Alsace: Episode Two
Stories of War and Wine and the Battles Over Alsace’s Secret Cellars of Priceless of Wine During World War II
A German World War two pilot sprints across a field headed towards a low stone French farm house. It’s evening and the sun has set under the horizon but still casts a blue and purple light, which disperses through the thick blanket of grey overcast sky and illuminates the world with an even cool glow. The pilot is muddied and his uniform is ripped and hanging in multiple places. Small twigs and leaves from the tree that his parachute caught in are wedged in his belt and boots. The tails of his jacket are blackened from the smoke of his burning plane that crashed below him. He’s unhurt but exhausted and bruised from cutting himself out of the tree, immediately in need of rest and soon to be in need of food and shelter—somewhere safe that he can regroup. He slows to a jog as he passes the low stone wall that makes the tiny courtyard in front of the one story home he spotted from the forest.
The building seems recently abandoned, not that it’s in any disrepair but rather that it emanates a sense of hollowness. The young German comes to a shaky stop outside the door and after drawing three heavy breaths with his hands on his knees he draws his pistol and places a hand on the door knob of the house. He does a quick scan behind him, worried that someone saw him dash across the open field from the tree line. The land is quiet and empty for miles around, besides the chirping of a local family of small birds. Satisfied he’s traveled undetected so far and eager to get inside, he raised his weapon and pushes the door open with his other hand, moving into the house quickly but cautiously.
The door opens onto a staircase leading upstairs. There's a living room to the left and two small steps leading down to a kitchen on the right. He moves first to the left, passing through the living room, circling to the right through a small storage room in the back with a back door, locking it on his way by before passing through the kitchen and back to the bottom of the stairs to the second floor at the front door. He closes the front door quickly and locks both the knob and the dead bolt. The house is empty. He thinks about checking the upstairs but an untouched layer of dust on the steps confirms his suspicions that the house had been left some weeks ago and that no one had traveled up or down the stairs since. Releasing the breath he had been holding since his plane had shuddered violently under him as each bullet ripped through his chassis and rudder, sending him in a downwards spiral of tar black smoke and panic, he let out a few half sobs of relief and fear and sank to the ground with his back against the door. He rests his head back and grabs the canteen from his belt and lifts it to his mouth but only a light trickle or warm water falls from the opening. He shakily gets up and makes for the kitchen. He beelines for the sink and tries first the cold and then the hot tap when the first one doesn’t respond. The latter creates a grumbling in the pipes that complains from latency but promises water soon. He leans back against the counter and breathes as he waits for the tap to flow. His eyes scan the room again this time out of curiosity instead of threat assessment. He spots a bowl of vegetables on a high shelf across the room and heads for them. They’re wonderfully intact and covered in only a light dust. Carrots and turnips and other roots that stayed fresh. The water begins to run from the tap but distracted on his new hunt for food and the fresh gnawing in his stomach he lets it run for a moment. Spotting a cold box in the corner he rushes to it and pulls it open. Miraculously, inside he finds two quarter wheels of hard cheese, two loaves of moldy bread and a few bruised pears and apples. Placing his precious treasure on the table he returns to the sink which is now flowing wonderfully clear cold water. He sticks his face directly in the stream alternately drinking and letting its coolness wash over his face. It’s because of the rushing water in his ears that he does not at first hear the rumble of the approaching jeep.
