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Friday, July 24, 2009

Friday excerpt from my autobiographical novel,S'mothered

These were some of the things I reflected on, as I stood shivering, my hands almost frost bitten, eyes tearing and nose numb, at the corner of Colfax and Seaton avenues on December 8, 1941. The previous day was of course a fateful one for America, but I was too young to realize how much the happenings of the past 24 hours somewhere half way around the world, would influence the rest of my adolescence.

The Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor. The same night, President Roosevelt announced our country was now at war. I knew what a war was. I had toy soldiers and I lined them up against my friend’s soldiers. He tried to kill my soldiers, and I tried to kill his. Even at the age of ten I understood the war the President talked about was a lot more serious than our make-believe wars.

During the next few years, four of the remaining males in my life served in World War 11 on various battlefields thousands of miles from Rose Point, my Uncle Sal, Uncle Pat, Uncle Frank and my stepfather Hank. I missed them all but when Uncle Sal left, I cried.

Patriotic fever was beginning to erupt, even in our small ethnic community in New Jersey as just about all the able-bodied men marched off to war. Bands played and women wept with pride as each week some additional young men left their jobs, schools or businesses to fight against booted fascists and yellow, sneaky, cowardly Japs.

These were exciting, proud, almost euphoric days and weeks in the little town I lived in. The radios blared forth songs like “Lets Remember Pearl Harbor” and at the one movie theater in the town, almost overnight, every picture playing showed soldiers, sailors and marines fighting monsters like Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito.

It all seemed surreal. The headlines in the daily newspapers, which I couldn’t wait to read each morning, were bold and black and twice the size as usual. The radio bulletins interrupted regular programs to announce news of the Allied Forces advancing and then retreating as they bombed large cities and ports. Foreboding photos of captured troops in prisoner of war camps cast a pall on life. Each night I listened to F.D.R talking on the radio about fearing fear itself, infamy and victory.

I guess the most serious report was when a rumor floated throughout the state, in the newspapers, and on the radio about a German U boat being sighted off the new Jersey coast. The possibility the Nazis were about to invade us was now pervasive. Soon we were having mandatory, twice weekly, practice air raids. A loud, scary, wailing alarm sounded for a full minute. We were told it was a minute, but it felt like much longer. Everyone was ordered into his or her homes until the all clear alarm sounded five minutes later.

Ironically, amid all this tumult and turmoil, my life seemed calmer and more peaceful. There was less shouting and fighting both inside and outside the house and around the neighborhood. The war had initially sparked passions of pride and pomp, but as reports of casualties started to slowly filter back to the home front, a sense of fear and anxiety developed. I could feel it.

People were talking to other people more often as they shared their reactions and vulnerabilities. Some neighbors, Mrs. Fanning, the butcher, Mr. Cutrafello, and the scary old woman known as the "Calabrase Lady,” occasionally expressed concern about my sister and me.

I noticed this also among the adults milling around outside of Sabio’s and at the gas station. I felt closer to my peers both in school and while playing. I think our common fears drew us closer to each other. The school bullies picked on me less and the normally aloof older kids were more approachable.

This new atmosphere of serenity was temporarily and harshly shattered one morning in January, when I was awakened by the sound of police sirens. I jumped out of bed and ran outside as did everyone else in the house except grandma. I saw Larry across the street talking with some high school kids. I ran over and asked “What happened, Lar, what’s going on?”

Larry hesitated to tell me. He knew how scary I was and didn’t want his mother yelling at him later for spilling the beans and getting me all stirred up. I kept pulling at Larry’s sleeve.

Finally he gave in and said “don’t spread this around but Tommy Manning killed him self last night. He laid his head on the tracks and it got cut off.”

What, what,” I shouted, “you’re kidding, you know you’re kidding. What a sick joke, Larry. Why are you trying to scare me, you dirty bastard?” I hardly ever cursed but was so mad the words exploded out of me. The thought of someone who I actually knew, and in fact, had been kidding around with a few days earlier, not having a head, freaked me out.

Larry grabbed me by the arm and told me to shut up. “I knew I shouldn’t have told you,” he said angrily,” you’re a brat, I wouldn’t make up something this serious, you jerk. Tommy Manning is dead, He committed suicide. He’s dead. His body’s in his house. They found his head. They’ll be coming to get him pretty soon. Now move away from here, Johnny. The cop just told me we all have to get away from here.”

We slowly shuffled back across the street and sat on the curb in front of our house.

Tommy Manning was a seventeen-year-old senior at Rose Point high school, a star safety and punter on the football team, with a blond, cheerleader girl friend. I had a crush on her and never missed a chance to run outside if I saw her coming down the block. Actually, at that stage of my life, I had a crush on any blond as long as she had one head and two legs.

We learned the full story later. Tommy had reacted with horror to the Japs' surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and told everyone who would listen, he was going to join the Infantry, as soon as he graduated. He was going to wipe out every "yellow livered cruddy Jap" he could find. His face always would turn deep scarlet when he talked about the Japs, his eyes almost popping out of his head. He would crouch and hold his arms and hands in a position as if he was holding a machine gun. He would fire imaginary shots “rat a tat tat, rat a tat tat, rat a tat tat.” Shouting as fast as he coul. In his mind he would kill hundreds of Jap soldiers

That evening, I learned from my Uncle Jimmy even more of what happened. Tommy Manning had gone to the army recruiting center in Westfield, N.J. the previous morning to enlist. He couldn’t enter the army until he graduated in June, but the recruiters wanted him to sign up early so they could give him some written tests and a physical exam.

Well, would you believe it? Tommy failed the physical! He was suffering from malfunctioning adrenal glands. Anyhow, he was rejected and reclassified 4f, or, not fit for service. The 4f classification had a stigma attached to it since the start of the War. The newspapers said we needed all the men we could get. Only down and out bums or disabled people were being turned down.

Tommy came home that evening after apparently wandering aimlessly all afternoon. He said nothing to anyone and when his girl friend called about 9:00 p.m., he told his Mom to tell her he had gone to bed early.

Evidently he didn’t feel well. His father, a light sleeper, heard him slip out of the house just before midnight. The police investigative unit theorized what happened next as there were no witnesses.

Tommy, utterly dejected about not getting into the army and feeling totally humiliated, took a six pack of Ballentine beer out of the ice box and walked the hundred yards to the tracks directly in back of his corner house.

The police figured he drank all six beers in about 20 minutes, then laid flat on the ground on his belly and smoked a cigarette. His head rested just over the outer rail of the tracks. The westbound Silver Streak Express, originating in New York City and bound for Miami, neatly severed Tommy’s young beautiful head from the rest of his seventeen-year-old body.

I laid awake until 11 o’clock, replaying the horror of that day. I imagined Tommy, sneaking out, walking across the field where my friends and I played baseball every day and laying down with his head on the track. I pictured Tommy’s body, his head with the cigarette still dangling from his lips, as it slowly rolled away down the embankment, the very same embankment where Larry and I had sledded a month earlier during the snowstorm.

I sat upright in my bed, crying and shaking, and wished my mother was in the next bedroom instead of three thousand miles away.

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