Welcome to my world…

“The writing is stellar and the plot so well paced it becomes impossible to stop reading. Islands of Deception features great literary elements and I particularly like Constance Hood’s masterful use of suspense, developed around the switch in the plots.”

from READER’S CHOICE review

ISLANDS OF DECEPTION – Chapter One

CHAPTER ONE

Amsterdam, Holland

May 1939

The Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht ) raged from November 9 to 10, 1938. After celebrating victories over Jewish neighborhoods, the Nazis announced a decree to remove all Jews from German economy, society and culture.

Sam Goudberg’s voice snapped like a whip through the entire office. “Hans, have you completed the accounts for the shops in Rotterdam?” Hans Bernsteen wiped off the tips of his two pens and placed them in the jar on his desk. Silence announced that the bookkeeping staff had departed for midday. Tall front windows reflected spots of sunshine onto the marble floors, an uncertain promise of a sunny afternoon. The converted ballroom still had its gilded light fixtures, but its interior had been occupied with commerce for years. His desk was in a dark corner of the offices, where he counted his parents’ wealth for hours on end.

He turned his head aside and muttered a quick response to his stepfather. A blotter lay across the sheet in the enormous book while he stretched his long legs and rolled back his cramped shoulders, waiting for the ink to dry. Columns of black and red numbers marched up and down the page, each entry standing for an item in a warehouse or a shop, stacks of laces here or rolls of ribbons there. The hefty volume contained more than a hundred balance sheets and Hans placed it on a shelf with a row of similar books, each dated with registers of accounts. Standing up from the stiff leather chair, he brushed off his tweed jacket and buttoned on a clean pair of spats in anticipation of mud on the streets. He checked his leather briefcase a final time and stepped out the doors of Herengracht 94. If this afternoon meeting went well he would not ever need to return to the ledgers.

Thank heavens the upstairs dining room curtains were closed. By now his stepfather, Sam, would be upstairs with his mouth full of boiled meat or potato, reporting to mother on the morning’s profits and losses. Sara would ask a few questions and then serve dessert. Hans’s nervous stomach cramped at the thought of food. Bicyclists bumped and rattled across the cobblestones, avoiding the iron stanchions and bars that lined the canal. Barges poked along the water, sloughing off their loads of merchandise. The little shops were shuttered for the midday. Hans dodged into a shaded alley and another turn placed him onto the next canal. A solid wall of dark red bricks continued along the Keizersgracht. Head down, he followed the angled patterns in the brick sidewalk, avoiding stray dog droppings that lay in his path, until the scrubbed white stone steps and arched double doors of the United States Consulate came into view.

The young man introduced himself at reception, and expected to be ushered right into the office of the consul. Hans’s father had been Minister of Finance for the Netherlands, and Consul Van den Arend was a family friend. The receptionist looked at Hans as if he were nobody, just one person in a herd of civilians who asked for favors. It had been necessary to wrestle his way through phone lines and calling cards to obtain an appointment. In the noisy lobby, he took a seat and read the same pamphlet over and over. After several minutes, an unsmiling secretary came toward him, heels clicking on the marble flooring. She stood over his chair, waiting for him to look up. “Heer van den Arend will see you now.”

The recent political actions in Germany had prompted the American consulate to expedite papers for those claiming refugee status. Jews in Berlin were sweeping up the shattered glass of commerce and broken hopes. Now Dutch Nazis participated in isolated incidents throughout Holland, raiding Jewish homes and shops, vandalizing synagogues, and killing nearly 40 Jewish citizens. Instead of expressing public outrage, the Dutch people quietly went about their everyday lives.

Hans took a deep breath as he stepped into the office. The consul set his reading glasses aside. “Hans, my dear boy! How have you been?”

Van den Arend extended his hand, and Hans quickly wiped the sweat from his palm. He smiled nervously as he glanced around the room. “Business has been steady… people still need… things they use.” Although he was the heir to a prestigious Amsterdam mercantile enterprise, his stepfather had dismissed him from any duties that required working with customers. Hans took exception to a new business philosophy that the “customer is always the boss.” A business proprietor was not a servant.

Consul Van den Arend nodded. “Are you certain you wish to go through with this?”

Hans looked boldly at the consul and nodded his head.

The consul handed the thick envelope to Hans. “Everything is in order then. Your visas were approved.”

