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Fifteen

August 1942

 After that Charlie and I spent a lot more time together. Teasing the girls out on the Island and spying on Margaret with me under the porch had proven to me that Charlie was all right. And I remembered how he had all of us singing that old hymn while Daddy played. I figured that he had to be thinking about stuff more than girls. So I started hanging around with him, and he didn’t seem to mind. There were still times when he went off fishing with his friends or when I could tell he didn’t want anyone around.

Like the day we found out his orders had come.

Charlie had been home almost two weeks by that time, and we were all starting to wonder where he would go next. I just knew that Mama was praying every night that it would not be Europe or Asia. She figured that the Navy still had plenty of work to do right here in our country, so not every sailor had to go overseas. Why couldn’t Charlie be one of the ones who stayed home?

I had always known how much Mama and Daddy loved Charlie, because I knew they loved all of us. Lately I was even beginning to understand how they felt about him in particular. I was still just a kid. Charlie was different; he was their grown son, and they were proud of him in a special way. And it tore Mama up awful fierce to think something might happen to Charlie. It was almost like she was pretending that he didn’t have to go back to the Navy, that he was home for good just the way she had always wanted him to be.

Sometimes early in the morning I would hear Mama and Daddy talking about it. Daddy read the newspaper every day, every column on every page, most of it filled with news of the war. He would try to tell Mama about what he was reading, what the Germans were doing or what island the Japanese had taken out in the Pacific. But she never much wanted to hear. She would just keep cooking or cleaning or doing whatever she needed to do, or even something she didn’t really need to do. Daddy never raised his voice, but on those mornings I would hear him telling Mama she couldn’t just shut out the war. The world was out there, and Charlie was part of it. We all were.

“Louisa, you have to face it. Charlie is in the Navy, and our country is at war,” he would say, over and over.

“Jesse, I have a house to keep and five other children to raise. I don’t have time to read the newspaper every morning.”

“You can’t shut it out; it’s happening whether you like it or not, and Charlie will probably have to get involved. We’ve been lucky he ain’t been sent overseas already.”

I heard a pan hit the counter a little too hard. “You don’t know that for sure, Jesse. The good Lord listens to my prayers.”

“Don’t you think every mother prays the same thing—that her son will be the one who gets a desk job in the States? That her son is the one who comes home safe?”

“I don’t want to talk about this, Jesse Byler.”

They had this conversation one morning after I had slept with Charlie out on the porch. We both heard it. Charlie was pretending still to be sleeping, but I knew he wasn’t.

“Charlie,” I whispered, poking him in the ribs. “Is Daddy right? Are you going to go to war?”

At first he didn’t say anything. Then he nodded. “Yes, Billy. I ain’t told Mama yet, but my orders came two days ago. I was just lucky she wasn’t home when the telegram came. I ship out in two weeks.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, I got one more week of leave, then I go back to my ship in North Carolina and wait for them to tell us when to go.”

I tried to picture the map that had hung on the wall at school ever since Pearl Harbor. “France?” I said.

“Most likely somewhere in the North Atlantic. You know where that is?”

I nodded. “When?”

“Cain’t say for sure. Could be next month, maybe not until Christmas.”

Mama would not like having Charlie in Europe at Christmas. “Whatch’all gonna do there?”

“Billy, it’s a war. I reckon I’ll do whatever they tell me to do and just try to stay alive.”

Until that very moment, it had not really occurred to me that something could happen to Charlie. At first I hadn’t cared enough to think about it, and then when I did care, I didn’t want to think about it. I guess I was more like Mama than I thought.

“Does Daddy know?” I asked.

“Well, I ain’t told him right out, but I think he suspects.”

“When ya’ll gonna tell Mama?” I asked, partly out of concern for Mama and partly because I wasn’t sure I wanted to be around when she found out.

“I dunno,” Charlie answered, sitting up. “Soon. My leave’s almost up.” He got out of bed and pulled on his shorts and walked out the door and down the steps. I thought he was going for the water like he always did, but he hadn’t taken the bucket and he walked right on past the pump, right through Miz Clara’s yard and out of sight.

