Running Free


Maury Barlow Pepin
Frankfurt High School
Frankfurt, Germany

Our breath mists the cold night air of Frankfurt and approaching cars light our faces -- faces of four guys walking, running down the wide street: dodging dazzling cold night air, sliced and patterned by pole-hung white and amber lights. Tony, Neil, Steve, and I against the undefined force of society.

Our four phantom figures are in black except for Tony's white sneakers -- even they are cool. Rips and smears disfigure the canvas. We are truly different from the stooping, wool-overcoated Germans who shuffle or stride imperiously down the middle of the sidewalk and life. Disdaining the center, we walk on the edges, the dangerous borders.

Unity freezes the group together and the wildest thing isn't out if we can all take it. "When you re a Jet, you re a Jet all the way. in-between. Ideas hit us frequently like bolts of lightning, and we have to work them out of our soul. Some ideas build for weeks and then come out as action, like our escape to the old Opera House.

The Opera House is a huge Greek-Gothic structure that was bombed out during the War. It's one of Frankfurt's landmarks, and they're going to rebuild it completely some day. From the outside the building is whole, because none of the outer wall was shattered, but the upper windows are black around the edges from fire. The place is a challenge.

We are taking a crooked route, walking and enjoying the build of excitement. We don't expect to get there too early, because there are some workmen who hang around after hours; they are potential pigeons. Neil rings the air with a triumphant shout, and our feet frictionate in a wild aimless run that lasts a full block. In choking and free laughter I hold myself on the ground with the others as we stop at a small Trinkhalle to buy something.

Wieviel kostet das? How much? asks Neil (unofficial leader), pointing to a little bottle of cordial.

Zwei-fünfzig, answers the tall, bored man behind the counter.

Viermal. You guys all want one, don't you?

Yeah. Vier bitte.

For two-fifty? says Steve, behind me. We can get the same damn stuff for two-twenty by the Exchange.

The man glares at us and clips out in perfect English: Then why don't you go where you get them for that much?

Neil pays after collecting the money. As we leave, embarrassed, the Trinkhalle owner talks animatedly to a sympathetic Schnapps-drinker about the "rich Americans."

Damn screwed-up Kraut, mutters Steve.

The people we meet walking are few, and most go stiffly forward, eyes on the ground. Some of our gayness is blown away on the chill wind. The collars of our jackets are turned up against it. Cars blur by at terrific speeds, whipping up a mist of sickening exhaust that makes me spit to clear my senses. The Opera House appears ahead, surrounded by tall trees in its own square. A wire fence gleams nakedly in the light of the lamps overhead. Tony throws his empty bottle -- it bounds hollowly along the cobblestone where it hits and stops: unbroken. God, look how high that bitch is! I didn't know it was that big.

An overloaded streetcar squeals by on a turn, lit up. The metal electricity-cage on top throws blue sparks into the late dusk. How do we get in?

Easy, says Neil. The fence is pulled down halfway at the back-- we can go through and come around to the front.

Yeah. It's only open because somebody kicked a hole through the boards they put up.

Hey! Cops!

We turn to gaze at the Volkswagen that drives slowly by and turns to round the far side of the gloomy structure.

What if they stick around? asks Steve. I am scared, too. My face shows it.

They can't catch us -- come on!

Neil leads the way and I, then Tony and Steve, follow. As we reach the corner on our way to the back, there is no sign of the cop's car.

Let's go, man! Pull that fence down all the way, so I can get over and the . Dammit! Those barbs are sharp!

Neil sticks his punctured finger in his mouth. I am filled with an intensity of excitement and fear. We run around from the back, scuffing and sliding on the loose dirt and gravel, and crouch behind a weed-engulfed stone wall at the front entrances. Neil is getting up for a sprint to the portico when I clamp my hand on his shoulder. Two figures are gliding around the other end of the building. Tiny flashes of light reflect from their peaked caps. Neil tenses and then sinks way down. The loose gravel crunches under boots as the policemen walk slowly past us glancing our way, but not seeing us. They talk in low, guttural voices. The two stop by a rusted iron lamp post, talking and looking at the traffic that whines by. The smaller one, who has a large hooknose, laughs, and then the figures melt back into the dark as they crunch around to where their bug is parked.

Damn. That was close, sighs Neil, getting up on visibly shaky legs. Come on, he says--the leader once again.

All right. But slow down Neil, says Tony.

We crouch and sneak to the left-hand archway. There is a black, ragged hole in the boards covering the indifferently carpentered doorway. Neil is first through, and then I follow, scraping through and tilting my head back to look past giant Tony and Steve up into the stars, out clearly now. The two outside scramble in and we stand taking in the atmosphere and trying to see through the gloom. There is a musty, damp smell, even though the roof is gone and there are huge Gothic windows above the boarded entrances. The sound of traffic is dulled to a background hum -- fade-through on an old sound tape.

This must be the outer hall, where they took tickets and hung coats and all that. God. Its so... Steve grabs me by the arm and points to the silhouette of a statue perched on the wall behind us.

