Saturday, June 16, 2012

Uprooted Part XI: On the Waterfront

This story is based on a true account of events in the life of Ralph Kand, a partially crippled young Estonian man during World War II. It is being written in serial fashion on Saturday mornings based on a screenplay I once wrote after hearing and recording many of Ralph's stories.

At this point, the Red Army is on the outskirts of Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia located on the Baltic Sea. Ralph has been riding a stolen motorbike in an attempt to reach the sea and escape the country. He had been detained by a German checkpoint on the road where they expected he would stay with them to fight the Russians, an absurd idea as there were platoons of tanks coming and there were four or five Nazi soldiers plus Ralph. 

Because he refused to stay and fight with them they took him upstairs and locked him in a room. A moment later he dropped out the window, jumped on the motorbike and took off down the road.

The Last Boat

Where were all the people, Ralph wondered to himself as he rode toward town. There were no people on the narrow streets as he raced toward the bay. Fishing is a major industry here but the boats were all gone. Was he too late? It was as if Estonia's most thriving commercial city were an abandoned ghost town.

Ralph rode past empty docks and realized by being out on the Eastern front he had already missed the exodus.

He felt ill with fear as he rode down to the warehouse district on the northwest promontory. Up ahead he spied a fair-sized fishing boat still moored on a distant dock, and he headed there. There were warehouses and small shacks nearby. He ditched the bike behind a shed and limped to the boat looking for its captain.

"Anybody there? We have to get out of here. They're coming."

"What are you doing? What's going on?" It was a man's voice from inside the boat. Ralph couldn't see the man but moved forward.

"We have to leave, now," Ralph shouted.

"Everyone's inside the warehouse. I'm here to make sure no one steals the last boat. Enter by the door with scuffs and dents along the bottom."

Ralph turned away and headed to the warehouse, a large building with shipping docks and many doors. Like all the buildings here it looked utterly abandoned. He walked along the bay side and found the office entrance locked. A little further on he turned the corner and found a grey metal door. It, too, was locked. But he saw the scuffs along the bottom and dents where it must have been knocked with a hammer. He began banging with his fist, shouting in Estonian, "Open up."

The door opened and a man with grim features shushed him. He could see by the uniform that Ralph was Estonian. The man pulled on Ralph's arm. "Get in here."

The warehouse was dark. Slats of light filtered in from upper level windows but it took a few moments for Ralph's eyes to adjust. When they did he could see that there were dozens of others here in hiding, possibly too many for that one little boat. They were of all ages, some clustered as if families. Others sitting on the sacks of goods that were in storage here. Most had luggage or bags holding their valuables.

A man came over to Ralph. "You'll have to get out of that uniform. You'll be the first one they shoot, you know."

Ralph nodded, "I know that. I know. Is the captain here somewhere?"

"He's upstairs watching the weather and the activity."

"Can you help me find some other clothes?"

The two walked down an aisle. Skids of goods were stacked in a semi-orderly fashion throughout. They were looking for a man Ralph's size, a man who might be generous with an extra jacket, shirt and pants. They passed several clusters of people. A few had cigarettes lit, but there was little mirth. One family had a little dog with them.

"Sir," his new friend said to a man standing by a 55-gallon drum of chemicals, "do you have any extra clothing? This man has to get rid of his uniform."

"Why isn't he fighting? He's a soldier."

"You don't understand. The Nazis are abandoning the Estonian army and fleeing. By killing Estonians, the Nazes can save their skins, at the cost of ours. It's futile."

The man didn't say anything.

"The Red Army will be hear soon. I don't know why you are all still here, but I am grateful to find at least one boat left."

"We're here because of the submarines in the bay. The captain said we must wait till morning. This is a fishing boat. He has to make it look like he's going fishing."

"Henry," a woman said sharply, "you have extra clothes. Help the man." She had seen Ralph's limp, noticed the elevated heel on his boot and felt sympathy.

"Thank you," Ralph said to the woman. Her husband reluctantly leaned over and pulled open a sack. After rummaging a few minutes he handed Ralph a pair of slacks and a shirt. "I don't have but one jacket. I'm sorry."

Ralph hurried to another part of the warehouse, moved his uniform. The pants were snug but the flannel shirt fit well enough. After getting his boots on again he folded up the uniform and hid it under sacks of potatoes that were in that corner of the building. 

* * * *
No one wanted to sleep because no one wanted to be found sleeping when the boat left in the morning. Ralph spent the night alternately pacing and sitting. He refused to lie down.

Before dawn the captain tapped a barrel head and said it was time to go. Everyone gathered at the door where he made the following announcement. "There may be too many of us. Are you certain you want to risk your life on the open sea? The German's have U-Boats and the Soviets do as well. We do not know whether there is any safety where we are going. This is your last chance to change your mind."

No one chose to remain. Everyone gathered their belongings and filed to the dock where the boat was waiting.

It was impossible to make it look like a simple fishing expedition. Every inch of the boat was weighted to capacity. The captain started the motor. A puff of smoke wafted up from the aft part of the rig. Ropes were loosed and the boat puttered away from the dock, headed for the open sea. There were no cheers, however. They had been warned about the submarines.

Ralph was especially anxious. He stood at the rear of the crammed boat and watched, looking for evidence that there might be trouble. The city began to fall away. The sun had not yet risen, but dawn light promised a measure of hope.

Suddenly all the quiet jabbering stopped and everyone became still. Someone had seen it, and now they all strained to see. A torpedo was shooting toward them through the waters. Ralph's heart stopped. When it missed he began breathing again.

Now everyone knew. They had been spotted and a submarine was tailing. No one said a word. The boat puttered on.

"There," a man cried out, pointing again to the waters.

Again all eyes strained to see. The torpedo shot through the water like a barracuda, but like the first, it had missed its mark and passed, this time on the other side.

There was no jubilation, because the third would undoubtedly be in the middle between these two. Ralph put his hands over his face and thought about his mother whom he'd left behind, and his brother who had been taken away by the Soviets before the Nazis came.


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