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Across The Threshold by Jack Bode
Chapter 3

Norway. The war. It had taken place over sixty years ago! What had happened to me? What was I doing in Narvik in a war which had long ago faded into history. How had I been transported back in time? And why me?

It was nothing but a very vivid dream, I decided for the hundredth time, a bad dream, a nightmare. I would wake up any minute now and find myself back home. But I was wrong. I did not wake up and it was no dream.

For one thing it was perishing cold. My unit was stationed halfway up the mountain. There were few trees about. Most of the plant growth consisted of scrub, gnarled birches between one and two meters in height. We had a shelter of sorts, of course, but it was drafty and its ability to retain heat was close to zero.
The next day on orders from higher up our entire unit was moved across the Ofotfjord to the north shore. The fjord was quite wide where we, that is the British, had set up a ferry service of sorts. I believe the spot was picked mainly because it was far enough away from the German positions so that they could not reach it with their artillery and their naval units had all been destroyed in the battles of April 10th and 13th.

The actual crossing of the fjord was accomplished before noon. The march to our new post took all afternoon and most of the evening. Not until it was almost dark did we begin to dig in, once again halfway up the mountain, but this time we were facing southeast and it promised to be warmer here, even though it did not feel so that evening. At any rate, there was less snow of the ground.

The next morning dawned bright and clear. Far below us were the waters of the Ofotfjord, dark blue in the middle and leaden near the shores. The mountain opposite us looked sombre and gloomy. A cold breeze blew in from the ocean, tempered by the rough peaks of the Lofoten, a group of mountainous islands forming the northern border of the Vestfjord.

From our position we could see the railway to Kiruna in neutral Sweden in the distance. Kiruna, of course, was the site of Europe’s largest iron ore mine. And Narvik, being the closest ice free port, was the place from where it was shipped to market. Germany badly wanted the ore and it was our job to deny it to the enemy. The Swedish border was only a few kilometers away from here. If one stood on top of one of the peaks one could see Sweden, so I was told.

During the next several days there was almost no enemy activity near where we were stationed. We carried out constant patrols which were tremendously difficult in the deep snow and along the steep moun­tainside. Elsewhere some of our units were overrun by the enemy. Not so here. By the time the Germans came within a thousand meters of our position we had them pinpointed. It almost appeared as if we were the forgotten front.

And then it was time to see the medics again, to find out how my injury was doing. It had caused me considerable pain at first. But by now I had gotten used to it, in a manner of speaking.

Sergeant Johnson pulled up with the Landrover. We would be gone for no more than a couple of hours. Corporal Litvak again took up his position in the back at the machine gun. And so we bounced down the trail towards the road. The city of Narvik lay to our right. We could oversee part of the port for a brief period before the fog and clouds closed in again. Even during the past four days the nights had grown noticeably shorter. We were far above the Arctic Circle and the two months long day would soon begin. Even now the nights were not as dark as they used to be.

Like always Bill Johnson drove at a reckless speed. There was far less snow at the lower altitudes and the air felt distinctly warmer. Soon we were bouncing over a track with all the snow gone. I was thankful that visibility was only about a kilometer. Across the fjord artillery shells burst now and then, the sounds magnified by the mist.

It took us a good half hour to reach the medical station. They had moved it much closer to the front in preparation for the offensive to drive the enemy out of the vital port of Narvik. Meanwhile our High Command had changed leaders and General Auchinleck was now in charge. To the north and east of us the French were dug in along the mountains bordering the Herjangsfjord and beyond it Norwegian troops had their positions. Across the Ofotfjord our own 24th Guards Brigade was deployed, supported by some Polish units. Due east, at the tip of the peninsula formed by the Beisfjord to the south and the Rombaksfjord to the north lay the city of Narvik, still firmly in German hands under the command of General Dietl.

We reached the medical station without any problems and without any challenge. A number of things had changed here as well. It was far more accessible, just off the main road and there was more personnel available. Johnson stopped the vehicle right in front of the door.

“There you are, Sir,” he said. “We’ll wait at the vehicle park over there.” He motioned with his head to the west of the level area which fronted the small building. A half-track and an armoured car were partly hidden among the scrubby birch trees. I nodded and jumped to the ground. A big red cross on a white background was roughly painted on the front door and on the wall between the windows. Medical Field Station No. 2, I read on the sign above the entrance. In small letters underneath it said Narvik. Somebody had scrawled Norway behind it.

The first thing which assaulted me when I opened the front door of the building was the smell. The odor was of disinfectant and salves and medicines. I had barely closed the door when I was confronted by a nurse. A nurse? Here near Narvik less than a kilometer from the forward positions of the Germans? I blinked and then brushed my right hand over my eyes.

