Wars Past: The Teeth of War
It would be too much of a generality to say that the smaller the country, the nice the people. But it is a truth that of the eight European countries I was in during the war, the nicest people by far were those in Wales and Luxembourg. The Welsh were extremely hospitable to the G.I.’s, and would invite us to their homes and share their meager egg and sugar rations with us, in the form of cakes and puddings. Their music was a delicious revelation, and I loved the Welsh lilt. The Luxemburgers were certainly a great friendlier than the French, with whom we’d had the most contact on the continent. The Luxemburgers spoke a German patois, and would cheerily greet us on the street with “Moyen!”—their version of the German “Moin.”
I was with the 109th Regiment of the 28th Infantry. We had landed on Omaha Beach shortly after D-Day, in June of 1944, and had been in combat, with horrifying turnover, the rest of that year. I had been lightly wounded, “near St. Lo in the back,” as I liked to say, but had rejoined the Regiment in time to march through Paris on Liberation Day. That was the one day the French were friendly: cognac and kisses, flowers pinned on, fervent handshakes. The next day they became French again. We went on from there, chasing the German army through France and parts of Belgium, ending up for a gloomy month in the damp, dangerous Huertgen Forest, below Aachen on the Siegfried Line. Then to Luxembourg, for a rest period, where I found myself, in early December, in the lovely littler town of Diekirch. It was perfect: the people were glad to see us, most of them spoke English, and there were girls, beer, wine and cognac. Germany was somnolent, four miles away, across the Sure River. They would lob the occasional shell across the river every now and then to let us know they were there, but that was all.
Ten miles to the north, in the town of Wiltz, was Division Headquarters, where my teeth were. My teeth were a partial bridge, the four front uppers, which I had broken in half trying to bite into an army ration chocolate bar. These confections were of the consistency of steel ingots, and wounded teeth were not at all unusual. I wanted my teeth back badly; without them I looked like a Dracula in uniform, and this put the girls off. But the dental technicians were located at Headquarters, and they wrought slowly.
I was at the time a Corporal in Special Services; morale building, supposedly. In the States and in Wales and England I had edited a Regimental newspaper. In combat I had the grisly job of picking up dead bodies—ours and theirs—and hauling them back to the Graves Registration unit. No fun. Now I was writing newspaper stories for the folks back home. I’d write a story for a newspaper in, say, Honesdale, Pennsylvania, detailing how Private Edward Skrpjack, son of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Skrpjack of Division Street, had been on guard duty and had challenged an undefined mass approaching his post, and having elicited no password, shot a cow. My job also involved arranging basketball games, showing movies, and setting up dances for the boys and the local girls.
The soldiers rested, drank, and talked endlessly about cars and girls and combat. The only really active work was done by me and the Division band. The band, which during combat had seen duty, as I had, as stretcher-bearers and pickers-up of the dead, had been fragmented, or de-Sousaed, into four dance band combos who toured from town to town playing the galas which I and my other regimental counterparts arranged, Setting up a dance was no problem: I would tell the Mayor about it, and he would spread the word: “The Americans are having a dance next Saturday night, and invite the young people to come. Especially girls.” And they would come, together with a seepage of older ringers and chaperones. The dances in Diekirch were held in a large hall of the second floor of the Town Hall, where I was billeted. The refreshments consisted of an unusual combination: kegs of beer and a lavish spread of cream-filled confections, ordered days in advance from a local baker, an artisan who was delighter, after years of sever rationing, to once again work with real sugar, which we supplied. (He did grumble to me that the people who were to eat his masterpieces didn’t deserve them.)
We held a dance on the first Saturday in December, and it was a grand success. Solders and citizens alike love it, and each other. Gemütlichkeit flowed. Three hundred cream puffs, with real sugar, were quickly and happily scoffed down, along with two kegs of beer.
During the early part of the evening I had stationed myself at the door, keeping an official eye on things and a personal one on the girls. I was the official greeter, but the girls, who were certainly polite, tended to shrink away from me when I smiled. One, however, and she wad certainly the catch of the evening, seemed to recognize the true me behind my hideous façade. She was blonded and beautiful, voluptuous, quick, and bubbling with laughter. We exchanged Look That Meant Something as she came by me at the door, and then she was immediately swept away onto the dance floor. But she shortly came back, alone.
“Hello,” she said, in a lightly-accented English. “You are the boss, yes?”
Well, yes—in a way.” And I introduced myself.
“My names is Gerda,” she said. “You Americans are so kind to have for us this party.”
“And we’re honored you’ve come…listen…” And she was snatched away from me, out on the dance floor again.
