Don't You Know There's a War On?

DEDICATION

For Gail Hochman, of Brooklyn

CONTENTS
PART ONE
 

MONDAY, MARCH 22, 1943

German Tanks and Guns Battle

Eighth Army Units in North Africa.

U.S. Forces Suffer a Sharp Setback.

German Radio Claims That U-boats

Sank 204,000 Tons of Shipping in a

Convoy Battle.

1943 Draft to Call 12,000 Men Daily

As President Warns Nation It

Faces Reverses in War.

Meatless Days in Restaurants.

1

I WAS LATE
that Monday morning because my shoelace broke just as I was leaving for school. Meant I had to use some string. Now, you might think string would be easy to find, but it wasn't. String was something you gave away for the war effort. Besides, my sister had already left for school and my mother was at her job at the Navy Yard. Those days me and my family lived in Brooklyn. During the war. When I was eleven.

Like I was saying, I was supposed to be going to school. Class Five-B, Public School Number Eight. P.S. 8, we called it. The school's real name was The Robert Fulton School, but I never heard no kid call it that.

Anyway, by the time I finally got going down Hicks Street, I was so late no kids were there. Just grown-ups wearing big coats and dark hats. Me? I was dressed in my regular school outfit: bomber jacket, brown corduroy pants, plaid flannel shirt, and a snap-on glossy red necktie that almost reached my middle. Hanging round my neck was
what we called a dog tag. Sort of this tin disk with your name and address stamped on it. All us kids had to wear them. You know, in case the enemy attacked like at Pearl Harbor and people wanted to know who your body was.

The name on my tag was Howard Bellington Crispers. But the thing was, the only person who ever used my full name was my mom. And see, she only did when she was mad at me. So mostly people called me Howie. Which worried me, because it wasn't on my tag. I mean, how were they going to identify me if my name wasn't right? By my looks?

Back then I wasn't very tall. But my ears were big, plus I had the same old blue eyes and carrot-colored hair. Though Mom was always making me brush that hair down, it never stood flat. And no matter how much I was in front of the bathroom mirror pressing my ears back, they didn't stay flat neither. These days, being sixteen, I'm taller, but to tell the truth, the hair and the ears, they haven't changed much.

The other thing, that morning it felt like it was going to rain. Which meant my shoes—with the string lace—might get wet. Not so jazzy because, like everybody, we had ration coupons for only three pairs of shoes a year. For the whole family. The point being, you did what you had to do because
in those days, no matter what happened, you could always say, “Hey, don't you know there's a war on?” See, it explained anything.

So anyway, there I was, going down Hicks Street carrying my pop's beat-up wooden lunch box. Inside was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white Tip Top bread wrapped in paper, plus a graham-cracker snack and this dinky bottle of Borden's chocolate milk. My left hand was holding a canvas satchel with my schoolbooks.

This Hicks Street was narrow, squeezed tight by three-story brownstone houses with stoops. The neighborhood also had some old wooden houses, plus apartment buildings. My family lived in one of them apartments, a narrow third-floor walk-up with four small rooms. That included the kitchen complete with a few of your regular Brooklyn cockroaches. Didn't bother me. Everyone had 'em.

Them days, go along Brooklyn streets and you'd see tons of little flags with big blue stars in front windows. The flags were saying your family had someone in the war. Some windows had more than one star. There were gold stars too. Gold meant your someone had been killed.

There was this blue star in our window because my pop was in the merchant marine. He sailed in the convoys going
'cross the North Atlantic bringing war supplies to our troops and allies. That meant we never knew where he was. When he wrote—wasn't often—his letters were censored. Which was because, like people said, “Loose lips sink ships.” And let me tell you something—it was true too. Tons of ships were torpedoed by German subs. Wolf packs, they called them. And sailors—gobs of 'em—drowned. So I worried about Pop. A lot.

Oh, sure, I'd see him for a few days every couple of months. But it was always a surprise when he came. He'd be dirty, red eyed, needing a shave, and you wouldn't believe how tired. Most of his leave he just slept, except when he got up to eat apples. He loved apples. Ate 'em like they'd just been invented. Core and all, only spitting out the pips.

When his time was up, he'd sail off. We didn't know where. I don't think Pop knew. Anyway, we weren't supposed to ask.

Still, I was better off than my best friend, Duane Coleman, who we called Denny. This Denny, he never saw his pop 'cause his father—a tailor—was an Eighth Army GI. That's General Infantry. The Eighth was fighting Rommel, the Nazi general, in North Africa. No saying when Mr.
Coleman would be home.
If
he came home. All us kids were scared of getting one of them telegrams from the government that began, “
REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT
. . .”

Now, I was small, but Denny was smaller. I mean, the guy was waiting for his growth spurt like Dodger fans waited for a pennant. You know, “Wait till next year!”

Denny always had this serious look on his face. Maybe it was his wire-frame glasses, which not a lot of kids wore. Or his slicked-back black hair. Or the white shirt and the bow tie he was always wearing. Red suspenders too. Straps, we called them.

Most mornings I walked to school knowing Denny would be waiting for me in front of Coleman Tailors and Cleaning, his family's business. Going to school, we'd talk about war news, our dads, radio shows we heard.

Big radio fans, most late afternoons we listened to
Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy
and to
Captain Midnight
. Because of those radio shows, me and Denny knew America was swarming with spies. The night before, Sunday,
Suspense
was all about this dog that had been trained to carry messages for a Nazi spy, but turned patriotic for some kid. Pure
wham
.

Point is, a lot of them stories were real stuff. Instance,
there were these Nazis that got dropped off at midnight by a U-boat right near Amagansett, Long Island—just miles from Brooklyn. Then they took the Long Island Railroad to the city to do sabotage. Except the FBI caught them. It was true too. You could look it up.

So, see, if Denny and me could have found one spy, just one! Jiminy! It would have been the bestest thing in the whole world. Because, see, Denny and me, we had this secret pact that said we weren't supposed to have no secrets from each other.

Now, also, on the way to school, we always passed this newsstand. It was run by this old blind guy—Mr. Teophilo. Mr. Teophilo sat on a wooden orange crate behind a board set on bricks, which had all these city newspapers—morning and afternoon—spread out. Understand, we wouldn't buy any papers. Just read the headlines. Sure, it was scary stuff, but we wanted to know.

This Mr. Teophilo—don't ask me how, 'cause like I said, he was old and blind—he always knew when we were passing by or standing in front of him. You'd come close and he'd turn in your direction with his eyes closed and his face not shaven so good, with this droopy white mustache. Plus this pure gold chain around his neck. Least Denny and
me thought it was pure. Don't ask me why we thought that—we just did.

Anyway, we'd come close and Mr. Teophilo would call out, “Hey, Howie. Hey, Denny. Things are looking good.” Or, “Things are looking bad.”

Or, like that morning, as I passed him, he said, “Hey, Howie, you're late! And things aren't going too well in North Africa neither.”

Except that Monday I was worried about something else besides the war. See, I'd flunked my regular Monday math test so many times my mother said to me, “Howard Bellington Crispers, you get one more failing grade, you can forget about going to Saturday kid movies.”

That was serious. The Saturday before, I'd seen Chapter Six of
Junior G-Men of the Air
at the Victory Movie Palace. It ended with this kid hero—Lionel Croft—flying his nifty biplane into a Nazi ambush behind the clouds. I
had
to know what happened.

So there I was walking along, with Lionel Croft and the Monday math test chewing my mind, when suddenly I saw Dr. Lomister, the principal of my school, P.S. 8. And the point is—because this is the way this story really begins—Denny was always saying our principal—this Dr.
Lomister—was a Nazi spy.

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