After doing the thirteen weeks at Camp Blanding he moped away his furlough in Tampa. He made a few strolls through the hallways at school, but he only did one semester at Hillsborough High, and nobody knew him that much. And nobody was impressed by uniforms anymore; always some hero already overseas, some brother or cousin. He did see Leora once, but she was talking to a girl and didn’t notice him.
He skated a little at the Coliseum, saw movies, and rode the streetcars to the end of the line, and back.
He walked down Franklin Street and saluted the drunk, happy officers from McDill Field; home on rotation, covered with glory. He snapped his elbow at an exact forty-five degrees, hand and forearm straight, fingers together, only the edge presented. He saluted their bars and oak leaves, their sexy girlfriends, their hats crushed out of shape, their wings, shoulder patches, their ribbons and overseas service stripes---just to get them to salute him back.
Some had to untangle their right arms and pull away from their girl, startled by this downtown display of military courtesy from this stiff kid in plain khakis with his infantryman’s badge and the non-GI forage cap with the blue piping that he had to buy himself at the PX.
When it was over he said good-bye to Victor and Aline, Norman already in the navy. He took the streetcar downtown, got on the Greyhound, put his barracks bag in the overhead rack, and sat by the window. He listened to the baggage thumps in the bottom compartment and watched the sailor on the platform getting kissed, and hugged by his teary-eyed mother, and father, and by a weeping teenage girl. The sailor came in and took the aisle seat next to Parker, leaning over him to wave. Parker reclined the back cushion and closed his eyes.
He reported at Fort Meade. He was inoculated and classified, put on a bus to an embarkation center in Baltimore where he joined the line that struggled up the gangway of a converted Liberty ship. He followed the guides and the marking tapes to one of the cargo hatches, and climbed down the iron ladders to his assigned area in the lower hold.
They were kept below for two days while non-coms yelled and feet pounded; steam winches yammered; food stores and barracks bags were piled on cargo slings, and hoisted aboard. On the first day out, the merchant ships in the convoy tested their guns, the replacements grinning at the flat booms around the horizon. They got two meals a day. The drinking water was turned on twice for an hour and they were allowed on deck in two-hour shifts. They took lukewarm saltwater showers every third day.
They were issued life belts and had boat drills. He was allotted one of the pipe-frame, canvas-and-rope bunks stacked five high. He could sleep in his clothes at any time during the day from eight in the morning until eight at night, but then the alternate took over the bunk.
The ship rolled and pitched for fifteen days. The GIs climbed the ladders through the latrine smells and the stink of vomit to reach the main deck, and get their rotation of fresh air. They ducked away from the spray and the wind, and gaped at the dull gray seas, the scattered ships, the navy men in their pea jackets standing watch in the gun tubs, the destroyers that churned around them, listening for U-boats.
But the crew was merchant marine, what Toby really wanted all along. They saw the world, those guys, and made hundreds of dollars a month---war zone bonuses, attack bonuses. You could get in at seventeen with parent permission but didn’t need a birth certificate. He didn’t want to ask his mother, and wasn’t sure where she was then, in Georgia someplace with Bob; so he hitchhiked up to Philadelphia. But his father wouldn’t sign him in either, afraid of what his mother might do. But he did let Toby stay in his apartment.
He was there a month. Daddy’s brother was a third mate in the Maritime Service and worked as port relief officer. Daddy grinned and said Uncle Jack was in an air raid in London, and was too afraid to ever ship out again. But Uncle Jack knew some of the longshoremen gang bosses and got Toby into a shape-up on the south side docks. Nobody worried about his age because of the manpower shortage.
He made $1.25 an hour, humping fifty-five-gallon drums on dollies, unloading barges tied up alongside, and boxcars shunted into the pier sheds. The crates of dismantled airplanes and jeeps were marked “Teheran.” He knew it was all bound for Russia and the Eastern Front.
Toby was proud of the hard, crazy work, but he ached all over at the end of the day. He pushed hand trucks. He stood in staggered lines, catching and tossing cartons, stacking and carrying boxes, and bags.
One morning everybody on the dock stopped to look off in the same direction. A cargo sling had spilled over and killed a man in the hold. The gang bosses started yelling: “Get back to work, you guys. One dead monkey don’t stop the show.”
But Toby’s arms and chest got hard. He was already five-nine and weighed one-fifty. He bought steel-toed shoes and a cargo hook, got up at five, ate at a diner, and took the subway. He paid Daddy a share of the rent. He made his day, took a shower, and went out to eat. He would go to a movie, or just sit in the apartment to listen to the radio, or play with Daddy’s shotgun from the closet, or look out the window.
His father probably had a girlfriend. He would come in late and was gone most of the weekends. They did go fishing once, renting a boat at Cape May, but Toby got seasick. Twice he sent off for birth certificates and tried to change the date with ink eradicator, but the paper always blotted. He decided to go to California. He had never been west of the Mississippi.
It took six days, thumbing his way to Pittsburgh on Route 30, taking Route 40 from there to Wheeling, across Ohio and Indiana to St. Louis. Route 50 took him to Oklahoma, where he joined Route 66, and followed it all the way. Travel was hard because of the gas rationing, but hitchhiking was common, and people tried to help. Some drivers would point one finger across the road, an apology for not going very far. Toby would raise his hand: thanks anyway. Women never stopped.
