HILDA PAISLEY rose when her name was called, and joined the line of graduating students below the stage. Like most of them, she wore a uniform under her gown. Almost all her “classmates” had travelled from somewhere else to Munich for this graduation ceremony. Their courses had been by email and correspondence, meeting at their duty stations with travelling faculty hired by the University of Maryland extension campus in Munich. The general commanding US Army Forces in Europe (CINCUSAREUR) gave the keynote speech and presented the diplomas.
Stares followed Hilda to the stage and back to her seat. It was more than her height (almost two metres), or her shining black skin, lapis-lazuli eyes, and Viking features. This woman commanded the room, ever aware of the people around her and always alert. Hilda did not quite appreciate the effect she had on them; she simply paid attention to her surroundings. She would never describe herself as a warrior, but she was a third-generation Army brat and the descendant of who knows how many generations of Zulu warriors. Iqhawe, her grandfather had called them.
The assembly rose when the conferring party departed the stage, then broke into groups of families and friends. They moved to the hall next door with the refreshments. Eyes followed Hilda to the family seating area, where she embraced a woman every bit as stunning as she was. Except that one was black and the other white, they could be sisters. In fact, Margareta Paisley was Hilda’s mother, and almost crying with pride.
“Baba could not make it finally?” Hilda asked, as they joined the crowd.
“You always knew it was a long shot, cära,” said her mother, slipping into her native Swedish. “I talked to the major yesterday, and he told me that Tongai was ‘somewhere in Africa’. They expect the operation to wind up next week, but if they pull him out early, it will blow his cover, and maybe get someone killed.” She usually referred to him by his Shona name.
“I can imagine. It’s okay, Mama.” Hilda had found herself alone in guerrilla territory in the Horn of Africa on her first outing as a new combat medic. She worried for her father, but she was also fiercely proud of him. “I’d rather have him doing what he is so good at, than be here. We’ll catch up.”
A brigadier general in service greens (the same uniform that Hilda wore under her gown) approached them. Medium height, Black, hair just starting to grey on the sides, and solid, like the Stryker vehicles of the battalion he had commanded when Hilda first met him.
“Sergeant Paisley! It is a treat to see you here.” He turned to Margareta.
“General Barker, this is my mother, Margareta Paisley.”
The general shook her hand, looking quickly from her to Hilda. “I would have guessed sister. Twins, even.”
“Thank you, general.”
“I know another Paisley. Tom?”
The general stepped back and considered Hilda’s mother. “I remember you: Margareta Mayer, soprano. I must have seen you in a half-dozen roles, and I always wondered where you went.”
“Not far, in the end. Many duty stations, but always Kaiserslautern during deployments. Hilda grew up there.”
“Knowing Tom, and seeing you command a stage, I understand the young graduate here a little better. She is the most amazing combat infantryman I ever met.” He smiled at Hilda. “Where are you going next, sergeant?”
“Nursing school at Fort Hood, sir. I applied as soon as the semester was over, and my orders came yesterday.”
“Leaving the battlefield for the hospital?”
“Maybe not, sir. The nurses I met in the field inspired me to stay in the Army and become a nurse. I may be back.”
“With your languages and medical skills, you’re probably right. I’ll be looking for you.”
He shook their hands and moved to catch up with CINCUSAREUR nearby.
“Well, cära, you made an impression out there. Where was this?”
“In Iraq, the first time. He was the battalion commander – a colonel at the time.”
“He made it sound like you were fighting, not fixing wounded soldiers.”
“We had to do both to get our wounded back to safety.”
“Well, I can’t say I don’t worry about having you and Tongai both out there getting shot at. Please keep coming home, eh?”
“We will, Mama, we will.”
The next week, spring ended abruptly, and a record-breaking heatwave settled over Western Europe. The woods around Kaiserslautern were still green, but Hilda drank twice as much water as usual to keep from dehydrating. She rode her bicycle out to Landstuhl to see a high school classmate who worked at the Army Regional Medical Center there, and to thank Captain Steves, one of the nurses who had written recommendations for her application to the Nurse Corps program.
Tongai was expected today or tomorrow – or whenever. The mission was so secret that Margareta and Hilda could only hope that he would fly into Ramstein Air Force Base nearby and call them to come get him. But then, he could also show up at the church or outside their apartment building, looking like a destitute migrant from Eritrea. He did that once, not slipping out of his role until he was in the flat for at least an hour. He called in a codeword to somewhere before he changed clothes and relaxed. Such was the life of Chief Warrant Officer Tom Paisley, former Army linguist. After the Cold War ended, he had shifted into special operations and a succession of undercover assignments in places where almost no one in the US Army could go and come back alive.
Riding back from the medical center, Hilda could see Ramstein AFB from the road that ran along the ridge. A C-5A Galaxy aircraft was disgorging loads of cargo from its nose, but also a dozen soldiers from the passenger section in the backbone of the fuselage. Hilda stopped and called Maryse, her best friend from high school, who worked the USO counter at the air terminal. Then she called her mother, who was rehearsing at the organ in church. Clearing border controls and customs should take at least forty minutes. She turned her bike down the hill and bent over the handlebars.
