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.
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