Mitchell Toews | The peacemongers

After a summertime ballgame, we sat in the shade of the playground’s toboggan slide and somehow the conversation wandered from baseball to the philosophical.

Our Mennonite elders taught us peace and how to live in a congregation and a community. Our greatest collective efforts as a people were directed at prevention and resolution. Other, less noble, efforts concerned denial and a refusal to face the conflict that found us. Sometimes this denial worked its way deep down into the compressed community until like ice in a rock fissure, the pressure was too great and the rock broke along the hidden fault line.

I’d fight you but it’s against my religion, was a statement that would not be laughed at and might command some respect. Turning the other cheek and “love thine enemy” were taught in Jesus’ name and in many cases practiced. At our young age, however, such Sunday school principles were discarded when the blood ran hot. While we knew and accepted these higher ideals, the rules of the jungle applied in the schoolyard and the hockey rink.

Our conversation on that day was this: “If there was a war tomorrow… and you were old enough, would you go?”

Many in our group admitted that they would not go. Others were inclined to bravado – at least there in the familiar shade of the slide – and said they would go to war.

I thought of my dad and my grandparents and how they all became quiet when we sat in front of Grandma’s TV and the announcer discussed the growing crisis in Cuba. The international emergency was distilled into a simple formula by the CBC newscast. The US had found evidence of nuclear weapons in Cuba; Russia was steaming ships to the island loaded with more weapons and soldiers, and President Kennedy was all but openly accusing them of preparing to wage war on the USA. Cuba was close to the tip of Florida; close to the famous Cape Canaveral launch pad and millions of Americans.

All of this seemed plausible to my parents. Dad said Cuba was only as far away from the Florida coast as Hartplatz was from Pembina, North Dakota. This reference made it real to me. Pembina was where one of the TV stations was re-broadcast from, reaching us at the dim northern edge of its range. It was also a place where Roger Maris, of the Yankees, had played high school and minor league ball. Maris was from North Dakota, born just a few beet fields south of us. A man from Pembina who looked a lot like Maris, but with a suit and thick eyeglasses, read the news each night on the Fargo station. My parents often listened to him in addition to the CBC telecast, despite the snowy screen, to hear about what Kennedy and Khrushchev were doing.

# # #

There were other signs that everything in the wide world beyond was not quite right. One of the Loeb brothers had just built a house near the new elementary school and it had a special room in the basement: a fallout shelter. Atomic bombs, we were told, were giant explosives that could be aimed at various targets, like the cities in Japan that were destroyed at the end of WWII. They were now delivered by rocket, not dropped from a plane. Upon landing in a brilliant flash (“Put your heads down on your desks and don’t look up!”) the bomb released a toxic, radioactive “fallout” that lasted for days or even weeks. The bomb shelters, containing food, guns and other implements of survival within their dense concrete walls, were—to us kids—the ultimate fort. Still, we were disquieted by the presence of one of these doomsday shelters here in tiny, peaceful Hartplatz—even if it was only the indulgence of an ostentatious man.

The US aimed its weapons at targets in Russia and the Russians aimed theirs at US targets, including air bases and missile launching sites. Nearby Grand Forks had a massive air base and their planes’ contrails were common – they could be seen far, far above Hartplatz, specks of silver spewing a faint watercolor plume of white. My grandpa and Mr. Vogel would stand on the sunny sidewalk outside of the post office and look up at the faint parallel lines etched high in the sky. They held their palms up to shade their eyes against the glare of the sun and sucked their teeth, estimating how high the planes might be and if they were “fighters” or “bombers.”

I had a hatbox full of brightly colored plastic disks I’d collected from Nestlé cereal, tea and chocolate milk powder containers. The company promoted its goods by including two free disks in each package. The colorful disks had the company’s logo molded into the back, while the front carried am image of an airplane. Hundreds of models were in the collection, such as Von Richthofen’s red tri-wing, muscular P-51s, futuristic flying wings, and obscure Fokkers. The last, a name I whispered for fear of being chastised for cursing, were German war planes that carried the name of a Dutch aeronautical engineer. Like Mennonites, the Fokker possessed a convoluted Northern European ancestry.

I pulled out a handful of Nestlé airplane disks from my pocket and showed them to Grandpa and Mr. Vogel as they peered at the US planes far above us. “They are either B-29s or F-10s,” I offered, handing them each an illustrated disk. “When they get to Russian airspace,” I continued with authority, “the Russians will scramble MiGs, like this.” I handed them each a disk showing a MiG and its sleek, swept-back wings. In the picture, the dull gray fighter stood out against fluffy white clouds with the red hammer and sickle insignia the focal point of the image. The pilot, his football-like white helmet visible beneath the streamlined, clear canopy, looked ominous and resolute, if not ruthless. Besides the Billy Bishop Sopwith Camel, I had more MiGs than any other single disk. There was one in almost every package—an orange pekoe warning about those insidious Russkies and their mighty war machine.

Grandpa stared at me, incredulous for a few seconds, as Mr. Vogel chuckled, still looking up at the distant jet trails. “We’re gonna scramble you!” Grandpa said, snatching the disk I held and pulling me into a gentle hammerlock in one motion.

