Charles Wright – Part 2

Fiction / Sunday, February 21st, 2010


I was sitting at home, by the fire listening to the radio when I heard what happened. The Japs attacked one of our military bases on the island of Hawaii. I was sitting in my arm chair, finishing reading the Sunday paper and I didn’t hear the first announcement. Gus did, he leaned over to the radio and turned the dial up. The voice of the man reporting made it clear that this was serious, I almost felt as though he knew someone stationed at the base just by how his voice sounded.

“Do you think we’ll enter the war now?” asked Gus.

Gus had been one of the few people who wanted to go and lend aid to Europe and fight against the Germans. I think he regrets having missed out on the last war. He wanted to go off and fight the Germans then and he had been looking for a reason to do it since. I wondered if he thought we would be fighting the Germans now, even though it was the Japanese who attacked us.

“I don’t see how we can’t do something,” I said.

“Today of all days. It’s a Sunday you know. They must have known we wouldn’t be ready to fight. People were in church, they couldn’t have manned the guns fast enough to put up a strong offensive.”

Gus was in a frenzy about this. After he turned up the dial, he didn’t sit back down. He was pacing the room while talking to me.

“Frank, have you heard the news? We’ve been attacked,” said Gus.

My Father had come into the room. By the looks of it, he had just come from the market because he was carrying two grocer’s bags.

“Yes, a man was running through the street yelling the news.”

Father spoke quite plainly. He was calm and showed no no worry. I wondered whether Father knew that Gus was going to leave when American declared war. I could tell that in the twenty-two years of being Gus’ father he had grown to love him as a son. I wondered if he worried about me leaving to fight for America also.

I had been looking for a reason to leave home. I loved Father and Bruno as much as I ever had. Aniela wasn’t a bad mother either, though she would never replace Mother. I also got along alright with Henry and Joseph. It was Gus who I made me want to leave.

In the twenties, Gus made himself a good bundle of cash. He never told us what he did to make the money, it always seemed like he was doing odd jobs here and there for whoever needed something done. But I cannot imagine how odd jobs would make him that much money. Anyway, I didn’t ask. If I did, I wouldn’t have gotten a different answer than anyone else in the house.

Gus didn’t do what most people did with their money in the twenties, he didn’t spend it on entertaining himself of women and he didn’t put it in the stock exchange. What he did was buy the building that we live in. It wasn’t anything spectacular, just four floors of apartments. We lived on the first two and he rented out the top two floors to some nice families, the Wantuchs and the Rominski’s.

The fact that we had a place to live through the Depression made all the difference. We didn’t have to worry about finding money to pay rent. What little money we we made could go towards buying food and whatever other amenities that we needed. The problem was that because Gus owned the building and he ‘let’ us stay there, he felt the was in charge. He even thought he had more importance than Father. Each week when we had money, we had to give it to him so he could buy food and whatnot for the house and then he would give us back what he felt was necessary. I rarely got enough to buy myself a meal, let alone find a gal and take her out.

I worked hard for my money, Bruno and I had jobs working for the city as construction workers. We repaired the streets and we helped build public buildings. We were in one of Roosevelt’s programs but I can’t remember which one. It wasn’t important. Sure at the time it was a source of pride telling people that you worked and for what organization, but what was really important was having the money come.

I had only seen Gus work once in my life. He had a couple days where he was employed downtown at one of the shopping centers. He was what they called a floor walker. As far as I could tell all he did was go around the store and make sure that they shirts were hanging straight and that the shoes were still in their boxes. That work isn’t a man’s work. There was also a stint where Gus would collect a paycheck each week, but he didn’t earn it. A buddy of his worked for the rail company and tipped him off about collecting pay. Apparently the rail company didn’t have a list of who got pay, they just had a list of who got limited pay or no pay at all. So Gus just showed up and collected the money that he hadn’t worked for.

I had other reasons for wanting to leave, but Gus was the main reason that I needed to get out of there.

“Mieczyslaw, are you going to go fight the damned Japs?” asked Gus.

