Excerpt for The Secret of Their Midnight Tears by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Secret of Their Midnight Tears


[Fiction]


By

Austin Gisriel



SMASHWORDS EDITION

Copyright 2017 by Austin Gisriel


This book is available in print at most on-line retailers.




Other works by Austin:

Fathers, Sons, & Holy Ghosts: Baseball as a Spiritual Experience

Time Is A Pool

Safe at Home: A Season in the Valley

Their Glorious Summer

3 Tales From the Grand Old Game

Boots Poffenberger: Hurler, Hero, Hell Raiser


Follow Austin on his blog.

Austin’s Author Page on Facebook.

@AustinGisriel



Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This e-book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.



Chapters



A Note From the Author

1 June 13, 1941

2 July 4, 1941

3 September 12, 1941

4 November 8-9, 1941

5 December 7, 1941

6 December 8, 1941

7 December 18, 1941

8 March 21, 1942

9 April 12, 1942

10 May 7, 1942

11 May 8-9, 1942

12 May 23, 1942

13 June 8, 1942

14 July 13, 1942

15 August 25, 1942

16 September 21, 1942

17 November 8, 1942

18 November 26, 1942 Thanksgiving Day

About the Author

Study Guide


Links in the Text


Scattered throughout the text, you will find links to the history that was the everyday life of Elizabeth, Veronica, Buck, Johnny, Bill and the other citizens of Marsh Point whom you will meet. In a sense, they are the footnotes behind the fiction. Many are Wikipedia articles that will give you a summary of events. Others are historical documents; one even gives you a look at the covers of Life magazine, including one specifically referenced in the novel. The most intriguing, however, occurs in Chapter 5 and provides a media timeline for December 7, 1941. That link itself contains links to actual broadcasts during that Day of Infamy.

It is my hope that you will find these links helpful, yet you will not find that they interfere with the flow of your reading.


AG



A Note From the Author


At one time, that is before December 7, 1941, the “greatest generation” was simply the next generation. As with all generations before and since, they learned about love and shunned any guidance on the subject because, having discovered it on their own, they thought that it was theirs and theirs alone. They also struggled to distinguish a true calling from the passion of the moment; they struggled to establish an identity. This went on even after the world erupted in war, and they were called upon to save it.

The characters in this story are fictitious, as is the town of Marsh Point. The story is real even if not factual, and it is my hope that I have provided enough details of the day to take the reader back to a crucial time in world history and a crucial time in the lives of three young men and two young women.

[TOC]




Chapter 1

June 13, 1941

Elizabeth Bittner glanced nervously out the open first-floor window even as she delivered her final book report to the junior English class at Marsh Point High School. Her presentation on My Sister and I was well-researched as usual, but not many of her classmates—not the boys, anyway—were paying attention to her for they had heard the same rumor as had Elizabeth: that Johnny and Bill Hall, along with Buck Marsh were planning some grand prank to end the school year and indeed, all three of their seats were empty.

Elizabeth refocused, especially when she saw Buck’s sister, Veronica Marsh, staring out the window as well. How that farm girl, who was almost a year younger than she was, could be ranked ahead of her in the Class of 1942 was unfathomable. Elizabeth continued.

“Dirk and Keetje dove under their Uncle Pieter’s car when the Nazi planes fired upon the refugees swarming out of Rotterdam on their way to—”

“AHAAUAAUAH!! AHUUWAHHHH!!!” cried a figure swinging past the window on a rope.

Mrs. Pierce fell out of her chair, swearing as she did so, an occurrence as unusual as a would-be Tarzan now shinnying up the knotted rope. As Mrs. Pierce fell and swore, Elizabeth jumped and shrieked. Neither had recovered before the first figure disappeared and a second came swinging by, but this time the Tarzan yell came from the roof.

Veronica was laughing almost to tears, but now recovered, Elizabeth marched to the window and stuck her head out. Buck barely missed her as he swung by the window.

“Buck Marsh! You are an idiot! And I hear you up there, Johnny! You—”

But again, Elizabeth was interrupted when Buck jumped to the ground and Johnny scrambled madly down the rope, laughing. “Let’s go!” yelled the latter when he hit the ground and the boys took one step toward the corner of the building when they spied Elizabeth’s father or, as he was known to everyone else in school, “Principal Bittner.”

The boys’ plan to disrupt the last day of class at Marsh Point High School was grand and wonderful and completely devoid of any way to escape the trouble that they were now in, not that it mattered to Johnny.

“No glory if no one knows who did it, ey, Mr. Bittner?” he said.

“You two head to my office.”

Gerald Bittner stuck his head in the classroom window.

“Everyone okay in here?” he asked.

“Mr. Bittner, I trust that you will give those two a proper punishment! They scared me and my students half to death,” said Mrs. Pierce, who was only now raising herself from the floor.

“Three. Bill Hall never got off the roof before Coach Kershaw found him there.”

Mr. Bittner gave Elizabeth a quick glance when he said this. She was clenching and unclenching her fists and had the same expression that her mother Margaret wore whenever she was mad. He stifled a smile.

“I’ll see that they’re properly punished, Mrs. Pierce.”

“Hey,” came a voice from the classroom, “Mrs. Pierce said, ‘Holy shit’!”

Principal Bittner pretended not to hear this as he withdrew from the window and made his way around the corner of the building, through the front doors, and into his office where the Hall boys and Buck Marsh awaited him. Johnny and Buck had indeed marched themselves to his office, for it was one thing to jump off the roof and another to cross Principal Bittner. He was a tough World War I veteran and it was said that he had killed three German soldiers with his bare hands. Besides, he was fair, and whatever he dished out was worth it. After all, they would be considered heroes for pulling off such a wondrous prank. Johnny had said that this would be talked about until 1960 or longer.

“Do you know how dangerous that stunt was?”

