Submitted by: Howard "Gene" Herst

Category: Books


I would have recurring nightmares of heavily armed paratroopers dropping on our rooftop and then come crashing down through the ceiling into my house. They wore black helmets and black clothing. Frightened, I called out to my parents, who just sat there in the kitchen and were indifferent to my pleas for help. I’d run outside and try to reach the barn because there were lots of hiding places there. I see my little cousin, Judy by the barn doors, waving me on and yelling, “Don’t let them catch you! Run, Gene! Run!”
The paratroopers came after me as I screamed for help. If I could reach the barn, I would be safe. As I ran, my legs moved slower and slower, and the black helmeted men were getting closer. My feet suddenly began tingling. Just before one of the helmeted men caught me, I awakened with pins and needle sensation in my toes, sweat on my forehead, and my heart pounding. As I became more coherent, I would realize I was no longer at grandfather’s farm, but at home in our Florida apartment. I’d pull the covers over my head, telling myself if I stayed awake until the morning light, I wouldn’t return to the dream world and face its horrors, least ways not until the next night.
My parents were unaware of how perceptive their eight-year old son was with regard to the war in Europe. I saw pictures in magazines and newspapers of Nazi soldiers and tanks on the streets of Paris, and bombed out buildings in London. I remember a newsreel in the movies that showed a torpedoed freighter sinking with smoke billowing skyward from her hull.
I heard people talk on the street and in stores about the war in Europe. They spoke of children orphaned, people starving, and losing their homes. Our neighbors, the Baranskies, told my parents they had lost contact with their family ever since the Nazis invaded Poland. I’m sure Sigmund Freud would have traced my childhood nightmares back to all those visuals, yet those pictures of weaponry and soldiers fascinated me. I would thumb through periodicals and newspapers searching for images of them.
In 1941, we lived in Palm Beach Florida. Our house was a rental, one of nine single-story duplexes that were within walking distance to a public beach. It was a Sunday morning. My dad sat at the kitchen table. He wore a white sleeveless undershirt that exposed a Merchant Marine tattoo on his upper left arm. He puffed on a cigar as he read the news. I sat next to him engrossed in the comic section of the paper. My Mother, who was an attractive, 27-year-old brunette was mixing pancake batter at the kitchen counter.

As my father read, he mumbled, “We’re gonn’a be in a war soon.”

Mom turned to look at him. “Did you say something, Bob?”

