Ken looked up when the door opened. When he saw the men who were entering, he moved down to the cash register. Once there, he put his hand on the sawed-off shotgun that hung in a rack on the underside of the bar. "Julio," he called.
"Yeah?" Julio Mora replied.
"Nine one one, now!"
"On it." Julio left the sink of dirty dishes and headed for the phone in the back room.
Three men walked through the door. Each was well dressed, one more so than the others. They were armed but that was common enough. Two of them had that air of "trouble on a short leash." Muscle, Ken thought. Bodyguards, competent, deadly, dangerous. They were also down-timers. Under the big "Club 250" sign on the door a little sign read "No Dogs and No Germans Allowed." All down-timers were "Krauts" as far as the denizens of Ken's bar were concerned.
If it had been a bit later in the day Ken would have told them to get out, knowing there was enough firepower at hand to make it stick. It was, after all, that kind of bar. At this hour, though, the "I want a drink for lunch crowd" was mostly gone. There were only three patrons left. Ken knew they were nothing but three more targets. It was time to stall and pray that the police came quickly, so Ken waited nervously for the down-timers to speak first.
After standing inside the door for half a minute the trio consulted briefly and one of the guards spoke in fairly understandable English. "We have read the sign."
Uh oh, Ken thought.
"We are not staying," the guard said.
Relief swept through the owner of the bar. Ken had never killed anyone in the bar and didn't want to start now. For that matter, he had never been killed and sure didn't want to start that now, either.
"We were told that the great philosopher, Herr Head, always had lunch here."
James Richard Shaver, Jimmy Dick, often referred to behind his back as Dick Head, a name he richly deserved for being a jerk of the first water, actually managed to blush. Ken, from long practice, managed to swallow his laughter completely. Some of his patrons were a mite touchy, especially when they were drunk.
"Herr Krieger wishes to converse with him," the guard continued. "It need not be here, where we are not allowed. Over dinner tonight, at the newly opened salon, perhaps?"
Ken let out the breath he was holding and took his moist hand off the shotgun. The tension flowed out of his muscles and evaporated without leaving any residue on the floor. Politely, he answered the trio with complete honesty. "There is no one here right now who answers to the name Herr Head. Can I ask who sent you?"
"We sought the gathering place of the local philosophical society at the . . ." The guard did not quite pause, " 'front counter,' where we took lodgings. We were directed to the . . ." This time he did pause while he wrapped his tongue around a more difficult, recently learned, word phrase, " 'Police Station.' They directed us to the . . ." Again a new word. " 'Post office.' There we were told that the only fulltime, practicing philosopher in town was Herr, excuse me, Mister Head, and he could be found here having lunch, since there was no longer a Cracker-Barrel in town."
"Did the post office say Mister Head or dickhead?" Ken inquired.
"Yes, Dick Head is the name we were given."
The other two patrons snickered and James blushed again.
"Where are you staying?" Ken asked. "If Herr Head comes in today, I'll give him the message. And then, if the greatest of Grantville's philosophers wishes to talk to you, he can send a disciple to make arrangements."
All the while Ken spoke, Jimmy Dick was thinking hard. He was never going to live this down. He knew it. People who hadn't spoken to him in years, if ever, would hail him on the streets of Grantville at the slightest of excuse, just to have the opportunity of addressing him as "Herr Head." The more polite of them would seek the opinion of Grantville's greatest philosopher. Small towns can be quite cruel that way.
It was almost a relief when the door opened and two cops walked in.
"Is there a problem, Mister Beasley?" one of them asked.
"No. No problem at all. These gentlemen were just leaving."
One cop looked at the other and tilted his head slightly towards the door. The second nodded ever more slightly. Then Hans, the down-time cop, went out with the three strangers to make sure they didn't have any complaints that should be addressed.
