The Noblest Fruit of Them All
Blast from the Past is an ongoing series of posts reprinting articles from historical issues of The Volunteer.
The Noblest Fruit of Them All by Jim Persoff
The Volunteer, Volume 3, No. 5, 1981
When the 14th anti-aircraft battery took up a position in Madrid, somewhere between the Parrios “Tetuan” and “Chamartin,” a team of three, Franz, a reichdeutscher, Toon (Anton) a hollander and myself, started to string a telephone line to an observation post overlooking “La Universidaria.”
For the most part it wasn’t too difficult, for we strung the line on the existing telephone poles along the streets; but when we ran up a cul-de-sac in the “Barrio Colonia Buenavista,” in order to save time and line, we decided to throw the telephone wire over the roof of one of the houses confronting us.
The occupants of the house, a man and wife, came out to watch. Toon, picked up a coil of wire, and flung it over the house. The wire unraveled, only to stop dead and snarl on a protruding spar on the roof. Annoyed at the spar that should not have been there, Toon shot out a long string of Dutch curse words, to which the man of the house, animatedly asked, “Spriks Hollands?”
The owner was a Hollander who lived in Madrid with his Spanish wife. He was a cellist in the Madrid Symphony Orchestra, sympathetic to the Republic and warm to the International Brigades. He invited us in for a glass of wine and used the opportunity to practice English with me. He showed me a four foot shelf of “Tauschnitz” Editions, and offered to lend me any book I wanted.
“Tauschnitz” was a German publishing house that published English classics to be sold in non-English speaking countries in order to avoid royalty payments and copywrites. They were easily identifiable in their white paperback covers. Not having read an English word in six months, I chose Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith.[i]
A week later on an eight hour pass, I returned the book and took another. The Bos asked me to stay for dinner, which was a chick pea soup which I didn’t care for, some melon and coffee. But we all had a great time. Madrid was understandably dour. The war and the air alerts made dinner at home with friends, the best of diversions.
The battery moved out of Madrid, and though we were sent to various sectors, I kept up the correspondence I had established with the Bos. I remember one letter, “Senora Bos had won one hundred pesetas in a lottery. She went out and bought four cans of “carne de buey.” Tinned beef, called in the neighbors and they all had a grand dinner.”
Our relationship was only a thread, but it must have been warm because sometimes a package of cookies would come through the mail for me from the Bos.
In October 1938, when the battery was in the Cuesta de Reina sector, we received an order that all Internationals were to be returned to their homeland, and all arms and equipment was to be turned over to Spanish personnel. A cadre of four was to remain behind, of which I was one. At first it was great, showed off how much I knew about an anti-aircraft director, but after, they “caught on” and my position became superfluous, I asked the Spanish captain for permission to proceed to Valencia, where all the Internationals in the central sector were being assembled.
The captain said nice things to me about the invaluable help I had been for the past month, wished me well, paid me 315 pesetas, ten pesetas per day plus fifteen pesetas for my “cabo” rating, gave me a “vale” or voucher for a railway ticket to Valencia, a “vale” for three days rations, and a personal gift from him, a pack of “Looky Estrikes.” Lastly he embraced me. It was a little longer than the usual embrace which generally lasted for a couple of seconds, and I got the feeling he was saying, “You lucky bastard, you’re getting away Scot-free.” So when I disengaged I gave him a sharp clenched fist salute and muttered “Viva la Republica,” and with a nagging guilt, got a lift on a waiting truck, halfway to the “intendencia,” or supply depot.
The “Intendencia was an unused railway roundhouse that had been turned into a supply depot. Posted on the wall were the allowable rations per man per day. The Intendencia was not meant for individual Soldiers, but for military units drawing gross quantities. I looked at the rations list:
Pan – 1 Aciete – 10 ml.
Garbanzos – 20 gr. Ajoes – 5 gr.
Lentejas – 20 gr. Vino – 250 ml.
What could I do with chickpeas or lentils? I didn’t want the olive oil and I didn’t know what “ajoes” were, so I asked the “Sargento” in charge to give me three loaves of bread and a liter of wine for my “vale.”
