Two days later David and I were standing at attention in the centre of the first rank, along with other enlisted soldiers. The sergeant stood directly in front of us, short and stocky, his legs planted firmly on the ground. Rows of WW1 ribbons covered most of his chest. “My name is McTavish,” he started. “I will be your acting sergeant until you are ready to start your basic training.” He went on, “Right now you are civilians disguised as soldiers, my job is to try to bring out the soldier and bury the civilian.” I nudged Greenbaum and whispered, “Just look at his rows of medals, this guy has been through hell and back.” The sergeant’s ears seemed to stand at attention–he moved towards me and stood inches away. “What’s your name?” he shouted. “Oscar, sir,” I answered promptly. “Your name is Oscar?” “Yes, sir,” I replied nervously, aware now that something was amiss. McTavish cleared his throat and took a deep breath. “I want to straighten up some loose ends,” he said, his voice even louder. “One, I don’t really care if your name is Oscar, Tom, Dick or Harry–your name in this army is your last name, not your given name, got it?” “Yes,” I said, playing it safe. “Yes what?” “I don’t know what to say, I’m confused.” We stood looking at each other. The sergeant scratched his head and blurted, “Just do me a favor, I want one word only, just your last name, PLEASE!” “Colman,” I said with relief. “Very good, now listen closely, I’m a sergeant , I’m not a ‘sir’…I don’t want to be a ‘sir,’ now or ever.”
The sergeant now became serious. “Men, I see that you have ants in your pants, you may stand at ease.” Sighs of relief all around. “You may smoke.” Most of us lit up and a cloud of smoke soon enveloped us. Greenbaum and I were not smokers– we simply stopped breathing. The sarge, a non-smoker as well, waited a few minutes before ordering, “All cigarettes out.” He let the air clear before bringing us back to attention, followed by a thundering, “Company, left turn.” My friend Greenbaum smartly turned right. The team of Greenbaum and Colman were now back to back. “Oy vay,” I said. The sergeant was not happy. He shouted, “You were told to turn bloody left Greenbaum.” Greenbaum sheepishly did a one-eighty. “There are rules,” he began, “military rules, that have to be followed to the letter”. The sergeant then put us through an extensive 15 minute drill that had us all going and coming and colliding and sweating under a hot sun. But all in all we were a happy bunch, learning to be soldiers.
Suddenly McTavish sensed a new presence in our midst and shouted a long and drawn out, “Company, attention,” with a sharp rise on the last syllable. We all brought our heels together with a resounding snap, the team of Greenbaum and Colman not too far behind. The sergeant wagged his finger at us but said nothing. He turned right, stood stiffly and waited for the “presence”, the commanding officer, who with a swagger stick neatly tucked under his left armpit, strode forward to receive a smart “Canadian” salute from McTavish, one returned nonchalantly by the officer, a man barely beyond his teens.
The officer stood directly in front of us, cleared his throat and began. “The army has a variety of posts, each equally important. They consist mainly of rear echelons and front combat forces. These front forces could not function without the rear.” He paused and looked left and right, “Right now,” he continued, “we have an opening for an important post we call the ‘Number Five Special Employment Company'”. Greenbaum and I looked at each other and leaned forward, ready for the next command. “This important mission requires two outstanding volunteers.”
The team of Greenbaum and Colman stepped forward and saluted. “Your names?” he asked. “Greenbaum, sir,” followed by “Colman, sir.” We were raring to go. The sergeant took over and dismissed us to await further instructions. We were beyond ecstatic. We were sure the mission carried some danger. No sweat, the team was ready, but ready for what? We kept turning it around–what was special about the word “special?” Greenbaum threw up his arms, “I don’t know, I just don’t know.” “That’s a great help, you don’t know!” I said sarcastically. “So big shot, what do you know?” Greenbaum shot back. “Let’s calm down,” I said, and then it hit me: “We’re at war.” Greenbaum glared at me like I was an idiot. “At war with Germany,” I continued. “Sooo, the Germans, our enemies, have got to be playing a major role in the ‘Special’.” “Do you think the world would send us off to war without training?” Greenbaum asked nervously. “Who knows?” I said, “Maybe if you know too little, it’s better than to know too much”.
Soon after we found ourselves in a military jeep going at a military clip. The driver said nothing. Fifteen minutes later, the jeep stopped at the Notre Dame hospital. We elbowed each other. “German prisoners” I said. “We are going to guard wounded German prisoners,” Greenbaum elaborated. “Might be dangerous” I said with bravado. The driver motioned us into a side door but said nothing. A sergeant was there to greet us. He checked our names, and said, “These are your prisoners, you will eat here, sleep here and remain here until relieved.”
We stood back and observed the scene before us. There were German soldiers in rows of military cots and others simply stood around. Some wore hospital whites, some wore pajamas, still others wore vacant looks. They were probably shell-shocked in some way. The sergeant smiled. Greenbaum and I looked at each other, knowing the assignment was not going to be an easy one.
