Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Road to Del Rio X: It's Not about Good vs Evil, It's about Side Bets

Okay, it's probably a mistake even bringing this up, but one of the reasons I decided to write Friend of the Devil was that I wanted to look at questions about what it means to be human as opposed to what it means to be a god.  Man lives only a short time, gods live almost forever.  Man becomes aware of his mortality early on and most of us never really manage to lost sight of that fact. But isn't having your mortality always dangling in front of you what gives our lives their flavor, all the sweetness and sadness, the longing and fulfillment. It's what allows us to grow and change and dwell on things.

I'm only saying all this because you need some kind of baseline if you're going to try to think what existence must be like for a god. Taking what we understand about ourselves and then applying it to someone who doesn't share any of those essential characteristics, you can get some idea what it must be like.

If you live almost forever, you might go whole eons and never spent a moment dwelling on your own ultimate mortality. Just think how, compared to them, our own seemingly-incredible capacity for denial and self-deception must seem absolutely insignificant. Gods might feel the same basic urges and emotions that we do, but it can't be the same thing at all. Gods might experience something like love, but never longing. They might have whims, but never doubt. Should they experience the pain of sadness or heartache, it will only last for a moment and then it's forgotten. Nothing makes that much of an impact on them, it can't. You'd have to be human for that to happen.

Basically man can change, but gods really can't.  Or can they?

In Friend of the Devil, there is a character named Stevens, who is most certainly the Devil incarnate. He is plainly evil, though in an over-the-hill sort of way. The god character is someone without a name, though the narrator, being a staunch atheist, refers to him simply as "the other guy." He should be good, but he's not. It's not that he's bad, he's just kind of an indifferent deity. You get the sense he might not have always been like this. Perhaps something happened.

My theory is that The Other Guy fell victim to the side bet.  For countless eons, or at least as men have walked on the Earth, he and Steven have been wagering with each other over the souls of good men to see how well they actually stand up to temptation. After running such a bet a couple million times, boredom must have set in and the two of them found that the one way to spice up the proceedings was in adding sidebets on the myriad little things that might or might not happen.

The narrator, Herbert T. Barrow, is ultimately a good man, though one whose moral compass is strictly his own. He refuses to believe in a god even after giving god a ride and sharing his food with him. He refuses to sing religious songs, songs of redemption and praise, because since in his estimation God doesn't exist, songs praising Him are all bullshit and part of a Big Lie and he won't have anything to do with it. When Stevens offers him his pocketwatch in exchange for a single hymn of praise, Herbert refuses on principle. It doesn't matter that the Devil's Pocketwatch is surely a priceless thing, and that singing even an incredibly sacreligious song would fulfill the terms of Stevens' offer,  Herbert steadfastly refuses because his lack of faith is steadfast.

Herbert was a Marine in the Great War. He saw a tremendous amount of killing and killed a lot of enemy soldiers during the fighting.  He vowed, in his atheist's heart, never to kill again. Despite their endless wagering, God and the Devil no longer even care about whether or not Herbert will return to killing, while he travels unwillingly with Bonnie and Clyde. Presumably they've made that bet, but all they really care about is the sidebet on what kind of weapon will he pick when the moment does come. Will it be a pistol, a rifle, or a BAR?

God, the other guy, whatever you or Herbert wants to call him, has stopped caring about whether Herbert chooses good over evil.  He really doesn't give a shit.

Bonnie, Clyde and Herbert get pursued by men who aren't "The Laws." They're something else.  They're men who've heard about The Devil's Pocketwatch and, unaware that Herbert had kicked it out of his car a month earlier back in Arkansas, they've come hunting for it.

Texas is a great big state and the last part of the Road to Del Rio takes place somewhere, anywhere, in it between the Oklahoma and Mexican borders. Go find a map and look at the vastness and put your finger down on a spot between Fort Worth, Lubbock, and San Angelo. Bet you anything that's exactly where it takes place.

Following is an excerpt from Friend of the Devil:

"Now, next stop: Del Rio, Texas, the garden spot of the Rio Grande Valley. And I understand the Royal Consolidated Chemical Corporation is going to have an opening for a singing cowboy in a matter of days.”

Del Rio. Funny, I’d almost forgotten my dreams of going there.

“So who won?”

“Who won? Well, nobody won. It was a draw.” He says it like it’s nothing. “We agreed it’d run for a set amount of time. Now the time’s up and you’re free to go.” He shrugs like a guy who’d been born with his hands in his pockets.

“So how’d you do with the side bets?”

He brightens. “Pretty good, actually. Won eight out of thirteen.” He grins and puts his thumb up.

“Yeah, that’s pretty good,” I say. “But then you were betting on me picking up a gun and killing people.