CWO Paisley smiled at the young border control officer who stamped his passport, making two stamps after hitting his hand with the first one. He blushed as the two-metre-tall Black soldier thanked him in flawless German and wished him a good day.
He stepped into waiting area and headed toward the pay phones by the USO counter.
“Hi, Baba.” He whirled around to see Hilda standing where he had just stepped, grinning broadly. She was sweating slightly in her bicycle outfit.
He dropped his duffel and hugged her as tightly as he could. She almost cracked his ribs back.
“How did you sneak up on me like that?”
“You and Mama taught me to move quietly. You know that.”
“How did you know I was back?”
“I didn’t, but riding back from Landstuhl, I saw the Galaxy. Remember Maryse, my high school friend?”
Hilda nodded to the USO counter. The blonde Canadian waved and smiled. “She read the arrivals board for me.”
“You’re in the wrong MOS.” He laughed, referring to Military Occupational Specialty. “Have you considered intelligence or special operations?”
She chuckled. “One of us is enough, Baba.”
“Where’s your mother?”
“On her way. Let’s go outside.”
“That’s enough, cära,” said Margareta, closing the cover on the manuals of the organ. “This will be one of our most beautiful anthems this year. I am so glad you could be here for it.”
“It feels good, Mama,” said Hilda, in Swedish. “I miss this singing so much when I am away.”
“I hope someday you can find a church like this. They will love having you.”
“Want some help with supper?”
“No, thanks. Just go find your father and bring him home from that crew of buddies on the Fruchthallstrasse. Stay for a while, if you like. I don’t want to eat early tonight.”
“Okay, Mama.” She gave her mother a kiss, put her music under her choir stall, and walked out.
It was only six hundred meters to the beer garden on the corner of Fruchthallestrasse where Tongai Paisley enjoyed having a brew in the late afternoon with some of the men who had served in the Cold War with him. Most were retired, and some were on their last tour.
Hilda walked briskly up the Fischerstrasse, which got her heart pumping. She ignored the occasional wolf whistle from the fast-food places favored by American GI’s.
Turning the corner, she saw that her father was seated alone at his usual place outside. The others must have gone home early.
As she closed the distance, two men in leather jackets came around the corner from the alleys on either side of the tables. A third came from the bar. As they fell on him from either side, Hilda started running.
Tongai had doubled over one of the men, but by the time Hilda arrived, the other man had hit him with something on the back of the head. The third man kicked Tongai in the ribs and pulled a knife from his jacket.
Hilda hit the man with the club full force, catching him by surprise and throwing him into the man with the knife. She chopped him with her elbow with one arm as she grabbed the knife hand of the other man with her free hand. Pulling him forward, she head-butted him on the nose and pulled him over the man she had knocked out. A chop to his temple on the way down immobilized him.
The first man staggered to his feet, puked, and ran down the street.
Hilda turned her father over. He was breathing strongly, but still unconscious. With one hand, she felt his head carefully, while she pulled her phone from her jeans with the other. She had 110 on speed dial, the emergency number for the police.
Stretched out, Tongai relaxed and opened his eyes.
“Where does it hurt, Baba?” she asked in Shona.
“Follow my finger.” She ran him through a short check for concussion, while the two hoodlums remained unconscious. “I think you are alright. Sit up if you like, but it’s better staying down for now.”
“Thanks, dear.” A siren coming up from the Fischerstrasse heralded the arrival of the police.
Ten minutes later, the EMT’s from the ambulance agreed that Tongai could go home in Hilda’s care, and the police had taken the two hoodlums away.
Tongai did not have a concussion. The next day, Hilda and he signed their statements at the police station. The police chief, an old friend of Tongai’s, came out of his office.
“We knew about these three,” he said. “They were arrested in Frankfurt, but no one would press charges against them. Neo-nazis.” He noticed Tongai’s breathing. “You okay?”
“I think the shorter one may have cracked a rib. We’re going to urgent care to have it checked.”
The police chief turned to Hilda. “If you could come back later and identify the man who ran away, I would appreciate it.”
At the urgent care center, x-rays revealed two cracked ribs but no other damage. Nothing to do but let them heal.
“And no more special missions for a while,” said Hilda when they got home. They sat in the living room while the coffee maker gurgled. Margareta would be home for lunch after the staff meeting at the church.
“You’re already sounding like a nurse, and you haven’t gone to school yet.”
They shared a laugh, but Tongai’s expression quickly darkened.
“Thank you again, Hilda. That was closer than I like.”
“Did you let your guard down?”
“I think so. This is my home, after all. I shouldn’t have to keep my guard up all the time.”
“From what I saw in the States, it’s the same there.”
She got them coffee and sat down again.
“You wouldn’t want to move, would you?”
“Of course not. And not just for Margareta. I’ve lived here since before I met her. No, being Black is just part of our reality. My baba tells me it’s worse in London. I’m very glad that you have grown up as you have.”
“You trained me, Baba.”
“There’s more of your mother than me in you. Those who look past our skin see that immediately. It makes me proud of you.”
“I’m not in the Army because of her, but because of you and my sekuru.” Her grandfather had served in the British Army in World War II.
The door opened in the hall. Margareta walked in, her arms full of scores and a case of papers.
“So, is lunch ready?”
© 2021, 2023, JT Hine