John Strausbaugh, Stories




Bullet to the Moon





Chapter Sixteen






  The only good thing about being in a submarine was there was no room for Smith to toss me around when I snuck into her berth. We had to be quiet and sneaky and hardly moving, like regular folks. That was good because I was still sore from our first night of wrasslin around. Sore in ways a fellow is embarrassed to be sore. Dame was one frisky Clydesdale.

Otherwise it was pretty much the nightmare I figured it would be. Everything was smaller and tighter and more closed-in than prison. No sunlight. No day or night. No air that wasn't breathed already two or three times, and let me tell you air really loses its flavor and pep when it's been used that many times. Everywhere you stand or sit or lay down someone's sweating and smelling and sucking up the air right next to you. Then there's knowing there's all that ocean on top of you. Hundreds of feet of it between you and real air. Thousand miles of it between you and dry land. The whole thing gave me the serious leaping willies. If Smith wasn't there to take my mind off it I would of got the worst case of the screaming mimi stir crazies in history.

But there we was. Me, Smith, Green, Clarence, Seymour Spitz and a sub full a swabbies. Crossing the Atlantic underwater. Days in that tin can zigging and nights zagging. They said we could go quicker, but the Atlantic was thick with krauts and we had to tiptoe our way through them slow and dainty. No music, no loudspeaker announcements, no loud conversations. Even riffing a deck of cards or drumming your fingers got you a crosseyed look.

Smith and me got pretty close in the nights, what with the two of us squeezed into a bunk that barely held her. She wouldn't tell me her real name though.

"Call me Jane."

"Jane Smith? How about Joan Doe?"

"All right then, call me Toots. Dollface. I don't care."

"I'll call you Snuffy," I said. Snuffy Smith. Like in the funny pages.

"Then you're Barney," she grinned. For Barney Google.

Ain't it something how fast a guy and a dame can go gooey? Guy my age.

"Say Snuffy," I said, "what's a dame like you see in a broke-down old yardbird like me anyways?"

"I dunno Barney," she said. "When I was a girl I had this doll. Moko the monkey. Just a bunch of rags my mom sewed together with a goony face and a floppy tail. I used to carry him around with me all the time and squeeze him and hug him and hang him by his ears. I pretty much tortured him with love until he fell apart. Guess I miss him."

She squeezed me in her arms so tight I felt a couple a ribs pop out a place.

"I bet he didn't fall apart," I said. "I bet he run for his life."

I whiled away a few daytime hours bothering Green with questions.

"Who's this kraut scientist we supposed to heist?"

"Only half a kraut. Italian nobleman named Count Fritz Altobello. Fritz's father, Count Vicenzo Altobello, was a diplomat in Germany. Married his German translator there. When she got pregnant he brought her to the family estate outside Naples so his son could be born on family soil like humpty ump Count Altobellos before him. Agrees to name the kid Fritz after the wife's father to keep her happy. Now, this Count Vicenzo is a fascist through and through. Helps Mussolini get to power. Mussolini rewards him by sending him back to Germany as a very high-level envoy. Fritz grows up there and graduates from the Royal Saxon Polytechnic University with honors in both physics and engineering. The Nazis put him to work in the rocket program at Peenemunde."

"Peena?" I said.

"Kraut town. Fritz becomes best boy to Hitler's top rocket man, a bird named Wernher von Braun. Together they do all the early development work on the K series. Then Hitler pulls von Braun off rockets and pushes him to develop jet fighters, like that dingus of Agent Smith's, to keep our bombers out of his hair. Meanwhile, the krauts start spread their Wunderwaffen test sites and factories all over the Reich. With the blessings of Fritz's dad, they dig a facility under the Altobello estate. Fritz is sent home to run it. Been there two years now. His big focus has been on coming up with a stable solid fuel for the Ks and MKs. You know why solid fuel is important, Bigelow?"

"No ma'am but I'm real keen to learn," I said.

