First Chapter of War Story

I rarely promote one of my novels on this log, but I’m responding to requests and think this is the easiest way to give readers a sample of what’s coming. Probably this summer. I set the novel in World War II and it follows the growth, adventures and romances of a young boy, a woman pilot and a Yale graduate through those dangerous times. These people grew up in New Haven. The fourth character is a young German soldier who becomes a POW after the Afrika Korps’ defeat and spends the rest of the conflict as a POW in America. The nine-year-old boy narrates the first chapter, describing what happens when the circus comes to town in August 1941 and the war begins later that year.

I am very interested in your reactions. Please contact me either through this blog at my author’s website:


August 1941

One August morning in 1941, my cousin Hansi lost his left hand to a circus tiger. I didn’t see it happen, but I ran over to where the fuss was and saw Hansi being lifted on to the front seat of a police car. They wrapped his left arm in a towel and he looked confused, but he wasn’t crying. I said nothing, but I did envy that he was getting a ride in a police car.

 Over in the cage where the tiger was, a man was poking her with a stick, trying to get Hansi’s hand away. She played with it like a cat with a mouse, tossing the little pink thing around and catching it in her mouth. When it looked like he was going to snatch the hand away, she grabbed it and swallowed it.

Two workers saw Hansi put down his bucket by the cage and start talking to the tiger and then reach in to pet her. Hansi was seven years old and had a cat at home. He was a little slow and tender-hearted. A worker pulled him away from the cage, but his hand stayed with the tiger. Afterwards, they decided not to shoot her because she only did what was natural. A lot of us didn’t agree with that, especially Onkle Fritz, but the circus train left the next morning, heading for Bridgeport.

My cousin Willy, five years older than me, told us about how the circus train would come early this morning, to set up in the field between the railroad tracks and Dixwell Avenue. They always needed kids to help, the little ones hauling hay and water and the older ones working to help set up tents and such. For that, we’d get free tickets to the circus for our family.

Mutti said it was okay for me to go, and I hardly slept that night, I was so excited. I kept looking at the hands of the Big Ben alarm clock by the night light, waiting for four o’clock. 

I pushed the lever to “off” and got up at five before four, dressing in my shorts and favorite plaid shirt in the dark. Mutti left butterbrot for me that I ate as I headed down to Auger Street, then over to Dixwell Avenue.

I remember the cool air on my legs and how quiet and dark all the houses along the road were. I couldn’t see some of them, it was that dark without a moon, but I knew where all my friends lived and made out the shape of their homes in my head.

By the time I got to the railroad underpass, I saw a pink glow over by East Rock, and when I got to the grassy area next to the tracks, I could make out Willy standing there with some other big boys, smoking cigarettes. They must have found someone selling loosies, because I didn’t think any of the stores around would sell them whole packs. Willy called me over and introduced me to the big boys as his “cuz,” which made me happy. Vinny, who lived over on Auger Street, stuck out his hand and said ‘Put her there,” like I was one of them. I think they were all in the tenth grade, like Willy. I waited for the train standing with them feeling gown up..

Hansi showed up just as the sun cracked over the horizon. He had this kind of goofy walk that was funny to begin with, and with his eyes squinty from looking into the sun, he made us laugh. Some boys teased him, but he was good-natured about it. Nobody ever got really mad at Hansi.

Quiet as it was, our ears perked up when the far-off sound of a train whistle came our way. We saw a pinpoint of light down the tracks rushing toward us that was the headlight of the train. He didn’t care how early it was; the engineer blew the whistle loud and harsh. It changed pitch as it approached. The round black front of the train blended into the dark trees by the track, but the black smoke in front climbed up to darken the sun, and the white steam from the whistle disappeared like morning fog.

We stepped back from the tracks as the train clattered by—one long car after another blowing dust and smoke our way. Screeching like the brakes on my bike, only louder, it stopped about in the middle, and we could see the flat cars with cages and carriages and things we didn’t recognize stretching out toward the high school. It was the most wonderful thing I had ever seen.

