JUNE 2009


Tarzan of the Danube
By Simon Barker, Apr 29, 2009

At the end of ‘44 I received a letter telling that my brother had been grievously wounded. If you wish to save your dear brother’s life, the letter stated, immediately return to our house with medical supplies. All medicines here have been commandeered and without them we have little hope. Our army was pretty much finished by then and there was no transport so I had to make this journey on foot, carrying with me my morphine and my sulphonamide, which was the drug we had to combat infections.

It was in late December. I was in the company of some soldiers who had belonged to different regiments. I had been from the medical corps myself. We proceeded by walking until we came to the bank of the Danube. The men had been hoping to cross by bridge but we discovered that it had already been sabotaged so that its roadway was submerged several meters. The men were very disappointed because the Russians were catching up and we could already hear their gunfire. Those men had with them a little cask of apricot brandy they had traded for their rifles. They drank a good deal of this brandy but they could not figure out how to get across until one came up with the idea they would swim across. This was quite ridiculous. It was common for New Year’s revellers to plunge into the icy waters but never to swim across and I told them they had been seeing too many Tarzan movies. But they were convinced and told me they would be like Tarzan. I explained it was half a kilometer and even Tarzan would take five minutes and by then they would be frozen even with all the apricot brandy.

They would have swum anyway had not a small vessel turned up. It was one of the last bringing survivors across. When it landed a squabble broke out and I was forced to draw my pistol and order on board the soberest ones. When it was weighed down to the water line we hove to and I told the remaining soldiers they should forget about Tarzan and wait. We were halfway when the Russians arrived on the bank and I told the men Ivan is here already. You could see the fur hats the Russians were always wearing and the padded coats as they came arm in arm and singing loudly. It was too bad for our comrades as the Russians quickly stopped singing and set to work shooting all who remained. We could see them clearly from the middle of the river as they were sweeping their Burp Guns from side to side and letting the men gently fall onto the ground, like mowers in a field of corn.

Once they had completed this job they had a try at shooting us. At first they shot very inaccurately but once some reinforcements arrived their shooting improved and they put many holes through our sail. I said to the boatman that he might consider altering our course but he waived off the suggestion, kissing the St Stephen medal about his neck and telling me he had been crossing all day and our patron saint would protect him. But this turned out to be very unwise of him because at the next volley he was wounded through the neck and fell into the stream. When we saw this we hopped into the water ourselves.

In the icy river of course we started to think it might have been better taking our chances in the boat. I rallied the men and told them they must now all swim like their hero Tarzan or they would freeze to death. Even so I was not optimistic about our chances since we had only a couple of minutes so I counted the seconds. The Russians continued firing but we were quite protected by the water and little by little we crept toward the shore. Once I had counted to a hundred and twenty seconds I thought, very well, this is it, who will be the first to pass into a coma. But not a bit of it. All of the Tarzans continued their paddling and in time one called out that they felt the bottom. We ran our little vessel ashore and all up the bank. It was eight minutes by my reckoning. The textbooks were therefore considerably inaccurate.

The next thing I gave the order to the men, strip off your wet uniforms, which they all did, and I told them my advice is to consign them to the Danube and proceed to the town and find civilian clothes. I considered that it would be a bigger risk to be captured in uniform and they would be no use for keeping us warm now. I took up the knapsack in which were my pistol, my morphine supply and sulphanilamide and we set out for the town. We did not feel the cold so much because we were already numb and we trotted along quite naked like natives from the jungle. We had not proceeded long when we were halted by men wearing overcoats and fedora hats with Hitler moustaches. They were Arrow Cross men and they were in the company of several armed police. These Arrow Cross men demanded whether we were deserters to which I replied that we were students who had been practicing for our traditional ice river swim on New Year. They asked were any of us Jews because they were hunting Jews and had just now come from disposing of a batch of them at the riverbank. I said they could see for themselves what religion we were if they examined us, which they proceeded to do, but of course due to our cold condition there was not a great deal for them to examine. They picked out one man and said he was a Jew but I insisted to them no, he was our champion and had been longest in the ice water and if they would give him a hot bath they would see that he was just like them. Are you a doctor, they demanded and I told them yes and I was then forced to show my medical kit as a proof. Immediately they recognized I had a supply of morphine so they said to me you can keep your Jew but we will be commandeering this morphine for the purposes of the patriotic struggle. Right then the Russian shelling commenced from across the river and in his impatience one of the Arrow Cross men drew his pistol and shot our comrade, the fellow they had decided to be a Jew, and left the remainder of us to fend for ourselves.

