It’s been some time since I paid a visit to Broken Chairs. I wrapped up school last year and continue to write on my own, it is time for me to share some stories.
I found a three pages of journal entries that my grandfather wrote mid-century prior to making his way over from Ireland. I took bits and pieces and tried his shoes on for the rest of the ride.
The low glow of the candle flickered with each drop that fell through the roof. My quarters played host to a small puddle with every rain, allowing for many nights of my endless stare, watching the water come to a calm, revealing the small flame, only to watch it wither, as I lay motionless on my cot. This evening captured my stare longer than usual, as my imagination anticipated what rest on the pages within the envelope that took its time making the trans-Atlantic trip and back. Approaching the letter like an ancient palimpsest
The archdiocese of Los Angeles politely declined my adoption to their seminary. The Ecclesiastical authorities based this on the simple grounds of my needs, desires, and wants to be far less important than those of their own Americans dedicated to the war, battling overseas. My hopes now rest on an affidavit of support from my Uncle in San Francisco to make my way from Ireland on other means.
The world as I knew it was in mayhem. Though my travels were limited to the likes of the damp and dreary greens that surround, The Emergency was taking its toll, and my now distant dreams of California were mixed up with the United States’ involvement in this second world war. President Roosevelt just signed an order to move 100,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps, the Mexican-American gangs are plaguing the streets of Los Angeles, and yet, the state of California continued to bring Mexican laborers to make up for labor shortages through a federal program.
While Waterford and vicinity remained relatively calm, the seas that contain us remain littered with boats and floating battalions through what they are calling the Battle of the Atlantic. Our neutral position in the war did not withstand the government’s fear, in turn calling for an official state of emergency three years prior, allowing the powers above to gain new supremacy over censorship of the press and control of the economy. This variance made for a great deal of confusion and superfluous worry. The same threats only lingered and all the while, three months had passed while I waited for that letter to make its way back from the place I so desired.
With my Uncle’s approval, it was time to set forth a plan of action in hopes of a successful voyage to the United States. How was I going to make it across the Atlantic?
My letter from the Department of External Affairs finally arrived granting my permission to make my way to the United States if I should choose to continue my studies. This letter came unannounced and at a much sooner time than expected. The snows still sprinkled the hilltops, and the sheep’s white wool was turned brown from the green fields gone brown with the continuous winter rain.
The task of acquiring the necessary documents was going to be cold and burdensome during the Irish winter. Residing in Waterford meant for long, slow bus transport into Dublin. If I were to accept this long awaited opportunity, a passport, US Visa, and British Transport Visa would be needed in order to receive further instruction from the Department of External Affairs.
The fall term was coming to an end and by ten days prior to Christmas, my time at home was spent filling applications, forms, obtaining references, and being photographed; I loved being photographed.
My family could not yet afford a camera, but my Father always spoke of one. His brother had one that he picked up before the war escalated on his travels to America. It was an Argus C3, also known as the brick, and would be used widely throughout the war by photojournalists.
Just before marriage, my Uncle’s travels took him to the island of Manhattan where he purchased the brick and made his way to the eastern end of Long Island. As the story goes, Uncle bought a one-way ticket from Grand Central Station in hopes of losing all desires for other women. He was to marry my aunt upon his return from the states but had one last adventure in him.
Now Uncle, a handsome man, made up of thick brown hair and green eyes, kept the ladies curious. He did not wear the red beard and freckles that his brothers carried, in fact, he looked nothing like his siblings or parents, but put his face next to a photo of grandpa Joseph and there you may be fooled. Dressed well, with a confidence in his step, Uncle always hid his eyes with sunglasses. Only when a woman of significant beauty came near would he then approach her, speaking of the daily news or latest progressions of the soon to be war. The Irish accent caught the ladies if his looks fell short. After just a few words, he would glance away, removing his sunglasses as he returned his gaze into the woman’s eyes, capturing her, resulting in many stories that were left for my imagination.
