The choice

HELMUT TIGHTENED THE LAST BOLT, wiped his hands and pulled himself across the slimy floor. He imagined Carla’s firm skin covered with fresh engine oil and shook the thought from his head.

He emerged from under the generator engine. Klaus took the wrenches from him, picked up the oil can with a grimace and walked to the filler tube. Helmut lay on the floor, watching the dust fall from the ceiling. He could feel the muffled, irregular thuds better than he could hear them. He wondered if Carla were safe. Artillery, he thought, that’s what killed her parents.

“It’s getting closer,” Klaus said. “The Americans are not as far away as the colonel wants us to believe.”

Helmut heaved himself up.

“”I’m going to finish checking the detonators.”

“Thanks for the help. I sure am glad you can work on more than the electrical end of this beast.”

“Don’t mention it. Could have been my back instead of yours.” Helmut grabbed his testing kit and headed for the No. 4 tube.

The headquarters consisted of four parallel tubes extending from a single tunnel that ran two miles under the mountain. A year before, Helmut had placed a shaped charge above each tube, pointing at the lakebed above, and a fifth charge above the main tunnel. No one had cared back then. Now the commandant bothered him every day about the destruction system.

He had to pass Colonel Oberdorff’s office.

“Dreher!”

Helmut hated what the German accent did to the silent “h”.

“Yes, sir?” he said with sarcastic cheerfulness. He put his greasy hands on the doorpost. Oberdorff’s neck bulged and his face reddened.

“How are you coming on the charges?”

“As quickly as I can, sir.”

“Dreher, you are insubordinate.”

“Yes, sir, but I am your only explosives man. I’ve never embarrassed you in front of anyone, have I?”

“Not yet.” The officer waved him off. Walking away, Helmut thought again how much the commandant resembled a wart, tapering from his broad bottom to the thin tuft of black hair.

He found a ground in the No. 4 detonator circuit, fixed it and returned to report the system ready.

“Good,” the colonel grunted, not looking up. “Now get lost.”

“Just a moment, Herr Oberst.” Helmut stepped in and closed the door. Oberdorff’s puffy eyes narrowed to slits.

“Now what?”

“We need crankcase nuts for the number three generator.”

“You can’t go into town, Dreher. No one can.”

“I also need wire to finish relocating the destruction switch as you asked.” He nodded toward the wine glass on the desk. Helmut had brought that case of wine back with him on his last run. “You can’t send anyone else, so just give me the pass, please.”

The colour of the officer’s neck and face signalled his resentment of the Salzburger sergeant’s ability to pass for an Italian. He filled out the form that authorized Helmut to leave the headquarters.

Helmut never corrected the pronunciation of his name or mentioned that he was born and raised in Merano in the Italian Alps. His father loved everything German and had moved the family to Austria when Helmut was fourteen. Drafted after Germany annexed Austria, Helmut found himself back in his native land, after electrician school, explosives training and a stint in Poland. His ability to supply what the Army could not made him indispensable to the commandant.

“I knew your father, Dreher,” the colonel said, handing him the pass. “What happened to you?”

“I’m not my father, sir.” Helmut paused at the door. The artillery created ripples in the commandant’s wine glass. “Better practice the evacuation plan, colonel. We may need it.”

“No need – Now get out!”

Helmut whistled an Italian pop tune on his way to the bunkroom. Carla’s younger brother and sisters visited their aunt on Wednesday.

***

The loving was good, but the silence hung heavily afterward. Carla lay on his right side, tanned cheek on his collarbone. He ran his right hand slowly through her long, black hair. Dark, widely set eyes, long lashes and a large mouth gave her face an arresting quality that photographers would have prized.

“Enrico,” she said at last, “what will we do when the Allies get here? I can’t stay here.”

“Why not? They should not be interested in you and your family.”

She snorted impatiently.

“Can’t you see, silly? There is going to be a battle here. Everyone knows that the Allies are only here to take out your not-so-secret headquarters. My family has already begun to move.”

“Where?”

“We have cousins northwest of Sessa Arunca, near the river. We expect the Allies to move northeast to Cassino after they take your mountain command post. Then we can come back.”

She twisted her head to look into his brown eyes. “What about you?”

“I have to take that stuff back.” He pointed to the table.

“Just as I thought.” She got out of bed and began dressing.

“What are you doing?”

“We can have all the sheep and household items moved by tomorrow night, but only if I help.” She turned her back as she finished tying her skirt.

“Please stay. I can come back tomorrow. Maybe even tonight.”

“Don’t bother, Helmut. As long as you keep going back and forth to the mountain, you’re just another kraut around here.”

She has never called me Helmut. His throat closed.

“Carla—”

“Don’t ‘Carla” me! We’ve been through this before. Go make your choice. I’ll be with my family on the slopes across the river from Suio.” Tears ran down her face as she turned around. Then she was gone.

Helmut sat on the edge of the bed. When was the colonel going to order an evacuation?

“Damn!” he said out loud. “How could I be so stupid?”

He jumped from the bed and dressed quickly. Picking up the wire, the bolts and the wine, he plunged into the gathering night.

***

“You’ve been out, Helmut,” said Klaus, surprised by his civilian clothes. “How can you do that?”

“Just checking the lake level. Don’t want to attract attention.”

“What’s it like?” asked a radio talker from the command center. “Are they close?”

“They could be here tomorrow if they knew we were here. Why ask me? Command center should know that.”

“Our line to Cassino has been dead since morning.

All motion in the bunkroom ceased as they stared at the radio talker.

“When will the colonel order the evacuation plan?” asked an air-conditioning mechanic.

“Some plan,” said a young draftee. “From the bottles I clean out of his room, I’d say he has escaped without us.”

Laughter relieved the tension, and the conversation wandered elsewhere. Helmut finished changing. He went to the tunnel for his packages and carried them to the No. 4 tube.

“Got the wire, too, colonel.” Oberforff’s scowl eased when Helmut set the bottles on the desk. “I’ll have the switch installed tonight.”

“Let me know when it’s ready.” Helmut nodded and closed the door on his way out.

***

He worked steadily and carefully. First he disconnected the detonators over the manned tubes, removed some wire, and reconnected the empty insulation. He ran a wire from the new switch in the command center to the switch at the outside entrance to the main tunnel. Then he wired the tunnel switch to the controls for the watertight doors. He knew the men in the tubes could survive indefinitely behind those doors. About midnight, he finished installing a delay timer. Only then did he notice how hungry he was.

He went to the cafeteria for the late-night meal. The cooks prepared it for the men between watches, but an unusual number of day workers were eating. Helmut spotted Klaus sitting alone and joined him.

“Why are you up so late, Klaus?”

“Can’t sleep. Most of our bunkroom is up. It’s the artillery.” Klaus leaned closer and lowered his voice. “I think the Americans are just outside. So do some others.”

“That doesn’t mean they know we’re here.”

“Then why cut the line to Cassino? And why do the guns seem to come closer? If they were working their way to Rome, the noise should be receding by now.”

“I just know what I’m told. This place is supposed to be so secret that even the shepherds don’t know about it.”

“I grew up among shepherds, Helmut. They watch everything and everybody. They probably tell the Americans every time someone lights a cigarette in here.”

Helmut had an unpleasant vision of Carla talking to a faceless American officer.

“If they’re so close, we should be pulling out soon.”

Klaus snorted. “Come on, Helmut. If Herr Oberst were going to order an evacuation, he would have done it by now. It’s too late.”

“Why don’t we run?”

“Assuming we get past the guards, where would we go? It’s a long way home, especially in a German uniform.”

They finished their meal in silence. Helmut worried about what Klaus had said. Would Carla turn me over to the Americans? At least if they captured him here, he would be a prisoner of war. Out there, they might return him to his unit as a deserter. Or worse, kill him by mistake.