“We’re too old, they won’t want us.”

“You’re thirty-seven and I am thirty-nine, that isn’t that old. I bet they’ll take anyone who’s willing to fight. I am.”

I was too. But I wasn’t going to tell him that.

I waited a month before I left to join the Army. I would have left sooner, but I had some things I needed to take care of. I wanted to get what little finances I had in order and I wanted to change my name.

See, I wasn’t telling anyone that I was going. I wanted to cut free. At the time, it made more sense. Now I wonder if it was the best thing for me to do. No one knew I was gone and no one knew my name. I couldn’t imagine what Father went through when I didn’t come home from work that day. I told Bruno that I had some things to do before work and he should go without me.

At the recruiting station they didn’t ask many questions. There was a physical, which I passed and there were a lot of forms to fill out. All in all, it wasn’t a very difficult process. They seemed ready to take anyone to fight. I wondered why Gus wasn’t able to enlist. He went the very day that America declared war. They sent him home and he would say why. Part of me wonders if he really went to enlist that day or if he just left the house for a couple of hours and came back. I always thought that he was too attached to that house of his to leave it.

Anyway, the men at the recruiting office told me that the train for basic didn’t leave for two days. He told me when and where to report to make sure I was on that train. So I had two days to kill. I didn’t go home. I could have went home and stayed there until the train left, but then I would have to answer to Bruno when he asked why I didn’t show up at work that day.

Instead I wandered around the rest of the day before checking into a cheap hotel near the train station. I feel a little guilty about doing it, but I stole some of the cash from where Gus kept it in the house before I left. I wasn’t sure how long I would have to wait and I wasn’t sure if I would need money while I was at basic training camp.

I spent the day between signing up and shipping out in a diner, eating and writing a letter. I wanted Doloreta to know that I was going to the war and that I would try to find her if I got the chance. I also wrote her to tell her that I had changed my name so if she wanted to find me, she would know where to look. I still hadn’t heard from her since the last war. My letters were never returned so I hoped that she was still alive and that they were getting to her. Every time I met someone who had recently come from Poland, I asked them if they had heard anything about her or her family.

I went to sleep early that night, I wanted to get plenty of rest before I started my career in the Army.

Basic training was uneventful, to say the least. Most of the guys in basic had not been in the last war. Most of us had never held or fired a gun. I wasn’t any exception. We learned everything we needed to keep ourselves alive in the war.

Most of the guys had gals they left back home. It was all they seemed to talk about. They were fighting this war only so they could come home and be with those girls. I was asked by a lot of the guys early on in basic about my girl, who it was that I was fighting this war for. At first it was hard to tell them that I was fighting in the war to get away from home. Then it was even hard to tell them that there wasn’t a girl back home that I was fighting for, it was actually a girl over there that I hadn’t seen since I was a child. I think they misunderstood me. I think they thought that I knew where Doloreta was, what she was doing and that she was alive. I didn’t tell them any of this. I told them that when we got to Poland, I was going to the last place I saw her and then I would find her.

We stayed stateside for a while. Basic was supposed to take twelve weeks and then we were supposed to start advanced training. Later in the war, I asked the guys if they remembered when basic ended and when advanced started and no one could recall a date. It didn’t matter, we were still learning what we needed to know to keep ourselves and those around us alive.

I signed up for the infantry. They gave me a rifle and taught me to shoot it. At one point in basic I think I had the choice to switch out of the infantry and join the armor division or learn to operate the machine gun, I didn’t want to. The way I looked at it was that I would rather be outside walking than be cooped up in a tank all the time and I would rather carry my standard issue Thompson than the bulky machine gun. It’s easier to run and stay alive when you have less to take with you.

Anyway, we left the states after a little more than a year of training. I thought it was odd that I signed up a little more than a month after the war started and it took so long to get me to see the action. I had no complaints though. I was getting away from home, getting paid and the later I get into the war the longer I would live in it.

