Excerpt from “The Finnish Boy”

Excerpt from “The Finnish Boy” from the short story collection The Dreams of Youth.

And the thoughts of youth, are long, long thoughts. —Longfellow

85-year-old Maggie remembers an incident from long ago when she worked as a nurse in California, shortly after WWII. A memory she has held close to her heart for over 60 years.

Santa Barbara 2

In Santa Barbara, Maggie lived alone in a pretty stucco apartment building with a small fountain in the courtyard. Flowers bloomed year-round, which never ceased to amaze her – pink roses, orange poppies, and exotic flowers that reached up from spiky succulent plants. The palm trees never lost their leaves, like Midwestern trees. Their green fronds glistened eternal-like in the ever-present sun.

Maggie walked to and from the hospital dressed in her crisp white uniform and cap. She worked the 3:00 – 11:00 p.m. shift and was responsible for twenty-nine beds on her floor. She loved her work, the sense of purpose it gave her, of being able to make a difference in the lives of others…

One night, at around 7:00, a nurse and an orderly brought a patient from the Emergency Room to Maggie’s floor. The ER nurse explained that the young man had been in a bad road accident. The doctors had done what they could, but after working on him for two hours, they shook their heads, hooked him up to a morphine drip, and sent him to Maggie’s floor. The nurse said that he had been muttering in a foreign language that no one recognized. She handed Maggie the report and left.

Maggie saw that the patient was just a boy, around twenty-four years old or so, her own age. He was tall and slim, with fair hair and a handsome face. As she gazed down on him, his blue eyes opened and fixed on her.

Maggie smiled her nurse’s smile, competent and compassionate. By then, the morphine had worked its magic and he didn’t seem to be in too much pain. He watched her as she adjusted his pillow and blanket, his eyes searching her face for an answer.

As she took his pulse, he turned his wrist and clasped her hand. Maggie spoke a few gentle words of comfort and was surprised when he answered in English. He thanked her and asked her name. He told her he was from Finland.

Finland

That he had wanted to see the United States and had found work driving trucks for a transport company. He smiled when he said it was the best way to see such a big country. He soon became fatigued and closed his eyes…

Maggie was thankful that the night was slow. She couldn’t leave him alone. There was no hope for him, and she guessed that he knew. She took a deep breath and returned to his bedside.

The sun was beginning to set and the room was slowly growing darker. She turned on the nightlight above his bed. As soon as she sat down, he opened his hand for hers. It seemed that he wanted to talk.

Maggie asked him which parts of the States he had seen. He became slightly more animated as he described the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the Northwest. But when he described the coast of California, a softer look filled his face. He told her it was the most beautiful place he had ever seen. Maggie replied that she felt the same way, and that she, too, had come from far away to be near the beautiful California coast.

Pacific Coast

Monterey

She then asked him about the place he was from. In a few spare words, he told her that he was from a small town, a small family. He said he had wanted to see the world. His voice quivered slightly when he told her how his family had taken him to the train station – how his mother had cried, how his father had tried hard not to cry, and how his younger brother and sister had run alongside the train until he couldn’t see them anymore.

Finland train

He was quiet for a few moments, and his mind seemed to shift. Then he told her about the accident. He said he had been driving, enjoying the beautiful scenery along the coast, and that all of a sudden someone from the oncoming lane passed a car and was in his lane. He said he knew that if he hit the car, the driver would be killed. And he couldn’t do that. So he turned the wheel, and went over the hill. The next thing he remembered was the sound of a siren in his mind that grew louder and louder.

He looked at Maggie and told her that he didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to die so far from home. Somehow, he knew. And there was nothing Maggie could do but try to comfort him. She held his hand and tried to look strong, though she felt a sad crumbling inside her. Then she leaned closer and put her other hand on his cheek. This gesture of tenderness seemed to ease his anxiety, and his eyes glittered with gratitude. It was becoming more difficult for him to speak. He asked Maggie to tell him about her, where she was from.

train California2

She told him about her family, about how she was from a small town in the rural Midwest. How she became a nurse so that she could see something of the world, and how the ocean had always called to her.

