by Martha E. Shivvers
IT WAS December 8, 1941, and President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt was speaking: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy,… the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan….” Then in his fireside chat on February 23 of the following year, he continued: “Never before have we had so little time in which to do so much.”
The people were also told that whether they built ships, planes, or tanks; whether they were riveters or replaced one so he or she could serve the country; whether they walked, marched, flew, drove vehicles, or sailed on the seas; or, if they fed the fighting forces or attended to their physical and morale needs, they were important.
It was a cry for everyone to do his or her share, large or small; a cry that every contribution in the smallest way was one step forward in helping meet the needs that were brought about by the terror that was engulfing the world.
Chet Morton had his doubts, though, about being important.
The farm that he rented was bought right out from beneath him by Nicholas Stanby who wanted some security for his non-defense-working son, Timothy, and proceeded to set him up on the farm that Chet and Lucy had worked seven years to improve. It was gall to see one who not only had little knowledge of farming, but who looked upon the labors as belittling while the Mortons nursed the hurt of the giving up the work and home that they loved.
The job that became available for Chet, though, in Prairie Village kept him in touch with his fellow men as he drove the tank truck out into the country delivering gasoline, oil, and grease to those farmers. In a sense he felt he was helping in a necessary way for the war effort… not like before, but it helped.
Even though the move from the country to town meant a definite change in the lifestyle for him, Lucy, Junior, little Samuel, and Baby Angela, it also brought comforts. There was comfort in a warm house with a furnace instead of the big cold one with wood and coal stoves; with running hot and cold water instead of carrying buckets and buckets of water from a well; of electricity instead of kerosene lamps; and, a school house that was within three blocks instead of a mile down the road.
His association with the Nicholas and Timothy Stanby families was strictly business. The first time he delivered the merchandise to their farms was a trial. Timothy’s yard was unkempt, the weeds were growing in the pastures, and the house showed signs of messiness. But he kept his feelings to himself; he did not want to lose a customer. He could not afford to lose a customer.
As the war escalated, Americans took up the challenge against villainy. Draft boards called not only the single young and healthy men to serve in the defense of their country but began to dip into the names of married men, then those with families, even though there were many volunteers.
Chet grew quiet and sullen. Lucy became addicted to the radio news reports sometimes yelling at the children to keep their voices down, then grabbing them, hugging them closely, saying, “Mommy’s sorry. A kiss for happiness?”
Even though he was told that his job was essential and he wouldn’t be called by the draft, he was placed in class 1A within a year, then he was called and passed the physical.
When the letter came giving the actual day of induction the couple took the children out to their grandparent’s farm and they spent that night alone. Then Chet was gone.
The income was reduced, once Chet was actually in the army. The full responsibility of the household and family care became a trial. Lucy found empty nights and full days blending into one. She watched Junior go to first grade; Samuel played war games with his clothes-pin soldiers; and looked away when Angela toddled from room to room clutching Chet’s picture, calling “Daddy? Daddy?”
Lucy became obsessed with the news coming from their little table-top radio. She rushed to the mailbox as soon as the postman left the porch and wrote a letter every night – chatty letters telling about the children; about her efforts with a little Victory Garden in their back yard; about his parents and about other fellows being called into the service; and about her love for him.
She did not mention the illnesses the children fevered through, nor the fact that his father had been hurt in a car accident. She didn’t write that their double bed seemed so large and empty that she often spent the nights on the couch, nor about the difficulty in making the sugar coupons stretch, or that the shoes she had purchased for Samuel with the last shoe coupon had cardboard soles which she had to constantly replace with more cardboard to protect his feet.
Being busy training, then being moved to another base for advanced training, kept Chet from writing very often. But the letters that he did write were consoling with descriptions of fellows around him and some of their horseplay – smiles often came to Lucy’s face. Chet was doing well; he said he was and she believed him. He had always coped well with problems, and she missed his down-to-earth wisdom.
Then one night as lightning played hopscotch across the skies and thunder rumbled through the atmosphere, Lucy tossed in the double bed crying out in her sleep. “No! No! It can’t be!”
She sat up straight, rubbed her eyes, grabbed her robe and rushed to the living room lighted by the street lamp just outside the house. She crept to the corner of the room and stood with her face covered with her hands, sobbing softly. Everything was in place. It was a dream, but was it an omen?
She had seen the coffin across that corner banked with flowers and the uniformed body of her husband inside. It was all so plain. Fear clutched her throat and she curled up in the rocking chair, pulling her feet under, and sat staring out into the night. It just couldn’t be – but she knew it was happening to her friends, her neighbors, to folks all over the world. War was no respecter of persons. Death was becoming more common than birth; grief was tearing at the hearts of parents, wives, lovers, and children.
The hours of darkness passed slowly. As the first light of day crept into the house, Lucy bathed, patted her face with cold water to remove the traces of tears and prepared breakfast for the family.
It was just a dream she kept telling herself. She must think positively. She fought to be cheerful while the children lingered at the table making roads in the oatmeal with their spoons.
“I’ll shoot you down, pow!” called Samuel and he pointed his toast toward Junior.
Lucy’s voice was shrill. “Stop! No more war games! I mean it! Eat your breakfast, and Junior, it’s time for you to scoot off to school.”
The day seemed endless as Lucy sought to fill the hours with washing, cleaning, and preparing some food for their evening meal. She measured out some syrup to make cookies for a treat for the children. She must remember it was only a dream.
When the postman left a letter, Lucy tore into it fearfully and read quickly: “There is an epidemic of meningitis in the camp.” Chet wrote. “I’m glad I grew up on the farm and have a strong body so I won’t get sick like those guys. Gosh, they’re even dying….” Lucy put the letter in her pocket, dressed Samuel and Angela, then walked them to meet Junior.
They walked uptown; maybe she would get them some gum if it could be found. They must keep busy. She would call Chet’s folks and have them come in for supper. She must have someone around. Keep busy. Don’t think. Don’t let the children see her fear.
The grandfather was allowing the chaps to tease him as Lucy and Grandmother Morton did up the supper dishes. The knock on the door was loud.
Sam took the telegram from the delivery man and handed it to Lucy. She shook her head. “You read it, please.” her voice was barely audible. Tears flowed down her cheeks as she listened….
“Your husband, Chester Morton, critically ill with spinal meningitis at Camp Robinson Hospital, Camp Robinson, Little Rock, Arkansas. Recovery doubtful.”
Grandmother Morton played games with the boys as she bathed them and tucked them into bed. She read stories to them until their eyes closed in sleep.
Sam left the house and drove away. Lucy bathed Angela, wrapped her in a big towel, took her into her bedroom, dusting her with talcum powder and dressed her for bed then rocked her until her little eyes closed in slumber. All the while tears flowed into the soft blanket.
Sam soon returned. “I’ve called the Red Cross lady here in town. She’s going to see what she can find out and will call us. I told her to call any time, no matter how late.”
As they sat around the dining table Lucy cried as she told them of her dream, of the letter that had come, of the meningitis epidemic in the camp. She looked up quickly. “Do you know, there was another part of that dream. I forgot it until now. I could see him, Chet, with a boy on each side of him swinging their arms as they were coming up the back walk, and Chet was whistling.”
“Let’s think that is the way it will be.” Sam’s voice was hoarse.
The night dragged on. The telephone did not ring. Lucy slumped on the couch. Grandmother Morton lay on the big bed. Sam sat in the rocking chair staring into the dark night.
A message came in the morning from the Red Cross. “He is still alive. I was told that perhaps it would help him if some of the family could come.” Sam Morton told the caller they would leave for the camp that day and possibly arrive about 2 a.m.
Word of the telegram spread rapidly through Prairie Village. The telephone at the home of the young Morton’s rang constantly with people asking: “What can we do?” “Can you go to him?” “I’ll give you my A gasoline stamps.” “We’ll stay with the children.”
Sam and his wife hurried out to the farm to get changes of clothes and the neighbors that Lucy looked upon as a second father and mother came to stay with the children. Several friends brought their A gasoline stamps for them to purchase rationed fuel along the way, and Chet’s boss took the car to have it prepared for the four-hundred mile trip.
The sun set behind the clouds and darkness fell quickly as the trio entered the mountains. Slowly rain began to fall, then it sheeted against the car in torrents. The road was poorly marked, and it was necessary to creep along. As the rain let up, fog clutched at the mountain side, and the Mortons were compelled to pull over as far as they could to the wall of the mountain and wait. Daylight came slowly, the trio inched along.
As the camp came into view, Lucy pulled out her identification papers to present them to the guard at the gate.
“Where have you been?” the guard asked. “We’ve been on the alert for you folks since two o’clock this morning.”
“Is he alive?” Lucy’s voice was barely a whisper.
“I don’t know.” Then he directed them to the hospital.
The emaciated form lying upon the hospital bed in no way resembled the robust, outdoor man that had bid his family farewell six months previously. He did not recognize his family, and they huddled in the hall outside the quarantined room. A nurse spoke, “He is very ill; let an orderly show you to some rooms where you can rest and come back a little later.”
“Let me sit here, please,” Lucy begged, and she was brought a straight-backed chair to sit as close as she was allowed to the doorway.
The hastily-erected wooden hospital was bare, but efficiency prevailed within the walls. The cubicles enfolded very ill soldiers, all caught right now in the clutches of the enemy disease that was besieging the camp… that was besieging many of the camps all over the land. Cries of agony came from the semi-conscious men and at times curses and violent accusations bombarded the open rafters.
Lucy twisted her handkerchief into knots waiting for Chet to respond to her. “I’m here, Chet. It’s Lucy. Don’t you know me?”
“Go away! Who the hell are you? Why don’t you get away from that door?” Burning eyes stared from the lean white face – a white competing with the sheets beneath him.
“It’s me, Lucy.”
Then the delirium became more violent, and the young man flounced against the rails of the bed, his profanity becoming ever more abusive. His screams of anguish blended in with those of the other victims along the hall.
“Mrs. Morton, you must leave now. Your husband’s condition is serious. You can’t do him any good right now, you can see that. And you need your rest.”
Lucy’s body shook uncontrollably as a gurney moved past with a sheet draped body.
For three days the family took turns sitting outside Chet’s room. Other soldiers didn’t fare as well as their relatives were too far away to come. The family feared Chet would die, then remembered the Parker baby back home who did live after the meningitis attack but whose body remained rigid while wails ran through the house until she was released by death.
The fourth morning dawned with sunshine and warmth outside. As the family neared Chet’s door, they could hear his voice, faint but distinct.
“Lucy! Mom! Dad! When did you come?”
Sam’s fingers dug fiercely into the arms of the ladies on each side of him. “Hi, there, son. We’ve been here a few days. You sound great!”
“How are you, Lucy, and the kids?”
Lucy swallowed hard and smiled. “Fine, Chet. Oh, we’re just fine!”
The nurse arrived and smiled. “The crisis has passed. The doctor will be with you soon.”
When it was determined that Chet would live but long hospitalization periods were ahead, Sam said they had best return home.
“You keep well, Lucy, you and the kids. We’ve got a lot of living to catch up on.” This was her Chet. She felt sure, now, that there would be brighter days ahead.
The months limped along with Chet in rehabilitation. He was learning to use the atrophied arm and leg; his spirits were high; he made plans to return home as soon as he could be released from his rehabilitation program.
“Lucy.” The voice was vibrant over the telephone. “I’m comin’ home! But I’ll need more treatment. Do you know what? I’m gonna try for a GI training for another job!”
Another spring came bringing leaves and blossoms to the trees, lush green grass, and spring birds. Lucy, while preparing the noon meal this one day glanced out the window, and gasped. The second part of that nightmare of over a year and a half ago came to her as she saw Chet limping up the back walk. The boys were swinging their arms as they walked looking adoringly at their father, and Chet was whistling.
Set with Ventura Publisher 4.1.1 for Windows to try out the Windows version of Ventura which, if possible, is more contrary than the DOS version. Type is Bookman. Text is 10 point, title is 24, author’s name is 12, initial is 47(!), this is 8 point. The master was printed on an HP LaserJet III. Printed by offset commercially by the Homewood Press. The cover was handset in Craw Clarendon Book and printed on a 10×15 C&P by Jake Warner, who is also the editor and publisher, at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, MD 20770.