Thursday, September 27, 2007

"THE WAR" -- EXCERPT FROM "GINNY BATES"



I've been watching "The War", Ken Burns' latest documentary on PBS. I'll have more to say about it soon. For the time being, however, I want to share a pertinent excerpt from the novel, Ginny Bates, that I've been writing for a year, which is up to 1000 pages and not yet finished with my first draft. (Okay, it's a trilogy, not a single novel.)

This is an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Ginny Bates. If you are already a familiar reader, skip down to Read More. If not, here's links to background information in the sidebar to the right, third item from top.

This excerpt is from June 1995. Margie, now almost 8 years old, ran out in front of a car on the two-lane blacktop beside the beach and very nearly got run over. Her mothers are beginning to despair of her carelessness, not sure how to alter it without crushing her spirit. After dinner, she is sent to bed early, to the screened-in porch sleeping area, to think about her behavior. The rest of the family gathers on the front porch to talk and sing, as they do every evening at the beach. Gillam is now 4 years old.

The stories the women share in this excerpt are all drawn from my real life, either happening to me or someone I knew. David's story is true as well, based on the D-Day experiences of my beloved Uncle Stuart -- Stuart Ashley Grant, b. 27 May 1913, d. 23 Feb 1980. He married my mother's sister, Sarah Margaret Atkins (I'm named for her). I post this here in his honor.


[Excerpt from Ginny Bates]

When Ginny joined everyone else on the front porch, Gillam was glued to Myra's lap and he was the only one there who wasn't tortured by Margie's absence. Ginny said "You know, I have done things in my day that were just as boneheaded as her playing chicken with cars on the highway today, and I was a lot older than her, too."

"Like what?" said Myra.

"Well, I nearly blew up a mansion in the most expensive neighborhood in Denver" said Ginny ruminatively. David, who had just taken a sip of lemonade, choked briefly, and after coughing for a minute, he said "You what?"

Ginny grinned at him. "Remember that girl Robin Hansen? Her dad was a city council member."

"Of course I do" said David. "He was a very influential man. You were friends with her for a while, I remember."

"Yeah" said Ginny, an odd expression on her face. "Well, that Christmas break, I went over to her house one night to stay with her. It was right after that terrible freeze, and I'd been stuck at home for two days because the roads were so icy. We were playing cards in her family room -- I think her parents were already in bed, it was like after 10:00 -- and she wanted to go outside to smoke, so we went out front of her house."

Gillam interrupted. "You smoked?" His voice was shocked.

"Well, she smoked, and I took a few drags" said Ginny, again with a look on her face that Myra was beginning to decipher. "They had a gated yard -- everybody on that street did, and the houses were like estates, not a regular street. We walked down the drive a bit, so her parents wouldn't hear us and catch her smoking -- "

"Was it just a regular cigarette?" asked Allie, grinning.

Ginny made a motion of her head toward Gillam and didn't answer, but she mouthed "No."

"How old were you?" asked David in disbelief.

"Fifteen" said Ginny.

"Ah, that fateful year" said Myra.

Ginny smiled at her and continued. "Anyhow, we could see through her gate the drive of the mansion opposite, and when we heard the sound of running water, we went looking for where it was coming from. What we found was a virtual waterful cascading down the other house's driveway. We crossed the road and looked through their gate, and the house was completely dark, but all the water was gushing out from under their garage door. Robin said they were gone to the Caribbean for Christmas, no one was home, so we found a place to climb over their wall and went to check it out."

David made a small sound.

Ginny ignored him and went on. "When we looked through the little window into the garage, we saw a jet of water shooting up from behind the washing machine in the corner. We figured out that the pipes must have frozen and burst, then when the freeze let up, the water began gushing. We went to the front door and rang the doorbell, but nobody was there. So I told Robin I knew how to find the water main and if we had a wrench, I could turn it off."

Myra laughed. "Went all butch on her, did you? Tell me something, Ginny -- what did this Robin look like?"

Ginny's face lit up. "She had short, jet black hair, very sleek. Her ears were pierced, and not in the fashionable way. I'd seen her once in a leather jacket. Must've driven her parents bonkers."

Myra nodded to herself.

