt the hard flat package in his coat pocket. He looked down at his mother’s hair, now all coiled up atop her head as it always was -- the first streaks of grey forming a paler shade against the blonde -- and recalled her in the early hours of the morning, a ghostly form with her hair down around her shoulders.
He released her from the embrace and reached into his pocket. “I have something for you, Mother.” Taking out the white tissue paper package, he handed it to her. “Something to remind you that I am thinking of you.” They were the same words he had intended to use when giving the combs to Berta.
Frau Heuber unwrapped the tissue paper with hands that trembled slightly, and she gave a surprised intake of breath as she saw the combs.
“Oh, Walter. These must have been expensive.”
“They were. But I won’t be needing that bicycle in the army. And you deserve something beautiful.”
He leaned down to kiss the top of her head.
“Thank you.” She turned away as she said the words, and it was clear from her tone that she was going to her room to have the cry she did not want to have in public.
Erich gave him a final handshake. “I wish I could go too.” He sounded as if he meant it, but Walter was glad enough that this wish could not be gratified. “I’m so proud of you. Write to me and tell me about everything that happens.”
Walter nodded and shouldered his pack. There was nothing more to say. He went out the door and down the familiar stairs, into the bustling street, bright with morning light, but he turned right instead of left and caught a streetcar going the opposite to his usual direction.
“Watch where you’re putting that thing,” a heavyset, middle-aged woman with a blue kerchief over her hair said, as his pack crowded into her space.
“Sorry.” He tried to change his position so that pack would point in a different direction.
“Hush, Dora,” another woman in an identical kerchief said. “Can’t you see he’s leaving for the army? Aren’t you, young man?” He admitted that he was, and the two women moved over deferentially to give him more room.
The Friedricstrasse railroad station, when he reached it, was in a state of semi-chaos. In addition to the usual sort of traffic, men around his own age were everywhere, some with packs on their backs, some with suitcases, a few officers already in uniform. Tearful goodbyes were said to wives, mothers, children, sweethearts. Watching a sobbing mother clinging to her son’s shoulder as he climbed onto a packed train with “Next Stop Paris!” written in chalk over the door, Walter was glad that he had said his goodbyes at home.
The lines for the ticket windows were long, snaking back and forth, but surprisingly cheerful and orderly compared to the plentiful emotional scenes elsewhere.
“Schneidemuhl,” he told the ticket seller when he finally reached the window.
“The normal train is cancelled. That’s a long way east, and nearly all the requisitioned trains are headed west. There’s something. Just a minute, let me check the lists.” For a moment he flipped through a stack of typewritten sheets. “Ah, here we go. There’s a requisitioned train going via Stettin. It will leave from platform five at eleven twenty. No ticket needed, just show them your paperwork for regimental depot. And it’s a freight train, so there’ll be no amenities.”
Walter had left nearly all his money with his mother, but he went out and spent some of his last Marks at a hot food cart: two sausages and a half dozen fried potato cakes, all wrapped in butcher paper. Then he went to sit on the train platform.
Every half hour a substantial crowd would have built up, and then a train would pull in and take most of them away. Some were normal locals or passenger trains, packed with young men, several leaning out and waving from each window. Others were lumbering freight trains, cattle cars full of sitting and standing men with their bags and suitcases beside them. Many had slogans written on them in chalk: Petersburg Express, Paris Vacation, Fatherland Freight, This Way to Victory!
At eleven twenty, another of the freight trains pulled in, a sooty old locomotive followed by two coal cars and twenty-five cattle cars, already half full with men. A man in a conductor’s uniform stepped off the locomotive.
“Requisition train for Stettin! Military business only! Five minutes!” He blew his whistle.
Walter and a crowd of other waiting men hefted their luggage and began climbing aboard cars. The car Walter chose had a dozen men already in it, which still left plenty of room for sitting on the floor. Four others climbed in before the whistle blew again and, with a squeal of steel wheels on steel track, the train began to move.
“Is your regiment in Stettin?” asked a man with a heavy day’s growth of beard, sitting with his back against his suitcase and puffing at a large, wooden-bowled pipe.
“No. Schneidemuhl,” Walter replied. The other men who’d climbed aboard named their final destinations as well.
“I’m headed for Regenwalde,” the man replied, who introduced himself as Carl once he’d collected all the answers. “One more year and I would have been Landwehr, and I wouldn’t have to go at all. Still, who knows. Perhaps it will be a good adventure before it’s all over. Has anyone got anything to drink?”
Walter recalled his bottle of cherry brandy but said nothing. One of the other men who had just got on produced a bottle of schnapps which they passed around. Between the wooden slats of the cattle car’s walls, Walter could look out and see the city’s buildings gradually giving way to fields and farms. The warm summer air brew through, bringing with it the smells of warm earth and greenery and coal smoke. The scenery was almost the same that had flashed by a week before with Paul and Berta, but the world had changed.
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