July 19, 1969
By Steve O’Connor
Saturday night. Jack Lee stopped at the corner of Westford and Coral and leaned against the street sign. “Out of shape,” he muttered. He should never have taken the desk job at the Post Office. Up until five years ago, and for the previous nineteen years he was on his dogs, walking the South Lowell route every day. And before that, he was drilling with the 5th Infantry in Northern Ireland and then marching around Normandy and into the Rhineland. The Red Diamond Division under General Stafford Leroy Irwin. Their motto: We will.
He clasped his short-sleeved shirt between a thumb and index finger and gave it several tugs to feel something like a breeze on his chest. Gazing upward, he saw that a few stars were visible through clouds yellowed somewhat by the city lights. He recalled as he walked on into Cupples Square that it had been named after Lorne Cupples, a WWI soldier who suffered severe stomach wounds near Verdun. After visiting him, the chaplain wrote to his family, “He will die like a soldier, and that is the greatest thing to do.”
Jack set off through the square along Westford Street, some part of his mind, as ever, wandering through the old paths of war and remembering some of those faces that no one would see again. But his mind also kept turning to the Americans out there in space, beyond help, hopefully not beyond prayers, relying on machines to get them to the godamn moon and back. Machines break down, which is why he was on foot. He had bought a 1964 Ford Galaxie from a guy in Pawtucketville. “Runs like new,” the guy said. It had, for a while. But engines malfunction. Parts give out. Joey Geoffroy was putting in a new water pump for him on Monday, so Jack had to hoof it for the weekend. His car was a Galaxie Sunliner model. Joey got a water pump out of a wrecked Galaxie Victoria, but he said it’d be compatible, and Joey knew.
He wondered if the Apollo had a water pump. Ah, but a dried-out seal, a loose bolt, an oil leak; any of the thousand glitches in a complicated machine could spell doom for those spacemen. They must have great faith in the engineers, and the men and women who put the rocket and the capsule together. Great courage, too. Courage to spare. There were always those who would say, We will. Even after the last crew was burned alive on the launch pad. He told himself that NASA had learned from that tragedy, and, after all, it was no Ford Galaxie they were taking out to the Galaxy.
A couple of drunks were hollering incoherent accusations at each other outside the Highland Tap. A gaggle of co-drunkards had issued from the bar and tried to separate them and calm them down. How quiet it must be on the moon. Jack had even heard birds in the Ardennes, and you wouldn’t believe they would stay in those cratered forests where trees fell like so many matchsticks under a rain of German artillery. But on the moon, there were no birds, no crickets, no Harleys thundering past, no howling drunks. The silence must be terrifying. Only the sound of your own breath—inhale and exhale—inside that claustrophobic helmet. Terrifying. To be stranded alive on the moon if the engine failed—what a lonely death. But then, they knew that well, and as Shakespeare said, the readiness is all. Sometimes, during the siege of Metz, at the Bulge, or later, smashing through the Siegfried Line, Jack had envied the dead. The torn limbs and the glassy stares, the screaming missiles, the desperate digging in the frozen earth—it was all over for them.
Jack supposed that the idea of safety was an illusion down here. After all, as they say, the earth is just a big spaceship. But the illusion is comforting. Our tether to life seems more secure on solid familiar earth, though there are many who are happy and healthy tonight who’ll be dead before the astronauts are even scheduled to return. Mary Jo Kopechne was a carefree young girl when the astronauts set off on their mission, and she had already drowned in a car.
And look at poor Finny Doyle. Jack hadn’t seen him in years, then today when he was driving with Joey G. down Parker Street to go to the scrap car lots on Tanner Street, he saw him getting out of a car with a woman Jack didn’t know. “Slow down a minute, Joey. I know this guy.” He rolled down the window and said, “Hey Finny!”
Slowly, he turned and said, “Hi, Jack,” in a soulless voice while the woman kept walking.
“How the hell are you?” Jack asked, pretending he didn’t notice that his old friend looked bad.
“I’m dying,” he said, and followed the woman.
Poor Finny. Jack called Charlie Samis later and found out that Finny’s liver was shot. He was on borrowed time. Charlie said that on his last visit the doctor had said, “I can’t believe you’re still alive.” What a thing to say to a person. Jack thought he’d like to find out who that doctor was and give him a good belt in the kisser. And so, later in the afternoon, he had walked down to Molloy’s Bar, because sitting at home he just kept thinking of Finny’s yellow face, and the words: “I’m dying.” And he had drunk too many beers, not to mention the shots of whiskey, but at least there was a ball game on the radio in the bar, and few guys to talk to about whether Ted Kennedy was all done, and about whether they would like to go to the moon if they had the chance. Sammy Guthrie said he’d go in a heartbeat, but everyone knows brave words in a barroom don’t amount to much.
