How Grampa Entered History and Left Again
Grampa was an older man than most of them in the castle, already in his thirties, almost too old for war. Nevertheless it was a fresh dawn for him, who was finally finding confidence in himself, liking himself at last. No longer tongue-tied, he was popular with the soldiers. He found he had the gift of getting on with men from all social classes and all parts of the country. And he was able to make himself useful.
They put him in charge of accounts. At the end of each month he handed over the leisure allowance in big notes, money for beer and cigarettes and trips into Glasgow. The men seemed to hold him personally responsible for this snippet of good fortune. Cheers, Arnold, they said one by one, bright eyed, shuffling forward and bouncing out. But this was not his only job. He was also a medical orderly and, with his cool nerves, an attendant at operations. Bloodied, hot, he displayed the type of courage that tougher breeds couldn’t understand. Once he saw a man faint at the sight of a needle who had before that crash-landed, unruffled, a flaming fighter plane on the sea.
He had been considered officer material – he was bright enough for that and more – had been sent on the training course in Wales. But then, rushing across the grey fells, his knee gave in. He only grinned. He was used to such disappointments. He hadn’t gone to sea because he couldn’t distinguish blue from red. He had failed his school exams because of a huge boil exploding on his bottom. He hadn’t gone to art school, where he might have made a career of colour blindness, because his father, despite the art master’s recommendation, thought art school unbecoming. So he had been placed instead in the book trade at the age of 14, more properly the tea-getting, message-bearing trade. (Though after the war he was promoted to a position that fitted his more solid presence). He worked among hard and paper backs. Papery-thin he was himself, and ivory white. His mates called him snowball for the icicle down that clung to his albumen skull. Later on, when I knew him, the hair had gone, but the soft domed head remained, and the blue veins.
At night he wrote love letters for the illiterate soldiers, and letters of his own. They listened to the radio, told jokes, played cards, and on siren nights they watched Glasgow burning on the horizon.
But this one night he was called from his bed to join a special detail. It was top secret work, the mission unspoken until they reached the spot. There was wreckage there smouldering and jagged in the dark, and blowing northern mists, and crouched among the debris a smouldering, broken Teuton, dark too, unsmiling, not in any uniform. Nearby, plainclothes Englishmen in a huddle.
Grampa and his comrades gathered around their officer. This man, he told them, is Rudolf Hess. No one will speak to him. If he addresses you in any language you will not reply. You will not mention this mission to anyone, upon pain of court-martial.
They loaded Hess onto a stretcher and into the back of their vehicle. One of the plainclothes men sat with him. It seemed there were broken bones, but he didn’t groan. He didn’t make a sound. He kept his Bavarian silence, perhaps meditating on Bavarian blue hills to distract him from the rip of muscle, the crush of cartilage, perhaps dreaming of clean Aryan air, mountain breezes, deep ancient forests. Or perhaps he’d had a morphine shot before Grampa arrived.
The vehicle bumped over moss and roots. Back at the castle they marched the stretcher, and Hitler’s amanuensis on it, across an owl-infested courtyard and down a narrow stairwell. Hess spent his life between such thick walls, in Landsberg Castle after the Beer Hall Putsch, scribbling the future fuhrer’s ravings (polished and chiseled into the shape of Mein Kampf), and then in Spandau prison after the Nuremberg trials. The longest lived of the high profile Nazis, his funeral was a festival for 80s neo-fascists, shaven-scalped and tattooed.
But he might not have lasted that long, because here at the top of the harsh stone stairs Grampa had his chance. It would have been easy to deliberately trip, to thrust his quarter of stretcher weight up and around and send Hess clattering down. To exit the world underground, in Scotland, in the war years. Of course, he didn’t do it. He was always good at separating his personal feelings from the troubles of Europe. He had political opinions, resentments, but they never led him into action. He was far too civilized to hurt a human being. (That was his principal disability in war, not the eyes, not the knee.)
He didn’t do it, but he nearly did. Uncharacteristically, he was obliged to struggle for control. To struggle so he broke out in so much acid sweat that he almost lost his grip on the stretcher handles. He almost caused a genuine accident. He had to talk himself out of his murdering urge.
And why so? Because at the start of that week he had received the telegram of his sister’s death. He was close to his sister. She’d been in a Liverpool building not far from the docks – the docks where Grampa had seen British battleships swiveling their guns on the city in the year of the General Strike. (In silence, nothing said, just a warning). She was in a building on the seventh floor, standing on a table being fitted for her wedding dress. Seven is most people’s lucky number. Ask a stranger, they’ll choose seven. But it wasn’t lucky for her. The blast of the bomb behind the building threw her out of the window at the front. Swiftly through the glass, tatters of lace and silk trailing behind her like wings. Her body was cleaned from the street two blocks away.
Grampa grieved for his sister as he had grieved for his friend who’d collapsed at his shoulder on a dance floor, aged 19. Death by hemorrhage. And as he grieved later over the little corpse of his first child. Death by virus. Life so fragile, so easily sucked back from whence it came, like flame in a back draft suddenly gone.
They descended with Hess to the foot of the stairs and through a rock-thick door. They left him there with plainclothes men. (Grampa saw him on television once or twice in the following decades, when the war had been documentarised.) At the castle, he noticed the trays of cordon bleu food conveyed every dinner time to the top of the stairwell.
The next day a batch of mangled POWs was brought in. Grampa took their details. Hair colour? he asked a Luftwaffe pilot. Blond! declared the German. In this country, lad, said Grampa, only the girls are blond. He chuckled at that till the end of his life. The next night he stayed up with a syphilitic Italian in the critical stage, bursting and sterilizing his boils.
After the war he managed the bookshop. But it closed down the year after his retirement, unable to compete with the big chains. The economy by then was a larger, more pampered, but fiercer beast. He retired to Scotland, not so far from the castle (which was now a hotel), and read all these books he’d sold to professors and explorers. Much later (like Rudolf Hess, he was lucky with his life span) he died, in his armchair, with a sudden intake of breath.
Robin Yassin-Kassab. May 3, 2005.