Strangers, Friends, Comrades

10 Oct

STRANGERS, FRIENDS AND COMRADES …
A REUNION OF WARRIORS

Teddy Hatch, whose name was Willard, fought for seven days in the Spanish American War. People called him Teddy, thinking he’d served with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. The truth, he said, was this: I marched up a long slope near Santiago in Cuba with 15,000 others. Hotter than Hell, Teddy said. They won the battle and had 1600 casualties, three times more than the Spanish. The war lasted five months: two Spanish navies were destroyed, the battleship Maine was lost to a boiler explosion. Cuba was free of Spain, along with Guam and Puerto Rico; The USA paid Spain twenty million for the Philippines. The war against the Filipinos and Moros lasted a bloody year. They became free of the USA in ’45. In free Cuba, Fidel Castro babbles on while free Cubans sail to Miami in inner tubes. Today, after fifty years in charge, Castro resigned.

Teddy was evacuated with a 106 degree malarial fever. I met him after the Big War in 1946; he was my aunt Ellen’s third husband’s father. There are some points of significance here: Black Buffalo Soldiers and white American regiments fought side by side, equal in valor, in pain and in death. Not equal in all else, we’re told. Lt. John Pershing said they were magnificent.

William R Hearst proved that a controlled press, selling any ideology, can inflame the indifferent citizenry and start wars. The war made clear that this nation had become mighty. So it needed a Panama Canal to patrol both sides of the world, and would have one. Panama is free, broke, and the Canal is run by a Chinese operator. Widening the Canal is in progress. It will allow the biggest oil tankers to go through, dragging their petroleum trail behind them.

Teddy knew some Civil War Veterans. He and they rode proudly in big open cars in the Armistice Day Parades which marked the end of World War I. Consider the connections: the best officers of the Confederate States came out of the Mexican American War of 1846. We Americans paid Mexico twenty five million dollars and thirteen thousand lives for our Southwest states. A survivor of Gettysburg could shake hands with a veteran of the Spanish American war, who could shake hands with a veteran of World War I, who was the father of a veteran of World War II whose younger brother fought in Korea and whose sons went to Viet Nam and their sons to Afghanistan and Iraq. This story begins as time turns another century,page of history, and history will surely repeat itself. Beau Geste and Gunga Din, you have come back to haunt us.

Sit comfortably, have some popcorn, watch the show. The stage is ancient and big as the world. Its players are mostly men, too young, too old, some with memories gone cold, others with echoes too vivid, too bold. Now, a century bows in with its story still to be told. This puny drama took a hundred years to get through to this point, and will go on, but to what glorious extremis, we know nothing. We may have learned from the scourges of seven thousand years, but probably did not. The acts to come may change a little but for faces and voices, fears and wonderment. Mothers, sisters, wives and lovers sing offstage, bravely, though set apart from the man,world and like the women of Troy, be unheard. “Oh, to fight and die for freedom and to keep our honor clean.” “Pray he comes home bearing his shield, or borne upon it.”

Scattered heaps of broken ships, and fields and steppes grew rich with blood in our past century. We hear little of the early times, and still know too little of what should be known, lest we repeat history’s errors. Who offended who? Who needs a reason when any reason will do? The Japanese and the Russians tried to destroy their nations, in pursuit of land and ports and the orgasmic satisfaction that national hubris and hysteria give. Then the Russians and the Germans tried again, leaving a million bodies here and a million there, depleting the world’s supply of gunpowder, iron, young men and marble gravestones. It takes time to give birth to a million warriors, and to grow them strong, bold, angry and boiling with passion. We seem not to understand that greed, fear, jealousy, hunger and hate are not the noblest of reasons for war. Yet, they suffice. It has also been suggested, that in the pursuit of world peace all religious thunderers be silenced for a holy week each year, and violators be publicly stripped and thrashed.

The Russian Japanese war was brief, one year, and decisive. For the Japanese victors it offered more land, more iron and coal, more ports and the glories of massed infantry, hissing and dying when thrown into the fires. With the Russian revolution and its war with Germany, again we saw the devouring of the bleeding masses. The great god Baal eats the first born. Good for us; there came a moment of peace as pieces of families were dug from the rubble.

Scene 1 1903 or 05

Here at the first curtain, we see, it may be Ellis Island, a mosaic of refugees from oppression, humiliation and fear. There are suspicious looking fortune seekers and adventurers newly arrived and anxious to go West. Why, if this is a free country, must someone like me stand in line, amidst these odorous ones? I was a prince before the Czar took my pigs and my farm.

