where the writers are
The Engagement Present

 

In the window of a restaurant is a couple at a table for two.  They eat slowly, each looking at something on the opposite wall.  Both are close to 60 years old.  Two, five, ten minutes go by.  They say nothing.  The waitress stops at the table and asks how they like their food.  Both momentarily brighten, smile and say, “Fine.”  Then they cool faster than hot tea poured on crushed ice and the mutual silence resumes.

 

The man in the corner booth thinks he knows the couple, but can’t place them.  He turns back to his newspaper, but keeps glancing in their direction. After five minutes some innocuous comment passes between them.  A friend stops at the table.   The man on the sidewalk sees both smile with what the friend takes for happiness but is mostly relief.

 

‘How does a couple like this get together?’ the observer thought.  He knew how they stayed together.  Kids, houses and bank accounts twist their tendrils though their lives so completely neither has the energy to pull away.  He turned away again, then he remembered the engagement present.

 

Scene:  U.S. Army Administrative Offices, Prisoner of War Compound, Reading, Pennsylvania, August 1944.  The camp, now the Reading Airport is home to 600 German Prisoners of War (POW), mostly former members of the Afrika Corps.  Guarding them is a Military Police (MP) company commanded by Captain George Cohen, a former middleweight boxer.  Civilian clerks and typists handle most routine administrative duties.

 

The thin door banged open at the push of a burly soldier in the white helmet of a Military Policeman. In a moment, the office went from rush to hush.  Even on an Army base with a prison camp, a squad of MPs marching into an administrative office cut the buzz of conversation and the clackety-clack of typing.  The first two MPs flanked the door, rifles at ready.  Four more marched in behind, the last man carrying an obviously heavy ammunition crate. 

 

Without a word, they marched in close order to the back of the open office space and the gray metal desk of blond typist.  The sergeant at the front of the line called “Detail Halt!”  He faced the astonished typist and said, “Are you Elisabeth Beckmann?”

 

She nodded yes.  The hush was complete.  Elisabeth was a farm girl from western Pennsylvania.  The graduate of a one-room school south of Erie, a wartime job on an Army base north of Reading got her off the farm and on her way to the life she only saw in magazines.  She tried to answer but only nodded yes. What on earth could six MPs want with her.

 

He coworkers, mostly typists and clerks, didn’t move.  The MP with the ammo box faced left, took two steps, faced right and set the box on the desk.  “Compliments of Captain Cohen Ma’am.”

 

The detail faced about without another word and filed out of the building.  When the door closed the other typists ran to Elisabeth’s desk.  “Open the box.”  “What’s in it?”  “Is there a note?”

 

There was a note.  Her name was typed on the envelope.  The note inside was written in the in an oddly beautiful hand that made her smile and blush.  It said:  “Darling Elisabeth, Please accept this small token in honor of our engagement.  With Love, George.”

 

She flipped the wire closures, raised the lid and saw Hershey bars.  Hundreds of Hershey bars.  Rationing made chocolate, sugar, tires, and all sorts of things hard or impossible to get.  Elisabeth loved chocolate, but allowed herself almost none since the war started.  Almost all the chocolate went to soldiers.  Gold was scarce also.  George had proposed to Elisabeth the previous weekend giving her a band from one of his cigars and promising a real ring as soon as the war ended.  Elisabeth said yes.  George was her ticket to the big city, but the ring worried her.  George made a vague promise of an engagement gift, but this was stunning even for the garrulous Commandant of the POW camp.  Her doubts vanished.

 

Inside the crate was an official packing list.  “Confiscated 6 August 1994, 608 chocolate bars from prisoners in Reading barracks.  Julius, Edward J. 1st Sergeant.”  Now she knew how he did it.

 

Elisabeth started passing the precious confections to everyone in the office.  “Oh no.  Please.  Take a couple.  Really I have more than enough.  Isn’t it marvelous.”

 

The old (He was over 30.) sergeant in charge of the administrative office thumped into the room on the crutch he used while he waited for his prosthetic leg.  “Back to work everyone.  There’s still a war on.” 

 

Elisabeth smiled at Sergeant O’Toole and handed him a candy bar.  He took it with something approach a smile then turned to a clerk and said,  “Fasulo.  Carry Miss Beckmann’s treasure chest to the female dormitory.”  Sergeant O’Toole liked embarrassing Fasulo.  Mentioning the Miss Beckmann and chest in the same sentence turned the 19-year-old clerk scarlet from collar to forehead.  Fasulo followed Elisabeth through the door and the office returned to the hum of work.  The Hershey bars quickly disappeared into desk drawers all.

 

O’Toole thumped back to his office.  He lost his left leg in Tunisia fighting the same Germans who were the source of Elisabeth’s engagement present.  O’Toole liked the idea that the Camp Commandant was a Jew with relatives in Nazi Territory.  The last two commandants were too soft.  Cohen came in and flattened the first kraut that talked back to him and punished the whole bunch for one infraction.

 

One of those bastards mouthed off to a guard and Cohen sent his Top Sergeant Eddie J. and 20 guards through the prison barracks.  Half an hour later, Eddie J. had an ammo crate full of Hershey bars.  Three days later Elisabeth had an engagement present.  Cohen was the most popular guy on the base.  Everybody listened to his stories about the big matches he fought.  He even pitched Triple A ball for the Red Sox farm club.  O’Toole could see why a shy, pretty Pennsylvania German farm girl would fall for Cohen.  He was her ticket off the farm.  But it just didn’t seem right—and it was none of his business.  Sergeant Tommy O’Toole went back to work.

 

Forty years later, Tommy O’Toole knew he was right.  The Cohens were still a good looking couple, at least when they weren’t looking at each other.  The Cohens continued their cold meal, unaware of the Sergeant O’Toole outside.  Tommy resumed his walk.  The limp barely perceptible after four decades practice walking with prosthetic leg.