Authors: Kermit Roosevelt
TO FELICIA LEWIS
EVERYONE REMEMBERS WHERE
they were when they heard the news. I was in New York, the Beta house at Columbia, with constitutional law books on my desk and last night's drinks in my head. Law school final exams fought with the debutante season for my attention. A doomed struggle; even without the pounding hangover, which pushed academic thought past bearing, Herbert Wechsler's views on the Supreme Court could not stand against the white shoulders of Suzanne Skinner. They tanned honey-gold in the summer, with freckles like snowflakes of the sun. But as fall grew cold they paled to alabaster and in two weeks at the Assembly they would be white, as white as her dress, and you would barely see where the straps lay. And my hands by contrast would seem dark and rough as I steered her around the floor. And all about us the air would fill withÂ .Â .Â . silence.
That wasn't the right thought. The air would fill with waltzes and songs plucked from strings. But in the room now there was silence. It had stopped the clack of Ping-Pong balls from below and crept up the stairs; it had stilled the traffic on the street and slipped in through the window. Now it surrounded me, as though the whole world was a movie stuck between frames.
And then there were new noises. Outside, horns sounded and raised voices called, shrill and indistinct. Inside there was a clatter of shoe leather through the halls. Excited Beta brothers hurtled into the room. “Turn on the radio, Cash.” Exams and debutantes vanished; yes, and even Suzanne. The
announcer's words bred different images in my mind. Planes out of the blue Pacific sky, too fast, too low, too many. The sparkle of cannon fire from their wings, the smoke of ships afire at anchor, the red disc of the rising sun.
“The rats,” said one of the brothers, stubbing out a cigarette.
“Well, damn it, I'm joining up,” said another. Three of them rushed out, the echoes of their feet fading down the stairs.
For a blank second I sat there, watching the space where they'd been. Then everything came into focus in an instant, like putting on glasses for the first time, seeing suddenly all the sharp edges of the world, the crisp, clear lines of truth. “Wait for me!”
I dashed down the hall and took the steps four at a time, jumping off the top without thinking about where to land, launching myself again as soon as my feet touched down. We must have made quite a noise, but I heard nothing, saw only the boys ahead of me flying through the air. I burst out the front door onto the street. One of themâJack Hamill, I remember the puzzled look on his faceâwas standing still on the sidewalk, head cocked as though an important thought had just occurred to him. The other two were rounding the corner onto 114
Street. I sprinted after them, threading through the pedestrians, darting past cars.
It took me only half a block to catch up. I was making good time, even in the crowd, and they were slowing down, turning their heads to exchange words, coming finally to a complete halt, faces as puzzled as Jack's. I pulled up, panting slightly. “Why'd you stop?”
Pete Metcalfe turned to me. “Oh, Cash.” He sounded relieved and just a bit hopeful.
“You don't know where a recruiting station is, do you?”
“No.” I thought for a moment. “No, I don't.”
Pete bit his lip. “Neither do we.” For a moment he looked as if he might cry.
We stood like sleepwalkers, woken in an unfamiliar place, impelled by a vanished dream. The urgency of the sprint was fading, the cloud of certainty, the single purpose. I could think of other things now, other people; I could imagine Suzanne's reaction, and my mother's. Running off without a thought
for anyone else. I looked down at the sidewalk. By my feet lay a silver gum wrapper, a cockroach mashed flat. “I can't do this.”
“No,” said Pete. “I guess not.”
Our walk back to the Beta house was slower. The radio was still on in my room, the brothers still clustered round. The ones who'd stayed barely looked up as we entered. Jack Hamill had taken my desk chair, and I found a space on the bed. And we sat there in silence, not meeting each other's eyes, listening to the voices over the air and the metallic clanking of the radiators as the heat came on.
We sat there for hours, almost the rest of the day. But it wasn't that long shared vigil that stuck with me in the weeks that followed. I never told Suzanne about how I'd run out; I never told my parents, or anyone else at home. The reaction came to seem absurd, almost shameful. So thoughtless, so irresponsible. But that was what I remembered in those later days, the feeling I had at the top of the stairs. Before we went down to the snarl of traffic and the realization we had no idea where we were running, there was the purity of that moment when I stepped out into space. When we soared above the jagged steps, our coattails flapping like ailerons, arms outspread to grasp the empty air.
