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When You Ride ALONE, You Ride With Hitler!


by Bill Edwards


ã 2012, Bill Edwards




Most authors are either workaholics (the successful ones) or terrible procrastinators (the unsuccessful ones). I fall somewhere in between. I always had the desire and some ability to write, but my passion was tempered by a need to support and take care of my family. Family always came first and that was a trait I inherited from the characters of the non-fiction book you are about to read.


While I was looking for some public domain material to place on my web site the other day, I accidently came across a wonderful poster from World War II. It had a picture of a man driving a 1940‘s era car with a transparent figure of Adolf Hitler sitting in the passenger seat next to him. The caption beneath both of them read, “If you ride ALONE, you ride with Hitler!” The message was clear.


During World War II things like gas, meat and most vital commodities were rationed out to the public so that the Armed Forces of the USA could be properly supplied to fight what became war on a global scale. Gas rationing caused the government to encourage people to car pool or take public transit to work and school. Posters like the one I saw were very effective in getting the message out to people and a patriotic America responded by doing everything they could to keep our soldiers well supplied.


Now in my fifties, I am obviously far too young to have lived through World War Two. However, I was born late in the lives of my parents and that meant that most of my relatives tended to be older. Many of them lived through World War Two and some were as anxious to tell me about those days as I was to hear about them. Being an only child meant that by the time I was eleven years old my best friends were books, a set of encyclopedias that my parents bought for me and television. Those things ignited a spark of interest in me that has burned brightly all these years and resulted in the writing of this book.


The late 1960s was a time when veterans and people that lived through World War Two had experienced their fill of the social upheavals, anti-war protests and open rebellion that marked a good portion of that decade. They were hungry to recall the simpler days of their youth, despite the fact that it included a World War. Although terrible and costly in terms of human lives and the utter destruction it caused, that war became a rallying point, object of nostalgia and time of remembrance for people who lived through it. Recalling those days made those people feel they were more patriotic and American than those burning their draft cards, bras or even our beloved flag.


I was always a curious person. Once I started watching television shows which were built around historical events, I was hooked. Because I lived less than a block from the elementary school I attended on Long Island, I came home for lunch almost every day. I made it a daily ritual to watch a program that aired on local television around that time which featured various true stories from American History. It was a rerun that had once been broadcast on national television, but I didn’t care. I would have been too young to understand or appreciate it when it first ran anyway. That program really peaked my interest and made me look to books, my set of encyclopedias and people I knew for more.


Another ritual I created for myself was having daily conversations with my grandmother on my father’s side. She lived with my father, mother and myself on the second floor of our home. Grandma was elderly and by the time I was an adolescent, she could do little more than play cards once a week with her ever-shrinking group of friends or go shopping with us once in a great while. My conversations with her were based on whatever historical event had been featured on my lunchtime TV show and always seemed to bring her to life. She loved talking about what my folks called ‘the good old days.”


My grandmother’s name was Lou and one of her pet peeves was the price of groceries. Whenever she felt well enough to go shopping with us, she would comment on the price of essentials like bread and meat. My father often lovingly mocked her by saying, “Go ahead Ma, tell us how you remember when bread was five cents a loaf and tasted like real bread, and steak was ten cents a pound and so fresh it mooed when you tried to cut into it!”


My grandmother didn’t mind the good natured criticism and was proudly nostalgic. She enjoyed our conversations and loved to tell me stories about the 'old times’ and her many years with my grandfather, who died when I was still an infant. Most of my peers did not relate well to older folks. All of us had been somewhat indoctrinated with catch phrases of the 1960s rebellion like, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” That wasn’t me. I appreciated the first hand accounts of life so many years ago that were shared with me by my immediate family and other relatives.


Like my grandmother, I really didn’t have too many other people to talk with when my friends weren’t around. I really enjoyed hearing about her take on history and what life was like living through it. She could remember going to school one day and having her teacher read a story out of a local New York newspaper about a guy who was robbing trains out west, a guy named Jesse James. She also remembered a time when horses, not motorcars, dominated the streets of New York City.


When Neal Armstrong set foot on the Moon, my grandmother was watching it live on television and commented to my father, “They think this is something, but people were a lot more excited when Lindberg landed safely (after flying over the Atlantic Ocean by himself in an airplane).” That was Grandma! Despite the fact that she was disinterested and unimpressed by most things modern and hopelessly dug into the days of time past, the historical value of the stories she told me did not go unappreciated and made me hunger for more.


My parents were equally chatty when it came to discussing their lives and what things were like when they were young. That, combined with the national nostalgia over all things World War Two that seemed to permeate the days of my adolescence, brought me to the point that I was ready to write this book and share the stories I heard with you. These are individual memories of national events and are true.