Uncle left me a box that was to only be opened when university resumed. Respecting my Uncle and even more so his word, patience became difficult, but the wait made my desires for America that much more relevant. The box contained matchbooks from hotels he occupied as hints of perfume permeated from the box. A number of letters that each enveloped a handful of photos and a new fragrance revealed the specifics of his journey. Although he enjoyed these women as the letters exposed in specifics, it was true that this trip was one he found obligatory to the success of the future spent with my aunt, whom he is now happily married to. The box is mine to do whatever I please, but knowing my Uncle, it was to discourage my route into the seminary and eventually of becoming a priest. While we may disagree on a number of things, this box was pretty convincing.
The photos, edges curled, some wrinkled, represented the good times Uncle kept with me. Scattered amongst the ladies he loved, New York city came to life with candids of people moving in so many different directions under some of the most spectacular architecture I’ve yet to see. The streets were crowded, not uncomfortably crowded, but nothing Dublin ever showed during the morning commute. In many photos Uncle stood proud, accomplished, and most of all certain. I took this little bit with me when ever photographs were needed, knowing one day my kids, maybe grandkids, would know how to carry themselves should they never meet me.
What would be my last Christmas at home came and left as quickly as it arrived. The New Year had just begun and a letter from the Department of Foreign Affairs returned with my approval of passage across the Atlantic. My paperwork must be sitting under a pile of dusty mess in a busy Dublin office. The only way to attain the proper paperwork in time for travel would require a trip to the capitol city in hopes of expediting any loose ends that may be holding up my visas.
The fifth of January was nothing special. The war was in full effect, but my right of passage was somehow granted. Dublin is not of large distance, but during the winter, by way of Wexford, Barlow, and Wicklow, this was surely one of the more miserable times endured. I was in an immediate state of unease and panic if this was to have any connotation of what my vessel passage across the Atlantic was to be.
On starting off from New Ross, we passed through country whose lowlands were flooded by the rains and whose hilly sections were finely carpeted slushy, half-frozen snow. The bus was cold, not heated, as winds poured in from the highlands of the east. Newtown and Mt Kennedy sent driving winds where one could see the notably deeper snow chilling the air as it passed over, sending it our direction. With each stop a few more passengers loaded, bringing their cold corpse like bodies aboard a morgue-chilled ride that kept fogged with each breath.
I kept to myself, wiping clean a small circle on the murky windows, time and time again as if the barren countryside would reveal anything other than snow or misery. This wild party of the country did not allow for civilization but for those few sodden tacked cottages with their snow covered hay leaks outside. Our way up to Barlow gave way to a few more villages as we came down from the mountains. One district stood out above all. I noticed a small boy standing poorly clad in his bare feet outside his cottage home. His feet were not alone as his head wore no cap and his hand held no gloves. He seemed transparent amongst the small smoke stack that burned behind him, probably in an attempt to cook some old potatoes and cabbage. The door to his cottage was non-existent and the stones that once made up a fence lay scattered looking just as lost as the boy.
Just two hours later, the boy remained a distant thought, but the depot at O’Connell’s Bridge was now in sight. The bus filled to capacity had a good fifteen people standing. When new passengers arrived, I would pretend to be lost in slumber so my seat would not need be retired to an elder while secretly keeping warm with a pair of long johns Father gave me for Christmas.
Dublin is such a fine city, even in the midst of winter. People keep smiles here. The rest of the country puts their smiles away until the sun shines, forcing us to keep our many smiles hidden for prolonged periods. America may have some fine places, but where can one find a finer street than O’Connell St.? Now to find a hotel on Grafton St.; a street lined with boutiques, restaurants, pubs, and people. Maybe I would embark on one of Uncle’s escapades while in Dublin to break through the cobwebs gathered during a semester of studies. The life all around tempted my thoughts, but the bus ride already set me back two hours and the consulate remained a priority.
The consulate physician looked me over. Dr. Ashe was oddly tall with large hands and a long nose whose bridge carried the frames of his chic stylish glasses. Glasses like that were not to be found outside of Dublin. His demeanor was dark yet his ambitions and hopes for those that entered was high. After a bout of silence, he shared of his time in America.
“I arrived when I was in my late twenties to study at Harvard Medical School. During my studies I came across a number of Irish folks littered throughout Boston, and they all described their reasons for coming to America. Many of them came for opportunity, but a few came for medical. The treatment in Ireland was so poor that their only hope was to wage the battle of a long boat ride in hopes of surviving just long enough to get the care they needed and felt they deserved. It was then that I knew I would return home to Dublin to maintain my practice and ensure those who came to see me in hopes of travels far, that they would be healthy enough to make the trip or even be provided the care if I could convince them to stay.”
