Loose Lips Sink Ships
It all started with a telegram on a rainy Saturday morning in April. At least that’s what they thought. Actually, they were part of something that started long before then, before they were born. But they didn’t know yet. It was just as well that they didn’t.
J.D., the oldest, was the first to know about the telegram because he happened to be looking out his bedroom window. With his arm around Old Shep, he watched a drizzling rain destroy all hope of baseball practice. A bicyclist made his way up the street. “A telegraph messenger boy, bad news for somebody,” J.D. said to the dog. The only people he knew who got telegrams got them from the Army. His father was in the Army. Now that the United States had entered World War II, a telegram almost certainly meant somebody had been wounded, was missing in action or, worse yet, had been killed.
The bicyclist stopped in the street below his window. J.D. watched, frozen. The messenger boy opened the gate and walked up the path to their front porch.
A knock on the door sent Old Shep flying down the stairs. Spurred into action, J.D. raced downstairs after him, calling to the others.
Mamma was already at the door. “Telegram for Mrs. John David Harrison,” the messenger said.
Mamma took the telegram, calmly thanked the messenger, and gave him a coin. She asked everybody to sit down in the living room. “J.D., would you kindly bring me the letter opener? It’s on my desk.” She sat down on the piano bench, facing them. Old Shep sat on the floor next to her as if he fully understood the gravity of the situation.
How can she be so calm? J.D. wondered, his heart pounding. He fetched the long, silver letter opener. Mamma was proud of that letter opener. It was a gift from her brother, their Uncle James. Nobody said anything. They were all too afraid of what the telegram was going to say.
Slowly, deliberately, Mamma opened the yellow envelope. They waited tensely as she read it to herself, hands trembling ever so slightly. Looking up, she said, “Daddy’s alive. That’s the most important thing.”
At last she read it to them, “The Secretary of War regrets to inform you that U.S. Army Air Force pilot John David Harrison was seriously wounded on April 7, 1944. Further details will be forwarded to you as they become available.”
That is how J.D., Mary Carol, Robert, and Grace Harrison happened to be at Union Station in Kansas City one night restlessly waiting for the Santa Fe Chief to Los Angeles. “We’re lucky that Uncle James works for the railroad and could get tickets for the Chief,” Mamma had told them, trying to sound cheerful. “Once you’re on board, you won’t even have to change trains. Uncle James will meet you in L.A. It couldn’t be more convenient. The Chief’s a famous train. You never know whom you you’ll meet on the Santa Fe Chief—movie stars, singers, politicians, famous baseball players—they all love the Chief, at least that’s what your Uncle James says. And you never know what adventures are waiting for you.”
“What will Old Shep do if you go away to take care of Daddy and we go to Uncle James?” Grace cried in alarm.
“We’ll find somebody to look after him while we’re gone,” Mamma reassured her. But it wasn’t necessary. Old Shep left as suddenly as he came. A little over two years before, right after their daddy left for the war, the black and white sheep dog appeared on their porch. Nobody was sure how he got through the front gate, but there he was sitting at the door looking at them as if he expected to be invited in. He looked exactly like the Old Shep Uncle James had when he and Mamma were children. So they called him Old Shep. Sometimes Mamma said it felt like Old Shep really was the same dog.
That was impossible, of course. It would make him at least 350 dog-years- old. Dogs don’t live that long. Mamma said the other Old Shep left Uncle James unexpectedly, too, sometime just before he went off to college.
Mamma checked around to see if anyone was missing a dog. But no one came for him. By then they all loved him too much to do anything but keep him. Grace was especially attached to the dog. As far as she was concerned, Old Shep was a magical dog who came to comfort her in her father’s absence. Robert might have pooh-poohed the idea, but J.D. reminded him, “Little kids believe in magic, Rob. A couple of years ago you’d have thought the same thing.”
“It would be good fun if he were magic,” Mary Carol said. She wasn’t entirely convinced that he wasn’t. There was something about him. “Wise—Old Shep is wise,” she said.
“That doesn’t make him magic,” Robert said.
“Why not?” asked Mamma, smiling at him. “Your Uncle James says the world is full of magic. We don’t notice it because we don’t expect it.”
“Yeah, but what good is it?” asked Robert, still unconvinced.
“If it makes Gracie feel better to think Old Shep is magic, maybe that’s enough good,” Mamma said.
