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A Novel of War From Guadalcanal to Korea
By James Brady
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 James Brady
All rights reserved.
SOUTH BEND, INDIANA.
THE CAMPUS OF NOTRE DAME UNIVERSITY, SEPTEMBER 1933.
In ways, young James T. ("Oliver") Cromwell would later conclude, Notre Dame wasn't all that different from the Marine Corps.
South Bend and the Corps both revered tradition and the past, shared a positive passion for winning, and each had a fine and famous fight song that men sang with a rollicking spirit and something approaching love. And they had their heroes. When the eighteen-year-old Ollie Cromwell arrived at Notre Dame for his freshman year in September of 1933, men still spoke in hushed tones of the Four Horsemen, of George Gipp, and of the legendary Knute Rockne, much as Marines did of Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon at Tripoli, of Lejeune at Belleau Wood, and of Uncle Joe Pendleton in the Banana Wars. Rock was dead a couple of years, an American icon killed in that 1931 plane crash into an Iowa cornfield, but his shade both haunted and illuminated the university and its famous football program, and, indirectly, got the freshman Cromwell in trouble. Or maybe it was Ollie's own father's fault for insisting the boy go out for football. "Just give it a try, son."
"There'll be a dozen high-school and prep-school stars trying for every position, Dad. I'd love to be able to play the game, but I don't know how, not at this level. Not after four years of high-school basketball. I haven't played a game of tackle since the eighth grade at Saint Ignatius Loyola scrimmaged in Central Park."
Mr. Cromwell, who'd played halfback on one of Rockne's better Notre Dame teams, was a good lawyer and a persuasive advocate.
"Notre Dame's a football school, Ollie. You'll regret it forever if you don't at least go out for the squad. You're fast on your feet, and they certainly can't teach speed. You've got good hands; you can take a knocking around and bounce back. I've seen you on the basketball court in tough games. And you can run forever. To matriculate at Notre Dame and waste all that ...?"
The boy continued to argue, but when he got to South Bend and they posted a notice for freshman football try outs, Cromwell was there, queuing up with 150 others. Maybe his father was right, and he wrong. An eager undergraduate assistant had him fill out a form.
"You didn't play at all in high school?" The assistant made no effort to mask astonishment.
"Regis is a small school. Didn't have a team. I played basketball."
The assistant screwed up his face. The nerve of this kid. And with a home address on Park Avenue. Did he think this was the Ivy League? Notre Dame played Southern Cal and Army and Ohio State. The football powers. Not Cornell and Brown.
"Well, okaaayyy ..."
They issued him cleats and pads and helmet and a faded uniform laundered too many times. One of the coaching staff, professionally cheerful, sternly square-jawed, middle-aged men in baseball pants and caps who were forever shouting at people, made a brief speech in which the sainted name of Coach Rockne figured prominently. Then a whistle sent the freshman candidates off on a two-mile run, round and round the great stadium. Here, at least, Oliver Cromwell could hold his own with anyone. As he did when they began actual football drills — blocking, tackling, throwing, and catching. Someone had heard about his home address, gossiped about it. Which meant he was not only a basketballer but probably a spoiled rich kid, so they nicknamed him Park Avenue. Cromwell was accustomed to nicknames, like the "Oliver" bestowed on him by roughneck Catholic schoolboys who thought it amusing to brand one of their own with the name of the famous Roundhead general who'd slain Irishmen by the thousands and transported Irish wenches as indentured servants. Despite nicknames, Ollie actually survived the first two squad cuts, being especially useful when it came to hitting the tackling dummy.
"Head on and low, boy! Take his legs out from under him! Hit 'im and hit 'im low!"
He even got through the freshman scrimmage and almost caught a pass. As he wrote home with a wry realism, "Compared to you, Dad, I realize 'almost' grabbing a pass doesn't count, but it felt pretty good."
Then, in a scrimmage against the varsity, Ollie met Jack Ballard. Met him head-on and low!
This wasn't going to be a great Notre Dame varsity year anyway, and Hunk Anderson's critics were lining up early. Hunk had succeeded Rockne as coach (they would certainly never replace Rock!), and after a so-so season they were cutting Hunk very little slack. And by 1933 there was already talk of dropping Anderson for Elmer Layden, lean and handsome, one of Rockne's legendary Horsemen. This was Notre Dame, where they were accustomed to winning, and before the season opener, before they'd won or lost a game, you heard the talk: in the Chicago dailies and the big metropolitan papers, especially in New York, with its thousands of zealous subway alumni who'd never even seen Indiana. Here on campus, where the critics really knew whereof they spoke, you heard comment along the lines of, "If only Rock were still here." While this might not be much of a Fighting Irish team, it had its charms. Jack Ballard, for one, their star tailback. Jack was the best they had, rangy and elegant, with a turn of speed in an open field. Jack might win a game or two all by himself the way he ran the ball. Everyone said so.
