The first time Colonel Hogan said, "You know what, Newkirk? That is an excellent idea" without a trace of irony, and proceeded to explain how they would set about it, Newkirk couldn't quite believe it. In his experience, the average officer would never lower himself to listening to an NCO's remark, let alone approve and use it. Officers were the stuck-up lot who remained safely at the back of the battle, directing troops as if conducting an orchestra and having stiff upper lip competitions when it was time to look at the casualty lists.
Not for the first time, it occurred to him that Hogan was not exactly your average officer.
There had been exactly twenty-two men – mostly RAF – who had got down from the truck today, but Sergeant Schultz had spotted the lanky corporal with the blue eyes straight away. He had smirked and sneered and joked with an accent Schultz had never heard before, but he also had glanced with unnerving keenness at the dog kennels, the barbed wire and the watchtowers. This glance told Schultz this one needed watching closely, lest he became the first to escape Stalag 13 – or, he thought with a pang, the first to die trying.
Breakfast is usually had after the first roll call of the day, and even though it mostly consists of coffee and bread (unless they dig into their Red Cross parcels, or somebody managed to steal supplies from the officers' mess), it's probably the most important meal of the day. Besides nourishment, it means sharing in the details of the latest mission, London's latest orders, a few laughs and a few jokes. Amazing how much simply sitting at a table drinking often mediocre coffee can mean to a man in terms of simple human warmth.
At least I didn't leave the film in that camera.
Oh who am I kidding. I really messed up this time. I messed up so bad that if I was in the Navy they'd probably string me up a yardarm, and they'd be totally right to. (If I knew what a yardarm is, anyway.) And I'd come to watch. If I wasn't strung up that yardarm.
Boy oh boy am I in trouble.
It's a good thing they're all easy-going fellows, because being cramped in such close quarters twenty-four-seven, with not even the most basic privacy or intimacy, is really not a way to live. Most of the time they're fine, and covert operations keep the guys busy enough; but on some days, tempers fly quickly, and the only way not to lose it is to stride out the barracks and try to find a quiet place to calm down, hopefully somewhere you can't see the barbed wire.
Technically the Germans forbid it, but every year since they arrived they still observe the two minutes of silence on Armistice Day. Almost all the men, be they British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealander or from other Commonwealth countries, wear a red paper poppy under their jackets; exactly how they procured the amount of paper required remains a mystery. LeBeau, as the only Frenchman in camp, wears the traditional cornflower under his jacket, a drop of blue in a field of red.
When Hogan took command – and operations started in earnest – he didn't change this state of affairs; no matter how busy they are on the 11th of November, at 1111 hours they all stop what they are doing and go silent for two minutes. The whole Stalag falls still and quiet. It's so eerie that even the guards don't dare say a word.
Strangely (or perhaps not so strangely), Kommandant Klink never objected.
The war is over, Hogan thought as he watched the former Stalag guards line up and leave through the gates under the watchful eye of the G.I.s who had "liberated" the camp. We won.
It was an unreal, exhilarating thought, and the sheer impossibility of it was almost making him feel light-headed.
It was also strangely saddening to watch Corporal Langenscheidt trying to comfort Private Solf, who was in tears, awkwardly patting him on the back and talking in such a low voice Hogan couldn't understand a word.
Schultz tried, at the beginning, to be the tough, nasty sergeant, but he quickly found that he hadn't got any better at it since he had hung up the uniform after the last war. The prisoners would drag their feet during roll call, mess with his headcount, mutter rude things, call out jeers, and generally completely fail to be cowed by their captors and their status as POWs.
It didn't take long for them to try to bribe him into not noticing certain things, and Schultz soon decided that there were some things he was better off not seeing, hearing or knowing anything about. It was only when he caught them trying to escape (he didn't like to see them get hurt) that he drew a line that couldn't be ignored; and even then he didn't consider them enemies. How could they be enemies if they couldn't fight any more?
Watching Carter handle dynamite is interesting. All his usual awkwardness and clumsiness goes out the window; he carries it in a way that looks casual to the unused eye, but is anything but. Suddenly he's well-coordinated and sure of himself, and handles his explosives with the business-like mien of a professional.
It's even more entertaining to watch the change that comes over him when he pushes down the plunger – all manic grins and crazy eyes – and then goes back to being goofy, naïve Andrew Carter, who would forget his own head if it wasn't attached.
"There you go, Colonel. Good as new, with that little extra detail." And as Hogan watched bemusedly, Kinch pulled up the wire fence a fraction, revealing the ingenious mechanism that allowed a whole portion of the fence to be lifted high enough for a man to go under.