Instead of tearing the envelope open, Hans examined it, took out his penknife and carefully cut the U.S. stamps from the corner. “For my stamp collection.”  He pulled out the two visas, one for himself and one for his sister, Esther. There were lengthy explanations and fine print in English, and he asked for help understanding the detailed instructions before placing the visas in his leather briefcase. The consul came around his desk and grasped Hans by the shoulder. “Good luck.”

  The morning rain had dried completely. He looked through the narrow brick buildings into a bright sun and a renewed day. Amsterdam was beautiful, with vibrant greenery filling out the branches of the trees and reflecting into the canals. Flower stalls were full of fresh tulips and every window box was overflowing with colors. Freshly washed lace curtains hung in windows that had been sealed all winter. These were the ordinary things that he would miss when he left Holland.

Another stone street led toward the Leidseplein and to the Café Americain. Its sparkling windows and black and white stone floors evoked jazz and fun. It was easy to spot his coquettish sister at a table for two, her auburn hair bobbing to the music. He grinned, slipped through the glass doors and moved toward her table. Beautiful and headstrong, his younger sister Esther had once again fought with mother. God knows what this most recent rift was about.

Waiters hurried everywhere, rolling their carts of pastries and delicate china cups. He followed behind a large cart with a heavy silver urn and retrieved the new Leica from his coat pocket. Esther startled at the pop of the flashbulb.

“Why, it’s you! I thought I was meeting Hedy Lamar. Happy Birthday!” He reached his arms out for an embrace.

Esther stiffened as he kissed her cheeks, then pushed his elbows away.

“You’re dreaming again.”

He took his seat, folding his long legs under the small table. “But we need to celebrate. Mother and Max both asked me to wish you a happy birthday.”

Sparks flashed through her deep green eyes. “Oh, Mama. I haven’t seen her for weeks. I’m sure she must be devastated by my absence.”

Hans searched for a vague comment, something to avoid any eruption of Esther’s temper. “She goes out for tea every afternoon, and still orders extra whipped cream on her pastry. The old ladies gossip about misbehaving adult children, trying to arrange our lives.”

Esther’s tapered fingertips pushed at her bobbed waves. She raised her penciled eyebrows and laughed. “Then she is still fat, or fatter if that is at all possible. I don’t know how Sam stands her. He likes our money, but there has to be a limit to his lust.”

Hans’s ear twitched and he blinked. “Ah well, enough about them. Esther, we need to talk. I have something for you.”

“What?”

“In my briefcase.”

“Ooh la la, it must be small and lovely!”

“Esther, you’re the limit. And I’m hungry. What shall we have, sandwiches, cakes, or both? My God, are those strawberries?” The gloved waiter displayed his trays proudly, and poured a fragrant dark tea into their cups.

“They’re probably from Spain. They won’t be ripe. Sometimes they aren’t as sweet as they look.”

He selected a large strawberry pastry with golden custard and whipped cream. Esther picked over the tray, and settled on dark chocolate gateau drenched with a rich orange liqueur. The noise of the busy café rang around them with the clatter of dishes and the buzz of conversations. Casting a glance about the room, Hans leaned in to comment quietly.

“You know this is just as serious for me as it is for you. My inheritance is gone – Mother signed over our business to Sam. I work in a place that I should own. A job? I don’t even get a salary – Sam says there aren’t enough profits. He gives me an allowance, like a spoiled child.” His intense blue eyes looked at her, unblinking and seeing all.

That look frightened her. They had conspired against adults all their lives, and she knew when he was joking and when he was planning to act. Helpless inaction was not part of his lexicon.

“What are you thinking?” She picked at the dense glaze on her pastry. “You make me nervous.”

“Have you even been paying attention to the news reports?”

Esther pouted. “Boring. All about market prices. And I certainly don’t listen to German radio. Who cares about the Germans? I like American music.” Hans smiled in anticipation of delivering her surprise, and then the light left his eyes.

“What about Kristallnacht? Esther, the Nazis are not just German thugs. We have them here too. Nothing else will matter if they gain any more power, or worse, if their ideals take hold in the rest of Europe. They are not going to stop with Berlin.”

“Politics! Look, I came to see you and have tea.”  She picked up two more sugar cubes, put one into the cup and the other into her mouth. “For God’s sake, Kristallnacht was six months ago. There’s no reason to be afraid of the Nazis. We’re half German.”

Kristallnacht wasn’t an end; it was a beginning. You really don’t pay any attention to things you don’t want to understand, do you?”

  Esther pulled the teacup up to her face and then banged it back down, tea spilling into the saucer. “Maybe I should have ordered Genever. This is not fun. In your note you promised me something special.”