Ginny said "So we scaled the wall again, got a wrench and a flashlight from Robin's house, and when we got back, I searched around in the edge of the yard until I found the water meter and the shut-off valve. She was very impressed with me -- for about a minute. Until we realized that my turning the valve off had no effect whatsoever on the water."

"Oh, my god, no" said David. He was ahead of everyone else.

"Robin told me I had to put the valve back like it was and we just needed to get out of there. She was suddenly not as -- warm -- to me as she had been. So I twisted the valve back and we went to her house, went to bed."

David put his head in his hands. Ginny grinned at him, and said "We slept late the next morning, and after breakfast, we sneaked back outside and noticed a hullaballoo across the street. The gate was open and there were cops and emergency vehicles all over the driveway. One cop saw us coming and told us to get back inside Robin's house, immediately. We were scared shitless, and told Robin's mother about it. She checked it out, and turns out -- well, the valve I turned off was for the gas main, not the water. I turned it off just long enough for all the pilot lights in the house to be extinguished -- "

At this point, Myra and Allie said "Oh, no" simultaneously.

" -- So when I turned it back on, several small but steady streams of gas leaked into the house, filling it up in the ten hours that elapsed before a housecleaner showed up and opened the front door to a toxic cloud. She called 911, and the bomb squad had to come out and clear the house. Robin's mother said a single spark would have sent it sky high, and probably done severe damage to their house as well. The cops were treating it as attempted murder, because the owner was this rich corporate guy. Well, me and Robin just freaked. She dropped me as a friend after that, once it all blew over. We never told anybody. The worst part was, we killed a tank of tropical fish and a cage of birds."

David couldn't seem to find words. Ginny's tone was not actually remorseful. Allie laughed and said "Bonehead. Complete bonehead."

Myra asked gently "Where is Robin now, do you know?"

"She went to Oberlin" said Ginny, and she laughed with Myra. "So, who can say?"

"I'm glad you had a go at it" said Myra. David was trying to sort out this turn in the conversation.

"Well, you weren't going to come climb my fir tree for another fifteen years, I had to do something" said Ginny.

"The fir tree beside our house?" asked David, mystified.

"Let it go, David" advised Allie kindly. "They doing that Myra and Ginny thing now."

But the part David did understand galvanized him finally into coherence. "Virginia Bates, if they'd found evidence of what you did -- even I couldn't have gotten you off, I hope you realize that. Of all the stupid stunts -- "

Ginny giggled, and suddenly from the screen window looking out onto the porch, they all heard a muffled giggle from just inside, followed by a minute thud. Margie was clearly out of bed. Allie grinned and put her finger up to her lips. Rising soundlessly, she tiptoed off the porch and round the corner of the house. Myra began talking to Ginny to cover Allie's retreat.

A minute later, they heard Allie's voice just inside the screen go "Boo!" and then Margie's bloodcurdling scream. Gillam jumped violently in Myra's lap, and all the adults burst into laughter. Allie came out the front door carrying Margie, who clung to her triumphantly. Myra and Ginny hid their smiles as Allie sat down with Margie in her lap.

Gillam drew in a breath, but Myra interrupted him by saying "I got my own bonehead story. One time when I was working as a baker, I was doing the night shift alone at Superior. I had to make the cake and raised doughnuts, and six dozen of three different kinds of muffins each night."

Allie said "Oh, I remember this story."

"Did you get to eat them?" asked Gillam.

"The doughnuts and the muffins? I could have as many as I wanted, sugar boy, but after a while I was sick of 'em, didn't eat doughnuts for a long time after that job" said Myra. Gillam looked at her like she was crazy. Myra went on "Well, one night I went in with an injured hand, I'd cut it on my pocket knife and of course I couldn't afford to go to the doctor, so I'd bandaged it up as best I could. This was a couple of days later, and the bandage was loose and funky, needed changing, but I knew it would only get dirty again at work, so I didn't change it before I went in. I made the cake doughnuts, ate a sandwich, then started on the blueberry muffins, which I made with 50 pounds of mix poured into this giant Hobart mixer. After I'd poured all the batter into muffin tins and started them baking is when I noticed that the bandage had come off my hand."

"Oh, gross" said Ginny.

