09:30, Wednesday, 13th June, 1635
Magdeburg Airfield, Magdeburg
Lance Corporal Johann Fabricius of the USE Marine 1st Reconnaissance Company lay back in his deck chair and admired the activity on the runway. “I love hard work,” he muttered loudly enough for his companions to hear.
“Just as long as you aren’t doing it,” Lance Corporal Al Dinckeler said.
Johann turned his head so he could look at his friend. “That goes without saying, but I could watch it for hours.”
Al snuggled back in his deck chair. “Any idea how long this’ll last?” he asked.
“Nope,” Johann said. “And Sergeant Fels is unlikely to let us laze around for too long, so we might as well enjoy it while we can.”
“Do you know what they’re actually doing?” Corporal Stephan Böhm asked.
“Not a clue,” Johann said. At that moment he spotted, not so much a familiar face, as a familiar build and way of walking. “That’s Hans Pfuel over there, maybe he can tell us.”
“Who’s Hans Pfuel?” Stephan asked.
“He’s a foreman with Kelly Construction. Me and Al were assigned to work for him for a week breaking stones a while ago,” Johann said.
“Why were you assigned to breaking stones for Kelly Construction?” Stephan asked.
Al smiled wryly. “It was a punishment detail for fighting.”
“But that’s not an approved punishment,” Stephan said.
“The Captain gave us a choice,” Johann said. “Either we volunteered for a week of breaking stones, or we could accept an official punishment.”
“Which would have meant losing our stripes,” Al said.
“Ah! I understand,” Stephan said. “So, are you going to wander over and ask Herr Pfuel what’s going on?”
“Sure.” Johann struggled to his feet. “Aren’t you coming with me?” he asked when he noticed neither Al nor Stephan had moved.
“Nope,” Al said. “I’ll stay here and wait for Sergeant Fels and Corporal Müller to decide what we’re going to be doing. You can pass on what Herr Pfuel has to say when you get back.”
Johann glanced at Stephan, saw the rueful smile he directed his way and shook his head in disgust at the pair of them. “Lazy clods.” He set off in the direction he’d seen Hans going, catching up with him a few minutes later.
“Herr Pfuel. How are things going?” he said.
A smile of welcome appeared on Hans’ face when he recognized Johann. “Herr Fabricius, I see you still have your stripe,” he said by way of a greeting.
Johann brushed a hand over his lance corporal stripe. “I’ve been keeping out of trouble.”
Hans shot a glance towards where Al and Stephan were still sitting in their deck chairs. “I noticed that the Marines are keeping you too busy to get into trouble.”
Johann grinned. It was clear Hans hadn’t lost his sense of humor. “We’re supposed to be rehearsing for a parachute display for the Fourth of July Arts Week festival.”
“And our ‘road works’ are holding you up?”
Johann nodded. “Something like that. The jump school only let us know when we arrived that they weren’t authorizing any jumps until you finish doing whatever it is you’re doing.” He adopted an inquiring expression on his face, turning the statement into a request for information.
“They’ve known for weeks what the schedule was,” Hans said, shaking his head ruefully. “To think that if only they’d passed the information on to your commanding officer you could be lazing about in your barracks.” He grinned to show he was joking before going on. “Right now we’re preparing to chip-seal the runway. We’ll start laying the chip-seal early tomorrow, and we will have it finished Friday night.”
“So we can get back to jumping on Saturday?” Johann asked.
“Isn’t that what I said?” Hans asked, a look of offense on his face.
“Whoops. Sorry, Herr Pfuel.” Johann dipped his head in apology. Hans had a well-deserved reputation for getting jobs assigned to him done on or ahead of schedule. “I’ve been associating with the military too long.”
“You’re welcome to join my team,” Hans offered.
Johann held up his hands. “No, no. Thank you for the offer, but . . .”
“But it sounds too much like hard work,” Hans finished for him.
“Well, yes,” Johann admitted. “Well, Herr Pfuel, it’s been nice catching up with you, but I think I better get back to the others before Sergeant Fels starts wondering where I’ve got to.”
“You do that,” Hans said, waving Johann off.
“Well?” Al asked from the comfort of his deck chair when Johann got back.
“They’re preparing to chip-seal the runway, and it’ll be finished by Friday night,” Johann reported.
“What exactly does chip-sealing the runway entail?” Al asked.
“I have absolutely no idea,” Johann said. “If you want to know, you can wander over and ask.”
Al sent a glance in the direction of Hans and shook his head. “Nah, it’s not that important.”
