General Fiction, Short Fiction

 The Quiet, Empty Bedrooms of Saugus by Tom Sheehan 

                         

As all of earth once growled and gnarled its way to an instant conflagration, a calamitous roar, all its gears beginning to shift, in the near-middle of the last century, Saugus, Massachusetts, a small town just north of Boston, started to empty its bedrooms… the ones in the attic, in the space out over the garage, third floor second door on the left, the bedrooms facing on the pond or the cemetery or those looking broadly down on the wide marshes or quickly down on quiet Cliftondale Square. The bedrooms where boys cruised into manhood, almost overnight at that.

Saugus did this, just as all of Sleepy America did, in the days beginning our most persistent glory.

She gave up her men, and soon her women.

Saugus and all of America sent from those bedrooms, our sons, our fathers, our brothers, our uncles, our nephews and cousins. Saugus and all of America stripped herself of her young blood, and sent her youngsters off to war. Saugonians, in swift journeys, many whose measure we will never know, found themselves on the beaches of Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, on the shores and sands of North Africa, on the lap of Europe on D-Day, in the heart of the Italian Alps coming onto Mount Casino, and then crossing the Rhine at Remargen, bursting across France and Germany with the Third Armored Division and other units. Saugus blood soaked into those foreign soils, consecrated dim ground, hardpan and glacier-slugged rock, Asian limestone and, at length, the final Pacific sands.

Final…or so we thought.

The rooms continued to get emptied. Our sons spilled out of those personal confines into the mountains of Korea, into the horrors of Viet Nam, onto shores the world over. The guitars and fiddles and drums in their empty rooms went silent, gathered dust.                   

Their baseball cards went into shoeboxes into the attic, into the cellar, into the barn.

Their Indian cards.

Their Little Big Books.

Their pin collections and jackknifes and Merit Badges.                   

Their keepsakes became keepsakes.

Sometimes into history.

Oftentimes into a half century of lasting silence.

Some of them left us at the railroad station at Essex and Eustis Streets or at Depot Square in Saugus Center, as they started the journey to save Saugus, America, and the world. They congregated, they gabbed, they kissed girlfriends and shook hands as diversions came upon their partings. Mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and neighbors came to say bon voyage, good luck, “Give ’em hell!”

The trains took away parts of Saugus. Parts of America.

Arthur DeFranzo, his name and deeds to be carved forever in the stone of heroes, left early, left first, driven by what was happening in Europe.

Another young man asked his parents not to go to the railroad station, to say goodbye at home. Clutching his bag he walked down their driveway, down their street, down Main Street. The father, shaken by the request, hustled the mother out the side door, into the car, drove down side streets on the sly. They lovingly and proudly watched their son an extra ten minutes or so as he strode to the train station along with a few friends from high school.

They never saw him again.

Suddenly, half a world away, there’s eager Sgt. Arthur DeFranzo lighting up Europe; his courage, his bravery, his devotion to God, family, town, country, becoming bench-marks forever. Saugonian, Saugus High boy, neighbor, young man with a vision. Hero for all time to come.

One of ours.

He fought, he died, he slept in France.

Now he sleeps here.

The Kasabuski brothers fought and died and slept in Italy, falling mere days apart in the torrid uphill battle in the Italian Alps, fighting the dreaded German army in a savage campaign.

John and Walter Kasabuski were born and raised in Saugus, graduated from Saugus High. Each was president of the Ski Club, and they arranged, upon entering the service, to be assigned to Company E of the U. S. Army’s 87th Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division, an elite mountain fighting troop, which excelled in winter operations. They served in the Kiska invasion when the Japanese brought the war closest to home, in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. In the spring of 1945, they were sent to northern Italy to help drive the Germans out of the Alps. John was fatally wounded by a grenade on April 15 and lived long enough for Walter, two years the elder, to get to his side. Twelve days later Sgt. Walter Kasabuski was killed by a sniper’s bullet.

The hockey rink at the entrance to Breakheart Reservation is named in their honor.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars post is named for Sgt. Arthur DeFranzo, upon whom was bestowed the nation’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor.

They are remembered.

