SAILING THE SOUTH OZONE SEA
AT 7:13 A.M. ON THE MORNING of February 2, 1924, Punxsutawney Phil, “Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary,” burrowed out of his dirty little rodent hole and saw his dirty little rodent shadow, signifying that another six weeks of winter was on its way. Later that evening, I came into this world, as my mom gave birth to me in the back of Jake Cohen’s hardware store, at the corner of 135th Place and Rockaway Boulevard, Queens Borough, New York, amid the lead piping, kerosene jars, penny nails, and post hole diggers.
After I was born, my dad, the tall and dapper Harry Raymond Mace, lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929. Bigwigs were jumping out of Wall Street buildings on “Black Tuesday,” and a fat banker leaped from the top of the Stock Exchange and landed right on my dad’s pushcart, destroying everything we owned.
Of course, that’s a little joke, but even in the biggest lies there are still the smallest grains of truth.
In this case, the standing truths are twofold: In those days, unless you were living in the White House, to some extent or another, nobody in America remained unaffected by the Great Depression of the 1930s. Secondly, the real Pacific war did not begin on the beaches of Tarawa, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima—nor did it start with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The real Pacific war began with the dreams and realities, the episodes and ambitions, that beat within the hearts of the young men who would later experience it.
We youths of the era collectively and individually were molded by the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal ideals, thus finding ourselves well equipped to kill the sons of Nippon and lay low their yellow nation. We didn’t know it then, but the kids of the Great Depression, a deprived generation, were preparing for war—and we were becoming damned good at it, even before we laid hands on a weapon.
For me, the New York of my time was the New York of all time.
It is a lost New York. Lost to the years, now, but very much a product of its own time, as farmsteads and subway lines spit in the palms of their hands and shook on it as if it still meant something. Wiseguys could be seen standing on the street corners on Saturday afternoons, ogling the girls and shootin’ the shit—and then later that afternoon the same bunch would hitch a truck out to the potato farms, in Suffolk County and Montauk Point, and then back again, each time seeing how far they could make it out.
So when my family moved out to Queens, before I was born, all of our relatives from Brooklyn laughed and said we were moving out to the country. Yet my dad probably took the electric train to get there!
We were the overflow of Queens during the Great Depression.
From our home on 123rd Street, down the back of 128th Street, was “Little Italy,” where the Italians (we called them guineas back then) would throw all sorts of exotic and colorful festivities. They’d have a feast, with food stalls dotting the sidewalks, selling greasy sausages and fat cannolis. Confetti littered the streets. There were loud voices everywhere, and chirping children ran between the legs of their padri and madri.
Then me and my pals, when we got old enough, we’d swagger through the crowd, browsing for those cute little Italian girls, trying to romance them amid the spinning wheels, bright lights, and games of chance (which I swear were rigged, because those “games” would clean you out quicker than those Italian girls could heist your heart).
When I returned home for the night, empty-handed and empty-hearted, I would lie in bed, hands propped behind my head, listening to the caterwauling of the Italian opera singers as they cut loose for the last time before they closed down the show. Then the fireworks would go off.
I could hear the pops, bangs, and whizzes of the pyrotechnics as the reds, yellows, and oranges smeared lightscapes across my bedroom window.
Even after the war, I lay there, watching the sounds and listening to the sights, as they held another feast, while consciously I tried to equate those sensations to the things I had experienced in the Pacific.
The fireworks wouldn’t shake me up or anything. I wouldn’t become frightened. Although they were pretty close.
I was pretty close.
It was simply a unique time for all of us in Queens, from the skunk cabbage farms in South Ozone to the Aqueduct Racetrack on Rockaway to places people today never heard of, like Cornell Park and Richmond Hill Circle. Queens was popping with civilization, as one million immigrants and natives shared a commonality that not many people do today. Yet as America wore the face of tragedy in the reflection of the stock market crash of 1929, my Queens, too, was no exception. Beneath the tough lessons of meager meals and Home Relief, there was a flipside to our disposition—the mask of comedy, which diametrically opposed the Depression that assailed us: the double-sided Greek mask of classic theater. We had to keep ourselves in clover, despite knowing better. Despite ourselves.
