The Summer the War Came to Town

She stayed quiet as a mouse, hidden behind the ice cream parlor by the railroad tracks that cut her little village in half.  These tracks were the lifeline of this town. People either worked for the railroad, or the salt mines that needed the trains to move the salt out into the wide world, or worked in the few stores, food stands and bars that supplied the salt mine and railroad workers with their physical needs and desires. The sprinkling of churches fulfilled their spiritual needs. The cemeteries cradled their sorrows.

Today she was staying hidden until the noon train came through carrying Army troops from the induction base in Niagara Falls to the docks in New York City where these brave men would ship out overseas to the Great War happening in Europe and Asia. She had it all planned out. When the train stopped to drop off the mail bag she would jump out waving the little American flag she had ‘borrowed’ from one of the graves in the village cemetery. Not from the Catholic section where her family’s dead reside. That would be sacrilegious at the very least. She would put the flag back into the ‘dearly departed son’ Methodist plot when the train pulled away.

Around 11:50 a.m. the villagers start to line the tracks on either side even though the Station Master has yet to ring the bell announcing the troop train’s imminent arrival. Over the past months when the train depot’s bell has rung, all the kids run alongside the slow-moving cars filled with smartly uniformed young men, throwing them candy and cigarettes and yelling ‘kill a Kraut for me – or two!’, or ‘Good luck over there’ or ‘Hurray for the USA’ and other foolish things. She stays hidden until the last possible moment because she is supposed to be at her Grandpa’s Bar and Grill helping her Grandma serve the lunchtime crowd. She sneaked away when everyone was otherwise occupied. Not a great plan, but she never liked missing a troop train going by.  It was the only excitement in an otherwise dull as dishwater weekend.

But today is different. No bell is rung even though she can hear the train rumbling along the tracks, see the black smoke as it rises into the still noonday air. Now, as she peeks around the corner of the ice cream parlor she sees the engine is not pulling passenger cars, but cars used to transport cattle. As the cars roll slowly by, there are eyes peering through the slats and uniformed arms hanging out with  strange-looking marks on the sleeves. The crowd is stone silent. No one throws cigarettes or candy. No one waves an American flag. She hears a man’s voice – the Post Master’s? – say ‘These aren’t our boys. They’re Nazi devils. May they rot in Hell!’

And, in the blink of an eye, she understands what has been going on in the valley a few miles from her village, not far from where she lives with her Grandparents. But why here, in the middle of nowhere? Or is that the point? Who would ever guess there were German POWs near little Silver Springs, New York? Her curiosity pulls her from her hiding place. The villagers who are lining the tracks stand as still as cemetery statues. No one is looking around, so she walks up to the curb in front of the ice cream parlor and, she too, stands stock still while the cattle cars roll slowly by. She is fascinated by the pairs of eyes staring at her and, against her patriotic will, she waves a small wave to one young face partially showing through a fair-sized hole in the side of one of the cars. She sees his blond hair, blue eyes – one eye really – and a chin with very few whiskers on it. Why, he can’t be more than 17! She wiggles her fingers again and he flashes a brief smile, then a look of despair clouds his face once more as his car moves on down the track.

After the last car exits Silver Springs and the train picks up speed again, the few villagers still standing around shake their fists at the receding caboose. A few yell swear words, but most just turn away and go back about their business. She feels she is the only one who wants to follow the train and get a closer look at ‘the enemy.’ She knows about the terrible war in Europe and in the far off Pacific Ocean. Aren’t her two favorite uncles, Rudy and Jimmy, over there fighting the Nazi and Japanese devils? Doesn’t she hear her Grandma crying at night while cradling pictures of her beloved sons? And yet…something gnaws at the edges of her mind as she walks slowly back to her Grandpa’s bar, the American flag belonging to ‘dearly departed son’ left behind at the curb. The young Nazi man she got a glimpse of. Isn’t his mama crying at night for him, not knowing he is alive and right here in Wyoming County scared and missing his home?

