The dining area smelled like ammonia. It was nauseating. Sarge could taste it in the lukewarm stew on the table in front of him. His feet were freezing, and the cold white-speckled floor offered no comfort. Through the window, Sarge could see a few prisoners walking in the garden. They were being closely guarded. No one was allowed outside without an escort. Sarge’s long boney fingers shook as he lifted his spoon to his mouth. Even eating made him tired these days, and he was sure it had to do with the medication his captors forced him to take. It wouldn’t be long before it confined him to his bed. Sarge had seen the long term effects of the medication. Some prisoners couldn’t even speak. They just lay in their cells as their bodies and minds slowly deteriorated. He was determined to not let that happen to him.
Sarge sat with Jimbo and Polly at little round table near the west wall of the dining area. Most of the tables had four or five people sitting at them, but Sarge’s table was only big enough for three. They all ate quietly. Sarge could see the cast iron gate on the far end of the lawn. He wasn’t sure how far they were from the front lines, but he knew that he could get them out of the camp. Navigating the European countryside while behind German lines would be difficult, but he was sure they could make it. Especially if the allies were continuing to advance as quickly as they had been before he was captured. “I’m tellin’ ya, Jimbo, this is going to work,” Sarge said.
“It just seems pretty risky,” Jimbo said.
“Risky? What the hell did you get in the service for, a goddamn cakewalk?”
“No, it’s just…”
“You wanna go home don’t ya? What about you Pol? Don’t you wanna go home?”
“Ya see? Polly wants to go home,” Sarge said.
“But how will my kids find me?” asked Jimbo.
“They sure as shit aren’t going to come lookin’ for you here,” Sarge yelled.
Jimbo hung his head and took another bite. Sarge knew Jimbo was home sick. He was too, and that made him all the more convinced that escape was their only option. He grabbed Jimbo by the shoulder and said, “We’re goin’ home.”
“Okay, Sarge, I trust you,” Jimbo said quietly.
“Ya know, we’re probably goin’ to get a medal for this,” Sarge said. He could picture the ceremony already. There would probably even be a parade. Sarge, Jimbo and Polly would ride down the street in black convertible with flags on the hood. The street would be lined with people waving flags, and the newspaper headline would read “Three American Heroes Return Home.” Roosevelt would be standing on a makeshift podium in front of the Capitol Building as the caravan arrived, and there, in front of thousands of onlookers and television cameras, they would have the Congressional Medal of Honor looped around their necks.
“Good evening guys,” a voice said from behind Sarge. “Time to take your medication.” The voice belonged to Klaus, one of the camp guards. He was tall and handsome. He placed a small translucent cup in front of each of them. The cups were filled with what looked like little pebbles and pieces of chalk.
“We’re not taking your fucking Nazi mind control,” Sarge said.
“Mr. Simmons, you know that you have to take your medication. Don’t you want to keep that heart of yours beating?”
“Are ya going to stop it if I refuse?”
“Of course not.”
“Then I’ll pass.” Sarge motioned to Jimbo and Polly to put their cups down.
“Well, I’m just going to have to sit here until you take it,” Klaus said, and he pulled a chair over from another table and sat down. Sarge didn’t mind Klaus as much as the other guards, but he was still the enemy. Worse yet, he had the determination of a mule, and he would sit there all night or until they took their medication. Even if Sarge didn’t mind Klaus as much, he still didn’t want him around. Especially since they had been talking about the escape plan, so Sarge decided to oblige the young man.
“Well I guess we won’t have to put up with this much longer,” Sarge said as he winked at his companions. He lifted his pill cup into the air and looked at Klaus. “To the Führer and long live the Third Reich.” He dropped the pills into his mouth as took a big swig of his iced tea. “There you go ya filthy kraut.”
“Did you swallow them?”
“Let me see.”
Sarge opened his mouth wide to prove that he had in fact swallowed the pills. Klaus seemed satisfied, but he continued sitting at the table until Sarge was sufficiently irritated.