Lyndon approached the bar. When he reached the cash register he asked, "What happened, Ken?" Officer Johnson was probably the only cop that ever addressed Ken Beasley by his first name. He once briefly dated Ken's stepdaughter, and Ken still thought well of him.
"Sorry about that, Lyndon," Ken said. "When three armed Krauts came through the door looking dangerous, I thought I had a problem. Turns out someone down at the post office sent them here on a wild goose chase; just to get rid of them, I suspect."
Lyndon worked so hard to swallow his laughter that he almost choked on it. "Sorry about that, Ken," Lyndon apologized. "I guess that's our fault. When the three wise men came wandering into the station looking for our philosophers so they could commune with them, the person behind the desk tried to explain that we didn't have any. She finally got rid of them by sending them to the post office. After all, they have everybody's address. Well, someone thought it was funny, I guess, to let them chase their tails all over town and called the post office and suggested Jimmy Dick."
"Thanks a hell of a lot!" James added from the sidelines.
Lyndon continued. "If the post office had given them his home address they never would have come here."
"Hey?" Jimmy Dick called out. "Hello." He waved his hand in a big "bring on the train" wave. "I'm down here. If you can't talk to me, you could at least not talk about me as if I ain't here, damn it."
"Oh, I'm sorry, Jimmy," Lyndon said. "When I didn't see you talking to them I figured you weren't here."
"Why the hell should I talk to them? And why was it funny to give them my name?" James demanded. Then before that could be answered, if indeed it could be, he also asked, "And just who do I thank for that anyway? And why would I want them poking around my house?"
Lyndon started to answer the first or second question and then bit his tongue. He didn't answer the third question either but he did reply to it. "Jeez, Jimmy, I'm not sure who made that call."
In truth, Lyndon knew exactly who made the call. He knew it had been discussed for almost three minutes and everybody in the office, including the chief, knew about it and thought it was funny.
The conversation started out with someone suggesting that they call the post office and have them send the three wise men down to the stables to look for Don.
"Don who?" someone asked.
"Donald Duck," someone else suggested.
"That would do, but I was thinking of Ma Quixote's oldest boy."
The people in the room had chuckled. Then someone had showed his age by saying, "If they want philosophy, we should send them to Ma and Pa Kettle."
"Who's that?" At least two people asked.
As he tried to explain who Ma and Pa Kettle were and then what a cracker-barrel philosopher was, the name Dick Head came up.
The truth was that they were, perhaps, just a little embarrassed that they did not have a Philosophical Society in town nor did they have anybody they considered a philosopher. So they sought to hide the embarrassment in humor. Pain turned inward is depression. Pain turned outward is anger. Pain turned sideways is humor. All three can be destructive.
"If there's no problem I'd better get back to work," Lyndon said. Ken noticed he hadn't answered the fourth question, either.
The other two patrons were out the door behind him before it shut all the way. The closing of the door seemed to trigger a wave of laughter.
"Ken, bring me a bottle of whatever you're calling whiskey these days," Jimmy Dick said. "That story is all over town by now. Looks like I'll be doing my drinking at home for a good long while."
"Shoot, Jimmy. That won't help and you know it. The only thing you can do is make it your joke on the Krauts and ride it out."
James picked up his beer and took a long slow sip and thought for a minute. You can't talk while you're drinking and you can't talk while you're thinking. Or is it you can't think while you're talking? James' mind went back to junior high school. If someone insulted you it was best to turn it back on them; it was almost as good if you could turn it on someone else, then you were doing the laughing instead of being laughed at.
"Oh, come on, Jimmy," Ken said, "why do you think I told them you'd have a disciple come to their hotel? You can have the whole town laughin' at you or you can have the town laughin' at them."
"I don't know, Ken."
"Go have a free dinner. Order two of the most expensive meals on the menu. Hand them some bullshit. Then tell everybody in town what saps the puffed up highbrow Krauts are."
"I don't know, Ken," James said, again. The answer came a bit slower this time.
Ken knew he was coming around. "Well, why not?" Ken pushed.
