Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Engagement Present

Another story about my family and Fort Indiantown Gap

All around us are married couples obviously mismatched but just as obviously devoted to each other. The basketball player married to a woman barely five feet tall. The flight attendant married to a guy who will only travel on the ground. A stage actor wed to an accountant.

My father was a boxer, a soldier, a Teamster and a AAA league baseball player. He grew up in Boston in a big Jewish family and was a big guy with hundreds of friends. The brothers were a loud bunch. My mother was a quiet woman who read a lot and preferred quiet. She grew up on a farm outside a small town in western Pennsylvania. Meeting her future in laws she said, “Everybody talks and nobody listens.” When they married she was 24 and he was 39. Somehow they stayed together until my father died 37 years later. It was the war that brought them together in Reading, Pennsylvania. But it was the romance wrapped up in my father’s engagement present that helped to keep them together despite all their differences.

Scene: U.S. Army Administrative Offices, Prisoner of War compound, Reading, Pa., spring 1945. The camp, now the Reading Airport, was home to 600 German prisoners of war, mostly former members of the Afrika Corps. Guarding them is a Military Police (MP) company commanded by Capt. George Gussman. Civilian clerks and typists handle most routine administrative duties.

Bang! The thin door slammed open at the push of a burly soldier in the white helmet of an MP. In a moment, the buzz of the busy office dwindled to silence. Even on an Army base with a prison camp, a squad of MPs marching into an administrative office cut the buzz of conversation and the clackety-clack of typing. The first two MPs flanked the door, rifles at ready. Four more soldiers marched in behind, the last man carrying a wooden ammunition crate.

Without a word, they marched in close order to the back of the open office space and the gray metal desk of pretty, dark-haired typist. The sergeant at the front of the line called “Detail halt!” He faced the astonished typist and said, “Are you Arnetta Boul?”

The hush was complete. Arnetta was was a graduate of a one-room school in Mercer, a small town south of Erie. A wartime job on an Army base north of Reading got her off the farm and on her way to the life she only saw in magazines. She tried to answer but only nodded yes.

He coworkers, mostly typists and clerks, didn’t move. The MP with the wooden crate faced left, took two steps, faced right and set the box on the desk. “Compliments of Capt. Gussman, ma’am.”

The detail faced about without another word and filed out of the building. When the door closed the other typists ran to Arnetta’s desk. “Open the box.” “What’s in it?” “Is there a note?”

There was a note. Her name was typed on the envelope. The note inside was written in the in an oddly beautiful hand that made her smile and blush. It said:

Darling Arnetta,
Please accept this small token in honor of our engagement. With Love,

She flipped the wire closures, raised the lid and saw Hershey bars. Hundreds of Hershey bars. Rationing made chocolate, sugar, tires and all sorts of things hard or impossible to get. Arnetta loved chocolate, but allowed herself almost none since the war started. Almost all the chocolate went to soldiers. Gold was scarce also. George had proposed to her the previous weekend giving her a band from one of his cigars and promising a real ring as soon as the war ended. What more could she expect during this time of national self-sacrifice? She said yes.

George made a vague promise of an engagement gift, but this was stunning even for the garrulous commandant of the POW camp. Her doubts vanished.

Inside the crate was an official packing list. “Confiscated: 608 chocolate bars from prisoners in Reading barracks.” Now she knew how he did it. The rowdy German prisoners had driven the two previous commandants to beg for transfers. The prisoners knew their rights and lost no opportunity to petition their American jailers for privileges. Then, all of a sudden, they got a commander who straightened the place up.

Capt. Gussman was the fourth of six sons of a Russian Jewish couple that escaped the pogroms of the Czar in the 1890s. He was 38 years old and had joined the Army just a year before he was too old to serve. German prisoners from the Reading camp worked on local farms and were paid five cents per day. Most of the prisoners bought American chocolate and cigarettes with their wages. One of the prisoners caused trouble for the guards on the farm work detail, so Gussman suspended the farm work. He also declared Hershey bars contraband. When no prisoners turned in their chocolate, Gussman led the guards in a search of the barracks. They confiscated 608 Hershey bars. Gussman made very clear who was in charge of the camp, and, despite the privations of war, he presented his bride-to-be with an engagement gift only Milton Hershey or a very rich man could match.

George and Arnetta were married at the base chapel, Fort Indiantown Gap on July 31, 1945. The legend of this amazing gift of plenty during an era of scarity lived on in their marriage and in their children. It is stories like this that keep us going; these stories are gifts of plenty that carry us through the inevitable times of need.
I wrote this story for my kids. My Dad died before they were born and my Mom died five years in her 80s after a long illness.

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