I had been sleeping, but suddenly I was awake because the approaching bombers made my window buzz. That’s how it started when the bombers came at night. I would suddenly awaken to the harmonic, high-pitched, buzzing-whine coming from one of my bedroom windows. I used to think my window was crying.
It was almost imperceptible at first. It was so faint that now, years later, as I think back on it, I wonder how this tiny noise could have awakened me. But it did. As always, I was tense, my mouth dry, my heart pounding. Somewhere above me, bombers bristling with machine guns, sliced through the night sky.
They were heading for, or departing from the U. S. Army Air Corp. flight training base and prisoner of war camp 10 miles northwest of McCook, NE, my home town. But in my mind, they made real to me the solemn, and mournful muttering of my parents who spoke quietly of “THE WAR,” of Germany, of Germans, of invasions, of ships lost at sea, of my uncle Mark, who lived aboard one of these ships and whose letters home were opened and cut apart by censors before they reached us, and of George and Ida’s boy who wouldn’t be coming home anymore.
Geography didn’t mean much to me when the war started. I was about five then, and I was probably six or seven when the bombers began appearing over my house.
Where was Germany, anyway, I wondered? With B-17 bombers this close, could Germany be far away? Assurances from my parents helped, but as far as I was concerned, Germany was just over the horizon. To add to the problem was the every day occurrence of watching truck loads of German prisoners being hauled down the street, escorted by jeeps fitted with machine guns, and guards carrying submachine guns and 30 caliber carbines.
“Ve geits . . . ve geits — hello, how are you!!” we yelled as the convoys rolled down the street, taking the prisoners to work for local businesses that had contracted for their labor. Some smiled and waived back. But these smiley ones, these waiving ones, my playmates and I reasoned, were the ones whose job it was to make friends with us so that the others — the ones with hard eyes, the ones who didn’t waive back — could storm our houses, kill our parents and take us captive . . . probably to Germany, wherever that was, and make us fight for them.
“I heard they got a little boy in Holdrege,” my cousin, Donny, said gravely. “German prisoners from the camp at Holdrege. No one’s seen ‘im since.” And we believed him. You couldn’t put anything past a true Wehrmacht soldier in 1943.
Indeed, these were perilous times. So, there I lay, listening to the sound of the bombers grow louder and louder, with visions racing through my head of armed storm troopers sneaking down my alley and approaching the rear of the white stucco house where my little brother and I shared a bedroom. What could I do? What should I do? Should I slip into the night and send up flares so the bombers could bomb them?
As the bombers came closer and the house began to rattle, I sneaked out my hand from under the covers, and searched the dark space between the bed and dresser for my gun — a rusting old toy six-shooter. It had a broken spring so the hammer flopped back and forth noisily. I had to be careful that it didn’t make a noise as I drew it under the covers. Wouldn’t do for storm-troopers to know that my weapon was not only a toy, but inoperable as well.
How I longed for a weapon equal to the task that lay ahead of me. The protection of my home and family seemed entirely up to me. Mom, for example, went about her business cooking, canning, tending the Victory Garden, and collecting things to throw on the scrap metal pile downtown on the public library lawn.
My father, a local Buick dealer, wasn’t much help either, unless you counted the mountain of five gallon cans of gasoline he squirreled away in the garage. I wondered where he was going that he needed so much gasoline. I kept my eye on it, though. It would make a fine explosion if the storm troopers got too close.
Finally, there was Gene, my little brother. Frankly, he was too young and too small. He tagged along with us, yelling nasty things at the Germans. But, basically, I concluded, he was too small to be effective in an all-out blood and guts fire fight. His willingness to hurl his tiny body against the Germans was comforting, however. I’d have to keep that in mind if it ever became necessary to order my troops into a fire fight in the alley behind my house one dark night.
No, I concluded, a willy-nilly mother, a gas-crazed father, and a blond-haired, blue-eyed little brother who looked like an angel were not going to scare off any Germans. I needed a weapon. Something that had some clout. Something that would scare the Be-Jesus out of them as they scared it out of me.
While obtaining a suitable weapon was always in the back of my mind, I and my friends, and my little brother, spent endless hours prosecuting the war as best we could with our sad array of homemade and toy weapons.