"That interpreter he had was hard on the ears," James said. It was lame and he knew it. He also knew that he would be taking Ken's advice. He just couldn't give in without arguing. It wasn't in his nature.
"So when you send the messenger tell 'em you're bringing your own. Better still, tell them you're bringing two, so it'll be three on three."
Julio brought half a tray of glasses to add to the stack under the bar. The only time he ever brought less than a full tray was when he wanted an excuse to come out front. "I'll get my grandson to deliver the message," he said.
"He's in school, ain't he? I want to get this over with." James said.
"I'll call over there and get him out," Julio said.
"Why don't we just call the hotel?" James asked.
"Naw! It ain't dignified enough. Grantville's greatest philosopher would send a formal note. While we're waiting for the boy, I'll call home and get a blank card. Don't just stand there, Julio," Ken said. "Call the school and get the kid over here."
* * *
When Matthew got back to school he had missed one class and was late for the next. When he entered Mister Onofrio's math class he handed the teacher a note from the office. The note said simply "Matthew Bartholow was excused and may be admitted to class at this time."
After forty years of teaching, Emmanuel Onofrio knew a rat when he smelled one. "You will speak to me after class, young man. Do you have today's assignment?" It was the last class of the day and Emmanuel knew Matthew's shift as a bus boy didn't start until dinner time. The lad had tried, once, to use it as an excuse for not having his homework done.
When the room was empty except for the two of them, Mister Onofrio asked, "Just where were you, young man?" in his well practiced "I can see your soul so don't mess with me" voice.
"My grandfather sent for me to run an errand," Matthew replied.
"And what was this errand that was so important that it couldn't wait?"
"They needed a message delivered." The boy's answer sounded rather lame to the old man.
"And what was this important message, that had to be delivered, by you, before school was out?" The mathematician wanted to know. The boy blushed but did not say a word.
"Come, come," the graybeard said. He knew he was near a confession when the lad blushed. "Speak up."
"Well, they didn't tell me not to read it," Matthew said.
"So you read it. What did it say?"
"Dick Head, along with an interpreter and an associate, will be pleased to except Herr Krieger's dinner invitation tonight at seven. Please make reservations for six at Grantville Fine Foods."
At the name Dick Head, Emmanuel Onofrio started to dismiss the whole thing as a bad joke. But the name Krieger caught his full attention. "Krieger?" He almost gasped. "Not Wilhelm Krieger?"
"That's the one. I got his first name at the counter when I delivered the note," Matthew said.
"Why would he want to see that idiot Jimmy Dick?" Emmanuel asked the universe, all but forgetting that there was another person in the room.
"All I know is that the post office sent 'em lookin' for Dick Head and they found him where Grandpa works afternoons," Matthew said.
"The post office?" The puzzled teacher nearly yelped. "Why would they send him there?"
"I don't know."
"That will be all."
Shortly after Matthew left, Emmanuel was on his bicycle. He was heading for the post office and determined to get to the bottom of it all.
The gray haired man stepped up to the window to be promptly told, "Sorry, Emmanuel, there isn't any mail for you. I'd send it on to the school anyway."
"No, I'm not expecting anything. I was wondering though . . . Well, I heard something improbable from a student and thought I ought to check before I called him on it. You didn't see Wilhelm Krieger today did you?" Emmanuel asked.
"Not that I know of," she answered.
"Thank goodness. That's a relief. I was told you sent him looking for Jimmy Dick," he said.
"Oh! The three wise men. Yeah, I sent them to Club 250 to see the Dick, ah, Jimmy Dick." Even grown ups can be intimidated by an old teacher.
"Why?" Emmanuel practically shouted.
The post mistress must have "got her back up" at his tone of voice, at the implied criticism, and at being made to feel like a naughty little girl. "'Cause the cops called over here and told me to. If you got a problem with that go and talk to them." With those words she turned away from the window.
