War Stories

By Paul Pekin

I was playing pinochle with my sister and her friend Eddie Peterson when news of Pearl Harbor came over the kitchen radio. War news had become so routine that we managed to finish several hands before we realized that this time the bombing was being done to us. I was in eighth grade, Eddie was a sophomore in high school. Before the war came to an end he would serve. I would not. In this way history would divide an entire generation of Americans.

When the “good war” ended the second time, my sister and I rode the Rock Island train into the Loop to watch the celebration on State Street. She got kissed hard and often by perfect strangers, and she liked it well enough when they wore navy uniforms. In the midst of that unbearably exuberant crowd I overheard a young man say, “Next time we get rid of the Jews.”

I was safe. I’d had four anxious years to think about what was waiting for me after my 18th birthday. Thanks to my sister’s boyfriends, I’d learned full well what it might be.

Now “the boys”–I hated it when the newspapers and radio called our men “boys”–had come home, and the dividing line between those who’d served and those who hadn’t was sharp. They’d seen things and done things and known things that would set them apart forever.

I’d tried hard not to think of my future. Now it seemed too late to start. I didn’t go to college. I got a job, I earned money, and I spent most of it in the poolroom trying to learn three-cushion billiards and play at least as well as Wally Logan.

Wally was younger than I was by several years, and that put him on my side of the great historic divide. He always beat me at billiards and pool, and because we played loser pays, it more or less became my treat. Wally didn’t have a dime of his own. I hated this, because it often seemed that the only friends I had were those I bought. Wally was fat and obnoxious and didn’t get along with my other friends. They wouldn’t have anything to do with him, which is probably why we finally drifted apart.

I still remember clearly the time we took a rubber life raft to Lake Calumet, though I remember the raft better than I remember Wally or his friend Charley. That life raft had been in the war. I bought it from the army-surplus store, and in those days surplus stores sold real army surplus. You could buy bayonets and pup tents and K rations and even the large rubber gloves that were used to handle the dead. The raft came fully equipped and cost me about $10.

It was 1946, and by this time stories about the war were on their second and third tellings. At last we were getting the real versions, not the official versions the newspapers had printed to keep morale up. We learned of botched-up battles, unreported casualties, and USO shows where all the good seats were reserved for officers. Someone had brought back a set of photographs he’d taken in the death camps and put them on display in a Western Avenue store window. For the first time I saw the bodies stacked like firewood, the open graves, the wasted features of the living. I felt a tremor of guilt. I hadn’t known.

Among the popular stories told in the years immediately following the war were the “survivor at sea” epics–stories told so often they almost became a genre. Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I ace, went down in the Pacific with a full crew. They drifted together and heroically fought the sea before being rescued. More compelling to me were the tales of fighter pilots who went down in the midst of battle and rode the great swelling Pacific alone until help arrived.

So I knew what I had when we unpacked that raft. It had been part of the equipment of a carrier-based fighter, probably a Grumman Hellcat. If I have this right, the packaged raft served as a seat in battle. If a pilot was lucky enough to land his damaged craft in the sea, he had one last chance before it plunged to the bottom: pitch the raft over the side and hope it would inflate. For this purpose there was a compressed-air or carbon dioxide cylinder in the kit. The raft I bought still had one.

Wally, Charley, and I carried that thing up to Lake Calumet, which in those years wasn’t completely filled in. You could still catch tiny bluegills, but they tasted of the garbage that was dumped there daily. I once saw a trainload of flattened tin cans, saved by patriotic housewives for the war effort, ready to be dumped.

We spread out the raft and took inventory of what the U.S. Navy had provided. There was a length of fishing line, hooks, and a silver lure. There was a pair of stumpy paddles, a pretty nice knife that I managed to keep for a while, and a mirror for signaling. There was a sealed package of ten Lucky Strikes, which Wally, Charley, and I immediately started smoking. There was a package of rations–the usual hardtack, tinned meat, and package of lemonade powder, but no water or any way to distill it from the sea. Apparently the navy felt God would provide water when and if he was inclined. Finally there was a signal flare, which Charley instantly wanted to set off.

So did I, but something warned me not to do it until after we’d tested out the raft. I wanted to see it in the water before some responsible citizen called the police.

I really didn’t expect the raft to inflate when we pulled the ring. But it did, with a most satisfactory swoosh. Within seconds it lay before us, bright orange and not much larger than my parents’ bathtub. Men had floated on the sea in these?

I was a thin, gangly kid, weighing barely 150 pounds. When Charley crawled aboard we both went awash, and when fat Wally joined us we were suddenly chest deep astride a completely submerged raft.

It was fun, but only for a while. We came ashore soaking wet, took off our trousers, wrung them out, and stretched them over the grass to dry. Then we smoked the rest of the Lucky Strikes.

Charley started in again about the flare. Shoot it, shoot it, shoot it, he kept saying.

It looked dangerous to me, and I said so. But I gave in. Luckily I stepped back when he pulled the trigger. Instead of going straight up in the air, the hissing ball of flame dropped to the ground and quickly burned up Charley’s trousers. It could just as easily have burned up his foot. We raced home through alleys and side streets, shrieking with laughter while poor Charley tried to hide his bare white bottom with the charred remnants of his pants.

This became my war story. But I couldn’t tell it. I did try of course, over and over. But I always ended with “You had to be there.”

I suppose some of the men with real war stories felt that way too, though they were by no means as reluctant to discuss their experiences as some people would have us believe. I remember one older veteran, a friend of my mom’s, trying to tell a story about a Seabee from another unit who was allowed to cross a beach unwarned to draw the fire of a hidden Japanese sniper. The point of the story was that you cared only about the guys in your own unit, the men you knew and lived with. The Seabee and the sniper were the same, the storyteller insisted. They were both human, they were both strangers–one life was as good as another. The lives you had to save were your own.

When I heard him tell this story, no one else seemed to want to hear it. I imagine he finally had to stop telling it. I tried to tell it myself and had no better luck. I found I had to tell it quickly and without pausing for breath or someone would break in and change the subject.

I kept that life raft for several months. I carried it down to the Little Calumet River every now and then and tried to run a trotline in the fishless waters. Finally someone broke into our basement and stole it. That may have been a good thing–it was a drowning waiting to happen. It still shows up in my dreams, and it never fails to sink.

In time I gave up the poolroom, and Wally, and Charley. I hadn’t seen Wally for several years when somebody told me he’d died. I can’t remember who told me. I can’t even remember if the person said how.

I made new friends, found a girl, got married, and started a family. The Korean war came, and I missed it too. I was on the wrong side of another great divide, and I was again glad to be there.