The Luck of the Irish

by

Helen Howerton

 

 

 

 

As usual, Grand Central Terminal was a sea of uniforms.  Harry had seen military personnel of every service and rating in the few minutes he’d been inside, the men clutching sea bags and duffle bags and occasionally the hand of wives, daughters or girlfriends as they raced to catch their trains.  There were also plenty of senior officers.  The sling that kept his still healing right arm taut against the breast of his uniform spared him from delivering a salute, but he had nodded respectfully, and received many an answering acknowledgement in return, often accompanied by a speculative stare.  He had recognized no one, and could not imagine they were trying to recall where they had seen him before.  He had at first assumed it was because of the sling or the awkward way he walked slowly along, making sure he kept his head as still as possible; no sudden headaches that way.  The line of stitches was no longer visible, either (his mother had been particularly anxious about that; he had been especially happy to see how relieved she had looked when he took off his cover and the red hair she was so proud of was at last evenly distributed all over his head).  Eventually it had dawned on him that the officers weren’t looking at his face but at the shiny new stripe on his sleeves (even with wartime promotions being what they were, he was much younger than most 0-4s) and the medal ribbons under the golden dolphins that graced the front of his dress blues.  Not at the Purple Heart ribbon, the reason for that was obvious; but at the blue and white ribbon at the first of the line.  They had to be wondering how such an untroubled-looking Lieutenant Commander had earned the Navy Cross.  Or what was more likely, how he was still alive to wear it.  

He’d wondered about that himself during the two months he’d spent in the hospital at Pearl recuperating from his injuries.  Serving aboard a submarine meant your chances of coming back alive were slim.  If God had spared him for a reason, it was pretty obscure at the moment, since he was heading back into the fray as soon as he could get there. Harry had eventually chalked it up to “the luck of the Irish,” which was as good a reason as any, and the one that he gave to his parents and the friends that came to see him during the month he’d spent on medical leave at home.  As far as he was concerned he was ahead of the game; that his eyes shifted in alarm whenever he heard a sharp noise or experienced a sudden movement his senses couldn’t immediately identify was just something he was dealing with, and it didn't happen very often anymore.  There were always injuries that could not be seen.  The pain was worse for those, he had decided.  But time seemed to be taking care of it all.

With leave ending, he was heading to San Francisco to pick up a ride back to Pearl and the Stingfish.  The only thing really bothering him now was the realization that he’d missed the “big show,” the drive to take back the Philippines.  Contributing to the operation’s success was small recompense.  At least he’d been given a chance to read about what he had done when Admiral Nimitz had pinned the two medals, the Navy Cross and the Purple Heart, to his pajama top as he lay in the hospital bed at Pearl.  There had been no fanfare, no notice that CINCPAC was coming until he had suddenly appeared in Harry’s room, accompanied by an aide carrying the medal boxes, the award citation and two brand new lieutenant commander oak leaves.  The Admiral had begun to read the citation, and then stopped and handed it to Harry with a faint chuckle, saying “Since it’s just the three of us in here, son, you might as well read it yourself.”  The operation was Top Secret, of course; the Admiral’s aide had retrieved the paperwork as soon as Harry had finished, and admonished him from saying anything.  When his uniform was returned to him with the extra gold stripe the promotion became a reality.  Still, he could see the disbelief in the other men’s eyes as they walked past him.  He’d shrugged and figured time would take care of that, too.

Harry had prepared himself as much as possible for the crush of humanity at Grand Central and there had been no surprises.   Besides the soldiers and sailors and Marines there were plenty of private citizens needing to get somewhere, and they all seemed to have made their way here, filling up every seat and bench in the waiting rooms.  He was very pleased that the trunk he had brought along had gone immediately from the cab to a waiting redcap, so the only thing he had with him was his bridge coat.  That was slung over his good arm, the heat from enormous boilers and thousands of bodies keeping the temperature at a comfortable level inside the terminal, easily fighting off the cold from the November afternoon outside. Even so, having left his hotel early the thought of standing for a long period of time was vexing.   Not that his head gave him much trouble anymore, he was careful to keep it on as even a keel as possible.  The arm was coming along, too.  No, it was the fatigue that crept through every muscle and bone when he became especially tired that was bothersome.  But there was nothing to be done.  If standing up was to be his only choice at the moment, he might as well do it while exchanging his reservation for a real ticket.

He was in luck.  He darted into place right in front of one of the porters fastening a “closed” sign across the chain that outlined the various ticket lines.  There were about a dozen people in front of him, not bad at all.  Then he could start searching for a place to wait out his train.