We hopped a train and rode it all the way from Tennessee where we had basic to New York where our ship was waiting. This was the first time I had been back to New York since arriving on the shores back in 1914. It was also the first time I had been on a boat of any kind since leaving Poland. It gave me something to live through the war for. I wanted to be able to tell people that I went overseas with my country to fight for the one I had left as a child. It gave me two sense of pride and I liked it.

New York was much different than when I last saw it. Everything seemed bigger and faster. And with all of the infantry coming into town to ship out, the whole city was packed. People were running about, taking care of last minute things before their boats left port. Even with all of the military order it was difficult for us to move. I couldn’t go anywhere without bumping shoulders with someone. The urgency only added to what you could pull out of the air. There was also a good helping of fear. I was with a group of men who were ready to die for their countries if they had to. Every day we spent waiting for our ship to sail we would hear about another person who didn’t show up for roll. These were ones who who hadn’t thought the whole thing through. They knew they wanted to defend their country but the realness hadn’t dawned on them until they saw the ocean. The ocean made them think of what was to come on the other side. I won’t lie, I had the thoughts too. We all did. But in the end I figured if I didn’t go and fight, then there was one less person to fight for Doloreta. I like to think that the men who didn’t leave on that boat with us, came to a similar realization and caught the next boat.

You could have said that there was excitement in the air too. I lost track of the times that I was asked if I was excited to go and fight the Germans. Was excited really the right word? At the time, I thought I was excited. I told everyone that I was. I believed them to be the most vile enemy that America had ever faced. I don’t think most of us were excited like we said we were. I think we were just trying to be American heroes, doing what we had to do. Then again, I knew that there were some who truly were excited to get to Europe and to kill some Germans. I saw those men die on the battlefield, killed by Germans.

We took our ship to England, Bristol to me more precise. Fortunately very little happened on the ship. No deaths, mostly seasickness. All the time we were supposed to keep watch for other ships and German U-boats. It kept us on edge the entire voyage, but we didn’t see any. I never figured out how we would have seen them because the point of a U-boat was that they moved and attacked under water. If we did see one, it probably was too late.

We stayed two weeks in Bristol before piling into trucks heading to London. We were to meet up with some more Americans who have been helping defend the city along side the British. Our commanding officer, Lieutenant Briggs, told us we would have left for London sooner but we were replacing a group who was making their way to France for an assault. He also told us that there had been German planes trying to make bombing runs recently. There was a fear of the blitz starting again, but he told us not to worry because the Royal Air Force was determined to maintain their air superiority over England.

We were so close to the action. Those weeks in Bristol I didn’t see or hear anything that sounded like the war was close, but I could feel it. I felt as though I could feel when bombs were dropped, the dull thud and explosion moving from across the channel to where I was. I asked around and none of the other guys said they could feel it. Maybe I just wanted to.

When we made it to London, we were assigned to our barracks and then Lt. Briggs split us into patrol groups of eight men. Our mission was to patrol the city and be on alert for German ships and planes. We were to radio in anything we saw that might be suspicious.

Each patrol was assigned a man for communications, two men for a mobile machine gun and five men for rifle support. I was in the rifle support of my patrol along with Johhny West from California, Steve Tanner, Sal Marino and Louis Smith. Robert Bessler and Donald Schroeder were in charge of our machine gun. They were big muscular guys; I doubted that they would’ve needed that gun they lugged around to scare off Germans. Paul Terrus was our communications man. He was a small man who wore thick glasses. The first day I met him and found out he would be in charge of our patrols communications he introduced himself as Paul the Apostle. I asked him why he called himself an Apostle.

“Charles,” I had changed my name to Charles Wright when I enlisted, “my name is Paul and I use this radio to speak to the higher ups. They are the ones who tell us where we go and they are the ones who have a good deal of control over whether we die or not. As far as I am concerned, I am speaking to God.”

We patrolled that city for four months before anything happened on our watch. It wasn’t even anything threatening to all of us. Johnny got sick, something he ate didn’t agree with him. Whatever he ate came out of him at both ends as fast as he could get it in. This took all of the fight out of Johnny. We ended up having to patrol without him. The last I heard of Johnny, he was transferred to a hospital outside of London. Whatever sickness Johnny had, it took him out of the war before we saw anything.

