A Young Girl's War and Peace - Part Four
Hitler was dead. A white bed sheet was strung up on the church steeple, flapping in the wind. It was to tell the world that we surrendered. Old Xaverl, with about four teeth left to hold a cold pipe in his mouth, sneered, “What do they think,we fight them off with, rotten cabbage?” His pipe was as cold as his hands; he had run out of tobacco years ago.
The village church was packed with women, children and a few old men. We were praying that the American Army should reach us before the Russians did. Our village lies deep in the Bavarian Woods, about twenty miles from the Czech border, so we were told it could be either one. But we knew one or the other would reach us within hours. Often, it was only the priest's voice that carried on, as we were too frightened to answer even with an "Amen".
Suddenly our waiting was over. The noise of the heavy tanks coming up the unpaved road drowned out everything else. After a short paralysis caused by fear, our priest left the altar and headed toward the exit and we followed, scared, but needing to know who was at the other side of the door.
It seemed neither Russia nor America had found us, but Africa. Huge tanks as far as the eye could see filled with black men. We learned later that they were African–American soldiers and that they were segregated from the white army. Until that moment, we had only seen black faces in books and through the eyes of the missionaries. But here they were in our village shouting in a language unfamiliar to us. They must have noticed our fear, because as they jumped off the tanks, grinning, they started throwing little packages at us children. We stood there frozen and watched while one of the soldiers, unwrapping something, popped it in his mouth and chewed on it vigorously, his face one big smile. The first brave one among us was ten year old George. Imitating the soldier, he ripped the paper open, put the same pink something in his mouth and started grinning from ear to ear. We needed no other invitation, and quickly we all fell in love with something strange but oh so delightful, called chewing gum. One of so many firsts!
The African–American soldiers put up tents outside the village, right where the Russian prisoners were kept a few month earlier. In the evening, they came to collect the firewood that was stacked in front of each house. The old farmers were not happy about that, but they also knew how cold those tents must be, unprotected from that icy Bavarian wind.
Months later their white counterparts arrived. They moved into the farmhouses and came equipped with bunk beds and huge duffle bags. We had twelve men taking over our upstairs bedrooms. My dad was angry, my mom scared, and we kids walked around with our mouths agape. First we saw men as black as coal, and now we were sharing our home with total strangers. What frightened Mom was that none of us spoke or understood this strange language, "English," that none of our doors had locks on them, that she had two teenage daughters to protect, seven children to keep an eye on, and now had a platoon of American solders under the same roof. Our main room was the living-dining room and kitchen, and now it became the sleeping quarters for seven kids. Our mattresses, straw stuffed burlap sacks, were lined up, wall to wall.
Sitting around the supper table one evening, Mama mentioned that she now had a photo of each soldier’s family. I was impressed, wondering how she was able to do that without speaking their language, but our dad was less complementary. "Why in the world do you want pictures of total strangers?" My mom smiled and said, "Now that I have seen that somewhere in America there is a wife, a child, or sweetheart waiting for them, they are no longer such strangers and we need to be less afraid."
My father was a wagon master and one of the solders was always in his workshop, making a nuisance of himself. The other soldiers called him "Pitcher." When he would find a round piece of wood, a couple of feet long, he would run into the yard and swing it like crazy. Soon my dad got to know which hunks of wood would keep the crazy American happy and out of his workshop. Pitcher would swing the piece of wood and we would watch and giggle after realizing that he was not going to clobber us with it. We did not know of baseball then, and to this day every pitcher I see is the one practicing his swing in our village.
Our favorite soldier by far was a man they called "Reese." He was a skinny little guy, who was never able to stand still. We wondered how he could march and we imitated his dancing walk. He took his rifle wherever he went, even to the outhouse. The word "Riese" in German means giant, so we knew it had to be his nickname.
The months went by quickly. The outside world was still in great turmoil but in our house we settled down to a peculiar but peaceful life with this sudden extended family. Many memories crowd into that year, but by far the most exciting and lingering is that of Christmas Eve.
The freshly cut evergreen tree was standing in the corner, all dressed up with homemade decorations, its candles lit. A huge pot of potato soup was bubbling on the wood–fired stove, while pumpernickel bread was cooling on the kitchen counter. My parents thought the men living above us would be homesick on this special evening, so Mom asked me to go upstairs and invite the soldiers to join us for supper. How in the world would I manage that? I was eleven years old. My timid knocking was drowned out by the ruckus and laughter of the men, but when the door suddenly opened, I forgot what I was there for. Finally I got my wits together and started waving my hands like crazy while walking backwards, hopefully indicating that they should follow me. To my amazement and pride they understood my wild gestures and I felt like a shepherd.
Mom pointed at the soup and bread and with big smiles they acknowledged the invitation. One of the soldiers went to fetch their mess kits and after a second thought handed them out to us kids. For the first time we children ate soup out of individual dishes, while the soldiers ate from the big communal soup bowls. On of the men pointed at a piece of potato on his spoon, then cupped his hands to indicate a whole potato. After repeating this gesture several times, it was my six year old brother Karl who understood his quest. "Mom, I think he wants a whole potato?” Well, that was one of the few things we could offer, if Karl was right. Then the feasting began. Reese put a big pot on the stove, melting down something white from a can, while another soldier started peeling potatoes. Usually this was my job, pealing the potatoes for the Sunday dumplings, and I was good at it. I even had a special little knife to do the job. But the soldiers had a gadget that was amazing. It would skim over the potato, taking only the skin, without ever cutting their fingers. It was called a "Potato Peeler," and they left it for me at their departure.
But, I am digressing from the important part of my story. Reese sliced the potatoes thinly then dropped them into the melted hot stuff, after a few minutes removed and drained them on newspaper, sprinkled them with a little salt and served us our very first "POTATO CHIP." Our hands and mouths were soon slippery with fat, our eyes shone and our taste buds danced with sheer delight. We never ate anything so delicious, and to think we had all the makings for it in our very own cellar.
One of the soldiers noticed the special ornaments hanging on the tree, which Mom had made out of wood shavings and the photos of the soldiers' families. The pleasure over that small kindness showed on their faces. Our dad, encouraged by the generous sharing of the Americans' "Jack Daniels" started singing "Stille Nacht." We kids knew that Dad could not sing and quickly chimed in to help him out. When the soldiers recognized the tune they joined in, singing "Silent Night." The walls of our old house vibrated with good cheer. The village was lying isolated and pillowed in deep snow. The howling mountain wind accompanied the strange mixture of voices in different languages. A celebration of Christmas, and it heralded in a new and promising year.
"Silent Night" was followed by many more American songs, but one in particular made the tears flow. Many years later, after coming to America, I heard it again. It was called "Home on the Range".
That night we children laid curled up next to each other, far away from black marching jackboots and safely surrounded by our very own army of homesick soldiers. That night, we dreamed of potato chips and roaming antelopes and a far away land.