With that the doctor gave me a firm handshake and a piece of paper with a set of numbers sloppily written.
“If you ever make it to Boston, give this gentleman a call,” Dr. Ashe said looking out the window towards St Stephen’s Green. “Tell him Old Ashe sent you and he will take you in for a few nights.”
As I left the examination room, Dr. Ashe called out to me one last time.
“Good luck James, I can’t wait for you to share your stories.”
I could only hope the government officials were as pleasant and optimistic of my departure. Taking the time to enjoy the serenity that is St. Stephen’s Green, I walked to the corner market to pick up some meat and bread. The woman in the reception area told me of the warm stew that the shop owner made every morning and my fortune lead me to enjoy a heart-warming meal during a rare dry patch of the afternoon. St. Stephen’s square is surrounded by busy corridors and thoroughfares, but if you walk past the pond, just past center, a few spots hide within the trees that have you lost in the city.
The refueling of my soul got me through what came next. The government office at Lord Iveagh’s House was now owned by Benjamin Guinness, but resembled nothing of the warm welcoming beer factory on the other side of town. This is certain to be the first inkling as to hot I was going to get out of Ireland.
Walking in, an official studied me up and down in not so much an observational way, but with rather an offensive gasp after first glance. After what seemed to be a sigh of approval and hand was outstretched signaling for my papers. The US Consulate arrived shortly after with a thick file and the process went from there. I was interviewed about everything within my file. For reasons unknown my file was much larger than those that surrounded. The questions began with basics and quickly turned into an interrogation of my desire to leave Ireland. Remaining calm, the questions seemed to repeat themselves in different words, just that I continued to answer them all the same. Fool me not. Before long I was being fingerprinted and a young gentleman arrived to tell me my visa had been approved. My fingerprints had to be redone as for when the young man delivered the news, I rest my ink-drenched hand back on the piece of paper, eliminating any contours and lines that revealed my fingertips. The processor shook his head and grabbed another piece of paper, this time grabbing my forearm and directing each finger to its appropriate square. As I gathered my few belongings, the young man wished me luck with a look of jealousy and hope that he too would one day get to America. With the luck came one last suggestion impressed upon me.
“Be sure to register for military service when you arrive to your destination, good day.”
I arrived when the sun was high, and before leaving the sun was gone behind the western hills where my days would soon be occurring.
Thomas sat next to me in silence. It is difficult to speak when you are dead. With flames over the wings, a stray bullet punctured Thomas during a rare moment without his helmet. Before each mission, Thomas would routinely remove his helmet where he kept a handkerchief his wife dipped in her perfume. For weeks Thomas was ridiculed and harassed for bringing the intimate smell of a woman into the squadron; but Thomas ignored these jabs. Before deployment, Thomas spent sixteen days and almost as many nights with his first born son, promising to be back before his first birthday. Looks like I’ve got another widow to see. Wish I would have removed those imprinted words delivered to me years ago at the US Consulate in Dublin.
We just bombed Normandy two weeks prior and our B-24 was scheduled for a daytime mission. Promised a return home by way of Ireland, my final flight was voluntary only to expedite my departure from the second World War. After taking to the seas a few years prior, something inside had me keeping a promise to an unknown fellow Irishman that suggested the importance of joining the military once arriving to America. There was nothing I wanted more than to be home. Not home in Ireland on the banks of tumultuous seas surrounded by fog hidden tugboats looking to make an extra buck recovering scraps of botched war ships, but home; my new home in California.
California was everything it was meant to be. For the first time in my life, a vision I had so greatly imagined had become reality and my heart had me here, 18,000 feet over the unruly mess that Germany created, next to a guy who once talked back when I asked him questions. Now, looking around at ten unfamiliar faces, the silence I fell into momentarily disappeared with abrupt changes in altitude, but remained to be a secure path of flight. If I didn’t know any better, it would seem that the pilot was still going to drop the bomb on his target. That he did. Three minutes later a bomb was dropped on a plane manufacturing plant that was crucial to supplying Germans the air supply to keep knocking us down. The Strenzfeld plant was heavily guarded and our plane could not withstand any more impact. As we looked down at the raze ruins, a sense of relief came over the flying metal tube and California resurfaced, so did German fighters.