Another inspiration for writing this book was the story of how another book was written. The story of Sea Biscuit, the famous race horse. It was written a few years ago by a woman who suffered from a debilitating form of fatigue. Despite her disability, she managed to write the book as her energy levels allowed. The book became a wonderful film which I thoroughly enjoyed. I am partially disabled and can relate to her situation because I often suffer from quite a bit of fatigue myself. However, now that my kids have grown and moved out, I have the time and no excuses for not writing down what I hope will be an educational and inspirational experience for you.


Bill Edwards, January of 2012



Dedication: I dedicate this book to all the Soldiers and Americans that caused our nation to make it through World War Two and helped free the world from evil. - Bill Edwards, 2012


Chapter One: The Time Before


My parents and I lived on the first floor of our home. Their names were Arthur and Liz. The second floor had a large bedroom where my Grandmother Lou lived, another area that served as a recreational and sewing room, and a huge walk-in storage closet loaded with mementos from the lives of my parents and other relatives. I loved to go into that closet and dig through everything. My parents were mildly annoyed by my curiosity-driven family history hunts into their stuff, but I always managed to talk my way out of trouble by asking questions about some of their favorite mementoes.


One day I was looking at a box of large, old photo albums and came across a smaller photo album that read like a story. It belonged to my mother. The story began with her and a couple of friends taking a scenic boat ride up the Hudson River to West Point. Each photo had a small caption hand written underneath it and I could see she and her friends were having a great time. When I asked Mom about it later, she said she was around fifteen at that time and on Spring Break. The year was 1941. Liz and her friends planned to stay for several days at the home of a friend of my grandparents. She had a really long and complicated Finnish name, so everyone in the family just called her Pat and she was fine with that.


A look at the photos taken after they were back on dry land revealed that Pat’s house was a garden style home with a lot of history. She was married to a man who taught at the West Point Military Academy and the house might have been a perk of the job, my mother wasn’t sure about that. Either way, the girls were having a terrific time. They visited the academy, went to see a movie in town, did some shopping, had a couple of picnics enjoying the amazing view of the Hudson River from the hills above, and met guys.


Liz took a shine to a boy named George. He was a cadet getting ready to graduate from West Point. Pat’s husband introduced them while Liz was touring the academy and there was an instant attraction. He was a few years older than she was, but my mom was always mature for her age. She was also smart. At fifteen she was preparing to graduate high school in less than a year and was already planning to attend New York University on a scholarship. George was also smart and ambitious. The two had much in common including the fact that both of their families came here from Scandinavia.


From that point on the photo book was filled with pictures of Liz and George at West Point and other places after he graduated. My mother’s friends made a point of playing the part of chaperones and photographers and took great pleasure in teasing their friend about her guy. Several photos were taken during dances at a place known as Finn Hall in the Bronx. The hall was a popular meeting place and event center for people of Scandinavian heritage.


My mother grew up in the Bronx (a borough of New York City). During the days of her youth there were probably more farms in that city within a city than big apartment buildings. I recall seeing some photos of her roller skating up on the roof of an apartment building. When I asked about it, she told me that she lived there with her parents and her sister Helen. Her parents were the building Superintendents.


Like so many people of their time, my grandparents had come here from another country. They were Scandinavian and arrived at Ellis Island as a married couple from Finland. Within just a few years, most of their brothers, sisters and other relatives followed and all became U.S. Citizens. My grandfather Frank served in the Scandinavian Navy before coming to America. He was also a skilled Master Carpenter and that, along with the fact that my grandmother Amanda and her sisters were excellent professional cooks, helped them make it through the Great Depression of the early 1930s.


Frank and Amanda managed to keep working even in the darkest days of the depression. Their first break was the Building Superintendent’s job which paid no money, but provided a free apartment with paid utilities. Though jobs for carpenters were scarce, my grandfather kept busy by tending to the apartment building and receiving some food or small tips in return for doing jobs that went beyond his Superintendent duties. He also scared up a couple of bucks here and there by painting rich people’s apartments and homes, or making them some custom furniture. My grandmother and her sisters cooked for those same wealthy people that mostly lived in Manhattan or Long Island and had been fortunate enough to shun the stock market or get out of it before the bottom fell out.


Despite the daily gloom and doom economic news of those dark days that was delivered by the newspapers and radio reports, my mother and her family recalled that time with appreciation, thankfulness and a certain amount of satisfaction. They were working people, with a work ethic who thought it a shame not to be working. They loved America for being the kind of place that provided people like them with the opportunities they found here.