Johann glanced round before getting back into his deck chair. “So, did Sergeant Fels drop by while I was away?”
“Nope,” Al said. “No doubt he, Corporal Müller, and Captain Finck are thinking up something for us to do.”
“Just as long as they don’t have us running laps,” Stephan said.
A couple of hours later
Sweat was pouring down Johann’s face as he jogged around the airport perimeter with the rest of the company, although calling six men a company was a bit of a stretch. They were running in just boots and fatigues, but that didn’t make the task any easier.
He edged up to Stephan. “You had to tempt fate,” he muttered.
“I just hope no one mentions patrol order,” Stephan muttered back between breaths.
That brought a momentary smile to Johann’s face. Patrol order meant they carried weapons, ammo, rations, and any other essential equipment they might be issued for a patrol of a few hours duration. Stephan was the company medic, with training on par with an up-time Special Forces medic. Patrol order for him included the medical kit to go with that training. Johann was just a team EMT, and the medical kit he had to carry was significantly lighter. “I won’t be saying anything,” he replied.
“If you’ve got the breath to chat we obviously aren’t running fast enough,” Sergeant Christoph Fels called from the back of the group of runners. “Step it up everyone.”
There was a communal groan from the runners, but with Christoph bringing up the rear to discourage stragglers, everyone upped his pace.
On the second lap they had an audience. Johann managed to find the energy to wave to Hans Pfuel as they went past.
All good things have to come to an end, and so too did the run. Johann collapsed to the ground moments after they were told they could stop. “Are we going to be running for the next two days?” he managed to ask between breaths.
“Where do you get two days from, Fabricius?” Corporal Nik Müller asked.
Johann turned his head towards Nik. “I asked Herr Pfuel, Corporal. He said the job would be finished Friday night.”
“And when Hans Pfuel says a job’ll be finished Friday night, then it will.” Christoph smiled at Johann. “Aren’t you lucky, you have two whole days to fill.”
Johann didn’t feel particularly lucky. “Yes, Sarge,” he said.
“What are we going to be doing, Sarge?” Stephan asked.
“Firstly, we’re going to shower and change into clean fatigues, then we’re all going to have our first lesson on how to pack a parachute,” Christoph said, checking his notebook.
“That’s good,” Johann said.
“And on Saturday, you will jump using a parachute you personally packed,” Christoph continued.
“Not so good,” Al muttered.
“Excuse me, Sarge,” Stephan said, “but that’s a silly idea. Someone could get hurt.”
“It is the same system Frau Kubiak operated under when she was in the up-time military,” Christoph said. “And if it was good enough for her, then it’s good enough for us.” Christoph grinned. “You’ll just have to pay attention to the instructor.”
“But I understand Frau Kubiak is still in Grantville,” Johann said.
“That’s right,” Christoph said. “However, I’m assured that the instructor we will have is fully qualified.”
The next morning they arrived to a scene of frantic activity. Along the thousand-yard length of the main runway men and women were using massive watering cans to pour hot bitumen tar over the macadam. They were being closely followed by more men and women spreading gravel over the rapidly cooling tar. Behind them more men and women pulled heavy rollers that pushed the gravel deep into the cooling tar.
Johann and the rest of the company wandered over to a completed area. “So that’s what chip-seal is,” Johann said as he bent down to pick at the stones sticking out of the tar.
He rapidly pulled back his hand muttering that it was hot.
“What do you expect?” Hans Pfuel asked as he walked over to join them. “The tar has to be over one hundred and eighty degrees when it’s poured over the macadam if it’s to bind with it properly.”
That was hot, even if it was just degrees Fahrenheit. Johann said as much.
Hans smiled. “It’s nothing compared with asphalt concrete, which is what the airfield management originally wanted to seal the runway with. That’s laid at something like three hundred degrees and needs to be fully compacted before it cools much below two hundred degrees, otherwise it ends up full of cavities.”
“Why’re you dawdling, Fabricius?” Corporal Müller called out.
“Sorry, Herr Pfuel, but I have to go,” Johann said.
“No doubt we’ll see you again when you run some laps,” Hans said by way of farewell.
Johann could just see Sarge insisting that they run laps again today. “Probably,” he said before trotting off.
Several hours later
After a morning spent learning how to properly pack a parachute, the USE Marine 1st Reconnaissance Company were back running laps. Once again Johann was sweating profusely, but it couldn’t be half as bad as what some of the workers were suffering. He could see the heavy padded gloves they were wearing to hold the large watering cans of hot bitumen, which was flowing from the sprinkler heads as if it was water. Everyone, even those not pouring the hot tar, seemed to be wearing extensive protective clothing, which, considering it was a Kelly Construction worksite, didn’t come as a surprise to Johann, he just felt some sympathy for the people bundled up in heavy protective gear as the sun beat down on the runway.
