By Mick McCarthy
He’d been lucky the Yanks didn’t shoot him when he charged towards them out of the bushes. They all looked so shocked, but as soon as they saw his hands were held high in surrender, they realized he was not a threat. He was such a small threat, in fact, that they gave him the machine gun to carry.
He’d lost his unit in the forest and hadn’t eaten for three days. The GI’s gave him some K rations and a four-pack of Lucky Strike and handed him over to the Intelligence Officer where he was processed in the usual way. After a brief sojourn in a holding pen, he was allocated a job in a British Army warehouse outside Berlin.
The warehouse was a huge hangar filled with stores for the NAAFI canteen, and Wolfgang was mesmerized by the plethora of goods on the shelves. The most tempting were the smokes, and on his second day, he resolved to help himself to a carton of 200 Woodbine. Half he kept for himself; the rest he traded back at camp.
The Quartermaster was a wiry little Londoner who’d been in the army long enough to know what was what, and he summoned Wolfgang the next morning to the aisle where the cigarettes lived.
“You stupid fucking Kraut,” he exploded at him. “You trying to get us all nicked?”
Wolfgang hung his head and blushed deeply.
“If you’re going to steal cigarettes, take the whole fucking box, not just the odd 200. Anyone can see if a box has been opened, but they can’t notice what’s not there. Savvy? Now piss off, and get that hole dug.”
He was referring to the large pit he’d ordered Wolfgang and the two other prisoners to dig at the back of the warehouse. Six foot deep by six foot square, he’d specified, and they’d spent all day yesterday trying to finish the job. They finally finished it after lunch, and Wolfgang reported the good news to the Quartermaster.
“Right,” said the QM, spitting with great accuracy into the very center of the hole. “Get all them fire hoses off the walls and stick ’em in there. Then cover the fuckers up. Savvy?”
“Savvy, Quartermaster-Sergeant,” replied Wolfgang.
It was heavy work, and it took them two hours to lug the hoses into the hole and cover them up.
“Level it over so it don’t look fresh, and then you can all piss off back to camp,” said the QM. “And Mum’s the word, savvy?”
The next morning, Wolfgang arrived at the warehouse to find it was just a burnt-out skeleton of twisted steel frames which crouched over row upon row of charred shelving. The QM surveyed the still-smoking ruins with quiet satisfaction.
“Shame that had to happen just before the stock-taking,” he said, spitting happily onto one of the burnt-out shelves. He stood and contemplated his saliva as it sizzled briefly on the hot metal.
“If only there’d been some fucking hoses, we could’ve put the fire out.”
Wolfgang looked at the mark on the shelf where the blob of spittle had now evaporated, and then back to the Quartermaster, who winked at him and walked away.
“He was right, dammit,” thought Wolfgang. “Why didn’t I take the whole fucking box?”