There is little color. Most of the scene is in black, grey and unspotted white. Some are draped over tumble, down luggage, carpet bags and wooden boxes. Others stand dignified and defiant amidst delirium, exhaustion, expectation and chaos, guarding what little is still theirs. A few drift about, cautiously seeking answers from one who has experience in this new world, even a little will do. There is not really gold in the streets; I didn’t think so. The somber clothing, the scents of food, illness, loneliness, exuberance and languages overlap and blend.  Color in American life has not yet been invented. The children do not cry. They have had lessons in not crying, to not bring unwanted attention. All wear a numbered red, yellow or green cardboard tag on a string. German, Yiddish, Italian, Irish, Russian, not so many French or British, but fearsome clutches of coarse and bearded Slavs, Poles and Doubters of the Promised Land. The white tag people ask , what is means quarantine?

“Estates upriver need stonemasons; we got stonemasons, there’s a truck aiting, fifteen, twenty. Bring your papers.” Need woodcarvers and carpenters, too. A good cook, Hungarian style. Any goulash cooks here? Anybody work on ships, carpentry? A toughened young man stands tall, shoulders squared, “and I got my tools from the old country.” His wife agrees, bowing and smiling broadly but does not understand. It can only be good. She thinks of her mother and father. Need gardeners, caretakers. Black suited, black mustached Italians shuffle toward the counter, wives and children trailing. Hey, Polskis, you dig coal? You know where is Pennsylvania? Nice ride on the train. Your name Jakobovitz? Now your name is Jake. You got that, Jake? Here, I write it down on your tag so you don’t forget who you are. So it goes through the day into night. Soup and bread are served by Salvation Army ladies. How many Jews we got here? You all got relations in Brooklyn, the Broncks? Again, hands go up but fear creeps. Some do, some don’t but here at the door of heaven on the shore of Amerika where all things are possible … all lies are allowable, what can go wrong? What can they do to me? So life begins … again.

2nd scene 1915, 16

Hard, ill,humored young men, the first American born generation, idle about the stone porch of Edelman’s Comer Bakery. Willy the Jew,Roll baker sometimes hands out day old buns, gratefully accepted, “and … (fresh soft rolls) for your good grandmothers.” The thin guy in collar and tie is in high school, he carries a book. The others, all eighth grade graduates have odd jobs, some are apprenticing, ‘you got to get a trade, stop always reading and learn something.’ All speak coarse but fluent English. Their families have strained over the Amerikanski way. There is little steady work to be had in America’s small towns, but for the bright and industrious there is something. Always something is there and you can feel it in the wind. Things and refuse can be salvaged and resold. Privies can be dug and filled. Walls can be built or tom down. The big city calls, that’s where money can be made. President Wilson is a peacemaker, he’ll keep us out of it. Somebody important got shot in Serbia. Where in hell is Serbia?

The fathers and grandfathers of this nervous young set fought the religious, industrial and political wars of Europe, and ran away to the promise of freedom, peace and prosperity in America. Yet, in so many ways it was better in the old country. Every week another holiday, another blessing by the Monsignor or the Rabbi. “Freedom means nobody is watching.” A million a year found poverty and chance side by side. There was no gold in the streets. There are pushcarts in the streets and bunches of agitators swearing to bring down the rich, hypocritical American government and free the ignorant slaves in the dress and blouse  factories.

These, their teenaged offspring, are well schooled in respect, family unity, discipline and morality. They are church driven, bigoted and restless. Hands are twitching, minds racing. Perhaps, with luck and if God wills it there will be another war for them. Germany is the most powerful, most inflamed and dreaded nation on earth. The French disagree. They remember the blood of the Franco,Prussian war. The British will bury a million young men. Such is the argument. That and hard times may never end.

3rd scene 1917,18

Over there, over there … oh, the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming, there’s drumming everywhere. “Lafayette we are here.” Black Jack Pershing will put an end to it. The Second Division for me; nah! it’s the Fighting 69th that’ll do the job. The Fighting Irish. They can kill Huns instead of their relations. What in hell you know about Irish, you Dumb Polack? Bless me, Father Duffy and forgive my sins. They’ll take me ifmy mother signs the paper. Mom, sign the God,damned paper. I’d sure like to see France. We’ll probably go to Camp Yaphank. Nothing to do in this town, anyway. Lousy Huns and Frogs and Limeys don’t know when they’re well off. We’ll show ’em, get me a couple of Bache. Alright stupid, my grandfather is German; you want a war, start it here. They’ve got submarines all over the ocean. Remember the Lusitania: May 7, 1915.

I hope it won’t end before we get there. Mattie, Charlie, Frank, you sure look swell in your uniforms, real soldiers you are. Smile, look serious while Mr. Watrous takes the picture. Don’t be silly. Over there, over there. It’s a long way to Tipperary, so pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and keep the home fires burning. Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Pearly Vous? Influenza kills a thousand a day in the U.S.A. Twenty million worldwide. Hooray! We won, the dough~ boys shout and hack from the stretchers. Kaiser Wilhelm, the Prussian demands, “who was responsible?” “You were, you egomaniac,” bellowed von Bismarck from the grave. What is a Hitler? I think it’s a haircut.