After six months of being in England, we received a new batch of infantry from the States for support. Rumor was that large group of our men were going to cross the Channel and try to put a dent in the German defenses. The patrol I was in didn’t get on the list of units to go the mainland. I think it was because we were down a man and they wanted full numbers in the patrols. Either way, it led to a reunion from back home.

Lt. Briggs told us that our patrol was going to be absorbed into the new group of infantry and it was likely that we would head over with them. He told us that we could stay together as our patrol was but take on a new member, or that we could split and each be placed into a new patrol. Since we had all taken a liking to one another we opted to stay together. With the exception of Johnny, we had been quite lucky in not seeing any action.

Lt. Briggs introduced us to our new commanding officer, Lt. Stevens, and wished us the best of luck. He was leaving with the rest to fight in Europe. Later, I heard that Lt. Briggs was leading a patrol when his unit walked into an unknown German machine gun squadron. The entire unit was wiped out.

Lt. Stevens told us that we would be assigned a new man to our unit. Since we had lost a rifleman, we would be getting a new one. I was surprised to hear that the name of our new member was Edward Wantuch. There had been an Eddie Wantuch living with his family on one of the upper floors of Gus’ building. His sister, Eugenia, and my brother Henry seemed to be spending a lot of time together when I left for the war. I hoped that this Edward would be the same Eddie that I knew. If it was, I hoped that he had news from home for me.

Much to my delight Edward was the same Eddie that I knew. It was a difficult moment when he joined our unit. We only saw each other on occasion back in Chicago and we had only talked a few times. He actually didn’t recognize me when we were introduced, though I think had I been introduced as Miecyzslaw Borowcyzyk he might have at least recognized my last name.

I waited until we were patrolling to ask Eddie about home. He was quite surprised when I asked him how Eugenia and Henry were. It took him a moment to put things together. It was quite amusing watching him study my face before he realized who I was.

He asked me what happened to me. He had heard that I went missing and my father had asked everyone he knew if they had seen me, apparently it got him into a little trouble at the butcher shop because he slowed down customers when he drilled them for any information they might have. I told him my story, leaving out the part why I left. I didn’t want to spoil his image of Gus with my complaints. Fortunately for me, he was satisfied with my story and he never asked for a reason.

Eddie told me that Henry had proposed to Eugenia. He said the wedding was small but very nice. It was after the wedding that he joined the Army. He said he was going to do it sooner but he found out about the wedding and put it off until after. He wanted to be there to see his sister get married.

It was odd to think that I was in this war and I found out that I had another brother. It was even more odd to think that bay fate alone we was put into my patrol. Later when I thought about it I realized had he not shown up, there would have been so much less that I would have known about what happened at home. I was glad to have him there.

We patrolled the city for another six months before we found out what was going to happen to us. To be honest, Steve, Sal, Louis, Robert, Donald, Paul and I had been itching to see some action. I had mixed feelings about what we were doing. We had signed up to fight but we had been here in London for a year just patrolling the city and the surrounding countryside. there were times when I worried that I had forgotten how to fire my Thompson.

It was about this time that Lt. Stevens came to our patrol and told us that we had earned a month of leave. It was uncommon to get leave in those days, but because we hadn’t had a break from our patrolling in a year and they didn’t need all of us, they offered. We gladly accepted. Eddie got leave too even though he had only been patrolling for a six months because he was with out patrol and there wasn’t room in other patrols for him to go into while we were away.

I hadn’t considered how I would spend my time when Eddie came up to me and invited me to come with him. He said he was going to Iceland. He had met a gal in Bristol when he was there briefly after arriving from America. He had been in touch with her since via post. She had kept asking him to come visit her when he got a chance.

