Another Midsummer Night’s Dream - Conclusion
Another Midsummer Night’s Dream
CONCLUSION: Bad Eyes & Exercise
The cell was silent for a long moment. Both of us seemed to be letting Schmidt’s words sink in. Finally, I couldn’t keep quiet. “What,” I asked, “did you do?”
Hans shrugged. “What was there to do? I woke up a few minutes later, back in the white room with the chair. One of the guards was there. When he saw me stirring he handed me the enlistment form and said, ‘Ubercommandant Schmidt requests your answer in one hour,’ and walked out.”
Hans stopped and turned his face away. After a moment I asked,
“What did you do?”
He shrugged, then turned back toward me. “What do you think? I was ready to die for my beliefs, not to kill for them. And especially not to kill those closest to me. I sat for awhile, in a kind of paralysis. When I heard the guard opening the door, I signed the form.”
He took a slow deep breath. “They let me go home long enough to say goodbye. My father did not understand at first. I said only that it was what I had to do, for all of us, and I hoped he could forgive me. His last words to me were to quote Jesus, ‘Go in peace.’
“I never saw them again. The Reichsarmy trained me as a doctor, and I was sent to the eastern front. In the end, I did not kill anyone in battle. But I treated many soldiers who did.”
He sighed and rubbed his hands together, as if he was cold. In the winter of 1944, I was with troops who were withdrawing from Russia. It was a terrible time: ice and mud, disease and destruction all around. One night there Russian bombers attacked. I felt the ground shake, heard the explosions approaching, and then there a great flash of light.”
Now he raised his hands, gesturing around the cell. “Since then,” he said, “ I wake up, and I am in places like this. Dark, sometimes cold, sometimes hot. I find others, like you. I tell them this story. Then, somehow, I can sleep again.”
I didn’t know what to say. “is there something you want from me?” I wondered. “I’ve got a little money.” I felt sheepish suggesting it.
He shook his head. “You are kind,” he said. “But nothing of the little you have can help me. Except,” he paused. “Except for perhaps one thing.”
Suddenly I thought I knew. “If I say to you, ‘Go in peace’?”
Now he smiled, and nodded. “Yes. That is what you can do. Danke, mein Freunde. Thank you, Friend.” He reached out and shook my hand.
As soon as he touched me, I began to feel very tired. How long had I sat there, I wondered vaguely, listening to this harrowing story? It must be almost morning.
I only half-heard him stand and walk away.
Then it was light, and a jangling bell warned that it was time for what they called breakfast. Soon the plastic tray was shoved in, and behind it came a rumor, whispered down the block: “Word is the lockdown will be lifted today. With luck, we’ll get to see the sun again today.” I could feel the stirring of hope; even an hour in the blazing midday light would be welcome after this forced stretch of group solitary confinement.
For once, the rumor mill proved right. The bells went off again an hour before they were supposed to for lunch, and the announcement came over the PA system: “Lunch will be distributed in the cafeteria by cell blocks, followed by exercise time in the inside yard. Mail call will be held at the conclusion of lunch.”
I stuck my arm through the bars and bent it around to slap high fives with my neighbors on each side. After days of silence, we talked some, about this and that. Finally, the bells jangled again, and for the first time in a week, the doors opened.
I got ready to step outside, waiting to be counted before heading down to the mess hall. Then I remembered something. I stepped back in, and picked up the envelope addressed to my brother. It could be dropped in the guards’ box for screening as I went into lunch. They’d mail it; prison was a meat grinder for family relationships, and tirades were tediously common in the mail that went in and out of here.
But then the image of Hans came back to me. His hollow eyes, the weight he seemed to be carrying. Was it a dream, or what?
I pulled out the sheets and tapped them against my other palm. After what I had said to Hans, what did I really want to say to Art?
I looked at the first page, and found myself shaking my head. Slowly but deliberately, I tore the letter into very small pieces. I flushed them down my commode, and put the envelope carefully back in the small stack; no sense in wasting the stamp.
I don’t think the food that day was cooked any better than usual. But it sure tasted better in the mess hall than it had in our cells. The noise level was high, as men began catching up with conversations and rumors that had been held in suspension for nearly a week. The guard who did mail call tried to shout, but then had to turn to the PA system to read the names on the letters.
Harrison was one of them, and I went eagerly up to him after turning in my tray. He handed me a single postcard.
It was from Art, dated only three days ago.
“Hey Hal,” it read, “Guess what? I flunked my physical, man. Bad eyes! The recruiter was really pissed, but so it goes. There’ll be no Air Force for this guy! See you at the shop!” There was a glossy photo of a Honda cycle on the back.
I grinned, and then laughed, as much at myself as at Art. “No sweat, bro,” I thought, and headed for the exercise yard.
Another Midsummer Night’s Dream: The story told by the German visitor to the narrator’s cell comes from the historian Hans Schmitt, author of the book, Quakers and Nazis, an account of the experience and sufferings of Friends in Germany during the Third Reich. I heard Schmitt tell this story in a talk to the Friends Historical Association in Philadelphia.
Copyright (c) by Chuck Fager. All rights reserved.