Story type: Literature
Tyler Kamps was a tired boy. He was tired from his left great toe to that topmost spot at the crown of his head where six unruly hairs always persisted in sticking straight out in defiance of patient brushing, wetting, and greasing. Tyler Kamps was as tired as only a boy can be at 9.30 P.M. who has risen at 5.30 A.M. Yet he lay wide awake in his hammock eight feet above the ground, like a giant silk-worm in an incredible cocoon and listened to the sleep-sounds that came from the depths of two hundred similar cocoons suspended at regular intervals down the long dark room. A chorus of deep regular breathing, with an occasional grunt or sigh, denoting complete relaxation. Tyler Kamps should have been part of this chorus, himself. Instead he lay staring into the darkness, thinking mad thoughts of which this is a sample:
“Gosh! Wouldn’t I like to sit up in my hammock and give one yell! The kind of a yell a movie cowboy gives on a Saturday night. Wake ’em up and stop that–darned old breathing.”
Nerves. He breathed deeply himself, once or twice, because it seemed, somehow to relieve his feeling of irritation. And in that unguarded moment of unconscious relaxation Sleep, that had been lying in wait for him just around the corner, pounced on him and claimed him for its own. From his hammock came the deep, regular inhalation, exhalation, with an occasional grunt or sigh. The normal sleep-sounds of a very tired boy.
The trouble with Tyler Kamps was that he missed two things he hadn’t expected to miss at all. And he missed not at all the things he had been prepared to miss most hideously.
First of all, he had expected to miss his mother. If you had known Stella Kamps you could readily have understood that. Stella Kamps was the kind of mother they sing about in the sentimental ballads; mother, pal, and sweetheart. Which was where she had made her big mistake. When one mother tries to be all those things to one son that son has a very fair chance of turning out a mollycoddle. The war was probably all that saved Tyler Kamps from such a fate.
In the way she handled this son of hers Stella Kamps had been as crafty and skilful and velvet-gloved as a girl with her beau. The proof of it is that Tyler had never known he was being handled. Some folks in Marvin, Texas, said she actually flirted with him, and they were almost justified. Certainly the way she glanced up at him from beneath her lashes was excused only by the way she scolded him if he tracked up the kitchen floor. But then, Stella Kamps and her boy were different, anyway. Marvin folks all agreed about that. Flowers on the table at meals. Sitting over the supper things talking and laughing for an hour after they’d finished eating, as if they hadn’t seen each other in years. Reading out loud to each other, out of books and then going on like mad about what they’d just read, and getting all het up about it. And sometimes chasing each other around the yard, spring evenings, like a couple of fool kids. Honestly, if a body didn’t know Stella Kamps so well, and what a fight she had put up to earn a living for herself and the boy after that good-for-nothing Kamps up and left her, and what a housekeeper she was, and all, a person’d think–well–
So, then, Tyler had expected to miss her first of all. The way she talked. The way she fussed around him without in the least seeming to fuss. Her special way of cooking things. Her laugh which drew laughter in its wake. The funny way she had of saying things, vitalising commonplaces with the spark of her own electricity.
And now he missed her only as the average boy of twenty-one misses the mother he has been used to all his life. No more and no less. Which would indicate that Stella Kamps, in her protean endeavours, had overplayed the parts just a trifle.
He had expected to miss the boys at the bank. He had expected to miss the Mandolin Club. The Mandolin Club met, officially, every Thursday and spangled the Texas night with their tinkling. Five rather dreamy-eyed adolescents slumped in stoop-shouldered comfort over the instruments cradled in their arms, each right leg crossed limply over the left, each great foot that dangled from the bony ankle, keeping rhythmic time to the plunketty-plink-tinketty-plunk.
He had expected to miss the familiar faces on Main Street. He had even expected to miss the neighbours with whom he and his mother had so rarely mingled. All the hundred little, intimate, trivial, everyday things that had gone to make up his life back home in Marvin, Texas–these he had expected to miss.
And he didn’t.
After ten weeks at the Great Central Naval Training Station so near Chicago, Illinois, and so far from Marvin, Texas, there were two things he missed.
He wanted the decent privacy of his small quiet bedroom back home.
He wanted to talk to a girl.
He knew he wanted the first, definitely. He didn’t know he wanted the second. The fact that he didn’t know it was Stella Kamps’ fault. She had kept his boyhood girlless, year and year, by sheer force of her own love for him, and need of him, and by the charm and magnetism that were hers. She had been deprived of a more legitimate outlet for these emotions. Concentrated on the boy, they had sufficed for him. The Marvin girls had long ago given him up as hopeless. They fell back, baffled, their keenest weapons dulled by the impenetrable armour of his impersonal gaze.
The room? It hadn’t been much of a room, as rooms go. Bare, clean, asceptic, with a narrow, hard white bed and a maple dresser whose second drawer always stuck and came out zig-zag when you pulled it; and a swimmy mirror that made one side of your face look sort of lumpy, and higher than the other side. In one corner a bookshelf. He had made it himself at manual training. When he had finished it–the planing, the staining, the polishing–Chippendale himself, after he had designed and executed his first gracious, wide-seated, back-fitting chair, could have felt no finer creative glow. As for the books it held, just to run your eye over them was like watching Tyler Kamps grow up. Stella Kamps had been a Kansas school teacher in the days before she met and married Clint Kamps. And she had never quite got over it. So the book case contained certain things that a fond mother (with a teaching past) would think her small son ought to enjoy. Things like “Tom Brown At Rugby” and “Hans Brinker, Or the Silver Skates.” He had read them, dutifully, but they were as good as new. No thumbed pages, no ragged edges, no creases and tatters where eager boy hands had turned a page over–hastily. No, the thumb-marked, dog’s-eared, grimy ones were, as always, “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” and “Marching Against the Iroquois.”
