CHAPTER 1- To Save Us All From Ruin
“My father had a Randall knife, my mother gave it to him.
When he went off to World War II to save us all from ruin.”
-songwriter Guy Clark, The Randall Knife.
January 1942- The Muldoon family farm, NE Colorado
The sun rose on a clear and crisp eastern Colorado day in mid-January 1942. As Seamus Muldoon leaned his tired head against the flank of yet another milk cow, his mind began to wander. He stripped the teats rhythmically making the frothy white milk sing a tinny tune as it sprayed against the inside of the shiny milk pail. Bessy (or was this one Flossy? Or Bossy? Seamus could never keep their names straight) munched placidly on the hay in front of her. It occurred to Seamus that for the last month the cows had been setting up their early morning ruckus earlier and earlier each day. The shortened days of winter seemed even shorter when the cows dragged you out of bed at “oh-dark-thirty”. His father’s words echoed in his memory, every winter morning milking session since Seamus was knee high to a Guernsey his father had cracked the same tired joke. “Hoo boy, it’s colder than a well digger’s ass, and twice as dark!” Seamus usually thought to himself at those times, “Yeah, how would you know?” Seamus knew better than to give voice to those irreverent thoughts however.
Of course, the old man had not been joking much this past month. His jawline had been set in an attitude of grim determination ever since early December when the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had come. The entire family had huddled around the radio in the living room waiting for “a momentous address from the President” as the surprisingly chipper-sounding announcer had put it. The president’s sonorous baritone voice intoned over the usual faint crackle of static. “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
The President went on to lay out the full scale of Japan’s widespread de facto declaration of war in the Pacific. “Last night, Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong. Last night, Japanese forces attacked Guam. Last night, Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands. Last night, the Japanese attacked Wake Island. And this morning, the Japanese attacked Midway Island.”
President Roosevelt had closed his speech that night by saying, “I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.” The living room remained silent as the boys’ father reached over and turned off the radio. The three boys knew what this meant. For most of the last two years the newspapers had been filled with stories of the war in Europe. The reports came in one by one as the Sudetenland, then Poland, then the Low Countries and France fell under Nazi control, the inevitability of what was to come began to loom on the horizon. How much longer could the Brits hold out against the seemingly endless airstrikes from across the Channel?
During these past two years Seamus and his older brother Gerry had talked with the old man about their desire to join the Army, but he had always tried to downplay those ideas, hoping it would never be necessary. It was only with great reluctance that the old man had let his middle boy Eddie join the Army ROTC program during his second year of college at Colorado A&M University in Fort Collins. The old man’s few mementos of The Great War were buried deep in a trunk in the back reaches of the attic of the old farmhouse and he had never spoken to the boys about the war. Boys being boys, however, they had found the rusty old bayonet, the campaign hat and the grey-green uniform tunic years ago. They had sometimes reenacted unimaginable feats of imaginary heroism as they played in the nearby fields. They aimed their fingers with care and boyish “pow-pow-pows” echoed through the trees.
Now as the radio fell silent, the three boys exchanged glances but dared not speak a word. This was the moment of truth and they all had a sense of what they had to do. The old man’s shoulders seemed a little more stooped and his step seemed heavier with care as he mounted the steps up to the bedroom that night. Long into the night the three boys whispered excitedly about their plans.
Gerry was 23 years old. Long and rangy with muscles that had been hardened by years of farm chores Gerry was known around town as a tough customer. Serious to the point of being somber he wore the mantle of oldest brother with a burning intensity. Eddie at 22 was in his junior year at Colorado A & M University. He was home this week while preparing for his final exams. Eddie had a rugged muscular build that aptly fit his three years as starting fullback on the local high school football team. This body type combined with rugged good looks had characterized his mother’s side of the family for generations. He was a solid young man with an easy good nature that made him well liked pretty much anywhere he went. Seamus, the youngest of the three was a 17-year-old high school senior and still had the slender body build of an adolescent. Seamus was the “hey-let-me-come-with-you-serious-you-guys-I-can-keep-up” brother.
Monday December 15, 1941 was a grey day. The clouds hung low over the chilly Northeastern Colorado countryside as the three brothers loaded the milk jugs onto the flatbed truck for the run into town. Seamus and Eddie jumped on the back while Gerry urged the engine to life. The truck lurched forward as they started down the quarter-mile long driveway. Eddie playfully punched Seamus in the arm and their laughter rang through the clear morning air. It was a long straight drive of about six miles to the milk processing plant in Nunn, a small town on the road north out of Greeley. After off-loading the milk at the plant and securing the empty replacement jugs to the rails of the truck the three boys headed downtown. Outside the Nunn General Store there was a cluster of young men. Seamus jumped down from the truck and elbowed his way to the front of the group. The men were clustered around an older man wearing an Army uniform with three sergeant’s stripes on his arm. He was sitting at a small folding table on the front porch of the store, with a stack of forms. He was flanked on his left by a small stone-faced man with two corporal’s stripes.
To the sergeant’s right was a folding easel with a colorful red, white and blue poster. Out stared the familiar visage of Old Uncle Sam, tall top hat with a broad hatband of white stars on a blue background, big white stars on the wide lapels of his frock coat. The brows were lowered in an attitude of intensity that was only partially countered by the disheveled appearance of the long white hair, the shaggy sideburns and the long scraggly goatee. The large block text at the bottom of the poster read “VOLUNTEER” and the smaller text below elaborated, “AND CHOOSE YOUR OWN BRANCH OF THE SERVICE.” Uncle Sam’s signature was scrawled across the bottom. The artist’s name was stenciled into the lower left corner of the poster—Arthur N. Edrop.
“One at a time, boys, one at a time,” the corporal hollered. You’ll each get your chance.” Eddie and Gerry held back, watching from the periphery of the small crowd.
