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The Art of Keeping Cool

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The Art of Keeping Cool

  For Richard Jackson


  EARLY SATURDAY MORNING we heard the big guns were pulling close to Sachem’s Head.

  The word was they’d begin passing through town sometime between ten and eleven o’clock, so my cousin Elliot and I walked up Parson’s Lane right after breakfast. We stood along the side of West Main Road with a raw sea wind whipping past our ears and it wasn’t long before we got so cold we had to start hopping.

  “Hey Robert, did we have to get here so early?” Elliot panted between hops.

  “We had to,” I panted back. “It’s going to be history.”

  This was early in March 1942, barely three months after Pearl Harbor was bombed and America went to war against the Nazis and the Japanese, and we weren’t the only ones on the road that morning. Soon people began to stream out from everywhere and wait at the ends of their driveways. Kids were climbing trees to look up the road. Every so often somebody would ride by in a car or on a bike and yell out a progress report. They’re at Wickham Road, won’t be long now! They’re up to Mrs. Grinnell’s!

  They were mighty sixteen-inch bore naval guns, two of them—the largest and most powerful long-range weapons at that time. I’ll never forget how the first tremendous body rose over the hill, its long, gray barrel pointed back up the road. An escort of armed soldiers walked soberly alongside.

  “Stand back,” I told Elliot. “It might speed up coming down.”

  There was no need to worry. Each gun was chained on two—not one but two—flatbed haulers because it was so huge, and the trucks that pulled the flatbeds were over-whelmed by their loads and inched forward with agonized groans and shudders, even going downhill.

  A two-year-old child could have walked faster, someone said.

  And done less damage to the road, someone else observed.

  Across the way, I saw a tall, boney man in a blue cap take a notepad out of his knapsack and bend to write in it. I thought he was a reporter from one of the Providence newspapers, and felt proud to be there at such a momentous event.

  The guns had been statewide news all week. They had already been two days on the road coming from the Riverton train depot, ten miles away, and would require another half day to haul to Fort Brooks. Along their route, a bridge had been reconstructed over an inlet to accommodate their weight. A yapping dog had darted too close and been crushed under one of the flatbed’s slow-moving wheels. Marion Wainright, a local pacifist, had threatened to throw herself under another wheel. She was arrested and taken away to the police station to cool her heels. People weren’t so tolerant of freethinkers back then, especially in a New England coastal village where the world hadn’t yet shown much of a face.

  These were not the first guns to be brought down the road. The fort complex—there were actually three batteries, each looking out to sea in a different direction—had been quietly accumulating artillery and soldiers for several months. But they were by far the largest weapons, the farthest shooting, and not a sight to miss if you were interested in the tools of war, as I was.

  Most folks out that morning had heard a pretty close description of what they were going to see, and they still caught their breaths when the guns came over the hill. They edged away from the road as each guns 143 tons and sixty-eight feet of molded steel rattled and clanked and cracked the macadam going by on the way to the job of protecting us, and the Rhode Island coast, from the Germans.

  The war hadn’t scared me yet and it didn’t scare me that morning, I was glad to find out. My father was flying with the Royal Canadian Air Force out of England. He was one of the first Americans to go overseas. The country was gearing up, preparing to fight. I was impressed all right—“Elliot, look at those monsters!”—but I stood my ground as the guns rolled toward us down the hill, even when the earth began to rumble and shake under our feet. Turning, I saw my cousin Elliot’s face empty of every emotion except terror.

  “El, it’s okay. They’re not going to shoot.”

  Elliot had a problem—he registered things too deep. Sometimes it seemed to me as if his receivers were turned up too high on the world, and what he saw and heard came at him with extra force. These days, he mostly knows how to hide it. He’s made it out and been around, picked up a name for himself, though like anybody, he can get caught off guard sometimes. He’ll look too far or see too small and find himself on the verge of panic. But he’s mastered the art of keeping cool and can put up a good defense so no one can tell.

