Tomorrows that Sing
"A simple child / that lightly draws its breath, / And feels its
life in every limb, / What should it know of death?"
by William Wordsworth
A blind darkness enshrouded the island. His luminescent watch
dial glowed indistinctly in the moon's absence and served only to
mark where his invisible left hand projected into the great
black. With it, as though it were some amputee's phantom limb, he
contoured the damp, cold muzzle of his Reising .45 calibre
submachine gun and felt its irregular corroded surface. Reising
his ass. Out here guys called it the Rusting gun. At
least his model had a fixed wooden, not a folding wire stock.
Even with its pistol grip, that model was a prime piece of junk.
Like a blink without his white cane, he traced the muck of his
foxhole's perimeter, and his hand slipped down into the elbow
holes he'd dug to steady his fire. He cocked his ear to detect
any sound – like the bolt of an Arisaka 6.5 mm Type 38
being pulled three or four times, an old Nip ruse to draw your
fire and betray your position. "Fire discipline, fire discipline
all along the MLR," he murmured. He listened for a twig snapping,
the screech of a macaw, or a snake's slithering – but the
jungle was still.
Too still. Just the unceasing buzzing and soughing of malarial
mosquitoes. It was as though the centipedes, rat foragers,
monitor lizards and scuttling land crabs were holding their
collective breath, waiting for all hell to break loose. A
baseball-sized spider ambled over his leg. He swore and sucked in
his breath. His damp herringbone twill fatigue suit clung to him.
The stench of decay shot up his nostrils-not the usual odor of
old coconuts, dead shellfish, rotting vegetation-but the smell of
whatever he'd killed the night before in the clump of kunai grass
ten feet ahead of him. "Stinking payback," he muttered.
The bastards were out there. He knew that. Last night, while he
sacked out for two hours, a damn Nip had crawled into the foxhole
and slit his buddy Jack's throat. Tonight they'd be back for him
and his K-rations. All he had left was breakfast – a B box
– packet of Nescafe, ground-up ham and eggs,
chocolate, and hardtack. But the Japs wouldn't be particular.
Gato they called Guadalcanal, which in their lingo also
meant starvation. And there were rumors they'd
taken a fancy to American livers. Jesus. He hoped he was dead
before he became the blue-plate special. At least he didn't have
to worry about the crabs. He had dragged Jack's body toward the
beach, and the crab boys were back there, otherwise occupied.
Jack wasn't any rosebud when he was alive, but dead ....
He cocked his ear again. Then he heard it – a rustling in
the undergrowth, followed by silence, then a rustling and silence
again. Like the step-pause-step of a land crab, but no
five-inch critter was making this noise. He peered to his left
just as the infiltrator tripped over a cord beaded with ration
and tobacco cans. Amid the clatter, Tojo lurched up, shrieking,
"Banzai!" He squeezed the trigger, aiming more at the sound than
the figure. A rat-atat-tat burst out, then a vertical flash from
a Taisho 14 pistol, and finally a gurgling sound. He listened as
the Nip tumbled ass over tin cup into a deep ravine. "Should have
kept down, Tojo."
But then he heard another sound whistling down. Not the familiar
10 cm Model 92 field gun. There were only four of them on the
island, but these three-ton jobs – Pistol Petes the guys
called them – could send you down the Long Road even at a
range of over 16,000 yards. He couldn't figure. The sound was not
deep enough for a Type 94 mountain gun. Whatever the hell it was,
obviously the short burst from his Reising and the Taisho's flash
must have betrayed his position. He was being bracketed. The
first one would be long, the second short, and the third –
well the crabs would have to play scavenger hunt for what was
left of him.
Suddenly, the terrain began to transform in front of him. The
jungle dissolved into a yellow maple planked desktop and the
whistling ordnance into an oak ruler inscribed with numbers. At
its non-business end stood one very angry nun. In the desk ahead
of him, his pal Tommie held a rubber banzaing Jap he'd retrieved
from the rolled ravines of his seat. Tommie's mouth flapped open
as though he'd taken a sucking chest wound.
The nun with ruler spoke, "Three days ago I told you not to bring
those rubber soldiers to school. Both of you, please to come to
the front." The tone was Bogartian – the killer Roy Earl in
High Sierra – only you wouldn't catch Bogart using
that prissy infinitive after please.
