My Life as a Pilot - Webpage 6 - page 80 - 97

Returning Home

The train arrives in Munich early in the morning. The city still sleeps, the streets are almost empty, the stores closed, here and there a window blind yawns it way opens. I stroll down Kaufinger Street past Stachus. "Back home," I think, "back home again!" But a feeling of home, the warm familiarity with things around me will not engage. A city at dawn is as foreign and distant as a man who's asleep.

I enter a cigar store and call my father at his office. He's already there despite the early hour. He's always the first one in.

"Erni," he says, and I hear how he takes a couple deep breaths. "Erni, you're here?"

Then we talk about things we won't tell mother and I say I'll collect him from the factory shortly before the midday break. Before that I'll go to the doctor.

It's our old family doctor and he receives me with a boisterous hello loud enough for an entire table full of people. Some might consider it just good business but this loud roar comes from the depths of his big gushy heart.

"You're done with flying, young man," he says. "Your eardrum is ruptured and your middle ear is infected."

Caption under photograph reads: Richthofen shortly before the last takeoff, April 21, 1918. W. von Richthofen, Scholtz, Carjus, Wolff, Lübbert, Manfred von Richthofen, Löwenhardt, Just, Weiss.

Caption under photograph reads: Richthofen's machine gun is dismantled. Left the Canadian Roy Brown, who decided Richthofen's fate.

"That is simply not possible" — despite all efforts I can't keep my voice from breaking up.

The visit has depressed me. On the entire way to my father's I think about it. Not fly anymore? That just can't be! It would be like someone blindfolding me and then having me run around that way for the rest of my life. Better to live a couple years in the sun than live forever in blindness. I decide to follow the advice of the doctor only so long as I myself consider it wise.

And then I get to my father's. As soon as I enter the office he stands up from his desk and comes towards me in broad steps.

"My boy, my beloved boy!" he says and he extends both hands to me.

We stand for a moment and look at each other then he begins to speak rather breathlessly.

I had sent him the Winchester rifle I looted from Sergeant Barlet. It's flawless. Twice my father has gone buck hunting with it.

How simple the men in France have it. They know no shame, they embrace when they greet each other and when they leave. They'll plant their bearded faces and kiss anyone anywhere they go. I've often observed it at train stations.

We sit opposite each other divided by the width of the desktop.

"By the way," father said, "recently one evening something occurred to me. You write that you couldn't shoot down the Caudron even though you were certain you hit it. Perhaps the plane was armored?"

I shake my head.

"Of course," he continues eagerly, "you couldn't know that. And I thought we should armor our planes also, at least the cockpit and the engine. That would eliminate the greatest danger to the pilot."

I disagree with him. That might be possible for the artillery transports but it's not acceptable for fighter planes. With such an armored crate one couldn't get above a thousand meters.

"That's irrelevant. The important matter is ultimately the life of the pilot."

"But Papa," I state a little taken aback, "what do you think aviation is all about?"

Joyous enthusiasm drains from his face. "Yes, perhaps you are right." he tiredly says and in the same moment I feel a wave of shame and regret wash over me. How little I understood him! He thought with his heart while designing the armor in order to protect me and I thoughtlessly tossed it in the scrap pile.

"In any case at Krupp you should investigate the new lightweight metal that's bulletproof," I attempt to mend the fence, but he declines.

"Nah, let it go, boy. Let's call your mother and tell her I'm bringing home a guest and she should set another place."

And then we go home. I hear the clinking of knives and forks then her voice, "Dear, have you read the army report? Our Erni has shot down his twenty-fourth plane!"

I can no longer restrain myself. I fun into the room. She tosses the knives and forks on the table and we rest in each other's arms. Then she takes my head and holds it with both arms in front of her. "Are you sick, boy?"

"Oh, just a little in my ears."

She immediately calms down. That's the unique thing about her. She has a strong as granite conviction that nothing bad is going to happen to me in this war and she maintains it with such certainty it's as if our beloved God has personally promised this to her. Sometimes I laugh about it, sometimes I'm moved by her childlike faith, but mostly her confidence just infuses me and I often believe the same thing myself. I believe there's no bullet at this time with my name on it.