  Back in the spring of 1942, when we were both thirteen years old, Elliot Marks didn’t have many defenses, and I could look in his eyes and see everything he was feeling.

  “Really, you don’t have to be scared.”

  “Who’s scared?” Elliot lied, chewing deep into his hand. When he got nervous, he had a tic of biting into the L-shaped place between his thumb and his first finger. Not a hard bite, just a sort of rhythmic gnawing. He was no coward, though. That day he stayed with me, following the flatbeds down to where they turned in at the gate to the fort.

  A private was on duty at the guardhouse and wouldn’t let us through. We hung around looking for empty Coke bottles in the tall grass where the soldiers tossed them going by in their Jeeps. Six empties could get you five cents at the store in town. We didn’t find any and, with nothing else doing at the fort, we set off for home, taking a back route along the beaches.

  “I’m going to draw those guns as soon as I get home,” Elliot said. Even then he could draw anything, just from looking at it once.

  “I’m going to ask your dad if he can get us in to see them,” I told him. “Their shells weigh a ton. A ton! Can you believe it?”

  Elliot’s father was a plumber and he had a government contract to work at the fort. It was the thing that was saving Elliot’s parents, moneywise, that year.

  “He can’t get you in,” Elliot said. “You can only get in for special stuff, like the movies.”

  “Well, somehow I’m getting in. Those guns can shoot twenty-six miles—that’s over Martha’s Vineyard.”

  “Mike Parini told me he saw a German sub,” Elliot suddenly remembered.


  “Off South Shore, toward the islands. Not the whole thing—the periscope coming up. But it was probably a lobster buoy or something.”

  “It might have been a sub,” I said. “They’re out there. They torpedoed that tanker off Newport in January. You know they’re looking for more hits. They’d invade us if they could. These guns are getting here just in time.”

  “These guns,” Elliot said, shaking his head, “these guns are . . .” He stopped walking, and I saw his face go into the same freeze as when he’d first seen the long gray barrels come over the hill.

  “Come on, El, don’t do that.”

  Elliot started walking again, but he wouldn’t talk. Except once he came to a halt and asked, “Hey Robert, did you see that guy?”

  “What guy?”

  “When the guns were coming, the big, skinny guy across the road in the blue cap? That was Abel Hoffman, the painter. He was famous over there.”

  “Over where? Abel who?” I asked, three times in a row. But Elliot had gone into another of his shut-downs and wouldn’t answer. Low under his breath, I heard him mutter:

  “I’m drawing them, that’s what I’m doing. As soon as we’re home, I’m getting them down.”


  THERE ARE PEOPLE in this world who are naturally open and easy to get to know, and there are difficult people, the ones who put up barricades and expect you to climb over them.

  Elliot Marks was the second kind of person. The first time I saw him, he was standing outside without a coat on in the middle of a freezing New England February, mop
ping his nose and looking up into the bare limbs of a tree, staring up as if something amazing was there. Nothing was, or not that I could see anyway.

  “Who is that?” I whispered to my mother.

  We had just arrived at my Grandpa and Grandma Saunders’ house in Rhode Island, a place we’d never visited before. My mother had brought me and my five-year-old sister, Carolyn, east from our farm in Ohio to stay in Sachem’s Head while our father was away fighting. She’d been lonely by herself, and found it hard to keep the farm running with just me to help. When Grandma Saunders wrote to say a cottage had come empty next door on Parsons Lane, and why didn’t she bring the children and live there, my mother went right out and bought our train tickets. It shocked me how fast she did it.

  “What about Dad? He expects us to stay here,” I protested.

  “I’ll write him. We’ll get the post office to forward his letters until then,” she answered.

  “Who wants to live in a cottage when we already have a whole house?”

  “It’s on the ocean. There’s a beach nearby. Carolyn will like that.”

  “But, what about the farm? Are you just going to let it go down?”

