Summer of My German Soldier

Summer of My German Soldier

Bette Greene

For

Ann Sternberg

Donald S. Greene, M.D.

My Superstars

Contents

Author’s Affidavit

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

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Sneak Preview

Morning Is a Long Time Coming

A Biography of Bette Greene

Author’s Affidavit

E
VER SINCE
S
UMMER OF
M
Y
G
ERMAN
S
OLDIER
burst into print nearly 40 years ago, the question asked by my readers has always been the same: Are you, Bette Greene, the real Patty Bergen?

The question itself is enough to have me do three things simultaneously. First, search my vocabulary for my entire collection of weasel words. Second, tell my questioner that the Library of Congress has classified
Summer of My German Soldier
as a work of fiction; and third, glance around for the nearest exit.

Throughout my career, I have felt the need to protect my parents from being seen as the abusive people that I portrayed them to be in the pages of
Summer of My German Soldier
. The surprising thing, though, was that most of my family did not seem particularly upset by the constant physical, verbal, and emotional abuse that I withstood. What they were upset with, in their collective agreement, was my “exploitation of the family.”

And when that comment didn’t seem to decimate my will to live, some relative would be sure to add this clincher: “Exploiting the family for money. For money! And for a lot of money!” Yet it is my mother’s comments that still live within me. With tears running down her cheeks, she spit out, “Couldn’t you, at the very least, have had the decency to wait until we were dead?”

I thought this was too difficult a request. My father lived for an additional nineteen years and my mother another seven after that. So was my mother really telling me to wait an additional twenty-six years to begin writing the book that had, for so much of my life, flamed and flickered within me? Who, outside of the heirs to the British throne, would expect career advancement to come only after the death of a parent?

So all my great reluctance to reveal the truth has accomplished exactly what? My family believes
Summer of My German Soldier
is true. My readers believe
Summer of My German Soldier
is true. Although it’s been years since I’ve felt the need to protect either the guilty or the innocent, I’ve made no attempt to set the record straight. But since it is never too late for clarity and closure, I will do so now.

And I do it with a heart full of gratitude to the millions of readers all over this world who have read and loved
Summer of My German Soldier
.

Yes, I, Bette Greene, am Patty Bergen. And Patty Bergen is Bette Greene. Now, I admit to what you already know: the book
Summer of My German Soldier
is based on a true story—the story of my life.

THIS IS MY AFFIDAVIT.

1. She’s A-Coming

W
HEN
I
SAW
the crowd gathering at the train station, I worried what President Roosevelt would think. I just hope he doesn’t get the idea that Jenkinsville, Arkansas, can’t be trusted with a military secret because, truth of the matter is, we’re as patriotic as anybody.

In front of the station house five or six Boy Scouts in full uniform circled their leader, Jimmy Wells, who was wearing the same expression Dane Clark wore as the Marine sergeant
in
Infamy at Pearl Harbor.
“This is the situation, guys,” Jimmy said. “The sheriff told me it’s the Army’s job to get the Nazis off the train and into the prison camp, but I figger they’ll be mighty glad to have us Scouts on hand. And if any of those rats try to make a getaway”—he slapped the leather-encased Scout ax strapped to his waist—“we know what to do.”

I looked around for a friendly group to join. Mary Wren was holding onto the arm of Reverend Benn’s wife as though that was going to provide her with the Lord’s own protection. There are plenty of jokes going around about our town’s telephone operator. People say Mary is so generous that she’ll give you the gossip right off her tongue.

Then I saw old Chester, the colored porter from my father’s store, closing his eyes against the brilliant June sun.

I walked over. “Hey, Chester, don’t you think this is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to our town?”

His eyes jerked open. “I’m going back to the stock room right now, Miss Patty. Ain’t been gone more’n two, maybe three minutes.”

“Don’t go on account of me, Chester. I won’t tell my father. Honest.” Chester smiled wide enough to show his gold tooth. “I’ve never in my whole life seen a German, I mean, in person. Have you?”

“I seen some foreigners once, but they was fortune-telling gypsies.”

I looked over to where Sheriff Cauldwell, Mr. George C. Henkins, the president of the Jenkinsville Rotary Club, and Mr. Quentin Blakey, editor of the
Rice County Gazette,
were standing on the gray-white gravel. “I wonder what the sheriff is saying about all this,” I said, heading toward them.

Mr. Blakey’s head was pitched back to look into the sun-and-leather face of the sheriff. “I said, ‘Captain, I know you’re only doing your job as a public information officer, but I’ll never understand why I’m not supposed to write about what everybody here already knows about.’”

“That’s telling him, Quent,” said the sheriff, looking amused.

“More to it than that,” said Mr. Blakey. “Captain wouldn’t tell me how many POW camps there are or where they’re located, but after awhile he forgot about security—told me that up in Boston they got a bunch of Italian prisoners who do nothing but clean up after the elephants in Franklin Park.”

Sheriff Cauldwell leaned his big head back and laughed the laugh of the healthy. “Captain wasn’t talking security, he was talking crap.”

