The Luck of the Irish
As usual, Grand
Central Terminal was a sea of uniforms.
Harry had seen military personnel of every service and rating in
the few minutes he’d been inside, the men clutching sea bags and duffle
bags and occasionally the hand of wives, daughters or girlfriends as they
raced to catch their trains. There
were also plenty of senior officers.
The sling that kept his still healing right arm taut against the
breast of his uniform spared him from delivering a salute, but he had
nodded respectfully, and received many an answering acknowledgement in
return, often accompanied by a speculative stare.
He had recognized no one, and could not imagine they were trying to
recall where they had seen him before.
He had at first assumed it was because of the sling or the awkward
way he walked slowly along, making sure he kept his head as still as
possible; no sudden headaches that way.
The line of stitches was no longer visible, either (his mother had
been particularly anxious about that; he had been especially happy to see
how relieved she had looked when he took off his cover and the red hair
she was so proud of was at last evenly distributed all over his head).
Eventually it had dawned on him that the officers weren’t looking
at his face but at the shiny new stripe on his sleeves (even with wartime
promotions being what they were, he was much younger than most 0-4s) and
the medal ribbons under the golden dolphins that graced the front of his
dress blues. Not at the
Purple Heart ribbon, the reason for that was obvious; but at the blue and
white ribbon at the first of the line. They had to be wondering how such an untroubled-looking
Lieutenant Commander had earned the Navy Cross. Or what was more likely, how he was still alive to wear it.
about that himself during the two months he’d spent in the hospital at
Pearl recuperating from his injuries.
Serving aboard a submarine meant your chances of coming back alive
were slim. If God had spared
him for a reason, it was pretty obscure at the moment, since he was
heading back into the fray as soon as he could get there. Harry had
eventually chalked it up to “the luck of the Irish,” which was as good
a reason as any, and the one that he gave to his parents and the friends
that came to see him during the month he’d spent on medical leave at
home. As far as he was
concerned he was ahead of the game; that his eyes shifted in alarm
whenever he heard a sharp noise or experienced a sudden movement his
senses couldn’t immediately identify was just something he was dealing
with, and it didn't happen very often anymore.
There were always injuries that could not be seen.
The pain was worse for those, he had decided.
But time seemed to be taking care of it all.
With leave ending,
he was heading to San Francisco to pick up a ride back to Pearl and the Stingfish. The only thing really bothering him now was the realization
that he’d missed the “big show,” the drive to take back the
Philippines. Contributing to
the operation’s success was small recompense.
At least he’d been given a chance to read about what he had done
when Admiral Nimitz had pinned the two medals, the Navy Cross and the
Purple Heart, to his pajama top as he lay in the hospital bed at Pearl.
There had been no fanfare, no notice that CINCPAC was coming until
he had suddenly appeared in Harry’s room, accompanied by an aide
carrying the medal boxes, the award citation and two brand new lieutenant
commander oak leaves. The
Admiral had begun to read the citation, and then stopped and handed it to
Harry with a faint chuckle, saying “Since it’s just the three of us in
here, son, you might as well read it yourself.”
The operation was Top Secret, of course; the Admiral’s aide had
retrieved the paperwork as soon as Harry had finished, and admonished him
from saying anything. When
his uniform was returned to him with the extra gold stripe the promotion
became a reality. Still, he could see the disbelief in the other men’s eyes
as they walked past him. He’d
shrugged and figured time would take care of that, too.
Harry had prepared
himself as much as possible for the crush of humanity at Grand Central and
there had been no surprises. Besides
the soldiers and sailors and Marines there were plenty of private citizens
needing to get somewhere, and they all seemed to have made their way here,
filling up every seat and bench in the waiting rooms. He was very pleased that the trunk he had brought along had
gone immediately from the cab to a waiting redcap, so the only thing he
had with him was his bridge coat. That
was slung over his good arm, the heat from enormous boilers and thousands
of bodies keeping the temperature at a comfortable level inside the
terminal, easily fighting off the cold from the November afternoon
outside. Even so, having left his hotel early the thought of standing for
a long period of time was vexing.
Not that his head gave him much trouble anymore, he was careful to
keep it on as even a keel as possible.
The arm was coming along, too.
No, it was the fatigue that crept through every muscle and bone
when he became especially tired that was bothersome.
But there was nothing to be done.
If standing up was to be his only choice at the moment, he might as
well do it while exchanging his reservation for a real ticket.
He was in luck.
He darted into place right in front of one of the porters fastening
a “closed” sign across the chain that outlined the various ticket
lines. There were about a
dozen people in front of him, not bad at all.
