Rudolf and other POWs were driven by a camp guard the next day to the same cotton farm about thirty miles south of Camp Papago Park. Another guard traveled in the back of the Army truck with the twenty-five Germans. The ratio of one guard to every eight Germans was an Army regulation, but the Americans often disregarded such rules, usually sending only one or two guards to watch the prisoners—a wonderment to Rudolf. Following orders was part of his German soul. To question or disregard regulations was unthinkable. He sighed as he surveyed the lax guards, reminding himself this was a country he did not fully understand. Rudolf closed his eyes to the barrenness stretched before him, trying instead to envision the beauty of northern Germany.
The guard who sat in the back of the truck was a husky American with a long, sad face. As usual, he struck up a conversation with Rudolf while they bounced over dirt roads to the cotton fields.
“Hey, Rudi,” Tom McKay nudged Rudolf. “Where’d you learn to speak such good English?”
Rudolf did not open his eyes, answering, “In Gymnasium.”
“What…you learned how to speak English in a gymnasium? Hey, that’s where we play basketball.” The guard moved his hand up and down like he was bouncing an imaginary ball.
Rudolf opened his eyes and laughed out loud. “No, no! Not like that. It’s the term we use for secondary school. In Germany, Gymnasium is for those who will go on to university. We learn languages such as English, Latin, or French, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and history.”
“Well, why is it called gymnasium?” McKay said, trying miserably to pronounce the word like Rudolf.
“It refers to ancient Greece, where young men were trained both intellectually and physically.”
“You speak English so well you could be a spy,” the soldier said, his sad demeanor brightening with the idea. “I’ve seen those movies about U-boats. You guys always have a spy onboard to drop off when you get close to the American shoreline.”
“If I were a spy, McKay, do you honestly think I would be sitting here talking with you on my way to work in a miserable cotton field?” Rudolf could not help grinning. The guard’s remark was so ludicrous.
“I don’t know, Rudi,” the guard said, shaking his head in wonderment, “You would make a perfect spy. You could pass as an American any day.”
“Thanks, McKay.” Rudolf chuckled quietly.
He thought about the recurring conversation among his fellow POWs about Camp Papago Park. It was not strictly run, at least to their Germanic way of thinking, so the Nazi officers chose to test how far their men’s behavior would go with the Americans. Two weeks ago, the camp leader, Captain Jürgen Wattenberg, gave the order to stop saluting the American flag when lowered at the end of the day. Rudolf and his fellow inmates stood straight and tall as the flag moved slowly down the pole, then they stretched out their right arms and yelled in unison, “Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil!”
The Americans responded to this test of wills with reduced rations in the mess halls. The prisoners, who were used to full bellies, went back to saluting the Stars and Stripes.
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