One Day We’ll Know
Harriet Halliday Renaud
When the Lieutenant came to the door of his office, he saw that his sergeant was interviewing the girl who had been sent from headquarters to help with the books during their inventory. He had told Carey he could take over the hiring of the girl, and he was afraid that if he went in too soon the sergeant would think he didn’t trust him to do it properly; so he stood on the landing and watched the prisoners dismounting and mounting tires.
As always when he watched these Germans taken prisoner in Africa, he wondered at their youth and health and the almost insolent ease with which they worked in the hot unyielding sun. He knew that he himself, after three years of army life in his own country, was a prematurely middle-aged man. His body had sagged with his spirit, his rough sandy hair had thinned unevenly, and his curious, heavy face, that gave the impression of having more features on one side than the other, no longer had any quality of youth, of expectancy, in it. Yet when he had looked into the eyes of the prisoners, eyes of men almost fresh from the battlefield, he had found no emotion of remembered horror in them; they looked back at him with young faces clear of suffering or defeat and what he saw
in them was only a slight tinge of defiance and of shame.
He thought about if often: whether it could be then that man after all has no instinctive awareness of the tragic predicament, but recognizes it only after being trained in the fact? Along with the thought now came a swift vision of his older brother, who had been very well trained in the fact, and was a prisoner of the Japanese. He felt the familiar twist of sick fear in his stomach and the perspiration on his back suddenly chilled him, and he thought it was probably all right now to go in.
He went into the office with the busy, purposeful stride he had developed because he was an officer whose enlisted men knew more about the business at hand than he did, and they were all aware of it. Carey, and Larson, the tire inspector, had been in the tire industry as civilians, and young Moon, who was the book-keeper, had had two years of college accounting; but he, the Lieutenant, had only had a year of teaching chemistry in a junior high school, and this they all knew.
When he came in he saw that Carey and Larson were explaining the tire display to the girl and she was gingerly lifting a mat of hennaed curls to wipe the back of her neck. They were pointing out the display of which the Lieutenant was very proud because the men had sincerely admired it. It consisted of three tires, each badly abused in a different way. They were lined against the back wall of the office and over them was a sign with arrows pointing to the three ruined tires, and the words:
THESE ARE HELPS FOR HITLER.
Carey looked around and the Lieutenant saw the film of soberness and careful respect come down over his face. “Sir,” he said, “the new girl is here—the one to help Moon with the books.”
Larson went back to his desk and young Moon hunched a little lower over his books. The room was very quiet under the sullen early afternoon heat, except for the blurred voices of the prisoners on the landing and the low insistent buzzing of the machines in the adjoining shop.
“Oh yes. Glad to have you,” the Lieutenant said. He was sharply aware of how colorless he must sound to the girl after Carey’s briskness, so infinitely double-edged and knowing. She had a broad peasant face, unsmiling but friendly, and it glistened warmly through her heavy make-up. The Lieutenant cleared his throat and went over to his desk. “Won’t you sit down, Miss—?”
“Laurette,” Carey said. Her name’s Laurette, sir. What’s your other name, Laurette?”
The Lieutenant saw that the girl was nervous. “Ya mean my middle name? I ain’t—oh, my last name. Manucci.” She spoke almost without inflection, like a child who has not yet learned the different word values, and she put her handkerchief to sop at the beads of perspiration over her upper lip.
“Oh yes,” the Lieutenant said. “Won’t you set down, Miss Manucci?” He drew a chair over alongside the desk for her, and he waited for her to sit down first. Now that she was seated much as a student come for help with a new formula, he was more comfortable with her and he allowed himself an academic mannerism. He picked up a pencil and held it horizontally at the ends with his forefingers and looked at her over it. She was difficult to talk to because her face registered no response, and once when she smiled slightly, he saw why she didn’t do it more often.
“Just take it easy,” he told her, “and you’ll find that the tire business isn’t nearly as complicated as it seems at first. We all had to learn some things here, and I guess I had the most to learn of all.” He looked around at the men, but without real hope. He had given up a long time ago trying to disarm them by admitting his ignorance and showing his eagerness to learn. They were all bent over their desks, their faces hidden. He wondered if he imagined the tautness in their backs.
“Well, that’s about all I’ve got to tell you,” he said. “Sergeant Carey has, I’m sure, told you about what goes on in a tire collection center like this and what our job is. Just take it easy and it will all come out all right. Don’t expect to learn all about it too quickly. It’s just a matter of everyone having patience all around.” His voice had taken on a cadenced lecture pattern, and the girl’s small blue eyes framed in their pasty lashes, shone with a hard glazed look from staring at him. He knew that he had finished with what he had meant to say to her and yet he could feel the current of expectancy in the air. The girl moved in her chair and looked down at her dress. Over her breasts, where her dress
pulled tightest, were two dark stains of perspiration.