Then he could start searching for a place to wait out his train.
Just ahead of him
was a woman with two children, one a babe in arms and the other a little
boy. The baby began to squirm
and she began to fuss with it as the older of the two, who had been
clinging to her shabby coat, turned and looked up at Harry.
The boy was about 6 or 7 years old, with light hair and freckled
skin. He was dressed in long
corduroy pants and a plaid shirt peeking out from a dark sweater.
The boy's large blue eyes stared inquiringly up at Harry as they
studied each other. He looked
a lot like himself at that age, Harry thought.
“’lo,” the boy
answered, looking Harry up and down.
“Do you fly airplanes, mister?”
The question was
unexpected, and Harry smiled again. “No,
I’m stationed aboard a submarine.”
The child thought
about that for a moment, and then nodded solemnly. “My daddy’s a pilot.
He’s got shiny things on his uniform, like you.
You prob’ly don’t know my daddy, but his name is--“ and here
he let go of his mother’s coat and facing Harry squarely, put his hands
on his hips “--Captain Charles Bradley.
That’s my name, too. I’m
Charles Bradley the Third. You can call me Charlie.
I’m going to grow up and be just like my daddy.”
Harry bent down,
grunting a little as he moved his bandaged arm, and ruffled the boy’s
blond hair, which was sticking up like cornstalks.
“I’m sure your father will be very proud of you, Charlie.”
He chatted with
Charlie for a few minutes, taking stock of the child’s threadbare pants
and the sweater that showed a few moth holes in the material. The sweater didn’t look too warm. From a pocket of his coat Harry pulled out the thick wool
scarf his aunt Lillian had knitted for him, the navy blue scarf she’d
made when he’d been accepted at the Naval Academy, and placed it around
the boy’s neck.
“This is something
like your father would have, I’m sure.
I want you to have it, Charlie.”
The boy’s eyes
glowed with pleasure, and then the smile on his face turned downwards.
“I dunno, mister. My mom prob’ly wouldn’t like me takin’ pwesents.” He
picked up the tail of the scarf and fingered it.
“This is sure nice. I
think my daddy’s got one like it.”
“It won’t be a
present, then.” Harry
considered that for a moment, and then spoke again.
“It’s a prize. You
win the prize for... helping your mother with, uh, chores.
I’m sure you’ve had to do... some...something, anyway,” he
added quickly, groping for the words.
How did one talk to a
boy? He wasn’t at all sure
how it was done. Children
were something he had absolutely no experience with.
“But I haven’t
helped with any chores. Not
today, anyway.” Charlie
slowly began to unwrap the scarf. “I
guess I better give it back,” he said slowly and ever so reluctantly.
“Not at all, not
at all,” Harry said, wrapping the scarf back up again. “I didn’t say the chores had to be today, did I? “
Charlie’s brows knit together.
Harry could almost see the thought processes behind the boy’s
eyes. It took a few more
seconds, and then the youngster looked up with a smile, revealing a
missing front tooth. “Oh
yeah, I helped momma move the kitchen chair so Becky could sit better.
That was yesterday,” he said proudly.
blew his cheeks out in a quiet sigh of relief.
“See, I knew you’d think of something.
I’ll just speak with your mother and explain everything.”
up, and it was then he realized that the child’s mother was engaged in a
heated conversation with the ticket agent, an officious looking fellow who
had obviously been doing this job for a long time.
The little girl that the woman had in her arms, the spitting image
of her brother, was clutching the top of her mother's shoulder and looking
back at Harry with alarm as her mother bobbed up and down, arguing with
the clerk. It was obvious the
conversation wasn't going well.
“My parents will
pay the minute the train pulls into Chicago, I swear! Please, my husband’s just left again, I’m moving back
home with my kids until...” and here her voice began to break,
“...until he gets back. He’s
going to come back,” she added, defiance showing through the slight
shaking of her voice. “I
don’t know what happened, I must have dropped my little bag with the
money when I came out of the subway.
But I still have the reservation for two seats, you see it
there.” She jabbed at the
paper the agent was holding in his hand.
“I’ve got to get on this train!”
the clerk said mechanically, every syllable putting the lie to the
sentiment. “I can’t give
away seats on a train without payment.
There’s a war on, you know.”
“Oh, don’t I
know it!” the young woman
cried, her voice raising, a twinge of hysteria seeping into the tone.
The boy immediately
abandoned his conversation with Harry and grabbed his mother’s coat
She turned around,
quickly wiping a tear from her cheek, and looked down at her son.
