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, photographer Chris Motta and publisher Dan Cafaro. Today we present a compelling narrative written by Gwen Goodkin whose mostly made-up tale contains an actual war story told by her now 95-year-old grandfather, a World War II veteran. This is Part 2 of “How to Hold it All in.” Read Part 1.
Even though there’s snow on the ground, the sky is blue as a Pacific lagoon, the clouds are few and far between and the sun is shining. Perfect day to handle steel.
Once we’re outside, Jinx passes me a rifle. I check it’s loaded and ready to go. The crowd watches as the men bring the casket to the gravesite.
“Line up,” says Jinx.
Floyd moves to the front, then Reggie, then a few other guys. I bring up the rear. We wait as the priest begins the prayer. The wind freezes my fingers. My toes are numb.
“Ten hut,” says the Sergeant at Arms. He’s a young guy – served in Iraq. “Forward march.”
I have a hard time lifting my legs to a full march. I scuff my feet across the pavement. At the lip onto the snow-covered grass, Floyd falters. The ice-covered snow crunches with each step. I give it my all and march as hard as I can. I stomp onto the snow and slip a notch forward. I focus on the grave marker and count down the distance: twenty feet, fifteen. We stop at ten. I’m clear out of breath. My lungs feel like they’re ready to split.
Harriet went into labor in mid-July, a month before her due date. I sat out in the sweltering waiting room and smoked til my throat hurt. I wasn’t a smoker in the first place, but the two other men waiting with me kept offering and I never refused.
The nurse finally came out with the news I was the father of a little girl and was I ready to see her?
“Is she healthy?” I asked.
She led me to the nursery. “Very,” she said.
“Even though she’s a month premature?”
“Is she?” said the nurse, surprised. “She’s near six pounds. It might be good luck your wife had her early. She could have been an eight pound baby if she’d gone full term.”
She brought me to the window and pointed her out to me. I couldn’t find her at first.
“Right there,” said the nurse. “First row, second from the left.”
I finally found her. If the nurse hadn’t been there, I would have cried, but I held it in and breathed and breathed and had to sit down.
“We were going to put a cap on her,” said the nurse, who bent down to speak to me. She was smiling. “But we wanted you to see her beautiful hair first.”
The hair was blonde with the slightest bit of red. It stood up straight off her head like a little chick’s and I did the calculation and I knew.
Oh, she denied it, of course. Chic, too.
“My aunt has red hair,” said Harriet, hysterical, walking with the baby in her arms, feeding her a bottle.
“Do you see my hair?” I said. “It’s black. Dark eyes. I got Indian in me.” I moved to the far end of the living room, as far from her as I could get. “That child is not mine.”
“She is!” she screamed. The baby choked on her milk and shrieked in her little bird voice until Harriet sat down on the davenport with her and I left.
The decision to stay or leave for good was made harder by the fact that I couldn’t talk to Lyle – the only person I would have turned to for advice. Such decisions, however, aren’t made at the end of a long session alone with one final drop of the gavel. They happen a little at a time. I stayed at my parents’ house, claiming Harriet and I were having a hard time adjusting to the baby and she needed time to herself. I went back to our house, though, to get a change of clothes and give her some money – I wasn’t going to let them starve – and the baby was asleep in her arms and I couldn’t help myself. I sat down.
“If you just held her–” said Harriet, easing her into my arms.
“No,” I said, even though I was already holding her. She poked her hand out of the blanket and grabbed my finger and sighed and I stayed longer than I’d intended. Then I came back the next day, just to check on them, mind you, and ate the lunch Harriet fixed for me. Then dinner the next day and the night after I stayed so late I had to sleep there, then I stayed for good.
Chic and I never spoke again. Eventually up at the VFW the guys wanted to know what the hell was the matter anyway. I made up a story about how I lent Chic my lawnmower and he claimed I gave it to him. And Floyd or Jinx or some other guy would say, “Aach, you two need to just get over it. Busting up a friendship over a lawnmower?” and he’d wave me off. But they believed it and they liked having something to talk about. Chic never disputed the story, even did his part to keep up the ruse, adding in his own details that made their way back to me, how he’d offered me $10 and I refused.
We make it to our spot in the snow and stop our march. I’m relieved just to be in place and not moving in any one direction. My fingers don’t work like they used to. Sometimes I’ll bend my ring finger and it won’t come back up on its own. I have to unlock it and push it back straight.
