I was six years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked—too young to understand what war was all about, but just the right age to be entertained by my cousin Dave's imitation of Adolf Hitler. I laughed uproariously when Dave, who was l5 at the time, combed his hair to one side and then held one end of the comb under his nose while giving a Nazi salute and shouting German words that made him sound like a growling dog. Almost as funny was Dave as Mussolini, puffing out his chest and thrusting out his jaw, followed by Dave as a Japanese general, squinting his eyes and sticking out his front teeth, and vowing, in broken English, to conquer America.
Dave's comic turn may have been hilarious, but soon enough even people my age came to see that war was indeed a serious business. I learned this lesson, in part, because of the topography of the town in which I grew up, Sherburne, New Hampshire. The town of Sherburne is bisected by the Black Diamond River, with three bridges connecting the East Side and the West Side. Our house was on the first East Side street that ran parallel to the river. We were also on the other side of the railroad tracks, right opposite the Boston and Maine railroad station itself. That placed us at the very nexus of certain events closely connected to the war since outside our front window we saw young man going off to war and the tearful farewells that accompanied their departure.
Then, too, because our house was situated on the top of a small hill we could see anyone who walked or drove across the Mason Street bridge, which was the one most often used by people coming to or going from the East Side. It so happened that the Western Union office in Sherburne was located on the corner of Main and Mason Streets, and therefore the Western Union messenger was visible to us when he rode his bicycle across the Mason Street bridge to deliver a telegram to someone on the East Side.
As the war wore on, the sight of that Western Union messenger heading towards the East Side triggered a crude, but effective alarm system. My mother, or anyone else on our street who spotted the messenger, would phone someone else to say that a telegram, possibly from the War Department, was heading our way. Eyes would remain fixed on the messenger until he crossed the railroad tracks and headed farther up Mason Street. At some point on Mason Street, the messenger, who was now out of our view, would turn left or right to head off towards his destination. In a matter of minutes, my mother would usually get a call back from whoever she had called, or maybe she would hear from someone else who had been alerted by the person my mother had originally called. That was how my mother would find out where the Western Union messenger had delivered the telegram, and almost always, what the telegram said, particularly if it had come from the War Department.
There were telegrams in the war years that undoubtedly brought news of births and new jobs or announcements of engagements and marriages and all that became part of the day-to-gossip among my mother and her friends, but I recall those times my mother would be wiping tears from her eyes after she received a return call from someone who knew where the Western Union messenger had stopped and what news he had delivered. Then, after regaining her composure, she would place a call to someone else, passing on what she had just heard and that person, in turn, would do likewise, until the news of whether some young man from Sherburne had been killed or wounded or was missing in action reached every corner of the town.
I was sitting on the front porch with my parents one summer night in l944 when the Western Union messenger, right after he crossed the railroad tracks, turned left and headed up our street. My brother had been drafted only three months before and was still in training, but my mother, who cried easily ever since he had left, took a deep breath and slapped her hands over her mouth. My father, sitting next to her, rose quickly and took my mother into the house, lingering a moment at the door to glance over his shoulder as the Western Union messenger drew closer to our house. Suddenly thrust into the role of family lookout, I kept my eyes trained on the messenger as he approached and then passed by our house, but when he did, I hurried to the other end of our porch so that I could track the progress of our very own Angel of Death as he made his way down the street.
I still remember how nonchalantly the messenger peddled his bike, looking very much like someone out for a bit of exercise on a beautiful summer night. Then, one block away, at the corner where our street turned into Erie Street, he came to a stop. There, after perching his bike against the pole of a street light, he began climbing the stairs of a three-story tenement.
My parents returned to the porch just then, with my mother now holding a handkerchief to her eyes. I was telling them that the messenger had gone to the second floor, where the Conroy family lived, but what I had to say was superfluous because at that very instant, Mrs. Conroy standing in her doorway, yelled out the name of her son, Leo. My father clapped both hands over his ears and my mother, holding onto my to my father with one hand and dabbing at her eyes with the other, was shaking her head back and forth and all the while Mrs. Conroy kept yelling out her son's name, just as if she was calling him home from the baseball field nearby.
