Virgie was at the annual town rummage sale, looking for clothes for Bill when she struck up a conversation with a tall black haired woman with fierce eyes and strong shoulders. The woman lifted a 75 lb table with the ease of a man and the smiling grace of a mother and said, “this isn’t an antique,” to the vendor, a man with the look of a scarecrow who gave her a “get outta here” thumb. Virgie followed the woman past to a clothing vendor.
“Excuse me,” the woman asked Virgie. “Do you think this looks good on me?” she said, pointing to a scarf and a purse she flung over her shoulders.
“Well, I don’t know” Virgie stammered. “I….uh… guess.
“Maybe that purse over there, instead?” said the woman pointing.
Virgie took in the crowd cautiously. Nobody was near them or paying attention. “Try that blue hat and that emerald purse,” she said. Virgie had an eye for the unusual and there wasn’t much unusual going on in Littlefield. The two ended up at a bench in the park with coffee and popcorn.
Didi Rosario was from a small town in Texas in the desert near New Mexico, and the sister of a migrant orchard foreman nearby. On that day, she had ridden with two other women in a truck borrowed from one of the ladies’ husbands. At the VFW hall, all the area merchants had displays with marked down items. Under a big tent featuring a billboard that flashed a prominent mention of support from the local Chamber of Commerce, local craftsman displayed the goods of their trade; shoemakers and dressmakers; embroiderers, cabinet makers, furniture makers and radio dealers.
An Arts and Crafts Fair had a tent in the parking lot of City Hall, with booths and tables of local craftsmanship. Tables of wares were set up in the court yard and along the sidewalks in front of retailers all along Main Street. Didi hungrily munched on her popcorn and Virgie asked her if she would like some lunch and they edged over to Casie’s Cafe. Didi asked Virgie about her husband, how many kids she had, did she own a car. Virgie took a sip of her coffee and asked casually, “how long you been dressing up as a woman?”
Didi was embarrassed but Virgie said, “ It’s fine with me. You look good in those pants and that coat. Makes it harder for people to tell.” She knew it was a man when she first saw him, with his adam’s apple and large flat nose, big hands and narrow ankles.
“Most people don’t seem to notice; some do; mostly women,” said Didi. She went on to describe life with her uncle and the other migrant workers. “Well, I should be going,” Didi said, after finishing off a Reuben, cherry pie and several fill ups of coffee at Virgie’s expense.
“Wait, here is my number,” said Virgie as she fished a scrap of paper from her purse. “You know, if you ever need a friend.”
“You shouldn’t give your number to strange girls, lady. Didn’t your mother ever tell ya?” Didi laughed.
Didi didn’t call her. Shim showed up at Virgie’s door at 2 AM with an old truck packed with shis things and no place to go. The “brother” foreman orchard hand gave Didi the truck and told shim shey had to find a place of shis own after the boss told shim in no uncertain terms that shey was to go. It seems there was an incident between Didi and the orchard owner’s son in the barn behind some apple crates.
Clara wasn’t as sympathetic as Virgie, but it was Virgie’s house. And when Clara realized Didi was a man she said “wait, do you always wear women’s clothes?” Didi was unabashed. “Yes, I do. My daddy died when I was young and I was brought up by my uncles. They made me a woman.”
When Bill came downstairs in the morning there was a strange woman sleeping on the couch. He made some oatmeal and put on a pot of coffee and waited for his mother to get up. Clara had gone back to Chicago. Virgie got up and ate the eggs and bacon Bill made for her. The two sat quietly not speaking. Then Didi got up and sat with them at the table and Virgie got up and got him a cup of coffee. Didi got a pack of cigarettes out of his purse and asked for an ash tray while he lit a match.
Bill quickly gulped his food before the smell from the cigarette ruined the taste of his food. He put his plate in the sink and went to leave but Virgie told him to make her friend Didi some breakfast. Bill and Didi looked at each other with wide eyes until Didi said, “do what your mother ask, ok?” He did; then he went to school where he thought all day, “who, or what is this person telling me to do what my mother says?”
On Bill’s tenth birthday, in 1951, Clara drove from Chicago to give him a gift and a cake. She tried to be cheery but he read her distance and was confused. Next morning he knew why, when Clara had gone and Virgie told Bill he wouldn’t be seeing her anymore.