“Oh, Mr. Bittner, it wasn’t dangerous! Why, Buck here knows his knots, and that exhaust pipe is as sturdy as she comes,” said Johnny.

The week before, Johnny and Buck had been swinging on a rope tied to a rafter in Buck’s barn, seeing if they could get all the way across from one hayloft to the other. As boys are wont to do, they attempted to impress one another. Buck flew across holding on with only one hand. Johnny sailed across the barn holding on with one hand and beating his chest with the other. The boys got to laughing at themselves and soon, somehow, Johnny came up with the idea that they should put on this show for their entire class.

“How are we going to get the whole class out here?” Buck had asked.

“We’re not! We’re going to do this at school next week. On the last day!”

That was fine with Buck, who trusted Johnny implicitly. Johnny’s younger brother Bill had been invited to join in the merriment. He wasn’t completely sure that he wanted to swing off the roof, but he was completely sure that he was grateful to be included, and if it meant sailing through the air on a rope, so be it.

Mr. Bittner continued.

“Any one of you could have fallen, especially when you’re only holding on with one hand and screaming like a banshee. Then there’s—”

“Oh no, Mr. Bittner. I don’t know which movie he’s in, but we were screaming like Tarzan,” said Buck quite seriously.

“That’s not what he means, you—”

Mr. Bittner interrupted the interruption.

“Then there’s the matter of disrupting the entire school AND frightening poor Mrs. Pierce right out of her chair. First, we’re marching down there, and each of you is going to step forward, in front of the class, and apologize to her.”

The three boys followed Mr. Bittner to Mrs. Pierce’s room, but Bill hesitated at the door.

“I don’t think we ought to go right in, Mr. Bittner. Elizabeth is still talking, and we probably shouldn’t interrupt her again,” said Bill.

“Ha! Billy Boy, whatever punishment Mr. Bittner has in store for us will be nothing compared to what you’re going to face from her!” replied Johnny, who quickly stopped smiling, however, when Mr. Bittner—that is Elizabeth’s dad—held him firmly in a stare.

“Mr. Hall,” began Principal Bittner, quite soberly, but then smiled, “You are right about that.”

A small smile returned to Johnny’s face as well. Bill, however, was not smiling.

He and Elizabeth had been dating since the year before when they found themselves singing in the choir at Zion Methodist Church, where Johnny and Bill’s father was the minister. Johnny had the kind of personality that kept even Elizabeth Bittner from staying mad at him for very long. He reminded her of Errol Flynn, her mother’s favorite actor. For his part, Buck was ever the loyal friend, a trait that Elizabeth admired, even if it meant involving himself in a stunt like this. Bill, however, was her boyfriend and she expected more dignified behavior from him. After all, he was the minister’s son and she was the principal’s daughter.

Elizabeth finished her report on My Sister and I, at which point Principal Bittner escorted the trio into the room. Johnny stepped forward and explained that upon reflection, he was truly sorry to interrupt the class of the best teacher in the school, winking at Veronica as he made his apology. Buck simply said that he was sorry, and Bill apologized twice: once to Mrs. Pierce, and a silent “I’m sorry” mouthed to Elizabeth. Her anger began to subside when she saw how sincere he looked.

“Back to my office, boys.”

Arriving once again in the office, Mr. Bittner meted out his judgment.

“I should keep every one of you here once school is dismissed to clean this place from top to bottom no matter how long it takes. However, since each of you has something important to do this afternoon, I will instead expect you to report here Monday morning, at which time you will scrub every blackboard and pick up every piece of trash in the school and on the grounds.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh, and of course, you’ll tell your parents so that I won’t have to.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well then, go on home and do it.”

There was only half an hour to go in the school day, which was being dismissed early anyway since it was the last day of the year, and while leaving early was something of a reward, especially for Buck, Mr. Bittner was not about to send them back to class and the hero’s welcome that they desired. Besides, the sight of them would only rile Mrs. Pierce. He smiled and wished he had come up with such a stupendous prank when he had Mrs. Pierce as his English teacher. She seemed old even back then.

Gerald also knew that he really didn’t need to tell the boys to inform their parents what had happened. In a town the size of Marsh Point, everyone would probably know before they got home.

About 15 minutes after the boys were dismissed, Reverend Franklin Hall, visibly if quietly upset, walked into Gerald’s office.

“I’ve come to ask your advice, Gerald. Do you think we should keep Bill from doing the radio show this afternoon as further punishment for disrupting class?”

“No, I don’t think that’s necessary, Franklin. He was plenty remorseful enough, especially when he realized what Elizabeth would have to say to him. When she gets through with him, he’ll be punished enough!”

“Well, Evelyn and I certainly trust your judgment. If you think it’s all right for him to go, then we’ll take him over as planned. Do you think Elizabeth will still want to go or is she that mad?”

“Yes and yes,” laughed Gerald. “It might be a cold ride to Queen City, but she wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

Reverend Hall smiled, but the smile faded quickly. “It’s Johnny, you know. He’s a thoughtful boy, but he’s got that wild streak in him; something of a bad influence on Bill, I’m afraid.”

“Franklin, some kids are leaders and some are followers, same as adults. Heck, Johnny will end up the mayor of Marsh Point one day, the way he can talk to people. He’s just got to find some direction, that’s all. Bill’s just doing what comes naturally to boys. They’re all going to be in the service soon enough, so let ’em have fun while they can.”

Reverend Hall considered this a moment. “Hmm, I’m afraid that’s becoming more likely. Half of London is in ruins, and we’re not going to sit by and wait for the Germans to destroy the other half before we’re ‘over there’ again.”

“We might, but by that time, the Germans will be over here. In any case, they just expanded the draft to include everyone but felons, so that tells you what the government thinks is going to happen.”

Just then, the final bell signaled the end of the final day. The brick school building itself seemed to sigh with relief as 300 students poured out of its doors. Within a minute, Elizabeth walked into her father’s office.

“Oh, hi, Reverend Hall.”

“Hello, Elizabeth. I was just heading back to the house. Would you like to ride along? I mean, I assume that you still want to go with us.”

Elizabeth looked at Reverend Hall and then her father and her eyes narrowed as she gathered the reason for Reverend Hall’s visit. “Yes, I still want to go. It’s a proud moment for you and Mrs. Hall, and I want to be there for you.”

Mr. Bittner smiled. “Take it easy on Bill, Ellie. There was no harm done.”

Elizabeth’s expression softened ever so slightly when her father gave her a little nod and smiled.

She had not softened enough, however, to sit anywhere close to Bill in the back seat of the Hall’s car as they crossed the bridge over the Rowatoba River and on to Queen City, some fifteen miles distant. Queen City really was a city, at least as far as most people in Marsh Point were concerned. With a population of almost 15,000—or about 10 times that of Marsh Point—it had its own train station, bus station, and radio station. The Halls were headed to the latter because Bill had won a spot on WQCR’s Afternoon Amateur Show, a 20-minute program that was broadcast every Friday afternoon. Three contestants would each sing a song, and a studio audience would then decide the winner by way of applause. The winner would then get to sing an additional song and maybe earn an invitation to come back again.

When they arrived at the Princess Ballroom of the Regal Hotel, where the show was broadcast, Bill was ushered backstage, while his parents and Elizabeth took a seat at a little round table that had been set up on the dance floor. Fifteen minutes before the Afternoon Amateur Hour was to begin, one of the station’s announcers came out and told a few jokes and then the house band played a couple tunes. The announcer returned, indicated to the ballroom audience that they were now on the air, and introduced the show. The first contestant, a young woman, sang “Over the Rainbow” to polite applause. Bill was next.

His voice was rich and appropriately plaintive as he sang “I’ll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time,” a song that had been around for some years, but with which the Andrews Sisters were currently enjoying success. Bill had a way of phrasing a song, of holding a note that made you think that somehow the words meant more to him than to anyone else; that he had discerned some hidden meaning in the lyrics that he was trying to impart to his listeners. When he finished the song, the audience, led by Elizabeth, broke into raucous applause, and it took some time for the announcer to quiet the crowd. The third contestant sang his song as quickly as he could and got off the stage. There was no doubt that Bill was the winner, a fact that was quickly announced. He came back out for his encore and sang “I’ll Never Smile Again.”

Halfway through the encore performance, a well-dressed man entered the back of the ballroom and stood listening intently to Bill. As soon as the show ended and the radio feed returned to the studio, this man made his way to Bill, who was receiving hugs from Elizabeth and his father and mother.

“Young man, I’m Harold Poffenberger, WQCR’s station manager. I heard you do your first number over at the station and had to run right down to hear you in person. You sounded as good on that last tune as the kid who sings with the Dorsey band. Maybe better.

“This is Danny Dylan, the band leader,” continued Mr. Poffenberger, indicating the man who had played lead trumpet during the Afternoon Amateur Show and who by now had joined the group.

“Harold and I have been looking for a singer for the band,” said Danny. “I think we just found one.”

Elizabeth began to involuntarily squeal before quickly regaining her composure and clutching Bill’s arm.

“Let’s talk about it over dinner,” said Mr. Poffenberger.

Reverend Hall hesitated. He and Evelyn were proud, but very unsure of what was happening. “I don’t know. You see—”

“My treat.”

The Halls relaxed a bit. A minister’s salary did not allow them to dine out very often, especially in Queen City.

Over roast beef and ham in the dining room of the Regal Hotel, Bill’s dream was coming true. Or at least the beginning of it was. The best part, as far as he was concerned, was that Danny Dylan was not only open to playing any original tunes that Bill might compose, but actually encouraged him to write. As much as Bill loved to sing, his true desire was to be a songwriter. Bill was fascinated with why one word was chosen over another or why a certain riff went one way and not another. He had already written several ballads that he had performed for Elizabeth, although she was encouraging him to go in a different direction. “After all, Bill,” she had said to him on more than one occasion, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!” at which point she would jitterbug around her boyfriend who would simply smile back.

The Danny Dylan Orchestra had its own time slot at 7:00 on Thursdays, right before the Tommy Dorsey Show. Bill would be paid the handsome sum of $5.00 per show and $10.00 for any local dance gigs that the band secured on its own. One of the band members, who lived in William’s Landing, which was east of Marsh Point, agreed to pick up Bill, thus solving the problem of Bill’s lack of transportation. Even if he could use his father’s car, Bill did not have his driver’s license anyway. Everywhere Bill had ever needed to go was within easy walking distance. The same was true for most folks in Marsh Point.

When they arrived back home, Johnny greeted them from the porch glider.

“Heard you sounded great!”

“He sounded so good; he’s a working man now!” said Reverend Hall.

Bill, his dad and mom, and Elizabeth took turns telling the exciting details.

Finally, Bill asked Johnny, “Did you pick up my uniform today?”

“Got it right here,” said Johnny, patting a folded set of baseball pants, stirrups, and a jersey with the number 5 on the back.

Johnny had had an important engagement that afternoon as well. The LeBeau Brothers baseball team, which played in the Rowatoba Factory League, had its final practice at 3:00 that afternoon, after which, uniforms were distributed. Bill wasn’t a starter like Buck and Johnny, but he knew the game and could at least catch any fly ball hit to him. If the LeBeau Spinners played a weak team, such as the one from William’s Landing, he might even get a hit or two.

“I’m glad you’re working now, because you owe me a dollar,” said Johnny.

“Why is that?”

“George Sabatini is a huge Joe DiMaggio fan, and he was mad that I claimed 5 for you, so I had to give him a dollar to calm him down. Ha! George has probably drunk that away already.”