Then a miracle happened, when I was eleven years old—Christmas morning 1935.
It didn’t change anything, yet to me it changed everything.
Mickey and I flew down the stairs that Christmas morning, screeching to a halt in front of the tree out on the porch. The sparkle in our eyes surely eclipsed the glamour of promises that lay beneath the traditional tree.
For traditionally, under the tree, there might be the same wooden canoe I received the year before, but this year Dad had painted it a different color, so that it looked great again. Or I had a metal dirigible, which got the same treatment a couple of times—painted up, or polished nice to give it a new shine. Rounding out our Christmas bounty, Mom and Dad put an orange, maybe an apple, and a few walnuts in the stockings that hung in front of our false-front fireplace. It didn’t matter what I got for Christmas, though. It didn’t matter if it was something new or a little bit of the old stuff. The happiness my family shared on Christmas had a lot to do with just being together—and also knowing that there were some children, like the kids who lived in the shantytown of Cornell Park, with their dirt roads and swamps, who were probably getting whippings on Christmas morning, just to set their minds right for the coming New Year.
Besides, we had a good roof over our heads. Our home on Panama (123rd) Street was small but comfortable. Dad had paid $2,300 for it, so that made it ours. It was a three-bedroom bungalow, with my room fairly cramped, being situated on the top floor where the roof pitched down at a slant. Mickey was upstairs also, but her bedroom was larger than mine; she got first dibs because of her age. Mom and Dad took the downstairs bedroom, coming off of the living room; then there was a small dining room and a kitchen. That was it.
We could have been a lot worse off.
Dad even had a car, a 1927 Essex, which was great, but we couldn’t afford the antifreeze for it when the winter bit deep enough, so Dad would have to pour water into the radiator as a coolant. Water worked fine, until you parked the car for about three seconds. A case in point: One winter, Dad took a WPA job, building Jacob Riis Park; as he got ready to leave for the day, he went out to the Essex and tried to turn the motor over, only to find the car wouldn’t start because the engine was a solid block of ice. Being the logical guy that Dad was, he built a fire under the motor with some old wood, so that after a while the water thawed and he was able to ride home again.
Even our clothes, growing up, were strictly the cheap stuff.
Mickey and I got our clothes from a handout store on 119th Street, where the uniform of the day was always brown corduroy knickers, black shoes, and black stockings. It seemed that everybody wore nothing but black in those days. And those shoes? Everyone was given a pair of size D shoes, even if they had size EEE feet. For three years I walked around with sores on my heels, trying to get into those damned lace-ups.
It was later, when I was in the Marine Corps, that I remembered those shoes, when I saw how happy the rednecks in our platoon were when they received their U.S.-issue boondockers—which, as it turned out, were the first shoes they’d ever owned in their lives.
It was funny, and we New Yorkers would crack wise at the Rebels; nevertheless, it brought back a certain thankfulness for how lucky some of us were, compared to those who had grown up in the Dust Bowl days of the Great Depression. Yet which one of us could claim we were unaffected by the hard knocks of our era? There wasn’t a single marine who didn’t have at least one drum to beat over the want and worry of the 1930s.
Even in 1943, as we marines took the train from Camp Lejeune to California, crossing into Georgia, the call of the Depression still knew every one of us by name. The train made frequent stops, and little black children ran up to our open windows and began dancing, performing, for any change that we’d throw out to them. They didn’t know any different; they still smiled and danced, kicking up puffs of dust around their ankles. They were maybe seven or eight years old, dirty from head to toe, and living in dry wooden shacks. I even recall one such “home” being constructed out of the back end of a rusted automobile.
Those poor children probably didn’t even know what a Christmas morning was.
Eight years earlier, however—before I had any notion of the Marine Corps, or of death from Japan—happiness abounded in a little corner of New York, when I saw the miracle behind our Christmas tree.
It was the greatest gift a boy could ask for.
