“HAVE FUN. See you Tuesday.” Hilda Paisley waved at the nurse leaving the Emergency Room at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. Outside the automatic doors, she could see cars line up on the road leaving the parking lot as the shift from Friday departed for three days off.
“Thanks, Hilda. You have a boring weekend, y’hear?” Hilda gave her a thumbs up and a smile, then carried the clipboard with the current ER patients back to the counter. Only two: a boy who cut his leg playing with a chainsaw, and a woman who crashed on Highway 37 on her way home from a night shift. Both were stable, waiting for their rooms to be ready upstairs.
Thirty minutes later, she and the medics had the ER to themselves. The duty emergency physician and the other ER nurse had gone to their offices to tackle paperwork. The orderlies walked around another time, emptied the one wastebasket that had something in it and settled down to a game of cards near the admissions entrance.
The light rain that had kept the sky bleary stopped by sundown. Hilda and the ER physician watched the evening news in the cafeteria as she ate her chicken curry on rice. He had a bowl of chili, also on rice.
“Local authorities announced this afternoon that members of the Fatherland and Patriot Party are gathering to protest the American presence in the area. A rally is planned in front of the City Hall in Kaiserslautern this evening. Sunday, the protesters will march to Pulaski Barracks.” The video showed short clips of skin-headed neo-Nazis waving beer bottles and flags, shouting at the camera. “Vehicles arriving from outside the Palatinate are creating traffic problems downtown. Police have arrested a dozen men for loitering and vandalism.”
“Doesn’t look good, nurse.” The doctor waved at the TV set. “Good thing I don’t live in K-town.”
“Where do you live?”
“Mehlingen. The autobahn should take me around all this stuff. You?”
“Kaiserslautern.” Her clear German pronunciation of the city name left no doubt that this was her home.
“Family?” She nodded. “We can call someone in, so you can take care of them.”
Hilda shook her head. “No point in that. I’d be more useful here. My father is out of town, and my mother won’t attract their attention.”
“If you say so. Let’s hope it’s only a TV show for us, eh?”
“Right.” Hilda rose to clear her place. “But I think I’ll check our inventories anyway. See you later, doctor.”
He smiled and waved. This was Captain Harrison’s first tour overseas. He was a competent surgeon and seemed to keep his head during the drills. More important, he let Dot and Hilda, both combat-tested nurses, run the ER.
Dot had been an ER nurse in Southside Chicago before joining the Army.
Gerald Harrison had never seen Hilda in anything but scrubs or desert utilities, so he did not know about her Purple Heart with two stars, or her Combat Infantry device.
From the office off the ER, Hilda called her mother.
“Hej, Mamma.” They spoke in Swedish, Margareta’s native language. “Are you watching the news?”
“Ja, kära. It’s supposed to happen at the north end of town. Tomorrow, I’ll be in the church almost all day – the other direction.”
“Sometimes I worry, Mamma. You know, with Baba gone.”
“No need. As you used to say in middle school, I know where not to be when ‘it’ is going down.” They shared a chuckle over the fights that would sometimes break out on the playground or after school. Notwithstanding her height, no one ever could remember seeing Hilda anywhere near a rumble.
“Okay. Be safe, Mamma.”
“You, too. I love you.” Hilda heard the phone click off.
The next day, Hilda felt uneasy watching Armed Forces TV in the ER office. The sixth time that the American announcer interrupted the coverage with unhelpful information, she switched to the local German TV station. The German station did not put the reporter on camera except between segments, so she could concentrate on the live events. The assembly outside the Rathaus, the City Hall, grew even as she watched.
The posters made her stomach crawl. Besides calling for the expulsion of the Americans, at least half of the placards lamented the loss of German purity and demanded the death of filthy couples. She knew the wording skirted the German laws against Nazi propaganda, and that the signs were urging death to interracial couples of all kinds. Her father, a full-blooded Zulu whose father had emigrated from (then) Rhodesia, could not have crossed the street near that mob.
Doctor Harrison walked in and paused, looking at the images.
“I guess you can understand the commentary.”
“Yes, sir. It’s not pretty.”
“How are they taking those overhead shots? They can’t be flying helicopters that close.”
“Drones. It’s standard for news outlets now. Easier and safer than trying to put cars or motorcycles near the crowd.”
“Where are they moving now?”
“West on the Pariserstrasse. It’s about five kilometres to Vogelweh. I would expect them to demonstrate at the gate by the commissary.”
“That’s a long walk.”
“They’ll be there in an hour, even as a crowd.”
“Are they singing marching songs?”
“Yes. It helps them walk faster and keeps up morale.”
“That looks like an army in civvies.”
“We have National Service here, doctor. Every man over eighteen in that crowd has been a soldier.”
“This could be a busy night if they face off with the MP’s.”
“That’s why I’m watching it live in German.”