The day before they were to leave for the train, Old Shep disappeared. Grace took it especially hard. Mamma tried to reassure her, “I guess he must know we’re all going away. Maybe he’ll come back when everybody’s home again.”
It was almost too much for any of them to bear—Daddy hospitalized in far away England, Mamma having to go away, and now Old Shep gone. Despite Mamma’s attempts to reassure her, Grace spent most of the day with tears running down her cheeks. The least sound sent her flying to the door expecting to see him. But Old Shep didn’t come back the next day either. They left for the train without seeing him again.
The Great Hall of the train station was alive with activity when they made their way through to the vast North Waiting Hall with its arched windows and rows of high-backed wooden benches. People were coming and going to far-away places, some of them to California through Texas, some to St. Louis or Chicago and beyond. It’s like you can step into the train station and go anyplace in the world, Mary Carol thought, places she’d only read or heard about.
It was eerily quiet in the Waiting Hall. Most of the passengers were dozing. Grace stretched out on the high-backed bench where they sat, her head in Mamma’s lap, fast asleep. She’d cried herself to sleep before they left for the station. They had to help Mamma get her in and out of the car. When she fell asleep, Grace was amazingly heavy for somebody so tiny.
Mary Carol sat upright next to Mamma, wide-awake, feeling her responsibility as the oldest next to J.D. There was excitement in the air, more than the surface excitement of people coming and going. Something is about to happen, something even bigger than the trip to California on the Santa Fe Chief, she thought. It was something she couldn’t name. She had feelings like that sometimes.
I don’t ever want to forget this moment, Mary Carol thought, smoothing down the folds of her skirt. She was wearing her second best dress. It was red plaid with black, gold, and white crisscrossed stripes and a sash that tied into a large bow in the back. The skirt was full. With the war going on, even fabric was rationed. But Grandma Matthias made it for her from one of Mamma’s old school dresses. The only new fabric was the white collar. The dress was new to Mary Carol, though, and she loved it.
She looked around at other passengers who waited. The man and woman, who sat diagonally across to the left, were dozing. He was roundish with a carefully trimmed moustache that hung over his lip, like a brush. His hair looked as if he’d tried to paste it down with hair cream. It stood up where it was supposed to be covering his bald spot. He clutched a briefcase on his lap as if he were afraid it would get away from him. Maybe it holds a map to buried treasure, Mary Carol speculated, smiling to herself, or gold and jewels.
The woman was very pretty in an overly made-up sort of way. She looked much younger than the man. I wonder if she’s a movie star? Mary Carol studied her. The woman’s deep navy blue travel suit with wide white pinstripes looked very expensive. Golden, perfectly formed curls fell from under a fedora hat. Its creased crown and soft brim matched the navy in her suit perfectly. The way she delicately leaned on the man’s shoulder seemed odd to Mary Carol. It was as if she didn’t really want to put her head on his shoulder. Maybe she’s afraid she’ll muss up her hair. Or, maybe she doesn’t like him.
Next to Mary Carol, Robert sat back to back with J.D. Their legs stretched out in opposite directions so Robert’s feet were almost touching her. The Santa Fe Chief was late, really late.
About an hour before they were to leave home for the station, another telegram came. Seeing a messenger boy at the door again scared the daylights out of everybody, but it was only from Uncle James. “Delay. Storm in Rockies left trees on track. Chief due in KC at 1:30 AM. Get some rest. Love, James.”
They got to the station at 1:00 AM to find it would be another two hours before the Chief arrived. People couldn’t have been nicer, though. A man from The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad office came over to Mamma and apologized. “Margaret Matthias Harrison?” he asked. “Mrs. Harrison, I’m Joe Elliott. James Matthias told me to expect you and the children. Would you like to wait in my office? I have a couch. It might be more comfortable for the children.”
“That’s so very kind,” said Mamma, “but I think we’ll just stay here. We’re already settled; we’ll be fine.”
“Well then, let me know if there is anything at all that I can do for you. I’m so very sorry for the delay.”
Mamma thanked him again.
J.D. was wide-awake, too. Tired as he was, he couldn’t sleep. He looked around at the others who waited, some of them sprawled on benches as if some magic had put them to sleep. He wondered who was going on the Chief and who was waiting for other trains departing from Kansas City. He pitied those who had been there since before 9:00 PM when the Santa Fe Chief was scheduled to leave. Not everybody had an Uncle James who could get tickets at the last minute when there weren’t any to be had and could inform them about delays ahead of time.
