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Mark Ozeroff

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DAYS OF SMOKE (excerpt, Chapter III)
By Mark Ozeroff
Friday, July 09, 2010

Rated "PG" by the Author.

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This piece takes place during the Spanish Civil War, and is written from the standpoint of a nonpolitical German fighter pilot.


October 19, 1937; southwestern Spain



Early on a Monday morning, following a good night’s sleep and a light breakfast, I walked out to my Messerschmitt Bf 109. She looked newly minted, the gray paint and St. Andrew’s crosses contrasting sharply with my personal emblem, Betty Boop. This was to be my first offensive patrol as a fighter pilot, and I felt both pride and apprehension.


My crew chief Werner and I religiously followed the starting ritual and were rewarded with earsplitting blasts from the short exhaust stacks.


Otto and I taxied to our places behind, and to either side, of Captain Rintel, and at a nod from his leather-helmeted head we advanced the throttles together. A short roll over the uneven grass and we took to the air.


I watched the familiar view open before me as our three aircraft rose above the trees. I jockeyed the throttle so as to maintain my position. We followed Rintel into a turn to a course of 055 degrees, keeping our heads swiveling constantly as we had been taught. Swiftly, we topped twenty thousand feet, the sun seeming to illuminate all of Spain. In the clear sky no thermals rocked our wings. The air felt as dense and still as a bowl of cold milk.


“Break!” Rintel’s plane was…gone. I looked around for him and noticed instead a curious phenomenon – a reddish stream was bypassing my right wing. As I watched, it curved to my rear and stopped.


“Break, you idiots!” Rintel’s voice again invaded my reverie. And now Otto had vanished, too.


“Do you need flying lessons, Shit-for-Brains? Push the stick sharply to the right and feed in some rudder! Or, are you going to wait for the next pass?”


Gott in Himmel, that had been a stream of tracer bullets bypassing my plane! I accepted Rintel’s advice with belated alacrity, slamming the stick over and hitting the rudder hard. Then, when inverted, I pulled the stick back into my stomach, executing a clumsy but effective split-S. I looked for Rintel or Otto, or perhaps the enemy aircraft. As far as I could see, I was alone.


“Hello?” was my hesitant radio hail.


“Hans, where are you?” Otto called back.


I didn’t know his location, but somehow just hearing his voice was reassuring.


“I’m not sure.” I looked around and was startled to see Captain Rintel off my left wing.


“Are you both done whining?” he inquired, looking across the airspace separating our two planes. “The Rat is gone. Formate on me.”


I meekly took station off his right wing as he called to Otto, “Wolf Two, take up a heading of 235, say altitude.” Rintel was putting matters back on a professional footing.


Otto called back, “Affirmative, turning to 235. I’m at thirteen thousand feet.”


Rintel corrected our course and shortly said, “There.”


I still saw nothing, but Rintel was more amused than angry now at the deterioration of my once-keen eyesight. “You don’t see him, do you?” he asked. “Ten o’clock, low.”


There he was, paralleling our course and cruising along with no apparent worries. We nosed over, allowing the airspeed to build as we lost altitude, then sliding smoothly into place near Otto’s 109. He rejoined the formation and, as we flew in silence back to the field, I thought about my less-than-inspiring performance. Perhaps I should be flying apple barges instead of fighters.


It took twenty minutes to cover the distance back to our aerodrome. Upon arrival we made a low pass, chandelled sharply up, and came around for landing. My touchdown was perfect, a full-stall landing as if to make up for my dismal flight. I didn’t feel like a superman now, I can tell you. I braced myself for what would no doubt be a most unpleasant session with Captain Erich Rintel.


Though now graying, Rintel was small and compact, giving the impression he was in the same condition as he’d been when competing as a gymnast in his younger days. He’d learned to fly in the 1920s, when military aviation was outlawed. Germany had somehow secured the invitation of the Soviet government to train pilots outside of Moscow, ironic since we now fought those same Russians. Rintel had flown throughout the intervening years, accumulating a lot of hours in his logbook.