Yeah. Eight feet kick up a dusty, heavy smell as we step farther into the grand building. There is an eerie feeling in the air -- there should be jangling noises but there are none except for breathing and our muffled footsteps.

Hey, turn on the flashlights!

We've forgotten about them. Besides three flashlights, there are assorted blades, a coil of rope, pencils, candy bars, and some wire. Somehow we feel prepared.

Three white beams cut the darkness and show the clouds of dust rising. The top of an archway appears over a golden-brown heap of broken bricks and dirt at the end of the hall. I scramble up and dig some of the junk away.

We can get through here, man. Let me up! Yells Neil.

Shaddup, Neil! hisses Steve.

Shut up, yourself!

Both of you idiots shut up! Don't lose your cool this early, Tony says.

There is a low tunnel beyond the rubble; we descend crumbling steps and walk into a cavern. Far ahead, dim openings in the walls are visible. Our flashlights throw faint light on the opposite wall, miles ahead. The lighter sky shows above through a network of girder silhouettes. Mountains of rubble slope gradually down, forming a small valley. Twenty-year saplings reach scrawnily for the sky, their remaining leaves golden in our electric glow.

I don't think we'd better try crossing that mess, whispers Tony, cautious as usual. I agree.

A rotting wooden cart is standing on the brink of the slope. Neil gives it a shove and the rusted bearings squeal banshee-like as the oversized wheelbarrow tumbles down the incline, sliding into some water at the bottom. The sound echoes and pigeons' protests come weakly to our ears.

Man, you really did it that time. We'll know pretty damn soon if there are cops around.

Why don't you shut up Steve? They couldn't catch us here. This place is a bitching hideout for anybody.

You still don't have to make so much damned noise, Neil.

We turn away from the edge and Tony spots an archway, blacker against the blackness twenty feet away. We shine our lights into it. There is a twisted mass of thin pipes where the floor inside should be, and a long drop into dark water below them. Neil looks in and then shouts:

Hey, look over there to the right!

The light shows another door at right angles to the one we're standing in. It's not far to reach across. Holding onto the crumbling doorjamb. I foolishly swing across after handing my flashlight to Neil. I land and take a step and then the damn floor crumbles beneath, and I'm hanging on by my elbows above the black water. The air is changed to dust and I can't breathe for fear of falling. My whole life doesn't pass in front of me in a pageant, as I had expected from movies; all I can think is why don't the Krauts build decent buildings? And then I know that I'm not going to die because I couldn't fade off with a stupid thought like that.

Somebody laughs and then Steve jumps across and grabs me by the head and starts pulling.

Let go you fool! I shout, and then struggle out with tremendous leverage assisted by Neil.

Well, you know how your knees don't work right after something like that. So I sit down in the dust and Tony gives me the last drink out of Steve's bottle. I laugh.

You all right, man?


Come on. Let's find out where this passage leads, says Neil, excited.

A concrete stairway starts just beyond where I fell. It reaches into the gloom and the first two flights are gone except for little cement stubs sticking out, and a deteriorated railing above them. Nobody wants to try it, so I do because Neil thinks that my odds are better on accidents since I've had one already. Ha. Ha.

Everybody makes it shakily except for Steve, because one of the cement deals crumbles off and leaves him standing on nothing and hanging onto that damn rusty railing. He comes up hand-over-hand.

The second flight is easier for Neil, Tony, and me. Steve throws the light up to us.

Just stay there and we'll look around up here!

Here are real stairs at last, and we climb many dusty, dark flights using only one flashlight to save the batteries. There is a sign -- '4. Rang'-- on the wall, cracked with age. That means fourth balcony... we're pretty high up.

There is a faint doorway ahead and the stairs stop. I halt behind Neil and stare into a sickening plunge, infinite in depth, that stretches below. Somewhere, far away, is the sound of dripping water. ...out across the void vague doorways open onto nothing. The remains of what must have been the stage are an outline below, and a maze of rusted flyways starts to my right and covers the wall -- a unique fungus growth extending into the shadows. A long silence wraps us as Neil steps up and spits into the darkness. A long silence; the faint liquid noise as the seepage water far below is disturbed.

A sharp rustling noise sounds in the darkness, and we whip around and stare down the black well of stairway. My mouth tastes cold, metallic. ...Then I relax, angry.

Lousy pigeons. Still, we are careful as we stumble down the stairs. Now we Join Steve and follow a long passageway beyond the stairs, scrawling our names and obscenities on the wall with plaster that writes like chalk. There are little rooms on either side with rubble and old beer bottles. Steve finds some dirty beer coasters from 1942 under some yellow newspapers. Every step brings us into thicker dust, and more cobwebs hang down in my face. We are powdered with dust and plaster.

Mixed reverence and awe works its way inside me. How many bricklayers did this whole job take? We can't have been through even one-twentieth of the passageways and cellars that honeycomb the sub-levels. Think -- thousands of people have drifted through these halls; dressed in finery, escorting fine ladies. Some put on thick makeup, took it off, danced on the now-blasted-out stage...