The young man corrects me. “I was betting on you picking up a BAR and killing people.”

“Oh,” I say.

“You’re not an easy one to predict, you know. You do a lot of surprising things, very surprising things. But, you know, that’s what makes humanity so fascinating.”


“Hey, you’d better get moving,” he says to me. “Remember, when you get to Brady, ask for Red.”

“Right,”I say and start across the field.

“Hey, you know, you don’t have to thank me or anything like that,” he says.

“I wasn’t going to,” I say and pick up my pace.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Albert Speer Searches for Landmarks in Bombed-Out Berlin

Back in his office, Speer hung up his helmet but kept his overcoat on. The paper on the front windows had been blown out in the bombing and all that remained were a few jagged triangular strips fluttering along the edges like race pennants. It had been at least a year since anyone had replaced a window. Usually the electricity didn’t work and since the roof was mostly holes at this point, everything had a perpetually damp, musty smell. Speer lit a cigarette and stared out the window. It was early March and the skies over Berlin were perpetually gray. He wondered if by the time the actual spring came the war might already be over. He’d already had a number of the women in the office come up and ask if, with his connections, he could get them suicide pills. He promised he would look into it but he still hadn’t started asking around.

The intercom on his desk buzzed. Speer went over and pressed down the switch. “Yes?”

A female voice crackled on the other end. “Colonel von Poser is here to see you.”

“Send him in,” said Speer. A few seconds later the office door opened and in strode a short, frowning, white-haired soldier easily twenty years his senior. Colonel von Poser was Speer’s military liaison to the Army General Staff and by now one of the few men he trusted completely. Von Poser was of the old school. He hated Nazis and dilettantes and he hated discussing things in rooms he assumed were bugged. “Speer,” he grunted, “it has happened.”

Speer knew it could only mean one thing; that the Americans were now across the Rhine: Germany’s last barrier in the west. He got up from his desk and followed von Poser to the wall map. “Where?” he asked in a low voice.

Von Poser put his finger on a town called Remagen. “Apparently efforts to blow up the railroad bridge had not been as successful as originally claimed,” he muttered.

“Any chance they’ll be thrown back?”

Von Poser shook his head. “Speer, we don’t have anything to throw them back with. But you see what lies next.” His finger made a circle around the area just east of Remagen. It was the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heart, the biggest concentration of mines, steel mills, chemical plants and manufacturing anywhere in the world. “You know what’s going to happen next, don’t you?”

Speer nodded. Hitler would now have all the excuse he needed to unleash a spate of scorched-earth orders, just like he did when the Russians had moved into East Prussia a few months earlier. All the factories, all the mines, the rail yards, electrical plants, telephone exchanges, everything, would get blown up, smashed and destroyed, leaving behind a mangled, smoldering wasteland.

Blowing up the Ruhr’s factories was not going to keep the enemy from winning the war. Nothing could at this point. All it would accomplish was to ensure that the Germans who survived would spend the rest of their lives in the dark ages. This was Hitler’s new vision for Germany. It had to be stopped.

“So are you still willing to go ahead with our plan?” asked von Poser.

Speer nodded.

Von Poser gave a grim smile. “You know what your friend will do if he finds out?”

Speer shrugged. He knew.

“All right,” said von Poser. “I’ll get the auto ready. We leave when it gets dark.”

After that Speer had meetings that went on through the afternoon. When everyone had finally gone, Speer went back to his quarters and packed all his things into two pigskin traveling bags. In his valise he stuffed some reports and letterhead stationery, along with a thick sheaf of “Stay of Demolition Orders,” which his ministry had no authority to possess, let alone hand out, along with an inkpad and an assortment of rubberstamps from different governmental authorities. Then he gathered all the canned food from his personal larder and bundled it into a pillowcase from his bed.

With still an hour to kill, Speer lit a cigarette and went over to the couch and sat down.

You know what your friend will do if he finds out? They always referred to Hitler that way. Speer had always hated that. Hitler wasn’t his friend, Perhaps Speer was Hitler’s friend, perhaps even his only friend. But that wasn’t the same thing, was it? Besides, Speer knew what Hitler would do when he found out.

Reasonably speaking, all they could hope for now was to keep as much of Germany’s industrial base together so that some level of civilized life could continue after it was all over. He’d carefully broached that matter with Hitler during the winter, but Hitler dismissed it. “There is no need to preserve anything for the survivors, Speer,” he told him. “They will have proven themselves unworthy.”

Speer went over to the window and stared out. By now the bombing had taken out most of the city’s landmarks, leaving him without his usual points of reference. Locating Alexanderplatz had always been a matter of simply finding the old Town Hall’s clock tower and then going a little bit left. But now the tower was gone. So was the Karstadt department store, the Columbus building on Potsdamerplatz, the twin steeples of Saint Nicholas church. He tried to remember what they looked like, but they were already excised from his memory.

