Place of memories
July 10, 2005; 7:00 P.M., Eunice, Louisiana
The old man stood along the gravel shoulder of Twelfth Street that once needed weekly oiling to settle the summer dust. Though now paved, and he formally dressed, neither the thoroughfare nor the man could hide their age. Tar and patched memories filled the cracks and scars.
The late afternoon sun glistened off the back of the old man’s white cotton shirt and his shadow curved and dipped onto a narrow side street leading off toward the east. In his youth, the then unnamed lane was the entrance to a place that was not unlike the words to a Big Band era song – long forgotten by most, and unknown to current generations.
Klaus Kruger looked up at the green and white-letter sign marking the intersection of Twelfth and Fairgrounds streets. Small athletic fields, bound by short chain-link fences, checkered the area. He closed his eyes and remembered the tall barbed wire fence that once encircled acres of ankle-deep, green grass … and men. He lifted the single-strapped leather bag higher onto his right shoulder and then lifted his left arm. He closed his eyes and pretended to grasp with long, gnarled fingers the imaginary – but once very real – wire fence. He’d often dared to cling to the fence during the scorching Louisiana summers. His mind easily found the memory and the feel of the wire burning his palms, and so, too, the sight of the curious onlookers who had also dared to approach the fence from the freedom side – young and old faces, spiteful stares, and flirtatious glances.
The sights and sounds of the soccer games his fellow German prisoners and their guards had played within the confines of Camp Eunice surfaced. He smiled. The Cajun guards had struggled to compete with them in the strange sport. They were willing participants, those boys with the strange accents. Formidable foes, he remembered, like their American brothers whom against Klaus had fought on the sands of North Africa in 1942 and 1943.
Klaus reopened his aging steel gray eyes. They had once blazed as blue as a desert sky. He blinked hard twice before removing his wire-framed eyeglasses. He pulled from his back trouser pocket a wrinkled white handkerchief and cleaned the sweat-streaked bifocals. Across from the playing fields, he spied – even without his spectacles – a small wooden hut. It brought yet another smile to a face seemingly not accustom to joy. The hut stood after all these years. Perhaps the Americans possessed a better sense of history than expected, he thought while donning his eyeglasses.
Klaus reached up, wiped his brow with the handkerchief, and then pressed his gray fedora tighter onto his head. The hat covered his silver hair – tousled and blond when the wire fence stood. He strode down the side street, his gait hinting of a limp but the pace suggesting vigor akin to a man thirty years younger. He arrived at the hut in less than two minutes, but a bit winded. A few droplets of new sweat surprised him when they coursed down his cheek. More memories of the Louisiana heat percolated forth.
Standing at the edge of Fairgrounds Street, Klaus turned about and his eyes darted as if trained to take mental pictures.
A middle-aged man, accompanied by a young girl whose head bobbed to the beat of unheard music, drove slowly past in a blue pickup truck. But the driver’s attention seemed to be focused on the south side of the street where the fenced-in softball fields stood vacant on this Sunday afternoon. The driver soon turned his head and noticed the old German through an open window. The driver merely nodded and smiled — as if too busy to care. Klaus, paranoia perhaps still a part of him, could not help from thinking the driver was examining him. Klaus similarly nodded to the driver and tipped the brim of his hat, but felt aghast when he let slip the words, “Guten Tag.” The driver wrinkled his brow, again smiled — only this time with curiosity in his eyes — and slowly drove away.
The building, no more than twenty-feet square appeared solid, yet neglected. Klaus climbed the concrete steps, not much wider than the door, and let his bag fall to the top step with a quiet thud. He cupped his hands over his eyes and peered through the small windows of the door. Weather streaks ran down the glass panes, still intact to his surprise. A weathered padlock secured a hasp on the door. The building’s white paint bubbled and peeled from age and neglect, and a dusty white sign with red lettering hung loose to the right side of the door. He righted the sign and brushed it with the back of his hand. He strained slightly to read the faded words: “Dedicated to the brave men of the nation of Germany and the Americans who guarded them — may it never again come to this, may we forever be friends. The year of our Lord 1962.”
How long, he wondered, had it been since the Americans abandoned this lone monument – dedicated to the rare humanity existing during the midst of a time of insanity. He stared again. Luck rewarded his curiosity. The familiar hut had served as the camp’s dispensary. It stood alone as a reminder of a place once boasting a dozen such buildings – all of similar design but different sizes.