"Yep. I searched everywhere I'd been, and it was not on the floor anywhere. And it was too big to be hidden in a cake doughnut. So it must have fallen into the muffin mix, and was inside one of the six dozen muffins in the oven."

"What did you do?" asked Ginny.

"I called Allie, got her up. She said I had to inform my bosses, if I couldn't tell which muffin it was in -- the baking would take care of the germs, but I couldn't let someone bite into that horror. But if I did, I'd lose my job for sure. After the muffins were done, I looked them all over carefully, and couldn't find a single one that looked abnormal. So -- I just shined it on."

"Double gross" said Ginny. "Did someone eat that muffin?"

"Well, if they did, I never heard about it. I quit the next month, to go to Michigan. I would never lie like that now" added Myra. "It was very, very wrong of me." But Margie's faced showed only ghoulish delight. She could feel Gillam giggling in her lap.

"Live and learn" said Allie. "Remember when I let that blind woman drive my delivery van?"

Ginny gaped at her. "You did what?"

"Well, in my defense -- she was my boss and it was only to back up a couple of spaces, to a legal parking spot" said Allie.

"What happened?" asked Ginny.

"Oh, she had a wreck" said Allie matter of factly. "There was a cop on the block, and when he came to write her a ticket, you shoulda seen the look on his face when he realized she was completely blind."

Ginny and David were laughing. "What was she thinking?" said David wonderingly.

"I was supposed to guide her, but she'd never driven before, of course, so -- it didn't work out. And then she fired me."

Margie twisted around to look at Allie's face. "That's not fair!" she protested.

"I agree, hotshot. But it was dumb of me to agree to let her try" said Allie equably.

Gillam asked "Have I ever been a bonehead?" Myra squeezed him and said "Not once. You've been practically perfect in every way." He chortled, and Margie glared at him.

Allie spoke up: "Not unless you count that time he was a baby and you was lifting him over to Ginny, and he threw up into your open mouth."

Myra instantly clamped her hand over her lips and looked violently nauseated. As Gillam began asking "I vomited in her mouth?", Myra closed her eyes and started humming to herself, to drown out whatever Allie might say. Allie leaned over to David and explained "She's a sympathy hurler. Tosses her cookies if she even thinks about it. So Ginny or me handles all the stomach flu with the kids. You can just imagine what happened when Gillam gifted her that way."

Everybody except Myra was guffawing. Gillam looked very proud of himself. Myra kept humming until Ginny poked her and said "It's safe now, you can listen again."

After a long, happy silence, Margie twisted to look at David and said "What about you, Zayde? Do you have a bonehead story?"

David let the silence build another minute. Then he said quietly, "I paid a whore in London's East End to sit and talk with me for half an hour."

All the other adults gave him their sudden attention.

He grinned slightly. "I had just turned eighteen, two weeks before, and I -- we -- were about to be sent into action. I had lied to enlist, I wasn't old enough, but Sam was in the Pacific and I had graduated early. And in the end, Mama didn't stop me. So I got into the paratroopers, I still don't know how -- I was a bright kid. Went through training at Fort Benning and managed not to die -- training was brutal -- and they sent us to England. It was an open secret that the invasion of Europe was about to begin. Everybody was expecting the worst, but covering up. I'd managed to keep my birthday a secret, but that night the guys in my unit decided we were all going to get laid, especially me, the baby. They found some dive, with little cubicles upstairs, not even doors, just curtains across the doorway. We paid in advance, and the door they shoved me in, there was a woman sitting on the bed who was older than my mother. I had no idea what to do, and no will to try. So I just sat down on the end of the bed. She was smoking a cigarette, I remember, and offered me a drag, so I took one."

Margie and Gillam gasped. "You smoked a cigarette?"

David looked at them, amused. "Just one puff, and I knew it was wrong" he lied.

Gillam looked at Margie. These stories about making funny mistakes were one thing, but all this past history of smoking -- he was not happy about the judgment of his family members.

"She asked me some question, maybe just my name, and I started talking. And it was so good to talk to someone who wasn't in uniform, who wasn't a man, who wasn't scared sh -- silly. I just talked her ears off. She didn't care. At the end of my time, she walked me to the door and slapped me on my rump, and said I was a tiger, for the benefit of my friends who were waiting, having finished up long before. I don't think I even got her name."

