Have you ever looked at a photograph of yourself when you were young and thought, “Whoa, is that me?” Did you gaze at the smooth, unlined face and search your now crumbled, ravaged features for some vestige of it? Where, you perhaps wondered, did that young boy or girl go?
In a way, this is what happened to me when I recently ran across my first published story. While I’d been scribbling since I was a tyke, “The Patriot,” which appeared in a small college magazine was the first work I actually shared with the world. I’d just turned twenty and was starting my junior year at Hiram College. I won’t tell you the year, but folks, it was looonnng ago.
I offer “The Patriot” here, warts and all, to encourage older writers to revisit their early writing and to reflect on the passing of time and what it means. To me, my story seems the product of a callow fellow, crude and immature. It’s as if I wrote it as a baby in another lifetime. Yet at the same time, I recognize distinctive traits of my style and thinking. The child IS the father of the man. For readers who are young, THIS WILL HAPPEN TO YOU. One day you will be sorting through the bric-a-brac of your youth, the archaeological remains of your childhood, and discover something that jars you, perhaps even rocks you to your core. Just as Adolph Schmidt is rocked in my story…
Adolph Schmidt pounded a last nail into the sole of the shoe and tossed it into the pile by his side. From outside came a shout, a barked order, and then the tramp of boots, the sound of soldiers. Within the shop Adolph sat undisturbed, for here the sounds entered faint and curiously detached. Adolph reached for another shoe and in a moment the pounding continued. Presently he sighed and rose from his work, his frame tall and his shoulders stooped as he walked over to the shop’s lone window and peered out. The soldiers were almost at the end of the street now. In a minute would come the bark of authority and then the unthinking robot would return. Disinterestedly, Adolph turned back to his work.
The door opened and a short and very corpulent man entered. Adolph looked up briefly and then turned back to his work. The visitor shut the door and walked in.
“Hello, Adolph,” he said, wheezing heavily and shuffling into the shop.
“Hello, Otto,” returned Adolph, his voice dead, and this time he did not look up.
Otto stared down at him for a moment and then spoke.
There was a long pause, one broken only by Otto’s heavy breathing. Adolph raised his head and for a moment the eyes of the two men locked.
“I’m sorry, Otto,” he said, “but it’s out of the question.”
The matter thus dismissed, Adolph picked up another shoe and examined it critically. But Otto was not satisfied. He stalked about the narrow confines of the shop, one fat finger explosively punctuating the air, his arms gesturing violently in his impotence. Through it all Adolph worked undisturbed. At last Otto pulled up short before him and snorted disdainfully. “It’s out of the question,” he mimicked, slapping his fat thighs for emphasis. “It’s out of the question, he says.”
There was a pause and Adolph looked up.
“Look, Adolph,” said Otto, “we’ve been friends for a long time. We grew up together. This country, Austria, is our home. We have families, women and children to protect.”
Adolph said nothing. Otto, seeing that his words bore no effect upon his friend paused and then furiously roared, “In the name of God, Adolph, does our suffering mean nothing to you?”
Adolph sighed and tiredly raised his head. “It’s not my fight, Otto,” he said. “I work, I sleep, I bother no one, no one bothers me. I am not disturbed. For me there is peace.”
“Peace?” echoed Otto, his face incredulous. “Peace? Adolph,” he said, resting his elbows on the bench before him and speaking softly as if to a child, “there is no peace. No peace when your home is not our own but belongs to the enemy, no peace when your wives and daughters can be wantonly defiled and as wantonly discarded, no peace when your mind is not your own and your highly prized liberty paid for with the grains of your integrity.”
The shoe done, Adolph tossed it into the pile by his side and reached for another.
“All right,” said Otto resignedly, “all right. But will you at least come to the meeting tonight? Will you at least come and hear what we have to say?”
Adolph was a long time in answering, and when he did, he did not raise his eyes from his work.
“I’m sorry, Otto,” he said, “but I’ll have too much work to do.”
Otto heavily shook his head, as if the answer had been one long expected.
“I’m sorry, too, Adolph,” he said, and he bent his head and dejectedly shook it. “But it is so hard to fight when even those of your side are against you.” Tiredly he crossed to the door and stood poised with his hand on the knob. “If you should change your mind,” he said, his eyes on the hunched, silent shoulders of his friend, “the meeting will be at nine prompt, at the home of Ludwig Wagner. You know the way.”
“Yes, Otto, I know the way.”
Otto nodded and turned to open the door but halted at the scrape of boots on the outside platform. There was a knock, sharp and challenging, and Otto turned in the dead silence of the shop and looked at Adolph with eyes that pleaded the unspoken word.
It was at once a dilemma for Adolph, for Adolph was not one accustomed to the need for decision. Another man, perhaps one who would have acted, would have assessed the problem with the eye of his mind and, the thing resolved, acted positively one way or the other. But Adolph was not such a man. Such a man was Adolph in fact, that the dealing with problems of any kind was distasteful and to be avoided whenever possible. As it was, he did nothing, and so it was that Otto’s plea went unanswered.
The knock was repeated, louder and more insistent this time, reverberating as thunder about the dingy walls. Standing as he was, with his shoulders stooped and his brow wet, Adolph trembled and released his shaking breath as softly as he could. The pounding ceased, abruptly and with a note of finality. There was a brief silence, a sudden barked order, and then the crash of shoulders against the wood panel. On the third assault the door gave way, its rusty hinges torn from the wall as it thundered to the floor. German soldiers armed with death burst into the shop. Otto was quickly seized, his arms pinned behind him as he struggled in vain to escape.
Adolph recognized instantly the tall form of Colonel Silvanyuk, the commandant of the village, as he swaggered into the shop and disdainfully extricated his fingers from one delicate white glove. “Ah, Otto Goering,” he said, his voice suave and cultured, “how good of you to let yourself be caught.”
Otto stopped his struggles and glared back balefully.
“You must excuse my delight at having found you,” continued the colonel, “but we have reports that you have conspired against the occupation. You understand, of course, that we cannot permit such actions to go unpunished.”
“No,” repeated Otto dully, “you cannot.”
“That is,” said the colonel, steepling his fingers as he turned about the shop and stopped once more before Otto, “unless you give to us the names of those who conspired with you.”
The effect of the words was immediate. Otto lunged forward in the arms of his captors and spat in the commandant’s face.
The insult brought him stiffly erect. “Very well,” he said, “if that’s the way you want it. Take him outside.”
The soldiers forced the struggling Otto through the open doorway into the street. The colonel turned to watch them and then turned back to Adolph. “It will be most unfortunate for you, sir,” he said, his voice stripped of its previous politeness, “if we should discover that you are among the conspirators.”
Adolph stared back at him and moved his lips as if in a nightmare. “My friend, Otto,” he said, “you’re going to kill him, aren’t you?”
The commandant smiled half-amusedly. “Yes,” he said, “we’re going to kill him,” and with that he laughed and mockingly saluted.
Adolph stood for a long time after the colonel’s departure, his head bent in the darkness. At last he aroused himself and squared his shoulders. “I’ve been wrong,” he thought. “It is my concern. It is my fight. Otto. I have wronged him. All along I have wronged him. He was my friend, my countryman, but I have wronged him. _I_ was not _his_ friend.”
He turned to the clothes rack and lifted his coat from it. “I must hurry. I have an engagement, and I must not be late.” He stepped out through the shop’s open doorway into the snow. For a moment he stood, and then he started walking, his broad shoulders squared against the winter wind.
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/John-B.-Rosenman/e/B001KMN69E