We eat. Throughout the meal they asks me things and I tell them what I think is appropriate. I say nothing about the last battle with Maasdorp. I don't want to disturb father and besides which, a certain hesitancy holds me back. I can't talk about a fellow with the heart of a hero who died because of me over roast beef and dumplings.

Yes, I'm home. One surrenders to this feeling like a warm bath, all tension released. One sleeps a long time, eats a lot, and indulges himself.

I seldom go into the city during the first days. What would I do there? My comrades are in the field, many already dead. I don't want to hang around with strangers.

I had to go visit old Bergen but I'm terrified about this trip. The old man is sad about the report of Otto's crash. What can I say to comfort him? Truthfully, it's easier to fight than to stand by idly and look at the wounds that this war has inflicted.

I have to go to the doctor every day. He is not very happy with my convalesence. I listen to him talk but he not longer affects me like he did before. One morning when I have just returned from the consulting room I meet Lo in the courtyard. We know each other from earlier days such as young people know one another. We danced together a couple times when we had gone on excursions with other people.

We approach each other. In her pale print washable silk dress she looks as though she just bloomed fresh this morning. When one looks at her one doesn't believe there's such a thing as war. But then she says that she is working as a nursing assistant in a hospital. At her station there was a man who was shot in the spinal cord and after a few months he died. Every couple weeks relatives would travel to see him and then take their leave but he continued to live. But he had to die, the doctors said.

She looks at me astonished when I abruptly interrupt her: "Wouldn't we rather talk about something else?"

She's offended for a while. She pushes out here lower lip and looks like a child from whom someone has just taken away a piece of chocolate. We reconcile before her house and begin talking again. We'll meet at the "Ratskeller" this evening.

In the afternoon I go to Bergen's house. I can't put the visit off any longer. The maid takes me into the livingroom where old Bergen sits behind a newspaper. He is all alone, Hans and Claus are in the field, and his wife has been dead a long time. He lets the paper slip down and looks at me over his pince nez. His face has grown dreadfully old, almost dead; the white goatee hanging like a snowy icicle.

How feeble one is before the pain of another! "I wanted to..." I say..."because Otto..." I stammer.

He gestures to me.

"It's fine, Ernst. You'll see Otto again." He stands up and shakes my hand. "Come!"

He opens the door and climbs the stairs ahead of me. We stand in Otto's room, the little room with the Mansard roofline he lived in as a student.

"So," old Bergen says and indicates with a movement of his flapping hand."You can think about things here."

Then he turns around and leaves, his footsteps dully thumping down the stairs. I'm alone with Otto.

Everything is as it always was in this small room. On the dresser and the bookshelves stand the airplane models Otto built himself.

These models look great. All known planes of that time are represented, built to include the smallest detail but if they were flown they'd drop like a stone. That was ten years ago.

I go to the child's desk with the green ink-speckled cover and raise the lid. Yes, it's still there, the blue school notebook, the diary of the "Aero Club, Munich, 1909." Its members were between ten and thirteen years old. Each Wednesday group model building was marked on the calendar. Each Saturday general flight meeting at the Stadtbach or on the Isar. Otto's planes always looked the best but mine, which were as ugly as wet sparrows, flew the farthest. Somehow I just had the knack. And as secretary of the club, he wrote down everything in his clean, beautiful, child's handwriting. "Aviator Ernst Udet gets first prize for successfully crossing the canal with his Model 'U II'. Let it be known my model flew away over the Isar without sustaining sea damage."


Hand-written note on left-hand side of page reads:

Munich, January 9, 1911

The official aviator's certificate
of the Aero Club, Munich
has been bestowed upon

Mr. Ernst Udet

for piloting a M.G.H. built
"Dorner Eindecker [Single Decker]"
The same [Ernst Udet] flew back
the mandatory distance of 3 meters
in the presence of the 7th ???
and the Secretary.

Munich in Januaary 1911

7th Chairman" W. Götz
Secretary: Otto Bergen
Aviator Claus Thergens

Everything laid out so neatly next to each other as though he had arranged them before he went away forever.