They smiled, realizing how similar they were in their youthful dreams. His eyes fastened on her as he drank in her words, eager to take in just a little bit more of life. His speech trickled down to a few words, uttered slowly now and then. After a little while, he closed his eyes.

Maggie continued to speak in a soft, low voice, watching his face closely. She gently began to move away, thinking that he had fallen unconscious, but he increased the pressure on her hand. So she continued to sit with him, lightly squeezing his fingers to let him know that she was there.

Then she covered his hand with both of hers and sat quietly. And even though she was expecting it, she started when his hand went limp. She looked closely at his face, his chest, and leaned in to feel for a pulse. Her fingers searched again and again, but his warm wrist no longer held life. She placed her ear to his chest, but heard only silence. She watched him for a few moments, and put her hand to his cheek once more. Then she swallowed her emotions, and left the room.

Maggie stayed late that night to finish her reports. She walked home slowly, not noticing the tears on her cheeks. She made her way to the beach and stood for a few minutes, looking out at the glittering dark ocean, the wind blowing her hair…

dark ocean

 

Songs from Christmastime 1940: A Love Story — “Maybe” and “Only Forever”

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Throughout the Christmastime series, I often use paintings or songs to help tell the story.

In Christmastime 1940: A Love Story, there are two songs that reflect the internal stories of Lillian Hapsey and Charles Drooms.

There’s a point in the story where Lillian invites Mr. Drooms to join her and her boys in decorating their Christmas tree. He declines her invitation, believing she is simply being neighborly. However, her anger at his refusal makes him wonder if she sincerely wanted him to stop by. He had long ago closed the door to love. Yet later that evening, as he sits alone at the usual diner, his heart is pried open as he falls into the soft strains of the song “Maybe.” Following is an excerpt from that scene. (images from Pinterest)

Drooms sat at his usual booth, opened the menu that he knew by heart, and began to peruse it. The thought, the possibility that perhaps Lillian had been sincere in her invitation, struck him like a blow. What if she had really meant it? She certainly appeared offended when he declined. He tried to imagine himself sitting at the same table as her. What would they have to talk about? He felt both shaky and warm, almost happy at the thought.

He quickly dismissed such foolery, looked again at the menu and saw that he had been staring at the dessert page. He opened to the specials, but once again his thoughts drifted, and he imagined Lillian moving about her apartment. Was she clearing the dishes by now, trimming the tree? Was she thinking of him?

His gaze fell beyond the menu and into the dark wood of the empty booth. Never one for music, he was surprised to find himself lost in the simple lyrics of “Maybe.” Maybe, you’ll think of me. When you are all alone. He set his menu down and let the rest of the world fall away as he listened to the words, wondering at the desperate stirring in his heart.

The waitress came and asked him if he wanted the meatloaf special. When he didn’t answer, she smiled. “You like the Ink Spots, sir?”

Drooms frowned at being caught in a personal moment. “When did you start playing music here?”

She looked around, perplexed. “You mean the radio? We always have it on.”

He glanced down at the menu. “It must be on louder tonight or something. I’ll have the special.” He slipped the menu back in its stand and continued to frown as he tried not to listen to the song.

(Youtube)

The Ink Spots had great appeal to a wide audience in the 1930s and ’40s. Their ballad style lent itself to a host of love songs, as well as their rendition of the patriotic 1942 WWII song, “This Is Worth Fighting For.” https://bit.ly/32qSUJ2 (Youtube)

Maybe

Maybe you’ll think of me
When you are all alone
Maybe the one who is waiting for you will prove untrue
Then what will you do?
Maybe you’ll sit and sigh
Wishing that I were near, then
Maybe you’ll ask me to come back again
And maybe I’ll say maybe.

1940(1)

Towards the end of the book, the song “Only Forever” captures the happiness Lillian feels when it looks like her relationship with Charles is sealed. She experiences a sense of joy that she hadn’t expected to find again. Widowed, struggling financially, mother of two young boys, her dreams forsaken, she finally sees a beautiful future now awaiting her.