4th scene ~ 1923~25

It’s cool, bright and sunny on November 11 tho The Armistice Day Parade has passed by City Hall and left its liner. A few marchers in broad brim fedoras, slouching caps and baggy suits now sit on the wall holding paper flags and paper bags. Prohibition be damned; you can die but you can’t drink. They pass bottles of homemade booze. Some wear medals. Aging veterans of the Spanish American war went by in open cars, looking important. Horse drawn artillery gets wild applause; they did good but they’re out of date. Trucks and tanks are the thing. Airplanes, too. You’ll see. Besides, did you ever eat horse meat? Stringy, but what else can a dead horse do?

There is dour remembrance of the trenches, fevers, rot, rain and mud ~ the war that ended all war made the world safe for democracy. In one week it planted one million bodies in the fertile fields of Verdun. A thousand here, a thousand there, what the hell do we care cause the gang’s all here with exceptions. The bronze honor roll has not yet tarnished and in Flanders fields the poppies grow. Three of the street comer gang remain there fertilizing the poppies, but one returned with lungs ruined, others with consumption. That’s what they call it  when they don’t know what it is. The three brothers in the picture stared at the parade, one of them never spoke, ever. There are rumblings and revolutions in Europe. They are aged now, twenty five or so; drink and talk much, hope much and despair a little. Over two hundred dead, almost dead, and might as well be dead. “That’s what they should say on that Honor Roll,” one man with one arm said. Perhaps all nations will come together and call themselves the League of Nations. Nice.

5th scene ~ 1930~33

Wives walking babies tell each other things will get better. Fifty percent unemployed; what does that mean? We were doing fine until the banks went bust. Who keeps their money in the bank? The crash of ’29 they called it, started the worst depression in history. ‘You working?’ ‘Got to be something. Maybe the gas pipe if I don’t get work by next week.’ Seventeen thousand vets are camped in Hoovertown in Washington and on the Meadows in Central Park. Living like dirt and lots with their wives and kids. What do they want when most of us got nothing. Those bonus certificates ain’t good for twenty years. We don’t want nothing more than what was promised; we don’t even want that if they can get work for us. They’re going to build Vets Hospitals in Florida. That will help.

Sure, there’s work at the brickyards, and up in the quarries if you got the back for it ‘ six bucks a week and lunch.’ How about the highway gangs on the Storm King, they need men. I hate myself going up to the relief office, they make you feel like dirt. I send my kid with the wagon, two dozen grapefruits they give him. You can get a paper for milk from the grocery if you have kids. Mine are too old. They don’t get no milk.

Maggie and Frank moved in with her Mom, he can’t hardly see and he’s got the shakes. He talks loud because he can’t hear. He thinks nobody can hear. With all of them working, they pay the rent and have a little left over. The kids are all well dressed. Maggie worked in the shirt factory. They make paper flowers every night. You can get piecework from some factories, two or three bucks a day, the kids can help. The mayor, Connie Heizel does what he can. He makes jobs, men to paint flagpoles and park benches. If you’re fast, you can set pins in the bowling alley; I make twice as much as my old man. It’s a good thing you can get a drink now. That hooch was pure turpentine, it could make you blind. It was good business while it lasted.

Young guys are going into the ECWs (CCC) for thirty bucks a month to build a national park at Bear Mountain. That’s your Army someday, you watch. I’d go into the National Guard but I’m thirty next week.’ Lots of guys on the road. Big hobo camp down by the West Shore railroad tracks, they don’t cause no trouble, just passing through. Ever eat Mulligan Stew? We took some potatoes and spaghetti down there. Such sad looking lost people. God bless you Mr. Roosevelt. New Deal coming with the NRA, WPA, PWA and the TVA. “You watch,” the boys at Moultrie’s said. “Franklin knows what he’s doing, if he could keep the crooked bankers out of it. It’s always the bankers playing poker with our money. Remember what they did in ’29; they could do it again, you have to watch them.” Brother, can you spare a dime?

6th scene ~ 1937~38

Flags stand behind the table where officers of the local American Legion Post sit planning and smoking cigars. “The day after Thanksgiving we want our people at the Hudson Vets’ Hospital.” Get on the busses with whatever you can bring. We owe them, all for one and one for all, remember? They don’t get enough visitors. It’s like they are the Lost Battalion. Write that into the log. They need towels, wash cloths, cigarettes, cigars, candy, toothpaste, books, everybody fill up a box, it don’t have to be new. They need warm stockings, nothing fancy. Their feet get cold, some still got trench rot almost twenty years later.

