Tuesday, July 27, 2010

New Recruit

Dedicated to my Father, Jim Alexander, July 27, 1938—February 07, 1970, on his Birthday
Part I: Mozella
As my son Jim’s high school days ended, I knew he couldn’t wait to leave the farm and go to college. His daddy, Glendon, though he would never say it out loud, hoped that Jim might want to stick around to work the farm, and maybe he could also help out a bit down at Uncle Donald’s Garage on the side. However, Glendon wanted Jim to do what life called him to do; he loved working with his oldest son, and he would miss Jim after he left for school. As it grew closer to graduation, down deep, Glendon knew that the boy would not be satisfied working seventy acres of Indiana land for the rest of his life.
Graduation at North Salem High School came and went, as did summer. Jim had gotten a music and academic scholarship and that fall he went off to college. As far as we could tell from his frequent letters and an occasional phone call, his first year at Indiana State University was uneventful.  He was playing the tuba in the ISU Marching Band, working a few hours a week at a gas station down there in Terra Haut, studying and going to class. He never did give us much information about his personal life. However, once over Christmas break of that first year, he did hint, with a wily smile, that he met a girl who had become quite soft on him, but that’s all he would say.  I remember asking him “Well, Jim, are you soft on her?” He just gave me that wily smile of his again, and said nothing. He had good grades that first year, and he came home for the summer, happy to work on the farm and help out in Donald’s garage in the evenings. That was a good summer.
Now, I’m not exactly sure what all happened in that the fall semester of his second year, but it seems Jim ran into some trouble.  Now, I don’t mean trouble with the law or anything like that; he was always a good and respectful boy.  I said earlier that Jim had no fear, but I guess I wasn’t exactly truthful about that. He did, just like most folks do, mind you, have a fear of failure. Maybe he’d spread himself too thin; I just don’t know, but he started struggling in school.
 My boy, Jim, always had a dern good head for numbers, but a math class that semester was really giving him a fit. Jim was never a complainer, but he was a smart boy, and I suspect the Professor may have had something to do with his problems. Either way, back in those days, you couldn’t drop a class in college. You were in it for the long haul.  Rather than take a failing grade in the math class, he decided to drop out of school and come on home back to the farm. Years, later, he sorta hinted that the gal who was soft on him had started to get a “marrying look” in her eyes. This also scared him a little, and maybe that had an impact on his decision.
The grades, the girl—my boy was not ready for any of this, so I reckon he thought it was time to get moving. He didn’t discuss any of this with Glendon and me before he made his mind up. He just showed up at home one day in November after it was all said and done, bags in his hand and a long look on his face. Well, neither of us was very happy with his decision, and Glendon made him to go look for a job that very day. It wasn’t that Glendon wasn’t sympathetic. He was just practical, and he always thought work was a fine cure for whatever was ailing your mind. So, just like that, Jim went from a classroom at ISU to the old steel mill in Danville within the span of forty-eight hours. 
          I did feel badly for my baby boy, but I had to let him grow up and figure things out on his own. I know this was the beginning of a very unsettling time in his life.  He did know what he wanted to do with his life, and he had no direction. I knew this bothered him, and I knew he was ashamed of himself because he left school, he did not like failure. I could tell it didn’t take long for frustration from the monotony of working at the old steel mill to set in and bring him down even more. It just broke my heart. 
     I have to hand it to him though; that boy didn’t complain much, and after a few months, Jim settled into a predictable routine. He was working the second shift at the steel mill, tinkering on cars and farm equipment in Donald’s garage, and he helped Glendon on the farm in between all that. Glendon had his boy back on the land, but truth be told, he wished his boy had come back to the farm because he wanted to, not because he had to. One night, we were talking about it, and Glendon opened up a book of Robert Frost’s poems. He turned to Death of the Hired Man.
     “Here it is Mozella, this is the line I’ve been thinking about since Jim came home.” He pushed his reading glasses up on his nose and spoke the lines from the book. “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” He paused and sighed. “I wish it didn’t have to be this way for him. I really wish it didn’t.”