Within a month, Virgie had sold the big house and with Didi’s truck moved their belongings into a small cabin owned by a grain farmer on Barnett Road, three miles west of the village. The location was deep into the woods via a narrow and winding two track road which was only recently widened as far as the bridge, a mile from the Hapflik Salvage Yard. From there it was a half mile to the cabin along a treacherous two track path that wound around hills, throwing occasional tree trunks and vicious curves at drivers. Raccoon, squirrels, woodchucks and rabbits skittered across the path; sparrows and chickadees twittered in the bushes below, blue jays cackled in the trees above. Parts of automobiles littered the roadside, along with empty bottles and discarded trash. A fender leaned against a tree, marking where a 1943 Oldsmobile lay in the gully below.
The road was closed in the winter time and year round Bill had to walk a mile and a half to catch the school bus. The walk would cause his foot to ache and he complained about it every morning before putting his boots on and walking past Virgie. On his way out he would ask Virgie to hand him the lunch he’d made for himself.
The motor in Didi’s truck blew out while bringing the last haul of items from Rupert’s mansion to the cabin, and with the money from the sale of the home Virgie bought a used truck. Didi talked Virgie into a trip to New Orleans, after which Virgie declared to Bill, “no damn man is ever gonna run out on me again.” It was in New Orleans where Virgie walked out of a motel room to find her truck gone, along with Didi and all of the cash that Virgie brought with her.
Bill didn’t have a phone (it’s 1953; they would get a party line phone in the late 1950’s) but Virgie knew he was working for Trenton. Mrs. Trenton answered in a wet hen voice, “who did you say you were? Don’t know nobody named Bill. You got the wrong number,” and she slammed the phone down. Virgie had interrupted the Guiding Light on the radio. When the phone rang again the old bag looked at it as if it had committed a capital offense. “What is it?” she demanded.
“Please tell your husband to tell the boy that works for him to call his mother at this number.”
“Why can’t she just call him herself?” she said as she tried to listen to the radio.
“I am his mother!” Virgie cried in exasperation. “I need to speak with him!”
“Oh,” uttered Mrs. Trenton, annoyed that she had to pay attention to Virgie. “I’ll tell my husband when he gets in from the barn,” she said, and then hung up the phone without waiting for Virgie to give her the number.
Virgie decided to wait an hour and maybe Mr. Trenton would answer. He did, but he said the boy went home already and he would tell him in the morning to call his mother. He also hung up without waiting for the number, and when he answered again a moment later he barked into the phone, “alright, alright; goddammit, just a minute. Gotta gitta pencil and some paper.”
Bill returned the call the next morning after walking the three miles to the Trenton farm to milk cows before going to school and then reassuring Mr. Trenton that he would pay for the phone call. Virgie told him how to send her some money; she didn’t tell him what happened. He went to the bank during lunch break to send her the money, and then stayed in detention for an hour after school for returning ten minutes late for Mr. Hektor’s gym class. Next afternoon, the school bus waited five minutes for him then left him. He had walked to the train stop to greet Virgie.
They walked the six blocks of Main street and passed Hapflik’s Salvage, turning the corner and walking into the heavy woods behind the salvage yard, when they met Hiram returning home in his pickup. After loading Virgie’s bag onto the back of the truck he drove them home.
“We don’t have a car,” Virgie told him when asked why they were walking. When Hiram took her bag out of the back of the truck and handed it to her he looked at the small cabin in the snow on the embankment overlooking the road and said, “lose your truck?”
“Yes sir,” said Virgie. Hiram looked at her and she looked down. He was a kind man. She thought it was sweet how easily she could appeal to him. For the Rupert’s of the world, she wouldn’t be nice if she could help it. She silently acknowledged it was a touching gesture of fate that it was Hiram Hapflik that picked them up that night and not a Mrs. Van Innern or a Deacon Haskins.
“Do you know how to drive?” asked Hiram.
She almost raised her eyes while trying not to smile.
“Yer gonna have to learn. The boy is too young to drive yet. Tell you what. You get yourself up to my place and I can let you drive something around in the yard until you get the hang of it.”
“It wouldn’t do any good,” she said. “I’ve got no money for a car anyway.”
