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Sunday With the World at War


ISSUE:  Autumn 1982

Your boys going to the movies?” Mrs. Stanley asked. She sat on a sofa beside Jason and Evan’s mother. Mr. Stanley sat across the room from the two women, and the boys” father stood in front of the window. Each of the adults held a glass of red wine, and because the afternoon was dark and a floor lamp had been turned on, Jason could imagine that they were putting on a play.

“They go every Sunday in the winter if they’ve gone to Mass,” their mother said. “And if something decent’s on. It’s The Song of Bernadette.”

Mrs. Stanley looked pleased. She said that she heard that was a wonderful movie. She had read a review of it in the Diocesan newsletter, and the reviewer said that every Catholic should see it. Jason looked across the table at Evan, who was drawing cards one at a time from the stack in front of him.

Mrs. Stanley said that it was too bad they didn’t make more movies like The Song of Bernadette, uplifting stories that could take your mind off your troubles. She said that with all her worries she didn’t want to pay money to see something on the screen that depressed or frightened her more than she already was. She asked if they had seen that story about the woman who had been given $25.00 to sit through some horror movie at midnight by herself. No one had seen the story, but Mrs. Stanley said that there wasn’t enough money to pay her to do something like that. She said that her own life was scary enough.

“Are you gonna” play or not?” Evan asked. Jason put his six of spades on the six of diamonds.

“Thanks a lot!” Evan said and began drawing cards again. With each one, he sighed elaborately before finding a place for it in his hand. Jason knew that his brother probably had a spade or a six and was trying to build up his hand and get all the good cards. They had never been able to agree whether that was strategy or cheating, but Jason felt now that it wasn’t worth an argument, especially since they were only filling up the time before they left.

Mr. Stanley finished his wine and smacked his lips to show everyone how much he had liked it. He sat in a low easy chair just outside the pool of light, and the smoke from his cigar was like a pale shadow around his head. Mrs. Stanley suddenly lapsed into silence and sipped her wine as though she didn’t know she was doing it.

“The Stanleys didn’t hear from Don this week,” the boys” mother said to their father. She seemed to be explaining Mrs. Stanley to him.

“I know. Ben told me,” their father said. He stood with his back to the window, smoking a cigarette. “It’s probably the mails. There’s a whole ocean they’ve gotta” come across.”

“Ben says the same thing,” Mrs. Stanley said. “He says I shouldn’t worry, the mails being what they are.” She shrugged her shoulders, and Jason was afraid she was going to cry. He wondered what the rest of them would do then.

But Mr. Stanley said, “He’s still in England, so there’s no danger. He’s not in any danger there. Not so long as he can remember which side of the road to stay on.”

“It’s no joke,” Mrs. Stanley said. “He can be sent over any day. He as much as said so in his last letter, as much as they would let him say.” She lowered her voice as if confiding in the boys” mother, but Jason could hear her plainly. “They’ve been training hard, ever since they got there. His battalion is supposed to shoot tanks, destroy them. Don has been put in charge of the whole thing.”

“Just the crew,” Mr. Stanley said. He shifted his cigar from one side of his mouth to the other. “A five man crew, not the battalion. They’re in charge of a 37-mm. antitank gun, and Don is the leader of the crew. But it’s just five men, not a battalion.”

Jason tried to picture a 37-mm. antitank gun, but he couldn’t imagine the size or shape. It would have to be very large to require five men to hold it, he thought, and to be able to harm a tank. He had seen a movie in which the Americans burned up a tank with a flamethrower, but that was apparently something different from an antitank gun.

“Well, that’s wonderful,” the boys” mother said to Mr. Stanley. “I know you’re proud of him. I know he’ll be all right.”

“We can be thankful it’s Germany he’s going to,” Mr. Stanley said, looking at his wife. “When the Japs capture them, they don’t last long. They don’t feed them anything, except just a little rice. And they don’t follow any rules. They’d as soon tear their tongues out as look at “em.”

“Oh, Ben!” their mother protested. Jason and Evan had both stopped playing cards, and they sat sideways to each other, facing the adults and listening.

“He says that all the time,” Mrs. Stanley said. “How lucky we are Don’s not in the Pacific.” She drew herself forward into the light, holding her glass so carefully that the wine in it barely trembled. “The way he talks you’d think there was nothing to worry about. You’d think Don was on a picnic.”

