He heard the dog go off the porch and he inched off the couch where he’d been nursing a bad back with a heating pad and a cup of ginseng tea. He headed for the door to assure whoever it was coming up the walk that the dog’s bark was worse than his bite, but before he got to the door the barking stopped, and when he looked out he saw the dog on his back getting his belly scratched by a stranger. Two points for the stranger who looked up, a big smile on his face.
William knew that smile, and although it had gone craggy under a crown of snow-white hair, he knew the face, too. It was the Dutchman.
The Dutchman, as he was known in the circles they moved in back in the 60s and early 70s, had been a minor legend, and his father had been a major legend before him. His father spent a good part of the Second World War in a Japanese interment camp in Indonesia, hacking roads through jungle with a machete. He survived malaria and an appendectomy while in the jungle, and after the war he reunited in Hong Kong with his wife and son, who had been in another camp. He lasted a short time with an English insurance firm, and then he disappeared. A private detective found him six months later, living on a sampan with a Chinese family, and his wife pulled up stakes and returned to the Netherlands with her son.
The Dutchman left Holland to live in Brooklyn with an uncle when he was 17, and William met him in 1963 in Munich where they were both attempting to get a university education under the G.I. Bill. But their army experience had thrown them out of sync with the standard formula of college/career/retirement, and it wasn’t long before they fell in with a band of kindred spirits, expatriate Americans, most of the males ex-GIs.
William and the Dutchman and a lot of their friends wound up washing dishes along with an assortment of Turks and Spaniards and Greeks at the Officer’s Club on an American Army installation. They wound up gradually converting a network of storage rooms in the basement of a VIP transient officers’ quarters into a cozy living space that they stocked with food from their place of employment and furnished with this and that from here and there around the army post. They hooked up German field phones from room to room, set up a sound system with speakers in every corner, kept a well-rounded liquor cabinet, and filled shelves with some of the world’s greatest literature. They were, quite literally, a sub-culture, and they dubbed the enterprise The Dungeon.
It was a marginal but rich existence. People were constantly passing through with stories of adventure from places like Istanbul, Madrid, Stockholm and Prague. Once the Dutchman took off for East Berlin, long before the wall fell, to see Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Night performed by an elite East German theater troupe and got detained by East Berlin guards at the border crossing. It seems he had far too much money stuck away in peculiar places, too many watches for one man, and far too much whiskey and cartons of American cigarettes. But after five hours of interrogation everyone was in a jolly mood, toasting with Jack Daniels and sucking on Marlboros.
The Dutchman could walk straight into hell and by the time he left have the devil himself serving up ice tea.
A favorite place to go, and they went there often, was the Dutchman’s father’s bar in the red-light district of Amsterdam. The old man had finally returned from Hong Kong, and after becoming the billiards champion of the Netherlands, he opened the bar. At the epicenter of drug traffic and prostitution, the bar, frequented by aging eccentrics and temperamental talents of every persuasion, remained free of those vices.
Take Fisse the bookbinder, for instance. Fisse came into the bar one day while on a shopping excursion from his village north of Amsterdam, got into a heated debate with the Dutchman’s father over religion (both men had been raised Calvinists and knew the Bible by heart), and five years later he was still there, living in a room upstairs, the argument ongoing.
And then it came to and end. They’d begun thinking they were invisible, tucked away under all that transient army brass, but the more invisible they felt, the more visible they became, until one night they got raided by a swarm of CID men and military police.
They were interrogated in separate rooms until sunrise and then turned loose with the warning never to set foot in the Dungeon again. They went straight there anyway and slept the day away. Later, under cover of darkness, backpacks riding high, they dispersed into the Munich night.
For a number of years the core of the Dungeon crew coalesced in placed like D.C., Florence, New Orleans and San Francisco, but gradually the whole experience faded into memory as they settled into borderline acceptability.
William and the Dutchman sat at the kitchen table in William’s modest bungalow on the outskirts of a high-mountain village in Washington state, exchanging what information they had on what was left of the Dungeon crew.
The hours past, and then it was time to go. The Dutchman had a plane to catch in Seattle, he’d become a banjo player and was off to Alaska to play in a honky-tonk in Anchorage. William drove him to the Greyhound station in his pickup and waved him off. He returned to his couch and his hot-water bottle. He’s a tree planter, and he’s hoping to squeeze one more season out of his deteriorating body. Then – who