From Called To Arms Again
By J. L. Salter
Grit doesn’t fade away ... it just becomes crusty. With harrowing elements right out of today’s headlines, this story reaches back into the sturdy heartbeat of people raised during the Depression and tested during World War II. Though the old uniforms haven’t fit in many decades, their resilient spirits still have that same intensity which helped save democracy.
Welcome to the third sample of my newest novel, Called To Arms Again, released on
May 30 by Astraea Press. The heroine is reporter Kelly Randall, writing a 12-page special section for Veterans Day; her boyfriend is Bill “Mitch” Mitchell. In this excerpt, from Chapter Three, we meet Kelly’s landlord and his lady friend. And we get a glimpse of the kind of hard life that was typical for many of the greatest generation.
* * * *
When Kelly arrived at her landlord’s place on Heath Street with her late rent check, Chet “Pop” Walter was telling Ellie Graye about a newspaper article that she’d obviously already read.
Kelly’s landlord and Ellie were a lot more than friends, but not married. However, they spent most of their time together and everybody considered them a couple. Even though her congregation viewed divorce status dimly, Ellie was not thought of badly, because everybody knew her ex-husband was a drunken bum… and a beater. Ellie had put up with just so much of it before she went after him with her baseball bat.
At about sixty, Ellie had a soft, pretty face: smooth skin with very few wrinkles, except right around the eyes and at the corners of her mouth. She had long denominational hair, usually worn up, and never wore makeup. Trim and athletic, she also had modest curves. Her limbs were strong, as she’d often demonstrated, though completely without pride.
Possum Knoll, just outside Somerset, was Chet’s birthplace and where his heart had always been. A widower, Chet was in his mid-eighties and more active than most men that age, but his hearing was terrible despite devices in both ears. He had a long, jagged scar on his back from pleurisy and double pneumonia, which in 1930 involved major surgery.
Chet retained most of his hair, which was solid white and usually combed like he still used tonic on it. He had chronic throat congestion from decades of pipe-smoking and chewing tobacco, and he frequently cleared his throat — harshly enough to scare small children. Some people said his throat-clearing created a noise like a car wreck… loud and just as sudden. Others swore it sounded more like slamming a heavy metal door with rusty, broken hinges.
His forearms were patchy with small scabs and errant bruises — prevalent in the dozen years since his bypass surgery. Anyone could see his back always hurt and he hobbled on a bad foot, but Chet seldom complained directly.
Kelly looked around Chet’s large den. A Japanese bayonet and scabbard hung from the bricks above the non-working fireplace. On a homemade stand atop the mantel was a World War II G.I. M-1 steel pot helmet. She put her rent check facedown on the end table and sat on the couch close to Chet’s rocker. “Pop, how come so many Pulaski citizens have joined the military over the years?” She looked at a page from her folder of notes. “It seems disproportionately high for a small county.”
Chet cleared his throat loudly and looked toward his mantel before he spoke. “This area’s always been poor… people scraping ta make a living. Economy was poor and jobs scarce even before the Great Depression. But after the Crash, it was terrible. Folks did whatever they could ta stay alive. It was hard raising families back then. If ya got old enough ta get away and wasn’t needed ta work the family farm — which, in lotsa cases there wasn’t no family farm by then — then ya probably had ta go ta big cities ta find work.” He suddenly went silent.
Kelly wondered if reliving some memories of that awful period might be too painful, but before she could inquire, Chet resumed his explanation.
“Besides the poverty, education was pretty poor in lots of places. So when jobs was available, most folks did labor work.” He held up his wrinkled hands. “These old things bruise so easy now, but they did lots of chopping, sawing, digging, hauling, and fighting. Back when I was a young buck.”
Kelly recalled that one of Chet’s temporary jobs had been to relocate the graves of old Burnside to higher ground before the TVA flooded that area to generate electricity with the Wolf Creek Dam. Over the entire flooded area, more than a hundred cemeteries of various sizes had to be relocated.
“Ta help the country out of Depression, Roosevelt did do some good — putting people ta work. The New Deal had so many new programs ya couldn’t shake a stick without hitting some, and most had three initials. The Civilian Conservation Corps ran things
almost like a military outfit with commanders in Army uniforms. Before the war there was a good many Pulaskians had their first paying job in CCC.”
“I understand there was lots of unrest about governmental regulatory activity, having to do with prices and supplies.” Kelly tapped her notes. “I saw a History Channel clip of men pouring out hundreds of gallons of fresh milk, protesting the government’s milk price regulations. That blew me away — people starving right in that city and they’re pouring milk out on the streets.”
Chet cleared his throat, rather softly. “One of Roosevelt’s programs was cutting down beef cattle production. I still don’t understand why or how this was supposed ta help. But Roosevelt said we couldn’t keep our cows. Wouldn’t let us sell them and we couldn’t even salvage the meat, since meat production was what they was trying ta control.” He shook his white head sadly. “It’s hard for a twelve-year-old boy ta understand why men with badges come ta his family farm and make his daddy shoot his own cows. We was hungry, but we had ta bury them back in that big sinkhole.” Chet pointed as though he were sitting in his old farm house in 1937 rather than his present day living room on Heath Street.
Needing only a fresh angle to write her Veteran’s Day special, Kelly discovers first-hand that the Greatest Generation still has enough grit to fight back. While all the authorities are occupied during a massive Homeland Security drill, an urban gang of thieves targets an isolated retirement subdivision ... figuring the crippled geriatrics would offer no resistance.
Though Kelly’s widowed boyfriend came along only for a post-funeral luncheon, Mitch soon finds himself leading a mis-matched flanking team. Kelly’s good friend Wade has his own assignment, with a home-made mortar and lots of illegal gunpowder.
Maybe it’s difficult to remember everyday things like taking pills, but these ctogenarians have never forgotten it was up to them to defend family, home, community, and country. The outcome of their courageous stand depends on the resolve and resourcefulness of an unlikely ensemble of eccentric elderly neighbors, several American Legion members, and others spanning four generations.
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