Careful, some raw language here.
As always, Mitchell’s thoughts came back to Susan, and he philosophized: At any time you can turn a corner, or cross a street to get a hot fudge sundae and bam, your life is changed forever. Sighing deeply, an over- powering maudlin feeling came over him.
October 8, 1952, 5:06 a.m. to
October 9, 1952, 0749 Hours.
Finding it all but impossible to sleep on his last night at home, sleeping but a few hours, awakening before dawn, he already felt the anticipated loneliness as a factual weight in his stomach, and upon his heart. With hands crossed behind his head he stared into the shadowy darkness until daylight began to mottle the ceiling and walls, then, coming off the bed, sitting on the floor before his dresser, taking it from the bottom drawer, removing it from the plastic bag, holding the luxurious folds of – Susan’s Christmas gift to him – holding the luxurious folds of the cranberry-colored cashmere sweater tightly across his face, he closed his eyes, and the emotion of the past four months, along with the knowledge that in two hours he’ll be leaving his home and all that he loved, ripped through Mitchell Lipensky as dynamite upon a floodgate. Sitting cross-legged on the cold linoleum floor with the softness of Susan’s sweater held against his face… Mitchell cried.
Mitchell cried until there were no tears left to cry, then, carefully putting the sweater back into the plastic bag, he replaced it in the dresser. Lifting himself from the floor, going into the bathroom, he brushed his teeth, washed and shaved.
Back in his room… No! His room was no longer his room. His room was now his brother’s room and would only be loaned to him when he came home on leave.
He dressed in Levi’s, a long-sleeved, oxford-cloth shirt, and his dirty, white-buck shoes.
His orders were to take one change of underwear and toilet articles only, and these were packed in the same canvas bag he had used when he’d visited Frank Rizzo, a lifetime ago.
Hung in the middle of the long walk-through closet, his clothing was covered with a bed sheet.
At 6:40 a.m., five days after taking a physical exam and a written test, after signing papers and swearing to defend the United States of America, Mitchell gave his car keys to his mother, and after tearful hugs and kisses goodbye to her and his brothers—although he was certain that Larry was overjoyed to be rid of him so that he could have his own bedroom and could hardly wait until he was out of the door and on his way, which, actually was pretty much the way it was—they waved goodbye from the curb of the pie-shaped lot, and Mitchell, carrying his canvas bag in one hand and a manila envelope containing his indoctrination papers in the other, was driven to Union Station by his father.
Waiting for the “All aboard” call, they stood on the same platform that Mitchell had stood on four and a half months ago when he had waited for the train that was to take him to Rochester for the entrance exam that inadvertently brought him back to this exact place, at this exact time.
The father and son waited in silence. Each smoking a cigarette, both tried to think of appropriate words to say to each other.
“All aboard! All aboard!”
Dropping their cigarettes to the concrete, they ground them under the toes of their shoes.
“Yeah, Dad, I guess…”
Suddenly, as though pushed by some unknown force, their arms wrapped around each other and Mitchell felt the roughness of his father’s unshaved cheek against his. His eyes moistening, “Dad, I love you.”
Saying what he had never said, “Me, too, Mitchie. I love you, too.” Breaking the hold of their arms, “Take care of yourself.”
“I will, Dad.” Picking up his bag and manila envelope, he turned from his father, but turning back, giving him one last, fast hug, Mitchell saw something he had never seen before: his father’s eyes were bloodshot and watery… Turning away, without looking back, he ran to the train, up the steps, and into the coach.
The train left Union Station at 8:05 a.m.
It chugged through Chicago, out of Illinois, and across Indiana. It went through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and into New York state, arriving at Grand Central Station in New York City at 9:50 p.m.
Mitchell, and the four young men he had met on the train that were also bound for the Coast Guard training facility, as per instructions, were standing on the platform waiting to be picked up by…
“Hey, you guys!” A heavy-set, dark complexioned man wearing dress blues with one red chevron on the sleeve approached the “Chicago Five.” “You the boots headin’ to Cape May?”
Looking at Mitchell, “You don’t gotta sir me! I ain’t no fuckin’ officer. I’m just Yeoman Third Class Khepers. Okay? I’m here to bring the five’a’ya in with my bunch. Gi’me your papers.” Handing Khepers the manila envelopes, the five joined a contingent of eight others.
“The train’s been delayed an’ ain’t leavin’ for another hour, so’s you might as well get grub an’ take a shit, if you gotta.”
The thirteen boots along with Yeoman Third Class Khepers had dinner at the HarveyRestaurant in the depot, which Khepers paid for with redeemable military script.
The train left Grand Central Station at 11:08 p.m.
His forehead resting on the vibrating window, with the overhead lights off, the coach was bathed in a soft, orange glow that did not reflect onto the window so Mitchell was able to see out.
The train sped through the dark countryside where the only visible pinpoints of light came from distant farmhouses and cars that ran on a road parallel to the train. Rushing past hamlets and sparsely populated areas, the scattered light became brighter as they came closer… Until they blurred past the window reminding him of the old radio advertisement for his Captain Atomic Ring: Like a shower of shooting stars. Mitchell chuckled to himself, then remembered that with each rotation of the steel wheels and with each passing second he was being taken further from everything and everyone he had ever known and loved—which, really, was why he was there in the first place. In his mind’s eye he visualized his mother, asleep, and his father—glancing at his watch, which was still on Chicago time—watching Morrie Amsterdam on The Late Show. And Larry, sleeping in what was, up until today… up until yesterday… his room.
As always, Mitchell’s thoughts came back to Susan, and he philosophized: At any time you can turn a corner, or cross a street to get a hot fudge sundae and bam, your life is changed forever. Sighing deeply, an overpowering maudlin feeling came over him and suddenly becoming unbearably sad and lonely, Don’t! Willing himself not to cry, shutting his eyes tightly… the feeling passed. Opening his eyes, he looked out the window… Becoming heavy, his eyelids drooped… closed… and within seconds were open again. Staring, seeing nothing but the rushing black night, he crossed his arms across his chest, sat back and, turning his head, Mitchell Lipensky rested the side of his face against the gently vibrating window…
His shoulder being shaken, opening his eyes, “Huh?”
Standing in the aisle, “We’ll be pullin’ into Atlantic City in a while,” Yeoman Third Class Khepers said. “Better use the head an’ make yourself presentable. You don’t wanna go into camp lookin’ like a bum!” Going to the next member of his ward, “Hey, boot!”
Standing, stretching, looking at his watch, , then out the window.
There was traffic now, and as the train passed bisecting roads, buses, cars and trucks waited for it to speed by and for the clanging, black and yellow barricades to rise. At some intersections double rows of vehicles were backed up for a block or two, and at others only a few waited.
Stretching again, taking his canvas bag from the rack above the seat, he went to one of the toilets that were at either end of the coach. The late night train was not crowded, and it took no more than a few minutes for the man before him to vacate the toilet.
“Atlantic City! Next stop Atlantic City!”
With hissing steam and screeching wheels, the train ground to a stop.
The thirteen boots, led by Yeoman Third Class Khepers, disembarked the train at 6:43 a.m.
When he had boarded the train nearly twenty-four hours ago, it had been a balmy, Indian Summer day. Here on the East Coast the air was raw and a bone-chilling mist coming off the ocean caused the thirteen young men to zip their jackets and button their coats.
“Hey, Khepers!” one of the Chicagoans called. “Is it always this fuckin’ cold here?”
“Cold? You think this is cold?” Opening his pea coat, Khepers fanned himself with the sheath of manila envelopes. “Hey, this here’s hot!” Smiling, “Wait’ll they get you fuckers into one’a them longboats for rowin’ and abandon-ship drills… at oh-four hundred.”
“Oh-four hundred? That’s in the afternoon, right?”
“No. That’d be sixteen hundred.” Khepers smiled again.
“Four! In the fuckin’ mornin’?”
“Yeah, ‘four in the fuckin’ mornin’! Okay, we all here?” Counting heads, “Come on!” Khepers motioned for them to follow.
Coming off the outside platform, the group went through the depot and onto the street.
Plumes of white exhaust flowing from its tail pipe, the Coast Guard emblem with the words U.S. COAST GUARD painted on its side, a gray bus waited at the curb.
Khepers knocked on the closed door, then banged it with his fist.
The head of the driver, a dozing Seaman First Class, lifted and blearily gazed at Khepers for the moment it took the man to orient himself, before pushing the handle that opened the door.
Khepers scowled at the seaman, who looked at him blankly, then averted his face and looked out the windshield… “Okay, come on!” Standing aside as the thirteen boots climbed aboard, “You,” poking the seaman with the packets of indoctrination papers, “let’s go home!”
Cape May is approximately forty-five miles south of Atlantic City, and U.S. 9 took the gray bus in and out of stretches where the ocean could be seen.
Sitting on the seat behind the driver, turning around, looking towards the rear of the bus, “Yeah?”
“That’s the Atlantic?” One of the New Yorkers asked.
“Nah, it’s the Mediterranean. Yeah it’s the fuckin’ Atlantic Ocean! What the hell you think it is?”
Ignoring the sarcasm and curt answer, “Gee, the Atlantic Ocean,” the man said.
“You’re from New York City and you ain’t never seen the ocean?” Khepers asked.
“I live in the Bronx,” came the logical reply.
“Oh, well, that sure explains everything. Don’t you dumb farts from the Bronx know New York’s on the Atlantic Ocean?”
“Sure I know!” the man said indignantly. “I just never seen it.”
“You ain’t never seen the Statue of Liberty?”
Yeah, I seen the fuckin’ Statue of Liberty!”
“Oh, God!” Khepers sighed. “For your information the Statue of Liberty is in the Atlantic Ocean!”
“Yeah, I know that! But I was little when I saw it and forgot.”
“Last I heard they’re still givin’ that test before they let you fuckers in the Coast Guard. They are still doin’ it, ain’t they?”
“Givin’ a test? Yeah?”
“An’ still they let you in?”
Turning away, “Fuck you!” the recruit looked out the window.
“Jesus H. fuckin’ Christ!” Khepers said loudly. “What a bunch’a fuck-ups!”
Feeling as though he had heard these same words in another place, in another time, smiling as he listened to the back and forth harangue, slouching lower in the seat, putting his knees on the back of the seat in front of him, Mitchell looked out the window.
Driving through a moderately small city, “This here’s Wildwood,” Khepers announced. “An’ this is where you’ll probably be spendin’ most’a your time when you’re on liberty.”
The bus stopped for a red light.
“An’,” going on, Khepers said, “it’s only four miles from Cape May, an’ it’s got a couple’a movie theaters, some okay restaurants, a U.S.O. an’ a few bars…”
“Bars! You said the magic word, Khepers.”
Glancing at the man that had spoken, Khepers eyes touching the entire group,“…that are off limits to all boots!”
“We ain’t allowed no booze for the whole fuckin’ sixteen weeks?”
Looking at “Bronx” again, “We got beer in the PX, an’ if you fuckers want somethin’ stronger, tough tittie! Wildwood’s a nice little city…” As if for emphasis, the bus passed the city limit sign. “…an’ in nice little cities they don’t like drinkin’ with temporary shits like you guys that don’t care how bad you fuck up a place ’cause you ain’t going to be there tomorrow. And they don’t like you fuckin’ with their ladies; least not with the ladies you meet in bars. So, for the good of the City of Wildwood, and the Coast Guard, all bars are off limits to all boots all the time!”
“Fuck! No booze!”
“Fuck! No broads!”
“Fuck! If id’a fuckin’ known, I’d’a never fuckin’ joined up!”
“There it is!” the driver called.
Cresting a rise in the road, the facility came into view.
Rectangular in shape, the camp began at the highway and ran about a quarter of a mile butting to the edge of the ocean. The facility was near two-thirds of a mile wide and all visible structures—row upon row of long, squat buildings—were painted white.
Making a left turn, the bus went about thirty feet to the entrance.
A white guardhouse in the center of the road divided the road in two: one side, the ingress, and the other, the egress. In front of the guardhouse was a huge, white painted anchor. Above the entrance, covering both the ingress and egress, was a white sign with black lettering reading:
A white-helmeted guard wearing a sidearm came from the guardhouse. The bus came to a stop.
Reaching through the window, Khepers handed the sentinel an envelope.
Removing a sheath of papers, studying them a moment, the guard handed the envelope back and motioned the bus to move on.
Driving into the camp, the bus made two left turns, one right, and stopped in front of a barracks with the number 7 painted above the doorway.
Two men came out of the structure. One wore military khaki slacks and shirt, an officer’s peaked hat and a khaki jacket with a fur-like collar. The other man wore G.I. jeans, a blue chambray shirt, a sailor cap that seemed to sit on the bridge of his nose, and the same type khaki jacket.
“Okay, you’re home now.” Khepers put his cap on, squared it over his eyebrows, and nodded at the driver, who opened the door. “Move it!” Followed by the thirteen recruits, stepping off the bus, going to the man in khaki, handing him the sheath of manila envelopes, “Here you are, Chief.”
Without a backward glance at his ex-wards, Khepers climbed back onto the bus.
The driver put the bus in gear and drove away.
“Fall in!” the man in the jeans ordered. Pointing his finger at the tallest man in the group, “You, there!” Flicking his wrist to the left, “You, here!” Motioning to one after the other until the recruits stood in a semblance of order. Turning to the man in khaki, “Okay, Chief.”
“Men,” the man in khaki said, “I’m Chief Boatswains Mate Slattery, and as of…” looking at his watch, “0749 hours, you are actively in the United States Coast Guard!”
GREAT write, Mark; you take us there in compelling storytelling! You are one of the best storytellers I have ever come across (you and Jerry Bolton rank right up there at the top! :) )! Well done, sir; bravo!
(((HUGS))) and much love, your friend in Tx., Karen Lynn. :D
Reviewed by Jerry Bolton (Reader)
Brings back memories when I stepped off that transport plane at Lackland AFB in San Antonio. I didn't know what the hell I was getting into . . .