William: Spring 1944
For the first time in his short life, William heard his parents yelling at one another. It wasn’t like the time his mommy barked “NO!” when he walked into the street without holding her hand. That had been quick and sharp, and over as fast as it had started.
What penetrated the walls of his small bedroom flowed like a river swollen with too much rain. Loud, meaningless words raced back and forth, first from his mother and then from his father. Try as he might, his mind could not catch the sounds and turn them into comprehensible sentences. Perhaps they were using the words Oma used when she sang songs from something she called the Old Country. Except sprinkled among the unfamiliar words were those he understood. Words like “father” and “please” and “Jacob” were all tangled up with syllables powerful enough to change his world.
On this night, the first of what would be many nights, the soothing sounds of whispers and laughter that always helped him drift off to sleep turned harsh and frightening. His mother was the machine gun he saw the time his parents took him to the picture show downtown. Bullets flew from her mouth, a staccato spray that hit his father squarely in the chest. He imagined his father slumping to the floor, dead like the soldiers who plagued his dreams for weeks, convincing his mother to never let him see the news reels again.
Then, without warning, his father spoke in a roar of thunder like the summer storms that sent William scampering into his parent’s bedroom in the middle of the night. With each boom, William imagined flashes of light streaking across the kitchen, lighting up his parent’s faces.
His mother no longer had soft arms, hair as warm sunshine, and a smile that made William warm inside. His father was no longer taller than the forest trees, yet gentle as the wind that blew his kite on a spring afternoon. Instead, they were cold, hard, and unsmiling, like the monsters hiding under his bed.
He wanted to stand up to determine what was happening, to try to understand the words, but his legs would not move. With no place to turn for comfort, he sunk deeper into his bed, pulled the covers up close to his chin with arms as wobbly as his lower lip, and held tightly to his birthday present. Brelli, though nothing more than the fake fur of a stuffed bear, would have to do. Eventually, the war in the kitchen ceased, and with another squeeze of his stuffed companion, he fell into a fitful sleep.
The sunlight danced on his eyelids, waking him to a quiet morning. Had the machine gun bursts and thunder been his imagination? Padding into the kitchen, he found his parents talking quietly, nothing out of place except his mother’s smile. She crouched low and wrapped her arms around his tiny shoulders in a good morning hug. Then she helped him into his chair and pushed a bowl of warm oatmeal across the wooden table.
Silence reigned, except for the scrape of chairs on the floor and the small boy’s spoon hitting the side of the metal bowl. His father sat with his head bent low over his hands. William straightened in his chair, struggling to identify what his father held that captured his attention so completely, but there was nothing except two calloused hands clasped tightly together in his father’s lap.
Before William finished his oatmeal, his daddy muttered “Goodbye” in a voice sounding like a radio show announcer instead of his own father. Then he left the room without any kisses or hugs. William couldn’t remember a time when his daddy hadn’t kissed them both goodbye. He pushed his oatmeal away, unable to swallow, and studied his own hands like he had seen his daddy do.
That night, after being tucked into bed, the sounds began again. Rapid machine gun fire from his mother followed by thunder and lightning from his father. This time, however, the voices stopped abruptly when a door slammed so forcefully that his bed shook. He held his breath, the silence surrounding him, until a small noise that sounded like the hurt bunny they nursed back to health last spring seeped under the door. He couldn’t have known it was the sound of his mother crying.
During the day, William’s world continued like normal. He would eat and play. His mother would dote on him. His father would come home from work in time for the evening meal. They would spend time together before he went to bed with a goodnight kiss. But at night, his world turned upside down as he tried to block out the noise and the monster-like visions of his parents.
Then, one morning, instead of the usual breakfast followed by his father’s daily departure, William’s parents sat him down on the living room sofa. The corners of William’s mouth tugged into a grin. He rarely got to sit on the sofa with its white and gray stripes dotted with hundreds of pink flowers because mommy didn’t want him ruining the pretty material. William dreamed of driving his cars from flower to flower, but, as he learned, sofas were for sitting and sitting only.