Had it ever been moved? He hoped not.
Klaus’s excitement grew. He smiled when he read a smaller passage on the sign: "The camp dispensary has been left, for the most part, in the condition in which it was abandoned in late 1945. Still in its original location, only minor repairs to the roof and ceiling have been made for safety reasons ..."
His quickening pulse startled him. His heart seemed to skip a beat. “Mien Gott. After all these years, could it still be here,” he mumbled to himself. “I must know.”
He grabbed the rusty doorknob and turned it; but it merely spun in his hand. He pulled from his pocket a small knife with a narrow blade resembling a file. He stuck it into the keyhole of the padlock hanging just above the doorknob and jiggled it. He’d done this before. The lock popped open and the door began to swing inward on its own. Was fate inviting him in? Klaus pushed and the door creaked open by the inch.
Entering the dank building, Klaus noted the smell of stale air – the en fremers — French words the Cajuns used to describe such a scent. He glimpsed four straight-backed wooden chairs stacked atop one another. They were old, hardly antique, and worthless. The chairs sat near a reception desk, one much smaller than he recalled. A yellowed vision chart — the kind with the big letter “E” at the top — hung from the wall behind the desk. The Cajun guards, jovial fellows really — save for a few — joked about how the inmates could easily pass the eye test because the letters all seemed to spell something in German. The locker, which once contained the drugs, medicines, and related paraphernalia, stood leaning to the left, its door open. Only a few sheets of paper and an empty carton lay on one of the bottom shelves.
Klaus turned his attention to the right side of the room where he looked down and counted 11 gray-painted boards coming back toward him from the far wall. Pointing to the chosen board, he stepped off three paces from the wall nearest to his right and the door. He looked down and saw three nails driven closely side by side with the heads butting together. His fist stifled a gasp and muffled a shout. “Mien, Gott.”
He looked over his shoulder and peeked out the window. The abandoned playing field across the lane still showed no signs of life. The man, the girl, and the blue truck were not in sight. He bent to one knee, again pulled out his pocketknife, and snapped it open. He forced the knife’s biggest blade into the junction of two oak planks, slightly split on the ends by the extra nails. It took several minutes more than he expected to pry the boards apart. His breath grew to a pant. A skinned knuckle forced a silent curse, but one dried plank splintered and broke under the strain. A wood sliver, jammed under his thumbnail, called for another oath. “Scheisse.” The second board separated.
Klaus lifted and hurled the boards aside. He reached down with his right arm and pushed his long index finger a full inch into the cool, moist soil. He felt resistance from a board. He tapped on it and heard a somewhat hollow sound. What he found below in the dirt warranted the years of wait, but his patience waned. Nearly lying on the floor, he dug fast, like a dog retrieving a just-remembered bone, and soon cleared the dirt away from the top of the board. His arm, dangling through the floor up to his shoulder, worked as if it had eyes; his fingers found the edges and inched the board upward.
Fighting back tears, he grasped and pulled a water-stained but undisturbed leather pouch from the burrow. He brushed the remaining dirt from the small artifact and unwound the straps securing it. Klaus reached inside and felt the softness of its contents. He gasped with pleasure. With a gentle tug, a woman’s long, flowing scarf, dyed in muted browns, blues and splashes of dark purple, billowed from the pouch. He could no longer restrain the tears; they mingled with the sweat on his cheeks. He caressed its silkiness with fingers spotted with age. The seconds seemed like hours. He brought the delicate garment to his nose and inhaled. Her scent lingered despite decades of hiding inside the leather pouch.
The bloodstains, black and stiff at one corner, had survived the wait as well.
Klaus buried his face in the silk cloth and wept. “Oh, my Marie. My Marie. How I have missed you. I’ve kept my promise. I have come back.”
Again, he plunged his arm through the floor. His hand dug deeper, meeting more resistance. His fingers dug and once again traced a rectangular outline. Now, however, he did not smile when bringing up through the floor a thin book wrapped in a coarse burlap bag. Its pages looked yellowed and felt stiff, dampened and then dried scores of times over the past sixty years.
Klaus opened his journal and rifled through its brittle pages. He browsed its final entries. Softened by tender memories only moments ago, his face emptied of emotion. Casting aside the burlap, he wrapped the book in Marie’s scarf. He stood, shoved the unearthed treasures into his shoulder bag, and departed.
There would be time for more digging later and so, too, for love and revenge.