For hours you sit, waiting for the hookup to arrive, ready with a story about waiting for the bus for any investigating SS officer. Terrified more that you might be risking your skin to a camp for a comrade that may never show up than being caught with explosives by a random search and seizure. Terror that I'm risking all that I have for something that may not even be real. Unease that you may be risking yourself to such brutality and torment, for some guy you barely know and the combustible material he might not even have. To be caught and done away with is always a risk. It's always a looming fear of existence. Always a constant threat. Being an innocent, French citizen is enough to be judged guilty for any accusation by the Reich's court system. Even with these threats, you're still going out, still going to meetings with people you've never seen or met, trading cash for bomb ingredients.
Out from the dusk and fog, a person comes through. After ten very slow and cumbersome steps, he halts and checks his watch. That must be the contact. A long gaze out into the murky skies, like he was breaking illusions put before the nation, the lies put before the entire world. He notices this twenty-three year-old Frenchman, conveying the image of a well-trained, obedient, and subservient worker. Hair slicked back, with shirt tucked in, and pants held together by a belt and braces. He sees the young man standing there, maybe waiting for a friend, maybe waiting for their employer's shop to open, or maybe waiting for the TNT. Rain pelted both of the men as the older gentleman approached the younger. "Hello, my name is Joseph," he greets the deceiving youth. "Hi, I am Pierre," replies the young man, "Have you tasted German fruit?" Joseph nods. "Let's talk."
August of 1943. Do the authorities know about underground phraseology yet? Do they know to listen for these slangs and terms? How dangerous is it to ask an average citizen of France if they're familiar with revolutionary, anti-authoritarian literature by means of implication? This person could be working for the S.S., a regular soldier of the Gestapo, or they could be something less detectable- one of the thousands of undercover, part-time informants, working their jobs by day, watching their neighbors by night. There is handsome payment for such exchanges. It would be too hard for Pierre to condemn those people entirely. The price of bread is going up with employment on the fall, and there's never been a reduction in secret arrests and trials. Just saying a few just, just enough to ignite the suspicion of the authorities, that is all that is needed to secure the well-being of a full family for several months. Pierre consider these things with earnest. And it could be weeks before anything happens. They might be following him now, just waiting to find out his associates, before taking any action. They would find out who is financing, who is smuggling, who is building and working on these devices of destruction. It could be just hours before a planned attack that these vultures swoop in to grab everyone. Dragging people out of homes, throwing them into cages; people you worked with towards a common goal since the beginning. Everything could be lost, just seconds before turning all these action into a significant and real change in this world.
"Why am I doing this?" is a question that has marathoned through Pierre's head. While he can never pinpoint an exact answer, anything tangible or absolute, he's never been able to convince himself of any of the reasons not to do it. Personal safety, the protection of family members, or even a fair chance to gain the privileges offered to the compliant, lawful citizens of the Nazi-controlled territory of France. Even though the most one could be would be a second-class citizen, they'd still have their selection of wines, luxurious and protected homes, and the ability to command and order any member of the service industry, whether server, bartender, or housekeeper. You could sleep knowing that those you loved will not have to worry about going without bread, clean drinking water, warm clothing, the benefit of a heated house a strong roof. Those people have to know why those trades being made, why those in authority grant concessions and rights to those who cooperate. They must know that it is no longer just the baker or the farmer one must rely upon; they must also seek an agreement with occupying forces, to get these necessities for fulfilling their duties. All the advantages of cooperation with the enemy, they seem so hollow and so meaningless. If modern man could do without his books and his newspapers, his reliance on mass-produced and mass-prepared foodstuffs, his ornamental value on so-called human sophistication, then perhaps the French people wouldn't have had to watch the construction and operation of the camps.