He lifted the briefcase to the table and opened it. Instead of a brightly wrapped gift, he pulled out his envelope. “Esther, remember that bird in the attic?”

“Oh God, that was awful.” She looked at the packet. There was no bright paper or ribbon.

“The point is, we set it free.” Hans pushed the envelope to the side of his plate and covered it with his napkin.

“No, you got to be the hero and set it free. I had to stand on your shoulders and grab it from the rafter. It was disgusting – it screamed and it bit my hand. I almost killed it.” She looked down at a tiny scar on her finger.

“But you didn’t kill it. It hopped out onto the upstairs pulley and then flew up and sang from the gables.”

“So what does any of that have to do with my birthday? You sometimes speak in riddles that no one understands.”

He looked ahead quietly. “We need to free ourselves, and you can’t tell anyone what we’re going to do.” He ran his fingers through his hair, pushing a stray curl off of his forehead. The waiter approached them with the teapot. “It has to be like the attic, our secret. Little birds sometimes talk, and I couldn’t tell you what I was planning.”

He uncovered the envelope and pulled out a letter from inside. “Would you like to see your gift now?  It took weeks to prepare it. I called on everyone for these. Immigration visas to the U.S., even though there is a tight quota on Jews. We’re going to New York!”

He expected her to be thrilled with his initiative. Her eyes widened, and she covered her mouth. He had gone mad.

Tea at the elegant café was an error. Everyone on the street could see into the large glass windows with their gold lettering. The pastel walls and mirrors displayed elegant clientele, but he didn’t wish to be displayed. He wanted to hide. He needed to remind her of who and what they were.

Her mouth gaped, closed, and then opened again, her lipstick mask torn and distorted. “There is no ‘we’ in this discussion. You don’t tell me what to do.” He shook his head curtly, shooing the waiter away. A whisper broke across the table. Even Esther realized that this was a dangerous conversation in a public place. “Are you crazy?” A perplexed smile crossed her face. “Is this one of your imaginary conspiracies? You shouldn’t worry about the Germans. Mother was born in Germany. We can apply for German citizenship if we need to.”

Hans lifted his face, and lowered his voice. “And then what?  What makes you think that Holland will stand up against Hitler? My God, they just elected forty Nazis to our parliament.” He stared at her in disbelief.

“Why do you want to blame the Nazis?” Esther didn’t listen for an answer, but instead folded her napkin. Her foot was tapping under the table as she glowered at him. “You just want to escape.”

“Just how do you think you can leave Amsterdam? We don’t know anyone in America!”

Hans paused to think a moment about how their parents’ connections had helped them get anything they had ever wanted, including the visas.

Esther continued. “The only English I know is ‘Good Afternoon’ and, ‘Yes please, I would like some more tea.’ All you know how to do is to fill out invoices. That will not even get us a sandwich in New York.”

He opened the envelope and handed her the papers to examine. “Look, I have been able to get two visas.” She looked at the papers with her name and the seal of the United States, then idly smeared the chocolate on her plate, daring him to lose his temper.

“It is risky, but we can do this.”

“You don’t even have any money.”

“I have already gone to the camera shop. I’m selling all my box cameras, the Rollei, tripods, everything. I can’t carry them with me. Even my stamp albums are with a dealer. I’m starting new ones, all American stamps.”

Her gaze narrowed. “Visas! You can’t be serious. How did you manage to get two visas?”

“I called on Consul van den Arend, father’s old friend from the U.S. Consulate. Remember? They worked together on trade agreements for years. Anyway, everyone is nervous about the Nazis gaining too much power. Have you looked at the German films? My God, they are trying to recreate another Roman Empire. It would almost be funny to a Latin School boy if their cries of hate weren’t real.”

“I’m not going to America. I am Dutch and I live in Amsterdam.”

Her face rested on both hands as if she were using them to keep her jaw from dropping open and her gaze from wandering throughout the entire café. Hans’s blue eyes turned angry, a steely gray, like a storm brewing. “Esther, there is nothing here for us.”

“I can’t believe this. You don’t even want to be a businessman; you want to be a photographer.”

Knuckles showed white as he clenched his fist. “You are wasting time.” He looked around the restaurant, which thankfully was not as full as it was an hour ago. “We must act quickly. I need to book our passage.”

She shook her head. “I could never leave Peter.”

