The sun had not yet risen when a rapid staccato sound woke me. It was the explosive coughing and rumbling to life of Organization TOT’s engines. I sat up in the seat of the car and looked out the window at the surrounding TOT trucks. Like grey specters. the TOT soldiers moved quietly around their vehicles while the blue slits of their truck headlights curved away from my vision and disappeared in the early morning fog.
I saw Colonel Schlabach talking to an Army officer who appeared to be the officer in charge of the TOT vehicles. They had a serious discussion as they pointed at the bridge. Schlabach broke off the conversation and went over to the bridge to talk to the officer who had denied him permission to cross the night before. The officer harangued a civilian whose horse was having difficulty pulling a wagon across the bridge. The Colonel waited while the officer finished.
All around us the evacuees began loading their sleeping gear and cooking pots back onto their wagons. Some already waited in line at the bridge approach for the slow-moving wagon to cross the bridge. The wagon driver had moved his horse and wagon onto the bridge and was making a slow crossing. Suddenly. his wagon bowed in the middle and broke in half.
I saw the officer in charge. and his face looked wild. He sent several soldiers to try and urge the horse ahead, but one of the front wagon wheels caught in a bridge support girder. Up and down the line of waiting wagons, people fearfully called out and asked when they would get to cross. The soldiers couldn't solve the problem with the stuck wheel. The wagon driver attempted to repair his wagon without moving it. The bridge was narrow. Traffic could go only one way at a time. The broken wagon completely blocked any movement on the bridge.
We were stuck on the wrong side of the Oder River.
Mom was asleep with her head against the car door. I shook her and asked, "Mom, are the Russians going to get us now?" She opened her eyes but didn't say anything. She sat up and asked, "What did you say? What's going on?" She looked around.
Colonel Schlabach trotted over to the Army officer. He said, "The man on the bridge could be a spy. This could have been planned."
The officer reacted sharply and drew his pistol. He walked toward the stalled wagon as if he were going to personally shoot the wagon driver. Schlabach stopped him.
Schlabach said, "All you can do with your pistol is shoot the man. That won't clear the bridge."
The officer cursed and stomped his feet.
Schlabach snapped his fingers and said, "I have an idea. If I can clear the bridge, will you let me cross first?"
The officer stopped his tantrum and looked at him a few seconds as if Schlabach were the crazy one. He said, "Colonel. clear the bridge, and you can have it all to yourself. "
Colonel Schlabach exchanged salutes with him and ran back to the TOT convoy. He held an excited conversation with the TOT officer. He ran over to our car. Mom was awake by then. He stopped at her window and quickly said, "We're going across the bridge, and we're going across now. The Russians are moving up behind us too quickly. The Army is going to blow the bridge within the next twenty minutes."
She put her hand to her mouth. She said, "But that means my mother-in-law and father-in-law may not get across."
"What it means, " he calmed himself and patiently continued' "is that we will get across. Now do you want to cross the bridge or not?"
"Well," she hesitated, "yes I do. I’m just concerned about my relatives. "
"I'm not calloused," he said, "and I understand your concern for your in-laws, but I am concerned about getting away from the Russians and getting to Castle Willigrad." He paused and looked from under his brows. He asked, "Are you with me or not?"
With the mention of the Russians, she nodded her head firmly. She answered, "We'll cross when you're ready."
"Good!" He looked back at Siegie and me and said,
"Listen, boys. Remember four things: number one, roll down your windows: number two, stay away from them as we start to cross. I'm going to move the wagon which is stalled on the bridge. Once I do that, I'm going to drive the fire truck straight across the bridge. Number three, your car may turn over if it runs over any large debris: and number four, if it does turn over, I will not be able to stop the fire truck in order to turn the car back on its wheels. You'll have to hang on while I drag your car across the bridge. Just stay away from the windows. Do you understand me?"
Siegie. saluted and said, "Yes sir."
I didn't say anything. I nodded my head and wondered if he would do as he said.
Schlabach nodded brusquely and said, "Good. Now everybody, hang on tight."
He ran to the fire truck. It roared to life, smoke belching out of its tail pipe. From the convoy, a half-tracked vehicle with a road blade on the front pulled out of the convoy and rumbled up to the bridge.
I heard the growl of the half-track gear box as Its driver shifted into Its power gear. The engine revved and the half- track began pushing the broken wagon from the rear. The man who owned the wagon scurried back and forth in front of the half-track in a plea for Its driver to stop. The half-track ground forward. The back half of the broken wagon began to skip forward. The wagon wheels went up in the air. and the wagon's right rear wheel tumbled over the side of the bridge and caught there.
The owner of the wagon knelt in front of the half-track. begging. and still the half-track ground Inexorably forward. The back half of the wagon tumbled over the side of the bridge. The half-track had forced the back half of the wagon over and in doing so had pressed the front half forward also. The traces of the wagon had pinioned the horse in the middle of the bridge. It was trapped. The half-track continued forward. The front half of the wagon splintered under the force of the pressure. The wagon driver's possessions flew into the air.
When the wagon splintered. it knocked the horse down. The owner of the wagon saw the horse go down and saw the half-track bearing down upon him. As pieces of the front half of the wagon went over one side of the bridge. the wagon driver dove over the other side. The half-track growled forward. It climbed over the prostrate horse. The front wheels cut through the middle of the horse. The tank-like tracks that propelled the vehicle from the rear crawled over the horse cutting It nearly in half. The half-track driver shifted into a higher gear and headed for the other side of the bridge.
Schlabach shifted the fire truck into low and It rumbled forward. As I leaned out my window for a better view. I saw the truck's front wheels climb over the debris and then over the horse. I saw the horse struggle even though it was cut in half.
Our front wheels started over the debris. We bumped and the car righted Itself. The car leaned right. toward my window. and I looked down at the horse. I saw its foot quiver and twitch. I could almost touch It. The car leaned farther to the right. and I could see that it was going to turn over on the horse. I jumped back from the window and braced myself against the seat.
Mom steered into the direction of the tilt, and the car righted itself. Suddenly, we gained speed and headed across the last part of the bridge. Siegie and I cheered for Mom. We got on our knees in the back seat so that we could look out the back window to see what was happening behind us.
Excitedly, I asked Siegie, "Oh, you see the way the horse quivered when we ran over it?"h
Siegie said, "No. I was watching the man who jumped over the bridge take a swim." He made motions with his arms as if he were swimming.
I said, "Listen, the horse was stilI alive. I swe...