A Matter of Perspective
"Hey kid. Got a light?"
A young corporal was seated on a bench inside the recreation hall when he was approached by the other prisoner. It was mid-morning, and the hall was packed with men from several barracks, all eager to make the best use of their allotted time. The building was full of good-natured ribbing, sounds of laughter, and clouds of smoke.
"Oh, sure, Sarge." He patted around his uniform, the one he was captured in, and found some matches in a pocket. He handed the book over.
"Thanks. "The sergeant lit a cigarette. "Want one?"
"Suit yourself." The sergeant handed the book of matches back to the corporal and then took a puff. "I got plenty. Been stocking up. It'll be a while until your first Red Cross package shows up. Paperwork." He deftly caught an errant ping pong ball and tossed it back.
"Thanks, Sarge!" The private who caught the ball returned to the table and served. The game resumed; the sound of the ball offering a subtle hypnotic rhythm that seemed to overtake the mix of conversation and the sound of the wind hissing through the poorly insulated walls.
The sergeant plopped himself down on the bench. "So, when did you get in?" he asked the corporal.
"I got in last week." The corporal's eyes followed the game.
"Oh, yeah. You came in with that group of six. So, you're in nineteen…" The sergeant took another puff and blew a smoke ring. "Matlack's a good chief."
"Seems all right."
"I'm Mickey Jergens. Been here two years."
The corporal turned and faced Jergens. "Joe Cooper."
Jergens shifted. For several seconds it appeared as if he was sizing up the new arrival. He took one more puff of his cigarette and then stubbed it out on the wooden floor. "You look a little down in the dumps, Cooper."
"Luck ran out I guess." Cooper shrugged, not taking any offense at the sergeant's observation. "Didn't expect I'd end up in a …"
"Where you from, Cooper?"Jergens asked.
"Hey, that a fact? Wait here."
Jergens got up and strode over to a table, where several men were working on a jigsaw puzzle. He whispered something to a corporal working on one corner. The corporal left the table and followed Jergens over.
"Hey Baxter! This is Joe Cooper from Dayton," Jergens said. "Cooper's new."
"We're practically neighbors, " Baxter replied in a distinct accent. "Kentucky." He shook Cooper's hand. "I'm in 14 with this guy, obviously." Baxter grinned. "We'll have to compare notes sometime."
"Thanks." Cooper replied. Baxter left the two and went back to the puzzle.
'You see," Jergens said cheerfully. "Your luck just changed."
Cooper shrugged. "Could be a coincidence."
"You get shot down or captured on the ground?"
"Hurt?" Jergens asked.
"No. I couldn't believe it. The chute opened and then I had a picture perfect landing. Just like we trained." Cooper sat up straight and motioned with his left arm. "Whoosh! Right through the trees."
Jergens slapped his knee. "There. You see? That was your first true bit of good luck. Where did you land?"
"Some town," Cooper replied. "Never caught the name."
"Really? Who captured you?"
Cooper took a deep breath. "Actually, it was all of us. The whole crew. A Wehrmacht platoon was going through. We were sitting ducks though."
Jergens shook his head. "Now that's where you're wrong, kid. First, your whole crew made it. That's luck right there. Not often that happens. You were lucky a platoon was there. The civilians could have attacked you guys, or turned you over to the Gestapo, or the SS. They take you to the Dulag for interrogation?"
"No. They put us in the town jail for a few nights. Asked us questions over and over, and then separated the officers. We never saw the captain and co-pilot after that. A guard told us they were sent to an Oflag."
"You're lucky you didn't go to the Dulag. Single cells, freezing, no contact. It still gives me nightmares." Jergens shuddered at the memory.
"I've heard about it. We were put on a train with another group of prisoners." A glint of moisture showed in the corporal's eyes. He quickly wiped his face, and then continued. "Boxcars for two days. The guards had to stop some civilians from going after us when we pulled into a station to take a break."
"I hear ya. See that guy over there by the record player?" Jergens pointed towards the other side of the hall.
"His name is Mertz. This isn't his first camp. He was shot down over France and then shipped all the way out east to Poland. Spent eight days on the train. Can you believe it?"
"How did he end up here?"
