Watermelon Fields by Aurel Emilian Mircea, M.D. - Read Online
Watermelon Fields
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Freedom cannot be taken for granted, even when a historical treaty between the most powerful nations guarantees peace on earth. When the ‘Great War’ ended in 1945, the people of Romania thought that their monarchy had achieved a solid pact with the Anglo-American Forces which would lead to goodwill and prosperity. Soon, any hope to put an end to the misery of war had evaporated when the Soviet Union broke its promises toward the Allied Powers and occupied Eastern Europe. The newly created Soviet Bloc and the ensuing Iron Curtain brought along communist tyranny, the loss of individual liberties and brutal religious persecution. Poor Romanians had to struggle for many years in poverty, oppression and no freedom of movement. Only a few brave ones escaped to the western free world, through the deadly minefields planted along all the Romanian borders.
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ISBN: 9780985869304
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Watermelon Fields - Aurel Emilian Mircea, M.D.

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Chapter 1

The Great War

Eric, we are expecting two very important houseguests, Father Emil said. Go and help your mother prepare the best dinner of the year.

Who are the surprise visitors, father? Eric asked.

Grandpa Luca and Grandma Anita are coming by horse-drawn carriage from Melonburg, and will spend two nights with us.

When do they arrive?

Saturday morning, Father Emil said. They will stop for a while at the Minerva Hotel to meet with produce wholesalers.

Are we picking them up?

After lunch, you and the chauffeur will drive there by car. They will leave their horse and carriage in the care of the hotel staff, and you will bring them here.

I’m so excited to see them, Eric said. Grandpa Luca always tells us great stories about our ancestry, and Grandma Anita loves to share arts and crafts ideas with my sisters.

Wait till you hear the news from the other side of the Atlantic, Father Emil said. You know how hard it is to make your grandfather leave Melonburg. This time, he couldn’t wait to visit with us and share the latest message from America.

I hope it’s not more bad news from the Western Front, Eric said.

My Uncle Aurel, from New Jersey, made a direct appeal to us all to look out for Sergeant Harry, my youngest cousin, Father Emil said. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and is a turret gunner on those famous Liberators, the heavy-duty B-24 bombers.

Where have the Anglo-American Forces deployed him?

He’s somewhere in the Libyan desert, ready to join the air raids over Romania.

What about his two older brothers, Eugene and George?

They also volunteered for the U.S. Army and are now in the United Kingdom, preparing for the landing, somewhere in Europe.

God help us, father, Eric said. This ‘Great War’ is getting bigger by the week.

Yes, my son; and we are getting smaller and more vulnerable with every month, Father Emil said. I wish the Romanian monarchy had never joined Hitler to be part of the Axis Forces. Now it makes us the number-one enemy of the American Air Force . . .

Is that because of our oil reserves and the complex of refineries in Ploesti?

That’s one of the reasons; but also because of the strategic location of our country, at the Eastern Front with the Soviet Union.

And we love everything about Lady Liberty and the Land of the Free, Eric said. I can’t wait to hear grandpa’s take on the latest twist in the war.

After the conversation with his father, Eric could not contain his excitement and dashed out of the room. When he entered the kitchen, he shared the news with his mother, who was busy with the menu for the arrival of the in-laws. The cook was already cutting and chopping various meats, and the housekeeper went to prepare the beds in the guesthouse.

Mother, did my father tell you about the main reason for Grandpa Luca’s arrival?

Yes, my son; go chop a wood mixture for my latest recipe of smoked duck á l ’orange.

I will also tell my sisters to get ready for Grandma Anita and to prepare some special delicacies for her, Eric said.

I’ll coordinate all that, Mother Maria said. You take care of the manly stuff, and remember to soak the woodchips for at least one night before, and have the barbecue ready.