“It’s nothing, Charlie. Where
did you get that beautiful scarf? If
you found it on the floor, we’ve got to turn it into Lost and Foun---“
“It’s mine, Mrs.
Bradley,” Harry interjected. “Your
son and I have been having a contest, and he won.
I thought your son would like the scarf, and it seems that he
Harry saw a young
woman with dark circles under her eyes and bloodless lips that still
carried a thin outline of lipstick. He
could see the effort she was making to keep her emotions in check, the
only evidence of her fight the two bright spots of red on her cheeks. She had managed to button her cloth coat wrong, and the
material, as thin in its way as her son’s sweater, was bunched up
awkwardly under the child she was balancing on one hip.
A limp felt hat of dark grey perched on a head of tight brown
curls. She looked very young
to be the mother of two children. The
war had contrived to bring couples together for at least the semblance of
normal life, and hastening the arrival of children was high on that list.
Often what little down time there was for his fellow officers
aboard the Stingfish was
occupied by wardroom stories of families and peaceful times that seemed a
million years away. Just a
picture or a letter from home was all that kept many of the guys going,
and Harry no longer thought it odd to hear them say over and over that
that was what they were fighting for.
He, on the other hand, had made a commitment with his selection of
the "silent service" that he could not afford to put family
before career, nor worry about leaving a wife and children behind.
Given the rate of attrition on submarines, it was not something he
wanted to concern himself with in times of crisis.
Maybe that was selfish, maybe it was something else, but he did not
want to bear that burden.
Her eyes crinkled up
in a tight smile. “That’s
very kind of you, Mr...?”
ma’am. Lieutenant Harry...
Lieutenant Commander Harry Nelson.”
He would have to get used to saying that.
Behind them the
ticket agent sighed heavily. "I'm
going to lunch here soon, folks. If
you'll step aside, ma'am, I need to help this officer."
Her face, very pale
already, whitened further as her shoulders sagged. “We’ll get out of your way, Lieutenant Commander Nelson.
I’ve got to think of a way out of my problem, and I don’t want
to hold you up.”
The clerk started to
say something else, but Harry sent a warning glare his way, and the man
lapsed into silence. He
turned his attention back to Mrs. Bradley.
“Do I understand correctly, you’ve lost your money for the
She nodded, closing
her eyes, then opened them and quickly explained how the money she’d set
aside for the tickets had disappeared between the time she and her
children had trudged from the subway to the terminal (how she had managed
the children and the large suitcase by her side, Harry couldn’t
imagine). Now, as he had
heard, there was nothing the clerk could do.
As she said those words Harry could see her shoulders sag even
further. “So, I guess I’m stuck until I can wire my parents and
ask them for another ticket. Or
maybe Traveler’s Aid can help, I saw their booth as we came in.
At least,” she said, managing a larger smile, “it’s warm in
here. We’ll be alright.”
“I've got a better
idea. Pardon me.”
Harry moved up to the window and addressed the ticket agent.
“You'll see by my reservation I've got a compartment all the way
to San Francisco. I’ll turn
in my ticket, and you give this lady and her children my compartment to
Chicago, and give me her regular seats.”
He dug into his bridge coat again and pulled out the reservation.
With it came the two fifty dollar bills his father had handed over
as “pin money” for his son’s last few days of leave in San
Francisco. He surreptitiously
handed one over to the clerk. “And
I think there’s a difference of about fifty dollars, correct?
I’d like Mrs. Bradley to have that refund, also.”
The ticket agent
began shaking his head. “Weeeel,
I dunno about this. It’s
out of my level of responsibility and---”
Harry threw up a
hand, and the clerk stopped in mid-sentence.
His blue eyes hardening and mouth drawn together in a thin line,
Harry stared at him for a few moments.
Then, lowering his voice, he said evenly, “You will do what
I’ve asked you to do. You
said there was a war on? Well,
that's where Mrs. Bradley's husband is right now.
And I've just come from that war myself.
I wouldn’t recommend it. Now,
give me Mrs. Bradley’s two seats and give her my compartment, and
we’ll be out of your hair.”
The clerk didn’t
need to be asked twice. He
did not like the penetrating stare he had seen in the officer’s eyes,
the coldness that flashed for a moment and then vanished just as quickly. “Alright, whatever you say.
But why are you gonna need both seats?”
me--” and here Harry raised the sling “--and one’s for my arm.”