On the bench directly opposite a young women dozed. J.D. decided she was going on the Chief. Otherwise she wouldn’t be asleep. He made a mental note of possible Chief passengers to check against later: Young woman in gray suit.
His eyes went all around the station, taking in every passenger he could see. It was far too vast for him to see everyone. He noticed the man with the briefcase and the fancy woman beside him. They’ll be on the Chief, he decided. They look like the sort who’d be taking the Super Chief—the “Train of the Stars.” I’ll add them to the list. The Super Chief only runs twice a week. Maybe they’re in a hurry.
Robert wasn’t speculating about passengers. He sat wondering if he was as prepared as he should be. His bulging knapsack was safely trapped under his stretched-out legs. He did a mental inventory of its contents, checking them against the essentials for survival Grandpa Matthias had taught them during summers on the farm where Mamma and Uncle James grew up. “Everybody should know how to survive in the wilderness,” Grandpa would say, a twinkle in his eyes as they set up a makeshift shelter or identified edible wild plants. It was a game for the others, but Robert took it very seriously.
Another delay. It sounded suspicious to Robert. How long should it really take to get trees off the tracks in the mountains? He’d read about how the Axis powers were doing everything they could to disrupt deployment of troops and materials essential to the war. This could be an enemy plot.
He watched as a group of soldiers entered the station. They stood waiting as if they expected to be called any minute. By some silent command, the soldiers begin disappearing through the exit to the trains. Are they being deployed or reporting for training? Deployed. Robert decided, because of the strained look on their faces. They’d be boarding one of the special troop trains that were added to the schedule at unpredictable times, going where nobody knew for sure, except the engineers and people who ran the railroads. Uncle James might know, but he wouldn’t tell. He’d say, “Loose lips sink ships.”
He noticed the young woman in the gray suit across from them. She is only pretending to sleep, Robert concluded. Below the brim of her straw hat he could see that her eyes were slits. She is watching everything. Hardly anybody would be able to tell except Robert. He recognized it because it was a trick he had mastered, something essential to being good at surveillance. Robert figured he was pretty good at surveillance. Grandpa Matthias said that surveillance is essential to survival if you are ever in an emergency situation. Is she watching somebody or is she waiting for something to happen?
J.D.’s gaze swept back to the six-foot tall clock that hung at the juncture of the Grand Hall and North Waiting Hall. Fifty minutes to go. He was excited about the train trip, but troubled, too. He worried about Mamma going to England all alone and about Daddy. He felt the weight of responsibility in being the eldest. Robert isn’t going to accept my authority no matter what Mamma said to him. I’ll have to strategize. Mary Carol’s the one who strategizes—organized to the point of being bossy. Gracie I can manage. She can be a right brat, but she isn’t likely to pitch a fit in front of strangers.
A soldier in dress uniform took J.D.’s thoughts elsewhere. He sat at the far right end of the bench facing them.
J.D. was used to seeing soldiers, but this one was different. He was Japanese-American. Mamma said that after Pearl Harbor the government started rounding up Japanese, German, and Italian-American immigrants, putting them into internment camps. But nearly twice as many Japanese-Americans were imprisoned. “There’s an old Japanese saying, ‘The nail that stands out gets hammered down.’ I’m afraid it’s all too true,” she explained. “It’s not just about the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor. Folks see Japanese people as being different. For some folk, that’s enough to make them afraid.”
Mamma knew about how hard it could be during war times. When she was a little girl, during World War I, Grandpa and Grandma Matthias were accused of spying because they were German-American and pacifists. It didn’t matter that they believed that war is wrong. She never forgot how it felt to see her brother James trying to protect their daddy from an angry mob. Mamma could put up with a lot of things, but saying bad things about people who are different or think differently, was not one of them.
J.D. wondered if it was hard being a Japanese-American soldier. He supposed it must be. You probably have to be twice as good as everybody else to survive, he thought. This soldier must be. He wore the three rocker stripes of a master sergeant. The soldier nodded at J.D. ever so slightly. Blushing, J.D. realized he’d been staring.