“Do you mind?”
“Sure, Mr. Simmons,” Klaus said, and he left.
The three finished their dinners in silence since there wasn’t much to talk about. Sarge was still confident in his plan despite Jimbo’s worries, and Jimbo seemed to remain nervous despite Sarge’s confidence. Who knew what Polly thought; she never voiced an opinion either way. She just sat and ate quietly, smiling at Sarge and Jimbo in between bites. Nothing was planned for that evening, and Sarge returned to his cell when he finished his meal.
Sarge’s cell was depressing. Its plain beige walls in flower trim suggested that nothing resembling human compassion came anywhere near its design and construction. The paint was chipped, the walls were scratched and a fly buzzed, trapped in the light covering above the bed. Sarge sympathized with the fly. The cell also had a nightstand, a lamp, a reading chair and a chest of drawers in it, but what really intrigued Sarge was a small still life painting that had been hung right above his bed. The painting was of a small red pot filled with yellow flowers. The pot sat on a wooden table in front of a plaster wall.
Something about the painting held Sarge’s attention – it wasn’t particularly good, and it was most likely not an original – but Sarge loved it. He had taken such a liking to it that he began recreating the painting in his journal. It was not an ode to the piece nor was Sarge interested in some kind of artistic expression, but he found something very therapeutic in this disciplined act. That night as Sarge sat in his bed sketching the still life in his journal, he was fully aware of the fact that the next day he would lead his small band of commandos out of the camp and home. He slept very well that night with this thought in mind.
The next morning, Sarge and his companions met around the same table the as the night before. Eggs Benedict was on the menu, but what Sarge had on his plate would have been indistinguishable from last night’s entrée, and the smell of ammonia from the night before lingered. “Good morning,” Sarge said, breaking the silence. “Are you guys ready for tonight?”
“I’m a little nervous,” Jimbo said.
“There’s nothin’ to be nervous about,” Sarge said. “It will be a fuckin’ cake walk.”
“I know. I just hope my kids will be able to find me.”
“Well they’ve got a better chance of finding you out there than in here,” Sarge said as he pointed out the window. “What about you Pol? Are you ready?”
Polly smiled and leaned in close to Sarge. “I think they over cooked the eggs this morning,” she whispered.
“If you can call these eggs,” Jimbo said. He pushed his plate toward the middle of the table, and silence fell over the table but only for a moment.
“Is there a bird in here?” Polly asked. Sarge was confused by the question and the expression on Jimbo’s face suggested that he felt much the same way. But, before long the sound returned, this time the tiny waves found their way to Sarge’s ear and reverberated on the same muscle they presumably had in Polly’s. It did sound like a bird, but, as Sarge quickly realized, the source wasn’t anything like a Robin or a Blue Jay, it was a man, sitting on the opposite end of the dining area.
Sarge knew that people in the camp dealt with the trauma of war and being captured, in many and often strange ways. One such prisoner dealt with her imprisonment by walking around the camp, taking her clothes off as she walked. Another prisoner acted as if he and everyone else in the camp were on a boat, and he wandered around the camp looking for the captain or the lifeboats. The man on the other end of the dining area must have found something therapeutic in the emission of second-long, high-pitched whistles. And who was Sarge to judge; he sat in his room and sketched the still life.
“Ok guys, it’s time for your medication,” Klaus said from behind Sarge.
“What did Dr. Mengele cook up for us today?” asked Sarge.
“It’s just your morning medication, Mr. Simmons. You take the same pills every morning.”
Sarge knew that it wasn’t worth squabbling with Klaus. This would be the last day they had to take the pills anyway. He grabbed the cup and, with a big swig of his orange juice, swallowed the pills.
“Thank you Mr. Simmons,” Klaus said.
“Don’t thank me. Thank your dirty kraut friends that overran my platoon.” Klaus didn’t say anything as he left, but his departure created the opportunity for Sarge to discuss the morning’s most pressing matter. “Everyone knows the plan for tonight correct?”