Eric was proud of his role in the clan as the last male descendant in a long genealogical line of boyars, going back to the founding of the Romanian nation. He was born into a world of prosperity in Craiova, the capital city of the southern region of Oltenia, known as the breadbasket of the country. Between the demanding academic schedule at the elite French College in town and the family compound, he spent most of his days studying and working. Yet when the summer vacation arrived, he dropped all that comfort and luxury and replaced it with the pastoral life offered by the ancestral village of Melonburg. There, on the large family estate, he shadowed Grandpa Luca, and helped him with all the heavy chores around the household and with the watermelon harvest. During the grape harvesting season, the old family patriarch had the reputation of the most sophisticated winemaker in the district. Nobody could touch his expertise in brewing the best Merlot wines, or distilling the most delicious fruit whiskeys, known as raki. His best signature drink was a special drink made of wild blackberries and a few secret spices, nicknamed Luca’s Nectar.

From stories and letters, Eric knew a few things about his grandfather’s two older brothers, Aurel and Mateo. They had left the village twenty-five years ago, declining any interest in the family agricultural business, and chose new pathways in life. Aurel graduated from the Polytechnic Institute of Bucharest with a degree in mechanical engineering, and a few years later emigrated to America. Brother Mateo chose a seminary education, and by the time the Great War broke out, he had risen to the ranks of Archbishop of Moldavia in the Christian Orthodox Church.

Over the years, the three brothers stayed in touch by mail; but neither Aurel nor Mateo returned to visit their place of birth. In their letters, the two older brothers had expressed no interest in growing watermelons for a living, or distilling moonshine. According to a mutual agreement, signed and sealed at the Burgomaster’s office in Melonburg, they assigned their share of the inheritance to their younger brother Luca. Consequently, he became the de facto patriarch of the whole family, and the sole owner of the large estate.

On Friday afternoon, when Eric returned from the French College, he couldn’t wait to help his mother with dinner preparations. He ran downstairs into the backyard, heading for the woodshed. Marna, his favorite pet, half German shepherd and half wolf, joined him, with her tail wagging, and a mouth drooling in expectation of a special treat. Before chopping the mixture of firewood for the kitchen stove and grill, he gave the dog a chunk of smoked venison from the nearby cold storage. The dog gulped it down in a second, licked her lips and gave Eric a look full of gratitude. He dropped the woodchips in a bucket of water and walked back to the house. In the study, his father was busy greasing shotguns for the approaching hunting season.

Before the grandparents’ arrival, tell me the latest news from BBC Radio, Eric said.

As you already know, President Roosevelt declared war on the Axis Forces, which includes Japan, Nazi Germany, Italy, Hungary and Romania. Last night, the broadcaster was exuberant about the strong military alliance among the British, Americans and Stalin’s Red Army.

How does it affect our fate? Eris asked. After all, we’re aligned with Hitler.

The Romanian monarchy, as an important part of the Axis Forces, has found itself in the middle of the biggest war in history, Father Emil said. And not on the winning side, I might say.

As part of the new conflict, are the Americans going to bomb us into oblivion?

We don’t know yet. Hitler uses our oil refineries in Ploesti for his war machine. The area might become a prime target soon and in that event, the air raids would be part of our daily life.

What are you doing about the safety of our family and the domestic staff?

I am building a bomb shelter in the back of our compound. Tomorrow, Grandpa Luca will bring us up to date about the American involvement in the conflict. We will know firsthand what other measures we should take for our protection.

By midday on Saturday, Mother Maria and Eric’s two sisters, Laura and Olga, had everything ready for a feast to satisfy the taste of a king and queen. A big pot of mamaliga with feta cheese, Romania’s traditional dish, simmered on the open fire. Three cast-iron pots and pans were overflowing with sarmale—stuffed cabbage leaves, breaded lamb chops and blackberry cheesecakes. In addition, a few dozen mititei grilled on the outside barbecue and smoked with walnut woodchips, soaked according to Eric’s formula. Before picking up his much-loved guests from the hotel, Eric went to the guesthouse to ensure that everything was made comfortable for their stay. The housekeeper used the softest pillows and blankets for their beds and put fresh towels in the bathroom, as per Mother Maria’s instructions. At the end of the preparation for their arrival, he went into the garden and cut fresh flowers for Grandma Anita, who loves roses and carnations. When everything was ready and done, he joined the chauffeur in the family Opel Kapitan and drove to the Minerva Hotel to pick up his grandparents.

