Recently a friend sent me a story about legendary coach Bear Bryant of Alabama. Bryant had complimented the “chitlins” prepared by a small restaurant owner during one of his first recruiting trips. Bear sent the man an autographed photo and the small act of kindness resulted in a surprise reward years later.
The story reminded me of an experience in occupied Germany during the 1950’s.
As a young US Army Lieutenant, I was the officer in charge of the Army Commissary (grocery) Store in Bremerhaven Port of Embarkation. Our customers were mostly wives of US military personnel and embassy employees. My staff consisted of 3 military and 37 German civilian employees. We provided the very best service possible to our customers.
One day I spotted a young woman who was small in statue and large with child. She was walking beside her shopping cart because she could not reach the handles if she walked behind the cart. She also had trouble reaching things high on shelves. I volunteered to push the cart for her until she completed her shopping. After her groceries were packed in her car, I designated one of the German employees to greet her each time she came to the store and help her with her shopping, including pushing her cart.
A few months later, I was transferred to a tank unit located near Frankfurt in the US Occupation Zone where I served as platoon leader in a heavy tank battalion.
We had one child when we were sent to Germany. Three years later, when it was time to return to the States, we had two boys ages 4 and 2. LaVerle had joined me in Bremerhaven, lugging an 18-month old child 6 weeks after I arrived. Her trip had been traumatic and she spent several days in the hospital after arrival being treated for exhaustion.
We looked forward to returning to the states together, and assumed that we would fly back since we were near the Frankfurt Air Terminal where military charter planes arrived and departed. When orders arrived, we were less than pleased. We were to travel by train to Bremerhaven and board the Darby, a troop ship with cots that fold down from the walls. I had boarded those troop ships when we were evacuating Hungarian Refugees from Bremerhaven a couple of years earlier. Troop ships did not offer the best in accommodations. But this is life in the military, you face good times and bad times and they seem to balance out over the long haul.
When we arrived at the train station in Bremerhaven, we expected to be herded on a bus for a trip to the dependent’s hotel operated by the army. Instead, we were greeted by a smiling Army Major who escorted us to an Army sedan. He explained that we were not going to return to the States on the Darby, but would be departing in a few hours on the SS United States. We had been booked in a suite on the Sun Deck.
The Transportation Corps Major was now the officer in charge of assigning transportation for returning military personnel. During the ride from the train to the luxury liner, he explained that his wife told him to watch the return lists for the Dills and make sure they have the best accommodations possible. She told her husband that Lt. Dill and his staff made many unsolicited but meaningful efforts to help her during her difficult pregnancy and this was one way they could express their appreciation.
He explained that he had to order me to report to the troop ship in order to make sure we made it to the sun deck of the SS United States.
“If I had sent orders through the Army headquarters returning a First Lieutenant and his family to the US on the SS United States, every General and Colonel in Europe shipping out this month would have been calling and insisting that you be bumped and they get your space. Sorry for the scare and inconvenience, but that was the only way I could carry out my wife’s wishes and express our families thanks to you and your family.” the Major explained.
Many acts of kindness are taken for granted and go unnoticed, but as Bear Bryant and Bob Dill discovered, others can result in unexpected returns.