It is a beautiful day. I remember then. A bright afternoon filled with the secret wonders only a child can know. I remember now. Who knew what was to come? Not a child so sweetly innocent. I remember clearly. The terror and shock are permanently imprinted on every fragment of my mind. The beginning and the end of many things happen that day -- the day death stole his first kiss.
The sirens shrill their warning. We rush to our shelter. My friend rushes along with her father. Moments later she arrives at the shelter alone; her father turning back to save a feather blanket. Just a stupid feather blanket. Seconds later the bombs come. Close. Closer. So close. I huddle with my Mother, neighbors, and school friend as our bunker shutters and rocks. Inge’s father is in another shelter; he didn’t make it to ours.
Time passes slowly when your heart beats fast against your chest. Fear grips my insides. My mind wondering what devastation the bombs would bring. Still, I could not imagine the horrors that would accost me when I step from the shelter. No child could. The shelter door opens. We file out like ants from their hidden tunnels. A horrible silence screams at me. Time slows as it always does when you are in the midst of tragedy. My senses go wild. I see that the beautiful brightness of the sun is now twisted gray-black by a smoky film.
The air is thick and filled with the fragments of what no longer exists. The chalky smell of burning shattered buildings stings my nose as I struggle to take my first breaths, inhaling destruction, devastation. Massive piles of brick and debris are everywhere. Only moments ago it was a beautiful day. Only moments ago the birds were busy chattering. Only moments ago those piles of nothing were buildings. Homes.
One of those homes belonged to my friend. It is reduced to nothing now; almost unrecognizable except for the location, which is difficult to find in a now unfamiliar landscape. My friend, who has already lost her mother to an illness, has now lost her home and everything in it. She has only her father.
My Mother goes home, but I stay with my friend, wanting to hunt through the mounds of rubble for anything salvageable. Everything would be all right. We are all still alive. We are waiting for her father to find us, but then decide to start digging without him. We carefully climb and rummage through the mounds of brick, glass, and twisted metal. An hour passes.
The air is still thick with the dust of ruin. The only sound comes from some of the many other people who lost everything – everything except the most precious thing, their lives. Some forget to be grateful they are alive and are yelling, arguing over what is left, “It’s mine! No, it’s mine!” Survival instincts kick in and fights ensue over the little that is left. Others just sit on the piles in a stupor, crying -- shocked such devastation could touch them. Their tears fall wet on the dust around them. Despair is everywhere.
Another hour passes when I come upon a feather blanket. Since we are standing on a mound in the general area where her apartment house used to be, in all likelihood it belongs to my friend. I yell to her to help me pull it from under the remains of the building. Inge is happy. This is a good find. Her father will be pleased. She takes one end and I the other. I pull. She heaves. Only when I pull, what I pull on under the feather blanket doesn’t feel like a blanket at all. It is something softer, silky. My hand recoils.
Somewhere my brain instinctively registers something is terribly wrong. I step back, bend down to investigate, and lift the blanket’s edge. It looks like hair. Hair? My mind slowly registers the hair and the face to whom it belongs. I recognize the features. His face is blue. His tongue swollen, hanging grotesquely from his mouth. I scream. My friend looks and screams louder. My friend, who has already lost her mother, her home and everything in it, has also lost her father.
That night my friend and I cry, and sleep close to my Mother. With my Father somewhere on the Russian front, would I lose my Mother and have no one too? My childhood is introduced to a gut wrenching fear that day. I become acquainted with death; it is not the last time we shall meet.