Introducing… the first novel set in World War Two-era Forest Hills, DC. Assisted by local historians, Forest Hills-based writer Anthony Dobranski is writing a historical thriller based on real people and real events. You’ll find links to every chapter here as we publish them. And for binge-reading on the go, you can download an e-book that features the first ten chapters and all the period art (more to come). Enjoy!
by Anthony Dobranski
By eight o’clock, the surface of the rink at the Chevy Chase Ice Palace had grown too rough for Tech Corporal Enos Olsen to enjoy, not that he was much of a skater. The loudspeakers played a crackling recording of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” the slow version with no swing, and it encouraged Enos and many others to hop off the ice. Of Enos’s pals, only Tommy Szymanski, who was from Buffalo and really could skate, kept at it. Enos watched him for a minute, envying his smooth, loping hockey stride. As Tommy passed, he turned to skate backwards, his fast strokes making a sound like stropping a razor.
Some older folks went to the benches to pack their things, but most young men and women went to the soda bar, Enos and his fellow soldiers among them. Including Tommy and Enos, they were five that evening, with two friends of Tommy’s from Fort Myer, and Ray Michaels from the new airfield in Camp Springs. Like most soldiers, the others with Enos were girl crazy, and the Ice Palace was a good place to meet girls if one got there early. Enos didn’t date outside the Mormon Church, because there wasn’t much point. It was fun to talk to girls anyway, and always good to spend time with Ray and Tommy, but he wasn’t planning to stay. On this clear Friday evening he would soon go out for a night’s stargazing, alone. Saturday morning would allow him the luxury of sleeping in.
The gals had formed a cordon to look pointedly past them, but Ray had an engaging Chicago patter and a bunch of gimmicks to make up for his pudgy looks. This time Ray reached for a straw even though he hadn’t ordered yet, looked at the tall girl nearest him as if thunderstruck.
“Hey sugar, are you rationed?” he asked. She smiled coyly, brushing her hands against her sweater. “That’s one pretty dress you’re wearing.” Two women rustled behind her. Enos nodded at them. His tow-blond hair and easy smile made him a good wingman for Ray.
Soon the four men were sitting on benches with the women and some sodas. They had established the girls were all voting age, or close enough – on a Friday, some of the high school girls had moxie beyond their years, and it was good to figure this out before one wasted time chatting them up. Now the girls were giving them the third degree, as if to make sure they weren’t 4-Fs who had stolen their uniforms off a truck.
“Are you all on leave?” the tall girl asked.
“We are.” Sam McIntyre, who had a heavy beard shadow and a West Virginia accent low as a tuba, pointed to himself and his friend, a freckled Georgia fellow whose name Enos had forgotten. “Corporal Tommy brought us from Fort Myer.”
“What corporal? Where’s he?”
“In a little bit of heaven, from the looks of it,” the Georgia fellow said. He pointed out Tommy, skating a pair with one of the argyle gals, to Tommy Dorsey’s “Tangerine.”
“Oh he’s over by Cloud Nine,” Ray said. “Boy that Tommy can skate. You gals good skaters?”
“We’re good skaters,” the tall girl said.
“You sure? Just ’cause you’re good lookers don’t make you good skaters. Sam, any word on when the 3rd is shipping out?”
“We’re just cooling our heels.”
“Naw,” Ray said. “That can’t be right.”
The Georgia fellow picked up on Ray’s meaning. “Sure feels that way, but that General Patton, he’s itchin’ to go more than anyone in the 3rd. Wouldn’t be surprised if we go tomorrow.”
“If I had a glass, I’d raise it to ya,” Ray said, tapping his flask against the arm of the tall girl.
They passed it around casually, each bending over to drink while they fussed with their shoelaces. Enos didn’t drink, but he made a point of holding on to it long enough that it seemed like he would’ve.
With a sip or two, the girls got catty. “Why on Earth build an air base out in Camp Springs?” the tall girl asked Ray.
“Dollface, I am not the one to explain the workings of the military,” Ray said. “Maybe it’s just practice for when we build ’em in Europe.”
“Wouldn’t that be something?” the slimmest of the girls said. She turned to Enos. “Which one are you with, Air Force or Cavalry?”
“I’m Army, but I’m a machinist,” Enos said. It was his official answer. “The toolbox brigade.”
“Is that what the T is for under your stripes? Toolbox?”
“Hey, that’s pretty good,” Ray said. “You pay attention.”
