Editor’s Note: Tales from the VFW is a digital scrapbook of stories and artifacts from U.S. veterans and family members. The project can be described as a “moveable feast” of memories, woven together by novelist and U.S. Navy vet Tommy Zurhellen and publisher Dan Cafaro. Today we present a compelling narrative written by Gwen Goodkin whose made-up tale contains an actual war story told by her now 95-year-old grandfather, a World War II veteran. This is Part 1 of “How to Hold it All in.”
We’re a cluster of uniformed old boys inside the entryway of the church. We’re dressed sharp in navy and smell of aftershave. Not a hair out of place. Our fingernails are clean and our shoes shine. We greet each other, exchange handshakes, gossip. So-and-so’s in the hospital, so-and-so’s gone to the rest home. It’s all the same story, just different names with each telling.
Jinx peers through the doors. “Service is starting.”
Used to be we veterans could skip a funeral or two. That was back when there were forty of us or more. Today there’s only nine.
We line up two by two and file toward the altar. We sidestep into the pews while Floyd secures the VFW flag in front of the altar stairs. The Stars and Stripes are draped over Chic’s casket. The priest swings a burner and leads Chic’s family down the aisle. A fog of incense lingers as they pass.
All of us old boys look straight ahead, like we’re together but in our own separate foxholes. Or coffins. Those who cry are spared the embarrassment of a sideways glance. Those who don’t cry, sweat at the effort of pushing the emotion down. The heat of it presses against my jacket. I myself don’t cry or sweat. I learned long ago how to hold it all in.
Earlier today we veterans met at the VFW to get ourselves figured out for the funeral.
“Didn’t think I’d see you here, Marv,” Jinx said.
“What gave you that idea?”
“Well, you know.” He opened his hands like a shrug. “Can’t remember the last time you and Chic spoke. Must be half a century or more.”
“I’m here to pay my respects,” I said. “Same as everyone else.”
I attend the funerals, take part in the ceremonies, but I don’t have what you’d call war buddies. And since all the guys my age were in the war, I don’t really have any buddies. Fine by me. Some guys, all they want to do is talk about the war. Still –– to this day! Good God, that’s a lot of war talk. Even if I start from my first day in the service to my last, I’dve been done finding new stories to add decades ago. That’s why I’m not close to any of the other guys. Your stories are your entrance into the gang and I’ve kept mine all to myself.
I was standing at the sign-up sheet writing my name when Jinx came up behind me.
“Marv. Might be best if you present the flag.” Jinx liked to run the show.
“Not this time. I’m firing the salute,” I said and put the pencil down.
“No need.” Jinx picked up the pencil. “We’ve got it squared.”
“Jinx,” I said. “I’m firing the salute. Harold can present the flag.”
“With that knee of yours and the snow, Marv.” He started to erase my name.
“I said I’m firing and I’m firing.” I hadn’t meant for everyone to hear, but they did.
The men averted their eyes and shifted their feet, no doubt shocked. I never challenged Jinx before, even though some say I should be the one doling out orders, if we went by rank.
Chic and me were tight back as schoolboys running the town.
“Follow me,” he’d say and I’d try to keep up as we ran in the deep ditches that bordered Highway 18. Sometimes our friend Lyle tagged along. He was a year younger and not as fast.
“You know where the best strawberries are?” asked Chic.
“Sure I do,” I said.
Then he stopped. “Where?”
“Why,” I said. “The strawberry farm. Claussens.”
“Wrong,” he said. “Them you have to pay for or steal. And Dad will belt me if I’m caught stealing.” He took off and we cut through a cornfield where the sprouts reached just above our ankles. Knee high by the fourth of July for a good crop. It was early summer, so the corn still had a chance.
We were coming up on the railroad tracks. Lyle trailed behind a couple hundred yards.
“This isn’t a trick is it?” I asked. “I won’t play chicken with the train. There’s only one winner.”
He waved me off. Right next to the tracks he knelt and parted the tall prairie grass. “See here?”