Then, big men poured out of the carriages and unloaded crates and canvas and poles and began spreading everything out on the wet grass. I jumped back to get out of the way and Willy grabbed my arm and pulled me over to see a man who wore a dirty brown fedora. The man asked our names, licked his pencil, and wrote them down on the paper on his clipboard. He sent Willy over to carry ropes and help the roustabouts, and I went over to the elephants–the ELEPHANTS! I couldn’t believe it. I was so lucky. Even though I carried water and picked up their poop with a shovel, I was with the elephants. Until the tiger got Hansi’s hand.

Things settled down, and we helped until a little after noon, when the tents and flags were in place, the carriages lined up, and the train engine purring away, sending power to the carriages. The performers came out. Little people and big women in fancy robes. Men and women testing wires and ropes and looking after the animals in their cages. Things smelled different too. It was probably the animals, especially the elephants.

We gathered around the man in the fedora, and he handed us special passes for the performances later that day. The big boys, including Willy, got shiny fifty-cent pieces because, I guess, they worked harder. I was tired and hungry and would have liked one too. Willy said he’d share with me later. When I got home, I took a nap for the first time since I was little.

The show was at seven, so we would have time to listen to the news at six and get there on time. I had four circus passes, one each for Mutti, my little sister, and me. Vati was away, so I asked Freddy, my peanut buddy on Giles Street, if he wanted to come. I always liked going to his house because his mother had a different way of talking. “A” s in her words sounded like “on,” and her “r” s were funny too. Freddy said it was because she came from England and never learned how to speak normally.

When I got there, Freddy’s big sister came out on the porch.

“Freddy can’t play with you anymore,” she said, like it was written in stone.

“How come?”

“Mum says because you’re a dirty jerry, that’s how come.”

I didn’t want to look stupid, so I just said, “Oh,” and went back down the porch. But I didn’t like the way she cocked her head and stuck her tongue out when she called me a dirty jerry. It made me mad like when somebody says heads up AFTER they throw the ball. So, I just kicked a brick by their sidewalk loose and decided I’d ask Freddy about it Monday morning at the school playground. That’s where we met during vacation to plan our days and pick sides.

My next best friend was Stosh, and he lived two houses over from Freddy. He was excited about going to the circus and promised to give me his blue aggie next week.  So that was the four of us who went back to Dixwell Avenue that evening.

I didn’t get back from Stosh’s in time to listen to my first show that afternoon, but I heard the Lone Ranger, Jack Armstrong, all-American boy, and Sergeant Preston and King in Challenge of the Yukon. When he said, “On, on you huskies” it always gave me goose bumps.

The Philco was in a corner of the living room. I liked to look straight at the big round dial that glowed yellow when we turned it on. The reddish-brown wooden case rose from the floor and made an arched top. It always smelled of lemon oil that Alma used as polish on the days she cleaned house. I liked that smell. It reminded me of cold lemonade we sometimes got during summer vacation.

My sister and I would lie on the floor in front of the speaker and would try to figure out how the glowing green light in front blinked on and off when people talked.

When he was home, Vati was in charge of the four buttons and the tuning knob. But he wasn’t home that night, so Mutti asked me to find the six o’clock news. When it was over, there would still be plenty of time to get to Dixwell Avenue by seven.

The war news was always first, right after the loud music and clackety noises. Then the announcer came on and welcomed America. Then he told us about what was happening in the Battle of Britain. He was very serious and said that the Luftwaffe had dropped bombs on the financial district of London and on Oxford Street in the West End. There were a lot of casualties. But today, the RAF bombed Berlin for the first time during the war. They didn’t kill anybody, but it caused “loss of face” for Hermann Gӧring who worked with Hitler, because he boasted that the RAF would never bomb Berlin. I saw a picture of Gӧring in Life. He wore a white suit with big black boots and was fat with double chins.

Mutti’s mouth was tight and thin as she heard the news, and she put her hands on my head and my sister’s. She wiped her eyes, too.

When the announcer got to the best part, sports, Stosh banged on the door, so he got to hear the latest scores too.

