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Never Again by Thomas Elson

12 Jun 2017, Posted by Editor in Fiction

NEVER AGAIN

“John, come in and eat. You’ll be late for your meeting,” said his wife.

“Ja, Ja. I know,” said John who continued to stand on the porch and pondered his options. “I’m waiting for Lawrence”.

John braced as if expecting the Great Plains wind to sweep down and knock him over. As if traveling over a familiar road, the wind drove over the land and crudely clawed at houses, then punched over fields uprooting trees, destroying crops. His great grandfathers stood on similar land in a similar country after the Seven Years War ended and waited for their sons.

“Never again,” he heard them say to themselves.

 

He had sat next his grandfather in wagons, carriages, Model T’s, Diamond T’s, Studebakers, and Desoto’s. These same men had sat beside their grandfathers for hundreds of years before him. They had fought against depressions, droughts, burnt crops, sun-parched cattle, bank failures, and land repossessions, but this one charged at John in full armor.

 

John’s left eye squinted against the smoke from the Camel cigarette that dangled from his mouth. His jaw as firm and determined as his stance. The skin on his hands echoed the color of the skin on his head.  Earlier he had honed his straightedge against the leather and linen strop hanging by the sink, shaved with his right had, then slapped some sparingly applied Palmolive after-shave against his cheeks. He polished his wingtips with Shinola, then washed his hands with Ivory soap.

He turned his head when the sun’s reflection against the plow in the field hit his eyes. To the east, the advancing winds caused his amber wheat to wave toward, and then tilt against, the irregular gusts. The drought had broken weeks earlier in this part of the state, and the rains filled the creek that ran though his property. The Ninnescah River flowed steadily for the first time in years.

He hesitated for a moment, considered waiting outside, thought better of it, turned, opened the screen door, walked through the living room past a crucifix at the hall entry, a picture of the Blessed Virgin, several lifeless photos of parents and grandparents, First Communion pictures of his daughters, and the senior class picture of his only son. And on a far wall, under the picture of the Last Supper hung his validation from the President.

His muscular hands clasped behind his back, he held himself erect with just the hint of a pooch under his belt – a source of great pride to a man who had been hungry most of his life.

His poverty appeared to be behind him. His bank, lumberyard, grocery store, gas stations, and contacts through his ancillary businesses provided him with the cushion necessary to eat roast beef twice a week with boiled peas, mashed potatoes, gravy, a mound of bread with soft homemade butter on the recessed butter dish with a saber-shaped butter knife next to it.

He sat at the dining table with a ten-inch carving knife near his left hand, sharpened and ready to carve more helpings of beef. An out-of-place dainty coffee cup and matching saucer rested within easy reach. After John carved the roast beef, he used the same knife to gently lift the thick cream from the top of the glass milk bottle and ladle it into his coffee.

John almost dropped his carving knife when he heard a noise, possibly his son’s brown and white DeSoto. He pushed himself from the table and moved toward the living room. He hurried to the screen door, looked through, saw no one, looked again and watched waves of familiar faces surged toward him – grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, older cousins – he could call out the names of each one. Young cousins, younger grandchildren, great grandparents. Some of them he had never seen before, most of them lived before photography was invented, but he knew them. Their young faces and bodies, no longer stooped and grey, their skin unscarred and unscathed, eyes clear and hopeful with most of their life ahead of them. He squinted to filter the smoke from his Camel cigarette, then shook his head. His posture and head tilt were the same as his grandfather. His face younger , but the same face. John had lived this story many times and knew something in his blood was interlaced and repeating.

The events leading to his meeting, had begun almost two hundred years earlier, when his ancestors left the Rhineland in 1763, migrated to the Ukraine, and in the 1873, came to America. John lived on the land his great-grandfather homesteaded.

He saw his grandfather’s ancient horse-drawn plow resting on a rise gleaming from the backlight of the rose-tinted setting sun. He saw what used to be a land of flat plains and bare unsettled fields with short grass and wildflowers. But he saw even further.

He saw sons forcibly removed from their homes by Prussian recruitment officials and made to serve in the Prussian army during the Seven Years War. Most of them died, not in battle, but from malnutrition. “Wie Hunde,” repeated an ancient fatigued voice, “Wie Hunde.” English rolled in John’s mind, “Like dogs.”

“Never again,” he repeated.

He saw his great, great grandfathers standing in the church square in the Rhineland listening as Catherine the Great’s manifesto was read, offering them land ownership and freedom from military service.

They abandoned their villages with the names of Herzog, Obermunjou, Katharinestadt, Marienthal, Antonino, and Schoenchen. They left their churches with cupolas, domes, and tri-crosses; their cemeteries and aboveground caskets with iron tri-crosses; their schools taught not from the Bible, but from books on mathematics, reading, and history.

They left the Rhineland, and they settled in the Ukraine on the south Volga River, a land of flat plains and bare unsettled fields with short grass, wildflowers, and settlements of Tartars and Cossacks. Within days, they were attacked by Kazahb-Kirghiz tribesmen. Over fifteen hundred were captured, only half successfully ransomed, the rest killed or enslaved. The survivors established villages along the Volga River with the names of Herzog, Obermunjou, Katharinestadt, Marienthal, Antonino, and Schoenchen.

They built churches with cupolas, domes, and tri-crosses, laid out cemeteries and laid their dead to rest in aboveground caskets with iron tri-crosses attached. Their schools taught not from the Bible, but from books on mathematics, reading, and history.

Less than one-hundred years later, his grandfather stood and listened as an emissary of Tsar Alexander II reinstated taxes and ended their  exemption from the military. The Volga-Germans were no longer a special people.