I bent to get a closer look. Sure enough, I saw thin vines and wide leaves and, underneath, small green misshapen nubs covered with seeds. Every so often, we found a red one and popped it in our mouths. They tasted as much like honey as they did strawberries. “You’re right. They are the best.” I scanned the open fields surrounding us.
Lyle finally caught up. “How’d they get here?”
“They’re volunteer,” said Chic.
Lyle picked one and ate it. “You threw some tops here?”
“They’re from the train. They serve strawberries in the dining car.”
“They throw the tops out the window?” I asked.
Then Chic smiled and popped a berry in his mouth. “No. They empty the toilets just before they come into town.”
Chic was shipped out to France. He was artillery, so he landed in the second wave of D-Day, after the Krauts were cleared from the pillboxes. “What a sight,” was all he ever said about it, then his eyes went somewhere else and he shook his head once. I had a lot of “What a sight” moments in the Pacific. I’m sure Chic had others, too. We just never got around to talking about them.
What happened with all us guys who went to war, I believe, was this: as far as home was concerned, we were fighting a valiant war, a war with good cause. But war’s war – rot and death and splattered brains and inside-out guts and stink. Because we were the good guys, though, we were meant to keep up the appearance that war was a noble endeavor. And that’s where we had a hard time when we came home – tending to the fairy tale.
According to Harriet, she saw me first. She was walking uptown with June, Lyle’s sister, when she stopped at the photography studio and pointed at my picture. “Now there’s a guy I’d like to meet,” she said. “Dark-haired and handsome.”
And June replied, “Today’s your lucky day, I believe, because he’s just across the street.” Chic and I were headed to the picture show.
“How do you know it’s him?” she asked.
“He’s friends with my brother Lyle,” said June. Then she shouted my name and they hurried to catch us. We all went to the picture show, then for an ice cream and Harriet and I saw each other nearly every day after. She was sixteen. I was seventeen. We married the following year, as soon as she graduated high school. Lyle and June were our attendants, since it was because of them Harriet and I found each other that day on the street.
We rented a tiny house just beyond the town limits. Harriet and I truly were in a world of our own. Our nearest neighbor was about a half mile toward town. Sunday afternoons that summer we’d head down the hill in our backyard toward the crick and hunt blackberries, careful to step around the poison ivy and oak. Harriet was a master-picker. She had no trouble avoiding the thorns. All that detail-stitching she’d done sewing clothes trained her hands for patience. Me, I always came home with scratches.
She rinsed the berries in a kitchen towel. We ate them right from the sink til our fingers and lips were stained purple. Afterwards, I’d touch a button on her dress and she’d balk.
“Marvin, you’ll stain it.” She smiled despite herself.
I touched her lips instead. Then kissed her. Eventually the buttons came undone and we made our way to the bedroom where my inky fingertips teased the cool skin of her stomach.
Just before Chic and I went to war, I asked him, if he came home first, to look in on Harriet. Even though she was moving back in with her parents until I returned, I wanted to hear from him how she was doing. As it turned out, he made it home a full six months before me. The war dragged on in the Pacific and I got badly injured near the end – got my leg chewed up by shrapnel, almost had it amputated, but convinced the doctors to wait. Wait. Wait. They tried a new drug called penicillin which pushed out the gangrene and saved the leg. I spent a few months in military hospitals before I finally made it home.
All that time I wrote Harriet and heard from her that she had a job as a shopgirl uptown selling dresses, but that, as soon as we saved the money, she’d buy her own sewing machine and go into business making clothes and doing alterations and repairs. She told me Chic had taken her and June out for pie one night and that maybe Chic and June might hit it off after all.
I suppose you’re enjoying your stay in that hospital bed of yours, being served three squares and cared for by pretty, young nurses and such. Me, I’m already back to work roughing up my hands at the shop. Just tore apart a motor only to discover a mouse had chewed clear through the wires.
I checked in on Harriet like you asked and she’s excited to see you. Her spirits are high and she’s kept busy at work.
I should tell you that Lyle was killed in Nice, France.
I didn’t want to believe it at first, but Harriet showed me the newspaper clipping and I saw his grinning mug and I had to take a seat. I keep expecting him to come home and say it was all a mix up. But he hasn’t showed up yet.