His eyes snap open under the water and he dives to the dirty tiles floor of the kitchen. On his hands and knees he reaches up to turn off the water, then draws his pistol and grips it with both hands as he tries to control his heavy breathing and pounding heart. The jeep gets ever closer and he’s sure that they’re going to stop to inspect the house. He debates his options of either retreating into the house further, making a run out the back door through the storage room, or climbing the stairs to the second floor and seeing what possibilities live above, and it’s at that moment that he sees the door to the basement. He hadn’t noticed the door earlier because its outside had shelving mounted on it, so it seamlessly blended into the shelving on wall next to it, totally camouflaged. In his new position closer to the ground however, he could see a clear differentiation between the fresh paint bright paint on the shelving on the door the crack where the door was slightly opened next to the faded paint of the shelves next to it. Seeing it as the only and possibly perfect escape from the approaching jeep and whatever men it carried, the he shoots forward on his hands and knees and racing towards the door, keeping low out of the sight lines of the road from the kitchen windows. Impulsively he swipes at the food and his canteen on the table with his arm, knocking most of it to the ground and managing to grab enough to last him at least the night. He shoves the loaf of bread in his mouth, and scoops an armful of produce with his left arm, gags silently as he tastes the mold from and bread on his tongue and clutches the pistol in his right as he crawls as fast as he can for the innocuous basement door. He pushes it open with the barrel of his gun and turns himself around and crawls backwards through the door, he checks the room one last time to make sure he’s leaving no obviously incriminating evidence of him being there, and backs himself into the basement.
The stairs are narrow and steep, taking a hard turn to the right immediately into the doorway, but he carefully eases himself down backwards and soon his body is clear of the door frame and he gently but firmly closes the door, assuring it’s flush with the wall around it and remains snuggly in place. He backs himself down the remainder of the stairs into the basement taking time to make sure none of the stairs treacherously squeak under him. Darkness envelops the stairway as the door shuts out the setting sun. The basement is blindingly dark but as his eyes adjust, a candle light glow from within gives him just enough light to get safely to the stone floor at the bottom of the steps. He finally straightens up from his crouch when there’s a deafening pop from behind him. The German spins, drops the fruit and cheese, and fires a shot before he can even drop the bread from his mouth. The bullet hits a bottle of champagne which explodes in a shower of glass, bubbles and foam, all of which fly full force into the face of of the French soldier who had just opened the bottle.
The Frenchman now stands with a dumbfounded look of shock on the face of a man who was just unexpectedly shot at, and now holds the broken neck of the bottle which caught the bullet intended to break him. Everything is deathly still for a moment, until the cork that made the initial pop finally hits the ground with a muted thud. Both their eyes dart to the cork as it bounces once and begins a haphazard roll along the uneven stone floor. They follow its journey until it ends with a soft touch against another champagne cork, this one still firmly snug in an unopened dust covered magnum of golden champagne. The German pilot's eyes work their way up from where the two corks kissed and is met with a staggering sight.
Walls and walls, rows and rows of dark dust cover bottles neatly resting in sturdy wooden shelves dark and heavy and ancient, filled with memories a hundred years older than either of the two men looking at them. Miles of shelves stand against miles of stone walls cold and damp with the moisture of the deep earth. Corridors run to the left and right for a few hundred feet before hitting a T and themselves continuing out of sight to the left and right. Large liter bottles of champagne with corks cinched and bulging against string muselet are interspersed among bottles of red wine so dark they look like cylinders of pure darkness, curved obsidian mirrors reflecting the room back unto it self countless times over. Every 15 feet or so a barrel stands upright with three or four beeswax candles burning brightly on top of it. Years of built-up wax has created a mountain of white and yellow on top of each. The fresh candles burn bright and add to the impossibly long icicles of wax that hang down the dark wooden sides of the barrels. The pilot’s gun has drifted toward the floor as he took in the expense of the cellar that stretch seemingly infinitely before him, his brain mesmerized by the small flickering candle flames dancing one million times over in the reflection of each bottle, creating an ocean of undulating fireflies in the darkness, but his gaze and his hand snap back up as the French army man reaches to remove a large piece of broken bottle from his shoulder.
