Chapter #3 “Having a Heat Wave

10 September 1942, late afternoon and evening

I came up out of oblivion missing British raindrops, which I’d never thought I’d miss. 

How can anything live in this dry heat? English weather at least produces greenery.

I shifted my position to discover tiny grains of sand under my clothes in every crevice or fold of my body. I had to clinch my jaw tight to avoid biting my tongue every time we hit a bump or a hole. Also I needed to keep my mouth shut to avoid scarring my throat with hot airborne sand. The noise from the motor assaulted my brain tissue. A pounding headache fed on all of it.

I had lived on the road with no roof over my head through flooding rains, snow, and hail without this self-pity. But nowI justified it. Only an hour ago I saved maybe two dozen British lives and defeated the Afrika Korps—well, a small part of it, for a few minutes.

That lifted my spirit for a second or two. I slumped down, enveloped by the heat, losing the idea of a self separate from the misery. No other thought completely formed until the column stopped. Relief from the noise and bumping started my return to full consciousness. Unclenching my jaw helped further. Desperate to escape the vehicle I clawed my way to the door to crawl out. My legs crumbled beneath me landing me on my knees on the hot sand.

Captain Kirchner came up. “How the mighty have fallen.”

“I hate you.” My barely audible words weren’t even worth croaking. I concentrated on the burning ground. To get my knees off the burning sand I fell over onto my right leg and buttocks. Seeing no cooler place to move to, I straightened my legs and rocked from side to side.

Kirchner looked at me more closely then raised his voice to command level. “Major!” He moved around me to the backseat as Cleere ran up from the other side.

Kirchner confronted him with, “Didn’t you notice your seat mate was developing heatstroke?”

The captain dropped the heavy coat on the ground next to me. Cleere helped me onto its insulating barrier then knelt beside me, putting a hand to my forehead. “Oh, dear.”

Kirchner handed Cleere a canteen which the major held to my lips for several swallows. He took off my cap and scarf and poured water over my head. He soaked both cap and scarf then put them back on my head and poured more water over that.

“Are you nauseated or dizzy?”

“Both." After a pause, I added, “Also hot.”

"Headache?"

"Pounding."

“Didn't you drink enough?”

I paused to access my memory, then croaked, “Don't remember drinking.” 

“Really?” Kirchner’s sneer was audible.

“Felt so bad all over. . . I never thought of. . . the sensation of thirst never broke through the other suffering.”

Kirchner reached down and pinched the skin above my wrist. It slowly went back to its original position. Too slowly. He made a dismissive sound. “You are a nurse. You should know about the dangers of dehydration and heatstroke.”

“To access. . . what you know. . . need working brain. Mine was. . ." What caused it to shut down? Maybe, “Roasted."

Cleere reassured me with, "Confusion is indeed one of the symptoms of heat exhaustion. You disassociate from your body's reactions. Roasted is an apt description of what is happening."

Kirchner made a dismissive noise.

Cleere poured more water over my head. It overflowed to run down to my shoulders. I looked up to deliberately get some on my face and Cleere poured water all over my face then he knelt down and held the canteen to my lips again. “Merely sip, holding it in your mouth for a count of three before swallowing.”

I held the water and tried to remember how to count. After several sips, he took back the canteen to pour more water on my head. After he handed me back the canteen I  took a sip and leaned back against the tire, Cleere stood to face Kirchner, trying to convince him to take off my handcuffs. I didn’t care.

Sip. Hold. Count. Swallow. Another.

Kirchner berated Cleere. "You sat right beside her. Didn't you see she wasn't drinking?"

“Every time I drank, I handed her the canteen. But you are right. Indeed, I should have made sure she actually drank."

“As senior officer among the prisoners and now her commanding officer, she is your responsibility. I don’t want to have to face Rommel with a dead prisoner, well enough a nurse! You need to watch her and be responsible for her!”

Cleere watched the captain leave then took back the canteen which was close to empty so he got the one out of the backseat of the command care to pour more water over my cap. “The heat here gets to everyone at first although most adjust to it enough to function after a few days. But you haven't been here more than a few hours. I should have realized what was happening. " He handed the canteen back to me. "The wind, however, can be worse. The various types of winds here have names. Some can drive one crazy especially the first time one encounters them." 