On another summer night, about a year or so after Mrs. Conroy received the telegram about her son, news arrived of the Japanese surrender. I was old enough by then to trail along behind my two teen-age sisters when they hurried off to the celebration breaking out on Sherburne's Main Street. By the time we arrived, the crowd had spilled over the sidewalks onto the street itself so that traffic had come to a standstill, with several cars marooned in a sea of people. The crush of bodies was such that the drivers of these cars could only sit there and good naturedly honk their horns. There was even a rhythm to their blasts, long ones alternating with short ones and a series of beeps from one car answered by similar beeps from another. The car horns served as a kind of counterpoint to the music coming from the American Legion Band which was seated in a rather formless arrangement on the steps of the Post Office.
That was the night I saw grown-ups hug and kiss in a way that was entirely new to me. These were not the perfunctory embraces and pecks on the cheek exchanged between adults in public. Men and women, young and old, threw their arms around each other, seemingly laughing and crying at the same time. There was a fervor to these kisses, and a clumsiness, too, because grace, as well as propriety, didn’t seem to matter much now that feelings stopped up for the duration of the war were at last let loose.
I recall, for instance, two middle aged women who literally ran into each other’s arms and how the force of that collision practically knocked them off their feet. They managed somehow to remain upright, but that only made both of them laugh all the more as they clung to each other in a bear hug. Then one of them, pulling back slightly, yelled, "The war is over. The war is over," and the other lady, as if reminded of that by her friend, said the same thing in reply and then both of them, giddy with delight, and with the unrestrained joy of children splashing in a rain puddle, kept repeating that phrase, the voices getting louder each time they said it.
Near the Post Office, two teen-age boys with large American flags were waving them back and forth, keeping time to the spirited march the American Legion band was playing. They slowed the waving of their flags and lengthened the sweep of their to and fro motion during the rousing sing along that broke out when the band began playing "God Bless America."
My sisters and I, joined now by some of their high school friends, were jostled and pushed first one way and then the other so that we finally ended up, not entirely of our own volition, three blocks from the Post Office, where two clarinetists and a man on the accordion were playing a polka. And there, we were confronted by a sight that expressed more than anything else the emotions let loose by VJ Day. In the middle of Main Street, Clifford L. McCracken, headmaster of Sherburne High School, was dancing with his wife, both of them spinning and turning and dipping to the strains of "The Beer Barrel Polka."
As always, Mr. McCracken was meticulously groomed, with his white hair parted in the middle, a blue and red bow tie firmly in place, and the tip of his white handkerchief just peeking out from above the pocket of his tan doubled breasted suit. But now, caught up in the spirit of that night, the man whose stare could instantly quiet an auditorium filled with chattering students, had become a dancing demon, and his wife, the keen-eyed chaperone of school dances—a woman who was quick to cast a disapproving glance at couples who held each other too close—seemed, like her partner, to have also cast off all inhibitions.
My sisters and their friends were first stunned by the sight of the McCrackens dancing with such abandon. A moment later, unable to fully grasp that Clifford McCracken was indeed subject to human emotion, my sisters and their friends began giggling hysterically. That’s when Mr. McCracken, breaking away from his wife, walked over to my oldest sister, and bowing from the waist, invited her to dance with him. His wife, following in his stead, went over to a group of boys and asked one of them if he cared to dance. A few moments later, Mr. McCracken, ever the gentleman, escorted my sister back to where her friends were and then asked one of the other young girls to dance. Mrs. McCracken did likewise, offering a turn around the newly created dance floor to another young man. Within minutes, the cluster of students from Sherburne High formed two lines, girls in one, boys in another, and all waited their turn to dance with either Mr. McCracken or his wife.
When veterans began returning from the war, it sometimes seemed as if that VJ Day celebration was about to be rekindled each night on the platform of the Boston and Maine railroad station. The station master would repeatedly ask the large number of people gathered there to move away from the edge of the platform because they seemed at times as if they were going to spill over onto the tracks. People would generally comply with his request, but once the train arrived, all decorum ceased as people surged towards the doorways of each passenger car. The hugs and kisses that followed seemed even more intense and more fervent than those I had witnessed the night Japan surrendered, but now people would embrace, then pull back to look at each other, only to embrace again, all the while whooping with laughter and wiping tears from their eyes. At times, three or four people—often with one or two of them holding a small child in their arms—would encircle a returning serviceman, engulfing him so that he practically disappeared from sight.
