In a Little While Ch. 01bybarabajagal001©
This is the first of a series of stories inspired by songs. In this case, "In a Little While" from the 2000 U2 album, "All That You Can't Leave Behind."
Fred paused over his arithmetic to gaze out his bedroom window. It was lightly fogged, and heavy drops of rain spattered it relentlessly. His mind was a thousand miles away - well, really, about five thousand miles away. That rainy afternoon in January of 1944, he was thinking about his childhood friends, scattered across the globe, fighting for their lives, and his. Some were in Italy, some on ships in the South Pacific, and others were in England, preparing for the next Allied offensive, wherever that would be. Some - like Bobby Derrick from down the street - had already come back to town for a short furlough before heading off to the front lines, and others - like Tommy, and Sandy, and so many more - would never return.
His arithmetic homework just seemed so trivial in comparison to what those other boys were suffering, and what's more, his eighteenth birthday was mere weeks away. In March, he would have to register for the draft, and it would only be a matter of time before his number would be up - if he didn't enlist first. After all, depending on who you believed, the Allies were winning, pushing the Axis back everywhere they went. Maybe the war would even be over before he left basic training, he thought, a trifle uncomfortably. It was supposed to be a mark of honor to enlist and head off to war with your head held high, eager for a fight, but Fred wasn't exactly in a hurry to get shot at. He kept that thought to himself, though, not knowing if it was cowardice or intelligence. Could it be both?
By many accounts, though, wartime was supposed to be fun and exciting for the young men who enlisted. Adventure, serving your country, becoming a hero, and the girls! Fred had heard all about the pretty girls who were constantly chasing after servicemen overseas. And although it seemed incredible at first, the reactions of the local girls to men who were on furlough or boys who announced their intention to enlist were so positive, he couldn't help but believe that all the things he had heard must be true.
His thoughts turned a bit closer to home, thinking that he had already found the prettiest girl in the world - Alice Wright. She was his next-door neighbor, the only daughter of his mother's childhood friend. Alone in the room, he felt his face flush hotly. Crossing to his bed, he lay on his back and stared at the ceiling, remembering the day he first saw Alice. He had been four years old, and his mother had been all aflutter at the fact that the Wrights were moving back into town with their baby girl.
They had met Mrs. Wright on the sidewalk outside their house, just heading out for a walk as she was. She was pushing a pram, Alice fast asleep within it. He had peered in to see her, and her cherubic face struck him immediately. Her golden curls were splayed across her forehead, and as he looked at her, she awoke, her bright green eyes blinking up at him. He had never forgotten that first look, as her pretty lips curled into a smile. He had loved her from that very moment.
Alice had never seemed to share his feelings, however. She would prattle on to him for hours as a child about her various fancies. When she grew older, those fancies mainly turned to her many beaus and other admires. About the time he entered high school, she had stopped dropping by his house afternoons. Now, they only saw each other their parents' twice-monthly bridge night.
As he sat in silence, he heard the rumblings of his parents chatting downstairs. Probably his father was telling his mother about his day at work, and his mother was putting the finishing touches on the roast she had prepared for dinner. Just another day in the suburbs of Chicago, he thought morosely. But then he remembered that it was just such a bridge night, and he couldn't stop the smile from crossing his face. He wondered if Alice had returned from visiting her grandparents in Boston.
His thoughts were interrupted by the doorbell. He tossed a look at himself in his mirror on his way downstairs. Tall, slim but not nearly as skinny as he had been as a child, short brown hair, brown eyes. Nothing wrong with his looks, at least. He smoothed his hands down the front of his green vest with its dark green tie, hanging smartly to the waistband of his brown slacks. A fire crackled merrily in the sitting room, and he joined his parents as they were greeting the Wrights.
Alice entered after her parents, slipping her fur-lined coat off to reveal a filmy pink dress underneath, frilly and feminine. It seemed almost too grown-up for the almost-15 year old wearing it. She handed him the coat, smiling demurely at him.
"Good evening. My, Freddie Wright, how you've grown," she said. It was true that he'd grown a few inches, but he hadn't thought she would notice.
"You're looking well yourself, Alice. How was your visit with your grandparents?"