I was barely listening as something else had occurred to me. "I am so sorry that you have had to waste so much water on me. I doubt you have much to spare."

"See those big tanks on the outside of the lorries? They are all filled with water. Water is one thing he Germans pay attention to. Do not worry about the extra I have poured on you. I think we have stopped your downward spiral in time so we do not have to soak you in water."

I shuddered. It sounded inviting but also embarrassing even if I kept on all my clothes.

Cleere snapped his fingers and said, “I will be right back."

I kept drinking for awhile and then, gradually, sank down.

The next thing I knew a German boot stomped down about an inch from my face. “Sit up,” Kirchner ordered. Without moving his foot, he pulled me into a sitting position, then twisted his boot and lifted it. Beneath was the mangled body of a scorpion. “They are attracted to the shadow of the truck.”

No! I want the summer rains of London. I have complained about British weather, but I have never had to fight poisonous creatures for shade. 

Kirchner took a new canteen off his belt and, after pouring water over my cap, exchanged it for my now nearly empty one. Revived enough to remember what he told Cleere earlier, I responded to that. “If I die. . . At least you. . . will be held accountable. . . .”

“Would that make it worth your life?”

“Just a little bit ago,” I paused to take a breath and a drink, “It would at least have provided. . . ." What is the word I want? Oh yes: “Vengeance.” I gathered strength to finish. “But now I would rather live to. . . complain about you in person.”

“Keep that thought.” Kirchner took out a key and unlocked my handcuffs. “Don’t do anything stupid.”

“What have I done so far that was stupid?" Oh, right. “Except for not drinking while we travelled.”

Cleere returned. Kirchner turned on him, “What do you mean leaving after I just told you to watch her? Left to herself she can get into more trouble in less time than any woman I have ever known—and I have known a few.”

Kirchner stormed off and the major sat down next to me and gave me a taste of what he called chai, a sweet, rich tea-milk mixture. 

Canned milk out here in the middle of the most nowhere of all nowheres. What luxury. Now if they could just glue down the sand, lower the heat, add an oasis every few miles or so, and eradicate the scorpions. Maybe Britain could spare some raid. 

“The lads out here live on this,” Cleere went on. “Sustains us, you know. But you aren’t ready for more than a couple of sips.” Taking it back he said, “Dreadfully sorry that I didn’t notice your state. Unconscionably idiotic on my part knowing you had only just arrived. One becomes used to people being aware of what the Sahara does to them. I knew you were a nurse, and I may have expected super human responses from you after your heroic warning shot to the British column.”

'Heroic', he said. I smiled but felt I had better correct his attitude before he developed the wrong impression. 

“Me? Super human?” I found I couldn't make my usual derisive sound. Pausing to gather energy, I took another sip. “I had once seen a demonstration of how a mortar worked. So when the closest mortar was primed and unmanned, I had a unique chance. Mostly because no one thought I was a threat." Sipped again. "It was a one-off, I'm afraid. I have never before done anything remotely heroic. I hardly ever do the right thing in a crisis. Usually I just freeze.” I dismissed the image of my grandmother being killed while I stood by helplessly. I lowered my voice considerably and leaned closer to him. “I do speak German and that might help at some point.”

His eyes widened. He whispered back. “Capital! I speak some as well, but they know that. If they don’t know about you, they might say something useful in your hearing. Anything so far?”

“Not a thing.”

“Let me know what you overhear. You seem so unusual that I wonder what other unexpected abilities you might have.”

“Well, I doubt reading fortunes, juggling, tightrope walking or doing magic tricks would help out here. ” He was my commanding officer and had asked. I thought it was innocent enough to admit to these minor things.

“Fortune telling? Juggling? Magic?”

“I grew up on the continent. For awhile we lived near a British circus playing in France. As a child of eight I made friends with some of the performers. They each taught me a little of their craft. Give me someone's fortune to tell or three items of equal weight to juggle or a long list of words or names to remember and I am in my element. Then I can pretend to be strong and confident. Not weak and helpless as I am now." I searched for a way to move away from this topic. “Oh, and I sing a little, mostly American songs in English or German and one song in French. But singing is another useless skill out here.”

“Music is never useless.”