Most of all, bring your kids. They love talking to kids like they were their own kids. O.K. We go in two busses and a truck; we leave Legion Hall at oh seven three oh and we’re back here by six or seven. We made two hundred and fifty bucks on poppy sales this year. Can’t believe it. Sam, get that into the paper. Mr. Roosevelt is coming up from Hyde Park on Friday night for poker. Do not let him win, he’s getting a little too swollen, headed. But he is a helluva poker player, ain’t he. You never know, with him bluffing. It’s a good thing we only play for cigarettes and candy. We’re looking for more kids to join the S/A/L. band. They have a good time. Any kid can smack a drum can march with us.

We get mixed stories about Spain; it makes no sense. It’s like a Civil War only it’s got everybody in it, even seventy five thousand Italians. What in hell are the Eyeties doing in Spain? They got a boatload of Mexicans and the German air force, big bombers. They can’t have bombers but they do. They’re bombing hospitals and schools. They’re practicing, I tell you, for the next big one. There’s a brigade of Americans, too. What business is it of ours? So far Spain’s got over 200,000 killed and every priest and sister they can find, throwing them off the cliffs, screaming. Even the Russians are in it with new tanks. They want Communism. The Germans want a Nazi Spain. The Italians want Fascism. Franco? You see his picture, he’s a Charlie Chaplain. Find out what you can. Write it up for the next meeting.

No further business? Oh, yeah! About that umpah band. You laid it on too thick last time. Some of our German friends at the St. Louis Convention didn’t like it, so let’s drop it but keep practicing the Oompah! just in case. Sergeant, retire the colors. Adjourned. Last man out turn off the lights. Check the pool room, no sleeping down there.

7th scene .. 1938,39

‘Boatyards hiring, they’ll pay anything, making mine sweepers, they need carpenters, boiler makers, tool makers, electricians, scrapers, painters, everything.’ New factory going up on James Street, secret stuff for bomb sights. Atlas Chemical is hiring people to make bombs. Not for me; I had enough bombs.

Anybody ain’t got work don’t want any. Whole country is stirred up, machines humming. Rumblings from Europe, there’s trouble coming.. The Heinies and the Frenchies are at it again. Even the Polacks and the Wops. The Spaniolis are getting bombers from Hitler and Russia. Those two are going to go at it one day. Mussolini. Leave it to him, beating up on a bunch of barefoot beggars in Ethiopia. Nobody learns nothing. Keep out of it is what I say, my father hasn’t walked right in twenty years. Manny’s old man got consumption. They sent him to Arizona. He’s dying out there. Maybe the Limeys learned last time. Damn  Churchill and Franklin, too if he gets us into that tangle. Watch Uncle Joe Stalin jump in when everybody else beats their brains out. Did you know the German American Bund is still meeting in the Catskills. We ought to go up there and bum them out. Nah! They ain’t doin’ nothin’ but yelling at each other, drinkin’ beer and eatin’ sausages. There ain’t no law against sausages, is there?

8th scene 1939

Tanta Marie’s spaghetti restaurant is going full out at six in the morning, for Cripes sakes. You could tell from the smell, it spreads over all of downtown when she makes the meatballs. She puts dynamite in the spices; bums your guts out. Downtown gentlemen’s private social club, they call it so they could play poker and bet the numbers, with customers day and night because of the boatyards and shirt factories and everything else. The cops come in for a free spaghetti once in a while and they don’t bother the bookmakers too much. Roosevelt’s got it right, no kid of mine will see what I saw over there. SSA, Selective Service Act. What’s that, they’re going to draft these kids? I gave them a lung and they want my kids? Sell them anything, but not my kids. Why couldn’t the Brits and the French see it coming? Stupid Russians, watch what happens to them. They’re all signing treaties, for what? Germany’s bombing the hell out of  London, ready to invade. The newsreel showed whole cities burning up. I wouldn’t want to be there. You watch, we’ll be in it like last time. Harry Truman had an artillery battery in 1918, didn’t he. He should talk to Franklin, tell him what’s what. Get out of Europe, now. What a sick little guy, he’d never make it as a President, besides, Franklin never told him anything. He said so.

9th scene 1940

A year later, nighttime, snowing lightly, the Reade’s movie theater crowd waits for the bus. Across the street, a noisy hot dog shop, Jake Goumas’s place, with steamy windows is crowded with sweaty, red faced high school kids. Talk is of music, latest dance steps, ice skating and girls. More talk from the big radio about Britain getting bombed, Italians running all over Africa, getting the stuffing kicked out of them by a bunch of Aussies. British sailors on leave in our town, going out with American girls. Who do they think they are? Who gives a damn. Japs are killing Chinamen by the millions. The Commie Russian Reds want the whole world so everybody can starve the same except for the select ones. Who cares? Stalin sure don’t care.

My father was in the last war, he says it’s not my war, get my high school diploma first, then do what I want. Hercules Powder Company is building a bomb factory out in Woodcliff. ‘See those pictures, those big bombers? Wow! I hope I can fly one of those someday.’ Bundles for Britain rally next week at the “Y,” lots of girls. Hey, Billy, you get yours yet? Junie likes you. You figured out what that little thing is for? Nah, I’m kidding. You got time, don’t worry about it. It’s not going to fall off.