“Picnic!” Mr. Stanley said. “Did I say picnic?”

“You said we’re lucky he’s in Germany,” his wife said. “You say it all the time, like there’s nothing to worry about.”

“You think I don’t worry?” Mr. Stanley asked. “You think I don’t know he might get killed?”

Jason couldn’t tell who it was Mr. Stanley was talking to.

“Hey, come on,” the boys” father said. “It’s not as bad as you two are making it. Don’s still in England. He’s a long way from Germany.”

“Martha, you just be thankful your two boys are too young,” Mrs. Stanley said. She talked as if Jason and Evan weren’t there.

“She can’t understand it’s not just us,” Mr. Stanley said. “It’s the whole world. The whole world’s at war.”

“You just be thankful,” Mrs. Stanley said. “By the time they’re old enough, it’ll all be over, one way or another.”

Their mother looked at them for a moment as if she couldn’t see them, and her face through the vague smoke seemed to lose its shape. It was just for a moment, though, and then she was looking at them clearly, the way she always did before she told them something.

“If you’re going to get to the movie on time,” she said, “you’d better go now. And go the long way. I don’t like you near those tracks.”

As they stood up, Evan and Jason both nodded their heads in agreement. The shortcut led them by railroad tracks and across a trestle which spanned the deep gully between their house and the center of town, and although they saved a half mile and the trestle had a wooden walkway attached to it, no one liked being caught there when a train came by. Because of the war, the trains had started coming through at erratic times. The long way was only two miles, and there were sidewalks: even when they had to cross the gully, they did it on a concrete walkway protected by a waist high concrete barrier and connected firmly to a bridge over which cars passed slowly and at a safe distance. They had also learned by experience that if they went the long way, they often were given a ride by parents of their friends.

They put on their mackinaws and stood in the front hall while their father gave them money for the movie and for one treat and told them to be careful walking. Jason watched the other three adults through the living room door, and they looked up at the same time, like people who had heard a signal.

“Bye now,” Mrs. Stanley said. “Enjoy the movie.”

“Bye,” Mr. Stanley said.

“Don’t dawdle on the way home,” their mother said.

There was a cold wind which rattled the holly bushes back and forth against the porch railings, and Jason hunched his shoulders forward to meet it. He was glad to be out of the house; he knew that Mrs. Stanley would continue to talk about the war and about her son and that no one would be able to say anything to make her feel any better.

They had not gone a block when they were offered a ride, and because it was someone they knew—Mrs. Graham, whose three children all attended Holy Redeemer School— they accepted.

The theater was only half full, and most of the other kids were there with their parents, so it was less chaotic than on Saturday mornings. When the lights dimmed, there was only whispering, and as soon as the screen was lighted up, everyone was quiet. On Saturdays they showed a serial and a cartoon before the feature, which was always a Western or a comedy with someone like Abbott and Costello. On Sundays they usually only had a newsreel and some scenes from future attractions which were supposed to make you want to come see the complete movie. Then, instead of a real cartoon, there were little figures of popcorn boxes and candy bars which danced and sang a jingle about visiting the concession stand before the feature started. Following that, after a minute or two of darkness, the movie for the day would begin.

The newsreel showed about the war, as usual. First there were some men marching to band music, and the voice said that they were on maneuvers somewhere in the United States but would soon be on their way to fight Hitler or Tojo. Several of the soldiers waved and smiled as they walked by on the screen, and they appeared to walk faster than most people. Then there was a picture of a tank, but the film became very grainy, and Jason could tell that the tank was not in the United States. It rolled across a field and down into a ditch, and then its gun pointed up out of the ditch like a needle, and the whole thing churned up the side and onto the flat ground. Instead of tires, it had what looked like a gigantic bicycle sprocket chain going around lots of tiny wheels. Most amazing of all was that the chain and wheels all seemed to be turning in a direction opposite from the one in which the tank was moving.

There were three other stories—one was about some men sitting at a desk with microphones crowded in front of them, a second was about funny people who competed with each other singing like chickens, and the last was about some girls in a beauty contest. The announcer emphasized that they were all workers in a factory, and there was a picture of them in coveralls working on a big engine. Then there was a picture of them in bathing suits with ribbons sewn diagonally across their chests to identify who was who. Everyone in the theater laughed and whistled.

“Woo, woo!” Evan said out loud. Jason thought his brother had said it to him, but when he looked, Evan was smiling at the screen as if he were alone and no one could see him.

