Tommy: A World War II Novel

Tommy: A World War II Novel

by William Illsey Atkinson

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A lieutenant commander and expert navigator, Tommy Atkinson's long understood the horrors of war, which come home to him in vivid detail in the aftermath of the battle for Okinawa and naval losses, which continue despite his mathematical contributions to the cause.


A lieutenant commander and expert navigator, Tommy Atkinson's long understood the horrors of war, which come home to him in vivid detail in the aftermath of the battle for Okinawa and naval losses, which continue despite his mathematical contributions to the cause.

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"A fast moving tale with something for any reader: romance, comedy, battles, military tactics, fisticuffs, and even college pranks. Tommy is a historical novel that can be appreciated by anyone, not just the history buffs." —SCENE magazine (December 2012)

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ECW Press
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5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

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A World War II Novel

By William Illsey Atkinson


Copyright © 2012 William Illsey Atkinson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77090-284-8



Long afterward, when he's in his fifties and for the first time almost prosperous, Tommy hears a so-called expert say on the radio that poverty is learned. Only when youngsters go to school and encounter people with manners and accents deemed more posh, says the expert, do kids see themselves as poor. Till then they've been carefree in their barrios, ghettos, walkups, trailer parks. They assume their life is normal, dignified, and desirable, because it's all they know.

What shit, Tommy thinks. I knew at five. Christ, I knew at three.


Dorris, California, is ninety miles from nowhere. You can drill a well deep down to sulfurous water, but the lowland where the village squats is dry and the bordering scrublands drier. Sometimes there's rain, but it comes in brief torrents and disappears into soil that's always thirsty. Next day it's as if it's never rained. Summers are so dry your skin itches and it hurts to swallow, so parched you flush your outhouse not with water but with dirt. Dorris is sixty-one people farming sand.

On the horizon sits a big cone that's pure white. What is it? Tommy asks his father. His father doesn't respond. Tommy asks his mother and she tells him it's Mount Shasta. Why is it white? It's covered in snow. What's snow? Snow is rain that's frozen. What's frozen? Tommy's mother looks at him. Of course, she says, you've never seen snow or ice. He hasn't even seen ice cream.

Tommy's dad is a doctor and rarely around. It's not just the hours he spends driving his patched-up Democrat and spavined horse to distant births and fevers; even when he's there he isn't there. His eyes are big and dark and look through you without registering you. He never says I'm home or Fine dinner to his wife. He never says What did you do today? to Tommy or Tommy's brother. He eats in silence, reads in silence, and goes out after dinner while Tommy's mother cries in her room. He stays away till breakfast.

Tommy's dad has a nurse, Gladys, who visits the house. She's young and pretty and kind to the boys, and she smells sweet. Tommy's mother has a sour smell that goes with her red hands and lined face. One day, Tommy sees a picture of a smiling woman prettier than Nurse Gladys. She wears a floppy hat and a white dress with puffy shoulders, and she holds a frilly umbrella. Tommy asks his mother who the lady is. That's me, says his mother.


Yes. Before I knew your father.

They're dirt poor. Dad's practice is big, he's always busy, but the people he treats are even poorer, drought poor, and rarely pay in cash. What money comes in goes to Nurse Gladys, who wears bright dresses. Tommy's mother's clothes are the color of dust.

One day Dad comes home, stands before Tommy's mother, and says something. Then something happens that Tommy has never seen. Mama goes alkali white, then slaps his father across the face. It sounds like a buggy whip. Her husband looks at her a long time, dark eyes unblinking, then turns and stalks out. Tommy's mother feels her way to a chair. She doesn't shiver as she usually does when she cries, but tears slide down the creases in her face.

Children, she says, we're moving.

AURORA, OREGON, up near the Washington border, is sweeter country. Tommy's grandparents farm two hundred acres that straddle the Pudding River. Most of the time the Pudding is hardly a creek, though in March its flow grows a hundredfold and Tommy's told to keep away. Last spring a boy drowned. The land is green for nine months, white for three; Tommy loves being able to speak and swallow without tasting grit. At last he sees ice, though not ice cream.