"But I don't have a wife," Pierre reasoned with himself, "Not even a lover. I couldn't imagine the feelings that come with authority's orders. Because of what I did, my failure to work with a prevailing organization, this woman I loved for years might be tortured. She'd be beaten, cut branded, brutalized, raped, and killed. I'd have to think about the decades we spent together, how we visited the cities of Madrid and Budapest together, our love-making across the provinces of Europe. I'd have to think of those sacrifices she made for me, the times she became my only beam of support when this world felt like it was crashing in on me. Everyday, sleeping and waking together, sharing our meals and our bed, our troubles and our triumphs. This mode of life-time existence. And from the moment I met her, I knew I'd grow old with her, finally sharing a cemetery with her. There is no way for me to humanly consider everything that could be lost with refusing the Nazis any of my labor or my knowledge. And imagine if my lover and I had children. Imagine imbuing your life essences into a child on a daily basis, to feed and teach, to provide for and raise. Think of all those years, those memories of joy turned into remorse, just because a French father or mother refuses the orders of the S.S.. Think of the time, worship, and commitment to the growing and developing mind of an infant, to a toddler, to a child, to an adolescent, to an adult. So much giving and love to bring a new person to the world to experience culture, to make loves or obsessions about another. Think of how much that single individual could mean to any average member of the community. And, if you were a ruler, that would be all you'd need to threaten them in order to gain their compliance.
"They would take you, throw you into a cell, kick you down, burn you, grind barbed wire into every part of your body, and when the misery and suffering was too unbearable, you'd fall unconscious Within seconds, smelling salts and injected stimulants would bring the victim back to living existence, and the abuse would continue for nights upon nights. And this would be done to your wife or husband, to all of your children, the products of your love, and these would be your last absolute thoughts on this existent world before your family's legacy ended, in brutal and insufferable pain. This is the threat that is thrown down in the interrogation room. It is expected. The people always talk about the ways of the Nazis. While there is not widespread publication of these facts, everyone knows what goes on; everyone talks about it. And where the common citizen must be completely alone among nations of millions, alone to where the exaggerations stop, which testimony of community members will be considered, where threats are truly idle or where security is questionable. From myths and personal insecurities, from the isolation of a community and being witness to that which cannot be denied -- no, nobody wrote or published books on any of these things, but the ordinary people talked about them widely enough to force each person to negotiate a "worst possible circumstances" scenario with their personal conscience. Terror can be most powerful when imagined by an individual in real circumstances.
"The present socio-economic institutions in place create what our people must be faced with right now, and I can sympathize with each one of those who cooperate, why someone like me has more power than those with family to care for is obvious; when alone with the unending storm of rain, maybe this reasoning is the only thing keeping me on the street, looking for those who want to cooperate with me in something else. I'm hoping to score some really good, explosive shit. Why it's me, a common, indistinguishable, difficult-to-recognize Frenchman, the reasons are so obvious; just as clear to those who participate as to those who abstain. And as much as this simple logic makes me the ideal candidate to be a member of a resistance group, I still ask myself these questions. Am I forever doomed to trek down these concrete sidewalks and through these forgotten alleyways? Always on the look out for German soldiers, listening for the click and clack of their gear, the stick grenades tapping against canteens and flashlights, the jack boots stomping through stone and rubble. They're ready to beat and torture you in public for looking suspicious. If it's a crime punishable by death for walking side-by-side with a wise, old Frenchman, then I suppose there's no real harm in using the chance of this risk to get some explosives. All crimes given the same offense, and living your culture is a crime, so may as well use my absence of an opportunity to use my life as I desire, to blow up the framework of this oppressive totalitarianism. I'm not safe no matter what I do. No motive to stop me. No bargain to keep me law-abiding. Just torture chambers and an early death. I'm the perfect nominee for this, but it still confuses me.