We went into his office, and he closed the door behind us. Sitting down, he began, “So, the two of you are now blooded. How do you feel about your first fight?”


Otto and I exchanged a miserable glance, but I believe mine had the edge in self-disgust. Rintel’s eyes caught mine.


“Sir, my conduct was unforgivable. I accept any form of punishment you deem necessary.” I was appalled by my poor performance.


Leutnant, I know how you must feel. You didn’t see the Rat that attacked us until…well, I don’t think you ever saw it. And now you feel deflated. Let me say that this is normal. On my first combat flight with the Italians, I brought back some stitching through both right wings, and more than a little disillusionment.


“Believe me, this will change. You will ‘acclimate to the combat environment,’ as the manual says. You must think ahead of your airplane. Keep your eyes moving, don’t focus on any one piece of sky. Keep a keen eye out for aircraft above you, especially between you and the sun. Use the tip of your thumb to block out the sun, like so.” He demonstrated on the light bulb. “Protect the tails of your comrades. Most important, keep your mind on what you’re doing. These are not pleasure flights!”


He told us a brief though chilling tale. As Otto and I had flown along unaware of danger, the captain had spotted a Republican I-16 fighter several thousand feet above us, circling in the sun. The Rat had pitched over and streaked toward us. Rintel had waited until the I-16 was in the right position, too far for accurate shooting but committed to the pass. He turned into the attack, calling for our break as he did so while firing a long burst at the fighter. He spoiled the aim of the Rat, which prudently maintained its dive and disappeared as quickly as it had come. He had then waited for me to react.


“Someone would be dead right now if I hadn’t distracted that pilot. You think about that while you’re getting drunk and bullshitting everyone about how you nearly became Kanonen today.” He used the archaic term for aces while fixing me with his stare. “Now leave me to my paperwork,” he said, dismissing us.


All I can say is that I felt more like cannon fodder than Kanone.


* * * *


Despite the assumption by Rintel that we would get drunk with our squadron mates, Otto and I decided to exorcise the demons of the day with physical activity. We put on our utility uniforms and our most broken-in boots, determined to hike the hills between Tablada Aerodrome and Seville. Placing bread, fruit, cheese, and water in a small rucksack, we set out to do ten miles. I also brought my service pistol – as Rintel was so fond of pointing out, we were in a war zone.


We walked hard and fast. Both of us were so disillusioned we had trouble broaching the subject of our dismal performance. It took several miles of hiking before I could say, “I just sat there like an old man backing one out in a privy, while that Russian fired off a long burst.”


I looked over at Otto.


He looked back with a hangdog expression, but a snicker escaped his lips. He put his fist over his mouth to muffle it, but the snicker became a chuckle. Soon he was snorting with laughter, tears in his eyes. “An old man…backing one out…in…a privy!”


Otto’s amusement was contagious – I too lost control. We collapsed to the ground, unable to continue walking. Laughter may have been a questionable reaction to a near-death experience, but it sure helped to clear our minds.


“I’ll never visit an outhouse again without thinking of this,” Otto said when he was again capable of speech.


“I’m just glad I didn’t use my cockpit as an outhouse when I finally realized I was under fire,” I retorted, both of us breaking into fresh laughter.


We snacked in the shade of a tall tree, talking frankly about the mission. We tried blocking the sun with our thumbs as Rintel had suggested, a most effective trick. We also discussed mimicking the Russian’s tactics to become the “Hun in the sun,” as British fliers had called high-altitude German attackers in the last war. We’d had a potent demonstration of this tactic only three hours before.


We enjoyed a relaxing meal before resuming our hike. Muted sunlight slanted through the overhanging branches; we were caressed by cool, scented air. Exiting the copse of trees, we chanced upon a nude couple lying locked in embrace. Otto and I slid quietly to a stop, beginning to back away to allow them their privacy, when the man viciously backhanded the woman.