For some reason, there were no scenes from coming attractions. During the advertisement, Jason wondered how the wheels of the tank could go in one direction and the tank in another. He decided that they had been designed that way to fool the Japs and Germans. It was strategy.

Though Mrs. Stanley’s account had predisposed him not to like the movie, Jason found after only a few minutes that he was enjoying it. At first it bothered him that the person playing the little girl was really a woman, but then he decided that she would probably be a grown-up later in the story, so he should try to believe she was a child early on. Also, at the start she merely seemed strange, like someone who had wandered in from somewhere and didn’t know what was going on, but then the Virgin Mary appeared to her and the girl’s odd looks and behavior made sense.

Because no one else in the movie could see the Virgin, most of the important people, even the mightiest priest in the village, thought the girl was crazy. Her teacher, a very strict nun, made her put on a dunce’s cap and sit in front of the class while the other students laughed at her. But some people, all of whom seemed poor and ready to believe anything, thought that she was sane and her visions were real. Everytime the girl went to the cave where the Virgin appeared to her, more and more people followed her, even though they couldn’t see the miracle itself. The audience knew that the visions were real because whenever the girl looked as though she were seeing something holy, a shaft of light fell across her face. Jason decided that by the end of the story, even the important skeptics would realize the truth, but the fact that the girl had to keep trying to convince people showed that nothing could be counted on to take care of itself.

Just as the movie had gone on long enough to seem real to the audience, Bernadette, the girl, at the request of the Virgin, began digging in the ground for water. When she found nothing but mud, she started putting it into her mouth and trying to swallow it. It was easy to see that this caused even the people who had believed her before to doubt her, because they all looked surprised and disgusted. Before Jason could decide what he thought, though, the images began flickering and jumping.

Suddenly the screen was cut across from one side to the other by a dark orange line. Beneath it appeared what should have been on top: the figures from the waist up of all the people looking down at Bernadette. Above them and above the orange line was Bernadette, her hands and mouth smeared with mud, looking down through the earth beneath her to the heads of the people. But the peoples” feet and lower legs stayed beside her, separated from and catapulted above the bodies they belonged to. As soon as the line established itself, with Bernadette and the people split apart from each other in the wrong place, the images stopped moving.

“The projector’s stopped,” Evan said. He turned in his seat to look back up at the eye-like hole through which the light appeared, narrow and intense.

But for Jason what was important was what was in front of him, and, because he didn’t turn around, he saw the faces of Bernadette and her followers, inexpressive and stoical as photographs, waver slightly, as something not in the movie began to spread around them like spilled liquid. As he watched, the faces were eaten away and the screen was empty even before the light that illuminated it was snapped off.

“It melted the film,” Evan told him, but Jason didn’t understand. “The heat of the projector light, it just melted the film away,” Evan repeated.

When the house lights came on, people began laughing and talking, but the sounds they made were strange to Jason. He felt the adults were trying to reassure the children by telling them lies. The walls of the theater, green in the dim light, were blotched with darker green stains which narrowed and bulged from top to bottom without any pattern except what you made them have: like clouds, except that they would never change.

“I want to go home,” Jason said.

“What?”

“I want to go home.”

“But we didn’t see it all yet. They have to fix the projector.”

“I don’t care. I don’t want to see it. I want to go home.”

“Don’t you like the movie? Don’t you want to see what happens?”

Jason stood up and moved down the row of empty seats. Only at the end, just before the aisle, was there anyone sitting: a large woman who pushed herself up on the arms of her seat to let him pass. When, trying to step out, he almost fell into her, she said, “Watch yourself, little boy.”

He didn’t look back until he was on the sidewalk outside the glass doors. The ticket seller was not in her cubicle, and the only person he saw was the girl behind the concession stand. She was chewing gum, and, though she looked at him, she seemed to see him only as a part of everything else. When Evan didn’t appear at the inner door on the other side of the lobby, Jason started for home.

There was a tiny cold drizzle, more like a mist than rain, and although it was uncomfortable, the reason he took the shortcut was not to get home quicker. It was that he would not have known what to say to anyone who offered him a ride: the shortcut had the advantage of avoiding the sidewalks and streets. After he cut across the vacant lot at the end of the block, he could walk down the alley to the field at the edge of town. Once across the field, it was a simple case of following the railroad tracks home.

