We both were wearing our fatigues and bundled up against the fall night air at the edge of the woods behind the mess hall. So far there was no reason to adjust our warm clothing beyond my fly being unbuttoned. My cock was out as I leaned back against a tree trunk, but it was being kept warm by Corporal Hart’s mouth enveloping it.
Corporal Hart was just one of my willing boys. We’d come a long way together to Berlin and beyond from the landing at Anzio, and many of us had become as close and comforting and interested in and willing for mutual release as men could be who were on the move on their feet for two years and subject to being shot on the spot for finding their relief in women encountered along the trek across Europe. Not that it wasn’t equally dangerous to be caught engaging in the release we did.
Hart looked up into my eyes, his with a pleading expression on them, asking, I knew, if I was ready to belly him against the tree, cover his back, and give him the full length and girth of my cock.
I was, and would have done so, if it hadn’t been for the commotion coming from the back door of the mess hall, by the trashcans, where Cook was speaking gruffly to someone in the shadows.
“Hey, what yer doin’ there? And who are you? You’re not from the camp, are you? A local. A Kraut, I think.”
With a sigh, I gently pushed Ted Hart back on his haunches, folded my cock back into my pants, and buttoned up as I walked toward the mess hall. Duty called. It already was nearly pitch black here below a cliff of Kehlstein Mountain in the German Alps, in the most remote southeast corner of Bavaria. Only the light from the mess hall kitchen windows, cast across the shadows of two men, one rather small and struggling and the other tall and heavy and grasping the smaller figure close, provided any context to Cook’s gruff voice and answering whimpers in German. My immediate thought as I approached this tableau was that there would be some sentry I’d have to dress down. German nationals weren’t allowed in the camp without escort—and not at night at all.
In fact, we had license to shoot them on sight. There were signs, in German, explaining that plastered on the compound fences.
“I found this Kraut rummaging around in the trashcans,” Cook said as I walked up. “I told you that I thought there was a wild animal at the cans for the last week. Turns out it’s only this little guy.”
“Well, let me see what we have here,” I said, as I reached them. “He doesn’t look so dangerous.”
And, indeed, he didn’t look dangerous at all. He looked so weak and emaciated that he might be on his last legs. Pity that, I thought. He was quite a good-looking young man. Not young, young, of course. Maybe his late twenties or early thirties, but life obviously was being cruel to him. It hadn’t been all that rewarding to any of us as World War II was winding down across Europe. And some of us had to walk here from the toe of the boot that was Italy.
I had taken my guys all the way to Berlin to help cut off the head of the snake there the previous May, not losing one soldier in the process. For our reward, we were sent up here into the far reaches of Bavaria to sit in a temporary camp between the mountain town of Obersalzberg, up against the lower cliffs of the Kehlstein Mountain and in the shadow of the third highest peak in the German Alps, Watzman Mountain. I don’t wish to sneer at the assignment we received as we waited to be shipped home—nearly all of us to wives and children no matter what we’d gotten into for solace and relief during the last two years marching from Italy to here. We actually had a plum assignment. Obersalzberg had been the winter retreat for Adolf Hitler himself and his sycophants, built up here on the lower slopes of the Kehlstein as a retreat for the führer during the 1936 Olympics in nearby Garmish-Partenkircher.
Hitler had spent more and more time up here in the waning years of the war, and he’d stashed a lot of the loot up here that he and his cronies had pulled out of art museums all across Europe during the German occupation. My unit’s job was to guard and inventory this stash until it could be properly dispersed again. We were not far from the end of accomplishing this, which was a good thing, because the winter of 1945-46 was pressing in on us, and this place would be one snow-covered iceberg come December.
And a look at the obviously starving young man in the tattered clothing and overcoat who Cook was holding by the scruff of the neck told me that it was unlikely he could survive the winter.
His eyes showed a mixture of fear and resignation. My heart turned over. I’d seen far too much of the suffering among civilians in this war. There was nothing about him that spoke soldier. He fit the bill of starving artist more. The complete look of surrender and vulnerability in his eyes moved me—and not just my heart. Cleaned up and fed he would have been almost irresistible to me and my appetites.