The plane was struck and lined with bullets leaving everyone opposite of me filled with holes, heads down, grabbing one last stare at that one pair of shoes they had come to know so well. Our pilot was losing control of the aircraft and a parachute was in order. The remaining three of us acted as one would when being shot at in German skies during a war involving much of the world. Quickly grabbing Thomas’ tags and wife’s keepsakes, I stuffed them into my medic vest and decided to close his eyelids. Already experiencing a rather unfortunate death, the last thing his soul needed to see was a ball of burning metal screaming to the ground, bound to be wrecked to pieces. The inboard engines were ablaze and the plane was soon well behind me.
Looking above, it seemed I would have a great deal of company from the planes that followed in the bombing of the factory. From what I could count, another three had been shot down, and two more looked to be dodging bullets. One of those bullets hit my chute at about 5,000 feet, sending me into an uncontrolled spin over German farmland. Forgive me Father, but Jesus Christ!
(Waking from an unknown amount of time)
Silence, silence like I’ve never heard before surrounded me. No gunshots, no airplanes, no yelling, nothing. An odd sense of panic came over me and my immediate reaction was to start crying. Lost in a war alone with yourself is one thing; lost in a war with the world is another. The plane was nowhere in sight. Flames or clouds of smoke that would dictate the crash remained unseen, and beneath this branch, I hoped an prayed that too, remained out of sight.
Using my knife I freed myself of my chute and grabbed the pieces of remaining fabric. My parachute was one of the newer nylon ones issued by DuPont, which would become useful overnight. Those old silk things would not resist the powers of nature. Nightfall was rapidly approaching since bombing missions usually took place at twilight or dawn in an attempt to avoid any obvious approach. My thoughts were behind a mid day air strike that would likely catch the Germans off guard. What would I know, I only wore a red cross on my arm; a red cross that would become more powerful than a pair of wings or a stallion’s head.
When I first joined the military, my initial thoughts rested on a roll that would allow me to fulfill a duty to a country that has taken me in. Behind those thoughts, the idea of killing anybody was out of sight. Ideally, a photojournalist would have been a perfect way to serve and absorb the world through the lens of an army assigned camera, which during the war, was a top of the line field camera, light in weight, and highly effective in capturing pain, sorrow, and genuine fright in grown men. This job was granted to those who already had a background in photography; not exactly the environment for an amateur to master a craft and hone his skills. Instead I was put through a weeks worth of training, learning how to tie tourniquets, inject morphine, and use a field knife, in the end, being dressed in green army fatigues bearing a red cross on my right shoulder. I was a medic.
The US Military can put you through a year’s worth of training, but noting will prepare you for the sights of the war. Watching men, looking into their eyes as they grab you, depend on you, hope that you….can somehow, someway, help them escape that very moment.
The question remains whether or not to remain in the woods overnight. Though my surroundings seem uninhabited, my desire to tackle this thought what light remains in hoping of finding my way home seem to cloud the reality at hand. I just want to go home.
The June German nights are most pleasant when turmoil is beyond the distance. Stepping out of the woods, a field graced me with warm waving grains, just high enough to allow me to keep hidden if enemies approach. The field spanned in all directions, seeming infinite, reminding me of the green grass pastures I would come across over summer holiday in County Claire. My frightened thoughts disappeared and the pure acceptance of what was ahead became very apparent. For some reason I was dreaming of April showers.
My dreams took over and my steps kept going. Absolutely lost, I headed south of where our plane had crashed. Knowing that the major battles were taking place to the north, my feet may lead me towards calmer terrain. I might just see France after all. After 16 hours of walking the field kept it’s tone. Flat, with scattered patches of trees appearing over time, the night had long since arrived and was rapidly disappearing over my left shoulder. Pacing forward, I could see my shadow shrinking with the rising sun. My only friend for the last hour would soon be gone, and once again I would be alone. Just as the sun ate my shadow a structure appeared on the horizon. Miles ahead a thin black lined resembled a distant tree line. Situated below that line emerged wooden boxes. My feet began moving at a greater rate, running for thirty minutes until those boxes became farm houses. My steps kept coming quickly before I was in the middle of fucking Germany. The continuous time on my feet had me displaced in a reality dismissed long ago. It was time to be a soldier…a survivor.
