Thursday, March 3, 2011

How I fought Hitler when I was eight.

How I fought Hitler when I was eight.

© Joel Baumwoll

Our “street” in the Bronx was my world in 1947. Anderson Avenue extended eight or nine blocks and ended in mystery to a seven year old. I lived across the street from my school, P.S. 73, and was used to eating a mother-cooked meal at lunch before going back into the fray of Miss Schecter’s class. My favorite meal was a self-made mixture of mashed potato, broiled hamburger and lots of ketchup. Now that meat rationing had ended, my mother served up this delicacy several times a week.

My real day began when school let out, in the early afternoon. Many days, Marty Manson, Larry Alexander, Jerry Friefield and I would play “kill Hitler” in the vacant lot across the street. This game invariably involved putting a toy lead soldier in a small wooden or cardboard box and constructing a series of walls around the small figure from dry twigs and slats taken from grocery boxes. The enclosure would then be ringed with a series of entrenchments in which other lead soldiers in GI uniforms would aim rifles, bazookas, machine guns and howitzers at the Hitler bunker.

We’d become expert at making the sounds of these weapons with our cheeks and tongues, thanks to the soundtracks of war movies we repeatedly watched like they were historical documentaries. “Sands of Iwo Jima” and “A Walk in the Sun” are two I can recall, with John Wayne and Dana Andrews being two of my GI heroes.


At some point in the game, we knew it was time to settle Hitler’s hash, and the artillery would add flaming matches to its ammunition. These would be launched by hand, rubber band and catapult until the dry wood took flame. We’d then lay flat on our stomachs, peering into the conflagration, as the flames grew hotter and nearer the small leaden figure of Hitler to be sacrificed that afternoon.

We never tired of watching the small human form slowly begin to lose its shape and slowly sink into a formless puddle of molten lead.
This activity would be narrated; using our best imitations of Lowell Thomas, or what we thought Ernie Pyle might sound like. “The Marine artillery has found its mark and it looks like Hitler’s Bunker has taken a direct hit. The GI’s pour it on, and the flames are climbing. Hitler’s a goner for sure.” All the time, the ack ack ack and tch tch tch of machine gun fire echoed through the hills of the battlefield on Anderson Avenue.


When the ashes cooled, Hitler’s remains would be poked out of the pile, now a shapeless
mass of warm lead. We imagined that was how Hitler’s body would look after being caught in his bunker. That it was the Russians who got there first was a historical detail we were to learn much later. 

The remains would then be unceremoniously deposited in “Hitler’s grave;” a shallow hole marked by a large pile of bricks and containing about a dozen similar blobs of lead.

By then it was time to go home to dinner and homework, and listen to radio shows. “The Shadow” and “The Lone Ranger” were two favorites. Oddly, there were few shows that involved the war or wartime adventures. I suppose it was too soon after the killing to make fictional radio entertainment from such horrors.

But we had no trouble creating our own stories, and they occupied our waking thoughts and all preferences for toys. I became adept at drawing Spitfires, Messerschmitts, P-52s, Panther and Patton tanks, locked in ferocious battle. All of our games involved fighting the Germans. For some reason, the “Japs” seemed too scary, demonic or exotic for us to conjure them in our imaginary war.

While much of our play (that wasn’t stickball) took place on the rubble and weed-strewn vacant lot, occasionally we would expand to parked cars, firing our M-1s and Tommy guns from behind their shelter. Our game would move seamlessly from small lead soldiers to our own bodies, as we became the GIs and the “Natzees.” To be fair, we took turns playing the hated German.

During one of these games, I remember working my way, crouched behind the fenders of the ‘37 Plymouths, ’47 Dodges and open-back trucks and I came up to an incredible sight! There, parked amid these black steel turreted relics of the 30s was an actual, authentic, real Jeep! It was painted a perfect GI olive drab and had ammunition boxes strapped to its sides, along with two large knobby tires.


Like every Jeep we’d seen in the movies, it was open to the air, with low curved doors than could be unhooked from the inside. Two seats in front and a wide bench seat in the back invited us in. The large black steering wheel tilted up at a rakish angle, and the thin steel gearshift, topped by a black knob poked up from the floor between the seats. Two large rectangular mirrors were mounted on the side of the windshield.

Incredible! Here, right in front of our lot stood the real McCoy—a genuine fighting
machine. All it lacked was the mounted .50 Cal. air-cooled machine gun, and we could supply that with a bit of imagination and a few sticks of wood. We were electric with excitement.

In no time, the Jeep became the central weapon with which we would fight and defeat the entire German army. Hitler didn’t stand a chance. As Marty, Larry and Jerry swarmed  over the Jeep, I held back. Strangely, I felt uneasy. “Hey guys,” I yelled, “what if the guy who owns the Jeep comes back? He ain’t gonna like this.”

I might have just as well tried to convince them to give up one of the girlie magazines we’d found with pictures of models with bare breasts. No way! This was big.

The game began to form and I decided I’d be a German, attacking from behind an old
Ford. Ack ack ack….tada tada tada—I imitated the sound of a German Schmeiser. Kapow Kapow Kapow, they fired back, making the M-1 sounds we’d all seen spelled out in yellow and red bursts in Milton Kaniff comic strips.
While I was slowly snaking toward an unguarded spot on the Jeep’s flank, I see a guy about halfway down the block running towards us, waving his arms. 

I could hear just a bit of what he was shouting… 
“youfunkinmotherfrigginpisspotkidsI’llbreakyurheads,” or something close to that.

I quickly realized this was his Jeep and he was not willing to let us use it as part of our war games. I yelled a warning to my friends, who looked up and saw the stampeding form of the man coming closer. They jumped and ran like hell.

Me? I figure, I’m in the clear. I didn’t get on the Jeep. I’m OK.

At least that’s what I thought until the guy got close enough for me to see the blue smoke coming out of his ears, and the sparks flying from his eyes as he reached our his hand to grab my coat. Then I realized I had made a mistake. A fundamental error in human judgment.

I knew I was innocent. But they guy that was about to beat my nose bloody didn’t and he wasn’t going to give me a fair trial either. He was gonna haul off and clock me one good. With the agility of a seven year old, I spun around and ran out of my blue pea jacket, disappearing into the wilds of the vacant lot. The pissed-off guy stood there for a minute, holding an empty coat before he realized there was no kid in it to hit. I was gonna catch hell for losing my pea coat. My old man didn’t make a lot of money and clothes were dear. But so was my life!

The guy began to rant and shout, and made a half-hearted attempt to find me, and my friends, in the weeds and rubble. All the while I could hear him mumbling “goddam kids. Get my hands on them. Teach ‘em a lesson.”

But I had already learned my lesson.

Sometimes, even the innocent need to run.

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