William glanced around the room, looking for the reason for the unexpected treat. When he realized there were no visitors, and he had not been instructed to wash his sticky fingers after his pancakes, his heart thumped in his chest as though he had been running instead of eating breakfast.
He didn’t know what was happening, but everything was wrong, exactly like the loud voices in the night. Tightening his fingers into balls, he glanced sideways at his parents, fully expecting them to transform into the monsters he imagined them to be in the night.
But instead of turning into a monster, his daddy simply began to talk. With each passing second, his mommy’s face puckered, and tears leaked from her eyes, making two tiny trails across her cheeks, down her neck, and onto her soft pink sweater. The sight of his mother crying was worse than imagining her with a machine gun and made it difficult to focus on his daddy’s words.
“I’m leaving…fight in the war…Show I am a patriot…Japanese…It is up to me to keep us free…” The more his daddy talked, the more his mommy cried, the wet spots growing larger on her sweater.
What did his daddy mean? What was Japanese? War? Patriot? Freedom? Why was his daddy using those powerful words of the night? The only thing he understood were the words “I’m leaving,” and there was nothing else for a boy of almost four to understand. He, too, began to cry, creating his own wet patches on the shoulders of his plaid pajamas. Before long, his daddy joined in as well.
William was never quite sure how much time passed since their talk on the floral sofa and the day his father left for the war. In many ways, life went back to normal. Mommy and Daddy no longer argued in the night, and, like before, they kissed each morning as Daddy left for work. But his mommy’s soft smile was still missing, prompting him to climb up onto the bathroom sink to look at himself in the tiny square of a mirror. With solemn eyes, he noted his smile was missing, too. He wondered if their smiles were going to war with Daddy.
Without warning, William woke one morning to voices in the kitchen. He recognized Uncle Otto’s voice and went racing out to say hello and receive the treat his uncle never failed to bring with him. A piece of root beer flavored stick candy appeared out of his pocket after he swung William in a wide arc that made his breath stick in his throat.
As he unwrapped his candy, he looked around, surprised so many other people gathered in the kitchen before breakfast. Grandma and Grandpa Phillips were there. He didn’t know they were coming from their home far away for a visit. But before he ran to them, his Oma Elisabet came into view. Despite living around the corner, Oma never came to their house. Instead, he went to her tiny apartment which smelled of chocolate and marzipan.
The smile on his face scampered back to its hiding place. He spied his father sitting in a chair with a bag at his feet. Then he understood. Today was the day his father left for the war.
Although his mommy made a delicious breakfast with sweetbreads, eggs, and bacon, all his favorites, William was not hungry. He pushed food around with his fork, watching everyone cautiously. He still didn’t understand how long his daddy would be gone. He had been told “Not long,” or “Until the war ends” but never an exact number of days.
When Grandma and Grandpa Phillips went home after a visit, Mommy would say they would be back again before long. “Before long” usually lasted from Thanksgiving time until the apple tree in the yard blossomed. Is that how long Daddy would be gone? Would he miss Christmas and his birthday like his grandparents?
After breakfast, Uncle Otto leaned down toward William. In a quiet whisper, he said, “Your daddy needs you to be the man of the house while he is gone. It is going to be up to you to take care of your mommy.” Then he said, “Don’t cry, William. Your daddy doesn’t need to see you cry as he goes off to war. You need to be a big soldier.”
William was an obedient boy. He would not cry. He would be the big soldier like he was asked.
With a bit of jostling and maneuvering, they piled into the car and headed to the train station. William had never been in a car with so many people, nor had he ever ridden in his daddy’s car with Uncle Otto driving. Grandma and Grandpa sat in the front with Uncle Otto, and Mommy, Daddy, and Oma crowded into the back with William. He sat on his daddy’s knee, pressed against his mommy, while the buildings flew by the small side window.