There are the letters, all the letters I wrote to him packaged in a small bundle provided with dates. The last one lies on top. The envelop is also there. In the letter it states that I finally succeeded in having him assigned to my squadron. "Hurrah, Otto!" closed the letter.

There lie the sketches. He did the right half and I did the left. There the photographs...All the pictures are there, from the first silly childhood pictures on. He hung up the "Flight Day of Niederaschau." I launched the first self-built glider of the Aero Club, crashed it to the ground with the bird breaking its beak. Willi Götz, our chairman, explained to the people of Niederaschau that the magnetic field in their area might have been too strong for flight. Then group photographs from the time of our first loves in the dance class, and then the war, then again me as a motorcycle driver, then in my first flight gear after the first plane I shot down. Under each picture the date and in a rounded hand with white ink the details. He lived my life with me.

There's something strange about young friendships. We would have sooner bitten our tongues than utter a word about how happy we were to have each other. Now I see it all before me.

I close the desk lid and climb back down the stairs. Old Bergen sits again behind his newspaper. He gets up and gives me his hand, a hand without strength or warmth.

"If you'd like to have something of Otto's, Erni," he says.

"You can take it with you if you'd like. You were his best friend."

He turns and begins to clean his glasses. I have no glasses and a couple tears roll down my face. I stand for a few minutes alone in the stairwell before I go out to the street.

I was twenty-one years old at the time and Otto Bergen was my best friend.

That evening I go with Lo to the Ratskeller. I'm in civilian clothes. For the evening I'd like to forget there's a war. But Lo is angry. I don't look heroic enough.

We eat tough, sinewy veal and large blue-tinged potatoes which look as if they are anemic and left too long in the water. Only the wine is full of mature sweetness which one never notices in wartime.

An old woman with roses comes by. Lo ogles the flowers. "Leave them," I say quietly. "They're already wilting."

However the old woman hears this. She sets down her basket and comes over to us.

'I heard that," she complains and plants here arms on her hips. "Such a fine gentleman, sitting there all dressed up and wanting to deny an old woman here daily bread. You belong in the trenches, young man. That's what I say to you!"

They hear it at the next table and look over at us. If I had been a draft dodger that statement would have been damned embarassing. So I take it as a joke. But Lo blushes right up to her hairline.

Caption under photograph at top reads: First Lieutenant Löwenhardt, Leader of fighter Squadron ?

Caption under photograph at bottom reads: Otto Bergen

Caption under photograph reads: From now on my plane is called "Lo"

The transformation if miraculous. The scorn dissipates like a theatrical storm and the face shines in gentle amicability. Quickly she digs out the bouquets.

"No harm done, young man," she jabbers. "Even a blind man can see that you're far too young for that. Sometimes people just speak in anger. All you have to do is look around." She turns to the people sitting around us. "You've gotta keep an eye on children just to make sure boys are properly taught..."

I wave her off. Lo has an angry crease between her eyebrows. "Like a confirmation candidate!" she blurts out.

I take her hand, which lies small and brown on the white tablecloth.

"Do you know," I say, "I'd like to be alone with you for a while, far away from everyone." It's a request out of the blue. She's surprised. I can almost see the thoughts running around behind her round, childlike forehead.

"We'd have to get far away," she declares, "somewhere in the country. Perhaps at Starnberger Lake. Gustav Otto invited me. Or farther off into the mountains." I tell with her what I think of that. "To be completely free of all entanglements, to live with nature as if one were on another star."

First she smiles, then she purses her lips.

"But that's not going to happen...What would my parents say?"

"Forgive me, please," I say. "I've gone too far."

We leave. It's a warm, humid night. The wind rustles the treetops. Under a lamp post she remains standing and pats my upper arm.

"You must not be angry..."

I shrug my shoulders. "Angry? No!"

Yet I have the feeling that something's not right. Around us everything has shifted. What was important a little while ago is no longer so. Other factors determine our lives. But here they are static. I can't put it into words but I suddenly yearn for my comrades.