“Johnny!” Evelyn Hall did not like to hear her sons disparage anybody, even if she was fairly certain that Johnny was correct about George. Evelyn worried about Johnny. They had taken him in to their home when he was two after his mother died in an accident at LeBeau Brothers. If you lived in Marsh Point, you either worked there or knew someone who did. The textile mill opened just as the Great War was ending, which meant that it had never operated at full capacity, but thanks to continued contracts with the Federal Government, it had never shut down completely, even during the tough times that followed 10 years later. There was a great deal of speculation in town as to who the LeBeau brothers—whom no one in Marsh Point had ever seen—knew in Washington, but it remained an unsettled question. If the Depression had not defeated the LeBeau brothers, it certainly defeated Johnny’s father, who had drifted away from his new family shortly after Johnny’s birth. His mom had no choice but to go to work, and when she was killed in an accident inside the plant, the Halls’ sense of Christian charity bade them to take in, and ultimately adopt, Johnny. He was, in fact, three months younger than Bill, but by the time they had entered grade school, Johnny was functioning as the older brother.

“Sorry, Mom. . . . Say, Bill, you never did tell me why you wanted number 5 anyway.”

Bill hesitated. “'Cause of Willard Hershberger.”

“The catcher from Cincinnati who killed himself last year?! You have a couple bad games and you go kill yourself? That guy was nuts.”

“Yeah, maybe. I just thought it was kind of . . . noble, that he would . . . I don’t know, that he was willing to shoulder the responsibility; that he was man enough to take the blame.”

“Bill, there is nothing noble about taking God’s precious gift,” said Reverend Hall, evenly.

“Well, the Reds must have thought it was noble, somehow. They dedicated the rest of the season to him and won the World Series, didn’t they?”

“That’s creepy,” said Elizabeth, and Reverend Hall began to respond, but Johnny interrupted. “Maybe you should write a song, you know, ‘The Ballad of Willard Hershberger,’ but you’ll have to go a long way to find something to rhyme with ‘Hershberger’!” Elizabeth laughed and even Mrs. Hall smiled as she hurried into the house to answer the telephone.

She quickly reemerged onto the front porch, speaking in a low voice. “Frank, Mary Taylor is on the phone, again. Says she’s feeling blue and could use a visit. I know the poor woman misses her husband, but you can’t run over there every time she gets down. I mean the man’s been dead for two years now, and she’s young enough to get remarried. ”

“Want me to go over and visit a bit?” Johnny asked. Evelyn was pleased to think that her son would be so kind and generous with his time. Elizabeth and Bill exchanged quick glances.

Johnny took his mother’s smile for a “yes,” and skipped off the porch and down Peak Street to the Taylor residence. Bill and Elizabeth stepped off the porch, too, and headed in the opposite direction to the latter’s house to tell her parents the wonderful news about Bill.

“Wonder if Johnny will make out all right with Mrs. Taylor?”

Knowing full well that Bill had used the term “make out” deliberately and with double intent, Elizabeth giggled and slapped his front shoulder with her free hand, the other firmly interlocked with Bill’s.

“Not even Johnny works that fast,” she said.

“I don’t know.”

Bill was given a royal greeting by the Bittners. He was hugged by Elizabeth’s mom, and her dad shook his hand while proclaiming him the most talented student at Marsh Point High School.

“You sounded wonderful, Bill!” said Mrs. Bittner. “Why I didn’t even listen to Backstage Wife this afternoon, just so I could listen to you.”

“That’s not even the best part, Mom!” And Elizabeth went on to explain “the best part” about Bill singing with Danny Dylan’s band.

Mr. Bittner shook Bill’s hand again.

“And to think, we knew you when!” said Mrs. Bittner. “What’s next? Hollywood?”

“One step at a time, Margaret. The boy’s only gotten as far as Queen City today.

“Son,” said Mr. Bittner, turning serious, “One step at a time. Enjoy today.”

“I will. In fact, I thought maybe I’d walk Elizabeth over to Rowatoba Park and we’d ride the carousel for a while.”

“Sounds like fun! Margaret, maybe you and I should go along!”

Daddy!”

“You know I’m teasing you, Ellie!”

Gerald Bittner was always joking with his only child. Whatever teasing words her dad might toss her way, “I love you” always echoed in the background. That included calling her Ellie, and her dad was the only person she allowed to address her by anything other than Elizabeth. Margaret Bittner wanted her daughter to have a full-sounding name, a name of stature, and so named her baby for a queen. Elizabeth naturally adopted her mother’s attitude and thought of herself as, well as a young lady of some standing, but that self-image melted away in the presence of her father. ­Gerald was not much on stature having seen majors and colonels quiver in the trenches while privates risked their lives to save their wounded friends.

A crawling, bouncing, giggling little girl had further renewed his optimism about life, which had been severely tested by the war. Clearly, she was not a stuffy little lady of stature, despite how her mother regarded her; she was a happy little girl for whom the name Ellie fit perfectly.

Gerald fished a quarter from his pockets. “Here, Bill. Treat her to a root beer float, and congratulations again.”

“Thanks, Mr. Bittner. Oh, and sorry about today.”

“Hmm. Well, when you and your other two jungle friends finish washing the blackboards on Monday, we’ll call it even.”

Bill nodded, and for a third time shook Mr. Bittner’s hand. He and Elizabeth walked down Bedford Street and around the corner as Gerald and Margaret watched them from their porch.

“He’s a nice young man,” she said.

Gerald hugged her around her shoulders. “He sure is, but I’m not sure he’s the one for Ellie.”

Margaret laughed. “There’s no boy on the planet good enough for your daughter, Gerald Bittner! Just admit it.”

Gerald laughed and squeezed Margaret’s shoulders again, but did not disagree.

Bill and Elizabeth made their way to Rowatoba Park, which sat along the river at the end of Ford Street. The park contained a carousel, a dance pavilion, the town’s baseball diamond, a giant slide into the river, and a number of food vendors that were open during the summer. Filled with trees and benches, it was a place for residents of Marsh Point to stroll and talk and otherwise, while away a pleasant summer’s evening.

“There goes that Veronica Marsh,” said Elizabeth, holding a fistful of popcorn while clenching and unclenching the other. “Hmmm. Who’s she with?”

“Don’t know, but she seems to like him.”

Bill waved to Veronica and her companion, and they waved back.

“Good,” he said. “Now we’ve been seen by the popcorn vendor and by Veronica. Time for us to leave.”

“Leave? We just got here.”

A sly grin slid across Elizabeth’s face. “It’s not dark enough to go make out somewhere. Where’re we going?”

“It’ll be dark enough on the school roof. And now I know how to get up there.”

Elizabeth giggled and tightened her grip on Bill’s arm as they strolled out of the park.

[TOC]



Chapter 2

July 4, 1941


“And so, my friends, we dedicate our Aircraft Warning Service Observation Post in the hopes that we never have to use it,” said Joe Knode, the mayor of Marsh Point to the applause of 100 or so townspeople who had gathered at the little shack east of the town cemetery at the top of Marsh Peak. This was the highest point in town and sloped dramatically to the river bottom and Rowatoba Park.

Gerald whispered wryly to Margaret, “If the Germans are down to bombing Marsh Point, we will have already lost the war.”

“Hush! There’s not going to be any war; it’s just that it never hurts to take precautions.”

The Army Air Force’s 1st Interceptor Command had deemed it wise to erect a series of observation posts up and down the East Coast, apparently not as confident as Margaret Bittner that the United States could avoid the war and a possible attack from the Luftwaffe, who, after all, were continuing to pound London, most likely in preparation for an invasion of England. Indeed, the Associated Press had just reported in yesterday’s paper that the federal government had a $5 billion deficit due largely to increased defense spending.

“If they had built that thing any smaller, the name wouldn’t have fit on the side,” observed Gerald. The size of a shed, and not a large one at that, the “observation post” was framed in rough-hewn boards, freshly painted, with a door, a floor, and a window on each side. The factories in Queen City were deemed possible targets by the Army, but there was no suitable rise there on which to build an observation post. Marsh Peak provided a commanding view of the horizon in all directions, unless the Nazis were to fly toward the town from the exact opposite side of the Zion Methodist Church steeple. And because it was in town and not out in the countryside, the Army reasoned that it stood a good chance of actually being manned.

“I hope to see you all at the ballgame this afternoon,” continued the Mayor. “We’re going to beat those birds from Williams Landing and we’ll celebrate the victory at the dance tonight! Don’t forget, our own Bill Hall will be singing with the Danny Dylan Orchestra. Come on out and bring your dance cards!”

These words elicited cheers from the crowd, although they were short-lived, for even clapping made one sweat all the more on what was turning out to be the hottest Independence Day that anyone could remember.

A few people who had come to the dedication were heading home and then out to the “air-cooled” Paramount Theater in town where the matinee featured Carmen Miranda and Don Ameche in That Night in Rio. The rest headed off to the park and to the ballgame.

Rowatoba Park had been built in 1919 and proved to be so popular that it managed to survive the Depression and two floods. The entrance was marked by two stone pillars that rose some 10 feet on either side of a wide cinder path. Anchored to the pillars and arching above the path was a wrought-iron sign with “ROWATOBA PARK” splashed across the ornate ironwork. A bronze plaque was mounted on the lefthand pillar that read: Dedicated to the citizens of Marsh Point who served in the Great War.

Gerald had a habit of touching the plaque whenever he entered the park, which he and Margaret did as they were going to the ballgame. By the time they ate and chatted with friends, the game was ready to start; and so they hurriedly made their way to the ballpark, paid their 25-cent admissions and sat down halfway up the first base bleachers. Whoever had designed the little diamond had apparently spent a number of afternoons sitting under a hot sun and therefore, had wedged the field into a corner of maples and sycamores that shaded most of the stands on both sides. There were quite a few strangers in town, as a large number of people from Williams Point had come over to see the game, and even some folks from Queen City were there, although most of them had come to swim in the river. The gleeful shouting and subsequent splash of kids using the giant slide could be heard even above the murmur of the 500 or so patrons of the game.

Most of the crowd tried to spread themselves out as much as possible to let what little air there was circulate. Not so with Veronica Marsh, who in spite of the heat, sat firmly arm-in-arm with Richard Shade, who was not a Marsh Point resident, at least not a permanent one. He was supervising an overhaul of the machinery at LeBeau Brothers and had been doing so since late April.

Margaret spotted Veronica and Richard seated in the grandstand behind home plate.

“Hmm, he is too old for her, Gerald, and he’s too slick by half. She better be careful.”

“He’s younger than you think, Maggie, and a girl is naturally attracted to a nice car and nice clothes. . . . But, Veronica . . . she’s going to leave little ole Marsh Point as soon as she can.”

“Don’t know why anyone would want to leave a nice place like this.”

Both teams came out and took the field to warm up. Buck spotted his sister and waved to her, a wave that was enthusiastically returned. Veronica never missed one of her brother’s games. Despite their being in the same grade, he was a year older, and protective as older brothers often are. He especially looked out for her five years ago when their mother died. Buck was not much of a talker, which made him a good listener and that was exactly what Veronica needed as she poured out her grief. Her father wanted to fix her ailing heart in the same way that he wanted to fix the tractor when it broke down, but of course, he couldn’t and it frustrated him. Buck, however, had viewed her more as a sick calf. Instinctively, he knew that there was nothing he could do except wait patiently and look for ways to make his sister comfortable. That approach seemed to work. Her gratitude expressed itself by the fact that she was Buck’s biggest fan in all of Marsh Point, and that was saying something. Johnny Hall was a good ballplayer, but Buck was something special. A scout for the Detroit Tigers had seen him pitch in Queen City back in June and told Buck that he’d keep tabs on him. That he was good endeared him to the baseball fans throughout Marsh Point. That he was good and was not impressed by his own talent endeared him to everyone else in Marsh Point. No one, however, thought more of Buck than did Veronica.

