Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Umnak, Sunday, 5 November 1944

Cartoon by Don L. Miller, from the pamphlet
Windblown and Dripping, assembled on Adak by Dashiell Hammett, and later reprinted by Jeanne Culbertson. Born in Jamaica, Miller studied at Cooper Union before the war and became a well-known commercial artist. He created the main mural at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library in Washington, D.C.

Happy Birthday, little nunny…
At least I hope this gets to you on your birthday. The present I had intended to send (and the one I would most like to get down your way except, of course, me) is Day of the Dead. I had hoped to finish it in time to mail in on your birthday, but try as I have in the past few weeks I cannot step up page production high enough to make it, I fear. Not unless I find a bottle of tequila somewhere and sail through the final three chapters in one day, as I did with Thunder Down Under. And remembering the Ziff-Davis critics remarks about the last three chapters of that one, I suppose even that would not be worthwhile.
We are not having canoeing weather up here. When I came out after work this morning the day was clear with the sharpness and simplicity of a good Thanksgiving poster: black soil showing through a powdering of snow, the greass a high yellow, the sea grey and the sky a strong blue, just regaining strength from an overdose of pastels. I woke at two in the afternoon to find the sky grey, our mountain hidden, a fox standing wet and miserable just outside the door, the grass bending before a rising wind, only a narrow strip of the Bering visible and it rising like a wall on the close horizon. I decided against going for a walk and went to clipping some recent Times and PMs. (I could not work on the novel as some of the fellows were sleeping.) About four I noticed a strange murmuring which seemed to run through the drum-like hut in a rising rhythm. At first I thought I was imagining it, but when it continued I stepped outside to see if something was scraping against the roof. Snow. And already the area looks fantastically beautiful, and the men when they come in stamp their feet and beat their arms, and the first snowball missed me a foot.
I hope the snow does not keep me from going to the movie tomorrow afternoon. There is a show at the Downtown theatre and while “They Made Me a Criminal” with Ann Sheridan and John Garfield does not sound particularly attractive, there is a short feature called “Birth of a Volcano” and what could that be but our personal Paracutín?
About this afternoon’s clipping. I am sending them along, but I can’t resist the temptation to quote from the Ickes speech about Dewey’s friends. The insults are superlative. Ickes suggested that Dewey named Col. McCormick of the Trib to his cabinet and Secretary of War. He brought up that old letter McCormick wrote to a friend saying that he had introduced into the Army the ROTC, machine guns, mechanization, automatic rifles, serial artillery-fire control and the acquisition of Atlantic bases, but had not been able to get the navy out of the far Pacific. Then Ickes said, “The letter does not say in so many words, but it is fair to assume that one the seventh day the colonel rested.
There also was a letter to the sports editor of the Times which will bring back memories of happy days and night in the left field bleachers. The subject under discussion is not Big Mike but Babe Herman. However he was once a Seattle first baseman, so the similarity is complete:
“When a high fly was hit the Babe often took off in a loping, confident glide for two or three steps. Then he would stop, gaze dubiously into the sun, take a big chaw—or rather shift his chaw from one cheek to the other and you could actually see the bulge disappear from one side to reappear on the other – and stand motionless for what seemed like a full second. At this stage a community groan would go up in the stands that meant: ‘Oh well, Herman’s lost it in the sun again.’ However, like a man deciding he has time for a quick one before the train pulls out, Herman would feint again in a different wrong direction and then gallop like Ty Cobb back the way he had come in the beginning. Oddly enough he usually caught the ball – but the wear and tear on the fans was severe.”
The other night I heard one of the fellows telling a story that I thought might be possible to revise into an Esquire short. Here it is, in more or less the original form.
I heard it in the kitchen, about four a.m. Half a dozen of the fellows were sitting around on the tabletops, drinking greenish GI coffee or strong black tea. When I came down the steps, Howard Holt, a tall, blond, rather simple son from Eastern Washington was talking.
“When I hit Seattle on my furlough,” he said, “I was sort of eager. I had an eighteen-month backlog of passion. So the first thing after clearing with the front office in the Federal Building, I went looking for a girl.