And now, as they carried him off the practice field by stretcher, even the paid-to-be-cheerful assistant coaches were hushed. And careful not to look at Oliver Cromwell.
Too careful. Far too careful. Coach Anderson made it a positive point of not looking at the freshman who had just ruined his best player and, quite probably, a season that would start in two weeks against Purdue.
When they whistled practice short that afternoon, Ollie was uneasy, nervous, unsure. He tried to understand what he had done wrong. His freshman squad teammates were no help, patently edging away from him. Perhaps they felt, irrationally, that they shared his guilt, that they, too, were somehow to blame for what happened, for the tragedy of Ballard's knee.
Only his roommates, who weren't footballers and hadn't yet heard what happened, were still speaking to Ollie. Others, talking about the young man behind his back, didn't bother to use his name but sneered at him as Park Avenue, injecting class hostility into an already-angry situation.
Then, two days later, after a tense forty-eight hours, Ben Sweet came for him. The two met, Sweet having waited for him to pass, in the gloomy, smoke-smelling autumn dusk at a treed and isolated corner of the campus behind the big chemistry building. A dark and empty place.
The words crackled on the evening still, not so much an address as a snarl.
Ben came toward him, a large young man and menacing, shuffling through damp leaves.
"Look, fellow, this wasn't my idea. The squad picked, and it came up me."
Ollie knew who he was: Ben Sweet, a big, good-looking fullback from Oak Park, vital, broad shouldered, and brimming with life; a popular young man on campus who played varsity football, hardly a star but a useful player, one of the most powerful men on the entire squad. He was about six-two, close to Cromwell's height, perhaps thirty pounds heavier, two or three years older; a rather pleasant junior with a potential for bullying lesser men.
"Picked you for what?" Ollie asked, a younger boy confronting an upperclassman and not understanding.
"How you wrecked Ballard."
"That was a fair hit. No one can say it wasn't."
"Sure, if you say so," Sweet agreed affably. No point haggling with the boy.
"Well, what's the problem?" Ollie was getting angry at indictments being brought without counsel. A little of his lawyer father had rubbed off.
"There's no problem," Ben Sweet said, "only the varsity would feel better about things if you didn't get clean away with hurting Jack."
Cromwell stared at him, not really believing this was happening at the wonderful little Midwest college that the sportsman Rockne had made famous.
"I told you, kid. Not my idea. The team just lost their tailback. Jack was the key to our season. They think it'd send a message to other wiseguy freshmen out to make a name if you were made an object lesson, roughed up a bit."
"Yeah. They decided to send a big guy. But," this smugly apologetic, "don't worry. I'll go easy."
"Okay," said Cromwell. Ben was in sweats after practice, and Ollie wore a tweed jacket and tie, taking off the jacket but leaving his tie in place (which an amused Sweet took as evidence this bird was no fighter) as he put down his books carefully to the side where they wouldn't be kicked, and the two squared off.
Ollie knocked Sweet down three times.
When he helped him up the last time, Ben staggered unsteadily on his feet, and Ollie knew he couldn't just leave him there in the dank evening. So he led Ben gently by the arm into a campus men's room, where he dampened an old towel to swab him down, rinse away the blood.
"You okay?" Ollie asked.
"Where the hell did you learn that?" a bruised Ben asked, sore, embarrassed, but still curious.
Knowing the inside jokes, the cutting slights, Ollie said: "A Park Avenue street gang I used to run with."
If Ollie thought that put an end to it, he was mistaken. From that moment on there was trouble. Not from Ben Sweet but from other players who resented the very idea of a basketball player trying to make the football squad. Scrimmages became tougher, the hits on Cromwell harder. Head Coach Anderson, so aware of the Rockne mystique, didn't demean himself by speaking directly to a freshman player but had the freshman coach do the deed.
"Football is a team game, Cromwell. You're trouble. We don't need disruptive elements."
Ollie was cut shortly after that. He sulked about the inequity of it for a day or so, and then, being a positive sort of kid, he put it behind him to concentrate on classwork and study, doing well academically with his first monthly grades, As in Latin (that was the Jesuits); history, which he loved, and English. Math was a challenge and chemistry a puzzle. Religion — well, at Notre Dame no one flunked religion. Then, in October, when notices for basketball tryouts were posted, he showed up with his shoes and shorts from Regis High. Here, in the college gym, there were none of the psychological adjustments he'd had to make on the football field. Basketball was his game, on a tiny high-school court or in a university field house.
"Hoop's still ten feet high."
His old man, sensible and loving, hadn't beaten up on him for not making the football team. Ollie gave him a full report on what had happened. "I agree you were poorly treated, son. Maybe it's my fault. Getting you to try out for the team while you were carrying my record on your back. I'm disappointed in Hunk."
"It wasn't Coach Anderson. It was the freshman coach...."
"Anderson knew. The head man is paid to know such things."
"Yes, sir, I guess."
