Monday, December 24, 2012

A Christmas Feast to Remember

Christmas 1953
After so many years shuffling about on this mortal coil, I suppose it is not a remarkable thing that the Christmas holidays seem to blend together. 

There are Christmas holidays I do remember. When we lived at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, my father gave me a pair of boxing gloves. He'd been a good boxer during military competitions during his younger days, and he soon became frustrated because I wouldn't punch him. I wasn't allowed to sass or back-talk, certainly, and so it wasn't logical to me that I was supposed to pop him one in the kisser. 

There is one Christmas I do remember vividly. Perhaps because there are two reminders in the room where I write—two made-in-the-U.S. Zone of Occupied Germany wind-up toys. One is a monkey that climbs a nylon string. The other is a model of a Mercedes race car, complete with knock-off wheels. But I don't remember that Christmas, 1953, because of the toys. 

We lived then in a chateau with two other U.S. Army families in the little town of Etain a few miles east of Verdun, France. The chateau was enormous, stone and stucco, with a ballroom, numerous bedrooms, and a converted room we used as a kitchen. We lived in four rooms on the ground floor, with the ballroom used as a common entrance area. The second and third floors were occupied by a family with several children and a couple with a single child. There were extensive abandoned servants quarters in the basement, a stone patio the size of a basketball court, an empty swimming pool, and a carriage house and stable with another set of servant quarters above the stalls and parking space for carriages. Two French families lived there. The grounds extended to about 15-acres, and it was surrounded by a stone wall about 10-feet tall and 2-feet thick. The rich and titled person who had built it spared nothing, I suppose, but they lost to it the Nazis and apparently never returned.

My father was assigned to a NATO facility in Verdun for three years, and during a good part of that time, he was the chief of the U.S. liaison to a battalion of troops composed of Free Pole Army veterans. The soldiers had driven from Poland by the Nazis and were unable or unwilling to return because of the Soviet occupation of their country. The  battalion was organized similarly to a U.S. Army unit, and my recollection is that many of its officers had been part of the pre-war Polish elite. I remember my father saying one of its officers had been in the Justice Ministry, and another officer had been commandant of the Polish military academy. All of them had fought on the side of the Allies during the war, and they now were organized into affiliated NATO troops. The Poles did guard duty. They had a quartermaster unit. There were doctors and dentists who served both American and Polish soldiers and dependents.

What I remember about that Christmas is that those Polish soldiers invited our family to their Christmas celebration. Of course, nearly all of us are lucky enough to have experienced a joyful Christmas, complete with a turkey dinner and all its trimmings, but "Christmas feast" doesn't do justice to the banquet the Poles laid out that holiday. Oddly, I don't remember an individual dishes. I only remember the lavishness, something akin to the royal banquets laid out in medieval days, long tables in the mess hall, dressed in white tablecloths, absolutely covered with colorful dishes. And I remember the joy—joy in spite of being driven away from all that they treasured, from their friends and families. And the welcome—I think they wanted to share their happiness, their traditions, their food with the five American families who were then some part of their lives.

That's nearly sixty years gone now, but I still remember those men. I met a fellow who lived in Verdun a few years ago, but he wasn't familiar with the Polish unit, and so he had no knowledge of what happened to them. Another person told me he thought they had been allowed to immigrate to Australia, Great Britain, and the United States. 

Wherever they are, I hope they found happiness. They deserved it.
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