“Good enough for
me,” the clerk said, and began writing out the tickets. In a few minutes he was done, handing one to Harry and the
other to Mrs. Bradley. “There
ya go, ma’am. Have a nice
trip to Chicago!” he cried, obviously happy to be pulling down the shade
on his ticket window.
She looked down at
the ticket as if she was afraid it was going to sprout wings and fly away,
and when she spoke, the shaking was back in her voice.
“Sir, you have no idea....” The moment was broken by the little
girl, who reached up and tugged on her mother’s hat.
“Jenny, no!” she cried, laughing, and turned her attention back
to Harry, her eyes sparkling with unshed tears.
“My parents will reimburse you for the ticket, Lieutenant
Commander. It’s the least I
can do. But surely, with your
injuries, you’ll need somewhere comfortable to sleep!”
you spend a few months on a submarine, you find you can sleep anywhere.
I’ll be fine. And I will not accept payment for making sure
you’re taken care of. It’s
the least I can do for the wife of a fellow naval officer.”
Her brows drew
together, confusion written on her face.
“But Mr. Nelson, my husband’s in the Air
widened while he thought about that, and then the laughter roiled up from
within his chest. “I
obviously got the wrong impression from your son.”
He pointed towards the far side of the terminal, where he knew the
USO had set up a restaurant to feed the hordes of arriving and departing
troops. “How about a cup of
coffee? And Charlie here
could probably use a doughnut or two.”
“You’re an angel
in disguise, you know that, don’t you?”
It’s just my pleasure to assist the wife of a fellow officer.”
Harry paused and shaking his head ruefully, said with a laugh,
“No matter what service he’s in.”
say,” she said, joining in his laughter.
“And please stop calling me ma’am, and just call me Cynthia.”
“Nice to meet you,
Harry flagged down a
passing baggage truck and arranged for the suitcase to be put on their
Chicago-bound train. Then
they started off, Harry adjusting his usual quick pace to keep close to
the Bradleys. They had to do
a bit of pushing and shoving, Harry making sure to protect his arm as much
as possible, but eventually they arrived at the East Balcony, where the
USO’s Service Men’s Lounge beckoned.
To get to the Lounge
they had to pass under the huge mural that urged everyone to “Buy
Defense Bonds and Stamps Now!” The
mural, actually a giant photograph, had caught Charlie’s attention,
festooned as it was with airplanes, a battleship and two menacing-looking
tanks. It stretched from side
to side, easily over 100 feet wide. It
was an impressive sight.
Charlie had cried, and then immediately frowned.
“My daddy flies big airplanes, and those are little!
He flies Flying... Flying...”
Fortresses, Charlie, remember?" She turned her attention to Harry.
“B-17s. He’s over
in England at the moment.” She
looked down and ran her hand through her daughter’s curls, and Harry
thought he knew what she was thinking.
Although the plane had an amazing ability to return from a raid
shot to pieces, surviving the flak from raids over Germany was no easy
task. In a way, he
preferred subs. At least you
usually knew where the enemy was who was shooting at you.
“He’ll make it
back, Cynthia,” Harry blurted. “It’ll
be the luck of the Irish, just like it was for me.”
Her eyes glistening
again, Cynthia took a few seconds to adjust the baby’s coat.
“I have to believe that,” she said quietly.
“Charlie worships his father.”
Tossing her head, she threw Harry a dazzling smile.
“I’ll take some of that luck, Lieutenant Commander.
If you say it’s worked out all right for you, that’s good
enough for me!”
that with a grin, sidestepping a couple of Marines who were emerging from
the Lounge, both throwing a snappy salute as they caught side of his
insignia. “Your coffee
awaits, madam,” he said and with a wave of his hand indicated she should
go in first. They had walked
a few steps more when it became evident that the little boy wasn’t
Come along, son.”
move. This time, Harry did
In answer, the boy
came closer and shyly, slipped his hand into Harry’s. “Is it alright if I tell you more about my daddy?”
almost let go of the little hand that had slipped into his. He looked down at Charlie, who was studying another little
boy who was walking by with, Harry assumed, his mother and father, the man
in civilian clothes. How
lucky that other child was! How
lucky that he might never know the fear of the unknown that was a day to
day occurrence for this mother and her son.
The fear that Charles Bradley the Second would not make it back to
see his family again from a war that millions were fighting so that this
little boy, this Charlie Bradley the Third and so many others like him,
would once again be able to sleep in peace for many nights to come.
This is what everything is for,
Harry thought. Everything.
Charlie’s hand tighter. “Whatever
you say, champ. How about a
“Wherever you go and whatever you do,
the luck of the Irish be there with you. “
Old Irish Blessing
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