As are the handfuls of sons of other Saugonians who served: the five sons of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Ward of Lincoln Avenue…Robie, Kenneth, Seldon, Russell and Charles Jr., two Navy, three Army; the five sons of Mr. and Mrs. Rene Field of Ballard Street…Robert, Jack, Rene Jr., Gordon and Richard, five Army; the five sailors from the home of Elgin Ludwig on Jackson Street…Samuel, John, James, Herbert, and Arthur MacDonald brought home by Sammy from a visit to Boys Town; six Vatchers, Walter, Warren, Helen, Gertrude, Harriet and Calvin; and the eight Buckless brothers from Baker Hill, Alexander, Willard, Gordon, Roy, Kenneth, George, Raymond, and Lloyd; seven Nagle brothers from Baker Hill; five Tura Brothers, George, Pete, Joe, Lennie, Charlie, they are listed here as examples of our involvement, the list going on and on.

They who left the safety of their bedrooms, who lit up Europe, just as those who lit up the sands on hundreds of beaches in the Pacific, were Saugonians, were Americans of the first order, of the great generation of Americans; Marine Platoon Sgt. Billy McCarthy, former high school cheerleader, who had fought at Bougainville and Guam before he was killed on Iwo Jima (‘A natural leader,’ reports said of him. ‘Mac had one of the most vital personalities I’ve ever seen,’ wrote his first sergeant. ‘You didn’t have to worry about the men’s morale when he was around.’; Master Sgt. Thomas ‘Pop’ Virnelli, flying veteran of two wars, killed in France; Pvt. Harold Turner, an Army Medic who died on June 19, 1944, shortly after the invasion of Europe began; Saugus men declared Missing In Action in Europe in the same Combat Engineers outfit included T/5 Walter French of Sunnyside Ave., Sgt. Walter Wetmore, Main Street, Sgt. Irving Cameron, Central Street, Harry Woodland, Cottage Street and Harold Maribella, Western Avenue, though news came later that some had become prisoners of war, some to return home; boyhood playmates and chums Pfc. Vitold Glinski of Atherton Street and Marine Corporal Alexander Chojnowski of Rhodes Street died within a month of each other, fighting on Pacific islands.

More empty rooms.

Many other Saugus families sent off two and three and four sons into the long war, and many sent their daughters to places all over the world.

It was the second war to end all wars.

As peace came out of Europe, out of the Pacific, we thought all that hell was over and done with.

Then, suddenly, overnight it seemed, youngsters Eddie McCarthy and Hughie Menzies were killed in Korea, in a new onslaught. They, who died a year apart in Korea, lie a grave apart at Riverside Cemetery. As does Frank Parkinson, who was left to die in the murderous sands of the Sahara and who rose up and now lies here. Like so many others of our young men, sooner or later, dying from this cause or that cause; Laurence Daniels, Fiore Sacco, the Ludwig brothers, Soupie Campbell, Richard Gabry, like some of our fathers and sons from different wars; the endless circle widening, the empty rooms gathering up more silence.      

To walk through the Veterans’ Section of Riverside Cemetery, to read the names on the flat stones, to remember the faces of those who bailed out of their bedrooms when the whole earth itself was in trouble, is more than a simple exercise in memory. Whether they left us then or later is no great divider; for they went in harm’s way for all our good. See their names scribed on our war memorial, those who stood and were counted.         

For those whose names pass too quickly, we call a pause. It is truth that cold stone brings them back alive in our midst, to remember their dreams, their faces, their ever-changing young voices as they romped into manhood in the hell of the whole universe, into the paths of bullets and bombs and grenades and torpedoes and the ultimate wrath of mankind seriously at odds with itself.

But they left marks, our young men; told and untold stories of heroism, of a Medal of Honor and countless Silver Stars and Bronze Stars and Flying Medals and Distinguished Service Crosses and valor and gallantry without end and battlefield promotions and unit decorations, and the widening circle finally coming to peace, that momentary silence out there where Billy centerfield left his arm in Kwajalein debris, and the brother I wrote a poem about because I did not fully know him until he came home and I saw his sea bag decorated with his wife’s picture and the map and the names Saipan, Iwo Jima, Kwajalein… the war.

Cold stones are warm with their names and their memories; Riverside plaques, the new memorial markers in the front of the old high school site, the eighteen names from World War I on the stone in the green of Cliftondale Square, the full-dressed soldier memorial to PFC Richard Devine in front of the Town Hall.

Now and then that old warmth rises from the still quiet bedrooms of the Saugus they left from, fitted with shadows.