“Yes, Captain?” she asked in a broad accent.

For a moment I lost my ability to speak. She was exceedingly good looking.

“Yes, Captain?” she repeated, her voice a shade firmer.

“Oh,” I stammered, still not fully recovered. “I am here to see Major Pershing about this.” I thrust my left hand forward. My sub­machine gun hung loosely from my right shoulder, the muzzle pointing to the floor. It was quite warm in the building.

The nurse walked over to a table and picked up a clipboard. “Are you Captain Kester?” she asked. I still had not placed her accent.

“Yes, that’s me, Lieutenant.” She wore lieutenant’s insignia on her uniform. She exuded a charm which captivated me. I had a hard time pulling my eyes off her shapely figure.

“Hm, you’ll have to wait a few minutes. The doctor is busy with a seriously wounded German. It should not be long, though.” There was a twinkle in her eyes.

“I don’t mind waiting,” I assured her, “as long as I can enjoy your company.”

She blushed.

“You are not from England,” I said. “I am hard pressed to place your accent.”

“Would you believe Australia?”

“Really? Well, imagine that!”

“And you are not from England either, are you Captain? I should guess America.”

“You are almost right. Canada.”

We gazed at each other for a minute.

“Well, Captain,” she said at last, “shall we take a look at your injury?”

“Oh, by all means. That’s the reason I am here.”

Deftly she began cutting the bandages away.

“It is rare that we get somebody with a minor injury, Captain Kester. Most of our cases are severe enough to be sent back to England. How did it happen?”

“A splinter. We were lucky. The shell could have burst on the truck. The poor devil who was brought in after me lost a leg. A mine.”

“Oh, I am sorry to hear that. Did he belong to your unit?”

“No, I didn’t know him.”

I could feel fresh air getting at my finger now where the nurse had cut away the bandage.

“There we are,” she said in her cheerful way. “It’s coming along fine. Another week and we can take out the stitches. In a month you’ll be as good as new.”

At that moment the doctor came into the room.

“Well, what do we have here?” he said, walking over. He took one look and then nodded. “You’ll live. Come back, let’s see, on the seventh. Bandage him up again, nurse.”

He was about to go back to the room from which he had come when there was shouting and banging on the front door. It flew open and a soldier staggered in.

“Where’s the doc?” he yelled.

“What is it, son?” Major Pershing asked. He was the doctor who had just looked at my finger. He still wore his white smock.

“You gotta come and save my mate,” the soldier gasped, grabbing the major’s arm and pulling him through the entrance. I heard the bang­ing of the spring loaded outer door.

The nurse took my arm and put it on the table.

“Sit down here, Captain,” she ordered, but in a friendly fashion. “Look elsewhere. It’ll be easier on you.” She must have noticed my pale color. I feel ill at the sight of blood.

It only took a minute or two and she was finished.

“There we are, Captain,” she said, standing up and taking the clip­board. For another long moment she looked at me.

“Thank you nurse, I mean Lieutenant - - “

“Baird,” she volunteered. “Petra Baird.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant Baird,” I repeated. “Do you mind if I call you Petra? In private, of course. My first name is Carl.”

For a few seconds she looked at me as if to evaluate me. Then she nodded. She marked something down on her clipboard and then walked over to the desk at the opposite side of the room, lightly brushing against me as she did so.

“You are finished,” she said. I was still standing by the table. I took the four steps which separated us.

“Thank you,” I repeated. “Will I see you again, Petra?”

“If you survive until the seventh and come to this same field station, I imagine so.”

I put my hand on her arm. “I’ll survive, Petra. I’ll survive.”

On looking closely I saw her eyes glistening. Was it moisture? Were there tears forming in her eyes? Abruptly I turned and left.

“Take care, Carl,” she shouted after me as I walked through the entrance. I waved.

As I stepped outside I saw Major Pershing bend over a figure lying prone in the back of another Landrover. He looked up briefly when he heard the banging of the spring loaded door.

“Go and fetch nurse Baird,” he shouted at me, “and tell her to bring my instruments.”

I turned and went back into the house again. Lieutenant Baird was still standing by the desk, looking at the entrance.

“The major want you outside and he said to bring his instruments.” And then I noticed that I had forgotten my submachine gun. I grabbed it while the nurse snatched a medical bag. Together we went through the entrance. For a moment we halted at the outer door.

“Take good care of yourself, Petra,” I said to her, gently stroking her hair at the side of her head.

“You too, Carl,” she replied, patting my left arm. Then I opened the door and followed her out.

Bill Johnson had the Landrover running and was waiting a couple of meters away. The soldier who had brought his wounded comrade was talking to him. Corporal Litvak was standing in the back of the vehicle, playing with the machine gun.