In all, we were six. There was me, my brother, Gene, and my cousin, Donny Schaaf, who, in my mind, made up the Allied Expeditionary Forces on the side of the street I lived on. Playing the role of the Axis Powers were Billy Laugus, Bobby Prest, and Gary Gierhardt. They were neighborhood kids who, I’m sure, thought of my band of three as their Axis Power. Over the years, there were many adventures in which we were truly a band of six. But in a matter so grave as war . . . well . . . one needed a real, live, walking, talking enemy, someone who daily would march on cue into withering machine gun fire and grenade attacks.
We were all the same age, more or less. For the next four years or so, we played war. As the years 1940-45 lurched along, our war games progressed from the general to the specific. We started simply by shooting at each other with whatever play-weapons we could come up with or create from a bit of wood, some string and pipe.
In the beginning, the full frontal assault was all we knew. We marched straight ahead, often with sharpened twigs for bayonets protruding from homemade guns. Billy, Gary and Bobby were put off at first by our bold frontal move, but they soon countered with the always-effective ambush.
And so it went. One day, their side claimed victory, and another day, our side controlled streets, yards, fences and alleys, with the Axis Powers licking their wounds in a vacant lot across the street. The fun thing about that was that Bobby lived two blocks south which meant that on a losing day, he either had to go out of his way to get home, or travel through enemy territory. We used to wait until he overstayed his playtime. It was get home, or miss dinner for Bobby. That’s when we struck from our own ambush. We’d capture him, and parade him up and down like a trophy until his mother called.
Early on, the ultimate event in our war games was the coming of the bombers. Whoever heard them first had a special dispensation from flying bullets and mortar fragments. He got to stand up in plain view, point skyward and scream at the top of his lungs, “THE BOMBERS ARE COMING . . . THE BOMBERS ARE COMING!!!” And more important, whoever heard them first got to claim them for his side. They belonged to his faction, and they got to pretend the bombers were bombing the other guys. In simple language, this was big medicine for the side who heard them first and got to claim them as their own.
Sometimes, especially when the bombers were returning to base, they would fly over at rooftop level. When this happened, both sides had the privilege of suspending hostilities as we stood and watched them thunder overhead with their bomb bay doors open and their machine guns prickled up like porcupine quills. They were so close I used to reach out my hand, pretending to touch them. What a magnificent weapon one of these would be for the war going on inside of me, in my quest of find something with which I could protect me and my family. Once in awhile, I swear I could see someone waving back at me through a cockpit window or a machine-gun turret.
I couldn’t tell whether it was me or the earth that shook as they skimmed above us, their engines spitting fire and fury into the evening sky. For me, time stopped. Surely if the Germans could see these gigantic warplanes with their guns and bombs, they would surrender. I prayed for that day. Or, second best, for that elusive weapon that would truly protect me from the storm troopers who nightly invaded my dreams, and the bombers that chased them away.
The war plodded relentlessly on, and by the next summer, new intelligence reached my command post. Someone had begun building a house in the vacant lot that we used variously for our pretend North Africa, commando salient, and killing fields. There was a great hole in the ground, and a mound of earth that grew daily. We were a winter older now. Each of us sported a bit more girth and width. We were stronger, too. Enough so that even my little brother, straining until his blue eyes nearly popped out, could pitch a dirt clod across the intersection at the enemy.
Thus, a new phase of the War of the West Second Street Irregulars was born. It was called, simply, “READY FOR WAR!!!”
The way it worked was that at any moment, unannounced, any member of either group — us or them — could burst into the open, making sure he was seen, or at least heard, by the other side, and scream, “READY FOR WAR,” whereupon challenger and challenged would begin hurling clods from previously placed, but carefully hidden, piles gathered from the construction site on the corner.
This put my side in something of a disadvantage, however. The new house was in the next block. It bordered Gary’s property. As in real war, we learned that front lines were fluid things. It became necessary for my side to form raiding parties to lay in fresh supplies of dirt clods. Desperation gripped us, and in an effort to even things up, the war now took a sinister turn — on occasion, we buried a rock in the middle of a dirt clod.
However, as war’s fortune often goes, my cousin, Donny, turned up one day with a shield.
“It’s a Viking shield,” he announced with absolute certainty.
It looked more like an old granary manhole cover. It had arm-loops, but it was almost too heavy for any of us to lift. The arm loops were spaced so far apart that it hurt the crook of our elbows when we snuggled it up to our chests, and it was so large that it bruised our shins when we ran with it.. My brother, still smaller than the rest of us, staggered and fell under it’s weight. In the heat of battle, we were too busy hurling clods across the street to wrestle with the shield, so we propped it up in front of our clod pile and stuck my brother behind it where he was safely out the line of fire, and he could feed ammo to Donny and me.