Never before had I witnessed violence perpetrated on a woman. As she cried out in pain, fury swelled within me. I drew my pistol and stormed across the clearing, slamming the frame of my automatic against the man’s head with as much force as my one hundred and thirty pounds allowed.


With a sickening thud, he was knocked completely off the woman. She immediately tried to cover herself, and I averted my eyes.


Only the man’s size prevented his serious injury. He was a monster, tall as Otto but considerably fatter and hairier. He shook off the blow and began to lumber to his feet. I placed the muzzle of my pistol against his forehead, cocked it, and said through gritted teeth, “I wouldn’t.”


He may have been twice my size, but he was not insane. He looked into my eyes and recognized something primal that warned him not to take me lightly. I backed slowly away, keeping my weapon aimed squarely at his head, barely mastering the primitive urge to kill. Handing my pistol to Otto, who was recovering from surprise at the speed with which the encounter had unfolded, I picked up a piece of clothing and handed it to the girl.


Tears cascaded from her almond-shaped eyes, one of which was bruised and already closing shut. I pulled a handkerchief from my pocket and dabbed as gently as possible at the blood flowing from her mouth and nose with hands shaking from suppressed rage. “Are you all right?” I inquired, as solicitously as my own high emotion would allow. Her only response was continued weeping. “Do you speak German?”


She made no reply. I gathered the rest of her torn clothing before turning away to afford her some degree of privacy, whereupon I caught the salacious expression of the rapist.


Rage again overwhelmed me. I caught up a stout branch lying on the ground and closed the distance separating us.


Like most bullies, the man was a coward. He could dominate the weak, but faced with righteous wrath he quailed. I knocked him to the ground and administered a beating I knew he wouldn’t forget for a long time to come. I rained down blows on whatever target presented itself: arms, legs, torso, and finally his back when he rolled over to protect himself. At one point I heard the satisfying crack of a breaking rib. I finished, out of breath from exertion and emotion, leaving him in considerably worse shape than the girl.


She was dressed by this time, and I noticed a detail that had escaped me until now. The clothing left lying on the ground was a Brownshirt uniform – the man I’d just beaten was a Storm Trooper. My anger ballooned anew.


“You represent the Fatherland, yet you attack the very people we are here to help?” I screamed at the top of my lungs. “I will notify your commanding officer! I will see that you are shipped back to Germany in disgrace! I will shoot you myself, you…”


I made a grab for the pistol in Otto’s hand. Luckily he was quicker than I, withholding the gun lest I kill the Storm Trooper.


I fought for control. “Get up!” I shouted.


He struggled woozily to his feet, looking down at me with sullen eyes before moving toward his clothes. I snapped, “The lady will be wearing your tunic. The rest of your clothing will remain here at the crime scene, for the investigation which will shortly be taking place.” I took the pistol from Otto, now that he could see that I had regained some semblance of control. “Get moving,” I told the battered sergeant. For sergeant he was – I could see the insignia now that the woman had donned his tunic.


The Sturmabteilung were Hitler’s bullyboys. A major factor in his rise to power, the Storm Troopers were as ready to fight the enemies of Fascism as they were to beat up helpless old Jews in the street, examples of both occurring on frequent and drunken occasions. Although once in a position of prominence in the eyes of the Führer, the SA’s star had descended considerably since those days. What is a Storm Trooper doing in the middle of Spain?


With the muzzle, I indicated the direction toward town. Growling his agreement deep down, Otto shoved the sergeant into motion. I uncocked the pistol, motioning in what I hoped was a friendly manner for the woman to accompany us.


As we walked, I got my first clear look at this young woman. Although no beauty in the classic sense, she was nonetheless very attractive. She was small, just over five feet in height, and slim. Her face had a slightly exotic cast about it, her expressive eyes radiating intelligence. All this I could see despite the swelling and blood that dominated her features at the moment. I could also see a six-pointed star on a thin gold chain dangling from her neck. A single drop of blood smeared its surface.