Instead what blazed unforgettably was the skyline of a city which had only existed on paper and tabletop scale models. He saw the dome, stretched out before him, larger than a sunrise, with its dozens of gigantic columns and a massive bronze eagle perched ominously atop its cupola.

And he heard Hitler’s voice reciting the numbers to onlookers, Sixteen times the size of Saint Peter’s in Rome!

And he saw the rest of the imaginary city, the broad avenues, the monuments, the palaces and plazas, the gigantic ministry buildings, cinemas, concert halls, hotels and storefronts, miles and miles of it. The two of them had spent years dreaming it up; a city greater than Rome, a light among nations, a capital fit to rule the world for a thousand years; Germania!

Speer had actually believed in it back when Germany’s future still loomed bright, enough so that he went ahead with demolition orders for whole neighborhoods in order to make way for it. Berlin’s destruction hadn’t started with the first British bombing raids, but with the bulldozing he had himself engineered.

Once the war had started the whole thing should have been shelved, but the war only stoked Hitler’s enthusiasm. And when the enemy bombing did come, Hitler acted gleeful. “They’re only doing our work for us, Speer,” he’d say. And Speer accepted it without question. Even after things went bad in Russia, Hitler insisted it be kept on as a top priority, summoning Speer to the studio in the middle of the night so they could discuss the changes which still kept occurring to him on a daily basis. They’d spend endless hours bent down at eyelevel to the miniature streets and buildings, peering under archways, discussing each gallery and staircase.

Even now, with the enemy at their door, Hitler still wouldn’t let it go. In his mind, Germania was still every bit as real as the miracle weapons, Inevitable Victory and all the other shabby fantasies which he insisted everyone believe in. And it was all Speer’s fault for wanting a thousand years of glory.

Going to pick up his bags, he paused for a moment to look at himself in the mirror. Was this the face of a future world leader? Except for some rings under his eyes and a receding hairline, there was still far too much boyishness in it. He was neither handsome nor ugly, his face was round, his chin soft. It was only the face of a technocrat. No, that’s not completely true, he told himself. His eyes had it. Dark, brooding, even without a night’s sleep, they had a sharpness to them, inquisitiveness, too, and sardonic humor. The face of a man who could put things into perspectice.

Speer went downstairs to the garage where Colonel von Poser was waiting beside a supercharged, six-wheeled Mercedes. They drove out after nightfall, heading west.

(Excerpt from Germania, Simon & Schuster, 2008, now also available on Kindle here).

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Lieutenant James Reese Europe didn't actually invent Jazz, though he did give it its name and he ignited Jazz Fever in France and all over the World

Bandleader, Civil Rights Leader, Union Organizer, Soldier, Lt. James Reese Europe was the Martin Luther King of his day.  He gave Jazz its name and caused Jazz Fever to spread all over the world.  He died senselessly just as the Jazz Age was starting and was immediately forgotten.  His is a fascinating, inspiring and ultimately heart-breaking story that needs to be remembered.    Listen to his version of "Memphis Blues"  here.

This is a story I did about James Reese Europe for Defense Media Network. Read the full story here.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Crew of U-2511 Learns of Hitler's Death, and Carries on.

One of  the big, downright exasperating "What-ifs?" associated with the final days of the Third Reich center around the "miracle weapons," specifically Type XXI Uboats and whether they might have reversed the course of the war in Hitler's favor. The short answer is of course, "NO!"  Had they actually become operational at the beginning of May, 1945, as they were about to do, it's doubtful they could have even lengthened the war to any real extent. Of course, if they'd been ready to go six months earlier, it might have been a somewhat different story.

The Type XXI U-boat was a truly revolutionary vessel.  As the fans never tire of saying, it was a true submarine, unlike the earlier U-boats which were, by comparison, surface ships with a very limited capability to operate submerged.  The Type XXI and Type XXIIIs could operate underwater at very high speeds thanks to their revolutionary propulsion systems.  The Type XXI used a hydrogen peroxide Ingolin turbine while the XXIII used a battery system.

The U-2511 was the only Type XXI to briefly go operational following completion of its shakedown trials. It was about to put a torpedo into a British heavy cruiser when the order came to cease offensive operations.

Below is an excerpt from a deleted chapter from my novel Germania:

Until that moment, the way everything had gone, it might as well have been the happiest day in Adalbert Schnee’s life. To begin with, the U-2511’s sea trials had all been going so extremely well, that in another three days the testing would be completed and then they’d be free to go hunting for whatever came their way. And today something did come their way. As they were going through some tests off the Norwegian coast, the sonar room started picking up multiple propeller sounds: They went to check it out and found it was a big fat British crusier escorted by three destroyers.

