U-boats on the bayou
During a college interview I was asked, “So, Mr. Dunbar, how many siblings do you have?”
I drew a complete blank. There was a long awkward pause before I finally, hesitantly replied, “Just two.”
When the interviewer asked why it had taken so long to answer, I responded without delay, “U-boats.”
I grew up on Bayou Bonfuca just outside of Slidell, Louisiana. My dad had bought an old tomato farm that ran along the meandering waterway. To protect the shore from erosion and errant boats, he had built a bulkhead with large chunks of broken cement and cracked granite. I would patrol the banks looking for snakes and turtles. The reptiles loved to sun themselves on the hot rocks.
One day while walking along the edge of the bayou with my brother, I discovered a rusty piece of mangled metal sticking out of the shallows. “What’s that?” I asked excitedly.
“It’s a U-boat,” my brother said.
“What’s a U-boat?” I asked
“U-boats were German submarines. The Nazis used them to sink Allied ships during the war. They attacked merchant ships, too, some here in Louisiana.” My brother was four years older and, apparently, knew a lot of history.
“And they came up the bayou?” I asked.
“Not usually,” he said, “but this one was special. It was the one that brought you here.”
“What do you mean?” I stammered.
“Well,” he explained, “the war was going badly for the Germans. They had lost North Africa, Italy and Stalingrad; the Americans and Russians were closing in on Berlin. The Führer was running low on arms and ammunition. To sustain the offensive, he desperately needed cash. So, he sold his only son to the Allies. Dad agreed to adopt you. A U-boat brought you here. It got stuck in the mud, and, well, the rest is history.”
Sensing my lingering doubt and impending agony, he said, “Yes, you are Hitler’s son.”
I was 7 years old at the time. I only knew a few things about the war: We had been attacked at Pearl Harbor, we fought the Germans and Japanese, we won, and Hitler was evil.
Like torpedoes from a submarine, tears shot from my head.
While I cried hysterically, my brother lobbed a historical hand grenade over my head. He said, “Selling you actually funded the Battle of the Bulge. You should be ashamed.” He shook his head and walked away.
When I finally stopped crying, I ran to my sister. She was older and more mature. Surely, she would tell me the truth.
My sister calmly listened as I sniffled my way through the story. When I finished, she put a gentle hand on my shoulder, looked into my glassy eyes and said in a calm, sympathetic voice, “Yes, it’s true, Hitler was your father.”
Once again, alligator tears welled up and cascaded down my rosy cheeks.
“Why do you think I named my dog Eva?” my sister asked rhetorically over my cries. “Eva Braun was your mother.”
The news was devastating, but I still wasn’t convinced it was true. My brother and sister (and I) were prone to telling fibs. “No, dad, I didn’t put firecrackers in figs and then feed them to the chickens. No, mom, I didn’t put a tree snake in the ficus. Of course we wouldn’t call the neighbors and ask them if their toilet was running.”
To learn the truth, I knew I had to go to the source. I had to ask my “dad.” But, I also knew he would surely deny the allegations. He would never admit that I was Hitler’s son. So, instead, I asked him about the U-boats.
Having served in the war and being a bit of a history buff, he happily entertained the question.
“Yes, there were definitely German submarines in the Gulf,” he said. “There were numerous reports in The Times-Picayune. Ernest Hemmingway, my favorite author, used to look for them off the coast of Cuba in his beloved boat, the Pilar. They could have entered Lake Pontchartrain through the Rigolets, but the water in the lake is awfully shallow. If a U-boat had come up the bayou, it would have gotten stuck. You’d probably find its rusty remains in the mud.”
My heart sank like a submarine.
I cried for about a week. Then, I had an epiphany: “If dad was willing to adopt Hitler’s son, he must truly love me?” He did -- and everything was OK.
It wasn’t until years later when my math skills had improved that I realized that Hitler could not have been my father. He died* more than 20 years before I was born – at Baptist Hospital on Napoleon Avenue.
When I studied history in high school and college I learned that Hitler and Eva Braun hadn’t had children, and that the Battle of the Bulge had not been underwritten by the sale of a child. And I later discovered that the rusty metal in the bayou was from a barge that had been used to transport Saint Joe bricks to New Orleans.
I recently visited the National World War II Museum and went to the exhibit, “The Road to Berlin.” I’m happy to report, there was no mention of me.
My brother and sister later retracted the story. They said they were just trying to make me tough; it was part of my “education.”
From the experience I learned the true value of math, the importance of studying history and the difficult, sometimes disturbing meaning of the word “sibling.”
Folwell Dunbar is an educator, artist and sibling survivor.
*My brother later tried to convince me that Hitler had survived the war and had fled to South America. It was there that he tried to revive the Third Reich by selling me to dad. He mentioned the film, The Boys from Brazil. “You,” he said, “are from Brazil.”
Folwell Dunbar is a New Orleans educator, artist and survivor of many things, from roaches to German U-boats and heartbreak. He is putting together a collection of these short stories and survival tales called He Falls Well (his name is pronounced “fall well”). NolaVie is honored to preview some of those stories here. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.