Blast from the Past: Maria
Editor’s note: At the initiative of ALBA board member Chris Brooks, who maintains the online biographical database of US volunteers in Spain, in 2015 the ALBA blog regularly posted interesting articles from historical issues of The Volunteer, annotated by Chris.Over the next three months, Blast from the Past postings showcased articles about the American volunteers who served in the Artillery. Many of these articles ran in The Volunteer during Ben Iceland’s tenure as editor. Iceland, who served in the Artillery, recruited several of his fellow artillerymen to document their experiences. Iceland also shared his own experiences in a series of articles he originally wrote in the early 1940s. Together these articles shine a light on some lesser known American volunteers. We now extend the series by posting some additional articles which were not included in the original series, though they are fascinating in their own right.
by Melvin Anderson
[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 9, No. 3, November 1987.]
It all started after I was recalled from the lines in 1937. Steve Nelson had urged our commanding officers to pull the last of the original Lincolns out of the lines and to be sent home; or if I would rather stay and be put in a special outfit for training recruits. That is how some of us wound up in a special unit in Barcelona. The Americans were O’Toole, Goldstein, Hansen and myself. There were other nationalities represented as well, and we were quartered in a lovely building in Barcelona with a courtyard.
We had a pretty busy schedule of training and drill. We also learned Spanish. But we also had many evenings and weekends off. That was how I met Maria Cespillo.
Jack Goldstein and I usually traveled together. We usually would find ourselves on the Rambalas, strolling along and stopping for an occasional vermouth and siphon. We meet these two girls, and I became enamored of Maria, a blue-eyed blond from Majorca. She lived with her father in a little apartment, one flight up, near the Bull Ring. We used to stroll hand in hand, and sometimes we visited Tibadao, or went to jai lai games. But mostly we just strolled along.
I was in Barcelona until we were repatriated. I remember the big parade they gave for the Internationals and Pasionaria’s speech when she told us to come back when the war was over and Spain would welcome us. And so Maria and I planned to get together when the war was over. I spent my last pesetas on Maria. What she wanted most was material for a suit, and so we wound up in tailor shop and bought the material. Then we parted in tears.
I worried about that girl and what would happen to her after I was gone. Would the Franco forces torture or mistreat people who had befriended Abraham Lincoln Brigade members? I heard all the rumors of what was happening in Spain and I wondered what had happened to Maria.
I got back to New York on New Year’s Eve 1938, almost two years after I had left for Spain. The names all ring in my head, Jarama, Fuentes de Ebro, Brunete, Quinto and Belchite. And I remember sitting on the floor with a family and eating out of the same pot, and going with them to pick saffron and the wine and of course the women, but always the memory of Maria.
I got back to Gary where I had left from and then visited my family in Escamba [Escanaba?], Michigan, and then I had to face the reality of finding a job and getting settled. After a stint of laboring and peddling fish for Fish Frys on Friday, I decided I could do better on the bum back in California where I had spent 5 years – from 1929 to 1934. So I left Gary in one of those cars where you pay $50 for gas with a family of husband, wife and child in a broken-down car. My buddy was a singing bartender, and we got as far as Dallas and the car breaks down and my fifty bucks is gone and I had to hitchhike to California. I got a ride with a Texan who owned a cleaning plant in San Diego, and rode all the way with him – in fact I went to work for him, in a basement emptying pockets inside out to be cleaned.
Then I had the urge to be in San Francisco, and on April 7, 1941 I was drafted into the U. S. Army. What a mess! Wooden guns, sergeants and 2d Looies asking me all about war. I was discharged in July as I was 31 and overage they said, but most were called back after Pearl Harbor. I went into the Merchant Marine and spent 6 years sailing. After my last trip I got off in NY and across country to Gary. I had met Doris, my wife, when I got back from Spain, but finally got married in Gary. Decided I could do better on the bum in California. Doris followed shortly.
We had our first child when I was 40, and our second when I was 45. So I had my nose to the grindstone and finally got a somewhat steady job as a carpenter – except for rainy days and between jobs. Anyway, I made 25 years and at 62 I got retirement disability in 1972. I had decided to build me a retirement cabin in my home town of Escamba [Escanaba?], Michigan 4 acres of my folk’s old farm, and so over the next several years built this spot.
In 1976 I went to Italy for our fortieth anniversary. That was in Florence. After Italy I went to England and met Walter Dent, a Canadian vet. We decided to go to Yugoslavia to see another Canadian vet who had been Tito’s ambassador to India but he wasn’t there. He was in England getting a new wooden leg for the one he had lost in Spain. We spent a week there, and then to France where we decided to go back to Spain. We had some real misgivings as Franco had just died. We left all our papers in a baggage locker in Perpignan and so back to Barcelona.
All this time I was wondering about Maria. I had the address and the street engraved in my mind, and after almost 40 years, I walked by the house, saw that her name was still there, and watched for hours to see if I could see her. No luck.
Two nights before I left, I was sitting in a Bar, and I met an American free-lance writer and I was telling him about Maria, and he said to me: “Mel, if you don’t go up to see that women, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”
With this encouragement, I grabbed the bull by the horns, and with a carton of cigarettes and a bottle of booze, I went up the longest 7 flights of stairs I ever walked in my life. I rapped on the door and she opened it and said: “Melvin, we thought you were dead.” I went in and met her husband, a retired truck driver, and her son and daughter. We sat late into the evening and made each other understood. Her husband was a Western buff and had all kinds of stories about cowboys and Indians. He was also a coin collector, and I had saved a few, so we got along great. He wouldn’t let me go home by myself, and went all the way with me to my five-dollar-a-day hotel, just to make sure I would make it. The next day I l left for France, and so on to home. I have been back 3 times since, and always get the same reception.