Just ahead of him was a woman with two children, one a babe in arms and the other a little boy.  The baby began to squirm and she began to fuss with it as the older of the two, who had been clinging to her shabby coat, turned and looked up at Harry.  The boy was about 6 or 7 years old, with light hair and freckled skin.  He was dressed in long corduroy pants and a plaid shirt peeking out from a dark sweater.  The boy's large blue eyes stared inquiringly up at Harry as they studied each other.  He looked a lot like himself at that age, Harry thought.

“Hello,” Harry said, smiling.

“’lo,” the boy answered, looking Harry up and down.  “Do you fly airplanes, mister?”

The question was unexpected, and Harry smiled again.  “No, I’m stationed aboard a submarine.”

The child thought about that for a moment, and then nodded solemnly.  “My daddy’s a pilot.  He’s got shiny things on his uniform, like you.  You prob’ly don’t know my daddy, but his name is--“ and here he let go of his mother’s coat and facing Harry squarely, put his hands on his hips “--Captain Charles Bradley.   That’s my name, too.  I’m Charles Bradley the Third. You can call me Charlie.   I’m going to grow up and be just like my daddy.”

Harry bent down, grunting a little as he moved his bandaged arm, and ruffled the boy’s blond hair, which was sticking up like cornstalks.  “I’m sure your father will be very proud of you, Charlie.”

He chatted with Charlie for a few minutes, taking stock of the child’s threadbare pants and the sweater that showed a few moth holes in the material.  The sweater didn’t look too warm.  From a pocket of his coat Harry pulled out the thick wool scarf his aunt Lillian had knitted for him, the navy blue scarf she’d made when he’d been accepted at the Naval Academy, and placed it around the boy’s neck.

“This is something like your father would have, I’m sure.  I want you to have it, Charlie.”

The boy’s eyes glowed with pleasure, and then the smile on his face turned downwards.  “I dunno, mister.  My mom prob’ly wouldn’t like me takin’ pwesents.” He picked up the tail of the scarf and fingered it.  “This is sure nice.  I think my daddy’s got one like it.”

“It won’t be a present, then.”  Harry considered that for a moment, and then spoke again.  “It’s a prize.  You win the prize for... helping your mother with, uh, chores.  I’m sure you’ve had to do... some...something, anyway,” he added quickly, groping for the words.  How did one talk to a boy?  He wasn’t at all sure how it was done.  Children were something he had absolutely no experience with.

“But I haven’t helped with any chores.  Not today, anyway.”  Charlie slowly began to unwrap the scarf.  “I guess I better give it back,” he said slowly and ever so reluctantly.

“Not at all, not at all,” Harry said, wrapping the scarf back up again.  “I didn’t say the chores had to be today, did I? “

“Noooooo....”  Charlie’s brows knit together.  Harry could almost see the thought processes behind the boy’s eyes.  It took a few more seconds, and then the youngster looked up with a smile, revealing a missing front tooth.  “Oh yeah, I helped momma move the kitchen chair so Becky could sit better.  That was yesterday,” he said proudly.

 Harry blew his cheeks out in a quiet sigh of relief.  “See, I knew you’d think of something.  I’ll just speak with your mother and explain everything.” 

Harry straightened up, and it was then he realized that the child’s mother was engaged in a heated conversation with the ticket agent, an officious looking fellow who had obviously been doing this job for a long time.  The little girl that the woman had in her arms, the spitting image of her brother, was clutching the top of her mother's shoulder and looking back at Harry with alarm as her mother bobbed up and down, arguing with the clerk.  It was obvious the conversation wasn't going well.

“My parents will pay the minute the train pulls into Chicago, I swear!  Please, my husband’s just left again, I’m moving back home with my kids until...” and here her voice began to break, “...until he gets back.  He’s going to come back,” she added, defiance showing through the slight shaking of her voice.  “I don’t know what happened, I must have dropped my little bag with the money when I came out of the subway.  But I still have the reservation for two seats, you see it there.”  She jabbed at the paper the agent was holding in his hand.  “I’ve got to get on this train!”

“I’m sorry,” the clerk said mechanically, every syllable putting the lie to the sentiment.  “I can’t give away seats on a train without payment.  There’s a war on, you know.”

“Oh, don’t I know it!”  the young woman cried, her voice raising, a twinge of hysteria seeping into the tone. 

The boy immediately abandoned his conversation with Harry and grabbed his mother’s coat again.  “Momma?  What’s wrong?”