"A child who is the constant thought of their mother, the motive behind all of the father's actions -- you are poor, helpless, and meager, and nature has provided you the perfect guardian. But I am the protectorate of no needful infant, no begging and humble children. I tackle and battle that daemon in my lonely hours, the one that asks why I accept such risks and pains, so many insufferable tortures awaiting at the end of the interrogation chamber. Life would be nothing unless we create something with it, unless you --"
"Take a look," Pierre pulls a wrapped, paper bag from his coat, as we slowly make our way through an alley. I take the paper bags and pull out a plastic-wrapped, gray substance, and expose a bit of it to the air, holding it to the my nose and inhaling. There's that chemical and artificial burn infusing itself on my nasal cavities; that impermeable tinge and cringe. It's real. It might just be nitroglycerin soaked into clay, or plastic-C4 explosives, or even something as simple as gunpowder mixed into a ground-up newspaper and water concoction -- it's something, I am sure of that, but I know it's real. That's all that I can tell so far. I dig my fingernail into the substance and stick the excavated portion between my gums and my tongue. The material slowly dissolves into my saliva and fixes itself on my taste buds. Definitely not newspaper, concrete, or any other popular cut. It's certainly a highly-concentrated explosive, a chemical-based bomb material still with its residue from a solvent, which takes a bit like ethanol. Certainly what I'm here to buy. Certainly what I want. And there's never a time where I can't say no and walk from this deal... Yes, it's good and I want it.
"You said 240?"
"260 sounds fair for what you're getting."
For the worth of personal confidence, Joseph deserves it. "Done." Joseph handed him the cash and in under a minute, we emerged from the alleyway and separated. "Oh, Joseph, are you going home to a family, to loving and adoring grandchildren, listening and respectful sons and daughters? Joseph, have you made a grandmother out of some beautiful woman, some illustrious lover with history from Spain, Sicily, or Greece? From Africa or Asia or America? Did you hold her when she released her grip from her own living ancestors? Did you take a piece of this land in France, build a house, maintain its conditions, and make it a home? -- Did you and your lover turn an ordinary building into the place where one constantly hears the laughter of children, place where meals and food are always prepared and offered to any wanting mouth? Did you take dead wood and non-living stone to create a place where ancestors can learn and develop their culture? Joseph, where will you go and what will you do after our encounter? Well... if this phone number works, maybe I'll ask next time I'm in need. Or maybe I won't. Anonymity is key in this business.
Now the deal is over. Cash was exchanged for materials to be used in a bomb. Pierre's reason for exposure to a suspicious and interrogating police force of an occupying military became non-existent. Time to head indoors, away from the unforgiving rain and the merciless fog. It's time to find sanction in the darkness of these constant, looming threats. It's time to bring the paydirt to the others.
"Did you know the French military wouldn't even let me serve?" Stesha asks, "Because I'm German, but mostly because I'm a woman. And look now -- nothing to see except for the Reich's troops, drinking vodka and whiskey, smoking cigars and fine tobacco, standing on street corners, here just to watch and control us. Not for anything in particular, but just to be aware of any reason why they may want to grab a French citizen and put them through a battery of physical abuse. If they're innocent, then it was justified in the honor of the German empire, and if they're guilty, then it's a valid, publishable reason why laws are necessary and must be enforced. They are the most self-righteous, evil fucks born unto Europe. And me, the French government could've given me a gun, asked me to defend the individual's liberty, and to pardon the unrestrained murder of Fascist forces -- but no, the French government mutinied against the will of their people, surrendering without a war and selling all their people into slavery. I could have done something; they could have helped me do something, but they refused."
"Today, we are going to do something, Stesha," Pierre said, pulling the substance from his inner, coat pocket and placing it on the table.
She smiles. "Do you know for sure that it's real?"
"Smells real, tastes real," Pierre responds. She unwraps the paper and plastic coatings, using a putty knife to extract a small sampling. With sheers, she cuts a two-inch fuse and wraps the gray goo around the tip. She lights it, opens the stove, tosses it in, and latches it shut. "There's only one way to absolutely know," Stesha tells me. I should have expected as much from an individual with such a stern discipline. An alcohol-soaked rag is used to clean the blade. She was wearing dirty overalls and her hair was untidily collected into a single braid. Her outfit brandished several roles of fuses, a screwdriver, and a wrench. "I knew Stesha before the war," Pierre recalls, "I remember her selling roses to the Parisians Together we explored the endless fields of green outside Marseilles. And before the breakout of civil war in Spain, we had planned to revisit the people of Zaragoza and Valencia, to consume their culture and their history of independence against so many forms of oppression. Maybe today, I'm looking at those people and their strong, cultural traditions in a different light; maybe because Stesha has changed so much."