However, the shifting fortunes of war were once again kind to us. An uncle who lived two houses away on our side of the lines decided to turn the vacant lot beside his house into a huge Victory Garden. Suddenly, an acre of clods lay before us. Some even had spiky roots and stickery things poking out. And better yet, it wouldn’t be long before hard, green tomatoes came on, not to mention cornrows for hiding, and ears for throwing. At last, we had an ammunition dump on our side of the lines. However, as in the real world, we now faced the prospect of fighting in two theaters. Front lines changed often and dramatically. One day, we held their high ground, only to lose it all the next day and be forced to slug it out in the alleys, yards, and in, around and under the green apple trees of a neighbor who told us, bluntly, that those hard-as-golf-balls-perfect-for-throwing green apples were for pies, not for ammunition.
Meanwhile, the bombers continued to play their part in our daily struggle. But things had begun to change. The bombers became part of a larger effort. It was now an all-out push to win THE WAR. Our battles were ferocious. Many times that summer, my troops and I stopped by the aid station to have one of our mothers bind up our wounds before we skulked out to seek and destroy the enemy. And, at night, as I lay down to sleep — in my foxhole, of course — the storm troopers who came for me had bombers of their own. The war, it seemed, would never go away. And I would never find the weapon I needed to make safe this tiny piece of ground I called home.
It was during that winter that I really thought the Nazi’s were closing in on me. As I and my troops trudged through snow so cold that it shattered our brand new Neo Lite shoe soles, an incredible explosion rocked the ground and rattled windows in every home in McCook. The military ammunition dump at Hastings, NE, about 100 miles east of my hometown, blew up as I and my troops walked to school
“Sabotage,” folks said. Newspapers discussed the possibility of foreign agent skullduggery. The town wondered aloud. Prisoners at the air base were locked down. All approaches to the air base north of town were patrolled around the clock. Jeeps with the covers off their machine guns scurried everywhere.
That’s all I needed to spur me on in my search for finding ways to fight back. Something had to be done. By the time summer rolled around I had a new wrinkle to the war of clods, one that brought a cessation to hostilities, and made allies of us all.
It was a game I called HITLER HOUSE.
All we needed to play the game was a toy soldier made of metal, a cardboard box, some gasoline, and all the kids in the neighborhood.
The hardest part was coming up with the cardboard box. In those days, everything was rationed, including paper. Boxes could be recycled or re-used. You didn’t just find one lying around going to waste. You practically had to know someone to get a cardboard box.
As luck would have it, I knew someone.
My grandfather operated a little neighborhood grocery store a block from my house. Because of his store, he was sort of the king of kings around there. For example, when he received his allotment of sugar — a commodity over which grown-ups were known to have fights — he shared it first with friends and family. And he always held a few pounds in reserve for local emergencies . . . the birth of a child, the loss of someone’s fighting son, and the gathering that would follow these solemn events.
Handing over my ration book was one of the few things I actually, really, really did during the war that made me feel as though I were doing something for my family. Grandpa made a great fuss over tearing out the little stamps and putting them in the jar where he kept them for the OPA (Office of Price Administration). Standing there, waiting for him to hand back my book, I remember wondering whether German children also had ration books.
It was usually while he was making a fuss over my ration book and me that I hit him up for a box or two. He smiled a sort of sideways smile, looked at my mother, and nodded his head real big.
“You come around in the morning. Take the trash out for me, and I’ll see what I can do.”
I already knew because I had snooped out the box supply in his back room. I picked up the box the next morning, and put out the word that today was HITLER HOUSE day.
The gathering began after lunch. Everyone . . . all the West Second Street irregulars, Axis and Allied . . . met at my place. However, unlike the noisy war games we played, this gathering was almost silent, somewhat solemn, much like the quiet of a Catholic church in which a requiem mass is about to be said. We hung out in the shade of the big tree in my back yard. There was little conversation. It was a nervous kind of quiet. We talked to each other, but in a hushed kind of way, avoiding eye contact, avoiding touching one another.
When we were all there, we headed for the alley behind my house. I pirated some of dad’s gasoline. Someone produced some newspaper from a pile earmarked for the library war drive scrap heap. We rumpled the paper and put it on the ground. I solemnly sprinkled gas on it. On top of the gas-soaked paper went the box, open side down. On top of the box went the toy soldier.
