It is the summer of 1916 and, as luck would have it, Otto is assigned to the nascent, unreliable, and utterly frightening Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Flying Service. Ottto's aerial chauffeur is the self-willed Sergeant-Pilot Toth, with whom he can only communicate in broken Latinalthough when all else fails, screaming will suffice! On the ground the rickety Habsburg Empire begins to crumble before the onslaught of WWI, while in the air Otto confronts a series of misadventures and the winds of change.
About the Author
John Biggins came across photos of the Austro-Hungarian submarine service in 1987. He subsequently wrote the four-book Otto Prohaska series, a cult classic with literary flair and an ironic twist. A native of England, Biggins currently lives in the Netherlands.
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The Two-Headed Eagle
In Which Otto Prohaska Takes a Break as the Habsburg Empire's Leading U-boat Ace and Does Something Even More Thanklessly Dangerous
By John Biggins
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1993 John Biggins
All rights reserved.
Recorded at SS of the Perpetual Veneration Old People's Home Plas Gaerllwydd Llangwynydd West Glamorgan Undated — Probably Autumn 1986
STRANGE, I ALWAYS THINK , how the pettiest and least significant things — some banal tune playing on the wireless, the smell of the floor polish they once used at your old school — can set off a train of recollections; even when one has not thought about the matters in question for decades past, and even in someone like myself, who has never been one of nature's chroniclers or — at least until lately — much addicted to reverie, never even kept a diary except when required to do so by service regulations.
It was the television that set it off, yesterday evening in the residents' lounge: that draughty, high-ceilinged hall converted (I would imagine) from the one-time drawing-room of this dilapidated Victorian mansion, built out here on the tip of peninsula so as to be as far as possible upwind of the Swansea copper-smelting works which provided the money for its construction. I was sitting near the back of the room, in the armchair where Sister Elz-bieta parks me each afternoon and which I occupy by virtue of my position as the Home's eldest resident: a hundred and one next April if I last that long. I was sitting there with a blanket over my knees, trying to read a little, in so far as cataract allows me, and to absorb some of the feeble warmth radiated by the Plas Gaerllwydd's monstrously inefficient central-heating system. My young friend Kevin the caretaker fired up the boilers the day before yesterday to counter the autumnal chill cast by the Bristol Channel fogs, but one would be hard put to it to notice any difference.
It was only just after supper but the television was already jabbering away at the front of the room, surrounded by its circle of devotees intent on their evening act of worship. Normally it disturbs me little. My English is quite creditable — as well it might be, considering that I began to study it about 1896 and that I have spent the best part of half a century in exile in this country. But I find that programmes in what is still (for me) a foreign language are something that I can easily shut my ears against. In fact, since the Sisters moved me down here from Ealing in the summer the position has been doubly satisfactory in this respect, since a good half of the programmes each day are in Welsh, of which I think that I may be forgiven for not understanding a single word.
It never ceased to amaze me even back at the Home in Iddesleigh Road how the residents there (I try hard not to call them inmates) would cheerfully spend sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, watching programmes in a language which many of them still barely understand. So what shall I say of them down here in south Wales? No, I sat undisturbed and thought, and read a little, then thought again: all the long-forgotten events which have been coming to the surface these past few months, like oil and wreckage from a sunken ship, since the photograph album turned up and they brought me to this place and I began telling these improbable yarns of mine to young Kevin. I could have continued like that until they came to put me to bed. But then the insufferable Major Koziolkiewicz strode in on his bandy cavalryman's legs and, without asking anyone, walked over to the television set and turned up the volume (he is deaf in one ear and half deaf in the other, but the vanity of old age prevents him from wearing a hearing aid). Bored with my book, and wishing anyway for some respite from memories which were not always entirely welcome, I sighed and turned resignedly to watch the programme.
It was a poorly made pulp-thriller film of early-1970s vintage: the usual turgid, best-seller-made-into-film stuff of which the chief characteristic is that, after the first two minutes or so, no one could care a button what happens to any of the characters. This particular offering was worthy of note only in that it contained in the very first five minutes an example of one of the most verdigris-encrusted of cinematographic clichés; the one where the air hostess emerges from the door of the flight deck with an anxious look on her pretty face and asks whether any of the passengers is either a doctor — preferably a consultant toxicologist — or a qualified pilot. At this point, as Charlton Heston (who, naturally, just happened to be both) rose from his seat, I gave up and returned to my book, knowing only too well what rolling vistas of tedium would now unfold themselves before me.
But still this episode, ludicrous in itself, had set my mind working. For the truth is, I think, that more often than we care to admit life impersonates art and real events take on the character of a B-feature film. I imagine — admittedly on the basis of no evidence whatever — that there must be occasional Tarts with Hearts of Gold who address their clients as "dearie." And years ago there were unquestionably Scottish ship's engineers (I once met one) who wiped their hands on cotton waste while informing the bridge that their engines wud nae make it thru this storm. And believe it or not, something very similar to the situation that I have just described did once happen to me; though in the event it was not to turn out quite as the film version would have it.
It was in the summer of 1959, I remember, when my English second wife Edith and I were living in Chiswick. The telephone had rung in the small hours of the morning. It was Edith's younger sister calling from the island of Jersey. Their mother, then aged ninety-six or so, had moved from Suffolk to live with her a few years before and had been in poor health for some months past, bedridden and half paralysed by a stroke. Her condition had suddenly worsened during the night and the doctor's opinion was that she was unlikely to last much longer. She was asking for her children to be at her bedside, so in the end there could be no argument about it: we would have to get there as quickly as possible even though it meant the expense of an air flight. I say "we" because Edith, even though she had been a VAD with the Serbian Army during its terrible winter retreat through the Balkans in 1915 and might therefore be reckoned to have been immunised for life against fear, was still extremely nervous about flying and would certainly not board an aeroplane without me to accompany her. So a taxi was summoned, overnight bags were hurriedly packed and at first light that Saturday morning we set off for Waterloo Station, driving across a city still barely stirring from its sleep.
The trains were still steam-drawn in those days: glossy dark-green carriages with varnished panelling inside and nets overhead for luggage, pulled by curious boxed-in locomotives like enormous baking-tins. We arrived at Eastleigh Aerodrome (as it was still called) about breakfast time, and just managed a ham sandwich and a cup of tea in the wartime hangar that served as a passenger terminal while my travel documents were examined by the airport officials. Jersey was British territory, but this was only fourteen years after the end of the war and the Home Office still demanded that I should show my identity papers before embarking upon air flights: "Ottokar Prochazka (formerly Prohaska) — British-Protected Person Resident in UK — Born Austrian Subject 1886; subsequently Czechoslovak and Polish Nationality — Stateless Person since 1948." They scratched their heads politely over this for a couple of minutes, then stamped it and allowed us out on to the airfield. Our tickets had been waiting for us at Eastleigh, booked in advance by Edith's sister, so there were no further formalities to be gone through as we hurried out across the brown-scorched grass of that blazing summer, one of the hottest that I can remember during all my long years in this country.
The aeroplane standing before us, completing its fuelling, was a delightfully graceful little twin-engined De Havilland: twelve passengers plus pilot and cabin stewardess. And as we walked out across the field, bags in hand, I knew that despite my wife's misgivings I was going to enjoy this trip. People flew but rarely in those days, even the moderately well-off like ourselves, and my last flight had been sixteen years before: at night, over the darkened countryside of Bohemia, in the belly of an RAF Whitley bomber with a parachute strapped to my back. As we neared the aeroplane steps and the smiling hostess bade us good-morning and asked for our boarding passes, dim half-forgotten memories were stirring of such summer mornings many years before, and walks out across the grass of distant meadows to climb aboard other flying machines, far more primitive than this one and bound on much less innocent errands.
We were shown to our seats, one row back from the flight-deck bulkhead athwart the propellers, and sat down one on each side of the gang-way. Poor Edith was already pale and tense as I reached across the aisle and squeezed her hand to reassure her. For myself though, I settled back into my seat — so much more comfortable than the creaking wicker cat-baskets which had cradled my backside when I first started to fly — and looked out of the porthole at the sunlit field and the cloudless blue sky. A curious feeling of contentment spread over me. Despite the distressing circumstances of our journey I knew that, for me at least, this part of the outing would be a wonderful lark and a most welcome diversion from the rather monotonous daily round of old age. I could only hope that some of my eager anticipation would communicate itself through our clasped hands to Edith, for whom flight was anything but a happy adventure.
The remaining passengers took their seats, the pilot appeared at the front of the cabin to wish us a pleasant journey — about forty-five minutes he said — then disappeared like a magician behind the dark-green curtain that masked the flight-deck door. The hostess showed us how to put on our life jackets (Edith winced at this and shut her eyes tight), then we fastened our seat belts as she took her place at the rear of the cabin and the pilot started the engines. I heard vague quackings from the wireless up forward, and after some minutes a light winked from the control tower to signal us out on to the concrete runway: "Ausgerollt — beim Start," as we used to say in the k.u.k. Fliegertruppe.
I have lived over a century now, and experienced many wonderful and terrible things. But for me there are still few moments as exhilarating as that of leaving the ground; as exciting even now as it was for me that first time I took to the air, in a wire-and-bamboo Etrich Taube some months after the Titanic went down. I cannot be far away now from my own long-postponed death; but if the sensation of passing from this world into the next is at all like that of take-off in an aeroplane — as I suspect it may well be — then I shall not mind it one bit: the gathering speed, that sudden rush as the air starts to bite, the shudder as the wings begin to lift, the feeling of being pressed back in one's seat even in a slow piston-engined aero-plane, that invariable missing of a heartbeat or two as the wheels leave the ground — and the equally invariable worry (no idle anxiety in my younger days I can assure you) that the pilot will exhaust his supply of runway before we are properly airborne. I was so engrossed in all this that I almost forgot my wife, white-faced and trembling across the gangway.
We were soon clear of Eastleigh Aerodrome and climbing steadily into the summer sky, the pilot giving rather more throttle than usual (I thought) on account of the thinness of the already warmed-up atmosphere, but otherwise as smoothly and as pleasantly airborne as one could possibly have wished. I settled down to admire the view: the chimneys and cranes of Southampton Water below us; with two transatlantic liners in the ocean terminal and a lavender-grey Union Castle ship manoeuvring to dock; and away to port the fretted coastline of Portsmouth Harbour, its gleaming silver expanse dotted with warships — for whatever the sad realities might have been back in 1959, Britain in those days still looked almost as great a naval power as when I had first visited the place over half a century before. We passed over Calshot Spit, with its flying-boat hangars and its endless rows of laid-up minesweepers, and were soon climbing gently to pass over the Needles and head out across the English Channel. Within a couple of minutes the western tip of the Isle of Wight had slid away below us and we were out over open water, heading for St Helier, about half an hour's flying time away. Edith seemed to have calmed down for the moment, so I sank into a pleasurable state of reverie, lulled by the steady hum of the engines and the gentle rush of wind along the aeroplane's fuselage. Pity that it had to be so short a flight, I thought.
This blissful, almost infantile state of contentment continued for another ten minutes or so; until I began to notice, while looking at an oil tanker far away on the shining sea, that the aeroplane was beginning to yaw gently from side to side, then to pitch up and down in a long, soft undulation like that of a large ship riding the swell from a far-off storm. I looked out of the cabin window again. Air turbulence? Surely not: the weather had been very hot lately but we were far from land and there had been little wind that morning when we took off. After a couple more minutes of this meandering progress — so gentle as yet that none of the other passengers appeared to have noticed it — the air hostess put down her magazine and bustled forward to disappear behind the flight-deck curtain. And when she emerged once more, a minute or so later, I saw to my alarm that she was wearing that bright games-mistress smile which among the English is supposed to convey reassurance, but which I must say has on my morale rather the effect of smoke oozing from under a door, or water starting to drip from a bulge in the ceiling. Prochazka's First Law, based upon more than half a century's observation of the English, states that when a nurse sits down by the head of the examination couch and starts making light conversation with you, it usually means that you are about to be given a spinal tap without benefit of anaesthetic.
"Well," she enquired brightly, "everyone enjoying their flight I hope?" She spoke — as did all air hostesses in those days — in the carefully cultivated tones of the J. Arthur Rank Charm School: the sort of well-groomed débutante-cum-Esher diction which was so perfected by the late Jessie Matthews and which seems almost to have died out now, along with elocution classes and the Court Turn. We all agreed that we were enjoying the flight. I sensed that the man in front of me already seemed a trifle uneasy; but the other passengers appeared not to have noticed anything amiss so I nodded with the rest.
"Splendid, super." Then there was an ominous pause, although the smile remained as fixed as ever. "I say, I wonder whether anyone has ever flown before?" By the murmur of assent I judged that about half the passengers had in fact flane befaw. A faint, barely discernible shadow stole across the radiance of the smile. "No, no. I meant, has anyone actually flown an aeroplane before. You know: flown an aeroplane, not flown in an aeroplane." The significance of this question appeared not to have sunk in, so she persisted. "I mean, is any of you actually — er — a qualified pilot?" This question produced a sudden chill in the cabin — accompanied as it was by a distinct and ominous lurch to starboard. I looked across at Edith, who was staring in a sort of trance with tiny drops of sweat already breaking through the face powder on her forehead. Quite clearly, something was badly amiss. I raised my hand — and saw the young woman's smile freeze as she glanced at me.
Excerpted from The Two-Headed Eagle by John Biggins. Copyright © 1993 John Biggins. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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