“Present arms,” says the kid.
I lift my gun and hold myself steady.
None of us told Eileen. Harriet and Eileen tried to keep up their friendship, but it was too much to overcome, the men no longer friends. Eileen even said to me once, “You know, we can give it back, Marv. It’s just a lawnmower.” And I felt terrible, lying to her in more ways than one, like I was just as guilty as Chic and Harriet for what they’d done. But once you start a lie, you have to prune it and water it, pull the weeds – like a garden. After that, though, I told Harriet I couldn’t be around Eileen and that was the end of their friendship.
As for Rose, after I held her that first time on the davenport, I couldn’t help myself. I was hers. Whatever she wanted (within reason, mind you) – she knew who to ask.
Rose was a good girl all growing up. Her trouble started when she entered high school. She got mixed up with the wrong crowd. It was the cars that did it. Once a child starts going around in cars, she has a false sense of freedom. Like she can go anywhere and do anything because she steps inside a different world and the leather seat transports her to a place with no rules.
One night I heard a noise out back and thought a raccoon might have gotten into the trash cans. I went around the side of the house with a flashlight and came upon Rose with a boy. I shined the light on him and saw it was Chic’s son, Brice.
“You get out of here,” I yelled at him. “And you–” I pointed at Rose. “Go inside.”
Brice hurried away and I went in to Rose’s bedroom, where she was crying, embarrassed and angry.
“You stay away from that boy,” I said to her. “He’s no good.”
“You’re wrong.” And then, near a shout, she said, “He’s my friend.”
“I’m no dummy,” I said. “Boys and girls aren’t friends.” I grabbed the top of her arm so she’d face me. “You’re to stay away from him.”
She just stared at me, wiping tears.
“Leave me alone!” she screamed.
And I slapped her. The one and only time.
I managed to fire the previous shot, but I’m worried I won’t squeeze the trigger hard enough this time and I’ll be late. I’d rather miss the shot entirely than come in late.
But when the kid yells “Fire!” I do.
Of course, some things in life you can only learn by experience. That which you forbid a teenager becomes the teenager’s sole focus. A few months later I walked into the kitchen, where Rose was in tears and Harriet stood at the sink holding her temples, breathing uneasy.
“What?” I said.
Both looked at me, then each other, but neither would speak.
“What?” I grew impatient. “Out with it.”
“She’s in a bad way,” said Harriet in a shaky voice.
“Are you sick? Let’s get you to the doctor then.” I went to Rose to help her out of the chair.
“She’s pregnant,” said Harriet finally.
It was as if, with those words, the truth I’d distanced myself from over time, that Rose wasn’t truly my daughter, uppercut my chin. I couldn’t believe my own lie anymore.
“My God,” I said. “It’ll be a mongoloid.”
Once Rose couldn’t hide anymore under big sweaters and dresses, we found a place run by nuns in Southern Ohio that took in girls in her situation. I drove Rose there and carried her suitcase up a flight of stairs and set it on a narrow bed. The other bed in the room was made and a few personal items – a comb, a toothbrush – were on a shelf next to it. I hugged Rose and told her I’d see her in a few months when this mess was over and done with. It seemed like I was simply dropping her off at camp, which is what we told everyone in town since she’d be there for the summer.
Harriet visited her twice, bringing her cookies and homemade bread and Coke. Then, one evening, we got a phone call at home from Rose telling us she was about to have the baby. Harriet packed an overnight bag and changed into her good clothes.
“Where are you going?”
“To be with her,” she said.
“At this time of day? It isn’t safe,” I said.
“I’m a careful driver.”
“You might get attached to the baby and want to keep it,” I said.
“And so what if I do?”
“I’m not raising another child.” We both knew what I meant. I wasn’t raising another child that wasn’t mine.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” she said and left.
I was nervous and couldn’t focus. I went to work and hardly did a thing. I started a task – laid out the base for a chimney – and got distracted and an hour later, I’d be starting at the same run of bricks and realize I hadn’t made a single move.
When Harriet returned, she came in the kitchen with an air of confidence, like she’d just won a contest. Smug even.
“Is there a baby in the car?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
“Boy or girl?”
“Has he been adopted?” I asked.
“He has.” She put on her apron and opened the refrigerator door.