At first Schnee followed them from a distance. But after shadowing them for about an hour, he grew bolder, ordered full speed ahead and made straight for them, rushing up through the cruiser’s wake, bringing himself directly underneath its keel, only to turn hard-a-port and make a play attack on one of the destroyers, after which he turned hard-starboard and did the same to one of the others. Then he started running circles around them half a dozen times and twice venturing back under the cruiser’s amidships. It went on like this for most of the afternoon. He continued to play a one-sided kind of cat-and-mouse with them, one-sided since they never once had an inkling of his presence.

It was amazing! Nothing he’d ever done in his career as a U-boatman ever came close to this. Not any of the kills he’d chalked up the north Atlantic or off the American coast or easy picking he’d enjoyed in the Indian Ocean. Nothing was quite as exhilarating as repeatedly buzzing your enemy and them never knowing about it. The U-2511 was not only faster than anything in the water, even swordfish and sharks, it was also invisible.

He wished he could attack them. But the Grand Admiral had expressly forbidden any extra-curricular hunting. “Don’t go getting ahead of yourself Kapitaenluetnant!” Doenitz had warned. “Finish the testing regime first. Business first, pleasure second,” he told him, giving a little sardonic smile. So he didn’t, because that was the thing about Doenitz. He didn’t believe in any of that ‘read-between-the-lines’ stuff. He said what he meant and meant what he said.

But even if an actual attack was ruled out, he could still allow himself a couple of practice attacks, all in the name of testing, of course. And if by some chance the Englisher saw them coming and shot first, well then, that would be a slightly different situation, wouldn’t it? Just slightly. But it never happened. No matter what U-2511 did, they stayed invisible to the British. So he kept his little game up into the evening.

But then the radioman passed up a message that there would be an important announcement broadcast in two hours and that they were to tune in and listen to it. And hearing that brought Schnee suddenly back to earth and for the first time since leaving the docks at Christiansund two days earlier, he remembered what was going on back home in Germany. An important announcement? What could that be? What were the possibilities? Well, none of them were good. Berlin was still surrounded, last he heard. Had there been a rescue? Could the siege have been broken? Had something happened to the Fuehrer? Probably something had. Suddenly all the joy he’d felt was gone, replaced by a sickening feeling in his stomach. The war was being lost and whatever he thought he could make happen with his new wonder weapon probably would not change anything.

He thought about the enemy cruiser and how badly he wanted to sink it. “Up periscope!” he ordered. There was a mechanical hum as the vertical tube slid up from its well.

He grabbed the handles and peered inside the eyepiece. There it was. Big, fat, beautiful gray ship with white camouflage stripes, pushing up smoke a few miles away. He stared at it for a few seconds, but already the excitement was gone. No point in following it now. Down periscope!” he muttered, looking away angrily from the eyepiece. The periscope retracted down into its well.

“Take her down thirty meters.”

“Jawohl! Down thirty meters,” answered the helmsman and immediately the ship bowed as it began its descent. A few seconds later it leveled out. “Depth thirty meters and holding.”

“Starboard turn. Change the course to one, two, seven.”

“Starboard, new course, one, two seven, jawohl.”

“Bring the speed to six knots.”

“Jawohl, speed six knots.”

The engines began to race a little faster. He felt the ship turn starboard.

“Radio room, report.”

“They’re still playing Bruckner, sir,” came the reply.

Schnee looked at his watch. Three minutes to ten. For the last two hours they’d been playing nothing but selections from Wagner and Bruckner. Never a good sign. Oh well, no point waiting, Schnee decided. “Pipe it through!” he ordered.

The intercoms crackled to life with the dolorous strains of violins. The men looked up from their stations. It sounded bad. What was the word from Berlin? It had been two days since anyone had heard anything other than that resistance was continuing and that the Fuhrer was personally directing the city’s defense, whatever that meant.

Finally, the music stopped and an announcer voice came on. “An important announcement by Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz,” he said. There was a long roll of drums.

“The Grand Admiral? Why? Why is he speaking?” someone asked. Good question, thought Schnee. Why would it be Doenitz announcing anything? It didn’t make sense.

The drum roll stopped. Then the Grand Admiral came on.

“German men and women,” he began. “Soldiers of the German armed forces! Our Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, has fallen. In deepest grief and respect the German people bow. He early recognized the frightful danger of Bolshevism and dedicated his being to this struggle. At the end of this, his struggle, and his unswerving direct life’s path, stands his hero’s death in the capital of the German Reich. His life was a unique service for Germany. His mission in the battle against the Bolshevist storm-flood is valid for Europe and the entire civilized world.”