There was a long silence. Somehow Myra knew he wasn't done. He glanced at Ginny and said "Three days later was June 6th."

Myra put her hand in Ginny's. Gillam felt a shift in Myra's energy, and pressed against her, looking at David.

"We flew out about 10 p.m. on June 5th. Over the Channel, we could see, sometimes, lights in the water below. We knew we were back over land when the anti-aircraft fire started. It was beautiful, like a peacock's tail of lights in the sky, if you could turn your mind off what it really was. We were with the 501st Parachute Infantry and the 82nd Airborne that was dropping in to secure Ste. Mere Eglise and the region around it, but our little unit had a different objective -- we were a radio squad. We were supposed to follow the 501st to Vierville after they'd taken it and direct artillery fire toward the German stronghold between Le Port and Carenton. We weren't infantry trained like the other guys in the 501st."

"But we hit an unexpected fog bank, and the pilot got off course. The 501st dropped, and our C-47 banked around, supposedly coming up behind the 501st, and we were told to haul out. There were ten in my group. We had two radios."

"Turns out, we got dropped a little ahead of the 501st, between them and Vierville. Vierville was still occupied by the Germans. As we came out of the fog, they opened up on us. Eight of us made it to the ground alive. One of the radios was with a guy who got shot down. We scrambled for cover; the sun was up by this time. The nearest thing was an old church with a belltower, and we headed for that. One guy got hit on the way, but we dragged him in the door and shut it behind us. But they immediately hit the doors with machine gun fire, so we put him in a pew and ran to the back of the church. The door to the belltower was thicker, and we went up the stairs, leaving three guys at the door, barring it from the inside. But parts of the tower had been blown away, so there were big holes in bad places. And at the top, part of the roof and one wall was gone. You could feel the whole thing shake as we pounded up the stairs. One guy took a position beside each hole, and then two of us went to the top. I was at the top because I had the radio. I immediately called in and told 'em we were surrounded. They were in the church by that time, trying to get in the belltower. It was going to take them a little while to get past that big wooden bar across the door to where we were."

David's voice was getting slower. He was looking at his hands, talking to his palms.

"But there was a sharpshooter in the upper story of some building, maybe a schoolhouse, nearby. And he took his time. He got each of the guys in the middle of the tower first, the ones trying to shoot out the wall gaps at Germans on the ground. They didn't...go...immediately. But we couldn't do anything to help them.

"The guy at the top with me was the one I knew best, Danny. Daniel Calehan, from Lafayette, Louisiana. His last name sounded Irish but he was pure Cajun. We shared the Gulf Coast, we had that in common.

"They brought a machine gun into the church and got it close enough to the door that it penetrated the wood. After only ten minutes, there was one guy left down at the bottom of the stairs. And he'd been hit bad.

"When I had the nerve to look out the open part at the top, I could see shells from our faraway line landing in fields way beyond the edge of town. I kept taking readings and making adjustments, radioing it in to the guy on the other end. His name was Stanley. He'd pass it on, and after a delay, there'd be more shells, and it would still be nowhere near, only a few feet closer."

There was another long pause.

"I don't know why they didn't bring in a bazooka for the door down below. Or ram the tower with a tank, that would have brought the whole thing down easy. I've thought about that over and over. I didn't see any tanks, so maybe they didn't have any right at hand. Maybe they were mostly dealing with the 501st, and we just dropped into their laps. But every minute was like seeing a dial move slowly in one direction -- away from life, and toward them finding a way to get at us directly.

"I didn't say that to Stanley. It was a comfort, to have math to do and a radio to operate. I could just focus there, and not listen to anything else.

"You wouldn't hear the sniper's shot directly. You'd hear a kind of snick, and see a bit of dust and plaster drop from the wall, and a hole appear that the plaster dropped out of. Then you'd hear the whine, and then you'd finally hear the crack of the shot. Danny and I kept talking about ways to distract him, fool him, so we could get another look out at the artillery directly. You could only use any trick once. He was good, that guy.

