A Midwinter's Taleby Andrew M. Greeley
Stationed in Bamberg, Germany, in the chaotic aftermath of WWII, pint-sized Charles "Chucky" Cronin O'Malley can't seem to keep himself out of harm's way. Whether it be with black marketeers, border patrols, or even his commanding officer, Chucky always seems to land in impossible scrapes, relying on a quick wit and blind luck (or is it Heavenly intervention?) to… See more details below
Stationed in Bamberg, Germany, in the chaotic aftermath of WWII, pint-sized Charles "Chucky" Cronin O'Malley can't seem to keep himself out of harm's way. Whether it be with black marketeers, border patrols, or even his commanding officer, Chucky always seems to land in impossible scrapes, relying on a quick wit and blind luck (or is it Heavenly intervention?) to save his hide. And until the day he meets beautiful seventeen-year-old Trudi, a girl on the run from smugglers and the U.S. Army, he manages to keep himself in one piece. Trudi needs Chucky's help. If he isn't careful though, she may also make off with his heart.
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When we lived on Menard Avenue, I used to lie half-awake listening to my parents' conversation after the Bing Crosby program or Amos and Andy.
So I heard their conversation about love between Rosemarie and me.
I slept on an old couch in the enclosed front porch of our small third-floor apartment. My brother, Mike (called Michael by everyone else in the family), five years younger, slept on another couch against the opposite wall after he had graduated from his crib. Thick, royal blue drapes, tattered and worn, were drawn to shut out the streetlights, and an old carpet protected our feet from the concrete floor. In the winter a wheezy electric heater, glowing like a rising sun, and several layers of blankets kept us warm. Dilapidated shades hung on the other side of the glass doors to the living room. The doors would not close tightly so it was easy to hear my parents, but difficult to stay awake and follow what they were saying.
My memories of those days, brought back now so that, remembered, they may exist once again and forever, are hazy and insubstantial. The different time periods in my first twelve years, so long in their duration at the time, are mingled in my recollections. The boundaries between sleep and half-sleep, that magic time when you are still awake to enjoy your dreams, are uncertain. What I actually heard, what I dreamed I heard, what I wanted to hear, what I created because of my later experiences--all are fused in an intricate puzzle over which has been spread a patina of nostalgia, a golden glow of reconstructed joy with an occasional sharp pain.
The conversation I am about to describe certainly happened. I can locate it in time--late summer of 1940: Knute Rockne, All American, with Pat O'Brien as the Rock and a kid named Reagan as George Gipp, the Fall of France, the Battle of Britain, the German-American Bund, boogie-woogie, nylons, the early color movies (God's Country and the Woman was the first I saw), talk of a "third term" for Roosevelt, fifty-cent haircuts, and ten-cent beer.
I know the date because it was after our visit to the Clancys' home in Lake Geneva and my disgrace. I was a month short of my twelfth birthday. The worst of the Depression was over, but, as my parents would say, we had thought that before.
Although I recall lines of worry and exhaustion on both their faces, I do not remember anxious conversations about the Depression. Since I would later be obsessed by the Depression and our poverty, it is not likely that I would forget such discussions if they had taken place.
They would occasionally laugh about the day their "ship comes in," a common phrase in those days to anticipate in fantasy a prosperity that no one ever expected to see again.
Mostly their colloquies were interchanges between two good friends who shared many interests, including (though by no means exclusively) the four children for whom they were, surprisingly it seemed to them, responsible and St. Ursula parish, which was the matrix for their family life.
I recall the affectionate sound of their voices, the gentle outer surface of the masks they had adopted in their commedia dell'arte: my mother naive and shrewd, my father experienced and realistic. The tones were mere hints of character, and not always accurate revelations of the person behind the persona.
Nonetheless, I find myself on the edge of tears when I re-create, hopefully forever, those lost voices of gentle love.
I cannot recollect quarrels. Later my father would tell me that my mother's temper, once aroused, was a fearsome spectacle. Still later he would explain that I was unlikely ever to see it because she reserved such displays for her bedroom. Yet later he would hint that the reason was that in her personality one strong passion quickly changed to another.
Were these preludes to interludes of intense emotion when they went to their bedroom?
I must ask whether perhaps I came to be as part of one such episode. I know that science does not believe the emotional atmosphere of a conception affects the personality of the one conceived. Moreover it requires hours for sperm to penetrate egg after it has been sent on its frantic rush.
But if I am the result of such an episode of anger turned to violent tenderness, it would explain a hell of a lot.
We loved to listen to the radio after supper and hum along or sing with the music, such as Glenn Miller's "Imaginary Ballroom" and Carmen Miranda's "Begin the Beguine," which I still find myself humming occasionally.
