Stodghill Says So

An opinionated posting on a variety of subjects by a former newspaper reporter and columnist whose daily column was named best in Indiana by UPI. The Blog title is that used in his high school sports predictions for the Muncie Evening Press.

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Location: Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, United States

At the age of 18 I was a 4th Infantry Division rifleman in the invasion of Normandy, then later was called back for the Korean War. Put in a couple of years as a Pinkerton detective. Much of my life was spent as a newspaper reporter, sports writer and daily columnist. Published three books on high school sports in Ohio and Indiana. I write mystery fiction for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and others. Three books, Normandy 1944 - A Young Rifleman's War, The Hoosier Hot Shots, and From Devout Catholic to Communist Agitator are now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers. So are four collections of short mysteries: Jack Eddy Stories Volumes 1 and 2, Midland Murders, and The Rough Old Stuff From Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.

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Saturday, December 09, 2006

A Christmas Story From 1945

A decade ago a newspaper offered $100 for the best Christmas story submitted so I figured that amounted to $100 an hour, not bad pay. The following true story was easy to write and proved to be the best hourly rate to ever come my way.

The wind off the North sea cut to the bone as Frank Schwartz and I made our Christmas Eve rounds at the sprawling ordnance depot that had been a Focke-Wulfe aircraft factory. Even by 1945 standards, it was a bad night to be riding around in an open Military Police Jeep. Before our shift ended, another joyless Christmas Day would arrive with us still far from home. We had been told to be on the lookout for an intruder or intruders who had entered the depot several nights in a row. Aside from a few overly eager officers recently arrived from the States, who cared? The biting cold and ways of escaping it were of far more importance to us.
A sliver of light at ground level suddenly caught my eye. I pointed it out to Frank. He cut the engine, and we coasted toward the dark building ahead. As we drew near, we could see that a little light was escaping from one side of a blackout curtain still in place, although the war had ended months earlier.
We quietly entered the building and, not wanting to show a light, felt our way along a wall to the stairs leading to the basement. Frank had a .45 in hand, I carried a machine pistol. What would we find – a gang of criminals methodically stealing supplies to sell on the black market? That light was coming from a woodworking shop. When we reached the doorway, we saw a former German soldier clad in his old uniform working at a lathe. Adsorbed in his work, he was unaware of our presence. This was our notorious intruder.
As we entered the room, our weapons trained on him, the man looked up, all color draining from his face. We asked why he was there, but he didn’t understand English. Even so, he knew what was expected of him. After pointing to a small, three-wheeled wagon made of bare wood, he showed us the fourth wheel that he had been turning on the lathe. Then, managing a weak smile and holding a hand three feet above the floor to indicate size he said, “Knabe.”
Neither Frank nor I knew much German, but we were aware that “kuh-nob-uh” meant boy. He was building a wagon so that his small son would find something under the tree in the morning. Even a man with money, and obviously this one had none, could not have found a toy for sale in any German store that bleak Christmas season. For a moment, Frank and I looked at each other, then Frank pointed first to the lathe and then a clock on the wall. It was 10:30, so when the German limped over and placed a finger on 11 we understood that the little wagon would be completed in half an hour.
What should we do? Perhaps he had used a few scraps of U.S. government wood, but he had done no one any harm. We knew from experience that if we turned him in, the authorities would not see it that way. He would be given a long prison sentence. On the other hand, if we left him there someone else might find him. Then too, he might be caught if he tried to leave the way he had come. Either way, we could be in serious trouble ourselves.
So we waited there until he finished the job. When the last wheel was locked in place by a cotter pin, we beckoned for him to follow us outside. He was apprehensive, still uncertain of what was ahead as he climbed the stairs in an awkward, stiff-legged gait. A wool G.I. blanket was kept in the jeep, so we had him curl up as best he could on the floor in back. We covered him with the blanket and then drove to the main gate. Our route of patrol took us to the village of Einswarden and the nearby town of Nordenham, so we cruised on past the guards with a casual wave of a hand. We dropped the grateful German off at a corner near his home, then drove on to a service club where we could get hot coffee and sit for a while beside a fireplace.
I thought about the man, remembered his uniform from which all insignia had been removed. Lighter colored patches remained, telling us he had been a lance corporal in an infantry division. It had not been that long since Frank and I were infantry riflemen fighting Germans in similar uniforms. Strange how quickly things could change.
Somewhere nearby, a church bell tolled midnight. Frank raised his coffee mug to me. “Merry Christmas, Stodgy.” I touched his mug with mine and said, “Yeah, Frank, Merry Christmas.” And suddenly it was, thanks to a former enemy, a little homemade wagon and a small boy who would find it in a few hours. This was a gift that in happier, more affluent times ahead would never be found in any toy store. I knew, though, that no present, regardless of how expensive it might be, would ever light up a child’s face more brightly.
And while I didn’t realize it at the time, never again would the spirit of Christmas warm me quite so meaningfully as it did on that bitterly cold night beside the North Sea.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your more regular blog contributions. Your recollections of the war and reflections on life are wonderful first hand accounts.

11:43 PM  

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