This is a fine World War 2-era historical novel (based on Allan Cole's family experiences) set in Florida, on the "Home Front". Nazi submarine attacks off the coast are but the start of the problems for local residents. But human will to overcome obstacles in the face of adversity will surely save the day...won't it?
Allan writes: "Between February and May of 1942, German U-boats operated with impunity off the Florida coast, sinking nearly two dozen freighters from Cape Canaveral to Key West and killing five thousand people. Residents were horrified witnesses of the attacks—the night skies were aflame and in the morning the beaches were covered with oil and tar, ship parts and charred corpses. The Germans even landed teams of saboteurs charged with disrupting war efforts in the factories of the North. This novel is based on those events. For my own purposes, I set the tale in the fictitious town of Juno Beach on the banks of the equally fictitious Seminole River—all in the very real Palm Beach County, a veritable wilderness in those long ago days. Among the witnesses were my grandfather and grandmother, who operated an orchard and ranch in the area."
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The 30th Street station was a sea of uniforms and tears.
There were soldiers and sailors and U.S. Marines and crying mothers and daughters and women of all kinds, children in tow or on their hips, crowding around the platforms where the big locomotives hissed and smoked and sparked and steamed.
And everywhere Ryan went Pearl Harbor was on everyone’s lips and in their minds.
Dec. 7, 1941. Only few months gone now since the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on the same day that Ryan Karr entered his 12th year of existence.
Peering down from the overlook on that roiling sea of people and gigantic machines, Ryan thought back on that moment, reliving the shock as the radio announcer’s words sank in. Wondering, to his immediate shame, if Aunt Cassie would still bake the cake she’d promised for his birthday.
He was sinking back into that miserable moment when Uncle Tom caught him by the elbow, saying “Come on. There’s the Professor.”
Then they were pushing through the crowd, Uncle Tom waving his badge, shouting “Police Business! Police Business!”
The crowd parted and Tom used his big Irish shoulders to bull through, carrying Ryan and Aunt Cassie in his wake. The two were suddenly struck with a case of the giggles because it was such a big lie.
There was no police business. Just the three of them running to help Ryan catch the Florida Special where they would all say their goodbyes.
A wrench. Thinking: it could be forever.
Now they were following the line of cars, chains rattling, wheels shrieking, engines chuffing, dodging a woman lifting her little boy to a window to kiss his daddy goodbye, until they came to the car where Uncle Tom’s friend waited.
The Professor was a stocky, middle-aged black man in a conductor’s uniform, and he was lifting his cap and mopping his bald head with a kerchief when they reached him.
He looked down at Ryan—rimless glasses glinting—and Uncle Tom was saying, “Can’t tell you how much we appreciate this, Professor. Cass is worried sick about the boy traveling all that way by himself.”
But the Professor was waving the appreciations aside. He was in a hurry to get everyone aboard and he grabbed Ryan’s small suitcase, saying, “No thanks needed, Tom. I’ll take as good a care of your boy as you have mine.”
The professor was referring to his grandson, Josh, a rookie Ryan’s uncle had taken under his wing at the department.
A tearful Aunt Cassie fussed over Ryan, patting his hair into place, rearranging his collar, and pulling his jacket aside for the tenth time that morning to make sure the five- dollar bill was still pinned safely on the underside of the lapels. A fortune, especially when you added in the two quarters and five dimes in his pocket.
“I know you’ll be good, as good can be, hon,” she said in her Philadelphia Irish lilt. “So I don’t have to be telling you to mind your grandmother and Verne, because I know you will.”
Uncle Tom pulled Ryan aside, gave him a quick hug, whispering last minute uncle-like advice as he handed over the old Navy knapsack he’d been carrying for him.
“Don’t take any guff from those rednecks,” he said.
“But don’t you go looking for it, either.”
“I won’t, sir.”
Another hug then he swiped at his eyes as he handed the boy over. Ryan paused at the top of the stairs. Resisting the Professor for just a minute to face his aunt and uncle.