I lay back down and felt my heart beating fast. Charlie was going to Europe. Our Charlie. My Charlie. Of course Daddy knew. He always knew things before you told him. That’s probably why he was trying to make Mama face reality.

About then Daddy came out through the porch on his way to the barber shop. He looked around and then said, “Charlie gone?”

“He went for a walk, Daddy.” I didn’t know where he had gone or when he would be back, but it seemed safe to say he had gone for a walk.

Daddy’s calm expression did not change. “When he gets back, ya’ll tell him to stop by the shop today. I want to talk to him.”

I nodded.

“Daddy?”

“Yes, Billy?”

I didn’t know what to say next.

“You want somethin’, son?”

I hesitated. I had an idea what Daddy wanted to talk about with Charlie. “Would it be all right if I came along with Charlie?”

Daddy nodded slowly. “I expect so.”

“Bye, Daddy.”

My father left then, and I could still hear my mother moving around the kitchen. Pretty soon she’d be calling us all in for breakfast.

“Billy!”

I jumped up right away. “Yes, Mama.” She was standing at the kitchen door looking out at me.

“Seems Charlie left without doin’ your chores. I need water.”

“Yes, Mama.”

I went for water for the first time since Charlie came home and used the trip into the yard as a chance to glance around the neighborhood for Charlie. But he wasn’t anywhere around. I just hoped he wasn’t going to stay gone all day; I wouldn’t have a chance to give him Daddy’s message, and I had a strong feeling it was pretty important for him to talk to Daddy today.

I had to hang around the house after breakfast. I had no idea where to look for Charlie, so I stayed put to wait for him to come back. I was a nervous wreck. It was hard knowing something that Mama didn’t know. I was so afraid she would see something was bothering me and make me tell her, and I sure didn’t want to do that.

Finally Charlie came home. He’d been gone about three hours. I’d been sitting out on the back steps watching for him almost all of that time.

“Hey, Billy,” he said, sounding perfectly normal. “You thunk of anythin’ fun to do today?”

I shook my head.

“Well, let’s see. What are Elizabeth and Virginia up to this morning? Maybe we could—“

“Charlie,” I interrupted.

“What?”
“Daddy wants you to come by the shop.”

“Oh.”

I think we both knew that Daddy wanted to talk about breaking the news to Mama. Charlie went in the kitchen and told Mama we were going to walk into town and we left. I had a lot of questions I wanted to ask. Like did Charlie want a desk job in the States? Or did he really think going to the North Atlantic was the right thing? Was he nervous about telling Mama, or was he nervous about going to the coast of France on a boat? But Charlie didn’t seem to be in a mood to talk, so I kept my questions to myself.

We waited around for Daddy to finish giving a haircut so he could take a break to talk. Daddy always kept the radio on, tuned to a station that gave frequent news breaks. As his shiny scissors clicked like a musical beat against his customer’s head, I heard the newscast at the top of the hour. The newsman was going on about how the Battle of Midway a few weeks ago had been the turning point of the war, at least against Japan. I wondered what Charlie might know about that battle. Was it the kind of battle he might have to be in?

When it finally happened, the conversation was pretty short, just between Daddy and Charlie. I sat a few feet away from them and kept my mouth shut. It was pretty much what I had expected. Daddy asked Charlie about his orders and then said that Charlie had to tell Mama soon, tonight, at supper. Charlie didn’t argue; he knew Daddy was right. I guess he had hoped Daddy would tell Mama, but that wasn’t the way it was going to be.

Daddy went back to work. Charlie didn’t want to go home, and neither did I, so we wandered around Front Street all afternoon. Margaret was working at the theater ticket window, and we waved at her but we didn’t stop to talk. We went into the drug store and sat side by side on stools at the counter sipping chocolate sodas. Charlie told me about some of the things he used to do when he was my age, and we were actually laughing a lot of the time. But in the back of our minds we knew we had to go home for supper and the evening would be a lot different from our afternoon together.