While the landscape is gentler, daily life is not. Tommy and his brother sleep year round in an unheated porch that's open to the weather. The farm has no electricity, no newspapers, no visitors. The kitchen has a woodstove, but his grandmother often forgets to heat a brick for the boys' beds on bitter nights.

Twenty years later, Tommy will realize he's made for the Navy. His childhood has inured him to life at sea.

Mornings, his grandparents are up at five to feed cows and shovel manure. Food is plentiful but dull. Grampa is a wiry man of medium height who sports a chin beard; he thinks it makes him look like Jefferson Davis. Tommy's great-grandfather came across the Oregon Trail in 1848, and Grampa was the first white child born in Oregon Territory. Sixty-eight years later, he reads only the Old Testament and is quick with a switch. To him, his daughter and grandsons are permanently fouled, tarred, stained by divorce.

Five-year-old Tommy works all day. He shucks corn, pods peas, fetches water, feeds and drives the stock. He hangs and gathers laundry, sets and clears the table, scrubs pots. There is no time to play. His only recreation comes with the odd trip south.

Klamath Falls is two hundred miles from the farm. It's on a lake and is more civilized than Aurora. Tommy's Aunt Ida and her husband Jack live there. Uncle Jack is a pharmacist and seems to be rolling in dough. Uncle Jack drives a shiny black Ford, not an unsprung buggy, and lives in a tall tree-shaded house with wraparound porches and a velvet lawn that slopes down to the water.

Tommy minds his manners when he visits. His aunt and uncle are nice to him, but Klamath Falls still stings like iodine. Tommy can't understand why he's ashamed and angry the minute Uncle Jack's Model T crosses the Willamette bridge. The big calm house makes Tommy realize his fingernails are dyed black and his socks have darning lumps. He knows he shouldn't be so sensitive. Grampa says, Pride goeth before a fall. But something in Tommy says, I will not be a burden forever. I will have a place of my own.

In September 1916, Tommy goes to a one-room school. He hates it. He loves to learn things, but school has only a harried woman who ignores questions and frowns at noise. Finally, in sixth grade, Tommy gets a teacher who understands him. Foresters have identified trees that struggle in shade, then encounter sunlight and grow explosively. These trees are called late release. Tommy is a late release student. After sixth grade he devours English, history, geography, and above all math. As a high school senior he leads the state in mathematics.


Mom. Stop fussing.

You have your toothbrush?




Two pairs of shoes?

One packed. One I'm wearing.

Tommy's mother looks at him, tugs his collar straight. I'm proud of you, she says. You and your brother both. But especially you. Don't tell him that.

No, ma'am.

Off you go, then.

A klaxon sounds. Uncle Jack's becoming impatient. Tommy turns away.

Big day! Uncle Jack has a new car, one with a battery start. He's dressed up; the new car is enclosed and there's no need for coat, hat, and goggles.

Where you going to be living? Uncle Jack says.

I don't know, sir. Boarding house most likely. As close to campus as I can get.

Not too close. Walking clears the mind. That's professional advice, not just an old man talking.

Yes, sir.

My sister-in-law sure is sad to see you go.

Yes, sir.

You ever been this far from home?

Just your place, sir.

Corvallis is a nice little town, you'll like it. Lots of pretty girls.

Tommy blushes.

Not that you'll take any note. Well, you'll note it, that can't be helped. That's instinctual. But you won't act upon it. Right?

Yes, sir.

Save yourself, Uncle Jack says. Keep yourself for the One Girl.


OREGON STATE is a flat campus with brick buildings. Uncle Jack drops Tommy off, shakes his hand, and roars away. Tommy wonders if he'll ever stop feeling like a hick.

A scholarship has paid first-year tuition, but living money is up to him. He finds a room on Jefferson Street. It costs three dollars a week, which he earns waiting tables at a diner. There's six hours a day for classes and labs, six for study, four for waiting tables, seven to sleep. The last hour he spends walking.