“May I approach the prisoners?” I asked. “Certainly, go right ahead” he replied. I was fairly conversant in German. I marched up to the nearest standing patient, not without some trepidation, and barked “Deutchland is niche uber allen.”(Germany is not over all), inches from his face. He stepped back, mouth agape, body trembling. I was not through. I marched up to another prisoner, “Si sind Deutsche gefangene” (you are German prisoners) I said with authority. This patient stood his ground and looked at me quizzically. I was now in full gear. I confronted the next Nazi. He did not move. He actually glared at me and I glared back. “Now hear this, you shithead Nazi Jew-killer.” “Folgen sie enface meinen auftragen!” (Just follow my orders!) I screamed.
Instead of backing up, he stepped forward. Thus emboldened, others followed. I stepped back. Greenbaum stepped back. His face had turned ashen. I glanced behind me. The sergeant hadn’t moved, his smile wide enough to show all of his false teeth. At the very last moment he raised his arms. We all stopped. “Now hear this, I mean everybody, there has been a little misunderstanding. This idiot, gesturing toward me, ‘ for some mysterious reason of his own, believes that you are German prisoners.”” He paused and looking directly at me, went on, “Your duty is to guard these Canadian soldiers, soldiers who through their own negligence are being treated for a variety of venereal diseases; gonorrhea, syphilis, the clap and who knows what else. Greenbaum and I stood back nonplussed. We stared at each other, we were doomed men. The word “SPECIAL” in our assignment had dumbed us down. Our minds, our adventurous minds, had blocked our vision. Our special job, our dangerous job, was to prevent these assholes from going out to infect others.
We began our rounds. We heard moans and groans from those who had waited too long before their condition advanced. We wanted to tape our ears, wanted to throw up, wanted to leave, wanted to ask for a change of venue. We saw Canadian soldiers, once alert and alive, with sores on their faces and arms, many too weak to move about. A sorry lot. Soldiers oblivious to the dangers of unprotected sex. They were a pitiable sight to behold. I thought of my girlfriend Marcia, and kept thinking and thinking and thinking of her. I looked at my watch, it was 5PM. I left. There was no point in telling Greenbaum. Surely, he could manage on his own. I was unaware that he’d had the very same thought earlier and had already left.
Next morning, our good sergeant was waiting for us and he was not happy. “Well, well,” he said, “the two AWOL soldiers are back on duty.” He continued, “While you were away without leave, three of your wards left without saying goodbye.” He enlarged on this theme–“Away without leave is a very serious military misconduct,” his voice now reaching a crescendo. “You will be lucky, very lucky, if you are not charged with more than fourteen days detention–in a place that does not welcome their guests.”
The next day we marched up to the military judge, saluted and awaited the verdict. The judge was not in a hurry. He rustled some papers back and forth, looked up at us sternly, and went back to his papers while we shivered internally. The judge finally said, “You are guilty of leaving your posts without leave, a most serious offense.” He paused and looked directly at us. “I am taking into consideration your lack of basic training. I hereby sentence you to fourteen days in a military detention center, one, I may add, not known for leniency.
I was shown into my cell and my friend was shown into the cell next door. Our steel doors shut with a clang behind us. My furnishings consisted of a raised wooden platform serving as a bed, a blanket that had served time, a rickety chair that shuddered when I deigned to sit on it, a toilet that lacked a seat, and a small sink which dripped cold water only. A tin cup hung on a nail. A light bulb dangled from a low ceiling. I sat on my chair, my head low. I was entombed without a tomb stone, more dead than alive. Hours passed, the isolation was complete. I could hear the silence.
My misery was suddenly interrupted when my steel door opened and in strode a guard carrying a medium-sized carton. He put it down on my wooden bed and walked out without saying a word. I looked at the box. I opened it. Inside was a list and a vest. I picked up the list and thought to myself ‘something to read!’, welcoming this distraction.
Rules of Behavior:
1. You will raise your arm if you wish to speak.
2. You will use sir when addressing a guard.
3. You have been given a vest showing your name in front and number in back. You must wear this vest at all times. (The front featured my name, Colman, and on the back my number, 2411)
4. Prior to lights out you should be shining your boots, cleaning your equipment, and keeping busy one way or another. You will be observed to ensure compliance.
5. Further instructions will be given verbally.
Apparently breathing out loud was not an infraction and taking a crap was not a moving violation.