  “I’ll lease out the fields I can,” she said. “I would’ve had to do that anyway. Where was I going to find hired help with every able-bodied man enlisted in the service?”

  “Well, what about the hogs? You can’t leave them!”

  After we moved east, I used to wake up in the mornings with a picture in my mind of our old house, of how the fields spread out flat in all directions around it, and the sky streamed over it like a great river, sometimes deep and blue, sometimes muddy, stirred up, racing with clouds.

  “There’s wing room out here,” my father used to say, dredging up an old term from his test pilot days. His eyes would look out across a field he’d just plowed, then come back to me squeezed in beside him on the tractor.

  “Plenty of room to wag your wings when you need to,” he’d say.

  I’d never flown in an airplane but I liked the idea of having wing room. I liked being on my own, working by myself. I had friends but didn’t have to be close-in with people every minute of the day. There was a kind of strength in knowing you could stand by yourself. My father had it, I knew that. It was what had brought him to Ohio in the first place, to buy land and start the farm. Now it was what had sent him over to England ahead of everybody else to fight the Nazis.

  My father had a bad leg. He walked with a hitch in his stride, the result of a plane crash that had nearly killed him before he met my mom, he said. But he never let it stop him from doing what he wanted. He never talked about it or made excuses, and if his limp stood out in people’s minds in the beginning, they’d forget it as they got to know him. That leg just didn’t go with the rest of him. Most of the time, he seemed to forget it, too, because every once in a while he’d try to jump a brook or climb a ladder too fast and he’d fall. Afterwards, he’d pick himself up and go on without a word, even if he was hurt. From the look on his face, I’d know not to say anything either.

  Of course, I knew my mother could stand alone, too. Her parents had died when she was a baby and she had to live with relatives growing up. She’d learned how to fight for herself by the time she met my father in Cincinnati. They planned out the farm together, built the house, cleared the fields. She’d worked right along with him, and cared as much, but:

  “We’ll sell the hogs . . . and the chickens,” she answered me that day, so fast I could see she’d been thinking of something like this for a while. It was a month after the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor. My dad had been gone more than six months by then.

  “That’s the money we’ll use for train fare,” she said. “And for rent on this cottage your grandmother’s found us. And for living on while I see about a job. I’m not planning to hang on your grandfather’s coattails like everyone else back there.”

  “A job!” I snorted. “What kind of job?”

  “There’s a big torpedo factory in Newport that’s hiring. Your Aunt Nan just started working there. She says I could, too.

  “Aunt Nan, who’s that?”

  She glanced over at me. “Your father’s sister. You know, Aunt Nan and Uncle Jake? They live there with your grandmother and grandfather in Sachem’s Head. In the same house now, since Jake lost his business. It must be like Grand Central Station with all your grandfather’s patients coming and going.”

  “What patients?”

  “Robby! He’s Dr. Saunders, the town doctor. Did you forget everything your father ever told you?”

  He’d never told me anything, that was the trouble. Vaguely, I’d heard of them though, names in holiday cards, on birthday gifts done up in fancy, Eastern wrap. I remembered my father laughing over a pair of fake red leather cowboy boots they sent me for my sixth or seventh birthday.

  “What do they think, that he’s about to start taking square dancing lessons?” he asked my mother.

  From the tone he used, I knew all I needed to about those relatives in Rhode Island. Red-booted Easterners was how I began to think of them.

  “This whole idea is stupid,” I told Mom. “You’ve never even had a real job.”

  That insulted her. “I suppose I could learn,” she snapped, “the same way I’ve been learning to run this entire farm by myself.”

  We left barely a month later. Three days on the train, sleeping berths at night. A crowd of servicemen was on board riding east with us, and there were many others— sailors, marines, airmen—in the stations we went through, waiting for connections, duffle bags slung over their shoulders. I watched them and edged up to listen to their talk when I could. They were headed to training camps in Maryland, Virginia, or North Carolina. From there they’d ship overseas to fight. They’d be in Europe by September, or on a battleship off Gibraltar. A lot of them wanted to get to the Pacific to give it to the Japs. The Germans were Krauts and they were going to get beat.

