E. Martin Pedersen

Issue No. 19 • Spring 2018

 

When I was eleven, I wanted a bicycle, a stingray I saw in a shop window with a sparkly blue banana seat and chopper handlebars.

My mother drove me in our new-used '66 Fairlane to the newspaper office and helped me ask how to become a paperboy. There, the secretary took the completed application form over the counter, with my brand new social security number and signature on it, and told me to come back to a carrier meeting on Saturday. I got a route which included the part of town north of my street, W. Forster Avenue, with parts of downtown, including the court house and city hall.

At first, I borrowed David Kennelworth’s bike from across the street. It took me most of a year, at about ten dollars a month, before I could buy my own pet bike and a transistor radio with an earphone.

On the front lawn, David and I took pictures of ourselves with his Brownie camera in karate poses like Cato of the Green Hornet TV show. We loved the Green Hornet, which was on Fridays at 7 pm, and we loved Cato played by Bruce Lee. I still have those square black-and-white photos of me and David Kennelworth, knees bent, chopping the air.

Some guy in a station-wagon dumped a stack of papers tied with string in front of my house every day after school. I rolled each one up, put a rubber band on it, stacked them in my canvas double bag that fit over my head, took my list of addresses and David’s bike, and rode off about four o'clock tossing papers on lawns, trying to make it home for dinner by six.

The last week of each month, I’d ride out again after supper, ring doorbells and yell through the door, “Collecting for the Tribune!” The customers would give me their $1.75, and I put it in my belt pouch to turn in to the newspaper office. If someone didn’t pay up, their subscription came out of my pay, and their service got terminated. The public offices and businesses paid directly to the paper.

I liked going into buildings, such as the county courthouse, because they were air-conditioned and had a drinking fountain. Plus, I got a glimpse of civic life walking the long corridors.

Downtown over the shoe repair shop, there were some small apartments. I left a paper in the mailbox of Mr. R. Freeman by the old red wood door that opened with a buzzer. When I’d go collecting, Mr. Freeman would yell at me to come on up. He opened his door a crack and handed me my money. I saw he had a thin beard like a beatnik, wore glasses but no tie, had a fat belly, and he smelled bad like sour milk and cigarette ashes.

One time I walked up the dark stairs and down the dark hall to apt. 5 whose door was open. Mr. Freeman yelled at me to come on in. “Collecting for the Tribune,” I said. I felt very uncomfortable entering his messy place and closing the door as he told me to. He rumbled around in the bedroom trying to find his wallet, and I could see an unmade single bed and a chipped dresser. In the small living room, there were lots of books and papers and boxes lying around in stacks, a big table in the center with a big black typewriter on it and plates, glasses, ashtrays and coffee mugs. Newspapers filled every corner; I guess he never threw them away. Mr. Freeman had been eating, cutting a brick of cheddar cheese onto saltines with a sharp knife, not a kitchen knife. His plate sat on some papers.

“How much again?”

“$1.75.”

“Okay, here’s $2.00. Have you got change?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m a writer, you know? Not for the Tribune, just a writer. This is how a writer lives.”

The bathroom door was wide open.

“You like reading?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Want to read a story of mine? It’s set in 1942 during the Second World War. Here. It was printed in Reader’s Digest. Do you read Reader’s Digest?”

“Yeah, maybe, sometimes … at the dentist.”

“Here’s a Reader’s Digest reprint of my story. You read it and tell me what you think, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Tell me what you think. I want to know.”

I was glad to get out of there. For the next two years, I never collected from Mr. Freeman again, though I delivered his paper every day. I didn’t want him to invite me inside his place again or ask what I thought of his story.

I still have it though, and I have read it several times. It’s not so bad.

Decades have passed, yet I cannot eat orange cheddar on crackers without thinking of Mr. Freeman in his writer’s apartment.

Wiggy saw that dot so small, so far out in the waves. She frantically flipped off her shoes and ran until the white froth slowed her and then dove into a wimpy wave and swam with clean strokes, head down, through a bigger breaker. The gray saltwater of 6 a.m. was icy even for San Diego, and the chill pushed her more urgently toward her best girlfriend, Elly Mayfield. Oh God, Elly, come back.

