The Air Bridge

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Excerpt from the novel While I Was Sleeping

One evening in early 1945, with the sky turning clear and the snow melted, Private First Class Joseph Hutzinger heard a noise in the woods. Waiting alone by his field kitchen, he lifted his nose to the wind and sniffed. For a moment he felt as if something huge, old and cold were coming his way, trundling past him through the branches. He sighed, dropping the wooden spoon into the pot, and even before the American soldier had emerged from the underbrush, Hutzinger had both his hands raised. The muzzle of a machine gun was pointed at him. And he fell passionately, if unrequitedly, in love: standing in front of him, at least three heads taller, was a broad-shouldered black GI, unsmiling, but with indulgent amusement in his face, the kind big, strong men generally show toward puny little cooks.
Though he held his hands completely motionless in the forest-cool evening air, Hutzinger’s skinny legs were doing a nervous little dance. He was so excited. Standing before him was the future: America, the land of opportunity! Even before the war the Viennese native had dreamed about emigrating – and about the Austrian specialty restaurant he was going to open in his new homeland. Now his dream seemed a whole lot closer, provided, well, provided the black man’s finger didn’t put a premature if unsurprising end to his life story at the last moment. A little bird watching the scene from a treetop high above bobbed on a thin branch, undecided whether to fly away or not.
“I love Joe Louis!” Hutzinger said to placate his rescuer, his feet tap-dancing all the while.
His big black friend brought him to a POW collecting point, and the next day he was taken to the shack of the camp commander, who asked a lot of questions Hutzinger didn’t understand the drift of. He sat on a stool in front of the commander. In the Wehrmacht he’d learned that you answered superiors’ questions with “Jawohl” on principle, even – and especially – if you didn’t understand them.
“We know perfectly well who you are!”
Hutzinger hung his head. “Jawohl.”
The commander’s fist crashed down on the table.
“And we know when somebody’s joking!” he yelled.
Hutzinger looked around imploringly at his black friend, who stood behind him without batting an eye. Then something funny happened: the commander planted himself in front of Hutzinger, drew an arc in the air with his finger and hummed as if imitating the flight of a fly or a bee.
What was that supposed to mean? It would just be too ridiculous to respond to the flight of a fly with “Jawohl!” Hutzinger thought. So he ventured, “We too,” turned around again for a moment and smiled shyly.
“V2!” The commander nodded. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
That was how Joseph Hutzinger got mistaken for a German missile expert. He was honest through and through, but what with the outstanding food and accommodations captured missile experts got, he did nothing to clear up the misunderstanding. On the contrary. At every opportunity he dropped ambiguous remarks designed to prolong his stay in the VIP camp. Shown blueprints, he let his big nose circle over them a few seconds before declaring:
“The secret of every” – he was about to say “menu”, but caught himself in time – “good plan is its simplicity.”
One day he was presented with a bunch of documents and given the choice of putting his knowledge at the disposal of the United States Army or getting handed over to the French. Once again the overjoyed Hutzinger could hardly keep his feet still. He was going to be an American! He was going to jive in New York swing bars in a spiffy uniform!
In 1946 Hutzinger found himself at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Around White Sands there was mainly white sand, with a blue sky above it and lots and lots of sun. The next bar was twenty miles away. Though he could have managed to fool his hosts, his compatriots in the missile lab quickly figured out that he wasn’t their kind, and after a confession to the base commander, Major Simmons – sweeping, yet surprisingly free of consequences – Hutzinger went to work as a cook in the canteen.
More than three years passed, and he got sicker and sicker of the daily grind at the secret research lab. The roar of rocket boosters roused him every morning in the stuffy barracks, where an almost equally loud pre-war fan had lulled him to sleep toward two in the morning. Hutzinger heaved himself out of bed with a groan and headed for the kitchen. If it had been a normal officers’ canteen, at least, he might have lasted longer in White Sands. But these scientists were total Philistines. They didn’t appreciate his coffee in the mornings (he soon gave up serving whipped cream with it), or his liver dumpling soup at lunch, or his Wiener Schnitzel at dinner. They ate like harried office drones; their left hands on their laps, their right elbows propped on the table, they shoveled in food they’d cut into tiny pieces with their knives. With full mouths and spattered lab coats, they talked about the same things over and over again: missiles, missiles, missiles.
One of the projects they were tinkering on in White Sands at the time was a forerunner of the cruise missile code-named “Silent Loon.” It was a more sophisticated version of the German “Vergeltungswaffe 1,” a remote-controlled aerial device meant to be released from a transporter, dipping almost silently below enemy radar to hit its target without the slightest warning.
Mostly what the scientists discussed was the manned vs. unmanned issue. The big catch to the whole thing was the primitive remote-control technology, especially after a stray “Silent Loon” plummeted from the sky near Roswell, and Major Simmons (one of the few people who appreciated Hutzinger’s Wiener Schnitzel anyway) had to send a special unit disguised as a country band to salvage the wreckage of the Loon and smuggle it back to White Sands.
So there was talk of manning the Loon after all. Part of the steering unit could be removed to make room for a pilot on an ejector seat, with a parachute he’d have to release at the last moment. Of course it was extremely risky. Rumors circulated that the Soviets had long since been working on a similar version of the weapon – but without the parachute and the ejector seats. Supposedly there were even secret camps where especially short KGB agents were being trained. It was then that the legend of the Communist “Suicide Dwarves” was born.
Another year passed, and Hutzinger chafed more and more at the bad manners and ridiculous discussions of his “guests.” His decision to quit the service and seek his own fortune came after three pivotal incidents.
The first was the command – initially phrased as a request – to test-sit a prototype of the manned version of the “Silent Loon.” He demurred, only to have the major inform him that little Hutzinger, like everyone else in the camp, was under his command, and could perfectly well be ordered to climb into the machine. Hutzinger squeezed reluctantly into the German-American kamikaze machine, where, with his white chef’s hat on his head, he spent half an hour roasting in the New Mexico sun. “The vulture has landed,” the missile experts joked at the sight of Hutzinger’s red nose, protruding from under his hat and turning redder and redder.
The second incident was my grandfather’s arrival. “To this day,” Hutzinger later wrote, “I get the shivers when I see a monkey on television.” My grandfather was not a missile expert. He was a doctor who specialized in aerospace medicine, and he was supposed to determine the chances of survival for pilots of the “Silent Loon.” He experimented with his rhesus monkeys in a separate shed. At night you could hear their squeals, their shrieks, their desperate cries.
The third incident was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Soldiers and scientists ransacked Hutzinger’s refrigerator, and he caught them that evening barbecuing the extra-thin veal cutlets over a campfire on little skewers. Barbecue – the very word had a primitive ring to his ears, evoking the darkest Middle Ages, worse yet, prehistory, occult rites and Neanderthals. O Great Barbecue, give us this day our daily beef and let it rain spare ribs! Hutzinger hurled his chef’s hat into the desert sand and handed in his resignation the next morning.
The drive out west, past hamburger restaurants, drive-ins, burrito dives and hot-dog stands, put an end to his hopes of actually getting rich with an Austrian speciality restaurant anywhere in the USA. “I realized,” Ismael Khan read years later in Hutzinger’s famous book, “that there was only one way for me to make big bucks in this big country: with one simple idea. An idea whose simplicity and usefulness would be up there with the invention of the light bulb.”
Hutzinger spent six days waiting for this simple idea on Santa Monica Beach. Asked by deputy sheriffs what he was doing there, he answered: “I’m waiting” – a reply that met with headshaking at best. On the morning of the seventh day he woke up from a hideous dream – midget scientists waving veal cutlets on skewers were dancing wildly around a bonfire over which he was being barbecued, stuffed into a golden “Silent Loon.” He took a deep breath of sea air, trying to dispel the memory of the dream, and let his gaze wander over the Pacific Ocean. “And then came the idea that would change my life.”
A week later he took his last twenty dollars and bought an abandoned hot-dog stand on the beach. The very next day he was offering his idea for sale: “Schnitzel on a Stick,” a snack on the Popsicle principle. Hutzinger coated it in breading (later patented), fried it straight away in hot oil and served it to his customers on a paper plate. On the side he offered French fries and “Heuriger Lemonade,” a kind of non-alcoholic white wine spritzer. Both sold like hotcakes. After just a year he was able to open four stands on Santa Monica Bay and five more in the Long Beach area.
“I don’t need to tell you that ‘Schnitzel on a Stick’ sales are booming on the East Coast, and in Florida too. Today I’m a Schnitzel King and millionaire – and you can be one too, with a simple, useful idea!”
The Schnitzel on a Stick made him rich, but it was another idea that made him famous. One day he felt the need to share his good fortune with the rest of the world. He decided to write down his experiences, the story of his success. And since all he had ever read was cookbooks, he wrote a how-to book instead of an autobiography. The little book made it out of the snack stand and onto the bestseller list – and it stayed there. It was the first book Ismael Khan would read in English, and it’s one of the few books Paul Mahlow ever read at all, if only because there was nothing else to read on the red-eye from Hong Kong to Los Angeles.