“Yeah. Looks like Roosevelt’s dead set on continuing to send war equipment and supplies to England and Russia.”
“So, why should we care?” She asked.
“Because the next thing you know, America will be at war with Germany again.”
As Mom poured pancake batter into a hot pan, she said, “I don’t believe it. My friend, Mona told me that some news guy on the radio said Americans want no part of the war in Europe, and the government will never send our soldiers to fight over there.”
Dad shook his head, and snorted. “So, Mona, the ‘pom-pom’ tells you what some gullible idiot said over the radio, and you believe it?”
“Mona is up on all the latest political stuff.”
Dad blew smoke across the table, “I’m glad you have a reliable source that keeps you up with world affairs.”
“Mona said that Lindbergh is supporting something called the pacifism movement which will keep us out of the war. He’s quite influential with the people, you know.”
“All that hoopla don’t amount to a hill of beans. Just because he was the first to fly across the Atlantic doesn’t mean he will be able to influence Roosevelt to keep us out of the conflict. From what I’ve read, we’re already involved.”
Mom raised her eyebrows. “How?”
“I told you! Roosevelt is shipping tanks, planes, and cannons over to Russia and Britain.”
Mom looked at Dad dubiously. “How do you know?”
“I’m reading it right here. There’s even a picture of the stuff being loaded onto freighters over in Savannah.”
Mom flipped the pancakes over in the pan. “Since when?”
“Since April. Haven’t you been reading about it in the papers?”
“I mostly read Hedda Hopper and the ads. Don’t pay much attention to politics. If I want to know what’s going on in the government, I ask Mona.”
“You can’t learn about world events from Hedda Hopper’s column. She reports on celebrity stuff.”
I stood up and leaned over to look at the pictures my father mentioned. “Doesn’t that make Hitler mad?”
“It must!”
“Does that mean America will go to war, Dad?”
“It might. Don’t know for sure.” He blew a smoke ring across the table.
Mom flared up. “For Christ sake, Bob, don’t speak to the child that way. He’s too young to know anything about it.”
“That’s what you think. Kids his age know something is going on. You wait and see. One of these days a Nazi U-Boat will torpedo a freighter off our coast and Roosevelt will have to declare war.”
“Germany is too far away. It’ll never happen.” Mom mused.
“You and Mona, including that jerk on the radio are living in a dream world, and so is half the country. Washington’s been getting ready for war. Why do you think they started registration for the draft last year?”
Mom frowned with concern. “What happens if you don’t register?”
“Not sure. Maybe a fine or jail.”
I had never heard of the draft. “What’s registering for the draft mean, Dad?”
“Gene, don’t interrupt when I’m talking to your father!” Then she asked Dad, “Did you register?”
My father blew smoke toward the ceiling, “What for?”
She threw her arms up in disgust, “So you don’t get in trouble. That’s why!”
“Just never got around to it. Anyway, they probably won’t call up family men.”
She transferred the pancakes to a platter and poured more batter into the pan. “Are you sure about that?”
“No, just supposing.”
Mom shifted her hips defiantly and pointed the spatula at him. “For heaven’s sake, Bob! Don’t you think you should look into it? What if you get arrested? What would happen to me and Gene if you end up sitting in jail?”
Dad took another puff from his cigar and reached for his coffee cup. “You’ll do what any faithful wife who cares about her husband would do! Bake me a cake with a hacksaw inside.”
Mom’s cheeks reddened. “Darn it, you’re not funny! You sit there and smoke like you don’t have a care in the world while I worry about you getting in trouble with the law.”
Dad scratched his chest. “You worry too much. I’ll deal with it when the time comes. You tend to worry even when things are going well. You’ve got to quit looking at the morbid side of everything.”
Mom placed both hands on her hips. “Well, things usually don’t turn out good for me.”
“You wish it on yourself. Right after we got married you became riled up when I couldn’t find work.”
“You bet I did! I agreed to marry you because Brogan promised to make you a partner in his business, but he never did.”
“No fault of mine or his. Too many people lost their jobs and stopped eating out. He had no choice, but to close the restaurant.”
Mom transferred the last batch of pancakes onto the platter. “We ended up with you working on your parents’ farm for room and board and fifteen dollars a month for spending money. It was like getting an allowance for being a good boy and keeping your room clean.”
Dad’s face flushed. He removed the cigar from his mouth and jammed it into an ashtray, folded his paper, and angrily tossed it onto an empty kitchen chair. “Remember? We married and had a kid during this depression. The farm provided a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. You didn’t have to eat at soup kitchens or sleep on the street like so many poor souls had too. Did you?”
He drank his coffee, and under his breath, I heard him mumble, “She’d complain about being hungry with two loaves of bread under her arms.”
“I hated living with your parents.” Mom said.
“It wasn’t so bad. Gene loved the farm and being around all the animals. He played outdoors all summer long.”
“Sure. He’d get dirty and tracked cow manure into the house. I was the one that had to clean it up.”
Dad chuckled, and winked at me. “It was good, clean dirt. Wasn’t it, Gene?”
“Yeah, Pop.” I knew he was having fun with my mother.
He continued, “You just tracked it into the house to see if it looked good blended with the rugs.”
“No, Dad. I didn’t mean to. It got stuck on my shoes. Didn’t want to make Mom mad at me. Isn’t that why we moved out here?”
Dad looked at me questionably. “What do you mean, son?”
“Didn’t we move out here so I wouldn’t track manure into the house, and make Mom mad?”
They both laughed. “For heaven’s sake,” Dad remarked. “What gave you that idea? We moved out here because I got a swell job at the marina. I liked the farm but the winters are too cold. Made my joints hurt, I feel better living here.”
Mom added, “And Gene always caught bad colds. Don’t you remember all the times he missed school?”
She placed the platter of pancakes on the table, sat down, and said, “Put the funny papers away, Gene. Eat your food before it gets cold!” Then in a softer voice, she asked my father, “You think the Germans would come here? Europe is so far away.”
“It won’t surprise me. A yachtsman told me he spotted a periscope in the water off Ponte Verda Beach. There’s been some talk that the government might commandeer privately owned boats for submarine patrols.”
Mom shook her head, pushed a strand of long black hair away from her face, and rolled her eyes with skepticism. “Baloney! They’re just flapping their lips!”
“Maybe, but the Coast Guard started a mounted beach patrol to watch for Nazi spies that might try sneaking ashore from submarines.”
When he mentioned, ‘mounted patrol’, it spiked my interest. I leaped up from the chair. “Dad, do you mean they’re riding horses just like cowboys in the movies? Are they wearing guns?”
“Yep. Just like the cowboys in the movies, except they’re sailors and they also have dogs with them. I’ve seen them on the beach.”
“Wow! Can you take me to see them?”
Before he had to chance to answer, my mother reached out and forced me back in the chair, “Let’s stop this crazy stuff, Bob! You’re scaring the boy.”
“No he’s not, Mom. I want him to tell me about the sailors and their dogs.”
“Stop pestering Daddy! When you’re finished eating, put your dishes and silverware in the sink, and go to the bathroom and brush your teeth. We’re going to the beach with Phyllis and Margaret.”
“Oh boy! Is Dad coming with us?”
“No. He’s working today.”
She stood up from the table and as she collected the plates and utensils, I heard her sigh and whisper under her breath, “Wars, Shmors. My God, what’s the world coming to?”

About the author:

Gene enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve while attending high school and served in both, active and inactive duty during the latter part of the Korean War. After graduating from Arizona State University at Tempe, he became an educator.After his retirement, Gene became a historical narrator and speaker of military history and territorial law enforcement for the Arizona Historical Society, Mesa Southwest Museum, and the Elder Hostel. He published articles on the early American west.

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