I raise this wineglass, Grandpa Luca said, to wish you lots of health and happiness. This toast is for you, my dear wife Anita, and for the rest of you, my most favorite and only son Emil, my three grandchildren and my only daughter-in-law Maria, the best hostess in the world!

Welcome to our home, Father Emil replied. We are thrilled with your visit, and I hope you’ll come and stay with us more often.

Olga and Laura stood as one and served various side dishes around the table, making sure that nothing would be overlooked for the most-loved family guests.

Your food is magnificent, Maria, Grandma Anita said. I could never have created such gourmet recipes in my primitive kitchen.

I’ll give most of the credit to our daughters’ culinary touch and Eric’s blend of firewood, Father Emil said. He soaks those woodchips long before every stove and grill is fired.

Brag; brag about your only son, as usual, Grandpa Luca said. I’ll retest his skills this summer during the watermelon harvest.

I will be more than happy to disclose my secret to you, Grandpa, Eric said.

I can’t wait; but let me share with you the latest news from America, Grandpa Luca said. The war is escalating, and we are in for a protracted wave of Anglo-American air raids, the likes of which have never been seen in the history of the country.

Silence fell around the table. The cook left the dining room and Father Emil stood and closed the door behind her. Meanwhile, the family patriarch pulled out his rimless reading glasses and placed them on his nose. Grandma Anita reached inside her handbag and handed him an airmail envelope with a USA Post Office marking on the front. He opened it and started to read.

Dear brother Luca, My youngest son Harry volunteered to fight in the war and joined the U.S. Air Force. He has already been deployed to Libya, where he will join the fight against the Axis Forces. He is a turret gunner in one of the B-24 Liberators, the latest and most advanced bomber in the world. As of this writing, he is taking part in daily missions over the Romanian territories to bomb the Ploesti refineries, north of Bucharest. I keep in touch with him weekly, through military channels of communication and telegrams. He is in good health and very optimistic about the outcome of this war.

I’m sure that as a gunner in the front of the aircraft, he will be the first to engage the German Luftwaffe in dogfights, Father Emil said.

He’s a brave man, Eric said. I wish one day I could meet him.

Grandpa Luca continued to read;

Knowing how dangerous Harry’s assignments will be, I appeal to you as our family, to keep him in your prayers and look out for him. Every day he will be taking off from Benghazi airbase in Libya, fly northeast over the Mediterranean Sea and the Balkan Peninsula, and cross the Danube River into Romanian territory, heading for Ploesti. The raids would pass directly over the watermelon fields of Melonburg and the city of Craiova on their way to the final target. What a sad twist in destiny, my dear brother Luca! Your nephew Harry might only see our ancestral village from the skies above as an enemy, and may never be alive to return to the ground and visit with his Romanian family.

I hope this war will end soon, Grandma Anita said. We all need peace, and none of us want to see more death and destruction.

It looks like the peace in the skies over the family’s watermelon fields will soon be disrupted by dogfights and falling American airmen, Grandpa Luca commented. He adjusted his reading glasses, which were about to fall off his nose, took a sip of his Merlot and continued.

If my son Harry is killed in dogfights, find his body and bury him in our family graveyard, behind the old church. Should he fall prisoner or be wounded, rescue him; help him stay alive, and send him back to his wife and children. I beg of you, my brother, and I wish you and your family all the best.