Then, by the summer of l946, after most of the veterans had returned, the first of Sherburne's war dead began to arrive. There were some people, including my brother, himself a newly returned veteran, and my cousin Peter, also a veteran, who didn't think the bodies of the war dead should have been sent home at all. I knew about this because one summer night, when it was too hot to sleep, I could hear my brother and my cousin Peter on the front porch, telling my father that the best thing this country could do for servicemen who had died was to leave them where they were already buried, in military cemeteries overseas. My cousin Peter said the War Department was perpetuating a hoax by making people think there were remains in the coffins that were shipped home.
"Who are they trying to kid?" my brother said, readily agreeing with my cousin. "These guys didn't die in bed, you know. Pilots, the flight crews on those bombers. What's left to send back if a plane went down in flames? How about all the others? Think of it. Bombs, grenades, mines, artillery shells."
My father, somewhat cautiously, said it was only natural that families wanted to see their sons buried in the place where they were born, but my cousin barely let him finish what he was saying.
"Lead weights," my cousin said. "They bolt them in place on the inside of the casket. That's what they're burying most of the time. A guy in my outfit had been stationed at a military cemetery in France. He told me you could tell from lifting them that the coffins didn't contain a body. The load never shifted from one side to another the way it would if there was a body inside."
My father, sounding somewhat puzzled, said, "Why would the Army want to do that?"
Both my brother and Peter laughed at my father’s naiveté and then Peter proceeded to explain to my father what the Army’s motive was.
"That's the Army for you," he said. "They want everyone to think that war's like some game kids play. They don't want you to know just how rotten it is. They're never gonna tell people, 'Sorry, we'd like to send your son home, but we can't find all the pieces.'"
I could never forget that image of lead weights when those first coffins arrived. The train that brought the bodies back would approach the railroad station at a speed no faster than a man could walk and instead of sounding the whistle at the crossing on Mason Street, the engineer would ring his bell, tolling it without stop, and bringing the engine just short of the platform so that passengers could debark. Then, after the passengers and the people meeting them had left, the engineer would continue another 300 feet or so to the farthest end of the platform. That brought the baggage car even with the hearse that was awaiting the arrival of the coffin, Gathered there were relatives and friends and a delegation from the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The train that came from Boston usually arrived about 8 o'clock at night and the railroad erected a set of four floodlights on a tall pole to make sure the area was properly lit.
The VFW contingent had marched to the station from their hall on Pleasant Street, with one of the town's police cruisers leading the way. A color guard, consisting of a representative from each branch of the armed forces, was in the front rank, followed by l5 or 20 men marching three abreast, with three of the men carrying rifles on their shoulders. The group usually consisted of a mix of soldiers and sailors and marines, but always there were two older men, World War I veterans in uniforms that had shiny leather belts around their waists and across their chests. The VFW group marched to a cadence provided by the steady beat of two drummers in the rear rank, one on the bass drum and the other using a regular snare drum.
We played baseball on the field that was diagonally across from the B & M station and the first time we heard the beat of those drums and saw the men in their uniforms—a parade in miniature—we went over to the train station to witness the ceremony staged by the VFW. We had barely arrived at the station when the VFW commander, a red-faced man who had the smell of liquor on his breath, ordered us to move off to one side, some distance away from where the family and friends of the dead serviceman were standing. He also told us to take our hats off and stand at attention when the body was taken from the train.
Once the baggage car arrived at the far end of the platform, Raymond Dube, the local undertaker, boarded the train. He was accompanied by six men from the VFW, one of whom had an American flag draped over his arm. Several minutes later, when the baggage car doors slid open, the men were standing next to a coffin that was covered with a flag. To the rear and off to one side, was the packing crate in which the coffin had arrived. The men then picked up the coffin, carried it forward, and lowering it, passed it on to six men who were standing below the door of the baggage car. Those who received the coffin then placed it on a wheeled platform. I watched closely both the men who lifted the coffin up and those who received it. It was obvious, at least to my eye, that they were handling a very heavy load, only proving what my cousin Peter had said about lead weights.