“Who are you and how did you get into the camp?” I asked. He looked at me with a complete lack of comprehension. So, a German refugee no doubt. Certainly not American and most certainly not belonging in this camp. I knew all of my men—more than a few of them I knew biblically.
“Are you hungry. Were you looking in the trashcans for food?”
There was a flash of recognition in his eyes, but still he said nothing. He probably knew that rummaging for food here was inviting a death bullet. He had to have been totally desperate to even contemplate risking it. At that point the assistant cook, Private Green came to the kitchen door.
“Kyle,” I said to him. “Is anything left over from the night’s mess?”
“We have a bit ham left and there’s bread,” the private answered.
“Can you make a sandwich with that please—a big one—and give it to this man, and then escort him back to the main gate, please? I’m too tired tonight to write up an incident report. But on your way back, please make a round of the sentries, let them know a civilian got into the camp. Tell them to look at every inch of fencing for a breach and report to me tomorrow. And tell them that, despite the breach, I haven’t released any orders permitting target practice.”
“Yes, sir,” Kyle answered. When he came back with the sandwich, wrapped in a newspaper, and handed it to the young man, Cook let loose of him and I drew both Cook’s attention and that of Kyle to me to ask them just not to say anything to anyone about this. We were not supposed to offer any help at all to German civilians. In the moment it took for me to do that, though, the young German had disappeared.
I sighed. I’d have to write up some sort of report after all. “I still want you to go to the sentries, Kyle, I said. I hope to God one of them doesn’t shoot the young man while he’s trying to get back out of the camp. But there’s a breach in the fencing someplace. The only side not covered is the cliff below the Kehlstein, and that’s a sheer rock wall.”
A little sad now—at what war does to us all—and slightly irritated that I’d have to write up an incident report, I returned to the edge of the forest where Corporal Hart was waiting for me in the dark. Reverting to an earlier stage of our preparation, we engaged in a bit of lip play and groping before he sucked me off again. It was with weary thoughts of all we’d been through and the toll it had taken on people like that young man at the mess hall, whose hands I’d seen—the hands of a professional or artisan, not of a farmer of soldier—that I embraced Ted Hart from behind as he leaned into a tree and spread his legs, entered him deep to his moans and groans, and worked him hard to give both of us release and something more pleasant to think of than what we’d been through in the last two years.
I was finishing with Ted, holding him close in my embrace, his head turned to me, our lips meeting, and the last short spurts of my cum ejaculating into the quick of his passage when I floated up out of our “transported elsewhere” time separated from the present and slowly became aware of our surroundings again.
As I drifted back into reality, I sensed that the two of us weren’t alone—that we were being observed. I slowly rotated my head around, not wanting to spook off whoever it was. But just that slight turn was enough for me to hear the crackle of pine needles underfoot deeper into the forested area. Just the glimpse I saw was of tattered clothes in browns and grays and black, and I instantaneously thought of the young German who had been caught at the trashcans.
I released Ted, who slumped against the tree trunk, and, after an affectionate stroke of his cheek, strode out in the direction in which I sensed we had been watched. But of course when I got to the tree I had marked as the figure’s hiding place, no one was there.
* * * *
Cook approached me in the mess hall two evenings later as the dinner hour was drawing down and men were leaving the hall. We were in a state of unaccustomed limbo here at the base of the German Alps. The men had been warily trudging through fields, avoiding roads, where ambushes could be set, and being ever aware of their environment for years before landing here in the small camp near Obersalzberg below the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s famous mountaintop tea house that was carved out of the rock of the Kehlstein. Here, the march was over. The war was over. Presumably the danger was over, although there continued to be whispers of “lost cause” partisan cells that kept the Americans close to their camps and bases. There was little for the men to do in the evening after dinner and before night when they could surreptitiously move about their barracks into each other’s beds. They lingered in the mess hall, but it was dark and growing late.
I habitually ate late, walking around to the tables earlier in the meal, coffee in hand, checking on the well-being of the men—and frequently making assignations with one or two of them for meetings in my separate room in the night.
“Excuse me, Captain,” Cook said, his voice hesitant.
“Yes? Is there a problem? I saw the supply truck come in today. We were shortchanged in some rations?”
“No, Captain, that is all good. It’s the German refugee from the other night.”
