In support of One Hot January, just released by Second Wind Publishing, below appears chapter 1 in its entirety.
I read the carefully hand-lettered words on the tile in front of me:
Pilots With Short Exhaust Stacks and Low Manifold Pressure Please Taxi Close
Grinning, I looked to my left to observe my good friend and, unknown to me, future business associate, Lance Cantrell. Lance’s head was tilted back and his eyes were closed; my grin broadened.
From which of the aforementioned maladies do you suffer, Lance? I wondered and then grunted my amusement of the notion that he might just endure both.
“What?” Lance asked, his eyes fluttering open.
“Nothing.” I knew the innocence of my reply would serve to provoke.
“I know that laugh, Joe. That was not a nothing laugh.”
“Forget it.” I zipped my trousers and stepped over to the washbasin.
“It’s not good to laugh a nothing laugh while standing next to someone in the men’s room. It can give a guy a complex.”
“You, a complex? You’re a war hero. War heroes don’t have complexes.”
“War heroes especially have complexes,” Lance said, joining me at the sink. “Especially when they come home to find their best girl is now someone else’s best girl.”
“Women are fickle like that,” I said, shutting off the water.
“I would have waited for her.”
“You don’t know that. And you don’t know what it’s like to have to wait.”
“What, for the bullet that never came?” I asked, drying my hands.
“That’s different, Lance.”
“How is it any different?”
I looked squarely at Lance, a decorated bomber pilot whom I hadn’t seen for nearly six years. Short but powerfully built, Lance had been a high school football star and heartthrob. The wavy blond hair of his youth was now cropped to regulation length beneath his Air Force cap, and behind the blue eyes that had, six years ago, betrayed youthful cockiness there now resided an especial worldliness tinged with a healthy dose of weariness. No doubt the war had left its indelible mark on Lance. In ways that I—because I’d turned thirty a year before the country entered the war, along with a high draw in the lottery, and therefore missed serving a tour of duty—could only speculate. But there was something else in his demeanor as well. It took me a moment to recognize it for what it was: resentment.
“How is it any different?” Lance demanded a second time, daring me to put what he was feeling into perspective for him.
“You were waiting for something that wouldn’t have made any difference to you, because had it come you wouldn’t have known. On the other hand, she would’ve had to live with the result for the rest of her life.”
“So she found comfort elsewhere.”
I could only shrug, and I immediately regretted the nonchalance of my gesture.
“She must not have loved you,” I said.
“That’s supposed to make me feel better?”
“You want me to sugar-coat it for you?” I didn’t understand Lance’s angst over a creature that could be found in any bar and had for the price of a couple drinks.
“I want the last six years of my life back!”
There was nothing I could say to appease Lance’s pain.
“It’s not fair,” he whispered because it wasn’t, and because it wasn’t there was nothing else he could say. The statement sounded like a plea: a child bemoaning the iniquity of having been cheated at a game of checkers by an older sibling.
“Who says it’s supposed to be?” I said.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“I guess not.” I was glad that I didn’t. “Look, Lance, very little of anything that happens to us in life—good, bad or indifferent—has anything to do with fairness.”
“She couldn’t wait six years?”
Lance’s eyes lay bare a pain upon which I could only wonder.
Six years, I reflected.
Six years ago tears might’ve helped to ease Lance’s grief. Apparently the war had robbed him of that release.
No matter, I reasoned. He’ll get over her.
I’d never met a woman worth bleeding over. Just the same, I figured I’d do well to introduce Lance to one or two of the women I’d helped through their own grief, the result of the male mass exodus the war had propagated.
“Maybe she didn’t want to wait,” I said.
Glancing at the mirror’s image of myself, I gave a casual tug on the leading edge of the fedora that sat atop my head and said, “Come on, Lance.” Then, putting my arm around my pal’s shoulders, I added, “Let’s get your bags and get you home. You’ll feel better once you get out of uniform.”
Lance said nothing as he allowed me to steer him out of the men’s room and toward baggage claim.
Some dim part of me understood why, with the war nearly over, Lance’s girl, Becky, had stopped her correspondence with the man who was in his own way fighting for truth, justice and the American way. To the masses heroes are loved and worshipped. Made into larger-than-life icons, it is perhaps just that status that condemns them to exile from the lives of those closest to them. Unreal and unrecognizable, they become undesirable to those who prefer an affinity with something more attainable.
That Lance could still harbor the ache of his broken heart so long after the fact I couldn’t begin to perceive; to me women were akin to a tunnel train: another would be along in a few minutes. Patience inevitably paid off. You just needed to keep your eye on your destination.
I couldn’t understand Lance’s reluctance to let go of the anguish that had become his copilot these last two years. Still, he was my pal, and it pained me to see him so despondent. It wasn’t right. So it was no surprise when I took it upon myself to make right in Lance’s life what Becky had managed to leave in such a state of disarray.