A hot enough little room in the Texas summers. A cold enough little room in the Texas winters. But his own. And quiet. He used to lie there at night, relaxed, just before sleep claimed him, and he could almost feel the soft Texas night enfold him like a great, velvety, invisible blanket, soothing him, lulling him. In the morning it had been pleasant to wake up to its bare, clean whiteness, and to the tantalising breakfast smells coming up from the kitchen below. His mother calling from the foot of the narrow wooden stairway:
“Ty-ler!,” rising inflection. “Ty-ler,” falling inflection. “Get up, son! Breakfast’ll be ready.”
It was always a terrific struggle between a last delicious stolen five minutes between the covers, and the scent of the coffee and bacon.
“Ty-ler! You’ll be late!”
A mighty stretch. A gathering of his will forces. A swing of his long legs over the side of the bed so that they described an arc in the air.
“Been up years.”
Breakfast had won.
Until he came to the Great Central Naval Training Station Tyler’s nearest approach to the nautical life had been when, at the age of six, he had sailed chips in the wash tub in the back yard. Marvin, Texas, is five hundred miles inland. And yet he had enlisted in the navy as inevitably as though he had sprung from a long line of Vikings. In his boyhood his choice of games had always been pirate. You saw him, a red handkerchief binding his brow, one foot advanced, knee bent, scanning the horizon for the treasure island from the vantage point of the woodshed roof, while the crew, gone mad with thirst, snarled and shrieked all about him, and the dirt yard below became a hungry, roaring sea. His twelve-year-old vocabulary boasted such compound difficulties as mizzentopsail-yard and main-topgallantmast. He knew the intricate parts of a full-rigged ship from the mainsail to the deck, from the jib-boom to the chart-house. All this from pictures and books. It was the roving, restless spirit of his father in him, I suppose. Clint Kamps had never been meant for marriage. When the baby Tyler was one year old Clint had walked over to where his wife sat, the child in her lap, and had tilted her head back, kissed her on the lips, and had gently pinched the boy’s roseleaf cheek with a quizzical forefinger and thumb. Then, indolently, negligently, gracefully, he had strolled out of the house, down the steps, into the hot and dusty street and so on and on and out of their lives. Stella Kamps had never seen him again. Her letters back home to her folks in Kansas were triumphs of bravery and bare-faced lying. The kind of bravery, and the kind of lying that only a woman could understand. She managed to make out, somehow, at first. And later, very well indeed. As the years went on she and the boy lived together in a sort of closed corporation paradise of their own. At twenty-one Tyler, who had gone through grammar school, high school and business college had never kissed a girl or felt a love-pang. Stella Kamps kept her age as a woman does whose brain and body are alert and busy. When Tyler first went to work in the Texas State Savings Bank of Marvin the girls would come in on various pretexts just for a glimpse of his charming blondeur behind the little cage at the rear. It is difficult for a small-town girl to think of reasons for going into a bank. You have to be moneyed to do it. They say that the Davies girl saved up nickels until she had a dollar’s worth and then came into the bank and asked to have a bill in exchange for it. They gave her one–a crisp, new, crackly dollar bill. She reached for it, gropingly, her eyes fixed on a point at the rear of the bank. Two days later she came in and brazenly asked to have it changed into nickels again. She might have gone on indefinitely thus if Tyler’s country hadn’t given him something more important to do than to change dollars into nickels and back again.
On the day he left for the faraway naval training station Stella Kamps for the second time in her life had a chance to show the stuff she was made of, and showed it. Not a whimper. Down at the train, standing at the car window, looking up at him and smiling, and saying futile, foolish, final things, and seeing only his blond head among the many thrust out of the open window.
“… and Tyler, remember what I said about your feet. You know. Dry…. And I’ll send a box every week, only don’t eat too many of the nut cookies. They’re so rich. Give some to the other–yes, I know you will. I was just … Won’t it be grand to be right there on the water all the time! My!… I’ll write every night and then send it twice a week…. I don’t suppose you … Well once a week, won’t you, dear?… You’re–you’re moving. The train’s going! Good-b–” she ran along with it for a few feet, awkwardly, as a woman runs. Stumblingly.
And suddenly, as she ran, his head always just ahead of her, she thought, with a great pang:
“O my God, how young he is! How young he is, and he doesn’t know anything. I should have told him…. Things…. He doesn’t know anything about … and all those other men–“
She ran on, one arm outstretched as though to hold him a moment longer while the train gathered speed. “Tyler!” she called, through the din and shouting. “Tyler, be good! Be good!” He only saw her lips moving, and could not hear, so he nodded his head, and smiled, and waved, and was gone.
So Tyler Kamps had travelled up to Chicago. Whenever they passed a sizable town they had thrown open the windows and yelled, “Youp! Who-ee! Yow!”
People had rushed to the streets and had stood there gazing after the train. Tyler hadn’t done much youping at first, but in the later stages of the journey he joined in to keep his spirits up. He, who had never been more than a two-hours’ ride from home was flashing past villages, towns, cities–hundreds of them.
The first few days had been unbelievably bad, what with typhoid inoculations, smallpox vaccinations, and loneliness. The very first day, when he had entered his barracks one of the other boys, older in experience, misled by Tyler’s pink and white and gold colouring, had leaned forward from amongst a group and had called in glad surprise, at the top of a leathery pair of lungs:
“Why, hello, sweetheart!” The others had taken it up with cruelty of their age. “Hello, sweetheart!” It had stuck. Sweetheart. In the hard years that followed–years in which the blood-thirsty and piratical games of his boyhood paled to the mildest of imaginings–the nickname still clung, long after he had ceased to resent it; long after he had stripes and braid to refute it.
