By KARL HARSHBARGER
At a little past four in the morning the American lieutenant opens the door of the German farmhouse where he rents a room and steps out onto the flat stones of the hof, or courtyard, and sees
the first glint of red edging along the horizon. From the kennel near the front of the hof next to a line of trees, the farmer’s dog begins to bark.
“Stop that,” says the lieutenant into the night.
Other animals, probably cows, have begun to move in the barn, making muffled, thudding sounds.
The lieutenant walks across the stones past the farmer’s two tractors, one large and one small, and out towards the line of trees where he can make out the low-slung outline of his car. From the barn, more thudding sounds.
The dog continues to bark. “Quiet!” says the lieutenant.
He is at his car. Beads of moisture point up the long, curved hood towards the two stubby windshields, then almost disappear along the darkness of the cockpit cover and reappear on the short shank of the trunk.
He takes out the rag which he brought with him and wipes the headlights dry, and then goes around behind the trunk and wipes the taillights dry. Then, the two windshields. They are not really windshields, or, at least, not like the windshields of ordinary cars, but two Plexiglas protrusions to deflect the wind at high speeds.
He reaches over between these windshields and pulls the zipper of the cockpit cover back towards the trunk, lifts his side of the cover away from the nubs along the dashboard and the molding around the steering wheel, and slides that half of the cover back behind the driver’s seat, leaving the cover on the passenger’s side intact.
As he lowers himself into the car he is aware the dog is still barking. But he is more aware of the feeling he now has, the same feeling he always has when he slides way down into the car, almost to the ground, not only low, but, as it were, swallowed by the car.
He inserts the key in the ignition, turns it, and hears the whir and click of the fuel pump. When the whirring and clicking stops, he pushes the starter button and the motor kicks over, coughs, and takes. He gives the pedal a little stab, a jerk up to three thousand revs, then lets the motor ease back to its idling speed. Then he waits, letting the oil warm up.
The dog keeps barking.
The lieutenant takes off his officer’s cap with its single golden bar, reaches under the cockpit cover on the passen- ger’s side, finds his baseball cap and goggles, and puts them on. He doesn’t put the goggles on over his eyes, but straps them over the bill of his cap.
To the east the band of red has intensified and to the south he can now just make out the silhouettes of the distant tops of the Alps.
He shifts into first, eases out the clutch and the car jerks forward.
The dog runs back and forth in the kennel barking ever more wildly.
The lieutenant still isn’t used to that — the jerk as the clutch engages. One instant he’s not moving and the next instant he is.
“Stop that!” he shouts one last time at the dog, and pulls out between the trees and onto the little farm lane.
Again, as every morning, he discovers the steering, how the car steadies to the slightest touch on the wheel. Also the hard ride, the headlights jarring and shifting in front of him. And, again, the way he sits down so close to the road, seem- ingly only inches above the ground.
He doesn’t speed. Not that he couldn’t, of course. This early in the morning there wouldn’t be any policemen around. And even if there were, they would never be out on a tiny country road like this. But he always starts out slowly. A sort of a self-imposed restraint. Even when he is late. As he is this morning. Again.
So he continues at a slow speed, the field smells in the air around him, the motor sputtering, the headlights jiggling up and down on the lane in front of him illuminating trees or hedges or even sometimes an open field, until he hears an- other dog barking and passes another farm and comes to the triangular yield sign for the main highway. He turns onto the highway, and since there aren’t any cars coming, stops on the pavement, reaches up and pulls the goggles down over his eyes, and rotates the baseball cap around so that the bill of the cap no longer faces towards the wind.
Then he redlines it. Up to five thousand. The motor snarling.
And jumps the clutch. The car weaves, rubber and smoke, he lets off on the gas, the tires catch, and finally there it is again, the power pushing him back into his seat. Each time he shifts the gears, a tiny respite from that pushing, until he flicks the button for overdrive and sees the speedometer climb to over one hundred miles per hour.
This is it, he thinks, home.
The wind rips and whistles past him, numbing his cheeks and ears. He sees the red taillights of a car in front of him and pulls out to the left and passes that car almost as if it were standing still. Ahead of him more of the sky reddens and the peaks of the Alps are now pink.