10th scene 1940~41

I thought Hitler was smart, he must be dumb. The Brits are stronger than ever thanks to our Merchant Marine guys. Wenzel got torpedoed, twice. He’s a wreck. He sits in front of the stove wrapped in blankets and he never gets warm. I figured Churchill was a wimpy guy, but he makes some helluva speech even though he stole most of it. Hitler missed his chance with his invasion fleet. Those R.A.F. guys showed Fat Herman. They ever try that stuff on Uncle Sam, we’d show ’em. We’re fixing up fifty destroyers for the British, just on a loan, lease though. We’re making up Bundles for Britain. “Did you know the Brits once owned the United States of America?” We beat the hell out of them then now we’re pulling their chestnuts out of the fire.

Want to make some money, easy? Five or six bucks a day you can get picking apples. You want to drop out of school and join the Navy? You’re only fourteen years old, dummy. Wait a year and have some fun, get some hair on your chest. You don’t know nothing. Find out about girls before you go getting shot. Miller’s father was in the Navy in 1917j he tells swell stories about China. He’s mostly full of crap. The Navy’s safe and you sleep in a good bed. Roger and Dave joined the Canadian Air Force. I think they are already gone overseas. They’ll take anybody. I heard they even got soldiers from Australia, they don’t talk American, do they?

 

11th scene end of year 1941

Sunday at Moultrie’s Saloon and Cafe always began after the last Mass at St. Peter’s and St. Mary’s so nobody would be drunk in church and start an argument during the Offertory.. Saturday night hangovers don’t count. Father Neumann wants all drunks to take the pledge until the war’s over. Moultrie is furious. One and a half beers stood sweating before each man. They waited for the bell. Kids play checkers at the back tables. Bobby is building a model of a PA1. They already built a couple of F4B4s. They fly off of aircraft carriers. A penny poker game is going. Two tired women sprawl in a booth eating sandwiches with a double shot and beer.

Shut up! There’s news on the radio! Something terrible’s happened. Everybody shut up. Listen. ‘Where is Pearl Harbor?’ DaITh’1ed, sneaking little yellow bastards. Where in hell is Pearl Harbor?’ ‘It’s a little island way out in the ocean, near China.’ After everything we did for the treacherous no goods, when they had the earthquakes and all that. They’re all spies, I always knew that. The guy down to the laundry, I never trusted him. He’s Chinese? So what, they’re all the same. We should of never let them into this country. They don’t talk American, either.

12th scene ~ days later

Moultrie knew about Pearl. His brother was on the Arizona. No news, but it must have been bad. He was at sea now, chasing that damned Jap fleet. Everybody was asleep. A Western Union telegram lays unopened on the bar. The Moultries look at it but don’t open it. Roosevelt declared war on everybody and would make another speech in a day or so. I think he knew it was coming. Churchill danced in the streets. America was in it and now the damned Brits could win their war. Nobody knew for sure what was happening. Some of the drinkers had been in the World War. ‘We’ll clean up on those yellow sneaks, you’ll see. If they’re lucky, they’ll last two weeks, then the Marines should go in and clean ’em out.’ American Legion meeting on Tuesday. The Mayor’s going to talk about what we have to do. Johnson’s two sons are in the Guard in Hawaii. He knew where Pearl Harbor was. People looked at him and he stared into his beer. He coughed into a flannel rag, the gas still in his lungs after twenty years. Maybe he could do something.

13th scene ~ 1942, 43

On a summer’s night at Jason’s they listened as the news on every station on Jake’s big radio blared it out: the American fleet wiped out the whole Jap fleet. Where’s the Coral Sea? That’s where Guadalcanal is. ‘Solly signed up this morning. He’ll never make it into the Marines. Too fat.’ ‘Burke, what are you going to do?’ They say there’s lap submarines out in the ocean off of New York City, looking for ships. Remember Armstrong? He’s in the Merchant Marines. ‘Dave Parry’s got a week’s leave before he reports. Shacked up somewhere.’ His sister is broken up. ‘What about you, Carter? Here’s your chance to make it with Lorraine. I’ll bet she’d do it, help to keep up the morale.’ “What happened graduation night at her house? I’ll bet you don’t remember, you were so drunk. You blew your big chance.” He hadn’t and it terrified him for a month. Father Neumann gave him holy hell at Confession.