      To save a few dollars, Jim began riding to and from work at the mill with some fellows who lived in Jamestown, a small village about three or so miles from our farm.  
        I know most of those Jamestown boys, and they were good eggs. They worked hard, but I also know Jim always felt a little uneasy with them. He’d known some of them, but the folks in Jamestown went to a different school. Once, I overhead him telling Glendon about how they teased him for being a college boy with his vocabulary and jabber of books and such. Jim knew it was good-natured ribbing and was a good sport about it; he had a good sense of humor, but I could tell it got stuck in his craw a little too. A mother can sense these things.
     When payday rolled around at the mill, the boys from Jamestown liked to stop by for a few drinks and a game or two of cards at one of the local bars after the second shift ended at 11:00 p.m.   Jim didn’t mind this too much except on days when he had to be at Donald’s garage at 7 in the morning, and as long as he was riding with the Jamestown boys, there wasn’t a whole he could do about it. I’d like to think differently, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a snort or two himself from time to time.
      Now, my boy’s life really took a turn one night that March. To tell you honestly, the lives of many a folk in this particular part of the country took a turn that night too.  Now, I never could get much out of Jim about exactly what happened to him, but he did share a little with me the night before he went off to Vietnam the first time. 
     That Friday was payday at the mill, and as usual, after the shift ended the Jamestown boys stopped to play cards and toss back a few.  Jim really wasn’t in the mood to stop that night. He had work at Donald’s garage the next morning, and he wanted to go home and get some sleep. Those boys promised him they would just have a few cold ones and play a couple of hands of poker. Well, Jim told me one beer led to another for those boys, and one hand of poker led to the next. By 1 a.m., he knew this was going to be a long night for the Jamestown boys, and Jim was fed up. He knew it was too late to call us for a ride, and rightly so. Glendon would have never gone to get him.  He also said he thought about hitching a ride, but there was little, if any, traffic that time of night heading in our direction.  Funny thing was, when Jim got to this part of the story, he paused for a moment.  It seems he struggled with something, but I didn’t rush him. I just sat and waited until he started back up. 
     He began again, “Mom, I can’t really tell you much more except I decided to walk home.”  I smiled at him and rustled his hair. That was my Jim. I’m sure he figured that at least he would be moving, and motion was always a friend to my boy. As long as he was in motion, Jim always felt like he was going somewhere.  Ever since he was a baby, he’s been like that. Well, Jim never talked much more with me about that night, and I never pressed him to either.  The only one who knows the true story is Jim.
Part II: Jim
            It was well into Saturday morning when young Jim Alexander stepped out of the Red Dog Saloon and set off towards the edge of Danville.  When he reached the open land skirting the town limits, he paused and looked across the fields in the direction of home. There wasn’t a car in sight, and there would be no hitching a ride. Using the big blinking red beacon atop the giant radio tower over towards Brownsburg as his guide, Jim got his bearings. This light sat on the shoulders of a hulking metal tower built during World War II, and its amber glow could be seen for miles.  He knew this would provide the navigation he needed to get home.  He figured it was about eight miles or so as the crow flies, north by northwest.
     It was very early spring now, and the fields of central Indiana were just about primed for planting. There was still a nip in the air; Jim pulled his jacket collar up and set his brogues on a brisk pace over the countryside across on a beeline for the farm. A half moon lit his way through the fields, and faintly, he could see some lightening to the east and hear the distant thunder of a nasty early spring storm.
     The walk gave him plenty of time to think and put his life in perspective, and after mulling and stewing for a while; Jim began to talk out loud to himself. 
      “James, life is not working out as you had planned, now is it?”  He smiled at the sound of his voice carrying across the fields. He continued, mimicking the voice and air of an old teacher. 