Elly didn’t seem to be swimming at all, just bobbing as they had done many times before, but Wiggy had seen the pumps and shift and slip and brassiere and underpanties on the beach, instantly jumping to a terrifying conclusion. She could see the back of Elly’s head about fifty feet out, faced toward Asia. “Elly!” she yelled. No answer, no movement. She swam on as hard as she could. “ELLY!” and the head turned. Wiggy waved, Elly waved back. They swam toward each other.

“What’s the matter?” Wiggy yelled at twenty feet.

“What’s the matter?” Elly answered.

They came closer.

“You’re stark naked!” Wiggy exclaimed.

“You’re swimming with your clothes on!” Elly answered.

They joined in a clumsy wet embrace.

“I was worried, I saw your clothes, after what happened, you know …” Wiggy choked.

“You’re whacky Wig, you needn’t worry about me. I just wanted some refreshment, some freedom; I needed to wake up. Did you really think I wanted to do myself in or something?”

“Yo!”

“What? Over Hank? You must be kidding. There’re plenty of other men, you know?” Elly responded.

“That’s not what you said last night.”

“I’ve rinsed out my brain since last night. I’m not about to die over love. It’s not worth it, Hank’s sure not worth it. Plenty of fish out here in the sea, you know? I’ll just have to take up fishing again.”

“That’s the spirit! That’s my doll! Now let’s get back, I’m freezing my backside off!”

“I’ll race you.”

“No, El, I can’t. I’m tuckered.”

“Oh, poor baby, all my fault.”

“Elly,” Wiggy said, looking under the water, “you’re stark naked!”

“That’s right,” Elly replied, “just me and my birthday suit. Isn’t it a glorious day?”

“If you say so. But you buy the java.”

Eleanor's best friend Wiggy had gotten her into this. The sailors were leaving from Coronado Island Naval Air Station, and, while they went through their physicals, paperwork, and orientation, the girls cheered them up with talk, jukebox dancing, newspapers, cigarettes, lemonade and doughnuts. Processing took several days, so the volunteer girls got to know some of the recruits by name, and sailors can be awfully cute. The U.S.O. wore yellow uniforms trimmed in green.

Elly, the toughest nut to crack, seemed indifferent to all that masculine charm. Her smile was always sincere, and her detection of justified fear made her the favorite confidante. Some boys thought they were going off to summer camp; the smart ones knew they were going to kill or be killed. So one last look into sympathetic peepers (hazel, in Elly’s case) made a world of difference. Later, a few wrote to Elly from the Pacific. She wrote back but didn’t lose her cool.

Elly felt she had a duty to contribute all she could to the war effort. “Why should the boys make all the sacrifices, while we girls stay here and play house?” was her classic remark. She went to war along with the boys and viewed her service in the U.S.O. as the highest form of moral support. Afterwards, she hoped to go to college. But after the war didn’t exist during the war.

The first time that Elly heard someone raise an intelligent question about the armed conflict, she was having lunch with Wiggy and Sondra at the same table as sun-tanned Junior Medical Officer, Henry Longman, of Tucson, Arizona. The New York Times, he said, had published an editorial implying that Roosevelt might have been forewarned about the Pearl Harbor attack. “Personally,” he claimed, “I hope it isn’t true because that would mean that the President allowed it to happen in order to eliminate all longing for neutrality and get us smack dab in the middle of conflicts in Europe and the Pacific at the same time.”

“Wars are not won with guns,” Longman continued, “but with hearts. If the U.S. has the stronger will we can defeat anyone, but the price will be high, too high to accept if our hearts are weak.” Elly, furious at this seeming lack of patriotism, blurted out, “Is your heart strong or weak, Dr. Longman?”

“Well, I’m no cardiologist, young lady …”

“Elly Mayfield.”

“Call me Hank.”

“Go on.”