“The Fuehrer has appointed me as his successor. In conciousness of the responsibility, I take over the leadership of German Volk at this fateful hour…”

Everyone in the control room exchanged incredulous looks. Doenitz appointed as successor? What was going on? Doenitz the new Fuehrer? It was crazy! Why him? Wasn’t it supposed to go to Goering or Himmler? Why Doenitz? It didn’t make any sense at all.

Schnee was as shocked as the rest of them. What could have happened? Had the others also died in the fighting? Had Goering or Himmler gone back in? Had they tried to lead a rescue? Or was it something different? But what? He had no idea how politics worked. But then neither does the old man, he reflected, thinking about Doenitz. He never had anything to do with the powers in Berlin, other than to see that the Navy got what it needed. What was he going to do now?

The Fuehrer has fallen. Besides being dead, I wonder what ‘fallen ‘means? When he thought about it, Schnee somehow suspected Hitler probably hadn’t died in street fighting. Had he killed himself? Isn’t ‘fallen’ one of those nice, empty things they say when someone kills himself?

He listened to the rest of the address, not really hearing the words. What the Grand Admiral was saying was really nothing more than solemn, comforting-sounding noises. There was no real information to be gleaned from it. Then it was over and they started playing music again. Bruckner.

“Turn it off,”Schnee ordered. The intercom speakers went silent.

“You heard it, gentlemen,” said Schnee in a loud, quarterdeck voice. “Now you know as much as I do. We will await any specific orders that may derive from this new situation. But until then, we will carry on exactly as before. That is all.”

“Engineering officer, what’s next on the list?”

Friday, August 16, 2013

Albert Speer Tries Telling Hitler the Truth

When Albert Speer gets ordered back to Berlin from the Ruhr to answer charges that he's been instigating a rebellion against Hitler, he is determined for once to face down Hitler and tell him the truth, come hell or high water. Only it doesn't quite work out that way. An excerpt from my novel Germania (first published by Simon & Schuster in 2008, now also available as a Kindle ebook, for CHEAP!)

The Fuhrer glared furiously at Speer. For the first time that they’d known each other, there was neither a greeting nor a handshake. He waited for the adjutants to leave before speaking.

“So Speer,” he began icily.

“Mein Fuhrer?” asked Speer, knowing he didn’t sound even remotely innocent.

Hitler looked terrible. His eyes, much rheumier than before, drooping eyelids, bags, gray, oatmeal skin. He looked a lot older than his fifty-five years. That bomb last summer had taken a lot out of him. Hitler kept his palsied left hand clenched behind him so it wouldn’t shake uncontrollably. His green uniform jacket had stains and Speer noticed breadcrumbs sticking to one of the cuffs.

“Bormann has given me a report on your recent activities. He says you’re telling people the war is lost and that they shouldn’t carry out my orders.” He paused and waited for Speer to say something. But Speer said nothing. Well?”

“Mein Fuhrer, I can’t lie to you,” Speer said finally.

But Hitler would have none of it. “Are you aware what the punishment is for that?”

Standing stiffly at attention, looking straight into Hitler’s eyes. “I am aware of the penalties for disobedience, Mein Fuhrer. “And you may, if you wish, apply them as the law demands without any regard to our personal relationship.”

It was not the answer Hitler had wanted. He slammed his good fist against the desk. “How could you do this, Speer?” he shouted. “How could you? You! Of all people!” He paced back and forth in front of his desk, not looking at Speer. “Sit down!” he ordered.

“Mein Fuhrer, I prefer to stand.”

“Sit down.”

Speer lowered himself into the chair.

“After all I’ve done for you and you repay me like this. You were nothing, Speer. Do you remember? An unemployed graduate without a pot to piss in.

“Do you know what I do to people who betray me? What makes you think you’re any different?”

Speer looked up at him. “The answer is yes, Mein Fuhrer, I know what happens to people who go against you. And I am no different.”

Hitler didn’t like that one bit. His head started twitching. He pulled his bad hand out to claw at the air. Everything was behind him now. His years of victory, of moving from strength to strength, were all gone. His charm, his wit, his animal vitality had deserted him. All that was left was this quavering shell. But even now, his determination and will, the two things that defined him, were undiminished. He sat down at the desk and studied its surface for a long time. What comes next, Speer wondered. Will he declare me apostate? Throw me to the lions, the SS? Is Himmler going to get to smile at me? So Speer, we were never good enough for you, were we? But now we’ll just see how much better you really are. It might have been better to have been shot by the gauleiter’s deputy that time. For the first time he remembered his wife and children and how he’d loved being called Uncle Hitler by them. He hoped they wouldn’t be included.