Somehow (gasp!), some way (it’s the most beautifulest thing I’ve seen in my whole entire life!) … there was a Junior Racer Flexible Flyer behind the tree—a brand-new sled! No, not just any sled, but the Cadillac of sleds! The Flexible Flyer was a work of art that might as well have been crafted by da Vinci, or God, for that matter, as far as I was concerned. The high-polished gleam-sheen of the wooden board was so glossy I could make out the shiny reflection of my huge grin, mirroring off its golden-hued surface. The fiery red runners, at the sides of the board, held their own dimensions of beauty—long and sleek, almost knifelike in their finely tooled curvature.
I wheeled around to face my parents—unbelieving, almost afraid to touch such a gift, lest it evaporate before my eyes—only to see their approving smiles as they nodded for me to go ahead and take it, love it, cherish it … it was mine! Dad must’ve knocked over a bank to get that kinda scratch!
“Thank you, thank you thank you!” I said, jumping up and down, hugging my parents, wetting their faces with kisses. Miz Muggins, our old family dog, merely lay there, with her muzzle between her paws, looking up at us indifferently. It had been a long time since Muggins had been spry enough to wag and jump about anything.
It was a miracle.
I never asked my dad how he could afford it—but I never forgot that he did.
That Christmas I went sledding the whole day, coming home only once to change my wet clothes, hanging my soaked socks by the stove and putting on fresh knickers. I must have been quite a sight, going up and down Donnelly Hill with my pals, spinning snow as we went, intentionally dragging one foot behind my sled when a buddy started gaining on me. The snow would pelt him in his face, blinding him, skidding him off into a spin!
I didn’t have fancy winter wear, but with my old knit cap and my rough suede workman’s gloves, I was warm enough. To keep the water from getting through the holes in my shoes, I took some old burlap bags, put my feet through them, and tied them off at the ankles. I must have looked silly, though I couldn’t have cared less how I appeared, just as long as my eyes watered from the speed of flying down the hill in my gold and red chariot.
Eventually some girls our age showed up, laughing and carrying on, as they are wont to do. We would speed up right behind them as we flew, and with one arm we’d take their sled and spin it! Around and around they went until they took a soft tumble in the powder. Then we’d go up and pretend we were sorry for doing it—but for some reason (a reason none of us knew at that age), we did it just to be close to them.
That evening I walked back home under the moonlight with my best pals, Tommy Colonna and Billy Boscha, none of us saying much. The only sound was the crunching snow beneath our shoes.
Presently Billy piped up and said something akin to what the rest of us were thinking.
“Ya know,” Billy said, “everything was just peachy till those girls showed up.”
“Ah, they were okay,” I said.
“Yeah.” Billy changed his mind. “They were okay.”
We walked a few more yards in silence, and then Billy spoke again.
“Say, you don’t think they’ll be back here tomorrow, do ya?”
“Probably,” Tommy said.
“Yeah, probably,” I replied.
“Well…” You could tell Billy was deep in thought. “If they come back … like tomorrow, say … whattaya wanna do with ’em?”
I stopped walking, and everyone else did, too. “I dunno, Billy … spin ’em around like we did today?” I shrugged.
“Yeah, that was pretty fun.” Tommy laughed.
“Funny, too!” Billy laughed also.
I was in agreement, and we resumed our walk, our gang relieved that it was finally out in the open.
“I just never had that kind of fun before!” Billy smiled.
I was eleven years old.
* * *
At the Brooklyn Star Burlesque, my brother-in-law, Bobby Rice, gets the bright idea to sneak me into the show. Mickey got married. Bobby eventually gets the Battle of the Bulge over in Europe.
He stuffs a fedora down over my ears and turns up the collar of his long overcoat (the sleeves hang down well past my fingers); the final touch is the cigarette he puts in my mouth. Laughter.
“One ticket, please,” I say, and I’m in. The doors open to the burlesque; my eyes are too small to hold it all in—a whole new world awaits me, and—
* * *
Gallons of blood pour out of a strung-up horse and onto the bricks as the men from the docks slice open the animal while it dangles over the pavement. I have never seen so much blood in my life.
