Friday, April 5, 2013

Bill Ash's "Under the Wire": Book Review

Growing up in Dallas when it still echoed from the Wild West, following the boxcars as a hobo during the Depression, Bill Ash prepared for far tougher times ahead. Rejected the first time he tried to cross the border to join the RAF in Canada, he beefed up (literally) on stew and bulked up enough to be accepted two weeks later. As the U.S. had not entered WWII, Ash had to renounce his citizenship, so eager he was to serve not the Crown itself but to fight the Nazis. That he did--in the skies over the Channel--before his beloved Spitfire plane crash-landed. After a series of brave French families and Resistance fighters harboring him, he found his door kicked in and himself a doomed prisoner. 

Tortured and sentenced to death by the Gestapo in Paris, he luckily was traded off to the Luftwaffe, who could benefit from him as a bargaining chip for their own downed pilots' welfare. Imprisoned in Stalag Luft III among other camps deeper inside the Reich, he used his skills learned from privation, hunger, isolation, and survival during hard times to endure solitary in the "Cooler"--before again he tries to escape--whether in Occupied France, Germany, Poland or Lithuania. 

I wondered for a while reading this what the prisoners of war had to bargain or bribe with, to get information from the guards. Their Red Cross packets with chocolate and cigarettes did the trick. The details of how prison life led to socialism and liberation promoted as such enlisted men soon turned out Churchill after the war in Britain gains insight; one can only wonder how Ash and officers might have fared if they were not officers, who did not have to work, and so found time for reading, writing, and escaping. 

There's not the sentimental tales of how the Germans were just like us etc., however. You get a few notices of decency on the other side, if mainly when the forced march drives them all out of their last camp as the Russians close in. The chaos of the end of the Reich reverberates in Ash's telling. It's a spare story, as Ash possesses an inherent loyalty to oppose abuse--his torment under the Gestapo sobers him. Meanwhile, he'll take chances to keep sane, as when he scrambles into a huddle near a guard's site, as that man listens on the radio to the same Bach and Beethoven which have comforted Ash often.

Certainly, the inherent drama in Ash and comrades' constant, instinctive "resistance" to the Axis impels their drive to escape and the thrust of this unprepossessing narrative. The tension of being beneath the dirt, the scraping into muck and sewage with a tin scoop attached to a bedframe stick in a two-foot square confinement where only one hand can reach into the absolute darkness, the sludge and grime, the brisk breath and a sight of light that signals a breakthrough beyond the camp: this all emerges in Ash's modest style. At the Polish camp of Schubin, Ash joins dramatic tunneling: the results of what he and 33 others met after they met fresh air on the other side of the fence is compelling. Back at Stalag Luft, he's in the cooler when others make their true-life Great Escape.

He tells his tale clearly, and energetically. Educated at the U. of Texas before the war, Ash possesses his learning quietly, preferring for a straightforward approach. Yet, this passage shows the eloquence he can attain: "Human beings are surrounded by a universe many sizes too big for them and the ability either to shout out in anger or to laugh in the face of chaos are the only truly noble options available to us. That shout, or that laughter, even in the black infinity of the universe is an absolutely new and pure thing filling the void and going on, echoing off among the nebula, with an entirely human significance."

This isn't my usual genre, but an offer from Brendan Foley, who contributes the forward, enticed me. I agree with a previous reviewer that a map or two would have helped; the snapshots add faces to some names. It can be rather breezy in tone despite the brutality: certainly officers were spared much of the pain of the war, as Ash notes, even as he tried to escape. 

Adding value to this re-issue on Kindle e-book is the afterword; Ash follows up on those who helped or hindered him, from information gleaned when the book was published in hardcover. Foley and Ash join well to provide a compelling tale of how one man and his comrades felt so driven not to surrender, and to reject the meager security of life behind the barbed wire to rush towards free air. (Amazon US 4-3-13)

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