A German sailor battles for survival.
“It’s true. He spent forty years in a sunken sub and he’s alive today to tell his story.” Charlie beamed at me through thick, black glasses that he thought made him look like a psychologist. I thought he looked like a nerd.
I set my hamburger and Coke down at his table followed his glance to a far table where an old man sat eating by himself. Charlie and I were writers who enjoyed a long-term friendly rivalry.
We met at the food court once a week to show each other our latest masterpieces. Charlie loved people and believed that all good stories were based on reality.
“When you make something up, there’s too many holes in it. I’ll never write anything that isn’t based on a solid real-life tale.
“That man is over ninety. His name is Hans Krupp. He comes here every day and sits just watching people.
“I know his story,” Charlie continued, “because I took the time to get to know him. It was hard to do. What he went through makes a man unable to communicate with his fellow kind. Damages him for life.”
I watched the old fellow as he turned his face to the wall beside his table. He was carrying on an animated conversation with either himself or an invisible friend. He seemed plaintively lonely and desperately lacking in social graces.
“He’s crazy.” Charlie was blunt sometimes. “Not because he’s senile. No, he went mad years ago. He can’t stand to talk to people – not the living anyway.
“But I was patient and took the time to get to know him. He has his lucid moments. Slowly I was able to piece together the incredible story of his life.”
Right on cue, the old man’s watery eyes scanned the food court as though looking for a friend. When his gaze passed our table he answered Charlie’s friendly wave with a brief look of hope and longing and then kept on searching for – what? Perhaps something lost a long time ago. All the while his lips moved in an outer display of a ceaseless internal conversation.
“”He’s got a really thick German accent, and I could hardly make out what he was saying. Seems that he was a seaman in the German Navy,” Charlie continued. “He served on one of those U-boats before the U.S. got into World War Two. This one was an experimental craft with a lot of strange equipment on board.
“The captain made up a little compartment where he kept plants – just plain house plants. It was an experiment to see if plants would increase the amount of time a sub could stay under water.
“The room had a bunch of florescent lights and spare bulbs. It was powered by a separate generator that was run by the action of ocean waves passing over the hull of the sub.
“The captain also packed a lot of extra food. Canned food – not the best but enough for the whole crew to live well for at least six months. He put half of the food in a closet just outside the plant compartment and half in a closet that you could get to only by walking through that nursery.
“Another funny thing…. He made the door so it could be locked from the inside. It was a separate airtight container. Hans thought maybe the captain was afraid of a mutiny and wanted a safe place for himself. He was a mean man and not well liked.
“There was also a filter system and a pump that could supply fresh water. The captain wanted it installed in the plant compartment but the engineers couldn’t fit it there and put it just outside the door.
“They received orders in the Spring of 1939 to sail to the U.S. and lurk about three miles off the coast of New Jersey looking for opportunities to sink British or French ships.
They never made it into position.
“About five miles away from their destination a fierce storm blew up. They submerged to wait it out, but something went wrong. When they tried to resurface, they couldn’t. They were stuck about a two hundred feet down.
“The tank that held compressed air to refill the ballast tanks had leaked into the sub itself giving it more air pressure but not more buoyancy.
“The men worked hard to devise a way to re-compress the air but while they were working, they were breathing out a lot of CO2. By the end of the second day under water, they were getting hot, irritable, head-achy and tired. When the Captain realized that the air supply was about gone, he took out his pistol and started shooting his crew.
“Hans dropped to the deck when he heard shots echoing down the steel passageway. He was beside the plant compartment and saw that he could save his life by stepping inside and bolting the door shut.
“Fear had frozen his arms and legs, though. He could hear men clanging through the sub and shouting. Someone even ran across his back in a maddened attempt to escape.
“The shots and screaming continued as Hans tried to force his shaking arms to lift him off the deck. He finally made it to his knees and crawled, in what seemed like slow motion, into the nursery. The sailor spun the lock and closed the door to what was to become his living tomb for the next forty years.
“He lay there for a long time, panting, listening as the captain hunted the hiding places of the rest of the crew and killed them. When the Captain realized where Hans was, he started talking to him.
“Hans? Hans! I know you are in there. You have no water, Hans. You can’t last.’
“What the young seaman did have though were the plants, lights and half of the canned food. Hans started figuring out how long he could last. He calculated the minimum number of calories he could consume and still live a healthy life. He calculated how much oxygen he consumed and how much the plants produced. He calculated new plants from cuttings; fertilizer provided from his own body and decided he could live for many years if he didn’t move around much.
Then he estimated how much oxygen the captain would require and decided to make a deal.
“Kal-loi? Was that the Captain”s name?” I asked as I watched the old man. He had finished his meal and was studying the placement of his cup on the tessellated table with intense interest. He set it in the center, argued briefly with him self then moved it left and forward. Then as though seized by some unbearable memory, he shuddered and began an agitated conversation directed to the thin air around him.
“No…a friendly term used as a nickname for Captain- Lieutenant – the rank of a U-boat Captain.” My friend tried smiling and waving again but the old sailor was discussing his cup placement with a crowd of imaginary critics.
Charlie continued acting out both parts of the dialogue.
“‘Yes, Hans,” the Captain said.
“This door is sealed and no air will escape it to your side.” Hans explained. ‘On that side you can live six more days. By then I’ll be dead of dehydration behind this door, with air enough for both of us going to waste in this room.
“Captain-Lieutenant,’ Hans continued. “There is a small steel portal in this door that I will open six times every day. While you pour water into my cup, oxygen will flow out into your chamber.’
“‘Well enough! I agree, Hans. Open your portal now and I’ll give you water.’
“Now Hans was no fool, he wanted the water – not a bullet through the head. He kept that door shut and for the next couple of days made his meager meals off canned peaches and drank the juice. When he was feeling dehydrated in spite of the syrup, he called again to the captain.
“‘Kal-loi, close the doors fore and aft of you and seal off your compartment so as to not waste this good oxygen.’
“Just as he said that, something crashed hard against the sub and sent the men reeling. It seemed to take that ship like it was a toy and rock it gently backward so that the floor slanted. Not hard, just enough to make standing uncomfortable.
“They both could sense that something was holding the ship, crushing and grating it. The lights went out on the captain’s side of the door, but the experimental generator for the plant room kept working.
“The captain became hysterical and raved for a long time. Hans remained quiet, frozen by fear. Whatever was holding the sub, didn’t seem interested in destroying it, though both men sensed that it could. It wasn’t letting it go, either.
“One can adjust to anything. After they realized they were neither to be killed nor released, they began again to make plans for sustaining their lives together. Hans calmed the captain down and told him again to close off his compartment.
“‘I can’t, Hans. The doors won’t close quite right any more.’ The captain was close to crying.
“‘Kal-loi, take a tarp and make a breathing tent by this door. Get me some water and tell me when you are ready.’
“At the captain’s word, Hans turned out the lights and opened the tiny portal. The men felt each other’s hands and the Captain poured water into an empty food can held out by Hans.
“So the days went by. Neither of them moved or talked much in order to conserve air. Whatever held them, kept scraping at the hull of the ship.
“Sometimes the captain would beg. ‘Please Hans, a man needs light as well as air. I’ll die if I don’t see light soon.’
“Hans didn’t answer.
“After several months the Captain began to rave. ‘Hans, I’ll kill you someday. You can’t defend yourself. You haven’t moved in months. You have no muscles left.’
“Hans didn’t answer.
“So the two men sat, trading air and water, threats and silence for years. One day, when Hans opened his portal, the Captain spoke to Hans more calmly than he had in years.
“‘Hans, I’ve made a chessboard. You make the first move.’
“Hans answered, ‘You can’t trick me into opening the portal while the light is on.’
“‘No, Hans. This chessboard is in my mind. You just tell me your move when you open the portal and I’ll tell you mine the next time.’
“So then Hans made a chessboard on his own side of the door using different sized cans for the pieces. That gave them sometime to occupy their minds. Hans moved his pieces to keep track of their games while the captain sat in the dark and held the moves in his mind.
“Hans never let his guard down though. He knew that the captain was always ready to kill him for the food and oxygen on his side of the door.
“For forty years they sat like that. Neither one moving or talking much just to save calories and air. The captain would leave his breathing tent and feel his way back to the water pump once a day to bring back enough water for himself, Hans and the plants. When he returned he was always gasping.
“Now, Hans’ food was starting to run out. Perhaps he and the captain had formed a strange sort of friendship over the long years but Hans could never completely trust him.
“So the seaman devised a plan to kill the captain. He’d been saving a sip or two of water in empty cans and finally had enough to keep him alive several weeks.
“One day the captain rapped on the portal and cried, ‘Hans, open up, I have your water.’