Before long the details of the farmhouses materialized as I arrived on the scene. Everything became visible and my thoughts of being a soldier immediately changed. I no longer contained the fear of killing, the fear of attacking, or the human nature of surviving. The three farmhouses seemed to belong to one family. One housed a number of cattle, which was obvious by the pungent aroma that permeated through the mid morning German sun. The mist that occupied the early morning was gone and my defenses lay behind the field’s long grains. The second farmhouse contained chickens and pigs, lined with tools and farm equipment, making it my primary destination. The third and final wooden box was the main residence, which kept a simple front of two windows, chimney hovering high, with a light stream of smoke disappearing into the bright blue sky. I had forgotten the smell of a homemade meal.
Without a weapon, the residents may allow me to gather my thoughts. They may be able to show me a map, giving me the opportunity to detail my whereabouts in hopes of finding my way out of Germany. On the other hand, they could kill me and my life would be over. Something tells me dying on this charming German farm may be a cut above a POW camp of the multiple gunshots of a German rifle. After collecting my thoughts, the decision was made.
The gentleman answered the door in wool pants, shirtless, holding a gun and an attitude. Before words were spoken, the barrel of his weapon was against my forehead and a smile came over me. The home smelled of biscuits and death. Looking beyond the barrel I could see a woman wrapped in blankets, resting on a make shift set of box springs in front of the fireplace. Bandages, bottles, scissors, and napkins were scattered around her, and a moist towel rest on her forehead. By the looks of it, the towel was cold, in hopes of keeping her temperature down, as she looked pale and weak. My curiosity caused the man to glance back momentarily, giving me the opportunity to use what little combat training I had to grab his gun and turn it upon him, putting me in charge of the situation. It was visible that the guy had been through enough, so I remained calm, slowly raising my hands, indicating that I was unarmed and simply looking for peace.
Just as my arms made it beyond my shoulders, the man glanced to his left, making the observation of the red wool cross-stitched onto my green fatigues. Just then his gun disappeared and he stepped aside, making the situation much more detectable. The woman in front of the fireplace was not alone. What I could not see behind the man’s white bare chest was an infant wrapped and warm next to his Mother. His wife had just given birth and was suffering severely without the proper antibiotics or materials to stop the bleeding.
The man must have recognized my red cross and understood my role within the war. Trying to remain focused, it was difficult as a fresh loaf of bread and water sat on the table. My exhaustion and weakness had settled as was apparent with my lack of a fight at the door. The man raced across the room, grabbing the bread and water, handing it to me. Setting down my pack I broke the bread and said a little prayer thanking my once one and only Father for granting me this food. Before my first bite was swallowed, the man pointed to my bag and then pointed to his wife. She was in an awful state, holding a high fever and keeping a steady flow of blood from between her legs. Her pain was easy to diffuse with a shot of morphine far too common amongst soldiers. These shots became a request not just from gunshot wounds or other severe injury, but from a common ankle sprain or scrape obtained from day-to-day events. This was the first person I’ve come across during the war that truly deserved this shot.
With the pain settling I was able to calm the woman down enough to fully observe the amount of injury. She had lost a great deal of blood, but not enough to kill her immediately. The antibiotics may work, but without fully understanding the extent of her hemorrhaging, it would be difficult to prescribe the correct amount. Her baby rest unplaced, kept warm by the fire and the wool blanket it was cloaked in. Although her death was no where near, the longer I waited to give her the shot, the closer the baby was to being raised without a Mother.
During the process my observations never quit. The house looked to belong to the man who wore the face of a farmer in his fifties, although his shirtless body dropped him down twenty years, making him just as fit as the soldiers I trained with. His wife, girlfriend, Mother of his children….looked to be about half his age. The house was tidy and the only mess sat in front of me.
I injected the woman with an antibiotic that only time would steer. Sitting back, I wiped by brow, unaware that I was sweating profusely. The man handed me a clean towel. Where he found this amongst the sea of red and white still has me confused. Resting on the floor against the wall, my eyes failed to stay open. The warmth of the fireplace, ambers crackling next to me, and the warm, filling bread inside of me after what was now 32 hours awake, gave way to my surrender to that smooth flat surface of the hardwood floors. Just as my eyes let go of their last bit of power, the baby opened his eyes, starring right at me, as if we had met in a life prior.