From down the tracks, a whistle. Jimmy Wells ran over to one of the rails, dropped to his knees, and pressed his ear against it. His features were molded into Dane Clark’s odds-are-against-us-but-we-can-do-it expression as he announced, “She’s a-coming!”

All talking stopped and the small clusters of people began merging into one single mass. Even Chester, the only Negro, was now standing in arm-touching contact with whites.

Then amid hissing, steamy clouds of white, the train braked, screeched, and finally came to a halt.

From the crowd a woman’s voice—it may have been Reverend Benn’s wife—asked, “Well, where are they?”

Jimmy Wells pointed to the last passenger car. “There!”

Everyone hurried toward the end of the train in time to see two GIs with their side arms still strapped in their holsters
step quickly from the car. Then came the Germans. The crowd moved back slightly, leaving a one-person-wide path between themselves and the train.

The prisoners were unhandcuffed, unchained young men carrying regulation Army duffel bags. They wore fresh blue denim pants and matching shirts, and if it hadn’t been for the black “POW” stenciled across their shirt backs you could easily have mistaken them for an ordinary crew from the Arkansas Public Works Department sent out to repair a stretch of highway. I tried to read their faces for brutality, terror, humiliation—something. But the only thing I sensed was a kind of relief at finally having arrived at their destination.

“Nazis!” A woman’s voice shouted. And this time I knew for sure that it was Mrs. Benn.

A blond prisoner who was stepping off the train at that moment stopped short then smiled and waved. It was as though he believed, or wanted to believe, that Mrs. Benn’s call was nothing more than a friendly American greeting.

I raised my hand, but before I completed a full wave Mary Wren pressed it down, shaking her head.

“I’m sorry, but I didn’t think it would be polite—I guess I just forgot,” I said, wondering if I was going to be served up as the main course for Mary Wren’s gossip of the day.

The last two prisoners stepped off the train—there were fifteen or sixteen, maybe twenty in all. After them came two more American guards, one a sergeant. As the procession walked down the gravel slope to the waiting Army truck Jimmy Wells tapped on the sleeve of the American sergeant. “You mean this is all the Jerries we’re gonna get?”

“Don’t worry, son,” said the sergeant. “We’re gonna keep
you folks well supplied. Most of them have already been transported here by truck caravan.”

The prisoners and then the GIs climbed aboard the canvas-covered vehicle. At the highway it made a right turn and, shifting gears noisily, disappeared from sight.

And so I had seen it; all there was to see. Yet I felt a nagging disappointment as though something were missing. In the movies war criminals being hustled off to prison would be dramatic. Their ravaged faces would tell a story of defeat, disgrace, and downfall. But in real life it didn’t seem all that important. Not really a big deal. My stomach growled, reminding me that it must be nearing lunchtime. I followed the railroad embankment toward home, walking sometimes between the tracks and sometimes only on one track, balancing like a tightrope walker.

I passed everybody’s back yard: the Rhodes’, the Reeves’s, the Benn’s, their laundry blowing on the line. The reverend wears striped boxer-style shorts, and the Mrs. has very heavy bosoms. Her bras look like a
D
cup to me.

Parallel to our Victory Garden I ran down the embankment past the lettuce, sweet corn, and tomatoes. The government says that until victory is won everybody with a bit of land should grow their own food. Now, I know my father’s patriotic all right, but he’s not doing exactly what the government asked us to do. A colored man, Grover, is the one who did the planting.

I could see Ruth on the back porch, squeezing the clothes through the wringer. She is the color of hot chocolate before the marshmallow bleeds in. Sometimes I hear my mother telling her to lose weight. “It’s not healthy to be fat.” But she isn’t actually fat; it’s just that she has to wear large sizes. I
mean, it wouldn’t be Ruth if she were like my mother. And another thing, a little extra weight keeps a person warm inside.

“Hey, Ruth!” She looked up from her wash. “Ruth, know where I was? With the Germans going to the prison camp!”

She gave me her have-you-been-up-to-some-devilment look.

“I didn’t do a single thing wrong!” I said, wondering if my wave would count against me. I decided that it wouldn’t. “This is still my week to be good and sweet. I haven’t forgotten.”

Her face opened wide enough to catch the sunshine. “I’m mighty pleased to hear it. ’Cause before this week is through,
your mamma and
daddy gonna recognize your natural sweetness and give you some back, and then you is gonna return even more and—”

“Maybe so,” I interrupted her, and she went back to putting bed sheets through the wringer, understanding that I didn’t want to talk about them anymore.

“There was this sergeant guarding the prisoners—you should have seen his medals. I’m going to pray for Robert tonight, that he comes home with lots of medals—more than Jimmy Wells.”

“Jimmy Wells?” Ruth repeated the name as though she hadn’t heard right. “Jimmy Wells ain’t no soldier!”

“No, but he must have about every medal that the Boy Scouts know how to give.”

“Well, I don’t care nothing about no wars and no medals, I jest cares about my boy coming back safe.”

I wanted to tell her she had to care, how important it was for us to win this war. Put an end to Nazism forever! But I could see that Ruth’s heart was too troubled to enter into
that kind of discussion, so I just said again I’d remember Robert in my prayers.

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