Taking Flight

July 10, 2011
World War II ruined many lives. The scars left behind are too many to begin to count. Some were physical, others emotional. But one thing is the same in every situation: drastic changes occurred, leaving each individual reeling, teetering on the edge of everything. How each victim dealt with it varies but the situation was always repeated. This is the story of just one guard, just one prisoner, and just one owl. Their struggle to come to terms with the changing world around them is not a path lined with beds of roses. Greater battles were fought than those on land and at sea. The internal wars waged upon humanity are just as engrossing and dismal. Here is the story of one.
Act I, Scene I
[Enter Beat, a German guard in the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria]
Beat: I am surprised that I was put on morning guard duty so early into my work at camp. The talk of many guards was always the same-Mauthausen puts you to work along side the prisoners before you get so much as a look at the inside of the camp headquarters-but here I am, in my third week of working and already on guard duty at dawn. I wonder what greatness they see in me that I do not. So many mysteries surround this camp. I fear my head will explode with curiosity. Goodness, what was that? [slings gun from around shoulder and aims at the top of a hut] I can’t see, the sun is still low. Better not be a Jew trying to escape under my watch! [squints eye, attempting to focus on the point of movement] Where’s that trigger again? Good thing I received orders to shoot whenever I feel the need to. Ready, steady, aim,….Whoa, what a bird. Look at that! I almost shot an owl!
Owl: [blinks slowly as if uninterested and shows no fear]
Beat: [to owl] Hey pretty thing! [to self] What was it mama always said? “Approach an animal with kindness and a slow, steady step.” [holds out hand] Hey, I’m not going to hurt you. Sorry about pointing that gun at you-I have to be on the lookout for prisoners trying to escape. Now don’t go flying away! I promise, I won’t hurt you!
Owl: [retreating to a higher hut roof]
Guard Two: Beat, who are you talking to? You know you aren’t supposed to make friends with the Jews! Come on, our shift’s up.
Beat: I wasn’t talking to a Jew, no worries there. I was…I was….[aside] I’m not going to tell him I’m crazy! I just got this job, no need to be sent to the medical ward. [to guard] I’m just a bit tired I’d say, talking to myself. Don’t wait up-I’ll meet you at the mess hall in a few minutes.
Guard Two: [He salutes and strides off]
Beat: [turns back to the owl and watches it shudder as a shot rings in the distance] What’s wrong, friend? Do you not like this place? Why are you here then? Listen, I have to go. You take care of yourself because you’re looking a bit thin. Say, would you come around again if I bring you a bit of bread or something? Hope to see you around, friend. Be careful. The next time someone holds a gun up to you, they may not be nice enough to take it down before shooting. [turns on heel and shuffles away]
Act I, Scene II
Beat: Finally, evening! I have time to do whatever I’d like. I can’t believe just how much those guys messed with me for talking out in the yard this morning. It’s like they’ve never seen someone talk to themselves before![long, reflective pause. Face falls] I sure wish these stone walls were open fields and bird song filled my ears instead of incessant gun shots. This place exudes sorrow and pain. I can feel it. My dreams have diminished in their glory. I could sit and cry over these terrible events I witness. Today, oh goodness, how terrible it was! That poor woman was sick and could not walk. She stumbled and then [shudders at the memory] the guard closest to her just lifted his gun and shot her! He shot her, by God, he did. It took everything in me to stop myself from running to her. [slumps to the ground] I’m drained. What have I gotten myself into?
Owl: Hoo, hoo! [Tilts head sideways, as if trying to figure Beat out]
Beat: It’s you! You came! How are you? Don’t worry; I’ve brought your bread. [Holds out bread but the bird does not come forth] Fine, fine, don’t trust me. I can’t really blame you. If I heard some strange person telling stories like I was, I wouldn’t trust them. I’ll just throw it over….there. See? No harm done. I won’t run at you, go ahead. Eat it, you scrawny thing.