After the body was placed on the wheeled platform, the VFW contingent saluted and a bugler standing off at a distance sounded taps. When he finished, three men, standing next to him, raised their rifles at an angle and fired three volleys in honor of the dead soldier. The men on either side of the coffin then marched forward, a half step at a time, as Raymond Dube pushed the coffin towards the hearse.
The police cruiser was now positioned in front of the hearse, which was followed by cars containing family members. Bringing up the rear were the VFW members, marching to the cadence provided by their drummers. At the end of the street, the procession either turned left, towards the Dube funeral home on the East Side, or right, across the Mason Street bridge to the Dube funeral home on the West Side.
That same welcoming home ritual took place 22 times before the body of Leo Conroy arrived home in May l948. He was the last of Sherburne’s war dead to be brought home. The delay in Leo Conroy’s return had been caused by a disagreement between Mrs. Conroy and her other son, Jimmy, a dispute I learned about because my parents themselves differed on this issue.
According to what my mother told my father, Mrs. Conroy didn't want her son's body shipped home, but Jimmy insisted that his brother be buried in Sherburne and that he be buried with full military honors. My mother, much to my surprise, was on Jimmy's side. I say, surprise, because my mother otherwise had little use for Jimmy Conroy, who could be seen on any given night making his drunken way up the street. My father didn’t often disagree with my mother, but without citing what he had heard from my brother or my cousin Peter, he held to the view that it would be better if the government let the war dead stay where they were buried.
I hadn’t realized that the Conroys had resolved their differences until the first night that spring, when it was warm enough for us to play baseball after supper. At some point, I noticed that Raymond Dube’s hearse had arrived at the railroad station and then I saw that Raymond Dube was talking with Jimmy Conroy. Standing nearby were Mrs. Conroy and two women her age and two men who looked as though they were the husbands of the two women. Just as it was turning too dark for us to play any longer, we heard the drum beat that signaled the arrival of the VFW members. Some of my friends went home, but a few of us, after leaving the field, stayed at the station, awaiting the train that was due to arrive at any moment. By now, I saw that Father Noonan, pastor of St. Aidan’s Church, had arrived and was talking to Mrs. Conroy.
The train, as always, first stopped to let passengers off and then came to the spot where the coffin containing Leo Conroy's remains would be unloaded. Mrs. Conroy was waiting there, with Father Noonan on one side of her and Jimmy on the other, and directly behind them the two couples who must have been members of the immediate family because another cluster of people, more distant relatives apparently, were standing farther away, closer to the baggage shed.
There was one difference, unplanned it seemed, in the welcoming ceremony for Leo Conroy. Raymond Dube and his helpers went into the baggage car, and the flag-draped coffin was then unloaded and placed on the wheeled platform. But this time, before taps could be sounded or the volley of shots fired, Mrs. Conroy walked forward and put her hand on the coffin. Slowly, she moved her hand back and forth across the top of the coffin, almost as if she were smoothing out wrinkles in the flag.
Mrs. Conroy was a slim, white-haired woman, dressed in black, with a hat no bigger than a beanie perched on her head. It was one of the few times I had ever seen her when she was not going to or from work in her nurse's uniform, and without the starched peaks of her nurse's cap and the navy blue cape she usually wore, she looked smaller then usual and quite frail, too.
Jimmy Conroy did not move, standing stiffly at attention, with his shoulders thrown back and his prominent stomach pulled in enough so that pressure was relieved on the buttons of his suit jacket. After a moment, though, when his mother was still caressing the coffin, he stepped forward, and leaning over, said something into her ear. He then placed his hand on hers, as if he were trying to ease her away from the coffin so the ceremony could proceed, but she shook her head. Even though I was standing some distance away from Mrs. Conroy, I could see that her shoulders were heaving.
