by Anthony Dobranski
(This is part four of Dobranski’s historical novel, which is set in 1942 Forest Hills. Find chapters 1-3 here.)
On Sundays Enos went to the Mormon Chapel at the wide intersection of 16th and Harvard Streets, Northwest. Its tall square stone spire echoed the grand Church buildings in Salt Lake City, a welcome corner of Western simplicity against the neighborhood’s English brickwork and Roman marble. At its summit stood the first statue of the angel Moroni ever erected on a church.
The chapel was small for a city church, but beautiful, with stained glass windows of Western wildflowers and a huge pipe organ with thousands of pipes. When the organ played, the room trembled and glowed, as if the angel Moroni himself stood on the roof blowing his great trumpet.
It was Enos’s habit to walk to church, along the wide streets and narrow rowhouses of Lanier Heights. On this Sunday, his painful chest and back had made sleeping tough, and his walk to church was long and groggy. Enos sat in the back with the other unmarrieds, conscious of his bandaged face, glad for once of his anonymity. Of the other soldiers and sailors, several were new, and would be gone soon. Enos was the lone rock in a stream of khaki and blue. Over his months of attendance, the transient traffic gave Enos a sense of Army thinking. Even without Nazi U-boats patrolling the shipping lanes, the Army assault on Europe wasn’t ever going to be a headlong rush like ants from a hill. Enos’s patience would be rewarded. Some things took time, and getting Enos to Europe was one of those things.
Six blocks north up Mt. Pleasant Street, he stopped in at Heller’s Bakery for a thick loaf of pumpernickel bread and two frosted donuts for his landlady.
The Hellers were German, and once in a great while Enos would catch a snippet of their mother tongue, but not often. With the war and especially the summertime arrest of Nazi spies in New York, German was tricky to use in public. No one wanted to be thought a fifth columnist. Sometimes at deli counters he would hear Yiddish, close enough for Enos to understand, but hearing German spoken was rare.
At the market across the street, he got sliced ham and a block of cheddar. He trekked west, down to the old mill by Rock Creek. He found a grassy spot to sit and made himself three sandwiches, cutting the cheddar with his TL-29 jack knife. As he ate, Enos watched the life of the park: Picnicking families in the sun, children catching softballs, a curly-haired gal sleeping unconcerned in her convertible in a lot full of shining cars, black and tan and brown. These were beauties to keep with him, to think on when he finally got to go to war.
He walked the woody path, still green and leafy, to Klingle Road. His lodgings sat several blocks uphill, on the other side of Connecticut Avenue. Enos had been lucky to find a decent place near the Bureau, given Washington’s tight housing crunch. A member of the church knew Mrs. Danvers hadn’t offered her basement to the Defense Housing Registry, leery of housing a single woman. But she was pleased to rent to a soldier.
Mrs. Danvers was a wiry old widow, slow but fully possessed of her faculties. She smiled to see the donuts.
“You spoil me, Corporal, really. Would you like to come in and listen to the radio with me?”
“Not tonight, ma’am. I have reading to do for work. But thank you.”
His basement room, below her parlor, had its own separate entrance. It was only a bedroom with bath, but room for a card table and a chair too. With a pot and a Bakelite hotplate he could heat water and canned food. He hung up his uniform and washed off the heat of the day in the small basin.
He put a slice of lemon in his water glass, his substitute for lemonade. Enos couldn’t be bothered to get his sugar ration coupons. His mom had sent him six cans of diced jalapenos, impossible to find in Washington. He added some to a can of beans and made a simple dinner. After he washed out the pot in the big tub sink, he turned off the lights and let the fan cool the air. It was only 6:30, an hour before sunset, but his two windows were shaded and the room was dim. He heard the tick of his alarm clock, bursts of laughter from Mrs. Danvers’s faint radio, a slow beat like a saw doing shallow cuts. He made himself another lemon water.
From his bottom cabinet he took out his compact Echophone shortwave radio, a fine birthday gift from his whole family.