Van Iderstine, the offal docks, New York City. The whole place is a turd clogging the drainpipe. Tommy and I beat feet.
When the cops nabbed them, Petey Masciale and Doug Lutz must have squealed on us. Five of us had broken into a boat in Amityville. Billy claimed it was his aunt’s boat, but it was no more his aunt’s boat than it was his grandfather’s submarine. So when Petey and Doug didn’t return to our “borrowed” boat after swiping some baked goods, Billy, Tommy, and I headed for Eastport, the duck capital of the world, where all the roads are paved with duck shit. Then on to Van Iderstine, with its fat-rendering factories for dead animals.
Mom says, “Joe Stanworth is looking for you, Brother. You better go out the back door.”
Joe Stanworth, the cop who also moonlighted as the local baseball umpire. Everybody knew Joe, that great big sucker—standing six foot four, at least.
I start out the back door, but Mom calls back, “Oh no, here—he’s pulling up, you might as well face him.” Joe pulls up in his 1937 four-door Ford, and I know I’ll be sitting in the back of it soon.
Joe rounds up the rest of the gang and says, “If I ask you a civil question, I want a civil answer!”
What the hell’s a civil question? That became the gang’s inside gag, until …
Probation or the CMTC. I chose the Citizens’ Military Training Camp, in Fort Dix, New Jersey, even though I wasn’t seventeen yet. They let me slide.
The summer of 1940. The bayonet course, shooting the ’03 Springfield rifle, marching, walking through the tear-gas room, eating army chow, falling in. They even let me shoot left-handed at the range.
* * *
I am seventeen.
Spring grass and freshly squeezed sunshine, muted earth and raw calf leather—these are the sights and scents of boys playing baseball in the ’30s and ’40s, the golden age of a sport that became the bluster and shout for a nation that had little to cheer about. I pitched a mean game-of-my-life or two before the home team bore arms and swung for foreign fields.
The roar of the crowd.
I was Carl Hubbell on the mound, zipping the ball over the plate, really zinging it in there—“Steeeeryk!”
Even if there were only one hundred people in attendance, to me the crowd was deafening. The cheering crowd didn’t stop when the game was over, either.
When you’re a young man, athletic, in perfect health, with a gleam in your eye and a swagger in your step, the cheering crowd is always present, filling your head, lifting you to new heights. Getting up in the morning—the crowd roars with approval. Eating your breakfast—they clap with excitement. Passing an exam at school—they applaud as if you just pitched a no-hitter. Their adoration provides buoyancy. Call it confidence, call it imagination, call it youthful vigor, or even call it arrogance; no matter, the Depression-era kids needed that fighting chance to prove ourselves in any field of play, whether it was in the classroom, picking cotton, or carrying a football across the goal line.
The roar of the crowd.
While in combat, the ovation remained strong, even if it had quieted down to but a murmur. It enabled us to ride the crest to victory, unwavering, never faltering.
In glory they fell, many young lives, yet with the silver cheer of a nation’s approval ringing brightly in their ears. The touchdown. The home run. In Elysian Fields they turned around and faced the crowd, streamers falling, all eyes on them, smiling in the sun, as the writers in the press box gleefully typed out the circumstances of the play: the crack of the bat, the arc of the basketball, Ace Parker and the forward pass. Laughing in the sun. Their parents would read the headlines, in the form of a telegram, yet they would never understand that there was so much more to their babies’ deaths, beyond those short, clipped words. So much more.
Many years later, I could still hear the applause, the shouts, and the excitement—just as loud as it was on the day that changed our lives forever.
Football season, 1941.
“Say, Mace.” The coach walked up to me. “When we use that play you made up on them today—that one—swinging around the left with the halfback pass … boy, we’ll have ourselves a ball game!”
“Sure, Coach.” I beamed. “It’ll be great!”
“You betcha.” He clapped me on the shoulder. “Go get ’em!”