"There's too many automobiles and too many paved roads for them," she said, "And too many dirt roads forced into the countryside by them. Humans may never realize the real cost of all this industrialization." If only they could have those same concerns from a decade ago, those same worries and bothers about the overall direction of our civilization's development.
"She's grown;" Pierre thought to himself, "Matured in a way that only the constant frequency of secret police and the destruction of entire cities is capable of doing. Like everyone and everything in this country, after the annexation of French territory by the Reich's empire, Stesha changed. She knew she was leaving the growing tide of German militarism and imperialism, and the natural threat those institutions pose to the interests of the people. Pushed West by Hitler's armies, prohibited by the Falangi-Fascist powers in the south by Franco's forces, driven to the edges of Normandy and Brittany, denied refuge status by both the British and the Americans, by their 'non-intervention treaties.' She changed like all of us, but she has a lifetime of leaving behind homes, families, and communities, just to breath free air, to feel a liberated wind. And after so much sacrifice and loss, she was driven to the English Channel, with only an ocean to enter in fleeing cruel powers. I'm not sure if she would be a different person if accepted by the United States or Scandinavian nations -- something inside of her would have caved in; I'm just a poor, French boy. I couldn't imagine leaving everything behind because of expanding, political powers. Maybe it was just the right time for her to stop running and starting fighting. Maybe that's why she's another ideal candidate for fulfilling such a socially-ostracized and politically-demonized occupation: that of the lonely and emotionally-unstable terrorist.
"She'd tell me stories of picking flowers in the hills of the Rhineland, as a young and untouchable child. She remembers seeing the tank and troop transports, the fortification of the officially demilitarized zone from the treaty ending the first world war. It was her entire life that violent aggressors have been invading her world. Skies that should have opened and broadened only brought flying bombers, the spearhead of the Luftwaffe's strength. Such a young life exposed to so much brutality and cruelty. She's told me about her brother and two sisters, how they had to make a pact by themselves to stay together forever. The brother was killed, but her sisters reside under the occupation in Languedoc. She's told me of the various houses she's moved between, the rage of her parents as they argue over abandoning property, about valuing parts of their life and family history in terms of deutschemarks and francs. The story of a quiet drive, watching luggage with the family insignia rest on the side of the road, being completely reclusive from any personal society or community. To be removed from the world you've known for only so short, to be deprived those years of experience with peers and the community -- it is not something I can imagine.
"The high school I was expelled from under the Pétain government, the wine and bread cafe I served at as my first job, the hospital where I was born, the museums and parks where my mother and father would take me to -- all of these things still existed, though with a bit more of restriction on who may enter, but I am still in the world where I became culturally adapted to my own failures and those private triumphs. But Stesha and her family have been on the move and hiding for years. At first together, but now parted through the parishes of France. Her life until this moment has been a slow eroding of all the things she used to call her own: her home, her city, her family, even her history and culture. So many shattered chips, such a thick and suffocating dust. I'm curious if her involvement in these actions is to test the real rates and mechanisms by which the lives of ordinary and innocent civilians are directly effected. She wanted to see if a slow and patient process of human weathering was susceptible to one, big, enormous blast. That may have been the reason she started breaking the law and working with so many 'immoral
The sizzle of the fuse is barely audible outside of the stove. Stesha's eyes watch for a jumble of the iron box. Pierre's heart anticipates the explosion, but he doesn't want to watch. Silence, then a rattling of all the stove's components with an enormous jolt. Stesha was pleased. "Sounds like we have plans for tonight," she said, "I'll grab Federico. Then we can put it together and get ready."
The mastermind of electrical engineering, or at least a savant of wiring explosives with timers and triggers. Federico's past would instill any person with terror. After years of torture in Spanish concentration camps, he was bonded into forced labor for the newly established, Fascist dictatorship. On a work detail south of France, he managed to escape into the country only to be claimed some years later by the Nazis. It was 1942 that year. Only that long before this one individual, once a defender of a representative government against a military coup, only to be abused in cold, miserable cells for enormous amounts of such slow passing time. There must have been a breaking of his soul at some point. An indescribable tearing of conscience and traumatic destruction of will, hope, desire, longing, and ability to live.