“The young man who somehow got into and out of the camp without alerting one of the sentries?” I was still chaffing over that happening. I had doubled the sentries. I also was chaffing a bit from having gone soft and giving him something to eat. I was somewhat surprised that I didn’t have half the population of Obersalzberg at the front gate the next morning begging to receive what he had.
“Yes, the same,” Cook said. “He returned. I caught him going through the trash again.”
“And did he run off when you found him—like the other night? I can call out the men to search the camp for him. We need to know how he’s getting in.”
“No, sir. I have detained him.”
“Detained him?” A chill went up my spine. The regulations were to summarily shoot any German invading a camp to steal anything, especially food. I thought it was barbaric, but I had been assured that it was the only way to keep the starving population from trying to overrun the camps. An example ran through my mind that had been spread around the country and, I had been assured by high command, was true and was repeated as a deterrent. The story went that a young German boy earned scraps of food at a U.S. base near Heidelberg shortly after the fall of Berlin by shining the shoes of the base commander. He was seen running out of the commander’s tent with a pair of shoes in his hand and was shot by a sentry who didn’t know of the arrangement. Just beyond where he fell was a rock on which the shoe polish and brush were neatly arranged. He had just decided to shine them outside rather than inside the tent that day.
Deterrent perhaps, but it choked me up each time I thought of the cruelty of war. I knew I could have shot the young German scavenger two nights previously—and that perhaps some of the men would have expected me to do so and would think it weakness that I didn’t. That was probably why I only told who I had to about the incident. So, part of me was relieved that he had escaped.
But now he was back, and under control, if I understood Cook correctly.
“Yes, sir, I have him locked in the storage room.”
“Well, I guess we’d better attend to him, then,” I said, with a deep sigh. “Let’s not let the whole camp hear about this, though.” I had absolutely no resolve to shoot the young man. After trying to discern how he was getting into the camp, I’d send him on his way. I was still struggling in my mind whether to send him away with food or not. If I fed him again, I knew he’d be back. If I didn’t feed him, maybe he would realize this was a blind alley for him. What I was really struggling with in my mind, I knew, was whether I wanted him to come back again—and where that might lead. I hadn’t been able to get him out of my mind.
When the storage door was open, I was torn between crying and laughing. The young man was sitting on the floor, in the dark, and had found and torn into a sack of raw potatoes. He was munching on one. He looked up at me in the doorway with a panicked look on his face, but he was holding onto to half a raw potato as if his life depended on it. I didn’t think he was going to give up the rest of the sack without a fight to the death either. And, as he looked even more emaciated than he had two nights previously, it’s possible that his life did depend on it.
There was nothing else I could do. I turned to Cook. “Is there still stew in the pot from the evening’s meal?”
“Dish up a bowl of it—and a chunk of bread and some coffee. And bring it to our guest in the mess hall. And, Private Green,” I said, turning to the assistant cook, “See if you can rustle up some civilian clothes that will fit this young man. Put them in my room.”
I went into the storage room and bent down, and pulled the young man up to his feet. He was as light as a feather. “Kommen mit mir, bitte,” I said, hoping my tortured German was understandable. “Sie mussen essen.”
He looked at me with glazed eyes, but he allowed me to guide him into the now-empty mess hall. He was still clutching the sack of potatoes under his arm and I made no move to take it away from him.
After he’d polished off the second bowl of stew and I motioned that any more would probably make him sick and he’d lose it all, I attempted to communicate with him again. “Konnen Sie sagen mir—?”
“Perhaps we should speak English,” he suddenly said. “I appreciate your attempts at German, but . . .”
I was too shocked to speak in any language for a few seconds. “You speak English. And I mean English English, and your accent is impeccable.”
“Thank you. I have lived in both London and Paris.”
This just made it all the more tragic for me. He was educated and spoke with a refined accent. And he’d been brought this low.
“What are you doing here then? And are you English?”
“I’m German. I was painting abroad when the war started. But I had to come back . . . for my family.”
Ah, I was right. An artist. He was a painter. “And did you find your family?”
“No,” he said softly. “I’m Jewish. My family was gone by the time I returned.”
“Oh. My name is Trent. Yours is—?”
“You can call me Jake. But I see that you are a captain. So I must call you captain.”
