TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:
Their small sacks heavy with apples, they huddled on the cobblestone path, not sure if they could make it back in time. Bright orange and yellow leaves rushed across their shoes and they shivered, their cloaks no match for the approaching dusk. Their eyes widened as the town’s striking clock began to issue its warning…
(Entries must touch on the topic in some way to qualify.)
During World War II, I remember mostly hating potatoes. And curfew. Not a good life for a ten year old. I lived in Germany with my parents and older sister. We were not allowed out after 7 p.m. My sister and I would play in the courtyard till sundown, surrounded by tall brick apartment buildings with tiny windows.
Our favorite game was rollercoaster. We would take turns pushing each other around the sidewalk in a wheelbarrow we used to cart home loaves of stale bread and sprouting potatoes. My sister, Laura, was the best pusher. She would fly down the sidewalk without slowing down at the turn. I always thought she wouldn’t be able to stop, and that I’d tumble forward. But at the last minute, she’d twist left or right, while I screamed and gripped the splintering wood.
My sister had a mischievous side. One day after curfew, she came up with an idea to drop spitballs of toilet paper from our bathroom window. We’d soak a big wad of our limited ration wipe and watch it fall through the air and splat on the sidewalk three stories down. When my sister dropped a fat one right behind Frau Guenther, I laughed so hard my cheeks felt like I had eaten a bag of lemons. But the funniest of all was when we left for school the next day, the sidewalk was dotted with grey lumps. Maybe this could crack a smile on the face of a German soldier if he walked by. It was good fun … until our parents found out.
A few times a week, our friend Olaf would join us in the courtyard. He was short and plump and loved to talk about food. We’d sit under the big elm, while he made our mouths water for wiener schnitzel or a thick ham and Swiss on rye with spicy mustard. But what he missed most was his favorite cake with whipped cream and fresh strawberries. We could only dream of these delicacies. We’d be lucky to have potatoes cooked a new way for dinner that night.
One day Olaf came running into the courtyard after school, out of breath and holding up a folded piece of paper.
“I know … where we can get strawberries!” he gasped. I looked at my sister, and she burst out laughing.
“Who’s been lying to you? Nobody’s seen fruit for months.” My sister was always right.
“No! I saw them. I tasted one!” His face was blotched red with excitement. He handed over the folded paper, which had a scribbled map.
Olaf’s uncle, Herr Meier, a short, grey-haired man who owned Meier Bakery, had learned about a field of wild strawberries concealed behind a wall of pines at the edge of the forest. He and his two brothers would sneak there at night after curfew to pick them.
That day under the big elm, my sister convinced us that we should take a look. We must have been really bored to risk our lives for fruit, but I think it was more for the thrill and adventure. Maybe not for Olaf, though. Because he was hungry.
We decided that Laura and I would take turns pushing each other in the wheelbarrow, and Olaf could ride his bike. So Friday after school, we traveled the deserted back roads that wove between farm houses. We flew like the wind, like bees to forbidden nectar. Our hearts beat with excitement and fear. But Olaf lagged behind. Too large for his bike, he wobbled and struggled to keep up. Then his bike got a flat tire right when the road ended at the forest’s edge, so he continued on foot until we finally reached the clearing.
We stared at the huge field of red dots. Then ran to the first berry we could find, shoving it in our mouths. When you’ve been eating potatoes for a year, a strawberry wakes up dead taste buds to the best surprise birthday party in your mouth. These were the tastiest strawberries I had ever eaten. After gorging ourselves, we started filling the wheelbarrow. We moved quickly up and down the rows, grabbing handfuls at a time from mounds of overgrown plants. Sounds of glee kept coming from Olaf’s direction. Time got away from us.
My sister’s face glowed orange as she looked at the setting sun. Her expression scared me. Curfew was only 30 minutes away. A beautiful dream had turned to nightmare. My pulse raced as we sped home. I wondered what German soldiers would do to three kids with stolen strawberries. People had been shot for breaking curfew. I never saw Olaf move faster.
When we neared our neighborhood, it was dark, and we were cold and queasy with fear. Then the air raid siren sounded. We had never been outside during an air raid. I was petrified. We huddled together at the nearest building on the cobblestone path, not sure if we would make it back alive.
That was 55 years ago. I still remember how white my parents’ faces were when we came through the front door. We didn’t get dinner that night. But we didn’t go to bed hungry. And we fell asleep with smiles on our faces.
Today, I sit here at a restaurant in New Mexico with my family. My grandsons will probably never know how it feels to be hungry or scared to walk out their front door. But they may also never get a chance run like fear in the wind. Or really taste a strawberry.
The waitress comes to our table to tell us the appetizer special: potato skins.