There were only two times that I saw my grandparent’s faces grimace when talking about those days of my mother’s youth. The first was when they spoke about a man I will call Swen. He lived in a part of Finland near the Russian border where many Swedish people had settled and was one of my grandfather’s cousins. As a result, he spoke Finnish, Russian and Swedish. Swen grew up in a family that owned a farm. The work was hard and the days were long with little financial gain to show for it all. He couldn’t wait to leave and did so when an opportunity to enroll in a trade school presented itself.


The trade school he attended was located in Helsinki, Finland, but some of the students were Russian. They were not well liked because Russia had always been an oppressor of the Finnish People. While most of the Russians were glad to be free of Stalinist Rule and in a country with a more democratic style of government, some of the students were obviously Communists who regularly declared the glories of Mother Russia’s Communist Utopia.


I’m sorry to say that Swen became enamored by the stories he heard about how everyone in Russia was equal and all were busy building the perfect society. Before he could act on his desire to actually go there and experience that great experiment in Socialism, he was forced to come to America. His parents came up against hard economic times and had to sell their farm. There was not enough money for Swen to remain in trade school or stay in Finland. Instead, my grandparents sponsored his family’s entrance into America with the guarantee of a job working for a wealthy family for whom my grandmother cooked and often babysat.


Once he arrived, Swen found work at a factory in Long Island City while his folks worked at an estate on Long Island as caretakers. He learned enough of the basics from the trade school to become a fine journeyman tool and die maker. He always had a natural talent for working with machinery and metal. Swen was proficient as a sheet metal worker. He inherited and shared the good work ethic that was a trait of my family. What he did not share was a true appreciation for the opportunities America afforded him or the politics and love of democracy that my family had.


Swen reluctantly became an American citizen. Almost as soon as he did, he sought out meetings attended by Communists. Those meetings were plentiful back in a day when most people knew little about the way things really were in Russia. Even when the young Communist converts heard bad things about Communism and what it was doing to that nation, they did not believe the reports. They assumed that those kinds of stories were merely propaganda fed to the media and public by huge companies that made millions off of cheap labor and didn’t want people to know the truth about the great Socialist Utopia that they believed existed in Russia.


Despite his insistence that workers in the U.S. were enslaved and exploited (and I am sure some were and still are just as they have always been in every nation), Swen made a decent wage. It was enough for him to afford his own roomy apartment in Jackson Heights. It was also enough for him to grow chubby on from all the food he was easily able to purchase at stores and restaurants within walking distance of his place. There was even enough left over for him to buy books and pamphlets sold at the Communist meetings he attended. Those were filled with wonderful stories of the equality of people and the many opportunities that existed in Russia as a result of having a Communist government.


After several years and a few promotions at work, Swen managed to put away a small stash of money that he hoped would fund a trip to Russia, the land of his utopian dreams. With cash in hand, he managed to secure a one way ticket to Soviet Russia after navigating whatever paperwork and permissions that were needed to get him there. Before anyone in his family could react to his decision, he was gone.


Nearly a year went by before my grandparents mailbox was suddenly flooded with urgent letters from a friend of Swen who managed to get out of Russia and move to Finland. His friend told the tale of a man who had made the biggest mistake of his life. Instead of finding paradise, Swen landed himself in the middle of a time of purges and poverty. If he ate four times a week, it was a good week. He shared an apartment with two other families that had no heat most of the time and he was being worked nearly to death in a cold factory. He was starving, sick and desperately wanted to return to the USA.


My grandparents hated talking about Swen so I am not exactly sure how they did it, but Frank and Amanda somehow managed to get him back to America. I know that it cost them some money and that they had to sponsor him with the promise of a job. Whatever happened, it took another couple of months to get Sven home. When he arrived back in America, he was a broken man who looked at least ten years older than his actual age and many pounds lighter. Fortunately, his former employer took him back. Little is known about what happened to Swen overseas. My grandparents and my mother said that he no longer bragged up the great social experiment that was Soviet Russia and, as far as anyone knows, did not attend any more Communist meetings.


Swen never spoke much about anything after his almost fourteen months in Russia and rarely showed up at family events. By the time World War Two broke out, Swen was probably too old for the draft, but tried to enlist anyway. It was the damage to his health that occurred in Russia which kept him out of the U.S. Military. He did continue to work at the factory job which was considered essential employment for the war effort and that, I’m told, gave him a certain sense of satisfaction. Ironically, his factory made (among other things) parts for armaments used by the Soviets against the Nazis.


Sometime in October of 1941, my mother became extremely ill. This brings me to the second thing that made my grandparent’s faces grimace whenever they talked about events that occurred during the days of her youth. The doctor diagnosed Liz with some new type of pneumonia or infection he could not pin down and her chances of surviving it were considered poor. Her condition was so bad that the doctor refused to move her out of their apartment and to the hospital for fear that the cold temperatures and bad weather conditions outside would kill her.