He pulled his G.I. out of what had been a foxhole but now was
only a blue-stained inkwell in the upper right hand corner of his
desktop. Across the S-curved laminated bench attached to his desk
he wriggled. Its sticky varnish clung to his shiny two-dollar
blue gabardine trousers. For a moment he hesitated by the desk,
gripping its cold black ornate wrought iron side with his left
hand. He arranged his frayed white shirt with two small iron
burns into the snug Hollywood waist of his trousers and adjusted
a checkered bowtie. Behind, a breeze from the river murmured
through the window screen's corroded zinc, and a yellowed shade
For a moment, the room seemed like some long held family legacy,
part of an ancestral estate. His grandfather attended school in
this same room, and his father too, less than twenty years ago
during the Great Depression – his father, the marine who
had died in the Pacific, on that small volcanic island called Iwo
Jima, five years ago, when the boy was six. For three years now,
he had been trying to form a clear picture of his father in his
head. His grandmother, his mother and the letters his father sent
home from the Pacific had furnished some information. After
exhausting those sources, he drew on others – the stories
of other vets in the neighborhood, books, old
Life magazines, photos, films. He'd gone through
them all until the obsession in his head seemed on the point of
exploding like a spigot mortar with all the details he'd
The weapons, the maneuvers, the troop formations of the War
– he mastered them all. If a Jap Aichi D3A21 or a Douglas
SBD-3 dive-bomber ever showed up over his mill town, he would
have been able to discuss every identification point of their
profiles. But the sharper the background, the more out-of-focus
the central image of his father became.
From his grandmother he gleaned some personal particulars. One
afternoon on her front porch, she told him, "When Frankie decided
school was over for the day, he'd just leap through the back
window and slide down the drainpipe. Always had to be the first
one out when he was a kid – always the first one out of
school, out of the house, out of church." Then she looked through
him at something far away. She took one long swig from her beer
bottle, removed her silver-rimmed glasses, brushed back her gray-streaked hair, and wiped her eyes. "Sometimes I think that's what
got him killed in the War." She tapped the bottle against the
rattan chair's arm as if she were sending out Morse music to
someone far away. When he asked her how his father had died, she
used to shake her head and say, "It was never clear. In '47 they
started bringing the boys home that died on that island. But
Frankie – they never found him. He's still over there
But everything had changed last weekend, and now that he knew the
truth, he felt more prideful but also more hurt than he ever had
in his life. From up the aisle by the desk, the boy sensed a
small figure breezing through him and darting out the back window
thirty feet down. No matter what waited up front, he wasn't that
nuts. His father must have possessed a kind of edginess,
craziness that made him one hell of a marine. But he knew that
already from the stack of medals that rested in a cardboard box
under his bed.
A draft from the river to the north blew up a cloud of dust from
the chalk tray and he coughed. Beneath the tray, pictures of the
Fourteen Stations of the Cross flapped rhythmically. The entire
Passion of Christ stretched along the wall, turning the aisle
into the Via Dolorosa, now his own personal Way of
Directly opposite him was the First, Christ is condemned to
death. Perfect, he thought. At the end of the aisle, was the
Fourteenth, Christ is laid in His tomb. That should have
been it, but Sister was fixing to add a Fifthteenth,
Tommie and Jimmie get their come-uppance. He
pushed a shock of thick black hair out of his left eye and headed
down the aisle. Halfway down, at Station Seven, Christ falls
the second time, Dick O'Meara stuck his foot out and tripped
him. He glared at him and muttered, "Later, Dickie bird, later."
"Sure, Jim, sure, if you're still breathing," Dick whispered
drawing a finger across his throat. Two girls giggled.
He came up beside Tommie who was trembling and leaned his
shoulder against him to steady him. From the chalk tray, Sister
had drawn a thin wooden pointer. She turned to Tommie and said,
"Palm up." Not so bad, Jim thought. Palm down, right on the bone,
now that could take the edge off a fine sunny day. Tommie
stretched out his hand and the pointer came down with a twack. He
took the Lord's name in pain. "What did you say?" "Jeepers
Creepers!" Again. The pointer came down. Tommie let out a yell.
"They were Jimmie's men. He brought them to school, not me." "Sit
down, Judas," she muttered. She turned to him. "Palm down." The
day had lost its edge.
When he was six, he'd stuck a metal fork in an electric outlet.
The pointer produced a similar effect, sending two sharp parallel
jolts of pain up to his shoulder which passed upwards into his
neck and downwards into his stomach. A wave of nausea came over
him. She raised it again. He was scared, not so much of the pain,
but that he'd decorate his shoes in front of them all and be
humiliated. There was only one thing worse than shooting your
cookies, and, if he did that, no problem. He'd just nose-dive out
the window and aim to hit the pavement head first.
The pointer came down again. He had to get to the cave. If he
could get to the cave somewhere under the plateau, he'd be all
right. He focused his mind. His classmates were dissolving now,
transforming into grinning Japs. Little Georgie Miller in front
with his buck teeth and goggle glasses – he transformed
into a Jap major easily. And now as he concentrated, the rest
followed suite. He felt the pain again but this time up to his
elbow. He concentrated more, and the next blow dissipated in his
wrist. They were interrogating him now. He could hear mumbling
voices as if he were under water. Although he couldn't hear what
they said, he just kept saying no. A fifth time he felt the pain,
but he was numb now and again to the question he said no.
