THE moment that I entered my house, my wife, who automatically opens all family mail, waved an envelope in my direction.
“We’re having a reunion,” she stated. There was a decided note of anticipation in her voice.
“Who’s having what reunion?” I asked, reaching for the envelope.
“All you old warriors of the 322 MFO Battalion,” she said. “It’s near Philly at some posh sounding country club.”
I fingered the envelope. A twinge of nostalgia touched me when I recognized our old battalion emblem in the corner, but, before it could crumble my defenses, I tossed the envelope casually on the table.
“What’s for supper?” I asked, affecting a nonchalance that was completely out of character.
Ellen was not deterred. Retrieving the envelope, she extracted a mimeographed letter and began to recite the details.
“It’s on Saturday night, October 10th, in the Fairway Room of the Whitehaven Country Club. Cocktails at six, dinner at 7:30, dancing until midnight, and though it doesn’t say so – gushing reminiscing till dawn. Sounds like fun.”
I knew I had to put a quick damper on her enthusiasm. Obviously, plans for a long weekend in Philadelphia were forming in her mind.
“Reunions are always disappointing,” I said, trying to sound as matter-of-fact as possible. Long ago I had learned not to be overly dogmatic with Ellen. I knew that my best strategy would be to underplay the whole thing.
For a split second she hesitated. I almost could hear her shifting mental gears.
“There’s never anyone you really want to see at these things,” I added quickly, “You know, the guys you were really close to.”
“You mean the ones you still send Christmas cards to – like that Italian fellow in Vinland and that Scotty what’s-his-name in Staten Island?”
“Yeah. Neither of them would be found dead at a reunion.”
For a moment she didn’t answer. I hung up my coat and removed my tie, watching her simultaneously from the corner of my eye. She went to the refrigerator, removed a cocktail shaker and two glasses, and poured two whiskey sours. There were cherries in the chilled glasses.
“Here you go,” she said casually. “Sip on this while I put the finishing touches on supper. We’ll discuss it later when you’ve had a chance to relax.”
Oh, Lord, I thought, cocktails before dinner! She really must have her heart set on a weekend away from the kids.
I carried the drink into the bedroom and, while changing clothes, debated whether or not to drink it. Her strategy was obvious: get me light-headed with a few drinks on an empty stomach and at the opportune moment – zap! – a commitment to go to the reunion. If I wanted to resist her maneuvering, I had to maintain strong defenses.
Quickly I slipped into the bathroom, poured most of the drink down the sink, and retreated to the den to read the paper.
Five minutes later she was at my elbow vigorously agitating the shaker.
“There’s a wee bit left,” she said, filling my glass to the brim, “can’t let liquid gold like this go to waste.”
Again I waited for several minutes before repeating my trip to the bathroom. Then I returned to the den to map out my own strategy.
After twenty years of marriage I knew that I couldn’t convince her that I had good reasons for not wanting to attend the reunion. Even if I were able to describe accurately my feelings, I was certain she’d be unwilling to accept them. I could already hear her saying, “What do you mean, you wouldn’t enjoy a reunion? This is the first one your outfit’s ever had – and probably the last, too. You’ll always regret having missed it.”
I knew that it would be impossible for me to explain to her that in a sense there had been a reunion already. Not a formal one, since two people only were involved, but I knew that essentially it was a microcosm of the reunion planned for October.
It had taken place a number of years ago during a business trip to New York – my first visit there since the war. After finishing business, I had planned on a good meal and a Broadway musical before catching a very late train back to Washington.
It was while I was in the restaurant that the idea of looking up Scotty Buchanan occurred to me. It came to me suddenly when the waiter, clearing away the dishes, asked me whether I wanted coffee or tea to drink. Somehow the mere mention of tea made me think of Scotty. A sudden feeling of nostalgia gripped me, and, instead of catching a show, I decided to look him up. Although I didn’t have his telephone number with me, I knew his street address was in Richmond out on Staten Island. With a name as distinctive as Hector Buchanan, I found his telephone number easily in the directory.
Over the phone he seemed genuinely pleased that I had called and invited me out for a drink.
Following his directions, I took the subway and Staten Island ferry. He was waiting at the terminal when the ferry docked. At first I thought he had changed considerably, but, surprisingly, by the time we arrived at his house, my mind had completely re-focused. I almost found it difficult to remember him as he was in late 1945 when we had parted in Camp Kilmer.
His wife, a plump brunette, greeted me cordially but disappeared almost immediately to do some planned shopping. She apologized for running out so abruptly. I suspected she thought we would enjoy ourselves more if left alone.
For the next few hours we did nothing but talk about the war years together. Scotty brought out a box containing hundreds of unmounted photographs, and we examined each of them, randomly jumping from scenes in training camps in North Carolina to a dozen villages and cities in Europe from Normandy to Bavaria. Our outfit had formed from a cadre in Richmond in the early spring of 1943, trained in North Carolina for nine months, and shipped to England during Christmas week of that year.
Those fading photographs were all the touchstones we needed to recall the places and events of the years we spent together. But most of all we talked about our old buddies. As we examined each picture, the names came back: Hasslein, Berger, Hall, Manger, Romantowski – a varied group from nearly every state. I was surprised to see how young most of the faces were; it was difficult to imagine them as middle-aged men.
Both Scotty and I had kept in touch with a number of our closest friends in the outfit, but after twenty years, it was only a few words on a Christmas card that provided the thinnest of contacts. I suppose it was inevitable that such things happened, but at that time I was sentimental enough to feel sad about drifting away from people who had been close to me during those impressionable years.
Scotty and I had been particularly close. For two and a half years we had been together, both having joined the outfit directly out of basic training camp. He was an easy-going guy with a wry, Scotsman’s sense of humor that crumbled all petty friction. Both of us had voracious appetites and a reputation for scrounging extra food wherever we went. But it was an unusual thing that really brought us close together. Within a week after meeting, we discovered that we were both tea drinkers – not just your ordinary once-in-a-while tea drinkers, but dyed-in-the-wool habituates who considered drinking and tea as synonymous words.
Whenever we had the opportunity, we would start water boiling for a cup of tea. Usually we would make it right in our canteen cups, using loose tea tied in a G.I. handkerchief as a makeshift tea bag. The tea was liberated in quantity whenever one of us had K.P. We must have consumed over two quarts apiece each day for the years we were together. A number of our buddies even referred to us as tea-totalers.
As we scanned those old photographs, I kept waiting for Scotty to recall our tea drinking habit, but he never once mentioned it. He spent most of the time grasping for the names of persons and places in the pictures or caustically commenting on the idiosyncrasies of those he remembered. I felt the reminiscing had taken on a decidedly sour tone.
When his wife returned from her shopping about nine o’clock, I was glad to take a break from the photographs.
“You two must be famished,” she said, depositing a large cardboard box on the coffee table. “I bought a pizza at Mario’s on the way home. What’ll you have to drink, Joe?”
I glanced at Scotty who was busy opening the pizza box.
“Tea,” I said, “if it’s not too much trouble.”
I could hear myself placing the emphasis on the word tea.
“I’ll see what I can do for you,” she said pleasantly, heading back to the kitchen.
Scotty handed me a large slice of pizza.
“Mario makes terrific pizza,” he said enthusiastically. “Try this sausage and onion special.”
We finished off two slices each before his wife returned. On the tray that she placed on the coffee table were a single cup and saucer, a small teapot, and two cans of beer.
“You’re in luck,” she announced. “I still had some instant tea left over from last summer. There’s sugar and lemon already in it.”
Scotty popped open one of the beer cans and held it in my direction.
“Care for a beer?” he asked.
I shook my head. “No thanks, Scotty, I’ll stick to tea – as usual.” This time I put an emphasis on the as usual.
He raised the beer can in a toast. “Here’s to old times,” he said.
Quickly I poured a cup of tea. “To old times,” I responded, lifting my teacup in his direction, “and to two oldtime tea-totaling guzzlers!”
The tea was cloyingly sweet and the artificial lemon flavor was overpowering. Between bites of pizza, I forced down the syrupy concoction.
Scotty finished his first beer and reached for the second can. I was hoping he would offer me one, but this time he didn’t.
An hour later I had to leave to catch my train. Scotty drove me to the ferry, and when we parted, he extracted a promise from me to come more often “now that I know the way.” That was over a dozen years ago. We haven’t seen each other since although I’ve been to New York several times over that span.
That was my first reunion. I was still thinking about it when my wife returned to announce dinner.
“Guess what we’re having tonight?” she asked as we entered the dining room, “your very special favorite – homemade lasagna.”
The overhead lights had been dimmed very low and a pair of tall red candles flickered shadows romantically on our best china and silver.
“Here,” said my wife, handing me a dark red bottle. “You pour the wine while I get the garlic bread out of the oven.”
As I poured, I suddenly realized that only two places had been set at the table.
“Where are the kids?” I asked.
Ellen placed a large antipasto tray in front of me. I recognized the local delicatessen’s best imported prosciutto ham and provolone cheese.
“I thought it would be nice to have a quiet meal together for a change so I asked Mom to take the kids to McDonald’s.”
She sat down and lifted her wine glass. “Well, here’s to old times,” she said.
I clinked my glass gently against hers. “To old times,” I responded and added without thinking, “and to a couple of old-time tea-totaling guzzlers.”
For a moment there was a slight look of puzzlement on her face. But she let it pass and laughed gaily. “We ought to do this more often. I mean – get away from the kids and enjoy ourselves.”
I sipped the wine. It was excellent. I knew I would probably end up drinking most of it. Ah, well, I thought, maybe Philadelphia won’t be such a bad spot in the fall, after all.
Hand set in Goudy’s Deepdene. Display type is Gallia; initial is from Frederica Postman’s shop in Palo Alto. The text paper is Laurentine Hammermill Offset, Subs. 70, a marvelously easy paper to print on. Inks are Van Son’s Rota Brown and 40904 Black. Edited, published, and 470 copies printed by Jake Warner on a 10 x 15 C & P.
The Boxwood Press
Greenbelt, Maryland 20770