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The Naked Truth
Jumping down from the train, we line up outside the military induction center. The train station, done in polished oak, cut stone and glass, has historically received the wealthy and powerful of Europe to the mineral bath resort of Bad Ischl, Austria. The station has been converted to receive recruits headed for military boot camp, located on the side of the tracks opposite the station. This morning, my schoolmates and I are part of two hundred and fifty excited and apprehensive 14-year-old boys from three Austrian middle schools. Anxious and heroic, we are about to become soldiers in the war against the enemies of the fatherland. Nervous laughter takes our minds off the deep snow around our boots and the freezing cold of the morning.
A sergeant, stiff and creased, appears and shouts orders bullying us into four ragged rows. We stand in place tall and proud, feet together, skinny chests forward, our backs straight as we were taught last year in the Hitler Youth camps. The sergeant steps back inside the dull green-colored building and we stand without instructions for an hour. The windows of the one-story building with a snow-covered roof are blocked off with paper so we can’t see what is going on inside. The cold wind dulls our enthusiasm for this adventure a bit. Smiling and grinning at our friends, we stomp our feet to help circulation and rock side to side sometimes bumping into each other. A boy two down the row to my right is hit in the back of the head with a snowball, and a shoving match breaks out knocking two of the rows out of order. A kid somewhere down to my left has the nervous giggles and eventually falls to his knees. Teenage excitement. As for me, I need to pee.
The door to the large barracks-like structure opens with a bang against the outer wall and a different sergeant, this one short with glasses and the stepped-on face of a bulldog, struts out on the front deck and paces back and forth. His worn black leather jacket is creased like his face, his dark olive-colored helmet the shade of his pressed trousers.
“Stillgestanden!” (Attention) clips the sergeant. Dead quiet happens. My nerves are growing tighter. I confirm my alignment out of the corner of my eye.
Turning slowly, the bulldog stares at us in disgust, clicking the heels of his long black boots. Squinting, as if fixing his gaze on me alone, he stands and pounds his swagger stick over and over into the palm of a leather glove.
“You will now undress!” he shouts. “You will remove everything, fold your clothes and set them on top of your boots. We will dispose of these items in the village. Those who survive screening will be issued uniforms of the Wehrmacht, the greatest army in the world.”
Already trembling in my clothes, I turn and look down the row to make sure I’d heard the command correctly. There is a moment of mutual hesitation followed by a flurry of activity as we all stand in place and undress. Naked and shivering in the freezing winter wind, the snow oozes between my toes. I am surprised at this initial lack of civility. Finding the situation so bizarre at first as to be amusing, some smile broadly and stretch their arms toward the sky then fold them tightly against their chests. Most of us hold our arms straight down and tight to the body, clasping our hands in front of our privates. Standing between Hans and Karl, two friends from my 8th grade class at school, I sneak a nervous smile as the sergeant goes back inside the building, letting the door slam shut.