“Please pass the rolls.”
As I watched dad salt everything without tasting it first, mom gave me the rolls with a caution, “Two apiece.”
They were the pop-in-the-oven crescent dinner rolls I liked. They both grew up during the Great Depression and were the World War II generation. She was expected to cook; the husband was not. And Dad couldn’t or wouldn’t boil water. She didn’t like to cook, but to her credit, she cranked out meals day after day. Rolls like these and a thawed cake from the freezer were as close to baking as she got. That made me think of Grandma Goldie. She could bake. Poppy seed cookies, rugelach, babka. Yummy chocolate sheet cakes.
I never knew my grandfather, Abraham Leon, on my mother’s side. He and I have the same first and middle name initials. He was a hat maker, who took the train into New York City every day from Passaic. He died when mom was a junior in high school. That left Grandma and seven children. The older children went to work as soon as possible. Mom worked in and managed the big movie theaters downtown. I don’t know very much about my family. They discourage me from asking questions and tonight is no exception. No talk at the table tonight was not a good sign.
There is only the sound of eating. That means dad is saving a salvo for me after dessert. Mom will clear the table. My brother will do his after dinner disappearing act. It will be dad and me. I can’t wait.
I decided it was safer to make eye contact with the meatloaf then look at my Dad. And I concentrated on peeling off the flaky layers of the rolls eating them one at a time. I looked up at my mom.
“Good meatloaf, mom.” She smiled. I liked the way the ketchup crusted on top of the meatloaf. More than that I wanted the ends if they were well done or burnt. Burnt was my favorite. Mom got up and started to remove the dishes.
“Slowpoke, you finished?” I didn’t have to look up. I knew she was talking to me.
“Two more bites, Mom.”
My brother and dad were talking at the other end of the table laughing about something. Mom was smiling as she brought a white cake box to the table tied with string.
Well, look at this. It’s not freezer cake. I know that box. From the Allwood Bakery. Black and whites. Yum. Welcome, home, Alan.
She poured coffee for dad and herself. Dessert was a hit. And dad made the first strike.
“So, son, what are you taking next semester? What are you going to do?”
Here it comes. I can handle this. I hope dad doesn’t yell. Maybe the cookie dulled his short fuse. I’ll help mom clear.
Just my dad at the table. “Son, I asked you a question.”
Just like I thought, my brother went up in smoke and probably reappeared in his room. I’ll have to tell mom and dad; I’ll try and wait until mom comes in from the kitchen. Maybe it won’t be as bad that way.
I finished my milk and gave the glass to my mom.
Dad moved to the living room sofa. I walked toward the couch.
“Sit down, Son.”
I could sit at the end of the sofa. But then I’d be near my dad’s feet. No thanks. Safer over here in the chair.
Maybe a nervous habit but I took my pocket comb and combed my hair before I sat down. My eyeglasses slid down my nose. I sat down and pushed them up, and started to say, “I’m not…”
“Son, I’m talking to you. You’re not what?”
Mom turned on the TV and sat on the other end of the sofa with Dad. It was always the same. Sports, Westerns, dramas, or more sports. In seconds, it seemed like mom was totally absorbed in a basketball game.
“I’m not going back to Rockland.”
“Going to a different school?”
“No, Dad, I’m not going back to college.”
“I thought you liked college. You wanted to go.”
He’s getting louder.
“No, Dad, you wanted me to go. So, I gave it a try. It’s just not for me” I combed my hair again and put the comb back in my pocket.
Here comes the University of Pennsylvania pitch.
“In 1934, when I was at Penn, I changed from pre-law to business. I shouldn’t have changed. I should’ve listened to my pop, your grandfather. Then, I quit because I had to go to work. You can work and go to school. If I were you, I’d go.”
“Dad, I’m not you.”
Mom got up and disappeared into the kitchen.
“Don’t talk back to me.”
He is getting louder with bug eyes.
“I’m not. I’m just saying that college isn’t for me.” The light went off in the kitchen. I looked up as my mother walked back to the sofa.
“You’re going back. And you are living in my house, and that is that!”