They heard a klaxon on the TV and an announcement coming from the Army base gate. “Code Red. Defcon Alfa.” The unseen German reporter confirmed the alarm as the video showed the barriers coming up and the MPs rolling the gates shut.
Hilda rose and walked to the counter in the ER. Doctor Harrison followed her.
“Do we need battle dress?”
“It’s unlikely they’ll come this far, but you might want to stay close to the OR tonight.” Operating Room.
She reached under the counter and heaved her army backpack to the surface. She fiddled under the counter again. Something snapped: a door opening. Harrison gasped as Hilda took out an M-4 rifle and some ammunition boxes.
“What the hell are you doing with that?”
“Backup capability to get our patients back to the ER. I’ve never had to use it in Germany —” she tilted her head to the TV set “—yet.”
Harrison watched in amazement as she calmly checked the rifle then the contents of her backpack. The Emergency Dispatch radio squawked for two ambulances to proceed to Vogelweh Commissary and stand by. Dot and the medics came to the ER from the cafeteria and their offices. They began checking supplies, equipment, tables, and gurneys. The air crackled with emotional tension.
The TV showed the tire shredders and steel barriers going up at the gate by the commissary, behind the ambulances that had just gone into the base. The crowd came around the corner from Pariserstrasse and gathered in front of the gate. The military police, in full battle gear, formed a phalanx behind the barriers. It was up to the German police to disperse the crowd and arrest troublemakers – until they crossed the line in front of the barriers.
“How will the ambulances get back?” the doctor asked.
“Side gate where the Pariserstrasse becomes the Kaiserstrasse. We make sure all drivers know the five ways in and out of Pulaski Barracks.”
“Does this happen often?”
“No, but this is a military hospital. We train for what we hope we never see.”
Dot was listening at the end of the counter. “It was Major Paisley’s idea when she arrived here. She laid out the alternate routes then had us drill the drivers and EMT’s.”
As the ER team watched on TV, the crowd rushed the barriers and climbed over. The MPs used their long clubs to subdue the first wave of rioters. The second row of the phalanx stepped up and shot rubber bullets. The crowd backed up, leaving the MPs to haul seven protesters behind the gates.
The two ambulances came back with the wounded protesters (two broken limbs, three sets of cracked ribs, and a broken collarbone), and an MP whose arm had been sliced by a broken beer bottle or a knife. While the vehicles headed back out, Hilda tended the men with fractures until the OR was ready for them, or the German ambulances arrived to transport them downtown, depending on what they needed next. She kept an eye on the live action on TV. Dot was assisting the surgeon.
“Ma’am.” The medic came from the counter.
“Go to the OR and let them know that the rioters are exchanging gunfire with the MPs. We could have combat casualties on the next ambulance runs.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He walked smartly down the hall. He came back in less than a minute.
Hilda saw MPs carrying wounded soldiers behind the gate. The emergency radio crackled.
“Three four one, dispatch. Multiple casualties behind Sixth Avenue gate. Proceed to staging area in commissary parking lot. Triage help requested.”
Dot came out the door to the operating room, her scrubs bloody. “I heard that. Go, Hilda!”
Hilda slung her backpack on her shoulder, picked up her rifle and ran outside. Ambulance 341 was pulling up to the ER, lights flashing. She swung into the cab.
“Good to see you, ‘Ski. Petrucci in the back?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He glanced nervously at the rifle as Hilda dropped it into the holder on her side. “You expecting to need that?”
“I hope not, but this riot is as nasty as anything we saw in Baghdad.”
Derkowski shook his head and focused on the road.
As they slowed approaching the Fifth Avenue roundabout by the commissary, they saw the tear gas blowing slowly east toward Kaiserslautern. Several men trying to climb the fence behind the commissary fell back, unable to hang on in the cloud of gas. They heard occasional gunfire coming from the shouting. The MPs only fired at protesters who reached the tops of fences or scaled the vehicle barriers. The German ambulances will be busy tonight, she thought. Rubber bullets still hurt, and could crack ribs, take out eyes and break bones.
The Landpolizei phalanx was back on Pariserstrasse, so the crowd was able to mill about in the three hundred metres of access road that they occupied.
“Go to the far side of the parking lot and come in away from the gate. The triage area is in front of the credit union.”
As the ambulance stopped by the area where the wounded were lying, Hilda jumped out with bag and rifle and ran. Petrucci came up with the gurney. One MP had a chest wound. She knelt and checked him quickly for other wounds.
“This one first. Bandage on the chest wound and an IV.” Petrucci and Derkowski lifted the MP onto the gurney and returned to the ambulance. Derkowski came back with another gurney.
While Hilda walked among the wounded, Ambulance 429 arrived. She applied a tourniquet to an arm and pointed out who to move first. The two ambulances left as they filled up. Ambulance 331 loaded four more wounded, including two civilians who were hit in the parking lot.