Jack quickened his wavering pace because he had to piss.
He walked up the front steps of 832 Westford Street, but was having trouble getting the key into the door. After a minute, he heard a screen raising above him. The landlady, Mrs. Powers, leaned out.
“Yes, Mrs. Powers?”
“I thought that was you.”
“Yes, Mrs. Powers. My key…”
“Mr. Lee, you don’t live here anymore.”
The thought clouds that had hovered over his brain began to thin, and he recalled that yes, he had moved out of this place. “Jesus H. Christ!” he said. “Excuse me, Mrs. Powers.”
“That’s all right, Mr. Lee.”
He turned about and descended the steps but paused at the bottom and looked back up, where the old woman could still be seen in the window frame. He was all fuddled. He could recall the look of the new place, but for the moment couldn’t remember the best direction to get there. “Mrs. Powers?”
He was feeling a bit light-headed. “Where…where is it I live now?”
“It’s 82 Harris Avenue, behind…”
“Oh, yes, yes. Thank you. Behind the church.”
“Would you like a cup of coffee, Mr. Lee?”
“That’s very kind of you, Mrs. Powers. You know, I think I would like a cup of coffee, and if I could use your bathroom?”
Mrs. Powers went into the kitchen to make coffee while Jack found the bathroom. He recalled the last time he had been in this apartment. He had heard a thud above him and came upstairs to discover that her husband Tom had fallen. He helped her to get him onto the couch, where he normally sat all day in his pajamas and housecoat smoking Raleigh cigarettes and speaking in a jumbled way that only his wife could understand. He had returned to her from the Great War a shell of the man she had married. Jack couldn’t recall if it had been gas or shell shock, or what, but he was all done.
When Jack had taken a seat in the small living room, Mrs. Powers called from the kitchen, “How do you take it, Mr. Lee?”
“No sugar, thank you. Dash of milk if you have it.” He looked around the room. The walls were papered with a botanical design, lush ferns and hanging leaves in muted colors. Very tasteful, Jack thought. A Magnavox television set with a bowl of plastic apples on it. Neat writing desk with mail sorted into slots. Bookcase beside his chair. He leaned sideways to read the titles: Longfellow’s Poems. The Conquest of Mexico. Little Women. Emerson’s Essays. 40 Easy Meals You’ll Be Proud to Serve. There was a photo of her late husband in his military uniform on a side table, and above the couch where her husband used to sit, a painting of a ship that appeared to be struggling in a storm. Old oriental rug. All order and peace here, and it made Jack feel calm. The smell of old Tom’s cigarettes still lingered under the smell of furniture polish, giving his ghostly presence some substance.
When she came in with the coffee on a tray, he rose instinctively, but she told him to sit down, she had everything in hand. “Now drink that,” she said. “And shall I make you a ham and cheese sandwich?”
“Oh, no thank you, Mrs. Powers. This is an awful lot of trouble for you.”
“Well, as my old mother used to say, it’s not very Irish to offer a guest something to drink and nothing to eat.” Before she went back to the kitchen, though, she went to a hall closet and came back with a fan. She moved her husband’s picture and put the fan on the table directed at him. “Very warm tonight,” she said, and went off to the kitchen while he sat placidly sipping his coffee and listening to the sounds of a dish retrieved from a cupboard, the jangle of silverware in a drawer, a jar of mayonnaise set down and meat unwrapped. The sounds and his position brought him back to the day when he first returned from the war and his mother hugged him and cried and pushed him into his father’s stuffed chair and ran off to the kitchen to get him food.
“You’re too kind, Mrs. Powers,” he said when she set the sandwich on the hassock in front of him. Only then did he realize that he was hungry and began to eat.
“Well, I do miss you, Mr. Lee. You were a fine tenant. A fine person. Up every morning and out to work. Lights out at ten o’clock. Kept the front walk shoveled in winter. Helped me with Tom that time.” She shook her gray head. “And thank you for coming to his funeral.”
“Not at all. You were very good to him. And he sacrificed a lot for his country.”
“Yes, he did. We all did.”
He nodded and swallowed. “You did.”
She sat up then and smiled indulgently, “Now I never knew you to be a big drinker, Mr. Lee, except at Christmas, maybe. I hope there’s nothing troubling you.”
“You needn’t worry. It’s just…did you ever feel a sense of foreboding?”
“Not a premonition of anything in particular, you know, like I’m afraid to get on this airplane. It’s just…I don’t know. It’s the country. It’s a bad time. Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge with that young girl. She’s dead, and he didn’t go to the police. Why would he do that? They say sometimes there’s an air pocket in the cab of the car. What if she was alive for some time? Why didn’t he wake up everyone and get help? Get the divers down there?”
Mrs. Powers sighed. “He says he was confused.”
