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.

How a tennis trip turned into tips for an oldest daughter

Last weekend I went to a tennis tournament at the awe-inspiring 18,500-acre Air Force Academy in the Rocky Mountains.  Liz, a friend I’ve known since we shared an apartment after college, went with me. Trying to find our way to the courts,  we took the wrong road.  We ended up at a guard station in a restricted area where we were promptly and firmly turned around.  Once back on the correct road,  we looked at each other and laughed out loud.  “What would our 22-year-old selves think if they could see us now?”

That  led to something we’d heard about on national TV: writing a note of advice to a younger version of ourself.  The project had gained a lot of attention when Vice-president Joe Biden made public the letter he had written to his 12-year-old self.  Liz and I wondered what we have learned that might have helped our 22-year-old selves avoid taking the wrong road in the future.

letter to self

Back home, I found a picture of myself at about that age and sat down to write.  

 

Dear Patty:

I’m writing from an age you can’t imagine you’ll ever be.  Patty is the name everyone in our family and friends from school continue to call you.  Pretty soon new friends and colleagues will call you Pat.

This note is about the relationships you will have going forward with those who call you either Patty or Pat.  And with yourself.  And about how all these relationships are affected by the words, “oldest daughter.” 

Tip #1. “Oldest daughter” describes where you fit in the family lineup. Don’t let those words define you.

That can be a little hard, because it’s the way everyone in the family continues to think of you.   Mom and Dad have brought you up with expectations — to set the example, to lead, be responsible and caring. Our three younger sisters and brother expect those same things from you. They’ve watched and learned from what you do and the choices you’ve made.  They’ve grown to trust and often rely on you. 

Tip # 2.  Studies show that leadership and nurturing are characteristics that  go along with being an oldest daughter.  You’ve already experienced both.  You can choose, or not, to continue developing them.

In the future, you will be surprised at the expectations our family and others, without even thinking about it, will continue to have of and for you.   Sometimes you’ll feel frustrated when others don’t seem to  see what needs to be done or to take charge of a situation in need of “fixing.”  So you’ll end up doing it.    You’ll set yourself up to be overwhelmed if you continue to take on others’ expectations while also responding to the needs of your husband, your children, your job.  And I haven’t even mentioned taking care of yourself.

Tip #3.  It will be up to you to set boundaries that respect your own time and energies.

 

Tip #4.  Re-read Tip #1.  Then understand that what will define you is up to you and your choices going forward.  You have the right to decide what role you will play in contributing to this great, wide world we’re each part of.

That’s it for now.  

Till next time, with love from 

Your Older Self