There was a lull in the flow of arriving cases. The crowd seemed to pull back. The noise abated.
As Ambulance 341 returned, Hilda watched the riot change shape. She recognized an object flying out of the crowd and dropped to the ground.
The grenade exploded well behind the phalanx of MPs at the vehicle barrier. The windows of the guard station blew out, sending shards eastward over the exit lanes. The roof over the gate began to sag as MPs dragged their buddies out from under it.
“Ski! Bring it up to the gate!” She sprinted toward the scene. The roof collapsed onto the incoming lanes.
Four MPs were dead, ten wounded. She directed Petrucci and Derkowski to the two most serious cases. She sent the ambulance off with five patients. Ambulance 429 was already on its way back.
The crowd was shouting somewhat less enthusiastically. Not everyone seemed in favour of using grenades on the Americans.
Among the wounded MPs, she found a captain with a broken leg. He seemed in good shape except for not being able to stand up. As she splinted it, she heard the provost marshal on the radio order live ammunition. Oh, shit! she thought.
“This your unit?”
“Captain, you can’t start shooting live ammo without warning them.”
In the silence between them she understood the problem. “Get me a bullhorn.”
The captain motioned to the sergeant, while Hilda cradled her rifle and climbed the pile of rubble behind the barriers. At the top, she pulled off her bonnet and stood facing the crowd with her long, fine hair streaming in the wind. She ignored the knot in her stomach and focused on scanning the crowd for threats. She knew what she looked like to them: two metres of shining Black woman with brilliant, lapis-lazuli eyes and a Viking face. Every face tilted up at her.
She reached behind her with her left and took the electric megaphone from the sergeant.
Hilda did not need a megaphone, because her mother had trained her in opera performance for fifteen years. She set it to full power anyway and called out in German.
“Attention! The military police have used rubber bullets so far, but the provost marshal has ordered them to use live ammunition. Back up and disperse now! We don’t want anyone else killed or injured. Back up! Now!”
A male voice shouted from the crowd, “Die schwarze Schlampe blufft.” The black bitch is bluffing. Some in the crowd made noise and waved their placards up and down.
Hilda asked the officer behind her, “It’s your perimeter, captain. May I demonstrate without hitting anyone?”
“Do it. I hope it works.”
Hilda shouted back through the bullhorn. “Please look to your left at the streetlight.” Her tone caused the crowd to quiet.
When more than half the eyes moved to her right, she fired a triple burst at the light. Protesters ducked and ran under the rain of glass, plastic, and metal.
“Back up! Now!”
She tossed the megaphone at the sergeant and climbed down. She waved Ambulance 429 to the gate and directed the EMTs to load the remaining injured, while she did a concussion check on an MP who had been hit in the head by debris.
Meanwhile, the crowd lost its enthusiasm at the sight of more soldiers peering over the barriers with their rifles ready.
Hilda could make out the German police line pressing from the Pariserstrasse just as another troop of American soldiers emerged from the woods to the west and formed up. An armoured personnel carrier appeared from the bike path. The mob was sealed off.
Suddenly, the riot was over.
The crowd left two civilians lying on the tarmac in front of the barriers. Hilda and an EMT rolled a pair of gurneys to them and brought them back. They had been trampled in the crowd.
As the German police sorted the mob and loaded the participants into trucks, Hilda rode Ambulance 429 back to Landstuhl with two protesters, the captain, and the woozy MP with a concussion.
Sunday night passed in a blur until about two in the morning, when Doctor Harrison and another surgeon finished with the last MP. A German ambulance came for the two protesters after the surgical team had them stabilized.
Hilda and Dot finished cleaning up the OR by two-thirty. Five minutes later, they were both unconscious in their scrubs in the nurses’ sleeping room.
While they slept, video of the fearsome Black nurse standing on a pile of rubble with a rifle and a bullhorn captured the attention of the world media.
Hilda felt a hand on her shoulder. She rolled instinctively and woke up on top of the terrified young medic with her arm pressing his throat, her knee on his groin. She relaxed and stood back.
“Jesus, Worthman! Didn’t anyone teach you how to wake up a soldier?”
The eighteen-year-old took her hand and let her pull him up. “N-no, ma’am. I b-barely touched you.”
Hilda tilted her head to the other side of the room.
“When she wakes up, ask Major Merrifield to show you – and the other two who arrived with you last week.” She brushed down her bloody scrubs. The wall clock read 07:30. “What did you wake me for?”
“Th-the commander’s office called, ma’am. He wants to see you right away.”
“Thanks. Would you please call them back and tell them I’m on my way?” She smiled to put him at ease. He relaxed.
Hilda passed by the latrine to relief herself. She washed her face, straightened her hair, tying it back. Then she walked to the commander’s office.
