The opening chapter of a novel about the third generation born in the twentieth century.
...A Day at the Time
My eyes opened into her eyes, staring into mine. Her nose pressed against my nose as my vision focused, then blurred, and a warm sensation engorged my body when her lips brushed my cheek. Suddenly, her cheeks stretched and lifted, and her eyes crinkled in the corners. Another wave of warmth surged through my body, and I felt my cheeks lifting and my eyes crinkling in response.
Then I noticed movement in the corner of my vision. My arms and feet swung in the air between us, and I lost track of her for the moment. I hadn't even known I possessed such appendages.
After discovering those outstretched extensions of myself, I found that I could move each with only a thought, so I did. Then one of them landed in my mouth. My tongue pushed forward instinctively, and I tasted salty flesh. As I sucked the taste down my throat, my eyes roamed the space beyond my newly discovered world until I found her face once more.
Her eyes crinkled in their corners while her cheeks pulled up and back, and her lips thinned. I instinctively crinkled my eyes as my cheeks drew up to match hers. After that moment, my eyes crinkled, and my face stretched whenever our eyes met. I had discovered love and the one who loved me the most--my mother.
We were alone during those early days, inside a metal box in the middle of the desert just outside Tuscon, Arizona, where my father was stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. In that metal box in the desert, my days held only giggles, coo's, and a mother's ever-present smile. At night my dreams filled with stretching cheeks, crinkled eyes, the soft caress of her lips, and the exhilaration of her warm breath as she whispered a lullaby into my ear.
My Dad joined the Air Force in 1948, at the ineligible age of seventeen. He intended to fight in World War II but found himself emerging from boot camp as the battle came to an end. A few months after that, he married my mother. Soon afterward, his Division became part of the Occupying Forces in Germany. At which point, he shipped out to Bitburg, Germany, to be part of the massive cleanup efforts.
I was but one-going-on-two years of age when my then-pregnant-again-mother and I left Arizona to join my father in Germany. At that point in my life, I saw the world through the proverbial 'eyes of the innocent.' But only for a short while.
I awakened from my inflight nap and clambered to a stance in my seat. Raising my nose above the bottom curve of the oval portal, I stared out the window. My young eyes fell across the carnage below, which our bombs had left behind. Standing there silently in the window seat, I watched the Earth rise to meet our plane as we circled, then came in for our landing. My mother steadied me from behind with a fist full of T-shirt and diapers.
As I stared out the window, I found the remnants of Bitburg, Germany, were little more than vast fields of rust-colored rubble. That rubble-strewn city contained haphazardly placed, shattered towers of broken bricks, which my mother explained were once chimneys. Of course, I didn't understand at the time that those chimneys had belonged to cottages, shops, hotels, and every other home or business the inhabitants once visited and occupied.
The understanding of that fact didn't settle in until later in my life. When I remember that image today, I reflect on the devastation the surviving families must have felt. My young eyes fell upon a calamity of rubble, cross-hatched by freshly paved city streets and still-being-poured concrete sidewalks. My father's job had just begun.
My family settled into off-base housing, which consisted of a brand new four-story concrete block and mortar building, with a fully equipped playground on the other side of its freshly paved parking lot. We were among the Annex's first inhabitants.
My initial up-close exposure to the human horrors that survived the war came one morning after my father had left for work. My pregnant mother prepared my breakfast in the kitchen as I sat in the entry hall, awaiting the arrival of our maid. Our maid and I played together on most days. But only after she finished ironing or cleaning or just sitting around talking to my mother. She was one of the few people from the area who spoke English, and that was why my father hired her.
I had overheard my mother's whispers to a neighbor one morning that our maid worked for "cigarettes." I knew about cigarettes because my father smoked. My mother warned me about them and not to get too close because I would get burned. She also told the neighbor that my father purchased those cigarettes at the commissary on the Air Force base for pennies per carton.
According to my mother, our maid traded those cigarettes for enough groceries and clothes to feed and clothe her family without any other income. The devastation brought by World War II had increased the monetary value of cigarettes on Bitburg's streets, while Germany's currency had become worthless in most markets. Many similar necessities, which war transformed into luxuries, were also rare or unattainable. My father purchased some of those items for our maid at the Post Exchange on the Air Force base. She sold or traded those "luxury items" for extras like furniture and coal for their furnace.
It was almost time for our maid to arrive, and my mother always let me open the door for her, so I stood in the hallway impatiently bouncing from foot to foot, waiting for her to knock. When that knock came, I jumped at the door. I reached to head-height and twisted the door's knob.
As the door fell open, I looked up, expecting to see the smile on her face. With a great deal of anticipation, I searched for that smile and warm greeting. However, I found a man standing just outside our doorway. As my eyes reached his head, those eyes of innocence became fixed upon his face--or the place where his face should have been.
