- an obsolete story -

by Marco Schuffelen

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Like a thunderclap in a clear blue sky the sonic boom rolls over the camp, waking me up. Crashing through the barracks' doors into the sleeping quarters, two boys tear into the echoes ringing sweetly in my ears. ``Uncle, uncle,'' they cry (actually they're my grandnephews), ``Come look at the sky.'' As I'm not moving fast enough they pick up my sickbed without a word and carry it out, throwing an extra blanket over me on the way. The camp is very quiet: all the usual sounds of chopping and sawing wood, kitchen pots clattering and the cries of children at play have ceased, for an airplane is writing in the sky. The pen is mightier than the sword, how about a jet fighter.

"Zelfbeschikking hersteld," the plane writes, "Wederkeer binnenkort". Stunned, I mainly register happiness at the youngsters around me understanding the obsolete words, obviously meant to reach us before the guards who only know basic and rude words of our language. They never understood we referred to them as satellites. The words in the sky say something like independence regained --- returning soon, but I wonder if the second part refers to the plane coming back or our going home. Only when it has written some insultingly sloppy cyrillic characters do the satellites shoot their guns at the plane; but flaunting its invulnerability the plane flies insolently low, dropping flyers like manna. It looked like a hand tossed them from a window, but that can hardly be. Maybe someone's waving.

Feeling better already, I sit up to look at the antiaircraft battery, but it is not even manned; screwing up my eyes I see the little Red Army trucks leaving the compound, hurrying off. With only oddments of civilization's amenities left I'm lucky I don't need glasses. Several people shout: "The Russians are leaving!" and joining hands form circles, jumping and dancing; maybe it is an ancient ritual, but to me it is chillingly alien. Still, for a moment I can't breathe, the happiness is choking me up and I shake with emotion now that our ordeal seems over. Maybe the others just dance off their shakes.

The satellites of the shrinking red star now clutter together, pointing their guns at us insecurely, their orbits upset; but as there is no longer a cause to die for we let them scurry off to their part of the camp. Unfortunately, that's where most of the leaflets have landed, so we'll have to wait a while; but it doesn't really bother us: the camp idiot pointed to the sky and said (in English): "The medium is the message."

The cook says we might as well have our midday soup now, so we file to the dining shack.

The flyers are brought in and handed around. They tell us that the long war is finally over, the army of occupation is leaving our country right now and we will get back very soon; but mostly we are urged to stay calm. In the morning we were all happy about the light at the end of the long, dark tunnel; but now the mood is more like mourning, sadness for the friends who died and the children not born, the nation torn apart and laid to ruin under foreign rule.

Our Slavic expert translates the cyrillic part of the flyer. The satellites are told that their big brother has fallen and they are ordered to surrender their arms to the American soldiers who will arrive shortly; it says their countries will be independent again and they will be allowed to return home, but there is no mention of transport. Though they had the guns we mostly pitied them, because they were seldom cruel we could accept that they were victims just like us. Some of us even felt that way about the Red Army soldiers.

Some twenty years ago, the war happened just like a scenario The Economist once wrote up: at a bad time in American politics the Soviets lobbed a small nuclear device at Dusseldorf, then offered the U.S. Army the choice between a sensible retreat or a fight to death. Dispirited and in disarray the remaining Western armies didn't offer much of a fight and a red sunset streaked Western Europe as the dark, cold night fell. The telephone ownership criterion no longer useful, the suffering masses were separated from their exploiters simply by their money value. The capitalists were then sent to Siberia to be re-educated and decriminalized by deprivation and manual labor. Nullification by inaction, we call it.

Most of our days are spent on our knees in the dirt, planting and harvesting food, weeding and killing bugs: no fertilizers, no pesticides and no machines, neither soil nor climate very promising; a few people still insist our health is better this way, but most of us would prefer to spend our time in other fields. When the ground is frozen we mostly talk, because there is not much else to do; we barter with the satellites for a little paper and a few pencils, but those are saved for the schoolchildren. At one time a commander proposed to sell us a classroom for the gold and diamonds he thought we were still hoarding: he offered beautiful little tables, books and maps, even a computer, but we doubted his sincerity, and besides, we did not really have that much left. Our native tongue was about the only thing of value we were able to preserve, but as we have few books it is mostly the spoken language. Of course, the purists can't stop complaining about it, but the loss of the formal and stuffy bookish language is no big deal to me. I am worried more that our preservation is just conservation: we are not common people busy at a wide variety of activities but a crowd of mostly intellectuals not doing anything interesting, a very unnatural environment for our language. I wonder if the people at the other camps speak differently from us, but what will be really interesting is the language of the people who were left behind without an intelligentsia. An occasional author, I consider myself a shaper of language, guided by my own taste but always deferring to the speech of the common people, treasuring and polishing the rough gems found in the street.

After lunch I lay down to rest a while, not expecting to fall asleep with all the excitement and so many plans to make; but I wake up with the boys tugging at me. This time I am able get up to come with them. They tell me the sky to the West has been full or parachutes. In the setting sun I see three vehicles racing to the camp: as they come closer I recognize the two oversize red, white and blue flags, one American, the other our own. My stomach feels faint and I have to breathe deep. Two queer jeeps halt a ways off; a small armored car with a little turret drives up to the gate and from it comes a long speech in Slavic. I wonder if it's Russian or the language of the satellites, but they seem to understand it well enough, because they open the gate and come out to throw down their rifles. It's good to see the white star back.

