The Chocolate Debt
Germany has an awful lot of scenery for such a small country. Back when the Cold War was really chilly, we got to see a lot of its western regions. We were a security company of Military Police, riding shotgun on convoys that carried nuclear warheads around the countryside. Ordnance was constantly shifting the stuff around from launch pads to bunkers and back again. The general idea was to keep the SovBloc from knowing where enough of it was at any one time to risk a preemptive strike.
Ordnance would lay on ten tractor-trailers, for example, and maybe five of them had warheads under the tarps and maybe three of them did; the rest were decoys. We wore steel pots and plain fatigues, nothing to identify us as MPs. We carried M-14s instead of .45s, with four full magazines of 7.62 NATO ball ammo strapped to our waists. No magazine in the rifle; the Soviets were accustomed to watching our infantry play war games all over West Germany. The infantry never had magazines locked and loaded out on the autobahn, and no one could see inside our ammo pouches. We duct-taped the unit designations on the bumpers of our vehicles to conceal our identities.
Because the Soviets helped whip Hitler in World War Two, they got to drive around just about anywhere they wanted in West Germany. We’d see the black SovBloc sedans up on the autobahn overpasses, and wave to the men in bulky overcoats lugging heavy field glasses. Sometimes they’d wave back.
The Army truck drivers were a lonely bunch and usually garrulous, not unlike over-the-road truckers back home. When you rode shotgun with one, you always got to hear his life story before the end of the run. They liked to do what they called public relations work with the civilian population as they double-clutched through the small towns and villages, waving at kids and the pretty frauleins. We got plenty of waves and happy smiles back from the pretty frauleins when we were on the road. But I had mixed feelings about all the friendly waving. My Georgia grandmother always hated the Krauts, and I guess some of her animosity stuck to me.
She lost her fiancée to mustard gas in France during the First World War. Her supervisor on the telephone switchboard sent her home to grieve in private when she got the telegram. Her mother sneered at her and sent her right back to work. The fiancée had been from Maryland and therefore almost a Yankee; not worth a Georgia girl’s tears. After that my grandmother married the first man she could find to take out of her mother’s house, and always blamed the Krauts for her unhappy marriage. By the time she raised two sons and a daughter to adulthood, the Krauts got at her again.
Her oldest she figured for at least President of the United States. But he came back from Eisenhower’s staff enamored with the military and turned into a lifer whose highest rank was Brigadier General — not quite the White House. She blamed the Germans and the war.
Her middle child was the strong son, the brave one; he came back with a chest full of hero medals but all his bright curly hair had thinned and straightened and faded. He limped on painful legs full of German metal that made him groan and sweat his bed, and that the VA Hospital never fixed right. His combat nightmares made it necessary to poke him with the long end of a broom to wake him up for work, or risk evisceration with the bayonet he was never without. Of course his problems were the Germans’ fault.
Their sister, my mother, married a shy GI from Arkansas she saw in a parade downtown, and of whom my mother approved, calling him the sweetest young man she had ever met. I was born the year before he went ashore at Normandy with the Fourth Division, and started earning nightmares of his own.
My mother divorced him as soon as the war was over, when her brothers caught him sleeping with the wife of one of his wounded buddies, who was still in a military hospital. My grandmother didn’t blame his double betrayal on his weak character; she blamed the Germans for ruining his sweet nature.
My grandmother’s hatred for the Krauts grew to a fever pitch after V-E Day, fanned by watching black-and-white newsreels of victorious GIs being swarmed by German urchins. The GIs gave the kids real chocolate bars and real rubber balls that bounced. In the States, everything was still being rationed. I was a cranky baby; I wouldn’t nurse and I wouldn’t drink plain cow’s milk. My rake-hell grandfather traded black-market stockings that he’d acquired for his roadhouse girlfriends for bootleg Hershey’s chocolate syrup to sweeten my milk. I flourished on chocolate. It was one of the few redeeming acts of his life, according to my grandmother.
Those newsreels in the movie theaters, showing GIs fraternizing with enemy spawn, were the final outrage for my grandmother. Kraut kids getting better treatment than her first precious grandson. Little rattlesnakes get big rattlesnakes, she would mutter darkly as we waited for the Gene Autry double-feature at the Modjeska to start. She was an iron-willed woman from a family with plenty of practice at hating, beginning with Reconstruction and Carpetbaggers.