"Up till now most everybody in rocketry been using different mixes of liquid fuels. Powdered fuel, namely gunpowder, been used in little stuff like fireworks for centuries. But it's no good for anything bigger. Not enough moxie to lift a larger object. So a solid fuel that can be used on a larger scale been the holy grail. See, liquid fuel is highly unstable. You light the fuse and run away and say a prayer every time. Most of the rockets our boys have experimented with have blown up on the launch pad. Our intelligence is the krauts was having the same problem. A good solid fuel would be a lot more stable and dependable. Make all the difference if you got a man or an atom-bomb aboard. It could be shipped and stored a darn sight easier and safer, too. Fritz has just about got a formula all worked out. First solid fuel with the pep to beat the liquid.

"Another problem with solid fuel is you can't turn the juice on and off like you can with liquid," she went on. "It just burns until it burns itself out. That's okay if you're just shooting a rocket up into the air and not much caring where it comes back down. But if you want a solid-fuel rocket you can guide, or one a man can fly, you need some way to control the burn rate, speed up and slow down, make turns, land it where you want. They say Fritz worked out that kink too."

"Okay, I get why you want him," I said. "Too bad you ain't gonna get him."

"Have faith, Jeepers."

One time the sub surfaced in the dead of night and opened the lid for a breath of new air. Seymour Spitz got the captain to let him go up and stand on the tower. Slipped him a fin or something. He told me to come up there with him. It felt swell to get out of that tin can, even if it was only for a few minutes. The sea was all around us like a huge circle of rippled glass. The air tasted a lot like it does at Coney, only without the extra tastes of burning frankfurters and cotton candy and spilled beer.

"I hate this tub," Seymour Spitz said.

"I'm with you there, Mr. Spitz," I said.

"Yeah, I hear tight spaces give you the jibber jabbers. How you making out in the big gal's bunk? Nice and roomy?"

"Thought we was keeping it a secret," I said.

"It's a small tub, Bigelow."

"Don't I know it."

"When they said we had to go in one a these I almost nixed the whole caper," Mr. Spitz said. "Man meant to go  under the water God woulda made him a fish. Give mackerel the feet so they could walk around."

I didn't know what to say to that so I just looked at the sky. I couldn't get over how crowdy it was with stars. They was packed in up there like guidos on the beach at Coney on a August Sunday afternoon. Those stars was so bright your hand made a shadow on the deck when you lifted it. Where I come from a starry night was a couple of weak lights glowing like cigarette butts over the rooftops. I never knew there was so many stars. There was such a crowd of them running down the middle of the sky that it looked like a river. Mr. Spitz was staring at them too.

The captain came out smoking half a stogie. He seemed a right enough guy. Geezer like us, gray stubble, stocky built.

"What you boys gawking at?"

I pointed to that river of stars in the middle of the sky.

"The Milky Way?" he said. "Ain't you never seen it?"

"Just the candy bar they named it for."

"Say, where you from?"


The captain nodded and went back inside.

Mr. Spitz said, "You know, I think it's almost Passover."

I didn't say anything to that either.

"I'm a bent Jew, Bigelow," he said. "A right Jew would know whether it's Passover or not. The wife would know. She comes from tradition. I used to go pick her up on dates, it was like the Old World in her parents' house. Like Poland. My people was more American. Came over and went right to work blending in. Look at me. I blended in so far I got bent."

I had no idea who my people was or where they come from. It wasn't something my mother was likely to gas about when she was smacking us around, and who knew what kind of lowlife background the lug she called my father crawled out of.

"I'm as much a kraut as that meshuggy Brown," Seymour Spitz went on. "Ain't that a kick? I bet my people was there longer than his. Hundreds of years my people was there. Blended right in there, too. Look where it got them."

"Takes all kinds," I said. I didn't know what I meant by it. I was just trying to keep my end up.

