Copyright © by Frank O. Dodge. All rights reserved.
The subway shuttle from Times Square to
Grand Central Station in New York City carries enough people during the day
to populate several small towns. But at one o'clock in the morning ... well
at one o'clock in the morning it can sometimes be pretty spooky. It
was pretty spooky the morning Matson bought a token from a sleepy cashier
and pushed through the turnstile. His heels set echoes bouncing back
and forth between the tile walls of the empty cavern beneath Grand Central.
The totally empty tile-walled cavern. Matson was surprised.
Even at 1 A.M. there were usually half a dozen commuters waiting for
a train. He descended several flights and stood alone on the lowest
Harry Matson was forty-seven. He had been born a few days before the end of the Second World War. His father, James Matson, had died two months before the birth of his son, when his cargo ship was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland. Two months and a few days before the end of hostilities.
Following the war, Harry grew up defending his father, a merchant marine, against the slurs of boys whose fathers had been 'real fighters', not lousy merchant sailors.
Harry's mother had explained that if it hadn't been for the courageous seamen of the merchant fleet, those 'real fighters' would have had to face their enemies without bullets for their guns, without food for their bellies, without the tanks, planes, medical supplies, and the thousand other things the 'real fighters' needed to win the war. She'd pointed out that the merchantmen had suffered as great a percentage of casualties as the Armed Forces. Harry had always been proud of the father he had never known and had wanted to grow up to be as courageous as the man who had given his life in the defense of his country.
He had been too young for the Korean action, and when Vietnam came along the Army doctors told him to go home and soak his flat feet. He wanted so badly to equal the heroism of his father and do his bit in his country's service, but fate, it seemed, was against him.
All this was, for some reason, on Harry's mind as he descended into the bowels of the New York City Rapid Transit system. He'd been up in Connecticut, closing a deal. He supposed he should have waited until tomorrow to return, but a restless feeling of urgency goaded him into taking the night train back to the city. So there he was at 1 A.M., waiting on the platform beneath Grand Central for the shuttle to Times Square, where he'd catch the express to Brooklyn.
He heard the rumble down in the tunnel, and the train roared into the station and stopped amid a great hissing of brakes. Harry boarded, but strangely none of the passengers got off. Harry was surprised at the number of riders at that time of the morning, and even more surprised at the number of uniforms. He couldn't recall ever seeing so many soldiers, sailors and Marines.
The train started with a jolt, and Harry studied the crowd around him. They were almost all young. Uniforms outnumbered the civilians, and there was something not-quite-right about the girls. They all wore dresses. There was not one pair of jeans, not one t-shirt in sight. There was something different about their hair, their makeup ... the bright red lipstick, the face powder, the rouge. They all wore high heels ... not a single pair of designer sneakers among them ...
Then he noticed that not all the uniforms were American. There was a heavy sprinkling of foreign services represented. He noticed the shoulder patches. 'Nederlanden'. 'France' with the double-barred Cross of Lorraine, 'Canada'. 'Denmark'. 'Poland'. 'Australia'. Two youngsters in the powder blue of the R.A.F....
A poster on the wall at one end of the car caught his eye: LOOSE LIPS SINK SHIPS. Another: THE ENEMY IS LISTENING. Highly unflattering caricatures of Hitler, Hirohito, Mussolini.
Harry's head began to swim. He felt dizzy and disoriented. A baby-faced soldier got up and took his arm. "What's the matter, Pop? You look sick or something. Here, take my seat. You better sit down."
The pretty girl who was obviously the soldier's date looked at Harry with sympathy. "You really do look sick, Mister. Is there anything we can do?"
Harry got a grip on himself and forced his mind to stop whirling. He looked up into the concerned young faces. "It's okay, kids. I just had a little dizzy spell. I'm all right now. Here, soldier, take your seat."
"Nothing doing, Pop. You still look pretty rocky. You keep the seat." A few minutes later the train pulled into Times Square, and the young soldier and his girl disappeared into the crowd, still casting worried looks in his direction. The underground station was packed as though it were noon instead of well past midnight, and the prominence of uniforms still pertained.