Hitching my football pants up, I resumed throwing a few balls around with the guys. It was a crisp, shiny December afternoon, the field crunchy with tiny icicles in the grass, the air brisk but not frosty enough to keep the spectators away. The game was scheduled to start in twenty minutes, and the cars were just pulling up and parking along the sidelines.
Today’s game was scheduled to be between my team, the Glen Morris Bonecrushers, and the City Line Leafs, in the 140-pound class, Queens/Nassau League.
There wasn’t a lot of local interest. It was strictly kid stuff. Most of us didn’t even have any true football gear. Our pants were simply long knickers, stuffed with towels or rags to give some padding. For a belt, I had cut up an inner tube into strips, tying one around my waist, at least creating the illusion of Red Grange or Jim Thorpe. It didn’t quite wash, though, since most of us didn’t own our own helmets either. Even so, we played hard and made some real games of it.
I was a pretty good ball player. On offense I played right halfback, and on defense, as skinny as I was, I was a linebacker. Good enough, at least, that when we played the Question AAs, the Questions asked me to play linebacker for their team, too. I played one game for the Questions, and we got pummeled by the Baisley Park Skulls. Ouch!
Suddenly something caught my attention—a sizable crowd hanging around the row of cars—so I quit tossing the ball with the fellas.
“Hey, Mace, throw the ball!”
“Wait a second,” I said, inaudible to my pals, my eyes squinting at the people running up to the cars. “Here.” I lobbed the ball back and trotted over toward the sidelines.
A few of the cars had their doors open, their radios synced up to the same station, and though the message became clearer the closer I got to the automobiles, still an air of confusion hung in the static. People got out, paced around, hats tilted on the backs of their heads, hands on their hips, shaking their heads—looks of concern hung on all faces.
“Hey, what’s goin’ on over here?”
“Shhhh!” came the reply.
The radio continued: “… the attack was apparently made on all naval and military activities on the principal island of Oahu. The president’s brief statement was read to reporters by Stephen Early, the president’s secretary. A Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor would naturally mean war. Such an attack would naturally bring a counterattack, and hostilities of this kind would naturally mean that the president would ask Congress for a declaration of war. There is no doubt, from the temper of Congress, that such a declaration would be granted. We return you back to New York, and we’ll give you later information as it comes along from the White House. We return you back to New York…”
A great silence hung over the crowd. I was waiting for one of the adults, maybe Coach, to come up with some words of sanity. Instead, one of the men asked the question that was on everybody’s mind: “Say, where in the hell is Pearl Harbor?”
That was about the gist of it. Where in the hell is Pearl Harbor? Nobody had the foggiest that 108,504 U.S. servicemen would have to die in the Pacific Theater of Operation to answer that question, to make things right.
As for me, while the young men from the Bonecrushers and Leafs ran off to immediately join the navy, all I could think about was Tommy O, our Japanese classmate and batboy for the John Adams HS baseball team, and how he was such a fantastic kid—always smiling, always going out of his way to help. Surely Tommy wasn’t capable of bombing anything—not even trigonometry. Neither was Sumiko Yamaguchi, a darling of a Japanese girl, a senior at school, who made straight A’s and was as sweet and quiet as a field of daffodils.
Who are these Japanese people? Not anyone I knew, that’s for sure.
In fact, the only thing we knew about war was from the veterans who served in the World War. They hung around the veterans’ hall all day, piss drunk, yelling at us kids to get the hell away from them. “You little bastards! Get the hell away from me!”
There was something odd in their demeanor, but what it was was a complete mystery. It was something both sinister and sad, hollow and reluctant.
Perhaps they were merely living as if they really should have died.
As for me, all I knew was that life began to move a great deal faster from that moment on.
It moved faster and faster until my world grew white with blindness as the LST doors opened and deposited us on the Pacific Ocean, racing toward Peleliu, and what remained of the rest of our lives. Then it moved quicker still.
* * *
United States Marine Corps Recruiting Station, 290 Broadway, Manhattan, New York, early December 1942.
T O Z
L P E D …
“Okay, son, now cover your right eye and read the chart for me, please.”
