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  Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"

Lanky and the POWs

by Clay Coppedge
When she was nine years old, Mildred Lancaster put down her basketball long enough to sit down at a piano and start playing. Learning to play was just that easy: she sat down and started playing.

"That started it," she said.

As it turned out, "Lanky," as everyone calls her, was almost as good at music as she was at sports, for which she was and still is best known.

Accolades have abounded for her athletic prowess and her contributions to getting girls and women's sports off the ground locally but music was her ticket into another world, one that few would ever see.

When she was a junior in high school, Lanky was invited out to the German Prisoner of War Camp that was located where Temple College now stands. Her mission: play accordion for the German prisoners being held there.

Other than some of the women who worked at McClosky General Hospital - now the Olin E. Teague Veteran's Center - she was one of the few females who ever stepped inside the old German POW camp.

In a lifetime crammed with unique life experiences, playing accordion for German POWs ranks near the top. "That POW camp looked like you would probably expect a POW camp to look," she said Tuesday at her home. "Rolled up barbed wire all around it. Guards in big tall stands with the biggest, ugliest guns you've ever seen.

"When I got inside, the POWs were sitting in straight-back chairs facing straight ahead. They had their hands at the sides. They couldn't clap even if they wanted to.

"I didn't know what to play. I was sort of over to the side and I didn't know what they wanted to hear. They weren't allowed to say anything. So I started thinking Seaton, Sefcik Hall. I played 'Beer Barrel Polka.'

"They couldn't say anything but I looked in their eyes and I could tell that was just the kind of thing they wanted to hear."

Lanky took up the accordion because the technique was similar to the piano, and an according was a lot easier to lug around than a piano. Her father took her to a music store in Temple where she rented a 12-bass accordion. By the time she got home, she had figured it out.

Her father kept renting more elaborate accordions for his precocious daughter until finally he went to the Montgomery Ward catalogue and ordered a 48-bass accordion, which she still has today.

With her accordion, she provided musical accompaniment to the tumbling teams at Temple High School. Her work there caught the ear of someone at McClosky General Hospital who asked her to play for the American soldiers recovering there from wounds suffered in battle during World War II.

"The only time I ever got a little queasy was when I went to traction ward to play," she said. "These poor men - some of them had an arm in traction, or a leg. Some had both legs and both arms. It was a real shocker to me but I swallowed hard and started playing.

"There was one soldier who had both legs in traction, and when I looked over at him I could tell he was keeping time with his toes. That's all he could move. His toes were sticking out the end of his cast, and I could see him keeping time with his toes. I've never forgotten that."

A high-ranking Army official heard her play and took her in his Command Car to newly-constructed Camp Hood (now Fort Hood) to play for the American soldiers preparing for war.

"We went and went and it was dusty and dusty until we got to what I guess is now North Fort Hood," she said. "We topped this hill and down below was a sea of soldiers. I'd never seen so many people in one place in my life. And there were tanks! Big ol' ugly things. I couldn't believe that.

"These soldiers would come out and listen. Some of them went into their barracks and brought out guitars and fiddles and started playing along. We had what I guess you would call a little jam session."

Later, she was asked if she wanted to ride in a tank. Lanky was usually game for any kind of adventure. "You bet I would!" she answered.

When she got out of the tank she was hot and sweaty and covered head to toe in dust. "Anybody who wants to lose some weight should spend some time in one of those old tanks," she said.

The woman everyone knew as Lanky went on to make a name for herself in sports. She was a fast-pitch softball pitcher so good that her women's teams usually beat the men's teams. Her contributions to women's sports in Central Texas have been immeasurable. The softball field at Temple High School was dedicated in her honor last year.

But if you see at her a high school or Temple College game, don't tell her how good she was. She doesn't like hearing it.

"Ask me how good I was and I'll tell you," she said. "Just don't try to tell me how good I was. That makes me uncomfortable."

That's saying something, because in her 81 years, Mildred "Lanky" Lancaster has proven that there's not much that makes her uncomfortable.
Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" >
November 8 , 2006 column

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