“I think that my heart is with our effort to eliminate totalitarianism from the face of the earth.”

“Meaning?”

“I mean Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito, the evil dictators, must be stopped for the survival of freedom and of the legitimate governments of the world. They are also diabolical mass-murderers who deserve death along with their armed forces. Stalin and Mao Tse Tung aren’t much better.”

“Well, it’s good to know you’re on our side then!”

“I did have some reservations in the past because we were debating whether or not to get into a European war to save European countries being attacked by other European countries, and I was not entirely convinced that that was our role as a sovereign nation.”

“And what changed your mind, Pearl Harbor?”

“I was worried that our boys would be killed. One thing is to fight your own fights, another thing is to fight the fights of others …”

“So?”

“Elly!” Wiggy butted in to scold Elly for her rudeness towards an officer.

“A couple years ago, it’s true, I was an isolationist. My thinking on the subject changed when I realized we were fighting for principles against other principles, and that the fight, if won, would save millions of lives from oppression and misery. I have come to see the war as prevention of an even more catastrophic future.”

Elly hadn’t understood completely, but her initial impression that the doctor was some sort of traitor was softened by his reasoning, his low voice and his handsome, delicate hands.

“Then, may I ask you, Dr. Hank, what you did when you realized that our country was doing the right thing?”

“I enrolled that day.”

“You said it was two years ago.”

“They wouldn’t take me because I was still in medical school. Now that I’m a doctor, I can go practice patching up our boys.”

It seemed like Hank Longman’s heart was in the right place after all. His first concern was the safety and well-being of his men, but at the same time he supported the war not because he’d read slogans on matchbooks, but because he truly believed in it.

“May I get you some pie, Dr. Hank?”

“Only if you just call me Hank, and I like cherry or apple if you’ve got any.”

When she returned balancing a whole green apple pie and a pot of coffee to refill the group, Hank and Wiggy had been talking but shut up. Elly grew suspicious. Wiggy and Sondra made an excuse and left. Hank had the afternoon off and wanted to go driving along the blue ocean that was new for him and would Elly like to come along? She could; her shift was over; her parents weren’t expecting her till suppertime. She even had a flowered bathing costume in her purse. But could she trust this stranger?

In the spirit of the times, she went. They had a wonderful afternoon, talking and laughing, sunbathing and driving in the warmth and the pungent odor of salt. At about 5 p.m., Hank said, “I should be getting you home, how would you like to go out to a movie together some time?”

“Like next weekend? You’ll be gone, silly goose.”

“I know, it’s awkward for me to have to speed things ahead, but …”

“If you stop at a phone booth and let me call home I’ll give you an answer.”

They didn’t go see a picture show; they drove up to the top of a hill, sat on the hood of the navy Buick, and when the red sun went down on the ocean they hugged. And as night approached, they kissed. Hank was waiting for Elly the next day in the mess hall.

“Hi there, sailor,” she said, walking in on air, “could I interest you in a home-cooked meal this evening?”  It would be his last supper stateside. He imagined that Elly's mother would make a pot roast and vegetables and homemade bread as a gesture of support for the armed forces, but Elly was also inviting him to meet her folks because he might be the one. Hank accepted without hesitation. In those days, all decisions were yes or no and right there and then.

Elly was tickled. They spent the afternoon swimming at the beach on Coronado Island because Hank could not get the car again. Then they took the bus down to La Jolla where Elly lived. As he entered the Mayfield house, Hank exclaimed, “That, Mrs. Mayfield, is the marvelous odor of pot roast.” Elly introduced her folks and little brother, Scoot. Her father wore a green and brown plaid shirt and smoked a pipe. He worked at U.C. as a marine biologist, a clam specialist. The supper was perfect, and Hank said so several times.

The whole evening was perfect. They all listened to Jack Benny and ‘The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show’ and when ‘The Shadow’ came on the youngsters went out to rock on the porch swing.

“Should we say the word?"

“Tomorrow?”

“Uh huh.”