The fireplace was still cooking next to me when I woke. The sun had settled and twilight came again. In front of me, the mess had been removed and the only thing that remained was the woman’s body, now full of color and breath. I had a blanket wrapped around me and a pillow behind my head. There was a large glass of water and plate full of meat on the table. As I stood, my legs gave out, not realizing the amount of stress put on them the last day. I fell, making a large noise, waking the woman, causing the man to appear from the hall way, still shirtless, quick to see what was going on.
I again raised my hands; not in surrender, but a more apologetic tone. This time the man smiled and approached me. Before I could put my hands down, he wrapped his arms around me, embracing me and giving me a hug a I had not felt since my Father wished me well on my venture to America. The man let go, tears rolling down his face, palms pressed together as if he were praising me. After my smile in return, he pointed to the plate full of food and led me to the table. Here I devoured the food, feeling life inside of me once again. The house was full of life. A newborn, a woman saved, and a man’s spirits renewed.
After supper I took a seat in a rocking chair the man had set out for me. Within minutes I was out again. This time, I knew waking up would be much more graceful. I had just saved a woman’s life and her son would enjoy the love only a Mother could offer.
Waking again, unmoved, the sunrise was quickly approaching. I had the desire to run outside and spend some time with my shadow. Looking down, the floor was empty and the fire had disappeared leaving hot coals glowing under grey ash. Where in the world was I? The smell of the kettle came quickly and my legs felt like they had regained some strength. I had just found a great night of sleep in the middle of Germany, having me feeling better than I usually do waking up back home. What would wars be like if soldiers slept 10 hours each night? We would have some long wars.
The table where my last two meals were enjoyed looked no different than before. A plate full of eggs and potatoes sat fresh, steam still rising as a beautiful young woman sat opposite of me. Her pale skin was a trait not caused by sickness, only enhanced. When ill a mild color came over her, not allowing one to observe the true luster of her white skin and blue eyes. Her beautiful, long, brown, curly hair, toppled down her shoulders and her smile was enchanting. She leaned forward as I ate my breakfast and very carefully said, “Tank Yu.”
I smiled back, offering a hand gesture and the common American response of “You’re welcome,” not expecting her to comprehend. She smiled, turning a shade of rose and simply looked angelic. What struck me just then was again the fact that I had saved her life. What seemed moments ago, a gun touched my forehead and my life was soon to be lost. Now I am having breakfast with what may be the most beautiful girl I had encountered and she was thanking me for her life.
My German words were few. Before attempting to communicate with the girl, I realized that my mouth had not uttered any words for a number of days. My silence came naturally, not forced, like the days spent in the convent in search of my sins. The only sin in sight is about five feet in front me.
“Guten Morgen,” came out of my mouth in what seemed like an eternity. My voice sounded foreign, and I had only just realized that my hearing was slightly distorted from the chaos that was a plane crash and my parachute landing in the woods.
The girl did not respond. She glanced away, turning red, only to sneak a look back in hopes of my eyes being elsewhere.
“Guten Morgen,” I repeated. “Wir danken Ihnen für Lebensmittel.” I did not know how to say breakfast, so my translation must have sounded prehistoric sounding, “Thank you for food.” I might as well said, “Me man, me like you, you love me, we get marry.”
Before anything came out of this broken conversation, the shirtless man arrived, clothed in work pants and a long sleeve button down that appeared to be his uniform. In his arms rest a newborn, one that seemed to only shortly disrupt his daily routine. Approaching the table, he gave the baby one last look, kissed him on his forehead, and passed the small one off to the girl. Grabbing the kettle, he poured himself some coffee which only serviced to wash down the toast he inhaled. After a quick refill and a handful of bacon, the man strapped on and laced up his shoes, stood up, pointed at me, and managed to say, “Help….wurk?”
“Ihnen helfen?” I responded. The man smiled, looked over at the girl as if to signal a nod off approval and appreciation and patted me on the back while celebrating, “YA!”
