A Family at War

family-at-war

A Family at War – Gary Hays

1: Pollywogs

“What do you mean you’re quittin’ school,” shouted 4’ 11” Dottie to her 5’ 11” teenage son. Fully expecting resistance, and never measuring up to his Mom’s debating skills, Alexander buckled as his well-laid plans crashed and burned. “Mom, there’s a war goin’ on in case you didn’t notice. Guys are dropping out and signing up left and right”. “And what if I won’t sign for ‘ya smarty pants”? Swallowing hard, Alexander ever so softly blurted: “I’ll lie about my age, they don’t care”. And lie, he did.

Scarcely after solemnly swearing in, Alexander found himself in the Philippine Islands fighting the Japs as a tail gunner on a navy B-17 bomber.

“Haynes, let’s go!” shouted O’Malley his pilot, amidst blaring sirens. “As if I can’t hear,” Alex whispered to himself as he ran to his appointed position inside the glass bubble on top of the plane. He strapped himself into the fishbowl, never knowing if this time was going to be “curtains”. As the engines roared and the tires rumbled down the tarmac, he thought about his girlfriend Jessica. One day prior to shipping out, two love-struck teenage kids fearing this as their final embrace, crossed the threshold into adulthood with one night of heated passion. They vowed to marry upon his return.

Once the bomber had defecated its load on the unsuspecting Japanese installation on a nearby island, they flew in low as Alex took careful aim at Japanese soldiers on bicycles, knocking them off one by one as if shooting tin ducks at a carnival. The trick was to reach a state of total oblivion, thereby ignoring the death he was deliberately delivering like a serial killer with a license. It was all just a deadly game with ultimate stakes. Of course, the same guy being knocked off a bike could just as well be him if the Japs had any say in the matter, so he was just getting them before they got him. Kill or be killed. It made the slaughtering much easier.

Upon first arriving on the island, Alex was placed in the special category of “Pollywog,” just as all new arrivals were. The initiation consisted of rolling through mud puddles before getting commode hugging drunk on military issue liquor. The navy, encouraged drinking and smoking, citing they were good habits for soothing one’s nerves. Lots of G.I.’s developed nasty lifelong habits compliments of Uncle Sam. One could only hope the air raid sirens didn’t sound during one of these auspicious rituals, which had actually happened once. The Japanese began shooting up their airstrip and everything on it. The guys were all in the woods puking and drinking so, despite damage to equipment, they escaped the attack unscathed. Needless to say, they sobered up quickly, but it never stopped them from continuing the sacred nonsense. Boys will be boys, even during wartime.

“Damn, that was hell up there today,” said Alex to his buddy, Ray Simpson. Simpson was from Enid, Oklahoma and had managed to sign up at the tender age of sixteen. He lied, his Dad verified it, and off he went, no questions asked. He was a great friend to have since he was a cook, or a “squeegee” as was the naval slang for the guys responsible for often times whipping up something out of nothing. “What’s your head count,” Ray asked, just as he always did. The only action he ever saw was chopping the head off a flopping fish one of the guys would catch during his off-duty time. He was, of course, referring to the bicycle score. “Near as I could tell I got three of ‘em, one of them friggin’ nips might a got back up, dammit. I’ll take a ‘mulligan’ and call it three for three”. “We tore the fuck outta two supply huts and a mess of trucks”. “Damn,” said Ray, feeling a tad bit jealous. In need of a good unwinding, Alex suggested: “I gotta get outta here for a bit, let’s grab some beer and take a hike”. Ray responded with, “Hell, might as well, ain’t gonna be no Japs snooping ‘round here for a while after what you guys just done. I got about an hour and a half for I gotta start stirring something up. Let’s go, Amigo”.

