(AN EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS)
AUGSBURG CATHEDRAL, CHRISTMAS MORNING, 1946
Because in the beginning, somebody or something somewhere said BE THERE! Not BE GOOD or BE BAD or BE-anything-else-but-here in Augsburg on Christmas Eve. Said it not eighteen years ago when you were born ( or thirty-five when she was), but way back there along with BE LIGHT and BE GONE when the whole round goddamned world was.
Unless, maybe Johnny's right after all and "goddamned" hasn't anything to do with it. Like the o1' Man said back there in the Orderly Room last July when you handed him the cablegrams, sitting there like that with his feet on the desk and blowing the cigar smoke, saying, "AIl of which goes to prove the figure in the carpet's fornicating. Something you Should have learned a long time ago, soldier. Because you should have had a pretty good idea long before last Christmas, long before you lost your own, that what they've been telling you the world is just a bowl of, doesn't grow on trees--not outside their convent gardens anyway. Not in Germany anyway. Not after a war."
Because in Augsburg back in' 45 nothing grew on trees, neither money
nor smokes nor food nor fuel either (so that before the winter was over
there weren't even any trees left much less anything growing on them),
nor immigration papers to America either where even wedding rings grow
on trees, and like the o1' Man said, "All she had to do to get one was
shake the tree pretty much the way she shook the bed to get those immigration
papers." Which may have been right. Which probably was right. Which may
even have had something to do with explaining the second cable too. Only
then you were sure there was a lot more to it than that. There had to be.
Otherwise, he'd have been right about all of it. Not only about her, but
all of it. And if he was, then they never should have handed out those
sentences, there never even should have been a trial. And not just because
it was Christmas Eve either. Because if he was right, there shouldn't even
have been a Christmas Eve, or a Christmas after it--not even the first
one--not then or now or ever. Because if he was right, it was all just
one big fat waste of time back there in' 45--all of it; the big soft flakes
falling straight down under the streetlamps and against the courthouse
windows, the room hushed and the singing from the cathedral across the
square drifting under the doors and through the glass, and the gavel going,
and the Colonel's voice rattling in the PA system, and the wailing, and
the tearing of hair, and the wringing hands ... all of it.
It must have been the singing that got you--Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht--because through the whole damn sickening trial you'd been wishing they'd hang every last one of them and yet when it came time for the Colonel to read the sentences and the hush fell over the room and suddenly the singing was there, you somehow couldn't help wishing they had at least put it off until Wednesday instead of reconvening like that at 21:30 hours Christmas Eve just so they could tidy it all up before the holiday like the Colonel said, his voice rattling over the PA system, and you standing there at parade rest, your hands sweating in the white gloves around the billy, standing there like that in the dock with the accused but looking out of the side of your eye under the helmet liner and out the window and across the square to where the huge Christmas tree glowed blue on the steps of the cathedral, because you just didn't feel much like watching their faces when the Colonel handed them their Christmas presents, figuring he'd probably finish off with something nice and cheery like "Splendid work, gentlemen. I want to congratulate you all and wish you a Merry Christmas." Only, he let you !down. Because after seeing the way some of them accepted their presents --especially the woman, wailing and tearing her hair and hanging on your arms like that when it came time to herd them back to the guardhouse ( as though you, an MP corporal, could do anything about anything)--not even the Colonel felt much like a Merry Christmas.
And it was a cinch you didn't. You thought at first maybe you were even sorry tomorrow was a holiday (because there's nothing like work to keep your mind off things), not so much because of the sentences, since maybe they were only getting : what was coming to them, including the doc (though they could have at least waited till Wednesday to tell them); not so much that, as all the business that came before, all the stuff you never in a million years would have believed if you hadn't actually heard them not only admit to it but even try to justify it, some of them. Anyway, you finally decided maybe there was something to be said for Christmas after all; for one thing, there'd be no reveille come morning, and since the last thing you felt like doing was taking the trial to bed with you, and even though it was only a half hour or so short of midnight before you got out of your arm band and the braid and the white gloves and helmet liner and turned the forty-five back in at the arms room, you picked up your off-duty pass from the CQ and for no reason at all except maybe it was all written down before you were even capable of walking, you figured you'd walk across the square and hear midnight Mass in the cathedral, and then try to sleep away as much of the rest of Christmas morning as possible. And with the snow falling straight down like that and the streets all white under the lamps and the singing drifting out of the open portals, it didn't even have to be Germany any more but any place all white on Christmas Eve, like the Holy Rosary Church back home in Prescott for instance. And after the stuff at the trial, church didn't seem like such a bad idea at all.