When the news was over, Mutti stood by the kitchen sink for a while and looked out the window as though she was expecting a visitor. Maybe she was thinking about her brother, who was a soldier in Germany. She hadn’t heard from him since we moved to our new house last year. She told Vati that she was afraid the post office wasn’t forwarding mail from Germany, but Vati didn’t think so. We didn’t talk about my uncle except at home.

 Then she straightened up and herded us together, and we walked down the street to Auger, on the way to Dixwell. The sun was in our eyes, but we didn’t care.

Mutti said she was sad about Hansi, but she didn’t hold it against the circus, and we all had a really good time there. I wasn’t sure which tiger ate Hansi’s hand. They all looked mean, snarling at the man with the whip. I was glad to see the elephants sitting down and pretending to step on a lady. I felt like I had helped their act with giving them water.

The side show was almost as good as the show in the tent, except that I had my doubts about the Siamese twins. They didn’t look that much alike, and I think I saw one of them walking alone that morning. The strong man had a big wobbly belly, but he sure could bend steel bars. Mutti heard him talk German to a bearded lady, so she spoke to him when he was on a break. She was always glad to talk with someone with a German background, she said.

It was past my sister’s bedtime when we started our walk home, but she was so excited by the circus she made the walk with no trouble. Stosh made me angry by goofing around and teasing my sister, so I punched him in the arm. Most of the way Mutti didn’t say much, so I asked her about my being a dirty jerry.

“Liebling,” she said, “Jerry is what some people in England call Germans. You just heard about how the German Luftwaffe is bombing England, and how people in England are getting hurt, so I can see why they would call Germans dirty. Don’t worry about it.”

“But I’m not German, am I?”

“No,” she said, “you were born in New Haven and you’re American.” She paused. “But you have a German background.”

The circus was the best thing of the whole summer. Second best was that I turned nine the same week I started fifth grade which was when Inky came over to my class from hers.  That was because Miss Hendricks. who was her fourth-grade teacher, got promoted to teach fifth grade and thought Inky should have a new teacher for fifth grade, who was my Miss Smith, the one with dimples. Inky’s father was friends with Vati and her big sister would sometimes baby sit my sister and me, so I was already friends with Inky.

 Her nickname was “Inky,” but her proper name was “Inge.” Some kids couldn’t say it so good, so they called her “Inky,” and that was okay with her. She had black hair and blue eyes, so “Inky” sort of fit.

Like Inky I had a nickname. I even had two. My name is “Joachim” after my grandfather who died after the First World War, and my German nickname is “Achim.” But when kids at school tried say “Achim” it comes out “ACKhim,” which I didn’t like because it sounds ugly. So, after first grade, I said my name was “Jo,” which is easy. I don’t tell that in German you would say it like in “Yo-yo.” So, in school I was “Joe” and at home “Achim.” Inky speaks German like me, but she called me “Joe” most of the time, except when we are with family. That’s kind of dopey but I guess that comes with having a German background in New Haven..

Inky was mainly friends with girls but also with me and Stosh and Freddy and we got along okay She was a good sport for a girl.

By the second week in December, we hoped the frigid weather would have froze the water, so Stosh and Inky and me took the Dixwell Avenue bus out to Mixes Pond after church. Stosh and I just liked to skate, but Inky was a figure skater and practiced twice a week at the Arena.

The man at Mixes Pond pointed to the ducks swimming in open water at the end of the pond and said sorry kids, the ice ain’t thick enough. So Inky just sat on a bench and Stosh and I threw snowballs at the ducks for a while, killing time until we could take the bus back. It was already getting dark when we got to the green, where we had to change busses to go back up Whitney to Blake Road. We sat together on a bench to wait. Inky was looking over toward the Christmas lights covering the front of Malleys.

“Look at all the policemen on Church and Chapel,” she said. “I’ve never seen so many except maybe in a parade. And there’s nobody in Malleys. What do you think?”

“It’s Sunday,” said Stosh in that voice he used when he tried to put someone down. “Nobody shops on Sunday.”