They each grabbed a couple of beers and headed out of the gate. None of the guys ever wandered too far off, but with the Japs on the next island over they had a fairly good distance between one another, so even though there remained a need for caution, it was relatively safe. As they were blazing a trail through the jungle like forest, Ray stopped short, signaling Alex to do the same. Whispering, Ray said, “listen”. Sure enough, Alex heard it. There was a creek nearby and they both heard the sound of splashing water accompanied by soft singing. Quietly they crept through the dense underbrush when to their amazement, and pleasure, they spotted a beautiful tan-skinned naked Filipino girl peacefully bathing. Scouting the area to ensure she was alone, they stood with mouths agape. Oddly the girl did not appear startled, but rather, flashed them a wide, bright toothy smile, among flashing the remainder of her bared body parts. “Hello,” Alex shouted. “Hello G. I.’s,” she replied back, in surprisingly good English. Not withholding anything from their view, she motioned them closer. The two teenaged boys/men quickly granted her wish. “What are you doing way out here,” Ray asked? Softly giggling, she replied, “taking bath in creek as you see”. “Well, we know that,” Ray answered back with a roll of his eyes. “I live Manila, but grow up on farm not far from here. I visiting parents and go for walk. I come here as young girl before war”. “What do you do in Manila,” Alex inquired, not wanting Ray to have total control of the conversation. “I work in bar. Know many American G.I.’s”. Some sailors were stationed outside of Manila, and guys from every branch went there on R&R. “Yeah, I bet you do,” he thought to himself.

“Shit, gotta go,” shouted Alex, as the shrillness of the air raid sirens permeated the serenity of the moment. “I suggest you get your ass outta here pronto,” he shouted over his shoulder to the still wet naked girl. They could hear the planes approaching. It was a payback nobody anticipated. Hell, they had just blown the hell out of them earlier this same day. Anti-aircraft guns began blazing as Alex climbed into the bubble on top of the now stationary bomber. He hated being a sitting duck, but it was his job to fire back at these bastards. Alex was sort of relieved when he saw the Japs were zeroing in with only three Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter planes, meaning they would only be dodging bullets instead of bombs, and they would be coming in low, putting them well within range. Bullets began riddling the tarmac as beads of golf ball size sweat ran down Alex’s face. He found his mark and let loose a hail storm of return fire, striking the left wing of one of the fighters as it tail spun in a blaze of glory, landing in the jungles outside the perimeter. Alex sure hoped the girl in the creek had the good sense to towel off and “skedaddle”. One of the anti-aircraft guns took out a second plane as the third tucked tail and ran.

Chapter 2: The POW

“Everybody stand back,” came the command from the Jarheads as they led their prisoner through the gates. The injured Japanese pilot was being held erect as they literally dragged him to the command tent. His flight suit hung in tattered burned shreds, his feet bare from his boots being blown off upon bloody impact. As far as Alex could predict, this guy was not long for this world. Served him right for disturbing him watching the only naked woman he would probably see until he made it home, if he made it home. She could be his last naked woman ever. Bastard. He’d of like a few minutes alone with the slant-eyed punk.

Word came down from HQ that the Japs might be invading on foot in search of their lost pilot. The navy’s part of this island was not accustomed, nor properly trained, nor did they have adequate numbers to ward off a land attack. They were told that troops from the American, Australian, and New Zealand armies were on their way. This was getting huge. The Navy was dispatching an aircraft carrier for additional air support as the base went on high alert. Alex couldn’t begin to relax until these reinforcements got their butts in gear and got there. There were already some Marines, but their numbers were way too few. He didn’t know why this pilot was so important.

Living in a tent community, walls were beyond thin. The prisoner was being interrogated, and from what Alex could hear, it wasn’t pretty. An occasional thud followed by the cracking of bone and screams of a man in hideous pain hung in the air as a reminder of the brutalities of war, and the battle which would soon ensue. If any of them became captured, their interrogation would be far worse. The Japanese were rather fond of sliding slits of bamboo up fingernails, painfully prying them off as they tore away from the skin below, and bamboo was plentiful in the Philippines. Another favorite was in shoving thin glass rods up penises and then crushing the glass. They were torture experts with little conscience. Alex knew the POW was still alive by the consistent yelling followed by blood-curdling screams. Suddenly, the air fell silent as out of the command tent flaps exited the interrogators, carrying a corpse. Several men were dispatched to dig a pit in a far corner of the base. Ray, of course, was not one of them. You never mess with your head chef. It’s an unwritten regulation, strictly adhered by all. They ranked right up there with medics. If multiple people needed medical care at the same time, you wanted to be one of the chosen ones.