A guy up the line, a few people in front of me, began reading the eye chart. I commenced to concentrate, to memorize, listening to the letters and repeating them in my head, focusing on their sequence.
I was pretty good at keeping figures and patterns in my head, but this part—the military physical—made me nervous.
“That’s fine. Now cover your left eye, please,” the doctor intoned at the front of the line. When the physician was satisfied with the reading, he would send the person up ahead for the next phase of enlistment, and the line lurched forward once more, the next guy filling the spot vacated by the one who just tested.
One more guy and then I’d be “next.”
By the time I made it to the head of the line, I was finally able to peek over the shoulder of the guy in front of me to read the chart, stealing quick glances, trying not to appear too obvious.
The chart wasn’t blurry. It looked perfectly clear. Even so, I knew that when it came time for me to read with my right eye alone, I’d be doomed. I didn’t have any depth perception.
In fact, at the onset of the war, in 1941, I had applied for the navy, because my buddy Sonny Campbell had joined. He sent me a photo of himself dressed in his navy denims, holding a rifle to his chest, so naturally I thought I’d look pretty smart in the same getup.
Sonny was killed in the boiler room aboard the USS Hornet off the Solomon Islands.
I failed the navy eye test.
Amblyopia was what I was diagnosed with when I was six years old. In common parlance, they called it a “lazy eye”—even though my eye always appeared normal and never looked off toward the Joneses. It was merely a curvature in my right eye, which caused me the embarrassment of wearing eyeglasses at an early age.
The truth is, I don’t think the glasses did me much good. It was sports—I excelled in just about all of them, baseball, football, basketball, and hockey—that forced my eyes to work together, so that my left eye compensated for my right eye’s deficiencies. Nevertheless, sports had nothing to do with standing stationary in front of an eye chart, attempting to read off a series of letters with a bum headlight.
The U.S. Navy caught it right away.
The United States Army didn’t even get the chance. I got so fed up in the waiting room that I fished my paperwork from the bottom of the incoming tray and never looked back.
So there I stood in line waiting for the Marine Corps eye exam, trying my best to get into the service any way I could before they drafted me.
This was my last chance to serve my country.
I walked up and gave the doctor my slip of paper. He attached it to a clipboard and then wrote something down.
Not looking up, he said, “Alright, please cover your right eye and read the chart for me. Left to right, please.”
Instead, I covered my left eye, looking hazily through my right, and began spouting off the letters from memory, before I could forget them. That was the plan. To see if I could trick them up.
“No, no, son, you’re supposed to start with your left eye and then test the right one.” The doctor finally looked up.
“I’m sorry, sir. Should I do it again?”
“No. That’s alright, that was fine. Just cover your right eye now, so that we can test your left.”
Let me tell you, I read all the way to the bottom of the chart as quick as an auctioneer.
The next thing I knew the Marine Corps was swearing me in.
I was only eighteen years old.
* * *
I am eighteen years old.
“I’m a shitbird from Yemassee!”
“You’re a what?” the drill instructor calls back.
“I’m a shitbird!”
“A shitbird from where, goddammit!”
“From Yemassee!” the new recruit says. The new “boot” staggers around the barracks with a bucket over his head, his words ringing out dull and metallic inside the pail. It’s pretty comical (only if it’s not you with the bucket on your head). “A shitbird from Yemassee!”
Evidently we’re all shitbirds on Parris Island, South Carolina. Everywhere you go it’s shitbird-this and shitbird-that. Shitbirds grow wild out in the marshes that surround the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Jerkwater, USA. You’re a shitbird when they shear the top of your head so you look like a scalded dog. You’re a shitbird for being in the front of the line, and a shitbird for standing at the rear. You’re a shitbird for not shaving your face, even though you haven’t got a hair to shave. You’re a shitbird.
“Hey, shitbird, Mace! The DI wants his room cleaned, shitbird!”
Mama named us all shitbird. Even when we got off the train at Parris Island, the new recruits who had arrived thirty minutes prior called out, “Hey, look at them shitbirds from Yemassee!”
