On an Austrian trout stream, a separate peace
- By: Bil Monan
Late March 1945 - This war was all but over. You could tell by the arrival of staff officers on the line. They usually appeared in pairs, stepped out of their jeeps, looked officious, and, if they were lucky, would be shelled by less then accurate German mortars. They would then quickly remount and run like hell to the rear all the while congratulating themselves on getting the Combat Infantry Badge and perhaps the Bronze Star. My platoon, all of 20 men, more like a glorified squad, had been dug in along the edge of a stream in western Austria for four days.It was a luxury of sorts, since it was unusual for us to be so static. Everything was moving fast and resistance, though sporadic, was still lethal, and none of us had any urge to be the last casualty. The one good thing was that it appeared the Germans felt the same way, overall. We had been sent forward to this stream, the Erlauf, near the town of Scheibbs, to ensure that the bridge was secure and to hold the position until we were relieved. At first, the Germans fired a few mortar rounds and a volley of machinegun fire to let us know they were indeed on the other side, but had since been silent. I looked down the line where my men had dug in and could only see piles of dirt with eyes-mud soldiers. At this point you could probably throw seed on them and grow crops. No longer did they have names. It was just "You, You and You, over there," "You and You, that way," and "You, stay here." To my men I was just "Lieutenant." Only Sergeant Malvani had a name, and it was "Conductor." He was an unlikely sergeant-scrawny, short, glasses and very long, elegant fingers. He had been a concert violinist back home and had been 4 F'd early on, but after Normandy and all the losses, the draft board eventually decided he was just perfect. We called him the "Conductor" after he lost two fingers to shrapnel somewhere in the Ardennes and, upon discovering his loss, he remarked that his violin days were over and he would become a conductor. He never spoke of it again. It was what made him such a good sergeant; he just adapted and made stuff happen. We weren't at all similar, Malvani and I. He was actually a city boy and relatively sophisticated, and I was just an ROTC graduate from Westkill, New York. The only symphony I had ever heard was the thunder in the Catskills and the tumbling of water over rocks on the Willowemoc. But we were similar on one account: We had both been promoted primarily for surviving. The only thing that bothered me about Sgt. Malvani was that he wore a helmet into which a bullet had entered on the left side before somehow miraculously spinning across the front casing and exited through the right. I said to him, "Sergeant, you need to dump that helmet. It only reinforces the men's belief that their leaders have no brains." "Well, me accepting these sergeant stripes just proves they're right." I left it alone, but it gave me the creeps. After a while, it struck me that it was really gotten quiet. I mean, I was actually thinking. I could not remember a time over the last year that my brain wasn't being banged from one side of my skull to the other by artillery fire. I decided to peek over the edge of my foxhole to scan the other side of the stream. I saw nothing moving, which was normal. You never saw anyone out front-not anyone alive, that is. What I did notice was the stream. To my left it made a broad turn back toward the German lines, where it channeled deep and close to a steep rock wall. As it flowed toward me it straightened out and formed a nice, flat pool about 50 yards long and 50 yards wide, just at the place where both of our lines faced one another. The stream ran down to my right under the bridge and faded into the darkness created by a canopy of overhanging trees. The milky, green-tinged water ran fast and cold. The Eusopus, back home in the Catskills, had the same look in early spring and I began to see in each pocket of water and riffle a place where, with the right presentation and the right fly, a nice brown trout would come roaring out of the water. I started to see Junction Pool at Roscoe, where the Little Beaverkill merges with the Willowemoc and where the late evening hatch would emerge and all hell would break loose as trout gorged on Green Drakes or Blue Quills or something else that I usually could never match. Now, while you might expect most men in my situation to be thinking of women, most of us had lost our libidos somewhere between the first hundred yards of beach in Normandy and the hedgerows or on the Rhine. But thoughts of trout I could handle. I remembered my dad teaching me how to fly-fish on the little Westkill, which ran right behind our house. The first trout I caught on a fly was a beautiful 12-inch native brook. I used a brown dry fly. My dad didn't have any names for the flies. He just said, "Match the damn color as best you can or make something up that's black with a little red on it." And that's what we did. Working in our garage at night pulling feathers from grouse capes, cutting up deerskins, and even slicing little chunks of wool from our socks, we would make our flies. My mom thought we had a terrible moth problem. I thought about Fir Brook and how my dad and I would head up high when it had rained enough to the Willowemoc and Beaverkill to run fast and muddy. The Fir was a small stream, hard to fish, and