FLEEING THE CHILDREN'S CRUSADE

Travis Godbold All Rights 2003

CHAPTER ONE

I just wanted to run away. It would have been easier, but I was stuck with what came to most boys who made it past sixteen: sodden gray uniforms, crusty steel helmets, an obligation to fulfill. Still I ran for another purpose and under orders, but it was not the same as running away. For away lay a known place, a fleeing from manhood, leaving everything behind to do a thing no one had done before. I knew the frailty of our Führer, his lies, the futility of being better than everyone else, but was afraid to act upon an escape. I could not deny him as being my father, a forbearer of obedience. I soon became disheartened of the same doors everyone took to enter into quarters overseen by him. I knew what an open window late at night meant if I could just leap out of it fast enough before being caught. The outside did smell much sweeter. Despite the strain of his false teachings, my paternal father still found room to frolic in my thoughts. He mocked what we did to please our Führer and let me live in a reverie of boyhood memories, until one day in generosity, he showed me the way of escape from his house.
It was autumn 1944 in Germany, although we did not call it that, for it came with no rotting leaves and hardening trunks, but with mud and a stench of filth. In the mountains, the muck lay frozen on the rocks, even splattering itself on pines. Below their needles, the metal from our gas mask canisters shone gold and silvery in the morning sun. The pounding of our feet sunk into a frosty sludge, as our drill sergeant, Lessing, kept us at a sprint, his leather boots taking the trail in haste.
"Garbage! You're all garbage!" he shouted as he ran ahead on the trail. "I am not your mother, you bastards. Some of you think mother is still here to clean your dirty shoes, but she's not. Stop your childish whining. No more, I tell you. Enough nonsense! Today you will not be afraid to die. Oh, no . . . for dying will be the easy way out. Today, you'll be afraid of giving up!"
I did not listen too much on what he said, being an ignorant soldier who had just passed my seventeenth birthday. Besides, Hitlerjugend, soon to join the ranks of the Waffen SS, were not meant to think but to do, and I was busy obeying instinct. We wore gray tunics spun of wool, a simple soldier's tunic with trousers of itchy cloth. In my hands were boots, brown in mud, for we had to carry them as our bare feet beat the icy muck in the woods.
Hermann failed to spit-shine his boots and Lessing knew how to resolve problems in the ranks. Today, he chastened Hermann by sending us on a miserable sprint through a brush full of thorn bushes and fallen remnants of pinecones, our boots held high above our heads.
"Come on you bastards!" Lessing cried.
"Ja Oberscharführer!" we replied.
"Der Führer raises soldiers, not gasping swine," he shouted again as he thrust his torso into a thicket and came out with a twig stuck to his uniform.
Of course, Hermann ran behind us, beaten by shame for his mistake. He could not help himself, could not even put up a bout against a child. He looked so frail in his gray uniform as his face reddened; only his ears were big and the fat lobes stuck out from under his steel helmet. Some of the boys wanted to stop on the trail and tell the young fool to go back to his mother, then flick his lobes for all it was worth until he shouted a scream of hurt.
"Come on, Hermann, you no-good Tommie. Schnell! Schnell! Schnell!" Lessing yelled.
Those immense arms swung under the fold of his shirt as he went to a tree limb and tore off a branch. His hair sat like golden wheat after being threshed, his blue eyes seeming to dart from a skull of pink tight skin.
"Don't fall behind, Hermann!" he shouted. "Or you'll have me at your heels!"
I thought of Hermann as the hurt bear cub in the iron cage, who after months of being poked by sticks, huddles into a corner in terror.
"Come on, Hermann," I blurted, in an attempt to show sympathy for him. "Come on."
"Do you need help?" asked another boy, his toes bloody with thorns. Hermann gasped, yet never gave a sign of faltering his pace in response to my chants of encouragement.
"Hermann you can do this, just keep up with me," I said to him.
Still, he began to fall back in his run, brought down by exhaustion. Lessing saw him lag and we knew it was not good to see the smile curl up from his lips.
"Achtung!" he ordered.
We snapped to attention on the muddy trail under the shade of a spruce, all eighteen of us with our mouths agape, savoring each quick breath.
"Shut your panting faces!" Lessing snarled. "You sicken me. All of you. You're not the select few we need against the Ivans. You're just a bunch of babies who still need a stick to your behinds. Run in place, damn you! Run in place, you swines of muck! And, Hermann."
Our noses snorted out short clouds, but they were powerful puffs, as the legs below went up and down in place, quick to match each other's stomp against the mud. The filth thrown by the movement of our hurt feet sent clods of earth into the air; flung high, they hit the bottoms of the boots hanging above in our pain-wracked hands.
"Hermann," Lessing roared. "They gave me a reason to come here. And it's not to slow down for a sheisskopf with legs." He gave him a gregarious look. "You hear me, Hermann? Do you want to leave or run?"
"Run, Oberscharführer," he choked out and his squat legs struck the ground more quickly as he strove to run in place.
"Then show a worthy effort."