The tiny whistle-stop before you get to Parris Island is a place called Yemassee, South Carolina. Everybody goes through Yemassee to get to the marines, so we’re all a bunch of shitbirds from Yemassee. Brothers all.
Strange. Nobody ever mentions the Japanese here.
* * *
They built these pisspot wartime towns on Coca-Cola and swing beats—got a dime, and you’ll get yourself a draft of suds—newly minted marines, on leave from Camp Lejeune, hands in pockets, nicotine, laughter, beads of sweat beneath our overseas caps, our piss-cutters, our cunt-caps, our shoes glossed up to a mirrored shine, Kinston, Sugar Hill, Jacksonville, and Raleigh, North Carolina, thumb a ride, take a leak behind the bar, “Boogie Woogie” by Tommy Dorsey and “Two O’Clock Jump” by Harry James—it’s got you swingin’—eyeballs on the scout for bright red lipstick, painted on stocking seams, floral fragrances or a little vanilla extract behind the ear, no dice, No Coloreds Allowed—find a buddy who’s won some change in a crap game and he’s the best pal you’ve ever had.
They built these crap-ass wartime towns on Ca-ching and the peckers of a half-million one-striped teenagers, whoresmiths all—but only in their own minds.
It’s six in the morning, and brother there’s a line to get in!
“Did ya get the wood yet?”
She asks me if I’ve got “the wood.”
“Pistol Packin’ Mama” by Al Dexter and His Troopers, huh? Alright, I’ll buy that.
She’s asking me if I’m ready, is what she’s saying.
After a wait in line, we saunter into a cathouse in Sugar Hill as if we really know what we’re doing, but these baby-faced marines—me, all of us!—we don’t know the business. The idea of a thing versus the genuine article has about as many similarities as the lightbulb does to the lightning bug. This joint just glows with sleaze.
Four or five hookers recline on couches and chairs in the sitting room, affecting provocative poses that almost fool you into thinking these dames are high class. That doesn’t matter, though. We want the illusion, not the secret behind the trick. We’re nineteen years old, and we’re here to claim the rites of any passage that’ll wear the sheen off of our red-cherry kid stuff. Besides, we joined the marines to see the world, and these broads look as if they’ve been around it enough times to chart a map on a bathroom stall.
The lights are dim—hiding the rouge in our cheeks, from timidity, from shyness, the warmth of lust going straight to our heads, as excitement swims in chemical reactions, making the very walls sweat out a fever.
I pick out a big job and follow her to a room, never looking back at my pals. As it turns out, the road less traveled has been traveled a lot more than a youngster might imagine. In fact, it’s a threadbare carpet that leads to a whore’s station, complete with a bed in the center of the room, a nightstand, a smoky lamp, and not much else.
“Okay,” she says. “You get ready and I’ll be right back.” Except that when she comes back, I’m still standing in the exact same spot she left me.
“You—” she begins, then stops, looking at me as if I’m the dumbest kid on the planet. “Did ya get the wood yet?” She sighs.
I stammer around a little bit, telling her something that doesn’t make sense to either of us. Exasperated, she simply carries on—a real pro—and gets the wood up, afterward throwing a towel down on the bed and climbing atop it.
“Alright. Come on, boy. Let’s go.” As if the war might end any second, and with it her chances of turning a buck into bullion.
So I did, and so she did.
I was only nineteen.
* * *
Pavuvu Island, Russell Island Chain, August 25, 1944.
I am twenty.
“So ya see … that’s what I’m tryin’ to tell ya, George! Ya did that whole thing on Guadalcanal, right? Where was God then, huh? I mean, what good did God do for all those saps who got hit, wearin’ their crosses and Stars of Abraham around their necks? Nothin’! I’m tellin’ ya, buddy! Not a fuckin’ thing!”
“Yeah, sure, Larry,” George said, shaking his head, “but I’m tellin’ you—there was something out there, that’s all, and it damn sure wasn’t just the Japs. You get out there, and the shit starts comin’ in on ya…” George paused. “Pal, you don’t know that feeling. You’re not alone out there, is all I’m sayin’.”
