It was early evening when passengers streamed off the train carrying Mom and Dad home from the VA hospital in Memphis in 1945 and entered the dim, cavernous Union Station and flowed around our circle to the stairs. With the high windows and grand skylight blacked out after far away Pearl Harbor was bombed, the concourse was somber, but they were warmly welcomed.
Mom said she held me as Grandmother stepped forward to kiss her son and hold him tight for a long time. She gave Mom a peck on the cheek and smiled as her youngest son, Uncle Bill Calvert, approached Dad with his hand extended. Dad took his hand, but clapped his arm around his shoulder pulling his younger brother into a hug. After a quick embrace with Mom’s parents, Grandma and Grandpa, Dad gently reached out to me, then nestled warily in Mom’s arms. I buried my face in Mom’s shoulder, but peeked out at this new man smiling and cooing so close. After a while, Mom said I tentatively let him take my hand.
“Let’s celebrate at Forrester’s. Some ice cream, Michael?” said Grandmother to everyone, but her eyes focused on me. My face brightened as I turned my eyes toward Mom.
“It’s time for Michael’s nap. Maybe some other time,” replied Mom. She saw my lower lip protrude and my eyes narrow.
“Of course. Some other time,” said Grandmother flatly.
Grandpa parked his ’36 Ford in front of their small, clapboard house where Mom grew up on 18th Avenue. Dad muscled his duffel bag and Mom’s brown plaid suitcase out of the boot as Grandpa called the car’s trunk. Dad followed Mom onto the porch, into the foyer, and up the narrow stairs to her old room which was chockablock with my crib and two single beds. Grandpa had moved Mom’s brother’s bed into her small bedroom. He was a Navy Seabee then somewhere in the Pacific Theater. Dad pushed the beds together while Mom put me in the crib, pulled off my oxblood leather “big boy” shoes and covered me with a colorful quilt she had sewn from scraps before I was born.
Mom liked to relate how Dad joined me on the floor as I played with blocks with raised letters from A to Z. He put A on top of D and added another D, and said, “DAD”, pointing to the blocks. Mom laughed and told him it was much too early to teach me letters. If didn’t know my letters, I apparently knew how to topple a stack of blocks and promptly did so. Dad grinned and rebuilt the stack. I demolished it, laughed heartily.
“Again,” I said each time the blocks came down as I giggled. We moved on to pushing cars back and forth. By lunch time, I was in Dad’s lap as he sat crosslegged on the floor. After lunch, he slipped me an extra cookie. We were then buddies.
In the days following Dad’s return, we established a routine. After Grandpa went to work, Mom, Dad, and I usually walked to St. Augustine’s school playground. Dad gently pushed the swing while Mom held me on her lap. His hands were around my waist as I climbed from rung to rung up to the small slide. He placed me on the shiny metal and released me when I was ready. Mom caught me, swung me up in the air, and set me on my feet. I raced to the ladder to repeat the game.
Afterwards at nearby Elban and Scott’s Confectionery, I pointed to a piece of hardtack candy from the same glass case Mom remembered from her visits after school. Dad carried me on his shoulders most of the way home. Grandma found children’s books she had saved, and I listened to Dad and Mom read them on the glider on the front porch so often that Mom said I shouted out the words on each page in advance.
On Sundays, we all piled into Grandpa’s Ford and drove to St. Augustine’s modest church for Mass. Everyone except Grandpa and me went to the front to receive communion. Grandpa knelt, stood, and sat when everyone else did, but he was not Catholic. Grandpa, his thick gray hair parted in the middle atop his long, sallow face, waited in the pew. Outside on the church steps he extracted some Prince Albert’s tobacco from his black pouch, tamped it into the bowel of his short curved pipe, struck a match, lit the pipe and drew several long breaths, and exhaled blue-gray smoke. Only then did his features settle into their familiar state of repose.
Sunday dinner was usually hosted by Grandmother Calvert. She presided at the head of the long table covered with an Irish linen tablecloth and glittering with fine china, the good silver, and a lighted candelabra. In a deep voice that belied his thin frame and hesitant manner, Uncle Bill Calvert intoned a blessing mentioning Dad’s buddies at the front and Mom’s brother in the Pacific. Classical music drifted in from the living room. I sat with my chin barely higher than the table, balanced on three thick books as Mom spooned vegetables and small pieces of beef into my mouth. Dad held a glass of milk to my lips between bites.
Early on Wednesday mornings, Mom said that Dad convinced to join Uncle Bill Calvert for Mass and communion at St. Patrick’s, the Dominican Fathers’ Gothic downtown church with stained-glass windows with the names of Irish donors shown at the bottom. Uncle Bill often donned a cassock and surplice and served as an altar boy although he was a college student. Dad lit votive candles in memory of buddies from his outfit killed in Italy. Some he had seen receive last rites from a chaplain. He knelt with his eyes closed for several minutes afterwards. Uncle Bill and his friend Father Costello often joined him on the kneelers.
The bright green buds on the trees unfurled to leaves that darkened as Spring gave way to summer. One day, Dad and Mom took the bus downtown to the Veterans Administration and Dad registered for the disability pension the hospital had arranged when he was discharged in Memphis. Although the VA’s rating of disability fluctuated from 60 to 100% as his condition changed, he received a monthly check for the rest of his life. A calendar from the Disabled American Veterans always hung on our kitchen wall.
