They all felt sad about Johnny. . . but the strange thing was that Johnny was the only one who really knew what it was all about
JOHNNY COVE was shot through the head as he sat in a wheat field one afternoon in the autumn of 1943. His eyes were on a pale sickle moon in a very blue sky and his mind was busy with home and the long, long thoughts. There was no sound from the bullet. He fell gently forward, like a tired man getting into bed. One outstretched hand held a writing pad and the other a stub of pencil. The reflected sunlight iparkled from his wrist watch, and all about him there was quiet except for the whisper of the wind along the wheat. Far away, across the fields, the crooked tower of the town stood above the enemy, and behind it the ancient blue Italian hills.
In the evening the sergeant came. The wheat had turned from gold to grey and the moon was no longer pale. He looked down at Johnny and muttered, “The poor mug !” which was the same as saying he was sorry but expressed, too, his final condemnation of all men in general who found it necessary to look at the moon while a war was going on. He knelt to take the letter pad from Johnny’s stiff fingers, also his identity tags and watch, and went through his pockets. He slung Johnny’s rifle across his shoulder and ordered the detail to move the body back to the edge of the field.
The graves were well dug in the rich earth. Johnny’s and others besides. The men removed their helmets and the Chaplain said in part, “Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts, shut not Thy merciful ears to our Prayers.”
The sergeant made his report, the major made his, the papera were checked, the casualty listed, and in a little time the wires hummed in Canada with the routine news that another son had fallen.
Those are now the fingers of death that tap the key, the certain, sure fingers that probe the hearts of the living with news of the dead.
rpHE messenger came as Johnny’s mother was JL getting supper. It had stopped raining, but there were little pools on the sidewalk and the turning leaves of the maples dropped slowly down to float upon their surface. Young Paul was playing in the yard. Mrs. Cove opened the telegram and read it and read it again. Well, it had come. Now she was feeling what she had wondered she would feel. It was nothing, blank, just nothing at all except perhaps a little numbness. Now all the endless fears were ended and the mind stood still. Quite still. When slowly, fumbling, it began to work again, it was with concern for her husband. How would she tell him? He’d be home from work any minute—poor Paul, how would she tell him? There was the quick, sharp sound of a breaking windowpane behind her and a baseball rolled across the floor. She heard the kitchen door creak and the little voice of her younger son say, “Mom.” She turned to him and he knew he had never seen her look that w'ay before. She put her arms around him and held his head against her breast and said, “It's all right, darling—I’m so glad,” over and over again holding him close, “oh, I’m so glad.”
Then Paul came home and she told him and they ate their supper without a word being spoken until young Paul asked if he could turn on the lights.
The clock in the bedroom ticked so loud that night that Mrs. Cove had to put it in the top drawer but even then its muffled voice said, dead, dead—dead,
dead, over and over again with monotonous emphasis. She turned her head on the pillow and thought of Johnny as a little boy, as he’d needed her most, when he was about young Paul’s age with that same bright eagerness of spirit, sudden in laughter—and in anger sometimes too, like his father—but a good boy. Dear God, such a very very good boy. The rain began to fall again softly and with its falling something seemed to dissolve inside Mrs. Cove and acid tears ran down her cheeks into the pillow. With the tears came an ugly sound from deep inside of her and the choked words, “Why?—why?” which her husband could not answer. He could only lie close beside her, touching her gently from time to time until the daylight came.
MRS. COVE has lost her son.” The news spread through Johnny’s town in the damp of the following morning.
She walked slowly up the path to the rectory door, piecing together the words with which to tell the minister. It was something her husband thought should be done.
The Rev. Dr. Laidlaw was a kindly, harassed individual, far removed from any spiritual calm. Life for him was full of the complexities of diocesan reports, the church budget and the problem of the Women’s Auxiliary. He talked to Mrs. Cove, not knowing what to tell her. His voice trailed off with, “Must say a few words next Sunday ...” They sat opposite one another, wretched and uncomfortable. Stiffly she got up to go. He ushered her outside into the thin grey rain.