“James, Dear Lad, prospects for your future are not very promising either, now are they? Sure, you could always keep working with Uncle Donald and Cousin Wesley at the garage. Sure, there will always be something to repair or fix, and you will always have a job, but is that all that life has to offer to you, Lad?” He grew quiet and thought for a moment, then speaking aloud as if to answer the teacher’s questions. 
     “Well,” he began in a defensive tone, “I could go back to school, but I would have to pay my way completely. I lost my scholarship when I left school, and Mom and Dad don’t have the money to give me, or even loan me for that matter. Hey, maybe I could move up to Indianapolis and find a better job and start saving some money so I could go back to college.”
Lost deep in those thoughts and a million others, and only a quarter of the way home, Jim began to feel some faint raindrops on the back of his neck.  He did not realize the distant storm was now an imminent threat.
Folks in that part of Indiana still speak in hushed and reverent tones about the storms that rolled through that part of the country in March of 1958. They were some of the worst and most destructive in Indiana history, and they spawned massive tornadoes that cut a deadly and destructive swath from east to west across the entire length of the state. As this event began to unfold, somewhere in the middle of the chaos, out in the open fields between Danville and Lizton, was young Jim.  Just about that time, back on the farm, his Mom was a little worried.
Part III: Mozella
As a mother, I can’t help but worry about my babies. I spent a lot of time worrying that night. To this day, I thank the Good Lord those tornadoes missed our farm by a half mile. Lots of land around us was badly ripped up, and the destruction looked like the path of a giant lawn mower run out of control over the fields. Lord knows, it really tore up some of our fields, but that was the least of my worries.   
Glendon shook me awake, yelling, “Mozella, get the boys. A twister is brewing!” I rushed to the boys’ rooms, rousing John Allen, with Jim not to be found. I could hear the wind howling and the rain pelting the house from the moment Glendon had woke me up, and I had no earthly idea he was walking home in this storm! If I did, I would have been fit to be hog tied… I’m not sure what I would have done if I did know.  Screaming, sideways rain and wind whipped the dark night into a furry. Glendon yell over the howl at the top of his lungs as I pushed John Allen into the shelter.
“HE’S NOT HOME! I’ll never forget how we locked eyes at that moment, realizing something may have already happened to Jim. Glendon helped me down the steps.
“Mom, where’s Jimmy?” John Allen was scared, not just for himself, but for his big brother.
“It’s ok, Honey. Jim is fine. Just hold tight.”
We all hunkered down, but I refused to let Glendon lock the door from the inside. If Jim made it home and needed shelter, I wanted to make sure he could get in here. Up until he passed on, Glendon often teashed about how hard it was to hold that door shut from inside, even with John Allen’s help. 
Now, that wind screamed and wailed that night. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before, and I’d rather not ever hear anything like that again as long as I live. I can tell you that. The storm seemed to last forever. When we finally came out of the cellar, it was dawn, and there was a divide in the sky that I had never seen in my life. To the east, early light spread across the sky and the landscape like a light blanket. To the west, the sky and land were dark and black, with almost a solid line spreading across the sky separating the two sides. Limbs, trees, and parts of trees littered the landscape. It was a mess! John Allen and Glendon chattered with each other in amazement, and I walked up to the high spot on our land to survey the damage. I was afraid of what I would see of the surrounding country. What I did see was both heartwarming and disturbing at the same time. There he was…Jim, walking across the last field that separated him from home.  It was around six a.m.
Like I said earlier, Jim would never talk much about that night, but he must have seen either Heaven or Hell! I’m not sure which.  I yelled to Glendon and John Allen to come up here and there we all stood, watching Jim slowly advance. As he drew closer, we all could see that his clothes were torn and ragged; he was missing a boot and carrying the other, and his body, where we could see it through his tattered clothes, was covered with dirt and bruises.
Seeing us, he broke into an awkward gallop, waving his arms in the air. He was jabbering a little when he first recognized us, and he was not making much sense. As far as I could tell, nothing looked broken on him. That was good, but still I was worried. He seemed happy to see us. I gave him a big hug and immediately starting to fret and fuss over him, but Glendon put his hand on my shoulder and told me to just let him be.