But in that Tyler Kamps we are not interested. It is the boy Tyler Kamps with whom we have to do. Bewildered, lonely, and a little resentful. Wondering where the sea part of it came in. Learning to say “on the station” instead of “at the station,” the idea being that the great stretch of land on which the station was located was not really land, but water; and the long wooden barracks not really barracks at all, but ships. Learning to sleep in a hammock (it took him a full week). Learning to pin back his sailor collar to save soiling the white braid on it (that meant scrubbing). Learning–but why go into detail? One sentence covers it.
Tyler met Gunner Moran. Moran, tattooed, hairy-armed, hairy-chested as a gorilla and with something of the sadness and humour of the gorilla in his long upper lip and short forehead. But his eyes did not bear out the resemblance. An Irish blue; bright, unravaged; clear beacon lights in a rough and storm-battered countenance. Gunner Moran wasn’t a gunner at all, or even a gunner’s mate, but just a seaman who knew the sea from Shanghai to New Orleans; from Liverpool to Barcelona. His knowledge of knots and sails and rifles and bayonets and fists was a thing to strike you dumb. He wasn’t the stuff of which officers are made. But you should have seen him with a Springfield! Or a bayonet! A bare twenty-five, Moran, but with ten years’ sea experience. Into those ten years he had jammed a lifetime of adventure. And he could do expertly all the things that Tyler Kamps did amateurishly. In a barrack, or in a company street, the man who talks the loudest is the man who has the most influence. In Tyler’s barrack Gunner Moran was that man.
Because of what he knew they gave him two hundred men at a time and made him company commander, without insignia or official position. In rank, he was only a “gob” like the rest of them. In influence a captain. Moran knew how to put the weight lunge behind the bayonet. It was a matter of balance, of poise, more than of muscle.
Up in the front of his men, “G’wan,” he would yell. “Whatddye think you’re doin’! Tickling ’em with a straw! That’s a bayonet you got there, not a tennis rackit. You couldn’t scratch your initials on a Fritz that way. Put a little guts into it. Now then!”
He had been used to the old Krag, with a cam that jerked out, and threw back, and fed one shell at a time. The new Springfield, that was a gloriously functioning thing in its simplicity, he regarded with a sort of reverence and ecstasy mingled. As his fingers slid lightly, caressingly along the shining barrel they were like a man’s fingers lingering on the soft curves of a woman’s throat. The sight of a rookie handling this metal sweetheart clumsily filled him with fury.
“Whatcha think you got there, you lubber, you! A section o’ lead pipe! You ought t’ be back carryin’ a shovel, where you belong. Here. Just a touch. Like that. See? Easy now.”
He could box like a professional. They put him up against Slovatsky, the giant Russian, one day. Slovatsky put up his two huge hands, like hams, and his great arms, like iron beams and looked down on this lithe, agile bantam that was hopping about at his feet. Suddenly the bantam crouched, sprang, and recoiled like a steel trap. Something had crashed up against Slovatsky’s chin. Red rage shook him. He raised his sledge-hammer right for a slashing blow. Moran was directly in the path of it. It seemed that he could no more dodge it than he could hope to escape an onrushing locomotive, but it landed on empty air, with Moran around in back of the Russian, and peering impishly up under his arm. It was like an elephant worried by a mosquito. Then Moran’s lightning right shot out again, smartly, and seemed just to tap the great hulk on the side of the chin. A ludicrous look of surprise on Slovatsky’s face before he crumpled and crashed.
This man it was who had Tyler Kamps’ admiration. It was more than admiration. It was nearer adoration. But there was nothing unnatural or unwholesome about the boy’s worship of this man. It was a legitimate thing, born of all his fatherless years; years in which there had been no big man around the house who could throw farther than Tyler, and eat more, and wear larger shoes and offer more expert opinion. Moran accepted the boy’s homage with a sort of surly graciousness.
In Tyler’s third week at the Naval Station mumps developed in his barracks and they were quarantined. Tyler escaped the epidemic but he had to endure the boredom of weeks of quarantine. At first they took it as a lark, like schoolboys. Moran’s hammock was just next Tyler’s. On his other side was a young Kentuckian named Dabney Courtney. The barracks had dubbed him Monicker the very first day. Monicker had a rather surprising tenor voice. Moran a salty bass. And Tyler his mandolin. The trio did much to make life bearable, or unbearable, depending on one’s musical knowledge and views. The boys all sang a great deal. They bawled everything they knew, from “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” and “Over There” to “The End of a Perfect Day.” The latter, ad nauseum. They even revived “Just Break the News to Mother” and seemed to take a sort of awful joy in singing its dreary words and mournful measures. They played everything from a saxophone to a harmonica. They read. They talked. And they grew so sick of the sight of one another that they began to snap and snarl.
Sometimes they gathered round Moran and he told them tales they only half believed. He had been in places whose very names were exotic and oriental, breathing of sandalwood, and myrrh, and spices and aloes. They were places over which a boy dreams in books of travel. Moran bared the vivid tattooing on hairy arms and chest–tattooing representing anchors, and serpents, and girls’ heads, and hearts with arrows stuck through them. Each mark had its story. A broad-swathed gentleman indeed, Gunner Moran. He had an easy way with him that made you feel provincial and ashamed. It made you ashamed of not knowing the sort of thing you used to be ashamed of knowing.
Visiting day was the worst. They grew savage, somehow, watching the mothers and sisters and cousins and sweethearts go streaming by to the various barracks. One of the boys to whom Tyler had never even spoken suddenly took a picture out of his blouse pocket and showed it to Tyler. It was a cheap little picture–one of the kind they sell two for a quarter if one sitter; two for thirty-five if two. This was a twosome. The boy, and a girl. A healthy, wide-awake wholesome looking small-town girl, who has gone through high school and cuts out her own shirtwaists.