“Sir,” Carey said, “about the prisoners. Maybe you better tell her about the prisoners. She mightn’t not understand.” Larson and Moon sat up straighter in their chairs, and the Lieutenant understood now that they had been waiting for this. They had arranged it among themselves, Carey and Larson and Moon, to force him to explain about the prisoners again before a new person. He saw suddenly that they would get a kind of fierce pleasure from the easy contempt they could feel for him as he spoke, and also from the renewal of their faith in his strangeness and stupidity.
“Prisoners?” the girl said. Her tongue moved over her lips. “We work with prisoners in this office?”
“No,” the Lieutenant said. “They work in the shop or out on the landing, processing tubes and flaps, and some of them dismount and mount tires. None of them are allowed in here except Arthur, the P.W. Sergeant. He speaks English fairly well. You’re not supposed to have anything to do with the prisoners—it’s against an international agreement for prisoners to associate with women. But don’t be afraid, either. The boys we have working here are pleasant and hard-working and Arthur used to be a school teacher.” He knew instantly that he had made a mistake and his words hummed in his ears. Larson got up heavily and went to the door. He looked up and down the landing and spat largely into the field. Then he came back and sat
down at his desk.
The swinging half-door leading to the shop opened and a young man wearing fatigues, with fair hair and a sun-tanned smiling face, came into the office. On his sleeves were great faded letters: P.W. “Pause?” he said in German to the Lieutenant. “Break?” he translated.
The Lieutenant looked at his watch. “Why yes, it’s time, isn’t it?” Sure, bring it in, Arthur, and one for the lady.” The prisoner left and they heard him shout, “Pause,” and all the machines stopped. Then he came back in carrying a long steel bar as though it were a tray. On it were thick white jugs filled with lemonade. He carried the tray around to the girl first and then to each of the men. No one said anything to him and the Lieutenant tasted his and said in his high school German, “Zere gut, Arthur.”
The prisoner smiled widely, his teeth brilliant in his brown healthy face. He walked out balancing the empty make-shift tray with a flourish. The men pushed aside their work and sat quietly, drinking.
“Arthur makes this lemonade for us,” the Lieutenant told the girl, speaking a little loudly. Of course, we pitch in for the lemons, but he takes them over to the mess hall and fixes them up. It makes a nice little break for us all, don’t you think? We have one in the middle of the morning too.” He took a long drink and wiped his mouth. His heavy, one-sided nose suddenly looked long and pinched. He had come now to what the men were waiting for him to say again and he hoped he could make his voice cold and formal enough so that no emotion would come through.
“In this tire collection center,” he said, “we let the prisoners have lemonade too. We feel that they work hard too, that they’re human, and that it’s a hard thing at best to be a prisoner—anywhere.” He got up and put on his overseas cap. “It is a very difficult thing to know how much and for how long men should be blamed and punished for what they have been taught all their lives to believe.”
Now that it was over he was glad to have set out the case once more, even so severely telescoped. He knew that he would never find the words that would reach the men, but in his lost life before the army he had believed for a long time that if you say the truth over and over often enough, in different ways, eventually it will be believed. And he had found that the habit of thinking this way was difficult to break.
“Well, gee,” the girl said, “that’s all right with me. About the lemonade, I mean.” She remembered just in time not to smile and her broad, empty face looked very faintly empty and puzzled.
The Lieutenant was surprised to find how relieved he was that she was a nice girl even though she wasn’t bright and didn't know what he was talking about. He walked across the office and stood in the doorway and looked out at the landing and felt better about the whole thing because the girl hadn’t felt strongly about it one way or the other.
He watched a little knot of prisoners gather on the landing, preparing to go back to work after the break, and then he saw Arthur and another prisoner, whom he hadn’t seen before, come toward him. Arthur smiled at him, his eyes squinting in the sun.
“Friend,” Arthur told the Lieutenant, pointing to the other man. “He begins work for the Major today as an interpreter. School-fellow.” He looked very happy and young compared with the other’s polite gravity.
“Well,” the Lieutenant said. “How do you do?” He felt that Arthur was making this a social occasion and he knew he wasn't rising to it. It occurred to him that there weren’t any decent, cordial, introductory remarks that one could say to an enemy prisoner.
“My name is Kurt—Kurt Müller,” the prisoner said. “How do you do, Lieutenant? I hope you don’t mind my visiting here during the break period?” He was a young man, with the same blue eyes as Arthur and strong teeth, but he seemed older because of the heavy ease of his manner.
“That’s all right,” the Lieutenant said. “You speak English very well.”
“Yes? You think so?” the prisoner asked gravely. “I keep trying to improve it. I learned in school—in Berlin.”
“Yes. Very well,” the Lieutenant said. He looked at his watch. “Well, I guess it’s about time we called an end to the break, Arthur.”