My expenses did not allow me to purchase a pocket dictionary before the joining the war. Folded up next to my widow’s notes, I had a crumpled up piece of paper with illegible writing to the common man. A cryptic message to most, this papyrus of scribble contained the words and translations of over 1,000 key words that I found would be useful to know in German. Never have I known my writing to come in such use.
Outside, the sun was nowhere to be seen. The war was heavy all around us, but where we stood seemed to hold the tranquility left in all of Germany. Following the man, I decided I should introduce myself. If my work was going to valued, I should at least be called by name.
“James!” I shouted for some reason.
The man stopped, turned, raising his eyebrows as if I asking me to repeat myself, and waited.
“James,” I said in a much kinder tone, pointing my index finger to my chest.
“Jaaaaammmmes,” I repeated much slower as if the man was slower than most or hard of hearing.
“Yames!” He responded with a smile.
Yames will have to do. I like it
“Yo-Han,” said the man, splitting his name in two, making me feel a bit slower than most as well.
Johan and I outstretched our hands to shake, locking with immediate security, causing an odd thing that followed. Johan pulled me in and put his opposite arm around me, his hand making its way up my back to the back of my head as we separated, where he held me like his first born son, looking at me with welled-up eyes and muttering, “Tank you.” The sincerity in the two tank yous, both from the man and the girl, delivered a feeling I had yet to feel in my life. There is a lot to be said about something unknown to a grown man.
Within the next few hours Johan showed me the functional operation of the farm, allowed me to establish some living quarters within the barn, and shared his secret bottle with me.
Small pales stacked in the corner lean against the barn wall to avoid tumbling over. Johan removed the pile of buckets, leaving the bottom one revealing a clear glass bottle topped with a cork. The brown stuff inside was obviously an old familiar drink from home. Deep in the bucket, a crystal tumbler rest. Johan removed the glass, pouring a healthy pour, taking one back, repeating, then handing the glass to me. I held the glass up and offered a prost. The warm whiskey was of a good age. The warmth filled my chest as the burn still danced on my tongue; we both smiled, and headed in for supper.
Back inside the girl had kept the house warm and her baby happy. She sat in front of the fire, baby resting on his back between her legs looking back up at her. It became clear to me that parents speaking nonsense to their baby was a universal practice. Seeing Johan and me enter the main room, she stopped, smiled and blushed. Immediately jumping to her feet, she grabbed her child and rushed to the kitchen to prepare our plates. On her way she casually handed me her child as if she’d done it before. The child had her eyes and mouth, but by the looks of it, must have had his Father’s ears and nose. The child felt of my own, resting in my arms, warm-bodied and secure, unaware of the turmoil surrounding our worlds, not his. I hope the sad man doesn’t visit his world anytime soon.
Without hesitation, I approached the woman, and put my arm right arm around her, baby in left. I suddenly felt the confidence I imagined my Uncle always carried. Johan, befuddled, shot a quick glance at the girl, then after an eternal moment, shared a smile and nodded. She then turned to me, big eyes into mine, and I kindly said, “James.”
With a cute soft smile, the girl rejoined the moment, “Lena.”
I handed Lena her child and removed her from the duties of setting the table. Smiling, she held her baby high and said, “Yames!”
A woman unknown days prior, a woman with significant beauty from a family of greater admiration, just gave her baby my own born name. Here, two cultures mixed in a war, have come together, bringing soul and life to the world. We each ignore our own master’s voice, seeing our inner child…soldier…Mother…Father…the sound of life is represented in front of us.
Belfast sits on the same island as my home but has a much colder face. My papers granted me passage across the tumultuous seas, but my departure was from the north. After months of hopes and dreams, hard work and patience, my anxiety turned to fright and my courage had my chest shrinking day by day.
Father looked at me from the kitchen table as he fiddled with his breakfast. Father always loved the eggs and sausage, but Mother always sliced a tomato in hopes of getting him to stomach some vegetables. Father mastered the perfect way to not eat any of the tomato, taking just enough time at the table to tear them apart and spread them around to look as if he enjoyed almost the entire thing. Mother always picked up his plate with a smile and kiss on that freckled, bald, head. Each time Father let a rare smile slip, always letting me see a bit of the mischievous kid inside. Maybe that is where I got my sense of adventure, looking to wander across the globe. I always felt there was a side of Father I would never know, rather I would just live and fully understand. It was as if he were hiding those thoughts and stories, knowing I would go out on my own one day and venture to a new world with new people and new experiences. My hesitation to share my future destination with Father and Mother remained. Would they understand? Would I ever see them again? Would they come visit? Would I make it to America?