“She’s vice-president of the Silver Star Pleasure Club back home,” the boy confided to Tyler. “I’m president. We meet every other Saturday.”
Tyler looked at the picture seriously and approvingly. Suddenly he wished that he had, tucked away in his blouse, a picture of a clear-eyed, round-cheeked vice-president of a pleasure club. He took out his mother’s picture and showed it.
“Oh, yeh,” said the boy, disinterestedly.
The dragging weeks came to an end. The night of Tyler’s restlessness was the last night of quarantine. To-morrow morning they would be free. At the end of the week they were to be given shore leave. Tyler had made up his mind to go to Chicago. He had never been there.
Five thirty. Reveille.
Tyler awoke with the feeling that something was going to happen. Something pleasant. Then he remembered, and smiled. Dabney Courtney, in the next hammock, was leaning far over the side of his perilous perch and delivering himself of his morning speech. Tyler did not quite understand this young southern elegant. Monicker had two moods, both of which puzzled Tyler. When he awoke feeling gay he would lean over the extreme edge of his hammock and drawl, with an affected English accent:
“If this is Venice, where are the canals?”
In his less cheerful moments he would groan, heavily, “There ain’t no Gawd!”
This last had been his morning observation during their many weeks of durance vile. But this morning he was, for the first time in many days, enquiring about Venetian waterways.
Tyler had no pal. His years of companionship with his mother had bred in him a sort of shyness, a diffidence. He heard the other boys making plans for shore leave. They all scorned Waukegan, which was the first sizable town beyond the Station. Chicago was their goal. They were like a horde of play-hungry devils after their confinement. Six weeks of restricted freedom, six weeks of stored-up energy made them restive as colts.
“Goin’ to Chicago, kid?” Moran asked him, carelessly. It was Saturday morning.
“Yes. Are you?” eagerly.
“Kin a duck swim?”
At the Y.M.C.A. they had given him tickets to various free amusements and entertainments. They told him about free canteens, and about other places where you could get a good meal, cheap. One of the tickets was for a dance. Tyler knew nothing of dancing. This dance was to be given at some kind of woman’s club on Michigan Boulevard. Tyler read the card, glumly. A dance meant girls. He knew that. Why hadn’t he learned to dance?
Tyler walked down to the station and waited for the train that would bring him to Chicago at about one o’clock. The other boys, in little groups, or in pairs, were smoking and talking. Tyler wanted to join them, but he did not. They seemed so sufficient unto themselves, with their plans, and their glib knowledge of places, and amusements, and girls. On the train they all bought sweets from the train butcher–chocolate maraschinos, and nut bars, and molasses kisses–and ate them as greedily as children, until their hunger for sweets was surfeited.
Tyler found himself in the same car with Moran. He edged over to a seat near him, watching him narrowly. Moran was not mingling with the other boys. He kept aloof, his sea-blue eyes gazing out at the flat Illinois prairie. All about him swept and eddied the currents and counter-currents of talk.
“They say there’s a swell supper in the Tower Building for fifty cents.”
“Fifty nothing. Get all you want in the Library canteen for nix.”
“Where’s this dance, huh?”
“Heh, Murph! I’ll shoot you a game of pool at the club.”
“Naw, I gotta date.”
Tyler’s glance encountered Moran’s, and rested there. Scorn curled the Irishman’s broad upper lip. “Navy! This ain’t no navy no more. It’s a Sunday school, that’s what! Phonographs, an’ church suppers, an’ pool an’ dances! It’s enough t’ turn a fella’s stomick. Lot of Sunday school kids don’t know a sail from a tablecloth when they see it.”
He relapsed into contemptuous silence.
Tyler, who but a moment before had been envying them their familiarity with these very things now nodded and smiled understanding at Moran. “That’s right,” he said. Moran regarded him a moment, curiously. Then he resumed his staring out of the window. You would never have guessed that in that bullet head there was bewilderment and resentment almost equalling Tyler’s, but for a much different reason. Gunner Moran was of the old navy–the navy that had been despised and spat upon. In those days his uniform alone had barred him from decent theatres, decent halls, decent dances, contact with decent people. They had forced him to a knowledge of the burlesque houses, the cheap theatres, the shooting galleries, the saloons, the dives. And now, bewilderingly, the public had right-about faced. It opened its doors to him. It closed its saloons to him. It sought him out. It offered him amusement. It invited him to its home, and sat him down at its table, and introduced him to its daughter.
“Nix!” said Gunner Moran, and spat between his teeth. “Not f’r me. I pick me own lady friends.”
Gunner Moran was used to picking his own lady friends. He had picked them in wicked Port Said, and in Fiume; in Yokohama and Naples. He had picked them unerringly, and to his taste, in Cardiff, and Hamburg, and Vladivostok.
When the train drew in at the great Northwestern station shed he was down the steps and up the long platform before the wheels had ceased revolving.
Tyler came down the steps slowly. Blue uniforms were streaming past him–a flood of them. White leggings twinkled with the haste of their wearers. Caps, white or blue, flowed like a succession of rippling waves and broke against the great doorway, and were gone.
In Tyler’s town, back home in Marvin, Texas, you knew the train numbers and their schedules, and you spoke of them by name, familiarly and affectionately, as Number Eleven and Number Fifty-five. “I reckon Fifty-five’ll be late to-day, on account of the storm.”
Now he saw half a dozen trains lined up at once, and a dozen more tracks waiting, empty. The great train shed awed him. The vast columned waiting room, the hurrying people, the uniformed guards gave him a feeling of personal unimportance. He felt very negligible, and useless, and alone. He stood, a rather dazed blue figure, in the vastness of that shining place. A voice–the soft, cadenced voice of the negro–addressed him.