“OK, then, Jake. You can call me Captain Carter. I’ve asked that some cleaner clothes be found for you and you can come back to my room. I have a bath. You can shower there. I take it where you live doesn’t have washing facilities?” Of course I wanted him to tell me where he lived and how he was able to get in the camp without being seen by a sentry—and possibly shot.
“I couldn’t possibly . . . but thank you for the meal. I should go now.”
We both rose from the table. “Are you going to leave that sack of potatoes here?” I asked. And when he looked lovingly at it, I said, “You can have the potatoes, Jake. But you have to stop coming into the camp. We are supposed to shoot anyone who does that.”
“Being shot is not the worst thing that can happen here in this time,” he said simply, his eyes downcast. But he picked up the sack of potatoes.
“Winter is going to be bad here,” I said. “We should only be here for another month or so, but if you promise not to come into camp to go through the trashcans again—and if you don’t tell others of it—I will see to it that you can have some food left for you every evening.”
He stood there stolidly, with down-cast eyes, although I discerned a slight tremble in his body that might have be caused by emotion. I was struck with how beautiful he was, even in this condition, and my body was stirring.
“The food must be left outside the camp, though. Do you know of the track up the mountain from here, and the religious shrine about a 100 yards beyond the main gate at the side of the road—the one with a closed wooden container at its base?”
He merely nodded.
“You will fine food there for as long as we’re camped here.”
I told myself I wasn’t doing this because he moved me to desire—and certainly not because he was German—but because he was Jewish and had been in freedom and had returned despite the danger to find his family. And because he hadn’t found them. The war in Europe was over now—justice and humanity needed to be brought back into the world. Even if only in small ways at the beginning.
“But I have a condition for leaving you food periodically.”
“You must get cleaned up tonight and take a new set of clothes. Those are in tatters.”
When he had showered in the bathroom attached to my room—having my own facilities being the privilege of rank and command even if my unit was a small one—he padded out into my room in the nude. His body was perfectly formed and even as thin as he’d become, he retained muscle tone. He was beautifully equipped.
“Are you going to take me to your bed now?” he asked simply, in a low voice, his eyes, with the long, curly dark eyelashes fluttering.
“Excuse me?” I said. I had taken an overcoat I had replaced out of a closet, and I held it between him and me defensively, wondering wildly how he’d know that I’d developed a hard on from the knowledge that he was naked, in my shower.
“I saw you the other night, with the young man, in the forest. I saw that you made sex with men. If you want me clean, it must be because you wish to use me. You may to do. I will lie under you. I am sorry that I am too thin to be desirable now, but you are being kind to me, and—”
“No, please. That’s not necessary,” I said, embarrassed—embarrassed mostly because all the time he’d been in the shower I’d been fantasizing about fucking him, thoughts that only ran rampant when he came into the room naked. “I assure you that I have no designs on you. Just put on these clothes and go, please. I’ll have someone escort you to the main gate. And take the food from the shrine; don’t try coming in to go through the trash. You may be shot for trying.”
“I am sorry if I have presumed—or if I have displeased you,” he said with downcast eyes.
“Not at all,” I answered. “I would not dream of taking advantage of you, though.”
“It would not be taking advantage,” he murmured. “I do lie under men.”
This was my opening, but I was too shocked and obsessed with my responsibility to answer. And not having responded at once became the answer.
I stood, quaking, after he’d left. I wanted him even more now than I had before he’d offered himself to me and I had turned him away. It was only after he’d gone that I considered that what I’d told him meant that, under other circumstances, I would want to fuck him.
I hadn’t done what I had for him to get my cock inside him. Surely I hadn’t. I didn’t want to believe that this might have been a motive, even subconsciously. I wasn’t that much of a using predator. Thinking on that made me think beyond that. All that time walking from Italy to here. I was in command. I fucked what, five or six of my men regularly. Was that because they wanted it as much as I did? Had I been fooling myself? Taking advantage of my position. Surely the army would see it that way.
It snowed steadily although lightly for the next two days, accumulating maybe three inches of snow, but promising a blizzard in the not-too-far-distant future. I was under the covers—a pile of covers—reaching “warm” for the first time that day in this indifferently constructed group of temporary camp buildings. I was nearly asleep, when I felt the draft of the covers being raised and a body slipping in under the covers.