Buck, of course, was pitching today and began to warm up in front of the LeBeau Brothers dugout.

“Hey, you’re only 299 wins behind Lefty Grove!” shouted someone good-naturedly from the stands, referring to the fact that Boston’s great southpaw had defeated the Philadelphia A’s the day before and now had 299 career victories.

Buck smiled and kept throwing, but Johnny hollered back, “Yeah, but the way this boy’s goin’, he might beat ole Lefty to 300!”

Everyone in the bleachers behind the dugout laughed, and some even nodded as though Johnny might have a point.

“Hey George!” yelled this same fan, when he saw George Sabatini emerge from the dugout, “You get a hit today and you’ll only need to hit in 44 more games to match DiMaggio!”

George laughed and shouted back, “He’s the greatest!” as he turned to show off the number 5 that he was now wearing.

Bill Hall had had to quit the team because it practiced on the same Tuesday afternoon that Danny Dylan and his orchestra rehearsed. He and Elizabeth were in the stands, however, rooting for Buck and Johnny and the general honor of Marsh Point.

Buck pitched well, as usual, and aided by three hits from George Sabatini—who this day did a fair impression of the great DiMaggio—the Spinners beat the Williams Landing Pilots 5-1. Buck struck out 12 and walked only one. Nevertheless, every close call that went against Buck was protested—loudly—by Veronica.

After the game, the friends gathered on the field to congratulate Buck, whose flannel uniform was soaked through with perspiration.

“Buck, I want you to do me a favor,” said Bill. “Since I’ll be singing with the band tonight, I was hoping you would escort Elizabeth to the dance for me.”

“Me? Are you sure she even wants me to?” asked Buck, as if Elizabeth were not standing three feet from him.

“Of course, I do, Buck,” said Elizabeth. “That’s the problem when you’re dating the singer; you never get to dance!”

Buck looked a bit startled. “Well, I can’t dance, either, Elizabeth.”

“Oh, come on, Buck. We’ll have fun, and if you don’t escort me, I have no one else to go with.”

Veronica came to her brother’s rescue.

“Don’t worry, Elizabeth. I’ll make sure he cleans himself up and doesn’t show up in his uniform.”

“Thank you, Veronica,” said Elizabeth curtly.

“You goin’?” Buck asked his sister.

“Oh, Rich and I wouldn’t miss it for the world, would we?”

Richard smiled and nodded.

“What about you, Johnny?”

“Oh, you know that I’ll be there!”

Buck grinned. “You bringin’ Mrs. Taylor?”

Veronica giggled and Elizabeth let out a little gasp through her smile, but Johnny simply replied, “Well, that would sure give the town something to talk about for the rest of the summer, wouldn’t it?”

He walked away and Elizabeth began to get the uneasy feeling that he just might.

The leaves on the maples and sycamores surrounding the stands began to show some life. A breeze was beginning to relieve at least some of the heat, and Bill and Elizabeth decided to head up to Marsh Peak in order to enjoy it in full. The American flag on the pole outside the newly christened observation station was starting to dance about when they arrived. They looked down at the river and at the occasional car that was still making its way across the bridge. Way off in the western distance, they could see a storm heading their way. The breeze increased steadily, much to their enjoyment, but the storm arrived with a suddenness that surprised them, and they took refuge in the spotter’s shack. The rain beat hard on the roof, and the lightning crackled across the river. Ozone mingled with the scent of new lumber.

At the same moment, they both felt that sense of relief and freedom that only young lovers feel when they realize that for a few minutes, or however long it took for the storm to pass, no one would be looking for them and they would be alone. Bill swooped Elizabeth into his arms and kissed her. The shack, however, still retained all of the day’s heat, and they began to sweat again.

“Open the window,” whispered Elizabeth, as if someone could hear her over the thunder.

“The rain’ll come in.”

“No, the one on the other side.”

Bill did so and they kissed again while holding each other ever so tightly.

The storm kept moving, however, making its way toward Williams Landing. The rain stopped. They could linger no longer lest they were discovered. Elizabeth, the sweat still rolling down the sides of her face, was both disappointed and relieved. Bill was frustrated. He shut the window and when they walked out, they discovered that the storm had dropped the temperature and cleared the humidity. It was shaping up to be a nice night for a dance after all.


***

“I went to your house, but your parents said that you were already here,” said Buck to Elizabeth.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Buck, I should have told you. I wanted to come down here and listen to Bill warm up. It’s so exciting to see him up there on stage!”

Buck nodded. He stuck his thumbs in his belt to make sure that his shirttail was still tucked in properly and took a seat next to Elizabeth. Benches lined the dance pavilion, and even half an hour before the dance was to start, people had begun to fill them. Many were parents and older folks who had more interest in listening than dancing. The park itself was filled with fallen leaves, blown down by the storm, and they formed a moist green carpet for the arriving dancers.

As the sun gave way to the lightning bugs, the dance began with an old-fashioned waltz. Bill sang “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” and most of the crowd whirled their way around the floor to this one, parents and grandparents included. It didn’t matter that Buck was no dancer, as Elizabeth was quite content to stare at Bill. He filled her with his voice. The waltz was followed by an easygoing foxtrot and then a ballad.