Hitler looked up from the table. Suddenly he looked forgiving. “Speer, you think I don’t know things look bad? I’ve been a soldier for thirty years and I’ve seen more bad times than you’ll ever know.” The angry tone was gone. He sounded more like someone offering encouragement to a wayward friend. ”But I’ll tell you something else, bad times never last. Things turn around, sometimes very quickly. But the only way you can be there to take advantage of them is to have faith. Faith, Speer! Faith in yourself, faith in your volk, faith in your leader, faith in me!”

Faith, thought Speer. Faith doesn’t matter when you’re out of fuel, out of bullets and out of everybody but seventy-year old Volkssturmers.

“Mein Fuhrer, what I saw in the Ruhr...”

Hitler quickly waved him to silence. “None of that matters, Speer. What matters is inside you. Don’t you see?” Hitler stood up from his desk, leaning forward so that he was close to Speer, his face a kindly grimace. “Now tell me, Speer, tell me you have faith.”

“I’d be lying, Mein Fuhrer,” answered Speer, making no attempt to sound contrite.

“Then tell me you have hope. Don’t you at least hope everything will work out?” He looked imploringly at Speer. Say yes. His eyes looked so sad, as if every other tragedy, every other turn of fortune he could bear. But not this. How could you do this to me? After all our dreams? Your hoping means more to me than anything Speer. Hope. How could you not hope for a turnaround? Please say yes.

Speer saw the eyes, the trembling frame. He thought of how vigorous he’d been then, how full of life and joy. And now he was just a sad old man asking for a tiny favor from his only friend; a favor only a complete unfeeling bastard could say no to.

“I’m sorry, Mein Fuhrer,” said Speer. “But the facts do not lie.” He wanted to add, “The war is lost,” but somehow he couldn’t bring himself.

Hitler’s face darkened and once again he grew cold. “I’m giving you twenty four hours to think about what I’ve just said to you,” he said brusquely. “I want you here tomorrow telling me you have faith in victory.”

Back in his office at the ministry, Speer tried to write down what he wanted to tell Hitler. He thought about all the things he’d seen in the Ruhr that he wanted to describe to him. If he could have seen the elderly volkssturmers or the disorganized, fragmentary divisions. If he could have seen people like Jakob who still had faith in him, who still believed in victory, maybe then Hitler would see the utter travesty in what he was asking. But the words wouldn’t come to him and he knew Hitler wouldn’t listen anyway. It was impossible to write it down just as it was impossible to tell him to his face. What was he going to do? Speer didn’t know. All he knew was that he was dead tired. He went back to his quarters and went to bed.

He woke up a few hours later with a dry mouth and a cold sweat and rather than try to go back to sleep, he put on his robe and went back to his office to work on his response. Faith? Hope? Do I say yes or no? If I say no, I’ll at least get to maintain my integrity. Of course at this point his integrity had to be about the most useless thing there was. But on the other hand, his reward for discarding it was hardly worth having.

Speer wrote a few sentences, then crumpled the paper and stared out into the darkness. The electricity was out again. The empty window frames either hadn’t been re-papered or what they’d put in had already been blown out. Perhaps the papering crews had all been mobilized and sent off to the front. Faith? Hope? Come on! There was nothing left.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Road to Del Rio IX: Only One Thing to Do When the Media Keeps Getting It All Wrong

For about as long as anyone can remember, bandits and other roving outlaws maintained a symbiotic relationship with the media. The outlaws enjoyed the recognition and having their exploits celebrated in dime novels and popular ballads of the day, while the balladeers and publishers liked having content that the public was willing to fork over money for. Also, being held up and robbed by someone you've already heard about is a far headier experience than getting robbed by total unknowns. With the former, you're actually getting something for your money.

So it was with the Barrow Gang. Bonnie and Clyde loved being in the spotlight. They loved having the public look up in awe at them even as they were being robbed. It almost didn't matter knowing it would just be a matter of time before their fate would catch up with them and they would go down in a hail of lead. Being objects of public adoration seemed to make it all worthwhile.

The problem with the media is they aren't always easy to control, expecially when you're out on the road and without any means of controlling the spin. Before Herbert T. Barrow fell into their clutches, Bonnie and Clyde's fortunes were fast fading. Bonnie had been badly wounded in an earlier shootout and even though she'd been convalescing for several weeks, it was obvious she wasn't actually getting any better. The time they'd spent hiding out was time away from the public eye, which also meant the public was now on the verge of completely losing interest in them in favor of someone newer and fresher. But once they got back on the road, this time with Herbert, on a multi-state crime spree, all that changed. They were immediately catapulted right back to the top and that was something they liked very much.