“Don’t worry about that. I think we can fix you up with something if Bill here agrees to help me out in the yard a little bit.”
The Two Troglodytes
The war in Korea was all most men talked about in Littlefield at the time. Three generations of men had known war, all ordained in the doctrine of the soldier’s ultimate sacrifice. Since national sacrifice was required, it wasn’t tolerated when a boy showed a hostile attitude to the nationalism symbolized by MacArthur. Truman was a liberal with an ego who thought he knew more than the General how to fight a war. In Littlefield, MacArthur’s dismissal from the war in Korea was traitorous. The republican party was weak for not defending MacArthur. He should be president. Truman and every democratic voter was to blame if we were taken over by communists.
After school, John and Bill walked through the open gate of the salvage yard and past the row of cars waiting for repairs. John’s father and his uncle Ralph were standing in the open doorway of the service garage involved in an animated discussion.
“I don’t give a damn what anyone says, if you got an army at war you’ve got to give it the support to win. MacArthur taught ’em that in WWII,” said Uncle Ralph.
“Blow up all the Chinese at the Yalu? Hit ’em with atom bombs?”
Uncle Ralph nodded quickly. “You bet, I just don’t get why they don’t use their weapons and blast them away. All those Chinamen are gonna die anyway.”
“Something about China’s seat in the United Nations or something, isn’t it?” said Hiram with circumspection. “We agreed not to fly into Chinese air space because we don’t want to start a war with them?
“Why not? We’re gonna have to fight them sometime. If we get to thinking about it too much we’re gonna find ourselves overrun by the Chinese.”
“The Chinese ain’t gonna destroy us. Decades from now they’ll be our friends just like everybody else. Everybody has to defend themselves, and selling weapons and destruction makes money for the economy.” Bill remembered Clara saying something similar.
“Making money isn’t important as winning the war,” said Uncle Ralph.
“There are lots of ways to win a war besides annihilation. Capitalists want people producing and earning. I imagine the Chinese do, too. Nobody wants to be killing each other. War is just the way American business is making money right now; selling war planes and ships, corporations can employ cheap labor, and stockholders can make money at the expense of the United States military. Didja ever wonder why there are so many more MIGs in Korea and yet so many Chinese without ammunition? The Soviets are just their own brand of ammo hustlers just like we are.”
“Yeah, but we have to contain communism. Do you want the state coming to your house and saying you can’t eat your own crops or your own cattle because they belong to the state? That you have to sell your cattle to the state for whatever they pay you, and the penalty is death if you are caught eating your own cattle?”
“I didn’t say I was for communism, Ralph. I’m just saying that people everywhere have to live with their own people in their own culture. Just like they don’t have a clue what is important to you or I, we don’t have a clue what is important to them. Everybody answers to the others in their own community. The Japs were just like the Chinese in Korea, giving their lives on command, marching headlong into bayonets, getting torn to pieces by machine guns, diving their own planes into ships. We lost a lot of men in wars too, Ralph. And I gotta tellya, I never did see any reason why I was out there every damn day advancing or retreating over the same hills. But when I heard about all the things the Japs were doing in China, the Phillipines, Korea I knew they had to be stopped; just like the Germans had to be stopped. But I don’t see a global conspiracy of communism any more plausible than a conspiracy of capitalism. Everywhere all of the people are answerable to a handful of people that control downward. There is no such thing as a government for the people, although I believe as strongly as you that we have a way of life worth defending. There is little chance of a a global communist empire lasting even if it were to gain power,” Hiram said, again sounding like Clara.
“Well, I don’t know. We shoulda stopped Hitler at Munich. We should nuke the Chinese along the river. If we took China we would force the Russians out of Europe. But I plain don’t trust Mao,” said Uncle Ralph.”
“Start a war with a power that combines the manpower of China with the nuclear force and modern weaponry of the Soviets?” Hiram asked sarcastically.
“I don’t trust Mao” Rita said parroting uncle Ralph at the the dinner table, while John uttered, “Oh God” and exhaled deeply before taking a bite of meatloaf.
“But still, I don’t think the Chinese want to rule the world either. It seems like we do. At least, everyone else in the world seems to think we do.”