Mahlow was irked. He was irked because even though he was flying business class he didn’t get a fresh newspaper – supposedly the delivery hadn’t come. He was irked to see Hutzinger’s bestseller lurking between the safety instructions in the seatback pocket in front of him; he took it as a sure sign that they didn’t take the cleaning very seriously here. And that on an intercontinental flight, he thought.
After he’d finished the manuscript, Hutzinger had read through it again, looked at the clock and given it the title Rich and Happy in Six Days. Mahlow saw the title even before taking the book out of the pocket and immediately despised the author and the unknown previous owner alike: they thought it was that easy. Americans. The bright orange dust jacket also turned him off, but after a good hour in the air and several futile attempts to sleep (Mahlow’s neighbor talked in his sleep, snored, coughed, talked in his sleep again) he took out the book and started leafing through it.
Not only was it structured like a cookbook, it had all the same literary qualities. Yet numerous critics had praised it as one of the “most honest and genuine testimonials” ever penned by a businessman. The book began with a simple question:
Are you happy?
Stupid question, thought Mahlow, but the stupid question had already lodged itself in his mind. He tried to evade the answer, playing for time. First he tried to remember the last time he had been happy, and then whether he had ever felt happy, in the hopes that if he had been happy once, he could be happy again at any time.
Mahlow remembered the day he found the boy. Actually, he wanted to remember the days before he found the boy, because they were the only ones that really seemed care-free, and then he wanted to remember the days that followed with my sister, because they were the only ones that had really made him feel alive. But none of it did any good. The image of the boy, lying motionless on a pile of old magazines, kept cropping up again.
They were flying over the Pacific Ocean.
“No,” Mahlow’s neighbor said in his sleep, “no.”