“All my skills are useless out here. Except that the car-crazy musician next door insisted on teaching me how to drive in all terrains. My father taught me how to use a compass and introduced me to many subjects, and I swear most of what I know came from him before I ever entered school. But your team hardly needs another driver, or compass reader so even things that might be of use are not. You even tell me you do not need my nursing skills." 

I was rambling, hardly paying close attention to what I was saying or why. I continued sipping and pausing for breath often. “I can't think of much else I can do that might ever help, but then before the incident earlier, I might not have remembered the mortar demonstration I saw some seven years ago. Hadn't thought of it in years.”

Must be careful as I am around delicate subjects and I know my brain isn't working right. 

I sipped more water trying to figure out how to change the subject. There are things about me, I am under orders not to reveal. “Are you sure I cannot offer medical care to any of your men?"

“You are worse off than any of the lads."

“How long —?” my strength and breath gave out, but he seemed to know what I was going to ask.

“How long have I been out here? Let’s see, I think only about half a dozen lifetimes. Actually, just over a year. Been here before on archaeology digs so headquarters must have thought it was a good place to send me. I am not sure, however, that any of my skills have been useful though my superiors seems to think that those with the best education have more leadership qualities. I have been trying to learn how to fight wars and lead men — instead of teaching and inspiring students, which I was good at — ever since. They are complicated subjects and may never be my forte, but I was anxious to do my part for the war effort, of course. Probably why you became a nurse, I expect?”

“You belong in a university.” I paused and swallowed more water and worried that he might take offense if it was Cambridge, but I took a chance based on training that gave me slightly better than a 50-50 chance to be right — it always impresses people when I guess correctly. “Oxford?” Watching his expression, I was ready to add, "Or Cambridge", but I didn't have to.

“Got it in one. Does it show terribly?”

“Hot sand hasn’t. . . changed your air of pure British academia.” I paused for more water and to gather strength just to say, slowly, reaching for each word, “To go from Oxford calm to all this must have taken some doing.”

“Well, they send one for some months of grueling training first. That was the first shock. Wasn’t in any kind of shape, One played cricket and did some rowing and thought one was in great shape but discovered that wasn’t up to army standards. What about you?”

“Nothing to tell, really. A course in nursing. Someone decided that, though, I wasn’t the best hands-on nurse, I might make an officer since I remembered just about everything I had ever heard or read. So then a few days of officer training, mainly about following rules. They were sending me to replace someone in medical administration in Cairo.” Again a pause for a drink and to get my brain to focus on my orders not to mention who it was sending me or what ulterior motives he had.

Cleere’s comments made me curious given my lack of schooling. Most of what I knew was haphazardly until I was 13 and then German schools until I was about 16 and only after that British schools. Now, I learn things as I hear about them and look them up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica at home or ask someone. Not like the organized information most children learn through a regular school system. “Do you think Headquarters is right that one’s education helps one lead?”

“Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. Students who I thought possessed no discipline or determination, based on their work at school, have turned out to have both in smashing abundance when the situation called for it. Also dons like me have learned we can do more than we thought. If I survive the experience I dread to think what I shall be like at the end of it. I wonder if I will be able to return to the life I once loved. My wife may not recognize me.”

“She’s still in Oxford?”

“No. she is from Scotland. As soon as the bombing started two years ago, she took our daughter and went home where we were sure they’d be safer. So that left me free to join up and do my bit.”

He changed the subject finally approaching what he was really curious about. “I can usually tell where someone is from, but not with you.”

He is really trying to figure out my class. Everyone has trouble with me. “My father went to Oxford for a couple of years before the last war. At first I copied the way he spoke, of course. But after he died we moved around a lot. My aunt with whom I have lived for the last six years speaks a sort of middle class London, and I picked up some from her, I am sure. I tend to mimic people I am around, but then it all blends together when I am not around the same people all the time. Sorry, hard to specify only one influence.”

“In some ways you sound like Kirchner.”

“I hear mostly American, instead of British influences, in the way he talks. I, too, have been influenced by American speech, through the cinema—I do go to an awful lot of films. Also in nursing school I roomed with an American. She talked constantly about every subject related to the United States from history to sports and I am sure I mimicked her after being around her so much.”

“Did you learn German in school?”

“Spoke German as a small child and I may have tried to copy the English accent of some Germans. . . . Then later I had German teachers." He will assume I mean teachers of German whereas I mean teachers who were Germans. “Maybe that’s why there is also a hint of that.”

