As the Red Army approached Tallin, capitol of Estonia, Ralph secured a spot on the very last boat of exiles fleeing that country in the fall of 1944. When the overcrowded vessel neared Gdansk, a Nazi patrol boat brought them to port where they were placed in a refugee camp. When he and another man slipped away during the night they continued west by train. When they reached Prague, Ralph's travel companion chose to remain there for a time, but Ralph himself felt impelled to continue west. Eventually he reached the town of Schrunz at the westernmost edge of Austria, separated from neutral Switzerland by the spectacular and imposing Alps.
It may be of interest to some readers that in the early 1920s Schrunz was the favorite ski resort town of Ernest Hemingway who wintered there with his first wife, Hadley, and oldest son, who was then just an infant. It was in Schrunz that he revised the manuscript of The Sun Also Rises.
By the end of his first night in Schrunz he'd learned several hard truths. First, there would be no passage through the Alps without encountering Nazi border patrols. This would be as far west as he could go. Second, unless one had a job one could not obtain a food ticket. The Nazis needed every available hand to contribute to the war effort, whether by labor or on the front.
Finding a room to let was an easier task than expected. Schrunz, being a ski resort town in the winter, had been hard hit by the war. Tourism revenue had fallen off a cliff. As a result there was an ample supply of rooms for lodging. By the end of the first week he'd decided on a small room that faced the mountains in the rear of a chalet on the north side of the valley, a fabulous view. The room was tidy and clean, and Frau Marsden who ran the place seem congenial enough.
There were several places in town to meet locals for idle chatter and information. Ralph had learned German during the Nazi occupation and was now finding it useful.
The pub where Ralph felt most comfortable was the Blue Moon. The Nazis had a cement works operation near Schrunz and many of the men and women in town worked there in one capacity or another. Some of these men were regulars at the Blue Moon. Two of these whom Ralph got to know were a Frenchman named Carpentier and a Czech named Kapinski.
Carpentier, a road builder from Paris, met and married his Austrian wife several years before the war. When the fighting broke out she asked him to bring her back to Austria to be near her aging mother.
Kapinski was an accountant who grew up outside Prague. When plans for the hydroelectric plant near Schrunz were being assembled, German officials recruited him to be a team member. At first he thought the notion insane to built a hydroelectric facility here in the middle of nowehre. But once on the scene he understood. The steep terrain would be ideal for advanced power generation.
Ralph never intended to settle down, but now he felt trapped. Unable to travel further west he found himself resigned to his beautiful cage. When Kapinski and Carpentier came in together that evening they immediately invited him to pull up a chair at their table.
"Ah, if it isn't the Estonian," Kapinski said, waving his hand as if pulling handfuls of air toward him.
Ralph moved across the room, grabbed a chair in a manner that caused Carpentier to grin. Both men were much older than Ralph. They found his exuberance entertaining. They also liked him because he had new stories to tell, and he was able to drink heavily without becoming stupid.
"I've decided to stay," Ralph said. "Now I need a job."
"What can you do?" asked the Czech.
"I'm a fast typist. And I'm good with numbers."
"That's good," said Kapinski. "We need help with the paperwork at the cement works. I'm in the accounting office."
"He's head accountant."
Ralph glanced at Carpentier, studied Kapinski, then looked past to catch a glimpse of the waitress gliding past a table near the wall. "Fraulein!" Ralph shouted. "Drinks all around for my friends."
"Irma," Kapinski said. "She calls herself Irma."
* * * *
As winter set in the mountains were idyllic. His room at the chalet was just over a mile from the cement works office. Most days it was an pleasant walk, the snow-capped mountains rising up to kiss the sky. The offices were not so aesthetically welcoming. Boxes of papers were everywhere, piled in the corners and around the base of the walls. Loose sheafs of paper covered every surface in the room. The work was important enough that German soldiers would be brought in to keep them "motivated."
Some days they were instructed to stay late, but it seemed impossible task make real headway as the problem was staffing. They needed more accountants.
"What we need is shredders," Carpentier said one evening at the Blue Moon. "Wouldn't it be funny to discover that our failure to keep up with the paperwork was actually damaging the Nazi war effort?
Ralph asked why the rooms are just barely above fifty degrees. "If it were any colder my coffee would get ice on it."
"They're saving fuel. Heat uses energy. It's all physics," Kapinski said. "Last year we sometimes had to wear gloves in the office."
"You're lucky you don't have to work on that hydroelectric project. Those men are out in the cold from dawn to late. And I mean very late."
Ralph had sometimes walked to the project during his lunch break and watched as they poured concrete, studied the network of pipes, handles, gauges and general construction debris. He had been impressed by their industriousness, and the scale of the pipelines.