“All ready, Sir?” Johnson asked as I approached.

“All ready,” I confirmed. I climbed into the left front seat.

With a jerk the vehicle began to move. Just before we reached the road Johnson jammed on the brakes.

“Sir?” he said looking at me.

“What is it, Sergeant?”

“I was talking to Corporal Mellaby at the medical station. He was the driver of the other Landrover, the one which came in after us.”

“Yes, I know. I saw you when I came out of the building.”

“What I mean to say is, you are so different from our former C.O. I thought that I could - well, you know ...”

“What is it, Johnson?”

“We’ve only been together for less than a week. I don’t want to appear to tell you what to do ...” he trailed off again.

“Listen, Johnson, what’s on your mind?” I sat up, looking straight at him.

“Mellaby’s mate is going to die.” Johnson looked down at the gearshift in his hand. “He was shot.”

“We are in a war, Sergeant. Casualties happen. It is sad, but we can’t do anything about it.”

“I am not afraid, Captain, not much, anyway. Mellaby’s mate was to deliver a message. And now he is going to die. They were ambushed by a patrol less than half a mile from here. And we’ll have to pass the spot. I just wanted you to know.”

His words had tumbled out as quickly as he could talk. “You can do with me whatever you want,” he added, looking dejectedly at the floor of the Landrover.

“There is nothing I am going to do with you, Sergeant,” I replied.

“But if you keep staring at the rubber mat between your feet the enemy is surely going to get you too. At the front we all have to be alert all the time. And that also means you. Now let’s get back to our position. Maybe the Germans are trying to feel their way about and infiltrate our lines. Let us be extra vigilant on our way back.”

I took my submachine gun and released to safety catch.

Johnson put the vehicle in gear and tramped on the gas pedal, at the same time letting out the clutch. We shot forward onto the road and began our return trip. Visibility was not too bad here near sea level. The road twisted and turned so that we had a hard time maintaining a speed of twenty miles per hour. We had gone about a kilometer when the car swerved to the right. I thought that we had hit a mine but what sounded like an explosion was only the right front tire blowing. We came to halt a hair’s breath away from a giant boulder.

In the back Corporal Litvak was thrown against the front seats. Johnson jumped to the ground, grabbing his Sten gun in doing so and crouched behind the rock. I dived over the side and landed on my back beside the left front tire.

Everything was suddenly quiet. Nobody moved.

“Anybody hurt?” I whispered, hoping that is was loud enough for Johnson and Litvak to hear.

“I’m all right,” Litvak whispered back.

“Likewise,” Johnson mumbled through the space beneath the vehicle.

I looked around. There was no sign of any enemy. Carefully I turned over. Both Litvak and Johnson remained motionless. A minute went by, two minutes. I heard a scraping sound from the back of the Landrover. Slowly I worked my way around the front tire. The bumper almost touched the boulder. With the greatest care I levered myself up to a crouching position, making sure that I was well protected by the rock. My eyes searched the scrubby growth of gnarled birch trees and aspens before me.

And there, in the distance, perhaps hundred meters away I saw what looked like a grey mound of dirt. I was going to disregard it when it suddenly quivered. I was not going to take any chances. Slowly I raised my submachine gun. I could not aim it properly without giving my position away. When I had it lined up as well as I could I touched the trigger and sent a short burst at the grey mound. There was a scream, the mound jumped up and then fell back to the ground.

At almost the same instant Litvak fired the machine gun into the hill before us. I could see him crouched behind the weapon. Johnson leaped to the back of the vehicle and leaning against a small tree took pot shots at the thicket we had passed before the front tire blew.

There was another outcry up the side of the mountain, close to the thicket. I worked my way around the boulder and was crawling over the wet ground when I put my left hand into a puddle of muddy meltwater.

It was icy cold and I pulled my hand back quickly, but not quickly enough. I felt a tug at my left arm and a portion of the sleeve was gone. There was shooting all around me now. Then I felt another tug at the side of my collar. Occasionally I could hear a German bullet strike the Landrover.

There up ahead something moved. Without thinking I brought up my submachine gun and pressed the trigger. That something up ahead fell down and slithered downhill a couple of meters and then was stopped by a tree.

I stayed where I was, searching for more movement. I surveyed the terrain. Some considerable distance to my right I saw the trees sway but could not make out anything. I sent a short burst from my gun on its way, but did not seem to have hit anything. After a minute or so I slowly stood up. Litvak’s machine gun had also fallen silent.

“I guess we drove them off,” Johnson called after a short while from his hiding place by the side of the road. With three giant strides he was at the back of the car, keenly studying the thicket, his Sten gun at the ready.

