The Truth, Mainly - 07/19/1993

My homefront remembrance — a half-century after the fact
by Leon Satterfield

By July of 1943 when I am nine years old, the war has been going on for hundreds of years and will probably go on for hundreds more. Of course we're going to win, but should it be taking so long?

Not that my family has suffered. My father is too old for the draft, my uncles are working in the California airplane factories, and I have no older brothers. So when we talk at school, I feel like a slacker, a bench-warmer.

Especially when we talk about the five Sullivan brothers from Iowa who joined the Navy on condition they all could serve aboard the same ship. They got their picture taken with Jack Dempsey, then shipped out for the Pacific where, last November, all five died when their cruiser was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine off Guadalcanal.

And now, in July, my sister and I are spending the month 200 miles from home with my grandmother and her second husband, Walter. Their house is a shrine and Walter one of the sanctified because his son—may I call him my step-uncle?—was at Pearl Harbor and had the West Virginia blown out from under him. He survived and is now somewhere in the Pacific on another battleship.

But even in this house, we're sometimes distracted from the war because there is the Smoky Hill river where Walter and my sister and I can fish from the shade under a county bridge with worms dug from Walter's victory garden.

And there's a pit near the river where we dig lumps of wet clay to take back to the house to make snakes and marbles and ash trays and Flying Tigers, all slicked over with water to dry and crack in the sun on the south-sloping cellar door beneath which my grandmother keeps her Mason jars of tomatoes and dill pickles and peaches, the cellar smelling dank and spidery and musty from the peach jar that exploded on the back row and has never been cleaned up.

But even more than the Smoky Hill and the clay pit and the cellar, what makes us forget the war is the Saturday doodlebug that runs on the Union Pacific tracks behind my grandmother's and Walter's house.

It pulls three freight cars and a caboose and it will stop when we wave it down with Walter's red bandanna. For ten cents each, Walter, my sister, and I can ride on the platform at the back of the caboose all the way to Ellsworth, seven miles west and the county seat. It's glorious at 40 miles an hour, watching wheat fields and Flint Hills pasture moving away behind us, the wind plastering back our hair, our eyes squinched against the cinders and the bugs as we hold tight to the greasy pipe around the platform.

I do not understand why a train will stop for an old man and two kids, but I imagine it is because the conductor knows that Walter's son had the West Virginia blown out from under him at Pearl Harbor.

The Saturday plan is always the same and it always works: catch the noon doodlebug to Ellsworth, go to the l o'clock matinee at the picture show a half block east of Main Street, then to the drugstore around the corner for ice cream, then ride the 4 o'clock doodlebug back home in time for supper.

The war comes back when the newsreel shows Mrs. Sullivan breaking a bottle of champagne on the prow of a new cruiser named The Sullivans, but it goes away again when Abbott and Costello make us laugh and laugh.

Then we walk back to the depot eating our nickle cups of chocolate ice cream, feeling the grain of the wooden spoons on our tongues and teeth.

The eastbound doodlebug lets us on without being flagged, and 12 glorious minutes later slows to not quite a full stop to let us step off the caboose ladder onto my grandmother's backyard.

After fried ham and boiled potatoes, onions in vinegar and beans from the garden, we wash ourselves in the outdoor shower with green Palmolive and water warmed by the summer sun on the black 50-gallon oil drum we fill with the garden hose each morning.

When the sun goes down, Walter puts snuff behind his lower lip and the fireflies come out and we sit on a blanket in the grass, watching. When the ten o'clock news comes over the big Zenith radio, my sister and I are sent to bed, but even from behind the closed door we hear H.V. Kaltenborn talking about heavy casualties from the stiff German resistance to the Allied invasion of Sicily.

And just before I fall asleep in the warmth of the summer night, I see again the glory and the waste of Mrs. Sullivan's champagne foaming down the prow of the cruiser named after her five dead sons. I see again the eight inch by four foot photograph that hangs in the center of the living room wall, a contact print of the West Virginia, all flags flying, the crew all alive and lined up on deck, Walter's son's circled face among them. And I think again, half in yearning, half in despair:

What if he'd been blood relative! What if he'd been killed too!


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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