Owl: [swoops down and picks up the bit of bread then flies away, towards the outermost barrack]
Beat: Where’s he going? [Sighs] I have nothing better to do than follow him. [Stands up and heads in the direction the owl flew]
Act I, Scene III
[Beat enters an empty courtyard between two barracks. Stone walls reach into the sky on all sides and gun towers are in the face of the moon.]
Beat: I find it eerie when my footfalls resound off these dank walls. Honestly, I can’t imagine how the prisoners feel. It is bad enough for I, a soldier, to spend all my time here and I am treated fairly well. Oi! There is my owl! [Sees owl perched upon a wooden crate stack in far corner]Why are you over here? Tell me this is not your nest! [As he approaches, a movement in the shadow catches his eye. The intense training he underwent to gain his position as a guard readied him for unsettling motions of the unknown. His gun was at the ready.] Who is it?! What are you doing?
[A prisoner had hidden himself in the shadow of the barrack wall and the crate. The piece of bread Beat had given the owl now rested, halfway gone, at the prisoner’s feet.]
Prisoner: [Whispering frantically] Please, please don’t hurt me, sir! I’ll-I’ll give you your bread back, and more, when I can get it! I’m starving, please don’t shoot!
Guard on Watch Tower: Hey, you! [To Beat] What’s going on down there? You see someone?
Beat: [He looks frigidly at the prisoner, and then the look softens ever so slightly] No. It was just an owl.
Guard on Watch Tower: [Guard pauses, considering Beat’s explanation] All right, but if you see someone, don’t hesitate to shoot. [He goes back to patrolling on the wall walkway]
Beat: [to prisoner] What do you think you’re doing? Why aren’t you in your barrack? Don’t answer that, I already know the answer. Stand up! What’s your name?
Prisoner: Number 03112.
Beat: No, no not your identification number. Your name!
Prisoner: M-my name is Henryk. Sir, I am very-
Beat: [cuts off Henryk] I don’t want any apologies. I can’t blame you. Besides, I am not here right now. I’m in my quarters, readying for sleep.
Henryk: [A faint smile crosses his face] [Softly] Thank you. But I have to ask: Why?
Beat: [he looks up toward the sky, in deep thought.] The way I see it, we are in the same boat. We are both here against everything we have known and been taught. I’m not suffering in the same sense you are, but I am suffering still. [Now he looks at Henryk and searches for some sense of understanding.]
Henryk: [He looks directly into his eyes without fear. If he feels fear, it is masked expertly. Burning rage glowers on his face. Disgust curls his lips and squints his eyes.] I understand what you are saying but I am unable to accept it. Do you not see how your actions are affecting us all? We Jews did nothing to you, nothing, and yet you make excuses to treat us like vermin! No, I take that back. You treat vermin better than you treat us. I am disgusted with you and your words. Do me a favor. Lift up that barrel and shoot me. I don’t want to live in a world where a guard like you believes he is truly suffering as much as the Jews he spits on.
Beat: If I did not agree with you, I would shoot you, without a second thought. But I feel disgusted with myself, just as much as you do, if not more. If I were to shoot anyone, it would be I. [He looks down at the ground in regret.] I am sorry, Henryk.
Henryk: [He lets a smile appear on his hollow, sunken face.] Talking of this is going to do no good; shooting is not, either. Are you going to send me to my barracks or to my death?
Beat: Neither. We are going to talk.
[End of Act I. Act II is still centered around camp life but months later. Beat, Henryk, and the owl have become support for each other but Henryk is becoming more ill with each passing day. Evenings are spent together, reminiscing about times past and making goals for times ahead. Act II, Scene I starts off in the camp headquarters.]
Act II, Scene I
[Enter Beat. He takes a seat in front of the director’s desk, after saluting Hitler. The director leans back in his elegant chair and smirks at Beat. Flipping open a file folder, he begins.]
Director: I would like to promote you. Are you up for a bit more of a challenge? Of course, it shouldn’t be too difficult-working for the homeland should lighten any load that works towards the Solution. What do you say?
