part two of lilian's wish
Trying To Make Sense of It All
- Editor's Note: This is the second part of a series. You may read part one by clicking here. "Trying To Make Sense of It All," part three will publish in a couple of days.
Emmett had made his grand entrance into my house in January. By the time spring had arrived, he’d started showing up at my doorstep whenever he felt like it and would blow his horn from the driveway rather than come up to the door. At first, I thought something might be wrong, but he would tell me later that he was just an old man who didn’t walk well so he thought I should come to him. He didn’t vary his greeting much and usually said, “Hey, young fella, where you been? It’s hot out here, and you’ve been keeping me waiting.” It took me a while to spot his game of trying to con people into taking him into Harrisonburg, about an hour away, whenever he tired of just sitting around his place. When I learned to tell him I couldn’t go because I had other things to do, I could hear my mother making excuses for not going on day trips with Brooks. Sometimes Emmett would call me early in the morning and say, “Hey, let’s go down to the L&S diner in the ‘burg and get some salt fish for breakfast.” I’d go at times, since the diner intrigued me. It was a converted train car that had come to rest by the tracks that passed through town. It was silvery so you could spot it from a distance by its reflection. Years earlier, a cuckolded man fatally shot the one who had flirted with his wife at the very counter where we normally sat. The seducer was sitting at the counter eating his pancakes and sausage when his lights were put out. Whenever I agreed to go with Emmett, he’d just show up in his big truck and move to the passenger seat since he wanted to be driven, not to drive. As he got comfortable, he’d give me his orders: “Just stay between the ditches, boy.”
He’d grown up in central West Virginia near Spencer and joined the Navy right out of high school in the mid 1930s. He wanted to get as far away from his parents and their poverty as he could. During some of our rides together, he would tell me about how he imagined himself as a boy floating in an inner tube down the creek that meandered through the land his dad squatted on. He was pretty sure that the creek would in due course flow into a big pipe and eventually he’d come gushing out into the distant ocean. He just shook his head when he remembered there were too many chickens to feed and too many chores to finish if he were to continue living on a dirt farm on the side of a hill. My father grew up in a similar place.
Like my dad, Emmett had seven brothers and sisters and was born somewhere in the middle of the pack. Everyone was dirty, no one had enough food to eat, and there were plenty of beatings not just from his father but also from his mother. She used a forsythia switch because it was flexible like a whip. He remembered that she screamed at him a lot, especially when she laid it on him. His father favored a belt with the buckle out. He didn’t remember much about a couple of the younger kids who died early from one bad case of the flu or some other malady that went unattended. Runaways would sometimes stumble in from similar situations. They never stayed long. Where Emmett grew up, there wasn’t enough to go around anyone’s table. Extra mouths were not welcome.
When he joined the Navy, he was sent to somewhere in Minnesota. He had never heard of the state before let alone the town where he was stationed. And he certainly didn’t have any notion how far north it was. Emmett learned to keep his mouth shut and his feelings buttoned up, after he saw one drill instructor knock a recruit down and then stomp him for failing to stand at rigid attention and say something the instructor wanted to hear with a loud “Sir” at the end. Marines did the training for the Navy and they were a hateful lot. They had been around a long while and didn’t have many prospects other than making life miserable for a bunch of kids. Emmett said these guys obviously enjoyed their work, somewhat the way his mother enjoyed whipping him with the forsythia switch. At night, they got drunk and fought with each other over cards.
When Emmett reported for basic training, winter was already colder in Minnesota than it had been in West Virginia just a couple of days earlier. He was grateful to be issued the best and warmest clothes he had ever worn. He told me he still had vivid memories of his training days. He was used to getting up early at home and working hard before breakfast if there was one. The Navy’s routine was almost too easy in contrast to how he lived as a boy. He was learning more and more the fine art of doing what he was told and keeping quiet and not attracting the attention of the drill sergeants. I can still hear him telling me, “Never let someone with unlimited power who has you caged learn your first name.” When his training period was at an end, he asked to be sent to a school where he could learn to be a cook. He had developed an interest in food during his basic training, since that was the first time in his life that he had not gone to bed every night hungry. The Navy refused his request without telling him why. He was simply told he would be shipped to San Diego directly after basic training was over. He was going to learn what it meant to be a submariner. And so he did. He would stay in the service until he finally retired around 1950. He was especially proud of his “lieutenant commander” rank and would correct people who called him “mister.” Emmett was what was called a “mustang,” a man who had joined the military as an enlisted man but later made the jump to the officer corps.
He told me lots of stories on our many drives together. He’d also tell them to people who stopped by to chat as he sat on the concrete pad in front of his garage. Traffic was never busy and people lived without much urgency and frequently stopped to chat He was a good storyteller and knew how to pull you in. When he told his stories, I could hear my father’s voice. One of the yarns that haunted him happened when his boat was attacked by Japanese ships designed to hunt for subs. When they thought they knew where the sub was, they would launch depth charges for hours trying to destroy the boats or damage them enough to force them to the surface where they would be most vulnerable. You knew Emmett was into one of his serious stories when he repeated himself, seemed to lose his rhythm, and would get that “far away look” in his eyes. His references to the “Japs” would become “those god-damned Japs” as his voice would rise and he would pound on the table.
