Me Madre

By Barry Naugle

The first thing I noticed that morning was that the troop transport ship’s engines were quiet.  The ship was at dock.  The ship’s speakers told every soldier to stay in his assigned quarters.  Finally, our names were called and filed off the ship as an officer checked us onto American soil, once again, at the bottom of a gangplank.  We were an army commodity and so a receipt had to be given as each soldier passed to another army unit.  Like livestock.

Oh hooray!  (A cynical hooray).  There was a Red Cross girl handing out small cartons of whole milk.  I took two, and after several years of powdered milk, I really enjoyed that drink.

We boarded a train headed for Fort Dix.  Before we arrived, I was beset with severe stomach cramps.  I had lost the ability to digest whole milk.

I recall very little about my activities at Fort Dix.  We were bring processed OUT and we were hurried along.  I momentarily put a small bag of my personal belongings down and it was immediately stolen.  Gone were my war souvenirs, but most sadly, gone was a diary that I kept of day to day happenings during the last three years.

Suddenly, it seems, I was headed home to Manhattan, New York to see my parents again.  It was evening.  I telephoned them that I was on my way.  My honorable discharge papers were in hand and I possessed a wad of back pay and discharge money.  I was also designated as 59 percent disabled with a pension.

The reunion with my Mom and Dad was, of course, wonderful.  After our initial greetings and storytelling of our doings over the last years, we had dinner at a hotel restaurant and returned home.  My mother kept staring at me and she finally broke into tears.

“Oh, Mom,” I said.  “Don’t cry.  Your four boys are all home safe from the war.  It is over.  Please don’t cry.”

“Barry, it is you.  You are not the same.  Your eyes are blank.  They show no sympathy.  They have no compassion in them.  I see some cruelty.  I don’t like you the way you are now.”

“Mom, showing no compassion kept me alive.  I’m sorry.”

Late that night, I gathered up my scant belongings, stuffed them into a barrack’s bag and left home again after a twelve hour stay.  I went to the Pennsylvania Railroad Station and bought a coach ticket to Denver, Colorado.  I told no one where I was going.  I told no one that I was leaving.  Denver sounded good.

What a beautiful city Denver was then.  No smog and the soaring mountains crystal clear in the distance.  I stayed a few days and then by bus or by thumb traveled southward.  In Arizona I wended my way westward until the Pacific Ocean halted my travels.  Enough.  I stop here.

Not far from the Mexican border was a small place called National City.  I rented a small motel room there in a tidy little place owned by an old Spanish American.  His single employee was a short, rotund Mexican lady with a plump pleasant face.  She spoke no English and I had only a few words of Spanish.

Every morning I strolled into town and ate breakfast at a different café.  The mostly Mexican people were very pleasant to visit with.  I enjoyed that.

This was in 1946.  To see this area today is very different.  Then there were miles of beautiful, pristine sandy beaches without a building in sight.  I walked for miles with seeing only one or two people trudging alone like myself.  A mere nod of our heads was enough of a greeting and to maintain one’s privacy.

One afternoon on an empty strand of beach, I stripped to my shorts and went for a delightful swim.  I swam out too far and had a near drowning experience getting back to shore.  Exhausted, I staggered up the beach and collapsed onto my belly by my pile of clothes.  I promptly fell asleep.

I have no idea how long I slept, exhausted, on that sandy strand.  I awoke, still on my stomach.  And I knew that I was in deep trouble due to a serious sunburn.  Even the soles of my feet were sunburned.  Only my shorts protected my posterior.

I dressed quickly and walked back to my room in the motel.  I lay face down on my bed and did not move for at least three days.  The constant pain of the sunburned immobilized me.  I was one sick puppy.

Sometime during the second day, I was aware of someone standing near my bed and softly talking in Spanish.  I did not understand, nor did I answer with more than a faint mumble.  Later, I heard two people, the owner of the motel and the round little Mexican lady.  Less than an hour later, the little Mexican lady named Maria returned and I felt a cool, soothing liquid being sprayed on all the exposed sunburned parts of my body.  The liquid smelled slightly of vinegar and was not oily.

At the end of the second day, I felt well enough to down a bowl of delicious soup brought to me by Maria.  As I slowly recovered, she enlarged the meals.  They were always very good.  I started to call her “Me Madre.”  That is “My Mother.”  She would turn her head and giggle delightfully.