it dropped into a small gorge that required you to commit most of a day working small pockets of water behind boulders and little waterfalls. We would use about five feet of line and just flick it over a rock into any likely spot, and the brook trout would strike like piranhas on a wounded pig. We only used tiny black ants, since the average trout was about eight inches, but I do believe a pig cast just right would have provoked those greedy little brookies to strike. My reverie was aborted by a sharp slap to the back of my helmet and a voice so close to my ear that the strident whisper sounded like shell fire, saying, " Wake up Lieutenant, something's moving across the stream!" I stared hard across the stream and noticed pieces of loose shale and dirt slipping down the face of the embankment from a thick hedge. A German soldier slid down the bank and took a few tentative steps towards the edge of the stream. Sergeant Malvani raised his M-1. I grabbed the end of his rifle and said, "Hold off Sergeant; when have you ever seen a living German out front? They haven't shot at us for three days. I think he is making a point. Tell the men to hold their fire." Sergeant Malvani looked at me like I was insane, but waved down the men. We waited and watched. The soldier righted himself with some difficulty; apparently he had a bad left leg. He proceeded to remove his helmet and camouflage poncho, then quite deliberately folded the poncho, neatly laid it on the gravel streambed and placed his helmet on top. He wore no insignia, but it was obvious that he was an officer. How I knew, I couldn't tell you. He just held himself in a certain way. Most line officers, myself included, had discovered long ago not to wear anything that might distinguish them-snipers made short work of you if you did. He was unarmed and wore the uniform of the Wehrmacht, not the SS, which was a relief in some ways. Not that the Wehrmacht didn't try to kill you; they just seemed more like us, less fanatic. He was a handsome man, stood about six foot, lean, but then there were not many fat soldiers these days. He was an older man, late 40's perhaps, at least that was my perspective, since he had graying hair around his temples kind of like my dad. He then turned back to the bank, reached up into the hedges and proceeded to pull something out of the bushes. Once again Sergeant Malvani raised his rifle and once again I pushed him down. I said, "It's not a rifle he's getting Sergeant." "What in the hell is he getting?" replied Malvani. "It's a fly rod." "Well, I'll be damned," Malvani exclaimed. "He must be shell shocked." "No, I think he's just tired of this war, and like I said, I think he's making a point." Again, we just waited and watched. There was a certain choreography to the officer's actions. I suspected he knew that his life depended on carefully orchestrated movements, so everything he did seemed to flow with a cautious slow motion. Reaching into his field jacket he produced a green felt Tyrolean hat. There was a pheasant feather stuck in the hatband and around the sides there were a number of trout flies hooked haphazardly into the felt. He pulled off a fly that looked like some kind of streamer. All I could see was a flash of whitish silver with a blackish body. He tied the fly to his leader then stuck the hat on his head, reached into his tunic again and removed a pipe. With deliberate nonchalance he tapped the bowl on some rocks to remove the old ashes, filled the pipe, lit it, and with obvious enjoyment took a few puffs. Picking up the rod, he stepped to the edge of the stream while stripping off line, and started to false cast to extend the line out over the stream. All this orchestration came to an abrupt end on one of his back casts, when the fly ended up snagged on a low branch jutting out from the hedge line behind him. Apparently, he was out of practice. I heard a laugh next to me. Malvani thought it was funny. I mean, so did I, but being a fisherman I couldn't help but feel sorry for the man. It's okay to snag when you are by yourself, but to have an audience can be demoralizing. It's kind of like being in a spelling contest in third grade and in front of all your peers and parents and you misspell a simple word like "castle," which I once did. Retrieving the fly, the fishing soldier dressed in combat gray, black boots and green hat went unperturbedly about the business of catching fish. The birds started moving, and perhaps Malvani's laugh allowed everyone to exhale, for the air seemed relaxed and come alive again. He worked to my left, casting up and across where the stream made the turn towards the flat water in our front. His streamer fell lightly on the edge of the far bank. The lure caught the current where the last bit of rapids tailed into a softening pool, and just as the streamer reached the apex of its turn in the current a roiling of water marked the strike of a hungry brown trout. With little fanfare, but with elegant precision, the soldier worked the fish to his boot. The fish was about 12 inches long and plump. He picked it up, broke its neck and plopped it on the gravel bar near the bank. The man knew how to fish. He worked the water with such effortless skill that he caught fish after fish in every likely spot. The fly went exactly where he wanted it to go. Using a series of long casts, roll casts, even short whip-like backhand casts when he wanted to flip it under a low branch