“Who in the heck is Peter?  I’ve never heard of him. You haven’t introduced us.” Hans scraped at the whipped cream and crumbs on his plate, the silver fork clattering along the edge. “My God, what are you doing with yourself?” The air froze around him as he searched for his breath. “This is not the right way to get a husband. How long have you known this man?”

“You’re being nasty now. You’ve never approved of my boyfriends. Okay, I have shared some things with you that I shouldn’t have, but it’s not my fault that you’re a prude. Anyway, Peter’s an artist.”

“I don’t care if he’s painted you in the nude, even though it’s wrong.”

Esther’s pursed her mouth in a tiny smooch. “He has.”

“Marvelous! Great! I have a sister who became an artist and ended up a courtesan. What is your next role?”

“Hans, I do not want us to part with a fight. I am not going to New York. I will order a Genever and toast to your newest endeavor. We will drink the gin, and you will leave.”

Hans took his handkerchief and wiped his eyes. “Esther, Esther… I’m sorry.” He took a deep breath. “No, I didn’t confide in you. I couldn’t. But my action is intended for the best. We can send for Peter later, but you and I must act now.” He was talking to her back as she bent under the table in an effort to retrieve her shopping bags.

“You never listen. You’re like mother; you only hear what you want to. Thanks a lot for your ‘gift’ but I’m not going without Peter. We’re done here, and I have an appointment.”

He sat perfectly still, cleared his throat and spoke very quietly. “I can’t get a third visa. Don’t be a fool. Just take this one, and we will talk again before I buy our tickets. We still have two weeks’ time.”

Esther took the visa in her hand, stared at it thoughtfully, and tore the papers in half.

Connecting the Dogs, or do I mean Dots?

Sometimes you just need to walk it out. A couple warm sloppy licks, and you can get back at it.

I am working on a new novel with dual narrators.  The trick is to sequence events, or to make it clear when things are concurrent.  So, I had a nice chapter on the young man’s experiences in New York City, and no parallel event for his sister in Amsterdam.  On a long drive, I turned off the radio, and started thinking about the two characters.  Ideas floated out of the ether.  What would her day in Amsterdam look like?  Where would she be a year from the originating date of the story?  Who would be around her…. the questions kept flowing, and as I turned over possibilities in my head, I began to get a clear picture of the young woman and events that would have been very likely to happen.  By letting the events flow, I ended up with a very sharp plot twist that brought all the pieces together.  My best thinking does not happen at the keyboard.  I just use the keyboard to record what happened somewhere else.

For the record, my dog does not write at all.  My cat writes.  She prefers good quality pens and Post-Its.  She does not care for laps.  She sits on my right forearm when I am working, ten pounds of calico.  I take an Aleve mid-morning to celebrate her efforts and relax the shoulder.

The Long of It – A Miscellaneous Bio

THE LONG OF IT

My first published story appeared at the age of 7.   The Rainy Picnic marked destiny, not because it had rained, but because my second grade teacher asked me to sit on the floor for hours and carefully letter my little story onto poster paper for a display in the front hall of the school.

It didn’t seem remarkable at the time. Our large goofy family convened for breakfast and dinner at the table. Appearance was mandatory for all young adults, and grandmother presided. Children were to be seen but not heard, unless they were invited to share their stories. So, we heard stories. Letters from distant relatives were shared around the dinner table, and there were more stories, jokes and songs. At 7:00 sharp half of the group in the room bolted out for rehearsals of upcoming productions in Elmira Little Theater or the Chemung County Symphony Choral Society. Grandmother finally got to settle into an easy chair with a book.

Grandmother bought me books, lots of them. She special ordered the Victorian favorites that she had enjoyed as a girl. Everyone had read Black Beauty, but she went on to find “Old Joe” and “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.”   Shelves full of books began to appear in my room, Albert Payson Terhune animal stories, Richard Halliburton wonders of the world, and Louisa May Alcott. And at the age of 11, my Godparents sent a white leatherette diary for Christmas. I began writing.

We kept letters and photographs in albums and boxes. The stories continued. My thoughts went into random pages of notebooks. I drew as much as I wrote. My mother’s disasters with lovers began to invade my heart. She experienced one shattered hope after another, seeking to find the family life that was our strength. When the other girls were chasing boys, I shut down.

