Close Call

The early morning sun, which had not yet climbed far in the sky, poked its way through the many holes in the surrounding walls of Kiel Central Station. However, its presence and a clear sky alongside already mild temperatures, promised one of the last warm days of the year. The holes were signs of the bombing and fighting: a big hole gaped in the brick wall above the station door; bullet holes were strewn all over, but most noticeably, debris from the collapsed steel roof structure lay all around. Only two tracks had already been cleared of the rubble. Bustling workers, most of them women, were trying to improve the situation everywhere.

A short train was waiting on the left of the cleared tracks. It consisted only of the engine and one coach. On its journey it would pick up many more wagons coming from Bremen, and carrying supplies for the Americans.

Wilhelm stepped out of the station building and headed towards the train.

He stood one metre ninety tall, was 26 years old and thanks to his profession he had not suffered the worst in recent years, at least physically. But his field grey uniform, stripped of all insignia but a white armband marking him out as a medic, had clearly seen better times. Over his left shoulder he was carrying a big brown jute sack, its contents bulging at the bottom. Wilhelm’s posture revealed that they had to be quite heavy.

He approached the conductor, who was accompanied by a young British officer. Both were standing next to the first door of the only coach coupled to the engine. The conductor wore a uniform of the same field grey colour as Wilhelm’s and only his cap hinted at the office he held. The officer was dressed in the standard khaki battledress of the British army. While the conductor looked very tired, the officer glanced around with alert and curious eyes.

Wilhelm produced some papers out of the inside pocket of his coat.

“Hier sind meine Papiere: Kennkarte und Reisegenehmigung der Briten und Amerikaner.”

“Danke sehr.”

The conductor took everything and immediately passed the travel permits to the soldier. Both checked their respective documents thoroughly before returning them.

“Can I check what you have in that bag, please?” asked the soldier.

“Yes, gerne.” was Wilhelm’s quick reply.

His English was not always as fluent as he liked, though it had bought him his ticket. He was to travel to Stuttgart to help the Americans as a translator in medical cases, the same he had been doing for the British since the surrender. It was a lucky turn of events considering that his family, including his fiancée, was living in the southern half of Germany.

He handed the bag to the soldier, deftly slipping him a pack of cigarettes at the same time. He had gotten it earlier that morning from an American officer who had handed him his papers.

Under the nervous gaze of Wilhelm, the British officer checked the contents of the jute sack with a quick glance and immediately gave it back.

“Thanks, that’s fine.”

The sack back on his shoulder, Wilhelm boarded the train. Behind him, two cigarettes where lit.

A big round clock was ticking, hanging on the office wall, telling Otto that it was 10 o’clock in the morning and thus two hours into his daily shift. As he was director of Hanau’s shunting yard, he almost always had the day shift. Today, he had started an hour early and, in exchange, he had arranged for his deputy, who worked the night shifts, to come in an hour early in the afternoon.

Already fifty-two years old, Otto’s body had seen better days. Thinning, dark hair, now turning grey, and a formidable belly showed his age. Even though it did not keep him his figure, his job, which involved occasional hard manual work, kept him fairly fit.

He sat at a small wooden desk. What little space it offered was shared by a typewriter, some loose papers, a lamp and a candle. Electricity to the building had not yet been restored. Two big wooden cabinets, filled with folders and stacks of paper, completed the set of furniture.

A boy of maybe sixteen years barged through the door.

“Guten Morgen, Otto.”

“Guten Morgen, Klaus. Habt ihr so lang’ gebraucht, oder warum bist du jetzt erst da?” Otto did not sound too happy.

“Wir haben noch ’nen weiteren Gleissplitter im Gestänge der Lok gefunden. Den musst’n wir auch noch rausholen. Das hat ’ne ganze Weile gedauert.”

“Eine ganze Weile ist eine ganze Stunde gewesen. Geh jetzt schnell rüber zu Gleis R7. Herman braucht jemanden der ihm die Weichen stellt.”

“Mach ich!”, and with this Klaus was out the door as fast as he had come.

Otto stood up and left his office to inspect the rebuilding work on the western tracks. On the way out he threw a worried glance at the clock.

By now, the sun had passed its highest point, and had provided what it promised in the morning: a beautiful warm day. Out of the window of the compartment, empty fields could be seen passing by, waiting to be covered in snow. Small woods were scattered between the fields, the trees clinging to their last leaves.

From time to time the train would pass through or by a village. All the villages looked peaceful, no signs of war to be seen. In stark contrast, most of the cities lay in ruins, at least near the tracks. No peace was to be found here: people were bustling through the debris, collecting, sorting, and already rebuilding their shattered world.

Wilhelm had tried to distract himself. He had not brought anything to read and so he had read the few articles in a newspaper he had found in his compartment. By now, he had nothing better to do than worry and hope that everything would work out as planned; he was getting more and more anxious by the minute.

Back in Hanau, Otto was doing exactly the same: growing more anxious by the moment. His deputy should have showed up twenty minutes ago. The train was not due to pass through for another ten minutes. But that was according to the timetable, and you could never know exactly; especially when the train was not scheduled to stop at your station.

He was watching the clock. Its ticking sound, a noise he usually did not notice at all, was unnerving. Another five minutes passed. By his estimate he would need at least three minutes to get to the track.

Another minute. Finally the door opened and Dieter, the deputy he had been waiting for, entered.

“’tschuldigung, dass ich so spät bin. Wie war’s heute?”, Dieter asked.

But Otto did not wait to reply. He ran out the door, down the hall, and out of the building, then headed east as fast as he dared. The last thing he needed was to miss the train because he had fallen over a rock or some other piece of rubble.

Wilhelm had already been looking out the window for quite a while when he noticed that the tracks started to divide off as the train passed points after points. This meant that during the next few minutes the train was going to pass through Hanau’s shunting yard.

He opened the window and leaned out, the jute sack in his right hand ready to be tossed, looking intently for Otto, but there was no one to be seen near the track. Even next to the big pipe, used to fill the steam engines’ water tanks, the place Otto was supposed to be right now: no one.

His window – and thus Wilhelm – passed the pipe. No sign of Otto anywhere.

Dodging craters and mounds of rubble, Otto made his way across the yard till finally his last obstacle was a train of wagons, still immobilised judging by its lopsided position and missing wheels. Behind them he could already hear the train rumble westwards. He climbed under the coupling between two of the wagons. Getting up on his feet, he looked for Wilhelm. And he saw him, already a few metres past him.

Wilhelm did not notice Otto at first, but then he turned his head back. For a short moment their eyes locked. Otto saw Wilhelm drop a sack on a pile of sand next to the track. The train continued to go west, keeping its speed. A bend to the south removed Wilhelm’s head from sight. No words were exchanged between father and son.

Otto went to the sand and retrieved the sack. It was heavy. He opened the crude knot and looked inside. An earthy smell filled his nose. The sack was half full of potatoes and large onions. Even some beans could be seen. Most of these seemed to have collected at the bottom. Everything looked fresh. It was a beautiful sight.

He headed back to his office. There, as a thank you, he would give Dieter some of it and then go home to his wife and present the fortune.

Relieved Wilhelm leaned back in his seat. Everything had gone well and he had seen his father. He slowly fell asleep as the train carried him further south towards his fiancée’s family and his future.