He slept whenever he got a ride but had to pay for a room twice. He hopped a freight in Arizona once to give it a try, sat in the doorway of an empty, and swung his feet over the speeding desert. But boxcars were dirty, and lonely.
In Los Angeles, he stayed at the YMCA, worked a week at a slaughterhouse, and then a drive-in kitchen for a month. When he saw the line outside a naval recruiting office, he got in place. But he was the only one without underwear and had to stand naked and stare at the wall clock for an hour as the line drooped around four sides of a huge room full of desks. He couldn’t look at the nurse when he gave her back the cup.
But he still needed a parent’s signature. He wrote Daddy and waited a week for the answer; embarrassed by the handwriting and the sixth-grade spelling; the only letter he ever had from his father; nothing else, ever, for Christmas, or birthdays. He remembered the jokes Mama used to tell, Daddy painting signs all over the South. Once he spelled it: restarant, but the owner didn’t notice until after Daddy got paid.
When Toby was in Seattle, it hit him. Let them do it. Go in, register for the draft, add two years to your date of birth, and volunteer for immediate induction.
By the time he had to check in, he was back in Tampa. He got a letter from the Maritime Service offering a deferment, but by then he was hung up on the idea of the navy. They had pensions and government benefits, and there would probably be a war bonus. Merchant seamen were just civilians and didn’t even wear uniforms.
Victor drove him to Selective Service Board Number Four on Florida Avenue. They bussed him from there to Camp Blanding and---shazam! He had outsmarted himself; welcome to the poor, bloody infantry. But the army was better than nothing. And his father was in the army once, when he was only fifteen.
They were sent by train to Atlanta for processing, escorted back by a curious lieutenant who went over the files, and called Parker over, impressed by his score on the Army General Classification Test, way above the 110 needed to qualify for officer candidate at OCS. Not finishing high school might be a problem, but combat experience could take care of that.
Toby was just worried about getting caught. He would write his mother later. He didn’t want to mess this one up.
At Le Havre they disembarked in a steady rain over catwalks of two-by-fours built over the side of a capsized hulk, looking out over block after block of bombed ruins. Lines of waiting trucks angled around the grill of squared piles of exploded concrete, stone, wood, plaster, and brick.
They were jammed in standing up, and driven off, jolted, and swaying. Somebody started a moo that was picked up from truck to truck with oinks, and baas, the herd bawling all the way to the Reception Depot at Camp Lucky Strike. The drivers and MPs didn’t even grin.
They rested overnight in tents in a fenced holding area and then were shifted to an intermediate depot where they went through an administrative procedure and had their personal records reupdated, again. They entered in his Military Occupational Specialty. He was a rifleman, an MOS 745.
They were issued weapons and field equipment, and were shown that same prophylactic training film, the VD special.
They marched to a railroad station, climbed into little French boxcars, and got clicked and clacked across the countryside, dangling their legs as they waved, and whistled at farmers, and schoolkids, at women on bicycles. They ate K rations, rolled into blankets, and flaked out on the straw.
Parker climbed the ladder to the roof and smiled into that winter wind of France, his first foreign country except for the quick trip across the border at El Paso and then almost up to Canada. He looked back at the men on top of the other cars and thought about all those bummed rides since he dropped out and took off.
He could have got up here quicker if he had thought up that angle a little sooner; that, and the lost training time; not the AWOL thing, when he nodded off in a lecture and that cadre broke a pointer over his helmet, made him stand at attention for an hour, and canceled his weekend pass---that week in the hospital with pneumonia. He missed three days of machine-gun training and they transferred him back a month to another company---which had already finished machine guns.
At least he did get Cary Grant’s autograph. They made an announcement over the PA and he joined the line. He got a laugh when he handed Cary that TS card with numbers on the edge to be punched by the chaplain.
And now he was up front where things were real. No more squad hut inspections, latrine duty, picking up butts in the dark to police the company area. No more scrubbing garbage cans, hands and knees on the mess-hall floor with a GI brush; memorizing the serial number on his rifle, and reciting it out loud whenever some non-com felt in the mood.
No more of that Soldier’s Handbook that told you to keep a whisk broom handy so your uniform would always be neat, and warned you that a loud noise and clouds of dust might indicate the presence of tanks.
No more standing in the dark wearing nothing but a helmet liner, an open raincoat, and shoes, to skin it back and milk it down as some sergeant strolled by. Things happened up here: history, a chance for adventure, the real stuff; promotions, and medals, men commissioned right in the battlefield. Later, people would look at him and say: “He was in the war.”
And with overseas pay and combat pay, he now made ninety bucks a month, minus what they held back for the life insurance. And sooner or later, they’d give him a pass to Paris, where the French had lots of whores. His thighs shivered, as he thought of what it must be like.
They spent four days at the Third Replacement Depot in Waremme, Belgium. They called it the Repple Depple---like living in a train station in Lower Slobovia. They did calisthenics and close-order drill. They slept in double bunks made of two-by-fours and chicken wire on burl
Copyright © 2005 by Donn Pearce