“Tomorrow will be a sad day for me, Dr. Hank, but I guess a woman’s fate is that her man is always coming and going.”

“Yes, but I will return. I will return to you, Elly. I’m sweet on you. When I go off tomorrow just pretend that I’m George Burns going off to work in the morning, and I’ll be home for supper, Gracie, only that it will be a very very long day.”

“Hank, there’s never been another man, and there never will be. I love you, and I will wait for you until hell freezes over.”

“It seems like we’ve known each other all our lives.”

“Doesn’t it!”

“Could you ask your father to call me a cab? I don’t want to keep you up too late.”

“No, don’t go so soon. It’s our last night together.”

“It’s almost midnight, Elly, so it’s not our last night. It’s our first morning.”

Mr. Mayfield called a yellow cab while Hank and Elly kissed and embraced long and hard on the porch swing. Tears filled their eyes. The cab drove up, and Dr. Longman was off to war to do his part helping defeat the Japs. Elly cried into her pillow all night long. She arrived late on the base the next morning. At lunch, when she entered the mess hall and Hank was not there, she walked out and didn’t eat. She couldn’t touch her leftover pot roast at dinner and couldn’t explain why.

“Did he mention marriage?”

“He implied it.”

“Oh, pally, that’s the oldest trick in the book.”

“Not Hank’s book. He’s true, I’m 100% certain.”

“Then you really will wait for him?”

“Of course I will. As long as it takes.”

“Wow!”

The girls: Wiggy, Sondra, Marilyn, Bev and the rest, all had boyfriends one after the other. But they were the good girls, not like gold-digger Liz Beaumont and her gang who would let any man do anything he wanted with them.

Wiggy told Elly a story one day while they were scrubbing out the coffee cauldron:

“When I was at Mission High, my best friend’s name was Betty Cromwell. We studied together and slept over, the works. And in my Junior year, I fell for this guy named Steve Clegg, who was half-Jewish and a football player. Anyway, Steve was a swell kid and cute as a bug’s ear too. I went out with Steve for about two months, and Betty set up a double date for us. That evening, she seemed really flirty with her paws all over Steve, but I thought she might not be used to drinking beer. Honey, the beer had nothing to do with it.

“Betty had had eyes on my Steve for a while and been planning how to snatch him away from me. And he fell under her spell like a chump, because when a phony floozy pads her bra and winks her eyelashes at a dumb boy he’ll fall for it like a sucker every time. But losing Steve to Betty didn’t upset me as much as her devious falsity. Or not even that: she ruined our relationship; she ruined everything. Then she and Steve broke up in the summer. Betty and I never spoke after that. Squat.”

“You mean ‘love kills,’ something like that?”

“I don’t know what I mean, it’s just a story.”

“Okay.”

Elly got her first letter from Hank after he’d been out of port ten days:

 

My Dear Elly,

Life on board ship is boring beyond words for everyone except me. I have you. I think of you constantly, morning, noon and night. Elly Mayfield, you conquered me. My heart is yours. Your strength, companionship and beauty are mine.

Yours most truly,

Hank Longman


Dear Hank,

Thank you very much for your kindly intimate letter. I cried when I read it the first time and every time. Please excuse me if I am not a proliferous letter writer (is that a word?) but I would rather speak to you in person holding hands on the porch swing like on our last night together. We will soon.

With deep affection,

Elly


Dearest Elly,

Also your letter was lovely. As you can imagine I can’t say anything about where we are or what is happening, but I can say that I am well and that I love you very much.

Yours most truly,

Hank Longman


Dear Hank, my boy,

We have lots of work to do here at the U.S.O., but I also think of you constantly. I think you have understood what sort of gal I am. In high school the others made fun of me because of my straight A’s and because I didn’t have loads of boyfriends. I didn’t care, I said I would rather wait until the right guy comes along, and then I met you.

Bye and a squeeze,

Elly


Dear El,

I’ll take a sec to jot a short note to you. As you’ve probably heard things have gotten intense quite suddenly. I’m fine and busy doing my best, which is all I can do. I realize that I still have a lot to learn about my profession as I am called to intervene in areas (especially surgery) that I was not specifically trained for. You know me, I like a challenge and only wish I were not always so tired.

Yours, now & forever,

Hank


My Dear Hank,

I’m sorry to hear you’re so busy that you’re not getting your proper sleep. It must be awful to do such delicate work when you’re not fresh (surgery? I thought general practitioners didn’t do surgery. I guess you do whatever needs doing, that’s so like you.).

With love,

Elly


Dear Hank,

I read that your ship was hit. I’m worried sick about you. Please write, wire or call me as soon as you’re able so I can relax knowing you’re safe. I pray for you every night as does all the Wesleyan Fellowship at my church.

Your girl,

Elly


Dear Elly,

I’m well, though we’ve had some trouble here. Gotta go, all my love,

Hank


Dear Hank,

Thank you for your note scribbled in haste (are doctors required to write so illegibly? ha ha). I am greatly relieved that you’re okay.

I would do anything to see you again and hide my face in your neck and kiss your eyes.

Yours, really yours,

Elly


Dear Elly,

When I finally get a moment to lay on my bunk and think, I try to remember your face and all the love I feel for you (by the way, please send me your picture). Wish I were in San Diego with you.

Your Lieutenant (yes, I got a promotion),

Hank


Dear Lootenant Hank,

Congratulations, I’m certain your promotion is well deserved. You’re a great doctor and a great man! I’m so proud of you, I’ve told everyone I know. Wiggy says hello and my parents do too.

Your loving Elly


Dear Elly,

Just a short note to tell you the sad news that my father died last month. I got a quick leave and returned to Tucson, though not in time for the funeral. My mother is anxious to meet you.

All my love,

H.


Dear Hank,

I’m so sorry about your father.

My sailor boys here tell me that your bereavement leave uses up your time off for the current year and, although I’m ashamed of my selfishness, that means we won’t see each other again for a long long time. I’m terrible I know, but I so wish you were near.

With much love and condolences, from my parents too,

Elly


Dear El,

When I was home in Tucson a couple months ago I realized how much I like Tucson. I like my town, the southwest Indian culture, the dry warm clime. It’s a small town, we all know each other, nothing compared to San Diego, but friendly and special. Cactus even grow in our backyards! I wish you could see it. Would you miss the sea too much? I keep dreaming of an abode house with pink and blue curtains.

Your best boy,

Hank


Dear Hank,

I’d love to see Tucson and the Indian adobes and the cacti (Dad tells me that’s the plural). Honest Injun! Darling, with you, any place on earth would be great! I love the sea, my father always took me digging clams and wading in the tide pools when I was a kid. Please win this war soon, Lt. Longman. I wanted to send you my picture but all I have are a strip Wiggy and I made in the automatic machine here in S.D. I don’t think you care for a picture of myself and Wiggy with our tongues out, or do you?

I’ll try to have a lady-like photo made soon.

Yours,

Elly


Dear Hank,

Hi sweetheart, long time, no news. Instead of the usual mush, let me relate an incident that happened at the U.S.O. yesterday. It’s nothing compared to the blood and guts that are your daily bread (sorry about the mixed metaphors), but I’ll tell you anyway.

A boy came in to us, a small fellow named Ross, he looked about 15. His issued uniform was so big he had to tilt his cap back. When I offered him doughnuts and coffee he wasn’t interested in food in the slightest. That’s unusual. I said jokingly that every condemned man has the right to a last meal. It was a cruel joke and so true that I stunned myself. When he was called for his physical exams he was AWOL. I knew who he was so I went looking for him. He was not in the bathroom (another sailor checked), he wasn’t in the big hall or outside; he seemed to have gone, but something about his strange panic worried me. I went upstairs to the offices and there was no one around but passing one open door I saw an open window so I stuck out my head and saw the boy on a ledge ready to jump—just like in the movies. I leaned out and called him. I said my name was Elly Mayfield and I needed to talk to him. He didn’t answer or move so I told him to come back inside or I’d come out. He was frozen. I sat backwards on the sill with only my hands and legs inside and told him to turn his head and look at me. At one point I yelled to shock him. Then when I had his attention I told him about my boyfriend, a marvelous doctor who was in the Pacific fighting the War. I went on and on about you, and I asked him if he would take a message to you. If and when the two of you met, if he would promise to tell you that Elly loves you very much, and I made him promise. So since he had promised I went inside and said I’d wait for him downstairs with a soda pop and coconut pie, his favorite. He came down about 10 minutes later and I didn’t tell anyone that he’d been on the verge of suicide from fear of joining the Navy.