John, with a snicker, mouthed along with Hiram’s “everyone else in the world seems to think we do,” and Bill laughed. Hiram looked at John, Rita looked at Bill.
Next day, as Bill and John approached the salvage yard they could see through the open gate, Virgie driving a Ranier blue 1941 Buick with a solid frame and a rebuilt motor Hiram had put in it. Hiram sat in the passenger side on the bench seat while Virgie put the car into gear and stalled it seven times in a row before becoming adjusted to the clutch. The boys laughed uproariously as she managed to get the car into gear and then kill the motor as she slowed down too much to turn. After an hour, Hiram was convinced that perhaps it was better to teach Bill to drive and maybe he could teach his mother. Rita Hapflik, though, barked at Hiram when he came in for supper, “you know, you’re gonna go getting folks mad at you for letting that boy drive around in the yard. Pretty soon everybody’s boy will be over here wanting to drive around in the yard.” A few days later Rita had an appointment at the salon and when the boys greeted him after school Hiram gave Bill the key to the car so he could drive it home.
That summer Bill continued working for Trenton and sometimes was paid. He always had to ask for his pay and was only grudgingly given cash with some discouraging remarks. “Oughtta kept it for all the extra gas I had to put in the tractor teaching you to drive it.” Trenton had forgotten to buy gas before paying off his grocery bill and had to blame someone. “Don’t know why yer even bothering going to the school anymore, boy. Whaddayu need to go to school for? Ya ain’t goin’ anywhere anyway. Why doncha go to work full time somewhere?”
Bill didn’t ask where. He wasn’t going to work for nothing either. Besides, he wanted to learn things. If he wasn’t going to earn anything anyway he wasn’t going to waste his time working all day, not for Trenton, not for anyone. He said nothing and took the money. At least he had gas money.
When the Korean cease fire was announced by Eisenhower a debate between Bill and John broke out about what Eisenhower had meant when he said “we had to be on guard against those who go against the will of free people to bring peace to the world.”
“With the barrel of a gun, just like Mao said,” Bill said dismissively.
“Well, somebody’s gotta rule the world. Might as well be us” John retorted.
“Why does it have to be anybody?” Bill asked. “Remember Adam Smith and the market’s invisible hand? It doesn’t seem so invisible if you have the power to rule the world.”
“A secure future; I like that idea better than letting the market decide,” said John.
The boys looked at each other in recognition, then both shouted, “Sacreligious!” mocking Deacon Haskins who walked about the grounds of the church before services admonishing the boys and girls for their giggling and horsing around and calling their attitude “sacrilegious.”.
Virgie had a run of bad luck in 1954. Bill was forced to work for the Gavlins cleaning out horse stables on the weekends in between the morning and evening milking of cows at Trenton’s. The furnace broke down, the plumbing backed up, the electricity was turned off and Virgie and Bill had no phone. The well needed repair and they boiled drinking water from the nearby creek. Bill needed to earn money for food, gas for the car, and books. Virgie and Bill shared a love of books and no matter how poor they were they managed to find money for them. But he was getting too tired to read any more, and in 1956 he quit school after the eighth grade.
John was athletic and excelled in baseball and football. He was talkative, but emotional and temperamental. He was shy with girls and lacked confidence in conversational skills with them, constantly talking about politics. He was more interested in the talk of the evening radio pundits than the consumer products sold in advertisements, which is what the girls all seemed to care about.
He saw men like Stalin, MacArthur and Mao, not as a spectacles of personality but rather characters of necessity for a national narrative. He argued with his mother over Mao. Mao’s was an honor given to him by a public that needed a savior figure. Millions of Chinese wanted Kaishek gone, and whether or not Mao deserved to be a legend he would be because the Chinese succeeded in ridding themselves of a foreign authority. If not Mao, some Chinese general would’ve been adored by the people for finally deposing Kaishek. The Chinese had no air force or navy; they weren’t able to blow up the world. The real thugs weren’t fighting each other in the bushes, they were at diplomatic arms’ length with their fingers on nuclear triggers.
“Let’s not talk about war tonight,” said Rita. “I am just so tired of hearing about it. Doesn’t anybody ever talk about anything else anymore?” Rita had seen Hiram talking with Virgie in town. While she concluded it was harmless enough, it was still irritating.