Inky looked hurt and turned away, so I said, “Yeah, but look at all those policemen. And the police cars parked in front of the church.”

Stosh admitted that was funny–not ha ha.

Some old people came to wait for the bus, so we gave up the bench and stood behind them. They were talking in low voices and one of them was crying. People were talking about something they couldn’t believe. They were talking about “pearl harbor” and a “sneak attack” and “Arizona.” One of the old men kept muttering about “lousy Japs.” The only thing we recognized was the Japs. They had been talking about them on the evening news for the past week.

On the way up Whitney the people on the bus were all talking low, all about something the Japs did. The men seemed angry, and some women were crying. Inky kept shushing us. She was trying to figure out what was going on. Finally, she asked the lady across the aisle why everyone was so excited. That’s when we learned that the Japanese had attacked our naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, a little after noon and sunk most of our navy ships there. Nobody knew how many of our soldiers and sailors died, but a man on the bus said he was in the navy and predicted the loss would break our hearts. Everyone was quiet after that.

Inky had a watch, so she knew it was a few minutes after five when we got off the bus at Blake Road. It took about twenty minutes, fifteen if we ran up the hill, to get to our streets. The Shadow was on the radio at five thirty, so I thought I could get home in time to hear about the evil that lurks in the hearts of men.

But when I got home, Mutti and Vati were listening to the radio already, and it was all news about Pearl Harbor, and then about a place called Manila that the Japs were bombing even as the announcer talked to us. A man in London told us how the people there were “reacting” to the news, and then Vati tuned in Lowell Thomas. We listened to him for a long time. Mutti was crying and holding my sister, and hers big eyes were full of tears too. Vati face was red and he wrinkled his forehead so it looked like a washboard I never saw  him so angry and upset before, even when I scratched his car or came home late.

I thought of  all the people hurt and killed in Honolulu, especially the sailors trapped in the ships lying in Pearl harbor, and my stomach got tight and the back of my throat hurt.  I didn’t know much about the Japs but when I thought of what they did it was like when a sixth grader hits you and there’s nothing you can do about it.

When Lowell Thomas stopped talking for a while, Vati went to the kitchen and came back with a glass of wine for Mutti and the schnapps bottle and a little glass that he filled for himself. He told me to get some water for my sister and me. When I came back, he was shaking his head and staring at the yellow light on the Philco. Mutti’s cheeks were wet but she stopped crying and was sipping the wine.

Vati started talking to the radio.

“It’s that goddam Roosevelt,” he said. “He wants a war so he can help the Englander fight Germany. He and Cordell Hull managed these peace negotiations so the Japanese felt they had no choice but to attack us. Now he can beat back the isolationists and go to war with Japan, and it will be no time at all before we are at war with Germany too. That Churchill is licking his lips right now.”

“Don’t say that,” said Mutti. “You don’t know that. You just hate all politicians. Just don’t say that.”

Vati stopped talking, stared at the radio and looked at me and my sister.

“You’re right. I shouldn’t say that. Not in front of the children.”

He went to Mutti and gave her a kiss and hugged my sister. He roughed up my hair and went to his study in the basement with the schnapps in his hand. 

There was no school the next day, and we were all in front of the radio just after noon because that was when the President would talk with Congress. We had seen the newspaper pictures of the damage to our ships at Pearl Harbor and the big headlines about Japs and the sneak attack and how they were also attacking other places in the Pacific. Congress, Vati said, could declare war back at the Japs.

So, Congress could get even with them, I said, and Vati said yes.

I hadn’t heard the President before, so it surprised me that he didn’t talk the way we did. He sounded like Freddy’s mother, the one who said I was a dirty jerry. If a word ended in an “r,” the President said, “uh,” and he stretched out his words a lot. I was going to say something about that, but Mutti shushed me, and we heard him tell us about the day of infamy, about severe damage to our forces, attacks in many other places in the Pacific, and how we would win absolute victory over the Japanese Empire.

Right after, the Congress declared a state of war.

