The Kid’s arrival in Wiesbaden, Germany about a week after us was a mystery because we assumed he’d arrived in Bremerhaven on the troop ship with the rest of us and that he’d been on the same night-train down to the U.S. Air Force base in central Germany. We had shipped out of Hoboken, New Jersey together. We were all assigned to a secret wing of the Air Force Intelligence Service to which he too seemed to belong. So naturally we wondered where he was that week. Was he even on the same train? Polak suggested that maybe they flew him here from the States, which would have meant he was on some special assignment. But the Kid? On special assignment? In those times a special assignment was very, very special. But the Kid didn’t look the part. In any case, he never explained and we soon forgot it.
When speaking of him, we gave him the definite article: the Kid. He must have been about the same age as all of us, just out of college and conscriptable into the army. But this mild guy looked like a sixteen-year old kid, blond, rosy-cheeked and blue eyes in a round face was the incarnation of innocence who liked hanging out with us “older guys”, tough and worldly wise.
So our little group came to consist of three Slavs and two Anglos: one Pole, a Russian-Ukrainian and a Czech; the Kid and I were the two Anglos. We were a group in the sense that we hung out together in our free time which was most of the time in that chaotic period in Wiesbaden. Our duties were most limited: we only had to report to our respective units at eight a.m. each morning when we were interviewed again and again, and told to report the next day. So after the daily interview we had the rest of day free: beer drinking in some cellar beer parlor in the carpet-bombed Spa city—flattened like most cities in Germany—and strolling around the huge PX store in the historic Kurhaus, the famous health Spa, and evenings playing roulette in the Casino. Or the Polak and I just sat around in a café where he gave me German lessons.
All three Slavs spoke what seemed to me fluent German. As many of the displaced persons in the immediate postwar years in Germany they had lived and gone to schools there while their families waited for U.S. visas. So they had only been in the USA a few years before the Korean War began and they were about to be drafted so they joined the Air Force where their European language talents were more appreciated. Above all, they wanted to get back to Europe.
I too joined the Air Force to avoid being drafted into the army and sent to Korea. As I hoped and requested, they sent me to a Russian language school and thereafter to Germany where it turned out that the U.S. military didn’t need American Russian speakers. They had plenty of native speakers of East European languages. In my case, the usual fuck-up! But the case of the Slavs soon became clear and it was not what I’d imagined at all. Though details were obscure, for some of them Germany turned out to be a launch pad for points farther east—back home where people like my friends once came from. World War Two was over but the Cold War was in full swing. So clearly the Slavs would not loll around the old Wiesbaden thermal baths and its Casino very long.
That afternoon Polak checked the time on the antique clock hanging over the Kurhaus main entrance and synchronized his watch. “Isn’t it about time to head for the Casino?” Agreement was unanimous. Everyone stood up. The Kid looked from one to the other. Was he invited too? Boris, the handsome Russian-Ukrainian, wrapped a fatherly arm around the Kid’s shoulders. “Of course you are. I’ll teach you the basics of roulette … and also a few tricks.”
“Thanks, guys. I’m a fast learner. Promise you.”
Hans the Czech patted the Kid on his free arm. “The idea is to buy few chips, play your game, have fun and get out with at least what you started with.” Actually Hans was not a real Czech; he was Sudetendeutsch and his native language was German. He bragged that he’d been in the Karlsbad Casino as a child.
“Don’t do like Dostoevsky and lose your whole fortune on your dicey lucky number,” I advised. “Yes, but scary cats shouldn’t even go to the Casino,” Polak said. “Scaredy-cats,” I nitpicked his speech as he did my pronunciation of the German umlaut, those double-dots over words. I was having trouble pronouncing ich möchte properly. I would like … a beer. “Higgledy-piggledy,” he rebutted as I’d taught him. “Perfect,” I praised him, and added another ich möchte attempt, to which he shook his head in disgust.
We were walking five abreast toward the gambling den when I asked Boris the Russian-Ukrainian point-blank where he thought he and Polak and Hans the Czech were headed after Wiesbaden. He shrugged mysteriously and didn’t answer. The Kid looked blankly from one of us to the other. “Home?” I added.
Boris frowned, stopped and picked a rose from a flower bed in the Casino’s opulent entrance hall of marble pillars and stained glass and statues. He handed the yellow flower to the Kid. “For good luck in the Casino.” he said, ignoring me. And repeated for the zillionith time to one and all that he wanted a woman. “I can’t live like this, like a monk in a fucking monastery on Mount Athos. I need a woman!” And Boris did not mean a woman for money, but a woman for love.
