CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE The long road Home
2nd November 1918
The locomotive broke down half way to St. Nazaire, stopping just outside of Rennes. We sat for three hours while they made repairs. The road next to the train tracks was busy the whole time.
On one side of the road, newly arrived American troops march in tight formation for as far as the eye can see. There uniforms are clean and pressed, with freshly oiled rifles on their shoulders that have yet to be fired in battle. On the other side of the road, German prisoners of war struggle along, with mismatched tunics and worn out boots held together with rags. They have the wide-eyed stare of war weary men who are too tired to be afraid any more. I slide down in my seat and looked away. I am ashamed of my false identity.
My goal was to survive the war, but not like this.
I have my orders, I have a berth on the ship. I suppose I can convert my Francs into dollars once I land in New York. Is it possible for me to slip into the background of the big city and make a fresh start? Can someone with my skills find a way to make a living there? Even if I ignore the risks (and there are many), am I ready to do this?
Late in the day, we got the word that the repair of the locomotive would take overnight. Trucks took most of the men to hotels in Renne. Some slept on the train. Locals volunteered to put up injured soldiers in their homes. That’s how I ended up here, in a small villa, sitting at a desk at a dormer window, watching the moon rise over a vineyard.
The family is asleep downstairs. It is almost midnight and so quiet I am having trouble sleeping. This room reminds me of my childhood home with its simple furnishings and a friendly house cat at my side.
So much is happening so fast now. General Ludendorff resigned. Austria Hungary is demanding an immediate armistice. Turkey surrendered. Rumors are everywhere that my country has accepted Wilson’s terms and that an Armistice could be signed any day now with Britain and France.
I can’t get the image from the train ride out of my head. All those soldiers marching in opposite directions. One side wins, one side loses. So many lives lost. My goal was to survive and I have. Why am I fooling myself? I am too old to cross the Atlantic, too old for a “fresh start”. I can’t keep living this lie. It is time to stop.
Bruno Stachel comes to mind. He was so skilled yet so flawed at the same time. At his worse, he was an evil, hateful man. At his best, he could be heroic, even caring. But he was both, the Angel and the Devil and those two sides of him were in constant battle. That battle is something he and I have in common.
Tonight is the night to finish my story. This will be my last entry into the skizzenbuch.
I hope my Mutter will understand.
There are some of the farmer's clothes in the closet that are close to my size and I am moving well enough now that I can get down the stairs quietly and onto the road without being noticed. I will leave my uniform and skizzenbuch behind, stacked neatly in the farmer’s closet. Maybe someone else will keep them as their souvenirs from this wretched war. I don’t need them anymore.
What I need to do is heal.
I need to make my way home and see if I can find the soul inside this Old Campaigner that I have worked so hard to hide away. My Mutter gave me the sketchbook to make sure I didn’t forget about my dreams. It has served its purpose.
Now I can only hope that I have enough life left in me to pursue those dreams again.