The following afternoon Lillian was in the middle of her Christmas baking. She wore her ruffled red and green Christmas apron and bustled about the kitchen, singing along with the radio. She didn’t want to appear too different to the boys, but she couldn’t forget that kiss, the warm embrace. She kept catching herself smiling as she remembered his hand in her hair, the gentleness in his voice when he said her name.

When Al Bowlly’s “Only Forever” came on, she turned up the volume and tried to dance with the boys. She could usually count on at least Gabriel to play along, but today both boys were restless and wanted to go outside, and the more she laughed and tried to twirl around with them, the more impatient they became.

“Can’t we go now, Mom?” asked Tommy. “I already read all my books, and if we don’t go now the library will close.”

“Yeah, Mommy, I want to go outside. I need some more books, too.” Gabriel ran to get his coat and started to put it on.

Lillian opened the oven, took out a batch of Christmas cookies, and set them on top of the stove.

“If we can’t go today,” she said, “we’ll go another day.”

“But I already read –”

“Now Tommy, what did I say? I can’t leave in the middle of baking.”

Gabriel stomped his foot. “But Mommy –”

“If you two don’t start behaving I won’t take you to see Santa tomorrow.”

Gabriel gasped at this possibility. “Mommy, we have to see Santa to tell him what we want!”

Tommy heard Drooms’s door open and close, and ran to look down the hall.

“Hi, Mr. Drooms!”

Gabriel also ran to the door and peeked out.

“Hi, Mr. Drooms! Will you take us to the libary?”

Drooms appeared in their doorway, dressed to go outside. He smiled at the boys, then at Lillian.

But she didn’t want to cross any as yet to be determined boundary. “Boys! Stop that. You know better.” She went to the door, pulled the boys back inside, and widened her eyes at them in warning.

Tommy relented. “Okay, okay.”

Lillian flushed with pleasure as she gazed up at Drooms. She had never seen him looking so handsome.

Though “Only Forever” was popularized by Bing Crosby in a 1940 movie (Rhythm on the River), and was performed by many different artists, it is the playful Al Bowlly/Jimmy Messene version that reflects the mood of Lillian at this point in the story.

(www.youtube.com)

Al Bowlly was popular during the 1930’s dance band era and recorded more than a 1000 records between 1927-1941.

He was killed in London in April of 1941 by a Luftwaffe parachute bomb. He recorded his last song two weeks before his death — (ironically) a duet with Messene of Irving Berlin’s satirical song about Hitler, “When That Man Is Dead and Gone.” (wikipedia)

Bowlly Messene

Al Bowlly was among several performers who died related to the war, underscoring the pervasive loss and tragedy of WWII.

1942 – Carol Lombard died in a plane crash returning from one of her many War Bond rallies, devastating her husband, Clark Gable.

1943 – Leslie Howard, of Gone With the Wind fame, left Hollywood to return to Great Britain to make patriotic radio broadcasts and films. He was on the civilian KLM flight that was shot down by the Luftwaffe.

1944 – Band leader Glenn Miller volunteered to lead the U.S. Army military band. While traveling to entertain troops in France, his plane disappeared over the English Channel.

Only Forever

Do I want to be with you / As the years come and go?

Only forever / If you care to know.

Would I grant all your wishes / And be proud of the task?

Only forever / If someone should ask.

How long would it take me / To be near if you beckon?

Off hand I would figure / Less than a second.

Do you think I’ll remember / How you looked when you smile?

Only forever / That’s puttin’ it mild.

Thanksgiving — WWII

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Most of the action in the Christmastime series (stories of love and family set on the WWII home front) takes place in the month of December, immediately after Thanksgiving. The warmth and coziness of Thanksgiving perfectly set the tone for the world of Christmastime.

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During WWII, with so many GIs and military personnel overseas, the idea of “home” became even more poignant and valued.

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(Thanksgiving service 1942)

Below are some facts about Thanksgiving during the WWII years, along with some images both of the home front and abroad.

