You know that old movie shibboleth of the World War II POW camps? The Krauts throw a phony into camp and he says he's from Brooklyn or Cincinnati or somewhere, and then the guys from back home all start asking subtle questions about the baseball season and it turns out he doesn't even know which team the headline writers call "the Flock," so they let him have it.
Well, they tried it in real life at least once, all right. I can vouch for that. But it's a punk idea, and I shudder to think how often it may have miscarried. I suppose way back in Biblical times when they asked that spy to say "shibboleth" and he goofed it by saying "sibboleth" things used to stay pretty much the same for longer periods of time. But baseball just doesn't work that way, particularly in wartime when the draft and enlistments are getting the averages all fouled up.
Take last year, for heaven's sake. Not that it was really wartime in the sense of 1941-1945. But wartime or no wartime, supposing that last September a guy had been thrown into a POW camp in North Vietnam where nobody had heard anything about baseball for nine months. "Who's playing in the Series?" they might ask him.
"The Cards," he'd say.
"O.K. Who else?"
"The Red Sox."
End of questioning. End of guy.
Well, that's just about the way it was with me back in 1944. I was a bombardier in a B-17 some 27,500 feet over Rumania when the fighters pranged us. Seven of the 11 aboard managed to bail out, but I landed miles from the others in a dry riverbed. Within moments after burying my parachute under the lip of a parched bank, I was captured in a pincers that consisted of a remarkably inaccurate farmer firing an ancient 30-30 field piece and a band of peasants armed with scythes, flails, rakes, hoes and other agricultural weapons. In my best high school German mixed with a seasoning of pidgin English, I asked them about getting to neighboring Yugoslavia. Tito's partisans, we all knew, were operating an underground railway for downed Allied fliers, and it seemed possible that some Rumanian peasants might be sympathetic. My questions seemed to allay their hostility, and the fact that I was an American flier filled them with glee. I soon found out why. After feeding me and getting me happily drunk on the local potable, svicka, the fun-loving Rumanians turned me over to the police and collected the bounty offered on all enemy fliers.
After a night in the local jail, I was driven to an army installation at the edge of Bucharest that served as both a prison camp and a barracks for Nazi and Rumanian troops. I was taken to a basement room, stripped, searched and interrogated by a Rumanian captain, who had spent his formative years in Pittsburgh. He passed most of the time telling me how he played hookey so he could watch the Pirates. I was a St. Louis boy and a Browns fan, which was something like being a Mets fan today, so we didn't have much in common.
After this chatty session I was taken to a large, dark room lined on each side with crude wooden double bunks covered with mattresses made of equal parts of straw and vermin. In the room there were about 30 American fliers of various ranks.