“T is for technical,” Enos said. “A special skill. Sappers and radiomen get them too. I have to get going, in fact. Some night work they need done, pronto.”
Slim pouted, her upper teeth gently biting her lower lip. “Are you sure you can’t stay?”
“Don’t wanna get him in dutch with the major, doll,” Ray said.
Enos made short goodbyes, before it became more awkward. Tommy’s friends were pleased to even the numbers, especially since Tommy had set himself up. Ray clasped Enos’s hand hard, his eyes both friendly and sympathetic. Ray knew how sore Enos was about his assignment here.
They had met on the train east, the only fellows with orders in a car full of iron miners released from service to supply materiel. Ray was as eager to fight as anyone, but as an architecture student, building an airfield was a fine use of his skills, so he didn’t mind.
Not Enos. He had enlisted to go to Germany, to put his fluent German to use against the Nazis. Instead, his knack with machines and radios, just favors really, had caught the commander’s eye during Basic Training. A standing order for men with special aptitude had earned him a second stripe and reassigned him to the National Bureau of Standards. He had worked on parts of several projects, including one involving a kind of radar and one for protecting flyers. He could take pride in his work, even if he couldn’t talk much about it, but it wasn’t the work he had enlisted to do.
“See you back at the base,” Enos said, forcing a smile. Major, base, duty. All a pack of lies to impress his friends’ girls for a night, girls he couldn’t date. By now, he could manage his role without sounding angry. Which made him a little angry in itself.
At the lockers, the night guard handed over his knapsack gravely, as if it held the weapon that would win the war tomorrow, not a pair of binoculars and his things. The storm of strikes from the bowling alley mixed with the car-horn trumpets of “Somebody Else is Taking My Place.” Enos jogged up the stairs before Peggy Lee’s sad lyrics could find him. He was in a bad enough mood already.
Outside the Ice Palace, Connecticut Avenue traffic was slow and noisy, smelly with exhaust from the idling cars bottlenecked at the Hot Shoppes restaurant for curb service.
Behind the Hot Shoppes sat the giant campus of the National Bureau of Standards. At first glance it looked like an East Coast college, with tall fancy brick buildings, grassy lawns and old trees. A few recent buildings housed new war work, huts and structures that looked more like barns and stables than the laboratories they were. Even in his sour mood, it was hard not to be impressed with the place. He didn’t have to like it. Not much to like in this war.
In the dim light of the facade he saw his faint reflection in the window of Woolworth’s Store, a straight back in khaki, like a thousand other men. If only he could blend in that way, sneak into Fort Myer and go to Germany with the 3rd Cavalry. He spat on the sidewalk and walked north.
Only two blocks from the Ice Palace, the east side of the avenue became trees and parkland, spreading over the next mile into the expanse of Rock Creek Park. From Connecticut Avenue it was less than two miles to the peak of the park. His night vision would be keen after the long hike through the woods, and the moon was a mere crescent that night. He had a chance at seeing some open clusters, and Jupiter’s moons. Getting out of the noise and brightness of the city comforted him. The Milky Way was the same here, even if dimmed by the city lights, and the densely-treed hills of Rock Creek Park close enough to the Colorado forests where his family went camping. Nights like this felt both familiar, and an escape.
He cut across a block of grass, preferring the sidewalks along houses to the valley below and its mosquitoes. Oil of citronella made his skin break out. Maybe when they were done spraying Europe for typhus with that new chlorine DDT, they could bring it back here.
He enjoyed the houses, anyway. A couple of them were large and fine, mansions by his small-town standard, and enviably sited with parkland for backyard. Others had a farmhouse look to them despite their small plots of land, different from the rowhouses in the lower parts of the city. Maybe it was a style. City folk had their own nostalgia.
Despite the breeze he was sweating from the lingering heat, and to judge by the sounds of radios coming through each house’s screened windows, he wasn’t alone in finding the evening warm. As the street dipped downhill, a lone violin caught Enos’s ear. A real violin, he could tell, played well. Enos stopped to listen. As a solo without accompaniment, it took him a moment to recognize the piece: Mozart, from the first movement of Symphony 25. He crossed the street and walked closer to the house to listen.
In the dim porch light, he made out a shape in the bushes. Someone else was standing there, but not for the music. A man, dressed all in black, was peering inside.
“Hey!” Enos shouted.
The man shot a look at him, pulling a ski mask over his face. He darted away toward the back of the house.
Burglar? Peeping Tom?
Enos didn’t know. He just ran after.
NEXT WEEK: A dinner party has uninvited guests!