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Authors: Curt Autry

Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / General

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BOOK: The Reunion
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8

Alva, Oklahoma, 1942

Dr. Klaus Baerwaldt arrived in Woods County in the summer of 1942. There were two things to be thankful for that year: the dust storms hadn't returned and, for the first time in more than a decade, Alva had a real physician in residence, a doctor to sew up a wound or deliver a baby. There was no need to drive fifty miles to Enid for emergency medical care anymore. Alva now had a legitimate doctor, and the townspeople were grateful—even if he was a Nazi.

Baerwaldt was among the five thousand prisoners of war incarcerated at the Woods County detention camp. The prison was one of more than two dozen scattered across the heartland, places out of sight and mind of mainstream America; communities so poor a prison camp was an acceptable inconvenience as long as it generated revenue until the end of the war.

At first it was just the emergencies, like the time a combine caught a farmhand's shirt, slicing his shoulder, a wound that demanded no fewer than forty stitches. The registered nurse who doubled as the town pharmacist and the two U.S. Army medics at the camp were no match for the steady hand of a surgeon. A successful breech delivery and three major suture jobs later, Dr. K, as the townspeople called him, was operating a clinic three days a week in the basement of the Woods County Courthouse.

It wasn't much. By European standards the equipment was absolutely medieval. The county commissioners did, however, allocate a few hundred dollars for gauze, bandages, and a few other pharmaceutical supplies. Word of Baerwaldt's skill and amiable bedside manner elevated him from a curiosity to an accepted member of the community.

His patient load grew from emergency cases to complaints about back spasms, allergies, and even gynecological problems. He lived at the camp but walked out the front gate each morning to work. He was free to stroll the streets of Alva, all forty-seven of them, without so much as a notice. When the war ended, he already had a going practice in Alva. He felt needed there. There was nothing or no one to go home to, so he didn't.

***

Carolyn set the cruise control to precisely seventy miles per hour, pushed back the bucket seat as far as it would go, and let her mind wander. Alva, Oklahoma, was still another one hundred miles away. Traveling west on I-40, the terrain didn't change much. The ground was flat and without trees, offering an unobstructed view of the Oklahoma plains. Along both sides of the highway, the stiff wind raked across miles of wheat stalks, their gold, knotty tips whirling in a hypnotic dance.

Since Carolyn had maneuvered a meeting with her birth mother, they had talked either in person or by phone every day. Each chat seemed to lessen the ache of abandonment and, more importantly, revealed a little more about herself. Still, her mother was unable to conclusively answer the question that had triggered her insatiable quest to find her birth parents: who sent the money?

The notarized letter arrived on a Wednesday. A blind trust at Liberty National Bank and Trust of Tulsa, Oklahoma, had been established in her name the same year of her birth, and the amount was staggering: three hundred thousand dollars and change. Her benefactor was a mystery and would remain that way. No amount of cajoling would move the bankers. She couldn't even get them to explain how they found her.

When she explained the situation to her mother, figuring out the rest came surprisingly easy. Stephanie had also received notice from Liberty National, not money, but the contents of a safety deposit box. It contained the engagement ring she had returned more than forty years ago, and a heartfelt letter of apology scrawled out in an old man's hand. In five pages, Baerwaldt begged for her forgiveness and fantasized about what could have been.

It was a marvelous love story, but one not easy for Stephanie to share. At times the memories were so painful that they flooded over her and seemed to steal her breath. It was the summer of 1966. She was just nineteen years old, a sophomore at the Oklahoma State School of Nursing and assigned to a two-month summer internship at the Woods County Clinic in Alva. The program was under the direct supervision of Dr. Klaus Baerwaldt.

By the second week, his thick German accent she initially found so intimidating evolved into something she confused with continental charm. He was in his late forties, tall and lean. The doctor's icy blue eyes seemed to light up his finely chiseled features. By the third week she had given herself to him on a gurney in examining room number three.

Attention from a real man, a European doctor no less, was just too hard to refuse. He was so different from the clumsy boys on the Stillwater campus. She was determined to make this refined specimen her husband.