Litvak rose as well. He stayed behind the machine gun, his finger on the trigger.

Nothing moved nor could I hear anything. I slid down the incline to the road and walked back to the Landrover. Coming around the back of it I could see at once that the right front tire was a total loss. The windshield was also shattered, with a large part of it lying on the two front seats. The rest of the vehicle appeared to be in working order although there were bullet holes in the right door, the sides and both front and rear fenders.

“Do we have to walk, Sir?” Roy Litvak asked, still watching the thicket from behind his machine gun.

“I think that we stand a good chance of getting mobile again. You and Sergeant Johnson best change the tire. I’ll keep an eye out for the Jerry patrol.”

Johnson came to the front of the vehicle, leaned his gun against the boulder and set to replacing the wheel. Corporal Roy Litvak jumped down from the back and gave him a hand. I climbed back up the incline to check whether we were really alone or whether the enemy was laying a trap for us.

Systematically I strode through the scrub, my right index finger on the trigger of my gun. The magazine was still more than half full. Behind me I heard the banging of tools as Johnson and Litvak began replacing the tire.

I had climbed about fifty meters when I saw a dark grey-green patch lying on the ground another thirty meters ahead and to my left. Cautiously I approached it. But I need not have worried. The young German was dead. What a waste, I said to myself, to destroy such a promising life up here in the wilderness, and for what? Still, it was better him than us. Ye t deep down I felt a loathing and repugnance for the persons who had set this war in motion. After all, I was not of this period and I knew in broad terms what would take place over the next five years. This war was madness, yet while it went on I was just as vulnerable as any other person.

I continued my search. Another thirty steps to the east I found one more young German, also dead. I bent down to turn him over. He could not have been any older than twenty years. For a moment I knelt there wondering how his mother would feel when she was told that her son had given his life for the Fatherland.

I got up again. Turning away I cleared my throat and spat on the ground. I felt ill. I would never make a medic.

Looking around I tried to get my bearings. Down by the road Johnson and Litvak had the front of Landrover jacked up and the old tire and wheel off. They were just putting on the spare. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me. I whirled around, dropping to the ground, my gun pointing in the direction of the noise. But there was nothing there except scrubby, gnarled birch trees, a few aspens and some bushes. After a long minute I relaxed. Down by the road I could hear the clanking of tools and an occasional curse.

I crept towards the stand of knotty, twisted trees. Once more I inad­vertently put my left hand into a puddle of meltwater. The cold felt as if I somebody was cutting my injured finger with a knife. Mud and debris clung to the bandage. But there was no time to clean it. It would have to wait.

I raised myself to my knees and then stood up, crouching behind the one and a quarter meter high clump of birches. There, a short distance ahead and a little bit down, lay a grey mass against the trunk of an aspen. It seemed to quiver now and then. Keeping my gun trained on it and slipping from cover to cover I approached. There was the noise again, coming from the grey lump. It sounded something like “helf mir”. And then I recognized it as another German. I jumped over to him, still keeping my gun trained on him.

“Do you speak English?” I inquired.

He groaned, slightly moving his head in what I took as a negative gesture. “Helf mir,” he mumbled again.

His uniform was torn in several places and there was blood all over. He held his left hand to his right side and his right hand to his upper left arm. He looked at me with big, wide eyes, full of fear and pain.

“We’ll get you to a medic,” I told him but he did not understand. He groaned again.

I walked a few steps uphill. There his rifle and his helmet were lying on the ground. As I picked up the gun I heard Johnson shout: “All finished here, Sir.”

“Right you are,” I called back and made my way down.

“Did you find anything, Sir?” Johnson asked when I was ten steps away.

“Yes, two dead Germans and one wounded.”

“Oh, well, we’ll report it,” Litvak suggested, climbing into the Landrover to take up his position behind the machine gun again.

“We’ll take them to the medical station,” I ordered.

“But Captain, Sir, they are the enemy!” Litvak seemed stunned.

“They were the enemy, Corporal. Two of them are dead and the third is an injured human being. He’ll bleed to death if we don’t help him.”

“But he is a German, Sir!” Litvak could not fathom that I was prepared to go out of my way to help the wounded enemy soldier.

“Suppose you were in his place, Corporal Litvak. Suppose you had been shot and we would leave you here to die. How would you feel?”

“But I am English. I am not the enemy!” He was genuinely surprised by my question.

“That young soldier is only a boy. Somebody gave him a gun and told him to shoot at us. We are his adversary. He is no different than you. That he is German is merely a quirk of fate. He could no more pick his parents and his nationality than you could. He is injured and he needs help. Our help.”

“Yes, Sir.” Litvak reluctantly climbed down again from the vehicle. Ten minutes later we were on our way back to the medical station.

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