By the time her doctor made his fifth trip to their apartment, Frank and Amanda had given up on hoping that there youngest daughter would survive her illness and recover. However, they were in for some potentially good news. The doctor arrived with a colleague who was seeking permission to try a new thing called Penicillin as a treatment for her illness. Left with few options, they agreed to the request.


My mother remembers it like some kind of a miracle. One day she was so sick that words could not describe how she felt, and a few days later she was all better. Within less than a week my mother was up and around. She was more than ready to resume her romance with George. He was away at flight school during the time when she became ill and returned a few weeks after she recovered.


George became a part of the U.S. Army Air Force. He received his wings and was now a military pilot. Much to his disappointment, he would not be flying fighter planes, but was assigned to ferry bombers from place to place as they were needed for training and other duties. He had a couple of weeks of leave coming and used them to visit Liz after hearing about her illness. My mother gave strict instructions for her parents and friends to keep the news of her condition from George. She didn’t want him to worry or be distracted from his pilot training by her sickness, but one of her friends decided he should know and sent him a note just after he completed his training.


The two weeks that Liz and George spent together were wonderful. His family lived just sixty miles away from hers and he took her to meet his folks over the Thanksgiving holiday. They were impressed by Liz and loved that she was Scandinavian just like them. After that trip, George spent a few days with his parents while Liz returned to the Bronx to go back to school. She turned sixteen that October and was in her Senior Year.


My mother’s memories of her school days were sweet and sour. She entered school barely able to understand English and unable to properly speak it. That made Liz an object of ridicule among the other students who constantly referred to her as a 'dirty foreigner’ during her first several years of classes. She was fluent in Finnish because that was the primary language spoken in her household, but had to learn English. She not only learned it, but worked hard at perfect pronunciation until she had no accent at all.


By the time she was in High School, my mother spoke and was fluent in English, Finnish, Swedish and French. She also was conversational in several other languages. Her intellect shone, but never as brightly as her sister’s according to her teachers and parents. Liz was always being compared to her older sister Helen, who was a genius. Helen had perfect grades, perfect attendance and managed to win every academic award that her school offered. Despite her accomplishments, it was Helen who was the first to disappoint her parents.


Rocky was a rough character from the other side of the tracks. He was half German, half Scandinavian and all trouble. Known as a local wise guy who easily lost his temper and sometimes made a few extra bucks collecting for the neighborhood loan sharks, he was the kind of older teenager that everyone wanted their daughters to stay far away from. Fate, however, had another idea.


My mother often helped her parents with their Superintendent duties by scrubbing the lobby floor in their apartment building or taking out some of the trash. Helen also helped, but she was pudgy compared to her sister who was thin as a rail. Helen was a little too pudgy to get down and properly scrub floors, so she cleaned the many mirrors that lined the lobby of their building.  On one particularly warm summer day in 1939, Liz was scrubbing the hallway floor and working up a real sweat in the process. Just as she was finishing, Rocky and another boy walked in. Liz gave them a disapproving look.


Rocky’s friend was a young Italian hood named Sal. His father was rumored to be a member of the Mafia. Sal was considered to be a young Mafioso in training and took every opportunity that reputation provided to him. He ran errands for the mob and was always dressed to the nines in the best clothes and most expensive shoes. Rocky headed for the stairs on a mission to collect some money owed to one of Sal’s associates by someone on the third floor. Sal headed over to where Liz was scrubbing the floor and stepped on her hand.


Sal said something about teaching dirty, sweaty foreigners a lesson so that they knew their place in society while he kept his foot on her hand. Liz yellowed at him and that caught the attention of Helen who was cleaning mirrors on the other side of the lobby. She came running and rammed into Sal knocking him away from Liz. Sal was about to hit her when Rocky intervened and smashed him in the chest. Rocky’s biggest pet peeve was that he hated men who hit women. He watched his father abuse his mother that way for years and when he got old enough to do something about it, split his dad’s head open with a bat.


Sal looked shocked as he lay on the floor, but even he was afraid to take on his friend. Rocky was probably better thought of among the local mobsters than Sal or his father was, and had lots of friends that were as bad or worse than him. Sal mumbled an apology to the sisters and told Rocky he would wait outside. Liz and Helen had no interest in speaking with Rocky and immediately went up to their apartment to tell their parents what happened.


A short while later Helen came back down to put away the cleaning materials she and Liz were using in the lobby and was surprised to see Rocky sitting on one of the chairs placed there for residents. She was a bit chubby, but had a beautiful face. For Rocky, their earlier chance encounter had been love at first sight. Not so for Helen. She ignored him then and for several days afterward despite his attempts to get her attention with flowers, gifts and cards.