Udo Lessing woke in a sweat. It was the same old dream that had been haunting him since he was a little boy. It always ended with a blinding flash. He rolled over and looked at the bedside clock; three-thirty. He knew he wouldn’t get back to sleep easily, he never could after the dream, so he decided to get up and make a cup of tea. It was then that he heard the sound, a muffled creaking on the stairs outside his bedroom.
He quickly reached for and opened the drawer where the 9mm Smith and Wesson was always at the ready. He rolled over to the far side of the bed and got out, and as he crouched released the safety and waited. They were coming for him, again. This was how it was. He didn’t choose the life he traveled, but he’d always made the most of it. He was a survivor.
At that moment, as he leveled the gun at the door, another night passed through his mind, the night the dream was born.
He was sleeping, fully dressed as always, dreaming. He remembered it was a happy dream, but the details he could never recall as they dissolved the moment the air raid alarm snapped him awake. It happened every night, but this time, perhaps because of the dream, his usual passive acceptance was replaced by anger, and something in his emerging character determined that he was not going to leave his bed. Not this time. Moments later when Mutti rushed into the bedroom that he shared with his older sister, Helga, calling out “schnell, schnell” Udo remained motionless, and when Mutti pulled back the duvet, he summoned up all the strength his 5 year old body could muster, and made himself rigid, and remained that way, eyes closed, while he listened to Mutti attending to Helga, helping her put on warm winter boots. From a distance the sound of anti aircraft batteries now faintly drifted into the room, and Mutti’s tenor became more urgent, “Udo, out of bed, they’re coming. Quickly. Udo, now.”
His response was to squeeze harder, pulling his lips tight against his teeth causing them to part slightly, giving his young face a comical appearance, which in another situation would cause laughter. But this was Berlin, February 1945, and nothing was funny.
His next memory was of being carried by Mutti through the streets, the distant drone of hundreds of bombers growing louder. He was kicking as best he could and flailing with his arms, screaming over and over, “I don’t want to, I don’t want to, I don’t want to”. On the fringe of his contracted consciousness, he was aware of many other people, and the popping sounds high in the sky that always reminded him of the noise made by his toy rifle when he pulled the trigger sending the small cork from the end of the barrel. It was the sound that meant the bombers were near. Mutti’s pace quickened.
When he heard the first explosions the fight left him, and he went limp, drooping over Mutti’s shoulder. Now the bombs were landing not far off to the west. Boom, boom, boom, boom, faster than he could clap his hands they walked across the city, each getting closer. Then Mutti was going down stairs, into the place they always spent half the night. The boy heard the heavy steel door clanking shut behind them as they descended.
The shelter was the cellar of a large apartment building, which had been prepared by whitewashing the walls and reinforcing the stone columns with heavy timbers. Along the walls wooden benches, which had been roughly constructed, were almost completely filled with half-awake neighbors. Mutti moved down to the far end of the cellar and sat down on one of the few spaces available. A sleepy elderly man shuffled over to make room for Helga. Udo immediately slid down off of his mother’s lap, and as any now-awake boy would do, looked around for some entertainment.
For whatever reason, the nightly bombing did not yet instill the boy with any sense of fear; that was to be learned and experienced soon. He wandered around the cellar, where he stopped to examine the huge iron nuts that tied the threaded rods tightly through the retrofitted structural timbers and stone support columns of the building. Bigger than his hands, they generated a momentary fascination.
At the same moment he reached out to touch one of them, five thousand feet above the city, Lt. William Grady, USAAF, was feeling real antsy. The bombing run over Berlin was nearly complete, and the squadron of B-17’s had begun the long return flight to England. It had been another awfully quiet mission, a real milk run, which did not sit well with him.
“Tex” Grady, as his buddies called him, was a cowboy from Montana, and all his whining that Montana was a thousand miles from Texas only cemented the nickname. There was a time when he’d objected to the erroneous nomenclature, but the fact that he’d never been to Texas meant nothing to them. Tex was a good cow-punching name, and that was that. After a couple bruising barrack scraps failed to effect a satisfactory change, he’d reluctantly acquiesced. He was a gregarious fellow, who greatly preferred to whoop and laugh, than be mad all the time, and he realized that his stubborn opposition to what was never meant to be an insulting label was only losing him friends. Tex was fun loving and wild; crazy-wild sometimes. He could ride a horse with the best of them. He loved the feel of a strong, fast animal, stretched to its limit, and responding to his masterful direction – the press of a knee, a slab of a hand, the deft tug, or when necessary, the forceful wrench on the reins. He loved the combined rhythm of an all-out gallop. There was nothing like it, nothing except a P-51 “Mustang”, the best fighter plane produced in the world. Sitting in the elevated cockpit, with a 360 degree view from the clear bubble dome, the mighty Rolls Royce engine purring like an angry lion, he experienced the same elation, but far more intensely.