Lo's parents live near the Propyläen. They stand at the gate of the foremost garden but I quickly take my leave with a proper kiss of her hand.

The next day I go out alone. I'm in a rotten mood. I still can't go up. The old doctor is rude to me when I start to mention it. I feel so damned useless.

When I go back home my parents are already asleep.

But one evening all the windows are still lit up. I run up the steps, the hall dorway opens up by itself and mother appears at the threshold. Her face is red and beaming with joy. She waves a piece of paper in her hand. A telegram has arrived, a telegram from the squadron. They opened it. I have received the "Pour le mérite."

I'm happy, really happy even though it doesn't quite come as a surprise. With a certain number of planes shot down one gets the Pour le mérite. Practically authomatically. But the proper, deep and heartfelt joy burns within my mother. She's so far beyond herself she forced everyone to stay up and wait for me. Even my little sister. She cut a Pour le mérite out of paper, hung it on string, and now she places the award around my neck. Her tiny eyes are half shut in sleep.

My father shakes my hand. "Congratulations, boy!" he says. Nothing else. But he's opened a bottle of Steinberger Kabinett, 1884 vintage, a sacred object in this family. That says more than words. The wine is golden yellow and thick as oil. The entire room wafts with its scent. We touch glasses.

"To peace, to a good peace!" my father says.

Next morning in bed I think of Lo. If I had my Pour le mérite award right now I'd put it on then go and talk to her and pretend nothing has happened. I jump out of bed, quickly dress and go into the city.

On Theatiner Street I know there's a medal dealer. The merchant shrugs. "Pour le mérite?—No! Not asked for often enough."

That's a shame, a real shame. I had thought a lot about surprising Lo. But it will be at least fourteen days before the medal comes from the brigade.

Slowly I stroll through the streets back to home. I mechancally greet soldiers and officers who pass by. One marine officer,

U-boat commander Wenninger, has the Pour le mérite at his neck. It shines in the sun.

It's a spur of the moment idea. I explain it to him. He smiles tensely. He's obviously embarassed. No, he doesn't have a second one, but he gives me the address of a Berlin dealer where one can get one. One can order the medal via telegraph. Awkwardly I thank him and salute.

Two days later the medal comes from Berlin. It rests in a red velvet box and looks like a star. I call on Lo. We want to see each other again. She smiles and she's ready to leave.

I goose-step back and forth in front of the fence to her house. She comes out. She immediately sees the star at my neck. "Erni!" she calls, skipping like a bird about to take flight and runs to me. In the middle of the street, in front of everybody, she puts her arms around my neck and kisses me.

It is a bright, sunny spring morning. We slowly stroll arm in arm down to the inner city. When soldiers meet us their greeting are especially robust. Most of them turn around. Lo counts. Twenty-seven of forty-three turned around.

We saunter down Theatiner Street. It is the main artery of the city. All life seems to spring forth from it and cycle back through it. Before the royal palace there's a sentry post and a tiny reservist guard with a harbor seal beard and a button nose. Suddenly he shouts

in a voice which one would never suspect could be produced by his puny chest cavity:
"Atten hut!"

Like forest butterflies people flit around. "Come to Attention!" the officer commands. "Atten hut!...Shoulder hut!...Present Arms!"

I look around. No one is in the vicinity. I hadn't considered my medal. I think of it as I leave. The salute was pretty miserable, all too rushed and without real value.

"What was that all about?" Lo looks at me with large eyes.

"Good God," I say as we get by. "Before the Pour le mérite medal even the guard must present his weapon."

"That can't be true!"

"Oh, it's true!"

"Good. Let's try it out somemore!"

I bristle at this for a while and then I willingly go along. Ultimately I'm not quite sure myself.

This time we're prepared for anything and we encounter it with composure. "Atten hut!" shouts the sentry. At the same moment Lo sets my arm at an angle. As she walks at my side she benignly nods.

Women are insatiable in their vanity. If it were up to her we would spend the rest of the morning going back and forth to the senty. But I refuse to do it. Sentry troops are not toys for little girls. Lo sulks.