Germany seemed so large and real and rural out on the autobahns, after a childhood colored by my grandmother’s unrelenting icy rage at Germans. The sun would enflame the dusky autumn hills and nearly perpendicular vineyards; farming villages were strewn like gingerbread blocks along narrow ribbons of pavement in the rolling hills. There were narrow cobbled streets and quaint church steeples in every little town.
It seemed unreal that my crippled-up infantry uncle had shot a German sniper out of one of those steeples who had been leisurely picking off wounded GIs trapped in a minefield. A Georgia squirrel hunter using iron sights against a trained Nazi sniper with a scoped Mauser; the poor treed Kraut never had a chance.
My grandmother liked to sit in her old wicker rocker and open the daily mail with the JugendKorps dagger my uncle took off the corpse at the foot of that church steeple. She would stroke the hilt and smile, and smile…
Between the scattered West German towns, vast vistas of peaceful valleys and foothills rising to mountains that always seemed to have clouds anchored on their peaks. I saw cows used as beasts of burden on the rural farms, and chugging tractors gathering the yield of orderly fields that stretched with German precision over almost every inch of arable soil. The harvesters in their baggy clothing with bandannas around their heads, men and women toiling together, bore no resemblance to the war-movie Krauts who killed her fiancée in that first war and that my father and uncles killed in the second.
My grandmother didn’t think that chopping Germany in two was enough damage; she thought the whole country should be disassembled into its component bits and those bits watched like a hawk, until we had an excuse to start killing them again. She had no doubt they’d get up to no good and provide an excuse. She thought it was a terrible foreign policy blunder to side with even half of Germany against the Russians. She admired the Russians because they had done some serious German killing of their own under the supreme command of a different kind of Georgian. She liked it that the Soviet Union had a Georgia of its own whose famous son had filled so many German graveyards.
I thought about her obsessions a lot on our convoy runs. This particular trip I’m remembering, we were taking a ten-truck convoy on an autobahn detour around Saarbrucken to further confuse the Soviets before we scooted for silos on the Czech border. Winter was really setting in; it was cold and dank at midday, with fog so thick the trucks ahead and behind me were almost invisible. The German traffic whizzed by us on all sides like demented insects. We heard over the two-way that the lead jeep had stopped in a zebra-striped safety zone at an off-ramp to make sure we went the right way, and then all hell broke loose.
My driver cursed a blue streak when the brake lights of the trucks ahead came on all at once, and jammed his own brakes on. It was a close thing. I tucked my head, expecting to get rear-ended. When that didn’t happen, we bailed out into the fog.
Warwick, the MP sergeant from the lead jeep, was half jogging down the shoulder.
“Set up a perimeter,” he grunted. “Both sides. We’re going to be here a while.”
“What happened, Sarge?”
“Some damn ‘rad tried to take the off-ramp too fast and flipped his car. He’s wheels-up back there by my jeep, yelling whiplash. Guess he sees a big liability settlement from Uncle Sugar. Keep gawkers away!” He jogged on down the line.
I wound up holding a spluttering road flare at the tail end of the convoy, waving it at cars to push them into the middle lane as they came too fast out of the fog. Some of them hit their brakes and skidded a little on the skin of ice the fog was laying down. I thought this would be a hell of a way to die for the good old U.S.A., run down by a gawking comrade. That’s what we called all Europeans, ‘rad for short. God knows what they called us. The German cops who responded to the accident strutted around in high-peaked caps like Nazi generals, too busy “investigating” to help with traffic control.
Hotch and Sweetham were back there with me, keeping away onlookers drawn up onto the autobahn by the sirens. Sweetham was some character. He was trying to get the kids to get a soccer ball so they could kick it back and forth along the shoulder. They got over to him in sign language that their soccer ball was busted. The kids thought the wreck was just grand, but big Army trucks and steel-pot-wearing GIs with rifles were even grander. They wanted to climb in the trucks. We nixed that. Then they wanted to hold our rifles. They settled for looking Hotch’s over while he held it out for them to inspect.