The pregnancy did, in fact, spur an offer of marriage. Stephanie's father, however, wouldn't hear of it. Even though the war had been over for better than two decades, her daddy had served in the big one. Not only would he refuse to allow the marriage, he was also insistent that his daughter give up the baby. She was not one to disobey her father. Stephanie's precious little girl, the only child God would allow her, would be matched with a good Christian family.

The next piece of Carolyn's puzzle was in Alva. She parked on the square, plugged a quarter into the meter, and walked over to the town museum. The one-story cinderblock and stucco building had been abandoned as the county jail back in the sixties. Ten years later, during a rare surplus year, the structure was renovated and turned over to the county Historical Society for a town museum. But there was only enough money to staff it three days a week, and even when it was open it usually remained deserted unless an elementary school class was passing through.

As Carolyn entered the front door, a knot of apprehension tightened in her stomach. Answers to questions that had been an all-consuming passion for the better part of two years were now within her grasp, yet somehow she felt no closer to reaching balance in her life. She now wondered whether she had set herself up for a monumental letdown.

A large wooden eagle, his wings open and perched atop a swastika, stood watch over the doorframe of the first exhibit space. Other works of art, equally rough and hand-carved by the former inmates, adorned the small, twelve-by-fifteen room. The walls were papered with photographs documenting the history of the camp. Carolyn scrupulously studied each one of them, wondering which, if any, of the raw-boned young men with desolate eyes could be her father. She was lost in the photographs when a gentle hand touched her shoulder.

“If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to ask. If you're looking for something special, I can probably help you find it.”

Carolyn turned, startled by the strong, clear voice. It had been so quiet in the museum, and she assumed it was a place where people only spoke in hushed tones. The curator was a small and painfully thin woman with a sharp-featured but friendly face.

“Thank you. I'll keep that in mind,” Carolyn replied. She returned her attention to the photographs.

“Is there anything particular you're looking for?”

Carolyn continued to stare at the wall. “Yes, actually. Is there a photograph here of Dr. Klaus Baerwaldt?”

An eyebrow went up. “Yes, I'm sure there are a few.” The woman paused and seemed to fumble for words. “You're not a reporter, are you?” she stammered.

Carolyn hesitated. She turned and looked down into the tiny woman's badly wrinkled face. “No, I'm not. Why would you ask that?” she asked, giving her a curious look.

The woman shrugged. “Well, yesterday, after that mess in North Carolina and all, I thought maybe the press would be snooping around.”

Carolyn looked puzzled. “I'm really not sure what you mean. I've recently found out that Dr. Baerwaldt was a relation of mine. I'm just curious, that's all.”

Her eyes lit up. “Really? I knew Dr. Baerwaldt from the time I was a little girl. He took care of me as a child and brought two of my children into the world. He never mentioned any family.”

Carolyn blinked back tears. “Well, we never really had the chance to meet. Something I'll always regret.”

The old woman's eyes softened. She turned without speaking, went to the lobby of the museum, and locked the front doors. “Come in here, please.”

Carolyn followed her voice.

“Here,” she said, waving her over. “Have you seen a photograph of him before?”

Carolyn shook her head. “My mother didn't have any.”

The woman pointed to a large group photograph. There must have been twenty-five people, lined up in three rows. The elderly were seated in the front. “This isn't the best picture I have, but it's going to be the most recent here at the museum. This was the hospital dedication in 1998. That would be about three years before his death.”

Carolyn studied the photograph closely. She pointed to the man seated the furthest to the left in the front row. “Is that him?” Carolyn asked, knowing in her heart that it would be.

The curator looked up in amazement and smiled. “Yes, it is.”

The old woman darted behind a door marked
OFFICE
. She returned with a manila folder labeled 1944. “Here, this is him as a young man, maybe twenty-four or twenty-five.”

Her mother was right; he had been a handsome man. Even though he wore prison garb he managed a smile, unlike the other inmates in the photograph. Carolyn tenderly rubbed his image on the yellowed paper and started to cry.

