A true story, as told to us kids, over thirty five years ago, by my great uncle:
In early March of forty five, a freak snow storm cut off the coastal rail lines, between Livorno and Grosseto. A troop transport reeking of sweat, canned beef and soupy rice and carrying a load of French and British prisoners of war was forced to halt and wait out the storm; just outside of Piombino, in the countryside. The train and its men soon fell silent, and in anticipation of the long wait to come, stared at the sea; slowly looking farther North and at the storm; watching the coast recede, farther and up the Tuscan shore. Patience, a dubious virtue before the war, was now a most acceptable substitute to replace the numbness and silent resignation they had come to casually expect; a reflection of the times these mostly gaunt and fretful men had had to endure over their last five years of interment. Most of these troops, save for a few, had been common infantry men and were of Algerian, Tunisian and Moroccan descent. Captured together near Cambrai during the Blitzkrieg five Mays ago they had been shipped East to Austria, to work the land, but eventually, to new and shabbily constructed Stalags, between Mollbrucke and Seeboden, Wolfsberg and Graz.
Alcide, my great uncle, had been the regimental cook and had finally been collared alongside his North African brethrens, one afternoon, in May. After successfully hiding for two days and nights, alongside the carcass of his dead and bloated mule he had been found out and shipped East, not South. At the time, the large cooking pot the beast had been ferrying between the crumbling and retreating battle lines, was slumped over, and on its side. As the beast, felled by an enemy shell, lay dying, but still shouldering its oversized pots and pans, my uncle quickly found, that they made for a dark, safe and improvised place to hide from incoming mortar rounds. If not for the heat, the faint scent of garlic paste, rotting flesh, and the smoldering wheels of a couple troop trucks, this sooty tin capsule was to shield him from, and help him survive, the next two days and nights.
Two days later, a German cook, needing a larger pot than he had to feed his victorious and hungry troops, finally kicked it over, uncovering my great uncle, squinting sheepishly, up and at him, on the morning of his third day. Slowly raising his hands in resigned submission, he surrendered his freedom to a large man, holding a wooden spoon, an apron, a butcher's cleaver and an axe. Soon after, a german corporal stepped forward, flicked his cigarette butt onto the mule's rotting corpse and with a nod, pointed to the shuffling line of prisoners marching to the East and South. Alcide, started up the embankment and towards the back of the column, rejoining the remnants of the captured French and British soldiers' front lines troops. His left boot was filled with dust and caked in blood and missing a sock, the result of the precipitous haste with which they had all been roused the preceding night when a SS scout had called in an artillery strike on their field kitchen, hastily packed mule trains, and potato sacks.
When he came to, his ears were still ringing and the sun had risen just above the grass, where he had spent the night. His left sock was missing, while the greater part of his left shoe had been trapped under the lifeless corpse of the butchered animal's pack. He bent over and yanked on it until, blood soaked, it came slipping out. No sooner had he retrieved it that he saw a line of advancing paratroopers firing above his head but seemingly without much purpose or murderous fight. Upon realizing that none of his companions were to be found and armed with nothing more than a ladle and a handful of rice, he lifted one of the cauldron's sides and promptly disappeared within its confines, while they, inexplicably retreated, towards ripening fields of Alfalfa.
Once inside, and within the unwashed steel walls of his protective pot, Alcide, slowly slipped on his bloody shoe, his heart beating wildly, his chest sounding off the rolling panicked beats of his newfound tin and nickle pan. As the passing and advancing soldiers wheeled to the NorthWest, they let loose a parting volley and a couple bullets pierced his hiding pot but continued on through without causing anything more than a loud and thunderous fright. After this early dawn, he settled as best he could within his cramped and dark confines to wait out this sooty hell, fearing more, but better placed, missiles and bullets.
Being that it was a warm and sunny May, he soon fainted, simmering slowly throughout this first and blood soaked day, until a mid-afternoon thunderstorm woke him; the thunderclaps echoing within his shell while the heavy rain, seemingly filled the silent pot with an unending and boiling rain. But, as soon as the storm passed, a raven landed on his upended crock and started to crow; its song, amplified by the cauldron, its claws and feet, hoping slowly across its sooty tin bottom. A few more minutes passed and the crow fell silent as it began to peck at the mule's freshly butchered flesh, until, presumably, satisfied by this unexpected breakfast, it seemed to sense that it was not alone, and that in its hunger and haste, it had failed to sense my great uncle's cowering palace. As the crow had become fuller and satiated, it seemed to slowly become aware of the scent of his stale and frightened breath, trapped within the confines of his cramped and sonorous hiding place. But instead of taking flight, sensing his fear, and perhaps realizing that he was trapped and unable to threaten it with anything more than a moan or a scratch, it found one of the bullet holes and looked at the man crouched within his hallow metal hull, and for a few seconds, stared in and sideways into his blood shot eyes. But soon, finding itself bored and unconcerned, it hopped aside, and onto the mule's wet and stiffening carcass, towards the head and the flies, where already, green, purple and fat, they seemed content and satisfied to deeply gaze, into the mule's dead eyes.
To be continued........