Anyway, whatever the reason, you were there; standing there just inside the open portal, shaking the snow off your cap and folding it under your belt, the cathedral so crowded you couldn't really see very much more than the crucifix on the point of the altar and the tips of the candlesticks, the paint-and-plaster manger not even there unless you stood on tiptoe, the organ boom- ing and the choir in the loft above your head just finishing a Latin carol and starting in on a French one, a bunch of troops from the French Zone across the river joining in, their voices rising along the high Gothic arches. All of it was pretty damn nice and kind of reassuring, and you were glad you'd thought of it, because the cathedral had it all over the compound chapel for making you feel like home again for Christmas, and the choir was really something to listen to ( when you could hear it over the congre- gation; because it wasn't only the French troops after a while, but all the Frenchmen from the DP Center too, and then the Czechs and the Dutchmen and the Russians, and even some GI's helping along with the Italian carol} singing all the nations of Europe just the way they do back home on Christmas Eve. All of it was pretty damn nice, and you were feeling pretty home- sick and you were waiting for them to start in on an English carol so you could join in yourself even though you never were much of a singer. And they had just finished the Italian one while you were thinking about it, and the organ boomed, and you had already gone through the first couple lines singing along with them before you realized they weren't singing in English at all, that they were singing "Today in Bethlehem," an old Polish carol they sing every year back home in Prescott, and you were singing right along with them, singing about a Virgin pure giving birth to a Son, and about great Kings adoring, and Angels singing, and cattle kneeling, and the amazing thing about it all was you were singing along with them in Polish just like back home again, and pretty damn good Polish at that.
At least she said it was pretty good, standing there like that in the snow after Mass, you looking, not down, but across at her because she was every bit of five foot ten in heels, and in the glow of the tree trying to figure out just how old she could be, trying to remember what she'd looked like back in the cathedral where the light was better--the pretty unpainted face framed in the shawl looking back at you over her shoulder around the ratty fur collar, her lips going with singing, smiling briefly that kind of sad faraway smile as though she had recognized you from some place, but only briefly, only for a second; you looking at the back of her in the shawl and the long winter coat, staring at her all through the rest of the Mass, thinking, "She's a looker all right. And I guess I'm just about as homesick as I'm ever liable to get. And I've got Christmas pay in my pocket. And I hope to Christ she doesn't pick on me, because if she does I'm just liable..." And so of course she did, because she really had recognized you, knew you were one of the American MP's she had seen ushering them in and out of the courthouse the past week, and you were young and you were made to order because you could speak Polish; looking across at you in the tree's blue glow, the snow falling straight down, her hair wisping blond over her forehead below the shawl and her lips moving like that for a while without even any voice behind them at first, saying finally, "I do not wish you to think... It is just that I... I have seen you at the courthouse..." saying it in that precise beautiful Polish; and you standing there looking across at her thinking exactly what she was trying to tell you she wished you wouldn't, thinking, "Even the beautiful ones. Even the Polish ones, goddamn it," as though beauty or national origin should impose a kind of immunity to want and need and corruption; looking at the shabby shawl tight around her head and crisscrossed under her folded arms, and the ratty fur collar turned up now on the threadbare long coat, thinking, "With Christmas pay in my pocket, I could sure play one hell of a Santa Claus."
But you were wrong (you were wrong about everything that morning), or
at least you weren't completely right. She was looking for a Christmas
present all right, but it wasn't the kind you thought--the eyes bright
under the lashes and the lips even trembling a little, saying, "If you
would just tell me. If you would only tell me what they are going to do
to him. There will not be a newspaper till Wednesday, and if you could
just tell me..." And you didn't even have to ask "Who?"--which one of the
seven (or rather six, since one was a woman), which one was hers. You knew
right off, without even having to think about it, that it couldn't be anyone
else but the doctor, that Dr. Max Saulmann was the only one of the six
that a beautiful young woman ( no, not so young, because even then, even
in the kind blue glow of the tree--though you were never much for guessing
a woman's age, never found it necessary to, before--you could tell she
was no kid), or anybody for that matter except maybe a mother, could possibly
care anything about; though judging by what you heard at the trial you
weren't sure that even he was worth spilling any tears over. But that's
exactly what she was doing, right out there on the cathedral steps in the
cool blue glow of the tree--the crowd pouring out of the portals and moving
down the steps across the square to the rathskellers or hailing the horsecabs
or the taxis or walking back to the compound or to their "shacks" or to
one of the thousand cramped cots at the DP Center, walking through the
fresh snow, most of them probably thanking God that after the freezing
weather of the past few weeks He had, at least for Christmas, thought to
give them a gift of weather warm enough for snow.
And it was a lovely snow (she said so ), warm, clean, and kind of insulating
almost. And you sat there in the booth watching it fall straight down under
the streetlamps above in the rathskeller window, listening to the carols
squeezing out of the accordion across the dance floor and drifting in the
cigarette smoke over the heads of the dancers and over the GI's caroling
around the long table beside the Christmas tree; sitting there with a quart
of beer and two steins on the table in front of you waiting for her return
from the Madchenzimmer, wondering whether maybe you should have
told her right off that they'd already sentenced him and, subject to review-board
approval, he was already good as hanged by the neck until dead, instead
of having taken her arm like that, saying in your best Polish, "Do not
cry, Pani. They have not yet finished with the trial. It will not be until
Monday before the sentences are passed." But what else could you do? Because,
Jesus, that would have been one hell of a Christmas present to just hand
her like that right out there on the cathedral steps, and you didn't need
any special powers of perception to see the reprieve in her face when you
lied to her, as though just allowing her to hope for another day was a
damn fine present in itself. And one, two, three, just like that, you figured
you knew pretty much what the story was,
(to be continued)
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