Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Albert Speer Juggling in the Middle of an Air Raid

They drove through the night, changing direction frequently and sticking to back roads where there were fewer checkpoints. Manni Loerber remained unconscious the whole time. Every hour or so, Speer would check on him. His pulse had returned and his breathing seemed almost normal, but nothing would rouse him. The roads were mostly empty now. There wasn’t fuel for convoys to move around much anymore. But in contrast to the stillness on the ground, the sky was full of constant buzzing. The allied fighters were everywhere, roaring low overhead without a moment’s warning. Somewhere before dawn they found an abandoned farmhouse on a hillside overlooking Detmold. Von Poser helped Speer carry Manni inside. They put him in the large bed and covered him with a blanket. Then they ate something, opened their bedrolls and went to sleep.
After weeks of never getting more than an hour or two of sleep, Speer fell into a deep uninterrupted slumber. If at any point he dreamed, he wasn’t aware of it. It was late morning when he finally awoke. For more than an hour he remained under his blanket, vaguely aware of snatches of conversation going on between two voices. Finally getting up, he found von Poser and Manni in the other room sharing a cigarette at the hearth, where a small fire was burning.

Manni looked over. “Hello,” he said in a small voice.

“How are you feeling?” asked Speer.

“Terrible,” he answered sourly, but still managing a grin. “I was just telling the Colonel that I think I’ve pulled my last trick for a long time.”

“That’s all right,” answered Speer. “I think we’re all done with it.”

Von Poser held up a battered-looking coffee pot. “It’s fresh, compliments of Herr Manni.”

“You have coffee?” asked Speer. As far as he knew, it had been a nonexistent commodity for more than a year.

Von Poser handed him a steaming cup. “Here’s to new beginnings,” he said.

For a long time, Speer luxuriated in the coffee’s deep aroma, then took a sip. “So what do we do now?” he asked.

They spent the afternoon milling around the farmhouse, not doing anything in particular. The few conversations they had were sparse and inconsequential. The young man himself spent most of the time in silence, but it seemed to have none of the brittle edginess which had marked his previous regime. He seemed relieved that whatever he’d been doing was now over. He was relaxed, shared his cigarettes and coffee and though he didn’t join in much of the conversation, by the same token his presence didn’t deter it either. Once when Speer was in the other room half-dozing on the bed, he heard the two of them briefly laugh at something. They’d take turns sitting by the fire or standing at the windows or doorway, staring outside as American Mustangs and Thunderbolts roared low overhead in continuous waves, hunting for things to kill. They seemed to operate with almost reptilian brains, going only after shiny things that moved. The Mercedes stood in the middle of the field, with only a thin layer of netting over it, and though its profile was still unmistakable, it didn’t seem to register with them. Speer wondered where the front was. Von Poser’s map was by now several days out of date, and it was likely that in that time the situation had changed radically. What was certain was that they were inside a shrinking fishbowl.

By afternoon it stopped raining. They made more coffee, sliced some bread and opened their last remaining cans, which they passed around, spooning out beets and potatoes and chunks of fish onto their plates. They ate with the reserved familiarity of three strangers of the same class sharing a table in a dining car. When they were finished Colonel von Poser took out a cigarette from his silver case, lit it and after taking a puff, passed it to Manni.

“Did they ever find out what happened to your brother?” he asked.

Manni Loerber looked back at von Poser in languorous silence. “No we never did.”

“No explanation one way or the other?”

Manni shook his head.

“My daughter wept for many days. He was her favorite.”

Manni let a slight smile cross his lips. “Who was her second favorite?”

“I believe it was Franzi,” said von Poser. “Would you like to hear what else she said?”

Manni gestured with his eyes to tell him.

“After much thought on the matter, my daughter concluded you four were not actually quadruplets but two sets of identical twins.”