They were running close to the runway when he heard a scream of pain. That was quickly followed by a repeated call for a medic.
Stephan broke off from the company immediately and charged in the direction the calls were coming from. Johann took a couple of seconds to glance at Sergeant Fels for permission before hurrying off after him.
“What happened?” Johann asked when he caught up with Stephan, who was hacking at a heavy work glove with the high-quality clasp knife he always carried.
“Some tar sprayed onto Joachim’s arm when he was filling a watering can, and it ran down inside his glove,” a female worker pouring water from a canteen into the glove in question answered.
Johann winced at the sight of the tar-splattered glove. If the tar had got inside it and onto the man’s skin—which judging by the man’s appearance seemed likely—the injury was going to be a real pain to treat. The tar would have to be removed, not just so that Stephan could get at the injury, but because bacteria could flourish under the tar, making for a really bad infection. The problem would be separating the clothing and glove from the tar without damaging the skin. “What do you want me to do?” he asked.
“Give me your shirt and canteen,” Stephan said.
Johann quickly doffed his sweaty shirt and handed it to Stephan. He delayed passing him his canteen because Stephan was busy emptying his own over the shirt and wrapping it around Joachim’s lower arm.
“I need more water,” Stephan said as he accepted Johann’s canteen and slowly added its contents to the already soaking wet shirt.
“They’re bringing some water,” the woman said, pointing to some workers rushing towards them with buckets in each hand.
“We’re going to need more than that,” Stephan said as he glanced around. “Is there a chuck wagon about?” he asked.
“There’s one over there,” Johann said, answering Stephan’s question. He pointed towards the familiar sight of a Kelly Construction chuck wagon.
“Right,” Stephan said. “Run over and see if they have any butter.”
“What?” Johann asked, not sure he’d heard Stephan correctly.
“I want you to get some butter,” Stephan repeated. “I need to separate the glove and clothes from the patient’s skin. If I just pull at it I’m going to be pulling off skin, but butter will dissolve the tar. If they don’t have butter, fat will do, or any edible oil.”
“You’re the expert,” Johann said, before running over to the chuck wagon.
He returned a few minutes later to see a crowd had gathered around Stephan, who was holding Joachim’s lower arm in a bucket of water and was gently agitating the water with his free hand. The rest of the reconnaissance company wasn’t amongst the crowd. He looked around, and saw them jogging in the distance.
“What’ve you got?” Stephan asked Johann.
Johann dragged his attention back to the patient. “A pound of butter.” He held up the pot of butter for Stephan to see. “I hope it’s enough.”
“We’ll just have to get some more if it isn’t,” Stephan said. He continued to swirl the water in the bucket over Joachim’s arm for another minute or two. “Okay, that’s cool enough. Grab a handful and start rubbing it into the tar.”
“I thought putting butter on a burn was just like putting butter into a skillet to help cook your food,” Johann said as he massaged butter into a bit of hard tar.
Stephan’s hands didn’t stop working while he answered. “That only applies while the burn is still hot.”
Johann glanced at the area of skin he was working on. He judged the color of the skin as indicating at least second-degree burns. He could also see that the tar was starting to emulsify with the butter. “Hey, it works,” he said. “I thought you needed to use some distillate of petroleum to dissolve tar.”
“That works as well,” Stephan answered without taking his eyes off what he was doing. “However, the light distillates of petroleum can cause skin irritation, which is one thing you don’t want when you’re already dealing with bad burns.” He glanced at Johann, who’d stopped massaging in butter. “Don’t stop. It can take half an hour to get this much tar off.”
Johann sighed, that sounded like a lot of hard work. Then he glanced at the patient’s face. The man looked like he was in serious pain. With an apologetic smile on his face Johann got back to work.
“Do you need any help, Herr Fabricius?”
Johann looked up to see Herr Pfuel had arrived with a woman carrying a large medical pack. The rest of the crowd that had been there last time he looked had dispersed without him noticing. “You need to ask Corporal Böhm here,” he said, gesturing with his head towards Stephan. “He’s an advanced combat medic attached to the company.”
That got the young woman with the medical kit all excited, and she quickly laid the heavy wooden medical chest she was carrying with the aid of a sling on the ground beside Stephan and started chatting to him as she opened it.