“Lookin’ fo’ de sailors’ club rooms?”
Tyler turned. A toothy, middle-aged, kindly negro in a uniform and red cap. Tyler smiled friendlily. Here was a human he could feel at ease with. Texas was full of just such faithful, friendly types of negro.
“Reckon I am, uncle. Show me the way?”
Red Cap chuckled and led the way. “Knew you was f’om de south minute Ah see yo’. Cain’t fool me. Le’ssee now. You-all f’om–?”
“I’m from the finest state in the Union. The most glorious state in the–“
“H’m–Texas,” grinned Red Cap.
“How did you know!”
“Ah done heah ’em talk befoh, son. Ah done heah ’em talk be-foh.”
It was a long journey through the great building to the section that had been set aside for Tyler and boys like him. Tyler wondered how any one could ever find it alone. When the Red Cap left him, after showing him the wash rooms, the tubs for scrubbing clothes, the steam dryers, the bath-tubs, the lunch room, Tyler looked after him regretfully. Then he sped after him and touched him on the arm.
“Listen. Could I–would they–do you mean I could clean up in there–as much as I wanted? And wash my things? And take a bath in a bathtub, with all the hot water I want?”
“Yo’ sho’ kin. On’y things look mighty grabby now. Always is Sat’days. Jes’ wait aroun’ an’ grab yo’ tu’n.”
Tyler waited. And while he waited he watched to see how the other boys did things. He saw how they scrubbed their uniforms with scrubbing brushes, and plenty of hot water and soap. He saw how they hung them carefully, so that they might not wrinkle, in the dryers. He saw them emerge, glowing, from the tub rooms. And he waited, the fever of cleanliness burning in his eye.
His turn came. He had waited more than an hour, reading, listening to the phonograph and the electric piano, and watching.
Now he saw his chance and seized it. And then he went through a ceremony that was almost a ritual. Stella Kamps, could she have seen it, would have felt repaid for all her years of soap-and-water insistence.
First he washed out the stationary tub with soap, and brush, and scalding water. Then he scalded the brush. Then the tub again. Then, deliberately, and with the utter unconcern of the male biped he divested himself, piece by piece, of every stitch of covering wherewith his body was clothed. And he scrubbed them all. He took off his white leggings and his white cap and scrubbed those, first. He had seen the other boys follow that order of procedure. Then his flapping blue flannel trousers, and his blouse. Then his underclothes, and his socks. And finally he stood there, naked and unabashed, slim, and pink and silver as a mountain trout. His face, as he bent over the steamy tub, was very red, and moist and earnest. His yellow hair curled in little damp ringlets about his brow. Then he hung his trousers and blouse in the dryers without wringing them (wringing, he had been told, wrinkled them). He rinsed and wrung, and flapped the underclothes, though, and shaped his cap carefully, and spread his leggings, and hung those in the dryer, too. And finally, with a deep sigh of accomplishment, he filled one of the bathtubs in the adjoining room–filled it to the slopping-over point with the luxurious hot water, and he splashed about in this, and reclined in it, gloriously, until the waiting ones threatened to pull him out. Then he dried himself and issued forth all flushed and rosy. He wrapped himself in a clean coarse sheet, for his clothes would not be dry for another half hour. Swathed in the sheet like a Roman senator he lay down on one of the green velvet couches, relics of past Pullman glories, and there, with the rumble and roar of steel trains overhead, with the smart click of the billiard balls sounding in his ears, with the phonograph and the electric piano going full blast, with the boys dancing and larking all about the big room, he fell sound asleep as only a boy cub can sleep.
When he awoke an hour later his clothes were folded in a neat pile by the deft hand of some jackie impatient to use the drying space for his own garments. Tyler put them on. He stood before a mirror and brushed his hair until it glittered. He drew himself up with the instinctive pride and self respect that comes of fresh clean clothes against the skin. Then he placed his absurd round hat on his head at what he considered a fetching angle, though precarious, and sallied forth on the streets of Chicago in search of amusement and adventure.
He found them.
Madison and Canal streets, west, had little to offer him. He sensed that the centre of things lay to the east, so he struck out along Madison, trying not to show the terror with which the grim, roaring, clamorous city filled him. He jingled the small coins in his pocket and strode along, on the surface a blithe and carefree jackie on shore leave; a forlorn and lonely Texas boy, beneath.
It was late afternoon. His laundering, his ablutions and his nap had taken more time than he had realised. It was a mild spring day, with just a Lake Michigan evening snap in the air. Tyler, glancing about alertly, nevertheless felt dreamy, and restless, and sort of melting, like a snow-heap in the sun. He wished he had some one to talk to. He thought of the man on the train who had said, with such easy confidence, “I got a date.” Tyler wished that he too had a date–he who had never had a rendezvous in his life. He loitered a moment on the bridge. Then he went on, looking about him interestedly, and comparing Chicago, Illinois, with Marvin, Texas, and finding the former sadly lacking. He passed LaSalle, Clark. The streets were packed. The noise and rush tired him, and bewildered him. He came to a moving picture theatre–one of the many that dot the district. A girl occupied the little ticket kiosk. She was rather a frowsy girl, not too young, and with a certain look about the jaw. Tyler walked up to the window and shoved his money through the little aperture. The girl fed him a pink ticket without looking up. He stood there looking at her. Then he asked her a question. “How long does the show take?” He wanted to see the colour of her eyes. He wanted her to talk to him.
“‘Bout a hour,” said the girl, and raised wise eyes to his.