Finally he felt a hand against his chest shoving him back and a
voice telling him to take his seat. He looked ahead. It was a Jap
dressed up in a nun's habit holding a pointer. No, it was a nun,
his nun, only with a very red face and, more surprisingly, red
eyes. He was back in his classroom again. He retraced his steps
down the aisle. Dick was staring straight ahead with an angry
scowl on his face. The two giggling girls were dabbing their eyes
with the backs of their hands. Judas was holding his hand in his
armpit, the time-honored way to deal with a whacking. Jim sat
upright at his desk, and pressed the hot ball of fire that had
been his hand against the cool ornamental cast iron grillwork of
Ten minutes later, it was recess. As the students filed out,
Sister called to him. At first he figured she planned to have him
stand in the trash basket during the play period, but instead she
just spoke to him in a quiet tone, "Pride, young man, is one of
the seven deadly sins and one of the surest ways of dispatching
your soul to the depths of Hell. In committing it, you turn away
from God. You must have respect for authority. Someone who always
has to have his or her way will come to a bad end." She paused
and cleared her throat. "But another deadly sin is anger, the
remedy for which is tolerance and patience. During recess, I will
say two sets of rosaries, one for your soul and one for mine."
He thanked her and went out. To an outsider beating the Hell
out of you was just a phrase. To a nun it was a vocation,
and Hell was always spelled with a great big fat capital
H. The nuns all cared deeply for the kids from
that shit-ass river neighborhood, wanted something better for
them because most of them had come from the same sort of places
themselves, and the religious orders had been their way out. If
they thought you had something decent in you, they'd set about
getting it out, one way or the other. In his case it had mostly
been the other, but there was no percentage in holding
grudges for your own screw-ups.
The cool recess of the dark hallway with its Gothic tracery and
black walnut paneling greeted him. He breathed in the odor of
turpentine and linseed oil that emanated from the wood. Sometimes
when he'd messed around, the nuns kept him after school and made
him help them clean the clouded shellac on the panels and
balustraded stairwell. The turpentine made you dizzy after a
while, and the nuns would send him outside for fresh air. If
someone ever struck a match in that hall, it'd go up like a Jap
pillbox some grunt had just sprayed with a flamethrower.
At the end of the hallway near the door was an old Italian
painted plaster statue of the Sacred Heart. Light from an
enameled stained glass window cascaded across it in a spectrum of
red, blue, and yellows that shimmered, creating an illusion of
motion. He had passed the statue countless times before, but this
day he stopped before it. Protestants thought Catholics were idol
worshippers, but all the statue did was focus your attention
while you made your devotions. It was First Friday but his mind
was not on devotions. As he meditated on the statue, every
feature reminded him of death and the War.
Two of Christ's fingers were damaged, and out of the chipped
plaster projected u-shaped steel armature, like the steel struts
sticking out of bombed out buildings in Berlin he'd seen in a
photo of the '48 Airlift in an old Life
magazine. Or like the hooks that protruded from Joe Reilly's
sleeves – Joe Reilly who had been on the
Arizona that Sunday morning in '41 and kept
firing his anti-aircraft gun even after it was ablaze. They had
to cut him away from his emplacement.
Now he hawked newspapers out of a crummy little newsstand down on
the corner of Water and Main Streets. The boy always stopped to
play checkers with him, and when Joe kinged his man with a
triumphant slam, the boy said, "Ain't nobody in this neighborhood
can king 'em like you, Joe, even the guys with two dukes." And
Joe would puff his Lucky, chuckle and say, "Yeah, I sure
am one whizbang, ain't I, kid?" Then Joe would turn to some
freeloader who was reading his papers, push back his stained
porkpie cap, and say, "Hey buddy, this ain't no lending library.
Put your nickel down or I'll be putting something up, up your
tail." He'd gesture with a hook. And the boy would laugh and say,
"He ain't kidding around, buster. Joe's a genuwine war hero." And
Joe would puff his Lucky and mutter, "Yeah, that's me all right.
I'm goddamned Captain America."
Below Christ's fingers, over the back of His hands flowed
blood, glazed, as a nun explained to him, with
innumerable transparent layers of oil paint. There in the arched
hallway, he thought of his father again in the cave, surrounded
by Japs with his hands covered in blood.
But now Christ's heart drew his attention. Wreathed and pierced
with thorns, it flowed with blood. The heart, which was supposed
to be inside His body – was outside, on the surface of his
chest. Death and war could distort things like that –
rearrange things in ways that weren't right, natural. Pull things
apart. Make the inside outside.
He drifted back to that July afternoon so hot the air was
singing. He had wheeled Danny O'Shea down to the Strand
to see a science-fiction movie. The sidewalks were cracked, and
in spots the roots of Dutch elm trees had forced the crazed
plates of concrete up. Danny wasn't that heavy since he'd left
both legs at Pearl after being strafed by a Jap Zero, but his old
wicker-oak wheelchair pushed like a bathtub-shaped Nash with its
emergency brake on.