Hollywood stars made regular appearances and served up food at various USO canteens and elsewhere in support of the troops.

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade was suspended from 1942 to 1944 to save on rubber.

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“Rubber was the hardest material to come by because 92% of our supply came from Japanese occupied lands. The balloons were donated to the cause and shredded for scrap rubber, thus canceling the parade for the duration of the war.” (www.dday.org)

“On Thanksgiving Day, 26 November 1942, Casablanca premiered at the Hollywood Theater in New York City. Initially scheduled for release in June 1943, the premiere was hastily moved up to capitalize on publicity gained by the Allied landings in North Africa and eventual capture of Casablanca in November.” (nww2m.com)

“On the home front … many magazines and pamphlets encouraged making pies with molasses, stretching meat rations, and doing other things to create a feast while the nation was at war.” (nww2m.com)

“1942 was the year of the first wartime Thanksgiving and even though sugar was technically the only rationed item in the grocery, shortages of meat and butter created even more of a challenge for cooks. They also had limited access to certain traditional spices because they came from areas now occupied by the Japanese and cargo space needed to be reserved for wartime supplies.” (www.dday.org)

“In 1943, the Norman Rockwell painting, ‘Freedom from Want,’ became the token image for the holiday.” (www.dday.org)

TH17

“Throughout the U.S. involvement overseas, military officials did their best to provide a traditional, hot holiday meal for the soldiers overseas. In 1943, the American people sent two liberty ships fully stocked with Thanksgiving supplies for the soldiers. Everything was included, turkeys, trimmings, cranberry sauce, and even various pies, all sent throughout the European and Pacific theaters, all the way to the frontlines.” (www.dday.org)

TH1

magcover2

In 1943 and 1944, “not only were meats, butter, and sugar being rationed, but cheese, fats, and canned or processed foods were as well. Some folks would save their ration stamps for the holidays and use innovative techniques to create the perfect meal. Ironically, even though chicken and other birds were not rationed, finding a turkey for your own table was quite a chore since many of the birds were shipped overseas for the servicemen!” (www.dday.org)

3 1944

On November 23, 1945, the wartime rationing of most foods ended. “The rationing of sugar remained in effect until 1947.” (history.com/news/food-rationing-in-wartime-america)

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HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

(All images from Pinterest)

 

 

 

Christmastime 1945: A Love Story

Christmastime 1945 final

Finally! The concluding book in the Christmastime series, Christmastime 1945: A Love Story, is available. Now you can find out what happens to the characters you’ve come to know: Lillian, Charles, Tommy and Gabriel. Izzy and Red. And on Kate’s farm, what is the fate of Ursula and Friedrich? What about Jessica and her brothers — do they survive the war? How do their lives unfold?

Below are images from my Pinterest boards that evoke the time, place, and feel of the world of Christmastime — historical photos, along with images suggestive of Kate’s farm, Annette’s orchard, New York City, and the warmth and coziness of Christmas.

Kates’ farm

Annette’s orchard

Lillian’s apartment

Christmastime

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The Christmastime series is available on Amazon, Kobo, B&N, iTunes, and Google and in libraries by request, on Ingram and Overdrive.

Amazon link

Memorial Day — Thank You

My WWII Christmastime series takes place on the home front, mostly in New York City, with a secondary plot occurring on a farm in Illinois, and a bit of action on an orchard in upstate New York. Though the focus is on family and love and Lillian’s journey as an artist, the impact of the war is felt on every page. The veterans who make an appearance are either recovering in hospital, or are home on leave. Some are getting ready to ship out for the first time.

My father was a WWII vet. He enlisted when he was barely eighteen, joining the Army Air Force as a tail gunner. My siblings and I grew up with war stories that took place decades earlier. Mostly humorous stories about the other young men (boys, really) in his crew. He flew twenty-five missions in 1945 and said he was given the last rites before every mission, and a shot of whiskey on his return. He said when he came home at war’s end, his mother broke into tears — of happiness to be sure, but also because of the wear and tear on his face. He said that ice always clung to his face at the high altitudes, and pulled on the skin below his eyes, giving him the look of a much older man.