“Right. The fact that you speak German is bloody marvelous.” He stopped. “Sorry.”

“For what? Oh, that word. I have grown used to it dealing with wounded soldiers who use it a lot. In nursing it comes up in literal descriptions of bandages and bed clothes as well. I have pretty much stopped hearing it as a forbidden word. Besides, having been raised on the continent, as I said, I didn’t hear British curse words early in life and so they do not have the same level of taboo for me. Also associating with that circus inured me to curses. But I warn you against using it when you get home. After weeks of hearing it pretty constantly in hospital, one day when I was incredibly tired, I used it at home. My aunt looked at me with a terribly disappointed expression, and my uncle, who is incredibly understanding, said, ’I think you should watch where you say that.’ At which point I felt too incompetent to be allowed to cross the street by myself.”

“Quite, quite. I wonder if after all this, The life I once loved feels so unreal from this vantage point. Ah, everyone seems to be packing up.”

Kirchner’s men had been getting the prisoners and their things back into the vehicles and the captain came over to us. “Ah, the gentleman and the non-lady.”

Indignantly the major stood. I put a hand on his arm and said with more strength and presence of mind than I could have mustered a few minutes before, “He is just trying to be charming, Major. Do you think you can teach him proper behavior at his age? Let it go.”

The captain raised an eyebrow at me. “In Germany, women are expected to do womanly things like nature intended and not become involved in men’s business.”

I shrugged.

“A country which refuses the help of half its population in an emergency situation," Major Cleere interjected, "is destined to lose.”

“German women help by being women and support personnel. Our nurses are not put in military uniforms nor do they interfere on battlefields.”

“Ah, well, we in Britain still remember our warrior queen, Boudica," Major Cleere was in his element, lecturing. "She wouldn’t give in to Roman rule. And in this very area of the world, Kahinah led her tribe against the invading Muslims.”

“If I am not mistaken, both of those women and their people were massacred.”

“As were many male leaders and their followers all over the world. But sometimes one has to fight back even in the face of overwhelming force. It allows one's descendants some pride.”

“If they have descendants.”

I didn’t care what the German believed and had never heard of either of these women warriors. 

Women warriors? Real ones? Not just in myths and legends? If I ever get somewhere with an encyclopedia, I must look them up. 

Right then, though, I used my energy to continue sipping.

Kirchner seemed a bit amused as if he regarded his two British prisoners as specimens of some kind of newly discovered culture he was studying. 

He probably dismisses us as having been out in the sun too long. Certainly applies to me.

I tried to hand him back his canteen, but he held up a hand. “Keep it and keep sipping constantly. I will get another canteen. That one is yours now. When you use up all the water, let someone know and they will fill it.”

I felt grateful and because of that, felt like throwing it at him. But that would have taken too much energy and I had already developed an affection for this new canteen—so full of water—and I didn’t want to give it up. I was also grateful to have the handcuffs off. Handcuffs I didn’t want to give him any excuse to put back.

I then faced the hurdle of getting to my feet. Kirchner held out his hand and I looked at it. I asked Cleere, “Major, would you be so kind as to please help me up.” He did so. Then it was back to the transport from hell.

But now I have a lifeline. My new friend the canteen which I vow never to forget again.

Hours later dusk came. The column didn’t stop. Dark followed shortly thereafter and we drove into it. At first the decrease in temperature revived me. It turned pleasantly cool. But it kept getting colder. And colder still. I reached for the coat to wrap myself in. When the major leaned over to help me into it, he yelled into my ear, “Keep drinking. Cold also dehydrates.”

Soon I was shivering despite the coat and after awhile I moved off the seat and huddled on the floor. Are we going to drive all night?

Finally, the vehicle stopped. Men jumped out of their transports. I pulled myself back up to the seat. Both the German soldiers and the British prisoners moved through routines for setting up for the night, but I had no idea where to go or what to do. Kirchner and Cleere were arguing. About me. I need to care about this. The cold, however, sapped my strength, and will, almost as much as the heat had earlier.

Wait! What was that Kirchner is saying? That I spend the night away from the other prisoners. In his tent. 

I tried to speak up but my voice, having to operate through a throat stripped hoarse by the amount of sand I had swallowed, was an unrecognizable croak. I could only listen while I swallowed several times.