Later on I told Mom and Wiggy, I tell them everything. If a sailor ever comes to you bringing my message of love please thank him for me (his name is not really Ross, you’ll see).

Your daredevil girl,

Elly


Dear El,

Sorry I haven’t written in so long. Things are hellish here. I’m on another ship as ours was torpedoed and sunk, but most of the crew is safe. On the hospital ship we see the worst nightmares. I hate the damned Japs for what they do to our boys when they’re captured! Anyway, thanks for the prayers and your letters of encouragement,

Hank


Dear Hank,

Maybe my story of the distraught sailor seemed like sentimental nonsense compared to what you’re seeing every day. I don’t know what to say. I feel so for you and your safety.

A big long hug,

Elly


Dear Hank,

Are you okay? I’ve written several times with no response. Are you getting my letters? Six months, no news! I’m worried sick. Please answer if you can. I’ve enclosed a recent photo.

Your concerned gal,

Elly Mayfield


Dear Elly,

I’m sorry I haven’t written before, please accept my sincerest apologies. War has a very disturbing effect on us weak mortals. I was on the aircraft carrier, the Arizona, then was transferred to the hospital ship, the Saratoga, last year. There I met a nurse, Sally, and, to put it bluntly because I don’t know any other way, we’re engaged to be married. We’re even thinking about having the chaplain tie the knot so that if anything happens we’ll be husband and wife in any case. I know this news must hurt you terribly but remember that we really only knew each other for two days. It would never have worked out. I’ve aged twenty years since then.

For now I’ve begun a second tour of duty and then my dream is to return to private practice in Tucson after the war.

Please don’t write me anymore. I’m sorry.

Hank

 

Wiggy came to the volunteers’ table with two glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice.

“Here, drink this. You have to drink, you have to eat, Elly, for gosh-sake, it’s only a man!”

“Hank was not only a man. He talked about curtains, pink and blue! That means starting a family—with me, Wig! He was not just a man; he was the man!”

“He was a rat, a low-down dirty rat!"

“I loved him.”

“Well, he evidently didn’t love you, did he?”

“Yes, he did.”

“He lied to you. He led you on.”

“Things changed.”

“You never went out, El, never even looked at another man. The best years of your life. How long would you have waited? Holding your breath, hoping your love was real.”

“It was.”

“Not for him!”

“For him too!”

“Elly, dammit! What is love to you anyway? Sometimes I think you live in some fairy land. A couple kisses, a false promise—true or false, no matter—and you stop living your life. You had no news for the longest time, while that cad was making whoopee with his nurse. What if the war goes on ten years? Would you wait forever? What if you’re an old woman when your prince charming comes home? You want to study literature; don’t you know that love is the ultimate fiction? An entire library of books and songs and moving pictures all to convince us that nothing else matters. When a person grows up, girl, they discover that everything else matters, and how! Maybe love is just a word; you never thought of that, Elly Mayfield? Financial support, first and foremost, moral support, being there when you need him, friendship, companionship, husbandhood, fatherhood, decency, dedication, loyalty—these things matter! Wake up, dreamer!”

“Shut up, Wiggy! Just shut up and leave me alone! Without love how can you live? What’s the point? You’re jaded, that’s what you are. I hate you!”

As Elly stomped out, Wiggy yelled after her: “But Elly, you waited over two years for nothing, your heart in mothballs, can’t you see that you are completely off your head!”

The End