That's when Father Noonan stepped forward and very lightly put his hand on Mrs. Conroy's back, which seemed to calm her somewhat, but she still remained there, flanked now by Jimmy and Father Noonan, with her hand still on the coffin. For a moment, nobody moved and the quiet was broken only by the sound of steam escaping from the train engine. Then, after Mrs. Conroy regained her composure—she still had her hand on the coffin—she turned her head and said something to Father Noonan. He, in turn, with his hand shielding his mouth, said something to Raymond Dube and the head of the VFW contingent. A few seconds later, Father Noonan said, "Let us pray," and everyone lowered their heads while he recited an Our Father and Hail Mary.
When Father Noonan finished, he slowly took Mrs. Conroy's hand away from the coffin and finally she, with Jimmy at her side, stepped back. At a nod from Father Noonan, Raymond Dube passed a signal to the three VFW members on either side of the coffin and they marched at a half-step while Raymond Dube pushing the coffin towards the hearse. Apparently, Father Noonan, acting on orders from Mrs. Conroy, had asked that the VFW to dispense with the ceremony they usually performed to welcome home the war dead. So after the coffin was placed inside the hearse, the VFW members, still standing at attention, waited until the Conroy relatives got into their cars. Then, with the hearse leading the way, the procession, consisting now of five cars, headed towards the house where the Conroys lived. Only after the hearse had reached the end of the street and turned the corner did the VFW contingent begin marching back towards their headquarters.
When I returned home, I told my mother that Leo Conroy's body was the one that had arrived that night. My mother didn't act as if that was news to her, but she did want to know one thing from me.
"Drunk or sober?" she said.
She was referring, of course, to Jimmy Conroy. He looked sober, I said, and my mother seemed grateful at hearing that news.
The next afternoon, when I returned from school, my mother announced that we were going to Leo Conroy's wake. I would have preferred, on a bright spring day, to do anything but attend a wake, but I could tell from the no-nonsense tone in my mother’s voice that it would be useless for me to register any objection. That same tone, with a sharpness added to it, was even more evident when we were on our way to the Conroys’ house and I asked my mother how long we would have to stay.
"We’ll stay as long as it takes to pay our respects," she said.
I reminded her that two years before, at my grandmother's wake, I became sick from sitting in a room that was crowded and hot and overflowing with flowers.
"That was two years ago," she said. "Today, we'll leave before you get sick."
My mother then went over with me once more what I was supposed to say when we arrived at the wake.
"After you go to the coffin to pray, you go to Mrs. Conroy and Jimmy and shake their hands. Then you say, 'I want to express sympathy for your loss.'"
We entered the Conroy’s apartment from a door that opened off their front porch. That brought us right into the living room, where we had to pause momentarily so that our eyes could adjust to the darkness. The drapes had been drawn across the windows, and the only light in the room came from a votive candle in a stand at the head of the coffin, a candelabra that had three small light bulbs shaped like the flame of a candle at the other end of the coffin, and a floor lamp, dimly lit, in the far corner of the room. All other furniture had been removed from the living room to make way for two rows of folding chairs that ran parallel to the closed coffin. I could see that Mrs. Conroy was seated in a chair at the far left, near the head of the coffin. She was flanked by the two women who had been at the train station with her.
When my mother and I kneeled down to say our prayers, I found myself unable to take my eyes from the framed photo of Leo Conroy that was placed at the center of the coffin. It was a head and shoulders shot of Leo wearing his overseas cap, with an upward curve in its outer brim. The photo was supposed to be colored, but it had a pinkish tint that made his uniform shirt look more rose colored than khaki. It was the kind of photo where the face was not very well defined, except for the mouth, which was so straight and thin it looked as if somebody had drawn it in with a dark pencil. Unlike my grandmother's wake, there were no flowers in the room, except for two large wreaths, one with white roses and a ribbon on it that said Son, and another, identical in size, with yellow roses, and a ribbon that said Brother.