June is a lot quieter these days, not as silly as she used to be. June is a different girl.
Take care, old buddy,
We sit. We stand. We do not kneel for fear we won’t be able to get back up. We sit again. The priest begins with a reading and then Chic’s son Brice takes the podium to deliver the eulogy.
“Dad got his nickname before the ink was dry on his birth certificate. His parents should have just made Chic official since no one ever once called him Francis. The story goes, Dad was born with blonde hair shaded just the slightest bit red. His hair stood up straight off his head like a little chick’s.”
Brice talks about Chic’s love of fishing. How he was always going into detail about some trout or steelhead he caught. Brice tells us how Chic liked to play the lotto.
“He sure was lucky,” says Brice, voice catching in his throat. “In numbers and in life.”
Brice has developed a paunch and lost most of his hair, but I can still see the boy he used to be, with knobby knees too big for his legs and those huge feet and long fingers. He eventually grew into himself, but Chic and me had stopped our Saturday outings years before. I saw Brice every so often uptown at the drugstore buying sugar wafers. He’d say hi and hurry off, keeping his focus on those huge feet of his. Little did I know how he’d knock our lives off course.
Just before I headed home after the war, I wrote Harriet to tell her I was coming in on the train and to meet me at the station. I believed I’d be arriving on the afternoon train. As we rounded the curve just outside of town, it passed the patch of volunteer strawberries. It was covered with snow, but I smiled just the same, then nearly in the same moment, I thought of Lyle and the blood left my face and my fingers started to tingle til I gave my hand a good shake. I’d been standing by the door for the last hour of the trip. My leg was giving me trouble, but I didn’t care. I wanted to be first one off.
Though it was probably only a few minutes, it felt like a week before the train eased in to the faded red-brick station. I expected to see Harriet and my family – my parents, my sisters. Harriet was there and I lifted her off the ground and would have thrown her in the air like a baby if it hadn’t been for my leg. We hugged and kissed and kissed some more. When I finally looked beyond her face, I saw Chic.
We slapped each other’s shoulders and said without saying how relieved we were that the other made it home.
“Didn’t expect to see you here,” I said to him.
“Well, I had use of the car and I thought I’d give you a lift to your parents’,” he said. “Your sisters couldn’t all fit and none of them wanted the others to see you first.” He laughed.
“Nothing’s changed, I see,” I said.
Then he made a sort of grimace and the war was back. Everything had changed. Lyle was dead. Other classmates we’d never see again. Friends were missing an arm or both legs. I hadn’t heard any details, who else was dead, who was badly hurt, but I knew the news was there waiting for me to take it in.
Chic drove, I sat next to him, then Harriet. They started telling me about who got married, who was going steady, which romances didn’t last the war. They were trading stories I hadn’t heard and laughing about Don Miller getting caught back of the hardware store with his pants down and Brenda Carey interested in what she saw. Harriet leaned forward to get a good look at Chic and he was beaming at her and I felt an itch in the back of my neck.
“Harriet, how have you been keeping busy?”
Chic said, “Oh, you know she’s been working at the shop uptown nearly every day.” And he smiled at her and her face turned red.
I stared ahead and said, “I asked her.”
All the excitement went out of the car. After a few moments of quiet, she spoke, unsure of herself.
“It’s like Chic said, I’ve been working at the shop practically every day, saving for a sewing machine. I help Mom out, making supper and doing chores around the house.”
“Have you been going out with June?”
“No,” she said. “June’s kept to herself since getting the news about Lyle. I’ve been going to the picture show with Marian.”
“Anyone else?” I asked.
“Oh, Chic comes with us every once in a while,” she said and leaned forward to look at him. “I think he’s sweet on Marian.”
“She isn’t my first choice,” he said.
I turned to him. “Who is?”
“I’ll tell you when I see her,” he said, staring right at Harriet.