We each bought twenty marks in chips and went straight to our usual roulette table. We would spend a couple of hours of our early evening playing roulette if we won enough times. Or if we lost our chips, then just watching the real players who went also for the numbers and big bets with the black chips worth one hundred marks each. We were there for entertainment. Yet, who knows, maybe one or the other of us had ideas of making a quick fortune. Thus far we had only bet on odd or even and red or black. We were the peones in the grand game that Dostoevsky played here in the Wiesbaden Casino. A game of pure chance, a game of life or death. The sickness the writer described in his novel, The Gambler. Where fortunes were made overnight … and lost even faster. And where “your dreams, your most essential desires … don't go beyond pair and impair, rouge, noir, the twelve middle numbers, and so on and so forth.”
The Kid didn’t play the first two hours during which Hans the Czech won over a hundred marks while Boris the Russian-Ukrainian kept eyeing longingly the nearby blackjack table—here called both Twenty-One and Vingt-et-Un. Like Polak and me, he was still breaking even. The Kid instead had found a tall, red stool and sat there looking over the shoulders of the players observing it all in wonder and twisting his chips in his small hands.
I wondered if Dostoevsky really took the time during his stay here in Wiesbaden to write his story about The Gambler in order to pay off his accumulated debts. Polak shrugged doubtfully. “Maybe he dashed it out to get money so he could continue to chase his losses.” I thought Polak was probably right. But there was that thing called lady luck.
He and I cashed in and found we had both broken even. Hans the Czech gloated over his one hundred mark win; his victory had enthused the Kid enormously. Boris lost all his chips and moved carelessly to the black jack table to watch the action. That man will never become a pathological gambler like old Fyodor, I thought. He was a lover.
When we realized the Kid was not with us, we found him still at the roulette table. He had pushed aside his stool, had a high stack of chips in front of him and was betting helter-skelter on red or black and odd or even, ten chips at a time. While we watched, the croupier upgraded his chip values by changing reds to blue to green. In no time at all the Kid accumulated a stack of ten green chips worth twenty-five marks each and ten more already placed on black and ten on even.
“Faites vos jeux, rien ne va plus!” announced the croupier. When the Kid again won the turn of the wheel, other players began watching him, some even following his apparently incomprehensible system. We snickered, aware that he had none. No system was his system. For the Kid it was all pure chance. But to others his run must have seemed something worth dying for.
During my matinal interview the next morning, the Kentucky bred Second Lieutenant who spoke only Southern reiterated that my fading Russian was not needed and that I should get busy and learn German real quick. “We’re not in fucking Russia. And the Russians aren’t here, yet.”
So, still in the uniform we were required to wear for the interview and snug and warm in my Air Force heavy blue wool topcoat, square shoulders and wide lapels, the only piece of military issue clothing bearable, I went to the Kurhaus PX café and had filter coffee and Brötchen with blackberry jam to smother the lingering taste of the two slices of Polish salami Polak kept under his bed together with a jackknife and forced on me every morning at around seven. I had to get used to it, he insisted.
After that real breakfast I stopped at a line of phone booths near the Kurhaus entrance to call Polak back at the hotel and to beg him for a whole day of German lessons. “You know what you need for the German language, buddy?” he said as he always said. “You need ein deutsches Mädchen, ganz schnell.” [a German girl, real quick.]
I hung up thinking how unfair it was that these Slavs spoke German fluently and I had problems just pronouncing an umlaut. In that moment I heard loud German spoken in the booth next to me. I peeped. Sitting inside with his back toward the folding door was the Kid. He was speaking German, very fast, very tough, his voice deeper, incompatible with his cherubic face. I stared dumbfounded. He was in uniform too, a lieutenant’s gold bar on his collar. While my nose was pressed against the glass he turned and saw me looking him. He shrugged, signed off and hung up.
When the Kid stepped out of the phone booth he was different as a lieutenant. A new man. As if a cosmetic surgeon had done him over during the night. I grinned evilly, saluted and walked away.
On my way back to my hotel to change into decent clothes and pondering the mystery of the Kid, I again noted the scarcity of children in the city, but the disproportionate number of young men of our age rushing busily along the rubble-lined streets of the former downtown, and everything dusty, grayish. hopelessly war-torn chaotic. Time raced ahead of reality. Seven years had passed since the mayhem ended but you would never know it from the total devastation and havoc in which the people of Wiesbaden lived their lives. The young of now were the adolescents in the final days, those still too young at war’s end to be called into military service. The irony occurred to me that even though Germany lost the war Americans were the ones still being drafted. The war was over for the people of Wiesbaden but a new one had begun for us. In Korea. Which hopefully I would never see.
Curious then, my hotel. While most of the city was flattened, this building remained standing, the ground floor gutted but the two upper floors intact and converted into a hotel. Polak was upstairs changing clothes. We called it ‘transforming ourselves’. Uniforms in Wiesbaden in this pure postwar epoch were so … so uniform … despite our fashionable topcoats.
Polak’s morning interview had been canceled altogether so we now had much of the day for German studies. When I told him about Kid the lieutenant, he shrugged nonchalantly as if he’d known from the start that something about him was fishy. For, after all, there was that missing week.