I had met only one Jew before, a wartime comrade of my uncle, when I was a child. Though I had long heard the Führer rant about the “Jewish problem,” I’d never given the talk much consideration.


The woman was in obvious pain, walking slowly and favoring her left leg. I offered my arm, which she grasped with a pale and delicate hand. I regarded the sergeant coldly. What sort of man could do what he had done to so vulnerable a girl? As we paraded miserably into town, the SA man seemed to shrink in on himself. We went directly to Spanish police headquarters.


The policeman looked up in astonishment as we entered: two giants – one naked and the other in German uniform – accompanied by a second German with a gun in one hand and a striking though disheveled woman in the other. I stood there, wondering what to do as I realized there was no way for me to tell the policeman what had transpired. Neither Otto nor I spoke a word of Spanish.


The woman disengaged her hand from my arm and began to speak in a soft though authoritative voice. Otto and I stood awkwardly in the middle of the room. The wretched Brownshirt covered himself and bled quietly, almost politely.


The policeman asked a question of her and she turned, astonishing me by inquiring in good German, “The officer asks if you know him,” she indicated the Brownshirt with a thrust of her chin.


“I never saw this criminal before today,” I told the policeman by way of the girl. “I would appreciate your putting him in a cell.”


The suggestion appeared to disconcert him. He made a lengthy speech to the woman. She translated to me, “He says it is beyond his authority to jail a German soldier.”


I looked directly at the policeman and spoke firmly. “I will be responsible. I outrank this…person, and I intend to see that the full weight of German law comes down upon his head. Please, lock him up.”


The policeman reluctantly acceded and, upon returning, he and the woman continued their discussion. I found myself marveling at her composure. She seemed to have somehow shaken off the emotional toll, but I now wondered about her physical state.


“Excuse me,” I interrupted. “I’d like this woman to be examined by our flight surgeon before you continue.” The policeman looked abashed, while the woman turned her warm eyes – or single eye, thanks to the swelling – on me.


“You are very kind, sir, but I prefer to use my family physician. And please, my name is Rachel Cartofilo.”


“Miss Cartofilo, may I introduce Leutnant Otto Jorgensen. And I am Leutnant Hans Udet.” I added a formal click of the heels to my introduction. “I hope you’ll allow us to escort you to your physician’s office.”


“That is most kind of you, Leutnant Udet. However, I’ll summon a car to take me home. The doctor will make a house call.”


While we waited for the car, I phoned the base and outlined the incident to Captain Rintel. He’d know who to contact and how to best handle the situation. Miss Cartofilo had retreated to a bathroom to fix herself up, insofar as was possible in this place.


The car arrived, a chauffeur-driven Daimler bearing a concerned-looking young man and an older woman. Any composure Miss Cartofilo had recovered fell away upon sighting her family. She began to weep, limping from the doorway into the embrace of the woman I suspected was her mother – despite the age difference there was a strong resemblance. The gentleman put his arms protectively around both women and murmured soothingly. They conversed briefly before he approached Otto and me.


“Leonardo Cartofilo,” he introduced himself, continuing in fluent German. “My sister informs me that the two of you are responsible for saving her honor, perhaps her very life. I will never be able to sufficiently express my gratitude.” I shook the proffered hand, Leonardo’s grip firm and sincere. “But I’ll begin by inviting you to dine with us.”


“We’d appreciate the opportunity to make ourselves more presentable.”


“Of course. This evening, perhaps?”


I looked at Otto, and he nodded. “This evening, then.”


Leonardo assured me that we’d be expected. I watched them get in the car and drive away, my mind preoccupied by one detail; Leonardo had indicated that we’d prevented the actual rape of his sister.


For this, I breathed a silent prayer of thanks.


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