The curator disappeared again, this time returning with a box of tissues. “I have lots of pictures here, and some at home. I checked in on Dr. Baerwaldt at least once a week in his last few years. He left all of his books and papers to the museum. A lot of his personal belongings are in crates here in the basement.”

“How did he die?” she asked, blotting her eyes with the Kleenex.

“A heart condition. He used to take nitroglycerin tablets when the pain got bad. He went peacefully though, never had to go to the hospital. He died in his sleep at home in his own bed.” She pulled a few more tissues from the box and handed them to her. “Honey, I don't mean to pry, but how is it that you're related to Dr. Baerwaldt?”

Carolyn continued to stare at the picture. “He was my father.”

The tiny woman's eyes narrowed. She was about to speak when Carolyn cut her off.

“My mother was a nursing student here back in the mid-sixties, it's a long story.”

The woman shrugged. “Just tell me what you want to see, and I'll help you as best I can.”

“Can I see everything?”

She let out a laugh. “How many weeks do you have? If I'm going to be your tour guide we better get acquainted. I'm Rose Clayton.”

Carolyn unleashed a blast of her own nervous laughter. She dried her eyes and smiled at her new friend. “I'm Carolyn Baker.”

Rose darted around a room like a hummingbird flitting from flower to flower. She would vanish without notice and return a few minutes later with more interesting curios or photographs. Late in the afternoon she left for a good thirty minutes and came back with a pail of fried chicken and a bottle of white wine.

“Come here, honey, you've got to see this. Real cloak and dagger stuff. I've been keeping this at the house,” she said, bubbling with exuberance.

“What is it? It looks like a ratty old bag.”

“Well, I guess it is. But sixty years ago this was your father's medical bag. He came into this country with it. I found it in one of the crates in his garage.”

“My mother told me he had been a doctor in the German Navy, but not much else.”

“Not just any doctor. He was a physician on a submarine. U-352 is what he called it. He said they had mechanical trouble and the Coast Guard caught them along the east coast. When they went into the drink, they fished this bag out with him,” said Rose, slapping the weathered satchel.

Carolyn dropped her eyes. “Rose, why did you think I was a reporter when I first came in?”

She frowned. “Haven't you been near a TV in the last twenty-four hours?”

Carolyn shrugged. “Not really. I don't watch much news.”

“There was a reunion of your father's shipmates in North Carolina, near where they were captured. It was sixty years ago this week.” Rose shook her head. “There were only a handful of them still alive after all these years. Nine or ten, I believe. Somebody planted a bomb at their hotel. A lot of people died.”

Carolyn gasped. “That's horrible!”

“Had your father been alive, I know he would have been there. There was a book written about the men on that submarine. A man came here and interviewed Dr. K about it. I have a copy; you can borrow it.” Rose's eyes started to mist. “I've been thinking about him a lot these last two days,” she said, fingering the cracks of the doctor's black leather medical bag. She handed it to Carolyn. “You should have this.”

She held it gingerly. The badly weathered medical case appeared fragile, as if it might disintegrate in her hands. She could make out the shadow of what was once his gold-embossed monogram, and “U-352” was inscribed near the handle.

Rose moved closer and took the bag from her hands. “Watch this,” she said as she reached in and pulled out the false bottom. Underneath there was a thin rectangular box.

Carolyn peeked in. “It looks like a strongbox. Are those little tumblers?”

“Yes. It is a strongbox. Water-tight too, with them being on a submarine and all.”

She reached in to see if the three wheels would still spin, but time and rust had locked them in place. They were forever stuck on the combination 7-2-3. “Was there anything in it?”

“Not that I know of, but look at these.” She flipped open a side panel on the case and withdrew several stainless steel surgical instruments. “These were your father's too.”

Carolyn shrugged. “An old scalpel and a probe of some kind?”

Rose laughed. “Yes, maybe to the untrained eye.”

Carolyn examined them more closely. The instrument handles were fat, at least an inch thick, and dimpled for better grip. “They
are
unusual. I'm a nurse and I've never seen surgical instruments like these before.”

BOOK: The Reunion
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ads

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