The subs he served on specialized in preying upon Japanese ships carrying merchandise and supplies in the South Pacific. He was part of the “hunter-killer” armada that lay in wait for these supply ships en route to Japanese-occupied islands. His supply base was in northern Australia which became a part of the world dear to him. On his shore leaves he fell in love with the country and its women, or at least one woman. When the topic of Australia would come up, you could see a change come over him. I pressed him once about why he didn’t return there after the war to make a new life. All he told me was that not going back was one of the greatest mistakes he ever made. He hinted that he had a child there, but would not talk further.
His dislike for the Japanese was war driven at first, but he took it to new depths which sank him to the hatred level. At every opportunity, he would blame Japan if there was an economic hiccup in this country. It was always, “Cheap shit, cheap wages, scheming war mongers.” He regretted not being part of the occupation forces, since he figured—without any thought of the consequences—that he might have had an opportunity to avenge some of his fellow sailors who had been killed or taken prisoner. He said that once he watched through a periscope as a POW ship crammed with American prisoners passed close by. These wretches were destined to work and die as slave labor in Japan’s mines. That sight instilled in him his determination never to be subject to someone else’s bidding. He said his crew had taken an oath to go to the bottom of the ocean fighting rather than surrender. It wasn’t lost on him that years earlier when he was training in old WWI-vintage subs, many of them were so unseaworthy and dangerous that they sank without a shot fired. He knew that being in a sub was akin to being a sardine in a can. And that can was easy to open. Sailors were always clustered in their sardine cans just waiting for something hungry to swim by and eat them.
Like my father’s stories, Emmett peopled his with lots of characters. They came from his youth, his Navy days, and from when he was a real estate broker in Bethesda, Maryland, after the war. It was just as hard at times to keep Emmett’s characters straight as it was my father’s, since some would pop into and out of stories where they shouldn’t be. Boys from his childhood came to play minor roles in Bethesda property purchases. Old sailors would show up to help him get out of Spencer. But he could spin a tale, even though they didn’t always make sense. That voice echoed the one I heard as a child.
Buying and selling real estate was natural to Emmett. He could convince a stranger that he needed anything he was selling. Once that seemingly sincere voice started crooning, people would begin opening up their wallets. He was so successful that he soon had enough money to purchase land in eastern West Virginia after he retired. He became a minor big-shot in no time here since he was a success story and had money, although he didn’t wave it about. Most people here were and still are farmers of sorts. Some made a living then as well as now running a few head of cattle on scrubby fields. Others were beginning to get into the growing poultry business and were building commercial chicken coops. A few ended up on state highway crews helping to pave roads or pour used oil on county roads to keep the dust down. Telephone service was improving so there was work stringing new lines over the mountain into Virginia. One thing in common people had was that they worked with their hands. There wasn’t much home building going on at this time, and Emmett was one of the first people to show up here with plans to make money buying and selling land to develop. He set his sights on this part of West Virginia mostly because it was closest to Bethesda. One place he didn’t want to go was his home area. Too many ghosts and too many bad memories.
The war years had instilled a discipline in him. This bearing was visible not only in how he walked, but in the purpose behind his movements. He never went for an idle stroll just to see the scenery. Again, I saw my father who was always determined to get to wherever he wanted to go as quickly and directly as possible. Emmett’s discipline focused his attention on succeeding. He had to be moving all the time. Sitting still just wasn’t comfortable for him. He told me he loved driving around since that was when he did most of his thinking. When he was in that truck, he felt he was as close as he could get to being back inside a sub, this time above the surface, but still on the move, gliding along on patrol. The sense of mission drove him, especially when he felt he was closing in on the sale of land he coveted. He didn’t advertise his real estate plans to many people. “Being visible is always the same thing as being vulnerable.” To make his point, he concluded: “A night on the sea in an open boat is a long night.”
When Emmett put on his business suit, he said he felt himself morph into a super wheeler-dealer. He was willing to try any strategy to get those who owned what he wanted to sell to him. Homes are spaced at least a mile apart, and folk who live in these hills were and still are wary of strangers in general. Even though he was a West Virginian, he was not a native to this place. People thought of him as an “outsider.” Many didn’t trust him, especially since he owned the newest hunting rifles. One man accused him of taking an unfair advantage by using “military ammunition” when hunting deer.
At that time, there were few deer or places to stay while hunting them. Many wives of farmers smelled the money in the pockets of out-of-area hunters and rented out rooms and provided breakfast. It was a cash crop for them. One family just up the road took the enterprise a step further and built a bunkhouse that would hold four people. Emmett stayed there when he came out to hunt, but always complained about the lack of an indoor toilet. Having to use an outhouse took him back to his youth, and you could hear him mutter, “I’m going to get my own place and will never have to shit outside again.”