One battle more than any other has kept me awake over the years. Hill 700 in the Battle of Bougainville. We were just getting ready for breakfast when I got a hurry-up call from Battalion to load up trucks and head for the hills. I was only 1st Looie then. I thought we’d have time to eat so I told my men to get through the mess line pronto. I figured they should get one last hot meal. To my surprise, the trucks pulled up right away, not in an hour as expected. So much for the hot meal. We moved up the base of the hill, but couldn’t use the access road to get to the top. Too dangerous. We’d be sitting ducks. We crawled up the back of Hill 700, which was severely steep and muddy. I felt sorry for the weapon guys – H Co’s 81mm mortars especially, as the tubes weighed 95 pounds and the base plates were a whopping 105 pounds. I had a hard time and I was only carrying a small pack and a carbine.
The next morning at about 8:15 I got a call from 2nd Battalion Commander who wanted to know how the battle was going. I had to tell him we weren’t ready and he said, “Why didn’t you get up earlier so we could start on time?” I got irritated and said, “It won’t hurt to let the boys live another half hour. We’ll go at 8:30.”
I told the guys to jump off at 8:30. At 8:24 they began throwing the frag grenades. One of the frags came back and hit a guy in the helmet. Lucky for him it didn’t go off. After we used up most of the frags, we threw smoke. Those 81mm mortar white phosphorous smoke rounds were pretty mean.
The Japs figured out my plan pulled back after we sent the phosphorous bombs their way. That phosphorous, if it touches skin, it burns a hole clear through on contact. In fact, it burns a hole through everything but metal. What I should have done was to throw the phosphorous first, then the frags. Imagine having phosphorous rising up around you and then frag grenades bursting all over.
But, of course, I only know this now that I’ve had time to think. When people look at war and study it, it’s divided into battles with a clear understanding of who was where. When we’re in the thick of things, we get our orders and follow them.
That was the start of the battle for Hill 700 and I lost a lot of men in the fight that followed. Maybe if I’d mixed up the grenades, more men could have made it out alive. Some nights in bed I’d be in the middle of trying to fix a fight, calculate how I could have saved more men or won more ground and Harriet would speak up.
“Marv,” she said. “Stop.”
“Turn over then.” She rubbed the base of my neck and my shoulders until she fell asleep. The heat of her hand through my undershirt and her slow breathing was what eventually calmed me.
We stand at attention on the steps outside the church as a group of young men carry Chic to the hearse. I catch a glimpse of old Jinx trying to keep it all in, frowning from the effort. Him and Chic were tight.
The hearse carrying Chic leaves and we break formation.
I hitched a ride to the funeral with Floyd and Reggie. My driving isn’t what it used to be and I find myself in fear of the ice.
We walk to the car, quiet with our own thoughts. Cold air stings the tip of my nose. Floyd and Reggie take the front and I maneuver myself into the back. What used to be one fluid movement now involves about four or five steps: open the door, hold on to the rail to slide the cane in (though today I’m not using the cane), turn to face out, grab onto whatever I can and fall backwards onto the seat, one leg goes in, then the other, scoot a little further toward the middle, a little further, take a few deep breaths and look at the wide open door and wonder how the hell I’m going to get it closed.
Chic met Eileen at a dance one Saturday night. They married after a couple months of dating and had a son within the year. Harriet still hadn’t gotten pregnant. She did her best to appear happy for Chic and Eileen when we paid them and the baby a visit, but, once we got home, she went into the bedroom and didn’t come out for the rest of the day. I went to the Dairy Twist and bought us hamburgers for supper. Hers sat on the table until I threw it out back for the animals to eat.
But life keeps going even when you wish it’d stop – especially when you wish it’d stop – and Chic and Eileen had another boy soon after. Harriet took to the boys and decided she would be an aunt of sorts to them. One Saturday a month, Harriet and Eileen had card club so Chic and I took the boys to the quarry in the summer, sledding in the winter. At the quarry, we sat on a blanket in the shade with a bottle of beer while the boys played. One summer day, little Brice came up to me and gave my arm a hug and Chic saw that it made me happy and sad all at once.
“Do you and Harriet plan to adopt?”