I was feeling pretty odd with all those Kraut kids out there on the shoulder of the road. First I thought it was the danger, then I remembered my grandmother and those black-and-white newsreels. Our uniforms in the 1960s weren’t that different from World War Two. With our steel pots and shapeless OD parkas in the washed-out, colorless day, it was almost like watching one of those newsreels. Our M-14s, without magazines, looked a lot like the Garand battle rifle they replaced. American soldiers hadn’t yet started carrying black plastic rifles that looked like Mattel toys or wearing kevlar headgear with an uncomfortable resemblance to Nazi helmets.
Each time the traffic lulled I would glance around to see if anybody noticed how nervous I was. It was as if my grandmother might be looking over my shoulder. That’s when I saw the little old German lady coming up to Hotch. Her hair was like spun snow, drawn into a neat little bun with a pin. She looked like tintypes of my great-grandmother, the one who hated Yankees as virulently as my grandmother hated Krauts. She was so tiny she looked like one of those little cuckoo clock figures come to life. She wore a black shawl over a long dark dress, dark woolen stockings and carpet slippers, and she walked really slowly. Her face was berry-brown and eroded by God knew how many seasons of tough living. But her eyes were bright and sparkling blue jewels that gave the lie to age, weariness or any bitterness toward the living or the dead.
The boys all smiled at her and shouted to her something about the Amerikanishen and she nodded and smiled, smiled and nodded. She didn’t have any teeth.
“What you got there, Grandma?” Hotch said.
She smiled and nodded some more, and said something back in German.
Sweetham was our translator. “She wants to give us something,” he said. “A gift.”
With what amounted to a ceremonial flourish the little old lady produced a flat brown-paper-wrapped package from her shawl, and handed it to Hotch.
I felt a funny little clench in my belly and unsnapped one of my ammo pouches. I guess I read too many James Bond books in those days, because my first thought was that this whole situation could be some kind of trap to get at what we were carrying. They didn’t issue us all that ammunition just for the hell of it. We had enough nukes along that day to level three or four big cities and we had all had the briefings about rich-kid German terrorists who might try to cause a major incident.
“What is it, Sweetham?” Hotch was fumbling with the package.
“Damn fool,” I said. “It could be a bomb.”
She cocked her head at me. Her eyes went uncertain. She heard the distrust.
Hotch saw it, too. “Ah, shaddup, you moron,” he said. “You scared her!”
“It’s just chocolate,” Sweetham said. “Open it up, Hotch.”
Hotch peeled back the wrapper. “Damn. That’s what it is!” He passed it under his nose and made a lip-smacking sound. The kids laughed. The little old lady started smiling again, and bobbing her head. Hotch carefully broke off a chunk and tasted it. “Oh, man. This is the real stuff.”
I kept my mouth shut and waited for him to go into strychnine convulsions. He didn’t. He broke off a chunk for Sweetham. Sweetham nibbled a small piece and said something to the old woman that puffed her up and got her eyes really sparkling again. She ducked her head and nodded, nodded and ducked her head, and then started rounding up the kids and shooing them back off the shoulder of the autobahn toward the village. Hotch and Sweetham watched them go, gnawing on the chocolate.
Sergeant Warwick came back along the line to tell us the wreck was almost cleared, and we would be able to move soon.
“What you got there?” he asked Hotch.
“Some real by-God German chocolate,” Hotch said. “An old lady gave it to us. Want a chunk?”
“Hell, yes! I could use it!” He went back up the line munching cheerfully.
I doused the flare in the roadside dirt and rubbed my hands on my parka. The hand that hadn’t held the flare was numb from the cold.
“You gonna have a chunk of this?” Hotch said.
“I like chocolate fine,” I said. “Ever since I was a baby.”
I couldn’t help but think maybe that little old woman had watched those same combat GIs my grandmother had seen on the newsreels, being generous with their chocolate to half-starved German kids. Now, twenty years later, maybe she had made her small gesture to repay a chocolate debt.
“Have a chunk,” Hotch said.
“Thanks.” It had that dark wonderful smell of the best chocolate on earth.
“Anything wrong with you?”
“Not a thing,” I said, and started up the line to my truck.
I gave the chocolate to my driver. I wish I could have got my grandmother to believe my sentimental notion about the chocolate debt, but her mind had been made up long ago about Krauts. And I could never have faced her again if I so much as tasted German chocolate handed to me in a sepia-toned rerun of those newsreels that fanned her hate so hot.