Heinrich never, ever forget his first sight of the Hindenburg. He’d just taken the train down to Friedrichshafen, where the ship was making a brief stop before its first voyage across the Atlantic. He’d felt very superior, riding on the train, looking at the other passengers. He’d felt sorry for them, in the haughtiest sort of way, that they would remain bound to the land, crawling along, subject to every terrestrial obstacle; whereas he would soon be floating over continents and oceans. And then seeing the ship, just in from its triumphant maiden tour around Germany, tied down at the mouth of its enormous bespoke hangar on the shores of Lake Constance, his burgeoning pride seemed to him entirely warranted. It was really a ship, as big as a steamliner, and it behaved like a U-Boat in reverse, buoyed by the air in exactly the same way that submarines rise and descend in the much denser medium of the seas. Heinrich imagined cutting the mooring cables, and soaring up, up and away, to the roof of the sky and beyond, to something unspeakably grand.
His first tour of the ship, conducted by the head steward, Herr Kubis, didn’t disillusion him, though it was amazing to see just how much of the volume of that leviathan was divided into great pockets of emptiness. Passengers occupied a tiny slice of the Hindenburg’s belly: common rooms with grand exterior views on each side, and windowless cabins between them. Cargo, crew quarters, and control rooms were arrayed along its keel, ballasting the ship. The rest of the vessel was monopolized by giant membranes filled with hydrogen gas. They were made of some new sort of latex material. Herr Kubis told Heinrich they’d been made of animal guts in earlier models, that it had taken the innards of hundreds of thousands of cows to make one airship. That made him a little sick, thinking about it, but it seemed to mean nothing to Herr Kubis.
Strictly speaking, the Hindenburg could not have carried even a full cargo even of air. To float, it had to be still lighter than that. Thus all the hydrogen, and all the space that couldn’t be used. And even then, the ship didn’t like to float very high. Ascend very much, where the air is thinner, and a Zeppelin just starts to sink back down again. So it always flew low. That surprised Heinrich, and it usually surprised passengers too, especially those who had flown in airplanes. They flew low enough that it felt like they weren’t quite defying gravity, that the Earth was keeping them on a short leash.
And even with all that wispy-thin hydrogen, the little occupied sliver of the ship still had to be as light as the genius of the time could contrive. The interior looked nothing like Heinrich had thought – he’d imagined something like the pictures of the Bremen he’d seen in the illustrated papers, sumptuous decoration and heavy wood furniture, bringing its passengers slowly, but in great luxury, across the Atlantic. In fact every kilo was counted, and the furniture was spare and Spartan, made of aluminum tubing and fabric. Looking at the pictures now, one is reminded of the inside of a second-rate ferry, but back then it looked to Heinrich’s eyes like the essence of modernity, or even like the interior of some futuristic spacecraft.
Heinrich wondered if even he had been chosen for his lightness. He was not tall, and back then was also still very thin. Of course it was his uncle Willi, the handsome shopfloor genius of the Daimler Motorwerken in Unterturkheim, and then the ace mechanic of the Hindenburg, who had gotten him the job for its first commercial flight; a junior steward, terrified of flying, had had several panic attacks during the first trial voyages around Germany. He’d finally been kicked off the ship, and there was a sudden and urgent opening. Heinrich arrived just in time, two days before the ship was to fly out again. 29 March, 1936. That was the day of the plebiscite on Hitler’s remilitarization of the Rhineland, and he was glad of a good excuse to skip the vote.
It could have been even harder to get out of his previous job, than to get in to the Hindeburg, with the doubled salary it offered, and the relatively great prestige. Heinrich had been a waiter in a Gestapo officers’ canteen, at the Hotel Silber in Stuttgart, and one didn’t just walk out of a job like that.
Now, Heinrich was no Nazi, at any time, or so he claimed many years later. His father was a socialist, and two of his uncles were communists. Heinrich had started at the Hotel Silber in 1932, when it was still a real hotel and Weimar still reigned, and the security police of the republic occupied only a part of the building. But the next year the Nazis seized power and immediately doubled the number of police involved in the nasty political stuff, and they took over the whole hotel, along with most of the staff. So there was Heinrich, raised by members of the Internationale in good standing to hate Hitler down to his bones, and yet serving fancy meals on Hotel Silber bone china to some of the very worst sorts of his minions. It was humiliating, and made worse by the fact that most of them seemed to like him. He was blue eyed, and was blond back then, and usually considered comely enough, so he was the sort of German they liked; or even fancied, some of them. A number of uniformed men made passes at him in those days, and the higher they were in the Nazi hierarchy, the more likely they were to do so.