"You're wrong," Seymour Spitz said. "It only takes all kinds in America. That's the whole point of America, Bigelow. Everywhere else in the world they only got one or maybe two kinds and that's the way they like it. The krauts is krauts, the frogs is frogs, the wops is wops, and they all hate each other's guts. You got tribes in Africa live right next to each other and they slit each other's throats just for being the other tribe. You and me look at um and can't tell the difference, but somehow they know. Jews wandered all around the world trying to blend in, but somehow they always know about us, too. We can blend in till we blue in the face but when the push come to a shove we stand out like we got neon mogen davids over our heads. Let the goyim's banks fail or they get a bad harvest and right away they pick us out the crowd for a pogrom. Nah, it only takes all kinds in America, Bigelow."

I heard that kind of talk from other bent guys in the past. They loved the country they robbed. It made a daffy sort of sense. A lot of them was poor immigrants or immigrants' kids. Wops, micks, kikes, krauts. America was the land of crooked opportunity to them.

Mr. Spitz got quiet. I shot the butt of a Chesterfield into the choppy water.

"You know they ain't really a shortage a them things?" he asked.

"No sir, Mr. Spitz, I sure didn't," I said.

The last forty-eight hours we spent deep underwater, sneaking up on the Reich slow and quiet. Three or four times the captain stopped the boat cold and let it sink to the bottom while swarms of natsy boats prowled around above us. All of our nerves was jangling like a bookmaker's lines on Preakness day.

The last night at midnight the captain called us into the little cabin where him and his officers did their planning. There was a steel table bolted to the floor in the middle of it. He leaned over a chart with an unlit stub of stogie in his mitt.

"We've reached the rendezvous point." He pointed the wet end of the stogie at a spot in the ocean and explained it was just outside the Strait of Gibraltar. We couldn't go into the Mediterranean and just sail right up to Italy, he said, because the natsies had the whole strait mined and blockaded for subs. We had to transfer here to a boat the Camorra was sending for us.

"They're due here at oh two hundred. Now, we are gonna surface hard and fast at oh two hundred. If your pals are here we drop you in a dinghy and we skeedaddle out to safer waters. If your pals ain't here we still skeedaddle. I'll leave it up to you if you want to wait here for them or skeedaddle with us. But I promise you we ain't hanging around either way. These waters is crawling with krauts. Up to me I'd drop you ashore somewhere down along the Moroccan coast where things are quieter and you hoof it over to Tunis and hop across to Italy from there. But whoever planned this excursion forgot to ask my opinion. So we are gonna pop up like a champagne cork right here in one hour and it's godspeed to ya."

We trooped back down the corridors to our berths and Agent Green handed out our gear. She wasn't going ashore. I guess they figured a colored lady would stick out. The rest of us got grimy outfits to wear that was supposed to blend us in with wop sailors. I thought they made us look like Mr.Spitz was a kike organ grinder with two monkeys and a lady gorilla, but they forgot to ask my opinion, too. Green handed us false papers identifying us as proud dago citizens of the Reich and paid-up merchant seamen. I rolled up the pouch of jigglers and wrenches in a tight tube and shoved it down my clown pants just in case they come in handy somewheres. Smith and Clarence got little Beretta six-shooters to shove down their own trousers. Me and Seymour Spitz said no thanks.

"Guess there's nothing left to say but good luck and God go with you," Green said. She turned to Seymour Spitz. "All yours. See you back here in 24."

We still had a hour to cool our heels and bite our nails. Me and Smith sat on her bunk.

"Anyone starts any monkeyshines, Barney, you get behind me and keep your head down," she said.

It was about the most romantical thing a dame ever said to me.

A little before two a.m. we all gathered in the tower. The captain looked at our outfits and made a face around his stogie. He watched his wristwatch tick.    

"I hate long goodbyes," he said.

He nodded at a sailor who skinnied up a ladder and threw the hatch open. Sea water splashed down on us in a gush of fresh night air.

"Go go go," the captain said.