But the traffic signs begin to accumulate along the side of the road announcing the proximity of the Army base, most of the signs yellow and black and the words in German, but some of them black and white and in English, and off to the left he can see the lights of the little village, or dorf, where most of the other officers who work at the base make their home. So he slows his speed somewhat, the wind around him slackening, rotates the bill of his baseball cap back around and pulls the goggles up over the bill. Still, he manages a nice drift around the corner into the base.
Now that he is on the base, as it were, his own soil, all the signs are in English: “Slow Down,” “Drive Carefully,” “Military Police Gate Ahead,” “Be Prepared to Stop and Show Your Identification.” Ahead of him he sees the brilliant white lights illuminating the white concrete barricade of the military police post.
But for some reason this morning, out of all mornings, he doesn’t slow down. Or, at least, he doesn’t slow down enough. It is nothing he chooses, nothing he thinks about, it is just something that happens. The MP stepping out of the sentry box, white cap and white gloves, doesn’t even have time to salute.
A jab on the gas, again he doesn’t think about it, the bark of the motor as the speedometer climbs up to seventy, several more drifting turns, a sense from somewhere that what he has just done, is now doing, is crazy, even insane, when he sees all the low, squat battalion barracks, realizes he is going too fast to make the corner into the parade grounds, also realizes that somehow he has survived the corner, and brakes to a stop.
The dust rises around him and the soldiers cheer.
They are lined up by company and platoon, a sergeant out in front of each platoon, a master sergeant out in front of each of the four companies, and another master sergeant out in front of the whole rigmarole.
The soldiers are still cheering him, or more likely his car, or even more likely the way he negotiated that last corner, but the sergeants are shouting out the orders and bringing the soldiers to attention.
He walks out onto the parade field and stops before the master sergeant who salutes him. The lieutenant salutes back. To one side, a small military band, which, of course, has been waiting for his arrival, as has the whole battalion, plays a march, the drum louder than anything else. The sergeant doesn’t look at the lieutenant, and the lieutenant doesn’t look at the sergeant while the band plays. Rather the lieutenant looks across the flat parade ground and over rows of barracks and studies the sky which is growing redder, sees the even pinker tops of the Alps, but also sees in his mind the brilliant white light of the MP gate and the MP stepping out and not even having time to salute.
The band stops, one last heavy thud of the drum, and the sergeant salutes. “Sir, eight hundred forty-six men present, forty-six men on sick call and four men absent without leave.”
The sergeant hands a piece of paper over with this information written on it and salutes again.
The lieutenant salutes back, turns and walks towards his car, and when he gets there reaches up and discovers he is still wearing his baseball cap and goggles. Shit! He has been out there in front of the whole battalion in his baseball cap and goggles. Another kind of craziness!
He throws the baseball cap and goggles under the cockpit cover and snaps on his officer’s cap. Somehow he is feeling dizzy, as if he might fall, and steadies himself against the door of the car.
But the enlisted men have already gathered around, jostling for a better view, poking at each other.
“Morning, sir,” several of them say.
“Morning,” he says to them, opening the door of the car and sliding down into the seat, way down.
“Sir, is this here one of those Italian cars?” “British,” he replies.
“How fast she’ll go?”
But he has started the motor and lets out the clutch. The car jerks forward, several soldiers jumping out of the way, and he drives — slowly — past the sign, “A Company, 4th Battalion,” past the sign, “B Company, 4th Battalion,” past the sign, “C Company, 4th Battalion,” turns in at the sign marked “Duty Officer, Battalion Headquarters.” He stops in a small parking lot next to a low, barrack building that looks like all the other barracks lined up on the bare battalion streets. He gets out, zips the cockpit cover over the driver’s side, fastens it down over the nubs and walks over the gravel to the barrack.
Actually it is an old barrack soldiers used to sleep in but it has been converted to one of the battalion offices with desks set in double rows along the wooden floor. The duty officer’s desk is in the center way at the back. The lieutenant sits down at that desk and begins to fill out the five sets of forms for the morning’s reveille, eight hundred forty-six men present, forty-six men on sick call and four men absent without leave. As he writes these figures down he can hear the cough of artillery in the distance.
And again he sees the brilliant white light at the barricade and the MP with white gloves.
As he finishes writing the figures two soldiers wearing fatigues come through the door into the main room. One of the soldiers is large and a bit pudgy, the other small, wiry. The bigger one carries two pails of water and the wiry one carries two mops. The bigger one puts the pails of water down on the floor and the wiry one puts a mop in each pail, and they both wring out their mops and begin to work on the floor.
Again the lieutenant hears the cough of artillery in the distance.
“Sir!” the bigger of the two soldiers almost shouts.
The two soldiers have seen the lieutenant and come to attention, holding their mops at their sides as if they were rifles.
“It’s perfectly all right,” says the lieutenant. “Carry on.” “Sir!” says the larger and more pudgy of the two.
“Just carry on,” the lieutenant repeats.
The lieutenant props his feet up on the desk and watches them as they wring out their mops and begin again. From the way they work he can see their contrasting personalities. The first one, the bigger one, is the generalist. He makes wide sweeps with his mop, covering a lot of territory, but probably leaving small patches dry here and there. The smaller one, the wiry one, is the specialist. He works slowly and carefully, in and out of corners and hard-to-get-to places, leaving nothing undone.
And again the lieutenant sees the bright light illuminating the concrete barrier. A kind of craziness, certainly.
It is the bigger of the two soldiers. He stands at attention, again holding his mop as if it were a rifle. The smaller one continues to work at the far end of the room.
The lieutenant pulls his legs off the desk. “Yes,” he says. “Permission to ask a question?”
“And?” says the lieutenant.
“Well, sir, that racing car out there in the parking lot?” The lieutenant nods.
“Sir, if you’ll allow me, that’s an Austin-Healey.” The lieutenant nods again.
“And it’s got hydraulic overdrive, right, sir? You don’t shift, if you know what I mean. There’s a button.”
“That’s right,” says the lieutenant.
“Yes, sir. You see, I know a little something about cars.”
“I see you do,” says the lieutenant standing up.
But somehow in standing up the he feels dizzy. He puts his hand down on the desk to steady himself. As he does so he hears the crunching sound of artillery in the distance.
“Sir …?” he hears the bigger of the two soldiers say.
Dizzy or not the lieutenant pushes himself away from the desk and walks down the aisle between the row of other desks past the smaller soldier who had stopped working and stands with mop in an upright position. The lieutenant walks all the way to the end of the barrack and steps outside into the early morning air.
To the east the sun has shown itself, and with no clouds in the sky it will turn into a hot one. Somehow, thinks the lieutenant, army bases always seem hotter than other places. Maybe it’s the lack of trees.
He looks down the battalion streets searching for the trees, but instead sees an olive-drab Army police car and two MPs standing next to his Austin-Healey. One of the MPs is writing something in a notebook and the other has reached over and is unzipping the cockpit cover.
The lieutenant strides out toward his car and when the MPs see him coming they turn toward him. When he is close enough they salute, but the lieutenant doesn’t salute back. “Good morning, sir,” the MPs say, still holding their salute. The lieutenant looks at his car seeing the long slank hood, the butt of the windshields, the flatness of the cockpit cover, and the short rump of the trunk curving back. He unzips the cockpit cover the rest of the way and slips down in. Again, home. Sitting so close to the ground, swallowed.
The two MPs have dropped their salutes.
“Sir,” says the one who had been writing something down in his notebook, “we’ve received reports about this car. I need to ask for your identification.”
From far down inside the car the lieutenant looks up into the morning sun and at the MPs. He sees there is the bigger one and a smaller one. Both wear white hats and white gloves and both carry clubs at their belts.
Maybe it is the brightness of the sun, but the lieutenant feels dizzy again, as if the world is coming apart around him. “Sir …?” he hears one of the MPs saying.
The lieutenant pulls himself back to where he has been and looks at the MPs.
“Don’t you ever put your hands on my car again.”
The lieutenant has already started the engine, redlining it to five thousand, the muffler barking, and jumps the clutch. The car weaves, rubber and smoke, and, as he aims at the white edges of the Alps, he feels the rush of the wind against him.