“Now, here’s something for you kids of all ages out there from just a few years back,” intoned Bill. Immediately, the drummer began to wail away on his tom-toms. Several teenagers squealed with delight and jumped onto the floor in recognition of one of their favorite Benny Goodman tunes. Most were jitterbugging, but a few at the center were doing an actual Lindy hop as Danny Dylan cut into “Sing, Sing, Sing” on his trumpet. At the very center were Rich and Veronica.

Elizabeth had seen them waltzing and foxtrotting, but these were easy dances to learn. She watched open-mouthed as Rich whirled Veronica over his back.

“Where did your sister learn to dance like that?”

“They been takin’ dance lessons over in Queen City.”

Frank and Evelyn Hall looked on sternly, as did Margaret Bittner.

“That’s just vulgar,” said Margaret.

“That’s what your parents said when we used to Charleston,” said Gerald.

“That was different.”

“Come on, get with it, Maggie! What do the kids say, ‘The swing’s the thing’?” and with that, Gerald grabbed his wife and led her to the floor where they resurrected some of the old moves.

Margaret was alternately embarrassed and delighted. Elizabeth was totally embarrassed. Every other student at Marsh Point High School who was in attendance, however, was completely awed that their principal knew how to jive.

When the dance ended, the Bittners returned to their bench next to the Halls.

“That was impressive!” said Franklin.

“It’s good to let the kids know that we used to ‘swing’ in our day, too, along with other things that they think they’re the first to discover.”

Danny Dylan stepped to the mic. “Now that I’ve got you up and sweaty, it’s time to get close again! Bill!”

Bill replaced Danny at the mic and began ‘I’ll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time.’”

“C’mon, Buck. Let’s dance.”

“I don’t really know how. I don’t know why—”

But he never had a chance to finish his sentence as Elizabeth grabbed him by the arm and led him out onto the hardwood floor. She showed him a basic dance frame. He stood there staring at her.

“Now just kind of move us around in a circle to the beat of the music.”

Buck did as he was told. He was relieved to see that he seemed to be doing what most everyone else was doing and he wasn’t stepping on Elizabeth’s toes, either. He breathed more easily and as he did so, he caught scent of Elizabeth’s perfume.

“May I cut in?”

It was Johnny.

“This is the first one that Buck and I—”

“Yeah, sure.”

Buck breathed deeply and gave Elizabeth to Johnny.

“He can dance way better than I can.”

“You were doing fine.”

The next dance was another swing, however, and Buck felt a certain sense of relief that he had given up his spot, for Johnny was one of the better dancers in Marsh Point, and Buck watched them from a bench in the dark.

Johnny next got his mom onto the floor for a foxtrot, and then Mrs. Bittner. He danced with most of the ladies there, young and old and married and single. And widowed.

During the band’s second set, Bill sang “All of Me,” a song that caught Buck’s attention.

“Could we dance again?” he asked Elizabeth.

“Certainly!”

“Could you teach me how to move around like that?” Buck asked, pointing to the couples who were foxtrotting around the pavilion.

“We can try!”

Buck wasn’t about to try spinning Elizabeth, and he’d never heard the term promenade, but he managed to learn the basic step, and by the end of the song, he could even do that basic step to the music.

“You learn fast.”

It was midnight soon enough, and Danny Dylan and His Orchestra closed as they had opened, with a waltz. Bill sang “Goodnight Irene,” thanked everyone for coming out and was immediately rushed by friends, classmates, family, and Elizabeth.

“You sounded wonderful!”

“We’re so proud of you!”

“Marsh Point’s Bing Crosby!”

One by one, the men shook his hand and the women hugged him. The well-wishers thinned and Danny came over to him.

“You sounded great, kid.”

“Oh, hey, Danny. I’ll help pack up the car.”

“Already done. Enjoy the rest of the night. We’ll see you Thursday.”

The Halls had long since left the dance, the Bittners had skipped the last waltz, and most everyone else was home or close to it. Only Buck and Elizabeth and Veronica and Rich remained behind. No one was quite sure where Johnny had gotten off to.

“Bill, did you want me to walk Elizabeth home or—”

“Naw, I’ll do it, but thanks, Buck. I appreciate you looking out for her. Have a good time?”

“Yeah, swell.”

“Come on, the night doesn’t have to end yet,” said Rich. “Let’s go over to Mike’s Place and have a few.”

“We can’t get in there. We’re not old enough.”

“I can get you in.”

Buck looked at Veronica and spoke with his eyes.

“I’ll be fine, Buck. I’m a big girl now, and I enjoy a good time.”

She drew close to her brother and kissed him on the cheek. “Really, I’ll be fine. Thanks, though.”

Bill and Elizabeth withdrew, his songbook under one arm and Elizabeth on the other. They headed straight to her house, knowing that her parents would probably still be awake. And waiting. The other three made their way to Rich’s car.

“You want a ride out to your place before Veronica and I head to Mike’s?”

“Naw. Thanks.”

“Suit yourself.”

Buck watched them pull out of the parking lot, the last car to leave. He turned and walked home in the dark.

[TOC]



Chapter 3

September 12, 1941


No one wanted to see the summer end. Johnny and Buck, however, had concocted a way to commemorate the inevitability; and so they, along with Bill and Elizabeth and two dozen or so of their classmates, gathered under the bridge that spanned the Rowatoba River. It was officially designated the Henry T. Butler Memorial Bridge, named for hardly anyone could remember whom. It was built in conjunction with the opening of LeBeau Brothers and, a painted wooden sign originally stood at both ends proclaiming the bridge’s official name, but weather and time faded the lettering and they were taken down to be refurbished, but no one had completed the job. The sign posts still stood, but the official name had never mattered anyway, as everyone in town simply referred to it as “the bridge.” It’s not as if Marsh Point had more than one.

