Sean Patrick Little's Short Story
JACK MASSEY WAS taken prisoner by the Germans during WWII. His unit was captured late in the European campaign and he was placed at the Stalag VII-A camp in Moosberg, the largest POW camp in Germany, filled with an odd assortment of American, British, French, Belgian, and Russian servicemen, officers and enlisted men.
The war was winding down when Jack's unit was captured. Tensions were high, and life in the stalag was difficult. Rations were short, supply lines were sketchy, and the Red Cross aid packages rarely arrived. When they did, they were often picked over by the German guards before being passed to the prisoners. The officers were usually not made to work during the days, but the enlisted men were. As a nineteen-year-old private in the Army, Jack was often assigned some of the more distasteful tasks like latrines or erecting fences under the watchful eye of the Nazi guards. The work was often strenuous, especially for malnourished men. The worst duty was the one that Jack ended up doing for many weeks: digging graves and burying the men who died in the camp. Many men passed away in the stalag during the war. Over a thousand men died in the camp during the war, mainly from illness. Over 800 of those men were Russians.
During what little free time the soldiers were given in the evenings, they were allowed to rest, write letters, or play cards or chess with other prisoners. There were even the occasional soccer matches or baseball games, but most prisoners were too sick, too tired, or too hungry to play sports. You could always tell who the new captures were; they were the ones who still had the energy to think about sports.
Jack's barracks contained all American soldiers. The barracks next to them housed a mix of British and Belgian soldiers. On one of Jack's first days in the stalag he saw a wounded RAF pilot struggling with a pair of crutches in the mud and offered to help. The pilot took him up on that offer, and the two somehow became fast friends.
Lieutenant Benjamin Carlisle, called Carl by his friends, had been flying bombing missions over Germany in his Arvo Lancaster when he caught anti-aircraft fire that disabled his plane, and he and his crew were forced to parachute from the vessel as it went down. Night jumps were the most terrifying things to have to do because it usually involved a lot of prayers that you will land somewhere safe. Carl had the bad luck to find a grove of trees, and unable to see where to put his feet, he ended up catching his right leg in a branch and snapping the tibia and fibula cleanly just above the ankle. When he came to a stop, he was still suspended above the ground, and when he cut the straps of the parachute, he injured his knee and ankle on the other leg. Carl laid on the ground unable to walk for more than twelve hours before a German patrol found him and got him help. The doctors did not perform their best work on the POW, and months later, Carl was in constant pain and depended on crutches a lot. He could limp around gamely without them, but he would clearly never make the track team again.
Carl liked Jack because Jack reminded him of his younger brother. Jack was a round-faced kid with a great deal of optimism, and optimism was something in short supply in the labor camp. Carl took the time to teach Jack to play chess, and they often shared a bit of food together when they could. In the mornings, Jack would make sure Carl made it to the chow lines. He would bring him coffee and water so Jack would not have to limp to the supply. They told each other stories of their homes. Carl was from Lancashire. Jack was from southern Minnesota.
As the months wore on, the two became very close. Because Jack was forced to labor most days, Carl spent his days trying to wrangle extra calories for him in the form of Red Cross cookies and chocolate. It helped, but not much. Both men were painfully thin and getting thinner. When Jack left Fort Dix for Germany, he weighed a tight, muscular one hundred-fifty pounds. Now, he was stick-thin, skin stretched too tightly over his frame.
In February of 1945, while they battled the cold German winter in clothes too thin for the weather, they read smuggled newspapers from England and America that gave details about the war. The reports clearly showed the tide was turning, and most experts did not expect Germany to last much longer. That gave everyone in the camp some hope to cling to while they waited for liberation. Food became even scarcer. Sickness became more prevalent.
In late February, Jack went looking for Carl to help him to the morning chow, but he was not in his barracks. He searched around the various barracks, figuring Carl was trying to wrangle him some extra food.
Jack was moving down the line of wooden barracks buildings when he saw Carl waving him down from near the end of the shacks. He was without his crutches. Jack waved and ran up to him. "I was looking for you."
Carl gave him a small smile. "I'm glad I got to see you today, Jack. I don't think I'm going to make it to the end of this war, and I wanted to say my goodbyes. You made this bloody camp bearable."