One evening at supper, Dad asked Grandpa if Creasy was hiring. Grandpa shook his head, and said, “The wholesale grocery business is slow. Everyone is living on rations. Our delivery trucks are going out half full.”
“I understand. I need to find a job. I appreciate your hospitality, but I want to find a place for Irene, Michael, and me to live.”
He nodded as he held his pipe in the cup of his hand and lit a match on the sole of his shoe. “Maybe Timkins on Fifth Avenue. They’re working three shifts to make roller bearings for the army. Buckeye Steel’s working around the clock, too. But you’re welcome to stay here as long as you want.”
Mom said Dad read the Columbus Citizen thoroughly every morning. He looked carefully at the maps showing the progress of the Allies gradually pushing the Germans toward their fatherland. “There’s where my outfit was when I left, and I’ll bet they’re almost to Venice” he said pointing to the map. Humming at first, he broke into the fight song of the Field Artillery. “Over hill, over dale, we hit the dusty trail. Those caissons are rolling along, it’s Hi Hi Hee in the Field Artillery.” He tried to teach me the words or, at least, the melody as I stood in my wooden playpen.
Dad then moved on to the “help wanted” pages of the Columbus Citizen across the dining room table. He circled the fine print describing potential jobs for him with a red crayon he found in a drawer. He added a big check next to some. He charted their locations on bus routes and planned trips to plants and businesses where he could apply for work.
One story Mom took pleasure in relating was about a tailored suit. On a Wednesday after Mass, Uncle Bill said he had a surprise. They parked in front of Rich’s Men’s Store. Inside Bill asked for Milton Schwartz. A short, bald man with a tape measure draped around his neck appeared and asked who was getting a suit. Bill jerked his thumb in Dad’s direction. Soon Dad was holding his arms out and looking straight ahead as instructed by Mr. Schwartz more than once. He frowned with his entire face. His brother grinned mischievously at him in the three-panel mirror. Mr Schwartz methodically measured and jotted down dad’s instep, waist, chest, and arms. Dad sputtered his objections to Bill who shrugged and said, “Mom thinks you need a suit to get a proper position in an office. She’s calling businessmen she used to know.” Blue serge was the fabric Dad picked hurriedly from the array of black, gray, tan, brown swaths laid out by the tailor as he muttered his objections to Bill.
“I’ll find my own damn job,” Dad told his brother. “I may not want to be cooped up in an office either.” Bill nodded, and Dad added in a softer voice, “Mom needs to understand that I’m not a child.”
Uncle Bill sighed and said, “I know what you mean.”
One morning Dad saw an ad “ABLE-BODIED MAN WANTED for landscaping work. Veteran preferred. Comes with small apartment” said the small print in the newspaper ad.
“An apartment with a job. This is our ticket out of here. Your folks are great but here we’d have our own place.” Mom’s face lit up. After putting me down for a nap, Dad and Mom waited on the steps for Uncle Bill. Dad was in his full uniform with service medals from North Africa, and Italy on his chest, and shoes shining like polished ebony. Dad held an envelope with his service history and discharge papers.
They drove along Olentangy River Road north of the massive Ohio Stadium until they saw the low sign for Slemmons Nursery and Landscaping behind a row of red, white, and blue pansies. A cinder lane led to several one-story clapboard buildings and a large lot with rows of flowers and shrubs in pots and small trees with roots wrapped in burlap. Uncle Bill parked in the shade of a mature oak. “No babies in this nursery,” said Dad as he opened the door. Uncle Bill chuckled and Mom frowned.
Mom said Dad approached the car with both thumbs up and a big grin. “We’ve got a job and a place to live,” he said as he got in the car. He proceeded to give Mom and Uncle Bill a full report on his success with Mr. Slemmons.
“When I walked into his office, the first thing I noticed was a gold-fringed American flag in the corner and a framed photo of a young marine. After we shook hands, I asked who he was. ‘That’s my son Sam, Jr. He’s in France with General Patton. I hope to God they finish off Hitler soon. Now tell me about your service and why you’re stateside.’ ”
“I told him my National Guard unit was activated right after Pearl Harbor, and my field artillery outfit helped push Rommel out of Morocco and across North Africa. Then we fought in Italy and Southern France. The Army sent me home to a military hospital in Memphis and discharged me this spring. I’ve got a wife and young son, and I need a job and a place to live. After glancing at the paperwork, Mr. Slemmons stood and said, ‘I’m proud to be able to help a man who has served our country. Let me show you the apartment.’ “
Uncle Bill and Mom were introduced and followed Mr. Slemmons to a two-car garage with an outside staircase to the second floor. The apartment was small with one large bedroom and a tiny bathroom, but a broad deck along the back was an unexpected amenity. The plant yard was in the foreground and beyond were woods and a sliver of the Olentangy River.
“If this suits you, you’ve got a job and the apartment above the garage, Corporal Calvert. Of course, we’ll have to work out pay and other details, but I think you’ll find me to be fair to a veteran.
Mom said Dad were in high spirits as Uncle Bill drove them back to 18th Avenue. Dad laughed and said, “I won’t have much need for that blue serge suit, at least not for a while.”
“You’re going to have to tell Mom,” said Uncle Bill. “I’m leaving that to you.”
“No problem. I’ll call her tonight.”
Mom always ended this story by saying, “Your Dad squeezed my hand and gave me a brief kiss in the back seat.”