The German’s hand is gripped firmly on the handle of his gun as he steadily levels a shot at the Frenchman’s chest, but his blood stream is flooded with adrenaline as he realizes the long milliseconds he had been staring at the cellar instead of focused on the French soldier. The army man's eyes were locked on the Germans, but with a sense of ease, he didn't stop his movement to remove the glass, and despite the gun pointed at him he even took the time to take his hat from his belt and use it to swipe away anymore glass fragments on his front. A delicate twinkle of broken champagne bottle hitting the cobblestone floor deafened the tense pair. They stood still for a moment after the noise had abated, and then the Frenchman’s eyes moved to examine the barrel of the Luger, then the Germans ripped uniform, and then down to the bread dropped on the floor. It was at that moment the Frenchman’s his gaze paused and the hint of an expression came over his face. He continues to notice the fruit and then the cheese that had rolled a few feet away from the German’s feet. His hand started to reach out towards the wall, and sweat immediately covered the German’s palms as his finger tightened on the trigger.
The pilot’s eyes darted to take in what was around the army man, what weapon he might be trying to reach for, or what move he was trying to make. But the German blinked and paused when he spotted the Frenchman’s rifle. It was leaning against the opposite wall that the soldier was reaching towards. In the pause that it took the German to process this, the Frenchman’s hand had gripped the neck of a wine bottle resting in its shelf which he pulled out from the wall. He slid it only halfway out and not wanting to move too quickly or too radically that might make the pilot (and more importantly the pilot’s finger) jumpy, he peeked side long at the label. After a quick consideration he looks back at the German and took a single finger to slowly push the bottle back into place. He then traced his finger down a shelf below to the bottle directly beneath the first. Once again pulling it halfway, he sees the label and the idea of a smile shows itself on his face without his expression changing at all. Like a rusted pirate’s sword drawn from a crusty shipwrecked sheath, the bottle is noisy slid from its decade-long home tucked into the old wooden shelf. The Frenchman brings the bottle up to eye level and uses his other hand to brush the dust from the label. He thumbs the top of the cork to brush the dirt off and gives it a quick glance before raising the bottle up to catch some of the candle light and inspect the liquid through the glass. The Germans gun dips slightly once again as an unearthly beautiful ruby red glow fills the cellar, like sunlight in the summer hits a prism and casts rainbows around a room. Just so the cold stone basement is filled with unctuous tones of crimson, raspberry, and dark blood red and that's when they both hear the front door to the house open above them. Footsteps spread out and fill the house on the first floor, and in the basement two soldiers on the opposite sides of a violent war between countries, peoples, religions, and ideals stare deep into each other's eyes. Neither one dares move.
Then simultaneously, the German and sprints for the door of the cellar bounding up the stairs in twos and threes and turns back as the Frenchman grabs his rifle and heaves it from his chest up the stairs to the pilot who catches it silently with both hands, absorbing the momentum and sound into his body. He delicately lays the rifle across the door jamming stock into a perfect crack in the stone wall and digging its bayonet deep into the wood of a wine rack opposite, barring the door from being opened. Both soldiers remain completely still, the German with his hands still resting on the gun barricade and the Frenchman frozen with his arms outstretched from when he threw the rifle. They listen to the footfalls of four or five soldiers moving about the house . There are a few unintelligible words exchanged above, whether in French or German neither one could tell, before the footsteps began to move back towards the front door.
After using water from his canteen to clean two glasses the German found on a dusty shelf in the corner, the Frenchman tips a newly opened bottle into them, pouring two modest glasses as the German used his brutally long hunting knife to carefully slice a bruised pear. Finally finished, the pilot lays the cut pear next to the cheese on their makeshift table fashioned out of a plank of wood laid across their French and German army helmets and the army man hands him his glass. The two have flanked themselves with candle laden barrels on either side, creating a golden sphere of light and warmth in the dim cellar. Seven or eight bottles stand next to the low the low table filled with cheese, fruit and bread like ladies in waiting, the candlelight dancing off the dark red curves of their bottles as they wait for their corks to be popped. The two boys sit next to each other kneed to knee leaning back against the cold stone wall. They raise their glasses to their lips sporting grins that would rival a toddler on Christmas morning, but just as they both go to sip they pause and raised their glasses to the other, saying at just the same time:
Chuckling and raising their glasses again as they both switch languages to say again in the other's tongue:
They can barely contain their giggles long enough to sip the wine.