“Is he – healthy?”
“Perfectly healthy.” She closed the fridge, put two onions on the counter and cut one in half. “I took a picture of him. It’s at the drugstore now, being developed.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her wrist and kept chopping.
“The drugstore? You know how that Chambers gossips. What will you tell him about the baby?”
“I already told him,” I said. “It was a friend’s son’s baby.” She dropped the onions in a bowl, then a packet of meat. “Which isn’t a lie really.”
“I don’t want to see any picture,” I said. “I want no part of it.”
She broke an egg and crushed some crackers and mixed up a meat loaf. The next night at dinner she put the picture on my plate before serving the leftovers. I couldn’t look away and, even worse, found my nose moving closer to it.
I saw Rose first and knew from the photograph she was in shock. Her face was blank and her eyes were dull. Then I looked at the boy. He had hair black as an Indian’s and dark eyes. What I couldn’t get over, though, was his cleft chin. Just like mine.
Want to know how to hold it in? Hurt yourself. Pinch your skin right above the wrist until you’re certain it’ll bruise. Bite the inside of your cheeks until they bleed. When you’re in a spot where guys are looking at you, pleading with their eyes, “Show me it’ll be okay,” and you’ve got the blood of one of your boys splattered across your face, you goddamn well lie.
Rose wasn’t the same after she came home, like the baby had pulled all the happiness out of her with him. She didn’t brush her long, soft hair, it turned stringy and knotted and she often lost her place in her thoughts. We tried to cheer her up, bought her the horse she’d always wanted and it helped some. The horse required care and she needed to care for something.
My relationship with Harriet changed, too. She was calmer now, vindicated. Less meek. She spoke up for herself more and I found myself growing quieter. So much had happened between Chic and me that, even though I knew I’d been wrong, we couldn’t speak to each other any more. It would feel unnatural to talk to him, like neither of us had used our own voice in so long that it might not make a sound if we tried.
Harriet died on a Sunday a few months after we celebrated our 68th wedding anniversary. I found her in her pink rocking chair with her knitting needles limp in her fingers. Her mouth had gone slack, her grey eyes focused on the pine trees beyond the picture window.
I myself didn’t cry. But I found I couldn’t muster the strength to make funeral arrangements. Even buttering toast in the morning felt like an enormous task. Opening the fridge to get the butter took all my energy. The knife weighed more than I could lift. So Rose did it all – made the funeral arrangements, called the relatives with the viewing schedule, planned the meal afterward, brought me to the funeral home and back, loaded the flowers in the car after it was all over.
Rose never married. It broke Harriet’s heart, that she never had any grandchildren. She also worried about Rose as she grew older. She would be completely alone. Rose didn’t mind a bit, though. She said she preferred it actually. She’d taught Kindergarten and claimed she’d spent most of her life surrounded by children. She loved how quiet her life had become.
On the last evening of Harriet’s viewing, at the end of the night after the visitors had all gone, Rose checked the clock and said she supposed we could leave. She helped me get my coat on when the door opened and in walked Chic and Brice.
A couple months after Rose gave up the boy for adoption and the sadness was still stuck to her, I took her out for a hamburger.
A few bites in, I asked, “Have you seen Brice?”
She kept chewing, picked up a fry, ate that then finally said, “Here and there.”
“Might do you some good to talk to him,” I said.
The blood rose in her cheeks. “Now you want me to talk to him? You said he was no good.”
“Well he did end up being trouble, didn’t he?”
Then she grew quiet.
“He’s the only one you can talk to about all this. The only one who knows.”
She looked out the window. “I can’t – he’s going steady with another girl.”
And now here he was, practically a stranger, with Chic staring at us in the funeral home.
“Hi, guys,” said Rose and she went up to them and hugged them both. “Mom’s back here.” And she led them to the casket while I stood there like a dummy. Brice nodded as he passed. The three of them faced her and talked in quiet voices then all of a sudden, Chic started to sob.
“What a loss,” he said. “What a loss.”
I had to leave. His crying felt like a sickness I might catch if I stayed too near. And if I cried, I might crack open and never get back together. I went to the restroom and took my time. When I went back out front, Chic and Brice were gone and Rose was dabbing her eyes with a folded tissue.