While the base was in the process of battening down the hatches, Alex heard the rumble of trucks in the distance. One of the several cavalry units had arrived. It was the good ole’ U.S. of A. War-torn embattled troops began flooding through the gates for the remainder of the day, as more and more tents popped up, brought in with the supply trucks. They brought extra hooch and cigarettes with them and after a while, as things settled down for the night, everyone started mingling and “drinking up”. These guys acted as though this was just another day, and from the stories Alex heard, it was. He heard another interesting story as well. The dead POW was the Emperor’s great nephew. Oops.

Chapter 3: The Enemy Comes Calling

The balmy morning sun was just raising its sleepy eyelids when the air erupted. Dammit, Alex thought, this is just like those fucking Japs to pull a sneak attack, especially before I’ve had my coffee. Sirens filled the air as men scrambled to their positions. Signals were being sent to the awaiting crew of the U.S.S. Lexington. Since no planes could take off from the tarmac, Alex grabbed his M1A1 Carbine and took his position beside Howey Fisher from the Bronx, another grounded tail gunner. ‘Looks like most of ‘em are outside the West End perimeter for now. I imagine they’re spreading out,” shouted Howey. “These fucking fighters are raining hell from heaven on us, our boys better get the fuck outta bed and blast these chinks out of the sky,” Alex shouted in reply. They could already see fallen troops and the number was escalating. Artillery shells were exploding mud and body parts in all directions as the stench of death and gunpowder invaded their nostrils. For some odd reason, Alex’s thoughts flashed to his good for nothing alcoholic father who he hadn’t seen in many years. He thought about the time his dad knocked him across the room because he asked for a quarter. Sure, he didn’t mind dying for most people, but not for bastards like him. “Hold your fire unless they get through the fence, don’t want to shoot our own men”, shouted Howey.

Just then the angels of mercy took pity on them as one of the Japanese fighter planes exploded into a black smoky fireball. The artillery shelling decreased as the Japs got pushed further back in retreat. With the awaiting troops solidly in position, the enemy had stepped into more than they had bargained for. Even so, their initial attacks created an uncomfortable death toll, as wives back home became widows, and parent’s hearts shattered.

As the battle wound down and the enemy made a hasty retreat, the cleanup began. Bodies were gathered for trips home in flag-draped pine boxes. Alex was detailed with a crew for debris removal. Having covered much of the base, he suddenly realized he had not spotted Ray and he feared the worse. Quickly reporting to the chow hall, he found out why by simply observing the sorrow-filled faces of Ray’s crew. Just another day. Yeah, right. After a silent prayer, he went looking for some whiskey.

Chapter 4: The Homecoming

With the eventual surrender of Japan, Alex, unlike hundreds of thousands, both friend, and foe, was headed home to civilian life. In his own mind, he wasn’t a hero, he had simply done what most every other flag waving American male had done. He also figured his mom had forgiven him by now, especially since he was still alive and all.

After literally peeling his mother off of him when he arrived home, they settled down for the first home cooked meal he had had since leaving home. His mom had taken a job at a local salvage company that gathered metal and tin for the war effort. While there she met a man named Peter, and had finally officially divorced Alex’s dad and married him. He was a nice guy and he and Alex hit it off immediately.

Later that evening he paid a visit to Jessica’s house only to be informed she was not home. After insistently asking where she was, her parents finally caved in and gave him an address on the far side of town. Arriving at the front door of the address he was given on Queensboro Ave., he knocked hard out of his building frustration. Several moments later the door swung open and there stood Jessica, a baby of no more than a month old in her arms. Taking one look at the baby, and immediately noticing the interracial features, he knew he was not the father. “Who’s the father,” he demanded of her. “You don’t know him and it’s best if things stay that way,” she answered. She followed up with, “We was so young. We didn’t know what we was doing. I’m sorry Alex, I didn’t mean to hurt you”. Not knowing how to reply he simply said, “Yeah, whatever you want,” as he spun his heels and marched away, never to see her again.

Chapter 5: D-Day

Sort of following in his big brother Alexander’s footsteps, Samuel (Sam), one year younger, had signed up for the military when he became of legal age to lie. Instead of the Navy, he had joined the Army as a paratrooper, being the daredevil that he was. Sam would rather jump out of planes than run the risk of being stuck on a ship with nothing but other guys around. That was borderline creepy in his book.