In the lobby of the theatre, the boy, drenched with sweat, shoved
his marine cap off his forehead and mopped his face with a large
striped handkerchief he'd pulled from his back pocket. Danny,
helped to his seat by two ushers in fancy blue braided uniforms,
flipped him a quarter and told him to get the works for both of
them. With the two bits, the kid ordered up two cokes, a box of
popcorn, and a Baby Ruth.
In the cool, air-conditioned theatre, he twisted in his seat and
unrolled a war comic from his other back pocket. "Hey Danny you
gotta see this. It's a terrific story, a real corker. These
grunts are dug in on a hill – Siberia Hill they call it
– real tough spot. Lots of incoming, so the guys dig bunny
holes in the sides of their foxholes. The night before, the
slants jumped them – old fashioned cowboy-and-Indian
tactics, man-to-man. So they send out a night patrol of two. You
know, what they call a zombie patrol. One guy buys the farm, the
other comes back, but drops wounded ten feet in front of their
position. The North Koreans zero in on him with a spotlight and
start firing, blowing him to pieces.gradual-like. Psych warfare
to mess up his pals' heads. So this corporal gets on the PRC-6
and calls in a blow-job."
"You know, a jet plane. So the blowtorch comes and drops its
ordnance, only it gets everybody. Then this skeleton guy comes
round with a great big grin and picks up the pieces like a kid in
a pennycandy store."
"Jesus, why you want to read crap like that? Nice little kid like
you oughta be reading Mickey Mouse comics. Gimme that."
"Aw that stuff's for sissies." Jim passed him the comic and Danny
studied the panels.
"Was the War like that, Danny?"
Danny didn't answer. He tired gray eyes were riveted to the
panels. The boy gingerly touched his arm. He came round, as
though he'd drifted asleep. "All you gotta know, kid, is two
things. Things that belonged together came apart." He glanced
down at his tartan coverlet that covered nothing. "And men were
turned inside out, so what belonged on the inside, suddenly was
outside. And I don't mean just physical things. That's the way I
remember the War."
The lights lowered and they watched the moving pictures. The
first feature was about a radioactive brain from planet Xangu
that shot out rays from its frontal lobe. If you got hit, you
burst into flames and ran around screaming like those Japs who
got charred in their caves on Mindanoa. It was a terrific story
– beat Mickey Mouse all to hell. A real corker.
But now, back in the hall, he stared again at the heart that was
outside that should have been inside. That's how he remembered
the first violent death he witnessed two weeks after going to the
Strand with Danny. That noon, Spam crackled away on the
stove in his mother's black Griswold skillet. Twice he had run
his hand along the rough cast iron handle. Twice his mother
yelled at him to get his starving puss away from the pan because
the grease was flying everywhere. Then he remembered the sound of
brakes – not the screech of brakes. When he recalled that
day, he never thought of the brakes as screeching. Screech was
the proper name for what came afterwards, from Mikey Flynn's
mother, a shrill gut-wrenching howl of anguish, despair, God-curses.
He slammed the screen door against his mother's yell to stay in.
They were all running off their porches and out of their shabby
workmen's houses, some with napkins still crammed into their
collars or holding forks and knives or newspapers, or babies in
their arms. The Great Black Ice Cream truck from Hell had come to
town, and everyone wanted a piece of the action.
In the road sputtered one of the gigantean coal trucks from the
factories that daily plied through the neighborhood,, dropping
bits of coal which the children gleefully picked up, stuffed in
their surplus Army ammo belts, and hurled at one another. From
the day you were born, mothers warned you they were Satan's
servants, great dragons from the Pit that snatched kids away to
Hell. So keep your distance.
A small baldish coal-smudged man was squeezing his porkpie hat
like a rubber dolly and bawling like a baby whose just had his
milk-rights yanked. Near the curb lay six-year-old Mikey, on his
side, as though he were taking his afternoon nap. But his right
leg and arm were wrong They projected from his boy aviator suit
all twisted backwards like some action figure's limbs that a kid
had pulled too hard on. He came closer. In front of Mikey the
grass was covered with blood, and then there were those strange
pinkish things like what you saw in the butcher's glass case on
white enameled trays – things that should have been inside.
He remembered his mother coming up behind him, her hands smelling
of Spam covering his eyes. Gasping, she dragged him back into the
house. And he remembered how she just kept screaming, "Aw Jesus,
Mary, and Joseph, aw Jesus, Mary, and Joseph." The crazy
repetitive prose of his old Dick and Jane reader pounded in his
head. See Mikey bleed. Bleed, Mikey, bleed. Bleed, bleed.
Bleed. Aw Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Aw Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. See
Mikey's guts. Bleed guts, bleed.