“What’s going on?” Seamus asked one of the boys that he knew from school.
“War! Those dirty Japs killed a bunch of our boys out in Hawaii!” the boy said excitedly. “This fellow is here taking enlistments for the Army.”
As the excited group made their way one by one to the table, the stack of blank forms to the sergeant’s right began to dwindle while the stack of hastily filled-out forms to his left grew. As Seamus waited in line Eddie read the recruitment poster. Along the right side of the poster was an alphabetical list of military branches- “Army, Artillery, Cavalry, Engineers, Hospital Corps, Infantry, Marine Corp, Nat’l Guard, Naval Militia, Navy, Quartermaster Corp. Which for YOU?”
Seamus solemnly and painstakingly filled out an enlistment form. Name, date of birth, branch preference, a brief health questionnaire and a signature block comprised the simple form. Seamus excitedly wrote “Infantry.”
“All right, listen up you country bumpkins,” the sergeant yelled. “Any of you who are younger than 18 years old are going to need signed permission from your parents before we can accept your enlistment. Raise your hand if you are not yet 18 years old.” Three or four of the boys sheepishly raised their hands. So did Seamus. The older boys snickered and someone at the back of the group muttered sardonically, “Yeah, leave the hard work to us real men, junior!” Seamus felt his face redden with angry heat. Catching Eddie’s disapproving look from the back of the crowd he bit his tongue and choked back his anger.
“All of you who have signed a form, go home and say your farewells to you family, kiss your girlfriends and report back here on Saturday, January 3rd at oh-eight-hundred hours. That’s eight o’clock in the morning for all you civilians! From here we will transport you to the Recruitment Center in Fort Collins for induction. Take one of these lists that Corporal Jackson has in his hand. Pack one, I repeat one, small suitcase with only those items that are on the list and bring it with you that morning. Welcome to the United States Army gentlemen.”
As the excited group of boys broke up into smaller groups of two or three and wandered off, Seamus ran over to Gerry and asked, “Aren’t you going to join up?” Gerry shrugged noncommittally.
“Hey Seamus, let’s go get a Coke,” Eddie yelled. Seamus and Eddie ran up the steps and into the store, leaving Gerry alone on the porch with the two Army men.
“Well son, I’ve got one form left,” the sergeant said, almost mockingly. Gerry hesitated a few beats, then reached out silently, took the form and slowly filled out his information. His hand paused almost imperceptibly and then he scrawled his signature.
All three boys sat up front on the drive back to the farm. Seamus and Eddie joshed back and forth while Gerry sat silently, gripping the steering wheel intently. Just before the turnoff to the home place Gerry brought the truck to a stop by the side of the road. “Knock it off, you two. Mom and Dad are not going to be happy about this, you know. And there’s no way in hell Dad is going to give you permission, Seamus. You do know that don’t you?”
Seamus downplayed it, “Aw shucks, Gerry. I know I can talk Mom into it. She always lets me get my way. Besides, I’ve been thinking about leaving home anyway as soon as I graduate at the end of this semester. They can’t stop me.”
Eddie muttered wryly, “Hoo boy you better not underestimate Mom when she sets her mind to something.”
That evening, as the family gathered around the dinner table, the boys were uncharacteristically quiet. The boys bowed their heads as Dad intoned his usual simple but heartfelt prayer. “Heavenly Father, we ask that you watch over this house in thy mercy. Bless the fruits of our labors. Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies. Guide us in thy paths of righteousness.” This concluded Dad’s usual dinner grace but before the boys could utter their “Amens” and dig in Dad added one more sentence, “…and we humbly ask you to guide the leaders of this nation in this time of impending war. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”
The three boys filled their plates with crispy country fried chicken, mounds of steaming mashed potatoes with brown gravy and fresh corn from the family garden. They washed it all down with heavy fresh cream-laden milk. One of the biggest benefits of living on a dairy farm was that they always had plenty of heavy whole milk and fresh butter. Mom was not a fancy cook but she could make the massive dining table groan with the weight of the good country fare. There was rarely much conversation around the table but this night everybody was more reticent than usual as if the weight of a great secret hovered over the place.
The sweet smell of apples, cinnamon and buttery crust filled the room as Mom pulled a fresh-baked apple pie from the oven. She placed the pie pan in front of Eddie and said, “Ed would you please cut the pie?” Eddie took a table knife, lined it up carefully with the far edge of the crust and boldly made one firm cut across the middle of the pie. With a practiced hand he twirled the pie ninety degrees, deftly stopping it on the perpendicular. The second cut neatly bisected the first, dividing the pie into four precise quarters. Each of the boys and their father in turn lifted their quarter of the pie onto their dinner plate. Dad took his knife and cut a thin wedge from his piece of pie and silently slid it onto Mom’s plate. “Just a tiny piece for me,” she always said. For as long as the boys could remember, every pie Mom had ever baked was cut into four equal pieces, with just a tiny piece for Mom. Eddie often joked that he didn’t realize a pie could be cut into more than four pieces.
Mother produced a small pitcher of cream from the cool box and each poured a serving of the rich foamy cream onto their pie. The room remained silent except for the contented munching sound of three young men eagerly enjoying their apple pie. As Dad used his finger to pick up the last few crumbs of crust from his plate he pushed his chair back from the table and cleared his throat.
“So boys! I noticed you were in town a little longer than usual this morning. Anything happening that I should know about?”
Seamus looked down at his plate, feigning interest in a small piece of cinnamon-covered apple. Eddie inclined his head imperceptibly for Gerry to field this one. Gerry slowly chewed his last bite of pie, swallowed deliberately, drained the last mouthful of milk from his glass and looked back and forth between his mother and father.
“Welp, I joined the Army!”