He plugged in the headphones and carefully tuned to Voice of America’s German broadcast. Since its start in June it was Enos’s one reliable way to hear German without listening to Nazi propaganda. The newsreader put his best face on the hard-fought Russian resistance in Stalingrad. Enos settled back on his bed and sipped his lemon water.
By the time the broadcast had gone to music, he was fast asleep.
The next morning, he took the bandages off his cheek. The scabbed cut was wide and the skin around it dark red.
At work, he got smiling stares. “Fer Chrissakes, Olsen,” the MP at the security gate said. “Save it for the Japs, will ya?”
His supervisor sent him to the Sound Section to look for Dr. Richard Cook, the acting section chief. Enos arrived to join a large group crammed around the workbenches, facing three military brass talking privately to Dr. Cook.
Soon Dr. Cook stepped forward. “Usually, we try to prevent sound going through a wall,” he explained. “These fellows here -” he pointed at the brass – “they have a different request. They want us to devise a scheme for listening to German prisoners talking in their cells. The idea is to make a thin enough section of wall that lets a microphone get a clear recording, but still looks solid. We have carpenters making boxes and a fellow who knows how to plaster, and the rest of you will start on mikes and wire recorders.”
The Sound Section had racks of complex equipment with dials, far past what Enos could understand. The hand tools on the benches were familiar enough, however. Enos first worked alone on the wire recorders, replacing their existing microphones with the wires for the test microphones.
Each wire recorder was the size of a pop-up toaster, in a tight metal case that integrated a speaker grille. The electronic impulses from the microphone magnetized iron wire wound on a large spool like fishing tackle. Once magnetized, the magnet could reverse the process, sending new electronic impulses from the spool to the recorder’s speaker. He had read about them in detective stories but had never used one. His last recorder he disassembled further, admiring the engineering and the motor, before putting it back together.
He joined two civilian techs assembling the complicated wiring to route the microphone both to the recorder and to white needle gauges that measured the signal. The techs both looked to be thirty, older than Enos but still well within draft age. They didn’t seem unhealthy enough for 4-F but you never knew. Enos tried not to judge.
“I bet they’re from Fort Ritchie,” one man said, nodding toward the brass. “They got Germans there, good guys who escaped Hitler.”
“I never heard about that,” Enos said. He wondered if he should ask one of the officers.
“Oh yeah. Maybe they got those Nazis they caught in June.” He looked sour. “I shouldn’t be — Keep it under your hat, OK?”
“Sure,” the other man said. “Though I don’t know why they need a whole base just to beat some guys into talking.” He laughed and spoke louder. “Hey, you seen those Jap Hunting Licenses? My buddy got one. It’s a license to kill a Jap! Says ‘shoot em in the stomach because they got a lot of guts.'”
The two men laughed. Enos nodded and forced a smile.
“What, you don’t like that?” the first man asked.
“It’s fine,” Enos said.
“I would have thought a soldier would like that.”
“Look, friend,” he said. “They beat us and shoot us, too. It’s not for joking.”
He was speaking loudly now. People stared.
“Sorry,” Enos said. The fellow waved to let it go.
One of the brass stepped forward. “Tech Corporal,” he said pointedly.
Enos stood at attention and saluted.
The brass smiled at that. He was a major, well past draft age, with graying red hair and cool eyes, holding a leather satchel. “At ease, Corporal. Walk with me.”
They left the lab. Down the hallway, out of earshot, the major whispered, “Did you think I brought you out here to dress you down?”
“Your colleagues probably think so, too. Good. Let’s go to lunch. I’m Frank Farmer.” To Enos’s surprise, he offered a jaunty handshake.
“Where should we eat around here?”
“I like the Hot Shoppes fine. And it’s about the only place.” He would have picked it anyway. A church member named Bill Marriott owned it, and Enos liked to help his own out when he could.
“Hot Shoppes it is,” Major Farmer said.
“What’s this about, sir?”
“About how you got those bruises, son. But I thought lunch made for a less conspicuous interrogation.”
NEXT WEEK: A secret threat!