They were billeted below ground level in our street. I used to walk past them and it was routine to see their helmeted heads poking up above the edge of the pavement from the basement of the apartments. I wasn’t aware why they were there nor did I question it. It was their helmets which I was most interested in. Why were they wearing them and not us? They are soldiers I was told. What is a soldier? They fight. Why? Ask your father. I am hungry.
Those helmets are back in vogue, especially in the skate board riding world although I have also seen some Harley- Davidson riders with the same sort of helmets. They were a bulbous sort of steel headgear with a lip at the front allowing for good all-round sight. I have never forgotten how they looked like and could not believe they were back in fashion. When the grandkids were over at our place, one had forgotten his special skate board scooter helmet. We thought it best to buy him one.
Parents now-a-days are obsessively angst driven when it comes to children suffering consequences of falls. Our kids would be having broken limbs and proudly getting signatures of footballers signed on the plaster casts. Modern pedagogy seems to want to deny kids the pleasure of all that. Falling is strictly only allowed if all exposed limbs and body parts are covered in shin-knee-ankle pads with steel gloves for hands and heads protected by full face helmets. The manufacturers are rubbing hands in glee.
Anyway, having taken Tomas to Big W he soon found the helmet he wanted. You’ve guessed it, it had to be one of those brand new German style helmets all painted a somber flat charcoal and in my war eyes, very sinister looking. Still, that’s the fashion now and we were not going to argue. Especially since we had also promised that the only take away food allowed would be from the popular Japanese take-away sushi outlets that now seems too have proliferated around the country’s food halls. Our grandkids accepted that as a reasonable compromise if we accepted Tomas’ choice in the Nazi-helmet department. That’s how it is with children now. Everything has to be negotiated. There is no more ‘do as you are fucking told’, followed with a good smack from your loving Gran. Doctor Spock and those Seuss books have a lot to answer for. It will take decades to rectify.
But, going back to those billeted German soldiers below street level with their poking guns and wearing the helmets. We were starved and, as this story has been re-told by my mother so often, I kept walking our street in Rotterdam. I remember those German men being friendly even though I could hardly talk, let alone would have understood their German.
I am hungry again, mum. Yes, but that is because of the war. Why does war make me hungry? I don’t know, ask your father.
It was in the last year and hunger was at its highest in Rotterdam during the winter of 1945. Over30 000 died of starvation including over 2000 children, there was simply no more food. Yet, a solitary act of kindness in a world of destruction with nightmarish Dante like inferno; one of those soldiers billeted below street level stuck his arm out and gave a hungry child a loaf of dark German rye bread. I was that child and I have never forgotten.
Soon after leaving BigW, Tomas was seen at the Bowral skate park wearing his Goth-like helmet. Up and down he went, getting more confident. Go on Tomas, give it some more stick downhill, you can do it. That’s it! Well done.
He comes home and has his lunch, all red faced and chucks the helmet on the chair next to the door. Bread now comes so easy.