The church next door was small and shabby, covered with tattered ivy and grime. The gold lettering had started to peel from the black wooden tablet which hung beside the front entrance, but it remained a legible and gentle invitation:
“This church stands open to enter,
Sit, rest, think or pray.
Remember whence thou came, and what shall be thy end.
Remember us Then go thy way.”
“And what shall be thy end?” whispered Mrs. Cove. Death, of course, yes, but how? How and why? How? Easily, at home, surrounded by those you love and who love you, or violently in some foreign, faraway place.
She went into the church and sat in one of the back pews, but could neither rest nor pray. Empty and hushed like this it was an alien house. Her usual emotions here were petty ones, shame at being conspicuously late, irritation at young Paul’s fidgeting and a guilty concern over what she could afford to put in the collection plate. Only once did she remember it having been different. Johnny was on leave. They
played a lovely anthem. She had squeezed his uniformed arm and smiling he had bent his head and whispered, “That music was written by a German Jew,” But she was not touched by such ironies at the moment and it was the words that had impressed her.
“ How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth the peace.”
For a glorious few moments it had seemed that the war was over and that she had her little boy back with her again.
The church was cold. Mrs. Cove shivered. She got up and left.
YOUNG Paul sat in Miss Hepworth’s geography class, sliding the top of his pencil box back and forth, back and forth, in its well-worn grooves. His mind travelled back and forth too, across all the sunny wind-blown places that he had walked with Johnny, through all the adventures they’d shared together, but it was no use; he couldn’t remember his brother’s face. He wanted to fix it clear and distinct in his mind’s eye so that it would never fade. That was terribly important now, but somehow or other he couldn’t get it in focus.
The pall of quiet misery which hung over the house on A Street at breakfast that morning still smothered him. The images of his mother and father at supper last night kept reappearing before his eyes, obscuring everything else.
Miss Hepworth’s voice cut in on his perplexity. “Paul Cove.”
It had come sharply the second time. His fingers froze on the pencil box.
“Pay attention, please.”
Someone giggled. Paul stumbled to his feet. Miss Hepworth had been discussing Sicily.
“—Palermo and—”—there was a pause—“what is this other city, Paul?” Her pointer tapped against the unrolled map.
“Come, come, Paul—your brother is in this part of the world, isn’t he?”
“Oh—I thought you told me he was.”
Paul’s eyes dropped down to his pencil box. Miss Hepworth spoke impatiently.
“What’s the matter, boy?”
The reply was almost inaudible.
“My brother’s been killed.”
The others sat very still.
The lines of affected severity dropped from Miss Hepworth’s face—her voice fluttered.
“I’m sorry, Paul, very sorry, forgive me.”
She left the classroom, feeling uncertain, shocked, and started automatically toward Miss Pringle’s office, as she would have done to report any irregularity. It had never happened before and was so unexpected, so inappropriate, coming like that in the middle of a class. She felt that she’d been taken advantage of. It wasn’t the boy’s fault, of course, and one knew that men died on the field of battle. “In Flanders Fields,” and so on. Still . . . Halfway down the corridor Miss Hepworth discovered the pointer in her hand. She returned to the classroom and, as it was almost time, dismissed her class.
The school principal was an excessively tidy woman with blue-white hair set in rigid waves that suggested a bit of corrugated iron roofing. She listened to Miss Hepworth and
then asked that young Paul be sent to her. The experience was new despite four years of war. One wished to be kind, to be helpful, but the incident should not receive overemphasis, for the sake of the other children. Their natural tendencies toward undue dramatization would prove unhealthy in this case. What would she say?—Miss Pringle looked at her watch. It was nearly four. She felt suddenly irritable. Hepworth must learn to assume certain responsibilities without constantly running to the office. After all there was no necessity for her becoming involved in this matter. The problem was really a family one, wasn’t it?—one which, unfortunately, could be expected to arise with growing frequency. She would
discuss it at the next meeting of the Home and School Association. She would make a particular point of doing so. Miss Pringle felt better.