PFC Larry Mahan grinned at me and then looked back to George. “Ya know what that’s called, George? That’s called your imagination. Hell, everyone from Queens got one of those, don’t they, Mace?”
I took a drag off my cigarette. “Sure. Imagine that.” I watched the smoke drift out of my mouth, floating skyward, illuminated only by the weak light emitted by gasoline lamps in the open tents lining the company street. Otherwise, it was dark.
It was late. The company street was almost void of marines. Most of them had already returned to their tents for the night. Asleep or awake, it didn’t matter—the next morning we would board the LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) on our way to a yet-to-be-named island, to wage war against the Japanese.
As it turned out, that unknown island was Peleliu.
Larry laughed. “You bet! You’ve got to have an imagination if you’re from Queens, otherwise you’d think you’re too poor to know any better!”
That got a chuckle out of us.
Larry Mahan, from Dobbs Ferry, New York, lived only forty minutes away from where George McNevin and I grew up in Queens. He had a daddy who was some sort of big shot in the navy.
Larry was a character—a real comedian, with his impressions of Cagney and Bogart. He was a good-looking kid, intelligent, and even though everyone knew Larry was sacrilegious, you couldn’t help liking the guy.
Then there was George McNevin. It was George who recommended I choose the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) as my weapon, as it suited a left-handed rifleman better than an M-1 rifle, and it was knowing George before the war that added some comfort to Pavuvu. In such a strange place as Pavuvu every marine drew inspiration from anything that reminded him of home.
Back in Queens, George lived on 121st Street and Hawtree Creek Road, close to Sutter Avenue and the abandoned soap factory, where we’d hold impromptu boxing matches, back when we were kids. Only three hundred yards away from my home.
George and I didn’t pal around much, but we both attended John Adams High School, where George ran track and I played baseball. Sometimes we would share the walk home, just shooting the breeze, before going our separate ways. That was the extent of knowing George McNevin back in the States.
While on a work detail I saw a marine whom I thought I recognized, walking with a plank on his shoulder. As he got closer, I said, “George? George McNevin?” He stopped and put the plank down. “Yeah, I’ll be damned!” Smiling, we shook hands, greeting each other. It had been a long time. George had served on Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester, yet he was exactly my age.
“So,” I said, pointing to the plank he had laid down. “Keeping busy, I see?”
George laughed. “Oh, that? Nah, that’s just a prop. I’ve been carryin’ that friggin’ thing around all day, so they won’t gripe at me for doin’ nothin’.”
Now, four months later, on the eve of our departure for Peleliu, the jokes had all dried up. Even Larry’s wit had rolled up inside of him, among the dust clots and artifacts lost in time.
We simply stood there in the company street, quietly, looking at each other in a matter-of-fact manner—knowing that we were headed toward the same destination, only that we were moving in different directions to get there: me in K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (K/3/5); Larry with L Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (L/3/5); and George with E Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines (E/2/1). Combat was no longer a matter of if, but now only a matter of when.
“Well, gang,” I said, “I guess this is it.”
“Yeah,” George said under his breath.
I didn’t know what to do. Times like those tend to grow awkward and slow, if you don’t act on what you really want to do. The moment fades as if it never existed. So I did the only thing I could think of. Since we were roughly standing in a circle, I simply stuck my arm out and thrust it into the center of the group, with the back of my hand facing upward.
Larry caught on first, and then George, placing their hands on top of mine, one atop the other.
We had words. I don’t recall who said them. It could have been any one of us, or it could have been a combination of the three. However, what was said—what was expressed beyond words—really meant something … if only for that moment alone.
“We’re gonna get through this, guys. So let’s all meet again when this is over and done with, huh?”
We all said yes. Yes was a belief that even Larry couldn’t refute. We would do as we said.
“Until we meet again, fellas.” Larry smiled and gave us a wink.
The only thing is, that was the last time I ever saw Larry Mahan.
I suppose dying is just another way of saying good-bye.
Copyright © 2012 by Sterling Mace and Nick Allen