“His brother wasn’t confused after a Jap destroyer cut his PT boat in half in the middle of the night, and the oil burned in the water all around them. He took command and saved lives. A leader has to keep his head and do what he can do. It’s a bad time. About two, three weeks ago, Life magazine published photographs of 242 young kids killed in Vietnam in one week. One week. And nobody is really sure what we’re supposed to accomplish over there. And then today, I saw an old friend and it seems his liver is gone, and he told me he was dying. That’s all he said. I said, ‘How are you?’ And he said, ‘I’m dying.’ And he walked away. What do you say to that?”
“Oh dear,” she said. “My, my.”
“And I find myself wondering, or worrying really, about these guys up in that little capsule hurtling through space. How far is the moon, Mrs. Powers, do you know?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact I looked it up in my encyclopedia today. It’s 240,000 miles away.”
“And sometimes it looks so close. But think of that. It’s what…three thousand miles from Lowell to the Pacific Ocean? Think of all the cities and plains and rivers and mountain ranges and trackless rolling forests and vast deserts between here and there. That’s just 3000 miles. They’re going two hundred and forty thousand miles away from every other human. No one has ever been that alone. America needs heroes badly right now, Mrs. Powers. And I’m so proud of them, you know, but I find myself very tense lately. Worrying about them.”
“Yes, I can understand that, Mr. Lee.”
“That’s why I overdid it a bit tonight. All of that.”
He took another bite of his sandwich and sipped his coffee. The old woman watched him. The fan blew his graying hair. Her husband had never been fit to have children with her, and how could she have raised a child with him anyway? She thought that if she had had a son, he might be around this man’s age.
“It’s none of my business, Mr. Lee, but did you never think to get married? You would have made some girl a fine husband.”
“I became a cynic, Mrs. Powers. Would my parents have brought me into this world if they could have known that in my prime of youth I’d be sent off to a war? I don’t think so. Not if they knew what that meant.” He shook his head. “In May of 45, just a few days after the surrender. I accompanied medics of the 5th to Czechoslovakia. Helmbrecht. It had been a concentration camp for women. I won’t describe it, Mrs. Powers. I can’t describe it. You lose, or I lost, the will to bring children into a world with so much evil in it. And suppose I had come home and married a nice young woman and had a son. Now it’s the same thing all over again. Two hundred and forty-two boys in a week, Mrs. Powers. Maybe my son would be one of them. Or like this poor Callery boy they renamed Highland Park for just a few years ago. Or, forgive me, your husband who suffered so much from the First World War. It goes on and on. People never learn.”
The old woman looked at her hands as if she could find some answer there, and then clasped them together, twisting the gold band of an old promise on her finger. “I can certainly understand your feelings, Mr. Lee.”
He finished his sandwich and rose. “I feel so much better. I guess I really hadn’t eaten much today. Thank you, Mrs. Powers. Sorry to trouble you like this. What a dope I was at the door with the wrong key.”
“Force of habit. It’s no trouble at all. Do take care of yourself, Mr. Lee.”
“I will. By the way, I was happy living here. It’s just, there’s no yard here, you see, and I wanted to have a bird feeder, and you know, be able to watch the birds. I want to sit in the yard and watch the sparrows, the blue jays, the cardinals, the finches. It relaxes me. Read the paper out there. I like being outside.”
“You don’t need to explain anything to me, and they say a change is as good as a rest.”
“I just wanted you to know.”
He took her hand in his and held it warmly, thanking her once again. She reminded him that they were going to show the moon landing on the television the next evening—she didn’t know what time. “I’ll be praying along with you, Mr. Lee,” she said. “They say they plan to land on a part of the moon called The Sea of Tranquility.”
“Beautiful name,” Jack said.
“Lovely name, isn’t it? Poetic. Like, ‘the infinite meadows of heaven.’ That’s Longfellow.”
On the way home, Jack stopped at Highland Park—Callery Park now. He said a brief prayer for Billy Callery at the stone memorial. PFC Callery had joined that endless column of ghostly infantry. Jack didn’t know if it made any sense, or whether it was a good war, or if there was such a thing. But he had nothing but respect for those dead: all the young soldiers who once stood shoulder to shoulder under a rain of fire and wore on their shoulders the insignias of their units, the Big Red One, the Lucky 13th, the Pathfinders.
So many had never known old age, but by God, they had known brotherhood.
Jack wandered farther into the park and sat on one of the old swings that had rocked him through the air as a boy. The clouds had moved on. Gripping the cool chains in his hands, he leaned back and saw above the belfry of St. Margaret’s Church, a half-moon like a glowing cup in the sky. Tears gathered in his eyes, as he whispered to the infinite meadows of heaven, “Come on, Apollo! Fly right! Do it, men! Christ Almighty, we need some good news down here.”