or cut bank, he worked the stream like a farmer gleaning his fields. The trout seemed endless in their quantity and maybe a little stupid. More than likely they hadn't been fished for years and had no experience with a hook, but maybe I was just jealous and didn't want to admit that the man was flat-out good. I noticed that he only kept trout of about 10 to 12 inches in length. When he landed a few that were larger he gently released them. I found myself mesmerized and by now he had worked down the stream to where he was only 20 yards off to my left. I could clearly see the streamer flashing below me in the water. I noticed directly below me a fallen tree that had formed a good-size hole. Swirling in the eddy where the current broke around the end of the trunk there lay a dark shadow of a trout about 20 inches long. Staggered around it hovered a number of smaller trout like P-40 Mustangs protecting a B-17 bomber; I guess a flight of Messerschmidts protecting a Junker bomber would be more exact, the trout being Austrian. Every time the streamer passed outside the edge of the pool, the large fish would move up to a staging point considering a strike, but then his smaller cousins would race out and attack the fly. This fish was wise. He would let the small ones in their greed go charging off to their demise and he would just slip back and wait. He wasn't in a hurry and he didn't want to work that hard. I couldn't stand it. The soldier's fly was drifting about one foot short. I stood up. God does make fools and here I was-a magnificent example. I think Malvani passed out. I was standing up, totally exposed. I don't think I had stood erect for a year. I had come to feel like an ape, always running at a crouch. Not only did I stand up in the face of the enemy, I was also gesticulating with my arms. I pointed straight down at the trout and then put my hands about 20 inches apart. I wasn't shot. The soldier looked up, nodded his head and dropped down a few feet and out into the stream. The streamer drifted perfectly into the edge of the eddy and the old trout went for it. It struck hard. The soldier set the hook, and upon feeling the sting the fish broke water and flung itself violently back and forth. It is unusual for a brown to leap much, but this one did. The battle was waged fairly, the angler giving line as the trout tried to roar down stream. Then keeping pressure, allowing no slack, stripping line; with the rod tip high, the soldier tired the old fish down. He didn't horse it around but brought the fish to heel as quickly as possible. He bent down and with both hands brought the fish up to chest height and held it out to show me. It was a beautiful brown with bright red splotches sprinkled amidst coal black spots all splashed against a greenish, blue-grey background. It was an old fish with a hooked jaw and square head, the brood master of the stream. The fisherman then ever so gently swished the big fish in the current to revive it and let it go. He stood, looked my way and waved me towards him. Without hesitation, I shouldered my rifle and began to slip down the bank and towards the stream. Sergeant Malvani gave me a hard look and said, "You're not really going?" I replied with a curt "Yes." "You're an idiot," retorted Malvani. I gave him a hard look back. "Sir." I met him halfway across the stream where the water came to about our shins. It was so brutally cold that it made your teeth ache. I looked at the bank where he had laid out about 15 trout and said, " Trout," and he replied, "Forellen." He saluted and said, "I am Leutnant, Franz Meyers." "Lieutenant Patrick Skimmin," and I returned the salute. "Leutnant Skimmin, for me this war is over and my men are hungry. Perhaps your soldiers are hungry, too?" and he handed me the rod. Good, I thought, he speaks English, they all speak English it seemed, and I can only say, 'Hande hoch,' or 'nicht schissen' in German. I took the rod, looked at him and said, "Aren't you kind of old to be a Lieutenant?" "All the young men are buried in Russia. I was invalided for wounds during the First World War, but was called up to form a Volkssturm unit to protect my village and this bridge. All my soldiers are 15-year-old boys or old men like me. I have no great ambition to die or have my village destroyed for Germany since I am Austrian." I turned to the stream, stripped line and proceeded to cast, slowly remembering all the mechanics of the sport I so loved. It was the one way I could always find peace and quiet and I had forgotten what that was like. I caught as he did, but made a point to catch 25 trout since I had counted 15 of his. I think we both knew we were lying about how many men we were feeding. As I laid the last trout on the shore, Franz Meyers came to me and with strict military formality said, "I surrender my weapons, my men and my village to the United States Army, and to you Patrick Skimmin, I surrender the stream and this." He handed me the rod. Franz turned to his side of the stream and waved to the hedges. Within seconds 10 grey-clad scarecrows tumbled to the streambed, armed with 12-inch frying pans, mess kits, potatoes, cabbages and onions. I waved to my men and the same mass scrambling and confusion ensued as my 20 mud-soldiers emerged with American cigarettes and chocolate. On that night, on the edge of the Erlauf, we shared a most glorious fish fry. It was here, as it was for Franz Meyers, that my war ended.