Saturday, June 9, 2012

Uprooted: A Story of Estonia (Part X)

Background: In 1944 the million man Red Army was finally on the move, pinching in from the East in order to drive a stake through the heart of Germany. The German army was about to begin a hasty retreat, but to stall the westward movement of Stalin's forces the Estonian National Guard was being instructed to hold the line. This was a virtual joke, however, as they were really being used as cannon fodder.

Ralph Kand heard the German Major instructing his officers and knew it was time to flee. He stole the major's motorcycle and headed home to get his mother in an attempt to flee the country. His mother cooperated reluctantly, allowing Ralph to load some of her belongings into a horse-drawn wagon to bring to the sea where they would hope to catch a boat and leave their homeland.


Ralph knew that riding the officer's motorbike on the open roads was unsafe, so as his mother clip-clopped on the gravel road toward Tallin he rode along paths through the woods that lined the way. After a couple miles, he saw that his mother had stopped the cart and was crying. He rode back, left his bike in the weeds and ran to her. She looked in his face with cheeks streaming. "I cannot go. This is not something I can do."

Ralph could see she had no heart for it. They clasped one another and he, too, cried. He knew he would never see her again. Ralph grapped a small pack of his most personal items, a handful of photos, some letters, a book, and placed them inside her shirt. He limped back to his motorbike and kicked it to life, riding back into the woods.

As he approached the city the trees thinned and he was forced to ride his motorbike on the road north toward the sea. The street merged with another and he paused to get his bearings. Far up ahead he could see a two-story concrete German checkpoint. Without warning the motorcycle stalled. He attempted to kickstart but failed. The street was now empty, a small hill behind him and the outpost a half mile ahead. He again tried to kickstart the bike. Nothing.

His heart began to beat fiercely. After all this, to be left behind terrified him. It was a longing for freedom that impelled him to flee. If the dark blanket of Stalin smothered Estonia again, to live like that would be impossible. This was his conviction.

He pushed the bike forward down the slight hill but again could get the bike to jump to life. He could feel the ground quaking from the rumble of approaching tanks. While sizing up his situation a man came over the rise on a bicycle. Without slowing the man shouted, "They are just over that hill."

The rush of despair was such that Ralph unholstered his pistol and lifted it to his temple. Before pulling the trigger he gave the bike one more kick. It sputtered, then jumped and he took off down the road.

As he sped toward the Nazi guard post his mind raced to guess what to do. He had already determined he could not turn around. He was in his National Guard uniform. The Soviets would fire their guns as soon as they saw him. But what would the Nazi soldiers do? He was riding the major's stolen motorcycle.

He sped forward. The wind rushed against his face. As he approached the two uniformed Germans stepped into the road with their guns raised. Ralph stopped the bike but did not turn off the motor. "The Russians. They are just over that hill. I could hear them. We have to go."

The soldiers were mere boys, fifteen or sixteen. But they were given orders. "Turn it off," the taller boy shouted.

Ralph obeyed.

The shorter boy soldier pushed Ralph to the side, away from the bike. He then walked it over and leaned it against the concrete wall.

"Don't you understand? The Red Army is just over that hill!" Ralph's eyes were wild.

"Go inside," the boy soldier said. Both had their rifles lifted.

Ralph was relieved that they did not notice he was riding an officer's motorbike.

Inside the outpost there were three more Nazi soldiers, one seated behind a small desk, the other two standing, sharing a cigaret. Two of these were youth and the third perhaps in his mid-thirties with an officer stripe.The taller soldier from outside conferred quietly with the officer.

"You have to stay and fight," the officer then said to Ralph curtly. Ralph understood the German, but not enough to explain why it was useless for them to try to stop the entire Russian army.

"This is insane." He worked his jaw and tried to maintain his composure.

"Take him upstairs," the officer instructed. 

Ralph scanned the room, noticed the stairs to his left and turned to face them. A rifle stock hit him sideways, and he limped to the first step. The officer saw the elevated heel on his left shoe then.

"Up!" he shouted at Ralph, standing as he did so. Then turning to the others he laughed, "These Estonian have no heart for fighting."

There were two rooms upstairs and he was ushered into the first where he encountered a barren room occupied by a chair and a small cot.  There were stains on the wall. But there was a window and it was unbarred.

Ralph leaned over the window ledge and looked down. Without hesitation he rolled his feet out and lowered his body, hanging for an instant before letting go. He rolled as he hit the ground, quickly leaping to his feet to grab the motorcycle and take off. If it didn't start he would be a dead man, but then when the tanks got here in a few minutes he would also be dead along with these stubborn Germans.

The motorbike started on the first kick and he slammed it into gear. Without looking back he hunched forward over the handlebars. He could not hear the shouting but he did hear the shot that was fired. It was but one and he was suddenly over the next rise, Tallin and the sea unfolding before him.

To the best of my ability I will be writing Uprooted each Saturday morning till it is finished.

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