Lindy, my gal Friday and sometime lover, had a friend. Blond and buxom had been Lindy’s description of Ginger—the woman I hoped would realign Lance’s priorities. Certainly from Lindy’s physical biography of her, Ginger should’ve very easily straightened out that part of his anatomy that, once straightened, would’ve helped him forget that Becky had ever existed.
To my relief, Lance did indeed find a new focus for his life. But it didn’t come as a result of Ginger’s ministrations. For all of my intuition, for all my good intentions and well-laid plans, I couldn’t have foreseen what Lindy’s unsolicited involvement would precipitate. For by simply taking initiative, Lindy set into motion a series of events that would forever alter my future as well as her own and the lives of countless others who hadn’t yet been born.
I pushed the gearshift into first and let out the clutch; the Ford lurched into motion and Lance and I pulled away from the curb and into traffic.
“When are you going to sell this dinosaur and start supporting the post-war economy?”
I looked sidewise at Lance. I’d been right. A change of clothes had changed his disposition—as if by removing the uniform for the last time a letting go had taken place. We were heading on West 11th Street toward Sixth Avenue, and from there to Harlem, where, unbeknownst to Lance, we would rendezvous with Lindy, Ginger, and my own unsuspected destiny.
“This car’s got a lot of miles left in her,” I said. “Besides, my buying a new one isn’t going to influence the economy one way or another.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Then why did you make it?” I knew full well why Lance had said what he’d said: to goad me into a heated debate. Our arguments, some of them of Homeric proportions, had marked our friendship for fifteen years.
“It’s 1947, Joe. The war is over. The times, they are a changin’.”
“Not always for the better,” I said. The brick that was the road we rode over jostled us.
Undaunted, Lance charged ahead. “Technology is exploding—they can split the atom! You’re too shortsighted. You’ve got to keep up with the times.”
“Competition, Joe. This country is leading the world into a new era. You don’t want to be left behind.”
“I hardly think—”
“The new cars coming off the assembly lines in Detroit have automatic transmissions! No clutch, Joe. Just think, no more clashing gears!”
“I haven’t clashed gears since I learned to drive.”
“That’s not the point.”
“You keep saying that,” I said. Lance always did have trouble expressing his views succinctly.
“The point is, society demands that technology provide an easier, simpler life.”
“What’s so complex? Change is good, it’s progressive.”
“I’m not arguing that it isn’t, Lance. But I question the validity of change for the sake of change.”
Lance ignored me: “If we don’t support change, this country will fall to the back of the pack.”
“Who told you that?” I asked. Lance had a habit of accepting other people’s principles at face value, unwilling to look at how those principles might affect him personally.
“Everybody says so.”
“I don’t. Does that make me a nobody?”
Lance only sighed; I went on:
“You’ve been in the service taking orders too long.”
“If it weren’t for men like me following orders, the war would still be going.”
“I won’t argue that point,” I said. Anger had prompted my unwarranted attack. “But anytime anybody tells me something is good for me, I question their motive. And you should, too. It could save you a lot of grief.”
“Ah, you don’t trust anyone.”
The traffic light at the intersection of Sixth Avenue and Fourteenth Street changed from green to yellow, then red. I shifted down into second gear and stepped on the brake pedal; the brakes groaned their protest.
“No, I don’t,” I said. The car came to a halt. Lance and I rocked forward once, and then we, too, came to a halt. The Ford’s idle was rough.
“Not even the government?”
“Especially the government. They gave us income tax, Lance. You think that’s good?” I punctuated the words income tax by pushing the shift lever into first.
“You can’t have government for free.”
“It was good enough for our founding fathers.”
“It was different back then.”
“Was it?” I looked at Lance, the piercing blue that challenged me a contrast to my own green gaze. “Listen, Lance, from what I’ve seen of government workings, it’s pretty obvious that if pro is the opposite of con, Congress is the opposite of progress.”
“But the government works for us,” Lance said, a schoolboy wanting to believe the representation of the people by the people in Washington held his best interest above their own.
“In theory, yes.”
“We elect them, don’t we?”
“And the bureaucratic special interest groups pay them off. Trust me on this, Lance. Our government representatives worked better—were more effective—when they conducted their business in Washington three months out of the year, and then went home to rub elbows with we the people they were elected to represent. Being in Washington year round has left them out of touch with the real world.”
The traffic light had changed to green, so spoke the impatience of the horn behind us. I slipped the clutch and the engine sputtered, nearly stalling, but I managed to feed it enough gas and feathered the clutch to save myself from humiliation.
“The world has gotten too big, governing is a full-time job.” Again the schoolboy, this time attempting to sound knowledgeable.
“Too big? Maybe I’m splitting my own atoms, but it’s the same size it’s always been.” I shifted into second gear—Lance’s cue to take up his side of the argument.