Sarge was disheartened by his companions’ silence.
“Jimbo, what are you going to do?” he asked.
“I’m going to open your cell,” Jimbo said.
“2330,” Sarge exclaimed.
“Eleven-thirty. What’s my cell number?”
“Damn it, Jimbo! 603.”
Sarge was unconvinced by Jimbo’s exhibition of his retention abilities, so he wrote the following on a napkin:
11:30 go to Sarge’s Cell 603
Unlock the door.
“Keep that in your pocket. Me and Jimbo will come get you after he opens my cell,” Sarge explained to Polly. “Then we will make for the front gate.”
After breakfast, the trio went about their day as usual. Jimbo sat and watched television in the sitting room, and Polly wandered around the halls of the camp without the slightest bit of purpose. Sarge sat in his cell and sketched the still life.
It would be hard to find words for the mind numbing boredom Sarge experienced while in the camp. Sketching the still life seemed to be the only thing keeping him sane. Other than recreating the painting over and over, Sarge’s entertainment options were extremely limited. He could have sat in front of the television with Jimbo or wandered the halls with Polly. He found neither enjoyable, much less entertaining, and he couldn’t expect to change his tastes on that kind of day. So Sarge sat in his room and faced the boredom head on.
If the time between breakfast and lunch felt like an eternity, then the time between lunch and dinner felt twice as long, and Sarge felt as uneasy about the impending mission as the philosopher contemplating a span of time twice the length of eternity. Jimbo’s unconvincing display worried him, and although he had slept easy the night before, all his confidence slipped away as soon as he had to write the time and his cell number down for Jimbo.
Sarge didn’t know much about Jimbo other than he was from Alabama and extremely polite. At first Sarge found Jimbo’s compliance with the guards’ requests annoying, borderline treason, but Sarge soon realized that Jimbo’s behavior lead to certain privileges. The guards trusted him. They left his door unlocked at night, and this, Sarge thought, could be extremely lucrative. Sarge had tried many times to escape, but he was never successful. This time, he decided to bring Jimbo along. Sarge knew that the plan would work as long as Jimbo performed his role.
Eight-thirty rolled around, and Sarge retired to his cell. All he could do was wait and hope that Jimbo remembered. He sat on his bed and thought about the last few years of his life. He could clearly remember stepping onto the bus that would take him to basic training. It was 1938, and Sarge had just graduated from a small high school in southeastern Colorado. He and three other classmates were recruited together; little did they know that within four years they’d each be fighting on three different continents. Sarge was in Italy originally, but back then, everyone called him Tom, Tom Simmons. By the time the Allies were ready to invade Europe; Tom Simmons had earned a few more stripes and was known by everyone close to him as Sarge.
On the eve of the June sixth invasion, Sarge and the rest of the 101st Airborne were dropped behind the German-occupied French beaches to eliminate gun batteries that were in range of the invasion site. Following the success of the invasion, Sarge and his platoon fought in little villages and hedgerows across northern France. In December of 1944, after months of fighting, Sarge was given a week of R&R in the port town of Calais. In Calais, Sarge met a young French girl named Paulette Girard, whom he called Polly. She was thin, with blue eyes and strawberry blond hair that swirled and curled on its journey from her scalp to her shoulders.
Like most of the GI’s in Calais, Sarge spent his days in the cafés and his nights in the bars, chasing the young French girls who were intrigued by the oddities of the young Americans. Polly was one of those girls. She was wearing a short white sundress when Sarge first saw her, which was strange for early December, and that night they danced until the bartender finally kicked them out around three in the morning. Sarge left the next day for the Ardennes where his platoon was overrun, and he was captured.
Polly was at the camp when Sarge arrived. How and why she was there, Sarge had never found the answers to. It was a topic she never seemed to want to talk about. In any case, Sarge felt obligated to take her along, due to their previous acquaintance. So Sarge assembled his team and set the date for their escape.