The 'Bird and Baby'
The 'Bird and Baby'
It was the spring of 1945, and Hitler was about to plant his boots on English soil. The United States had refused to come into the war, in spite of the unprovoked attack on military personnel and civilians alike at Pearl Harbor. The testing of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos had gone horribly wrong, wiping out the local population and affecting millions of people in the subsequent fallout. Hitler had made plans to invade Russia early in the war, but had changed his mind and strengthened his alliance with Stalin. With the Soviet Union, Japan, and Italy as strong Axis supporters, Germany marched on across Europe: east, west, and north. The morale of the Royal Air Force was broken, its once cocky young pilots dead, imprisoned, wounded, or traumatized, and the Luftwaffe ruled the skies. The English Channel, swept clean of English mines and sealed off by Germans at either end of the Strait of Dover, was open and waiting for the German navy’s easy crossing, further protected by heavy artillery along the coast of occupied France. The Royal Navy, distracted by meaningless skirmishes in the North Sea and the Mediterranean, was scattered and destroyed piecemeal. London was on her knees, bombed into submission, beaten and dying. Churchill, defeated and desolate, committed suicide, and the nation collapsed into impotent mourning.
Oxford had survived the Blitz; the rumor was growing that Hitler coveted it for his British headquarters, and many residents were bracing themselves to accept the possibility that he would set up his center of operations in the ancient university city after the inevitable end of the war. There, in the golden bubble of Oxford, the towers and spires dreamed on, and children were still sent there for safety from the relentless bombing of London and the south coast. But the corridors of the great colleges were nearly empty of echoing footfalls: most of the faculty and nearly all of the students had been massacred in the killing fields of France. As the war dragged on and the Allies lost one battle after another, as Germany was victorious at Monte Cassino, at the Battle of the Bulge, as D-Day failed and the Nazis overran Normandy, a desperate Britain had begun calling up older and older men, younger and younger boys, and finally women.
Oxford fought to keep her irreplaceable Dons, those human receptacles of wisdom and culture. If England’s greatest minds were blown apart on the battlefield, who would rebuild civilization when the warmongers were done destroying? If England won the war but lost her wisest men, how would victory be any different than defeat? And now that defeat was inevitable, the men of letters were more valuable than ever before: they were the last hope of the human spirit, the tiny enclave of all that was good in human history, and they were the only ones who could rebuild all that had been lost. Who would educate that generation of lost, fatherless children, refugees in this quiet golden city? Who would teach them to keep the old ways, when the tyrant had them under his sway? So argued the University’s Chancellor, more and more feebly, as his faculty were killed off one by one, and he heard the tramping boots of England’s enemies drawing near.
Huddled in the back room of a smoke-darkened pub, four men shared one cigarette among them, passing it from hand to hand. The smoky haze hovered over their heads and wrapped around their dark coats, hiding them from a hostile world. The Chancellor’s special authority hovered over them, too, keeping them safe in the ivory tower while their friends, brothers, sons, colleagues, and students fought on the south coast and in the skies above England. One was unfit, anyway, with a nervous disorder that made his hands shake so badly he could not shave himself, but had to go to a barber every morning. The others were beyond the usual age of fighting men: one, a hearty, loud, beefy man of forty-six; the other two tall, slender, ages forty-six and fifty-three, the younger with the delicate build of a dancer—but men a decade older than they were dying in the air and on the beaches and in the streets of London even now.
Were they cowed and quiet, this quartet of veterans from the first war, these men held back in their books while the world fell apart around them? Did they creep and crawl with embarrassment that they were not fighting again while their loved ones were? Did they shudder and shake with fear of the coming invasion?
(to be continued)