The next morning in the mess hall I was third in line with Greenbaum right behind me. The aroma of scrambled eggs was overwhelming. I stood before the chef, my mess tin at the ready. There was a huge vat of scrambled eggs filled to very top. My mouth watered. “How many scoops of scramble eggs would you like?,” the chef asked in a friendly manner. “Two or three scoops would do me nicely,” I answered with a smile. At this point I’m thinking that maybe my sentence would not be too bad after all. “Anything else?” asked the chef. “Well, perhaps a nice cup of coffee and some toast to go with it, sir.” I waited. Nothing was said. The silence, even after just a few seconds, felt a little long. It finally hit me. I was being baited and I was the worm. “Put your tray down Colman–we want you to work up an appetite for this splendid meal.” “What must I do sir?” I asked nervously. “We want you to dance.” “I’m sorry sir, I never learned how to dance properly. I must decline,” I said with finality. “But Colman, this is not that type of dance.” They were up to something bad at my expense. “What type is it?,” I asked with alarm. “OK Colman, enough said, just lift one leg and then the other in rapid succession.” I jumped up and down again and again and although it lasted perhaps only a minute, it was interminable. And no music! I swore silently- the words soothed me. I went back to my luxury suite carrying my single scoop of scrambled eggs, one slice of dry toast and a cup of watery coffee. I ate voraciously. I would have eaten my fingers if they had syrup on them.
Second day out on the parade grounds our noon repast consisted of packaged sandwiches, a sample-sized bag of peanuts and a stick of gum. Real coffee was served; a real feast! “You OK?” I murmured to Greenbaum, moving my lips as little as possible. “You OK?” he replied. “You first, I insisted.” “Not OK.” “Think of your girlfriend,” suggested Greenbaum. “I’m doing just that” I answered, then continued with “we can also sing songs to keep sane.” Our lip-sealed conversation suddenly came to an end. “Greenbaum and Colman step out of line. Talking without permission is a serious offense. You will each carry a rifle overhead for five minutes straight while marching in line, starting now.” It was sheer misery, it was brutal, it was impossible. Our arms kept lowering while the guards kept on shouting “pick it up, pick it up.” When it was finally over we vowed to keep our mouths shut, period.
Supper consisted of soup and two slices of dry bread. The soup had things floating around in the ooze that were not welcome. I closed my eyes and thought of chicken soup. The soup was not fooled. I sat down on my wooden bed, not well fed.
Time, time, time, what was time? There was no real way to tell time. No watches, no clocks, just AMs and PMs, daylight and nightlight. Time was measured by signals. Lights out and it was time to go beddy beddy bye bye on our wooden mattresses. Time to rise was signaled by a screeching siren that had me catapulting out of bed. “You have five minutes to dress and wash” was broadcast stridently. No time allotted for a half decent crap. This had to be squeezed in, or squeezed out somehow. Loud speakers told us it was time for meals or parade ground assembly. Our serving time went by at a snail’s pace. We did make time for our personal thoughts, thoughts of food, real honest-to-goodness food, the kind my palette yearned for…thick pea soup with matzo balls swimming gaily around, lokshen kugel, potato kugel, no-name kugal , matzo meal latkes with apple sauce and a dab of sour cream, a Russian borsht converted into a Romanian dairy soup, verenicas that made room for cheese, kasha or potato filling, home-made apple pie, plump and saucy and partnered with vanilla ice-cream.
Morning inspections had us lined up, our collective hearts a drumbeat away from exploding. Boots had to shine until they were mirrors you could see your face in. Webbing and brass had to be up to scratch. Back in our cells, we cleaned our boots and equipment, aware of peeping toms, peeping away through the peephole to ensure our drudgery carried on until lights out. At least we could sing while we worked. We sang songs that were popular at the time, by Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Gershwin. Greenbaum and I found a way to establish life on opposite sides of the wall. I tapped once, Greenbaum tapped once. Hurray, we were both alive.
Now for the good thoughts, my happy thoughts of home, of Ma, our family’s home-keeper and chef who could make a scent travel a long way, of Pa, our main breadwinner, who repaired shoes, nine hours daily, six days weekly, of brother Philip, my mentor and family storyteller, of sister Claire, who serenaded us at family gatherings from our “palatial” home in the Jewish shtetl, smack in the middle of the Montreal Cartier area. Memories of Marcia and I laying on a blanket on top of Mount Royal, listening to classical music conducted by Leonard Bernstein.
Our second and last shower was on the last day of our detention. We yelled, screamed and laughed as the hot streams cascaded down on us. We felt clean, clean, clean and ready to be reunited with our loved ones before heading off to basic training.
Greenbaum and I had been through a lot together. We’d lost weight, but grew in strength, in resolve, ready to take the next step in our army careers. After we completed our basic training, we headed off for advanced training, Greenbaum in the infantry and I in the armored corps. We never saw each other again. It was a sad day when I later learned that David Greenbaum had been killed overseas.
I fought through France, was wounded in Belgium, patched up and returned to battle. I went on to fight in Holland and Germany. The war ended in May of 1945. It was then home to family, to Marcia and to our wedding in June of 1946. It was a happy time, but that’s another story.
All the details of this memoir come from the hilarious and keenly observant mind of Oscar Colman, who, by his own description is: “Age 88, feels like 98, thinks like 58”. Pictured at left is Oscar and his wife Marcia in 1969. Read other stories in Shtetl by Colman like The Mohel’s Assistant: A Montreal Memoir.
Thank you to Audrey Colman (Oscar’s daughter and the woman who illustrated the hysterical Walter the Farting Dog books for children) for creating the graphic for this story.