Wednesday 8 August 2012

Lucky numbers

Though it's still cold and rainy, I noticed this morning that there's a light yellow rim around all the puddles - pine pollen, so spring can't be too far away. Still fully focused on Stalag Luft III, which was built in the middle of a coniferous forest, it made me wonder if Dad was glad to see the pollen too, knowing the hard winter must be coming to an end - or maybe he thought, "Another spring, and I'm still here." Probably both, but being the pragmatic sort, it would have been the end of winter that mattered more: Marek told us it gets down to around -15 to -20 in Zagan.

It was already pretty cold when Dad was captured in Nantes in November 1941. When the Germans burst into the flat where he and his sergeants were being hidden, he shot upstairs and laid low all day, creeping out at night when the coast seemed clear. He could have sneaked away but, lightly dressed, all he could think about was retrieving his greatcoat. It was comic-story stuff: he shinned up a drainpipe and in through a window to his room, where in the dark he trod on a Bakelite cup which woke the German soldier asleep in his bed. That winter, when he said, "I shivered for three solid months" (it was the coldest of the War), I bet he thought of that greatcoat often, shut in his solitary cell at Fresnes prison near Versailles, with ice on the walls and only a bowl of cabbage soup and a square of bread to eat once a day. Being a guest of the Gestapo really sucked.

The Luftwaffe were much better hosts - not that any of the airmen were tempted to stay, constantly trying to escape even as they were herded into the camp (like cats). I keep learning more stuff about the Great Escape: while we were celebrating her share of a Lotto First Division win last week, my sister said that Dad had told her once that his number, 129, wasn't the one he originally drew. He was afraid that, being tall and broad-shouldered, he might have trouble squeezing through the tunnel and cause a cave-in (two did happen that night) and hold up the whole operation, so he swapped his low number for a higher one. A book I've been reading, The Longest Tunnel by Alan Burgess, said that the compass-makers were amongst those in the draw for places 50 to 70 - so his original number could have made him one of the 76 who escaped. And, consequently, one of the 50 of those who were shot.

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