Someone produced a wooden match, struck it, and twisted it slowly round and round, making sure it caught. Then, with great ceremony, he dropped it on a tail of gas-soaked paper, and KAWOOSH!!!
The box was Hitler’s house, and the tin soldier on top was Hitler. And we, the fighting men of West Second Street of McCook, Nebraska, USA, had set it afire. We’d caught the SOB and we were burning him out. We were quiet at first, as though hypnotized. We stood rooted the spot, watching shimmering streamers of heat race upward into afternoon sky.
Before long, someone said something about Hitler he wouldn’t repeat in front of his parents. After a bit, we began milling around so we could watch all sides of the box blacken and curl in the flame. In another couple of minutes, we began moving like Indians around a campfire. More unrepeatable words were directed at Hitler.
“Hey, bastard, why don’t you come out and fight?”
“You scared . . . well are you, you son-of-a-bitch?”
“You’re not so tough . . . you . . . SOB.” This from Billy, whose mother wouldn’t let him swear even at Nazi’s.
The sides of the box began twisting and contorting in the flames. Our random curses grew until they became a frenzied chatter, and our feet moved in an uncontrollable dance, raising the dust of the alley so it mixed with the rising currents from the box . . . from Hitler’s House. Faster and faster we went, round and round the box, spitting and hissing at our surrogate Hitler, as if willing upon him the death he had brought to someone known to each of us.
The box continued its tortured twisting until Hitler began to tilt perilously, about to fall into the center of the blackened box. As if acting on an unheard cue, we all stopped, and watched, mesmerized, as the little soldier teetered, quivered and, at last, pitched headlong into the smoke and flames.
At this moment, our voices rose like a chorus . . . “Yea . . . Hitler’s dead . . . Die, you SOB (from Billy) . . . Bastard . . .”
And then, chests heaving, hearts pounding in our temples, we fell silent, and in less than a minute a great solemnity seemed to engulf us. Speaking was difficult, and, feeling a bit sick in the pit of our stomachs, we all had the urge to pee and go lie down. In another minute, we drifted away, each of us headed for the cool shade of our own back yards, or the quiet of own porches or bedrooms.
After this, the war of the West Second Street Irregulars slipped into limbo for a few days. I’ve never completely understood this. Was the symbolic burning of Hitler too much for children our age? Did we, even as children, glimpse too early in life the bottom of the well that resides in every man? Or was it simply a way for us to reconcile ourselves with an unseen but real monster who was killing our friends and relatives?
It was shortly after one of our Hitler House burnings that my mother, taking Father Stack at his word in a sermon about sharing, invited home for dinner that Sunday a lonely young airman from the base.
It was one of the best things mom ever did, for through this gesture, I came about as close to finding what I needed as I’d ever get — the ultimate weapon for which I had searched so long.
The airman, I learned, was a gunner on a bomber, and, yes, he’d flown over my house many times. Even waived, he said. Mom smiled at this. He shared my enthusiasm for doing away with Hitler, and promised to tell his friends about Hitler House.
Later, he sent me a note and a 50 caliber machine gun bullet from his bomber. These were the bullets he fired at other planes, his note said. This bullet was so powerful it could shoot down German planes from a great distance.
I was thunderstruck. It was a magnificent bullet. Larger than any of my fingers, and longer than my hand. Surely a bullet fired by the likes of this young lion would win the day, would turn back the invader, and would keep me safe.
I don’t remember his name. But he was confident. Somehow, he transferred
his confidence to me. Perhaps it was the bullet. I don’t know. But I have the bullet still. I keep it safe. I keep it for him . . . and for me. It stands for a young man who, in my eyes, faced down Hitler while, I, a small boy, could only burn him in effigy. I keep it for a time when bombers nightly flew over my bed and rattled my windows and scared the absolute Be-Jesus out of me.
Somehow, holding that bullet in my bed at night helped me understand what was going on above me as wave after wave of bombers thundered north through the night sky. I keep it for the times I, alone, stormed Hitler’s bunker and set it ablaze on hot summer afternoons in the safe, cool shade of my house . . . a house directly in the path of the bombers, the bullets, Hitler’s house, and the brave young airman who went out to face him for me.
I pick it up every once in awhile, now, and roll it around in my hand. It is surprisingly smaller than it used to be, but it makes me feel like I did half a century ago. And when I close my hand on it, I can still hear the deep rumble of big engines, and I see a small boy peering cautiously into the charred remains of Hitler’s House.