The crucial events in this story take place in Wichita, Kansas around 1950. Place and street names are generally accurate with some small amount of poetic license.
To set the mood, the big songs that year were:
Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, by Gene Autry
White Christmas, by Bing Crosby
Music! Music! Music! by Teresa Brewer
The Third Man Theme, by Guy Lombardo
Mona Lisa, by Nat King Cole
All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, by Spike Jones
Harbor Lights, by Sammy Kaye & His Orchestra
THE CORRAL THEATER 1949
I woke up that cold winter afternoon in front of the Corral. Struggling with some small core of pride, I always said my name to myself as soon as I awoke after a drinking bout. Some days it was easy. Other days it could be a struggle, like today. It took a while—too long—but I finally came up with a name, Crane, forming the sounds slowly with my lips: "Crane Hanson."
John, the guy that managed the theater was a friend of mine from our days on the cross-country and track teams at North High School. He was about the only friend I had left and he let me sleep in the theater during the winter, after it opened at 2:00 pm.
Now that I was awake, eyes bleary and bloodshot, I struggled with what had awakened me. Maybe the noise of the bottle of rye lying broken on the sidewalk, the small amount left striving for the gutter and an eventual home in the Gulf of Mexico. No, that wouldn't have done it. This happened all too frequently and it never woke me before.
The bells ringing in my ears? Naw, that was constant anymore and this was more of a hoarse clang, clang, once in a while alternated with a bright ding-a-ling. Squinting, I looked up at a vision. There was a young woman, maybe in her mid-twenties, with a sweet angelic face, pale, curly blond hair imprisoned in an old fashioned bonnet. She looked slim in the dark blue uniform and heavy dark blue overcoat as she once again shook that large bell with its distinctive clang, clang.
She was standing behind a large kettle, next to a sign saying "Give Christmas to the Needy", ringing one, then the other bell, smiling at passersby with cheery holiday greetings as they went about their Christmas shopping. I noticed the cold was making her cheeks a bright pink over her too pale face, her lips losing color in the cold.
I started trying to stand up, leaning against the wall, feeling inside my coat pocket for my backup pint of rye, when I saw John opening the theater.
The girl saw me struggling and asked, "Mister! Are you all right?"
I turned back to look at her, shaking my head at her youthful innocence, my memories bringing a sudden wash of tears to my eyes. With a quick shake of my head, I turned back and entered the movie house. Watching a cowboy movie (that was all they showed, hence the name Corral) as I finished my last pint, I fell into a deep but restless sleep.
The images always came first:
The girl, maybe six, lying in the dirt by the barbed wire gate, body emaciated past gauntness, eyes wide open ... staring at some unknown horror, staring at—nothing anymore.
Inside the gate a long row of bodies stacked insanely neat, like cords of logs eight to ten feet high, abandoned in place as they awaited burial.
A huge ditch at least 40 feet long, ten to twelve feet deep, filled with cadavers covered with lime to hasten decomposition. A bulldozer parked nearby ready to cover the pit of inhumanity.
I was sick before the jeep stopped, the pictures of a terrible horror burning their way into my psyche, a part of me turning black, in denial that humans could do this to each other.
The Lieutenant I was with later was said to be the first American officer to enter a concentration camp. We were an advance unit of the "Super Six" the Sixth Armored Division. We entered the camp at Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, on April 11, 1945. The Lieutenant laughed as we passed through the town of Ohrdruf:
"Hanson, do you know that Bach went to school here and received his early musical training?"
He kept chuckling as we drove on to the camp, the location pointed out by an escapee. He stopped smiling when we saw the child.
Because I was married with two kids, I was far down the draft list—but on it! I entered the army about ten months ago and after intense but very short training was sent to Europe. I had been a cop for three years in Wichita, mostly walking a beat in the downtown area.