The commander’s aide started when the blood-splattered nurse paused at the door to the reception area, but recovered quickly.
“He’s waiting for you, ma’am.” She knocked and held the door for Hilda.
Before stepping in, Hilda instinctively scanned the office: thick, red Persian carpet; personal coffee table with a silver service; only one man in the room, standing behind the desk. Medium height, bald, and filling out his service greens nicely. Colonel Weiskopf scowled when he recognized Hilda.
“Come in, major. Want to explain to me what the hell you were doing shooting at civilians yesterday?” He waved at the morning newspapers on his desk. The two German dailies showed Hilda astride the rubble facing down the mob.
Hilda approached the desk and stood at an easy attention. She repressed the urge to snap back.
“I did discharge three rounds at a streetlight, sir, but it was the minimum needed to stop the riot.”
“This will hit the press on the East Coast in about three hours. Your shooting at streetlights is not what I need to pass up the line.”
“Have you spoken to the on-scene commander, sir? The captain in charge of the MPs was wounded; he should be below in the recovery ward.”
“What were you doing with a rifle anyway?”
“I always carry one into combat, sir.” She had assisted him in surgery in Iraq. “You know that.”
Hilda held his gaze until he dropped his.
“Let me check with the captain and figure out what damage control we may need for this. Don’t leave the hospital.” He motioned to the door.
As she closed the door behind her, Hilda heard him answer the phone. “Yes, sir…”
The aide caught her eye. “USCINCEUR.” Commander-in-Chief US Forces Europe. Hilda rolled her eyes to herself as she continued to the stairs.
Showered and changed into fresh scrubs, Hilda almost felt human at breakfast. Dot joined her, toting the handheld radio tuned to the emergency dispatch circuit, which was mercifully quiet.
“Think we can make it to Tuesday?” she asked.
“I’m almost afraid to go out there after our reliefs take over.” Hilda tilted her head at the TV with images of her and the rioting crowd.
“That was awesome, Hilda.”
“That was stupid, but the MPs had just been told to use live ammo, and no one at the gate spoke German. I couldn’t think of anything else to do.”
“Well, it worked, thank goodness.”
They finished and walked back to the ER. The medic at the counter held out the phone to Hilda.
“Major Paisley?” Hilda recognized the voice of the commander’s aide.
“Would you come back up, please? Uh, have you changed?”
“Fresh scrubs. Do I need service greens?”
“No, ma’am. Clean scrubs should be fine. The commander has some German guests.”
“Thank you, sergeant. I’m on my way.”
She told Dot. “If I don’t come back, notify my next of kin.” She smirked. “The CO was fit to be tied when I was up there earlier.”
“Maybe it’s just an interpreting assignment.”
Hilda grunted and gave her colleague a thumbs-up.
Upstairs, she saw that the door to the commander’s office was open when she stepped into the reception area.
“Major Paisley! Come in!” The commander waved her in with an enthusiastic smile. “These people recognized you on TV and called me almost as soon as you walked out this morning.”
Hilda paused at the door. Two men and two women: Colonel Weiskopf, the Landpolizei police chief, the mayor of Kaiserslautern, and —
“Mamma!” The emotion of the scene at the gate and in this office earlier gushed from Hilda like a reservoir bursting its dam. She embraced her mother and shivered for just a moment. Then she stood back and said to the commander, “Sorry, sir.”
He began to introduce the others, but the mayor interrupted him. “We know Hilda, colonel.”
“Guten Tag, Frau Bürgermeisterin.” Hilda shook hands with the fit, fifty-something woman, whom Hilda knew as a fan of her mother from the latter’s days as a popular soprano in the city opera.
She nodded to Colonel Dressler, the police chief and a family friend, who sometimes used Hilda’s father as an interpreter for classified interviews. “Johann.”
“We came here to thank you officially for defusing the situation so skillfully,” the mayor said in English for the benefit of the hospital commander. “Watching you on TV, I could hear Margareta Mayer commanding the stage at the Pfalztheater.” She smiled at Hilda’s mother. “An awesome performance.” Margareta tipped her head to her daughter. Hilda could see the worry in her eyes, but also her pride in the way she stood.
“You are too kind, Madam Mayor.” Hilda glanced at her commander. “I’m not sure everyone understood what I was doing.”
“We have scheduled a press conference for this afternoon,” said the mayor. “The Foreign Affairs Ministry has already called the State Department to praise the conduct of the American personnel at the scene.”
“This won’t come back to bite you, major,” said Colonel Weiskopf.
“I just hope everyone forgets about this as soon as possible,” said Hilda. ‘”I don’t want to be a celebrity in my own hometown.”
The mayor took her by the hand and held her gaze. “We are proud of you, Hilda. You and your parents have made solid contributions to this city in many ways. We won’t forget it.”
© 2022, 2023, JT Hine