I’m on the ground trying to fill my lungs, making dramatic sounds, but I cannot get enough air in. I’m staring up at sky and the sting of the frigid snow is pressing against my back. Now everyone’s standing above me or trying to help me up and I just want to stay down here for a moment, cold as it is, and catch my breath.
“Are you okay, Marv?” asks Reggie. “Can you get up?”
If everyone would just go away, I’d take my time and get up at my own pace. Since everyone’s staring at me, I have to get up.
Then a woman’s kneeling next to me and I study her for a moment and it’s June.
“Come on, Marv,” she says. “Let me help you up.” She offers me a hand. I take it and can feel the warmth through the glove even. Her other hand she uses to push me up by the shoulders. “Is your hip okay? Do you think you can walk?”
“Yes, yes,” I say. “I’m fine, everyone. Just my pride that’s bruised. Thank you for your concern.” She winds her arm around mine and walks me to the passenger side of her car. It feels strange to have a woman guiding me to a door, rather than the other way around.
I sit down and she starts the car. Everyone else is leaving and she lets them go first. Floyd comes to the window.
“June, you can give him a ride home?”
“Course I can.” She lets the cars go and we’re the only mourners left. “Do you want to get a coffee?” she asks. “I could bring you straight home, if not. But I just figured, I’m going back to an empty house and so are you–”
Rose moved up to Michigan years ago, right after she graduated college. She’s been pushing me to sell the house and move in with her, to which I respond, why not sell her house and move in with me? It’s the house she grew up in, after all. But she’s so involved in her church, she can’t leave. They’re like a family to her. She has no friends in New Marburg anymore. It’d be like starting over at sixty and she just can’t.
“Yes,” I say. “It sure is empty.” And I look at all the gravestones. Harriet’s isn’t far away and my name’s already carved next to hers. Only thing missing is the date of my death. “Seems like, we all start as a complete puzzle. Parents, sisters and brothers, friends. As the years go on, pieces of the puzzle go missing never to be found again.”
“You get new pieces, of course. Like children.”
“And grandchildren.” She blushes, believes she’s made a mistake. She takes off her gloves and puts them on the seat between us. “I’m sorry you never had any.”
And suddenly I don’t have it in me anymore, the strength to tell one more lie. “I did have one. A boy.”
She studies my face. “I do remember some talk about Rose, how she might have been in trouble, but it’s been so long, I’d forgotten.”
“We told everyone Rose went to summer camp, but she was at a home run by the nuns.” I feel tired, like I could take a nap right now, right here. “Harriet made it just in time to see him being born.” And then, I can’t explain why, but I start to laugh. June’s looking at me like I’m losing my mind. “And now Rose is so goddamned holy. I can’t get over it.” I’m laughing and laughing and the edges of June’s mouth turn into a smile and she’s laughing with me, then she’s wiping tears and I don’t know how it happens, but I’m crying and then the sobs are shaking clear through me and June’s crying, too. All I can manage to say is, “Harriet” and I grab June’s forearm with my hand and she holds onto mine and there we sit wiping tears, holding arms.
“Harriet was a class act,” she says finally. “Sure, we drifted apart, but – ” She shrugs. “When I think back on our friendship, it’s as if our time as friends lasted just as long as it was supposed to.”
“We didn’t get enough time with Lyle.” I regret it as soon as I say it. I don’t think she’s ever gotten over his death, that she’s carried it with her through life like a key that stays on her keychain even though she can’t remember which lock it opens.
“Maybe you’re looking at it the wrong way,” she says. “Maybe our time with him was the gift, rather than the time without him the punishment.” She pulls tissues from her coat pocket and offers me one.
I take it. We wipe our cheeks and pinch our noses clean.
“Lyle could be a son of a gun when he wanted to,” she says. “He wasn’t always nice.”
“None of us are.”
She pushes her used tissue up the sleeve of her coat, ready in case she needs it again. “Every once in a while, I’d turn the corner in our house and get whapped in the face with a heavy feather pillow,” she says. “It knocked me to the ground. Next thing I knew Lyle was beside me, laughing too hard to stand. He was ornery.”
I tell her about Lyle and Chic and me eating the strawberries. How, after Chic said they came from the toilets, Lyle spit and spit and swatted at his tongue. We get to laughing some more. The windows are fogging up and I bet if anyone came upon the car, they’d think something dirty was going on. And, you know what I say?
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 part one of this two-part narrative.
Photo by Beverly