But as their star continued its ascent, Clyde began finally understanding the price that it was coming at. Having Herbert suddenly being seen as the outfit's new mastermind definitely put Clyde's nose a bit out of whack, especially since, as far as Clyde was concerned, his elder cousin was just some damn goody-goody malingering pacifist, who kept acting like he was too good for them. Worst of all were his bullshit reasons for refusing to carry a piece when they were sticking up a grocery store. All he would consent to doing was carry the crippled Bonnie in and out of stores when they were holding them up.

For several weeks the trio drive all over Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma, knocking over gas stations and grocery markets. At first the take is pretty decent, but by the end it mostly dries up, most of the places they hit don't seem to have more than five or ten bucks in their cash drawers. That's digging into Clyde bad enough, but now there are all these reports on the radio of some bizarre incident in Arkansas a month earlier where Herbert spectacularly turned the table on Texas Ranger Captain Frank Hamer and his posse of G-Men. Clyde figures that as long as he's got Hamer's gun in his possession, there has to be some way he can get himself written into the story. He figures the most efficient way to do this is to kidnap a cop and tell him all about it himself.

Following is an excerpt from Friend of the Devil (available on Kindle here):

“Got something here I want to show you,” he says to the cop in a confidential voice. Taking out Hamer’s .45, he pops the magazine out of the butt and into his hand, and ceremoniously presents the pistol to the cop so he can examine it. "Now tell me if you recognize it.”

The cop examines the pistol for nearly a minute before exclaiming in surprise. “Why, this is Old Lucky! How did you get it?”

Clyde’s grin widens. “I, ah, shall we say, borrowed it from Mr. Hamer in that little deal last month in Arkansas. But did the papers even report it? No, sir, they did not. Now what I’d like you to do, my friend, is when you get back, let the world know everything you’ve seen here today. Tell them the truth. That’s all I ask.”

“Yessir, I’ll do that,” says the cop, relieved that he’s not going to be killed.

“Everything they’ve said about that incident is a complete lie,” continues Clyde.


“Good,” says Clyde. “Now, in a little while, we’ll be letting you go. Just remember what we agreed and your debt to us will be settled and everything will be jake.”

“Yes, sir, I’ll do that, sir.”

The cop pauses like he’s got something weighing heavily on him.

“Something on your mind, officer?”

“Well, yes, sir,” he says, “I don’t know if I should say this, but...”

“Come on! Out with it!” says Clyde. “I told you, you have nothing to fear from us.”

“Well, sir, it’s just that recently there’s been all kinds of talk within police circles about that whole Arkansas incident. They’re saying now all the initial reports that got into the papers were all hogwash.”

“To begin with, they’re saying now they don’t think you and Miss Parker were there at all, that everything that happened there was all Mr. Herbert T. Barrow’s doing.”

Clyde looks dumbfounded. “They think Booger here did all that by himself? That’s nuts!”


“Dang it! Boy dudn’t even fucking know how to use a dang gun.”


“See,” says Clyde. “There’s your proof that Boog here didn’t do any of that stuff. I did. Tell him, Boog.”

I stare out the window at the empty countryside. Why is it that every time I leave Texas, I hope it’s going to be forever, but every time I come back I’m glad. How many days have we actually been gone? Then I see up ahead someone walking along the road, his back to the oncoming traffic, like he’s given up on hitchhiking and humanity in general. It’s that guy who ate my sandwiches. Once again he looks up at me as we pass him. “That’s right, officer,” I say gravely. “Everything Clyde says is exactly what happened.”

“Now that’s what I want to hear,” says Clyde, affably as a politician running for reelection.

I can tell the cop still has something important to unveil. He stares at me, his eyes bugging, like he’s more scared of me than of them.

“They’re saying something else about you, sir, to explain what happened there.”

“Yes?” I ask quietly.

The cop gulps nervously. “What they’re saying is,” he begins, “that you’re in league with...the devil.” Then he adds, “sir.”

“What?” asks Clyde.

“They’re saying that about us?” asks Bonnie, sounding horrified.

“No, ma’am, they’re only saying that about him,” he says, nodding in my direction.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

German Navy Faces Off SS in Ploen

It was midnight when they finally drove into the Ploen naval base. In the darkness all that stirred was a single petty officer who pointed a flashlight to where they should park. The men got out of their vehicles, weapons at the ready, and assembled into a tight cordon with Himmler, Macher, Grothmann and Franzi in its center. “Keep your eyes open,” Macher told them. “Anybody sees anything, sing out. If any of these Navy clowns try anything funny, we’ll let them have it. Let’s move.”

The petty officer pointed them to a small cluster of buildings at the end of a walkway flanked on either side by groves of trees. They started down the path, moving slowly and deliberately. “There’s men behind those trees,” reported one of the troopers in a loud whisper. Franzi peered into the shadows between the moon-lit tree trunks and tried to make out the shapes of men hiding among them, but could see nothing. “More behind that row of dustbins,” said another. Macher nodded but kept the group moving closer to the buildings.