I learned to sing, songs of people, songs of life, and songs of work. The folk movement seized me. The songs led to a full scholarship to Occidental College. Rigorous Comparative Literature courses overwhelmed me. I flipped pages for days at a time, not sure of what I was supposed to learn from them and afraid to participate in class discussions. I ran for Glee Club rehearsals and the costume shop the moment I could to pursue work that had a visible result. I fell in love. Ouch. And then began a six-year relationship with a young man who helped me find myself as a writer and reader. He encouraged me to think for myself and to present my work. I moved from a struggling “B” student to a solid “A” student under his guidance. We were invited to professor’s homes for dinner and conversations, and to share Alice B. Toklas brownies. The notebooks filled.

Adult life began – career, marriage, motherhood and the death of the family members who had meant so much to me. Boxes of old letters and photos were shipped to California. The antique furniture came in moving vans. I moved into a future, dragging a kicking and screaming past along with me. The journals, letters and photos began to fill four drawer filing cabinets. My husband is a talented actor and a voracious reader. Dinnertime stories came back, rooted in the traditions of both our families. Our son filled out conversations with “Errr, Uh, and I dunno” but he purchased his first thrift store filing cabinet when he was 15. He would bring home short stories scored 100/100 from his Honors and AP English classes. “You know mom, you need to sculpt each sentence.” Finally, we had someone with true talent. He headed out to Boston University. A year later he was dead, Lymphoma.

So we are damaged goods. We finally sold our lovely home and moved just so that we could leave some of the grief behind us. There are words for someone who has lost a spouse, widow, widower but there is no place for someone who has lost a child. We still love young people.

It was time to open up the filing cabinets and to make all the papers into stories. Off the Tracks: A Beatnik Family Journey was constructed from that white and gold diary, my mother’s memoirs, re-mastered party tapes from 1961 and countless interviews with folks who were part of our lives.   Mom wanted that story “out there” but not until after she was dead. She didn’t want to deal with the blowback about decisions that she had made 25 years earlier.

Another cabinet held my father’s papers. We had been estranged for 20 years, but he wept in the corner of the hospital room during Eric’s illness. Shortly afterward he wrote out 21 pages of narrative summarizing his activities as a military intelligence operative in World War II. The 50-year non-disclosure clause was now released. Islands of Deception is constructed from those notes, many visits from my aunt, and photos.

What’s next? Scrap Lumber will be the working title of the next project, until I find something I like better. In 1985 an old house at the bottom of our canyon was abandoned and vandalized. With a big career and a baby, I was impelled to relocate and restore the structure. A year after the house was moved, the love of my life showed at the front door and we spent the next 25 years restoring the 1909 home. The old lady’s resilience and ours are woven together into a story of risk and commitment. I’ll be opening that filing cabinet next.

 

Official Bio

CONSTANCE HOOD

Biography

Constance Hood has earned professional credits as an artist and a writer in both theatre and classical music. These interests and her passion for story telling first emerged in her years as a student at Occidental College where she earned her BA in Comparative Literature as well as a minor in music.   For nearly a decade she wrote instructional materials for Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, and performed for the Los Angeles Philharmonic youth programs as a workshop artist. She also contributed to textbooks and instructional materials in the arts and in language acquisition.   Her day job was as a literacy expert, educating students from “Which way do you hold the book?” through Advanced Placement Writing skills. She served in the Los Angeles City Schools as a teacher, Literacy Coach, and Grants Coordinator, picking up graduate degrees in education along the way.

In addition to teaching, Mrs. Hood also spent fifteen years in travel industry marketing and sales. Her book Off the Tracks: A Beatnik Family Journey is based on her experiences living in Germany during the Cold War.

Kirkus Review: In this debut, Hood delivers an offbeat, easy-to-read and sometimes-funny novel of the ’60s. It also offers strong historic references throughout (“Hey, did you hear that Khrushchev sent President Kennedy a New Year’s telegram?”). The surprising ending includes a shocking revelation about Louis (a would be step-father) and his pre-Beatnik past. …. An often appealing story about a young girl’s adventurous, yet impoverished, life on the road.

A second book, Islands of Deception is in progress, based on her father’s experiences as an immigrant US Army intelligence officer. Even with the differences of place and situation in the war, he and his sister are deeply connected as they learn to live their lives, change identities, and survive cataclysmic events.

After retiring from teaching the Hoods moved to the beach to get more quality time playing with dogs.

 

Publications

 

Music Center Education Division ArtSource

Los Angeles Center Theatre Group Annenberg Grant

CAG (California Education of Gifted) Magazine

LA Parent Magazine

SRA – Mac Millan Textbooks

Craftsman Homeowner Magazine

OFF THE TRACKS From Chapter Seven BORDERS

August 18, 1961

“Your name?