He likes calculus most of all. Dr. Gibb, his math professor, is a dour man who looks like Teddy Roosevelt. He wears string ties and keeps his rimless pince-nez on a cord. He talks only calculus and leaves the instant class ends. Tommy would be terrified of him if he weren't so dazzled by the math.

Pop quiz! says Professor Gibb one October morning. Groans emanate, though not from Tommy. A girl in a long tweed skirt passes Tommy a form. He looks it over, realizes he has it down pat, and gets to work.

Question 8(b) puzzles him. It asks for the area under a curve, but the formula and the curve don't match. Tommy checks the clock. He's nailed everything else. Is 8(b) a trick question? He catches Dr. Gibb's eye but is too shy to raise his hand. Dr. Gibb glares and Tommy decides to answer the same question twice.

If one uses the stated formula, he writes, then the integration is ... And then: If one uses the curve as presented, whose formula differs from the stated formula ... He checks both answers and submits his test.

At the end of next class, Dr. Gibb hands back the papers. Tommy's classmates pore over theirs, comparing marks. Tommy swivels his head this way and that. He hasn't got his paper. His classmates drift away and Tommy, puzzled, stands to join them.

Not you, Mr. Atkinson, Dr. Gibb says. Tommy sits slowly. He feels a hole where his stomach used to be.

You wrote a perfect paper, Mr. Atkinson. Perfect, that is, except for8(b).

Tommy swallows hard.

You caught me out, Dr. Gibb says. You were the only student who discovered that the formula is at variance with its accompanying curve. Your answer taking the formula as canon is perfect. Your answer taking the curve as canon is also perfect, though necessarily different. Therefore, I cannot consider your paper perfect. Do you understand?

Tommy shakes his head.

Your paper is more than perfect, Mr. Atkinson. I have never before given one hundred and ten percent on anything. Very few hundreds, even. But I gladly give you a hundred and ten percent now. Extraordinarily well done.

The void in Tommy's stomach becomes a glow.

Atkinson, Dr. Gibb says, consulting his class list. Initials A and H ... What's your first name, son?

A-A-Archibald, sir. Archie. Arch.

Good Scots name. But rather formal, wouldn't you say? Do you have a nickname?

No, sir.

Dr. Gibb regards the skylights over the blackboard. Ever heard of Rudyard Kipling? English writer?

Yes, sir.

Ever read his stuff?

Just-So Stories. The Jungle Book.

He writes poetry, too, Archibald Atkinson. Barrack-Room Ballads, that's one of his volumes. Fuzzy-Wuzzy and Gunga Din. Also a universal enlisted man called Tommy Atkins. It's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' Chuck 'im out, the brute! Ring a bell?

No, sir. Sorry.

It does for me. And my star pupil needs a special name. I therefore christen you Tommy Atkinson, so to be henceforward and forever. Now, Tommy Atkinson: go grind your hundred and ten percent into your classmates' faces. Give 'em a well-deserved gloat.

August 24, 1930

Tommy's overnight train leaves Portland for Vancouver on a Friday afternoon in August. Tommy has a ticket on third class. It's an overland route, Seattle to Everett to Bellingham, and by ten o'clock darkness masks the view.

Sun on his face wakes him. Tommy opens his eyes and for the first time in his life he sees the ocean. The morning is breezy and the Strait of Juan de Fuca is fretted with cats' paws that constantly dissolve and reappear. Tommy lowers his window to see more clearly. The water has a color he's never imagined, sapphire with a wash of pale gold. Minutes pass. Tommy smiles. Off to join the Navy when he's never seen the sea.

A conductor in grey serge moves down the aisle, checking destinations.

Vancouver, Tommy says. En route to Annapolis, Maryland.

Long way, son. Take you a week. What sends you there, if I may ask?

I'm a plebe, sir. First-year student at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Good for you. Vancouver forty minutes, ladies and gentlemen! Vancouver fo-oorty minutes!

Years later Saul Bellow will write: All travel is mental. Voyaging alone across the continent, Tommy's mind logs more miles than his body. Minute by minute, hour by hour, the vast presence of North America slides by: brisk towns and sleepy crossroads, workers at harvest, the majesty of the land. Tommy's on the northern route because it's faster. Back south there's a stop once an hour; up in Canada a single leg can run three hundred miles.