A smile, small at first, then brilliant, dawned on Hogan's face. We might just be able to pull this off.
"Colonel Hogan, I know I gave permission to organise a rugby match, but this – I've ever seen anything like it! It was not a match, it was a brawl! Foster lost his trousers, I'm sure I saw someone's tooth fly at some point, the ball is still missing, and as we speak Corporal Langenscheidt is still walking in a very odd way. How do you explain that?"
Hogan wasn't sure whether Klink intended to appear flustered or angry. From the looks of it, neither was Klink. "Well, sir, it seems that he tried to separate Saunders and Floyd and got kicked in the fracas."
Klink paled in unexpected sympathy. "That is a terrible place for a man to get kicked in."
It's amazing just how tantalising the nearby woods can look from the wrong side of the fence; when they're outside – on the good side of the fence – sneaking out the secret tree stump entrance, the trees seem darker, the moss less green, the colours dimmer. Maybe the old saying about the grass always looking greener on the other side is true; or maybe it's because of the fact that, no matter how many times they sneak out of camp, they always remain prisoners.
"Colonel Hogan, I know it is not my place to say, and I really don't want trouble with the Gestapo, but they should not do the things they do. I would be glad if the prisoner who is in the cooler was not in the cooler tomorrow when Major Hochstetter comes back."
"Schultz, you'd be all heart if your stomach wasn't already taking so much room."
Kinch doesn't interact much with Klink (certainly no more than he has to), but it never fails to unsettle him slightly that, for all that the man is a pompous, arrogant fool from a country which doesn't hide its contempt for anyone who doesn't meet their insane idea of a master race (and he has heard things about it that makes his skin crawl), he never treats Kinch as anything less than a man. The same can't be said for a lot of people back home. And sometimes, somehow, it rankles.
It's no life, tricking and lying and deceiving all the time, but they've got used to it. So well, in fact, that sometimes they wonder how they will adjust to civilian – or at least a little more normal – life after the war.
When LeBeau was captured – and for some time after that – numerous German soldiers and a few Allied ones tried pointing out to him that France lost the war, and this was it. They found themselves on the receiving end of such a vicious, impassioned diatribe (about how, as long as there was one Frenchman – or Frenchwoman – left still fighting for her, France would not lose the war, armistice be damned) that, German or Allied, they usually ended up backing away out of nervousness or sheer exasperation.
Klink didn't bother to hide his satisfaction as Hogan closed the door. Oh, the American was wily enough, but he did have a big mouth. As soon as he had opened it to refuse organising a work detail outside the fence to clear the area of branches that had fallen during last night's storm, Klink had the perfect volunteers for it. That way, the prisoners would work, the guards would guard them, and everything would be as it should be.
Some days he almost felt guilty to be so manipulative. Almost.
The stove is not exactly in the middle of the room, but it's easily one of the most important things. It's the centre of gravity of every prisoner's life, providing warmth, hot coffee and food, and even in the summer they tend to unconsciously gather around it as a result.
19. Not enough
Watching the bright flames engulf the soon-to-be former plane factory didn't feel as satisfying as it might have been if Hogan hadn't known that the Polish and Ukrainian forced labour workers would be dispatched to another factory no later than tomorrow morning, without there being a single thing he and the guys could do to help them.
The explosion blossomed in the night like a wildflower, vivid orange hues filling the dark blue sky for a second before vanishing into nothing, only leaving ruin in their wake. Carter's grin widened. How the others could fail to appreciate the ephemeral but absolute beauty of these colours was beyond him.
Carter had refused to kill it on the grounds that he had been the one who came up with the trap; LeBeau had said he would cook it if and only if somebody else killed it; Kinch had stated that the animal had done nothing to warrant such treatment; Newkirk had pointed out that without the fur there would hardly be anything to eat anyway; and Hogan had taken one look at the twitching nose and bright round eyes and given up. In the end, they entrusted it to Flight Lieutenant Spencer on his way back to London on a courier plane, after the man promised his little girl would take good care of the rabbit.
Something that never gets old is the look on escaped flyers' or POWs' faces when they realise just how extensive the tunnels are, and that they are right under a Stalag. Watching their faces as Newkirk, Carter, LeBeau and the others take their measurements for suits and fit them with expertly forged papers is highly entertaining; you can almost hear them say "Are you guys for real?" before they either say it or get used to the craziness.