We waited around long enough to walk home with Daddy. The table was set and supper just about ready when we walked in the house. Mama scowled a little bit, since we’d been gone all day, but the girls were making their usual racket and acting like nothing was different. Charlie tried to act like it was a regular day, too.

“Mama, ya’ll are such a good cook,” he said. “The Navy cooks ain’t never made such a good supper.”

Mama smiled. She liked to hear this kind of talk, except for maybe the part about the Navy.

“Don’t stay gone so long the next time,” she said. “You’re getting’ too thin.”

We could all see that Charlie was a statue of muscle; fit, not thin.

Everyone was finished eating and the girls were getting ready to clear the table. Daddy softly cleared his throat, and I saw Charlie look at him out of the corner of his eye.

“Well, Mama, I’d like to come home again, but I don’t know just when I’ll get back. It may be a while.”

“Oh?” The tone in Mama’s voice had a frightened edge to it.

“Mama, I got some news.” Mama froze. Charlie looked at this plate as he continued. “My ship is headed for the North Atlantic. I cain’t say when I’ll be back.”

Margaret and Elizabeth put down the plates they were holding and stood perfectly still. Everybody was watching Mama. She played with the corner of her napkin without saying anything.

“Aren’t you due to get out of the Navy soon? You’ve been in four years.”

“I signed up for another term. Considering what’s happening in the world, it seemed like the right thing to do. I’m already trained and ready to go.”

Mama hung her head. After what seemed like ten minutes she finally looked up and said, “I see. Girls, you finish the dishes tonight.”

Then she went out on the back porch and sat. For a long time no one else went out there. The girls did the dishes and Charlie and I stayed in the dining room playing checkers but not paying much attention to who was winning or losing. Daddy went out to sit with Mama.

Everybody was nervous, no matter how much they tried to act like things were normal. Things were not normal. Charlie was going to Europe where the war was. All of a sudden I couldn’t stand it. I jumped up and knocked the checkerboard off the table. Then I turned and ran out the front door.

 

Sixteen

August 1942

 

I ran all the way to Front Street. Except for the movie theater and the drug store, most everything was closed up for the day, and it was getting dark. Normally I would have thought that Mama would get crazy with worry that I was out so late, but somehow tonight I didn’t think she would even notice I was gone. I wasn’t even sure why I ran away. I was sitting there playing checkers with Charlie and listening to the girls in the kitchen and suddenly I just wanted to be away from everybody. I spent all day worrying about how Mama was going to react to the news that Charlie had orders for the war, and now I couldn’t understand it myself.

I wandered into the drug store and dug my hands deep into my pockets. I wasn’t looking for money. I couldn’t have enjoyed a chocolate soda if it was free and extra large. I just wanted to sit on the stool I had sat on when Charlie and I were together after seeing Daddy earlier in the day and remember how we laughed. I pulled myself up on the stool and put my hands on the edge of the counter and started twisting myself around. There were a couple of older men sitting down at the other end eating tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, and one of them scowled at me. I stopped spinning.

“You want somethin’, kid?” It was the man behind the counter, and he didn’t look too happy with me. He wasn’t usually there on Saturdays, and I didn’t know his name.

“Nah.” I hopped down and he turned away. I stuck out my tongue at the back of his head and wandered down one of the aisles.

The drug store had a gift section with some pretty nice stuff. Sometimes on Saturday when we all came in with Aunt Lennie, I’d have a look around, and I would enjoy myself until Margaret or Elizabeth barked at me to be careful ‘cause they were sure I would break something. Well, they weren’t here tonight so I started walking around wherever I wanted, and I wasn’t in any hurry about it either. My stomach was churning and I just wanted to do whatever I wanted to do without thinking about anyone else for a while.

“We’re getting’ ready to close up, kid.” That guy behind the counter didn’t like me, I guess. I wished he would leave me alone. He was beginning to bother me.