But he came back, whole, happy to be alive, eager to begin his life.

Yank

I continue to do research for the last two books in the series, Christmastime 1944 and Christmastime 1945. And though I have my dad’s Yank magazines, a few letters, and his medals, I wish he were still here. There are so many questions I haven’t found answers to in my research, so many questions I still want to ask him. I wish I could get out a pen and paper to take notes as I listen to his stories — and to tell him: Thank you.

Nimitz quote

 

 

Our veterans are our gold, full of courage, sacrifice, and experience. To all who have given so much — thank you.

vets stars blue

 

 

World War II Veterans

Tinton Falls 1

I traveled to Tinton Falls, New Jersey over the weekend in order to interview my friend’s father, a WWII veteran who served in the Pacific from 1943 to 1946. I wanted some details for the next book in my WWII series, Christmastime 1944.

Tom had a modest, understated manner when describing his time in the war, a trait so common in that generation: you did your duty to the best of your ability, and didn’t complain about it. (He also talked a bit about his years as a NYC policeman – which included delivering four babies!)

With an occasional reference to the album on his lap, full of photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, and mementos, he described boot camp and then leaving from the Brooklyn Naval Yard on the U.S.S. Bennington, an aircraft carrier.

Bennington (1)

They sailed through Panama and stopped at Hawaii. In the album were the now classic WWII images of Hawaii: women in grass skirts dancing the hula, sailors with leis around

their necks posing against a tropical backdrop – just young boys, seemingly far too young to be in uniform. Then on to the Pacific.

Tom described being stationed at the gunnery, and how the kamikazes would often attack four at a time, two flying low, just above the water, two up high; one came so close that they saw the pilot’s face. “He came out of the clouds. If he had emerged another fifteen or twenty feet closer, I wouldn’t be here today.” And there were photographs in his album of night time kamikazes taking fire.

He described the typhoon off Okinawa in June, 1945 that snapped off the prow of their aircraft carrier, “bent it like a pretzel.”

typhoon final (1)

Miraculously, no lives were lost. Besides the euphoria of having survived the typhoon, a surge of happiness filled the seamen– surely the battered ship meant they were going home!

But no. The ship was patched in the Philippines and continued on towards Japan.

After about two hours of reminiscing, it was time to let Tom take a rest. We would come back later to take a closer look at the photo albums.

close-up-tom

At dinner that night, overlooking beautiful Tinton Falls,  my friend and I wondered: what was it about WWII that so defined our parents’ generation? Why was that the topic of conversation they always wanted to talk about? After all, three years out of ninety-one years in her father’s long life seems a very short time.

For my father, it was his time in the Army Airforce, as it was called back then, that was his favorite storytelling topic. We grew up with his tales of WWII, and now that I think of it, I don’t really have a clear idea of his life before or after the war. As with Tom, it’s as if those war years remained in color and sharp focus, fresh in detail and charged with emotion.

Was it because it was a pivotal point in their lives, the transition between boyhood and manhood? The jarring experience of being a 17- or 18-year old boy with his eye on the future, college, the girl next door, suddenly pulled into a cause larger than his dreams, into a world-wide conflict? Was it the strong camaraderie in life and death situations? The pride of having served a purpose higher than the one they might have chosen for themselves? An unspoken: I was there. I was part of something great. In a war of values, I fought on the side of good. And won.

Before leaving Tom and the assisted living place, my friend and I stopped by its library libraryto drop off a set of my books. We noticed that there were several shelves reserved for books about WWII.

My friend recognized one of her father’s dining buddies, Eric, and introduced me to him. There he was, well into his nineties, with an atlas opened before him, the seat of his walker serving as a table. He was intently poring over a map of Italy, his finger slowly traveling up the map. He was British and I thought perhaps he had vacationed there, or maybe he was checking a fact from a book or conversation. We asked about his interest in Italy.

With a twinkle of pride in his eye, he looked up and smiled. “I was stationed in Italy, during the war.”

Of course.