‘You wanted to be a soldier? That’s the dumbest job in the world.’ ‘This will be over before you know it. Why sign up then sit on my duff for three years. They call me and I’ll go.’ The dance at the YMCA is canceled, did you know that. Why would they do that? I was just starting to make out with Maureen. That Lambeth Walk is funny. “My mother says I won’t go because ofmy job at the bearing factory.” “I got bad eyes, but I can do something. They call it limited service. Maybe I can do that. I’ll see.” Frankie is a 4,F because of his feet. Three years on the varsity, explain that. His uncle is on the draft board. My father doesn’t know anybody except at Moultrie’s Saloon. Bobby was my friend, you know, his father works all night and goes to church every morning. We never finished the PAl. He was my friend.

14th scene 1943

A half dozen girls are sprawled on the closed,in back porch. Annie Sullivan’s brother was buried at sea and they put up the gold star. People came by and brought pies and things. The map didn’t show much about the Solomon Islands. All they knew was in the telegram; that was all that was left of Sully. Sully and Solly in one week. Webber’s plane went down in Italy and he walked all the way back to Africa. He should have gone into the Marines. Dianne was three month’s pregnant by a guy who said he was a friend of her brother. Boyfriends  were hard to come by and he disappeared. He said he was a wounded veteran but he was a phony. He was walking without that cane. Two of the girls work at the Army hospital in upstate. They come home once in a while but don’t say much. Fannie fell in love with one of them and stayed with him every night until the end. She was like that and wrote me a letter every week. Some of the new girls lasted one day at the hospital, that’s all. Fannie was solid. Sure, I liked her a lot and looked at her picture until it fell apart. It wasn’t ever serious, I don’t think so.

15th scene 1943-44

Location is a company cafeteria. People on break, coffee and sweet cigarettes fuse with rancid machine oil. Most are young women, some older: tough, working in the noisy mill ten hours a day with no time for a bath. Some with kids. Becky, you heard from Harry? One husband is missing in action. The young girl is hiding her smeared face in a grey hand towel. Two men in dark business suits squeeze in with them, uninvited and unwelcome; one is mid twenties, one older. They are wise,cracking, playing smart. They have cars, gas ration coupons, liquor and money. Also, deferments because of their critical war,work status. Inspectors. Contract negotiators. Time keepers? “How about you and me after work, how about it girls? A little spin out to Woodstock? See the sun come up? Give your brains a break for a while, I can handle two or three at a time, ain’t that right, Alex?”

Dance music rumbles in the background over the screeching machines, Jersey Bounce, Elmer’s Tune. Glenn Miller’s airplane is missing. “It ain’t nothing, you know me ‘ just a couple of beers and we go home, maybe your house, eh, Elsie.” Elsie gets up to leave and Alex pokes a pack of Camels into the seat pocket of her overalls; she breaks away. “Time’s up ladies, you had your chance.” “Oh, he ain’t so bad … good dancer. I went out with him. No harm in that, is there?”  “Billy wouldn’t care. He’d want me to have a good time. He said so in his letters. How long can I wait? I’m still young.” “Don’t you look at me like that, you hypocrite. Live and let live. Let’s get to work. I do my part.”

16th scene 1944 to early in 45

The girls are in their early twenties, at the Water Wheel Inn where they meet on Saturday nights for strength, comfort, news and rumors. They squeeze six to the car and dance, with each other mostly. Who could believe the Japs hit Pearl Harbor more than three years ago. ‘Is everybody writing five letters a week?’ ‘That’s the rule if you want to belong. It’s the least we can do.’ Who writes to Charlie? He was hurt but he’s o.k. I called his father. He landed in France on June 6th; one week later he was back in England. He got a silver bullet, what’s that? ‘Jean, what have you heard from Billy?’ Silence. ‘His father got a telegram. He’s coming home, soon.’ Prayer time, girls, do it your own way but make it strong, I want to hold that big ugly man again something awful.’ They lifted their pink, sloe gin fizzes. Millie, are you going to tell Andy about your new guy? He has to find out and it better come from you. Dan would have been nineteen on Christmas day, a week away. Good news. Finnerty was a prisoner in Germany. Bailey came back and nobody knew. Hidden from the world. He doesn’t want nobody to see his face. There’s work to be done on his jaws. They can do wonders. In 1918, they’d just give ’em the needle.

17th scene 1944 December

Snowing for a week, his whole furlough wasted before shipping out. Of course, she was gone, as her mother said; working in Boston but he knew better. She had a kid and it wasn’t his. Oh, hell, oh, hell, oh helllllll. Not much talk at the table, just three guys with a half dozen bottles of beer, one of them home for good and two shipping out. The long bar out front is jammed with factory workers who laugh and curse noisily but look away. One says, “the money I bring home, I hope this goes on forever.” One brings them three beers, nods, says nothing. Connolly had thirty missions and was going back. “My squadron is still there, I’ve got to. My mother wants me here for Christmas.”December of ’44.” Mickey Gallo went down. Pretty sure it was over the channel. Big dumb Murphy in Burma. Dockery in the Aleutians. Burke in Africa. It was December of ’41 we had the big crazy party at the Boathouse. Remember that? We were kids and we didn’t know. Irene and I went there last week. I thought there was still something between us but I was wrong. “This will be a year to remember, won’t it. Hey, guys, keep your heads down; see you around. Happy New Year.” Connolly ran out into the snow. In seconds, his car raced away to nowhere. He and Danny were like brothers and Dan was buried in Bastogne. There was so much they should have talked about. When Connolly went to Dan Martino’s house and saw the gold star he couldn’t go in.