Hans smiled at the pair as they rabbited on in the foreign tongue medics spoke and turned back to Johann. “What are you doing?”
“Dissolving the tar, apparently,” Johann said. He still had difficulty believing that butter could dissolve tar, but the dirty butter-tar emulsion covering his hands was confirmation that it did.
The female medic edged in between Johann and Stephan, handing him some paper towels to clean his hands with—which wasn’t quite as outrageous a use of paper in these days of relatively cheap ground-wood paper as it used to be—before taking over the task of rubbing butter into the remaining tar.
Johann could take a hint. He stepped clear while he continued to clean his hands, leaving Stephan and the woman to work on the patient together.
“How bad is it?” Hans asked.
Johann shrugged. “It looks pretty bad, but the blisters haven’t burst, and using butter to dissolve the tar means we won’t break the skin removing it, so the risk of infection is reduced. Other than that, I don’t know enough about burns to give you a proper answer.”
“This man is going to be off work for at least three weeks, Herr Pfuel,” Stephan said. “The tar was scalding hot.”
“It has to be that hot,” Hans said a little defensively.
“I understand that, Herr Pfuel. I’m just saying that thermal injuries to the hands are very serious,” Stephan said before returning his attention to his patient.
Hans guided Johann away from the two medics and their patient. “I’d like to thank both you and your colleague for rushing to Joachim’s aid like that.”
“It was nothing, Herr Pfuel,” Johann said. There was no way he was going to say his first instinct had been to just run past. After all, he was a Marine first and a medic second, unlike Stephan, who was a Medical Department medic first and foremost who just happened to be assigned to the company.
“I’ll be passing my thanks on to your commanding officer, and advising the company’s directors of your timely assistance.”
Johann managed to stop his jaw dropping. When Hans talked about ‘the company’ he was talking about his employer, Kelly Construction. The captain was going to be very pleased if his and Stephan’s actions resulted in one of the country’s largest companies owing the unit a favor. “Your medic wasn’t that far behind us getting to the patient,” he said by way of introducing a touch of modesty.
Hans glanced at the woman helping Stephan. “Elisabeth is just a glorified first responder,” he said. “She’s received a whole week of instruction.”
Johann could understand the sarcastic tone in Hans’ voice. He personally was just a minimally qualified EMT, and he’d had more than two months of intensive training followed by a couple of weeks working in the emergency room of a hospital. Of course, even with all that extra training, he’d never heard of using butter to dissolve tar. Without Stephan to guide him, he’d have been in the same position as Elisabeth—reduced to cooling the injury as best he could while he waited for someone more skilled to turn up. He glanced at Stephan, who seemed very happy nattering away to Elisabeth. He turned to Hans. “I need to check that Corporal Böhm doesn’t need me before I rejoin the rest of the company.”
Stephan didn’t need him, so Johann jogged an intercept course that had him catching up with the rest of the company just as they finished their run. He hastened to give everyone the good news, just in case anyone was upset that he’d missed most of the run. “Herr Pfuel wishes to extend his thanks for my and Corporal Böhm’s quick actions, Captain, and he said he’d be advising his employer of our timely assistance.”
“You really think that’s good enough to get you out of completing your run solo?” Corporal Müller asked.
Johann nodded his head vigorously. “Oh, and did you know that you can dissolve pitch with butter or fat?” It was a matter of interest because the team worked with small boats, and they used rope that had been treated with pitch to help preserve it, and it got everywhere.
“You can?” Sergeant Fels asked.
“It worked on the tar I was removing from Corporal Böhm’s patient’s hands.”
“I think we can let you and Corporal Böhm off this time, Fabricius,” Captain Finck said.
“What do we do now then, Captain?” Johann asked.
“We shower and change before reporting to the packing room to practice packing parachutes,” Captain Finck smiled at Johann. “We need all the practice we can get if we’re to jump using a parachute we packed ourselves on Saturday.”
Johann sniggered silently to himself. Learning to pack parachutes was a waste of time. There was no way they were going to be expected to jump using a parachute they’d packed themselves.
Johann was feeling sick to his stomach and more terrified than he’d ever been before in his life. He was standing at the edge of the basket suspended under the jump school’s balloon some eight thousand feet above the airfield, and, unfortunately, he had packed the parachute he was wearing himself. Worse yet, he was going to be the first to jump. And, naturally, so as not to waste a jump, he was carrying a full combat load.
“Ready?” asked the jump master, who also happened to be the teenage girl who’d been their parachute packing instructor.
Johann nodded, even if he didn’t feel ready.