“Thanks,” said Tyler, fervently, and smiled. No answering smile curved the lady’s lips. Tyler turned and went in. There was an alleged comic film. Tyler was not amused. It was followed by a war picture. He left before the show was over. He was very hungry by now. In his blouse pocket were the various information and entertainment tickets with which the Y.M.C.A. man had provided him. He had taken them out, carefully, before he had done his washing. Now he looked them over. But a dairy lunch room invited him, with its white tiling, and its pans of baked apples, and browned beans and its coffee tank. He went in and ate a solitary supper that was heavy on pie and cake.
When he came out to the street again it was evening. He walked over to State Street (the wrong side). He took the dance card out of his pocket and looked at it again. If only he had learned to dance. There’d be girls. There’d have to be girls at a dance. He stood staring into the red and tin-foil window display of a cigar store, turning the ticket over in his fingers, and the problem over in his mind.
Suddenly, in his ear, a woman’s voice, very soft and low. “Hello, Sweetheart!” the voice said. His nickname! He whirled around, eagerly.
The girl was a stranger to him. But she was smiling, friendlily, and she was pretty, too, sort of. “Hello, Sweetheart!” she said, again.
“Why, how-do, ma’am,” said Tyler, Texas fashion.
“Where you going, kid?” she asked.
Tyler blushed a little. “Well, nowhere in particular, ma’am. Just kind of milling around.”
“Come on along with me,” she said, and linked her arm in his.
And yet Texas people were always saying easterners weren’t friendly. He felt a little uneasy, though, as he looked down into her smiling face. Something–
“Hello, Sweetheart!” said a voice, again. A man’s voice, this time. Out of the cigar store came Gunner Moran, the yellow string of a tobacco bag sticking out of his blouse pocket, a freshly rolled cigarette between his lips.
A queer feeling of relief and gladness swept over Tyler. And then Moran looked sharply at the girl and said, “Why, hello, Blanche!”
“Hello yourself,” answered the girl, sullenly.
“Thought you was in ‘Frisco.”
“Well, I ain’t.”
Moran shifted his attention from the girl to Tyler. “Friend o’ yours?”
Before Tyler could open his lips to answer the girl put in, “Sure he is. Sure I am. We been around together all afternoon.”
Tyler jerked. “Why, ma’am, I guess you’ve made a mistake. I never saw you before in my life. I kind of thought when you up and spoke to me you must be taking me for somebody else. Well, now, isn’t that funny–“
The smile faded from the girl’s face, and it became twisted with fury. She glared at Moran, her lips drawn back in a snarl. “Who’re you to go buttin’ into my business! This guy’s a friend of mine, I tell yuh!”
“Yeh? Well, he’s a friend of mine, too. Me an’ him had a date to meet here right now and we’re goin’ over to a swell little dance on Michigan Avenoo. So it’s you who’s buttin’ in, Blanche, me girl.”
The girl stood twisting her handkerchief savagely. She was panting a little. “I’ll get you for this.”
“Beat it!” said Moran. He tucked his arm through Tyler’s, with a little impelling movement, and Tyler found himself walking up the street at a smart gait, leaving the girl staring after them.
Tyler Kamps was an innocent, but he was not a fool. At what he had vaguely guessed a moment before, he now knew. They walked along in silence, the most ill-sorted pair that you might hope to find in all that higgledy-piggledy city. And yet with a new, strong bond between them. It was more than fraternal. It had something of the character of the feeling that exists between a father and son who understand each other.
Man-like, they did not talk of that which they were thinking.
Tyler broke the silence.
“Do you dance?”
“Me! Dance! Well, I’ve mixed with everything from hula dancers to geisha girls, not forgettin’ the Barbary Coast in the old days, but–well, I ain’t what you’d rightly call a dancer. Why you askin’?”
“Because I can’t dance, either. But we’ll just go up and see what it’s like, anyway.”
“See wot wot’s like?”
Tyler took out his card again, patiently. “This dance we’re going to.”
They had reached the Michigan Avenue address given on the card, and Tyler stopped to look up at the great, brightly lighted building. Moran stopped too, but for a different reason. He was staring, open-mouthed, at Tyler Kamps.
“You mean t’ say you thought I was goin’–“
He choked. “Oh, my Gawd!”
Tyler smiled at him, sweetly. “I’m kind of scared, too. But Monicker goes to these dances and he says they’re right nice. And lots of–of pretty girls. Nice girls. I wouldn’t go alone. But you–you’re used to dancing, and parties and–girls.”
He linked his arm through the other man’s. Moran allowed himself to be propelled along, dazedly. Still protesting, he found himself in the elevator with a dozen red-cheeked, scrubbed-looking jackies. At which point Moran, game in the face of horror, accepted the inevitable. He gave a characteristic jerk from the belt.
“Me, I’ll try anything oncet. Lead me to it.”
The elevator stopped at the ninth floor. “Out here for the jackies’ dance,” said the elevator boy.
The two stepped out with the others. Stepped out gingerly, caps in hand. A corridor full of women. A corridor a-flutter with girls. Talk. Laughter. Animation. In another moment the two would have turned and fled, terrified. But in that half-moment of hesitation and bewilderment they were lost.
A woman approached them hand outstretched. A tall, slim, friendly looking woman, low-voiced, silk-gowned, inquiring.
“Good-evening!” she said, as if she had been haunting the halls in the hope of their coming. “I’m glad to see you. You can check your caps right there. Do you dance?”
Two scarlet faces. Four great hands twisting at white caps in an agony of embarrassment. “Why, no ma’am.”
“That’s fine. We’ll teach you. Then you’ll go into the ball room and have a wonderful time.”
“But–” in choked accents from Moran.
“Just a minute. Miss Hall!” She beckoned a diminutive blonde in blue. “Miss Hall, this is Mr.–ah–Mr. Moran. Thanks. And Mr.?–yes–Mr. Kamps. Tyler Kamps. They want to learn to dance. I’ll turn them right over to you. When does your class begin?”