When were you born?

Where do you live?

Where was your father on September 1, 1939?”

My student visa was cancelled. The tense officer addressed us directly, and the bare lights in the room threw a menacing glow on everything. Uncle Bill and I were now at the East Berlin Reiseburo, an official government transport office, negotiating the steps to get me to West Germany within the next three days.

“What is your relationship to this American girl?”

“Where are her parents?”

“Your wife is a Berliner? You understand that if you leave to escort the child, you may not return to Berlin?”

Bill smiled and explained that he was a U.S. teacher, with a work permit for the year.

“I will ask my superior.” The official turned away from us and went to a desk in the back.

“No, there are no family visas, transit visas, or work permits. All Americans are to exit Berlin via GDR transports. No one will be allowed to enter Berlin. You may stay with your wife and her family, or you may escort your niece.”

The dilapidated government offices had not been rebuilt since the war.   Pale paint was peeling off the walls, and patches of brick and rock showed through the plaster. Lines of Germans and international visitors were everywhere, requesting assistance from an anonymous authority. East Berlin was a new Iron Curtain country that had only had physical borders for a couple days. Clerks were improvising procedures as they revoked visas, separated families and negated people’s rights. Suddenly no West Berliners were allowed on the subway through East Berlin, even though one of the main arteries of the subway had gone under East Berlin before coming up at the West Berlin Zoo, museums, and parks. Public transport was divided into a series of legs by bus and train that circumvented East Berlin. Everyone carried full ID everywhere – passports and proof of citizenship were needed even to go to work at jobs people had held for years.

The West German government requested evacuation of all non-Berliners by the end of the week – Sunday, August 20th. The Cold War was on the verge of erupting into a hot war. Border incidents were being logged at the rate of several a day. Daring escapes and attempted escapes were reported in Western media, as Berliners tried to bring their families together across the divided landscape of the city. East Berliners dug, ran, and shot their way out. A young VOPO jumped the wire fences, machine gun and all, leaving his East German life behind. Now that my visa was cancelled I was supposed to leave immediately, but it turned out I would be going alone. Uncle Bill had not found a way to take me across the border and then return to his family in Berlin. The country was no longer safe. Back at Mutti Liddy’s house another string of directions followed as Monika packed my things.

Germans like to have precise systems in place. The trains run on time, everyone is accounted for, and papers are checked and cross-checked. Although the West German government requested evacuation, only the East German government could issue the transportation visas. The two German governments were not in agreement as to how this was to be accomplished.  For three days in a row we traveled back and forth to complete stacks of forms that no one understood. On the first day, it was an excursion, but the sober people in the streets and empty cafes were a jarring sight. People walked with heads down and faces concealed. Some disappeared into the uniform rows of gray block buildings. On the second visit the officials tried to ask me questions by myself. I just stared at them, and I couldn’t answer them or read the papers. Cold sweat was everywhere in the room even though it was a hot afternoon. Uncle Bill calmly began translating words and ideas that I did not understand, not even in English.   His blue eyes moved constantly as he looked into the unblinking stares of the officers. I knew this was scary but I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be afraid of.

The stomachaches started in the car. My passport was stamped and Bill had the ticket to West Germany. Safely back at Mutti Liddy’s, the adults tried compresses on my tummy, and mixed up potions to drink. Thermometers were unreliable in the hot August weather – a fever may not be a fever. A doctor came by.   Finally the illness was diagnosed as “nerves” and the day had arrived. It was time to leave. There was just one more hitch in the plans. Train travel across Germany had been halted as “escape fever” had spread through the countryside. This afternoon Berlin passengers were put into a series of buses with government escorts, unloaded at borders, walked across, and reboarded. Just a week earlier, these buses had traveled back and forth along the corridor without interruption.

On the ride to the train station and the buses, Uncle Bill repeated the complicated instructions for the trip. He tried to cheer me up. “A worker comes to the office to join the Communist Party. The clerk asks him, “Which do you prefer, Pravda (Russian state newspaper) or Radio Free Europe? Oh, Pravda, of course. And why is that? Because you can’t wrap herring in a radio.” Bill did his best to convince me that everything would be fine, but he kept his eyes on the road. As they loaded suitcases, he talked to the bus driver and introduced me. I was to sit behind the driver. Then he waited, waving as the bus pulled away from the stop. My mother and I were to call as soon as the bus arrived in Braunschweig in West Germany.

