I wanted to run away, it would have been easier, but being stuck with what came to boys who made it past sixteen: gray uniforms, steel helmets, obligations to fulfill, I ran for another purpose and under orders, not the same as running away. Far away lay the unknown, a fleeing from manhood, but escape seemed impossible. I could not deny the Führer as my father, a leader demanding obedience, yet under his oppressive commands, it became disheartening to enter into quarters overseen by him. I yearned for an open window late at night to leap out of before being caught. The outside smelt much sweeter.
Mud from rains flooded a Bavarian forest, blanketing the base of pines like slops from a latrine, and as we ran upon it, our sergeant, Steiner, worsened the Kompanie's struggle by forcing us to take it in haste.
"Garbage! You`re all garbage," he cried, running ahead. "I am not your youth instructor. Some of you think he is still here to clean your dirty shoes, but he's not. Stop your childish games. No more, I tell you!"
I ignored him, being an ignorant soldier who had just passed my eighteenth birthday. Besides, Hitlerjugend, joining the Waffen SS, were not meant to think but to do. We wore gray tunics and trousers of such coarse fibers, charges sprang amongst hairs on my legs. Each shift of a pant leg sent a bolt of static into my crotch, the pain made worse by the weight of boots kept at a cant above me.
Run faster," cried Steiner.
"Ja Oberscharführer!" we replied.
"Der Führer raises soldiers, not gasping swine." He thrust himself into a thicket, bending branches in his charge, and like a whip, they lashed back at soldiers behind him.
Hermann ran behind me, beaten by shame for his failure to spit shine boots. He looked small and frail, except for his hearty ears. Some of the boys taunted him with cries of, "untermenschen", or sub-human, for his physical fallacies.
"Run, Hermann," yelled Steiner. "Don`t fall behind, or you`ll have met at your heels!"
Steiner's bulging arms swung for a tree limb. He tore off a branch. Below the bill of his steel helmet, blue eyes darted about above cheeks of tight pink skin.
"Come on, Hermann," I blurted, in an attempt to show sympathy for him.
Hermann fell back, slowed by exhaustion.
"Achtung!" Steiner ordered.
We snapped to attention on the muddy trail. My mouth agape, I savored each quick breath.
"Shut your panting faces," snarled Steiner. "You sicken me. All of you. You're not the select few we need against Ivan. You're just a bunch of babies who still need a stick to your behinds. Run in place!"
Our noses snorted out clouds, powerful puffs, as the legs below went up and down in place, quick to match each other's stomp. Filth thrown by the movement of our feet sent clods of mud into the air; flung high, they hit the bottoms of boots hanging above in our hands.
"Hermann," roared Steiner. "They gave me a reason to come here. And it's not to slow down." He gave him a menacing look. "You hear me, Hermann? Do you want to give up or run?"
"Run, Oberscharführer," he choked out and his squat legs struck the ground more quickly as he strove to run in place.
"Then show a worthy effort."
"Run. Don't talk...just run. Save your breath."
The poor boy ran in place. His nostrils flared, breaths became a wheeze, but his legs kept at a sprint, knee up, knee down, going ever faster, or face a foul retort from Steiner.
"Aaaah!" Hermann cried under fatigue deadening his shanks. His cheeks suffused with blood. Sweat descended from under his helmet to drown his eyes.
"Don't think of giving up," shouted Steiner.
"Relief, Oberscharführer," squealed Hermann.
Pain in my calves sprang into my lower limbs as we marked time with our bursting lungs.
"Schnell! Schnell! Schnell! Faster, Hermann! Faster!"
"Ja Oberscharführer." Hermann ran to the point of exhaustion, his lungs desperately inhaling oxygen to keep him on his feet.
The sergeant's face turned ugly, his eyes swelling out below blond brows.
"Hop! Hop! Hop! Hop!" he shouted.
I rapidly thrust my feet in and out of the mud to keep pace with the others, my arms sagging from weight of the boots.
Hermann's legs buckled and he dove into the slop headfirst. He gasped in misery.
"So you want to give up, eh? Do you want to know what happens to those who give up?"
"Nein, Oberscharführer," he gasped.
"You run," cried Steiner. "I don't care if you can't breathe. Run! Get up front of the herd! You're going to lead us the whole sprint."
Hermann, broken by Steiner's physical tortures, rushed for the head of the pack. Boys in the lead kicked his heels.
We got into a meadow.
"Go to your quarters," shouted Steiner.
I caught up with Hermann.
"Let's get into the tent," I said to him.
"Can't," the boy wailed, breathing hard through his mouth. "Please. . ."
Hermann sank to his knees in the grass. I got him back up by hugging his armpits.
"Come on, we've got to get over there," I said.
"Yes, you can. It's only right there." I pointed at the tent. The wind made ripples in the cover cloth.
"My feet... they hurt," he said.
"But we've got to," I said.
Hermann worked up enough strength to stand, so I let go of him.
"You know, you shouldn't have done that," I said.
"Otto!" he gasped. "I've got my lesson for not shining my boots."
"You're going to get more than a lesson," I said, watching a grasshopper glide by, fluttering its leaden wings over the knee-high grass. "That Steiner, you know, he's a sergeant who won't let a thing die."
"Don't," he muttered, and I saw he was about to cry.
"None of that...none of the crying. It won't do."
"But... it's so hard." He bent his head down, so I would not see him pout.