I Learned My First English Words from an American Prisoner of War

September-2017-FEA-english-lesson-Gerard-Dubois-for reader's digestGerard Dubois for Reader’s Digest When I was in second grade, my friend Resi and I walked to school together every morning. We lived across the road from each other in a village in the mountains of Bavaria, Germany. We were supposed to walk to a certain corner and link up with some of the other village children. It was 1945, and I suppose this was a safety thing because of the war. (Read another inspiring war story about teen’s that helped a paralyzed veteran.)

Most mornings we did as we were instructed, but sometimes Resi and I took a shortcut, a little path across a meadow. One day, on one of those detours, we saw a young man, a stranger, in the side yard of a house. He was chopping wood and whistling. We stopped and stared, then walked away quickly, wondering who he was.

The next morning, we purposely took our secret shortcut to school, curious to see whether the whistler would be there again. And there he was. He didn’t seem to notice us, though we were only a few feet away, on the other side of a short fence that enclosed the yard. Again we stared at him, then ran away. We had never seen a foreigner before. To us, he was like someone from outer space.

“Do you think he is one of those Americans?” Resi asked. We had heard the adults talk of a small group of Americans being held in a vacant house in the village. During the day, the men worked around town doing chores, as most of the local men were away at war. Each night, a guard collected them and took them back to the house. Resi’s older sister told her that the men were prisoners of war who had been captured by the German army, waiting to rejoin the Allies at the imminent end of the war.

“Probably,” I replied. “Let’s keep walking, or we will be late for school.”

We weren’t afraid, just curious. Resi kept talking. “He looks just like everybody else,” she said. The man was tall with blondish hair that stuck up all over and a big curl falling into his eyes. He looked nice. He had a friendly face, and he smiled all the time, except when he whistled.

“Well,” I said, “people look the same everywhere, don’t you think?”

By unspoken pact, Resi and I took our shortcut from then on. But we didn’t tell anyone. It was our secret.

One morning, after about a week of us walking by, staring, and scampering away, the American looked up from his woodpile. He smiled and said, “Hi.”

Was he talking to us? we wondered. What did he say? We had no idea; we didn’t know any English. So, as usual, we ran away.

September-2017-FEA-english-lesson-Courtesy-Elsa-K.-HummelCourtesy Elsa K. HummelThe next morning, Resi greeted me with the mysterious “Hi,” and I did the same in return. We broke into giggles and continued on our way. From then on, whenever we passed by the house, we would find the American working in the yard, almost as if he was waiting for us. Every day, he waved and repeated his “Hi.” We waved back and said “Hi” in return.

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After another week, as we turned to leave one morning, he waved and said, “Bye-bye.” Another mysterious English word. We giggled and parroted it back: “Bye-bye.”

I said to Resi, “Maybe we should walk the other way again.” But I didn’t mean it. By now, we were hooked. Having our little secret made us feel special.

After another week or so, the man came a little closer to the fence, pointed at his chest, and said, “Frankie.”

“Frankie,” we repeated. Was that his name? He laughed and went back to his work. Frankie was really nice, we decided.

Each of these encounters lasted only a minute or two before Resi and I would hurry on to school, brazen little second graders that we were, learning foreign words from an American POW. We weren’t supposed to talk to strangers, and my mother would surely have walked us to school from then on if she had known our secret. I was an only child, and she was very protective, especially since my father was away in the war. He had been drafted, and we didn’t know it at the time, but he was also a POW, being held by the Russians. Even after he returned home, I didn’t mention these encounters with the American.

Resi and I became quite comfortable with our “Hi, Frankie; bye-bye, Frankie” morning routine. Sometimes he would be singing, and we would stand mesmerized, listening to the strange language. “You are my sunshine …” he sang over and over, slowly, until we could repeat it.

We learned one line after another, and soon we could sing the whole song, not knowing the meaning and not caring.

One morning, Resi and I arrived at the house, but there was no Frankie. We stood on the path alongside the fence, wondering if he was inside the house. No Frankie. We never saw him again. Someone said that the men had rejoined the advancing American forces, which, within days, had occupied that part of Germany. We felt sad, but we kept singing our song. (This World War II vet was reunited with his former bandmates, all thanks to a “help wanted” ad.)

Resi and I often spoke of Frankie, hoping he was well. I wished that I knew more about him, especially after my family moved to Denver, Colorado, when I was 15. Where was he from? Did he have a sister, perhaps around our age, or even a little girl of his own? I will never know, but Frankie left Resi and me a wonderful legacy: our first English lesson and many happy memories.

Years later, at a picnic with our American relatives, someone started singing, “You are my sunshine …” Of course I remembered the words, and I happily joined in. My mother looked at me, surprised. So I told her about Frankie. And to this day, I remember him whenever I hear the song he taught us.