These are days as special as blue silk and I have never again experienced such a spring.

We meet every day, walk through the English garden, drink coffee, or go to the theater.

The war is very, very far away. Once at the theater we see a group of people standing in front of a poster. "Certainly another report of victory," I say and we go up to it.

At this moment there's a blow to my chest right in the middle of my heart.

Cavalry Captain Baron von Richthofen is missing!" it states. The lettering blurs before my eyes. I see no one, I pay heed to no one, I ruthlessly elbow my way to the head of the crowd.

Fifty centimeters in front of me hangs the yellow-white paper on the gray wall. "Not Brought Down by Enemy Plane," I read..."To Date Investigation Yields No Information."

And then I know, know with unmistakable certainty, that the Cavalry Captain is dead.

What a man he was! It's certain too that others also fought. But they had wives at home, children, mothers or careers. Only during rare moments could they forget all that. However he lived right there at the edge to which we only crossed over at intense moments. He forgot his life when he fought. And he always fought whenever he was at the front. Eatting, drinking, sleeping; that was all he allowed himself in life, and only when it was necessary to maintain this physical mechanism. He was the simplest man that I knew. Entirely Prussian, and the ultimate soldier.

A hand carefully places itself in mine. For a few moments I had completely forgotten Lo.

"If you'd like to drive out to the county I'll gladly go with you," she says. She looks at me as thought I'm going to die tomorrow. The next day we drive to Starnberger Lake.

The foliage is out early this year. All the bushes and trees are covered in bright green. We stay by Gustav Otto and his wife. They are honest people of generous nature. They acknowledge and respect the highest rules of hospitality. They do not force us to remain at their home. Rather they leave us to do as we see fit.

In the morning we horseback ride or sail on the lake and later in the day we stroll through the woods. We wade through the fallen leaves of the previous fall as above us the branches burst forth with new greenery. It's as if there is no war. When we are all dead and forgotten these trees will sprout anew, bear fruit and drop their leaves.

And yet...and yet...sometimes when we lie so close to each other in the grass and stare up into the sky, I catch myself picturing the plump bellies of the cumulus clouds. Almost as if I'm diving to attack? In the morning when I get up the first thing I do is look up at the sky. What kind of flying weather would I have today?

The first five days I read no newspapers but now I go to the postman every day for a paper. It must be getting crazy out there. And the squadron is in the middle of the thickest action. Löwenhardt gets one almost every day. Now he's up to thirty-seven.

When I left we were even. Assuredly we both had significant losses.

It is midday and Lo and I are in a boat. In the middle of the lake.

"Do you know," I say thoughfully, "sometimes I wish I were back out there." It's the first time I've admitted this.

Lo lets go of the steering line and stares at me. Her lips quiver.

"So you prefer not to be here?" she says.

No, she misunderstood me. I stand up and toddle back. The boat rocks violently. I kiss her. I'm just a bit sad...My mother would have understood right away.

The weather is uncommonly beautiful. One day is brighter than the other. In the third week I drive to the doctor in Munich. He is pleased. The infection has receded. "But give it time, young man. Give it time!" he says calmly.

In the evening we sit on the terrace of Gustov Otto's house. There's a full moon. Lo is tired and goes to her room early. I sit next to Gustav Otto in a lounge chair. We smoke.

"Would you be very angy if I suddenly disappeared in the morning?" I asked.

I see the red tip of his cigarette as he slowly turns his head towards me.

"What does your doctor say?"

"So far he's satisfied."

He's silent for a while. "I believe I would do the same," he says.

Caption at the bottom of page 96: The graves of Fighter Squadron 11 - Robert Gisbert, Hans Weiss, Edgar Scholtz, Joachim Wolff

"It's good!" We understood each other.

Gustav Otto wakes me up at five in the morning. We tiptoe down the steps. Lo's still asleep. The car awaits us below.

The train station is almost empty at this early hour. Only a pair of market women wait with me for the train. It looks like rain, the first dismal day in weeks. The morning sun climbs with effort over the mountains.

I ride back to the front.

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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks