BIG WAR Little Wars
“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.”
~ President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
One Sunday Daddy switched on our Motorola and the life of everyone I cared about changed as fast as he could twist a radio dial.
I was shaking the watery sound out of a bottle of white shoe polish. Daddy sat at our trailer’s dining nook, no more than four giant steps away. While waiting for the static to clear, he ran a finger across the radio’s lighted station panel. But static never cleared until the tubes warmed. Daddy continued to maneuver the dial until a faint male voice emerged.
I opened the polish, set it on the floor, and began to inch the wet pad around the brown vamp of my saddle shoe. When I glanced toward the radio, my toe bumped the polish. Over it went. A puddle of white, the shape of the map of Africa we’d studied in geography class, spread at my feet. I glanced around to see if anyone had noticed. Daddy’s forehead pleated as he stretched toward the radio, his head cocked.
My little sister, Peggy, sat cross-legged next to me on the sofa bed, cutting around a dress for her Blondie paper doll. Like a typical six-year-old, her tongue moved back and forth across her lower lip in sync with the scissors. The sandy blonde curls at the end of her short pigtails hugged her neck.
“Bernie,” Momma said, “must we listen to that chatter while we eat?” A knife thunked against the cutting board as she sliced through a length of summer sausage. “Girls, lunch.”
The smell of the sausage made my stomach growl with hunger. “In a minute.”
Momma spied the spilled polish. “Ludmilla Jaeger, clean up that mess.”
“Oh, no. Lordy, no!” Daddy clapped both hands over his eyes as though he had witnessed a disaster.
Momma turned her attention from me. “What, Bernie? Is the news that bad?”
“They bombed us this morning.” Daddy whacked the table with the palm of his hand. The soupspoon rattled against the inside rim of his bowl. “We are in it now.”
Peggy tossed her scissors into the paper doll box. When she slid off the sofa bed, she stepped right into the middle of Africa in her stocking feet. “Oooh.” She lifted one foot to peel off the wet sock.
Daddy cranked the volume. “Shush, listen.”
Peggy covered her ears.
“I can’t believe it.” Daddy’s voice drowned out the announcer. “In broad daylight, they snuck in and bombed and torpedoed our ships and airfields.”
I crossed to where Daddy sat and rested my forearm on one of his shoulders. They were hunched up around his neck. His muscles felt hard and tight beneath my arm. The announcer’s voice droned on, “and at Hickam Field, planes—clustered together for easy guarding—made perfect targets.” I tried to picture what the announcer was describing, but the images would not register.
Momma stared at the radio as though it was some mystery box dropped into our lives. She stood like a Boston Store mannequin, clutching the butcher knife before her. Creases formed above her arched eyebrows. “Who? Bernie, who did you say did this?”
“Japs! The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor.”
I swallowed. “Where’s Pearl Harbor?”
Daddy didn’t take his eyes off the radio. “Hawaii.”
We had studied the Hawaiian Islands with their sandy beaches and tropical flowers. I couldn’t imagine someone bombing such a place. But I couldn’t imagine any place being bombed.
Peggy stood on one leg with her bare foot held above the cold floor. “What does bombed mean?”
“Honey girl, remember when your uncle dynamited those tree stumps on his farm?” Daddy asked. “Like that, only a whole lot worse.”
Peggy met my gaze. Her eyes widened.
Daddy turned toward Momma. “I told you I didn’t trust Tojo. He’s the one Emperor Hirohito had named as his Prime Minister. Those bast—”
“Bernie! Not in front of the girls.”
Daddy sucked in his breath. “They got us, Maureen. Yup, and after making it appear that they were still going to negotiate. Those torpedoes we assemble at the plant will no longer be shipped to the Brits. Now our own servicemen will need them.”
Everyone’s expression appeared strange in this nightmare world of new words and new descriptions. Peggy was shivering. She backed up and leaned against Momma. Wisconsin winters had nothing in common with the warm breezes of Hawaii. I glanced over the three crank-out windows surrounding the dining nook. They were coated with frost thick enough to scratch my entire name with a fingernail. Christmas was just weeks away. Momma had used stickpins to attach special greeting cards to the woven curtains.
Daddy brought the side of his fist down on the table. “Nope. Never did trust them.” His head moved back and forth like a rundown, wind-up toy. “Sure wish I’d been wrong. The announcer didn’t say how many were killed. But he did say it could have been worse if today hadn’t been a Sunday. They believe some of the sailors were on leave, some in church.”
Daddy pushed his untouched soup to the center of the table. His sad eyes focused on Momma. “You know what this means, Maureen.”
Momma’s narrow eyebrows stretched to meet above her slim nose.
“Teresa’s boys and Margie’s boys will have to go,” Daddy continued. “All those who are old enough.”
I had never seen my father’s face, his whole body, look so sunken. Why did he talk about my aunts and my cousins in that way? “What do you mean, Daddy? Where will Raymie and Harry and the others go?”
Daddy turned and placed his hands on my shoulders. His blue eyes drooped at the corners. “To war, Milla,” he said, “to war.”
I slipped into the office of Tralmer’s Trailer Camp and lifted the bundled mail, hoping to spot a V-mail envelope. It seemed forever since I’d had a letter from Raymie. Not finding the mail already sorted and shoved into the individual slots was rare.
Kat pushed aside the faded curtain that separated the family’s living quarters from the office space. There went my chance to retrieve our mail before our landlady padded out in her run-over canvas shoes to stop me.
“I’ll hand you the mail, Ludmilla dear.” She relieved me of the bundle. “My, but you look sweet.” Kat’s honey-voice was a clue that Big Al was out of her hair for the day. Sometimes I believed that Kat liked her husband better than she let on, but how would I know. Behind his back, us Camp kids called him the tyrant in whispered voices. Big Al owned the Camp, ran the Camp, and reigned—no questions permitted.
I sighed loud enough for Kat to notice.
“You know the rule, dear. Children must be over twelve before they’re allowed to pick up the mail without my handing it to them.”
“But, Mrs. Tralmer, I’ll be thirteen in a few months.” Our landlady preferred to be called Kat, but this was my way to get back at her for calling me Ludmilla. She knew my family’s nickname for me was Milla and that the Camp kids called me Lu.
Kat smiled. “Be certain to let me know when that big birthday happens.” She stood before the mail slots and wiped flour from her hands on her print housedress. Despite sugar limits, she always had a supply. Kat was constantly shoving something into her oven—a pie, a layer cake, or peanut butter cookies—or about to take something out. She untied the bundled mail. “Been busy and haven’t sorted these yet.” Kat tucked graying curls behind her ears with swipes of a middle finger. While she picked through the mail, she appeared to linger over the return addresses for as long as those centered on the envelopes. “I see the Manleys have a letter from their son in the Navy.”
The office smelled as delicious as the Johnston Cookie Company on National Avenue. Peggy and I would convince whichever parent was driving to stop by their factory and check whether the Company had any bags of rejects for sale. Daddy was the easiest to convince since he also had a sweet tooth. Sometimes we couldn’t even spot the flaw—maybe the frosting was smeared, or a corner was chipped, or the center was off. But the aroma of a warm bakery—flour and sugar and melted chocolate—blinded us to any defects. Flaws never affected the crunchy melt-in-your-mouth taste. Momma once asked Kat how, with certain foods rationed, she managed to bake so often. She told Momma that the witch gave them her sugar stamps. The witch was her pet name for Big Al’s mother. Even after all of Kat’s gossip about her, to me his mother still seemed like any little old lady in square-heeled, black lace-up shoes. I even suspected Kat baked so people would hang around the office to chat in hopes she’d offer them a sample. I knew for a fact that some of the Camp kids did. Kat often rewarded me with one of her cookies to run across Camp and notify someone they had a phone call. She’d say, “This one is made with real sugar, my dear, not with honey or maple syrup.”
I shifted from one foot to the other and stared at Kat’s face. The end of her nose reminded me of a balloon someone blew a puff of air into and then stopped before the balloon expanded.
Kat dropped the rest of the mail on the sorting table. “Be back in a minute. Got a cake in the oven, need to poke it with a toothpick.” She disappeared behind the curtain. I stepped forward and craned my neck to read the name on the next envelope.
When I heard the dial tone, I noticed the black telephone receiver dangling by its cord. This was the only phone in Camp and not the first time I’d found the receiver off the hook. I hung it in its cradle. How many phone calls had we missed during almost three years in Tralmer’s Camp? But some calls were better than no calls. On our farm Up North, we didn’t even have electricity until my Grandpa Shanahan got us connected through something called the REA. Before that, on Saturday nights Daddy drove his Ford up close to our living room window. After he ran the radio wires to the car battery, we’d listen to “Gang Busters.” If there was still a fire in the cook stove, Momma would first scour and dry the dishpan and then fill it with popped corn.
I reached up and ran my fingers through the brittle ends of my not-blonde-enough hair. Sitting in the sunshine while doing a weekly lemon juice soak may have lightened my hair a bit. Hard to tell, for sure. But lemon juice did nothing for dryness, thanks to the four electric perm curlers some ex-beauty parlor operator gave Momma. She had to put them to use, I suppose, frying Peggy’s and my hair. I wrapped my hands around the ends in back and tugged, wishing it into a long pageboy. I imagined my hair so thick and unruly it had to be tamed within one of those woven, colored hairnets some movie stars wore. Momma said those nets were most likely stuffed with fake hair. She’s an expert at spoiling my illusions.
Kat reentered the office and picked up the mail. “I see your Dad got his weekly issue of LIFE.” She handed me the oversized magazine with three envelopes piled on top. I pulled the magazine from beneath the letters, glanced at it, and sucked in my breath.
“What is it, Lu?”
I didn’t answer. Kat’s face blurred, as did that of the soldier pictured on the cover. He carried a rifle; his helmet was camouflaged with leaves. I bolted from the office and wiped my eyes on the back of one hand. Part way up the graveled road, I stopped and held the magazine in front of me. White lettering printed beneath the stripes on the soldier’s sleeve read: IN NORMANDY. Wasn’t Normandy in France? That’s what I’d heard during the Movietone News at the Paradise Theater last weekend. And wasn’t Raymie in France? That’s what Aunt Teresa had said in one of her letters.
I burst into our trailer house and slammed the screen door despite Momma’s rule. “Is it him, Daddy?” I crossed to our one-legged dinette table hinged to the wall and dropped the magazine next to his coffee cup. My throat felt as tight as the knot I had struggled to untie in Peggy’s jump rope.
“Milla!” Momma called from behind an opened closet door. That was the only private place to dress or undress inside our trailer. “Do not bang that door. The neighbors might complain to Big Al.”
Big Al was number one on Momma’s fear list, even though she had been plenty scared when Daddy left us behind for a steady job in the city.
“A man can’t make it,” Daddy had said, “when the sale of milk and eggs returns less than the cost of feed for his cows and chickens.” When he learned that factories had been converted to manufacture war weapons for England, he hitched a ride to Milwaukee to apply. When my school year ended, he rented out the farm and moved us into what Momma called “the six-by-fourteen-foot cracker box on wheels.” Trailer life was meant to be temporary, but the war had rationed more than butter and sugar.
“This is more important than a banged door, Momma.” I turned my attention back to the magazine cover and pointed. “Is that Raymie?”
Daddy glanced up at me, then at the shiny cover of LIFE. He reached for his steel-rimmed reading glasses, dropped them on his nose, and adjusted the stems behind his ears. He tilted his head. “Looks a little like Raymie.”
I grabbed the magazine by its front cover and shook it before Daddy’s face. “But is this him?”
When I dropped the magazine to the table, Daddy studied the photo. “No, that’s not your cousin. But I understand why you might think so.”
I started to calm down. “Does Raymie carry a long gun like this soldier?”
“He had darned well better! Quit worrying about that boy. He’s a sharpshooter and probably the best under his general’s command. Why, Raymie always got his buck right after sunrise the first morning of deer season. Remember how he’d have it hung up by its hind hooves from your Aunt Teresa’s back porch?”
I nodded. Yes, I did remember those times when my cousins were proud of their tracking and for putting meat on their tables. There was no way of knowing if they still felt the same about hunting or capturing.
Daddy slipped an arm around my waist. “All those cousins of yours were good shots. You can bet they’re even better now.”
I flipped the magazine shut and ran a hand over the soldier’s face. Daddy studied me. “Why so serious?” He reached in his shirt pocket and pulled out a package of Wrigley’s Spearmint. “Here, have a stick of gum. It makes life sweeter.”
I wrinkled my nose, lifted the magazine, and hugged it to my chest. “I only like Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit.”
“The servicemen like that flavor best, too.” He tossed the gum on the table. “You may not see another package of Juicy Fruit until this war ends.”
“My share can go to Raymie.” I dropped the magazine next to the gum. “Be sure to save the wrappers to add to Peggy’s ball of foil.”
“What about Harry and Junior or the twins? You act as though Raymie is your only cousin who’s fighting to keep us safe. Why is that?”
I glanced at the face on the magazine cover and shrugged. “No specific reason.” But deep inside I sensed there was a specific reason that Raymie and I felt bonded. I just couldn’t identify it—not to Daddy, not to my friends CeeCee or Gwen or Reno, and not even to myself.
Nearly three years had passed since the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Daddy had said my cousins would have to go away, and he had been right. Five of them left during the same month. I couldn’t imagine going Up North and not seeing them pin deer tags on the back of each other’s red-and-black plaid hunting jackets. No more bragging around an aunt’s pot-bellied stove about which of them was the best shot. Until then, the word war had meant nothing more than three letters strung together in a boring history book. Not anymore. Plenty of times since that Sunday I’d wished Daddy could twist our radio dial and change everything back.
I smiled and wrapped an arm around Daddy’s neck. He rubbed his knuckles against my cheek. “Tell you what. Your mother leaves early to prepare for a dinner party at the supper club.”
“Whose party?” I asked.
Momma stepped from behind the closet door and grinned. “Gypsy Rose Lee and her sister are performing at the Riverside Theater in downtown Milwaukee tonight. My boss is hosting a dinner in their honor.” The celebrities who dined at Roxy’s Supper Club on the corner of Highway 100 and Greenfield Avenue impressed my mother no end.
My eyes widened. “Is she a dancer?”
“Gypsy Rose Lee isn’t exactly what you’d call a ballerina, Milla.” Daddy winked at Momma. “You and Peggy pack your dance cases. Take the bus in. I’ll pick you up after your lessons with Miss Bonnie.”
Momma closed the mirrored closet door and adjusted her starched waitress hat. She anchored the headpiece to the curls on top of her head with two bobby pins. “Bernie, if you drive in after the girls, will you have enough gas to get back and forth to work next week? Didn’t you say you were short of ration stamps?”
“No problem. I coasted down a few hills on my way home last week.”
“Tsk! You did not.”
“Did so. Maureen, it’s too hot for you to walk. I’ll drop you off at the Club.” Daddy turned back to me. “The three of us could have supper at the A&W; how about a burger and one of those foamy root beer floats. Sound good?”
“Oh, yes. Peggy and I are starved after dance class.”
“We could take in a movie. Then you’ll see during the newsreels that our boys are making their boys wish they’d never heard of Adolf Hitler.”
I studied the magazine cover again. No, that wasn’t a picture of Raymie. At first glance, I’d thought so; because I remembered that he wore his cap at an angle like this soldier. I had become so used to looking for Raymie’s face—in the newspapers, the newsreels, even on the street if I saw a guy in uniform—I didn’t know how not to look for him.
I rubbed my hand over the soldier’s face. Daddy had subscribed to LIFE magazine soon after World War II broke out. I didn’t understand why adults said “broke out” when they talked about Pearl Harbor, they just did. Being at war couldn’t be compared to breaking out with the measles or the chicken pox. You got over them. But it seemed like a war lasted forever.