So Heinrich had been afraid that the head waiter at the hotel, who went everywhere with a picture of Himmler in a locket, was going to denounce him, maybe even have him sent to a concentration camp, when he showed him the telegram from his uncle. But the heading of the message immediately sold him on Heinrich’s release. “’The Hindenburg, under way over Franconia!’” he’d read, slapping him on the back. “Of course you must go! It’s at the leading, heroic edge of our glorious new era. I daresay you’ll have a chance to serve the Fuhrer himself his dinner, in the sky, one of these days.” He certainly misunderstood the reason why his words made Heinrich smile so broadly.
And then there was Heinrich in Friedrichshafen, home of the famous Zeppelin works, and birthplace of the Hindenburg, now being hastily prepared to leave Europe in less than thirty-six hours. An office boy wearing a DZR (German Zeppelin Line) uniform picked Heinrich up from the station and led him first to the company office in town for the necessary formalities of employment, and then to the lakeside airfield just outside of town. Heinrich could see the Hindenburg long before they reached it, and it took him a minute to realize that the little specks moving about larger specks beside the craft were people, and piles of supplies and parts waiting to be loaded. By the time they’d crossed the gravel field to the ship, half-sheltered by its correspondingly gigantic hangar, Heinrich had been awed into silence. He instinctively looked for the wheels or struts supporting the ship, but of course there were none. Even stranger to see it flying high in the sky, he thought, was to see it suspended just a few meters above the ground, as though it were levitating under a spell of black magic.
The boy hailed Herr Kubis, inspecting some food deliveries for the kitchen, who reluctantly hastened over to take charge of Heinrich. He followed the head steward into the ship via the starboard gangway, a retractable aluminum staircase with weight-saving holes punched all over its surfaces, a signature feature of the airship. Then they went up another, more elegant, flight of stairs to the main passenger deck for a first glance at his new workplace: the reading room and passenger lounge on the starboard side, and then the dining room to port, both with a little promenade along the downward-looking observation windows that pierced the airship’s otherwise opaque skin.
“This is a place for passengers to enjoy, and for you to work,” said Herr Kubis laconically. “Forget your grimy second-rate hotel in Stuttgart.” Heinrich involuntarily flinched. “I’ve been working on Zeppelins since before the Great War, and I have served some very fine people. Only people of real quality travel in airships, you know. And this is the greatest airship of them all. You’ll find only true elites taking passage on The Hindenburg. So think of this part of the ship like it’s something between the grandest restaurant you’ve ever heard of, and a temple. And If I catch you loitering here for as much as an instant, you will be disciplined.”
He considered Heinrich for a moment, like he was looking at a bug crawling on the floor, and debating whether to stamp it with his foot, or let it continue along. Then they walked back down the hall to the main stairway. Herr Kubis pointed out two corridors branching forward into a middle space between the common areas on each side. “There are the passenger cabins. Twenty-five cabins, for a maximum of fifty passengers. That area is absolutely forbidden to you, without my express permission, excepting a direct order from an officer. Now, let’s see what most concerns you.”
They went back down the stairs to the lower deck on the starboard side, and then forward along a short corridor with more windows on the right, past the passenger lavatories, to a dead-end, but with an odd-looking, sealed door on the left. Herr Kubis pulled up on a lever and opened it outwards to reveal a small vestibule, with an identical sealed door leading forward again.
“An airlock,” said Herr Kubis. “Protecting the bar and smoking room, which are pressurized, from the rest of the ship. The walls are solid, and insulated with asbestos. Nowhere else do we allow smoking, or even an open flame. A precaution, with all this hydrogen on board. This is where you will be most often working. I don’t trust you yet to work the dining room, apart from giving the dining stewards a hand at the busiest moments. Whereas Herr Schulze, the bar steward, he needs assistance here. Passengers are often ordering drinks to pass the time, and it will be your job to bring them to the lounge above, or to the smoking room just beyond the bar, on the other side of that door, which has proven to be a very popular place indeed. The bar is only closed for a few hours each day, so don’t expect to sleep much once we’re under way. Now, you will excuse me, I have much to do. I will let you introduce yourself to Herr Schulze. He will show you to your quarters, and give you what’s necessary.” Before Heinrich could say anything, the head steward was gone, closing the outer door of the airlock behind him.
