Siegmar's Day

This is a story told to me in the early 1960's by Siegmar. I was an airman stationed in Germany and heard many such tales, but this one rang true for I would trust Siegmar with my life. I took some liberties in the telling, but I stayed as close as possible to the actual events. Some names were changed for privacy.


     Memory is selective. Some days disappear into the past, never to be recalled, while others will be remembered as fresh and clear as though they occurred yesterday. February 23, 1945 is one of those days. Even after 15 years the smallest details are etched in my brain. The day of the week, the clothes I wore, my sister's  dancing, what we ate for dinner and even the weather are all unforgettable.

     The previous Tuesday was my 10th birthday and that Friday I would be sworn in as a member of the German Youth. My mother woke me at the usual time, just before dawn. “Siegmar, get up.” she said. “You have a big day ahead of you. We need more coal and kindling so don’t dawdle.”

     That was one of my chores and it took a few trips from our second floor apartment to the basement and back to fill the coal scuttle and wood box. While I was doing that, my mother started a fire in the kitchen stove and soon the room started to warm, taking the chill from the air.      

     I didn’t mind having such duties because I was the man of the house. My father had told me so when he was home the previous September. He came into my room just before he left, ruffled my hair, which was blonde and curly like his, sat me down and told me to listen very carefully to what he had to say.

     “Soon I will return to my regiment and that will leave you as the only man in the house.” That’s exactly what he said. He called me a man. “Do you know what it means  to be a man, Siegmar? You have responsibilities now. Not just at school, but at home too. Your mother needs you to help take care of the family. That is your most important job. Will you promise me to do that while I’m gone?”

     “Yes, Papa. I swear to take care of our family.”

     He sent at least one letter a week after that. His latest was from Poland. “Yesterday the Russians tried to cross the Vistula river south of Warsaw in hundreds of small boats.” he wrote. “We met them at the bank and, in a great battle, drove them back.” How exciting it was for me to read that. That was written in the middle of January, but there was nothing since, even though my mother hurried down to the Post Office every morning to check.

     After my father left, I kept my oath as best I could, but some chores were more difficult than others. Our cat, Fritzi, a good mouser, once had a litter of six kittens. Mother informed me that it was my job to dispose of them. I put them in a box which was placed in my wooden wagon and took them to all our neighbors. I went all the way down to the end of the street and back and knocked at every door, but no-one was interested in more mouths to feed. When I returned, my mother sat me down, put her hand on my shoulder and told me what I needed to do.

     I carried the kittens back to the old shed in back, picked each one up, petted it for a moment or two, then dashed it against the cement floor. Finally, I placed them in a sack and buried it in a corner of the yard. Afterwards, I ran to my room in the attic, where no-one could see, and sobbed into my pillow. Sometimes being the man of the house was hard.

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