We would find out later that the Red Dog Saloon, the bar Jim left that night in Danville, was smashed to splinters when a tornado plowed through the north side of town. Everyone in the place, including those poor boys from Jamestown, was killed.  It was a very sad time, and my boy was very lucky to be alive.   
I watched my son as he staggered into the house, and I swear, he took the longest bath I have ever known a boy or man to take.  He came out the bathroom looking like a prune, and he passed by us without saying a word. Then, believe it or not, he dropped into his bed and slept for almost 24 hours! I tried to wake him that evening for a meal, but he would not budge. Again, Glendon told me to just let him be, and so finally I did.
The day after the tornadoes was just as memorable in our family, and sometimes I’m not sure which day was worse for me as a Mother.  When Jim finally woke up the following morning, we were all sitting around the table finishing up breakfast. You know how some memories just stick with you? Well, I can still recollect how that morning March sun slowly crept through the east window, and there must have still been a chill in the air, because I also remember a small fire crackling and popping in our old wood stove.
Even with the fire burning, I still felt a deep chill than ran right down to the bone when I heard the door to Jim’s room, just off the kitchen, swing open with a slow squeak. I turned from the stove and saw my boy come out like Lazarus from the dead.  John Allen looked up from his eggs, smiling and saying, “Hiya Jimmy! It is good to see you awake!”
 Me, I didn’t say much of anything; I just studied my boy over the tops of my specs. A mother’s intuition told me he was not the same fella who left the house days earlier, and I had a feeling now was a time to listen, not talk. At least he had gotten home safely through the storm. Glendon peered up at Jim from over the top of the morning paper, nodded at him, and went back to the news. That was just his way.
Jim walked over to the stove, gave me a hug and a kiss on the top of the head. That boy loved some breakfast meat, I swear, I and watched him slowly and deliberately take a piece of bacon from the plate next to the cast iron skillet. He leaned against the counter, chewed on the bacon thoughtfully, and cleared his throat, speaking to Glendon.
 “Dad, I really need to borrow the Dodge today. I have to go to Indianapolis and see a man about a job.”
I can still recall how Glendon looked directly at Jim, fixing his eyes to Jim’s bright blue eyes. I swear, I will never forget that gaze between the two of them, and then Glendon nodded his head yes. My husband never wasted his words, and he wasn’t about to start now.  Sometime later, Glendon and I talked about that morning. We both agreed we heard something different and deeper in our son’s voice that day.
 Jim, my not-so-little boy, walked over and kissed me on the forehead again; he took another piece of bacon, and rustled John Allen’s hair as he walked back into his room and closed the door behind him.
Like I said before, only Jim really knows what happened in the middle of those Indiana fields that night, but one thing was for sure; my boy was different when he woke up that day.  Heck, I don’t even think he was a boy anymore. I am his Mama, and I do notice things.  I always told Glendon that Jim’s blue eyes took on a darker shade after that night in the fields, and at times they seemed to glow and look right through you. I guess, about that time, Jim was already thinking about going into the service.
Part III: New Recruit
The Army recruiting office on Market Street in Indianapolis was empty of prospects when Jim walked in at noon. A hulking Sergeant named Pratt manned the post, and he considered himself to be an instrument of all that was “Army” at that time in America. Pratt had lied about his age to fight in WWII, he had gone toe to toe with the Koreans and Chinese a few years back, and now his final duty station for ole Uncle Sam had him shaking trees in search of young men to follow in his footsteps. Pratt knew freedom depended on men like him, and he sized Jim up in the twenty paces from the door to his desk. Jim looked like his kind of man. His pitch was believable because he lived the life of a soldier, and he prided himself on being able to size up the men who came through his door. Pratt also must have noticed something in his eyes.  In that instant, the Sergeant knew that the Army life was the only life for this searching young man.