# # #

It was my turn to answer the “would you be a soldier?” question. I thought of the people huddled in their fallout shelters as the brave soldiers climbed into tanks and airplanes and jeeps to fight the war. I imagined the people in Miami (and Moscow), skin hanging from their burnt bodies like torn fabric as they wandered in a daze among flattened buildings in a Hiroshima landscape. I imagined one of my comic book favorites from the Rexall Drug Store wading ashore in a hail of bullets. (Vip! Vip! Vip!) I thought of my Uncle Barnie, who had joined the Winnipeg Rifles and had made it as far as Halifax before Hitler was defeated. I recalled the great gray battleships tossing on the War at Sea film—stark, grainy images projected on a white sheet in the Kornelsen school basement, at a National Film Board evening sponsored by the local Arts Council.

“I think I would do whatever my dad said to do. I think my grandma would say to help by going to the CO camps and working extra hard. I think my dad would fight – he’d be a General, at least,” I stated, without guilt or doubt.

“What’s a CO camp?” said Corky.

“It’s what you can do if your minister will go to Winnipeg and say that you are baptized. The government sends men a letter saying they have to join the army. If they don’t go, they are put in jail. But if they are members of a Mennonite Church, my grandma says that the government promised they didn’t have to be in the army,” I explained.

“Just Mennonites?” asked Ralph Reckseidler, a Lutheran boy who lived on Barkman Avenue on the other side of Main Street. No one answered.

“Dunno,” I shrugged. “My grandma says that in the Second World War, lots of Canadians fought and some Mennonites went and some, lots from Hartplatz, went to CO camps instead of the army.”

“What’s CO again?” Corky asked again. He was a little older than us and he came along with his brother Paul, who usually played in our ball games at the park.

“Don’t know,” I replied. “But my grandpa went to a CO camp. He said he worked in the kitchen and they had a big bread oven. Grandpa learned about baking in the camp. The camp was by a lake and a forest and lots of the guys worked as lumberjacks.”

“Neat!” said Scotty, who sat cross-legged, his ball glove on the ground beside him and his hands holding an elm leaf, which he stretched between his thumbs, blowing against the leaf to make a squawking, reed instrument sound. “I’d like to be a lumberjack and chop down trees instead of shooting guys in the war. The war is neat too, especially the tanks and stuff, but lumberjack is really good. I would sign up for camp,” he concluded, sighing, happy to have made his decision.

“I don’t know if it was the same thing or not,” Corky said, “but my uncles went – my mom’s brothers. My dad wanted to go too, but his minister told the army that he had to stay to run the farm. My uncle John went to the camp and he learned how to sawmill there. After the war, he got a job in Loeb’s mill and worked cutting trees in Sandilands too.”

“My great uncle Walter was in a POW camp. That’s for prisoners in the war. He was in Hong Kong. He said he was a cook and he smuggled eggs and lumps of butter out of the kitchen by hiding them in his armpits,” I offered, trying to help solve the mystery of what kind of a place a CO camp was.

“I didn’t know Japs ate butter,” Willie Warheim said. He was a quiet boy with blonde hair and more freckles than everyone but me. He had showed me his dad’s war keepsakes—a knife with a swastika embossed in the handle and a German phrase book with intricate sketches of common things like bicycles with the names printed in German, Russian, French and English. The Warheims were from East Germany and they had fled to Canada after the war. A Mennonite church from Switzerland had helped them get away.

Sometimes Willie got into fights because guys called his dad a “Nazi.” Kids called Willie “Kaiser Wilhelm.” My mom told me never to call him those names. She said that everyone is good but everyone also has some bad in them. The Nazis had just got carried away, she said. “No one knows exactly how it happened. They did horrible things. But I do know that they were kind to the Mennonites they came across in Russia.”

“Why were they nice to the Mennonites?” I asked her.

“Because the Mennonites spoke German and they were peaceful. My grandparents let German soldiers sleep in their barn and your grandpa remembers getting a ride on a motorcycle. He rode in the sidecar,” she explained. “The soldiers left them food. Not every German was bad – but there was a war and people on all sides did things that were terrible. We shouldn’t judge others – we weren’t there and we don’t know what we would have done.”

# # #

Hartplatz people went out of their way to avoid “trouble.” I tried too, but because my hair was bright orange and my ears stuck out like that motorcycle sidecar in Grandpa’s memory and because I was small and hot tempered, conflict often found me. Grandma counselled to avoid it as long as you could; but that if you were going to fight, then you did your best and the other guy had to be ready. “He starts it, you finish it,” she would say, her body in constant motion in the tiny kitchen of the house where she raised a baseball team worth of children, mostly boys.

“That’s what I told your uncle Barnie when he joined up for the army,” she said, her eyes far away as she shelled peas with a machine-like cadence. “It is serious business, not just marching and uniforms. If you go, it has to be to do what they send you to do. Come home alive and we can work out everything between God and you once it’s done.”

“Once you go,” she said, pausing in her chore, “then there is no more peace. Then you fight, Barnie. Fight to come home.”

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