The next day I went back to school, and everyone was talking about the war. Nobody much liked Fatso Perkins, but he had a brother in the army, so we asked him a lot of questions about the army. Fatso told us how good his brother was with a carbine which was an army gun and said how his brother would kill Japs and Huns. Stosh told me later that I was a Hun, so I hit him in the stomach and called him a dumb Polack, but we made up later.

Inky stayed mostly with the other girls that day, but she walked home from school with me and Stosh and Freddy. Freddy was still my number one friend, but we always said goodbye at the bottom of his street so his mother wouldn’t see us together. Mostly we talked about Pearl Harbor and how the President said the Japs had hurt our military.

 Inky talked about all the sailors who died on the Arizona. She was good at putting herself in other people’s shoes and told us how bad off all their families must be. She said she cried for a day when her cat died. Think about how it is with people. So, we did and were all sad when we broke up to go home.

Mutti told me to shovel off snow that collected on the driveway, and I didn’t argue with her about missing my programs. They would probably be interrupted by an “important announcement” anyway. I cleaned off snow all the way out to the street where the plow made it thick and felt good about it. Better than thinking about the war.

Vati drove home just before supper. He was in a better mood than the night before and gave me a dime when Mutti told him I’d shoveled off the snow. My sister was sleeping over with a friend, so it was just us at supper, which was very quiet. I had lots of questions about what I had seen and heard that day but waited because I wasn’t sure about Vati’s mood.

After supper we sat around the Philco to listen to the President’s fireside chat, which was number nineteen since he became President. He sounded pretty much like last night, except that he seemed to be in the room with us, and it was like he was talking right to me. The President explained all the things that were going on in the Pacific, how we were already preparing for the war effort, what was happening in Europe, and how we were all ready for whatever we needed to do. He was very calm and comforting, and I memorized that he said, “So we will win the war and we will win the peace that follows.”

Mutti grabbed Vati’s hand as we listened to the radio, and Vati covered her hand with both of his. It wasn’t hard to figure out what they were thinking about.. Mutti’s sister lived with her mother in Germany, and her brother was in the German army. Vati had family living near Hanover, a place in Germany.

When the radio returned to “normal programming,” Mutti and Vati moved to the kitchen and talked. I was laughing at Fibber McGee and Molly and not so worried after the fireside chat. I got to stay up past my bedtime.

The next few days after school Freddy and Stosh and I caught the trolley down to the recruiting station by the green and watched to see who we knew was signing up to join the Army and Navy.  The day after Pearl Harbor, young men enlisted to fight Japan. After the fireside chat, they formed lines to join up, and, after Hitler declared war on us Thursday, the lines got longer.

We recognized some brothers of our friends. They were excited and making clouds of smoke as they talked and joked on the icy air. They wanted to get Japs and kill the Krauts and pretended to shoot each other as they pushed through the line. We were throwing snowballs at them from the corner of the building when we saw Hansi’s mother rush over from the bus stop, all red in the face, and bang into the glass doors of the recruiting station. A few minutes later she came back out dragging Hansi’s brother, Stefan, by the ear so he couldn’t get his footing in the slush and skidded on his knees. She was screaming at him that he was only sixteen and had to stay with her. That got a lot of laughs from the boys in line.

That Saturday, Inky asked me if I would come over to say hello to her big sister home from college for the holidays. Her name was Liesel, and she didn’t have a nickname. It was just Liesel. I think I was in love with her from the first time she came over to babysit me and my sister when I was about six. She had black hair and blue eyes like Inky, she sort of glided when she moved like she was on skates in the living room, and she didn’t treat me like a kid. Liesel listened to what I said, smiled at me and sometimes touched me when she talked. She was sort of famous for being a girl pilot and ,most of the kids in school knew her. Willy like her too and said she was stacked, but I didn’t care. I thought she was special.

