The Tale of a Colorado Teenager, German POWs and the Upshot

 

Last week the book club I belong to was discussing a book involving family responsibilities. One member, Catherine, suddenly interjected —

“When I was 16 I was supervising 15 German POW’s on our farm.”

Her statement commanded everyone’s attention.  What did you say?  

“It started in ’41. Dad got these workers from a POW camp in Ovid. He picked them up and then drove them back at the end of every day.”

A Little Background

The POW camp in Ovid and its prisoners/farm laborers were part of the United States Emergency Farm Labor Program.   Between 1943 and 1946 there were 45 agricultural-related camps in Colorado.  They were in areas where the ordinary source of workers was greatly reduced because of the Armed Forces need for American men.  Between May and October, 1943, approximately 20,000 POWs arrived monthly.  By the end of 1945, the number of POWs totaled more than 340,000.*

Catherine’s family farmed 360 acres in Northern Colorado, where they grew sugar beets, “acres and acres of potatoes” and corn. The oldest of six children, Catherine had convinced her father when she was only nine years old to teach her to drive a truck “real slow” so she could help out in the fields.  By 1943, the 16 year old was such a skilled driver (farmers used to come and watch this oldest daughter who could turn the tractor on a dime) that her dad entrusted her with managing 15 German POWs.

Catherine’s WWII story

Eye on Kansas. “German Prisoners of War…” Dorothy Masters

“I was boss of the potato group. Some of them spoke English, badly, but they spoke it. I didn’t have sense enough to be afraid. I never worried at all working with them. They were just a bunch of men to me.   They were really very nice. They didn’t ever try to hurt me. Sometimes one of them, Hans, would jump on the tractor and ride along next to me. I have no idea why. I didn’t ask any of them anything.”

German Prisoners of War in Mississippi: mshistory.mdah.ms.gov

Catherine remembers them looking young, maybe in their 20’s, and that all were muscular. They wore POW uniforms. She wore overalls or jeans and a shirt.

“Years before, both my parents had been immigrants from Germany. My father could speak German and treated the POWs nicely, so they worked hard for him. Nobody caused any problems.

“Mother would sometimes bake a birthday cake for them even when she shouldn’t have. My parents treated the POWs like human beings.”

After the war ended, the POWs were returned to Germany. It was not the end of the story.

Upshots

“One day Daddy got a letter.  It was from  Hans who asked my dad if he could marry me.  Daddy read the letter and he just smiled. ‘Well,  mom,  looks like we’re going to lose our oldest daughter…’   I said, “Oh no, Dad!”

Whether Hans letter was motivated from a crush that grew in the midst of a Colorado potato field, or whether Hans simply wanted to come back to America — Catherine doesn’t know.

What she does know is the long-lasting impact those experiences more than a half-century ago have had on her, even today.

“Those experiences made a hard worker out of me, gave me a work ethic.  Even today I can’t stop working without thinking I am wasting my time.  As for the POWs, I think about them from time to time.

I wonder what they are doing in life.  I saw how my mother and father treated them, like they were human beings, too.  They way my parents acted affected how I see things.

Catherine went on to marry, have children, and  become a school teacher. In 1975 she was honored by the State Department of Colorado as one of the top three teachers of the year.

Asked if she would be afraid today of immigrants or refugees coming to the U.S. from countries some people consider hostile, Catherine responded:  “No, I think they are human beings, like the rest of us.”

*“The Enemy in Colorado: German Prisoners of War 1943-1946,”  Allen Paschal, The Colorado Magazine, 1979.

Oldest Daughter and the Dangerous Devices

 

An oldest daughter’s cautionary tales

Libby, an oldest daughter known for her cooking skills, was in the midst of preparing a favorite summer soup when it happened.  The recipe called for two cups of peeled, thin cucumber slices. To save time, she pulled a mandolin out from the white kitchen cabinet where it lives.  (Note: this mandolin is a kitchen utensil, not to be confused with mandolin(e), a musical instrument.)