Finally, I was healed from my sunburn.  It was time for me to move on.  I would go back to my home in New York City and attempt another homecoming.  But I would make a slow journey out of it.  I looked over my money supply and I had more than enough to do anything I wanted.  I took a very large sum and put it in a motel envelope.  I wrote on the envelope, “Por Maria, Me Madre.”

When Maria came to make up my room that last morning, I was waiting there for her.

“Maria.  Adios, Maria.”

She looked a bit shocked and sad.  I took the envelope and gently reached out and slipped it into the top of her blouse and out of sight.  She clutched her ample bosom and said, “Oh, no, senior.”

I quickly hugged her tightly, kissed her cheek and murmured “Me Madre” in her ear and left rapidly.

I headed north stopping at small towns and then east to Rock Springs, Wyoming.  I stayed several days there visiting old acquaintances that I knew since the days at the Leckie Guest Ranch.  I kept going eastward, sightseeing in Chicago, Detroit, Albany, Darrow School in New Lebanon, Pittsfield, Boston and at last, in Manhattan, I again phoned my Mom and Dad that I was coming home.

I was greeted warmly.  I told no one where I had been during several month-long sojourn.

Mom said I looked so much nicer and I told her that I had met many very nice, kind people.

For a few months I stayed with my Dad who lived alone in a large apartment.  I worked for him in his office and chemical lab doing simple maintenance jobs.  I also did some social work for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  This work was mostly finding jobs for veterans.  A great many of them wanted work with the U.S. Postal Service.  A secure future there.

My older brother, Jay, was still in the Navy teaching flying to cadets in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He phoned me and said that when he returned home that he wanted to buy a car and drive to San Diego, California.  He had a sweetheart there about who he was very serious.  So, I took seven lessons on how to drive.  My confidence was low and I took seven more lessons before passing the test and getting my driver’s license.

Jay returned home and after a two-weeks stay, he bought a car.  He tested my driving skills by requesting that I drive it home from the car dealer’s place.  He also asked me to drive the car out of New York City early the next morning when we left for California.  Somewhere in Pennsylvania that day I told Jay that I was tired, not accustomed to driving a long time and that he must take over.

“Okay,” said my bro, who had flown a Navy Torpedo Bomber for four years.  “You will have to teach me.  I don’t know how to drive.”

Until he became skilled as a driver, I had some heart-stopping moments as his instructor.  Speed meant nothing to him.  He would, at the start, swing wide on the curves and overcorrect when heading for the barrow pit alongside of the pavement.  We made it safely to San Diego and Jay had a joyful reunion with his beautiful sweetheart.

The next day, I headed south by bus to National City to see Maria, Me Madre.  The elderly Spanish American owner of the motel where she had worked told me she had left shortly after I had departed.  He thought she went to Ensenada in Mexico.

Jay and his sweetheart decided to marry.  They traveled south to Ensenada and made arrangements with authorities to marry in a few days.  I was to be Best Man.

That evening, I strolled, alone, down the bustling streets of Ensenada.  As I wandered along, I glanced across the cobblestone street at a small café named Maria’s Café.  It could not be, I thought.  Too much of a coincidence.  But there appeared Maria.  More rounded than before with a wide, sparkling white apron and beautifully friendly smile.  She glided from table to table talking all the while and receiving laughing replies from her patrons.

I took two steps toward the café and stopped.

“No, I’ll just let things remain as they are.  Leave it be.”

I felt good.  I had done something good and I was elated to see the results.

I never found out why nor inquired why my brother and his sweetheart ended their relationship the next day…

Well, I thought, I have heard that when you do something worthwhile, something worthwhile will happen to you.  That fall in September, I met Jackie Chapman.  We were soon holding hands and four years later on September 10, 1950, we were married.  She passed away in May 2014.

Fast forward 30-plus years.  Jackie was sorting through old photo albums, organizing the pictures.  I saw tears streaming down her cheeks.

“Whatever can be the matter?” I asked.

“This photo of you when you first came home from the army.  Your eyes are dead.  They show no sympathy.  They show no compassion.  That’s not you.  They are not as they are now.  What cured them?” she asked.

“Well, you helped cure them by handing me four little warm bundles of compassion and love.  And don’t forget Me Madre.”


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