We sat together on the green couch and she asked me what I was doing and I told her nothing, and she laughed and asked me again with her smile and I told her about going to the green and being worried about the war and what we were reading in our English class. We talked a lot, and she said she would finish college next year and that she hoped to have her commercial pilot’s license in the spring. I knew she was crazy for airplanes and thought Lucky Lindy was a hero, and she cried when Amelia Earhart got lost in the Pacific. I told her that was great, and she hugged me and gave me a kiss pretty close to my lips. My face felt like I had been standing in the wind for five hours.

After we were really at war with Germany, Mutti and Vati got very busy. They both wrote lots of letters, and Vati told me he was sending telegrams to his family in Germany. He told me he could do that from his office on Prospect Street. Because we had a home telephone party line, we had to keep our conversations short and not talk about certain things. Vati cleared out some shelves in the basement, and Mutti shopped for sugar and flour and things they said would be hard to get soon. He showed me the secret place in his closet where he kept wichtige papiere and some gold coins. He didn’t trust the bank.

Every Sunday we would have a big meal with some of our relatives, and I’d get to play with cousins. One had a twenty-two and we would hunt squirrels in the woods behind his house, or play blackjack, or just walk on streets we didn’t know. The way it worked was that we would have the big meal soon after church with all the food I liked best. Pork with thick brown gravy. Red cabbage. Spaetzle with gravy. All kinds of vegetables and potatoes. And deserts that the women would try to outdo each other with. About three o’clock, the women and men would separate, and us kids were free until it was time for cold cuts. The men would drink schnapps or kirschwasser or whiskey and talk and, if it was cold and wet outside, we could stay and listen.

After the war began, Vati and the men would sit behind closed doors to talk. They weren’t silly or laughing when it was time for cold cuts, but serious and quiet. By then, it was dark outside, but it was dark inside too.

Vati had a little desk with two comfortable wooden armchairs in the corner of the living room that he called his upstairs office. Friends and, sometimes, students came to visit and talk. He didn’t mind if I sat on the floor by the Philco when visitors came. He had his serious conversations in the basement office. The day after Liesel gave me a kiss, in late January, Paul Schafer came for s visit after cold cuts. His family lived next door to Inky’s, and he helped take care of our yard while he was in high school. I think Vati helped him get into Yale. I knew he was captain of the varsity lacrosse team because I’d see him at home sometimes in his white sweater with the big blue “Y,” and he’d talk about his games. He was like Liesel and talked to me like I was a real person and not just a kid. I liked him.

I was pretending to fiddle with the dials on the Philco, and Paul talked to Vati about the war and how he hated the terrible things Hitler was doing in the occupied countries. He felt it was his duty to join the other young men who were enlisting and serve his country. He might have German parents, but he was just as patriotic an American as anyone else and he wanted to fight. He wondered what Vati thought.

Vati nodded his head and smiled at him.

“Paul, I’d be glad to be your sounding board on this matter. I’m aware that you are doing well, on dean’s list, and it looks as though you’ve redeemed yourself after your freshman year.. You haven’t had any more problems in that area, have you?”

I peeked over and saw that the back of Paul’s neck get really red, and he squirmed in his chair.

“Uuh, the demon rum,” he said like it was serious and funny at the same time.. “That was a big mistake and I’m still trying to live it down. But it happened only that one time and never again. It’s over.”

“And the girl?” asked Vati.

“Amicably resolved. She’s living with her grandmother in Haddam.”

“Splendid,” said Vati. “I’m glad for you that it’s been worked out. Now, to your immediate future. You’re scheduled to graduate in June, correct?”

Paul agreed, and Vati asked what his major was.

“Electrical engineering with a minor in German.”

“The dean tells me your grades are good. Honors quality.”

Paul shuffled in his chair and said, “I think that’s right.”

Vati asked Paul if he thought he would be more valuable to his country now or in June as an honors graduate with an engineering degree from Yale.

“Keep in mind,” said Vati, “ that the military will be requiring many young officers quickly. I suspect they’d snap up an athletic Yale graduate in engineering with the speed of light.”

Paul just shook his head and said of course he’d wait until June. They talked more, and Paul thanked Vati. He said ‘hi’ to me as he left.

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