Harry pushed his way through the high-spirited mob, fighting back a touch of panic at what his mind was trying to tell him. No. It can't be. It's not possible. No....
Instead of heading for the express platform to Brooklyn, Harry went up the stairs to the street. Times Square was jammed with pretty girls, and the uniforms of half the armed forces of the world. British sailors in wide-legged trousers. French sailors with red pom-poms on their flat white caps. U.S. servicemen from all the branches. Then he caught sight of the running band of lights around the Times Building that spelled out the latest news flashes: WAKE ISLAND FALLS TO JAPANESE...
Harry stumbled into the Crossroads Cafe where, 'If you sit here long enough, everybody you've ever known will pass sooner or later.' He ordered a double bourbon with a beer chaser. Nineteen forty-one! It was late December, nineteen forty-one! Wake Island had fallen just after the beginning of the war. Harry ordered another double boilermaker. After his third, he was viewing the situation a little more calmly.
He began to enjoy himself. The frenetic atmosphere of the young warriors, some of whom had already seen combat, judging by the gaily colored ribbons on their chests, was contagious. A group of British sailors and American soldiers in one corner was roaring out the words to 'It's A Long Way To Tipperary', and at another table the song was 'Bless 'em All'.
Someone jostled Harry's elbow, and he turned to see a youngster in civilian clothes pushing in to the bar. "Sorry, Mac, didn't mean to shove," the young man grinned engagingly, "but it's crowdeder in here than that sardine can you hear so much about. Let me buy you a drink to apologize."
Harry found himself grinning back. "No harm done, kid. Here, I'll buy you one." He caught the bartender's eye and signaled for another round, including his new acquaintance.
The youngster gulped down the whiskey and chug-a-lugged the beer. "Damn!" he laughed, "After five weeks in the North Atlantic that sure tastes good."
"Five weeks in the North Atlantic?"
"Yeah. Convoy from England. Good trip. Only lost five ships to the wolf packs."
"You're a Merchant Marine?"
"That's me. Heave-ho for the open sea, and all that stuff." He ordered another round.
A sudden determination hit Harry. "How do you go about joining the Merchant Marine?"
"Easy. Just go over to the union hall in Brooklyn and tell 'em you want to ship out. You don't need any experience to ship ordinary seaman or wiper. They're taking anybody willing to go. We're that short-handed."
"No kidding? What's a wiper?"
"Low man on the totem pole in the engine room. If you want my advice though, ship ordinary ... then you're topside if you catch a torpedo." He laughed. "You don't have to swim up a dozen decks to go over the side."
"Where's the union hall?"
"You serious, Dad?"
"Okay then." The youngster fished in his pockets and brought out a card. "The address is on here. Talk to Tony Abruzzio, and tell him Jimmy Matson sent you."
"Matson? Jimmy Matson?"
Harry fought back a wave of dizziness. No! This couldn't be happening! It couldn't be.
He heard Jimmy's voice from a long way off. ""Hey, Dad, you okay?"
Harry beat down an hysterical urge to laugh uncontrollably. James Matson was calling him 'Dad'! The youngster was shaking his arm. "You okay?"
Harry pulled himself together. "Yeah, I'm okay. Guess I threw that last one down too fast. I'm okay. It just shook me for a minute."
"Your name. Matson. That's my name too. Harry Matson. Imagine two guys named Matson running into each other in all this mob!"
Jimmy laughed. "Yeah. That's rich. Maybe we're related."
"Say, Harry, you just got to ship out tomorrow?"
"Not really. Why?"
"I was just thinking. I just got back. What say we bum around New York for a couple of days, then ship out together?"
Harry closed his eyes and sent up a silent prayer of thanks. Thanks for the opportunity to have some time with the father he'd never known, no matter that the situation was all turned around hindside to foremost with him as the father figure. All that mattered was that they would have some time together. Almost three years.
Until the Atlantic Maid would be torpedoed off the coast of Ireland.
What the hell, thought Harry. Three years could be a lifetime.
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