Under a dark mottled sky at end of day, a crowded Liberty ship cut through the waters of the Atlantic, on a zigzag course homebound. Charles Drooms leaned against the railing, his happiness increasing with each hour, each minute that brought him closer to Lillian.
From long practice, he scanned the horizon and sky for signs of the enemy, though his thoughts were with the one person who meant everything in the world to him. In his hands were well-worn photographs of Lillian and the boys, barely visible in the fading light.
He looked down at the family photo and thought of Tommy and Gabriel, thirteen and ten now – hard to believe. They were just little boys when he first met them four years ago. He smiled down at the photograph. He had missed out on nearly a whole year of their lives. They tugged at his heart in a way that surprised him. The strength of it. It couldn’t have been stronger had he been their real father, their blood father.
He slid the family picture behind his favorite photo – a close-up of Lillian, eyes on the camera, eyes on him. And a deeper tug pulled at him. Part love, part sorrow. My God, he thought, how he missed her and longed to hold her again.
He tried not to think about the distance that had come between them on his last visit. The orders for him to fly back to Europe had come sooner than expected and they hadn’t had time to patch things up. He was left with a sense of remorse at having squandered precious time over things that didn’t matter. A senseless string of disagreements that he couldn’t even remember very well.
It started when he had inadvertently let it slip about his illness in the previous fall, and she was furious that he had kept it from her. And she was becoming worried they would not have children together. The war was making sure of that; they had so little time together. He tried to ignore the words she had said about his age having something to do with it. Rather than point out that it was just as likely to be her age that was an issue, he had kept silent. But then she had become angry at his silence, and one thing led to another. He remembered the two nights they had slept on separate sides of the bed – the first time ever. And then, just when he decided to address the issue, the call had come. And he had to leave.
Though they had tried to repair the rift with letters full of love and assurance, the thought had haunted him ever since. Had he taken something away from Lillian, in his own selfishness to have her? Would she have been happier with a younger man? Their age difference of ten years had never been an issue before, but now he questioned it.
He shifted his focus to this trip, and how he would make everything right. A week in Virginia for meetings and debriefing, and then home. Home. Christmas with the boys – a tree, their school play, perhaps a trip to Lillian’s sister upstate. And an early anniversary celebration. He smiled as he thought of the gift for her that he had found in an antique shop in London – a Victorian sapphire ring, set with tiny diamonds and seed pearls. It suited her perfectly.
He let out a deep sigh that was more like a moan. Yes, a month at home. But then, in all likelihood, he would head out to the West Coast, and on to the Pacific where they would, at continued great cost, conclude the war with Japan. The war in Europe was at last coming to an end. It had been a long, strife-filled year. In addition to fighting a relentless enemy, there had been the unexpected setbacks – mud and rain, the almost impassable ditches and dense hedgerows in Normandy, and now, terrible cold weather was setting in. But the end with Germany was in sight, and they could focus all efforts on Japan. Many more bitter years lay ahead. Like everyone, he was worn out, exhausted by the toll of war, disgusted at the degradation of humanity.
Charles put a halt to those thoughts and gazed again at the photographs. If he had to head to the Pacific, he hoped he could take a train out west, and stop by to see his sister Kate. It would be good to spend some time in the country, far away from the destructive horrors of war. He even entertained the idea of perhaps bringing Lillian and the boys with him.
He held the picture of Lillian closer to his eyes, and his lips softened in a smile. He had to put the photo away, or that expression of love in her eyes would begin to overwhelm him. One last look –
He became aware of footsteps approaching, and soon Corporal Willie Gannon was leaning against the railing next to him.
Willie pointed his chin to the horizon. “Staring out towards home isn’t going to make it come any faster.” He looked down at the image of Lillian. “Well, I’d be staring too, if I had that to go home to.”
Charles smiled. He was grateful that Willie wasn’t the type of soldier to add a comment like, “hope she hasn’t found someone else to warm her bed,” or one of the other comments that were bandied about. Couldn’t blame the men – so many of them had received Dear John letters.
Willie shook out a cigarette from his pack. “Smoke?” He always stood to the right of people, when possible. The right side of his face was puckered and twisted with scars from two years ago – El Alamein.
Charles declined the offer, but took the pack of matches from Willie and struck the match for him – a routine they had established since leaving port.
Charles slid the photos inside his jacket, placing a protective hand over them as was his habit. “Another few days, and we’ll be able to see the coastline.”
“We would have seen it by now if it weren’t for the damned U-boats – all this zig-zagging our way across the Atlantic. And yet we know they’re out there.” He, too, scanned the waters as he spoke. Then shook his head. “Bringing back a ship full of POWs. I can’t help thinking we got it all backwards. It should be full of our own men.”
“A few more months,” said Charles. “The war in Europe will soon be over, and then the ships will be full of our men.”
Willie gave a sarcastic laugh. “Right. On their way to the Pacific.”
Charles didn’t want to think about the years ahead. “Have you noticed? The POWs are getting younger and younger – and older. Young boys and old men. They look too dispirited to put up much of a fight.”
Willie took a long, slow draw on his cigarette, and blew the smoke out the side of his mouth. “Oh, there’s some dangerous ones among them. You can feel it in the way they look at you – they’d love nothing more than to put a knife in your gut. But yeah, the younger ones.” He shook his head again. “You can hear them at night crying for their mothers. ‘Mutti, Mutti.’ Kids, some of them. Breaks your heart. And most of them have nothing to go back home to when it’s finally all over. Just a bunch of rubble. But serves the bastards right. They all should have stood up to Hitler years ago. And none of this would’ve happened.”
They ignored the fact that when trouble started with Hitler, some of these prisoners were small children.
A deep cough overtook Charles for a moment.
“Good thing you don’t smoke,” Willie said. He studied Charles for a moment. “You okay? You look beat.”
“Fine, fine. Nothing a good night’s sleep won’t fix.”
Willie took a few more pulls on his cigarette, and then flicked it into the churning waters below. “Well, don’t stay out too late, old man. You’ll miss chow.”
Charles smiled at Willie as he left, avoiding looking at the missing arm that was sending the young man home.
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