Earlier, Corporal Hart—Ted—has been with me in my bed. We had writhed against each other on top of the sheets, as we often did, not being able to be satiated enough with the touch, and smell, and taste of each other. As was also often the case, I had speared him in a side split and moved in and out of him deeply until he was putty in my embrace—relaxed and completely open so that he took me to the root, murmuring his surrender to me. I turned onto my back, pulling him with me so that he was full length on top of me, both of us bending our legs so that we could get leverage off the surface of the bed with the balls or heels of our feet for me to thrust up into him and him to rear back into my pelvis to meet the thrusts.
I embraced his chest with one arm, latched onto the lobe of an ear with my teeth, and fisted and jacked off his cock as I pounded his ass. We came almost simultaneously, Ted first spouting toward the ceiling and splashing on his belly and chest, and me creaming his channel deep.
As we lay there, panting, the cold of the room crept in to push away the heat of our sex, and, reluctantly, he said, he left me.
I hadn’t called for Ted to attend me; he had come to me on his own in the night. I had felt so guilty about the possibility that the men I fucked only allowed me to do so because of my rank that I hadn’t been with any of them for two days. Concerned when yet another body burrowed under the covers with me several minutes after the corporal had left my bed, I moved my hand toward the nightstand where I had laced my service revolver, but a hand gripped my wrist.
“Please, Captain Carter, you said I’d only be shot for entering the camp again if I was going through the trashcans. I came for you, not the trash. I meant what I said when I said it wouldn’t be taking advantage.”
“I told you . . . you don’t need to—” I didn’t finish that sentence as I was overtaken by a moan as the mouth of the young German who had told me to call him Jake found and enveloped my cock.
When he had subdued me into an irrevocable want of him, which didn’t take long, he lifted his head and said, “Although I am grateful, I’m not here because of that; I’m here because I want you inside me. I have lusted for you since I watched you fuck that young soldier against the tree—and then again just now, as I watched you two through your window. I want your cock. I want what you gave that young soldier just now.” He slid his lips over my cock again and, with a sigh, I gave in to his ministrations.
With me on my back, he rode my cock for what seemed to be hours. We lay and murmured to each other as we rested between fuckings.
“You do this like a pro,” I whispered. “I thought you said you had a family here you’d come back for. I had assumed a wife . . . and children.”
“One does what one has to to survive in wartime. All I had for the last year that was marketable was what the guards of the führer’s winter house craved. I acquired, first an expertise and then a taste, and then a need for it myself. Yes, I had a wife and children,” he answered. “I think of you as having a wife and children too back in your country. You do have a family, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I admitted, “I do.”
“It’s the war. It’s the same for both of us, I think. It’s just the war. A man has his needs, no matter the circumstances he finds himself in.”
“Yes, it’s just the war,” I answered, as he brought his face down to mine for a kiss. But it wasn’t just the war. Not with this man. It was more than that. I couldn’t fool myself about that. “We’ll be leaving in four more weeks,” I said, not knowing why I’d brought it up. But, in fact, knowing why. And then, many minutes later, when the panting and rhythm of the fuck had abated into a mutual flow and we were lying there, recovering, knowing we weren’t done, only taking a rest to recover, I whispered, “I will miss these mountains.” I couldn’t tell him what I’d now discovered I’d really miss.
“You don’t have mountains where you come from?”
“Yes,” I answered, with a laugh. “I come from the Rocky Mountains, running down the middle of America.”
“I’ve heard about those. Like our alps, but not as tall.”
“Yes. I’ll miss the tallness of these mountains.”
“And I’ll miss the longness and thickness of you—the vigor and musky scent of you,” he said, after a hesitating. “But we’ll have these four weeks, if you’ll let me come again.”
“Yes, we’ll have these four weeks. But then we’ll be gone and it will be the middle of the winter. There’ll be no more food to put out for you.”
“There wasn’t food before you came. Afterward I don’t think it will be the food I miss from your going.”
We fucked again then, tenderly, me holding him under me on his belly, and languidly mining his ass passage.