“Never again.”

Shortly thereafter, American railroad agents distributed handbills touting the glories of the Homestead Act. Families could own one-hundred and sixty acres of land by doing what they had done for centuries. Less than ten years after Lincoln’s assassination, the first Volga-Germans arrived in America. They carried the names of their small towns – Herzog, Munjor, Katharine, Marienthal, Antonino, and Schoenchen – and established those towns along the Ninnescah River. They brought their religion and churches with cupolas, domes, and tri-crosses; their cemeteries with aboveground caskets with iron tri-crosses; their education taught not from the Bible, but from books on mathematics, reading, and history, and called their five-year-old students “kindergartners”.

They carried the legendary Turkey Red wheat, from the Ukraine, down the Volga, navigated the Black Sea, traveled through the Bosporus, the Sea of Marmara, the Aegean Sea, the Mediterranean, past the Strait of Gibraltar, over the Atlantic, to America, then over the Appalachians, down the Ohio River, crossed the Mississippi, forded the Missouri, crossed the Great American Desert. Their quest stopped at a sutter village of forty souls in Ninnescah County.

When they entered America, they were Germans who had never been to Germany, then lived in the isolated Southern Volga region of the  Ukraine for a hundred years.

Their daily lives in America mirrored their lives in other countries. In almost two hundred years nothing had changed – not clothes, not food, not customs, nor religion, not the names of their towns, and certainly not their temperament.

 

They lived midway between the situs of the Spanish Flu and the military installation of Ft. Riley. The Great War of 1914 brought deaths from the flu pandemic as mothers and fathers were buried in hurriedly constructed coffins. Each family that walked away from the gravesite was forced to rebuild without the presence of a mother, father, or child.

Years later, in the midst of the Great Depression, came Pearl Harbor, FDR’s speech the next day, war declared, then Germany declared war on America, and America reciprocated. Men volunteered. More men were drafted.

Each month brought increased demands for more troops, which John translated as the sons of men he had known all his life – men he had sat next to in school and served Mass with on Sundays.

Eighteen months later, John and two other men, the county commissioners in Ninnescah County, were asked to serve on the local draft board. Days later, certificates of appointment from the Selective Service arrived signed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was validation that they finally belonged. John placed the certificate in the hallway beneath the crucifix near the dining room.

“Look, come here,” John said to his family, in his rich liquid accent. He pointed to his name, then the President’s, “Now, we are Americans. President Roosevelt himself signed it.” His children mirrored his excitement. His wife did not.

Later, after the children had left, his wife said, “Does this mean you’ll send my son to war, John?” Then she made the timeless sound of a displeased wife and mother, and walked away – the universal signal that discussion had concluded.

 

The meeting should have started ten minutes ago, and John was late. The two other men had begun the set-up. Thomas Brungardt, still grieving his son’s death, was the tallest of the three men, his hair still thick and dark brown, asked, as he unfolded the legs of the meeting table, “Where is John?  He’s never late. Did he talk to you?” Thomas, the youngest member of the draft board, lost his son during the Battle of Guadalcanal. “Never again,” Thomas had said to no one but himself.

“Not me. If he told anyone, it would be you,” said Karl Gottschalk, his accent thicker and his carriage more old country than the others. He was the oldest of the three men and walked with the same forward lunge as his grandfather – as if he were charging toward everything in front of him. Karl had watched as his son descended hobbled and shriveled from a Santa Fe railroad passenger car in 1942, and spent his days staring at the trees on his father’s backyard.

John walked in, set a half-pint of Canadian Club in the middle of the table, nodded. Thomas took a nip, held the bottle up as if in salute, and handed it to Karl who repeated their ritual. When the bottle returned to John, he nipped at it, placed it on the floor, apologized for being late. “I was waiting for Lawrence.” They knew.

John sat and waited. They all knew what their ancestors would have done.

The names had been drawn by lottery, but it was the board’s custom to vote on each number selected. John waited for the others to vote. Thomas read Lawrence’s, looked at John, and said, “Nay”. Karl Gottschalk shrugged, said, “Aye”.

It was John’s turn, and he sat silent. “John, you can abstain. It is your boy,” said Thomas.

John knew what his vote would be. He felt the reverberation of echoes from the Rhineland, from the Volga. Each a repeat from centuries earlier. Mothers looked at fathers and asked, “Are you going to allow them to kill my son? You’ll end your life with no sons.”

 

In time, his progeny would spread from Ninnescah County to California, then sweep across the country again to South Carolina. They would become teachers, principals, nurses, printers. A few would continue to farm, others became cogs and captains of industry, grunts and Captains in the Marine Corps. They would serve honorably and be decorated. Some would be wounded, a few severely, some would not survive. Many would live out their lives within ten miles of the original homesteads, more than a few would return in their old age, and at least one would complain that foreigners were taking over his county. None would see and feel what John did on that day.

 

John cast his vote, and, without saying another word, left the room, walked home.

As he approached his house, he saw the brown and white DeSoto in the driveway. Lawrence walked toward him. Father and son looked at each other. Lawrence knew. He stood, not like a little boy, but as an adult. “Poppa,” he said and rushed forward.

John embraced his son – felt himself trembling, grew embarrassed by his tears, then released himself without releasing his son.

“Never again,” John said to no one but himself.


About the author:

Thomas Elson lives in Northern California. He writes of lives that fall with neither a safe person nor a safe net to catch them. His stories have been published in the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Red City Literary Review, Avalon Literary Review, Lunaris Journal, The 3288 Review, and A New Ulster.

         

Art Credit:  Martha Winterhalter

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