I never did get around to saying any prayers for Leo Conroy. From the moment I kneeled down, I could only think of what was inside the coffin. Maybe the War Department didn’t always use lead weights, or maybe they had found a better substitute than lead weights, but I was quite certain that whatever was in the coffin didn’t resemble Leo Conroy’s photo. I had read in The Sherburne Enterprise that Leo Conroy was the navigator of a B-l7 that had been shot down over Germany. The story never said, though, whether his plane had blown apart, or whether it flew on after it was hit, only to lose altitude until it crashed. But what if it had exploded in midair, just as I had so often seen in newsreels, or what if it had been one of those planes that, once hit, went into a tailspin as it plunged towards the ground? Picking up from what my bother had said, I wondered who was responsible for retrieving the remains of flight crews in planes that had been shot down over enemy territory. In short, I wasn’t sure there was any connection between Leo Conroy’s death, heroic as it was, and my mother and I kneeling before this coffin, whatever it contained.
As soon as my mother finished her prayers, I followed behind her as she walked towards Mrs. Conroy. My mother bent down and hugged Mrs. Conroy and I could hear her murmuring something that was much longer than the expression of sympathy she had instructed me to give. My mother suppressed a sobbing sound as she put her arm around my shoulders and guided me towards Mrs. Conroy. I reached out with my right hand, and shaking Mrs. Conroy’s hand, I mouthed the exact words my mother had instructed me to say. My movements were stiff and awkward and what I said sounded forced and unnatural, but Mrs. Conroy was so pleased that she smiled (but only for a second) and covered my hand with both of hers. I was a wonderful young man, she told me.
Mrs. Conroy then introduced me to her two sisters, Mrs. Slocum, on her left, and Mrs. Halloran, on her right. I didn't know whether I was supposed to repeat to them what I had just said to Mrs. Conroy so I played it safe by simply bowing my head and shaking hands with each of them. Nudged along by my mother, I then took a seat in the row of chairs behind Mrs. Conroy and her sisters. My mother, in the seat next to me, leaned forward to speak with Mrs. Conroy.
"I'll never forget your Leo when he would be walking home from school," she said. "All the other boys would be around him. So handsome, so tall." Then her voice broke.
Mrs. Conroy, her hands folded in her lap, nodded in agreement.
"He was one in a million, my Leo," Mrs. Conroy said. "I don't say that because he was my son. It's just simply so. There were people who looked up to him because he was a star athlete and an A student, but Leo's hat size always stayed the same."
Mrs. Slocum reached up and wiped at her eyes with a handkerchief balled up in her hand, but Mrs. Halloran stared straight ahead. Both of them, like Mrs. Conroy, wore black dresses and black stockings, and in that dark room, all three women looked as if they consisted only of a face and a pair of hands.
A moment later, Mrs. Conroy, excusing herself, left the living room and went into the next room, which was the kitchen. I could hear her voice, but not distinctly enough to make out what she was saying. She was talking to two men who had been in the kitchen all along. The men, it turned out, were the husbands of Mrs. Halloran and Mrs. Slocum. They, too, wore black suits, and in addition, black neckties.
Mrs. Halloran, walking on her tiptoes, soon followed Mrs. Conroy into the kitchen, but whatever was going on there didn't need her full attention because she returned to stand in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, leaning back against the door jamb. With one foot planted in each of the two rooms, she looked as if she was ready, at a moment's notice, to move in either direction.
My mother undoubtedly noticed, as I did, that Jimmy Conroy was not there, and I wondered if she was going to ask Mrs. Slocum where he was, but before she did, Mrs. Slocum, somewhat obliquely, brought up the subject herself.
"It's a terrible time for Jimmy," she said, turning her head to speak to my mother. "Nobody knows what a job this has done on the poor man. He hasn't been the same since the news came about Leo."
Mrs. Slocum's dominant feature was her protruding eyes. The edges of each eye looked irritated, apparently because she had wiped them so often with her handkerchief. She punctuated what she had told us by pursing her lips and nodding her head up and down.
In the kitchen, the voices of the two men grew louder. Another time and another place and the gruffness of their voices might not have been so noticeable, but in the quiet of that house they sounded, if not angry, at least agitated at some turn of events.
One of the men, talking loud enough so that we could hear him, said, "Look, we've called every last one of them. Nobody's seen him."
"There's nothing more painful for a mother than losing one of her children," my mother said to Mrs. Slocum. My mother undoubtedly meant what she had just said, but she sounded more like she was saying whatever came into her head as long as it helped block out the voices from the kitchen.
Mrs. Slocum, having turned now so that she was directly facing my mother, was sticking with Jimmy.
