Between Miami and Tuscaloosa

The letter advised, “Anthony has just been transferred from the Army’s Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco to the Army’s Northington General Hospital in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Thus, during the last week of October 1943, I visited cousin Anthony even though it would have been much easier for someone from the family to go to Tuscaloosa on the through train that carried New Yorkers to New Orleans. I had to travel by three separate trains from Miami via Jacksonville and Atlanta.

Anthony was drafted in January of 1943. In less than six months, he was on Guadalcanal, and, as I was soon to learn, was embarked in a Navy landing vessel during an overnight voyage to New Georgia in the Solomon Islands, when it was hit by two Japanese torpedoes. There were few survivors. Aunt Liz didn’t know any details about her son’s injuries.

I was then between courses at the Navy’s Subchaser Training Center in Miami. Although my request for a 72-hour weekend liberty was submitted two-days before, approval wasn’t granted until just after I reported to the Center on Friday morning. I barely managed to rush back to the Columbus Hotel where the Center’s students were billeted, throw a shirt, skivvies, and toilet articles in a soft overnight bag, and buy a furlough ticket before catching the train to Jacksonville. I was wearing the prescribed uniform of the day for Miami, khaki chino. Also, since payday was a few days off, I had less than forty dollars when I started out. The furlough ticket took a big bite out of that.

As the train progressed northward I thought of the weekends when I stayed overnight at Aunt Liz’s house in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint area. Anthony and I had the most fun when there was snow on the ground. We had only to go across Richardson Street to the cooperage and search through the scrap pile in order to find rejected barrel staves. With a few nails and cord we improvised means to attach the skis to our shoes and then headed for the nearby hill that overlooked Newtown Creek. The hill was the consequence of rubble that was deposited by a glacier many years before. Being short and steep it was ideal for our kind of skiing and there was always some peddler’s kid who brought his father’s horse along to tow us back up the slope.

Such thoughts of Anthony were interrupted when a swarm of young women boarded the train in Daytona Beach and dashed screeching for the few available seats. One that seemed to be the youngest spied the empty seat next to me, successfully occupied it and then smiled with delight as if she had won a prize. She had a seat, what’s more it was next to a boy, a Navy Ensign no less, who seemed to be about her age. She wore a plain cotton dress, wore no makeup, was neat and pretty, and, at first, excitedly talked a blue streak. I quickly learned that all of the girls were discharged from the Womens Auxiliary Corps (WAC) that had an indoctrination center near Datona Beach. My new acquaintance, Earline, was discharged when it was discovered that she was only eighteen. At that time the minimum age for admittance was twenty-one. I also learned that she had never been away from her Atlanta home before and her lifelong dream was to visit Miami Beach. She had hoped to make it there in the WAC.

Upon reaching Jacksonville, together we found our way to the correct platform and grabbed a pair of coach seats for the overnight run to Atlanta. Because of wartime demands the Southern Railroad was operating resurrected equipment. The 1915-vintage train consisted of a coal-burning locomotive pulling dark-green coaches. The latter were breezy inside, to say the least. With a finger, one could write in the soot that was accumulating on the inside widow sills. Also, the route to Atlanta was uphill and with every mile, the temperature dropped. We dozed fitfully, snuggled back to back in a desperate attempt to keep warm. With daylight we could see that the ponds we passed were skimmed over with ice.

When the sun began to stream through the windows, the chatter resumed and I learned more about Earline. She said that she was married and that her husband was in the service. Before we went our separate ways, she pathetically asked that I send her a postcard that portrayed Miami Beach. As she gave me her address I sensed that her desire to see Miami Beach was an obsession.

In Tuscaloosa I couldn’t afford a hotel. A taxi driver suggested a rooming house. The room I rented reminded me of the cold-water flat I lived in less than two-years before. The floor was covered only with linoleum, a sink protruded from a wall, a coal-burning belly stove furnished heat, a kettle on the stove supplied hot water, and the toilet was down the hall. The place was clean and was furnished only with an iron bed and a chair.

That Saturday afternoon, while I waited in the hospital foyer for an orderly to fetch Anthony, I prepared for the worst, expecting that he would be brought out in a wheel chair. Instead he walked in briskly and was wearing his GI uniform complete with decorations, including the Purple Heart. The after effects of the explosions were a constant ringing in his head and permanent impairment of his hearing. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he rated liberty; we spent what was left of the day at dinner and a movie. I had better-than-expected news to report to the folks in Brooklyn.

On Sunday morning I left the rooming house in time to catch the through streamliner from New Orleans, an earlier train than the one I originally expected to ride. It stopped at Tuscaloosa only long enough to load provisions, and its next stop was Atlanta. I was refused permission to board because the crack train was only for full-fare passengers. Encouraged by the dining-car staff, I slipped through the small door through which blocks of ice were being loaded. They seemed eager to put one over on the railroad.

The conductor discovered me after the train was underway and vented his anger by charging me the difference for a full-fare ticket.

When things settled down I picked up a magazine. Therein I discovered an article about Georgia’s chain gangs. It included a photograph captioned, :Typical Lifer, 22-year old Billy _______.” The prisoner, having the same uncommon last name as Earline’s, was shown clad in black and white horizontal stripes and chained to other prisoners. The caption also advised that he was from Atlanta. I wondered, “Could Billy be related to Earline?”

Since I was ahead of schedule, I decided to detour into Atlanta to satisfy my curiosity.

When I gave Earline’s address to an Atlanta cab driver, he was immediately concerned. He said more than once, “There must be some mistake. You don’t want to go there.”

I persisted. The reason for the driver’s concern was apparent. The houses on both sides of the block had small hardpan yards. Only a few weeds grew in them. The houses, raised about two-feet on cement blocks, were little more than cabins sheathed with clapboard that appeared never to have been painted. The cab driver just couldn’t believe that a Navy officer was calling on someone in that neglected area. He said, “I won’t leave you here until someone that you know comes to the door!”

As I crossed the small porch I saw that the inner door was ajar. The screen door had holes in it that sparrows could fly through. When I knocked I could see that the front room was nearly empty of furniture and what there was of it was sorely worn. Through the door to the next room, the corner of a crib was visible and there were sounds of more than one toddler.

Earline came to the door in the same dress and just as neat as when she boarded the train in Daytona Beach. She seemed like the only bright spot in the depressing surroundings and was surprised to see me, to say the least. I said, “I have four hours between trains. How about showing me downtown Atlanta?”

Earline was delighted with the invitation and advised that she was baby sitting her siblings, her mother was away at a housework job and that we would have to go to the next block where her father was at a used-furniture store waiting for casual work. She would get him to watch the kids. The cab driver seemed satisfied that I was in responsible hands.

Earline’s father appeared to be someone who had the last thread of ambition beat out of him. He wasn’t much over forty and he may have been an alcoholic. He compliantly started homeward per his daughter’s request.

Earline and I walked around downtown Atlanta and had an early dinner. At an opportune moment, I showed her the picture of the chain-gang lifer, “Do you know this fellow?”

“He’s my husband.”

“I thought you said he was in the service.”

“Well, he’s serving, isn’t he?”

There was no disputing that.

I may have shown Earline downtown Atlanta rather than her showing the area to me. Afterwards, I started back to southern Florida as she returned to her pitiful life. Upon arrival, with the last of my funds, I mailed the promised postcard that showed graceful palm trees over the white sands of Miami Beach with the iridescent green blue Gulf Stream in the background.

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