How could life be better? We just declared War on Japan and Germany six months ago, and I’m ready to fight. I walk to the edge of the diving board, peer down ten feet, then take a step back. Without any effort, I swing myself up into a handstand at the tip of the board.
“Hey Harry, stop showing off,” an army officer calls up to me. “You’re going to make us all look bad in front of the gorgeous dames down here.”
The other fellas watch me as I release my grip on the board. Slicing cleanly into the still water, I feel the molecules part like lightening in a thunderstorm. Seconds later, I surface at the edge of the pool, where my buddies nurse bottles of Coca-Cola.
“Who’s next?” I challenge, then hoist myself out of the swimming pool in one easy motion. Spotting the young officer whose army cap shades his face while he bends over to fill his pipe, I yell, “Hey Bob, is it really you?” I push through the others, wet suit and all, then grab my best friend in a relaxed choke-hold. “When did you get home from the front?” I shake the water out of my hair, showering the others.
Bob Clarke good-naturedly flicks drops of water off his uniform, then resumes lighting his pipe. In between puffs, he quietly asks, “So, when are you going to join me, Harry? Hitler’s making a mess of things over there. We need men like you, who are ready to take control and make decisions.”
Randy Polowski, a tall, lanky Polack from the east side, complains about the water I splashed on him. “Hey, I got a dog at home that’s better trained than you.” He throws me a towel, then turns to Bob. “What about the rest of us?” he asks. “We’re not good enough to keep you company on the front?” He looks to the others to back him. “Well, make room for me, anyway, because I got my Navy letter last week.” He boasts while upturning imaginary lapels on his t- shirt.
Nothing beats pledging your honor to your country and fighting side-by-side in a foreign country with your buddies. The thrill of it makes life worth living. Even Marco Fazio and Joseph Graf, two Richmond boys with parents from the mother countries of Italy and Germany, didn’t let paperwork get in the way of patriotism.
“When they heard I visited relatives in Germany every summer, they sent me to the front of the recruitment line,” Joseph brags.
“Didn’t even know I could speak Italian,” Marco jokes, “until the conscription jockey asked me, ‘En che anno nato?’ Talking just like my grandma. It felt like I was in the old Sicilian village. I expected him to show me where to start chopping onions.”
At the mention of Uncle Sam, I decide it’s time to go. I edge to the back of the group while war talk hypnotizes the others. I haven’t told anyone that I’ve been forced along a different course, and I have no intention of sharing that news now.
Bob grabs my elbow as I try to slip away. “You can’t sneak out that easy. You never answered my question. When are you going to sign up?”
I swallow a laugh. “Can’t you let a fella change out of his wet clothes without interrogating him?” I shake my head and try to push the uncertainty from my voice. “I asked for front line duty. You’d think they’d give anyone a rifle to kill those Krauts and Japs. And I’d be good at it!” Knowing I can’t lie to Bob, I add, “But they found out about Ma’s polio.”
I resent being treated differently, so I continue complaining to Bob. “They’re pampering me like I’m a wimp. I got a desk job,” I feel my face flush with embarrassment. Clenching my fist, I look for something to smash. “But I haven’t given up. I’ll get a piece of the action one way or another.”
Bob slings a fraternal arm around my shoulder and says, “They put you on an office track because they saw something in you that the rest of us don’t have.”
“What’s that?” I ask, still annoyed and shrugging off Bob’s support. “A father who sleeps it off curled up in the back hall, bottle in hand, locked out of his own house? I didn’t get to be a kid because of him. Now Uncle Sam’s trying to steal my right to be a real man. Will I ever get a say in how my life is run?”
“I’ll bet it has nothing to do with your mom,” Bob answers, then puffs on his pipe.
If Bob is right, it means I got shanghaied from active duty because of something else.
Why didn’t they give me combat duty like all the other guys?
“Get this.” I throw the wet towel on the ground. “When I went to sign up at the induction center, some clown came out of his office and called out for Harry Flynn. When I raised my hand, the joker said, ‘Son, you have mighty fine handwriting. That’s a talent we need.’”
My body blocks Bob from escaping my tirade. “Handwriting?” I sneer. “While you’re putting your life on the line, I’m going to be a Goddamn secretary.”
For a long moment, silence stands between us. I feel humiliation strain through every muscle, then I relax as I see a way I can twist this to my advantage. I wrap my still-wet arm around Bob’s shoulder, relieved and smiling for the first time in days. I say, “On the other hand, he who holds the pen holds the power.” It doesn’t occur to me how the truth in those words could stalk me for the rest of my life.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish