Bill Meilen
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Prison Train
Somewhere in North America— 1944

In enemy hands
Infinitely travelling
Your future’s unknown.

“AUF der Heide blüht ein kleines blümelein, und das heißt Erika! Heiß von Hunderttausend kleinen bienelein, wird umschwarmt Erika!” The singing steam train was a snake twenty-six coaches long, plus guard vans, a sandbagged flatbed from which protruded two fat old Maxim machine guns and two slim Bren guns, and a yellow caboose on the tail end. Almost every window on the train was nailed over with shiplap planking, to prevent anyone seeing out, or seeing in.

At carriage doors, old soldiers in khaki denim battledress smoked and complained about the singing as the engine tugged an ostrich plume of smoke and steam across a vast canvas of grain into the furnace of the setting sun.

In the coach directly behind the engine, Rudolf Kristl sang along gamely with everyone, tired of staring at his reflection in the sealed window for a whole sweltering week.“Und ihr Herz is voller Süßigkeit—Zarter Duft entstromt dem Blütenkleid! Auf der Heide blüht ein kleines Blümelein, Und das heißt Erika!” Six days earlier, he and his fellow prisoners had been paraded at boat stations and quietly disembarked from the British troopship SS Benjamin Disraeli under cover of night.

Since entering the coaches, they had been cut off from all visual information. After delousing with the new insecticide Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane, called DDT powder in a railroad shed, each man had been issued with a box of rations and stacked aboard the blindfolded train, three to a wooden seat, to wait out many hours of shouting, clanking and jerking shunts on their journey into the unknowable. Rudi longed for a good hot lie-down bath, a decent shave, and clean clothing. He noted again the crop of his dark hair under the faded Afrika Korps fieldcap, bill stained with three years of desert service, tattered tan tunic with wilting eagle on the right breast. I am the ghost of a decent young man caught in the foul toils of war, a soldier without a choice, a face that has seen death first hand, a landmine waiting to be stepped on. What the hell am I doing here? Why am I not working with metals somewhere?

Rudi broke off his self-examination and looked around at his companions. Most were Afrika Korps at this end of the coach, and across the aisle a bearded U-Boot youth with the face of an old man in grey submariner’s leather was playing Scharfkopf with two young Luftwaffe men. A young soldier was trying to lead the men in another song, ‘Fahren Gegen England’.