The first stop was for documentation at a Brandenburg checkpoint. We were now entering East Germany. Suddenly, a few seats back, a loud argument erupted. The VOPOs escorted two passengers off the bus at gunpoint. The big guns with heavy stocks and long barrels were raised to waist level, or eye level for a child in a front seat.    Still and silent, the tears came, obscuring the pages of a new book. No instructions were needed about keeping my head down.  The Iron Curtain was real, with block walls and barbed wire, anti-vehicle ditches and booby traps. Red and white signs indicated that the area was full of land mines. Finally the bus pulled away as a light rain began to spray across the gray countryside.   Not daring to look out of the obscured window, I kept my head down for a few silent hours until the second checkpoint was reached.

The bus arrived at the train station in Braunschweig, Federal Republic of Germany. Where was Mom?   Two polo shirts, one yellow and one blue, came running and shouting down the platform. Jack and Louis had their arms around me with mom’s long arms around everyone.

“Mom, we have to call Berlin. Uncle Bill said that we needed to call the minute I arrived.”

Mom squeezed me. “We’ll look for a pay phone. There’s probably one here in the train station.” Then she collected Jack from a kiosk with interesting signs.

“I really need to call. He’s waiting. Please can we find one right now?”   Just four hours ago, Uncle Bill made it very clear that he was expecting this call.  He didn’t say he was scared but his message was one of caution, even as he told his silly jokes. Ellie and Louis, free spirits now, had no idea of what the past week in Berlin was like, and didn’t understand the urgency, or why Bill would be so worried. There was no phone in the train station. Phones were only available at the Post Office, and it was impossible to get a line through to Berlin. In fact, when Louis and Mom had called to make final arrangements for meeting the transport, their attempt to phone Berlin had taken two days to get through. Louis said they would try again in a day or two after the mandatory evacuations were lifted.

Years later, Uncle Bill talked about how he had waited up that night for the phone call, worried sick. He had realized that the border trip was very dangerous. The VOPOs were shooting at anyone who looked suspicious. He was so sorry that I had to travel by myself. It was so scary with all those armed men, the barbed wire, and the very aggressive treatment at the border. Actually, in some way, the situation didn’t seem so real to me until we visited a concentration camp months later, with the photographs of people being shot and piled into the graves. After that I became terrified of the VOPOs.

 

OFF THE TRACKS From Chapter Four – Airlift to Berlin

The sweetness of the stay in Berlin was a first clue that this was to be a special summer.   In the morning, Mutti Liddy handed me an umbrella and a shopping bag for the daily trips to the open market.   Once the vegetables and fresh milk were in her big leather bag, Liddy stopped at a candy stall and purchased a chocolate bar. I anxiously tried to communicate in German, “Nein danke – no thank you. I’m not supposed to eat sweets. Grandma Estelle does not allow us to have candy.” Mutti Liddy responded that chocolate is good for you, and purchased a second bar.   Then we sat down on a bench to enjoy the rich treat. Schokolade was my first German word after danke and bitte, thank you and please.   In the neighboring shops, Liddy began to announce the names of common food items that you buy at the dairy, butcher, green grocer and baker. I tried to pronounce them as carefully as possible, but I couldn’t say some parts of the hard words. There were some funny smeary vowels, sounds I had never heard before and couldn’t say. Other words were just plain fun, like kartoffel, potato.

It took the entire morning to shop and prepare the big midday meal. There were no cans to open, and there was no big refrigerator to store leftovers for reuse. Everything had to be made fresh. Liddy blanched a bag of fresh tomatoes, strained them through a colander and added cream and butter for fresh tomato soup. Campbells tomato soup had been in half of our daily recipes, and there was no such thing in Berlin. I also learned what happened if we didn’t finish a meal. It would sit in a dish in the pantry until the next mealtime. Best to clean your plate on the first attempt.

On the first day Mutti Liddy went through the big canvas suitcase and dictated what I could or could not wear. Monika was not allowed to intervene, but she had to submit to an interrogation about my wardrobe.  Yes, Monika had helped Ellie with the shopping, yes, this was the best quality that Ellie could afford, and yes, eleven year old girls in the US did wear pajamas made out of lingerie materials. The first items to be confiscated until later were the lacy pink pajamas, followed by training bras, a garter belt, and a pair of stockings. Mutti Liddy announced that such things were only appropriate after the sixteenth birthday, no matter how much the girl had developed. Monika’s younger sister Annike agreed. She had returned from a student trip and asked me why my mother had sent these items with me. She was sixteen and was now allowed to wear them. The bras and stockings had been a rite of passage in New York, but apparently that rite of passage was not observed in Europe. I was now a little girl again and we were going shopping.