Where a smile belonged, I found an almost level stretch of flesh, transected by a hairline slit from cheek to cheek just above the cleft in his chin. There were slits where two blue irises peeked through the flesh-toned mask. The irises sat atop a slight indentation with two undulating orifices where a nose should have sat. He had no hair atop his head nor ears, just two apertures, one on either side of the tightened flesh across where his face should have been.
I stood in the doorway, moaning at first, then sobbing as my mother ran to my side from the kitchen. When she saw the man, she stepped between us, consoling me with my face pressed into her skirt. Then she turned and stepped into the hallway with the strange man, as our door closed at her back.
I stood with tears rolling down my cheeks for several minutes before the door opened again. My mother sank to her knees, brushed my tears away, then gathered me into an embrace. She knelt there, comforting me until another knock came at our door, and I ran for my room.
Years later, my mother explained that the man had been a subject of experimentation conducted by a Nazi physician named Josef Mengele. He removed all evidence of the man's face to prove that he could. That experience was my introduction to some of the worst horrors left behind by World War II. I never forgot those human atrocities among my first exposures to that war-ravaged world, which my parents began to mend, but left my generation to deal with the scars.
Me and Mom 1953
A few months after that introduction to our new home in Germany, I joined my mother on our second adventure into this strange and sometimes frightening world of discovery.
My mother took me on a walk through the ruin that was once Bitburg, Germany. We began our walk, which took us through a bombed-out neighborhood on our way to a general store situated near the center of town. What I remember most about our journey that morning was the muffled sounds of life emanating from beyond the wall of rubble we passed along our way to that store. My mother later told me she imagined those sounds to be ghosts blindly searching through the carnage for their families and homes, moaning with despair at their disappointment over what they found.
In actuality, it was the distant clamor of reconstruction, muffled to a moan as it seeped through the rubble and spread through hushed air--no voices spoke, just garbled whispers drifting on the breeze. It was like almost hearing a cat scratching at the back door. Later, my mother described the quiet as: "Muffled moans of life, sifting through the cracks between a million broken bricks."
Those hills of crumbled carnage also muffled the whispers of tires, rolling along newly paved intersecting streets. Every once in a while, a tire crunched and spat a pebble to the sidewalk, or dampened murmurs wafted from the surviving shanties assembled among rusty hills of ruin, pushed away from freshly paved streets. Smoke from those hovel's cooking-fires climbed the mountains of debris, clouding the sky, as they swelled into a fog, blocking the sun as it attempted to break across the horizon. As we strolled down the sidewalk, we listened to soft echoes from those many noises. I imagined life inside those neighborhoods but seldom saw it.
As we approached the first intact and standing structure, I saw a man who sat atop a piece of roughly sawn wood. The remnants of his legs lay buried inside torn trouser legs, which dangled over the board's edge. The trouser-legs scrubbed the sidewalk underneath as he pushed himself from place to place with his taped knuckles, born by wheels from a child's skates. Those tiny wheels propelled him from shop to shop and person to person down the sidewalk while he begged for morsels of food, coins, or the meager remnants of a cigarette.
The man atop the roughly sawn wood stopped in front of two gentlemen smoking cigarettes outside of a boarded-up window and begged for a puff. One of the men finally relented, handing him the remnants of his cigarette butt. The man on the board placed the tiny scrap of burning paper and tobacco between his lips, to one side of his mouth. Then he disappeared around the corner of a building. His calls for coin trailed into silence as both he and his cries disappeared into the mounds of rusty rubble.
That was when we arrived at the grocery store. As we stepped inside, my mother let slip in a whisper to herself that she had seen more food in a "beggers kitchen." Her lower jaw sagged with pity as we strolled into the center of the long narrow store.
Only a single shelf sat above the store clerk's head. That shelf held a row of tall necked, dark-brown bottles, standing in a single row atop its narrow width. The store's other items occupied a center shelf in the room with only two half-full tiers that ran along both sides of a half-wall constructed of two-by-fours and plywood paneling.
Upon our arrival home, my father told my mother not to return to that store. He whispered that we were stealing from the poor people who depended on that place for survival. When we purchased their items, they had nothing to replace them with, and as stock dwindled, the remaining items would sell for a much higher price.
After that day, my father brought all our supplies home from the Base's Commissary, and we seldom ventured into downtown again.
My last and probably most profound encounter with the horrors of those days came when my father took us on vacation two summers after our shopping trip into town. He said, "We'll never have a chance like this again during our lives." So we toured Germany over the next couple of weeks.