That noon, all the while they tried to eat their Spam, she just
kept muttering out the Holy Family as she nibbled on her
sandwich. She swore again and again she'd kill him if she ever
caught him playing in the street. Then she'd bury him, dig him up
and kill him again. His appetite was largely gone too. He
reckoned that was natural. Even Spam lost its attraction with
some kid's guts – a kid you chummed around with –
That night, he turned and twisted in his bed as he dreamed of
monstrous fire-breathing dragons that emerged out of smokestacks
and attacked the river neighborhood and with their claws tore
everyone and everything inside out. Danny's words about the War
came back to him. They had been simple, not like fancy Church
language, but they contained just about everything somebody
needed to know. Guys like Danny, guys without any high-hatting
book learning, knew things about the world, deep things you
needed to know to get on in life. He kept seeing Mikey's body on
the lawn. That's what happened in wars. It wasn't clean and
graceful like the stuff you saw in movies or even in all those
Life photos. And thinking about Mikey made him
wonder all the more how his father had died.
Inside, outside. With that those words, he passed out of the
school door and withdrew to a far corner of the playground where
a rock abutted the rusted chain-link fence. Its granite projected
from the reddish purple volcanic stone that composed the
playground's surface, an antlered stone that ripped the hell out
of a new pair of pants and the skin of your knees – a
little mishap which, when you got home in that rundown
neighborhood, was one-hundred percent guaranteed to lose you some
skin off your ass. Your Ma'd yell while she was using the belt on
you, "You think we're the Rockefellers?"
But worse than the beating was the way your Ma cried afterwards
and held the pants in her hands and pushed them together and
apart, over and over, as if she were playing some Depression-era
onion ballad on a squeezebox, all the while she muttered, "Brand
new pants, brand new. Two-dollars. Two whole dollars." Even that
Helen Morgan dame sitting on a piano and belting out a torch song
couldn't match those blues. Seeing your Ma like that cut you more
than the strap on your ass.
He sat there and smoked a candy cigarette. Then he bent over,
pressed his good hand over the coarse volcanic stone pebbles and
for a moment envisioned the molten heat in which they had formed,
a heat much hotter than the searing ball of fire that was his
left hand. How far had the stone come? Was it from some island in
the Pacific? Had some Japanese soldier with his pick carved this
stone out of Suribachi? Had his father touched it? He sucked hard
on his cigarette to still the disquieting feeling he was losing
Five minutes later, he heard a crunching sound. Dick came up,
jacked one leg up on the stone, and shoved his thick blonde hair
out of his eyes. "What she did, Jim, it wasn't right. Even a
smart-ass like you doesn't deserve that much knocking around.
Sorry for tripping you. Now I'm gonna look up that little rat
fink and put the mark of the squealer on him."
"Lay off, Dick. Leave the squealer to me. It's my beef to
"Ok, Jim, if that's the way you want it.
Behind the incinerator the squealer peered out, waited for Dick
to disappear, and then approached. "Okay, so I turned yellow.
Slug me. I got it coming."
"Forget it, Tommie. It just don't matter."
Tommie sat next to him. "Why did you do it, Jim? After she
whacked you three times, she kept asking you to promise you
wouldn't bring any more rubber soldiers to school. You just stood
there with your hand out, like you were a million miles away, and
kept saying, No."
"Guess I wasn't paying attention. Or maybe I just didn't have a
mind to, Tommie."
"Sometimes you got a screw loose."
"Yeah, maybe you're right. He offered Tommie a cigarette, and
they smoked until a student appeared on the back porch and rang a
wooden-handled brass bell for end of recess.
That afternoon, on his way home, he slipped through a hole in a
chain-link fence that blocked off a concrete stairway down to the
river near the dam. The place reeked of old fish in the late
afternoon sun. But rather than being repelled, in some morbid
way, he was drawn to the smell. His mind was on death again. He
used the stench like a narcotic to focus his concentration, to
slip away to the Islands where his father died.
One of his father's letters came back to him: In the jungle,
death and the smell of death are always around you. Every palm
tree becomes a potential sniper's post; every bush a snake's
lair. The mosquito buzzing round your head may carry the malaria.
You want some feeling of space, but there is never any distance
between you and an enemy who comes in so many forms, but in the
end is one – Death. The stench of rotting vegetation, of
shellfish long dead on the shore, of a body in the kunai grass
that in pitch blackness you thrust your hand into – you
forget after a while what fresh air smells like.
There, down by the river, he had witnessed his second violent
death. In August, eight-year-old Pierre LaDuke had gone missing
for six weeks. Then one afternoon, Sean O'Meara, fishing for
bass, had seen some strange misshapen thing bobbing up near the
dam. The kid's body had finally floated up and got caught in a
He had been walking across the bridge that day and stared down as
a hook-squad dragged him ashore. Pierre's face was all swollen
up, and there was a white froth around his mouth and nostrils.