The day had dawned hot and humid with no breeze at all; and so everyone was already standing in the shade of the bridge, which spanned perhaps 75 yards of bottom land before it stretched out over the Rowatoba and anchored itself in a rocky bluff on the other side. Actually, not quite everyone was under the bridge. Johnny was standing on it, peering down over the guardrail, and holding a galvanized pail that contained a dozen or so baseballs.

Buck, along with everyone else, was peering up at Johnny, but Buck was the only one wearing his baseball mitt.

“Are you sure this is safe?” asked Elizabeth.

“There was a guy who caught a ball dropped from the Washington Monument, and if he could do it from there, then I can do it from here.”

“Don’t discourage him!” said Bill, giving Elizabeth’s hand a squeeze. “We’ll either get to see him catch a ball or we’ll see his brains get knocked into the river. You can’t beat that for entertainment, either way.”

“You’re disgusting.”

It pleased Buck to see so many of his friends gathered to witness this spectacle, but he felt keenly the absence of his sister. When Richard finished his work at LeBeau Brothers and returned to Cleveland, Veronica went with him. This quite naturally angered her father and saddened her brother. For Veronica, however, Marsh Point was like a pair of shoes that were pretty and familiar, but that had always been a little too tight. Richard represented the chance to kick off those shoes and kick up her heels. This “chance danced well,” dressed better, and always had cash in his pocket, and she wasn’t about to pass it up.

Elizabeth felt Veronica’s absence as well, but that’s because she took a certain delight in it. Elizabeth and Veronica had been in the same class—the only class—every year since the first grade and they had mutual friends, but there had always been a certain tension between them. Elizabeth had never considered why this was. Veronica had certainly given the matter considerable thought, but reached no satisfactory conclusion. It was just one more thing that made her want to get out of Marsh Point.

“EVERYONE STAND BACK!” yelled Johnny. “THIS FIRST ONE’S A TEST TO SEE HOW SHE FALLS!”

The spectators widened their circle, and even Buck withdrew to the edge. Johnny opened his hand, and the ball seemed to hit the ground suddenly and buried itself halfway in the soft river bottom soil so that only the top showed. A couple of little kids jumped at the strong wummppff! sound, and there was a general murmur of approval.

By this time, a crowd of people from town had walked out onto the bridge and were standing on either side of Johnny. In fact, a family that had been traveling to Queen City had simply parked on the bridge, and the parents were peering over the railing while three little kids were peering through it.

“YOU READY?”

Buck pounded his mitt, and turned to Elizabeth. “I wish Veronica was here to see this. She . . . always liked this kind of stuff.”

“I’m sorry that she’s not here, Buck.” When Elizabeth saw how sad Buck looked, she felt a sincerity that wasn’t originally in her words. There was something juvenile about this whole affair as far as Elizabeth was concerned, but she was as interested as anyone to see if Buck would be successful.

Buck waved his arms and pounded his mitt, indicating that he was ready. Johnny waved the ball on high for all to see. Then he stretched out his arm, held the pose for a moment, and opened his hand.

Buck caught it on the first try.

Elizabeth jumped slightly when the ball whomped into Buck’s glove as she pulled Bill close. She took a step toward Buck, but never reached him as a cheer went up and the circle closed around Marsh Point’s baseball star. The folks on the bridge clapped and waved and the three little kids applauded until their parents shepherded them back into the car and then drove away.

“I was actually rooting to see your brains fly out, but that was pretty swell!” said Bill when he and Elizabeth finally made it to Buck’s side.

Buck laughed and punched Bill lightly in the arm. Johnny soon joined them under the bridge.

“We shoulda called the Queen City Crier. We could’ve got your picture in the paper.”

Buck and Johnny, with their friends in tow, began to make their way up the dirt path that ran from the bottom away from the bridge and toward Marsh Peak. Two men remained on the bridge, however, leaning casually on the railing and talking. Newcomers to town would have been surprised to know that the principal of their high school and the owner of the town’s most notorious tavern were close friends.

“You know,” said Mike Duffy, “this bridge ain’t that high.”

“Yeah, I know,” laughed Gerald Bittner, “but 20 years from now when those boys retell this story, this bridge’ll be 1000 feet high.”

Mike Duffy and Gerald Bittner had served in the Marines together. They were among the survivors who managed to gain a foothold in Belleau Wood in the spring of 1918. When they returned from France to Marsh Point, Gerald pushed away the trauma by camping out along the river for almost a year. He filled his days with quiet until one evening a canoe pulled up along the bank where his campsite lay. It was Tom Marsh and Sarah, the girl Tom was sweet on. They waved as they paddled by. They were only two years younger than Gerald, but he was now so much older. As the canoe glided along, however, and their laughter floated across the water, he saw that it was not Life that had been disturbed, only his life. There was laughter and love and hope out there. He broke camp the next morning and announced to his parents that he intended to go off to college and become a teacher. He would look out for the young and fill them with as much hope as he could to arm them against whatever might lie ahead.

For Mike, combat proved to be a thrill. A horrible, traumatic thrill. He came home to Marsh Point and sought any kind of excitement whenever he could find it. He spent a couple months in jail after scuffling with a sheriff’s deputy. He had pulled a knife, but the only one injured was his girlfriend Joyce, who got cut on the forearm when she jumped on the deputy’s back. Mike began to frequent the speakeasy across the river where he told funny stories about the Great War and endeared himself to the regular clientele and to the owner who hired him first to clean up, then to bring in moonshine from stills operating way up the Rowatoba. With his storytelling, backslapping ways, he was soon employed as the weekend bartender. In 1932, one year before Prohibition was repealed, the original owner died and left the business to Mike. In 1933, with booze now legal, Mike christened his establishment “Mike’s Place.” By this time, he had already learned a valuable lesson for any bartender: What folks were really looking for at the bottom of the bottle was hope. Perhaps it was this common belief in Hope that kept the bond between Mike and Gerald so strong.


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