And then, at odd hours, the moon ambivalent or at all-out scourging, wind roaring in limbs or leaving whispers, faces and old names, handshakes by ethereal dozens come and go, and the words fall into a poem, the sort of reach they all would know, those young souls cast in infamy:

 

Those Old Suntanners

or

I Don’t See Too Many Guys in Suntans* Anymore

                   *(U.S. Army Class A Summer Dress Issue, circa ‘40s- ‘50s)

You know, the old summer Class A’s they saved from their promised long weekend leaves,

those killers, those formidable young warriors, those hot Omaha Beach swimmers with salt

in their noses and into gun barrels and curing half the ills and evils they had ever known

as if it were the sole balm from the living god, those St. Lo low flyers of updrafts of gray

dawn, Bastogne Bullies, bridge-wreckers at Germany’s inevitable edge; friends who passed

through my Seoul immemorial times leaving their footprints for my wayward boots to over-

shadow, fill in, pass on to this destiny. Of course, they have popped the belt line button, split

the crotch in hell’s anxieties, let their quick waistlines go fallow with beer and dreams’

nutrients, those old warriors of Sundays past without other balms, or Saturday evening

shellings or unconsumed bombs that threaten Wednesdays fifty years later; those slim-legged

survivors who later wore them with collegiate jackets, myriad sport coat ensembles, slick-

cigarette’d, crew-cut, such old world-in-the-face looks that should have toppled their young

empires.

You know them, how they came back to play on the green fields as if they had never left the

chalk-striped confines, showed the kids how the game used to be played, those Suntanners

hitting behind the runners, bunters of the lost art when the whole world sat back on its heels

that the big sound was now over, put their muscle on the line late in the game when the only

thing left was heart and horror at losing, having seen too much for their time. Remember them

on baked diamonds of the quiet Earth, how there was an urgency to collapse time into a control-

able fist, yet how free they were, breathing on their own, above salt water, the awful messages

buried behind their brows for all time to come, unstitched wounds and scars amber in late

evening’s breezes, like chevrons from their elsewheres. Their only true badges were the suntans

carried home from Remargen and Mount Casino leaves, those slim, fit-all occasion trousers,

pressable, neat, signatured with angst and annihilation and world freedom; those narrow-waisted

emblems of the Forties, the Fifties, neat with tie and shirt, wore cement on summer days of their

labors, or roofing tar, some to class and some not, collapsing time again. I write this to celebrate

the dual days, a Monday in May when a hush and a soft-shoed parade passes through the middle

of town and the middle of memory, and a cooler day in November, a later observation, when old

faces come leaping back from a distance, just wanting for a moment to be known again.

The hawkers will sell their bright wares, wearing their municipal permits as badges, cylindering

balloons, authorizing plastic toy gun purchases, leaving their remnant discards in cluttered gutters

the early sweeper will gather, making money on the sad memorial, dreaming of next Flag Day

and the Fourth of July. Popcorn will burst its tiny explosions, ice cream bars will melt, children

will think they gambol in a ballpark. Then, then only apparent, I will see some old ball players,

the Earth-savers, underground or remembering, chino-less and walking among the very memorable

names; comrade, comrade, comrade or one’s teammate, teammate, teammate, illusions of the noisy

past, clad in somber pin stripes or cedar, carrying grandchildren, bearing them up from under grass, evoking Monday of all Mondays, those swift ball hawks, those young Earth-dreamers, who survive in so many ways, that legion of names falling across Saugus the way we remember them, a litany of summer evenings full of first names gone past but called for the First Sergeant’s roster: Basil P., Thomas A., Lawrence D., Edward M., Guy C., Hugh M., Arthur D., Edward D., James W.,  John K., Walter K., William M., Joseph S., Frank P., Howard B., names, settled, softly called, reverent even for this day, across a sun-drenched Stackpole Field, bat on ball and the echo of a thousand games swung about the air as if time itself has been compressed into late innings, those swift ball hawks in pursuit of the inevitable; oh, young, in May, the whole Earth suddenly gone silent, but bound, bound, Oh bound to build memories, in May, in May, and then, in November, when all the leaves come back to earth.

 _Tom Sheehan, 31st Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, Korea 1951-1952

Tom Sheehan

Image – Wikimedia commons.

3 thoughts on “ The Quiet, Empty Bedrooms of Saugus by Tom Sheehan ”

  1. Beautiful take on leaving home to risk one’s life for causes both just and otherwise. Sometimes the full measure is paid. It seems to happen once every generation and I do not believe that since WWI twenty years has ever passed without the bedrooms emptying. Fifteen always seems like the black number there. Lovingly presented as always.

    Leila

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.