“Hans simply sat there. There was silence for several minutes, and the captain asked, ‘Hans, are you all right?’
“Then, according to their custom, both men sat for several hours not moving or speaking until the captain again rapped on the portal. ‘Hans, I must have air, its getting stale here in my breathing tent.’
“Hans, of course did not move or reply. For several hours more, Hans heard the intermittent rapping on the steel portal. Then no sound at all.
“Hans was smart and waited a day before he switched off the lights and opened the plant room door. He felt around until he found the captain on the floor of the breathing tent (really just a tarp fastened to the wall above the precious portal. The captain had sat for forty years on a stool facing the portal with the tarp thrown over his head waiting patiently for his small ration of fresh air.)
Hans switched on the light and gasped in amazement. He had held an image in his mind all these years of the captain as a young man. But the corpse before him was emaciated, at least seventy and quite blind.
“That was when Hans realized, dreadful as he was, the captain was a source of human companionship and a reason for living.
“Hans decided to make a desparate dash for the surface. The torpedo tubes might be used as a kind of escape hatch.
Of course, he would have to fight through a crushing in-rush of water. If he survived that he would have to face whatever had been holding them. The long swim to the surface would drown a more vigorous man than him, but the old sailor would rather die a dozen times than spend another day in that prison.
“It took a while to open the tubes, but when he did, Hans saw not ocean water rushing in, but sunshine.
“The thing that grabbed and held the sub all those years was a couple of large rocks. The sub had been floting much closer to the surface than the captain and crew thought. It was the depth gage that was malfunctioning.
“The currents of that storm blew the ship about until it grounded itself just off Maine’s rocky coast. The sub wedged between two boulders about two hundred yards offshore, knocking a large hole in the nose.
When the tide was in, most of the sub was underwater. Just the nose would stick out. When the tide was out, the whole front half stuck out. But it was gray like the rocks.
“Boats don’t go close to that shore anyway so no one noticed it. Because the crash damaged the frame so the compartment doors couldn’t close, air had been filtering its way throughout the ship for all these years.
“Instead of providing air for both of them, Hans had been receiving air that came in under the captain’s breathing tent. The captain’s tarp over the portal was actually doing more to stifle both of them than to conserve their air.”
“It’s funny the captain didn’t realize when he left the breathing tent, he felt better,” I remarked. “And why did he die from asphyxiation if he had fresh air from the outside?”
“I guess when you really believe something, your mind takes over your body.” Charlie removed his thick black glasses and used the tip of one earpiece to dig out some wax.
“What about the hole in the nose of the ship? Couldn’t the captain see light through it?” I watched him lay his glasses on the table and scrub his face with the palms of his hands. He blinked at me trying to clear his vision.
“The way Hans explained it, he and the captain were toward the aft of the ship. The air and light had to travel through several corridors. Not much air was getting through and no light at all. The captain never went forward.
“Besides, Hans can only speak for himself. He spent years behind a door while a man with a pistol waited on the other side to bump him off.
“It must have been around 1979 when he came out of that sub. He stayed away from people so they wouldn’t realize he was an enemy combatant. He could walk among them but not make any meaningful contact. That’s when he started to go mad from loneliness. I don’t know how he’s lived here without documents.
“You’d think they would have suffocated early on from the stench of all of those corpses and what about, uh, sanitation?” I asked.
“Would you look at the time,” Charlie exclaimed. “I’ve got to go.”
“Hey wait! Your glasses!” I called after him
“Submariner in World War Two? No, not me. I was a typist. Never left the states.”
The moment I heard his thick Brooklyn accent, I realized that Charlie was a better spinner of yarns than I would ever be.
“Maybe I never was a hero but, boy, I could make that typewriter smoke.”
He continued his story describing every detail of his stateside adventure with the rapid intensity of a man who knows he has to crowd much into that short space of time between when he meets a new listener and that listener flees in dispare.
His aim was to drown me in a torrent of words before I escaped. But what could I do? I was the one who approached him and started the conversation. So I just nodded and started thinking of how to improve Charlie’s story.
Nobody is going to believe forty years, I thought, He should change it to a year and a half.
The old man didn’t notice my eyes glazing over, “…then I went into insurance sales… A great career….
As he rattled on, I gave him an occassional distracted nod and fumbled Charlie’s forgotten glasses out of my purse. In a state of stupified boredom I held them up to the light and gave a sudden chuckle.
“I’ll be darned. They’re not prescriptions. They’re clear glass.”
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