“Pathetic,” muttered Grothmann. “If this is their idea of an ambush, they’ve got another thing coming.” Someone else chuckled quietly. Franzi could hear guns being cocked and safeties clicked off. “This is going to be more fun than killing Russians,” someone cracked.

Halfway there, Macher gave the order to halt. “Everyone pick a target.” Then he shouted into the darkness, “Whichever one of you is in charge I suggest you come out right now.”

A naval officer in a long leather coat emerged from behind a tree as casually as if he had his desk there. Even in the dark they could make out the iron cross around his neck. “Good evening, gentlemen,” he said pleasantly enough. “I am Korvettenkapitän Cremer, head of the Doenitz Guard Battalion. You are here to see the Grand Admiral?”

“What the hell were you doing back there?” demanded Macher.

“Just a routine security precaution,” answered Cremer.

“You tell your men to come out right now,” said Macher.

Without turning, Cremer raised his right hand and called out. “First squad, come forward. Everyone else, stay where you are.” A dozen sailors stepped out from the trees with rifles pointed, and advanced across the grass toward them. When they were about twenty feet away, Cremer put up his hand again and they halted.

“Tell your men to lower their weapons,” said Macher.

“You’re on our base, so you should lower yours first,” countered Cremer.

“Forget it,” said Macher.

“Have it your way,” said Cremer.

A minute passed and nobody moved. The SS troopers maintained their steely determination as they faced off against Cremer and his sailors, who didn’t waver either. Himmler seemed distracted, as if none of it particularly concerned him. Franzi wondered how much longer before someone started shooting. Then a light came on outside the operations hut. The door opened and a naval officer stepped out. “If you’ll come this way, Reichsfuhrer, the Grand Admiral is waiting for you,” he called out. Without a word, Himmler walked the rest of the way by himself. The naval officer held open the door and followed him inside.

After that, both sides relaxed a little. They partially lowered their weapons and settled in to wait. Cremer walked around them, looking at their weapons and into their faces. When he came to Franzi, he stopped and stared at him with a puzzled look. “Loerber?” he whispered, like he thought it was altogether amazing.

“Is there a problem?” growled Macher.

“I’m not sure,” answered Cremer. Then he turned and waved toward the bushes. “Captain, come here,” he called out.

A figure stepped out of the darkness. A naval officer in the same long leather coat and a glint of an iron cross at his throat. It was Ziggy!

He began walking across the lawn toward them.

“You stop right there!” said Macher.

Ziggy ignored him.

“I’m not going to say it again,” said Macher. “Captain Cremer, keep your man back.”

The naval guard raised their weapons again. The SS raised theirs.

Cremer kept signaling Ziggy to come forward. Ziggy was now close enough that even in the darkness, Franzi could tell that he recognized him.



“Colonel, do you mind?” said Cremer. “These guys are brothers. They haven’t seen each other for a long time.”

“Both of you, step away! Now!” said Macher.

Ziggy stopped, giving Cremer a worried look.

“Colonel Macher, you want to start something, go ahead, but I guarantee you, we’ll finish it. Second squad, lock and load.”

“Troopers, wait for my word,” said Macher.

Franzi looked at Ziggy. Ziggy smiled.

What is he thinking? wondered Franzi. It was like the old days, standing in the wings just before going onstage, none of them talking, primed to act as a single unit. The orchestra would strike up Harlem Rhapsody, and they’d wait five bars and then run out on stage.

Harlem Rhapsody. Suddenly the memory was on him, so incredibly vivid, he could almost hear its lilting sadness; the song, he imagined, of a black man on a street corner, gazing up to the window of the woman his heart cries for as packed streetcars clatter by. They all loved that song. He could hear it now, crisp and sweet.

Wait a minute, he was hearing it! Someone was whistling Harlem Rhapsody from one of the other buildings! Ziggy heard it too. They both looked over to see where it was coming from and saw a figure leaning casually against the railing in front of the entrance, cigarette in hand, looking away up into the sky as the blue notes curled up like smoke from his lips.


Everyone stood in spellbound silence; Cremer, Macher, Ziggy, everyone, as the melody drifted to them through the cold night air.

Then the light came back on and the door flung open as Himmler bolted out alone. He made his way quickly as he could toward them. Two of the troopers stepped aside to let him into the cordon. Even in the darkness, he looked livid.

“Reichsfuhrer, is everything all right?” asked Macher.

“Let’s just get the hell out of here,” snapped Himmler.

Franzi looked back at the building and saw that Manni was gone.

(Excerpt from Germania, by Brendan McNally, Simon & Schuster 2008).