Newkirk's grin falls abruptly when LeBeau not only doesn't get up, but doesn't move at all. He sees the closed eyes, the pinched look on the face he's known for years, and in spite of his best efforts his hand is shaking slightly when he puts it in the crook of his friend's shoulder to see what's wrong with him.
His fingers come up red.
Funny, that. Newkirk has always more or less linked the little Frenchman with the colour in his mind, whether because of the hat and scarf he always wears or because he is so hot-blooded. The one thing he didn't think of was literal blood – and there it is now, all over his fingers.
His throat closes up. "Colonel, my—my little mate's been hit."
When one of them is feeling below par – which happens from time to time, since so many men living in such closed quarters is the perfect breeding ground for sicknesses of all kinds – their usual panacea is chicken soup … Unless the sick man is British, in which case someone usually rounds up some tea on the sly and starts looking for the teapot.
Andrew Carter didn't mean to blow up the school chemistry lab for a third time. That's what he told his mother days later, after he got back from the hospital, and after the heat – so to speak – died down. He had only wanted to find and correct the mistake he had made in the first place, and gone by the old saying: if at first you don't succeed, try and try again.
Sometimes they wonder why they even bother pointing out to Hogan that whatever London is asking of them can't be done. They're all aware by now that, no matter how impossible it may look, the Colonel will come up with a crazy plan – and, one way or another, with a little bit of luck, it will actually work.
"Well, to be frank, Colonel? This is one of the worst ideas in the history of bad ideas, sir, and it'll probably get us all killed before the week is over."
"But … I've been dying to put one over the Krauts for two years now, and escaping alone lost its appeal a while ago. So if you have a spot for me in that team of yours, well, I'm in, sir."
"That's the spirit, Newkirk."
Oskar Schnitzer trained the dogs to tell men's uniforms apart, but they still prefer to rely on their noses to tell friend from foe. Both prisoners and guards smell like boredom, and a few smell like fear, which tends to make the dogs somewhat nervous. But a few prisoners have interesting smells. The alpha's smell is very complicated but exciting; the little friendly one always smells of food, and often has time for a scratch behind the ears; the tall, quiet one smells kind and dignified, and even if he doesn't pet them a lot they still know he doesn't take them for granted; they were wary of the one with his head in the clouds at first, because around his big coat hung a complex smell, like things exploding, but they quickly found out that beneath it he smells of eagerness and fun.
The grinning man in blue is friendly enough, but the dogs remain slightly suspicious of him all the same. He smells too much like a cat – or a fox – for them to trust him completely.
She's not even that stunning.
Newkirk has to admit that the woman is attractive enough, but after the handful of times she's worked with them and the sheer heart-stopping scares she's given them, he finds it hard to consider her pretty at all. Her mere presence means trouble more surely than the Gestapo, and every time she waltzes in like a whirlwind of furs, heavy-lidded eyes and heady smiles, they all know they're going to have to play it by ear … and eventually get away with their lives by the skin of their teeth. If they do get away.
What irks him to no end about Marya, though, is the effect she never fails to have on LeBeau.
Like him, his mate has proper appreciation for people of the female persuasion, which Newkirk thinks of as perfectly normal and healthy; despite his Gallic hot-headedness, Louis is solid and dependable, and can be trusted to keep his head in a crisis.
Which is why Newkirk finds it so hard not to thump him on the head every time he gets that ecstatic look on his face when Marya shows up.
Colonel Hogan seems to have no sense of personal space whatsoever. He puts his hands on his men's shoulders, puts his arms around them, leans on them, clap them on the back, without distinction. They know he does this unthinkingly, and doesn't mean to make them uncomfortable. The Americans reckon it must be an officer's thing, the others believe it must be an American thing, and nobody really minds. Besides, when something tragic happened or things really look bad, a strong arm on your shoulder that says "You're not alone in this" feels really welcome.
Kinch observed Hogan a couple of times when dealing with Klink; his body language is different then, but it's the same way of insidiously invading someone's personal space – only then the unease it causes is deliberate.
Sometimes Kinch wonders if his CO is aware just how much he borrows confidence tricks from the (successful) con man's book.
His money is on yes.
"Camera" (4) references a situation in Man's Best Friend is Not His Dog (Carter forgot a camera in the middle of the compound), and the dialogue in "Red" (23) comes from That's No Lady, That's My Spy. I didn't mean to have "Not Enough" (19) and "Orange" (20) deal with essentially the same situation (reactions to something blowing up), but both snippets fit together rather well.
Hope you liked! :o]