August 27, 2017
Months ago a member of the writer’s group asked me to participate in a special Sunday school August feature at Shalom. Each of the adult classes would combine as one; the motif for the four Sundays would be immigration and “the other.” Would I, on the final Sunday, give a personal statement, more precisely personal stories about “me and the other”? That topic along with the theory of dyads, entered into many of my classes at Goshen having to do with communication theory. I was especially informed by Theodore Newcomb’s AtoBreX paradigm. My interest moved from theory to personal relationships, and more specifically the dynamic of my “coorientation” with the “other,” not only the “other” for whom I felt strong attraction, but also the “other” who repulsed me. So I said yes to Martha.
Because I was slated to be in the fourth Sunday session, I attended two of the earlier ones. The second Sunday was a stunner. Three people in the Shalom congregation have been immigrants, one with family status still unsettled. They simply presented their stories … and we wept. The closer I got to the fourth Sunday (yesterday) the more I wondered why I accepted Martha’s invitation. Too late to back out, I prepared carefully, setting down on paper examples of me/other encounters, me/other relationships. Dozens of them. Scores of them. Some encounters that I had handled in exemplary fashion, others that I bungled so bad that it would take nerve to admit them. Yesterday I was plenty anxious, ditto this morning, but the Sunday school hour came and I told stories.
Here is one that I wrote years ago and then yesterday delivered in oral form.
Perhaps I remember what people told me. But I think I remember the day and the excited talk in church: Sunday, December 7. Pearl Harbor. But in general, when I was a child of four and five, my map did not include Japan, Leningrad, or Auswitz. My world was defined largely by what I could see, and what I saw was mainly Housman’s beautiful farm.
Daddy told people, when they asked, that he was a “hired man” for Ricardo Housman, the potato grower. I was proud of that, not just because he earned $20 a week, but also because Housman’s house was made of stone and the barn had pillars painted on it. The field by the barn was 40 acres, and on the other side of the lane the field was even bigger. Mr. Housman had a tractor trailer truck that Floyd Yoder drove; it said in big letters STEHMAN & HOUSMAN – POTATOES.
Compared with Daddy, Mr. Housman was rich. He wore white shoes, and smoked a cigar in his wood paneled office in the barn. Long ago he was a baseball pitcher, in “semi pro”.
Daddy was an ordinary person like Mother and us children, but he worked for a famous and powerful potato grower. When the Hess uncles sat on the front porch one Sunday – all of them and the uncles who married papa’s sisters – I hoped that as they looked across the clean 40-acre potato field toward Housman’s barn and house that Daddy would remind them that he was hired man for Housman.
From our little house by the end of Housman’s lane, we could watch Daddy at work in the potatoes. He told us words such as Cobbler and Katahdin. In spring the two-row planter clicked fertilizer and potato pieces into a row that it then hilled over. Six weeks later blossoms made bouquets by the acre. And the most exciting time for me was at the end of the season. We awakened to the clattering of the potato digger early in the morning, as it crawled like a mole, its nose in the ground, lifting up potatoes that danced in delight across the machine’s chains and then jumped down onto the ground.
Usually Housman hired people from Manheim and East Petersburg to pick up and bag the potatoes (at 10 cents a bushel). And one day – how frightening – Daddy said Housman “fired” a picker. I thought it meant a burning.
On a year of a particularly heavy crop – during the early 40s – Daddy said one evening that Housman had contracted for German prisoners to do the job. Housman thought it made sense financially. Daddy, for reasons unknown to me then, shook his head.
German prisoners. The words made no sense to me, excepting that on the way to Grampa and Gramma Hess’ house, we drove on East King Street in Lancaster, past a high stone wall that my parents said was a jail for prisoners. German prisoners, they now explained, were different — prisoners of war. Although Daddy and Mother prayed about the fighting in Europe, war was merely a concept, not a reality. Yes, convoys from the military base at Indiantown Gap passed our house on Colebrook Road, long lines of green trucks with men wearing green helmets and green suits. Occasionally sirens signaled an air raid practice. Mervin said that at school the children had to sit under their desks during the raids. War also meant that a sticker on the back window of the car indicated how much gasoline we could buy at the pump in Landisville. The war was in Europe, far away. Somehow, prisoners from there would now work in our fields.
The day came and so did the prisoners. I felt uneasiness in our house. The prisoners were to come from a camp north of Reading so we watched Colebrook Road toward Henry Stauffer’s barn and Sporting Hill.
They came, slowly, in a tractor trailer bus, painted green like the army trucks. A smaller army truck led them, a small army truck followed them. Near Housman’s lane, very close to our house, the bus stopped. A few men emerged, perhaps the driver, studied the entrance by the pillars, and decided the bus couldn’t make so sharp a turn. So, on a signal, several guards with guns on their shoulders stepped down from the bus. I saw it from a window in our house. Then the prisoners got off and began walking in the lane toward Housman’s barn. They looked just like people. They were tall, thin, and walked in lines, not like the potato pickers from Manheim who dragged themselves to work.
I could see it clearly. “Mother, why do those men carry guns?”
There was no answer from Mother who stood behind the curtain of another window. I looked over, and saw her face, wet with tears.
That evening Daddy told stories about the prisoners. He said that they spoke German. They had blond hair. They were kind. They had pictures in their pockets of their families back in Germany.
One day Mervin, Erma and I were allowed to go to Housmans to the potato grading room. I thought we were going to see the prisoners, but when we got there, the prisoners came to see us. They repeated our names, and lifted us up, and held us close, and talked German in voices like friendly fathers.
Then, the guards of a sudden began to run around, calling excitedly for one of the prisoners whom they couldn’t find. Immediately Daddy left the barn to hunt. I knew he was afraid that the guards would think that one of the prisoners had escaped. Daddy found the prisoner lying on the grass of the barn hill.
We children returned to our house. I learned something that never would leave me. Daddy and Mother thought the German prisoners were their brothers. They explained to us that war was wrong and that we always should love our enemies. That’s why Daddy and Mother loved the German prisoners.