Thus began a new kind of hunting for him. Putting his discipline to full work, he identified several large plots of land that would give him what he wanted. The next step was to befriend the owners and convince them to sell. He later would laugh as he told his story about wooing them, since he saw himself as no different from a man coming to win the heart of a woman. As he reckoned, it was a match made in heaven. He had the money to buy and they had never had that kind of gold dangled in front of them.
With 165 acres now under his control, he ordered a log cabin kit, hired the best bulldozer crews, carpenters, and concrete men in the area. He was known to pay well and feed the crew more than just hot dogs. He had kept up his interest in cooking and always had his grill fired up and smoking when the work day ended. No one ever saw or heard much about his wife Eloise. When her name came up, all he said was that they had a better marriage when he was in the woods and she was back in Bethesda. His pet name for her was “Poodle” apparently because he had fallen for her good looks and “fancy ways.” People who knew her said she was still a nice looking woman despite being well into her seventies. They also added that you soon forgot about her looks when she had something to say. Seems as though her personality was ugly and her voice caustic. Emmett was known to visit prostitutes and had worked out a complicated scheme where he would write his neighbor a check for cash which he would spend on his tastes. He figured that Eloise couldn’t trace the money flow. She was an accountant and knew he was a tomcat, but could never catch him. He told me once that he had enjoyed the company of many glamorous ladies in his day, but he preferred the companionship of waitresses, because “they always smelled of food.”
He didn’t get reliable TV reception and still fiddled with a rabbit-eared antenna to pull in distant programming. He had grown up before the age of satellite dishes and fiber optic lines. To watch TV when he first moved into his cabin, he built an eighty-five foot steel tower that had a TV antenna mounted on top of it. It was quite a minor wonder of our world out here at the time. Unfortunately, it could only receive one fuzzy channel from Harrisonburg. I had a big dish antenna, known here as the official West Virginia Bird, and on Friday nights when the sun went down and he had no audience by his garage, he would often invite himself up to my house. We would watch a couple of end-of-the week PBS shows on politics and the financial market. He would never go home until the Louis Rukeyser Wall Street Week program was over. “That man has the best looking suits I’ve ever seen,” he would comment without saying anything about Rukeyser’s financial advice. He was an avid NRA member and would annoy me by interrupting the TV program to talk about guns. Brooks also like guns and loved to hunt small game. My dad was disappointed that I did not share his enthusiasm and once shook his head in disgust when I turned my back after he had killed a rabbit.
Emmett’s cabin was full of hand guns as well as shotguns and rifles, and he was constantly pestering me that I needed some guns to protect myself. He never identified what I should be protecting myself from, but one day he showed up with a short-nosed revolver he had put down the front of his pants. When I told him I didn’t want him in the house if he was armed, all he said with a smile was, “I’m packin’. You can’t be too careful.” “You crazy old loon, you’re going to shoot your dick off and what am I going to tell the emergency squad when they finally get here?,” I shouted back. I let him in after he put his pistol on the counter. He then pouted and got the last word in by saying, “Pussy public television shows aren’t worth watching, anyway.”
He thought of himself as a little potentate of our parish here in the woods, always calling himself the Mayor of Emmettsburg. He had hired down-on-their-luck guys to do little jobs around his place for many years so they gladly did his bidding and referred to him as “the boss.” He ruled out of his modified “control room” in front of the fireplace in his cabin. He considered it the equivalent of the helm of his sub. He said all that was missing was a “Filipino boy” to hang up his shirts and shine his boots.
Instead of what you might find in a spit-polished sub, his command center was a mess of clutter. You entered through a junk-ridden garage with half spilled cans of oil used to lubricate chain saws and lawn mowers. You then had to step around all the trash on the kitchen floor, bread wrappings, lost mayonnaise jar lids, an occasional pickle or olive that had rolled away. My father would have seen nothing out of place. When Brooks cooked, the walls ended up being splattered with grease, nothing was ever put away, dirty dishes lived in the sink. Cleanup was left to others. Brooks and Emmett were both walking pig pens. As you proceeded into Emmett’s house, there were the overflowing ashtrays piled high with stubs and gray ash. Walk carefully around them or the billows would swirl into a windstorm. He had an old overstuffed sofa to sit on by the fireplace. You were expected to tote a log in when you finally got through the maze. He watched his fire carefully and would tell you when to toss your log in the stove. Not too soon and not too late. The sofa had loose springs and was uncomfortable. Once I made the mistake of reaching under the cushion to see what was poking at me, since he often stashed his pistol there. Fortunately, it wasn’t the pistol so I didn’t shoot myself, although I almost cut myself on the jagged end of one of the damned springs.
(To be continued.)