Inland from Vancouver they get an extra locomotive to take them over the Coast Range. The train moves up the Fraser Valley, crossing trestles far above wild water, threading tunnels blasted through grey granite hard as glass. There are cantilevers above cliffs so steep that there's nothing but air out the window.

What a year it was.

Goddammit, Tommy, pardon my French. What did you do in question two? I used a Lorentz transformation, sir. We took it in physics and I applied it. Holy Abraham! You know this stuff better than I do. No, sir! Nemo me impune crisscrossit! Who's the instructor here, you or me? You are, sir. You're wrong, Tommy Atkinson. You can teach this stuff better than I can. So teach it! I'll pay you what you make waiting tables. Never mind the paperwork. I'll speak to the dean.

And Tommy became the first (last, youngest, oldest, only) freshman professor Oregon State would ever see. No one grumbled, he was that good.

Past the Coast Range and into the Okanagan: long flat valley, thin deep lakes. One engine does them now. Then three engines for the climb to Kicking Horse Pass. Rockies, foothills, badlands. And then the prairie.

Tommy's a farm boy but he's never seen steadings the size of a county. The sky is vast, the land dead flat. The grain extends forever. The conductor tells him the fields he sees are measured in square miles. Each one of them is three times the size of his grandfather's farm.

He has no idea what waits for him at Annapolis. This is everything he learned from the osu libraries: Founded 1845 ... Trains Officers & Gentlemen for the U.S. Navy and Corps of Marines ... Marines are soldiers on shipboard deployment ... Annapolis is a small town on the Atlantic coast midway between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore ... Named for Queen Anne of England two centuries ago ... Studies at the Naval Academy include mathematics, science, and engineering ... Other subjects may be added as the Commandant deems desirable, e.g., Methods of Command, History and Structure of the U.S. Navy, Gentlemanly Deportment.

Gentlemanly Deportment?

On day four, the prairie ends abruptly at thick forest. Day five brings Ottawa, dull and tidy, then an overnight stop at Montreal. He stays in a big stone hotel and in the morning walks the old port's cobblestones. Women smile at his glances, but he's too shy to say a word.

On day six he leaves Montreal for Baltimore. At noon on August 31,1930, Tommy steps down from the Washington local to the Annapolis platform. He has voyaged from sea to sea, crossing two countries and a continent, and feels as if he's fallen from Jupiter. His Navy years have begun.

HIS MEMORIES of the Academy forever center on two things: square corners and running. Running from class to class, class to dorm, dorm to chapel; knees waist high at every step as if running on the spot, while holding thirty pounds of books. At meals he cuts square corners, a torture enforced by upperclassmen. Look straight ahead, not at your plate; locate knife and fork, again without looking; find something to cut, cut it, lift it to your mouth. Not on an oblique, that's called jaywalking. Take your forkful — assuming you've found one, or even a fork — plumb vertical to mouth altitude, pause, then move the fork horizontally. Chew precisely twenty-two times, swallow, repeat. Do all of this exactly or an upperclassman will make you spit out your hard-won mouthful and start again. If you go hungry, tough. This is said to inculcate respect for orders.

Tommy aces his math and science courses. He likes the campus, its jetties and docks that jut out into sparkling water. He loves the history that seeps from the place, its Greek Revival halls and ornate chapel. And he endures training cruises on tall ships — the cramped hammocks, the constant seasickness, the shouted commands that send him up the ratlines in all weather. But naval architecture, ship design, the thing he most looked forward to, is useless. The prof says, Here's the bow, here's the stern, now go away.


Excerpted from Tommy by William Illsey Atkinson. Copyright © 2012 William Illsey Atkinson. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

William Illsey Atkinson is the author of "Nanocosm" and "Prototype." His nonfiction books have been short-listed for the National Business Book Award and named to Executive Book Summaries' Top 30 Books list. He lives in Toronto.

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