Modern Berlin was all glass and steel, with the burnt shell of an old church marking the effects of war for all to see. Everything had been designed and built in the fifteen years since the end of the war. KaDeWe was the nicest department store in downtown Berlin. Liddy and Monika marched me in to get properly outfitted.   Their first selection was a pretty pastel pink dress with dainty white dots and a dark green sash. Monika had heard the fights about plaid shirt dresses for years, and I loved this dress with its narrow waist and long full skirt.

Then, Liddy selected underwear for a little girl.   The stockings and Queen Anne heels that had come to Berlin were a “no.” She bought Strumpfhosen – knitted leggings – to wear with the dresses, and the leggings were purchased by my waist size.   I may have only been eleven, but I was in a growth spurt and had just topped 5’6” a height not taken into consideration by the manufacturers of little girl’s leggings. The Strumpfhosen were much too short. “They will stretch.”   Monika showed me how to pull them on gently, rolling them upward one piece at a time, but it wasn’t enough.   As we went walking along the fashionable Kufürstendamm, the tights began to roll and pull, down, and down, taking underwear with them.   I tried to use my knees to control the twists of the fabric, and keep my underpants securely knotted up under a stiff cotton petticoat. I couldn’t even imagine what would happen if I dropped my drawers right out in public.  Meanwhile, Annike and Monika strode along at a rapid pace, moving like a team of prize horses in competition. Liddy was the coach driver, and instead of a fair princess following the troupe, an ugly duckling was in tow.  The black orthopedic shoes were a nice touch with the pretty pink dress.

When we got home to hang up our city dresses, Annike started laughing. The mess of tangled tights, underwear, and a sticky cotton slip under the dress was enough information.   She now had a mission.   She had been following Liddy’s directions for years with mixed results. From now on, Annike would take over as confidante, to assist with misunderstandings and help me understand what I needed to do.   She sat down beside me at each meal, and instructed me in English which utensils I should use.   The fish fork was most impressive one. Fresh trout was served on a beautiful spring day and Liddy had steamed it up in white wine.   They were plated head and all. Lesson time.   Moni jabbed the fish fork in right under the head of the trout, and removed the head and complete skeleton in a single piece. Then she tucked into her neatly fileted fish and buttered potatoes. I stared at my plate and fork, wondering how this was going to come out.


 

ISLANDS OF DECEPTION

Here is the first chapter of my new book, Islands of Deception.  The WWII historical novel is constructed from my father’s reports as a US Army intelligence officer.  The notes were subject to the lifetime non-disclosure that is the source of many of the puzzling stories that are emerging now.   A young reader noted that every location in the story is some sort of island, the perfect place for a lone wolf to operate.

Tripping into A Silent War

I have been reading historical novels my entire life. A few years ago a file of papers from my father were mailed to me, describing covert operations in the South Pacific during World War II. The stories were confirmed in US Army Counter Intelligence reports that were released recently. So, the search began for the pieces to link up the stories. This book can’t be a memoir, because too many pieces are missing. The actual report identified a spy ring operating out of a South Seas bordello. How can you write about that without making up some interesting characters? The choice at this point is to use factual information in a work of biographical fiction.

We went to New York for 10 days and walked the entire novel as it stands in the second draft. Many days it was an eerie experience. For one thing, I had assembled a hasty conversion of a Jewish boy to Christianity, and selected a picture from photos of old NYC churches. It turned out I had picked a Presbyterian church that my father actually attended several years later. In the conversion sequence I had also put together a meeting with a Presbyterian and Episcopalian minister as they are proselytizing the young man. They walk together to feed the less fortunate on an island in the East River, a place with a smallpox hospital, a mental hospital, and homeless people. On the island was a tiny old church. “If that’s Episcopalian, I’m going to faint.” It was.

We drove over to Fall River Massachusetts to Battleship Cove. The curator of the Patrol Torpedo boats spent hours with me on a PT boat figuring out how to apprehend bad guys in the Pacific. Dad’s notes had left off with a brief comment that they were apprehended as well as the location of the plantation. We came up with a very likely scenario as to how that may have happened.

So, I am in the process of taking things that I do not know, and making them into my own experiences so that I can write about them. The downside to this? I brought home another stack of history books.