"What bothers Jimmy so is that he was stationed in Texas during the entire war. I've told him, time and again, 'Jimmy, you did your part. You were called and you went. You've nothing to be ashamed about.' But nobody can change his mind. It just eats him up, you see. And that’s the reason for this, of course."
With her hand, Mrs. Slocum made a motion, as if lifting a glass to her lips and tipping it into her mouth.
"Oh, there's no end to the mischief caused by Mr. Hitler," Mrs. Slocum added. Mrs. Slocum, again pursing her lips, nodded her head twice after saying that.
My mother chose to avoid any comment on what Mrs. Slocum said about Jimmy and Mrs. Slocum, having said her piece, turned back so that she was facing the coffin again. After that the room grew quiet, unusually so, and that allowed us to hear Mrs. Conroy, still in the kitchen, and apparently on the phone, asking whoever she was talking to if that person had seen Jimmy.
All this time, I was forced to face the coffin, and forced, therefore, to continue thinking about the difference between the portrait of Leo Conroy and the contents of the coffin. That led me to twist around a bit in my chair so that I could look away from the coffin. Not that I could forget, of course, where I was and my discomfort at being there. There were only two floral pieces in the room, but I was beginning to feel the way I did when I got sick at my grandmother's wake.
"My sister, of course, was against all this," Mrs. Slocum told my mother, turning back in our direction. "She didn’t even want flowers, which is why we have only two bouquets. She didn't want the VFW at the station, either. No guns, she said. No uniforms. But Jimmy wouldn't give in. 'He's a war hero,' Jimmy says. 'He's entitled to all the honors.' If Jimmy had his way, he'd have his friends from the VFW right here, as an honor guard standing watch over the coffin."
Whatever was happening in the kitchen suddenly demanded the presence of Mrs. Halloran, who darted away from the doorway where she had been standing. Mrs. Slocum, while talking to my mother, cocked her head to one side, trying to see into the kitchen.
My mother, trying once again to ignore what was going on in the kitchen, told Mrs. Slocum, "My husband can't say enough about your sister. What a wonderful woman."
"Fourteen years this coming August she's been a widow," Mrs. Slocum said.
"I know," my mother said. "I've seen her go off early in the morning. Rainy days, snowy days. Nothing stops her. I tell my family, 'See that woman. See how hard she works to take care of her boys.’"
Mrs. Slocum nodded her head in approval at what my mother had said.
A moment later, we heard the unmistakable sound of Jimmy's voice from the kitchen, but instantly, almost in mid sentence, his voice was cut off, as suddenly as if someone had place a hand over his mouth.
Mrs. Halloran, on tiptoes again, came walking quickly into the living room and glided into the seat next to Mrs. Slocum, where she leaned her head towards her sister and whispered something in her ear.
"Thank God," Mrs. Slocum said, obviously relieved at what she had heard. Without hesitation, she decided—somewhat to Mrs. Halloran's surprise, I think—to share with us what her sister had just said.
"He’s sober," she announced, turning her head towards my mother and me.
Now, from the kitchen, Jimmy's voice could be heard again, loud enough so that we knew what he was saying.
"What's the harm in it?" he said. "The man gave his life for his country. He deserves all the honors he's got coming to him."
My mother surreptitiously took a deep breath and crossed, and then recrossed her legs. Right then, I think, she was wishing she had paid a shorter visit to the Conroys.
Mrs. Halloran rose and returned to the kitchen, and once she left, we heard Jimmy's voice again, this time challenging his two uncles to stop him from doing whatever it was he wanted to do. Mrs. Slocum, with her forefinger covered by her handkerchief, carefully wiped her eyes. Then, she leaned closer to my mother because she was speaking in a voice just above a whisper.
"We had a terrible time this a.m.," she said. "Jimmy got it into his head that we were slighting Leo because there was no honor guard. My sister wanted no part of it, and Jimmy stormed out. Let's hope he's cooled off a bit."
I think Mrs. Slocum was about to continue, but she stopped abruptly and spun away from my mother when Mrs. Conroy, with Mrs. Halloran holding her arm, returned to the living room. Mrs. Halloran helped Mrs. Conroy into her seat and then Mrs. Slocum placed an arm around Mrs. Conroy’s shoulder.