I was waiting at the railroad station for the Valencia train when I was struck with the thought “I may never see the Bos’ again.” “Why not go to Madrid? Its’s not too far, and anyway, I have ‘till Thursday to Report in Valencia.”
I ran over to a gasoline station where an army truck was filling up and asked the driver if he would take me to Madrid. While I was asking him, his partner was filling the tires with air; as he lifted the air hose from a tire valve, the escaping air made a “wheeeee swish” sound like a round from a 75mm piece. I fell to the pavement and covered my head with my musette bag only to hear the “chofer” laughing as though it was a grand joke.
Yes, of course, he’d take me. “Don’t we ‘combatientes’ have to help each other?” It was after twelve noon when we were approaching Cinchon. The driver stopped the truck alongside a nondescript house and explained to me that only the drivers of the “Guerpo de Tren” were permitted to eat here. I would not be permitted. “But if you go down the road you might be able to buy a melon or something from a farmer. I’ll see you in an hour.” He said, and took off to eat. A nearby farmer agreed to sell me a melon. “Three pesetas,” he said, and recognizing me as a “Notteamericano,” added a sales tax. “And two cigarettes.”
Hanging from the rafters in the back room of the farmer’s house where this great transaction took place, were strings of garlic. An idea captured me. I’ll bring Mrs. Bos a bouquet of garlic. It’ll be a great gag! “How much is one of those strings,” I asked, pointing to them. “Oh those are five pesetas and five cigarettes.” His quote was high. For five “Lucky Strike Cigarettes” one could by salvation, but I was “loaded.” So I asked him for two strings of garlic and paid him his price.
I met the “camion” an hour later and we continued to Madrid. I amused the driver and partner with stories of “Nueva York“ which they found interesting. It killed the monotony of the trip for them, so by the time I left we were fast friends. They wished me health and luck. “Salud, Suerte.” They yelled as the truck pulled away when they left me off.
Madrid, despite the two hour daylight savings time, was dark. The Madrid wind which “can’t snuff out a candle yet can kill a man, “sent all the people scurrying. The men wrapped their faces in long black mufflers, leaving only a slit just below their pushed-forward berets to see through. The women already wore overcoats. Those that had none wore bathrobes. They wore them with an air of “their contribution to the war effort.”
The Madrilenos had been besieged on three sides for over two years. Light bulbs needles and thread were scarce. Food was rationed, public services curtailed. The blackout and the various check points manned by The Assault Guards didn’t allow didn’t allow for promenades. Everybody moved quietly almost stealthily, intent on something, somewhere. It was eerie. A city of a million population and all you saw was a silent handful.
I found my way to the barrio “Colonia Buenavista.” La Calle Guerrero Mendoza appeared as a dark corridor, but I knew where the Bos’ house was and I was a happy as though I were coming home. I took the two strings of garlic I bought in Cinchon out of my musette bag and placed them around my neck like Hawaiian “leis” and continued walking toward the house. “How glad they will be to see me,” I thought. “What a surprise this will be.” I had the picture in my mind. I’ll ring the bell, Mrs. Bos will open the door, she’ll see me and slowly recognize me, then she’ll shriek with joy, “Jimmy.” And that’s just the way it happened. Well, not exactly. She opened the door alright. But then she shrieked, “Ajoes!”
There are drawbacks serving with the Dimitrov Flak Battery in Spain; one didn’t learn Spanish, but you did learn German. A case in point is the time the sergeant (unteroffizier) of our director group was badly wounded during some counterbattery fire and was sent to the hospital. I was appointed acting sergeant or “unteroffizierstellvertretter.” Every sixth day it was the “director’s” tour of guard mount. As sergeant of the guard, every sixth day my title was “Wachthabendenunteroffizierstellvertretter.” Of course I learned some Spanish, but I didn’t know the word for garlic until the end of my stay in Spain, “Ajoes.”
[i] Sinclair Lewis’ novel Arrowsmith was published in 1925. The New York Times Bookend article Prescribing ‘Arrowsmith’ by Howard Markel provides an excellent overview of the work. https://www.nytimes.com/books/00/09/24/bookend/bookend.html