I left my post and followed her progress. I moved around the periphery of the floor, craning my neck to keep her in view. And I could see that she kept looking for me, too, and she’d smile when our glances met. To a young man of twenty-three, there can be nothing more heady than being smiled at lovingly by a beautiful girl, particularly over the shoulder of fully-toothed partners. I cannot dance with any coherence; I think of myself as essentially a boring dancer. But it had to be done. When I figured that the set was surely drawing to a close, I threaded my way across the floor and cut in. We staggered about for a few awkward minutes, then the music stopped. I smiled as broadly as I could with my mouth tightly closed and told her that I wasn’t much of a dancer.
“Don’t worry, Willie,” she said. (It came out as don’t vurry, Villie.) “May I call you Willie? I know soldiers don’t dance much.”
“Hardly ever. C’mon, let’s talk out on the stairs.”
She followed docilely as I picked up cream puffs and beer and led her out to the hall. We sat on the stairs, which were quite narrow. Other soldiers with girls kept going up and down, and it seemed that she pressed unnecessarily close to let them pass. It was exciting.
“Hey,” I said, and gulped, “whyn’t we go up to my office?” I had almost said “room,” but caught myself—although my office and room were one. “It’s uncomfortable here.”
“Oh, that would be lovely! And you can show me what you do.”
Once inside the rumpled office-bedroom, I masterfully closed the door behind me, put my cream puff on the desk, and lunged.
“Oooh! You American boys!” She cried, neatly rolling with the punch and getting kissed on the ear. “For a while, Willie, let’s just talk?”
That “a while” held promise. And, my, she was easy to talk with.
“My girlfriends tell me that you can’t trust American soldiers,” she said. “And they taught me a trick. I know you all wear little tags around your necks that tell if you’re married. Are you married?”
“Heck, no,” I replied. “Honest. The truth.”
“Let me see your little tag.”
She inspected my dog tag long and carefully, and seemed satisfied that it had my mother’s name and address stamped on it.
“I’m glad, Willie,” she said, disentangling my hand from her waist. “How long will you be around here?”
“I dunno. They never tell us those things. You really are very pretty!”
“There seem to be so many soldiers in Diekirch. It must be a whole regiment?”
“Ummm,” nuzzling her neck.
“Is it what?”
“Oh, Willie! Is it a whole regiment?”
“Gosh, I don’t know. Gee—your hair is really blonde!”
“One of the girls told me that her boyfriend said that he was going to be replaced in a few days, Willie, but that many more of you will be coming in. Have you heard that? I hope they won’t be sending you away.”
“Me too. I hadn’t heard.”
“What means that red patch on your sleeve? Is that your Division? Isn’t it the Twenty-eighth?”
“Yeah. The krauts call it ‘Der blutig eimer.’ ‘The bloody bucket.’”
“Willie, what Army are you in? I never understand about ‘Armies.’ I hear the ‘The First Army,’ ‘The Third Army,’ and never understand. Willie! Stop that!”
“So what Army, Willie?”
What Army? Ridiculous, but I didn’t know. My interest in such things was minimal. I let Division Headquarters worry about stuff like that. I had a vague feeling that we’d been bounced around through a number of them, but had long ago lost count.
“I don’t know, honey. Isn’t that crazy?”
“Yes, crazy,” she said, with what sounded like bitterness.
Gerda jumped up from the cot we’d been sitting on, and paced over to the window, then to my desk, were she picked up the story about the soldier shooting a cow, and began reading.
“What is this you shoot cows?” she said. She sounded outraged.
“Oh, well,” I replied, by this time behind her, trying to make my fingers meet around her waist. “We’d rather shoot krauts, but that makes a good story for the home town.”
“Speaking of towns,” she said, “do you get around to our other town a lot in your work? To Wiltz? To Ettelbruck? To see the soldiers there?”
“Oh, yeah. Lots. Hey, turn around.”
“Now, Willie! Are they all over in the towns, the soldiers. Are there lots of them?”
“Sure. I guess. I get so’s I don’t notice any more. C’mon turn around!”
“No. Maybe we’d better go back to the dance. You won’t talk serious with me,” she pouted.
“Aw, c’mon, Gerda,” I wheedled. She headed for the door. I grabbed at her, we struggled around the room like drunken dancers, ending up tangled together on the cot.
“Willie! You are so bad a boy! So bad that I will write to your General about you! You tell me who is your division commander and I will write him about you! Who is he?”
Well, embarrassing, but again I didn’t know. They kept changing them.
“Honey,” I said. “This sounds silly, but I just don’t know who our General is. I really don’t. And I’m not saying you can’t write to him about me. Give me a letter addressed ‘Division Commander’ and I’ll pass it along to him.”
“Oh, we go dance! Come on, Willie!”
I wrestled her across the room again, and she slipped out the door and down the stairs.
“When can I see you again,” I panted, as she pushed her way into the hall ahead of me. “Where can I reach you tomorrow?”
“I work out of town,” she replied. “I can only be around some weekend.” She seemed distracted.
