What if the Nazis Came Back?
When I was four my mother took me to Liverpool for Christmas shopping. She drove our Morris Minor through streets rendered to rubble, buildings torn in half, bare walls of bedrooms, peeling flowered wallpaper stained by rain, a sink hanging from what was one a bathroom wall.
“What happened to all the houses ?” I asked.
“ The Germans dropped bombs on them,”she said”
“”Will they come back?” I asked.
She stared ahead through the windshield.
“We hope not” she eventually said.
The landscape everywhere showed remnants of war. Bomb craters in the the fields around our village filled with water. Became the ponds I trudged to for tadpoles, mud sucking at my Wellington boots. Along the beaches, barbed wire scrolled the dunes, rusty, terrible.We rode our ponies carefully through the narrow places where locals had cut the wire away, hoping nothing would startle them to shy. Once on the wide beach we’d canter for miles, wet wind in our faces. There were signs warning of landmines washed ashore. We rode anyway knowing one wrong placed hoof could end everything.
In a drawer in the kitchen table my mother kept our ration books. One for each member of the family, our names hand written on the cardboard covers.Three eggs a week, two pints milk per child, a small portion of meat on Sundays. At birthdays, mothers told how many eggs they’d put in the cake. Each slice, more delicious knowing the the family would have only porridge for breakfast.
A memory: I am sitting on the rug in front of the coal fire in the kitchen. My mother has given me a slice of toast. I eat out the soft center, soggy with margarine .When the center is gone I toss the hard crusts into the fire.They flare briefly. In a moment my mother is yanking me to my feet with one rough arm, slapping my face with the other. “Never, never throw food away”, she screams, dragging me up the stairs, pushing me into my bedroom, slamming the door.
I stole pennies from my mother’s purse, buried them at the end of the garden in case the Nazis came back and killed my parents. The war was over. But you never knew. I’d need to take care of myself.I ’d need somewhere to live with my dog. Built a den under the Laurel tree just in case
In 1952 my father bought a television so that we could watch the coronation of the Queen. After that on the small black and white screen, we watched Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, The Lone Ranger, and. . . endless of footage of the war. Goose stepping Nazi soldiers, endless parades of tanks. And the death camps.Those narrow, haunted faces behind barbed wire. But what burned into my child mind was a Nazi propaganda film. Rats teaming through the sewers of Berlin, thousands running frantic. Then it switched to a crowded street in a Jewish ghetto. Then the running rats superimposed over moving crowds of Jewish people. Then close ups of Jewish faces, blending their into profiles of rats. Pointed noises, darting eyes.The staccato German commentary I didn’t have to understand.
After that came the night terrors: what if the Nazis came to our house, black jack boots, peaked hats, swastikas. What if they said they’d kill my father unless I ate dog poop. Or even our dog himself.Could I do it? I didn’t know. Or they would kill my mother or me. My choice. Would I step forward?
I’ve lived most of my life in California now where strawberry fields stretch to the edge of the bay and fruit drops from trees. But there is another kind of blind wealth here. I sense it in my friends who as children stood each morning in classrooms, hands on hearts pledging allegiance to a flag. As if this could save them. As if this could protect them from the terror other countries know. America. Land of the Free. The best country on earth. What could possibly go wrong?