His blood pressure is up. I can tell. He’s red, and his hand is shaking. If he gets another heart attack, it will be my fault.
“Mom, Dad, please listen.” His mother stared at him while his father lit another cigarette.
“I’ve joined the Army.”
There. I said it!
“You’ve done what?”
He’s getting louder. I’ve only seen mom cry once before.
“I enlisted in the Army. You know I had to go for my physical. My friend joined the Air Force. But you were in the Army. So, I thought the Army was the best choice for me.”
“Good Jewish boys don’t enlist. They become doctors, dentists, lawyers. They go to college.”
“You were in World War II!”
“That was different. “Veet-nam” is different.”
He says Vietnam like President Johnson. Both wrong. I wouldn’t dare tell Dad it’s pronounced Vietnam, not “veet-nam.” Mom is staring at the TV. Snap out of it, Mom.
“I enlisted to study a foreign language like you did. Just like the Army sent you to study German and Arabic before World War II.”
“That was a world war, not in a rice paddy somewhere, who knows where. Go to college.”
“Dad, I leave in two weeks. I have to be in Newark on September 28th. A four-year enlistment.”
“Four years! You’re stupid.”
“Four years isn’t that bad. The Army Security Agency. Not the infantry. You have to get a high-level security clearance for this.”
Dad lit another cigarette and opened the newspaper. That was his signal that he had nothing further to say on the topic. For now. The front door slammed. His mother heard it, jumped in her seat, then returned to the TV.
That would be my brother going out the door. He must have heard the whole thing. Leaving won’t change anything. I’ll go to my room until dad cools down. I looked at mom. She seldom comments. Seems like she is trying to watch television and trying not to cry at the same time.
The next few days were so quiet you’d think someone died.
I thought about saying goodbye to some old friends. What that means is that I’ll drive around by myself looking at things. I don’t have any friends. I thought back to high school when I’d walk home from school with John who was called Jack. Not every day, but once in a while. I don’t know why, but we never went to each other’s houses. When we got to Jack’s street across from the apartments, we went our separate ways.
So, I took a drive past the high school. It was a typical red brick school built in the 1930′s. It made me think of walking to and from school again. Walking to school was different. I had to hustle. No time for distractions. I had to keep daydreaming to a minimum. Most of the time walking to school I’d think of what might happen to make it a miserable day. It was possible that someone would try to beat me up or stuff me in my locker. I hated high school.
My goal walking home from school was to avoid being seen by anybody. I wasn’t into sports. And, I gave the parking lot next to the school a wide berth because there were always some idiots who would try to force you into a fight. I didn’t try out for sports teams; I tried out for roles in school plays. Being somebody else on stage was fun.
The highlight of my walks home was looking at the 1934 Buick for sale at the corner gas station. Then, one day, it was gone. As I drove past the high school, I saw the electric store where I worked after school for one dollar an hour. I am making great progress. I didn’t make much more flipping burgers and hot dogs after my college classes. Now I’ll get to work for Uncle Sam for less than fifty cents an hour.
There were still a few hours before dinner, so I decided to see our old house in Clifton. Maybe I’ll drive to see my old school on Bloomfield Avenue in Montclair. I think about things or places, not people. Why do I think that way? It was a beautiful day, so I drove, and drove some more. Am I trying to revisit my whole childhood in one day? I didn’t linger, just a drive by. Not many good things to remember. This area looks familiar. I may be able to visit someone after all. How did I wind up here? I think Janice lives around here somewhere. She might remember me. We were in dancing school together in 6th through 8th grade. One of the few Jewish girls I knew. There, she lived on that street over there.
I slowed down on the quiet street. I had forgotten that all the houses here were old but elegant. I recognized Janice’s house and came to a stop. I was nervous, but I was joining the Army and wanted to tell someone. I parked on the street in front of the house, walked up to the front door, and rang the doorbell. The fall weather was still pleasant. I noticed that the windows on the first floor were open. Janice’s mom talked to someone in the shadows of the entry hall.