“What about—?” he stopped midsentence. Voice trembling, tears threatening.
The train jolted, wheels screeched, cars bumping all along down the line.
“This way, young man,” the Professor admonished him. “We have to get going.”
“Don’t you worry, hon,” Cassie called out, her own eyes brimming. “We’ll tell your mother you love her, God bless us all.”
And then the train lurched and the Professor caught Ryan’s elbow to steady him, then led him into the car—empty except for several black servicemen near the back, who were playing cards on a suitcase turned on its side.
The Professor put Ryan in one of the middle seats. Across the aisle there was a well-worn leather satchel, with a sweater on top.
“My regular base of operations,” the Professor said, rearranging the stack. “Run the entire train from this spot.”
Smiling, he said, “You’ll keep an eye on my things for me, won’t you?”
“Yessir,” Ryan said, sitting straighter.
Now the train was picking up speed, the ride smoothing out.
The Professor turned to go, but paused to say, “I’ll be back by and by, so you make yourself at home and if you need anything, just wait until I come around again.”
He started to leave, then laughed. “Almost forgot,” he said, motioning at Ryan, who gave him a quizzical look. “Your ticket, son. I have to punch it.”
“Oh,” Ryan said and got out his book of tickets.
The Professor fished through them, found what he wanted, pulled the punch machine from his belt and—ka-chunk! And then another: ke-chunk! And one more: ka-chunk! Paper bullets falling to the floor.
“There you go, Ryan,” the Professor said, holstering his little machine. “Good all the way through to Jove Beach, Florida.”
Ryan scooched back in his seat. He looked out the window at the slow moving industrial cityscape. There was an acrid factory stink to the air, infused with the train’s sweet diesel odor. And there was nothing to see but the backs of factory works and warehouses with broken windows. A few bums moved through the piles of rubble, looking for something worth a pony jug.
But he really wasn’t seeing any of it. Instead, his thoughts had turned inward. To his mother at the little picnic they had for her on the hospital grounds the previous Sunday. Beautiful as ever, with her long dark hair, blue eyes and milk white Irish complexion.
“Hi, Mom.” Eyes wet. Voice cracking. But her eyes were glazed and Ryan had to repeat himself… “Mom? Mom?”… before she acknowledged him.
Then all she did was pat his cheek and say, “I love you, too, hon.” And turn away with a vacant smile.
Finally, there was his father. Vanished in the storms of war somewhere in the North Atlantic. Ryan imagined him in a submarine many fathoms deep, icy seas raging overhead. Enemy destroyers on the hunt.
Suddenly, it became difficult to breathe. Heart trip hammering. He took several deep breaths, then pulled the knapsack onto his lap and unbuckled the straps.
Inside was the small practice Morse Code key set his father had given him. A handsome one with a black stippled metal base and a chromed key and springs. Tucked into a velvet-lined metal case—stippled black like the base.
He put his suitcase on his lap, and used it for a desktop. He started tapping away, trying to compose a message without looking up the letters in his Morse Code book.
Ryan practiced every chance he had, wanting to develop his own style. His own “hand.” His father said a skilled telegrapher could tell an operator by his “hand.” His style of tapping the key—tapping the short and the long. The dots and the dashes. The “Diddy, dah, diddy.” Except with no speaker the only sound was just a faint clacking.
He tried out his key now, wanting to send “I love you, Mom,” but he kept losing his way and forgetting the sequence. His heart started racing again. Hooked up to squawk box it would have made a hellacious racket.
In a panic he kept tapping out the same signal string over and over again: …---… And again: …---… And again: …---…
S.O.S. S.O.S. S.O.S.
The international plea for help.
Soon, the sound of the train’s wheels racing over steel rails took over from the clacking key. Like many voices chanting: S.O.S. S.O.S. S.O.S.
His heartbeat became less erratic. His breathing slowed.
S.O.S. S.O.S. S.O.S.
Then the tapping stopped. His eyes closed.
And he fell asleep.