“I started up Marion, headed for the Rathskeller. Right in front of that building at Second and Marion that used to be a bank there was a classy looking girl. She had on a sort of fuzzy sweater which was pretty tight, the sort of thing you like to see on someone else’s wife. And she really was stacked. She just stood there, sort of looking around, as though maybe she had been stood up. She didn’t look like a pick-up but what the hell, I’d been up there eighteen months and I didn’t give a damn. So I sort of whistled and said, ‘Hello, Betty.’
“And she turned on a real nice smile and said real warm-like, ‘Jim, you’re back.’ And I said ‘Yeah, I’m back. Surprised?’ And she said, ‘No. I knew you’d come.’ And she put her hand in mine and said, ‘Isn’t there someplace we can go?’
“I said, ‘I was just going to the Rathskeller, let’s have few.’ She looked at me sort of funny but said ‘Well, all right.’ We had a few beers and I told her about the Interior and about the fighting on Attu – well, all right, what if I wasn’t there – and we got on pretty good. I was beginning to wonder about shacking up with this little number and how to go about it when she said, ‘Now let’s go out to the house and see Daddy.’
“Well, now. That sounded a bit funny, but I had begun to wonder if maybe this wasn’t the classiest looking pro I had ever run into. I was sort of dough heavy and hell, I didn’t care what it would cost. So I said sure, Let’s go.
“We took a taxi and went someplace out in West Seattle, looking down on the Sound. There was a nice little house set back on a big lawn and couple of big fir trees sticking up behind it. Altogether, I thought, the classiest cathouse I ever saw. I paid the taxi and she said, ‘It will be fun seeing Daddy, won’t it?’ I said, ‘It sure will.’
“Well, now. She did have a Daddy. We went inside and she called, ‘Daddy.’ And a voice answered, ‘Yes, Betty?’ And she says, ‘Jim’s back.’ And he says, ‘No, really?’
“There is a pounding on the steps and a big old guy with white hair and a face full of lather and a razor in one hand comes down the steps. He said, ‘Hello Jim.’ And I said, ‘Hello sir.’ But boy I was scared, and I couldn’t figure out what the hell.
“He sort of circled around me and then he patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘You changed some, Jim, but it’s been a long time and I’d know you anywhere.’ I couldn’t think of anything to say to that, so I just sort of shut up. And Betty says, ‘I want to wash up’ and runs out of the room.
“Well, the old man looks at me awhile and I look at everything else in the place. And finally he says, ‘Soldier, what do you look so scared about?’ And I gulped and said, ‘Sir, I think there’s a mistake somewhere.’ And he said, ‘Good, boy. I wondered what you’d say. My daughter has you puzzled. Is that it?’ And I said it was.
“The old boy looks at me kind of sideways and says, ‘Now don’t scared, but she is not quite normal. Not dangerous or anything like that but she has hallucinations. She was married two years ago and her husband went right off to war. He was a Marine, and he was killed the first day on Guadalcanal. The shock was too much for her. She just can’t accept it that he is dead, and she keeps thinking he has come back. Now you aren’t the first soldier she has brought here. The first time it happened I told her she had made a mistake and so did the soldier. And she was sick for weeks. The doctor said we had done wrong, that it would have been best to let her pretend. Sooner or later, he says, this will wear off and she will forget all her imaginings. But now to have time taken away from her might result in some other kind of a breakdown. So will you sort of stay for diner and then take her dancing or something like that. Sometime during the evening her hallucination will wear off and then you can duck out and everything will be all right.’
“Well now. That was a fine mess. Stuck with a weird widow on my first night. But there wasn’t anything I could do, so I said sure. Betty cooked dinner, and it was good. And right after dinner her old man says, ‘I have to go over to Joe’s to see about some drawings he is making for the new machine. I’ll walk. You two can have the car.’ We had decided to go to The Ranch and I said fine.
“The old man went out and Betty said, ‘Just a minute, while I change.’ She went into her room and in a minute she said, ‘Come in a minute, Jim.’ Well I went in, and there she was in a grey lace thing you could see right through, and boy, she really had ‘em. I said, ‘You can’t go dancing in that.’ And she said, ‘It’s been a long time, Jim.’ And I felt sort of prickly and hot all over, and some of the time I thought about what I could see and some of the time I thought about her husband being dead and her being nuts. She came over and put her arms around me and sort of pressed up against me, and I kept trying to think what I ought to do and then trying to tell myself I shouldn’t do it. And then I thought, Well if I don’t it will sure make her suspicious and her old man said the doctor said nothing should disturb her.
“So I saw there was nothing else to do, and I decided to do it. There was a big bow on the front of that negligee and I started to fumble with it. And just then….”
Holt looked up and everyone in the place sort of leaned toward him. “Yeah?”
“I woke up.”

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