Beat: Sir, I am not sure. What is it that I will be doing? Do you not think that someone with far more experience should handle it, whatever it may be?
Director: I don’t doubt your skill. Besides, the only way to gain experience is to go out and “do”. I think this will be good for you. It will show you just how important our actions are. [He sneers at Beat with a knowing look. Worry creeps into Beat’s mind, but remains hidden within.]
Beat: [He clicks his heels and, feigning enthusiasm, throws out the salute.] Thank you for the consideration, sir. I will do my best in order to avoid disappointing.
Director: [Nods in approval] You will report to Gusen at 0400 hours. Once there, further instructions will be given. [He stands up and turns to the window directly behind his desk. Peering out on the courtyard where prisoners are pulling building materials and carts, he grasps his hands behind his back. To indicate the seriousness of the information, he takes on a stern expression, chilling Beat’s insides. Turning towards him, he bombards Beat with even more information.] This promotion is not one to be taken lightly. It is extremely important to our work. On the other hand, it is extremely threatening to the success of our mission. If this gets out, all that we have worked towards will be destroyed. You cannot let that happen. If it does, your life will be compromised without so much as a second thought. Do you understand?
Beat: Yes, I believe so. Thank you again. I will keep this to myself until I no longer exist.
Director: Good. [He glances up at the clock. As suddenly as his smile had faded, it reappeared.] Ah, look at the time! You are to report for morning duty for the final time and I am to report to my personal quarters for some entertainment. [He winks at Beat, expecting a knowing smile to appear. Beat has to force a look of amusement.]
Act II, Scene II
[Beat has been working off his new promotion for a week now. To his horrification, he was to be presiding over the first gas chamber at Gusen-Mauthausen. Mass genocide was occurring because of him. Everyday torn at his soul. He was not able to see Henryk anymore because he had been relocated to Gusen, a sub-camp. Beat became numb to everything around him.]
[In the front room of the gas chamber. Beat is surrounded by prisoners. He is telling them to prepare for a “shower” and breaking his heart again. His sorrow is expressed through anger.]
Beat: [to group of inmates]All right, calm down! Listen! You are to undress and enter the shower room. Once inside, I will turn on the water. Bars of soap are on shelves inside. Orderly now! [He looks around as the men strip down and sees them sharing looks of confusion and gratefulness. Beat felt the now-familiar tug of betrayal on his heart.]
Prisoner 1: [to a prisoner next to him] I can’t believe it! We actually get a shower! Maybe it’s an SS holiday or something!
Prisoner 2: If it was an SS holiday, they would be shooting us. Giving us the chance to bathe is not an act of celebration. Something here just doesn’t feel right.
[Beat turns away from the exchange. Looking to his right, he spots Henryk. Bones jut from every corner of the Jewish man’s body. He looks up and into Beat’s eyes. A look of knowing passes between them.] [to self] No. I cannot let this happen. Condoning the gassing of Henryk, my friend…[trails off as he looks out the door and into the sky. The owl is swooping in.] Close that door, don’t let that bird in! [prisoners rush to shut the door but the owl is in before it closes. He flies directly into the “shower room”. The prisoners, now undressed, follow.] Wait! We can’t have the bird in there!
Guard: Sir, a single bird isn’t going to make a difference. Let it go. [Henryk passes by. No anger shows on his face, only remorse. He goes in. A guard shuts and locks the door behind the prisoners. Automatically, Beat goes over to the console and pulls a lever. Zyklon-B is released into the chamber, asphyxiating all inside. Moments later, a guard peers in the peephole. Seeing the work is done, he signals to another. The door of the chamber, now silent, opens. Beat leaves the building and walks to the courtyard, now emptied of frightened, starving men.]
Beat: What was great is now gone. These evil hands shall turn upon their master. [With that, he takes out his pistol and, placing the cool nose of it to his neck, pulls the worn trigger.]

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