November 4, 2013
I restart this blog a week before Veterans’ Day. I want to tell a story about my life in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, in 1948 and ’49 and, fittingly, veterans play a considerable part in it.
I mentioned many months ago that when my father came back from Japan in 1946 after turning down a commission in the Regular Army, he went back to work at the glass factory. His younger brothers, Ted and John Allen, were already back, Ted from the Navy in the South Pacific and John Allen from the army in Europe. Two other uncles had been in the war; my mother’s brothers-in-law, Carl and Bus. Bus had been an officer on a destroyer in the Pacific and Carl had been a Seabee on Iwo Jima and Tarawa. Except for Carl, none of my uncles seemed dramatically touched by the war. Except for Bus, they had all been rowdy lads, hard workers and hard drinkers, but Carl came back wounded somewhere in his “soul” and his alcoholism haunted him and my aunt for years. He lived a long time and endured too much pain along the way, to my taste.
I knew other veterans. Our next door neighbor when we moved back to Shreveport from Baldwin was a tall, very thin, very quiet man. He was also very intense and he had a long scar on his left leg. When he mowed the lawn in khaki shorts, you could see it run from somewhere on his hip from under the shorts and down the side of his leg to the back of his knee. He limped. And one night, not so late, just after dinner, the police came and arrested him because he had beaten his wife. My dad said it was too bad, that we should not be too quick to judge him, that he had been on the “Death March,” the Bataan Death March.
The husbands of two of my mother’s close friends were veterans and I liked to hear them talk about the war. Jack Davis had been some sort of officer behind the lines and years later, when I read Catch 22, I recognized Jack in Milo Minderbinder. Jack was an insurance salesman and made good at that. His wife, Eddie, was probably my mother’s best friend, ever. She was a brash, funny, almost manic woman who, nevertheless, took my mother seriously; that was really all my mother ever wanted, to be taken seriously. Si Garvin and his wife, Werdie (no, I have no idea what it stood for), were also close to my mother and so to Dad. Si was a printer but in the war he had been a tank commander in North Africa. He told me once that to make coffee in the desert they would heat tin cups of hot water on the engine manifold, crack coffee beans between their teeth, hold them there, and then suck the hot water over them through their teeth. I believed him then and I believe him now. For many years I could lie awake at night and wonder what it would be like to command a tank in the desert.
These folks all lived in Shreveport and so at least once week for a year or so, at one house or another, the war was replayed for me as men and women sat around kitchen tables and played poker or drank coffee or played softball and then picnicked in the stands. My dad and his brothers played on the glass factory softball team; Ted and John Allen had each served an apprenticeship with Dad to become glass cutters and so the three of them worked together and played together.
But then the factory cut production, sometime in 1948, and Ted, the youngest, was laid off. Anxious ‘phone calls turned up a couple of spots in Oklahoma and Ted begged my dad to come with him up there, to protect him, in some way that even now I don’t really understand. Dad was very much respected in the union and there had been talk of getting him to run for a national office in it. Men listened to him, because he was a fair man and a good ball player. Ted was very young. Maybe he was just afraid to leave home again.
And so we moved to Okmulgee, Oklahoma. Uncle John Allen stayed in Shreveport; I think men at the factory thought Dad was foolish to move but admired his dedication to family. In a guild in which membership was got only by being handed from father to son or brother to brother, family relationships were important to say the least. I still remember the entire Hermes family and the Desires, the Boulangers.
But Okmulgee it was and off we went. Here I encountered the last of the veterans with whom we are concerned. Actually, there are two men about whom I want to write; I only met one of them and I want to tell you about him only because he was the most mysterious man I had ever met. The other, however, had a deep and lasting effect on my life, and not for the good.
In Okmulgee, we lived in the Beauclair Hotel. It was a regular hotel but it had some apartments as well. We lived on the third floor and below us, on the second floor, lived the Pickards. For the first year we were in Okmulgee, Paul Pickard was my best friend. We were in the same grade at Woodrow Wilson Grammar School; we walked to school and back together every day and on weekends one or both of our dads would take us out to the country to shoot our bb guns and just kind of run wild where we wouldn’t get hurt. The hotel had a television set in the lobby and it got a signal from Tulsa. Paul and I would camp in the lobby after school to watch tv and wait for our fathers to come home from work. I don’t know what Paul’s dad, Mr. Pickard (I never knew his first name, I’m sure, and I never heard my father call him anything but “Mr. Pickard”), did for a living but he was a veteran. I could not really figure out what he had done in the war.
The war was already for me a mysterious and romantic place. Grown men that I knew had left home and seen and done things that, however much they revealed at those poker games they allowed me to watch or after the ball games at which I had sat and adored my father as he squatted behind the plate, mask tilted back on his head, laughing between pitches, were never quite everything they could say or ever would say. Mr. Pickard, I was certain, had done some very interesting things about which he would never speak. There were two clues, however. One was that I could swear I heard him speaking French in the kitchen one Saturday. The other was his cigarette pack. It was blue. It had French writing on it: “Gauloises.” The cigarettes that came out of that pack didn’t look at all like the Chesterfields my dad smoked (until a worm crawled into his mouth one day just after he had lit up; he switched to Pall Malls) and they certainly didn’t smell like them either. Mr. Pickard would smoke them one after the other quickly at the kitchen table, writing in a notebook and coughing. A spy. That could be it. Hiding in Oklahoma. About a year after we moved from the Beauclair Hotel to a small rented house with a back yard that gave onto a large open field and I switched schools so that now I went to Horace Mann Grade School, I heard that Mr. Pickard had died.
It was at this new house that the last veteran of the war to enter my life appeared. I never saw him there, but I feel his presence today as though I knew him. I could have met him, chance being what it is; it is good, I think, that I did not.