HAT ARE WE
going to do?” Suzanne asks. There is a tinny note to her voice over the phone, an unusual strain. It sounds like a wire stretched thin over the miles between us; it sounds like the leading edge of panic.
“Don't worry,” I say. “Everything's going to be okay. I'll be back soon.” I try to sound assured, but I am confident only about the last part of this statement.
“And I'm looking forward to seeing you,” Suzanne says. “Of course. It will make me feel better, for a little bit. But how long will you be here?”
“Winter break,” I say. “Till January fifth, probably, orâ”
“That's not what I'm talking about,” Suzanne interrupts. “Cash, I'm so scared I can't sleep. I just lie there trying to think of something I can do.”
“You don't need to do anything,” I tell her. “I'll take care of you. You're safe.”
“Me? Of course I'm safe.” Now she sounds impatient, another unfamiliar tone. “That's not what I'm afraid of.”
“What is it, then?”
“Don't you understand, Cash? We're at war now. You're the one who's in danger. Boys like you are going to be drafted.”
Of course, the draft. Consumed as I was with dreams of volunteering, I hadn't given the draft any thought. But now with Suzanne's words it enters my mind. She sees a grasping claw, but to me it is a hand stretched in invitation. It offers the liberty of compulsion: no one could blame me; no one could fault my choice. I pick my words carefully. “Maybe I'll get lucky.”
“Lucky!” She doesn't understand what I mean, but still Suzanne repeats the word incredulously. “We're talking about your life, Cash. Boys like you are going to die.”
â¢Â â¢Â â¢Â â¢Â
Winter break in Haverford. The Assembly is canceled, but there are other dances; there is the Merion Cricket Club. There are kisses on the balcony overlooking the Great Lawn; there is her mouth open to mine and the taste of champagne. We do not discuss the draft or the war. Instead, there is talk of what I will do in Philadelphia after graduation, of Center City houses and Main Line trains.
But in two weeks I am back in the Beta house at Columbia and the future we discussed seems increasingly distant. Meaningless, unreal, it follows the Assembly into the world of things that will never happen. What is real is opening the paper to see unfamiliar names. Wake, Guam, Bataan. We are losing. Radio announcers strain with the pronunciation. Sarawak, Rabaul, Bouganville. The Empire of Japan grows. It is hard to sit there and listen, harder to think of anything else, an agony to turn the radio off and go to class. I look out the window at the tangled street and see armored columns, massed infantry. The world hangs in the balance, somewhere very far from here, and fat, old Professor Hanson asks me to define a springing executory interest.
And then the draft comes. We cluster around the box on a chilly March day to hear the numbers read out. Back in October, they made an event of it. Henry Stimson stirred the balls with a spoon carved from the beams of Independence Hall, and Roosevelt read the first number. “We are all with you,” he said, “in a task which enlists the services of all Americans.” But only some are enlisting now, and the voice that tells us who is unfamiliar and brusque.
“You think you'll go west or east, Billy?” asks Joe Eisner conversationally.
Skinny and red-haired, William Fitch is still recovering from the shock of hearing 485. “Shut up,” he says absently.
Eisner is unoffended. “Lots going on out West,” he says. He has never liked Fitch. “I heard a Jap sub hit Santa Barbara. They could land any day. But there's bodies on the beach at Montauk.”
Fitch swivels his long neck. “Shut up.” His face is pasty.
“They tell you to keep the lights down on Long Island,” Eisner continues. “But no one does. The freighters get backlit and the U-boats just line 'em up. It's a shooting gallery.”
“Shut up,” says Fitch. “Damn you.”
“Don't get sore,” says Eisner cheerily as Fitch storms out. “We're all going. It's just a question of when.”
For another several minutes we sit with only the unknown voice to break the silence: “347. 852.” And then it comes: 129. “That's me,” I say, and as no one seems to notice, I repeat it louder. “That's my number.”
Eisner pats my shoulder, his face somber. “Tough break.”
I look down, saying nothing. Eisner suspects I am hiding tears, no doubt, but in truth I am trying not to smile. I did get lucky. Part of me is already hearing Suzanne's voice, already seeing the look on my mother's face. I'm not stupid. I know what war means. Dink Morris left an arm at Belleau Wood and watches each Merion dance with empty eyes. But still, the sentences that parade through my head are marching on light feet. I'm needed. I've been chosen. I am called. It may be west or it may be east, but that makes no difference. I have a direction now; I know where I am headed. I am going to war.