"Lovely, thank you for asking. Boston is such an exciting city, and there were so many charming young men calling," she teased. He shook his head, resigned to the fact that she regarded him with no more than sisterly affection. He hung her coat up in the front closet, noticing as he did that it smelled lightly of gardenias. Then he turned, and gallantly offered her his arm to escort her to the dining room.
"Such an old-fashioned gesture," she giggled.
"Well, I know I can't compete with the handsome boys you're always meeting, so I resolve to at least be entertaining."
To that, she seemed to have no answer.
Dinner conversation revolved mostly about the war - what else? - due in part to the fact that Paul Wright worked in an administrative capacity at nearby Fort Sheridan. He had access to some of the latest news, and always had stories about the young men entering the armed forces. Fred hung on every word, hoping to hear some clue that the war was drawing to an end, but no such assurances came tonight. Only word that more and more young men were passing through Fort Sheridan each day - many going out, and a sad few returning.
After dinner, the four adults would generally retire to the parlor to play bridge over coffee. Most of the time, Alice would go with them and work on her sewing, while Fred slipped off to his bedroom to work on his homework. Sometimes, though, Fred would decide to go into the den to listen to the radio, and these times Alice would accompany him. Tonight, he knew his mind was useless for homework, so he went to the den, Alice trailing behind him.
Fred found a station playing Glenn Miller, and sat back on the couch to listen and wait for news bulletins. Alice sat beside him gingerly. She pulled out her sewing, but set it aside.
"Freddie," she began uncertainly, "you're going to enlist, aren't you?"
"You are, I can tell! I saw you at dinner, how much attention you were paying to Daddy. You've already made up your mind, you can tell me."
He glanced briefly at the door, but knew their parents couldn't hear them. "I don't see what else there is to do, Alice. Odds are good I would get called up sooner or later, and the manly thing to do is enlist before that happens. Our country needs me."
"What about your parents? They need you, too."
"They'll understand. They have to. I'm just glad that Dad didn't have to go, for Mom's sake. At least she'll have them while I'm away."
"What about me?" she asked in a small voice. His mouth went dry. He looked at her, but she looked down at her lap. He felt hot all over, but refused to even hope. She hadn't meant it that way.
"What about you?" he asked, seriously.
"I, well, I..." she faltered. "I'll miss you." she finished lamely.
"I'll miss you, too, Alice," he said, and ventured a friendly pat. She opened her mouth as if to speak, but shut it again. She grabbed her sewing and stabbed her needle into the cloth, trying to look very busy. The radio had moved on from Glenn Miller to Cole Porter's "You'd be Nice to Come Home To." He would have left the entire topic alone, but he noticed a tear slip from the corner of her eye. She wiped at it hastily.
"Alice, I..." She looked up at him, shimmering eyes threatening to spill over. "Oh, don't cry, Alice. It won't be that bad. I'll be home before you know it. And when I am, maybe..."
Alice wiped her eyes and looked at him expectantly. In the pause that followed, Alice's mother June called her from the parlor. She dashed off, and Fred was left alone with his thoughts.
Fred wasn't sure, in the weeks that followed, whether he was sorry or grateful that he had not bared his soul to Alice. He still didn't think that she was interested in him romantically. But more than that, he wasn't sure it was fair to saddle her with the knowledge of his affections right before he left for war. He didn't want to leave her with a false sense of hope. Even more honestly, he didn't want to leave himself with false hope that she would - could - wait for him. Perhaps his tour would only be for 12 or 18 months, but one never knew what would happen in the interim, or where he would go afterward.
She hadn't spoken to him at all since that night, which wasn't exactly unusual, but filled him with trepidation.
News on the war front had not been comforting, either. Allied forces had stagnated in Italy, and were pushing slowly forward in the Pacific. The first week of March had him looking dreadfully forward to his birthday on the 9th.
The night before his birthday, his parents invited the Wrights out to dinner at the Bismarck Hotel - appropriately prophetic, he thought to himself - in downtown Chicago. He had dressed in his best suit, combed his hair carefully with water, and got into a cab with his parents. When they arrived at the Bismarck, Fred saw Alice and her parents already waiting in the lobby. Alice turned to meet his eyes, and his breath was stolen away from him in one great rush.