Shortly thereafter, Emmanuel found himself at the police station. Shortly after that, he found himself in Chief Richards' office. Oddly, it was the chief who was uncomfortable.
"Chief Richards, do you know why one of your people sent Wilhelm Krieger to speak to Jimmy Dick?"
"Well, Mister Onofrio, what can I say? It seemed like a good idea at the time."
"Chief, you just sent the biggest jerk in the whole town to represent us to the greatest intellectual mind that Germany is likely to produce this century."
"Never heard of him," Chief Richards replied.
"He probably didn't live long enough to make it into our history books. Beyond doubt, he will be in the ones we're writing now. His published work on philosophy guarantees that, even if he never writes another word. We can't have him thinking that jackass, Jimmy Dick, represents Grantville. You've got to stop it." Chief Richards knew Emmanuel must be a very flustered academic. He wasn't just speaking forcefully, he was nearly shouting.
"I don't see what I can do about it. Having dinner isn't a crime. If you feel that strongly about it, go talk to Jimmy Dick. Now, is there anything else I can help you with before I get back to work?" Chief Richards was getting a bit annoyed. He wasn't used to being yelled at in his own office.
Emmanuel put his kickstand down outside of Club 250 within a few minutes of leaving the police station. As he read the sign, "No Dogs And No Germans Allowed," he sighed. He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and entered the den to bait the lions.
Ken looked up as Emmanuel walked in. Emmanuel could see that Ken didn't immediately recognize him. Then he apparently decided that Emmanuel was obviously an up-timer, probably okay. The old man approached the bar and Ken asked, "What can I get ya'?"
"Or his brother, depending on which Ralph you're referring to. Perhaps you can help me. I need to convince Jimmy Dick to not keep that dinner date tonight."
"Mister Beasley," Emmanuel started to explain but was interrupted.
"Call me Ken," Ken said. "The only people who call me Mister Beasley in here are cops here on official business."
"Ken, Jimmy Dick is the butt of a horrible joke. A joke that's in very bad taste, I might add, perpetrated by the police department."
"Manny, we knew that when we sent the note accepting the invitation," Ken said.
Emmanuel ignored being called Manny. The old man detested that nickname, but was dealing with a shock of his own at the moment. "You knew?"
"Sure," Ken said.
"Then why did he accept?"
"Well, Grantville is going to be laughing about this for years to come. We decided we'd rather have them laughing at some damned Kraut stuffed shirt than at one of our own," Ken explained.
"But, Mister Beasley, Ken, that Kraut stuffed shirt is Wilhelm Krieger. He's here to research our philosophy before he writes about it for all of Europe to read." When it came to Herr Krieger's purpose Emmanuel was guessing. Correctly, as it turned out, but still just guessing.
"Do you actually want all of Europe to judge us by Herr Krieger's impression of Jimmy Dick?" Emmanuel asked.
Ken looked taken aback for a moment. The stakes were a lot higher than he had realized, apparently. Still, he asked, "Do you really want Jimmy to spend the rest of his life being laughed at over this?"
Emmanuel started to speak and paused with his mouth open. He hadn't thought of that. He was angry with himself. In an argument you take the time that your opponent is speaking to plan your next point. In a discussion you listen to the other party and think about what was said before responding. He hated arguing and was annoyed with himself for having slipped into one. Still, he had to try. "Mister Beasley, this is important. Way too important to leave in the hands of Jimmy Dick Shaver."
"Well, the cops should've thought of that before they set him up to take a pratfall. Shouldn't they have?"
"I can't agree with you more. Their behavior is reprehensible. But what can you do, report them to the police?" Emmanuel asked.
Ken actually laughed. The hostility that had been building was, provisionally, set aside, though it was ready to hand and could be easily put back in play.
"Where is Jimmy Dick? Perhaps I can reason with him," Emmanuel said.