We came after this to a church. It was one that had its roof destroyed but inside the crypt there were many people sheltering. I happened to notice an old woman as she was returning with her shopping basket. I called out, Merry Christmas, and she asked, “Are you soldiers?” and I told her no longer and was it possible for us to shelter and she told us yes, we could.

The residents of the crypt provided us blankets, with which we covered our nakedness, and they also had cooking facilities though of a primitive kind. They were cooking a stew of horsemeat and carrots as these were the only foods. All the cavalry horses were being slaughtered as the town had been encircled by the Russians and there was no fodder left. And since this was a Catholic crypt there was also a large quantity of liturgical wafers, which we were offered as appetizers. The men and I tucked into these and they were quite satisfying. Also there was altar wine of good quality. Electric power was not available and we ate by candlelight as if we were at a romantic restaurant.

The residents of the crypt said to help ourselves to new clothing, as there was a hamper of theatrical costumes that had been used in church musical performances. I was allowed to have first pick of this wardrobe and I was very pleased to find a woman’s fur coat—muskrat or some such—but quite large and suitable. I received many compliments when I put it on.

I asked how long they had been resident here and they told that they had been here two weeks now. “When will the Russians be arriving?” they asked me. I told them very soon as we had just made it across the Danube in advance of them. They wanted to know if the Russians would be reopening the pork market to which I replied that I wasn’t aware of their plans but if the opportunity arose I would convey this request to the commissars.

The Russians did not arrive before dinnertime and so I was able to enjoy the horsemeat and carrot soup and then after dinner I set out on my constitutional in my fur coat. Other people were out that evening in spite of the artillery because owing to the season they were keen to collect fuel for their traditional Christmas fires. Books were considered quite decent fuel and on my stroll I passed an old man tugging home a great dictionary on a dog leash, which would have provided a cosy glow. In spite of the shelling trams were running and the first tram that passed was crowded with eager shoppers but it was heading in the wrong direction. Eventually a right one came along and I hopped on. To my surprise it contained a lot of Russian soldiers who were the advance guard and they were striding up and down inviting the passengers to hand over their wrist watches. Everyone was quite decent about it. When I showed that I had no watch one of them pulled up his sleeve and showed that he had about half a dozen watches strapped to his forearm. He offered me my pick of them. The tram conductor was still collecting fares in all this and I was forced to explain that I had no money. He told me, “You can ride today because it is Christmas Eve, but you should take this as a warning that you won’t be let off a second time if I catch you.” He took no notice of the Russians at all.

When the tram reached a cinema the Russians made everyone, including the driver, disembark. The cinema was operating and I was impressed to see that the movie showing was Tarzan’s New York Adventure. The Russians insisted we all accompany them inside. At the box office they made the conductor empty his purse and then ushered us inside. I enjoyed the film since I had not seen it before though it was difficult to give our attention fully to the screen because the Russians made a very rowdy audience particularly whenever Cheeta the chimp appeared. Once the movie was over we were free to leave as the Russians were in high spirits.