She was wearing a butter-yellow chiffon dress - out of season, he supposed, but her heavy winter coat would have kept her plenty warm - that complemented her complexion and highlighted her gentle curves. He took her hand and kissed the back of it, eliciting a small smile from her otherwise too-serious face. Alice wasn't the only one; in fact, all six of them were rather subdued, especially for a celebratory occasion. It was as if they all knew what he was going to say. Perhaps they did.
"Everyone, I want to say thank you for celebrating my birthday with me. There isn't another way to say this, so I'll just come straight out. Tomorrow, instead of going to school, I'm going to go up to Fort Sheridan and enlist. Mom, I know you're probably disappointed that I won't be staying to graduate, but I think our country needs me as soon as I'm able."
Wiping away her tears, his mother looked at him and said, "Freddie, I could never be disappointed in you. We're both proud you're making the choice that's right for you." The other adults nodded their agreement, and only Alice refused to meet his gaze. He encouraged everyone to talk of other things, and the mood lightened a little. Still, he could see that Alice remained upset.
After dinner, they called two cabs to take them back home. Fred plucked up his courage and addressed the Wrights. "I'd like to ask your permission to escort Alice back home in one of the cabs alone. Mom, Dad, is that all right with you both?"
The Wrights exchanged looks, and Paul eventually said, "Well, I guess that would be all right."
"Sure, Son. Come straight home though, okay?"
When the cabs pulled up, Fred opened the door for Alice, and slid in beside her. He gave the address to the cab driver, and waited until they pulled away from the curb. Then he tentatively slid his arm across Alice's shoulders. He felt her stiffen, and then relax into him. He smelled gardenias. The city looked beautiful to him tonight, awash in pale moonlight and the headlights of cabs. They rode in silence for about ten minutes before either of them spoke.
"Freddie?" Alice began, in a small voice.
"I just wanted to tell you that I'm proud of you, and I think you're doing the right thing." His heart swelled and he pulled her just a bit closer to him. "I also wanted to ask if you would do me a favor."
"I wondered if you would give me a kiss." He stared in surprise at her, but found that she was looking away from him. Before he could answer, she went on. "I know it's an awfully forward thing to ask, but I was always hoping that you would get around to it one day or another, and now you're going off to war, and I'm afraid that...I'm afraid."
Suddenly understanding, he pulled back, and touched her cheek lightly. She turned to face him, and in that moment, he felt a dim sense of purpose. He did not want to leave her alone, to go and face his fate among the thousands of other unnamed boys in Europe or the Pacific. But he knew there was nothing else he could do. If he didn't go now, how could he ever feel that he had done everything he could to keep this sweet girl safe? At once, it seemed very important that he didn't die without at least one kiss.
He leaned into her, noticing her long eyelashes glinting in the headlamp of an oncoming car. His heart was beating quickly, and he touched his lips briefly to hers before he lost his nerve. He pulled back only a fraction of an inch, and then brushed lips again, reveling in the softness of hers. Her blonde curls tickled against his cheek. Pressing their mouths firmly together for a moment, he then pulled back and was gratified to see a slight pinking of her cheeks. They didn't speak again until the cab pulled up in front of Alice's house. Fred again opened the door for her and, seeing that their parents had not yet arrived, risked pecking her on the cheek once more before she disappeared inside.
The second week of June, Fred spent the weekend at home with his parents before shipping out to Fort Dix, New Jersey, and then on to England. His mother kept trying not to cry, and his father expressed himself with hearty claps on the back. He wasn't able to get much time alone with Alice, but inexplicably found himself holding her tightly in the den on Sunday evening, sharing several long, tender kisses. Alice sniffed back her tears, and preceded him into the parlor, where his parents and the Wrights waited to see him off.
"Promise to write," she said to him.
He strode off into the cold night, and couldn't look back.
By the time Fred had reached England, he had already made a few friends in his company - Terrance and Jim, both from Boston, and Isaac, from Kansas, all 18. Isaac was a soft, sensitive youth who had grown up really in between cornfields. His mother had all but begged him not to enlist, but there was no changing his mind. He loved spinning the dials on the radio to find any classical music at all, but he had a special appreciation for Handel's "Messiah," and would often be heard humming movements from it. Though he seemed the most innocent, he actually had the most experience with girls. As he put it, there wasn't much else to do back there.