Sometimes they were quiet after the radio was turned off and we children had all gone to bed, not very often. I was not an eavesdropper much less a voyeur. I listened to the voices because they were there to listen to. If perhaps the conversation was about me, what harm was there in knowing where you stood?
I remember the content of few of their talks, so I must have been the subject only rarely--hardly appropriate for the firstborn son. They did comment on Jane's "first period," which seemed to me, having only the slightest notion what it was, more appropriate for repugnance than for Mom's rejoicing. Often they talked about Peg's beauty and emerging talent on the violin.
"She is special," my father would say.
"And such a dear," my mother would add.
Fair enough. My little sister, Peg, was my favorite person in all the world, Wendy, I thought, to my Peter Pan. She became objectionable only in the company of the Clancy brat.
They did lament one night my failure on the flute.
"But he has a fine voice. I think he'll be a tenor, don't you, dear?"
"He'll be all right."
"And he's clever with his cute little camera, though I don't know what that's good for, do you?"
"He could become a world-famous photographic artist. There are such people, you know."
"Wouldn't that be cute?"
If I had been awake, I would have protested that I didn't want to be a world-famous picture taker. At the threshold of sleep, I think I was flattered.
On that pleasantly cool night in late August of 1940 when they talked of Rosie and me, I was so close to sleep that I almost chose to ignore their exchange even though it seemed to be about me.
Dad: "I don't think there's any chance for the poor little tyke. Her mother drinks and her father is…well, you know what he is."
Mom: "She and Peg are like two peas in a pod. They even managed to have their first periods the same week!"
Dad: "They'll probably have their first children on the same night."
Laughter from the two parents.
I look over that bit of dialogue and shake my head. Both little girls were going on ten. I must have remembered that exchange from a later overheard exchange.
You see how hard this "remembrance of things past" is?
Still, I have the major images in this part of the story right. My humiliation that day at Lake Geneva is imprinted on my memory in all its rich detail and will never be erased.
Nor am I likely to forget the first time I ever kissed a girl. Even if I was going on twelve and she was going on ten.
As I type those lines onto my word processor screen, I remember the joy of that moment. I tasted the sweetness of my awakening sexuality, surely; but, even more, I tasted the sweetness of the power of my tenderness to wipe away tears.
As I said to two psychiatrists, one my brother-in-law and one my son, in a late-evening conversation a couple of years ago, "There is no such thing as a latency period between infancy and puberty. A man always wants women, no matter how old he is. During what you guys call latency years, his desire for women is overwhelmed by his fear of them."
They admitted that my position was not unreasonable.
Mom: "She's such a darling child, not really like either of her parents, poor dears."
Dad: "I still can't believe Clarice married him."
Mom: "She wanted to have a child. She thought he'd be kinder than her father. Maybe he is. Remember what the Gypsy woman said: that Clarice would have a little girl who would do great things. Maybe we can help Rosemarie, even if we couldn't help her parents. And she so adores our little Chucky."
Dad: "They're children, April."
Mom: "Children love too. Our Chucky is a devilish little imp, but I think he is really fond of her. He pretends to tease her, but he really is very kind to her."
I think I wondered uneasily, seven-eighths asleep as I was, whether they knew about the final scene of that ugly day at Lake Geneva. I was pretty sure she would tell no one, not even Peg. It was our secret, wasn't it?
Well, we hadn't negotiated about it.
Of course, she told Peg. She told Peg everything.
Dad: "If he wasn't, Peg would sock him."
Mom: "I think Rosemarie is trying to adopt us."
Dad: "Not a wise choice, given our finances."
Mom: "Dear, it's not money the poor child is looking for."
Dad: "Well, April, what do we do about her?"
Mom: "We can't turn her away, can we?"
Dad: "I suppose not…and Chucky?"
Mom: "Shouldn't we let nature take its course and see what happens? Even now, when he's not being Peck's Bad Boy, they make a cute couple, don't you think?"
Dad (after a contemplative pause): "If we're the only ones who can help her, we certainly should do what we can. Maybe we can save her."
Mom: "Maybe, dear, she'll end up saving us."
Looking back later, I would have liked to think I was furious at their dialogue. How dare they make such decisions about a boy my age. Besides, I felt no emotion for Rosie Clancy other than distaste. She was a spoiled rich brat, the daughter of a wealthy man whom I despised, in great part because of his wealth.
If I had been able to face up to my real feelings in those days, I would have had to admit that Rosemarie was on my mind constantly even then. I pretended to dislike her, but in fact, she dazzled me. Her face, her body, her long black hair, her laughter, her quick wit, her obvious intelligence, had created fascination and fear--in roughly equal parts--in my soul. I think that as I fell asleep that night on Menard Avenue, I knew that somehow our destinies would be intertwined.
I may even have felt happy about that fate.
Copyright © 1998 by Andrew M. Greeley Enterprises, Ltd.
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