Unlike his brother Alex, Sam was sent to the European theater to join in the D-Day festivities. One would assume, like the rest of his fellow plane jumpers, he would be riddled with fear at the prospect of maybe never getting laid again, but not old “devil may care” Sam. Bring it! His attitude is more than likely what kept him alive.

The C-47 was packed to the hilt with solemn-faced youngsters prepared to make what could be their final jump, yet willing to risk it all for their loved ones back home. “Come on you pack a pussie’s,” screamed Sam to everyone within listening distance, which was everyone on board. “We’ll have those god damned Krauts tuckin’ tail and shittin’ their Nazi asses in no time”. “Shut the fuck up,” retaliated Luther Winslow. Luther was from Tupelo Mississippi and the two had already duked it out more than once. Usually, it was over some two-bit bar tramp looking to get hitched so she could collect the insurance money when you got your nuts blown off. Some of the guys made lots of false promises for a good romp in the hay. “I’d kick your ass if we was back at Fort Benning ya’ damn hillbilly asshole,” replied Sam, always insistent upon getting the last word. “Both of you shut the fuck up before I personally kick both you asses,” bellowed MSgt Payne, affectionately referred to as Sgt. Hatchet. Sgt. Hatchet had already had half of his face blown off in a prior battle but amazingly kept full eyesight. He was meaner than a horny rattlesnake. “YES, Master Sargent Payne”. End of discussion.

The date was June 6th, 1944. A day that would forever dwell in the annals of world history. The beaches of Normandy remain haunted to this day with the lost spirits of battle worn youth confused by the horror of their personal experiences, without the ability to accept their brutal and untimely demise. The total death count remains immeasurable to this day, but Sam wasn’t one of them, no sir, not Sam.

As the parachute gracefully billowed, filling with gunpowder smoke and the stench of death, Sam was kicking and screaming. “C’mon you son-of-bitch chute, hurry the hell up”.  He was one of the very few soldiers who was over-anxious to hit the ground and kick some Nazi ass. He figured Winslow was probably shitting himself about now and the vision in his mind was so humorous he actually produced a chuckle, even though he was free-falling into hell.

Sam hit the ground running, releasing his chute and charging pell-mell towards danger. He could not stop and think about the soldiers falling on both sides of him, he had to maintain what little focus he was capable of. Cresting the top of a sandy hill he could see the line of enemy defenses in the distance, close enough to continue their onslaught of bullets. Keeping as low to the ground as he could he used the light brush as cover as he crawled on his belly like a reptile towards an old abandoned wood shack where he saw the flash of a red gun barrel exploding in rapid fire. As far as he could see, he was on his own with this one. With incoming mortar fire shaking the ground with great intensity, he slowly crept closer until he was within throwing range. He would have to be quick. Awaiting the proper moment as the enemy stopped to reload, he jumped upright, pulled the pin, and threw. The grenade shattered the building as splinters of old rotted timber filled the air in one single blast, a long piece of it puncturing Sam’s left facial cheek. With an incredible blood-curdling scream, he grabbed the unwanted intrusion and yanked as blood poured down his face. The sight of his own blood only spurred him on.

Just as Sam was calculating his next move, a bullet ripped through his right shoulder. The pain was unbearable, and with the blood he had already lost he could not afford to lose more. He felt light as if he could fly, and that’s all he remembered.

Waking up in an unknown location, covered with blood encrusted bandages, is not a great way to start ones day. Taking a moment to clear the cobwebs, Sam realized he was within the confines of a stark Army hospital but he still could not imagine where the hell he was.

“You’re in London,” stated the most beautiful woman he had ever laid his eyes on. She was a petite brunette, and from what Sam could envision beneath her bulky nurse’s gown, she was every red-blooded male’s desire. “How long have I been here,” he asked. “Two weeks to the day,” she replied with a heartwarming tender smile. She had an air of innocence about her. “What’s your name,” Sam inquired. “I’m Lucy from Tennessee,” she answered. Never one to pass up an opportunity, Sam displayed a toothy grin as he took his turn in the limited conversation, “Well, Lucy from Tennessee, you sure are a pretty sight to wake up to. I thought I was waking up in heaven.” Blushing she answered back “Why Mr. Haynes, I’ll bet you say that to all the girls.” Turning to walk away, her head looking back at Sam over her shoulder, she said, “I’ll be back later to check on you. You just stay right here.” “Ha! As if I have a choice.”