He had been to the train station many times before. The squat green building next to the track was always full of people with suitcases scurrying from one place to another. However, his favorite parts of the station were the shiny black steam engines and the long cars trailing behind. He would point to trains carrying loads of lumber from the lumberyard where Daddy worked and others carrying stone from the quarry. He would count the cars as they passed, but once he reached 12, William would let his daddy take over because all the numbers after 12 confused him. He longed for the day when he would be able to count as high as his father.
Today, as Otto parked the car and everyone piled out of the open doors, an unidentifiable emotion planted itself firmly in William’s gut. All around them, people hugged and cried and said goodbye. Smiles mingled with tears and ‘I love yous.’ Patriotism mingled with heartache. Loyalty mingled with selfishness. Soldiers, fathers, brothers, sons stood amid the fluttering American flags strung between the platform’s timbers.
William was too young to understand the emotion that permeated the train station. How does a four-year-old describe grief, uncertainty, fear, longing, and a smidgen of ‘patriotic soldier’ all rolled into one little boy’s heart? From that day forward, trains would forever be linked with the sorrow of goodbye and the American flag would remind him of his father.
He regarded a boy about his age holding his own father’s hand. As his father picked him up, both began to cry. William’s mouth opened and his eyes widened. Didn’t the boy know that crying was not allowed when you sent your daddy off to war? He wanted to tell him the rule, but the sound of Oma crying brought his attention squarely back to his own family.
His daddy hugged Oma, and she tried to talk between her sobs. “Jacob, I don’t…want to…lose you the way…I lost your…father…Oh, Jacob!” William wasn’t sure what she meant, unless it was like losing one of his metal cars. Tears sprang to his eyes. He didn’t want that happening to his daddy. If he lost his daddy like his best yellow car, he would have to cry, wouldn’t he?
Next, Daddy turned to Grandma and Grandpa Phillips. He hugged them both tightly and thanked them for taking care of his wife and child. They, too, began to cry.
Tears welled up in William’s eyes, but he closed them tightly. “Brave soldiers do not cry. Daddy needs me to be a brave soldier.” He opened his eyes again as his daddy turned to Uncle Otto. Both gave each other thumping slaps on the back as they tried to hold back the tears. Both, however, were unsuccessful.
Turning to his mommy, Daddy’s tears flowed freely. He held her in his arms and murmured things William could not hear. He wondered if they were secrets, but if so, they were not happy ones because his mommy continued crying. She looked so little in Daddy’s arms. Would she be able to take care of him while Daddy went to war? How would she do things that only daddy’s who are tall as the trees can do?
He tried to swallow, but something reminding him of a jagged rock from the quarry where Daddy took him swimming was in the way, making his throat ache. His eyes kept threatening to spill over, making it hard to see. But he had promised. Big soldier. Brave soldier. His daddy was going to war. His tiny mother with the sunshine hair needed him to be the man of the house. His tall as the trees father needed him to be a brave soldier. He would not cry.
Finally, his daddy squatted down and scooped William into his arms. He held him so tightly that had the rock not been in this throat, he was sure his few bites of breakfast would have popped out the top. He put his head on his daddy’s shoulder, forcing the tears to stay inside his eyes, while his daddy cried into his hair, making streaks on William’s cheeks.
He whispered to William like he had whispered to Mommy. He told him secrets, but these secrets were not sad like Mommy’s secrets. They were words that made him brave. His daddy trusted him to take care of his mommy and be a soldier just like him.
Without warning, the train whistle blew, startling everyone on the platform. Passengers, mostly men heading off to war, gathered their things and moved toward the train. Without another look at his family, his duffle slung over his shoulder, his daddy handed a ticket to the uniformed man on the train. The whistle blew one final time and began to move slowly down the tracks.
Puffs of black smoke bellowed out of the engine, spilling gray ashes across the brims of the hats and shoulders of the families left behind. Everyone, William included, frantically waved at the train until there was nothing left but a few distant puffs of smoke.
His thoughts, as he walked dry-eyed back to the car with nothing but his father’s words echoing in his ears, were that Uncle Otto told the wrong people not to cry.