"Around noon, the guy at the bottom of the stairs stopped talking to us. We didn't hear anybody at the door trying to get in. I don't know why. I always wonder why they went somewhere else. I wish I knew. But the sniper, he stuck with us. It was getting hot, and I took a drink from my canteen. And I was passing it over to Danny, and I guess he stuck his head into some gap, some angle we didn't see. The bullet went through his helmet, one side. Didn't come out the other side.

"So then it was just me. I told that to Stanley, and I told him...something to say to Mama. Then I went on, checking positions and radioing back. The line of shells crept incrementally closer. I ran out of water, but I didn't care because I needed to pee so bad, it was painful. I was afraid to move even enough to open my fly and lean away from where I sat, so I just focused on holding it and doing the radio work. If I went for a while without saying anything, Stanley would say 'You there, buddy?' And I'd say 'Roger'."

David looked up at the children, then -- he remembered they were there -- and said "Roger is like saying 'I'm done, you can talk now' when you're using a radio for communication. Nobody was named roger, it was just the term we used."

Margie filed it away. Gillam was picking at his lip, thinking about sucking his thumb, Myra guessed. Ginny's hand was gripping hers very tight. Ginny was watching David in the darkness, her head turned sideways, her profile one of grief.

"I stopped trying to shoot anybody outside the tower. I didn't want to move, and I only had the shells in my handgun left -- I'd used up everything from Danny. Before I left, I promised Mama -- she'd heard stories, coming out of Poland, all the Jews in Galveston had -- "

Myra spoke up. "David -- there are certain historical events we haven't shared with the little ones yet. This year, we're planning to."

He nodded. "Okay....I had promised Mama I wouldn't let the Germans take me...prisoner. So I put my pistol beside me. It was just me and that other guy, waiting for me to make a mistake. And Stanley, a voice in the air. About 3:00, I finally hear a shell hit a building in town, at the edge of town. I exclaimed something in Hebrew, and Stanley replied in Hebrew. That was...a good moment. I told him they were on it, just a little bit more. And then the shells started landing all around me. I didn't care a bit, I didn't even think about what if the tower gets hit. Buildings were collapsing, fires were starting, but I knew if I took a good look, that guy waiting on me would still be out there somehow. The church itself did take a hit, I felt it travel up through my ass, the percussion. But it didn't catch fire; maybe because it was stone.

"The shelling went on for almost an hour. I just leaned back and closed my eyes. It was like listening to a symphony you've never heard before. Every now and then Stanley would check in, and I'd answer.

"Then it got quiet. They directed fire elsewhere, and I got alert again. Finally I couldn't hold it any longer, so I lifted the radio to the side of me and pulled out my tallywhacker and let go, lying on my side. It was more than I'd thought it be. It poured down the floor away from me, but it soaked one leg of Danny's pants. I felt so bad about that. I didn't want people to think he'd pissed himself. It was my piss, not his.

"I didn't want to spend the night in that tower. I didn't want the sun to go down; I didn't think I'd get to see it again. At twilight, just before, I felt a funny vibration. I thought at first the tower was starting to fall. But the vibration was steady, like a motor. I looked up in the sky, thinking maybe there were planes overhead. But no. Finally I realized it was on the road, something coming into town. If I got up for a look, to see if it was us or the Germans, that guy would get me. So I stayed where I was. My legs had gone into bad cramps hours earlier, and I couldn't find a position where I could stretch them out enough. But after a while, they stopped hurting.

"So I waited for the trucks or tanks or whatever it was to reach me, and I'd find out if I was going to make it. Then I heard footsteps on the wooden floor of the church, and somebody pushing at the belltower door. Then a voice came through the door. The guy had a deep South accent, like from Mississippi or Alabama. He said 'Anybody in there?'

"I never heard anything..." David had to stop. He put his face in his hands for a minute. Myra could see tears sheeting down Ginny's cheeks. David cleared his throat and said "I yelled back my name and rank. He asked who else was with me, and I said...nobody. Then he said for me to come open the door.

"Stanley said 'What's happening, David?' I told him they were here, the Americans were here. He blessed me and said he had to go, then. I thanked him.

