Excerpt from The Second Ring

On one rainy day, we were to drop onto an open field near Augsburg; as we dropped, I looked up and saw that one of the younger members, Eugen Frey, had a look on his face that was nothing short of panic; something was wrong with his chute. I could see it tangled behind him, trying to unknit itself, but to no avail.

He held his arms open and looked at me with huge, staring eyes, the wind whipping his jumpsuit frantically around him.

How To BuyI needed to deploy my chute in seconds; he was floating above me, and there is no real way to navigate precisely during a free-fall. He made a motion to me to pull the ripcord, as though he were submitting to his fate. He knew there was nothing I could do. But as I did so, and my chute began to deploy, I began to slow down, ever so slightly; and as he passed me, falling faster of course, he touched one of my canopy lines, and held on. I held out my hand, and we managed, clumsily, to clutch at each other until he was in my arms, and my chute blossomed above us.

He felt like a greyhound, trembling; to disengage would be to die.

“You must relax,” I said—not relaxed myself. “I have you.”

I had one hand on his belt, one hand on his forearm, and pulled him in as close as I could. His face was right atop mine; I could feel him shaking furiously, uncontrollably; I could smell the fear emanating from him.

“Don’t drop me,” he said like a child.

I started to laugh out loud. What could one say at such a moment? I pulled him closer—for the sake of aerodynamics—and felt his body against mine, trembling, his legs twining with mine.

Instinctively we gripped each other’s legs in a scissors lock, the absurd feeling of achieving unity with a man plummeting at one hundred ninety-four kilometers an hour in space only making me hug tighter. I could feel the pulse of his heart beating in the huge vein in his leg, just where the leg joins the belly. A tender spot, I thought, and laughed.

He began to laugh as well, and the two of us nervously roared with laughter as the chute caressed the air above us, and we fell to Earth, snapping to attention only as the ground rushed forward, and we raised our legs to land properly. He rolled off to one side, his parachute still half in and half out of its pack. Not the most elegant of landings, but both of us simply stopped and panted for a minute.

The others who had seen us drop together started to crowd around us.

“You caught him in mid-air?”

“Sir, you saved his life?”

“That’s one for the books!”

Signaal1They disengaged my chute and went to see if Frey was indeed in one piece; eventually they circled the two of us and began to cheer. I held Frey by his shoulder and drew him close to me.

“I would do it for any of you, you know that.” I put on the icy stare I was supposed to use for every occasion, but they pressed on and clapped us both on the shoulders.

There went around a story of a similar thing that happened in Fallschirmjäger C-division, where someone whose chute didn’t deploy grabbed hold of a lead, and the man on the chute kicked him off and watched him fall to his death. Of course that was the proper way to do it—no need to jeopardize two men—but the men knew in their hearts that I valued them.


The Second Ring – Characters

With the dramatic backdrop of the Occupation of Norway during the Second World War, two men find a strange bond.

How To BuyAxel
is a proud German, coming from a long line of soldiers. As scholar and a romantic, he is dedicated to the advancement of German culture, something that he believes the war is occluding rather than promoting.

is a Norwegian working with the occupiers, eager to advance, eager to make a difference among his own people.

is Axel’s school chum who has managed to follow him in his career, perhaps because he envies him–or needs to control him.

Bruno’s Unteroffizier mit Portapee, a communications officer who operates the Enigma, the German encryption machine. He works with Klaus in the Comm Room, and is beleaguered with annoying problems. . . mainly with his equipment.

Leni Riefenstahl
is a German film director who made a name for herself as an actor climbing mountains, and now makes spectacular epics for the Führer.

The Second Ring: Reading and Discussion Guide

How To BuyFor those literary groups that will be using The Second Ring in bookgroups or library study, this is a list of suggested discussion points that will help to guide you through the story and its interpretation.

1. The prologue gives away the whole story. Why do you think the author decided to put the end of the story at the beginning?

2. When Axel was employed by the Baron, he was abused by Bruno, his nemesis from school. Why do you think he kept going back to the Baron’s, night after night, when he knew he would be abused again?

3. Why does the Baron say that operettas are worth listening to?

4. The author has stated that there were two other secondary themes that were not able to be used in the story. One was having Axel buy  a set of gold rings for Klaus and himself (to be worn on fingers–or elsewhere), and the other was having a character read the book “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Why do you think these might have been compelling images and ideas in this story?  Why do you think they were set aside and not used?

5. Two short stories are stated as being inspirational to the form of this story. One is Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl-Creek Bridge”, and the other is Frank Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger?”. Can you tell what these very different stories might have contributed to the book’s structure and theme?

The Second Ring: An Interview with Axel by Anthony Kobal

How To BuyMy plane landed outside of Posen, and it was a good two hour drive to get to the little village where the Axel, the soldier who plays such a pivotal role in the memoir, “The Second Ring,” lives and works. A disjointed but splendid brick edifice, with pointed, black gables, yellow sills and green under-eaves, made it a picturesque place, perfect for such a complex personality. I found Axel in his study, a place frozen in time, with bookshelves that ranged far overhead, requiring a wheeled ladder to rise high enough to get the topmost books. A bust of Richard Wagner was on his huge Boesendorfer piano, and gilt-framed oil paintings of German nobility from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries dominated the walls that were free of shelves. Lustrous red and blue leather bound books were everywhere. In the corner, on an ornately carved table, an expensive gramophone, from days gone by, sat with its metal parts gleaming, and richly produced discs lay near it, a gold-tooled snuffbox filled with steel needles open and nearby. Courteous and handsome, he shook my hand and offered me a cigar, pouring two brandies for us. As we settled in, he crossed his legs, sipped his snifter and waited for me to ask the first question.