She resolves in that moment to go to the POW camp and find that young Nazi man.

Well…that was easier said than done. When her Grandma found out she had skipped lunch duty she was stuck working in either the bar washing dishes or in the house doing just every chore her Grandma could think up for her to do. She couldn’t see any of her friends outside of school for a week!

But, finally, the week ends and on a Saturday afternoon after her chores are done she knocks on  her best friend’s kitchen door and the two are off to the ice cream parlor. While savoring every last drip of their vanilla cones she lays out her plans for sneaking close to the POW camp. She doesn’t say she is looking for any one POW in particular, just spying on everyone in there. Her friend is hesitant to go along but they did everything together so she finally says yes.

They get their bikes and start the four mile trek towards Castile. The road is mostly flat so an easy ride until they reach the small hills that border the camp. As they crest the steepest hill, panting with the effort, her mouth drops open and an ‘Oh my goodness gracious’ escapes her lips. The girls look at each other in amazement then back to the scene below.

There are lots and lots of people down there, maybe hundreds, maybe a thousand! Barbed wire fencing surrounds a huge piece of land. There are many low buildings where the prisoners must sleep. There are outhouses scattered around the perimeter. There are American soldiers with rifles walking around the camp and four small towers with armed men guarding the fence lines from above.  After taking this all in, the thought occurs to her: What do they do here all day? It is late June and getting warmer in the afternoons. There are no trees in this valley for shade and nothing to keep hundreds of men occupied day after day. The general atmosphere seems pretty calm from her perch. Maybe these Nazi prisoners don’t mind so much being away from the war at home. Maybe they are even a little glad to be here. It seems like a safe place somehow.

After an hour or so the girls pedal home, each lost in her own thoughts. How am I going to find the young Nazi  I saw for 10 seconds the day the train rolled by? I will find a way to see him again. I will!

The days and weeks go by in a blur of end-of-the-schoolyear activities. She graduates from the eighth grade and soon it is the 4th of July and the summer heat and general lethargy have kicked in. the girls have no opportunity to go back to the POW camp and are itching to do so. They have started their summer jobs making money that both families need, working evenings in the ice cream parlor when it is busy with kids and even grownups lining up for a cold milkshake or ice cream cone. Their arms ache from scooping ice cream from the big tubs behind the front counter but this is good for their muscles when it comes time to harvest the field crops come early August. She also works every morning and afternoon at her Grandpa’s Bar and Grill.

She daydreams about the Nazi soldier, trying to picture what he is doing, which building he lives in, how he spends his long, hot summer days. She gives him a name. Heinrich. The only other German-sounding name she knows is Rudolph, but that is her favorite uncle’s name and he is overseas in Germany fighting the Nazis, so that doesn’t seem right.

It’s August now and the first field crops of tomatoes and green beans and snap peas are ready to be picked. Because so many area men are away to the war, every able-bodied villager has to go out to the farms to help with the harvest. The girls ride off on their bikes at 6:00 a.m. even on a Sunday morning. The village priest has granted a ‘special dispensation’ for his parishioners to miss Mass for the next month of Sundays. Even he is out in the fields in his funny straw hat picking tomatoes and beans alongside his flock of worshipers.

One especially sweltering Sunday morning there’s a thrumming noise along with a long, single cloud of dust as truck after truck move along the one road leading to the fields. The trucks stop alongside the villagers’ bikes and out jump the Nazi POWs still in their army uniforms, now a bit tattered and frayed but, it must be admitted, still smart-looking. The girl looks up from her row of green beans and there before her stands her German soldier – as she has thought of him these many weeks – tall, blond with the clear blue eyes piercing into her very soul. And she is catapulted into a future in which she is an old woman telling this story to her great-granddaughter Liesle who has the piercing blue eyes and white- blond hair of her great-grandfather, long dead now, whose name turned out to be Heinrich. Really……