Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Fiction post #17

I was nine years old when the first world war, known to us as the Great War, started. It was such an abstract notion to me and my brother, armies an ocean away clashing in exotic countires over a Duke I'd only ever heard of. As children it fascinated my brother and I. We made guns out of branches, gave ourselves exorbitant commissions and generally made tremendous nuisances of ourselves.

My daddy worked in a new munitions factory, having been offered better pay than his old job as a site foreman, and during dinner, over beef stew and wonderbread, he would show us casings he brought home. Once he dropped one so big it smashed one of mother's striped brown water glasses. Her mouth was tight as she mopped up the spilt milk. I think that is what initially turned her off the war, despite all our talk of grandiose adventures. That night, as I hid under the covers to read comics, I heard them arguing, and no more munitions were brought home.

The damage was done, for all mother's machinations, and my brother surprised us a week after his 18th birthday by announcing he was enlisting. His face expected praise; he was a naiive fool. Mother held his shoulders and sobbed, pressing his face into her bosom, like he was a toddler again. She eventually cried herself sick and retired to bed. My father turned on him, shouting how could he be so selfish, and he was complete idiot. My brother stood up to defend himself, but their argument bored and scared me, so I went upstairs and amused myself by dropping increasingly larger objects into the full tub.
Presently my brother sat next to me and asked if I would mind, little Rosie-dosie, if he left for a bit to save the world and I asked why couldn't I come and he laughed and said maybe when I was older and not a girl. I remember hoping I'd grow into a big man soon. Due to some confusing health classes I thought I would grow from a girl to a woman to a man. It was many years before science cleared this up.

Two weeks later my brother boarded the loud, black, train that would carry him to parts unknown. The platform was packed, so my daddy picked me up to wave good-bye. He smelled like cologne and I knew he'd dressed up. As the train groaned and ponderously lumbered away my mother used her strong Italian elbows to work her way to the front of the crowd, hand outstretched, reaching, framed by the rivets on the windows, desperately trying to hold his hand, just once more, please. The train picked up speed, there was one brief touch, then she was alone, on the platform, hair just a bit loose, swaying with the crowd.

The day the letter came, she swayed the same way. She couldn't speak, just sank onto the couch as my father snatched the white paper from her hands. It was very brief, as they always were, and heavily censored, but we understood this:
His term of service was over soon, and he had fallen in love and married a beautiful italian girl that summer.
My mother wept she was so relieved, then fumed she had not been told sooner, then fretted when she realized the letter was late, that they would be here in a month! She spent the first two weeks cleaning, then the next two cooking. Everything. When I told her he wasn't going to bring the whole army with him, she swatted me and muttered something about "healthy grandchildren".

When my brother and his wife returned home, we invited over the whole family and celebrated. They petted over how much he'd grown, wondered at his huge arms, and rejoiced over his medals. He told us about all but one of them, saying it would worry mama. He told me later; he'd pulled a friend off the battlefield, patched him up, and carried him seven miles to safety. When I pressed him, how could he do that, he rolled up his sleeve and flashed his bicep at me with a cheeky grin.

Years later, another war followed and I followed my father to the muntitions factory. On my way there, in my blue coveralls, hair tucked under a red handkerchief, an artist stopped me asking, did I think we could win the war?
I remembered my brother's confident smile, rolled up my sleeve, and announced, "We can do it!"
And the rest? Is history.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

An interesting history for Rosie the Riveter! Though I had always imagined her working in an airplane factory; not sure why. Is the Italian thing important? It threw me off for a bit because I assumed that it was a Canadian family in the beginning and then I thought maybe they were in Italy. lol, mapa

Michelle Ernst said...

Well, the thing is, after I had the idea and wrote it, I researched the thing, and the picture (red kerchief and blue shirt, arm bared "we can do it") is not Rosie. Rosie was in an airplane factory, but I liked the munitions bit so much, and the picture, and the name, i just mushed it all together. ^u ^ Good memory mom!
The idea was an Italian family in either Canada or the U.S. It's not really essential, I just wanted to give a better picture of the mother, so I kinda thought of the greek mom from "big fat greek wedding" and changed her a little.