Cut it out, man. You keep stepping on my feet!

Steve is nervously last in line. I laugh and some of the feeling goes away, but not much.

Look at this. We must be near the costume rooms. Neil holds up a chain-mail boot.

Hey, you want that? asks Steve. Sure I do, returns Neil.

My flashlight beam is getting yellow; the batteries won't be good much longer. Moving around for a long time is a strange sensation with nothing but shifting, eye-watering, flashlights for illumination. My head feels like it is not really a part of me. My brain. what possesses the brain? Me? What is me without the brain, the mind? I feel far away, hollow. It's the end of the passageway and a sudden, sharp turn takes us into a small chamber with something piled all over the floor. My feet hit against something, and I stare down into the face of the stiff body stretched out on the floor. It is a sickening, decayed green...

Wonder what they used those dummies for?

My knees feel weak again for a minute.

Neil and Steve are over in the corner, searching through damp piles of Roman sandals, shoes, boots, masks, and silver and gold slippers. I sit down on a crate and pull out my knife, wiping the dampness of the blade with an old piece of cloth. Tony comes over. He is an odd guy -- says little and thinks a lot.

Does -- does this place give you a weird feeling?

Yeah, it sure does, Tony. You too?

Uh-huh. Sort of a smothered ghostly sensation. It clings in the darkness.

I know what you mean. It's eerie. Tony laughs a small laugh.

Neil doesn't find anything that he wants. All of it is rotten or mildewed. There is a tool shop in the next room, and we scavenge it for glass samples and gears and nails. I find a rotted old ledger with entries in copperplate penmanship. The red ink has run in the dampness and the corners are rat-gnawed. The rats are probably all dead from hunger by now. We don't see any.

Tony comes up to me again.

You know that feeling we were talking about?


Well, we aren't going crazy... its just all the ghosts having their laughs.

I shiver in the gloom. Ghosts? What do you mean?

Don't you ever wonder why anybody should be scared of places like old houses, dark cellars? Maybe it's because our souls know that some day they're going to be stuck in a place like that. ... like here. If nobody believes in ghosts, why are they afraid? I think there is enough humanity left in these ghosts here to appreciate a kind of joke.

Uh. Maybe. Yeah. ...I can hear some kind of quiet music too -- goes like so: I hum the little bit from Rigoletto that keeps going through my mind.

Tony accepts this as a small proof of his idea.

Do we have to go through all this again? Let's try another way out.

All right, Steve we'll follow your direction for a while, says Neil.

Steve follows some air-raid shelter signs down a dilapidated staircase and finds a little steel door at the bottom of the second flight. The door creaks open half an inch at a shove, and the sound of traffic pours in, mixed with a wave of cold, fresh air. We switch off our lights and step out. The breeze feels good and we stand for a moment, then walk calmly toward the fence -- triumphantly gay. Our way is blocked by two black figures that spring forward and grab Neil and me.

Run like hell! Yells Neil, struggling to get away.

Blood pumps through my veins at super-speed. I wrench one hand out of the shadow's grasp and then stop, staring at the 'Stadtpolizei' patch on the shoulder of his uniform and the hooknose on his face. Neil sees this at about the same instant and we yell.

They're cops! Take off!

They take off.

Was macht ihr hier? Sag mir! What do you do here? is fired at us through the cold air.

Nichts! I mean...

Oh, what's the use.

Neil doesn't say anything; he just breaks away from the cop and bolts for the fence. He makes it over in a tremendous one-hand bound and the cop is too stocky and clumsy in his wool outfit to hack it. Neil gives a yell and disappears.


Oh well, if I struggle, this one will probably slug me or something.

Come vit me, please.

Politely, he drags me around to where a blue-flashing Volkswagen is parked by an open gate. Neil's cop is standing there with the door open. Then I spot Tony. Tony? God, I didn't think he had the nerve. He crouches on the side of the car away from the cops who are jabbering to each other. His arm is inside the window motioning at the horn button on the steering wheel.

Ein moment, bitte!

I point at the ground as if I've just dropped something, and the cop lets go of my arms. At that instant Tony blasts the horn, the cops whip around, and my shoes spurt gravel against the side of the bug. We both take off like mad hares, through the gate, crouching and dodging the heavy traffic across the four-lane avenue. In what seems like short seconds we are behind a Mercedes in someone's driveway; my heart shakes my collarbone.

I guess the fuzz hung it up, says Tony calmly.

We find Steve and Neil in front of the Hotel Zürich on our way back. They watched the whole mess from there but didn't dare to follow us. The cops drove off after trying to cross the avenue in vain.

Know something, Tony? We didn't even kipe the star from that Mercedes!

We follow Tony as he takes off in the cold night; we're running free.


Barlow Pepin, an enthusiastic contributor to this website, died suddenly and unexpectedly in August 2004 at the age of 54. This story was originally published in the 1965-66 issue of Talon, The Literary and Graphic Arts Annual of the Frankfurt American Senior High School, Stars and Stripes, Darmstadt (1966).

Frankfurt Photos / Frank da Cruz / / September 2004