She turned around, quickly wiping a tear from her cheek, and looked down at her son.  “It’s nothing, Charlie.  Where did you get that beautiful scarf?  If you found it on the floor, we’ve got to turn it into Lost and Foun---“

“It’s mine, Mrs. Bradley,” Harry interjected.  “Your son and I have been having a contest, and he won.  I thought your son would like the scarf, and it seems that he does.”

Harry saw a young woman with dark circles under her eyes and bloodless lips that still carried a thin outline of lipstick.  He could see the effort she was making to keep her emotions in check, the only evidence of her fight the two bright spots of red on her cheeks.  She had managed to button her cloth coat wrong, and the material, as thin in its way as her son’s sweater, was bunched up awkwardly under the child she was balancing on one hip.  A limp felt hat of dark grey perched on a head of tight brown curls.  She looked very young to be the mother of two children.  The war had contrived to bring couples together for at least the semblance of normal life, and hastening the arrival of children was high on that list.  Often what little down time there was for his fellow officers aboard the Stingfish was occupied by wardroom stories of families and peaceful times that seemed a million years away.  Just a picture or a letter from home was all that kept many of the guys going, and Harry no longer thought it odd to hear them say over and over that that was what they were fighting for.  He, on the other hand, had made a commitment with his selection of the "silent service" that he could not afford to put family before career, nor worry about leaving a wife and children behind.  Given the rate of attrition on submarines, it was not something he wanted to concern himself with in times of crisis.  Maybe that was selfish, maybe it was something else, but he did not want to bear that burden.

Her eyes crinkled up in a tight smile.  “That’s very kind of you, Mr...?”

"It’s Nelson, ma’am.  Lieutenant Harry... Lieutenant Commander Harry Nelson.”  He would have to get used to saying that.

Behind them the ticket agent sighed heavily.  "I'm going to lunch here soon, folks.  If you'll step aside, ma'am, I need to help this officer."

Her face, very pale already, whitened further as her shoulders sagged.  “We’ll get out of your way, Lieutenant Commander Nelson.  I’ve got to think of a way out of my problem, and I don’t want to hold you up.”

The clerk started to say something else, but Harry sent a warning glare his way, and the man lapsed into silence.  He turned his attention back to Mrs. Bradley.  “Do I understand correctly, you’ve lost your money for the tickets?”

She nodded, closing her eyes, then opened them and quickly explained how the money she’d set aside for the tickets had disappeared between the time she and her children had trudged from the subway to the terminal (how she had managed the children and the large suitcase by her side, Harry couldn’t imagine).  Now, as he had heard, there was nothing the clerk could do.  As she said those words Harry could see her shoulders sag even further.  “So, I guess I’m stuck until I can wire my parents and ask them for another ticket.  Or maybe Traveler’s Aid can help, I saw their booth as we came in.  At least,” she said, managing a larger smile, “it’s warm in here.  We’ll be alright.”

“I've got a better idea.  Pardon me.”  Harry moved up to the window and addressed the ticket agent.  “You'll see by my reservation I've got a compartment all the way to San Francisco.  I’ll turn in my ticket, and you give this lady and her children my compartment to Chicago, and give me her regular seats.”  He dug into his bridge coat again and pulled out the reservation.  With it came the two fifty dollar bills his father had handed over as “pin money” for his son’s last few days of leave in San Francisco.  He surreptitiously handed one over to the clerk.  “And I think there’s a difference of about fifty dollars, correct?  I’d like Mrs. Bradley to have that refund, also.”

The ticket agent began shaking his head.  “Weeeel, I dunno about this.  It’s out of my level of responsibility and---”

Harry threw up a hand, and the clerk stopped in mid-sentence.  His blue eyes hardening and mouth drawn together in a thin line, Harry stared at him for a few moments.  Then, lowering his voice, he said evenly, “You will do what I’ve asked you to do.  You said there was a war on?  Well, that's where Mrs. Bradley's husband is right now.  And I've just come from that war myself.  I wouldn’t recommend it.  Now, give me Mrs. Bradley’s two seats and give her my compartment, and we’ll be out of your hair.”

The clerk didn’t need to be asked twice.  He did not like the penetrating stare he had seen in the officer’s eyes, the coldness that flashed for a moment and then vanished just as quickly.  “Alright, whatever you say.  But why are you gonna need both seats?”

“One’s for me--” and here Harry raised the sling “--and one’s for my arm.”

“Good enough for me,” the clerk said, and began writing out the tickets.  In a few minutes he was done, handing one to Harry and the other to Mrs. Bradley.  “There ya go, ma’am.  Have a nice trip to Chicago!” he cried, obviously happy to be pulling down the shade on his ticket window.