Young Paul, clasping his schoolbooks in both arms, stood awe-struck and ill at ease before the awful presence of the principal. The bell rang harshly in the corridor, marking the end of classes. Miss Pringle had not yet delivered herself of a single comment. She suggested giving the boy a lift part way home. They went down the broad stone steps together amidst a cascade of departing children. Miss Pringle adjusted her pince-nez and let in the clutch. They drove in silence, both thinking of Johnny. He had been in Miss Pringle’s Latin class in the old days. An
indifferent student despite signs of a struggling imagination and some sensitivity. She wondered why she remembered him.
“How’s your mother, Paul?”
His face remained inclined toward his lap. He wondered why Miss Pringle asked about his mother, “Dad says she can’t understand why.”
“Why Johnny had to be killed.”
“Naturally,” said Miss Pringle. “She’s upset.” Her voice became quietly impressive. “You must try to realize that your brother gave his life for his country and for liberty. We must make every effort to be worthy of his sacrifice.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said young Paul. They had arrived at the corner of A Street.
He thanked Miss Pringle and got out of the car. On a grey board fence across the way, among the torn remnants of the fair bills, shone a new recruiting poster, slick and clean. From above the flaring words, YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU, the severe eyes and the pointing finger of a soldier dressed in the same uniform as Johnny’s followed young Paul down the block.
“Your Country Needs You”—“He gave his life for his country and for liberty.”
They had an important trumpeting sound but they explained nothing to him. They said less about his brother than this empty corner lot where just last summer Johnny had helped him practice bunts until they lost the new ball among the Queen Anne’s lace. Johnny, too, had used the word “sacrifice,” but he’d been talking about baseball and its meaning was as clear then as this other sacrifice was muddled now. Young Paul kicked despondently through the brown and withered weeds. If he could find that long lost ball it would be doubly precious now.
JOHNNY’S father had gone to work that morning with a feeling of dullness and headache and the sound of his wife’s crying in his ears. He was immeasurably tired. So much for nothing. So much agony and effort that ended in agony and frustration. His son was dead.
They would ask him about Johnny at the plant, as they always did. He was the father of a boy who was right in there pitching.
' “Ask Paul Cove what news he’s had from his kid.” They’d ask him—well, he’d tell ’em.
He got off the trolley at the end of the line. His plodding feet scuffed along the wet pavement toward the gate. Fie paused outside the National Industries plant and with fingers hooked into the wire mesh fencing peered through into the yard. They were still out. A picket line stood on the ramp, the men’s coat collars turned up against the rain and the lettering on
the placards running in long watery smudges. There were some young men among them too, some younger even than Johnny. Why couldn’t they have changed places? Paul Cove felt the blood draining from his face as he watched them. Flis breathing quickened. The muscles around his jaw stood out in tight little lumps and the wire cut into his clenching fingers. Damn them, he thought. Didn’t they know there was a war going on?
The reaction to his anger left him shaking and sick. He turned away from the fence and walked back toward the car terminal. If they didn’t have to work then neither did he, and he had a better reason to stay out today than any of them.—Was that so? You’re blasted right!—Still, was it so? Reasons, right ones, wrong ones, in times like these? There’s a job to be done!—Wait a minute, take it easy! Remember what it cost to form the union?—Sure, okay, but—look. It doesn’t concern me; it never has. I don’t feel good. Would it concern Johnny? Johnny?—Why, Johnny, he’s dead.
When Johnny’s father came out of the little beverage room next the carbarn he was quite drunk. There were too many voices plaguing him. He started to walk, to walk away from them, weaving down the shoulder of the road. He moved in a stumbling circle around 'thé countryside, across ditches and fences and fall plowed fields until his overalls were stiff with mud, until he was too tired to think and wanted only rest and food.
The cafeteria was warm. He bought a sandwich and a mug of coffee and sat down at a small marbletop table. It was almost all right until the juke box started up with a song about his boy marching home again. Then they all returned—the voices, goading him. Asking questions he could not answer, crowding him with the unwelcome answers to questions he’d never expected to ask. Saying: Didn’t you think?
Don’t you know the cost of your war? It isn’t worth it! This is the cost a million times over. Didn’t you think? “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, ta da, ta da.”—It isn’t worth it!—That’s up to
you. It’s up to you. It’s up to you ... It was as if the words were on a broken record. Johnny’s father rested his head in his hands. Please—no more, he whispered. Let it go. Let it go. The juke box continued its jubilant sound.