AK: Men in the army do not use each other’s first names. As in school, they use the family name. Why is it, in your memoir, that you have no last name, and no one else calls you by your family’s name.

AXEL: (long draw on his cigar, then a long funnel of blue smoke from his lungs) Look around you. What you see is my patrimony. My father, all my uncles, my grandfathers on both sides–all were soldiers. Were I to find you in this directory, all the instances of my family’s achievements, you would be shocked to think that I was the young man who ended up being their progeny. They were accomplished, powerful, feared, even loved in their community. They served the King, then the Kaiser, and were rewarded.

In the honest, real-life moments of my life and career, yes of course I used the family name, and they did to me as well. But it remains under the surface in my narrative. I would prefer no one would know.

AK: Of course, sir. I didn’t mean to make it sound as though I meant to pry.

AXEL: Ha-ha! That’s why you’re here. Who was it who announced to his audience ready to tear him to pieces, “Let us pry.” Pry away. You can’t hurt me.

AK: I wouldn’t dare try. But you’ve now come out with what really is an extraordinary tale. In fact, there are aspects of your story that some would find–

AXEL: … incredible! Oh, yes! The whole thing is incredible. I can’t believe I was thrust in that place, at that time, with that group of soldiers. Mostly I cannot believe that I met Klaus then.

AK: You seemed to be in such control of your life until he came along.

AXEL: I’ll admit that his personality, his character, his demeanor, his deportment, all struck me like a Panzerkampfwagen.

AK: A what?

AXEL: A tank.

AK: Yes, I can imagine. And, pardon me for saying it, but all those attributes are intellectual. Surely, there was a physical attraction as well?

AXEL: … Yes. Yes, there was. I don’t think anyone I have ever met in my life has impressed me as much as that young man did, raised in the north of Norway, worked his body up in the hard labor of a farm; toiled and lifted everything from rocks to haybales all day long. Yes, he was not only a handsome man, he was beautiful. Do you know what I mean? Beautiful. Like a Grecian marble, or one of those athletic statues that make you feel as though your breath has stopped suddenly. His face had such a perfect glow to it, with appealing proportions… oh, I am sure I bore you with this.

AK: No, not at all. Your descriptions of Klaus are downright rhapsodic.

AXEL: … verdammt! …

AK: You’re bleeding – did you break that glass?

AXEL: I apologize. Whenever I think of him, my whole head swims with a kind of milky delirium. Come with me. I’ll wipe this up. Would you hand me that serviette?

AK: I hope it won’t impair your hand for playing piano.

AXEL: I don’t play piano. I sort of worry the keys into submission.

AK: I didn’t realize you were such a Wagner fan.

AXEL: I’m not, really, but they don’t make busts of Franz Lehár. Listen to this —

AK: Perhaps you shouldn’t… you’ll get blood on the keys.

AXEL: Who cares? It’s only ivory from the tusks of elephants, hot-blooded animals whose teeth will soak up my blood as I play this wonderful music – what composer could ask for more?

AK: Beautiful, really. Beautiful. That’s from Gräfin Maritza?

AXEL: … pardon me for stopping so suddenly. No. Gräfin Maritza was written by Emmerich Kálmán. Now what is it you have come all this way to ask me?

AK: What do you think about your publisher going out of business, and now there are no copies of the book to be found?

AXEL (laughing): There is a copy in Germany available for something like 40 Euros! Ha haha! … No, I think it’s probably a sign from the universe that my story should be difficult to be found.  …that the books are being burned in the town square in Hamburg or something like that.  I think it’s just.  Consign them to the flames.

AK: Oh, I hope not.  I don’t mean to annoy you: it’s just that you seem to be such an intelligent and fascinating person.

AXEL: Thank you. I am neither.

AK: And I don’t believe your self-deprecation one bit. I think the world needs to see just how you sacrificed what you did, for your country, and… and the man you loved.

AXEL: Let us be perfectly clear. I sacrificed nothing. I did my best to control and destroy those who were out to control and destroy me. I could have controlled a whole pocket of Norway at one time; not as a conqueror, the way the other idiots thought they could, but as a leader. They loved me. I was their friend, their benefactor. I could have been their king or their first consul or God knows what.

AK: Sorry it brings tears to your eyes. That sounds so impossible.

AXEL: Well, there you have it, young man, there you have it. I tried the impossible, and failed miserably. I should have known from the outset that my own folly would land me in ruin. Did it? I ask you to conclude. Did it land me in ruin?

AK: It sounds like the end of the “Lady and the Tiger.”

AXEL: The what?

AK: An American story. At the end of which, the reader is left in doubt as to the outcome, and they’re meant to supplement what’s needed in their own mind to make it a satisfying story.

AXEL: Is that what my tale is to you? A joke? A puzzle? A novelty?

AK: I think some will see it that way.

AXEL: Get out of my house.

AK: Your brandy is superb, Herr Axel.

AXEL: If you run fast enough, what’s left of this glass won’t hit you in the arse on the way out.

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