I turned to him and said very politely, “I ain’t quite decided what I want. I’ll come in again, sir.” He seemed satisfied and went on down the aisle. And then I walked straight out the front door. Well, I made one short stop at the front of the store. And when I got outside there was a bulge under my shirt worth about twenty dollars, which was a lot of money to a nine year old in 1942.When I got home a couple of hours later, the house was dark and everybody was in bed. I pulled open the back porch screen door as quietly as I could, but Charlie heard me.

“Hey, Billy,” he said quietly.

“I didn’t answer.
“Where ya’ll been? I been frettin’ ’bout’cha.”

“No need.”

“Ya’ll gonna sleep out here with me tonight?”

“I reckon I’ll sleep inside tonight.” I walked into the house to my own bed.

Mama and Daddy were quiet the next morning. There was no need for Daddy’s usual words about how Mama had to face reality. I was surprised, but so far she was acting pretty normal. I don’t know what they said to each other before I came home the night before, but I guess it helped her. And if she noticed that I had stayed out late, she didn’t let on.

Daddy and Margaret went to work as usual and the girls scattered with their friends. In the afternoon Mama went to a church ladies meeting, so Charlie and I had the house to ourselves. Ordinarily we would have been pretty glad about that. But on that day I really wished someone else was around. I would have felt better if I could have picked on Amy or made Elizabeth mad. I would have settled for Bobby and Jerry, but they weren’t around, and besides Mama had given me strict order to stay around the house while she was gone. I guess it was her way of telling me she had noticed I was gone last night after all. She probably made Charlie promise to stand guard, because he didn’t even suggest we go anywhere.

Not long after Mama left, the front doorbell rang. No one ever used the front door. The family came and went through the back porch, and practically everybody in town knew the Bylers well enough to do the same. So having someone at the front door meant something important. Suddenly I didn’t like the way my stomach felt.

I stood in the dining room and looked on as Charlie opened the front door—and saw two police officers standing on the front porch!

“Afternoon, Charlie,” one of them said. “Glad to see you home for a bit.” He’d been in school with Charlie. I’d seen him in town and heard Margaret say that.

“Hello, Tom,” Charlie answered. “Why are you ringing the bell? What on earth is going on?”

“You got a little brother, ain’tcha, Charlie?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m afraid he’s in a bit of a pickle. Is your mama here?”

“She’s gone to a meetin’ at the church.”

“Well, maybe ya’ll wanna come down to the station with Billy. We gotta ask him some questions.”

“Billy,” Charlie called. “Ya’ll git yer shoes on.”

I had a lump in my throat so big I didn’t think I’d ever swallow again. Try as hard as I might, I couldn’t move my feet. I knew Mama would have my hide, but I didn’t know what to expect from Charlie.

“Come on, Billy,” Charlie said gently. “Let’s go git this taken care of.”

He knew something. He didn’t even ask me what I’d done, but he knew I must have done something to have a police car sitting out in front of the house. I saw Miz Clara out in her front yard watching. What I’d done was something she would have expected from Bobby or Jerry. Who knows, maybe they had stolen something but were better at it than I was and managed not to get caught.

It was a short ride to the police station. They made Charlie wait on a bench by the door while they took me in a little room to ask some questions. I didn’t try to deny anything. I wasn’t a very good liar, and I was too scared to even try. So I just said, yes, I’d taken the glass statue and it was under my blue sweater in the bottom drawer of my rickety dresser. The tough question was why? When they asked that, I just looked at my shoes and didn’t say anything. I couldn’t think of any answer that made sense. After a while, the police left and sent in the owner of the drug store.

Mr. Edwards had been my daddy’s friend for a long time. He wasn’t always in the store or behind the counter when we all went in there on Saturdays, but still he knew us all by name.

“Billy,” he said, “I don’t know why ya’ll done whatcha done, but yer a good kid, and I knew yer daddy didn’t raise ya to be no thief. If the statue is all right, then that’s all I care about. Just bring it back and we’ll forget the whole thing. But don’t ya’ll ever pull such a stupid stunt again. Not in my store.”