His right ear had signs of bleeding. His neck was a dark greenish
color. His right hand was still clutching grass as though he had
tried to break his fall. He was like one of those walking stiffs
in an Ec comic book. And where his abdomen had bloated and split,
enamel tray time – inside, out. The water moved his left
arm in a beckoning gesture. The boy stumbled to the opposite side
of the bridge and vomited into the river three times. He thought
of the men who had died getting off their landing crafts,
floating out there in the Pacific, their hands moved by the
ocean's rhythms, as though they were beckoning others to join
But now his own hand, still burning and throbbing. pulled him
back to the present. He thrust it into the cold waters that
purled round the dam, and the pain subsided. The water swirled
round his hand and the image of records spinning came to mind. He
thought now of that afternoon on the porch with his grandmother.
They had been playing 78 rpms on old wind-up Victrola – old
scratchy records with bright labels in red and blue, one with a
white devil playing a trumpet, all from the twenties and thirties
with curious labels marked Peacock,
Harmonograph, and Black Patti.
As he drew out a record from the Victrola's slotted oak cabinet,
it slipped from his hands, and the fragile shellac disk shattered
on the planked floor. He looked anxiously at his grandmother, but
she just smiled. "That used to happen to your father all the
time. Lucky I got any records left. Let me see your hands, boy."
She set her beer down on a frayed wicker table, and he put his
small hand in hers. "You got your father's hands. Short, stubby
little fingers. Not like your Uncle Mike's. His were long,
artistic. He could play any musical instrument. But if any boys
ever teased his brother about being musical, Frankie took after
them with his small, hard fists and taught them musical
"I never thought of Frankie as deep, as a sensitive boy, but all
those letters he wrote me during the War – he had a gift
too. Maybe it took the War to bring it out of him. But you've
read all those letters – over and over. You know what I
mean. He made you feel like you were right there in the jungle
next to him. He wrote me once how he was out on the line, and
there was this red-feathered macaw. He was the last of his flock
– all the rest had been killed by artillery fire. And yet
every morning at dawn he'd screech out a flock cry – that a
bird's way of saying Anybody out there? You guys ok? And
of course there never was an answer. But still every morning ....
Well, the way men were dying all around him, Frankie told me when
his turn came round, he figured his soul'd end up in that bird
and he'd be out there all alone calling out every sun-up for all
his buddies that died, but they'd never answer.
"He was a storyteller that boy. Got it from our Irish side. Frank
was deeper than Mike, but I just ... just never saw it. And now
.... She coughed and rubbed his hand again. "You've got your
father's hands sure enough." She passed him her bottle, and he
took a swig with both hands. "You grip that bottle just like him.
Now put on Wandering Boy Blues. If you drop that one, I'll
skin you. That was his favorite. Make sure you eat a peppermint
before you go home. If your mother smells your breath, you're
gonna end up looking like you tried to carry a moose head through
a revolving door."
"I'll just tell her you gave me a great big kiss."
"Yeah, that'll do, boy. One smack from Grannie'd make you one-hundred proof."
A week later, at eight o'clock on a Saturday, the phone rang in
the kitchen as he was bagging trash to burn in the rusty steel
oil drum in the backyard. A man's voice he did not recognize
asked for his mother. As she talked, he tin-eared, dawdling over
the trash. "Frank's buddy? With him on Iwo .... Yes, next
Saturday would be fine." When she called his grandmother, it all
became clear. "Yeah, Evelyn . A buddy of Frank's- they were on
Iwo together. Been living in Hawaii for six years. Just came
stateside again. Wants to tell me how Frank died. Come over about
The next Saturday, he straddled the porch railing spiraling his
legs around the balusters. With his nails he peeled the flaking
white lead paint off the softened pinewood. Then he jabbed his
Hopalong Cassidy jackknife into the rotting railing as
though probing for something beneath. A yellow checkered cab with
a bad muffler pulled up, and a man in a light brown double-breasted suit and tan panama emerged. He saluted the boy from the
curb and then paid his fare. With a broad smile, he came up the
steps and just said, "You must be Frank's boy." They shook hands,
and a few minutes later, they were all in the kitchen. The adults
were smoking and drinking beers while the boy drank a coke and
sucked on a candy cigarette.
Mr. Green began, "I got some things to say, and some of them are
hard things. I don't know if the kid should hear them all."
His mother stared at the boy. "He's been searching and wondering
for a long spell. Sometimes I think he's going to drive himself
out of his skull with his questions. Better he know."
"Iwo was shaped like a lamb-chop, not much more than seven miles
"Eight miles, mister," the boy quietly corrected. Bill looked at
the boy amazed. His mother spoke, "The boy doesn't mean any
disrespect. He reads everything about the War he can get his
hands on. It's his way of remembering, of paying his respects."
Mr. Green nodded. "Frank and I were in Easy Company together, and
on D-day in February, '45, just after nine in the morning, we
came in in the same amtrac. We were halfway back in the craft.