He thought I was asleep when he slipped out of the bed, dressed, and left. But I wasn’t. I still needed to learn how he was getting into the camp past the fences and guards. I quickly pulled on my fatigues and followed him at a distance, aided by watching for his tracks in the recently fallen snow. I followed his footsteps up to the base of the Kehlstein Mountain towering over the camp to the south, but then lost the track where the rock started. Still, it all looked like a sheer rock wall to me. That’s why we hadn’t bothered to fence it in.
Three weeks and five visits from him later, I discovered where he went and how he got there. I managed that by staking out the shrine where the food was left for him and following him from there. His trek took him up a rocky incline at the base of the Kehlstein and then descending by a circuitous channel with rock walls on each side into the back of the camp. Another, nearly invisible, crevice in the rock was accessible by moving sideways. This passage opened up and ascended the mountainside to a glade of trees. A shack close to collapse was hidden in the trees.
I stood at the door as he mussed with the food over a small table, turned away from me so that he didn’t see me for the longest time. The room contained the table, a rickety straight chair, and a cot. The rest of the room was taken up with painting supplies. An unfinished oil painting sat on an easel.
The painting was of the nearby Zugspitz, the tallest mountain in the German Alps. The mountain commanded the distance. Nearly centered in the foreground was a ravine leading down toward the base of the mountain and rising on either side of the canvas. Mist enveloped the floor of the ravine. On the left, rising out of a rock outcropping on the side of the ravine, roots clinging to hard-won crevices in the rock, was a lone pine tree. The branches of the tree were nearly barren, although there was a hint that it was still fighting for life even though its only grounding was solid rock.
Although the painting obviously was of the Zugspitz, upon closer inspection, I knew the painting really was about that lone pine, clinging to the last vestiges of life by tenacious and hopeful roots buried in the crevices of hard, unforgiving rock. The mountain of the painting reminded me so much of the mountain rising above my family ranch in Colorado that it choked me up and I briefly entertained the thought that he’d been to the Rockies. That must have made an audible sound, as Jake turned in surprise.
I expected him to be angry. I had ferreted out his lair, which he obviously had wanted to keep as a secret.
He merely smiled a sad smile though, and started to undress and move to the cot, where I fucked him like the end of the world was at hand.
And for us, it was. I had to inform him that it would be too dangerous for him to visit the camp again, and that I’d now be too busy to break away to visit him here. The orders to pack out had arrived and the last week in the camp would be chaos.
He let me go with a tender kiss at the door of his shack. He said nothing about what this departure meant for him—either in the lost sex or the end to his food supply. And I said nothing either. I didn’t want to think about it, and there didn’t seem to be anything to say about it. But in subsequent years I was haunted by not having found some way to protect him.
The night before the transport convoy arrived to take us away for the flight home, one of my men came to my office.
“This parcel was left for you at the gate, Captain,” he said.
“It was a German guy, but he didn’t give a name. But he’s the guy who has been coming into camp at your order.” The soldier knew what Jake and I had been doing, of course. All of the men probably knew.
When I unfolded the yellowed, German-language newspaper print away from the parcel, it was revealed to be the painting of the Zugspitz I’d seen on the easel in Jake’s shack. It had been finished. In my melancholy at parting from Jake, the lone pine stood out of the painting even more now than it ever had done.
Regardless of what else had to be done, I left my office immediately and, after some fruitless searching, finally found the entrance of the ravine at the back of the camp that led me to the doorstep of Jake’s shack. The shack was deserted. I decided that he probably was right—that good-bye was inevitable and prolonging it would only add to the grief.
Since he wasn’t there, I told myself that he had gone into the town and would find shelter and sustenance there. I kept telling myself that for some time. I don’t think I ever convinced myself that he’d done so, though.
* * * *
Like many a soldier before me, I returned to the States, to my lucrative cattle ranch, and to my wife and two children. I fell immediately into a normal, straight life. Like so many others—the lucky ones—I was able to compartment off my war years from the home life I had gone to war to preserve. And like so many others, I wasn’t quick to respond to my children’s innocent questions of “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” because I had gone to war to save them from knowing what one has to do in war and the totally different person it demands you be.
It was only when I was feeling vulnerable or nostalgic that I thought back on what I had done with men during the war—and inevitably my thoughts at these times went to Jake.