"I doubt it." Ken smiled. "His mind is pretty well made up. Have a seat and a beer on the house. Jimmy will be back shortly. He's gone out to nail down his interpreter for tonight."
That caught Emmanuel's curiosity. "Who is he getting?"
"He wants Old Joe Jenkins."
"That old hillbilly?"
"Yep." Ken nodded. "Jimmy said he heard him translatin' sermons, German to English and English to German right down to the emotional slant of the preacher and was never more than one word behind. He also said that Old Joe Jenkins was the smartest man he had ever met."
Emmanuel was shocked to find that he was angry or jealous and chided himself for it. Why should he care about the opinion of the biggest jackass in a town half full of petty, close-minded people? Besides he had never really met Jimmy Dick, so the poor man didn't really know what a smart man was. Then he chided himself for being overly proud and again for being uncharitable to the village he grew up in and had chosen to retire to.
"Who's his other second?" Emmanuel asked.
"Huh?" Ken looked confused.
"Jimmy has been challenged to a duel of wits. He's taking two seconds. One is Joe Jenkins. Who is the other one?"
"I don't think that's been settled yet," Ken said. He knew for a fact that Jimmy was assuming he would be the third member of the party. He wasn't thrilled with the idea. Fresh organic fertilizer had a way of splattering anyone close by when it hit the fan and he didn't want to deal with it. A thought grew in his mind and a smile grew on his face. "But I think it should be you."
Fritz Shuler was ecstatic. On this weeknight his struggling restaurant, Grantville Fine Foods, was booked to capacity. He hadn't had a night like this since the opening rush. The crowd was almost all up-timers, for a change. There was one reservation from a down-timer. Then the calls started trickling in. The trickle steadily increased until he was turning people away.
Fritz was frantically putting the final touches on the new policy that he hoped would be the salvation of his investment. He had researched up-time dining before he opened. He found a paper maker who would make paper plates and napkins. His niece bought plastic flatware and cups at school from anyone who would sell them.
He had set out to provide an authentic West Virginia dining experience. He featured catfish, Kentucky style chicken cooked in a very expensive "pressure cooker," and beef grilled to order, on top of a full menu. The down-timers found it charming but up-timers didn't come back.
Someone finally explained the difference between fast food and fine food. After tonight when diners arrived they would be asked, "Paper or cloth napkins?" But tonight, except for the one table, everyone would have real linen, silver flatware, fine china and glass. He hadn't planned to start that until next week but when the river floods, it's time to float the logs.
After a hard day of frantic preparations the night was not going well. People who arrived at six were lingering over coffee and wine, as if waiting for something. People who had a seven o'clock reservation were arriving early, as if they were afraid they would miss something. Customers were piling up in the waiting area. There were no open tables except for the one set for six with paper and plastic. Fritz was not going to put an up-time patron there. He gritted his teeth and started passing out free wine.
The down-timers arrived a bit early. Oddly, no one in the waiting area objected to being passed over. Fritz showed them to the table where they immediately examined the place settings in detail as was typical of a first time down-timer diner. Fritz was shocked when the rest of the party arrived and were up-timers. Well, it was too late to change things now.
Fritz showed the new arrivals to the table. Before they could seat themselves one of the down-timers stood up. Fritz was startled and just a bit worried.
In passable English the standing man said, "Herr Krieger suspects that he is being played for a fool." From the look on his face the interpreter was completely convinced of it and was more than a little pleased about it for some reason.
Emmanuel's heart dropped. He had hoped he could take the conversation into Latin, the language of scholarship, and control the night. Now the game was lost before it started. All he could think to do was apologize profusely. Before he could start Joe Jenkins spoke up.
"Why does he suspect that?" Joe asked.
It was a fair question, Emmanuel thought, but something about the way Joe said it was . . . Latin! It was Latin; accented but understandable Latin. Where did a dumb hillbilly learn Latin?
The interpreter looked perplexed. Emmanuel guessed that he didn't know Latin, just his native dialect of German and the passable English he had picked up somewhere. Herr Krieger, on the other hand, was suddenly focused completely on Joseph. He motioned for the interpreter to sit down.
"My man here claimed to have overheard a conversation leading him to believe Dick Head is not a name but an insult," he said in crisp Latin. His voice was quite tainted with suspicion and hostility.
"Well, he is right about it being no one's proper name." Joseph continued speaking in Latin, to Emmanuel's ongoing amazement. "I am Joseph Loudoun Jenkins, now commonly known as Old Joe. When I was young I was known as Low Down Jenkins. Over there is Emmanuel Onofrio, known to his students as Oman Frio, meaning Old man 'Frio. Don't look sour, Emmanuel. You know it's so. Emmanuel is otherwise known as Ralph's brother or Ralph's uncle, depending upon the age of the speaker. Your third guest is James Richard Shaver, commonly known as Jimmy Dick, sometimes called Dick Head."
"Why?" Wilhelm asked.
Joe began to answer. "Well, sir." Hearing the West Virginia accent and word choice coming out of Joseph's mouth while speaking Latin was amazing to Emmanuel. Still, somehow, it felt like Joseph was yet going to pull it out of the soup. "We came from a very busy time. Anything we could do to get things done faster we did it. Even our language was rushed. We didn't have time to say 'The United States of America,' so we said 'the U.S.A.' When I was a young man we had a 'President,' a leader named Eisenhower. He was very highly esteemed. Everyone referred to him as Ike. Later two Presidents in a row were known by initials, J.F.K. and then L.B.J." Joseph answered the question while completely ignoring what was asked.
Jimmy Dick spoke up. "Are we just goin' t' stand here or what?"
Herr Krieger's interpreter translated the question into German. Wilhelm nodded slightly and motioned to the chairs with a slight hand movement. Emmanuel realized that James was a loose cannon who was getting irate about not knowing what was going on. He started translating the Latin into English for him.
"So you shorten names for convenience. That is nothing that we do not do. But he is Dick Head. Is that not an insult?" Wilhelm asked.
"Have you studied Hebrew, Herr Krieger?" Joseph asked.
"Briefly," Wilhelm said. "There were works I wanted to read, but in the end it proved more workable to have them translated."
"I know what you mean. I tried to learn Hebrew and Greek but it was more time than I could spare back then. Knowing French helped when I decided to learn Latin six months ago," Joseph said.
"You have only been working on Latin for six months? Incredible," Wilhelm said. Emmanuel agreed.
"We Americans do things in a hurry. I thought I might need it for dealing with the Catholics, so I was motivated. As I was saying about Hebrew, you know that the word 'Rosh' can translate as 'first' or 'top' or 'head.' Dick can be used in English to mean 'penis.' But it also can mean 'any man' for obvious reasons. Like the words," he shifted to English for two words "lumberjack and steeplejack. So, yes, it can be an insult. But then, to misquote scripture, 'a philosopher is not without honor except in his own home.' "
Wilhelm smiled and started to call for wine by picking up his glass and holding it in the air. But he stopped with the red plastic cup only inches off the table. "Why are we the only ones who have these?" he asked.
"Shit," Jimmy Dick said. "They came from up-time with us and when they're gone they're gone. You're being honored." He swallowed the words, "ya dumb Kraut," because Emmanuel had impressed on him how important the dinner was. "Honored with a piece of the future. Everybody else here tonight has to make do with the here and now."
Emmanuel started translating what was said into Latin before Herr Krieger's man could give an uncensored version. People at the nearby tables seemed to be taken with sudden fits of coughing.
"Waiter, wine for my guests," Wilhelm Krieger called out. When he did it seemed as if there was a pause in conversation while he spoke. The noise level in the room unquestionably went back up when he set his glass down. "This," he waved his hand to include everything on the table, "is truly amazing, so light, yet strong." He picked up a fork and looked at it skeptically. "Can you truly eat with this? It seems as if it would break."
