About Mein Hut

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A classic George Ostrom column, from December, 1962...

Christmas is a hat. I don’t know what kind of hat, but I have always hoped it was a warm one, knitted by a mother with so much care and love that the little boy who wore is such a short time could sense that love and store up enough of its magic to last through a lifetime. It had to be that kind of hat.

At 3 p.m., German time, December 25, 1947, I stamped snow from my boots at the guard house door, took the shells from my .45 automatic and stepped inside. After inspections the sentries around our battalion compound in the bitter wind and cold, it felt good to be relieved as Sergeant of the Guard and looked forward to more pleasant things.

Past the line of gray barracks, near the back, was a mess hall. My occupation outfit was having a special Christmas party there, and as I came through the door 150 children sat watching a juggler. They were small children, yelling, jumping up and down, laughing, having fun that was too rare in those times at that place.

I knew about these tykes, because we saved “edible” garbage for their orphanage. Every day two nuns came into the compound with a man and they hauled this salvage away in a rickety three-wheeled truck. Once in a while, some of us G.I.s went over to their “home” and tried to teach the kids to box or play baseball.

We were young soldiers, still calloused by a training designed to win wars, not to make peace. Perhaps that is why none of us was too concerned when one of our little guests detached himself from the rest and deliberately began lifting up coats, peering under benches and tables. I watched as a search of increased urgency and he began to sob, losing the sense of any plan, looking in the same places time and again. One of the G.I.s said, “Looks like that kid has lost his sack of candy – get him another one so he’ll calm down.”

Now the boy was growing hysterical. He began ripping at other children and jerking them from the benches, hitting, throwing, screaming. Some corporal laughingly yelled, “Grab him, he’s breaking up the party.”

I “grabbed him” and he fought with desperate fury. I think I was rough, too rough, as I carried him to a bench in back and held him on it. He looked to be only five or six, but it was all I could do to keep him there. The other men were joking and making bets he could whip me from an even start.

I was embarrassed and angry with this kid, but there was something in his face that also brought me a sense of shame and frustration.

I stared at him.

If you’ve ever seen anyone’s eyes at that moment when his world comes apart, you know what I saw as he collapsed in my arms and cried,, “Mein Hut, mein Hut.”

“He’s lost his hat,” from one G.I., “So what’s a hut?” from another.

I had some men look for it. I am warmed in recalling that even though the soldiers did not understand this little man’s sorrow, his friends did, and they helped. They all seemed to know about the hat.

It seemed like a good search, though unsuccessful. The boy was lying on the bench now, just staring and I picked him up and carried him alone to my barracks. It was winter and anybody would feel bad about losing his hat.

He lay on my bunk and I brought them, wool knit caps, fatigue hats, new ones just in from Quartermaster with fur ear flaps, and I pinned them in the back so they would fit. To each he quietly sobbed, “Nein.” He lay limply, not seeing or seeming to care.

I put an oversized O.D. sweater on him to go with the hat that had ear flaps, then I carried him out to one of the trucks that was returning the children to the orphanage. I put him in the back and patted his shoulder and let him know I understood what it’s like to lose a hat and the truck rolled away down the street.

Not long ago, a picture flashed around the world showing a young German soldier with a carbine on his shoulder, bodily leaping the barbed wire into West Berlin. When I saw the picture, I thought about a boy of a similar age, a boy I’ve thought of hundreds of times before, and I dared to daydream a little and wish I could see him again.

I want to say I really to understand about the hat, about it being the last fragile link to a home and family blasted from the land by war. I pray he had that hat and everything it meant long enough to make him the kind of man who would risk his life to rash the cruel communist barrier to freedom.

If this were so, then he might also understand why Christmas, to me, is a hat.

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