I shouldn’t have rewrapped the painting in the yellowed German-language newspaper print. In shipping it had clotted with what must have been still-damp paint on a hip of stone on the side of the Zugspitz and took the top layer of paint away, leaving an impression of the printing on the newspaper. For a year or more I searched for an artist who would touch the painting up for me. All of them in the Denver and even the Los Angeles area said that the work was too fine for them to touch.
They all asked me where I’d gotten it. I, of course, was vague with my answer. After a while, considering the interest the painting evoked from other artists, I began to fear that someone would think that I had raided the art stash in Bavaria that my unit had been assigned to protect and I hid the painting away. I could not forget it, though, and each time I took it out to look at and my eyes went to the lone pine, I remembered—and I felt myself go hard. The painting kept pulling me back to it and, nearly a year later, when I had occasion to go to New York City on business, I decided to make another effort to have the damage to the painting repaired.
A prestigious gallery in New York said they had an artist who could attempt a touchup. “But I doubt that anyone can match the delicacy and tone of the original artist. You’ll be able to tell the difference.”
“Do the best you can,” I said. “It pains me to see it like it is now. It looks wounded, and I don’t want to think of it that way.”
“By the way, do you have any idea what you have here?” the gallery official asked.
“Yes, it’s of the Zugspitz in the German Alps. I served near there at the end of the war. It looks just like the real thing. It was given to me by a refugee, in exchange for food.”
“Yes, it would look like the real thing,” she said. “You have here a Jacob Gelmen painting. There’s his mark down in the corner. This painting is worth a big fortune, even with the flaw. Very few Gelmens survived the war, although he was the toast of London galleries when the war started. It was ironic, but the London studio where he worked and where most of his paintings were stored was bombed out by a German rocket during the London blitz.”
“A famous artist?”
“Absolutely,” she said. “A real tragedy. He was Jewish, you know. He was safely away in London—well, as safe as London was under rocketing conditions. But his family was in Germany. He left London to go find them long after everyone knew that would be suicide—he was Jewish, you know. Yes, I already told you that. Sometime in 1943, I think. Yes, indeed. Should you ever want to sell this, Sothbys would be delighted to handle an auction for you.”
“Thank you, but I don’t think I could ever bear to part with it,” had been my answer. I was so choked up that I barely could get the words out. Besides the fact that if I did try to sell it, the question of how I got it when I was in charge of protecting an art stash would crop up again, there’s no way I would ever give it up.
I almost didn’t ask, but I couldn’t bear not to. “The artist, Gelmen. Did he stop painting?”
“He must have been killed in the war when he returned to Germany,” she answered. “Nothing has been reported of him since the war. This looks like the paintings of his later work. It may have been one of the last pieces he painted.”
The gallery’s artist did a decent job of touching the painting up—at least it was better than the mar of the paint removed by the newsprint—but the real benefit of having it retouched was that the touchup only highlighted how much finer the original artwork was.
And, even more than before, it no longer offered a “marred” focal point to take away from the centrality of that lone pine, clinging to life on its rock.
Before the end of the decade, I found an excuse to fly back to Germany—and to Bavaria—on my own. On the ruse of wanting to hike in the German Alps, I went back to Obersalzberg, being able to stay in the U.S. Army’s General Walker Hotel thanks to having maintained reserve status and risen to the rank of major. I found where our camp had been, now, I was happy to see, returned to productive farmland. And I found the opening in the rock wall at the base of the Kehlstein.
I found the shack, but the roof had caved in and there was no sign that anyone had been there for years. The winter of 1945-46 had been a rough one in Germany. It was hard to conceive that Jacob Gelmen could have survived if he had remained here. I almost poked around in the ruins of the shack but decided not to, being very afraid of what I might find.
But if he had survived, there would have been no reason for him not to have resurfaced in the art world and taken his rightful place and enjoyed his international reputation.
I both didn’t want to think about it and wanted to cherish the memory of the short time we’d had together—in what now was a world that was closed to me and taboo to mention to anyone.
The painting, though—and the art gallery official had shown me on the back where it had been titled as “Mountain Memory”—was mounted over the fireplace in the living room of the ranch house.
There was a fire in that section of the rambling, log-sided ranch house in 1952. The only object I was able to save in addition to getting the family out before the roof collapsed was “Mountain Memory.”
I had saved from that fire all that was precious to me, though.