After dinner, Rudolf walked toward the canteen, passing the enlisted men’s barracks. He eyed the old stables and supply sheds that had been turned into flimsy living quarters: tan gypsum board covered some of the Great Depression structures, but many of the barracks were wrapped in inferior grade jute paper. Rudolf sighed; buildings in Germany were stout—made to keep out the elements, a sure sign of Germany’s superior workmanship over the American slap-dash habit of making do with anything available. Much to Rudolf’s displeasure, with the slightest whisper of a wind, sand seeped easily through poorly-fitting windows and doors along with the desert’s vermin—venomous stinging scorpions and centipedes that hid under his cot and found refuge in his boots.
Camp Papago Park sat about ten miles from downtown Phoenix, incarcerating approximately seventeen hundred German seamen in a barren area next to the Arizona Crosscut Canal, a large irrigation ditch. The camp hugged close to two odd geologic formations—pockmarked red sandstone hills called Papago Buttes, shaped by the desert wind. One of the formations, called Hole-in-the-Rock by ancient Indian tribes, stood like a watchful sentinel overlooking the prisoner of war camp. The interminable sight of it disgusted Rudolf for it represented his imprisonment by the enemy.
Rudolf earned eighty cents a day in canteen credits working in the nearby cotton fields and citrus groves, not something he wanted to do, but the days passed quicker and lifted the weight of utter boredom. Walking toward the canteen, he hoped there was a new stock of Chesterfield cigarettes he could purchase. Rudolf grudgingly admitted they were much smoother than his favorite German smokes, Sondermischung No. 4, but he came away disappointed. Chesterfields were so popular that the canteen was already bare from that morning’s stock, so he settled for a Hershey bar.
Stripping the wrapping off the candy, the conversation in the cotton field returned to plague him. Although he knew he could have handled it better—perhaps by ignoring the question altogether—the youth’s boldness was insufferable. In Germany, no minor would dare approach an adult with such a blasphemous question; his grandmother would have slapped him sharply on the side of the head.
Rudolf’s mood slid further into gloom as he watched the sunset. It was the close of yet another day so far from his beloved homeland. Feeling wretched, he searched for someone he knew among the men milling about the compound’s dirt yard, finally seeing another U-893 crewman. Wolfgang Gertzner stood by the barbed wire fence, a cloud of cigarette smoke swirling about his dark blond head. Rudolf walked to him and offered Wolfgang a bite off the partially eaten chocolate bar. In turn, Wolfgang gave Rudolf a few puffs of his Camel, another popular brand among the Germans. The two men stood silently, looking at the Arizona sky as it flung its dying light into unimaginable colors, turning the strange hills nearby into ghostly formations.
“Any news?” Rudolf asked.
“Whatever news there is… it is bad!” Wolfgang said.
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