When we hit our spot, Green Beach One, around ten o'clock in the
morning, Frank started scrambling over the other guys as though
he wanted to be the first one out." The boy and his grandmother
"It was quiet at first, but at 10:30, all hell broke out. Real
turkey shoot. Instead of white sand, this soft black ash was
everywhere, and when you dug, it just filled back in. There's no
sense talking much about the beach. The dead were all around. Not
like the jungle. Dead disappear there. And the smell when
gunpowder and blood and vomit ...." He paused and took a long
drink from the bottle as if he were slaking some tropical thirst
from a long dead past. Then he continued describing the capture
of Suribachi and the flag raising.
"After Suribachi, our Company moved east. Along the west coast,
the terrain was all irregular – rocky plateaus jutting up
against straight-up cliffs which left you perfectly exposed, Hell
with its fire out. That's how a war correspondent described it.
And while we were moving across that area, Frank and a guy named
Buzz, who were up ahead, disappeared. We couldn't figure. Turned
out they had fallen into one of the underground tunnels the Japs
had dug and were captured. We found out later there was something
like sixteen miles of those defensive tunnel-caves on the island.
In the cave the Japs stuck Buzz in a corner near the entrance. He
had a bad leg wound. But Frankie, they trussed him up and fixed
his hands to a board. They started questioning him about the
number of men in his patrol. All he said to them was No.
He paused, cleared his throat, took a swig of beer and swirled
the bottle round. "So one of them set to cutting his hands
between the fingers with his knife."
He heard his Ma crying now and his Grannie, but he fixed his look
on Mr. Green and pressed the back of his hands against his eyes
as they watered. Mr. Green coughed. "After a while they passed
through the webbing of his hand right back to his wrist, but
Frank just got all red-faced and kept yelling no to
them. The boy had his jackknife out now. It was closed, but he
pressed it against his left hand.
"The Nips tried to disguise the entry point but we scouted it
out. We broke in and shot the place up. We dragged Buzz out, but
the Japs started hurling grenades and setting them off against
their own guts. You saw a lot of that on the islands. Death
before dishonor – Code of Bushido and all that stuff. The
whole shabang went up, and Frank and the Japs – well
everything just came down on top of them. Buzz told me the story,
but he died three months later. Broke his neck climbing down a
rope ladder. He was a brave man, Frankie was, and that's the way
There was a profound silence, like when the priest held the
consecrated Host up at Mass. The mystery was revealed, and there
was nothing more to say. His grandmother, though she was now
clearly under the influence, set her third Budweiser on the gray
Formica table. It was a gesture he would always remember as
elegant – even when he was an old man in his eighties,and
had seen much of the world outside that river neighborhood
– elegant and fine, as though she were some grand lady at a
great banquet lowering her wine glass. She rose, pressed down the
front of her yellow dress.
It was a cheap dress, loud with huge tropical flowers. Once the
two of them had been downtown shopping, and he had heard some
teenagers say, "Look at that old floosie. If that ain't High
Yeller, out for a trick." But that afternoon her loud yellow
dress, for him at least, was a great lady's gown decked with
gold. She moved without her usual stagger to the parlor. There
she wound up the Aircastle graphaphone, and played an
old 78rpm of Kate Smith singing God Bless America. Some of
the kids thought the song was cornball, but from here on they
never better say that to him. Every scratch, every skip in the
groove, seemed to cut something deep inside him, scarifying his
insides, leaving some marks there that would never disappear.
After dinner, the boy and Joe hauled the kitchen chairs out onto
the porch and sat together waiting for the taxicab. From under
his bed, the boy retrieved a cardboard Campbell soup box that
held his father's medals and newspaper clippings. His cigarette
dangling from his lips, Joe studied everything carefully as
though he were reviewing a battle plan.
"Remembering those who died is important for you and for all of
us. Sometimes when we fought on an island, we had to bury our
pals there. When it came time to leave, we'd stand by their
graves. We'd feel real lonesome for them and sad, like we wanted
to stay there, make sure the jungle didn't overrun their graves,
like we were Death's gardeners. We knew we had to go on.
Otherwise their deaths would have had no meaning. But we wanted
to stay there, keep the jungle off, call out their names and what
they did every once in a while, so people would never forget what
they sacrificed there. 'Dick Anderson lived seventeen years in
this world. He came of age in the Depression, never drove a car,
never saw a television set. He just fell on a grenade, so two of
us and all of you could live. Don't you ever be forgetting that.
If you do, damn you to Hell, damn you all to Hell.'
"In the end we moved on. That's what you have to do, boy. It
won't be easy. I had a grandfather who fought in the Civil War,
toughest old bird you ever did see. Way back in the twenties,
he'd tell me stories of the war, about Antietam and the Battle of
Bloody Lane and about all his comrades that died in the Irish
brigade. He'd fill up with tears, the way you don't see men do
often. He'd smile at me with his big red eyes and tears streaming
into his white beard and say, 'War has a right powerful affect on
a body, boy, and it ain't likely ever to pass, not until they put
you in the ground.' He talked funny like that, but then you have
to figure he was around when Lincoln was president.