I sat up and stared at the water and said, “We’ve never discussed it.” The sunlight sparkled on the ripples and I had to look away. “We never discuss anything about children. It’s like a bubble of silence between us that grows bigger every day.”
“Then I suppose it’s time you brought it up,” said Chic.
Harriet wouldn’t hear anything about adoption.
“I won’t do it,” she said. “I’m going to have one of my own. I want to feel a baby kicking inside me. We just have to keep trying.”
“It’s been four years.”
She was at the sink washing dishes facing the window. She spoke over her shoulder, “Then what’s four more? I’m not barren yet.”
“Say, where you headed?” I ask Floyd. “The quarry?”
Reggie fixes his cap. “What’re you going on about back there?” he asks.
“You’re headed the wrong way,” I say. “This ain’t the way to the cemetery. You’re supposed to head south on Main.”
Floyd and Reggie exchange a look. “You’re all mixed up, Marv,” says Reggie. “See the Dairy Twist right there.”
I follow where he’s pointing. A six-foot, plastic ice cream cone sits atop a blue building. The windows are boarded up and the sign in front reads “Closed 4 Wint r.”
“The cemetery’s no more than a mile this’a way,” says Floyd, flicking his right hand toward the windshield. “You forget your glasses?”
“You can see them on top of my nose, can’t you?” Why, I think they’re right. I am turned around.
“But are you using them?” asks Reggie. Him and Floyd get to laughing up in the front.
I wave them off. “Aahh, who needs you anyway.”
“Come on, Marv,” says Reggie. “So you got mixed up. It ain’t that big a deal.”
I watch the fields pass. Almost time to start spring planting. “You think they’ll serve a hot meal afterwards or just sandwiches?”
“I expect we’ll have fish,” says Floyd. He can barely get the words out between laughs. “Seeing as how Chic’s being buried in the quarry.” And the two of them are back at it, giggling and elbowing each other like a couple of kids at the rear of the classroom. Reggie wipes his eyes. Floyd drives us to the section of the cemetery where everyone’s spilling out of their cars.
After the war, I found work as a bricklayer. On rare occasion the work took me out of town on a job. When that happened I called over to Chic’s and asked would he stop in and check on Harriet, to which he said, “Sure, Marv.” I never told Harriet I’d sent Chic her way. Her seamstress work had grown to where she’d begun to talk about hiring a girl. If I’d said I was having Chic stop in and see she was okay, she would have told me I was being silly, that she could take care of herself.
On one such job, we finished a day earlier than expected and I drove the five hours home after working a full day. By the time I got home it was pitch black, closing in on nine o’clock. It was November and night came earlier every day. I walked into the quiet house and didn’t find Harriet in the kitchen or front room so I walked back to our bedroom and stopped in my tracks when Chic stepped out of the bathroom.
“Where’s Harriet?” I asked.
He was surprised to see me. “She’s – she’s in the bedroom.”
I stared him in the eyes for a moment and opened the bedroom door. Harriet was in her underwear about to put on a dress and she yelped when she saw me.
“What the hell is going on?” I shouted.
She clutched the dress to the front of her. “I was trying on a dress I thought Chic might want me to make for Eileen for Christmas.”
I went out to the hall. Chic stood there with his eyes wide.
“Do you think I’m stupid? Is that what you think? Am I to believe you came over here to look at a dress?”
He put his hands up to stop me. “You told me to come check in on her. That’s why I was here.”
“That doesn’t explain the underwear.”
“She’s telling the truth.”
Harriet was dressed by then and came out to the hall. “He stopped in and I told him I was cold, that the heater wasn’t working. He said the pilot light was out, he lit it and we talked about winter coming on, then Christmas.”
I stared at the two of them, searching for a clue to the truth.
Captain Sidney S. Goodkin of the 37th Infantry Division was part of a group of soldiers who liberated a prison camp of American citizens in the Philippines, where he found a piano in a house and stopped to play “Boogie Woogie.” He’s now 95, still plays piano in a jazz band, and is a member of Recker-Trame Post 9142 VFW in Ottawa, Ohio. He also is the grandfather of storywriter Gwen Goodkin and contributed the actual war story found in this narrative.