Jack was not about to let Carl give up that easily. "Don't say that, pal. You gotta get back to Lancashire, and then you gotta come out to the farm in Minnesota when this is all over. My mom's gonna want to meet you. She'll never believe that I made friends with some fancy-talkin' Brit over here."
Carl laughed. "You'll have to tell you mother I wish I could have met her. If it helps, you can look up my mother and she can talk fancy for her."
Jack got serious. "Carl, if I have to carry you around this camp on my back, I'm going to. We're going to make it out of here. You and me, both."
There was a low rumble behind Jack. He glanced over his shoulder and saw a few Russian soldiers pushing the body cart, a flatbed wagon pulled by the two or three men who collected the dead and wheeled them out to the cemetery where Jack dug holes.
Benjamin Carlisle's body was lying on the cart with a couple of other men, his eyes were still open. His face was unmistakable to Jack. But, how was it possible that Carl was just talking to him?
Jack turned back to where Carl had been, but he was gone. Jack looked down at the snow and saw there were no footprints to prove he had been there, either.
IN APRIL OF 1945, Germany lost the war, and the POW camps were liberated. Jack Massey was freed along with all the other prisoners, and he made it back to his mother in Minnesota by July. When he was liberated, he weighed only 115 pounds.
A month in an American hospital helped him put some weight back on his frame, and when he was discharged and returned to Caledonia, his mother nearly broke her own back cooking extravagantly to make sure he put on the rest of his weight, and then some.
When he was in the hospital, Jack spent his free time writing letters to the British embassy to get Benjamin Carlisle's family's address so he could write to them and tell them about Carl's final days. He wanted them to know that Carl did not suffer too badly. It took him a few weeks, but he was eventually given the information, and Jack wrote Carl's mother figuring she would appreciate knowing he died in good spirits. He spoke about Carl's kindness and generosity, and how he never would have survived if it wasn't for Carl scrounging extra food for him. He never mentioned their final conversation.
However, he never forgot that final conversation. Was it real? Was it imagined? How could he have known Carl was dead that morning?
In 1958, thousands of POW graves across Germany were exhumed and the remains of those POWs were sent back to their families for proper burial in their home countries. One of those men was Benjamin Carlisle.
The Carlisle family had responded to Jack's letters and Carl's mother had become a rather unique pen-pal for the boy from Minnesota. In 1960, when the family was finally prepared to bury Carl in their parish cemetery, Mrs. Carlisle wrote to Jack and invited him to Lancashire for the service. Jack figured that attending would be the least he could do. He made plans to fly over with his wife and spend a week seeing England and meeting the Carlisles.
The Carlisle family was everything Carl had told him they would be, and then some. They embraced Jack as a son, and Carl's mother showed him the few letters they had gotten from him before his death. All of them spoke of Jack in glowing terms.
Jack recounted everything he could remember about Carl and the few months they spent together. Carl's family hung on his every word.
On the day of the burial service, they gathered in a cemetery in Lancashire. There was a full ceremony, complete with military honors, bagpipes--the whole works. Jack was even asked to say a few words about Carl's last days. Jack spoke of Carl's selflessness, about how he tried to find extra food and rations for Jack to help him survive the labor camp. When he spoke of it, he choked up and could barely finish his sentences. After he finished, Carl's mother hugged him so tightly that he thought she might break his ribs. After the service, there was a feast at the Carlisle home, and they toasted Carl's memory.
The rest of the week, Jack and his wife saw some sights around Lancashire. They both fell in love with England and vowed to return someday to see more of the country.
On their last day, in the early morning before their flight home, Jack made one last stop by the cemetery to say his final goodbye to Carl. With his wife waiting in the taxi along the side of the road. Jack went to the headstone and knelt. He whispered a few words to his friend.
At that moment, a flock of blackbirds in a nearby tree all took flight in a wild fluttering of wings and a cacophony of squawks and chirps. Jack could not help but turn to look at the noise. When he did, he thought he saw the smiling form of Carl Carlisle watching him, the form of his old friend casually leaning against the trunk of the tree and laughing at Jack's astonishment. Carl's shape was unmistakable, even in shadow and shade. He was only there for a split-second, but Jack was certain he saw him.
Jack straightened up, threw his shoulders back, and saluted. He left the cemetery confident that his old friend was at peace.