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Where Garagiola Waits
By Rick Wilber
The thin rain against the windshield is so cold that Harry can see some of it is frozen as it slides down the glass on this raw February morning. It's been a long, cold, gray Midwest winter in St. Louis. He wishes it were spring.
Harry is thinking about the war years. That's where Edna's head has been for the last several weeks, back in the 1940s, so it is natural that he reminisce about those days. Driving the new Buick to the nursing home, driving to see Edna, he thinks back to 1945, which was, for Harry, routine terror, wave-top bombing runs, and then a rising cloud and the end of the war.
He was flight engineer on a Mitchell, a B-25. They called her Stinky, for reasons he can't remember now, and she had the image of a local native chief painted on the side. It was okay to do stuff like that back then. They flew out of Okinawa, dropping bombs on the Japanese home islands. The forty-eighth bomb squadron, forty-first bomb group. Good bunch of guys.
On August 6, 1945, they took off at 05:30 for a routine mission. They were told to stay at least sixty miles away from Hiroshima. They blamed that rule on the Navy, which always seemed to get the choice targets.
When they got into the combat zone, Harry left his seat in the back of the cockpit and climbed up into the top turret. He swiveled once, all the way around, to make sure it was running smooth on those tracks, and then fired one burst of twin fifty-calibers to clear them.
He was up in the turret, looking toward Japan, when the cloud started rising. Other guys later said they'd seen a blinding white flash, but Stinky was too low, down under one-thousand feet, for her crew to see any bright light over the horizon line. But that cloud, rising and rising and rising. What the hell was that? Must have hit a hell of an ammunition dump, they figured.
Harry turns the corner onto Essex Avenue, and heads toward Kirkwood Haven, where they are doing their best for poor Edna.
It all started about two years ago. A little forgetfulness, some confusion. More. And then the steady slide into the gray haze. That bright, wonderful woman-gone.
He's all cried out about it. Eventually, you adjust; you have to adjust and deal with it, get on with things, with your own life. And now, at least, she seems to be pretty stable, living in the past for the most part, a better past, really, than the one that really was. And, hell, Harry figures, she can live anytime she wants. He owes her that much, more, after all the stuff that went on back then, after the way he treated her.
Back then, she was home in San Antonio waiting for her war hero, hoping he'd stay alive. They wanted to get married before he left, but her father had talked them out of it. Dad started regretting it the day Harry left town. Dad had fought, himself, in the first war and, when he thought about it, knew what it could mean to have that love, that wife, waiting. All he could do was wait and hope that Harry came through it all right, came back as the same guy who left.
Harry heard the story a hundred times. Edna was sitting on her favorite rocker, out under the pecan tree in the back yard, when her father heard the news over the radio.
"Eddie! Eddie!" he said, yelling out the open kitchen window to her. "Come on in here, sweetie, and listen to this. We've dropped some kind of new bomb on Japan!"
And Eddie got up from the rocker so fast that she got dizzy, ran three steps, banged her head into that long bottom branch of the tree, and wound up flat on her back. Her war wound, the family lore went, was worse than anything Harry got in thirty-seven missions.
Which was right, as far as it went. Of course, she didn't see the bomb. Or the pictures, later. Or have to think about it. On a city. Civilians. Children. Little children.
After every mission, the guys went through debriefing and then got an inch of whisky in the bottom of their canteen cups. The ones smart enough to drink it went right to sleep, usually. Some guys weren't drinkers. Some guys thought about it all too much. The trick, Harry learned right away, was to not think about it, not think about those bombs and the people down there.
Harry shakes his head. That was such a long time ago. He pulls into the parking lot of Kirkwood Haven, turns off the wipers, the lights, and opens the door to the cold, wet wind. Damn winter weather, he's so tired of it.
Inside, in the front room, Edna is waiting for him, rocking, smiling. She remembers him today.
"Hello, Harry," she says. "I'm glad you're finally here. Let's get going."
Get going? Oh, Christ, what now, he wonders.
"I hope you brought your suntan lotion, Harry. You know how easily you burn," she says, rising from the rocker and offering her hand, the motion a girlish reflection, coquettish. It's been, God, fifty years, since he's seen that little flick of the wrist, the offered hand, and it all comes back to him in a second.
He takes the hand. He will not, absolutely will not, cry, he thinks to himself. Damn.
"Suntan lotion, Eddie? It's February, dear, and gray, and cold. Let's just sit here and talk, sweetie."
"Oh, Harry, you haven't forgotten, have you?" She smiles at him. "We said we'd leave today, so we'd have plenty of time to make the drive and get settled before the pitchers and catchers start. We can even celebrate Valentine's Day there if we leave today."
Pitchers and catchers and Valentinešs Day? Suntan lotion?
Oh, God. Harry thinks he knows what's going on in her mind. Spring training,
1947. St. Pete. The career that never was. In 1939, Harry Mack had the lowest
ERA in the International League2.12. He won twenty-four games for
the Red Wings, seventeen more in Havana during winter ball. Harry, at twenty
years old, was on his way.
To read the rest of this story, click
here to order a copy of the Fall 1999 issue.
RICK WILBER's new collection of essays and short stories, Where Garagiola
Waits and Other Baseball Stories (in which this story originally appeared),
is available from the University of Tampa Press or your local bookstore. The
official launch of the book took place in June at the National Baseball Hall
of Fame in Cooperstown. Rick is a journalism professor at the University of
South Florida whose fiction and nonfiction regularly appear in a wide range
© 1999 Rick Wilber
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