One of my favorite Arroyo Grande High School students, who achieved the highest grade ever in my U.S. history classes, Judith Heptner, came to us as an exchange student from Bavaria.
She loved learning American history. I’ve told Judith this story, but once World War II had ended in the spring of 1945, Europe went hungry — the continent’s infrastructure had been obliterated by ground combat and the Allied air campaign.
Footage of German kids eating out of garbage cans in 1945, in the long months before the Marshall Plan, always stunned my students. In the meantime, prisoners of war in our care died of hunger or of opportunistic diseases because civilians got first priority for food and there never was enough.
My father, Robert W. Gregory, a WWII veteran, would become the comptroller for 20 years of Madonna Construction Company, would assist in the founding of Mid-State Bank and would be the clerk of the Branch School Board that built the present school in the Upper Arroyo Grande, one that replaced the two-room school built in the 1880s. He was also an active member of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Arroyo Grande.
A Wehrmacht major, who outranked my father, then a U.S. Army captain on occupation duty, somehow latched onto him and for a few weeks became his personal body servant: The German officer cooked for him, cleaned his quarters, washed and pressed his uniforms — the works.
He did that because Dad was a quartermaster officer and so had access to food. A year before, my father had repaid an English family’s kindness to him with a bag of oranges, something they’d done without for five years. The mother’s British reserve crumbled. She began to weep.
The young German officer wanted to live: His pride meant nothing when compared to the wife and children he wanted in his arms again once he was cashiered. My father was his ticket home. In summer, his papers came through so he would begin the long walk home along roads choked with refugees and gaunt, tired soldiers.
Dad never learned what happened to him but hoped, in talking about him years later, that the German major had lived a long and happy life. What started as a relationship of expedience had begun to edge into a friendship. Sixty years later, deep inside me was the unspoken thought that my student Judith might be the major’s great-granddaughter.
I owed it to this soldier to be the best teacher I could be for her. The tough American soldiers of Easy Company, the “Band of Brothers,” one of them, Sgt. Art Youman, was, like me, from Arroyo Grande, liked the English, for the most part, loved the Dutch. But, like my father, they felt most at home with Germans.
But the murderous war they’d fought against each other makes you wish that British Pvt. William Tandey had shot Hitler in 1918, when he had the man in his sights at Marcoing. Tandey immediately recognized that the gassed soldier was helpless. Tandey was an honorable man, so he lowered the muzzle of his Lee-Enfield rifle.
Hitler despised mercy like Tandey’s. But, by 1918, so did the French leader Georges Clemenceau, once the epitome of French liberal democracy and of tolerance. A different Clemenceau dominated the drafting of the Versailles Treaty in 1919, a foolish, vindictive peace treaty rationalized by a generation of young Frenchmen whose remains littered their nation’s soil.
Even today, farmers in northern France uncover the bones of boys or bits of leather and uniform cloth beneath their harrow blades. Nothing helped Hitler’s rise to power quite so much as Clemenceau’s mercilessness. And, of course, Hitler would bring millions of young Americans into a war that claimed over 400,000 of them.
My father survived that war. Dad never knew what happened to the German major once they shook hands for the last time. My father hoped, to the end of his life in 1985 — he’s buried next to Mom in the Arroyo Grande Cemetery — that his one-time enemy had survived the long, hot walk home to embrace his wife in doorway of their home, had their home survived three years of Allied bombing.
Dad’s story made me wonder if someday all of us might walk long roads of our own alongside our ancestors and our friends and even alongside our enemies. I hope that my father, in walking his road, will turn toward the tired man next to him and recognize, with sudden joy, the German major who yearned for home.