"Transfer. For no good reason. The Krauts do that. Seemed if they spent less time shuttling people all over the place on trains, they wouldn't be losing. Well, you made it through the train ride didn't ya?" He slapped Cooper on the back. "And now you're here. Lucky for you."
"How so?" Cooper asked in a skeptical tone.
"Well, this is no Waldorf Astoria. But it's better than a lot of camps. Ask Mertz. Most of the guards aren't too bad. Just keep away from the wire and stay in at night and you won't get her hurt. Been here two years. Haven't seen anyone die yet, so far as I know. Food." Jergens continued. "There's never enough. But we're not starving. Hey, you know where we are, right?"
"Stalag 13," Cooper answered.
"No. The town."
"See, there's another bit of luck. There's two Hammelburgs. Like we have a lot Springfield's. The other one? It's out east. Huge camp there. Us, well we're near Dusseldorf. The northwest corner of Germany. When the Allies come over the border guess who gets freed first? We do! They should be here by Christmas, I reckon."
"Really?" Cooper perked up. "Hey, how did you know…?"
"Don't listen to Mick." Another sergeant had overheard and stopped the conversation. "He could sell snow to the Eskimos."
"Yeah, I'm not the only one in the camp with that reputation, Mills." Jergens retorted. Mills laughed.
"Is there an escape committee?" Cooper whispered.
"Hey now. That's pushing your luck. Leave that to the officers and the Brits. Trust me; it's best to stay put. Too many ifs. If you can speak German. If you can get civilian clothes. If you can get papers. If we can get a tunnel built before the ferrets find it. Your parents would rather see you home in one piece. Don't take any chances." The sergeant now gave Cooper a look that meant business.
Cooper swallowed and nodded. He continued to silently watch the ping pong game in progress, until the door opened and Schultz walked in.
"Time's up. Out, out. Raus." There was no threat in the guard's tone, as the good-natured verbal sparring back and forth began. "If you stay here longer, when would Barracks 13 and 9 get their time?" Schultz wagged his finger at a corporal who was complaining.
"Oh, come on Schultz. Those guys don't deserve rec time." Baxter said to the sergeant. "They cheat at poker."
"No gambling. Out," Schultz insisted. He pointed to the door.
Everyone laughed and filed out of the building.
"No gambling." Jergens chuckled. "Yeah, right," he told Cooper. "He's the top offender." He winked. "Lucky for us, he's the Sergeant of the Guard."
"He seems decent enough." Cooper followed him out of the building
"Yeah, most of them seem pretty decent. Klink's not too bad either."
"What about his no escape record?" The two started heading towards Cooper's barracks.
"Oh, he's good at what he does," Jergens said quickly. "I think he's just decent, that's all. He and Colonel Hogan, they play this little dance, ya see. Bargains, trades, the works. You meet him yet?"
"Colonel Hogan? Just when we came in"
"Triple sevens; twenty-one, four leaf clover. You hit the C.O. jackpot."
"Don't get me wrong, kid. He's strict. West Point, I think; but he'll watch your back. Hey, Kinch!" Jergens greeted his fellow sergeant. "What's up?"
"Looking for Corporal Cooper." Kinch said.
"Right here." Jergens pointed to the corporal.
"Good. We've been looking for you." Kinch winked at Jergens and the two exchanged a look. "We need you to come over to Barracks two. Colonel Hogan wants to meet with you."
"Me?" Cooper asked nervously.
"Go ahead kid." Jergens gave Cooper a light push. "It'll be okay. "Hey listen," he said encouragingly. "Your good luck. It just got better."
Notes: Judging by the size of the recreation hall in the show, it makes sense that barracks would have specific times to use the facilities. According to my research, the British seemed to be more eager to attempt escapes. Officers of course, had an "obligation" to try. Despite the clandestine radios, supplies, maps etc, successful escapes were very difficult and actually quite rare. Word of the "Great Escape" and the subsequent execution of most of the recaptured prisoners were spread around the camps. Ferret was the term coined for the German soldiers who specialized in "sniffing out" tunnels and other means of escape. In one episode, Hogan mentioned he had been a cadet, so I am making him a West Point grad. Was he a strict commander? Despite his occasional "loose" demeanor, which was I believe was partially an act, I think he would have to be, to keep everyone safe.