"Two brothers, Narciso and Enrique, they killed each other," Federico once told Pierre, "The sun was still high and everyone could see. Narciso pulled a pistol from his holster and held it to the head of Enrique. Almost hesitantly, Enrique mimicked the same action. 'Viva la Republic!' I could barely hear Enrique's whisper. And then there was a shot and they both fell to the ground. There were so many shots in the crowds, those thousands of soldiers pushed to the coast of Valencia. Too many suicides, too many dead to envy, and still such an unquenched mass, only waiting for whatever mercy a Fascist would give, or what would most likely amount to an immediate death. The shots were frequent and random. In a single mass of people, my head was down, focusing on the beautiful patterns of the shore's rocks. As the shots kept ringing out in the air less and less, small streams of blood eventually crept their way into my vision. I didn't lift my head to look at the fallen cadavers of my brothers and sisters. I couldn't stand to look into their dead, unflinching eyes, those emotionless faces -- I couldn't look at the dripping wounds, the pale skin, and the stained clothing and hair. There was a shot only several feet away from me, and for a moment, I thought it had made me deaf, until I heard and watched the body of the young man collapse in front of me. I closed my eyes and focused. I focused harder and harder, trying to let my mind drift into the pure blueness of the Mediterranean. I was trying to free myself. The shots I could hear became even fewer and more isolated. There were intermittent noises that sounded like people crying over the gone. I tried as hard as I could to block out the interference. My mind was focusing on the single object of achieving pure peace and releasing every tension that I started carrying since birth. I took all of my insight, the knowledge of surviving an aggressive bombing campaign, the pain of cold and bitter nights sleeping alone in destroyed and collapsing buildings, the appreciation of the fact that as a soldier, I have taken human life and destroyed it. I took all of my hopes and desires, my taunting miseries and greatest fears, my earliest memories of first love and the traumatic events of combat, I took everything I was and everything I had become, and I pushed it into this single moment -- as I tried to steady my hand.
"The shots had stopped. The last one was twenty or thirty minutes ago. There were small specks of blood covering my boots and staining my paints. I was completely alone. The mourners had left and no one remaining around me was breathing. I took my moment and stood there... I was a defeated soldier, waiting for the prison camps and the rigorous torture of Franco's army, and when I was almost free of that, I defeated myself. I lifted my head, dropped my pistol, and walked down off the hill of the dead.
"Back at the waterfront. I sat and wilted with the other refugees. It was hard to tell what anyone was thinking. I couldn't imagine. I tried not to. In a few days, trucks were for sent for us, and the Nationalist troops herded us aboard. I considered myself to be as good as dead and I wondered why I didn't spare myself the miserable experience of the last few weeks to months of my life. We all had felt weak and demoralized by the way the war had ended. So powerless when we had so much to gain for ourselves and our future generations. It was our passion and rage that turned us into people willing to kill in order to preserve the better parts of our way of life; it was that passion that drove us to these unsympathic waves and tides, this unblinking sun and sinking pain, to watch ship after ship pass through our seas, none stopping to offer sanction to the thousands of wailing men and women. It was our passion that drove us to our death, and if I was accepting and complacent about the treatment and imprisonment I was about to receive, it was for all the same reasons that I fought ardently and stubbornly against the Army of the Right-Wing.
"But I lived through the camps. I watched the execution of my commanding officer and his three lieutenants. I watched the murder of simple townspeople and my fellow soldiers. There was a mother and daughter that were beaten and hung together. When assigned to my holding chamber, the first thing I noticed were the stains of a dripping blood and fingerprints on the steel bars -- someone was tied here and brutalized by some unrestrained beast. The dirt floor covered with its red-stained tatters of clothing and ample piles of human hair. At the point where screams and terrified wails filled the air throughout the night, that's the moment I stopped trying to force a reality upon my mind. When I joined the resistance to the Fascist coup in 1936 by enrolling in the defense of the republican government, I thought I could force the concept of Democratic government on my fellow Spanish people. With my own bare hands, I could create and defend this reality to the Spanish people. By the end of my first night in a concrete box, there was no other world to create, no other world to build up and love. The new concept of reality, directed and controlled by Fascist leaders, it was something I was powerless to do anything about. And as my dreams of a free world slowly declined to the point of absolute nothing, I had to accept that nights in a cage with vicious and unrelenting masters were my new reality -- it was the painful reality being forced upon me from without. It was a new understanding of humanity and our world. At that point, as failed as I was in our resistance to Fascism, I felt as I had failed in all my living; and if I must suffer my bitter existence under such authoritarian, inhumane power, if I must accept that as reality, then I must accept torture and death as my only end."