I had heard about Hekla, Eddie’s gal many times while on patrol. She sounded wonderful. The way Eddie talked about her, you would have expected her to be a goddess. He described her as the most beautiful woman, golden hair and strong yet soft features. She lived with her parents and sisters on a small farm in Iceland. I was eager to meet her, to ensure that she was everything that Eddie said her to be, not that I doubted him but more to see what such a perfect woman was.

Eddie wrote her a letter, telling her to expect us in a few days and sent it ahead of us. The journey was relaxing and we took our time getting across the country to Bristol. In Bristol, we hired a fisherman to take us on his boat to Iceland. He was worried about taking American infantry on his boat because he thought it would draw the Germans to him, but we ensured him that we would do everything we could to protect him–we had brought our rifles with us for our own protection. He seemed calmed by our reassurance of his safety.

Fortunately for Eddie and me, Hekla lived just outside of the port that the fisherman brought us into. We only had to do bit of asking around to find where she lived. My only worry was that she hadn’t received Eddie’s letter before our arrival and wouldn’t be expecting us. I doubted that this would have kept her family from taking us in for the time, but I felt better knowing that we were expected.

Hekla was everything that Eddie described her to be. She was, in fact, quite beautiful and her family was very generous. They were more than willing to let us stay for some time. Hekla had received Eddie’s letter and they had prepared an area in the barn for us to sleep.

I wasn’t sure what I expected when I agreed to go with Eddie to see Hekla. I suppose I should have realized that he would like to spend time alone with her, but it didn’t dawn on me. I didn’t mind. I walked the countryside by myself and had time to think in peace. It might have been because Eddie was with Hekla, but I did an awful lot of thinking about Doloreta. I had sent her a handful of letters since coming overseas, though I doubted whether she got any of them. I told her that I was in London and that I was on patrol for the American Army. I told her that I would always be looking for her and that if I ever got the chance, I would return home and try to find her myself. I also told her that when we won this war, I would stay in London until at least the end of October before I headed back to Chicago. I told her that I would always be waiting for her. However, I never heard back from her nor did I see her while patrolling. To be honest, I didn’t know what I was looking for, it had been nearly thirty years since I last saw her and I had no idea what she looked like.

When I wasn’t lost in my thoughts, I spent much of my time helping Hekla’s family around the farm. Her parents were the nicest old couple that I had met and her two younger sisters, Svana and Valdis, were a delight to be around. I think they took a liking to me because I was a man in uniform. I doubt it dawned on either of them that I was much too old for them, they were hardly twenty, and there was little hope that I could ever be with them. It didn’t stop Hekla’s parents either from trying to get me alone with their daughters. To them, I must have been an American G.I. like Eddie who could take care of their daughters.

After a week and a half of staying in Iceland with Hekla’s family, Eddie and I decided that we should head back to London. Before leaving, I spoke to Hekla’s parents alone. I wanted to thank them for their hospitality but more importantly I asked them to hold on to a letter for me addressed to Doloreta. I asked them whether it was okay that I sent her here for information about me. They said that it would be fine and I promised to keep in touch with them.

“She’s a swell girl, isn’t she Charles?” asked Eddie on our boat back to England.

“Hekla was wonderful, her whole family was,” I said.

“She told me that she wanted me to propose to her. Did you know that? I wanted to, Charles. I really did. But I had to be honest with her and myself. I am fighting a war right now. What would happen if I married her and then we shipped off to the mainland and got ambushed by German panzers? She wouldn’t have a husband no more. No Charles, I told her that the moment we win this war, I would come back and take her away with me. I told her after this war, we can be together for good.”

I told Eddie that it took a lot of man to think like he just did. I also told him that I wanted to be there when he proposed. I didn’t remind him, however, that he is as good as proposed to Hekla and that dying in the war now would be the same as dying in the war if he married her. I didn’t want to think about it too much because we all could die at any moment.

When we officially returned from leave, Lt. Stevens briefed us on what the Army’s plans were for us. As it turned out, we would be continuing our patrols to defend London. While he couldn’t say much about it for security reasons, he hinted that we were going to be part of a big military operation.

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