Emmanuel was busy translating German to English for Jimmy Dick, who was amongst the minority in Grantville who refused to learn German. So the conversation fell to Joseph, who responded in German. "They can break if you try cutting meat with them, so you use the knife. They were made to be thrown away after one use."
"Truly?" Wilhelm asked with raised eyebrows. "What of the expense?"
"You could buy a box of one hundred for less than you earned in an hour," Joseph replied. "They were not highly esteemed but it saved the time of washing up. Our thought was 'anything to save time.' We were a very busy people."
Herr Krieger's eyebrows went up again. Emmanuel could almost see him thinking that there was a fortune to be made here.
"Unfortunately, we can't make any more. Even if we had the equipment, the materials are not available. These are the last for at least ten years," Joseph said.
"Unfortunate, indeed. Do you teach at the local academy also?" Krieger asked.
"No. I don't have the credentials it takes to do that," Joseph said.
"But with your Latin . . . and you are a philosopher, surely?"
"Neither Latin nor philosophy are much regarded." Turning to Emmanuel, Joseph said, "Why don't you tell Herr Krieger about the school system."
Emmanuel set about giving a detailed account of Grantville's schools. As far as he was concerned, he was justifiably proud of them, even if they were on the low side of average up-time. Joseph translated for Jimmy this time. Ordering food interrupted the flow of Emmanuel's lecture, but he eventually concluded with, "I would put our high school graduates up against Jena's university students when it comes to general knowledge. When it comes to specialized knowledge, I would match Jena graduates with ours in the same field. Of course, we have areas of study that they do not." He was thinking drivers' ed, and then others.
The food arrived. Diners began to leave while others arrived and took seats. It didn't look like the hoped for fireworks were going to happen. No one had the Latin to follow the conversation, so why stay?
"Your colleague says Latin and philosophy are not esteemed?" Wilhelm asked.
"We offer Latin as an elective. Philosophy is covered as part of English literature," Emmanuel answered.
Herr Krieger cautiously cut at his steak with the plastic knife and was visibly surprised that it worked. The silent bodyguard tried cutting his with the fork. It broke in his hand. A staff member immediately turned up with a set of silver utensils for him, and took the knife and spoon away. Emmanuel had the chicken. It was quite good. It had been so long since he last had Kentucky fried chicken that he couldn't tell the difference. The slaw, mashed potatoes and gravy were superlative.
After his first bite Wilhelm Krieger reverted to Latin. "Herr Head, is war mankind's greatest glory or its greatest shame?"
Emmanuel translated the question.
"Hell, it's neither," Jimmy Dick Shaver answered. Joseph translated the answer.
"Neither?" Herr Krieger prompted.
"War is a great adventure," Jimmy Dick quoted. "But, an adventure is someone else havin' a hard time of it somewhere else. War is glorious when you win with an acceptable casualty rate. But no casualty rate is acceptable to the casualty. And since someone always loses, war is glorious less than half the time.
"To the men in the middle of it," Jimmy continued, "war is at best boring drudgery spiked with moments of terror. For some, it is a walking nightmare that never leaves them this side of the grave."
"Then it is our greatest shame?" Krieger asked.
"There are greater shames," Jimmy said after Emmanuel translated the question. "The holocaust comes to mind."
"Do you want me to explain that?" Joe asked.
"Might as well," Jimmy said.
"In our history, Herr Krieger," Joseph said, "in the years of the nineteen thirties and forties, a Prussian government rounded up twelve million people they did not approve of. Jews, gypsies, Poles, Slavs, and others. Then they exterminated them."
"Like Vlad the Impaler killing every beggar in the kingdom," Herr Krieger said. "But, that many?"
"It was a very full world," Joseph said. "Look it up at the library. The key words are Nazi, and Holocaust. It will surely confirm the six million Jews. You may have to dig to find the others. They are often forgotten."