We climbed up and out. It was windy and overcast and long waves rolled against the boat and splashed cold, salty spray in our faces. Two sailors was down on the deck struggling with a life raft. I looked at that little rubber doughnut and at the long waves rolling by and grabbed Smith's arm.

The captain and his exec come out on the tower and looked all around us. The exec pointed. Off to one side in the rolling waves and darkness a triangle of weak lights bobbed. It made me dizzy just looking at it.

The sailors waved us down to the deck. They held our elbows as we sat down in the raft and showed us where to grab onto ropes and hold on for dear life. Seymour Spitz and Clarence's faces was as pale and gaunt as skellingtons. I figured mine was too. Even Smith looked pretty grim.

The triangle of lights came closer, bouncing up and down. It turned out to be strung on the mast of a rusty old bucket of a fishing boat. It looked like it already had one foot in Davy Jones' locker. I could see wops hanging onto the rail waving at us. The sailors shoved us off the deck of the sub. We bobbed like a cork on the waves. The fishing boat didn't seem to be getting any closer. Meanwhile the sub buttoned up and begun to sink behind us. I got a feeling in the pit of my stomach like I did the very first time I ever got tossed in a holding cell and they slammed the door behind me. A feeling like the whole world abandoned you now and you're totally on your own and there ain't no going back. Then Snuffy grabbed my arm in one of her big mitts and I felt a little better about things.

The little rubber dingus we was clinging to for dear life bounced us around like the craziest ride at Coney Island. That wop fishing boat took its time sliding over to us sideways, up one long wave and down the next, the sailors at the rail waving to us the whole time like there was something we could do about the situation. Then finally they was right over us and things got even spookier. The rusty side of that boat leaned over us like it was about to fall on us, then leaned way back. One second a wave lifted us up until we was face to face with those sailors shouting dago at us and waving their arms like a troop of monkeys. The next a wave slid us down until they was two or three stories above us.

Eventually a fat wop in a crooked captain's hat appeared and shouted and waved his arms at the sailors. They scrambled and threw a kind of net down the side. Two of them climbed over the rail and down the net. They each looped one arm in it and reached out to us with the other and snagged us. They jabbered wop at us and grabbed our arms and hauled us up out of the raft. I wrapped my arms and legs in the net and hung on. The sailors yelled at me. Smith put a big mitt on my butt from below and give me a push. Nowheres to go but up or into the drink.

When we crawled over the rail onto the deck the sailors was all grinning and slapping our backs and shaking our hands like we was General Pershing and his troops liberating Europe. It was a real hoe down. A couple of them give Smith confused looks.

The captain shook our hands and led us to his cabin. It was small and cramped. We sat on his unmade bunk that smelled like a fat guy's dirty laundry while he handed us all fingerprinted shot glasses and poured us a clear liquor that smelled like Good 'n' Plenty licorice. He held his glass up with a serious look on his round, stubbled face.

"Signor Speetz. Welcome. Death to all Nazis."

"I'll drink to that," Seymour Spitz said. "Where's the boss?"

The captain frowned. "Da boss? Da boss? No boss out here. Only boats and sheeps."

"Not bus ya dumb wop," Clarence snarled. "Boss. Capo."

The captain laughed. He was a merry fat dago, I'll say that. And his American was no worse than some waiters in Little Italy. He explained that he was taking us to meet the boss. But first we had to sail through a whole heap of natsies and fascists. They might board and inspect the boat when we went through the strait. The captain had a hold full of fish, so they shouldn't give us any trouble. Fishing boats went in and out all the time. Still, he wanted us to go down to the crew quarters and stay there for the rest of the trip. If we got boarded, us and some of the real crew would be down there pretending to sleep.

The captain filled our glasses with more Good 'n' Plenty.    

"Death to Hitler," he said.

"Workin on it," Seymour Spitz replied.



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All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009-2010 John Strausbaugh


All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009 John Strausbaugh