  “My dad’s over there right now, flying with the Royal Canadian Air Force out of England. He’s a pilot,” I told them a few times. The response was always terrific.

  “Hey, good man!”


  “How’d he get there so fast?”

  “He used to fly for the mail service. Then he was a test pilot for the U. S. Army,” I’d explain. “He knows a lot about the bombers President Roosevelt’s sending over to help England, so he was asked to go.”

  “Hush, Robert, that’s boasting,” my mother would say. She didn’t like talking about where my father was or what he might be doing. It was bad luck, she said, to harp on what you didn’t know.

  Uncle Jake was at the Providence train station to meet us when we came in late in the afternoon. He drove us in his plumber’s pick-up down the coast to Sachem’s Head, and we had just stepped down out of the truck into Grandma Saunders’ welcoming hug, with Aunt Nan and Grandpa Saunders looking on behind, when:

  “Who is that?” I asked about the coatless person standing back from everyone, shivering, mopping his nose and looking up of all places, up into a tree instead of down at the important thing that was happening: our arrival.

  “You know who that is!” my mother whispered.

  “No I don’t.”

  “It’s Elliot. Your cousin Elliot, Jake and Nan’s son. He’s younger than you, I think.”

  He was the same age as it turned out. Five months older, in fact, but smaller, shyer, standing back from everyone as if he was afraid to call attention to himself. It was this I first noticed about him, that no one tried to introduce Elliot to us. No one asked him what he was doing staring up into a tree. No one told him to go put on a coat. Slow was how I read him in the beginning. Slow and probably sickly.

  “Hello,” I said, going past.

  “Oh, hello.” Elliot brought his strange gaze down from the tree and applied it to me.

  “I didn’t know you . . .” I began, and stopped. I was going to say, “I didn’t know you existed.”

/>   “That’s all right, I didn’t know about you either,” Elliot said, getting the message anyway. “Until last week when they said you were coming. I guess our families didn’t keep up too well.”

  “I guess not.”

  “Excuse me,” Elliot said, glancing over my shoulder. He turned and walked away to a far edge of the yard where he began to beat his hands against the sides of his legs, to keep the blood flowing in them, most likely. Night was falling; the temperature outside couldn’t have been more than fifteen degrees.

  I looked around to see what had made him go off so fast. Grandpa Saunders was coming up. For a doctor, he was not very friendly-looking. He was tall, with a round, bald head and eyes that jumped out at you sharp and clear behind steel-rimmed glasses. A few minutes before, he’d shaken my hand and bent down stiffly to kiss my mother on her cheek. Now I saw him checking me over again.

  “You’ve got the Callahan looks,” he said, stopping beside me. “Your grandmother’s side of the family, not mine.”

  “My mother thinks I look like my father,” I told him. He didn’t answer, just gave a kind of grunt and looked over toward Elliot.

  “That fool is going to catch his death out here,” he said. “Would you be standing outside in this weather without a coat, waving your arms around like some Godforsaken windmill?”

  “Not usually,” I said carefully. I knew a rigged question when I heard one.

  “Not usually, not usually,” Grandpa Saunders muttered. He turned his back and marched off toward the house.

  We were all invited inside to dinner. Grandma Saunders had been in the kitchen since breakfast, readying up for our arrival. She had quick, dark eyes and was always reaching out to pat your shoulder or squeeze your hand when she talked. I liked her. I wondered why my father had barely mentioned her over the years, and never wanted to visit.

  “Nobody cooks like your grandma,” Aunt Nan told me on the way inside. “She’s been wanting to get her hands on you and Carolyn for years.”

  “Why didn’t Dad ever bring us here?”

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