From the dawn of civilization, military service had provided a place for young men to learn discipline, honor, and self-worth, and Pratt preached this mantra to each wandering soul that crossed the threshold into his recruiting station. Pratt put on a really good show that day; he only needed a few more recruits for that month to set a new Army record for the Indianapolis post.  He limped animatedly about the room and swooning and swaying Jim with timeless tales of guts and glory; he promised the passage from boyhood to manhood and Jim was impressed.   Finally, Pratt’s show ended, and two hours had quickly passed. Not a soul entered the office during that time, and Jim felt as if he had been treated to a private command performance.
Easing back into his seat, Pratt stared at Jim. Jim stared back.  He wasn’t quite sure what was supposed to happen next.
“Well,” said Pratt, “Why don’t you join up, Jimmy?  Let’s see if you’ve got the stuff it takes.” Jim, not ready to make a decision at that particular moment, asked Pratt for some brochures and information that he could take home to look over and share with his Father. Pratt knew he could not lose this one, and as he eased out of the chair to grab some papers, he decided he would use some divine intervention.  Pratt was making Jim’s decision for him.
Driving the twenty-five miles back to the farm that late afternoon, Jim felt both excitement and trepidation at the thought of an Army career. However, he decided he would come back to Indianapolis the next day and hear what the Navy and Marines had to say before he made any more decisions.  If the other guys were even half as interesting and entertaining, just experiencing the recruiting pitches alone would be worth the time he spent in those offices.
  That night at supper Jim took his usual place at the table.  He looked across at his father, and suddenly realized for the first time he was seeing his surroundings and environment in a different way. He drifted off… 
 He noticed how silhouettes and shadows cast by the setting sun danced across his father’s face like gypsies round a fire. His mom moved like a ghost across the floor, quickly and quietly putting out the full dishes of food. There was still talk of the tornadoes, and John Allen was excited because school would be closed again tomorrow. He would have time to work on his car.
“Jimmy, can you help me start to rebuild the transmission tomorrow?  Uncle Donald said I could get in the garage to work on it.”
 The question brought Jim’s attention back to reality, and he responded with a “huh?”
John Allen looked back with a furrowed brow; this was not like his brother. Finally, for the first time during the meal, Jim spoke.
“Folks, I’m thinking about going into the military.” His mother looked up at him and his father stopped chewing.  Time seemed to stand still.  Finally, John Allen broke the silence.
“Neato Jim!”
             Slowly, Jim’s father looked up from his plate of fried chicken, potatoes, and beans.
            “What branch, Jim?” he asked, as he looked his boy in the eye.
 With that, Jim excitedly began telling the family the story of his afternoon with Pratt.
“He even gave me some information to show you, Pop, but I had to sign a release to get it.” With this statement Jim drew the tale of his day in Indianapolis to a close. Silence hung in the air, and then Glendon spoke.
 “Go get the papers.”
The hiss and flare of fire and the smell of sulfur filled the air as Glendon lit his pipe and spread out Jim’s information on the table.  Mozella cleared dishes,  and John Allen went out to slop the hogs.  Glendon, always a stickler for detail, looked thorough everything carefully while his son sat and stared at his reflection in the east window.
As Glendon finished reading the very last piece of paper, the carbon copy Jim had signed, he began to chuckle softly.  Jim didn’t understand what the joke was, so he waited for his father to let him in on it. Mozella, recognizing the chuckle, stopped cleaning dishes and came to look over Glendon’s shoulder. The chuckle grew louder, and finally, Glendon took his glasses off to wipe a tear from the corner of his eye. He put the last piece of paper down, and for the second time that day, he looked his first-born square in the eyes. 
“Son,” he began in his deep, commanding voice, “You’re not going to believe this, but you are already in the United States Army.”
 A look of bewilderment crept over the faces of Jim and Mozella.
“James, the papers you signed are enlistment papers—did you read the fine print?” Jim’s jaw dropped to the floor.
 Mozella walked into the living room and sank down into the old hickory rocker.