Mary Carol asked Mamma if she could go to the toilet. She really wanted to see how she looked before it was time to board the train, though she would never have admitted it. As she stood looking at herself in the mirror in the Ladies Room, she felt pretty. “I don’t think it’s being vain to feel pretty.”
“I don’t either.” The young woman in the gray suit entered the Ladies Room. “We all like to feel that we look our best, don’t you think?”
Mary Carol was embarrassed. She hadn’t realized she’d been talking out loud.
“And you do look very pretty,” added the young woman, disappearing into one of the toilet stalls.
Mary Carol waited until she was out of sight, then twirled around to try and see the back of her dress. Her skirt whirled out in a circle. Spinning around again she went faster and faster, until she was dizzy. She had just started spinning in the other direction to unwind when the fancy lady in the navy pinstripe suit stepped out of one of the stalls. Purse tucked under an arm, she hurried to wash her hands. Trying to get out of the way and stop herself at the same time, Mary Carol mis-stepped and spun right into the woman, knocking her purse to the floor. The purse flew open.
“I’m so sorry,” Mary Carol apologized, face burning in embarrassment. Still dizzy, she rushed to help the lady gather her things. She picked up gloves and a handkerchief, but before she had a chance to give them to the lady, they were snatched from her.
“Don’t touch my things. You’ve done enough damage,” the lady snapped.
Humiliated, Mary Carol rushed into a stall and shut the door. She didn’t venture a look out until the woman left.
The woman in the gray suit stood waiting at the entrance to the toilet, “You can come out now,” she called softly. “It’s safe. I’m just waiting to see if you are okay. Did you turn your ankle or anything?”
“No,” said Mary Carol, fighting to hold back tears.
“It wasn’t entirely your fault. The lady wasn’t looking,” the young woman said. “It was an accident and you were trying to do the right thing. I know she spoke sharply, but let’s give her the benefit of the doubt. It’s been a long wait for the train. Her nerves are probably a little frayed, too.”
Mary Carol took her time washing her hands, then walked the long way back to her seat. She didn’t want to walk past the fancy lady. When she got back the woman in the gray suit smiled at her. She was sipping a cup of hot cocoa.
The fancy lady was back in her seat. She and her husband were drinking something hot, too. The lady demurely held the handles of her paper cup in one hand, resting it on her other hand.
It wasn’t long until Mr. Elliott returned. “We’ll be making a boarding announcement in just a few minutes, Mrs. Harrison. Shall I call a Red Cap to help you board the children?”
“No need, but thank you, Mr. Elliott,” said Mamma. “I’ll want to see them to the train myself.”
“Of course,” said Mr. Elliott, apologizing for the delay again.
Mamma began trying to rouse Grace. Grace wouldn’t rouse. J.D. helped lift her from the bench. Mamma carried her as far as the stairs down to the tracks. Grace was too big to carry all the way down. Mamma tried to get her to stand. Predictably, Grace went limp. “Oh dear, I should have let Mr. Elliott get us a Red Cap,” sighed Mamma.
“All aboard the Santa Fe Chief for Los Angeles California, stopping in Lawrence, Kansas, Emporia, Salina, La Junta, Colorado. . .” the boarding call rang out. Passengers hurried past them and down the stairs to the track level.
“J.D., why don’t you go find us a Red Cap,” Mamma said.
“May I help, Ma’am?” It was the sergeant.
“That would be so kind,” said Mamma gratefully. “Robert, you take Gracie’s bag from J.D. and, J.D., you carry this gentleman’s bag.”
“No need,” the sergeant smiled. He picked Grace up and placed her over one shoulder like a sack of potatoes, picked up his own bag, and started down the stairs. They followed, J.D. bringing up the rear.
The Sergeant gently transferred Grace to Mamma once they reached a stopping place on the platform. She was stirring now.
“Thank you so much, Sergeant,” said Mamma. “I see you are in the 442nd. My husband is in the Army, too.”
The sergeant nodded and bowed ever so slightly.
J.D. looked at Robert quizzically. Robert shrugged his shoulders. He had a list of different regiments, but he didn’t know anything about the 442nd either.
Now wasn’t the time to ask. Besides, Mamma hadn’t told the sergeant what their daddy did. Nor did she ask why the sergeant was going to be on the Chief, instead of one of the special transport trains that usually took soldiers from place to place. Loose lips sink ships, J.D. reminded himself.