Sunday, April 12, 2009

Then and Now: Kids and the Army

ERIC, RYAN and NIGEL underneath a C-130 on display at Fort Indiantown Gap.

One of my best memories of serving in Germany during the late 1970s was training on the countryside and meeting little kids. The kids, usually boys between 7 and 10 years old, but some girls also, would ride their bikes up from the villages where they lived to see our tanks. It always seemed to be up. We looked for high ground so we could set up observation posts. Our tanks would be below the crest of the hill and we would send an observer up to watch the approaches.

Soon after we had our tanks positioned on the hill, sometimes just minutes after, we would see two or three kids laboring up dirt paths pushing or riding their bikes toward our position. I could only imagine what it would have been like if a platoon (five) tanks parked on a hill near my house when I was a kid.

We were in the field the day after we arrived so the first time we had kids come up to our tank was just three days after our unit got to Germany in 1976. My tank happened to be lowest on the hill so the tallest boy walked up and waved. The three smaller boys with him followed close behind. My driver and I offered the kids C-ration chocolate bars. These round candy bars were made by Wilbur Chocolate in Lititz. It was years after I got out before I would eat their chocolate because those bars were so bad. They had to last at least three years which must have been a challenge, but they tasted like wax.

The German kids thought they were wonderful. "Soldaten chocolad!" they said to each other. We pulled them up on the fender of the tank and let the kids get inside and talk to each other on our helmet intercom. I let the big kid is the Commander's Override and traverse the turret. They spoke English well enough to ask if we wanted them to go to the store and buy food. I gave the oldest one (I think he was 9) a 10 Mark bill and they sped down the hill to the store.

As they left, the crew of the next tank over found out from my driver that I had given the kids money and they started laughing. "Nice going Gussman. You'll never see those kids again." I wasn't worried. The guys on the other crews got out their C-rations and started complaining about the getting stuck with canned ham and eggs or the grease that congealed on the Spam. Between bites they would yell, "Better eat your C's. Those kids are gone.

Almost an our later the kids returned. They had fresh bread, cheese, sausage, even butter, and two pfennigs change. We thanked them for doing such a good job shopping and gave them two boxes of C-rations and a handful of chocolate bars. They were thrilled. They happily sat on the fenders eating chocolate. They were saving the C-rations and it was almost dinner time.

I put our camp stove on the back deck of the tank so the other crew could see us while I cooked the sausage. My crew and I ate fresh German food sitting on the fender and the turret facing uphill to be sure the other crews could watch.

We held that position for two days. When the kids came back the next day, the other crew members ran down to see if the group of boys would like some more chocolate or to sit in their tanks. For the rest of the time we were in German on the countryside, the little kids on bikes gave us fresh food in return the green cans we were always ready to get rid of.

Last summer my sister brought her grandsons down to Pennsylvania. They spent a day with my son and I looking at tanks and trucks and artillery on Fort Indiantown Gap. I could not actually let them turn a tank turret or talk on an intercom since I am not in tanks anymore, but it was fun to show two little boys all that Army equipment. My son Nigel had been on these vehicles before, so he got to show Ryan and Eric where to put there hands when they climb up on a tank and be their Big Brother for a day.

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