For once, Manni looked completely taken aback. For several minutes, he fell into deep, meditative silence. Then he stood up from his chair. “That’s it,” he declared, brightly. “Herr Reichsminister, come with me please.” He headed for the door.

“What are you doing?” asked Speer.

“Herr Reichsminister,” said Manni. “It’s time you learned to juggle. I’m going to teach you. At times like this, a man needs to know how to juggle. That’s the problem with the world. Nobody in charge of anything can juggle. It’s a scandal. I’m getting my balls out of the car now!”

“Don’t go outside, you’ll get killed!” said von Poser.

“Watch me,” laughed Manni as he strode outside.

Speer looked from the doorway, while Manni went out to the car. Immediately an American fighter roared low overhead. More screamed past while he rummaged around the boot, pulling a number of gaily colored balls out of one of his bags. Heaping them in his arms, he began walking back.

Then he stopped. “What are you waiting for, Herr Reichsminister? Come on out.”

“Are you crazy?” answered Speer. “It’s not safe out there.”

Manni looked around, like he was trying to see what danger Speer could be referring to. Down the hill, Detmold was on fire. Fighters and twin-engine bombers swooped down low over the city’s factories, dropping bombs as they did, which exploded with an evil burst that didn’t sound anything like thunder.

“I know, but the ceiling inside the farmhouse is too low,” Manni answered. “It’ll never work in there. Come on out. You’ll be fine.”

“We’ll get killed. Come inside right now!”

Another fighter swept low over the field but Manni didn’t flinch. “Forget them,” he said. “They’re not interested in us. Come on out!”

“No,” said Speer and turned to go inside.

“Herr Reichsminister, this moment will never happen again. Aren’t you interested in knowing how magic works? Well this is how it starts. Right here.”

“Herr Reichsminister, just turn around.”

Speer didn’t know why he didn’t just go inside and hide himself in the farthest corner of the farmhouse. He really should have, but instead he turned around. A ball flew at him and he caught it, but barely.

“Now toss it back to me,” urged Manni.

Speer tossed it back. But Manni had already tossed another ball at him. He caught it.

“Quickly toss it back,” said Manni. “Don’t stop. As soon as you have it, shoot it back the exact same trajectory that you caught it. Don’t think! It’s easier that way.”

Speer did as Manni instructed. He caught the ball and tossed it right back. A second later another ball came, and then another and then another.

Manni took a step backward and Speer took one forward to catch the ball that was coming toward him. Manni took another step backward. Speer took another step forward. Manni added another ball, then another. “That’s it! Keep it up!”

The balls were coming faster now, one after the other in quick succession. But even so, Speer was surprised at how much time he had to catch them and shoot them back.

He was aware of the airplanes flying just over their heads, of bursts of machinegun fire and explosions which had none of thunder’s innocence. But Speer knew that as long as he could fix his attention on the balls, on catching them and throwing them back, he would be immune. He wasn’t the Reichsminister for War Production standing in an empty field, he was a tree, a brick wall, a part of a machine; a cog, a cam follower, a take-up spool, a reciprocating gear. Another one, another one, another one. More enemy planes screamed over their heads. More balls kept flying towards him.

“How many balls are we doing now?”

“Can’t you count?”

“No,” answered Speer with a laugh. “How many?”


Five. Five balls. Speer wondered what his wife would think. Juggling five balls in the middle of an air raid.

“Are you afraid?”

“Of what?” Speer shouted back.

Catch it, throw it back, catch it, throw it back. There was a perfect logic to it, focused on the moment, on the "now". Nothing else mattered, but the moment, the motion. The spaces between the moments became vast, even though he knew they couldn’t be more than a second apart. Enough time for flawless reaction. Enough time for an eternity of thought.

And somewhere in this wilderness of space was room to alter outcomes. Here somewhere magic lay. And here, with Manni, Speer sensed he was walking the very edge of it.
 (Excerpt from Germania, Simon & Schuster, 2008, now also available on Kindle here)

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