The pristine condition of the countryside amazed my father and mother. After experiencing the devastation of the city, they expected the same conditions to exist across the country. But we didn't find bombed-out, crater-pocked dirt roadways lined with farmhouses in shambles. We found freshly painted farmhouses infrequently scattered along raked, gravel-covered roads.
For the most part, the countryside was pristine, with floral aromas blowing into the car through my mother's open window. She rolled it down to release the accumulated smoke from my father's cigarettes. His side window was open, and he flicked his ashes into the suction created by the air, sweeping by as he drove. However, he exhaled into the cabin of the car. My sister laid secure in my mother's arms as I stood in the back seat, my mouth opened, with my cheeks pressed into a grimace under the onslaught of crashing wind that emanated through my mother's opened window. Aromas from forests, fields of flowers, and vegetables on the vine sweetened the air as I stood in the seat, my face pressed against the window watching the countryside whoosh past.
That night, we stayed at a quiet country Inn outside a small village near the French border. A local woman rocked my sister as others spoiled me with hot chocolate and fresh apple pie. We both cried when we had to go to bed but settled into a rapid sleep due to our exhaustion and bloated bellies.
The following day we crossed into France on a short detour due to road construction. When we re-entered Germany across the border, we saw guards with machine guns for the first time. They wore black uniforms, and later that night, I asked my mother if they were Nazis. She said they were not, then explained who they were as my mind became groggy, and I drifted into dreams of the sights I had seen. To this day, I see them in my dreams as German soldiers goose-stepping while crisscrossing the road in front of our car.
We were only in France for a few minutes. The road detoured around a bombed-out area with a barbed-wire fence encircling it and signs hanging all along its wire. My mother read one of them, "Road Construction! Keep Out! Possible Live Ordinances! Danger!" My mother read each warning as we drove past it. Then she warned me not to enter any area with barbed wire or posters with words printed in red letters on them.
After that, we drove for several hours while my sister slept, and I even nodded off for a few minutes. When I awakened, I played with toy soldiers atop the back of my mother's seat, and my sister giggled at the show I put on. Before long, I sat back in my seat. When I did, my sister began crying. That was when my mother turned to my father, "I think it's time for a break, Honey."
My father said, "Just thirty minutes, and we'll be there."
After what seemed to be forever, we turned off the gravel road onto a path consisting of two parallel thin strips of dirt winding through the woods. The trees were gigantic. They grew so thick, so tall that they blocked the sun's light so that the underbrush didn't flourish. My father told my mother that, "There's no undergrowth because there's no sunlight to feed it."
Dust billowed in our wake as we drove down the dirt path. When we made a sharp turn on the trail, I watched as the dust cloud behind us settled into a haze, clinging to the forest's floor. I watched that dirty fog as it undulated just above the trees' roots and blanketed the forest's floor. Then it disappeared into the poison Ivey and other vines, which crawled down the tree trunks and seeped into the ground, leaving no evidence of our passing as it vanished into a carpet of moss.
About five minutes later, we pulled into a football-field-sized muddy clearing, and our car filled with a sickening, sweet stench. At that moment, my mother read a sign, which hung on the side of the tall fence rimmed with hoops of barbed wire that stretched down the length of the parking lot. The sign read: "Dachau--" There was more on the poster, but my mother wouldn't read the rest. A few years later, she told me, "The place was quarantined due to the presence of mass graves, and we didn't want to disturb them, so we turned around and left immediately."
A rancid smell rolled into our car through my father's opened window. I told my mother that I was about to be sick, and as she slapped at the air coming from my father's open window, she said, "I told you so."
He flicked his cigarette out the window, then rolled the window up just before he turned the car around and drove away.
I stood on my knees in the backseat, looking through the rear window. Dirt and gravel pelted the underside of our car, sounding like a spray of machine-gun bullets as we escaped that putrid smell.
World War II left a scar across our planet's face. A scar that knitted into a bridge, spanning the great divide between an "Old" World and a "New" World. That bridge made our world smaller. They hoped that a closer-knit neighborhood would bring us all together, but no matter how horrid the scar, humanity's memory proved shorter. A few years later, my father found himself in a new conflict, the conflict in Vietnam.
We should not look upon our forefather's generation with condemnation for what they did. Instead, we should pity them for what they had been forced to do. I sometimes wonder whether we could have done that job, or if we had tried, would we have performed nearly as well? Or would have the lifestyle that generation bequeathed us robbed our resolve and left us lacking the stamina necessary for such an arduous task?
That bridge, the scar, spanning the great divide, also served to link our generation to our father's generation because their obligations soon became our obligations. Such scars, laid by fathers, sometimes heal into a precarious bridge, over which their sons and daughters may find challenging to venture across. We can only pray that when our generation bequeaths such blessings upon our offspring, they may continue to grow and improve upon those endeavors.