Heinrich stared at the inner door for a few moments. He would probably have stayed there for some time, afraid somehow to enter what he suspected would be very strange sort of space. But it wasn’t much fun standing alone in a small airlock, either, so he quickly found some courage and knocked on the door to the bar, first softly, and then after a few moments, more insistently. Then the lever operating the door swung upwards, and the door opened with a faint hiss of air, revealing a man of ordinary build, the oldest man he’d seen on the ship, though still strong and vital-looking, with a square but kindly face. He looked at Heinrich and smiled.
“Are you the new kid? Willi’s nephew, right?”
“Yes, Herr Schulze. My name is Heinrich.”
“Of course it is. Well come in, and close the door behind you.” Heinrich fumbled with the lever for a few moments before getting the door to seal properly.
“Yes, that’s how it works. Must always keep that closed, too. Even if no one’s smoking right now. The captain won’t tolerate any exceptions. Well. You can call me Max, but only when we’re alone, of course. You’ll be working for me much of the time, it seems. Say, are you afraid of flying?”
“No sir, Max, sir. . . Well, I don’t think so. I’ve never flown before, but I can hardly wait to get up in the air. I’m sure I won’t be afraid.”
“With an attitude like that, I’m sure you won’t. Good. Your predecessor was quite the nervous fellow, from the moment they untethered the ship. At least he knew a few cocktail recipes. Do you know how to make cocktails, Heinrich?”
“I do, Max. Quite a few.”
“Do you know the American ones?”
“Yes sir. Mar-tinis and Man-hattans, especially.” He articulated the foreign words carefully, correctly except for the accents, and with some evident pride. “Cobblers, Fizzes too, things like that.”
“My word. How did you learn about that?”
Heinrich told him about the Gestapo officer at the Hotel Silber, who had gotten a taste for American-style cocktails as an intelligence agent in Paris during the 1920s, hanging out at some of the more expensive bars in the city. He’d lent Heinrich his copy of The Savoy Cocktail Book, and made him memorize his favorites.
“Well. Good to see that one of those devils taught you something, beyond snooping and torturing.” His friendly voice turned acidic, and Heinrich was startled. No stranger had ever spoken to him like that about the Nazi authorities. But Max returned instantly to his more usual tone of avuncular bonhomie.
“We’ll have to put an official cocktail menu together, my boy, and you’ll help me. You know,” he said, briefly descending to a faux-conspiratorial whisper, “I was a dining room steward, all those years on the Atlantic. Never served a cocktail in my life, until I got here. An American on the first flight asked for a Man-hattan, and I misunderstood him, told him we wouldn’t be going there for a couple of months yet, ha-ha. There will be lots of Americans on this ship, you know, northern ones, and southern. And we’ve got to get our German passengers to drink cocktails, too. Spirit bottles are heavy enough, but beer’s worse, and the captain doesn’t let us carry much of that. So you’ve got to sell them on the cocktails, when the beer inevitably runs out, so they don’t get too fractious. Liquor keeps a lot of these people calm, sailing at one thousand meters under a big bag of flammable hydrogen, ha-ha. Oh no, now I hope I haven’t scared you, my boy.”
Max’s stream-of-consciousness banter was bewildering, but also genial and charming. Heinrich didn’t have adults like this in his life, and he had the sense to recognize his good luck.
Max looked closely at Heinrich, and smiled. “Now why don’t you show me how you make your Man-hattans. We’ll have access to all the alcohol we want, until we lift off tomorrow, so we’d might as well take advantage of that while we can.” He pitched his voice to another jovially complicit stage whisper. “And we won’t get to drink anymore, either, once we’re aloft.”
“Sure, Max. . . I can make samples of some of the favorites from the ‘Silber, and you’ll tell me if they’re ok for the menu?”
Max’s smile broadened still further. “I think this is going to work out very well, my boy.”