The next few weeks were a blur, partially because of events. Ike came to visit the camp at Ohrdruf with Omar Bradley and George Patton. Patton threw up at once and we didn't see much of him. We were trying to take care of the prisoners but there were so many so deathly ill and we weren't prepared for this. Sure there had been some rumors but the reality was shattering. No one could possibly have imagined this horrible reality.
We heard later that the commandant at Ohrdruf had orders to starve everyone to try to hide the evidence. We did all we could but ... we just lost so many. It was a time of darkness for all of us.
We moved on to Buchenwald. It was incomprehensible. Again, there was the stack of bodies. They all seemed to be males; all naked, all face up. The bottom row stacked one way and the next crosswise. This continued to the top, alternating each layer. The stack was close to six feet high, maybe eighty feet long, heading up a slight rise in the ground. There were a number of such stacks. I was originally part of a detail to try to do a rough count but I just couldn't do it. I was sick and couldn't eat for two days.
What I remember most were the eyes. Dead eyes. Living eyes looking dead. Eyes appearing huge because of the emaciation of their bodies. It was strange to watch the other soldiers deal with this impossible-to-grasp reality. Some would turn hard; you could see their faces, their expressions, even their personalities change.
Many would slip into denial. It was like going to Joyland as a kid; as soon as we got to the amusement park, our real lives were left behind. Others, too many of us, couldn't deal with it at all. Some requested transfers to other units. Some drank. I was one of the drinkers.
I had always liked a drink now and then; name a cop or soldier that didn't. But now I had to have a drink to eat breakfast. I had to drink to go to sleep. I had to drink to stay asleep. I was haunted. I lost weight; I walked around in a daze. We were cut some slack; it was tough for everyone. Finally it came to a head. I was found in a drunken stupor while on guard duty.
This couldn't be shoved under the rug; I was headed for a dishonorable. The battalion commander stepped in and stood up for me. Two months earlier we had just set up a new battalion HQ. The Lieutenant and I came in for maps and coffee. I saw movement in the bushes. A man stood up holding what looked like a shotgun and pointed it at the colonel. I grabbed my carbine and shot from the hip. It was only about twenty feet and I hit him in the neck.
We walked over and looked at this kid, maybe fourteen at best. At that time it was hard on me, later it just became an unpleasant memory—one among many. I was put in for an award but was gone before it came through. The colonel got me out with a honorable medical discharge; that way I could go back to the police force. I was back in Wichita within a week.
I started again at the force, this time in a patrol car out in the College Hill area. I did better for a year or so. For a few months I stopped drinking completely. I was going out to the VA Hospital on East Kellogg and talking to a guy, a psychologist I guess. Back then they didn't understand Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and this guy didn't help much. My partner and I talked about our experiences; it was impossible to talk to our wives about some of the things we had experienced. Sometimes the sharing of our stories helped, other times it depressed the hell out of us.
One night while we were working the night shift we got a call to go to a house near 13th Street and the canal. A man working the graveyard shift at Beech went home early with an upset stomach. His wife was in their bed with another man. He grabbed his gun, killed both of them, shot his three kids and blew his own head off. We got there at the same time the ambulance did. After making sure everything was clear, we went in, helping the ambulance check the kids first.
A little girl, hair in pigtails, cute and the same age as my daughter was still alive. They took her out of there to Wesley Hospital, not too far away. Later we found out she made it but would be permanently paralyzed. The carnage was shocking to both my partner and I. We were veteran police officers and had both been overseas. He had gone through the chain of islands towards Japan as a marine.
We stopped off for a few drinks after the shift. It was really hard to go home to a loving family and pretend nothing bad had happened. What do you say, "Gosh, honey, you should have seen the baby's brains dripping down the wall onto the dirty carpet." So I went home and looked at the wall for a couple of hours, drinking a few beers and watching the "Baby Brain" slideshow on my wall in living color!
Judy tried to work with me. She would talk and I would listen. She asked me to open up and I'd tell her about the new patrol cars we were getting; tell her about how great the suspension was supposed to be.
.... There is more of this story ...