“You know what I mean.”
“I think what you mean is that all that change you speak of with such fondness is making the world a little smaller and a lot more competitive. As a result, it’s become a much more complex place. You’ve been out of the country the last few years—the last two as part of MacArthur’s entourage to the Emperor of Japan—and a little out of touch with the real world yourself. You influenced me to buy this car before you left on your tour of duty. ‘It’ll make your life easier,’ you said. ‘No more having to take the tunnel train.’ I admit it’s convenient, but a car costs money to operate and maintain. More money than it costs to take the train.”
“Tunnel vision!” Lance spat, unaware of his unintended play on words.
“Is it? Did you know the government has brought conspiracy charges against General Motors, Firestone Tires and Standard Oil of California?”
“No.” The schoolboy yet a third time, feigning adult indulgence.
“It seems they’ve been arranging financing for some outfit that’s buying up transit systems across the country—dozens of them. They rip up the rails and then sell or junk the trolleys, to be replaced by brand spanking new General Motors buses clad with Firestone tires and fueled by Standard Oil.”
“They call that progress,” Lance said. To him the elementary wisdom of his statement was obvious.
“Oh, I see. So what’s good for the likes of General Motors is good for the general populace, is that it?”
“And you tell me I’m shortsighted,” I muttered.
“What was that?”
“Look, Lance. The government funds the construction of freeways—they take years to build. The first one in Los Angeles opened a few years ago and you know what? It was obsolete the day it opened!”
“So they’ll build others.”
“Oh, that’s a well thought out argument,” I said. “That kind of progressive thinking will turn this country into one big parking lot by the end of the century. Mark my words, in thirty or forty years cities like Los Angeles will be begging for a trolley, or some other form of mass transit, to alleviate the congestion on their freeways. In the meantime, the trolleys we sold abroad will mock us by moving the same people you just said we have to lead into a new era. They’ll be laughing at us, Lance,” I finished with one of my own.
“That’s not funny.”
“And a ten-mile trip to work taking an hour or more is?”
“Don’t you think that’s a little extreme?”
“No, I don’t. Imagine New York City in forty years, population seven million or so, trying to get around town in their automobiles.”
“That’s the first sensible thing you’ve said since this little debate began.”
“You always disagree with me.”
“Not always, Lance. Just when you’re wrong.”
“Aren’t I entitled to an opinion?”
“Sure you are, pal. It’s just that you don’t always think things through, and you’re far too trusting. I’d have thought the war would’ve remedied that.”
“If you can’t trust your own country, who can you trust?”
“You mean like Germany trusted Hitler to pull them out of their depression?”
“He led the globe into a world war.”
“My point exactly. Look at some of the newsreels from before the war. He whipped up the German people into a frenzy; yet today you can’t find a German anywhere who’ll admit to supporting him.”
I pulled the Ford over next to the curb and shut it off.
“Whenever someone tells you something is good for you, instead of taking them at face value, ask yourself, what do they stand to gain by championing such a view? Then trust your own gut feeling.”
Lance laughed, the sound holding a note of irony— sarcasm’s less humorous twin. Then in answer to my inquiring look, he relented.
“Buddy LaRue, my old tail gunner—coldhearted son of a bitch that he was—” Lance looked ahead, through the windshield at some distant memory, then back at me. “Buddy once told me the seat of emotion lay not in the heart, but instead in the stomach. Buddy claimed he never listened to his heart, just to what his gut told him.”
“Buddy was a wise man.”
“He reminded me a lot of you.”
“Then I know I would’ve liked him,” I said, grinning.
“I know I’m too trusting. But I want to believe that people are inherently good. Is that so wrong?”
“I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily wrong, just riskier.”
“It’s a hard lesson for me. I want to believe there’s benevolence in the world.”
“There is, Lance. You and I and people like us wouldn’t fight for what’s right if there wasn’t. We just have to look a little harder to find it nowadays. The fact that you just admitted to having to amend your thinking shows you’ve taken a step toward a higher level of maturity.”
I reminded myself of why we were here and an image of Ginger came to mind. Although she was a woman I’d never met, I trusted my overactive imagination to enhance Lindy’s description to suit my own personal taste. For a moment I ogled the copious icon inspired by artistry resulting from my too often far too fertile ideality and smiled.
If it so happens that you don’t take the bait, Lance, I just might have to bite myself.
“Now lighten up,” I said as I opened the car door. “We’re here to enjoy ourselves tonight. If you see anything you like, you just let me know and I’ll make myself scarce.”
“I don’t know if I’m ready for this, Joe.”
“Sure you are, pal. It’s just like falling off a bicycle—the sooner you get back up, the better off you are. Now come on, let’s not keep those bountiful Midtown dolls waiting.”