Scene 18 1945

Six guys sitting on Connolly’s back porch, just like in ’42. It’s October, 1945 and the boys from Europe are coming home. Little kids are going from door to door begging for candy. “Remember Mary Gregory? I saw her at the YMCA dance for returned servicemen. A few people I remembered. Danced with her a couple of songs, gave her a little rubdown and she asked where I’d been all her life. I told her we went to school together for twelve years. Believe that? All those years I thought about squeezing her fat little behind. No doubt about it … the war was worth it. Lots of things have changed, don’t know if I can handle this. I used to know everybody and now I don’t even know my own father. Where did it go? I had it all worked out back then, and it broke.

Anybody here signed up for the 52,20 Club? I got my first check. It’s easy but I have to tell them I’m looking for work. Anybody seen Smitty? They say he’ll be home soon. Not really bad, they say, but he’s jumpy. Noises get to him. I saw his wife. He’s got a nice little kid. Can you believe Shaw crashed his plane coming home. Never got into action. “What are you going to do now, Mick? I mean, you can’t blame her, you were gone missing. You never wrote one letter.” Mickey tapped his glass on the table and bobbed his head to the music. “Now, listen once. Let it go, alright? I let it go … you let it go.” You must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss … she came to their table and took his hand … they danced close, giggling and Mickey was crying. It would be fine. For most of them it would be fine. What was never was. What will be will be.

Scene 19 – some time later in 45-46

Rachel and Joey almost got married when he came home on leave from the Seabees in ’43; he went away and she married two other guys. Figure that. Anybody seen Freddie? They say he never comes out of the house. He talks to Joanne on the phone for an hour. She says we should leave him alone till he’s ready. His father says he can work in the bakery as long as he wants. I’m getting out of this town and hitting the big city – on the GJ. Bill. You can go to college to be a bartender, anything. Going to do what needed doing for the last three years. Maybe I’ll go on the bum for a few months down in New York City; always wondered what that would be like. Do nothing, think nothing, answer to nobody. I still got twelve hundred in the bank. How about Deanne? What’s she going to do? “Maybe she’ll do what she’s been doing. You guys think I’m stupid?” How about you, Connolly? You going to start up the band again. Connolly went into the house and people drifted away. “One thing you’ve got to do, fella, you’ve got to talk to people about it.” “About what?”

“Where were you when they dropped the bomb, Mike.” We had a nice rest camp with cots and tents. The mountain was behind us but in the morning you could see it, where we left so many people. A whole platoon trapped on a little hill. There was no surrender to the Japs. We all knew that Japan would be next. All of our sector was cleared but we still sent out patrols. Rumor was we’d be part of the invasion; we were getting new clothes and equipment. New guys were getting acquainted with a little normal suspicion of their worthiness. That would change, quickly.

A couple of replacement officers drifted about looking important. It must have been near midnight when we heard activity in the HQ tent. Maybe a dozen people listening to the staticky radio. “We dropped a big bomb on Tokyo, a twenty mile wide hole in the ground.” Maybe the war is over. Don’t get your hopes up. First platoon will send a cleanup squad out in the morning. Look around for stragglers. “B Company, get your gear together. We’ll be pulling out, soon as we get notice.” Going to Okinawa, for what? None of your business; get your pack together. Trucks coming in one hour. Cripes! We’re going to jump right into Japan; kiss your butt goodbye.

Scene from 1965,66

“Welcome Home,” the banner read. “The Class of ’41 Returns,” said the headline on page seven, society column. Not true at all: The world and the class of ’41 died a little, and these are the remains. “Pictured above from left to right,” the caption said, Our Marvelous Mayor, Harvey Miller, Joan Benziger formerly Joan Harris; our Chairman, John Connolly and his (bitch of a) wife Martina, William J. Smithson (who married an Aussie) and daughter Linda. “Welcome all,” the loud lady said, “some of you have changed a little, (giggle) but we remember you well and we won’t tell,” she twittered, she said, she bleated, interminably. Ancient faculty members at the front table, bored, nodding to applause ‘ remembering none of forty one because in the world of the schoolhouse nothing changed. Who are these people? These faceless faces? A marvelous gathering and we’re so happy you could be here. I’m a lawyer; I’m a doctor; I own three houses and a mistress; I’m a happy lowlife, I coach basketball in a bankrupt college and my wife wanted to come here. Now, she’s wondering why.

