“It’s okay.” Daniel laughs, regaining his footing. “That rattletrap has seen better days and it didn’t break all the way through. I just need the glass to stay together until the economy turns around.”
“The hail was bad here too. Stones not so big, just the size of marbles, but they covered the ground like snow and the temperature must have dropped forty degrees in fifteen minutes. I was afraid the house might blow down. Was it a hurricane or a tornado?”
“Radio out of Wheeling says it was a freak tornado, only touched down in a few counties, but it did some damage.”
Daniel stands. “Come on, old man,” he says to Blum. “Let’s drag those fallen branches under the porch. We may as well store the wood where it can get dry.” He takes Blum’s arm and guides him away.
I don’t tell Patience about Isaac’s heroic action when he carried me through the tornado to the shelter. It seems too unreal, as if I imagined it. I don’t tell her that he actually seemed to understand that we were in danger. I don’t her tell her that for a moment Dr. Blum seemed to be present, to be with me, to be back.
It’s Tuesday, my first day to work in the infirmary at Camp White Rock, a blazing-hot morning, and as usual I’m in a rush. I assist Dr. Blum with his grooming. Shave him, brush his teeth, clean his fingernails, and check to be sure his trousers are buttoned. I want him to look nice because Lilly is watching him.
“You’re going to stay at the store again this afternoon. Do you understand? The camp is the only opportunity I have to earn cash money. Please don’t mess this up. Just sit where they tell you and try to be sociable.”
I say this last part with a small grin, knowing sociable was not one of Blum’s character traits, even when he was in his right mind. That’s probably why his wife ran around on him. She was fun-loving in the extreme. Opposites attract, they say, and in this case it seems true.
I remember seeing her with a man at a restaurant in Charlottesville once, a handsome fellow with a new short haircut and sporting a seersucker blazer and white pants. It was summer and Priscilla wore a low-cut rose-colored dress, and he was touching her hand. I never told the doc about it.
When I get to Liberty, I drop Blum off at the grocery, and then stop at the pharmacy to pick up the supplies. When I hand Mr. Stenger the list, he reads it out loud.
“1 combination hot water bag and enema syringe
1 male urinal
1 pair adjustable crutches
2 pair rubber gloves that can be sterilized
3 boxes adhesive plaster for making casts
4 rolls gauze bandage
1 glass thermometer
6 packs of Lifebuoy soap
1 box of lice powder
4 bottles of mercurochrome
1 jar Blue Itch Cream
1 large tube of Ben-Gay liniment
1 tin of milk of magnesia tablets
1 large bottle of Bayer aspirin
2 bottles of hydrogen peroxide
2 bottles of isopropyl alcohol
1 50cc bottle of morphine”
He stops and raises his eyebrows
“You preparing for the Battle of Gallipoli, Miss Becky?”
“You mean the narcotic? I may need it if there’s a dislocated shoulder or a broken limb. When I was at the camp interviewing for the job, a boy came in with a deep laceration that had to be stitched, an accident at the sawmill.”
“No, I didn’t mean the morphine. I’m not questioning your credentials to give it, but all this is going to be expensive. . . .”
“That’s fine. Colonel Milliken said to put it on the camp’s account.”
Stenger shrugs, rubbing his one lazy eye. “I guess the government’s good for it, but the way the White House is spending, I wonder for how long.” He moves into the back room to get some of the items off the shelf, but keeps up a running patter as I pet the orange cat on the counter.
“You know, some of the folks around are pretty riled up about the CCC camp. Say the men will bring trouble into Union County, but I think the Conservation Corps is all that’s keeping this town alive. You know . . . Bittman’s Grocery, not to mention Gooski’s Tavern. Marion Archer got on as a reading teacher out at the camp, and I hear Reverend Goody is teaching elocution. Half the lads, they say, have never been to school, or at least not for long.”
“Loonie Tinkshell works out there too.”
“Real glad you found a position, Miss Becky, and I’m very happy to have your business.” He wraps my supplies in brown paper as his lazy eye wanders toward the door, hoping, I imagine, to see another customer coming in. “Anything else?”
“This will do for a while.”
“See the headlines?” Stenger offers just to keep me in the store.
I glance at the newspapers in the rack next to the counter. WAR CLOUDS DARKEN EUROPE and underneath, TESLA DISCOVERS NEW DEATH BEAM.
“What do you think of that?” Stenger questions.
“I don’t know. It sounds dangerous.” I glance at my watch. “What if it got in the wrong hands?”
“Well, you know, Europe’s a mess again. That Adolf Hitler’s in power and it doesn’t look good for the Jews. I guess Tesla is just thinking he could save a lot of lives, not have another Great War. One way or another the U.S. is going to get involved, mark my words.”
“Oh, I don’t think so. We Americans have enough trouble of our own. . . . I have to go,” I say, excusing myself. “Don’t want to be late for my new job.” I throw him a smile and back out the door.
I wasn’t honest with Mr. Stenger, didn’t say what I really feel. I hate war. Like a dust cloud rolling across Oklahoma, it has taken almost everything I loved: my brothers and my shell-shocked husband, even my father, who died of a broken heart after his soldier sons died, one by a bomb, one by the Spanish flu that ran through the barracks like a mad fox in a henhouse.
It’s no wonder I’m always waiting for the next calamity. Patience once called me Henny Penny, the chicken who runs around yelling, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”
If it didn’t take so much courage to be a pacifist, I’d wear the white feather. I’d wear it proudly in my best hat or on my lapel, but in the last Great War, to be a pacifist was to be a traitor, and I couldn’t have taken the ostracism.
Blum probably could take it. He didn’t really care what people thought of him, but he was a physician at Walter Reed during the war, and even though he never saw combat, he saw the results . . . broken men whom he had to patch up and send back to their shattered lives.
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