Sam’s injuries bought him a one-way ticket stateside, a medical discharge, a shiny new Purple Heart, no money, and no job. Since all the Army had taught him was how to jump from a plane and pull a trigger or a grenade pin, Sam had no real skills to contribute to the local workforce.

Prior to being released from the hospital in London, he and Lucy had exchanged addresses. She would not be returning to Tennessee for another six months, but he had every intention of contacting her the moment she arrived home from her volunteer position with the American Red Cross. She was the only thing from the damn war worth holding on to. During his hospital stay, once he was okay to get out of bed, the two would meet every evening for coffee in the hospital dining room. A couple of times they were able to walk the yard for a while and it was during one of those times that they shared their first kiss. It was a long and tender kiss. Though Sam would eventually fully recover from his wounds, he would never recover from the touch of her lips.

Sam’s Uncle Ralph owned a fairly well to do produce store and offered him fifteen bucks a week to help out with things. Sam quickly accepted the generous offer, even knowing his Uncle more than likely needed no help. This would be enough to see him through the next half-year of missing Lucy by keeping his mind occupied. He figured he could save enough money to one day hop a Greyhound to Tennessee.

Chapter 6: The Two Shall Live as One

The sun was just peeking its head over the horizon when the bus turned into the main station in Nashville. Sam had let Lucy know he was coming so it was no surprise when he spotted her by the station’s front door anxiously surveying the arriving passengers. Seeing her somehow made all of what he had experienced in the war worth it. An angel had surfaced from the burning pits of hell, and there she stood, waiting to be engulfed in his arms.

The wedding took place less than three days after Sam’s arrival. They both knew they had found the person of their respective dreams so why delay things with a long courtship. It was a simple justice of the peace kind of wedding with no long traipsing wedding gown. They were simple people.

After brief goodbyes to Lucy’s family were made, they tossed their luggage in the belly of a bus bound for Florida, where Sam would return to his job at Uncle Ralph’s produce store.

Several years passed and after living under his mother’s roof, Sam and Lucy purchased a small house in the heart of town. Uncle Ralph had passed away from pneumonia, and not having any kids of his own, left the entire produce business to Sam. Alex could have gotten in on the deal but by this time he already owned three shrimp boats and was making a handsome living, so had no interest.

Two years after that, Sam Jr, or Sammy as they called him, was born. They were the all-American family.

Alex, on the other hand, remained a confirmed bachelor up until the day an angry brawl at a local bar caught him off guard. After the war, Alex had developed his father’s wild streak. The .45 caliber bullet struck him square in the head killing him instantly. Sam inherited the shrimp boats, as his wealth began to accumulate.

Many years passed, and in the turbulent year of 1966, at a time when young men were trying to avoid the military rather than lie to get into it, Sammy Haynes’s birthday hit the lotto and he received a mandatory invitation to join the Army. He had been helping his dad with the fleet of shrimp boats in lieu of attending the local junior college as his mother had encouraged him to do. He was more like his Uncle Alex had been, so hanging around a motley crew of shrimpers was more to his liking. And he wasn’t anything like those peace loving dirty hippies he had been seeing. Sammy knew he was heading straight into the bowels of Viet Nam and he was going to give those gook bastards a run for their money. So even though Dad’s abundance of money could have afforded Sammy the luxury of an educational deferment, he wouldn’t hear of it.

Chapter 7: A Legacy Gone

In the summer of 1967, Sam and Lucie lost their only child, Sammy, in the jungles of South Viet Nam. The devastating news crippled them as they instantly aged well beyond their biological years. In a town once inundated with their family name, they were now the lone survivors. Wealth had fallen in their laps, but at this point in their lives, it meant very little.

After selling his chain of four produce markets and the dozen shrimp boats, and needing a change of scenery, the couple settled on a 40-acre spread in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a small country suburb of Nashville, until they both passed away and were buried side by side in a small local cemetery.

The once small town in Florida grew into a major city and the family’s important legacy got buried in the rubble of time, as all legacies eventually do.

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