She set her trusty mandolin on the counter and without further thought began pushing the slippery vegetable into the path of the instrument’s blade.

Instead the miniature guillotine found her  little finger and efficiently sliced off a strip from fingertip to second joint, leaving an (actual) blood-red smear across the countertop and sending the family’s chef cradling her right hand into an urgent-care facility.

This painful incident created food for thought.

Libby’s long-relied upon kitchen device had become dangerous, rather than helpful, through her use.  The mandolin actually looks a bit menacing—but it isn’t in everyone’s kitchen.

A different device can be even more dangerous, but is a million times (actual)  more common and attractive. 

  The cell phone, like the mandolin can be both useful and dangerous. Useful in connecting users by phone.  Potentially dangerous in capacity as mini-computer to divide, distance, or even create a darnel of widespreading discord.  Responsibility for how either the phone or the mandolin is used is up to the owner.

No doubt Libby’s mandolin came with instructions and warnings.  The instructions that come with smart phones typically simply explain battery use.  I’ve never seen:

 Caution.  Words spoken or texts sent cannot be taken back.  Time spent on apps is not the responsibility of apps.  May be addictive.   Distractions possible.  May mean less time for actual face-to-face interactions. Ignoring such warnings could result in damage to your personal relationships.  

Three weeks later, Libby’s wound is all but healed and her finger is in pretty good, though slightly different, shape.  The mandolin is once again residing in a kitchen cabinet.

Will you use it again? I asked.  “Oh, yes.  I can’t get along without it.  I was just careless. I knew better. From now on, I’ll be careful.  I’ll pay attention to what I’m doing.”

A recipe worth following.

 

Oldest Daughters: What to know if you are one or have ever been bossed around by one is now available at amazon.com, kindle.com, and upon request at select bookstores.

Oldest Daughter’s Last Day in Class

 

The last day of class in late May is the last place most students and teachers want to be, including this oldest daughter.

But that was the situation I faced as a first-year teacher, looking out onto 36 restless, energy-filled adolescent bodies in 6th period English.

Forty-give countable minutes stood between us and our mutual goal of freedom. I was accountable for getting us there.

I asked my students to take out three sheets of paper and put their names on the top of each.  Squawks and mutters followed.

“Huh? What happened to the final we took yesterday? This isn’t fair!”

I explained it wasn’t a test.  It was an experiment for an article I planned to write.  I didn’t tell them I was counting on the old adage that music soothes the savage beast to get us through this last class.

Their instructions were to listen carefully to three different recordings and write a paragraph about something each different piece of music made them think about.   Example — if the music was the Star Spangled Banner, they might write about July 4.

Most of the students were probably not familiar with the three pieces of music they’d be listening to— Offenbach’s “Gaiete Parisienne,” Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” and Ravel’s “Bolero.”  They’d have to concentrate.

I set the timer.  Begin.  Listen. Write whatever the music makes you think about.   When the timer goes off,  turn that page face down on the corner of the desk and pick up the next sheet.

They signaled to each other and to me with their looks that they thought the idea was crazy.  But they followed the instructions. Their silent concentration was music to my ears.  The ringing of the class bell ended the experiment.  “Pick up all your pages,  hand them to me on your way out, and have a nice summer!”

I wish I could tell you the results of the experiment, about the ways the different music had affected the thoughts and writing of those young minds.

 However after they left, I stuffed all 108 sheets of paper in my brief case, turned my semester grades in at the office, and headed for my own vacation.  I don’t recall what happened to those pages that summer or in the years since.

But the memory of my experiment has stayed with me.    When I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard to write a blog,  revise an article or simply send a thank you note — even if I’m not consciously listening to what’s playing in the background —

What effect does the music station –or CNN, FOX, MSNBC or talk radio– have on what I’m thinking and writing? On the message I’m conveying? On any recommendations I may suggest or on personal decisions I may make?

My former students might think it’s only fair that the experiment I conducted on them  has now become an experiment on my own mind, thinking and actions.