After his grandparents’ visit, Eric could not wait to share the latest family story with his school buddies. At the French College he attended with sons of the city’s elite and affluent families, he formed a close bond with Bogdan and Adrian. They became his closest allies in all the competitions, whether on the soccer field and ice-hockey rink, or in the science class. The latest update about the Western Front and his heroic American uncle, flying in the skies above, galvanized their daily conversations. With the two classmates in tandem, he spent most of his free time in the school library with its priceless collection of books. He read everything available about the aviation engineering and war strategies of modern air combat. Between BBC Radio broadcasts and the history textbooks, Eric had fallen in love with the land that gave birth to men like Washington and Lincoln. For him, America was by far the most successful human experiment of democracy in the history of mankind. In a secluded corner of the library, the three classmates sat at a table full of almanacs, maps and encyclopedias, with Eric leading the chatting session.

I am amazed how the Americans volunteered for the war and did not have to be drafted by the government, as in the European countries.

It’s because the United States Constitution is the law of the land, Bogdan said. Modeled after the Magna Carta and the British Common Law, it has become the foundation for American society.

Yes, that’s true, Eric said. To this day it is a deterrent from dictatorships.

And when you think about it, Adrian said, the Nazi stooges are still reading Otto Bismarck’s doctrine in search of a better solution for their world of Arian Supremacy.

I hope my Uncle Harry bombs them into oblivion, and sends every member of the Iron Guard to hell and frees us from our alliance with Hitler.

With only a few boys inside the library, Eric was free to climb the ladder and pick the rarest of books from the highest shelves. The dusty smell, the leather-bound tomes and manuscripts written in French or German transported him into the distant past. Bogdan followed his example, and pulled down an old German-Romanian dictionary, waving it above his head.

If Hitler wins this war, I’ll have to speak German fluently. But I’ll never marry a beer-drinking, mountain-yodeling, schnitzel-frying, fat woman from Bavaria.

You might not have a choice, Bogdan, Eric said. The Nazis will integrate us by force to dilute the pool of Latin people, Slavs or Huns, and create the ultimate Arian breed!

Then I’ll remain a bachelor or join the monastery.

It’s easy for you to philosophize, Eric, Adrian said. If you don’t like Hitler, you can always join your American family as an immigrant and live in the ‘Home of the Brave’.

Yes, I suppose I have that unique advantage ...

You do, Adrian said. If I had an uncle like yours, I’d join him in a second, and volunteer to fly with him on those B24-Liberators.

History will prove beyond a doubt that America is the best place on earth, Bogdan said.

Imagine young women in factories with heavy-duty wrenches in their hands, greasing up engines, and then going home to raise their children without a husband around! Adrian said.

That’s why they call America the ‘Land of the Free’, Eric said. You’ll never see the Frenchmen, or the Italians, or any Romanians go through so much personal sacrifice for the sake of the homeland or democracy.

No secret then why America is called the ‘Home of the Brave’, Bogdan added. In Europe you’d be hard-pressed to find men ready to risk their lives for the liberties of their neighbors.

It’s the three-year army conscription that makes a coward out of every boy, Eric said. Imagine a young villager having to abandon everything and perish in a war that guarantees nothing but misery and death?

We’re still living in an old, agricultural economy, Bogdan said. America is one-hundred years ahead of Europe.

I’ve got a great new story, Eric said. It comes directly from my granduncle Aurel in New Jersey. No Romanian newscasts or Movie-tone will disseminate such information.

Tell us all about it; don’t keep us in suspension, Adrian said.

As we speak, Henry Ford, the famous carmaker is building B-24 Liberator bombers at an incredibly fast pace, Eric said.

Go on, Eric, Bogdan said. I’m very curious.

The entire American nation has rallied behind the industrial might in the private sector, and is building the most powerful air force in the world. Of the twenty largest armies on earth, America is now ranked number one.

What is this attributed to? Adrian asked.

Having the government out of their businesses, the American industrialists are using their God-given talents to make fortunes and employ millions of workers. Henry Ford is the first genius to introduce the conveyor belt, assembly line and mass production.