Up in the vast arena of the European sky there existed one element, which he would never encounter on the high plains of Montana. His forefathers, who ventured into the lawless frontier, had known it, but Tex had come along too late. If the war not come and taken him away, he would never have known the exhilaration of the ultimate confrontation. It was something that cannot be described; only experienced firsthand. The gunfight at the OK corral, man against man, a duel to the end. In the skies over Europe Tex came to love his daily affair with death, it was an addiction. The craving became so strong that he began to dread the end of the war.
This particular mission had followed the pattern of late – long, uneventful, dull. The evaporation of the Luftwaffe had thrown a cold wet blanket over his war, and that wild feeling was getting worse with each trip.
As he circled the general target area, watching for fighters that he knew would never come, his attention was caught by black dots far off to the east. They reminded him of buzzards circling as they waited for their turn at the carcass below. Suddenly one broke off and swooped upwards and to the south. It was a rare Messerschmitt 209. Tex followed its progress, fascinated. He recognized the maneuver, placing the plane between a victim and the sun. He turned his Mustang to the east; curiosity pulling him liked a mighty magnet. The aircraft leveled then banked and began to dive. Tex instinctually moved to intercept, and as he did, he saw the lone B-17, late to the party just arriving over Berlin.
As the German fighter passed by Tex at 250 miles an hour his heart rate went up; sweat beaded up at the back of his neck. Goddam Kraut wasn’t going to get this one. He banked sharply and soon his .50 caliber M2 Browning machine guns were blazing tracer trails at the enemy plane.
There is no sound as chilling as the death scream of a wounded aircraft as its hurls towards earth. Those who hear it involuntarily pause to listen, hardly breathing, their eyes tracking the agonized cry as it crosses the sky, in anticipation of the final confirming explosion. The occupants in the shelter heard the fiery descent of the Messerschmitt, its pilot already a bloody corpse, as it traced a line directly over the top of the city, and ended with a huge explosion near the green area, which Tex knew to be the Tiergarten.
Moments later, a streak of silver flashed by the B-17, and as the American fighter plane lifted away it wiggled its wings, and then turned off sharply to the west and disappeared. Tex was going home, where he anticipated another pleasant evening in the “Old Shepherd” with his English girlfriend, then a romp in the sack.
The crew of the bomber, cheered then went about their business. The bomb doors were opened, and the payload dropped.
The incendiary bombs landed directly on the adjacent building, the explosions of which caused the whole world to shake violently, filling the cellar with dust and smoke so he could hardly see Mutti at the far end. All around him, the inhabitants of the shelter had reacted by ducking, or falling to the floor. The boy stood frozen for a long time, until people started to return to their places on the benches, and the air began to clear.
Unknown to anyone in the shelter the bombs that hit next door were slowing doing their evil business. As things were gradually coming back to a state of normalcy, as illogical as that description might be, the muffled sounds of screaming voices filtered through the steel door next to where Mutti sat. These doors had been retrofitted to allow people who were otherwise trapped in a shelter to escape into the next building, and as such could be opened from either side by pushing up on the latch bar.
What happened next was to be branded in the boy’s memory, where it often reappeared, particularly in his dreams. He saw people next to the door stand up, and after a moment of hesitation, one of them reached to open the door. His hand recoiled, burned by the intense heat that had conducted through the metal. Another man, wrapping his hand with a coat, grabbed the knob on the bar and quickly thrust it upward.
In his dreams he always saw the soaring brilliance that burst through the door opening revealing the white-hot fire within, and then the people jumping into it, or so he thought. Later, years after the war, he came to understand that the it was the fire, seeking air to fuel its angry errand, that had sucked those closest to the door into its inferno. In that moment he lost Mutti and Helga, discovered the real feeling fear, and became one of the thousands of street orphans that occupied Berlin for years to come.
It was there, young and vulnerable that Udo learned his trade and honed his skills, and it was the starting point from which his journey on the dark side was launched.
Another creak, this time he recognized the sound as coming from the landing. He was ready.