By now many more Russians had begun taking over the town. We could hear fierce fighting close by as they battled the SS men and the Arrow Cross men to the very last. They had blocked the road to the town center and were allowing people through in ones and twos so I joined their queue. An officer was at the head with two soldiers. He was drinking from a bottle and beckoning to an old woman. When she came up he peeped in her basket and pretended to get a big fright and roared at his own joke. He patted her on the head and she glared at him. Then he beckoned a man who showed his papers but there was something not correct and the officer shouted angrily. When he frisked the man he found a pistol, which he removed with a smile because it was a German pistol. He motioned to this man to step aside and then he shot him and tossed his papers on his body. No one paid much attention as if this had nothing to do with them. I had my pistol still, which happened to be of German manufacture, and so it became necessary to leave the queue. I was just turning into a laneway when I was pulled up by the officer’s two soldiers who returned me to the head of the queue. In my knapsack the officer discovered my pistol, which he proceeded to shake at me while calling me a fascist. I said in Russian the word “no” and “doctor” as well as showing my field medical kit. At the sight of my hypodermic he began slapping my back. Then he pointed to his private parts and pantomimed the act of painful urination. I showed my supply of sulphonamide and pronounced the word “syphilis,” which he clearly understood and so instead of shooting me he had me driven rapidly to headquarters and presented to his commanders. These were five Russian generals who all wished to be my patients. I could not refuse them and so I administered my medication and advised them through their interpreter that they should abstain from their wives for a month, at which they all laughed heartily. These generals were quite hospitable and offered me Cognac which they had in abundance but my sulphonamide was all commandeered and so was the wristwatch I had been given on the tram. At the ending of my consultation I was asked what could be done in return for me and I requested that I be delivered to the town square.

This was very near my father’s house. In normal times there would be a large fir tree with lights in the middle of that square at Christmas. Now there was only a Russian tank, which was lighting up the place with a searchlight on its turret. The cobbles had been swept of the snow by some soldiers. These soldiers looked as if they were praying since they were down on their knees and bent over. But of course they were not praying. The Russian army did allow not religious observance.

What these soldiers had discovered was the biggest toyshop in the country. This shop had stood in the square from long before my brother and I were children. It sold all manner of toys but its speciality was model railways and its large front window displayed a railway that ran day and night. When we were small and were returning to my father’s house from the cinema we would stop at this lighted window and stare in wonder.

The soldiers had propped open the shop doors with boxes of ammunition. They had removed the display railway from the window and had brought all of the railway toys they could find into the square. There were many meters of model track twisting about the square including branch lines and tunnels and overpasses and so forth. There were also toy railway stations. The track had been laid and they were adding model cars and trucks and buildings. I could see some farmhouses and barns and farm animals. And of course there was the model engine hauling its passenger cars around the square.

These soldiers had returned to their childhood. They bent their heads to the track and made puffing sounds to imitate the locomotive. By now the real railways had been shot up and their bridges and stations and tunnels all sabotaged, but the toys had come straight from their boxes, brand new and shining. It was Christmas Eve, I recalled.

In the square I was stopped by one of these soldiers, a young fellow, but already an officer, who was enjoying himself immensely. I don’t think he was drunk. He had a horde of these boxes and he invited me to sit down and unpack them with him. Most contained small trees and with the officer insisting all the time we spent a good while arranging them around the track. Each time I would think that we were finished and I would get up to leave he would invite me to stay longer. His men came to join us and with the trees all planted we sat for a very long time watching the locomotive pass by.

Finally the officer and his men went back into the toyshop taking me with them. Together we rummaged for treasure to add to our railway scene outside. We found figurines of cowboys and Roman Legionaries, a miniature Maypole with ribbons, a tiny Napoleon on a white charger, all manner of wonderful things. The Russians put down their weapons and loaded their pockets with many toys. Finally I left them and found my way to my father’s house.

In our darkened hallway I embraced my father and he led me to the master bedroom. I had reached our home while my brother still lived but I had now no morphine or sulpha to give him. I stood in my fur coat while the clock ticked on the landing of the stairway and I measured my brother’s breathing which was rapid and difficult. Since there was no heating in the room I placed my cold hands into the pockets of my fur coat and there I found in the left an object that must have been slipped in by one of the soldiers in the toyshop. It was a plaster figurine of a man who was naked except for a leopard skin across his right shoulder and stretching down to cover his torso like a bathing costume. He stood tall and broad shouldered and between his legs crouched a monkey who grasped him by the shins. I recognized that this man was Tarzan of the Apes. I took my brother’s hand and placed the figurine upon his palm then closed his fingers over it.

Simon Barker is an Australian who comes from Sydney but has lived in both Melbourne and California. Among other things he has worked as a bus conductor, an opera ticket seller, a librarian and (unwittingly) as a typist on the Star Wars Project. His stories have appeared in Overland, Fieldstone Review, Eclectica, Word Riot, Istanbul Literary Review, Ranfurly Review, Antipodes and, most recently, Identity Theory.