That in itself is an engineering miracle, Adrian said.

Adolf Hitler, who heard about Ford’s industrial achievements, visited Detroit before the war and when he returned to Berlin, he displayed Henry Ford’s portrait on his office wall, Eric said.

I didn’t know that, Bogdan said. How many bombers do the Americans have now?

The latest estimate from the correspondents of war on BBC Radio is in the tens of thousands, Eric said. Soon, Ford Motors alone will be able to build one B-24 bomber an hour, from cockpit to tail!

America, as the most advanced nation on earth might put a man on moon, Bogdan predicted.

And all my life I thought France had the superiority in technology, Adrian said. In future I’ll ignore the propaganda and rely exclusively on the British Encyclopedia and BBC.

Look at the recent historical facts and judge for yourselves, Eric said. When Hitler flexed his muscles on France’s borders, the Vichy cabinet took off to Morocco.

You’re correct, Bogdan said. They relax in luxury hotels, watching belly dancers, drinking wine, smoking Cuban cigars and planning Europe’s future . . .

And they left France’s defense in the hands of ‘La Résistance’, confronting the Panzer divisions on bicycles, Adrian said.

Did you hear that ‘La Résistance’ sustained its first war casualty last week? Eric said. The reporter mentioned two thousand Germans killed, and two Frenchmen . . .

What heroes those Frenchmen are! How did they inflict such heavy casualties with only pistols in hand? Bogdan asked.

Not fighting the Wehrmacht, no, no ...The two French fighters were chasing the same woman and collided on their bicycles . . .

Quel dommage! Adrian said. Have they died of head injuries or jealousies?

Twice a day, the city sirens blared with a frightful howling sound, warning the residents to take cover in bomb shelters built all over the city. The first alarm came around midmorning, when the bombers entered Craiova’s airspace on their way to the oil refinery in Ploesti. The city dwellers learned from BBC Radio that the Americans would not waste their ordnance on civilian, or any other harmless targets. Therefore, most urbanites went on with their daily activities, ignoring the first sirens and not taking shelter. However, in the midafternoon, during the bombers’ return flight, it was a completely different story. When the sirens blared for the second time around, nobody took any chances and made a beeline for the nearest shelter, in fear of being crushed by the flying steel objects. To enable the B-24 Liberator squadron to reach higher altitudes and make it back to the airbases in Libya, the airmen discarded all the extra ballast. Most of it was the extra forty-four-gallon gasoline tanks the planes carried onboard to refuel in flight. That strategic maneuver created an unpredictable and high-risk world for the people on the ground. A few incidents of damage to buildings, railroad stations or recreational areas were reported, but nothing too catastrophic.

No matter what BBC Radio recommended, or what the local authorities required, the French College rules were strictly adhered to by every person on the campus. On both occasions when the sirens blared, the schoolboys had to hunker down in the steel-reinforced cellar under the principal’s residence. Those breaks in the classroom schedule gave Eric and his classmates a great opportunity to chat, joke, or make predictions about to the outcome of the Great War.

Eric, you know almost everything about the B-24 Liberators, Adrian said. Why are they carrying so much extra fuel onboard?

To extend the bomber’s range by a few hundred miles, and return safely to their airbases.

Then why would the pilots risk their lives to open the door and dump the empty containers, and not take them back with them to Libya? Bogdan asked.

They’d have to climb to twenty thousand feet over the Pindus Mountains in Albania and make it to the basecamp without ditching into the Mediterranean Sea.

Eric was right on the money with his aeronautical expertise. The American airmen had no choice but to get rid of the extra weight. Those heavy-duty steel drums could delay their return, or worse, could force some bombers to crash-land. On the air commander’s orders, the crewmen discarded the empty drums whenever and wherever possible. As they came down with a whistling sound, they landed everywhere, from the city streets to the open fields and farmlands. Life in Craiova, with its daily air raids and collateral civilian casualties, became the dinner time topic of most conversations for Eric’s family.