"He told me this story over several glasses of bootleg vodka," Pierre reminisces, "I wasn't quite sure what to say to him. As a teen, I once remember seeing the endless herds of immigrants crossing the border into my native France. I remember police trying to pack them into corners; I remember their countless faces of anguish. Eyes looking for something to remove them from such monstrous, incalculable evils. They were confused, boggled, and distraught; at any moment, I felt as though one of them would break down to the street's concrete, screaming and wailing, kicking and scratching, at what the world forced upon them. Any of them could have stopped and dropped everything, to gnash their fists against the stone buildings, to make a vocal roll call of all their relatives and to each them each liars and false prophets. I looked at this miserable crowd and it made me feel dead inside. It was the first image to connect to my mind when I heard the story of Federico."
"I sent for Federico," Stesha tells me, "He'll be here in an hour."
"I'll start cutting it up," I replied, beginning the preparatory work. Our mutual friend will be with us shortly to finish the work. Dividing the explosive material into usable pieces for a bomb isn't quite difficult. In our friend's opinion, "It requires a decent eye, a butter knife, and an untamable rage. That's all it takes to become a terrorist. And my pain is just fuel upon the flames."
"What's the when and where on this?" Pierre asks Stesha.
"Tomorrow night," she said, "There's some train tracks that run along the north of Lorraine. Troops and supplies have been moving across those lines."
"Federico's got time out of work so that we can unload it?" Pierre asked.
"Yeah," she replied, "The floorman's fine with it, and I'm not scheduled for tomorrow either."
"I have no obligations," Pierre said, "It fits perfectly into my schedule."
"I'm glad to hear that," Stesha smiles as she labors upon the bomb casing.
"Have you ever talked to Federico about the Spanish Civil War?" Pierre asks.
"He told me his story of getting out of the camps," she said, "He said that he was on a forced labor detail for reconstruction of the roads in northern Lerida, since the massive bombing campaign destroyed all the infrastructure of the region. Then one day, out breaking rocks in the field, he looked around and saw no one near him. Maybe the guards were on break and maybe all the other prisoners were on other assignments, but he said he just took off running. He felt like he was dancing across the border. When had reached a certain distance, he said he heard gunshots, but he kept running. Without too much time, he was in Gascony of South France."
"He never told me about those parts," Pierre said, "He only covered the story of the camps, not his escape."
"Most likely shared over a beer or two, right?" she asked.
"It was how he opened up to me," she said, "Alcohol in any manner or form has a way of summoning an individual's true nature."
"I don't think I can imagine how many times he considered himself as a walking corpse, maybe hours, minutes, or just seconds away from death; from an officer or colonel suffering an acute mental attack of pride, viciousness, or vengeance, taking out his cruelty by smothering out another man's life," Pierre replied, "It's interesting, that this once-soldier against the Fascist armies has relocated to an underground bomb-making station in another country with the same foe. Maybe if we lose and the Nazis stay in power, he'll again resurface in another nation. Maybe in the US, where' he'd be assassinating sheriffs and sabotaging their lynch mobs. I can see him in almost every country, working in admirable, popular movements and opposing the interests of any government in power."
"I haven't seen as stern dedication as I've found in him," Stesha replied.
The next night, all three of them, Pierre, Stesha, and Federico, quietly moved under the mask of moonlight, becoming gray silhouettes in a contrasting landscape. Careful to use signals instead of verbal communication, cautious in their handling of the explosives, and always patient and aware of any people that might be in their vicinity. The bomb was set and triggered to go off at the oncoming pressure of the train. Then like phantoms, they dissolved into the evening darkness.