Building Blocks

By San Antonio Rose

            Newkirk was embarrassed when the first package came.  The other Brits wouldn’t look down on him, he knew that; but he was sharing his barracks with Frenchmen and Poles and Russians, not to mention the Americans.  How could he explain this pastime that was historically so common among British POWs that his sister hadn’t even bothered to ask if he wanted a kit?

            So he kept it to himself, working at it as he could after lights out or during free time when he was more or less alone in the barracks, keeping himself occupied when the others went on a rare outside-the-wire mission with the Underground.  He was glad to have something to do with his hands.  He just didn’t want to give the men a reason to laugh at him.

            But then Vladimir got sick and Col. Hogan tapped Newkirk to do the sewing until the Russian tailor recovered.  Newkirk had once let slip that he’d had an apprenticeship in a Savile Row shop for a time, and when Hogan examined the first suit he made for an escapee, his praise had been little short of effusive.

            So when the next kit came, Newkirk didn’t bother to hide the fact that he was sewing, though precisely what he was sewing was still a bit embarrassing.  If anyone asked, he said he was practicing his stitchwork.

            Slowly, piece by piece, month by month, the project came together.  And so did the team, and suddenly it didn’t matter so much if anyone found out.  Newkirk went from worrying how he would hide it once he started putting the rows together to wondering who he would give it to or whether he should simply keep it for himself.

            He had nearly finished when, on one of the coldest nights of the year, Col. Hogan came down with the flu.

            LeBeau and Carter took turns watching their commander while Kinch took over the operation and kept the Germans at bay.  Newkirk, for his part, threw himself into finishing his project, knowing that Hogan needed it more than any of them.  He didn’t actively try to hide it, but since he was sitting on his bunk most of the time and the other men were rather preoccupied, no one seemed to notice.

            Late on the second day of Hogan’s illness, Newkirk had just placed the last blind stitch and was tying off the thread when Carter came dragging out of Hogan’s quarters.  The young American poured himself a cup of coffee and slumped down at the table, yawning and scratching his head through his hat.

            “’Ow’s the Colonel?” Newkirk asked as he cut the thread.

            “’Bout the same,” Carter replied wearily.  “Wilson says the fever’s not really dangerous, but it’s still above 102.  He thinks the cold has helped some, but....”  He sighed.  “McMahon says a blizzard’s coming.”

            “Then I’ve not finished a moment too soon,” Newkirk said, mostly to himself.

            Carter heard him and looked up at him in confusion.  “Finished what?”

            And he stared as Newkirk shook out a bunk-sized quilt of reds and tans and blacks.  Some blocks were pieced, some appliquéd, some wool, some cotton.  Each block, on closer inspection, appeared to be individually quilted, and the whole was backed and bound with red flannel.  Carter ran his hand over it in awe.

            Finally he looked his bunkmate in the eye.  “You made this?!”  At Newkirk’s sheepish grin, he added, “Peter, this is amazing!  It’s as good as the quilts my grandmother used to make!”

            That got the other prisoners’ attention, and soon everyone was crowded around the quilt, appraising and... praising, not teasing.  In fact, Kinch and Olsen talked quite a bit about how much Newkirk’s sewing skill was going to come in handy for the operation.

            “You want to give that to le colonel?” LeBeau finally asked.

            Newkirk nodded.  “’E’s more likely to need it tonight.”

            “Come on, then.”  LeBeau gathered up the bottom end while Newkirk hopped down with the top, and together they carried the quilt into Hogan’s quarters.

            On the lower berth of his bunk, Hogan was fast asleep but whimpering slightly at some fever-warped dream.  Newkirk gingerly spread his end of the quilt over Hogan’s shoulders, while LeBeau tucked the other end around the American’s feet.  Without fully waking up, Hogan frowned and poked a hand out from under his blankets.  His fingers slid lightly across the flannel binding and met a Log Cabin block.  The confusion passed from his face as his fingers traced the familiar pattern, and he smiled.

            “Thanks, Mom,” he mumbled and fell into a far deeper and more peaceful sleep.

            When the fever broke two days later, while the blizzard was still raging, Hogan was finally lucid enough to ask LeBeau where they’d gotten the quilt.  He then called Newkirk in to thank him personally.

            “So this is what you’ve been hiding from us all this time,” Hogan said in mock admonishment, though the way his hand kept running over the quilting gave away his true emotion.

            Newkirk ducked his head and shuffled his feet.  “I didn’t... I mean, it’s not something men do much in America, is it, sir?”

            “No,” Hogan agreed.  “But I’ve known soldiers who knit, even a few who do needlework.  If quilting keeps your hands and your mind busy, there’s no reason to be ashamed of it.  We may even need your quilting skill if there’s intel we can’t get out of camp any other way, or as part of your cover as Frau Newkirkburger.”

            Newkirk brightened.  “Really, sir?  You’re not just ’aving me on?”

            “Really.  We’re a team, Newkirk, and we need every one of every member’s skills.  Even if the Germans think it’s girly.”

            Newkirk grinned.  “Yes, sir.  Thank you, sir.”

            “No, thank you.”  Hogan grinned back, and Newkirk turned to leave.  “Newkirk?”

            Newkirk turned back.  “Sir?”

            “Who’s the next one for?”

            “I’m not sure,” Newkirk shrugged.  “I’d like to make one for all me mates, but I dunno if we’ll be ’ere long enough.”

            Hogan smiled kindly.  “Who says they won’t appreciate it just as much if it comes after the war?”

            Newkirk smiled back and hurried into the main room.  He fished a piece of writing paper and a pen out of his locker, sat down at a table, and began to write:

Dear Mavis,

Any chance of getting some more fabric?  The Colonel loves his quilt, and I’d like to make one for Kinch next....

A/N:  The idea for this story came from The Complete Book of Quilting by Michele Walker, which has (on p. 36) a picture of a quilt made by British soldiers during the Boer War.  Apparently, even as late as WWII, British prisoners found quilting one of the best ways to pass the time, so women would include masculine-colored fabrics in their care packages for the men to make into quilts.  The result was often quite creative!

Detail of Boer War quilt pictured in Walker

The quilting technique I’ve implied is one my mom has used to recreate one of her great-grandmother’s old quilts that was falling apart when we got it:  each square is individually quilted with a layer of batting and a plain backing, and then the rows are assembled by folding under the edges of one block, sandwiching the unfinished edge of the next block next to the batting, and stitching through all eight layers at once.  There are probably other ways to do it, but that’s what I had pictured.

Back Up Next