"I reckon if I live to be eighty, I'll still remember those days
in the Pacific and carry all that hurt and loss with me to my
grave. The men who died, the men I served with and cared for,
they'll always exist for me. Some of them pay a call on me in my
dreams. Other times I'm in a bar and a guy gets in a fight with
two punks, and the way he swings a right hook makes me think it's
my old Pal Tommie O'Shea who took a bullet in the face on Tinian.
Before I know what I'm doing, I'm in there helping him slug the
hoods that jumped him. The pain'll always be there, gnawing away
deep inside – for all of us, you too, kid. Time doesn't
heal the hurt of war. You'll always have some hurt in you from
what happened out there.
"But you have to move on, like we did. In the end, it's not just
your father you've been searching for. Some day you'll understand
that it's for yourself too, for the man you will be and can be
because of what he and all those other guys did out there.
"There was a story I read in Time magazine
during the War about a French hostage the Gestapo captured. Just
before they took him out to be shot, he said, Je vais
preparer tout a l'heure les lendemains qui chantent. You
"The nuns taught us a little. It means something like I go
out to prepare for tomorrows that sing."
"Tomorrows that sing. That's what we were all fighting
and dying for out there. Sure we fought for big ideals too
– the Four Freedoms and such. But we fought for other
things too – keeping the guy next to us alive and for all
the little things that don't seem like much till you lose them,
like long cool summer nights out on the porch with the
The cab drew up to the curb, and Joe extended his hand and
smiled, "See you in Tokyo, kid." The boy grinned and shook his
hand. It was the way soldiers in the Pacific parted company in
the War. He was one of them Joe was telling him. He reckoned no
one would ever take leave of him in such a fine way again.
So his father had died that way. He thought of the nights he
played patrol with the other punks in the neighborhood. He'd lay
on a hilltop with a bleeding chest wound, gazing starwards,
waiting to die. How grand and glorious it had all been. His
deaths had always been clean, like John Wayne's in Sands of
Iwo Jima. But the War had not been like that. The War had
pulled men apart, turned them inside out, in their bodies and in
their minds, created ghostly presences in their minds and in the
minds of those who lost them.
Now down by the dam, he drifted back to the present as the water
swirled around his hand. When he drew it out, the pain had
disappeared. Sure it had. After all, he had his father's hands.
And for now, for now at least, that was enough. He realized they
were both storytellers – the way he could take his father's
stories and phrases and weave pictures of the islands and the war
in his head. Maybe some day he'd write them down.
Though the hurt was still there, he flushed with pride when he
thought of his father in that cave and of himself this morning in
that classroom. Then he remembered what Sister had said about
pride landing you in Hell. But that was ok too. If half the
stories his grandmother told about his old man were true, he
guessed he knew where he'd have to go to look him up when his own
He came up the crumbling concrete stairs away from the swirling
waters. A fresh breeze from the east swept in, and the smell of
death lifted. He felt as though he had aged, as though the trip
down the stairs had not just been in space but in time as well.
He still felt sad for the way his father had died, for all the
pain he suffered.
But then he stared back at the bridge. Around the pylons the
current flowed free and unimpeded. The waters rushed ahead like
his father who had hurtled through life not looking back. Hell
without fire. That was how the war correspondent had described
the plateau where his father died. And he – where was he?
Living in a world without something he could name. But that
something had to do with moving on.
He looked down at the bank where he'd stood. He saluted as if
someone were standing there. "See you in Tokyo" he said and
imagined a marine waving and disappearing into the dense jungle-like greenery that hedged the river. With these four words he
bonded and separated, moved on. Maybe, just maybe he'd have to go
down those stairs again some time, but for now he'd shove off.
It was Friday night. The way he was feeling now, he'd have to be
careful. The next thing you know, he'd be stopping at Boyer's and
buying one of those sissy-ass Mickey Mouse comics. But today,
he'd just head home and ask his mother if he could bring a six-pack over to his grandmother's. He'd show Grannie his swollen
hand, and she'd make a big deal of it and maybe, just maybe, let
him have a bottle of his own. Then they'd sit on the porch and
sing. And maybe some of the other folks on the street would come
over and sing with them.
After all, it was partly for nights like that that all those guys
out there had fought and died. And living them, enjoying them, he
knew now, was really just another way of remembering and honoring
by David J. Ladouceur
... who is a teacher and historian, with some of his creative
writing having been previously published in this magazine, as
well as non-fiction in professional journals. He is currently
working on a novel, After the War, set in the early 1950's
which deals with a veteran who returns from the conflict and
shares not only his stories but his ghosts with his son. Born
into a military family, Dr Ladouceur is the son of a jungle scout
who served in the Pacific Theater from Pearl Harbor through the
end of World War Two.