Miss Hall glanced at a toy watch on the tiny wrist. Instinctively and helplessly Moran and Tyler focused their gaze on the dials that bound their red wrists. “Starting right now,” said Miss Hall, crisply. She eyed the two men with calm appraising gaze. “I’m sure you’ll both make wonderful dancers. Follow me.”
She turned. There was something confident, dauntless, irresistible about the straight little back. The two men stared at it. Then at each other. Panic was writ large on the face of each. Panic, and mutiny. Flight was in the mind of both. Miss Hall turned, smiled, held out a small white hand. “Come on,” she said. “Follow me.”
And the two, as though hypnotised, followed.
A fair-sized room, with a piano in one corner and groups of fidgeting jackies in every other corner. Moran and Tyler sighed with relief at sight of them. At least they were not to be alone in their agony.
Miss Hall wasted no time. Slim ankles close together, head held high, she stood in the centre of the room. “Now then, form a circle please!”
Twenty six-foot, well-built specimens of manhood suddenly became shambling hulks. They clumped forward, breathing hard, and smiling mirthlessly, with an assumption of ease that deceived no one, least of all, themselves. “A little lively, please. Don’t look so scared. I’m not a bit vicious. Now then, Miss Weeks! A fox trot.”
Miss Weeks, at the piano, broke into spirited strains. The first faltering steps in the social career of Gunner Moran and Tyler Kamps had begun.
To an onlooker, it might have been mirth-provoking if it hadn’t been, somehow, tear-compelling. The thing that little Miss Hall was doing might have seemed trivial to one who did not know that it was magnificent. It wasn’t dancing merely that she was teaching these awkward, serious, frightened boys. She was handing them a key that would unlock the social graces. She was presenting them with a magic something that would later act as an open sesame to a hundred legitimate delights.
She was strictly business, was Miss Hall. No nonsense about her. “One-two-three-four! And a one-two three-four. One-two-three-four! And a turn-two, turn-four. Now then, all together. Just four straight steps as if you were walking down the street. That’s it! One-two-three-four! Don’t look at me. Look at my feet. And a one-two three-four.”
Red-faced, they were. Very earnest. Pathetically eager and docile. Weeks of drilling had taught them to obey commands. To them the little dancing teacher whose white spats twinkled so expertly in the tangle of their own clumsy clumping boots was more than a pretty girl. She was knowledge. She was power. She was the commanding officer. And like children they obeyed.
Moran’s Barbary Coast experience stood him in good stead now, though the stern and watchful Miss Hall put a quick stop to a certain tendency toward shoulder work. Tyler possessed what is known as a rhythm sense. An expert whistler is generally a natural dancer. Stella Kamps had always waited for the sound of his cheerful whistle as he turned the corner of Vernon Street. High, clear, sweet, true, he would approach his top note like a Tettrazini until, just when you thought he could not possibly reach that dizzy eminence he did reach it, and held it, and trilled it, bird-like, in defiance of the laws of vocal equilibrium.
His dancing was much like that. Never a half-beat behind the indefatigable Miss Weeks. It was a bit laboured, at first, but it was true. Little Miss Hall, with the skilled eye of the specialist, picked him at a glance.
“You’ve danced before?”
“Take the head of the line, please. Watch Mr. Kamps. Now then, all together, please.”
And they were off again.
At 9.45 Tyler Kamps and Gunner Moran were standing in the crowded doorway of the ballroom upstairs, in a panic lest some girl should ask them to dance; fearful lest they be passed by. Little Miss Hall had brought them to the very door, had left them there with a stern injunction not to move, and had sped away in search of partners for them.
Gunner Moran’s great scarlet hands were knotted into fists. His Adam’s apple worked convulsively.
“Le’s duck,” he whispered hoarsely. The jackie band in the corner crashed into the opening bars of a fox trot.
“Oh, it don’t seem–” But it was plain that Tyler was weakening. Another moment and they would have turned and fled. But coming toward them was little Miss Hall, her blonde head bobbing in and out among the swaying couples. At her right and left was a girl. Her bright eyes held her two victims in the doorway. They watched her approach, and were helpless to flee. They seemed to be gripped by a horrible fascination. Their limbs were fluid.
A sort of groan rent Moran. Miss Hall and the two girls stood before them, cool, smiling, unruffled.
“Miss Cunningham, this is Mr. Tyler Kamps. Mr. Moran, Miss Cunningham. Miss Drew–Mr. Moran, Mr. Kamps.”
The boy and the man gulped, bowed, mumbled something.
“Would you like to dance?” said Miss Cunningham, and raised limpid eyes to Tyler’s.
“Why–I–you see I don’t know how. I just started to–“
“Oh, that’s all right,” Miss Cunningham interrupted, cheerfully. “We’ll try it.” She stood in position and there seemed to radiate from her a certain friendliness, a certain assurance and understanding that was as calming as it was stimulating. In a sort of daze Tyler found himself moving over the floor in time to the music. He didn’t know that he was being led, but he was. She didn’t try to talk. He breathed a prayer of thanks for that. She seemed to know, somehow, about those four straight steps and two to the right and two to the left, and four again, and turn-two, turn-four. He didn’t know that he was counting aloud, desperately. He didn’t even know, just then, that this was a girl he was dancing with. He seemed to move automatically, like a marionette. He never was quite clear about those first ten minutes of his ballroom experience.
The music ceased. A spat of applause. Tyler mopped his head, and his hands, and applauded too, like one in a dream. They were off again for the encore.
Five minutes later he found himself seated next Miss Cunningham in a chair against the wall. And for the first time since their meeting the mists of agony cleared before his gaze and he saw Miss Cunningham as a tall, slim, dark-haired girl, with a glint of mischief in her eye, and a mouth that looked as if she were trying to keep from smiling.