We went directly for refreshments to our favorite beer parlor under a former Spa Hotel in the leveled Wiesbaden center. Polak had assigned me the task of ordering the beer while he pretended he didn’t speak German. We were studying tenses by then: Ich sage, Ich habe gesagt, Ich werde sagen and the more complex Ich hätte gesagt and Ich würde sagen. U umlaut! “Just learn the words now,” Polak insisted. “You’ll learn to use them later. Right now you’ve got to impress your interviewers so that they detail you to some interesting job here ... and not in Korea.”
Hans the Czech was waiting at our mid-afternoon meeting point at the PX café. He hadn’t seen Boris the Russki. We had coffee and the German Brandwein we called cognac and I told him about the real Kid, his lieutenancy and speaking fluent German. He was not surprised either.
Time passed but Boris did not appear. Nor did the Kid, whom none of us really expected now that his cover was blown. Polak and Hans then revealed that the three of them, the Slavs, were in the very same unit and that Boris had not shown up that morning at eight a.m. and was marked as AWOL. Absent Without Official Leave was quite serious in these Cold War times, especially for a former Displaced Person like him.
So we went to a movie in the Kurhaus Kino. Rabidly antiwar Hans the Czech had always refused to go to the cinema in the Kurhaus which was fixated on war stories, wars new and old. “Finally a non-war film, The African Queen, and with my hero Humphrey Bogart.”
Consequently we entered the casino later than usual and soberer than usual at that hour. An unimaginable surprise awaited us. We got our usual chips and had taken a few steps toward our regular roulette table when we saw him: the Kid was still in uniform, his gold bar sparking and twinkling under the bright overhead lights, his face fiery red. His shirt collar was open at the neck, his tie stuffed into a pocket. Sweat trickled down his rosy cheeks. As we cautiously drew nearer we could see the stacks of chips in his green felt field, many of which now were the one hundred mark black ones.
A crowd of watchers had gathered around to watch the Ami on a run. The Kid was in a trance, his eyes bulged. He was as if possessed, blind to everything but the devil’s game. He must have been there since we met at the phone booths that morning. He never saw us. He didn’t see the crowd around the table. I don’t believe he even saw the croupier. Only his rake. I nudged Polak when I noted the Kid was posting black chips on number 11 at every faites vos jeux et rien ne va plus. Must be his favorite number. I was struck by that link because it was once the number on my football jersey. So at that point I became a Kid supporter too. Bonne chance to him.
Polak sighed knowingly and pursed his lips “On the troop ship Boris often spoke of going back home to Kharkov and he didn’t mean as a spy … but to stay. I believe he meant he was considering re-defection. His boyhood sweetheart is waiting for him … and as we know he would do anything for that woman. They separated in 1947 in a DP camp near Munich. She returned home to Kharkov with her family. He immigrated to America with his. Five years ago. Do you think she’s still waiting?” Polak paused, maybe trying to recall his own home in Poland. And then he waxed philosophical: “Reality is truly strange.”
In any case, our reality was soon realized. Polak and I were assigned to our final destinations: he to a unit in Salzburg in Austria and I to Frankfurt. As for Boris, we never heard of him again. Hopefully he was received back in the homeland as the prodigal son returned home. But in our heart of hearts we knew that easy solution was unlikely. For Boris was a traitor to his country. But then, times were crazy and he could have been a double-agent after all.
We cashed in our unplayed chips and moved toward the exit to the background tune of Elvis singing these shoes are gonna walk all over you echoing through the sumptuous Casino. At the door I added my two cents: “that the Kid’s transformation into a lieutenant coupled with his Dostoevskian predilection for the roulette wheel of fortune is linked to Boris the Russian-Ukrainian’s disappearance doesn’t mesh with any level of verisimilitude. Still, Polak, the hard facts are that Boris is gone—reassigned, abducted or defected—and the lieutenant is an ignorant kid who’s breaking the bank of the Wiesbaden Casino.”
Polak examined me as if deciding if I could handle the reality he often referred to. “Look, things are not what they seem here. You have to get used to it. You might have the right take on the Kid but Boris is another matter. You see there are people who want him to defect. He has been trained for that mission….”
“Mission! Yes. Other people—people beyond the Air Force—trained him for defection. The Kid may be one of those. Of course Boris would be perfect for infiltration. They maybe hope into the KGB itself. Which I doubt possible and which terrifies Boris himself. So we don’t really know. Is it defection or desertion? We’ll probably never know.”
“Well Polak, you’re so right. Reality is truly strange.”
We left the Kid there, red-faced and sweating in his crumpled lieutenant’s uniform, while from the whoops we heard we knew that number 11 had come up. And I recalled another Dostoevsky quote to the effect that it is sometimes necessary to win.
It is like a drowning man catching at a straw … unless he were drowning he would not mistake a straw for the trunk of a tree .... For why is gambling a whit worse than any other method of acquiring money? How, for instance, is it worse than trade? True, out of a hundred persons only one can win; yet what business is that of yours or of mine?”