THE months went by. Thé trees grew bare on A Street and snow sifted along the fence roots. Although the world continued in ferment Johnny Cove rested secure in his wheat field. The only word from him came one day in a small package forwarded by his commanding officer. It contained a few personal belongings and an unfinished letter. There was a covering note, brief and formal, expressing the officer’s regret at Johnny’s death and praising his qualities as a soldier and a man.
Mrs. Cove sat very tense on the little chair, holding the letter up in the firelight, while her husband leaned over beside her as she read. “It’s dated Sept. 9,” she began.
Dear Mom and Dad:
Thanks for your swell long letter telling about the fair. It reached me in good time. You can probably guess where I am now from the news headlines. We’re doing all right, although there’s plenty that’s tough still ahead of us.
Thanks, Dad, for the papers. I like to keep up with the comics. They all arrived in a heap, just before we were shipped and couldn’t have come at a better time. I passed them around, but not until I’d been through them myself, right through them, even the want ads. Tell Mac down at the corner drug that I’ll take that counter job if he can arrange the transfer. I guess I’m a little homesick, but that’s all right. Maybe I’m on my way back now—just going by way of Berlin.
How’s Paul? Did he ever get the postcard I sent from Africa? That was a real camel I was sitting on. I’ve been thinking about Paul a lot lately, and about you and coming home. I wonder
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what it will be like, coming home. Does that sound crazy? I bet it will be different. I’ll be different. You know I never learned anything much as a kid. I never even had ideas—not many anyway, but you learn out here and you think. There’s a lot of thinking done. When I read the papers I feel kind of sorry for the people at home—sorry and mad. Boy! they’re certainly mixed up. Why are we fighting this war? What do we want? What does it take? What does it take—that’s the $64 question—and nobody tells you. You’ve got to find out for yourself. Maybe in that way we’re luckier than the people at home because here we find out quick. You don’t talk about it, you live it. It isn’t like manoeuvres or like a training picture. It’s real. The waiting, the stink, the mud and the mortar fire are real. You can’t put the smell of the dead on film and you never hear a man scream from a belly wound until it happens next to you. These are important things to know because they make you ready—ready to fight or wait again. Most of us here know them but that’s not enough. No Johnny Canuck is going to win this war. That’s for you. Help yourself.
I think that this is what somebody a lot smarter than me called “A war for men’s minds,” and you don’t win that in a foxhole. All we can do here is to give them a chance to win it at home. That’s what pays off. So that sometime kids like Paul and the rest of them—maybe even me and my kids—can enjoy life.
1 didn’t get a chance to finish this before and maybe it’s just as well, because on reading it over I find that I was wound up. I’m sorry, Mom, if you don’t like it. I guess I should just think these things and not write them, but once in a while you’ve just got to talk and I’ve been on the boil for a long time now.
We took quite a jaunt during the night and I’m tired, but sitting down at last and it’s a wonderful day. Everything seems to be quiet and the wheat fields remind me of the last time I was home. Ask Paul, he’ll remember the day. Shorty Hatch was with us—I don’t think you knew him. Someone told me that he got killed in a landing barge last month. I’m sorry. He was a nice guy, always kidding—the three of us walked over onto the knob looking across the Sixth Concession. It was bright sunshine. We stood on the point and shouted down into the ravine to hear the voices bounce back at us. Tell Paul the next time he’s over that way to give a yell for me—if he can yell loud enough maybe I’ll even hear him over here.
THAT was all. The letter stopped abruptly on a half-torn page. Mrs. Cove’s hands dropped slowly into her lap. They sat silently for a time, staring into the fire. Finally she said, “I knew that Hatch boy’s mother— poor woman.” Paul Cove leaned forward and knocked out the dead ashes of his pipe. Young Paul put another stick on the fire and smudged his face with the back of his hand. Outside a clean new wind swept down the sky, snatching the sparks from the chimney on A Street and rattling the shutters of Johnny’s town.