To me, the American pilots are very compassionate people, Eric said. They avoid collateral civilian casualties at every opportunity.

Unlike the Germans or the Russians, who inflict heavy casualties on the innocent population every step of the way, Father Emil said.

I can’t wait for the school year to finish and go to Melonburg to see the dogfights firsthand over the watermelon fields.

A few more weeks and we will be leaving for the entire summer vacation, Mother Maria said. We need to get used to spending more time in a village setting.

Why, Mother? Laura asked. I’m not keen to part with my friends, my music and all the modern comforts at our house compound, like electricity, running water and the rest.

"If we stay here the whole summer, you’ll have to get used to sitting in bomb shelters for many hours a day, Mother Maria said. And if we’re unlucky, one of those falling objects could land on top of us."

That’s true, Sis, Eric piped in. Most residents around here are getting out of town because of the intensifying air raids.

You can’t wait to go to Melonburg and play silly games with your village friends, Laura said. But I have my mind set on modern city life, with music and social events.

I know, I’m very biased, Eric said. But unapologetic, since I can’t wait to enjoy the freedom of the wide-open meadows. I love helping Grandpa Luca with his watermelon harvest and his moonshine operation.

And you two ladies, Mother Maria said, could help Grandma Anita with the silkworm production and silk-weaving technique.

Yuck! Olga said. I hate those creepy-crawlies! They climb out of their boxes and give me an eerie feeling. I prefer my piano.

Stop arguing, Mother Maria said. No more talk about likes or dislikes in Melonburg. It’s your ancestral place, and you must give it the utmost respect.

Every Sunday after the church service, Father Emil drove the family to the Minerva Hotel and parked the car there for the rest of the day. He stepped out, kissed his wife and children good-bye, and walked inside the lobby for the weekly gathering. There, a dozen top businessmen and city executives discussed Craiova’s fate and future. The Burgomaster and the Magistrate always had complaints about delays in the restoration of the historical edifices and the infrastructure. Or the lack of construction material for bridges, roads and schools caused by the shifting priorities brought upon the nation by the Great War. Father Emil kept everybody up-to-date about the latest forestry surveys and the Crown Domain’s inventory of timber and firewood. He reassured the city masters that he would do everything in his power to keep the lumber economy going. Amid a few more servings of French Cognac and Coffee Royal, the conversation went all over the place, like the smoke rings from the Cuban cigars.

Where do you think this war is going? the Burgomaster asked the gathering.

Stagnant and costly for every Romanian citizen, the Magistrate said.

The American air raids don’t help a bit, a pudgy steel manufacturer said, taking a deep draw on his cigar that made him cough for a while. My raw material is in seriously short supply.

The old bridge over River Jiu, just south of Romanescu Park, took a few hits from those falling fuel drums, the city manager complained. We need to fix it quickly.

I’ve taken care of it, Father Emil said. My carpenters and the material will be on-the-spot tomorrow morning, and within two days it will be back to its old glory again.

What would we have done without you and your lumberyard, Emil? the Magistrate wondered aloud. Here is a toast to your future success with the forestry management.

Meanwhile, Mother Maria and her children had strolled along Union Boulevard. Stretching from the City Square, with its Town Hall and the Archbishop’s Palace, all the way to the historical Romanescu Park, the promenade was a great Sunday destination for families. Halfway toward the park’s entrance, she invited the children for tea and Viennese cakes in one of the most elegant street cafés. Eric gulped two French éclairs in a minute and stood, ready to get on his way for the rest of his Sunday afternoon plans.

Good-bye mother and sisters, he said. I’m taking a walk toward the English Park to meet with my school buddies.

Have a good time, Mother Maria said. We’ll be home later this afternoon, when your father picks us up by car.

"After I’ve gossiped with my classmates, I’ll go