At What Cost?
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Realizing that he had read the same sentence five times, Hogan threw the book on the floor. He lay back against the pillows propped up against the edge of the lower bunk, and placed the fingers of his right hand against his forehead. It was hot and dripping with sweat. Letting out a deep breath, which hurt, he opened the top button of his pajamas in an attempt to cool off. The temperature outside had to be in the teens, but at the moment, with his fever, Hogan felt like he was in the tropics. Of course, earlier that morning, he had been shivering uncontrollably, and he couldn't figure out what was worse; the chills, or the sweats. No, the worst thing was the comprehension that the German army would soon be flushed out of this sector, that the liberation of Stalag 13 was now just a matter of weeks or at most a few months, and he was no longer in command. "The best of times, the worst of times," he muttered to himself, as he struggled to quiet his fevered brain and rest. However, thoughts of what if scenarios interfered. How am I going to keep everyone safe? What if we get evacuated? What if I die?
A month ago, Hogan didn't have the time to read a year old copy of a censored Life magazine, much less a classic novel by one of his favorite authors. He and his core team had been working overtime rescuing downed fliers, while many of the prisoners from other barracks had been pressed into service, processing them for the return to the front. Fighting was so fierce, that the route to the northern coast was shut down, and now members of the French underground and officers from military intelligence had been taking turns escorting the fliers to safety. Meanwhile, Hogan was being run ragged keeping track of the Allied progress, while trying to keep Klink from going insane with fear. The Kommandant had obviously come to the realization that the war was lost. The question now was when. Despite that, various members of the SS and Gestapo decided to play chicken with the camp…hinting at forced marches or warning Klink to fight for the camp or face deadly consequences. Headquarters had notified Hogan that he was to use his discretion in how to handle the situation, so Hogan, Kinch, and several sergeants had developed battle and evacuation plans for every contingency, knowing in their heart that heavy casualties were a distinct possibility. And then the hammer fell.
Within a few weeks, food shortages had become severe, causing the already overworked and malnourished prison population to develop overstressed immune systems. This led to an outbreak of disease, both gastrointestinal, and respiratory. As the last remaining stash of penicillin was given to the sickest patients in the infirmary, Wilson and his assistants began treating men in their huts, while transforming the recreation hall into another area to quarantine other patients. No one was immune. Men in Barracks two began dropping like flies. LeBeau and Carter came down with stomach problems, while Hammond and Saunders developed a bad cough. The healthy remained to care for the sick, and several days after Hogan had sat for hours at a man's bedside in the infirmary, he too succumbed.
That morning, Wilson officially told the colonel that he was no long capable of fulfilling his duties as both Senior POW officer, and head of the operation. Hogan was hit hard. To have a germ knock him down, after all the risks he had taken during his career, was ironic.
That afternoon, after having been notified that Hogan's condition had taken a turn for the worse, Klink paid the barracks a visit.
"Hogan, I am sorry to hear about you being relieved of duty," Klink said as he was looking for a place to sit. It was obvious to Hogan that the Kommandant was wary of getting too close.
"You can use the chair over by my desk."
"Yes," Klink said. "Where was I? I am, well, concerned." The Kommandant took a good look at Hogan and inwardly cringed. Everyone at the Stalag, including himself, had lost weight; but Hogan appeared drawn, his face pained and sallow.
"Thank you," Hogan answered, surprised.
"I don't recall, since you came here, you ever having anything more than a cold."
"I guess the stress of command finally caught up to me. First there was the bomber group and now this." The late night forays into all kinds of weather. The close calls. The terror of having been captured and interrogated and the terror of the operation being discovered. There were close to one thousand men in camp that relied on his discretion, luck, and skill. All those lives were his responsibility. They hadn't asked to be captured, nor did they ask to be members of an espionage team located behind the lines. Sure, most had agreed to stay on at the camp, but honestly, what choice did they have? He couldn't smuggle everyone out.
"Yes, that must be it," Klink replied. "I'm sorry I can't offer anything to you but sympathy. We're down to nothing; but you know that."
"How are the…?" Hogan began a fit of coughing. After it subsided, he asked. "The guards…how are they?"
"Thank you for asking Hogan. I will pass on your concern. But you are trying to get information from me." Klink wagged his finger at the colonel.
"I'll never stop trying," Hogan grinned weakly.
Klink stood up. "I see you have items to keep yourself occupied."
"Signing off on duty rosters."
Klink noticed the book on the floor and bent over to pick it up. "And reading." He handed it to Hogan.
"I must have read the first line seven or eight times. It's hard to concentrate," Hogan admitted. He opened the first page; then looked up. "Tale of Two Cities, by Dickens. Are you familiar with it Kommandant? Perhaps you read it before your countrymen started burning books."
That memory didn't sit well with Klink. He considered himself a cultured man, and Germany a cultured nation. "Hogan…yes, I've read it. A long time ago."
Suddenly Klink noticed a slight twinkle in Hogan's eye, reminding him of when Hogan, without skipping a beat, could manufacture a story or create a bargain that would somehow wind up with Klink either getting the short end of the stick, or a reprieve from being put on the train heading to the Russian front. Seeing the American as sick as the poor boys in the infirmary gave the Kommandant a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, and he briefly wondered what the end of the war would bring, and how he and his command would fair without the American colonel to run interference.
"Maybe I should take up knitting." Hogan sat up further, and swung his legs over the bed. "I get up every so often to walk around the office. It helps. I'll start with a scarf. Initial AH of course. Then let's see…Himmler, Goering, Goebbels." Hogan counted them on his finger. I'll need a lot of yarn. Were you aware that if you tell lies often enough, people will believe anything?"
Klink quickly grew angry. He was still, after all, a patriot. "Hogan if you weren't so sick, I would throw you into the cooler for your insolence. And arrogance," he added for good measure. "I wanted to also tell you that there will be no Red Cross packages for the foreseeable future. They can't make it through the lines. And I have to cut electricity. Lights out two hours earlier.
"Then skip a roll call."
"Hogan, you are not in command. There will be no bargaining. Now is the time your men would take advantage. Noon roll call will continue, even if a quarter of the prisoners cannot stand. And go back to bed. That's an order." Klink did not wait for a salute as he headed for the door.
Klink turned around. "Yes."
"Thank you for coming. You know the first sentence in the book. It was best of times; it was the worst of times. The quote seems appropriate," Hogan said. "After all, Hitler turned around your economy."
"Yes, you're right. He did. And he made us proud again."
"But at what cost?"Hogan held out his hand. "Perhaps you would enjoy reading this again," he stated.
Hogan's question seemed to mean something to Klink as the Kommandant slowly walked over and reached for the book. "Perhaps I would," he said.
This short story can be considered part of a companion piece to "Out The Front Gates." I'd like to thank Bits and Pieces and Jennaya for reading over my two entries and giving me the confidence to post.
The knitting reference is from "Tale of Two Cities." Please check a reputable site on the internet for an explanation.