“Why don’t you?” Tyler asked, and was aghast.
“Why don’t I what?”
“Smile if you want to.”
At which the glint in her eye and the hidden smile on her lips sort of met and sparked and she laughed. Tyler laughed, too, and then they laughed together and were friends.
Miss Cunningham’s conversation was the kind of conversation that a nice girl invariably uses in putting at ease a jackie whom she has just met at a war recreation dance. Nothing could have been more commonplace or unoriginal, but to Tyler Kamps the brilliance of a Madame de Stael would have sounded trivial and uninteresting in comparison.
“Where are you from?”
“Why, I’m from Texas, ma’am. Marvin, Texas.”
“Is that so? So many of the boys are from Texas. Are you out at the station or on one of the boats?”
“I’m on the Station. Yes ma’am.”
“Do you like the navy?”
“Yes ma’am, I do. I sure do. You know there isn’t a drafted man in the navy. No ma’am! We’re all enlisted men.”
“When do you think the war will end, Mr. Kamps?”
He told her, gravely. He told her many other things. He told her about Texas, at length and in detail, being a true son of that Brobdingnagian state. Your Texan born is a walking mass of statistics. Miss Cunningham made a sympathetic and interested listener. Her brown eyes were round and bright with interest. He told her that the distance from Texas to Chicago was only half as far as from here to there in the state of Texas itself. Yes ma’am! He had figures about tons of grain, and heads of horses and herds of cattle. Why, say, you could take little ol’ meachin’ Germany and tuck it away in a corner of Texas and you wouldn’t any more know it was there than if it was somebody’s poor no-‘count ranch. Why, Big Y ranch alone would make the whole country of Germany look like a cattle grazin’ patch. It was bigger than all those countries in Europe strung together, and every man in Texas would rather fight than eat. Yes ma’am. Why, you couldn’t hold ’em.
“My!” breathed Miss Cunningham.
They danced again. Miss Cunningham introduced him to some other girls, and he danced with them, and they in turn asked him about the station, and Texas, and when he thought the war would end. And altogether he had a beautiful time of it, and forgot completely and entirely about Gunner Moran. It was not until he gallantly escorted Miss Cunningham downstairs for refreshments that he remembered his friend. He had procured hot chocolate for himself and Miss Cunningham; and sandwiches, and delectable chunks of caramel cake. And they were talking, and eating, and laughing and enjoying themselves hugely, and Tyler had gone back for more cake at the urgent invitation of the white-haired, pink-cheeked woman presiding at the white-clothed table in the centre of the charming room. And then he had remembered. A look of horror settled down over his face. He gasped.
“W-what’s the matter?” demanded Miss Cunningham.
“My–my friend. I forgot all about him.” He regarded her with stricken eyes.
“Oh, that’s all right,” Miss Cunningham assured him for the second time that evening. “We’ll just go and find him. He’s probably forgotten all about you, too.”
And for the second time she was right. They started on their quest. It was a short one. Off the refreshment room was a great, gracious comfortable room all deep chairs, and soft rugs, and hangings, and pictures and shaded lights. All about sat pairs and groups of sailors and girls, talking, and laughing and consuming vast quantities of cake. And in the centre of just such a group sat Gunner Moran, lolling at his ease in a rosy velvet-upholstered chair. His little finger was crookt elegantly over his cup. A large and imposing square of chocolate cake in the other hand did not seem to cramp his gestures as he talked. Neither did the huge bites with which he was rapidly demolishing it seem in the least to stifle his conversation. Four particularly pretty girls, and two matrons surrounded him. And as Tyler and Miss Cunningham approached him he was saying, “Well, it’s got so I can’t sleep in anything but a hammick. Yessir! Why, when I was fifteen years old I was–” He caught Tyler’s eye. “Hello!” he called, genially. “Meet me friend.” This to the bevy surrounding him. “I was just tellin’ these ladies here–“
And he was off again. All the tales that he told were not necessarily true. But that did not detract from their thrill. Moran’s audience grew as he talked. And he talked until he and Tyler had to run all the way to the Northwestern station for the last train that would get them on the Station before shore leave expired. Moran, on leaving, shook hands like a presidential candidate.
“I never met up with a finer bunch of ladies,” he assured them, again and again. “Sure I’m comin’ back again. Ask me. I’ve had a elegant time. Elegant. I never met a finer bunch of ladies.”
They did not talk much in the train, he and Tyler. It was a sleepy lot of boys that that train carried back to the Great Central Naval Station. Tyler was undressed and in his hammock even before Moran, the expert. He would not have to woo sleep to-night. Finally Moran, too, had swung himself up to his precarious nest and relaxed with a tired, happy grunt.
Quiet again brooded over the great dim barracks. Tyler felt himself slipping off to sleep, deliciously. She would be there next Saturday. Her first name, she had said, was Myrtle. An awful pretty name for a girl. Just about the prettiest he had ever heard. Her folks invited jackies to dinner at the house nearly every Sunday. Maybe, if they gave him thirty-six hours’ leave next time–
“Hey, Sweetheart!” sounded in a hissing whisper from Moran’s hammock.
“Say, was that four steps and then turn-turn, or four and two steps t’ the side? I kinda forgot.”
“O, shut up!” growled Monicker, from the other side. “Let a fellow sleep, can’t you! What do you think this is? A boarding school!”
“Shut up yourself!” retorted Tyler, happily. “It’s four steps, and two to the right and two to the left, and four again, and turn two, turn two.”
“I was pretty sure,” said Moran, humbly. And relaxed again.
Quiet settled down upon the great room. There were only the sounds of deep regular breathing, with an occasional grunt or sigh. The normal sleep sounds of very tired boys.