He didn't last much longer on the hoops squad than the freshman football eleven. At least here the coach leveled with him.
"You handle a nice ball. Shoot pretty well. And you'll mix it up under the boards. But once the football season ends, a few of their players come out for varsity basketball, Oliver. Play the second half of the season when we need a few boys with heft to get in there and bang. Having you scrimmaging against them as part of the freshman team — well, it might get nasty. You understand?"
"I'm not afraid, Coach."
"You can't fight them all, son."
"I fought Ben Sweet."
"Beat him, too, I hear."
Mr. Cromwell was an intelligent man who'd lost a wife young and who had no intention of losing his boy just out of love for his college and its traditions. What did such things matter when measured against your only son's future? So Ollie received no judgmental letters from his father and had no hectoring waiting for him at home during Christmas break. He knew how fortunate he was on both counts. And then, as into each life some rain must fall, along came an unexpected ray of sunshine in the unlikely form of Syd Ketchel.CHAPTER 2
STANLEY KETCHEL, THE MICHIGAN ASSASSIN, WAS HAVING BREAKFAST WITH A MAN'S WIFE.
Come see me one of these days, Cromwell." That was the extent of the note, on Notre Dame athletic department stationery, shoved into Ollie's student mailbox and signed with a name he'd never heard.
"Who's Syd Ketchel?" he asked his roommates.
Whittle, who seemed to know something about everything, but few things deeply, answered.
"Coach of the boxing team. Half brother or something of the late Stanley Ketchel, the famed Michigan Assassin."
"Oh?" Cromwell wasn't all that up-to-date on prizefighters.
Coach Ketchel had a small office off a small gym stinking of sweat, jockstraps, arnica, and vinegar-heavy pickling brine. Why vinegar? Ollie wondered. And — oh yeah — cigar smoke.
"I'm Oliver Cromwell, Coach."
A small, solid man with broad, sloping shoulders, a broken nose, scar tissue over both eyes, and gnarled hands that looked as if they'd been broken, set, and broken again, looked up from a beat-up leather armchair positioned behind a cheap, unpainted pine desk with a telephone, a yellowlined pad, an ashtray, and a couple of pencil stubs. Thumb tacked to the wall were faded fight posters, curling at the edges, and the sort of giveaway calendar they hung in gas-station garages.
Coach Anderson's office was in a large, bright admin building and was sleekly staffed by dozens. So said campus talk.
"Ben Sweet says you can hit. Can you?"
"Well, I dunno. I hit Ben pretty well."
"That ain't difficult. I once had hopes for Sweet," the coach said. "They got dashed."
Jesus, had Cromwell injured yet another team's star?
"Oh, I realized long ago he wasn't much. Strong, but that was it. Can't move his feet. Like most young men, Ben's read too much Hemingway. Hemingway did a little boxing and wrote stories about it. Bullshit mostly, the few that I read, but that's what got Ben coming down here to learn to box. He weren't the only one, neither. College boys do better reading books about boxing than they do boxing, hitting and getting hit. That's why I left that note for you. Thought you might be different. That maybe you was a fighter and didn't just read up about it."
"A fellow can learn to box. Plenty do. Like learning to dance, doing the fox trot. But knowing how to hit, that's instinct; that comes from deep down. Can't teach hitting. You can hone it, but you can't give it to a boy if he ain't got it natural. Like soaking a boy's hands in brine toughens the skin over the knuckles, but you can't toughen up a fellow's insides. He got gizzards, or he ain't. What d'you weigh?" "One-seventy, about."
"You got height."
"I like them shoulders. You'll fill out, I'd say, given time. Make a nice cruiser-weight. Maybe a heavyweight if you live that long."
"Look, Coach, I've just been fired off two Notre Dame teams. I've taken a lot of ribbing about it. I don't need any more."
"I ain't ribbing, kid," the older man said furiously. "Us Ketchels make jokes, but not about boxing. We take boxing serious."
He was so solemn about it, Cromwell thought he ought to say something to mollify the man's rage.
"Your brother, the Michigan Assassin ..."
"Second cousin once removed. I never claimed Stanley as a brother. Much as I loved the bastard, God bless his troubled and immortal soul."
He blessed himself, and Ollie thought he'd better go along. Out of politeness, if nothing else. That, too, was part of the Jesuit training and of being a Catholic.
"God bless the late Stanley Ketchel," he murmured.
"And so say all of us, boy."
Ollie was now caught up in a vinegar-scented miasma, intrigued and curious. "What happened to him, to Stanley Ketchel?"
"He got shot," Syd said.
"Who'd shoot the Michigan Assassin?"
"A husband that came home unexpectedly from a business trip and found Stanley having breakfast with his wife."
"You mean he and this lady were ...?"
"I draw no conclusions, sonny. But it was that fellow which shot Stanley as the Michigan Assassin departed through a bedroom window."
Excerpted from The Marine by James Brady. Copyright © 2003 James Brady. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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