"Ja Oberscharführer," Hermann wheezed.
"Run. Don't talk.just run. Save your breath."
The poor boy ran in place without respite. His nostrils flared, breaths became a wheeze, but his legs kept at a sprint, knee up, knee down, going ever faster, or get a foul retort from Lessing.
"Aaaah!" Hermann cried as fatigue deadened his shanks. His cheeks suffused with blood, the sweat descending from under his helmet to drown his eyes. He did put up a struggle.
"Don't think of giving up," Lessing shouted.
"Relief, Oberscharführer!" Hermann squealed.
"Don't talk."
I was so glad it was not me running in place at a grueling speed in front of Lessing. I could feel the pain in my calves start to climb into my lower limbs as we marked time with our bursting lungs.
" Schnell! Schnell! Schnell! Faster, Hermann! Faster!"
"Ja Oberscharführer," the small boy wheezed. He ran to the point of exhaustion. His breathing was painful to us. I could hear his lungs desperately inhaling oxygen to keep him on his feet.
The sergeant's face turned ugly, wrinkles in his forehead becoming furrows, his eyes swelling out belligerently below thick blond brows.
"Hop! Hop! Hop! Hop!" he shouted.
I rapidly thrust my feet in the mud to keep pace with the others, my arms sagging from the weight of the boots. I could only imagine the pain Hermann felt as his body collapsed while he tried to endure the merciless demands.
When Hermann could take no more punishment, his legs buckled and he fell flat into the mud. He dove into the slop headfirst. He lay there whining in long gasps of misery. I thought he would break right there and cry, but he looked up at our sergeant and got to his feet. Hermann's standing did not impress Lessing.
"So you want to give up, eh? Do you want to know what happens to those who give up? They get killed or kill themselves."
"No, Oberscharführer!"
"No?"
"No, Oberscharführer," he gasped.
"You run," Lessing ordered. "I don't care if you can't breathe. Run! Get up front of the herd! You're going to lead us the whole sprint."
Hermann, broken by Lessing's physical tortures, discovered it too hard of an effort to rush far in front of us. When he got to the head of the pack at a limp and made a vain attempt to run, the boys in the lead kicked his heels. They would neither go around him nor did they slow down. When we got to the clearing, Hermann's trousers and shirt were muddied. The sergeant ran aside to let the soldiers charge forth at their physical limits.
A trance began to set into my mind. I saw only the horizon with its tall blades of grass and the sun overhead. The rhythmic pounding of my feet reminded me of the futile effort we kept in maintaining a firm principal in this sprint of madness. What was it all for? I thought of children who were too young to join the ranks. Instead of being forced to run, eat a strict diet, and keep awake all night to do watches, they were given drink and rest. Every morning we awakened not to the ring of clocks or the affectionate touch of a mother's hand, but to shouts and chants similar to those yelled down on miscreant dogs, and then sent to run the same windy trails and mountains only to return into camp wanting to go home.
Out beyond the edge of the wood in the gray grasses of the clearing the trail led to ten canvas tents, white under the sun. We hung our undergarments on lines strung between these shelter tops. We were allowed time only to give the clothes one swipe with a scrub brush, dunk them in a wash basin and then throw them on the line. Many of the garments hung dirty with dark stains under their sleeves. A large steel washbasin and an outside fuel tank equipped with a tall shower head used for our bathing purposes was kept in the middle of our grounds for easy use. Two men were now standing by it. They wore long, black watchcoats and distinct officer caps. We had not seen them there before; they were men of respectable rank, and one of them laughed at us as we ran out of the forest.
"Go to your tents," Lessing ordered when he saw the two strangers in the camp.
Even with the sweat blurring my vision, I could see these men. Their eyes seemed in shadow under the rims of their caps, and they often dropped their gazes away from us to look down at the ground.
When I caught up with Hermann, his face looked flush. He breathed hard through his mouth, almost unable to speak.
"Let's get into the tent," I said to him.
"Can't," the boy wailed. "Please. . ."
Hermann sank to his knees in the grass. I got him back up by hugging his armpits.
"Come on, we've got to get over there," I said.
"Can't."
"Yes, you can. It's only right there." I pointed at the tent. The wind made ripples in the cover cloth and the wooden poles bulged from behind the canvas.
"My feet. they hurt," he said.
"But we got to," I said.
Hermann worked up enough strength to stand, so I let go of him. He put his hand on my shoulder to steady his balance as he lumbered toward the camp.
"You know, you shouldn't have done that," I said.
"Geez, Otto!" he gasped. "Shut up. I've got my lesson."
"You're going to get more than a lesson," I said, watching a grasshopper glide past, fluttering its leaden wings over the waist-high grass. "That Lessing, you know, he's a sergeant who won't let a thing die."
"Don't," he muttered, and I saw he was about to cry.
"None of that.none of the crying. It won't do."
"But. it's so hard." He bent his head down, so I would not see him pout under the steel helmet.
"It's hard being tough, I know," I said. "But you don't see me crying over it."