“Ya,” Arthur said, and then the Lieutenant looked up and saw the other prisoner staring at something over his head. The man’s face became blank and tightened and he walked past the Lieutenant into the office. He put up his arm and pointed at the sign that read THESE ARE HELPS FOR HITLER and he shouted suddenly, “That sign must come down. Immediately.”
The men jumped up and Carey grabbed hold of his arm. “You’re not allowed in here, you goddamned Hun,” he yelled, “now get the hell out.”
The prisoners gathered at the door of the shop with Arthur in front. Their faces were tensely closed and they were very quiet. Kurt turned and looked at the Lieutenant. There was no recognition in him. “That sign,” he said, “will come down. Immediately. Without fail. It is against international law for such propaganda to be where there are German prisoners at work. It must come down.”
They could hear Larson, standing by his desk, saying “Goddam” over and over again. The girl’s breath came through her teeth in little soft hisses.
The Lieutenant felt his throat throbbing. “Listen,” he said, “we’ve had that sign up for a long time and none of the other men have objected. I can’t see that there’s anything disrespectful in it, and we’ve had many Germans working here at one time or another. It’s simply a statement of the fact that Hitler is one of our enemies. Surely that is allowed.”
“The others cannot read the English,” the prisoner said. His voice was shrill and flat. “Either that, or they are swine and take the easiest way. I shall go to the Major and if nothing is done I shall go to the Colonel and then to the General if need be. If nothing is done, no prisoner will work at this camp.” He turned and walked toward the door and before he went out he flung up his arm with his fingers open and taut, and dropped “Heil Hitler” quietly into the room.
There was a rustled murmur then from the prisoners and Larson came up to the Lieutenant. “You mean you’re not going to do nothing?” he demanded. “You mean you’re just gonna let him go?”
“I don’t know,” the Lieutenant said. He was still vague with shock and he couldn’t control the throbbing in his throat. “I really don't know. About the sign—I think he’s probably right about that.”
“Well, goddamit,” Larson said, “goddamit, they’re the prisoners. Not us, see? Not us.” His voice rose suddenly and choked with anger. “Listen, you mean he’s got a goddam right to to tell us— Listen, is this a nuthouse? Are we gonna sit here and let that goddam Hun—” He went over to his desk and sat down and wiped his neck and hands and head all over very carefully with a handkerchief. Carey sat with his head in his hands and young Moon began whispering to the girl over a ledger.
The prisoners moved away from the door, but no noise came from the shop. The Lieutenant couldn’t tell whether it was because in the excitement Arthur had not yet given the order to work or whether they were striking until word came. He walked into the shop and saw the prisoners sitting on the floor, not talking with one another. He wanted to talk to Arthur and see in his face if it had all been an accident or if he had brought the prisoner to see the sign. But he didn’t look for him because he was ashamed of what his own face would show.
He walked out on the landing and looked at the hard, barren, sun-baked fields. Well, he thought, the whole problem’s exploded right here, and I always thought I knew what the solution should be. You begin by segregating the ring-leaders. But even if the Major agreed, and that isn’t likely because he won’t want Headquarters to know we’ve had any trouble, how can you know for sure who’s really responsible?
He went into the office and he knew then that Carey and Larson and Moon didn't care any more whether the sign came down or not. He felt a great sense of waiting in him and he knew it wasn't from waiting for the phone to ring and the order from the Major to come, but because the expectancy in the men was growing. They were waiting for him to do something and he knew that according to things he had read he should be feeling very tired now; but he felt very vital, with a great will to do things and shout, only he didn’t know what to do.
Carey lifted his head and looked at him and the Lieutenant felt as thought he’d been given a cue he couldn't quite remember. He knew that any moment the phone would ring, but that whatever it was he had to do, had to be done before then.
Well, this is how it is, he thought. You always have to make decisions without knowing enough, with the real situation hidden because you can’t know enough of the facts soon enough. But we’ll know—hell, maybe someday we’ll know. Maybe it will even be soon enough.
He was conscious of setting the words down in his mind, one after the other, and he could hear his brother telling him that on the other hand it very likely was almost too late already. He thought of his brother as he’d last seen him, shortly before he’d gone overseas. He’d been worried and nervous and his glasses had somehow kept slipping down a little. He’d seemed infinitely boyish and eager, and for the first time the Lieutenant had seen his brother as a man, and capable of being vulnerable and even mistaken. It had been a great revelation to him and the basis for a great bond between them.
He heard the girl talking to herself quietly as she posted in a ledger, “Six hundred by sixteen, six ply, mud and snow.”
“All right,” the Lieutenant said.
He turned his heavy, grieving face away and looked out of the window, but he spoke to his men.
“All right,” he said. “After today, there will be no more lemonade for the prisoners.”