|THE NIGHT THE LADS
Bob Harrison, you magnificent rascal
-- you started this. I'll bet you were the kid who turned up with the deck
of cards on a camping trip and destroyed everyones sleep playing until
the flashlight batteries ran out. Bob Harrison's catnip prose -- I'm hooked.
For me the 1940s were magic years. The
memories Bob has triggered have lain dormant for more years than I care
to remember. I treasure Harrison's initial post: "If life was as it should
be". That simple essay should be read to every youngster in this fair land
and be introduced with, "Once we produced such young people. Their spirit
formed the essence of what we were and embodied our aspirations and morality,
at a time when we were a truly good people".
I missed the depression thanks to a
combination of divine intervention and the luck of some form of contraception
crap shoot. My mom and dad had been married ten years when the stork dumped
this prize package on their doorstep. The old man used to say I was a tardy
Christmas present -- I arrived December 26, 1940. I was still in three
cornered pants and conversing in fluent goo-goo talk when the Japs hit
Pearl Harbor damn near a year later. Bob Harrison probably entered boot
camp when I was in the middle of a diaper renewal.
My most vivid recollection of World
War II was my mom and a bunch of neighbor ladies turning our kitchen into
an assembly line for building piles of ham sandwiches. They made'em. Wrapped
them in carefully folded wax paper and packed them in cardboard boxes while
a Bendix radio played "I'll never smile again" and "Don't sit under the
apple tree". Those gals must have made six million sandwiches. We had boxes
all over the house. The A&P Store sent the ham and The Chattanooga
Bakery (the guys who invented the "Moon Pie") supplied tons of free bread.
Mom got the credit for organizing it as a project for the Church of The
Good Shepherd Altar Guild.
They loaded up twenty to thirty cars
and took off for the train tracks north of town -- the section of tracks
where kids went to see them unload elephants and exotic animals when Ringling
Brothers came to Chattanooga. Everybody was there. The place was crawling
with excited people. It was late.
The L&N Railroad had placed a gondola
coal car on a siding and was supplying buckets of coal to be burned in
open top, empty oil drums with pick hole intake vents punched in the bottom.
By the time the sun went down, the drums were glowing red and provided
the heat we needed all night long. The police put stinking oil burning
smudge pots along both sides of the racks and told us to remain behind
the line until all of the trains had fully stopped. Then railroad men placed
kerosene lanterns out.
Someone yelled, "They're pulling out
of Cleveland -- be here any minute".
We watched down the empty track. A loudspeaker
played Glen Miller's Chattanooga Choo-Choo and Tex Beneke rang through
the night. It was the most festive time I ever saw.
Then we saw smoke in the night sky and
a locomotive head lamp. "Here they come." She rolled in -- had a big sign
that read, "What's left of the 36th Division...next stop Texas!" She rolled
to a stop.
Non-coms hopped off and yelled to the
troops to stay on the train. The crowd surged forward. The Coca-Cola people
passed up cokes to guys hanging out windows. The ladies passed up sandwiches.
"God bless you ma'am." "Thanks dear." "Much obliged darlin'. "God bless
you." "Thanks sweetheart." My mom seemed to be everybodys' sweetheart.
That night I shared my mom with half the guys in Texas. Moms on the other
side got the other half. Those combat hardened bastards were the happiest
pack of Texans God ever made. They hung some poor idiot out the window
by his heels so he could kiss mom. One guy pointed to me and tossed me
his cap. "Hey kid -- won't be need'n this."
The train whistle blew and the happy
band of idiots started singing "The Eyes of Texas are Upon You" and the
police officers made us get behind the smudge pots.
It wasn't over.
The 3rd Division and the 36th rolled
in and out all night. We ran out of sandwiches in the wee hours of the
morning and by then I had 3 caps and a helmet liner with a 3rd division
insignia painted on it. Some Guy gave my mom an Ike jacket because, "You
look cold missy take this". "God bless you -- hope your boys get back safe."
"Hey lady my mom thanks you." "Ma'am God bless you," My mom got a gunny
sack load of "God's blessings" that night.
The Ike jacket had a picture of a lady
holding a little girl with pigtails in the pocket and six one dollar bills
-- a pack of Camels and half a pack of USO book matches. Three rows of
ribbons and a Combat Infantryman's Badge. No name -- no address -- no way
of identifying the soldier.
I was wearing it when my old man arrived
home two months later. "Where in the hell did you get that son?" "Some
fellow gave it to mom." "Huh?" "Yes sir, gave it to her off a train." My
dad told me the fellow was a Staff Sgt and what the the ribbons were, The
Silver Star - another represented two Bronze Stars and a European Theater
Ribbon with six campaign stars. "He was a good soldier son. Damn good soldier
- but hell I knew that the minute you said he tossed it to your mother
because she looked cold. Son, you belong to a country that produced an
army that often went hungry because it tossed it's rations to hungry kids
-- who gave away its' clothing to bring a smile to the less fortunate.
Europeans had never seen men in uniform that brought them anything but
hardship and pain. Then American troops came slogging into town: tired,
hungry and combat weary but smiling, generous and with loving American
hearts. Within hours they restored faith in humanity and the knowledge
that goodness still dwelt in the hearts of good men. And they were that
- every damn one of them -- even the lads we couldn't bring back - especially
them -- they were the best of us all."
I was six. Comprehension found in the
heart matures with experience. At six you don't care a whole helluva lot
about idealism and deep thoughts. All I really remember is the inside of
the old mans helmet smelled like Vitalis hair tonic and he had a lot of
maps marked up with a red grease pencil..He smoked Camels and he said words
my mom would light me on fire for saying
This would never have found it's way
to paper if it wasn't for you, kind sir. You are a Pied Piper of good memory.
A catalyst for putting us all in touch with the good things about this
Thanks from a kid who never grew up.