“Janice, it looks like it’s for you. That kid from dancing school. His dad went broke, remember? Are you home?”
Janice’s mom opened the door with a big smile and greeting.
“Well, Alan. Haven’t seen you for ages. How are you?”
“Good. Thanks. Janice home? I just wanted to say hello and goodbye. I’m going into the Army soon.”
“Really! That’s terrific for you, but she isn’t here. Sorry. I’ll tell her when she gets home.”
The door closed. As I backed away from the front door, I thought I saw Janice in a shadow behind the open window. Maybe not. After all, her mom said wasn’t home. I got in my car, pulled into another driveway to turn around and looked carefully at Janice’s house as I drove past.
My x-ray vision wasn’t working very well.
It was just getting dark when I got back home to Pompton Lakes. Dinner was uneventful. The distance was slowly moving closer toward acceptance. His dad told him that his mom had an old vinyl suitcase he could use. I thanked him. The family sat around after dinner talking about sports. Well, except me. I read a book.
The time flew. My days of sitting around reading Heinlein, Asimov, and John Dickson Carr were coming to an end. I have to be in Newark next Tuesday. The Jewish New Year was starting, too, but his family wouldn’t do anything religious. A few older aunts, uncles, or cousins might call, but that was it.
I was relaxing reading a Dr. Gideon Fell mystery when my dad asked me to go for a ride with him.
“Sure, Dad. Where to?”
“Oh, nowhere special.”
I know what that means. Another famous car lecture. He drives and talks to me, his captive audience. I wonder what it will be about this time.
We pulled out of the apartments. Dad drove and smoked his English Ovals. After a while, he started to talk.
“Son, you know, since you’ve been home you haven’t dated anyone. I know some of your friends are still away in school, but I’m concerned. Your brother is dating all the time. I’d like to see you have some fun before you go.”
“Thanks, Dad, but I’m okay. Just trying to relax before I have to go.”
“I think you need a woman. Do you know what I mean? I wonder about you.” That’s when the hiccups started. Out of nowhere, I began to hiccup a few times a minute.
“Dad, you can’t be serious. I’m not my brother; I’m not you.” There was a long silence. I was trying to process what Dad was thinking. I had no idea what he was thinking and wished I didn’t have to find out.
“What do you mean?”
An odd smile appeared on his father’s face, “You know, being with a woman.”
Without hesitation, I politely snapped, “No, thanks. Not yet.”
Dad doesn’t understand. I’m not ready for that. I hardly think about it. Good grief!
“Oh, I don’t know.” My chest started to hurt. The hiccups wouldn’t stop.
“Why not” is a good question. I don’t know why not myself. But not a good idea right now. Just not ready. The Army is enough for now!
“Just not ready.”
I imagine if I took Lust 101 in college, I would have failed that too! I couldn’t help it. I turned red.
Dad added, “Your father is still handsome you know; a lovely woman winked at me downtown recently!”
I thought to myself, “A lady of the night, would be my guess.”
We drove the rest of the way home in silence, except for the sound of Dad smoking and my hiccups.
The big day came. The recruiter gave me a list of what to take and what not to take. Mom was nervous but helped me pack. One set of civilian clothes and some toilet articles were not hard to pack. A few books, of course.
My brother said good luck and disappeared. Mom hugged me holding back tears. Dad and I got in the car. Dad was silent until we were on the highway. Well, smoking and silent. Then, Dad told me everything about his training in 1942 for World War II in basic training at Burlington, NJ. I’d heard it all before. It was a long drive.
Dad stopped the car in front of the old brick government building in Newark on Broad Avenue. I got my suitcase from the trunk. I was nervous, but at least we were early.
“Son, will you write?”
There was an awkward hug. I watched Dad get into the car, light another cigarette and pull away. I thought my dad looked old somehow. My father didn’t look back. I think his watery eyes were as close to I love you, good luck, or I’m proud of you as I’ll ever get.
I didn’t turn around either as I climbed the stairs. The Army and the unknown were straight ahead. I paused at the main entrance of the Armed Forces Entrance and Examination Station and took a deep breath.