“Oh don’t be silly, Major. I just want to make sure she doesn’t do anything else totally unexpected that might force me to shoot her and then I would have to justify it to Rommel. I am willing to take that on only if I absolutely must.”

“But it isn’t proper.”

“What could be in this situation? Nothing possible is going to be proper.” The captain argued as if he cared what his ranking prisoner thought. “We aren’t equipped to be dealing with a woman out here. But stop worrying. Look at her: unkempt, dirty and, at the best of times, I suspect, generally not very attractive. Her mousy brown hair is not only filled with sand but in braids. Who wears braids? Her eyebrows are bushy, not like the neat little lines modern women have. I doubt she is ever pretty. Even out here, I have my standards.”

“Captain, that is uncalled for!”

“She does have some good features, I admit, but generally homely.” The German turned to me. “Frauline Bowman, be honest, has anyone ever called you pretty?”

I swallowed and again tried to speak. “No.” Still a croak, but the word was recognizable. I was uncomfortable with how freely the English and Germans discussed what people looked like., but I decided to take this instance lightly, “Not without a full day’s effort. . . and then they were exaggerating.” I paused to breathe several times. “Have been told my face has character. . . . I suspect ‘plain’ is the word people use behind my back.”

The captain smiled. 

“Now, hold on,” Major Cleere objected. “With a little makeup and tweezing eyebrows like girls do these days—”

I glared at Cleere. Kirchner picked up on it and interrupted. “Major, I don't believe she wants me thinking she could ever be pretty.”

He’s too damned perceptive.

Cleere flushed a light pink. "Oh. Of course. Still, it was a nasty thing to say, Captain." He turned to me, "I assure you, Lieutenant Bowman, Captain Kirchner is not a bad sort."

Now it was Kirchner who glared at Major Cleere. What is that about? Does he want to be considered a possible rapist? 

Addressing the issue at hand, I got my thoughts together. “Could the major also. . . share your tent?”

“It would be a tight fit.” Kirchner paused. “But we do want to accommodate a nurse who I almost feel has been punished enough for interfering. I still don’t intend to take any chances with you, but let me see what we can arrange that will make both of us feel safe. Right now the major has obligations to his men, don’t you, Major?”

“Well, yes.”

“Surely, you aren’t going to tell me you don’t trust me to be alone with her for even a few minutes? All right, I’ll take my sergeant as a chaperon.” He turned to me, “I want to have a serious talk with you to convince you not to do anything to upset things further.”

The captain motioned toward a tent that had already been set up. I was apprehensive, but with Major Cleere and other prisoners so close, I felt reasonably safe. I resolved to pay attention to Kirchner. I should be able to read him using techniques my grandmother had taught me for fortune telling. So far, I hadn't had the strength to pay attention, and I needed to focus to get a feel for a person.

Inside the tent was a cot, table, chair, light, and a newly lit petrol heater giving out miraculous warmth. I actually began to relax. He motioned for me to sit on the cot and he drew up the chair to face me. His sergeant followed us in standing at the flap.

Captain Kirchner told me, “Sergeant Hauber here is the best I’ve got. He doesn’t smoke, drink, or frequent brothels when we are in towns. He grew up in a family of women and had daughters. He will be our chaperon on the few occasions when we might be alone, and he will have to accompany you whenever you need privacy.”

Fear and embarrassment flooded though me and all my resolve to figure him out fell apart.

Hauber started to speak, but he barely got a sound out before Kirchner turned to him and in English — I assumed for my benefit — said, “I'm sorry, Sergeant. I have given you many difficult jobs in the past, and this may be right up there, but I need it done and who else would you recommend?”

Stunned for a few moments, I then realized I should have expected this. I had been too dehydrated so far this afternoon to need any privacy. Kirchner was waiting for my response and I had to be careful. I knew lies from both sides, but my grandmother had despaired of teaching me that truth is fluid. For me dissimulation often took more preparedness, energy, and control than I had at the moment.

It occurred to me that the other prisoners moved fairly freely. “What if I give you my parole?”

“If you were a real officer—a man with the traditions of men—I would accept it. But as a woman I don’t trust you to act like an honorable soldier. Women do not belong in a war. They don’t have the same attitudes that men have. With no traditions to uphold, there is no precedence to know how to treat them when they wear a military uniform. Older traditions of war for treating women include rape, which puts them in their place."

