I’m in the Fort Worth area today, working with media, school, and library contacts for my book signings and programs, making some book sales, and doing some exploring. I’m sure I’ll have some good stories to post. I also am supposed to meet with the Texas Civil War Museum folks to talk about a program there and to introduce them to my books. You can learn more about the Texas Civil War Museum here: http://texascivilwarmuseum.com/Programs.html
North Texas . . . What a prosperous area! So different from North Louisiana. I know I say the same thing I travel anywhere else: That’s an indication of what? The weather was perfect yesterday driving in, and looks like it will be the same today. I’ll be back in Monroe on Friday, and then on the road again early Saturday morning for Cherry Books in Thibodaux. Today I decided to post a short story, sort of auto-fiction, that was published a few years ago. The title is “Like a Good German Soldier.” It was published in Alternative, a literary journal of Eastfield Community College, Mesquite, TX, Spring 2001.
LIKE A GOOD GERMAN SOLDIER
ONE MAY AFTERNOON I WAS PLAYING WITH MY WORLD WAR II TOY SOLDIERS ON MY FRONT PORCH. I wove a jeep and a tank through elaborate battle-lines of German and American soldiers, and as usual, the Americans gave the Nazis a beating.
My father opened the screen door, stepped onto the porch and carefully maneuvered his way through the carnage of my battlefield. “Come on, son.” He walked toward our next door neighbor’s house.
“Yes, sir.” I scooped up my armies and threw them into their cardboard shoebox and trotted after him. Barefoot, I hopped across the sticker-filled scorched grass, taking care not to step in the black-dirt cracks which often served as trenches and bomb craters in my war games.
I followed him up to the door. After he rang the doorbell, a man appeared. He was younger than my father, with a blonde crew cut and ice-blue eyes.
“Yes,” he said, with a thick accent I had only heard on Hogan’s Heroes.
“I’m Amos,” he said, “and this is my son, Eugene. We live next door and want to welcome you to our neighborhood.”
He smiled and opened the door. “Please, come in, and thank you.”
A very young and pretty woman sat at their dining table reading an issue of Life Magazine.
“I am Rennicke,” he said, “and this is my wife, Erma. We are from Germany—from Dresden.”
“I’m from West Texas, myself,” my father said. “Eugene here was born in Dallas.”
“Please sit at the table and have some refreshments,” Erma said.
“That’s mighty nice of you,” my father replied.
Erma stepped into the kitchen and returned with bottled Cokes and a plate of cookies. My father took a long swallow of the Coke. “Ain’t nothing like a cold Coke on a hot day. It gets real hot here in Texas sometimes.”
“Dresden could be warm at times as well,” Rennicke said.
My father nodded. “Reckon so. I hope you like it here in America. My wife always wanted to see Germany since her grandparents came from there. I had a couple of uncles who saw Germany in World War II. I was drafted the day after the war ended and sent to Alaska.”
On the wall hung a picture of a German soldier in military dress. I rose from my chair and stepped closer for a better look.
“That is Rennicke,” Erma said. “He was sixteen when that photograph was taken.”
“You were a real German soldier?” I asked.
“Yes. Like your father, I was drafted,” Rennicke said. “But I did not fight Americans. Germany sent me to the Russian front. Amos, what duty did you have in the army?”
“They made me a clerk,” my father replied.
“I was a photographer.” Rennicke stepped to a bookshelf and picked out a photo album. He laid it on the table and opened it. “See?”
“Cool!” I said. I could hardly believe my luck. A ten-year-old like me getting to meet a real Nazi. And he had war pictures! This was even better than the last neighbor’s South American monkey. I scanned the room searching for swastikas and scooted my chair closer to the table so I could have a better look.
Rennicke slowly turned the pages, talking about each picture. Occasionally he would ask Erma how to say something in English. Most of the photos were of soldiers marching through deep snow, bombed cities, and battlefields strewn with dead bodies. On the last page, he pointed to two very dead Germans, lying side by side in their greatcoats, their arms stiff and reaching into the air.
“They were my best friends,” he said. “We grew up together. We were so young, but we were good soldiers. We knew the war was lost, but what could we do?”
I saw tears in Rennicke’s eyes, and Erma reached over and patted him on the shoulder.
My father nodded. “It’s always hard on a man to lose a friend.”
When our visit ended, my father invited the couple to come over that night to listen to country music and to enjoy a Mexican dinner my mother planned to prepare. They thanked us and we excused ourselves.
As we walked home, my father said, “I know he was a Nazi, and you know my uncle was killed by one of their snipers, but I reckon we can’t hold that against Rennicke and Erma, so you be real nice when you talk to them.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. As my father ruthlessly punished any mistreatment of people generally, the thought of abusing our Nazi neighbors had not entered my mind. My father’s punishments were few, but memorable. Probably brutal enough to cause any Gestapo agent to nod in approval.
Later that afternoon, Clifton Ray came over to see me. As usual, he was loaded down with equipment for our war games. He handed me one of his wooden toy rifles with a roll of caps, and we divvied up the dummy grenades he had purchased at the Army and Navy surplus store.
I snatched the German helmet. “I want to be the Germans today.”
“Why? You always make me be the Germans,” Clifton Ray said.
“I just want to be the Germans today.”
“I know. This time, let’s pretend we’re in Russia.”
“Where’s Russia?” Clifton Ray asked. “Ain’t in Mexico is it?”
“I don’t know where it is, but it’s got lots of snow.”
We played until dark, tossing grenades and sniping at each other from prone and standing positions. As mother called for me to come inside and clean up for supper, Clifton Ray jumped from behind the bushes and fired the final bullet of our conflict. I died—dutifully and dramatically—like a good German soldier. Clifton Ray saluted me, gathered up his arsenal, and walked home. The German helmet still on my head, I rose from my imaginary death-bed of snow and saw Rennicke on his front porch with a camera. He took my picture, nodded, then stepped back into his house.