Ersatz Coffee | Ernie Sadashige
Nebraska, November 1943
Frank Niekamp stirred Postum into his hot water, his expression as sour as badly brewed coffee. The mix of roasted wheat and molasses filled the kitchen with a smell like soy sauce.
“Wishing for the real thing?” I asked Frank.
“Maybe they’ll stop rationing next year,” he said. “The Russians took Kyiv, but our boys are nowhere near Rome.”
I poured Pet evaporated milk into my Postum, my spoon stirring the ivory liquid into the cocoa-colored mix the way a paddle churns silt in a shallow creek.
“Newspaper’s late.” Frank looked out the window.
Our fields were still black in the twilight, the gray sky hemmed by white fog, reminding me of the fur coat my sister envied in the Sears Christmas catalog.
“You shouldn’t wait for the paper.”
“Man’s gotta have a straight head to do a day’s work.”
We always started our day with the Crawford Tribune, checking the Nebraska dead. The Army made mistakes. The Meiers saw their son’s name before the soldiers came.
“Here it comes, Freda,” Frank said, walking to the door.
“Morning Mister Niekamp.” The paperboy handed Frank our copy. “Didn’t mean to be late. Been at Fort Robinson. The Kraut prisoners are here!” The porchlight sparkled in his eyes. “You hiring any?”
“Don’t need or want ‘em, boy.”
“The government is rationing butter and milk.”
Frank shook his head after reading the top story. I held him tight as he neared the obituaries. Erik Raus. I gasped. Rudi and Ida’s boy. We weren’t close. They lived at the other end of Dawes County. And they were Methodists. But they were part of our community.
“Wasn’t Erik in Jakob’s unit?” I asked.
Frank pecked my forehead, a quick kiss before he looked out the window, the one facing away from Fort Robinson. “The Army would send a telegram or chaplain if Jakob….” Frank wore the sad face he showed when he came home drunk from the VFW lodge.
I looked out the other window. There was a light—too low, too slow, and too straight to be a shooting star. It split into two when it turned down our road. Headlights. Even in the dim dawn, I saw the car was green, not black. Army cars passed this way all the time. We were near the base, I reassured myself. But this one was slowing.
“Frank.” I squeezed his hand.
The car stopped. A flashlight pointed at our mailbox. The car rolled up our driveway. Footsteps clattered on the porch, then a hand knocked on our door.
We rose together. Frank opened the door.
“Mr. Niekamp? Lieutenant Holcomb of the Office of the Provost Marshal General.” The man wore a black armband: military police, not a chaplain.
Frank and I exhaled together.
“Sorry to come so early.” He held out a clipboard. “You haven’t contracted for POW labor. Forty-five cents an hour per man. Hard work will keep their minds off mischief.”
He glanced to his right as dawn broke over the horizon. “Have you planted all your winter wheat? Most of your neighbors are behind with so many men off to war.”
“My son Jakob’s fightin’ in Italy,” Frank said, pulling me close. “And I saw enough Jerries in World War One. Don’t need ‘em digging trenches on my land.”
“We need help, Frank.” My husband sat stone-like, our last bottle of whiskey on the kitchen table.
“Let me boil some water for Postum.”
We heard a rumble outside. “Deuce and a Half,” Frank said. A 10-wheeled Army cargo truck stopped just past the corner window. I rushed forward, pressing my nose against the glass. Frank went to our bedroom.
The rear gate dropped. Lieutenant Holcomb and another soldier jumped out, followed by six men in blue work shirts and jeans stenciled with ‘PW’. They looked so young. And happy. The group walked towards our neighbor’s barn across the road, emerging later with a plow hitched to horses.
Something bumped my leg. Frank was holding a war rifle.
“What are you doing?”
“I’ll shoot anyone who comes on my property.”
“Not anymore,” I said as they began singing in German.
We watched them work. Hours passed. I asked Frank several times whether we should go. A crop needed harvesting. But his mind was elsewhere, watching ghosts from his war rise from their trenches and run across blasted fields.
The Germans finally stopped for lunch at about noon. They sat in a circle and ate sandwiches fattened with enough ham and cheese to cost us a month of ration stamps. They had nothing to drink. I went to the living room and took eight cups and saucers from the china cabinet. I boiled water in the kitchen and put the Postum and Pet milk on our big holiday serving tray.
“I’m giving those boys a Cornhusker welcome.”
Frank glared and opened the window. The rifle stayed behind the curtain.
I walked across the street. Holcomb met me. “Thought you boys might like something warm.”
“Much obliged, ma’am.”
“Freda,” he bowed, then said something in German. I placed the tray in the center of the circle and knelt. I poured a cup of hot water and added Postum and Pet milk and handed it to the nearest POW. He sniffed and laughed.
“Hey,” Holcomb yelled, “you’re talking to a lady.” The prisoner spoke rapidly in German. Holcomb translated.
“Mocca faux. Klaus says it smells like their acorn coffee.”
“Sorry. We don’t have the real stuff.”
Holcomb’s eyes widened. “Got plenty of coffee on base. They’re spoiled.”
“Prisoners get coffee?”
He nodded. “I’ll bring fresh ground beans tomorrow. Please join us for lunch. Bring the hot water.”
He shouted at the prisoners. “Told ‘em to mind their manners and drink up.”
I sat with the crew until lunch was over. “Hope my husband will hire them when you’re done here.”
I rose and turned to our house, then startled. Frank had hung the American flag on our porch, something we only did on holidays. I crossed the street and walked inside. He met my eyes.
“We’re having real coffee tomorrow,” I said. “Join us.”
About the Author:
Ernie Sadashige, CPA, is a Philadelphia-based writer. He was a Gemini Magazine flash fiction honourable mention. Find his work there and at The Write Launch, The Yard: Crime Blog and End of the Bench Sports. Follow him at @ErnieJourneys.