“That slut with the big boobs keeps staring at you. Who and why and it better be good.” It was their last summer at the lake, 1941, scarcely dark and she was naked on the diving board. The old town ain’t what she used to be, and on and on. Women hauling grudging husbands about, husbands tugging reluctant wives about. Couples sneaking down to the bar. “You probably don’t remember me, but .. we …” No mention of Solly, Louis, Sammy, Roger, George, Billy …”however to remember those of our marvelous class of 1941 who for one reason or another could not make it here this year … a candlelight breakfast” … now, lights down, dancing, blushing failures, to, remember, cautious glances and remembering too vivid to be real. “You must remember this,” she sang. She hasn’t changed one bit, damn her. My God, I almost married that woman. Your second wife? Oh, I didn’t know. Let’s get out of here. I didn’t like these people then and I like them less, now. None of my mends are here; don’t ever make me do this again. Barry, is that you? Where in the world did you disappear to? It’s been forever. No, I’m not Barry … I’m just passing through, but it’s nice to meet you.

Scene 20 1999 ,2000

The President of the Regimental Association is speaking. This is our last reunion, ladies and gentlemen. The way we planned it years ago. We’re not saying cheerio just yet but facts are facts. Our average age is more than I care to mention and most of us didn’t make it this far. God bless them all, the big and the small. There are enough of us to keep our association going but not in the same way. We have more money than we need but the ranks are getting thin. We all knew this time was coming and it hit us when we weren’t looking, but we’ve planned for it. If you don’t have e,mail on your computer, let me know so we can stay in touch. You don’t have to be scared of that thing. We all still have telephones, right? We’ll keep the newsletter going for as long as you want it. Yeah! You better do that, Larry. The local chapters will keep meeting. Just like always. The Airborne spirit goes on, all the way. Stand tall, troopers.

Scene 21 ‘ whenever, wherever

The place is a dining hall, lights are too bright. Aging veterans of many conflicts, some with wives, some alone and there are those tough women who come back every year though their men are gone. Someone has photos of the first reunion. There were a hundred tables. Now, there are a hundred people, including the waiters and the band. Candles are lit, the regimental colors are presented and the bugler fills the hall with taps. Stiff upper lips carry on. The orchestra knows the oldies and plays them well. They are playing for an honored band of brothers, now out of place in history. Talk and laughter resume, the dancing goes on. Lots of youth out there on the floor and some good looking legs. A few people yawn and a beer bottle hits the floor; addresses exchanged, promises made, the men stand proud, as tough as the years and ancient wounds allow, and no tears are shed though the handshakes and hugs last longer than usual, unashamed; anybody don’t like it, the hell with them. Nobody asked them to understand …. understand? It is Sunday, September 9th and the world sleeps late in the morning.

Scene 22 ‘ September 11th 2001 ‘ a day of infamy and beyond

The war has not yet begun and more than 4,000 American soldiers are dead, missing and maimed. There is no accurate count of Iraqi or Afghani dead. The President of the United States of America has called for a mobilization of all services and agencies, a war is declared against an unseen enemy’ hate and terror. Once again, young Americans and good people of the world, into the fires. Damn it all. Damn war!

I remember September 1945, me and dozen wary troopers are going slowly down the main street of an empty town. The Japanese were hiding, scared stiff of the barbarians, scared of what they had been told. Every barbarian American is required to rape one Japanese woman and cut the throat of one Japanese male; age doesn’t matter. Out of the hot, dry silence comes this lady, singing. It’s loud and clear, the only sound we hear. It’s Kate Smith and she’s singing God Bless America. A Japanese storekeeper who once went to UCLA stands proudly in his doorway. His record player is doing its scratchy best. His salute is awkward. He is crying. So are we. The wads finished. We won.

 

 Anonymous Pictures is what he called them. ”You won’t recall much on a big scale. I don’t. Just a few special incidents or a few shaky minutes here and there. You might recollect a half dozen out of the hundreds but mostly they will fade and leave without names.” This revelation came from an Australian non-com who was also a sketch artist and shared my beer as he drew a cartoon of me with my warrior look and iron hat. “Five pounds be alright, Mate?” I presumed that meant five bucks instead of twenty five American dollars. He was a wounded veteran of Africa and New Guinea and I wanted to know ”What was it like, the first time in real combat … the shooting … the Japs? Were you scared?” I wondered if everyone wondered. Did they all feel the cold sweats as I did when I realized that I didn’t want to die. Aside from assuring me that I would be fine, he described Anonymous Pictures. Memories come back as pictures, now and then, but only a few for a few minutes. If, years later, the Aussie were to ask “So, what was it like?” I’d say, ”Well sometimes the memories are sharp and clear and I can turn them off.” Sometimes they are fuzzy but insistent. Maybe a half dozen should be remembered, but they’re out of focus. I know that I knew them, maybe we shared something, maybe a life, so I believe.

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