She looked down at the ticket as if she was afraid it was going to sprout wings and fly away, and when she spoke, the shaking was back in her voice.  “Sir, you have no idea....” The moment was broken by the little girl, who reached up and tugged on her mother’s hat.  “Jenny, no!” she cried, laughing, and turned her attention back to Harry, her eyes sparkling with unshed tears.  “My parents will reimburse you for the ticket, Lieutenant Commander.  It’s the least I can do.  But surely, with your injuries, you’ll need somewhere comfortable to sleep!”

“Ma’am, after you spend a few months on a submarine, you find you can sleep anywhere.  I’ll be fine. And I will not accept payment for making sure you’re taken care of.  It’s the least I can do for the wife of a fellow naval officer.”

Her brows drew together, confusion written on her face.  “But Mr. Nelson, my husband’s in the Air Force!”

Harry’s eyes widened while he thought about that, and then the laughter roiled up from within his chest.  “I obviously got the wrong impression from your son.”  He pointed towards the far side of the terminal, where he knew the USO had set up a restaurant to feed the hordes of arriving and departing troops.  “How about a cup of coffee?  And Charlie here could probably use a doughnut or two.”

“You’re an angel in disguise, you know that, don’t you?”

“No, ma’am.  It’s just my pleasure to assist the wife of a fellow officer.”  Harry paused and shaking his head ruefully, said with a laugh, “No matter what service he’s in.”

“Whatever you say,” she said, joining in his laughter.  “And please stop calling me ma’am, and just call me Cynthia.”

“Nice to meet you, Cynthia.” 

Harry flagged down a passing baggage truck and arranged for the suitcase to be put on their Chicago-bound train.  Then they started off, Harry adjusting his usual quick pace to keep close to the Bradleys.  They had to do a bit of pushing and shoving, Harry making sure to protect his arm as much as possible, but eventually they arrived at the East Balcony, where the USO’s Service Men’s Lounge beckoned. 

To get to the Lounge they had to pass under the huge mural that urged everyone to “Buy Defense Bonds and Stamps Now!”  The mural, actually a giant photograph, had caught Charlie’s attention, festooned as it was with airplanes, a battleship and two menacing-looking tanks.  It stretched from side to side, easily over 100 feet wide.  It was an impressive sight.

“Airplanes!”  Charlie had cried, and then immediately frowned.  “My daddy flies big airplanes, and those are little!  He flies Flying... Flying...”

“Flying Fortresses, Charlie, remember?" She turned her attention to Harry.  “B-17s.  He’s over in England at the moment.”  She looked down and ran her hand through her daughter’s curls, and Harry thought he knew what she was thinking.  Although the plane had an amazing ability to return from a raid shot to pieces, surviving the flak from raids over Germany was no easy task.   In a way, he preferred subs.  At least you usually knew where the enemy was who was shooting at you.

“He’ll make it back, Cynthia,” Harry blurted.  “It’ll be the luck of the Irish, just like it was for me.”

Her eyes glistening again, Cynthia took a few seconds to adjust the baby’s coat.  “I have to believe that,” she said quietly.  “Charlie worships his father.”  Tossing her head, she threw Harry a dazzling smile.  “I’ll take some of that luck, Lieutenant Commander.  If you say it’s worked out all right for you, that’s good enough for me!”

Harry acknowledged that with a grin, sidestepping a couple of Marines who were emerging from the Lounge, both throwing a snappy salute as they caught side of his insignia.  “Your coffee awaits, madam,” he said and with a wave of his hand indicated she should go in first.  They had walked a few steps more when it became evident that the little boy wasn’t following.

“Charlie?  Come along, son.”

Charlie didn’t move.  This time, Harry did the talking.

“What’s up, Charlie? 

In answer, the boy came closer and shyly, slipped his hand into Harry’s.  “Is it alright if I tell you more about my daddy?”

Shocked, Harry almost let go of the little hand that had slipped into his.  He looked down at Charlie, who was studying another little boy who was walking by with, Harry assumed, his mother and father, the man in civilian clothes.  How lucky that other child was!  How lucky that he might never know the fear of the unknown that was a day to day occurrence for this mother and her son.  The fear that Charles Bradley the Second would not make it back to see his family again from a war that millions were fighting so that this little boy, this Charlie Bradley the Third and so many others like him, would once again be able to sleep in peace for many nights to come. 

This is what everything is for, Harry thought.  Everything. 

Harry grasped Charlie’s hand tighter.  “Whatever you say, champ.  How about a doughnut?”

“Okay!” 

 

 “Wherever you go and whatever you do,

May the luck of the Irish be there with you. “

Old Irish Blessing

 

 

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