He had decided that Evan was not going to follow him, so he didn’t look back, and as he walked, he tried not to think of the people in the movie. But he kept seeing them, split apart, brought to a standstill, then devoured by something which wasn’t there when it had finished with them. He began to shake his head, as if he could release himself physically from the image, but the more he did that, the more vivid the image became, tight and immovable like something that was becoming part of him. When he suddenly realized that he could not think of himself without thinking of the image, he began to run.

The railroad tracks rested on a slightly raised bed of gravel, at the foot of which was a worn path wide enough for one person. Because he was running, Jason stayed on the path: walking on the tracks themselves required one to pay attention and therefore to move more slowly. The mist grew heavier so that Jason could distinguish separate drops against his face, and he found himself running in and out of patches of smoke-like fog.

By the time he reached the trestle, he had to stop to rest. He half sat, half leaned on one of the large boulders which jutted out of the ground just before the drop into the gully. The fog was so thick around the iron legs of the trestle that Jason couldn’t see to the bottom. Even the view across the gully to the other side was obscured at moments as the fog rose up, then settled before it thinned and blew away.

Jason knew without trying to do it that he could not walk across to the other side. If he tried it, he would fall; his foot would slip, or, more likely, a train would come careening from the far side and catch him in the middle of the bridge, shaking him, no matter how tightly he held on, until he was torn loose and sent plummeting down through the mist to the bottom. But neither could he bring himself to go back the way he had come, to return to the theater or to walk home the long way. The effort it would take to do that was beyond him.

He pushed back against the rock, away from the tracks and from the train which he had decided would be no more than seconds—at the most, minutes—away. For a few moments, he managed to see himself as someone else, and he imagined the turning wheels of the train and wondered if they could suck him under from this distance and chop him apart. He held his breath for as long as he could, but when he let it out, the feel of it leaving his body told him clearly who and where he was, and he knew that whatever was going to happen was going to happen to him. He breathed deeply, holding the air in his lungs before forcing it out in a rush, then quickly inhaling again, and he only began to cry when he realized that he had no idea what form anything might take or how he could get ready for it. He tried not to make any sound, but he could not keep his body from shaking so that it hit the rock behind him again and again.

When he heard his name, he thought it was something inside himself trying to comfort him, but then he realized that he was being called from somewhere else. Because the sound his name made was his father’s voice, he called out, “Father! Father!” Then he saw him, walking across the trestle. Despite the ghostly effect of the fog, the figure in it was real: Jason recognized the green stocking cap and the red and white lumberman’s jacket. One of his father’s hands was in his pocket, and the other one held a cigarette, which he raised to his mouth and lowered, raised and lowered, almost as if he were timing himself.

As he watched his father come towards him, Jason stopped crying, but he started again when he felt himself being hugged. This time the crying was so different from before that it was like doing something else.

“What’s the matter?” his father said. “Didn’t you like the movie?”

Jason couldn’t say what had frightened him. His father’s physical presence—his body beneath the rough wet wool of his jacket—caused him not to be able to summon the images or the fear, even when he tried.

“Everything stopped,” he said. He spoke sideways against his father’s chest, and he knew that he had not explained anything. “I don’t know,” he said.

His father continued to hold him, then tightened his grasp slightly before letting go. He stepped across the gravelled bed and knelt down by the tracks as if he were going to say a prayer, but instead he put his ear to the rail and shut his eyes for a moment. Then he stood up.

“We can cross now,” he said. “It’s OK Nothing’s coming.”

They started then across the trestle walkway. His father went first and Jason followed behind.

“Evan called us,” his father said. “He called from the movie. He was worried, but your mother and I—we knew everything was all right.”

“I was scared,” Jason said. “I was really scared.”

“I know, but you scared yourself,” his father said. His voice ahead of Jason was strong and confident. “Everything was OK all along. There was never anything to be scared of, really.”

Jason, for the first time in his life, wasn’t sure he believed what his father told him, but he couldn’t think how to answer. During the walk which led them across the gully and home, he tried several times to come back to his father’s words and consider them. He couldn’t make them fit what had happened, though, and he even began having trouble remembering exactly what they were.

What seemed to matter finally was the picture, the solid images he knew were real: his father’s broad back like a checkerboard, damp in the fog and almost steaming, his right hand holding firmly to the railing, but his black church shoes stepping as carelessly along the slatted wooden walkway as if there had not been a 60-foot drop beneath.

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