“No, sir, Mr. Edwards.” I was overwhelmed with relief. I’d had visions of standing before a judge and getting sent to whatever jail they put kids in, all over stealing something I had no use for. I couldn’t explain to Mr. Edwards or the police why I had done it in the first place, because I didn’t know myself. But I’d been shaking in my boots all afternoon. And I’d still have to face Mama and Daddy and try to explain it, even if Mr. Edwards didn’t want me sent to jail. They were going to find out. After all, it’s not every day a police car pulls up in front of your house with the whole neighborhood watching.

They finally let me out of that room and I was so glad to see Charlie still sitting by the door. I ran to him and threw my arms around his neck. I wasn’t crying exactly; it was more like I was too scared to breathe.

Charlie let me hang on to him for a minute, then said, “Come on, Billy, let’s go for a walk.”

We walked about ten minutes without saying anything. I kept waiting for Charlie to tell me how wrong it was to do what I did, or at least how stupid it was to get caught, but he never did. Still, I didn’t want to say anything till I knew what he was going to say.

Finally, he started talking.

“I had me a talk with Mr. Edwards.” He paused to see if I wanted to say anything, but I didn’t. “He was real surprised at what ya’ll done. Not so much mad as surprised it was you.”

“Charlie, I don’t know why I done it. Everybody wants to know why, but I cain’t say.”

“You were pretty upset when you left the house last night.”

“Yeah.”

“You give the checkerboard a pretty good whack.”

“Yeah.”

We walked a few more blocks without talking.

“Billy, I don’t want to go to the North Atlantic. There’s a war over there, and I might not come back. But there’s some pretty ugly stuff goin’ on with those Germans, and I cain’t jes’ turn my back. When I signed those Navy papers I knew this could happen. I jes’ been lucky it ain’t happened sooner.”

For Charlie, this was a long speech. But I still wasn’t sure what he was getting at. How did we get from talking about what I’d done to what was happening to him?

“Mama’s right. I finished out the term I signed up for. I could have gotten out. But I just cain’t feel right about that. I joined the Navy to prove to Mama that I was a man and could make my own decisions. I made us both unhappy at the time. But now I really am a man. And my decision is not to turn my back on stuff that should not be happenin’ if there’s anythin’ I can do about it. Do you understand that?”

I didn’t answer. I couldn’t.

“Mebbe it was a mistake to take you with me when I saw Daddy yesterday. Mebbe it was a mistake to tell Mama when everybody was sittin’ there. I dunno. I cain’t go back and fix it.”

“I couldn’t help it, Charlie,” I blurted out. “I was mad. And I had no place to go and nobody I could be mad at. And that guy at the drug store made me madder. I don’t want you to go to war.”

“So be mad at the Navy or the president or Adolf Hitler,” Charlie said calmly. “Don’t take it out on Mr. Edwards or anyone else who doesn’t deserve it.”

What he said made perfect sense. And now I felt all right. Not about Charlie going to Europe. And not about explaining my trip to the police station to Mama and Daddy. I was still scared about those things, but I wasn’t mad anymore.

We walked the rest of the way home talking about normal things. We took our time, looking in shop windows in town, kicking rocks along the road outside of town. When we got home, Charlie put his hand on my shoulder.

“Ya’ll stay out here for a while, Billy,” he said.

“Why?”

“Ya’ll ain’t forgotten why we was downtown, have ya?”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. That lump was coming back to my throat.

“I’ll jes’ go in and have a talk with Mama. When I give the signal, come on in.”

I wasn’t in any hurry to go in the house now. In fact, I figured the further away I was, the better, so I went out to Amy’s playhouse and leaned up against it. I’d been in scrapes before, but never with the police. I didn’t know what to expect from Mama. I sure hoped Charlie was getting somewhere.

It was a long time before the porch door opened and Charlie came out. I could see him looking around for me, so I stepped away from the playhouse so he could see me, but I didn’t walk toward the house. He sauntered out to me with both hands in his pockets. We both leaned against the playhouse, side by side.

“I guess ya’ll be eatin’ supper with the family tonight,” he said at last.

I let out a big sigh of relief.

 

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