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Don't You Know There's a War On?
By Jacob Jaffe
Friday, May 25, 2007
Rated "G" by the Author.
The following is a short story about a nineteen-year-old World War II pilot's last furlough with his family before he's shipped overseas, never to be heard from again.
"Don't You Know There's a War On?" a short story
Military supplies and troop transfers had top priorities with the railroads in June of 1944, two and a half years into World War II. Yet Momma expected the United States Army Air Corps to get my brother home without delays. She could accept the explanation, "Don't you know there's a war on?" for sugar and meat shortages. But not when it concerned Morris. Didn't he deserve special consideration for having earned his pilot wings and second lieutenant bars? I knew another reason: he could soon be in dogfights with Messerschmitts in Europe or Zeros in Asia. I didn't tell that to Momma.
Since Morris wouldn't arrive until that evening, I had no excuse to skip school. Mr. Burns, our 7th grade Social Studies teacher, pulled down the Rand McNally map, pointed to Europe and said, "With the Allied invasion, the tide is turning against Germany." Marvin, my best friend, muttered, "Draft dodger!" He was provoked by Mr. Burns holding a pointer instead of a gun. Earlier that year, Marvin's father volunteered for the Navy. With my brother in the Army Air Corps, I felt the same contempt. But I wasn't as bold as Marvin.
When Mr. Burns pointed to Segi Point in New Georgia, Marvin beat him to the punch, shouting, "The tide is turning against the Japs!" Mr. Burns ignored him, avoiding a confrontation in which Marvin would have claimed he had a better right to say that since his father was stationed "somewhere in the Pacific." I stared at the map--Morris could soon be in one of those distant places.
Our next class was English with Miss Gruen, a disciplinarian whom Marvin called Miss Gruesome. Her latest instrument of torture was Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage. She asked us to "Compare Henry's attitude toward war with his mother's." I wrote, "Henry wanted to be a hero, while Mrs. Fleming was afraid he'd get hurt or killed." At the time, I didn't consider the novel's relevance to our family. After the war broke out, Momma and Poppa wanted Morris to apply for a student deferment. But Morris reminded them that Momma had narrowly escaped death at the hands of Petlura's Ukrainian pogromists and that Poppa, after his cousin was sabered by a Cossack, joined the militia to fight the anti-Semites. How could Morris not do his part to defeat enemies who would exterminate the Jews and destroy our freedom? Our overprotective Momma, who tried to prevent Morris' riding a bicycle, had to deal with his wanting to become a pilot.
While Mrs. Fleming let her son go off to join the Union Army by saying, "Th' Lord's will be done," Momma wasn't as fatalistic. She pleaded with Morris and prayed to God. Neither were cooperative. Morris enlisted on his eighteenth birthday. Momma still didn't give up--she was certain he'd flunk the physical exam. After all, he had a heart murmur as a child and was half an inch shorter than the five feet four inch minimum. Not only did the doctors disappoint her, so did Morris. He survived the physically demanding Pre-flight training, soloed in Primary, passed Basic and Advanced Flying. Eleven and a half months after starting as a cadet doing push-ups, he was an officer and pilot. Momma's remaining hope was the Pidyon Haben, the rite first performed in Pharaoh's Egypt to protect the Hebrew first born and dutifully done at Morris' birth.
At the end of that long school day, Marvin invited me to his apartment in a fancy building, the only one I knew of that had a doorman and elevator operators. When we entered the Kaplan's kitchen, his mother tried to slip a telegram off the kitchen table. But Marvin noticed. I knew what it was before his mother burst into tears. I'd seen Mickey Rooney, a Western Union messenger in the Human Comedy, deliver "We regret to inform you" telegrams in. She managed to say, "He's missing-" Marvin screamed, "I told you they didn't need baby doctors in the Navy! You shouldn't have let him enlist!" Marvin fled to his room. I hesitated, but followed.
I walked past Marvin, who lay face down on his bed, and looked out the window. The drone of a plane reminded me of my brother's vantage point miles higher. Morris, because he was born before me, would have adventures I'd never have. When Marvin asked, "Think he'll be all right?" I thought he meant my brother-- until I turned to see his impertinent face tearful and defenseless. I said, "Your father was a varsity swimmer-" Marvin stopped crying. But only for an second. We both had seen movie newsreels of torpedoed ships exploding and sinking with sailors engulfed in flames. Marvin said, "He could have been blown up!" and started crying. I sat down next to him and felt his sobs. His grief was contagious and I wanted to leave. Fortunately, his mother, who had regained her composure, entered the room and told us, "I called the Navy in Washington--they said we should be hopeful."
I escaped and ran home, only to be greeted with, "I thought you were Morris." Ever since Morris left for a Tennessee army base, Momma hugged and kissed me with a fierceness that I knew was meant more for Morris than me. I didn't begrudge her yearning for Morris; I was safe at home while he was off to war. But I was jealous and also guilty about feeling jealous. I carried a burden that could be relieved only when he returned and I could become me again.
Momma asked, "You think something happened?" My Great Protector was frightened. Even before the war, she believed her loved ones stood on a precipice overlooking an abyss, one false step, someone's shove, or the ledge's collapse, could hurl us into disaster. Momma had earned her pessimism: her father abandoned her by choice, her mother by death. As confidently as I could, I said, "Morris wrote not to expect him until after seven!" I had made that up.
My assurance did not last long. When Poppa arrived, she was cataloging her worries to him. He responded to the most pressing one with, "The trains are carrying tanks and guns-" Unfortunately, he continued "-and soldiers-" We lived near the embarkation port for troops going to Europe. Even as Momma was preoccupied with immediate worries, she could vault instantly into future ones. Poppa, said, "You're not happy unless you worry." Momma replied, "I'm not a mother that I shouldn't worry?" Poppa didn't answer this affront to his paternal love; instead, he used another of his props in coping with Momma and with life: he poured himself a generous portion of after-work schnapps, downed it and left the room. I'd come to greet him, but he didn't notice me.
Fifteen minutes later, Poppa, in a rare display of affection, came into my room and tousled my hair. Then, as if to erase Momma's doubts, said, "Your brother will be home soon." At seven-thirty, despite our protests that we'd wait, Momma insisted we have a "snack." My portion was no smaller than my usually overloaded plate. Momma had never overcome the trauma of starving during the Russian revolution. I was not hungry, but while she watched, ate everything.
By ten, Momma had an excruciating headache and Poppa went to the drugstore to buy Excedrin. I escaped by falling asleep, but was awakened by a commotion in the hallway: Morris arrived! I had to pull on Momma to get a chance to hug him. After the greetings, Momma remembered supper. Morris protested that he'd eaten but let her serve him. While he pecked at his plate, he told about the long train waits. Momma wasn't listening. He'd arrived safely and that was all that mattered--except his eating. Poppa tried to rescue him by saying she'd have ten days to fatten him. Momma said, "Don't remind me he'll be leaving so soon!" She tried to hide her tears.
When Momma asked Poppa to carry Morris' duffel bag from the hallway, Morris flexed his biceps and said, "The Air Force got me in shape." The calisthenics and marches he'd described in his letters had made him healthier looking than ever. Despite the familiar face, I couldn't believe that my brother, so recently an engineering freshman, was a United States Army Air Force Second Lieutenant. In less than a year, a transformation had taken place more amazing than a larva turning into a butterfly.
Morris took two Dresden figurines from his bag. He gave them to Momma, who collected them. He gave Poppa a razor with disposable blades to replace his straight edge. He gave me two official Army manuals: Survival on Land and Sea and The Stearman Trainer. I'd have been grateful for one. Momma grasped Morris' face and said, "You're tired, myne kline kind ." She'd demoted him to My little one! When Morris was in his pajamas, Momma insisted on tucking him in, something she no longer dared with me. He told her he had to get up early the next morning to go on an "errand" for the Air Corps. Momma looked disappointed. She thought she'd have him to herself the next day. And I had no excuse to miss school.
When we were alone, Morris asked, "How's the Home Front?" Before I could think of an answer, he said, "Keep up your school work--when the war's over, we'll need writers as well as engineers to rebuild the world." As he lectured, I thought of how he'd changed. A year ago, he rarely talked to me. Now he was my mentor. He didn't act annoyed at Momma's insisting he eat, he wasn't insulted at her thinking him too weak to carry his bag, and he wasn't embarrassed by her displays of endearment. I interrupted with, "Dr. Kaplan's missing at sea." I hadn't planned to tell him, but the thought was an indigestible kernel waiting to be regurgitated. I started to cry, but my pillow hid my face. Morris gripped my shoulder and said, "They'll find him." That's what I had told Marvin. Morris asked, "Marvin taking it bad?"
I nodded. "So is his mother."
Morris sat down on my bed. "I'm visiting the family of a cadet who cracked up."
I knew he hadn't planned to tell me, but I asked, "Was he killed?" He hesitated and I knew the answer.
"Freak accident," he said. "Tomorrow we're driving to Grand Gorge to see his parents." Morris looked toward our parents' bedroom. He didn't have to whisper, "Don't tell." Then he switched off the light. After a while, in the darkness, I asked, "Got your shipping orders?" I'd learned the lingo from the movies. He didn't answer and I got him off the hook by saying, "'Loose lips sink ships.'" Minutes later, he started breathing heavily. Soon afterwards, I drifted off.
I was awakened by whispering in the bathroom. Morris was showing Poppa how to shave with a safety razor. I watched Poppa's mask of white lather being scraped away to reveal his familiar pink face. When we ate breakfast, we were still in our pajamas. Momma said, "I like to see you like that." She was always trying to turn back the clock. The age she liked best was infancy, when she could more easily protect us. After we dressed, Momma released Morris only when Poppa said, "You'll see him at supper." She wiped her eyes and said, "That's a hundred years away."
In Mr. Burns' homeroom, I waited for Marvin. He usually rushed in moments before the late bell. Today, when the bell rang, Mr. Burns shut the door and said, "Marvin's late today!" He started his Social Studies lesson and as the minutes passed, my nervousness was replaced with relief. I heard little of what he said, except that with the Japanese retreat in New Georgia, "The tide is turning in the Pacific." Since I carried the class attendance sheet, I was last to leave. I wouldn't have said anything if Mr. Burns hadn't warned, "When Marvin comes, tell him to report to me!" I said, "Marvin's father is missing in action." I was pleased to see his shocked expression and added, "His ship was sunk off the coast of New Georgia." Mr. Burns said, "I'm very sorry-" His twitching lips made me feel guilty and I said, "Mrs. Kaplan's sure they'll rescue him." Trying to smile, he said, "I'm sure they will." I left wondering if he doubted that as much as I did. I was beginning to realize that what was said with the greatest assurance often hid the gravest doubts.
Miss Gruen's assignment was a composition, "What the War Means to Me." I stared at the paper and then scribbled a sentence. She noticed. After collecting the papers, she asked me to stay. Her thin lips were tight with disapproval but for the first time I wasn't afraid. She waved my paper and said, "I don't know if you deserve a Merit Award after this-" She glanced at my paper and read, "Marvin's father is missing in action and my brother is going overseas." She stammered, "Why didn't you tell me?" She pulled me against her. To this day I can feel the press of her bosom and smell her lilac perfume. She said, "I'm sure they'll find him." Then, holding me at arm's length, "Your brother will return safely." Her next class was filing in and she sternly warned, "Take out your homework." Then she whispered to me, "Do you want to be my monitor?" I shook my head. "I'll go to class."
I couldn't wait for school to end, but dreaded three o'clock. I knew I should visit Marvin, but thought of reasons to go straight home. One was a lie: Morris would not be back from Grand Gorge. At dismissal, Mr. Burns gave me a two-fingered Victory salute and said, "Keep up Marvin's morale." That settled the matter.
I walked slowly but finally faced the doorman, who said, "No one's home at Dr. Kaplan's." But I ran past him to the elevator. Jerry took me up to the twelfth floor, but he didn't open the gate. He turned and said, "Mrs. Kaplan and Marvin went to visit his uncle." I was disappointed and relieved. As he took me down, I didn't care if he noticed I was crying.
Morris hadn't returned and Momma imagined ten worst case scenarios. A neighbor, who let us receive emergency phone calls, rang the bell. Momma blanched. As we followed the neighbor to her apartment, she reassured us, "Morris is all right." Momma's hand trembled so badly that Poppa picked up the phone. Morris was delayed by a flat tire.
Morris arrived at nine, apologized and told Momma, "If you still have supper-" He barely finished eating when friends arrived. One was also on leave, the others had deferments or were rejected. They asked Morris to go out with them. He said, "I haven't spent much time with my folks-" He turned to Momma, his expression obvious as to what he preferred. Momma said, "Go with your friends." Morris asked, "You sure?" She nodded. His face lit up and they were gone. As Momma washed the dishes, she said, "I don't see him when he's away and I don't see him when he's here." Poppa said, "You told him to go and now you complain." I got into bed, but had trouble falling asleep. The next thing I knew, it was morning.
We ate breakfast together but Morris had to go to an Army Air Force center to "take care of official business." Poppa went to work, I went to school and Momma stayed home. When Mr. Burns and Miss Gruen asked about Marvin, I told them what the elevator operator had said. I don't remember their lessons. When I returned home, Morris was reassuring Momma that he was taking care. "Don't I look it?" he asked. "And I fly very carefully." Momma looked skeptical but said nothing.
That night, when Poppa came home we ate supper and then listened to Fibber McGee and Molly on the radio. Before the war, we laughed when everything came crashing out of the closet, but that night we laughed harder. We were together again like evenings that seemed lifetimes ago. Afterwards, a news commentator told us the Allies were delivering crushing blows to both the Germans and the Japanese. I couldn't help but say, "The tide has turned." Morris' eyelids kept closing and Momma suggested we go to bed. On Friday and Saturday evenings, Morris "went out." Momma and Poppa had become resigned to his being away, Momma pleased to have him at breakfast and whatever other times he was around. I had given up hope of spending any time with him.
But one afternoon, Morris took me to an Army post that had Link Trainers. Only "Authorized Personnel" were admitted, but Morris got me in to watch his simulated flight. After he got out of the enclosed cockpit, the technician monitoring the flight told me, "You've got a hot-shot pilot for a brother." Then to Morris, "There are wild pilots and old pilots, but there are no old wild pilots." They laughed. On the way home, Morris told me that although his commander recommended him for a gunnery instructorship, he requested that he be sent overseas. Later, when Momma asked where he was going after his furlough, he told her he'd been recommended for a gunnery instructorship in the States. Momma was ecstatic. I didn't give him away.
We also had that talk. He came home late, but I was up. He asked what I thought of Rose, the girl he was dating. I'd met her only twice, but said, "She's pretty and smart." He play-punched my arm, said, "You're damn right," and apologized for swearing. Then he asked, "Think it's fair for a pursuit pilot to get married with the war on?" I was relieved when he answered his question. "It's not fair to the girl; she can be left a widow." Then he asked, "Why not live today without worrying about tomorrow?" I said both reasons seemed good. He laughed and said, "You'd make a good diplomat." I didn't know the answer then and don't know it now, these many years later.
He insisted we say good-by at home, not wanting an emotional farewell in the railroad station. Poppa, who still had shrapnel in his arm, said, "Don't be a hero." Morris answered, "I'll just do my bit." He promised Momma, "I'll be careful--so don't worry." He promised to write often since we didn't have a phone. Momma had tried to get one, but the phone company clerk asked, "Don't you know there's a war on?" Momma answered, "I have a son who's a flyer, so who shouldn't know better?"
Before Morris left, he whispered to me, "Tell Marvin to hang in there!"
Morris was an adolescent when the war started and, despite the wings and lieutenant bars, still a teenager. I was a child, but had seen films of air combat, with planes burning and crashing. I'm sure Morris, with the hubris of youth, believed he was immortal. To better understand the risks Morris faced, I'd read everything I could about fighter planes. I knew the range, maneuverability, armaments and fire power of the enemy Zero and Nakajima, the Focke Wulf 190 and Messserschmitt 109, and our P-40, P-47 and P-51. I wondered if Morris would safer over Europe or the Pacific. But no pilot was safe. Morris had an edge because of his aerial marksmanship. Yet deep down I knew the truth of what Gary Cooper said as a World War I pilot in the film Wings: "When your time comes, you're going to get it." I was upset in the Fenway Theatre when he "got it." And that was only a movie! But I desperately believed Morris' promise to Momma.
I'm sure Morris was recommended for a Stateside gunnery instructorship. But how could he remain behind with his buddies going overseas? We all heard the slurs that Jews were either war profiteers or draft dodgers. I'd overheard Morris tell Poppa about the prejudice he'd encountered. Morris had to prove his mettle not only to our Axis enemies, but to Americans as well.
We didn't hear from him for weeks. When a letter finally arrived, Momma was too ecstatic to notice it came from an overseas base. She suffered when mail didn't arrive and jumped for joy when a batch did. Besides writing that he was well and not to worry, he enclosed photos to prove it. Whether alone, in front of his plane or with his flying buddies and ground crew, he and everyone else wore big smiles.
The morning Morris left is as vivid as yesterday. I can still feel the coarse texture of his wool jacket and the smoothness of his just-shaved cheek. I can smell his pungent after-shave lotion and remembered wondering if Rose liked its fragrance. I was choked with confused feelings, including resentment that his girlfriend and college friends co-opted most of his time. Even our parting was brief since our parents' good-bys--especially Momma's--preempted mine. After all, I was only his brother. I was jealous, but I was also relieved. What could I say? I did give him the treasured Indian arrowhead I'd found in Crotona Park. All airmen carried good luck charms and my prized possession would be added protection. We shared Morris' hubris that he'd survive. Had Momma thought otherwise, she wouldn't have let him leave that morning. She wasn't stoical like Henry Fleming's mother nor did she stifle her feelings like Marvin's mother.
When Momma saw the Western Union messenger, she shrieked. I can still hear that wounded animal cry. I still see the anguished facial contortions that made her unrecognizable. The telegram regretted "to inform" us that Morris was "missing in action." The events that followed were clouded by agony and obscured by the roller coaster of hope and despair. After the initial shock, we desperately clung to the hope that he'd be discovered alive. But the days, weeks, months passed. Hope faded slowly. Morris had disappeared into a void from which he never returned. Pearl Harbor, Stalingrad, D-Day and Hiroshima are well-remembered names from World War Two. Unrecorded is the obscure battle that for our family was the most crucial--the battle in which Morris' plane crashed. For years afterward Momma unashamedly kissed the photo of her smiling pilot son who proudly wore his lieutenant bars and wings. It was a poor substitute for the face she'd never see. Although Poppa felt the pain as deeply, he didn't show it like Momma. Before the victories in Europe and Japan were celebrated, woe unto anyone who would ask Momma, "Don't you know there's a war on?"
While Morris' body was never found, his gravestone rests between those of my parents lest they forget in death what they never could in life. Now, all these years later, I still cherish having watched him "fly" the Link Trainer and being his confidant as he debated his and Rose's future. While I still have many memories of Morris, where are my parents' memories? Where will mine go? Will they be sucked into some black hole, like our apartment building, which felt the blows of the wrecking ball to make way for the Cross Bronx Expressway and forever disappear? The madness that killed incalculable millions made for me the most illogical time warp: my becoming older than my brother.
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