“No, Willie. I can’t.”
“Hey—I’m having another of these dances here in two weeks—December sixteenth. How about then?” I was half demented.
“Oh, Willie.” She had such a sweet, secret smile. “Yes, O.K., Willie. I’ll see you in two weeks.”
“Yes, I promise. I do.”
Once inside the hall she was immediately picked up. I was immediately picked up, too, and asked where the hell I’d been. I had the keys to the safe—really a double barred closet in the mayor’s office—where the cream puffs where held.
I was so busy with cram puffs and beer for the next hour that I lost track of Gerda. When our guests began leaving, I searched the hall. No Gerda. I ran out the street door into the cold. She was standing at the bottom of the City Hall steps, talking with a soldier. She looked up and saw me. I waved, and she laughed and held up two fingers. Then she left, alone, walking up the hill.
The next two weeks were peaceful. Christmas packages arriving, the ordering of four hundred cream puffs for the forthcoming dance, and a general happy feeling that the Germans had had it, and we were about to roll through them. The few soldiers I had noticed dancing with Gerda were non-committal; she was a good looker, but they couldn’t get anywhere with her. A Diekirch girl with whom I had a chatting acquaintance (she worked in our office brewing coffee and cleaning up) seemed annoyed when I questioned her.
“We don’t like her,” she said.
“You don’t like her? But why?”
“We just don’t like her kind.”
“Oh, come now. What’s the matter with her?”
“She doesn’t come from around her, that’s all.”
This seemed like an insular way of looking at things, but further questioning got nothing but a frosty silence. Jealous, I figured.
A few days before the Saturday of the dance—the one Gerda had promised to come to—I phoned my friend Jerry at Division Headquarters in Wiltz. He had been nudging the dental technicians about my teeth from week to week. I asked him to check again, told him about Gerda and the forthcoming dance, and suggested that he goof off and come down to Diekirch. He had two bosses, which is the ideal situation in the army; you can always tell one that you’re off working with the other. Jerry hooked a ride to Diekirch on Friday; he wanted to see if Gerda was all I had told him she was, and the cream puffs interested him, too. I was pretty disappointed when he showed up without my teeth, but what could he do?
On Saturday morning Jerry helped me transport the cream puffs from the bakery to City Hall. Knowing our boys, I locked them in the safe and, surfeited with cream puffs, we repaired to a nearby bistro where we drank a bottle of greenish wine while I rambled on about Gerda.
We were starting on a second bottle when two distraught Luxemburgers burst in.
“The Germans are coming!”
“Oh don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “Coming here?”
“Yes, yes! Some American just came in a jeep! The Germans are only eight miles away!”
This was patently nonsense. But we ambled up the hill to City Hall just to check. Probably, we mused, a German patrol had been sighted and put up a fight.
But there we were, we found out, right in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. The rest of the day—the whole next week—was wildly frantic. Amid great confusion we packed up and were transported two miles up the road to Ettelbruck, where Regimental Headquarters was located. That night Jerry and I found ourselves taking turns with other bewildered Headquarters clerks, cooks, and bandsmen, out in the bitter cold, surround by sand bags, and behind a large and totally unfamiliar machine gun pointing in the direction the Germans were supposed to be coming from. It was the kind of weapon none of us had fired since basic training back in the States three years before, and we had no idea how to reload it, should we have the misfortune to have to fire it. Pairs of us spent four hours on the gun, alternating with four hours huddled in the coal cellar of a deserted building. It was during one of these respites, punctuated by the shuddering of shells landing roughly in our vicinity, that Jerry said, after a long, musing silence.
“You and your Gerda!”
“O.K., O.K.,” I said. “I’m sorry there’s no dance. I’m sorry I brought you down here!”
“Dance! Dance! Who cares about a damn dance!” Jerry exploded. “You dumb Benny! That was a spy!”
I thought about this a while. Interesting. The more I thought, the more likely it seemed.
“And what’s more,” Jerry said menacingly, “You can be court-marshaled for fraternizing with a German woman!”
“Nuts!” I replied, strangely foreshadowing by a few days the classic statement made by the besieged Major General McAuliffe to the Germans surrounding him at Bastogne, only twenty miles away.
The Germans overran Division Headquarters at Wiltz, capturing my teeth and many of our soldiers. This resulted in Jerry being reported, briefly, as missing in action, adding a few gray hairs to his mother’s head. I never saw Gerda again, naturally, but I forgave her the embarrassment she’d caused me when I thought of how foolish her fellow-Germans must have felt after they’d blasted their way in to the Town Hall safe and uncovered the four hundred cream puffs.
ContributorWilliam Rossa Cole
WILLIAM ROSSA COLE (1919 - 2000), editor, essayist, and light-verse poet, authored or co-authored over 80 anthologies and children's books, including the classic Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls.
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