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And They Smile

by Gwen Schroth

Standing on the gangplank, with a few steps remaining between me and land, I look back and see the ship that has been our home for six ugly weeks. I look and I remember.

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It was a small ship on a big ocean. Just a speck on the vast blueness that seemed to have no end except when it met the sky. Sometimes you weren't even sure where one blue ended and the other began.

Desolate, this ship, but not alone. Oh, it was far from alone. There were dark submarines lurking in the waters below, and there were airplanes circling above. There were people in the ships and in the planes. And there was the hatred -- dark, mean hatred.

And there were bombs and torpedoes.

The people were afraid.

It was war.

I lay on the floor in our hot cabin. We all lay on the floor with our faces turned toward the small square that kept us breathing -- the air vent. The portholes were shut. They were fastened so tightly it seemed no man could open them. The light that sifted into the cabin from the painted bulb in the hall made all objects gray. The grayness mingled with the heat forming a mixture which the little air vent couldn't seem to penetrate.

To my six-year-old mind this was the war. Not the bombs and the planes; not the fleeing with other missionary families; not the constant watch for the American shore. To me, as I lay in my narrow space by the air vent, among my parents, brother and sisters, the war was the stifling heat, the dark halls and this endless voyage on a blue ocean. And with this sleep came.

"A lifeboat drill! A lifeboat drill!" People ran, people shouted, a whistle screamed. Mamma draped some queer shaped things on us and pushed us up the stairs. The funny thing banged against my knees. We stood among the many people, we were examined, we were commanded to "stand by that lifeboat" and told to remember it "in case."

"In case what, mamma?"

"If something happens, dear. Now stand closer to me -- stay here, children -- come --"

"If we get bombed, mamma?" I had heard the phrase whispered among grown-ups and secretly thought it would be exciting.

"Mamma," I tugged on her skirt, "mamma, if we get bombed?"

"Mamma, ya, mamma." The others joined in.

"Bombed, mamma?"

"Can we go in the boat then?"

"Mamma, where's daddy?"

Daddy was "way over there" with all the other daddies. Daddy was "way over there" and there was no lifeboat.

That night as I lay by the air vent I thought about the lifeboats and about daddy. I was afraid and a little ball seemed to form in my stomach and it felt so tight. Fear had entered my war, too; a choking fear more stifling than the stuffy cabin.

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Now I am walking down the gangplank holding tightly to my sister's hand. We walk carefully because when we look down we can see the water between the planks. The water reminds us of our fear and of the ball in my stomach which has been there for so many days. There are people at the end of the gangplank -- lots of people -- but we do not smile; we just look at them; we cannot forget the fear. We pass the people while they look at us and whisper. Past the people we walk, through a hall and into a long shed.

"Please come this way." A lady in a uniform beckons. She leads us to a table where there are many other ladies dressed in uniforms just like hers.

"Don't be afraid, little girls," the lady says. She gives us each a doughnut -- there are lots of doughnuts on the table. She gives us each a glass of milk. There is enough milk on the table for all the other people from the ship. Then she smiles at us and says again, "Don't be afraid, little girls."

And suddenly the ball in my stomach seems to be breaking and falling into little pieces. It isn't so tight anymore. I look at the doughnuts and the milk. I look at the ladies in the uniforms and they all seem to be smiling. I start to smile too but I can't very well because there is water in my eyes and it is falling down my face.

The ladies smile and I cry and I am not afraid anymore.


Hiebert Family, WW II