Wilhelm Krieger looked at Jimmy "But, this Holocaust is surely a fluke?"
"No!" Jimmy replied. "Pol Pot, five million, Saddam, three million, Stalin . . . who knows how many millions."
"So these holocausts are man's greatest shame?" Krieger asked. The undertone of skeptical unbelief was less than perfectly hidden.
"Hell no!" Jimmy answered.
A frustrated Wilhelm finally demanded, "If it is not war and it is not slaughter then what is it?"
Emanuel translated the question. Joseph waited for the answer. Jimmy paused. His last "Hell no" was a reaction without conscious thought. Now he needed a response. "Tell him that mankind's greatest shame is running out of good whiskey. No, wait." A memory of personal pain gushed into his mind like a torrent of water from a long forgotten dam that crumbled. "Tell him our greatest shame is an uncherished child. A man's greatest glory is to love his wife and raise his children well."
Joseph translated it. Wilhelm started at him like a pole-axed steer for at least five seconds. Then he turned to Emmanuel. "Did he translate that correctly?"
"Yes," was all Emmanuel said.
Wilhelm looked back at Joseph. "Do you agree with him?"
"Well, it was my greatest joy. And yes, it is my greatest glory. So I agree with him." Joseph said.
"And you?" Herr Krieger asked, looking at Emmanuel.
Onofrio's memories flashed back through a list of unloved, bright children who faded into dull commonness or blossomed into brilliant horrors. "Yes. An uncherished child is our greatest shame."
"You people are hopeless romantics." Krieger's tone made it clear he thought the idea contemptible.
Both up-timer translators laughed. When Emmanuel explained why, Jimmy smirked.
"What is so funny?" an obviously angry Wilhelm demanded.
Joseph dried his eyes. "My wife, may she rest in peace, often told me that I was a typical male with no idea of what romance was."
Wilhelm humphed before asking, "Herr Head, how many children did you and your wife raise?"
"I ain't mankind. I'm one man. 'Nam was my greatest glory and my greatest shame. When I returned no women worth puttin' up with would have me and any women who would put up with me weren't worth havin'. "
He saw no reason to tell this damned Kraut about his personal life. When Bina Rae found out their baby had "bad bones," probably from something he brought back from 'Nam—something he hadn't told her about—she moved out on him. She acted like Agent Orange was some sort of venereal disease he could have avoided. When she left he took to hitting the bottle hard and lost his job. Bina Rae wouldn't talk to him, wouldn't go to counseling and wouldn't let him see Little Merle without a big fight each and every time.
Now Merle was living in the nursing home and as long as the bills were paid he never heard from or of her. Merle would not speak to him for abandoning her. She never even heard his side of the story.
The only happy year of his miserable life crashed in 1973. Bina Rae came home from the doctor and was packed up and gone when he got home from work. He got drunk and stayed drunk. Along the way he got divorced and listed as sixty percent disabled instead of the usual thirty percent for a head case. Up to the Ring of Fire the Veteran's Administration paid for Merle out of his disability check. Now he was making do with family money off of rental properties an agent managed.
None of that was anybody's damned business, especially some damned Kraut.
"So you admit that your greatest glory and your greatest shame is war. But you would have me believe it is raising children." Herr Krieger turned to his interpreter and spoke in loud, angry, German while rising to his feet and pocketing the plastic spoon. "You are right! I am being played for a fool. Settle up with the proprietor and return to the lodgings." Then without a fare-thee-well, he and the silent bodyguard stalked out of the totally silent room.
Jimmy Dick was the first to speak. "Ya know, this catfish is really quite good."
The dining room burst into roaring laughter.
When it had mostly died down Emmanuel Onofrio stood and extended his hand to Jimmy "Dickhead" Shaver. "Mister Shaver," he said in a voice pitched to carry, "it was truly a pleasure translating for Grantville's only full-time practicing philosopher."