My mother reached over and gripped my hand, a signal, I assumed, that we were about to leave, but a moment later, she released it. Apparently, she thought better of leaving so quickly after Mrs. Conroy had just come back into the room. I would judge that five minutes passed in which nobody said a thing, five minutes that seemed much longer than that to me. My mother stared in the direction of the coffin, but I found that if I put my head back slightly, my eyes could be trained on the wall above the coffin.
Suddenly, out of the kitchen came, Jimmy, dressed in his Army uniform. He was unable to button the bottom of his Eisenhower jacket, but he otherwise stood straight and tall as he marched into the room with a rifle on his shoulder. He even sounded a distinct hup-hup cadence as he marched towards the coffin, cutting a sharp left just as he passed by the two rows of chairs. Once in front of the coffin, he came to a momentary halt, but with his feet marching in place. Then, he made a right face, marched to the end of the coffin and stopped. Now, with one more right turn, he was facing us. And there he stood, standing at attention and with his rifle on his shoulder, serving as the honor guard he felt his brother deserved.
The two men in the kitchen came into the living room by then and took seats at the end of the first row of chairs. Because the room had grown quiet again, we could hear Mrs. Conroy crying softly. Mrs. Slocum held Mrs. Conroy more closely, and Mrs. Halloran and her husband, and Mrs. Slocum’s husband all sat there, all of them looking as if they had no choice but to concede to Jimmy.
Not long after that, my mother took my hand again, this time giving it a slight pull. On our way towards the coffin, she bent over and again embraced Mrs. Conroy, although she did this more quickly than when we had entered. I followed my mother to the coffin, but this time I was able to avoid looking at the portrait of Leo Conroy by bowing my head slightly when I prayed. While kneeling before the coffin, neither my mother nor I looked over at Jimmy.
When we went out the door, the Fourniers, a couple who lived two houses from the Conroys, were coming up the stairs and my mother and I stood aside until they reached the top. My mother said hello to Mr. and Mrs. Fournier, but she was forced to do so with her hand shielding her eyes since she (like me) had not yet adjusted to the bright sun light after being in that darkened room.
When we reached the sidewalk, my mother said, "Maybe now that his brother's home, he won't drink as much."
I didn’t answer my mother because I wasn’t sure, after hearing what Mrs. Slocum had said, that the return of his brother’s body was going to keep Jimmy away from the bottle.
A moment later, my mother, in that tone of voice she used when issuing a command, told me that we should keep to ourselves what we had seen at the Conroys.
"I mean that," she said. "It's nobody's business what goes on in a family at a time like this. Those poor people are under a big strain. And when that happens, it’s better if you make believe you didn’t see what was going on."
I knew exactly what my mother was talking about. It was a slight variation, I suppose, of everyone keeping to themselves any doubts they had about what was inside the coffins that were supposed to contain the remains of the war dead.
All along the rail line that ran from Boston to Sherburne railroad stations were closed down and boarded up once passenger service ended sometime near the end of the l950's. Over the years, entrepreneurs have bought some of these properties and converted them to various uses, everything from laundromats to art galleries and, in several places, restaurants. One such station I visited recently was nicely restored, with photos of steam locomotives and reproductions of train schedules and a blackboard with arrivals and departure times for trains, almost as if the trains thus listed would indeed materialize out of thin air. The counter where the ticket agent once transacted his business now functioned as a bar, and during the tourist season at least, the bar tender wore a train man's outfit, complete with a red bandana around his neck. He rang a locomotive bell when he received a tip, and occasionally, just for effect, a recording played of a station master announcing the departure of a train. Then came the voice of a conductor shouting, all aboard, followed by the sound of a whistle from a steam locomotive.
In Sherburne, the station has been taken over by an auto body shop. At one end of the station, the steep pitched roof looked as if it was about to cave in on itself, and there were rusted remains of half-demolished cars and trucks littering one end of the platform. The last time I was there dusk had fallen, and a young man was pounding out some dents in the fender of a pick up truck under those lights the railroad had erected when bodies were being shipped home after the war.