Helmut turned in his tray and went to the bunkroom to change. Only a few men had civilian clothes: certain guards, the radio antenna repairman, and Helmut, the senior electrician. He put his coveralls on and began testing every circuit in the system.

The mountains were turning purple against the indigo sky as he shut the cover on the switch by the east gate. He locked the gate, pocketed the key and walked to the colonel’s room.

Surrounded by empty bottles, the wart-man sat motionless at his deck, staring at the door. Helmut gagged on the stench of urine and vomit.

“The system is ready, sir.”

“Good.” Oberdorff leaned forward, hands on the desk and pushed himself up. He crashed fact down. Bottles shattered and papers fell.

Helmut headed for the door.

“Dreher!” Helmut turned to see the commandant erect. “We will go together.” He tore his coat off, fumbled in the closet for another and struggled into it.

“You don’t need me. I’m leaving.”

“No, you’re not.” The colonel drew his pistol from its holster. He held the edge of the desk and waved Helmut out.

“You don’t need that thing, colonel.”

“Don’t I? I know about your shepherd girl, Dreher. I hope she likes Americans.”

Helmut bit his tongue to prevent a gasp, then breathed slowly. How in hell do I get out of this? He tried to figure times and distances as they walked.

Oberdorff holstered the pistol, leaving the flap open. As they stepped into the command center, the watch snapped to attention.

“Where is it?”

“On your watch desk, sir.” Helmut pointed.

“Throw it.” Helmut froze. Six men inhaled sharply. “Did you think we were going to give this prize to the Americans?”

“What about the evacuation plan?”

“With the Americans in Rome and Naples, where would we go?”

“I can’t throw the switch, sir. You do it.”

“Cowards!” Oberdorff reached out and closed the switch.

Nothing happened. The commandant drew the pistol and pointed it at Helmut.

“Dreher, what’s wrong?”

“I don’t know, sir. It tested okay. My kit is in the generator room.”

Oberdorff waved the pistol at a large soldier. “Go with him. No funny business, Dreher.”

“Yes, sir.”

Helmut stepped out first. He slammed the heavy metal door in the face of the guard and ran, making the corner before the guard opened the door.

The massive watertight doors were closing as Helmut sprinted toward the main tunnel. He heard shots and willed his leaden feet to lengthen their stride.

Just as he twisted sideways between the doors, a pain tore through his right arm. He fell to the ground as the doors clanged shut. Over the pounding of his heart, he heard a muffled clap overhead. The main tunnel charge.

“Oh God, no!” He staggered to his feet and tried to run. The concrete pavement turned to quicksand. Air pressure popped his ears and pressed his chest.

Time stopped.

He breathed in hard and jumped. The dark green folded over him.

He floated, seeing nothing, but hearing and feeling the roar of the flood. He felt the tunnel walls brush his hands.

He saw light, a dim greyness all around. He recognized it and shouted helpless bubbles as he slammed into the gate.

The light went out.

***

He opened his eyes.

The gate rose above him, black steel highways converging against brilliant clouds. He was wet. So was the rough tongue scraping his cheek.

Lupo, Carla’s sheep dog, was pushing his snout through the bars.

He lay still. Was this a dream? A dull ache grew in his buttocks and right arm. He heard the dog’s whimpering and smelled the rotten meat on his breath.

He tried to stand up, but a knifing pain made him gasp and fall back. He tried again, slowly, grabbing the bars with his left hand.

Leaning against the gate, he took in the scene around him. The tunnel was rinsed out clean. The deep part would stay flooded until the Allies pumped it out. The guard shack and the wire fence had disappeared. A spare generator crankcase pan was wedged in the bars above him, deformed by large dents.

He pulled himself to the lock and paused to catch his breath and let the pain subside. The dog ran back and forth, jumping and barking.

Enrico Crassi reached into his coveralls and grinned broadly at the happy canine. The gate key was still there, and he was going home.

© 1987, 2022, JT Hine

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