"The guy at the door yelled for me to help again. I told him about the sniper. He said there wasn't anything but rubble all around me, take a look, it was okay. But I was still too scared to look. Instead, I tried to move down the stairs, and I found out my legs had gone to sleep, had been asleep for a long time. I was just meat from the thighs down. I had to crawl down the stairs. Crawl over the guys in my unit. When I reached the bottom, I got the bar moved and they pushed in, three of them. I still had on the radio headset and had the radio with me, didn't even think, just brought it with me. They tried to get me to my feet, but I couldn't stand, just buckled. They put me on a bench and when the blood finally started flowing again, it hurt like a mother-- like the mother of all pain. One of the guys, not the Southern guy, said 'You the one who called in the artillery headings?' I said yeah. He asked to shake my hand, so I did, grunting with pain from my legs.

"They moved me to another unit. I saw more action, but nothing like that. I was home in time to celebrate my nineteenth birthday. Just me and Rosa. Sammy was killed two months after my birthday, in the battle off Samar.....I wrote Danny's family in Louisiana. I never found out Stanley's last name; I wish I had."

David seemed to be done. Myra felt like her chest might burst. She had Gillam pulled as tight against her as she could, and Ginny squeezing her other hand like a clamp. Allie turned to David and said "Mr. Bates? I appreciate what you did. I thank you from the bottom of my heart."

He looked up at that, a little surprised but also letting it in. He looked at Margie, then, and over at Gillam, and finally at Ginny. She was still in profile, her head on one hand, elbow on one knee. She said raggedly "So that's how you won the Silver Star?"

"Yep" he said.

"Mother said you never talked about it. Not once. And we were not to ask you."

He reached out with one hand and wiped her cheek. "Well, then, I guess it's time I told you."

"What's a Silver Star?" asked Margie.

Allie said "It's a great big medal, one of the biggest there is. They only give them to heroes."

"Zayde's a hero?"

"He sure is."

"What happened to the Germans?" said Gillam.

"They went back home after we won the war and they've never started another war since" said Myra. She was concerned about Gillam's state of mind.

David stood up and said he needed to take a walk by the ocean. Ginny immediately stood and asked to go with him. He gave her a sideways hug and said "No. I need to be alone. I'm okay, I promise. I just to need to think." He walked off slowly toward the beach.

Ginny was stricken. Allie stood up with Margie and said "I want to take a look under her bandages before she goes to sleep, make sure her scrapes from falling down are clean in there." Ginny switched her focus to Margie. "I'll help you" she said to Allie and held the door open for them to go into the house.

Myra jiggled Gillam lightly in her lap and said "Hey, honey. How you doing?"

Gillam didn't turn to face her. After a minute he said "I don't want to be a soldier."

"You don't have to be."

"But they make boys be the soldiers. They make them go to war."

"They did in Zayde's time, but we've figured out how unfair that is since then, and we changed it so there is no draft. Nobody has to fight if they don't want to."

He finally turned to look at her. "I don't want to hurt people. And I don't want them to hurt me or you."

"Good for you, that's the way I feel, too. That's why I'm a pacifist. No war, never being part of any war." She kissed his forehead, and he leaned against her chest.

"Are you sure I won't have to be a soldier?"

"I promise you, Gillam." She pulled him back so he could see her face. She said emphatically "I swear it to you on my mother's honor, I will not let them make you go to war. Neither will Mama. We are two powerful women, and we will stop them, no matter what."

She saw his shoulders relax, then. He didn't smile, but he leaned back against her chest and she held him with her heart in her throat. Please, please god, let this be a promise I can keep.

When Ginny and Allie came back with Margie, reporting all clear, they sang some silly songs and told a few riddles. The children got drowsy. Myra and Ginny carried them in to bed. David had returned by that time, gotten a cold drink and kissed the children goodnight after they were tucked in.

"Can I see your medal sometime?" said Margie. Ginny looked at him -- she had never seen it.

"Yes, next time you come to visit, ask me" he said easily. He gave Ginny a long hug and started getting ready for bed.

by Maggie Jochild, copyright 2007

3 comments:

liza said...

this is gorgeous. Compelling stories, beautifully written. Thanks Maggie.

Jesse Wendel said...

I wept, Maggie.

Please don't comment back. Don't think I could take an actual conversation right now after being right in the middle of that.

Thank you for letting me in your world. Really, it's um... good. It's really, truly good.

Maggie Jochild said...

I love making people cry.

Thanks, to both of you. Thanks ever so. More to come.