The jeeps drive into the camp while some national anthem is being played from the little tank. The first to jump out is an officer, smartly dressed and clean-shaven; we hardly recognize Colonel Dukes, the American who has sneaked into the camp a few times over the last years. For the first time we feel free to laugh at the funny way he speaks our language. He tells us this is the happiest ( kluck-kluck-stay) day of his life but the rest is lost upon us as we recognize in his company several people who have disappeared from the camp over the years. There must have been a regular underground railroad. Rolling their r's and speaking English among themselves, their skin and clothes fresh and clean, their glasses stylish, they look very different from the bunch of peasants we have become. Why was I left in this dump?

One of the few aspects of camp life that I had reflected on before the war and then found hard to believe, is that we could get used to the smell of unwashed bodies. Not so our returned countrymen, for they keep us at arm's length, wrinkling their noses; they say they're going to throw a party tonight, suggesting with somewhat forced jollity that we `freshen up' first, and they hand out toothpaste and toothbrushes, bars of soap, razors and disinfectant. A few trucks have driven up and we are offered a water heater for our showers. I am asked to go to the former guards with one of the trucks to hand out food parcels; I take the boys along, it's a good lesson for them.

The Americans have brought a big radio to the party, playing mellow music; their cooks have taken over the kitchen and have done a great job preparing something nice that's not too hard on our stomachs. Suddenly, the music on the radio fades out, our national anthem is played and we scramble to our feet; then an announcer introduces our king. Silly for modern man but just as at the display of the flags this afternoon there is a deep feeling for the archaic symbol. Tears come to my eyes even as another part of me coolly observes that the many metaphors like difficult curves ahead and changing gear, even steering by applying the brakes judiciously are used to make it look like the king wrote the speech himself.

When the party has resumed and we are chatting about the king's vision of a the newly reclaimed Holland the radio comes crackling alive with a rough, matter-of-fact American voice. The Americans ask us to put on our coats and scarfs and go outside, for another surprise is on the way. The cold air is abuzz with a slow plane circling the camp; in the clear night sky parachutes gently carry down green bundles with cords around it, and with little lights on top. An American talks on a small radio to the plane crew about the wind and where the parachutes touch down. The Americans carry the packages into the barracks; we are told they contain clothing for us.

Folding the antenna the man at the radio says: "Here it comes," and while the buzzing dies away he points at a red spot in the sky. Growing, it turns into a multicolored blur; as it gets closer we see a large number of small lights of many colors on a green triangle, some twinkling, a silver star on top: a lighted Christmas tree comes down to us from the sky. Slowly it descends on the Camp square, the radio man quickly unhooking the parachute as the tree lands on the dirty snow. A beautiful high voice intones `Silent Night' and one by one we hoarsely join in, standing around the lighted tree in the moonlight, singing again and again the few lines we all know. I feel touched, enveloped by a peaceful calm, if I were religious I'd call it simple piety. Cleansed, we silently walk back to the barracks. The Americans shake our hands and hushed by our solemnity quietly wish us Merry Christmas, inviting us to a breakfast of raisin bread and hot chocolate. It is very much like the ones I had with my family after midnight mass when I was a child.

The tree set up in the barracks, we are all handed a backpack with a survival package. Colonel Dukes says he is sorry he does not have some nicer or more personal items to give us, but on a happier note he can tell us that he has just been in contact with Central Command and that it has been decided that our group will be the first to be repatriated: tomorrow we will be driven to an airfield and fly off to the milder cold of our home.

The backpacks and their contents make me dread what we will find there. I bow my head as finally it dawns on me that the world that was stopped twenty years ago has gone forever, that never again will I have coffee with cakes in a warm and cozy living room like my mother in law's, watching brightly dressed children walk to school; that never again I will ride a good bicycle on a smooth path through lush green meadows, with dumb but benign cows turning their heads to look at me.

At breakfast the next morning I have the first cup of real tea I have had in a long time, it's as good as I remember. The young people sleep late, having partied deep into the night. I talk with my friend the doctor, whose hair is the whitest of us all. "It was terrible," he says, "The meatball surgery I was not trained for, the lives that might have been saved or eased with medicine and machinery that was standing idle in warehouses. But worst of all, a generation was lost: the teenagers taught only haphazardly, a little grammar and math, but no science. They'll never catch up, they will never be academics. While they work at the reconstruction, our generation will have to teach their children. They will be all right, but it's a terrible waste of human potential."

"We can still pick up the pieces, even though our skills are blunted," he continues, "But of course we'll never be what we might have been without this stupid gap in our lives. It's like starting all over again, but with a handicap, because we were robbed of our prime and now age is catching up with us."

"I've been thinking about the same thing," I say, "As for my writing, I'm afraid that there is just not enough time to weigh every word or to juggle each sentence till it's right, no time left to coolly judge what to put in and what to leave out."

© Marco Schuffelen, 1991-1994 / All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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