Terrance was the youngest son in his family of four boys, two of whom were also serving, but both in the Pacific. His mother also worried constantly, of course, but in his family it was taken as a given that he would enlist, no question about it. He was the tallest of them, always eating something in order to maintain his strength. He carried a picture of Betty Grable with him.
Jim was the only one of the four who hadn't actually enlisted. He had been drafted eight months after his eighteenth birthday, and was serving not unhappily with the others. He had jet-black hair and was always cracking jokes to lighten the atmosphere. Fred felt he probably liked Jim the best.
Like any typical young men, they talked of little else but girls and battles. The Allied siege on the beaches of Normandy had already begun, so there was no doubt where they were headed. His mother had written, in her recently-typical restrained fashion, that she was grateful that he had at least not been on the front lines in France. The news had not looked good, despite progress being made up the beaches.
To distract themselves from their impending departure from England, the boys spent as much time chatting about the pretty girls on base as possible.
"Before I die, I want to bed a girl," Jim announced as he lay back on his bunk one evening.
"Haven't you?" asked Isaac in surprise.
"Not me. What about you, Fred?"
"I haven't either, I'm afraid. Haven't even got to second base," he said. Terrance also nodded his agreement, and Jim frowned, shaking his head.
"Boys, I'm ashamed of all of us. Maybe it's time to take a trip down to the neighborhood like some of the guys do, and see if we can't fix that."
"I don't know if that's such a good idea. We don't want to get sick," said Terrance, thinking of the anti-prostitution posters that were plastered up around base. They were all silent for a minute. Then Isaac sat up and snapped his fingers.
"Sure, we can find some nice local girls! I overheard some of the cleaning girls talk about a party to welcome some of the new men - and that's us! She said a bunch of the base girls should be there, Peggy, and Elizabeth, and Jenny, and Karen, and Lila, and all of those girls..."
Jenny. That sealed it for Fred. Jenny was a sweet, bouncy girl that worked on the base in the records office. She had a round, pretty face and always smiled the nicest smiles. The thought of bringing her to bed gave him a quick twinge in the groin. He realized Isaac was still talking.
"...be in about a half hour, and we can just make it if we get ready now." They rushed to check that their uniforms were properly pressed and that they looked presentable, and then headed off to the flat that some of the girls shared.
As soon as Fred walked in, he saw Jenny, giggling away next to a table with some bottles of wine and spirits. She was huddled with two other girls, and he was delighted to see that she was not in her work uniform. Rather, she wore a bubblegum pink jumper. And her hair wasn't pulled back in a bun, but in a long, bouncy ponytail! She was even wearing makeup. He scanned the rest of the room, and saw about a dozen others, men in uniform and girls in party dresses. Some were dancing to the Andrews Sisters coming over the radio, some were slouching around talking, and one indiscreet couple was making out in the corner. It was warm.
When Fred finally saw the girls peel away from Jenny, she was turning to pour herself another glass of wine. He went over to the table to get a drink himself, and glanced sidewise at her.
"Hi there, Jenny," he said.
"Oh, hi Fred! It's good to see you!" she replied in her cute accented voice. "How are you liking London?"
"Well, I haven't seen much of it, but there are some awfully pretty girls."
"I'm sure you have plenty of lovely ladies back home in the States."
With a twinge of guilt, Fred responded, "of course, but not like you, Jenny." She gave him a smile that melted his heart, and took his hand.
"Would you like to go up to my room, Fred?" He could only nod in response, and she led him away.
Jenny's bedroom was awash in the soft golden light of the lamp on her bedside table. It was a narrow room with two beds, two desks, and a washbasin. The bed Jenny led him to was small, with a metal frame and a thick pink quilted spread. There were framed pictures of Cary Grant and Gregory Peck hung on the wall, and her bedside table was littered with gum wrappers, a hairbrush, and a cross. She sat on the bed, cocked an eyebrow at him, and said, "Bottoms up!" She drained her wineglass, and he followed suit, tossing back the small glass. The whiskey burned going down, but shortly he felt more relaxed.