The few days spent home, I gathered my belongings, making sure to take the essentials and leaving nothing of great importance behind. This task proved to be longer than expected, rummaging through old photos, reading over noted passages in my favorite novels, and making certain the photo of my one true love would remain safe and near my heart. After what had the morning sun high overhead, a sad look escaped my face, looking down at my pack. I did not have a lot to call my own. Now this is not regarding material items or fancy pressed shirts. My memories were kept within miles of one another, never seeing the main continent, only ever venturing from bog to bog, and now to the basalt plateau that makes up our northern neighbor. The occasional trip to London was either for government issued papers or to see my cousins over holiday. These times were spent complaining of family members over too much wine and burnt Yorkshire pudding. My desires returned.
I returned to the kitchen come evening to enjoy a roast with some potatoes and barley wine that was gifted from neighbor. The barley wine made Mother’s cheek rose and always had Father touching her more. The two never stopped smiling; I maintained a grin, holding back tears of sadness, knowing that my parents argue and keep quiet, ignoring one another most of the time, but truly sharing the maternal bond of love. The barley wine disappeared and Father and I sat in front of the fireplace in silence, Mother on Father’s lap. The warmth came from flames and family. I stood up and walked over to Mother and Father, embraced them, giving each a hug and a kiss only a son could deliver, and walked away in tears. This could very well be the last time I share their company. Returning home has never been so enjoyable.
Back in my bedroom I knew this would be the second to last night of sleep I would gather in a bed. Two days from now I would be aboard a cargo ship dodging U-Boats and aerial attack as we cross the North Atlantic. There weren’t any busses to America.
Morning was still a few hours away but my sleep could not be found. The rest I needed through a long night’s slumber was hiding in a place I have failed to find for many years. After washing my face, I grabbed my bags and made my way to the kitchen. After putting on the kettle, a box with my name on it appeared on the table. In the box there was the rosary my Mother prayed with every night, an Argus C3, £300, and my Grandfather’s pocket watch that my own Father always kept on him. I was lost in the box, the memories I lacked suddenly appearing as a chronological sequence of my life ran through my head appearing in this box. It is amazing how much your parents know about you, even when you think you are beyond their years. Next to the box rest a satchel fit for the belongings in the box. The kettle shook my thoughts. My last moments at home felt right. An understanding that was never spoken of worked itself out. There was no turning back…right?
I wonder if American streets share the silence Irish streets do before dawn? The cobblestone roads kept quiet without the foot traffic, trucks, or horses. The fog hid the sea, but the voices of the fisherman prepping for a days work came through the wall of grey.
Cavehill (Irish: Binn Uamha), previously known as Ben Madigan (Irish: Binn Mhadagáin), is a basaltic hill overlooking the city of Belfast in Northern Ireland. It forms part of the south eastern border of the Antrim Plateau. It is distinguished by its famous ‘Napoleon’s Nose’ , a basaltic outcrop which resembles the profile of the famous emperor Napoleon and is said to have inspired the famous novel Gulliver’s Travels.[dubious – discuss] Cavehill is also an electoral ward of North Belfast.
It offers views across the city and on clear days the Isle of Man and occasionally Scotland. Like Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, it offers a strenuous climb, just a few miles from the centre of a major conurbation. The imposing cliffs can be dangerous, with many people requiring rescue after seeking a shortcut to the summit or the higher caves.
Belfast is of enormous importance to Britain during the war, for both strategic and industrial reasons. Strategically its port compensates for the neutrality of Eire and the recent loss of British rights in the deep water harbours of southern Ireland. A naval base in Belfast means that both sides of the Irish Sea are protected, enabling the vital estuaries of the Mersey and the Clyde to function without danger of attack from the sea.
Belfast itself is in their league for its shipbuilding potential. During the war its yards (and in particular Harland and Wolff) produce 123 merchant ships and 140 warships, including six aircraft carriers and three cruisers.