He let that sink in then continued, “But Rommel wouldn’t approve and I am disinclined to try to justify it to him especially the way you look.” He paused again and seemed to come up with a new idea. “But I admit that you have shown yourself to be concerned about British soldiers so I will offer a compromise. The sergeant will go with you when you need privacy, but he will also allow you to be several yards away and mostly out of sight, if that is possible in the terrain, for up to two or three minutes. But if you get away or anything happens to him, I swear I will kill some of the British under my control and follow you to hell to make sure you personally pay for it. Then I will take my chances with Rommel.” His tone became even harsher and colder. “Do you understand me?”

I blinked several times involuntarily, maybe trying to jump start my brain which had just about shut down in panic. “Absolutely.” I forced my hands to be still, afraid they would shake if I moved them. I needed no special attention or skills to hear all the threat in his words. 

He holds real power over me and the other prisoners. His threat is serious.

Satisfied he turned and still in English said, “Sergeant, your job is to protect both of us. First off, never leave her and me alone together for more than five minutes—I want to protect myself from possible charges brought by her later, and it might make her feel more comfortable. Secondly, watch yourself when you are with her. Do not think of her as if she were a normal woman who wouldn’t stab you in the back if she got a chance. I do not want to put you in a position where you might be killed or injured or for me to have to kill any of the prisoners. Protect yourself and her and me.”

Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann.

“That’s the best I can think of to do for all of us.” He turned back to me. “When you are ready for sleep you can have the cot. Don’t think that’s because I am chivalrous. I intend to handcuff you to it. The major can have a sleeping bag next to your cot and I will be where the table is now. Sergeant Hauber will be across the opening. Crowded but it is as much safety as I can offer, and your reputation should survive.”

He had laid down a foundation of fear but then eased up. The fear stayed but was no longer so overwhelming that it kept me from thinking. I said, “You assume I am some kind of wild creature, but I want to assure you that I am too practical to plan to run out into the desert without water or transport. Or to attack armed guards.”

“I don’t think you are planning it, but I don’t know what opening you might see. My experience is that once a person has accomplished something extraordinary, they feel they can do the next extraordinary thing that comes their way. I want to make sure you don’t decide to take advantage of some situation none of us anticipate. I regard you mostly as too very inventive.”

Then pausing for a moment, he changed his tone and said, “Sergeant, see if Leutnant Fuhrmann is available to have dinner with our guests and me.”

* * *

Supper was for four, but only two had much to say. I was too tired to talk but had somehow found the energy to seethe with anger at the captain. Kirchner’s sense of humor seemed to have vanished and he silently kept to the seriousness with which he had told me how it would be.

The food fit the place: dry and full of sand. It didn’t even smell like food. That didn't matter as I wasn’t hungry.

Cleere and Fuhrmann discussed their travels. The German lieutenant had been to America to go to university from 1934 until 1938 and he spoke about the strange people with their strange sport of baseball that was so different from any European sport. Cleere pointed out that it was similar to cricket which Fuhrmann insisted was not a real European sport; he stressed the word European. But, he said, even cricket was better than baseball.

“Baseball, which they call the American pastime, is not really a sport at all. Anyone with half an eye could hit a ball and run around bases or catch a ball that has been hit. There isn't any real sporting skill involved. Most of the time a player is just sitting or standing around.” 

He would think that about baseball, wouldn't he.

Then Fuhrmann went on about how the supposedly egalitarian Americans were so impressed by the King of England giving up his throne for an American woman. "They think it is so very romantic. These are the people who were now preparing for war against Germany.” 

By the time dinner was over, my eyes were closing involuntarily and I was slumping in my chair. The sergeant came back to take me a little way out of camp and when we got back, the major and sleeping bags were there. I crawled into the sleeping bag on the cot, taking my shoes in with me to stash at the bottom of the bag—I wanted no further encounters with scorpions. I fell asleep as the handcuffs locked me to the cot.

Apprx 5300 words (Last updated March 19, 2016)

Copyrighted.com Registered & Protected
        PBB3-NTRJ-S0LB-33OL

MyFreeCopyright.com Registered & Protected