U.S. troops in North Africa
Loud shouts and gunfire invaded the eerie silence of the desert. Rommel's seasoned Afrika Corps faced the raw youthful troops of the United States' First Division. Wartime games on playgrounds quickly turned into reality on battlefields. The young American soldiers still couldn't comprehend what they were doing there.
James Poris, a recent high school graduate, nervously crawled through the dunes. His uniform was covered with sand, and he had to blink his eyes continuously. His nails were bitten down to the cuticles as he prepared himself for his first battle. Moments later, a hand grenade exploded, and the only thing left intact was a pair of dog tags.
A group of teen-age girls were hanging out in the lobby discussing the jerks and moronic boys in their classes. Although they were high school students, they felt ready to date college men. While they were talking, a man in a blue uniform hesitated outside the apartment house on Saunders Street. He pushed open the door and walked slowly across the lobby. In his hand, he clutched a yellow envelope. Somebody's heart was about to be broken.
I was one of those girls, and I have never forgotten the sound of those piercing screams accompanied by the words, “No! No! No!” They echoed throughout the seven-story building. We were frozen in place. Later, we learned that Mrs. Poris, alone in her apartment, received notice that her only child had been killed in action. A week later, Lieutenant Arthur Neuhauser sent her an eye-witness account of the event. This eased her acceptance of the reality of the tragedy.
Those dreaded telegrams began with the same simple, but awful phrase, “We regret to inform you......” From that time on, other messages arrived leaving more families in despair.
Mrs. Poris and Jimmy's step-father openly grieved for many months and remained scarred for the rest of their lives. They decided to create a memorial in their son's name. This tribute would benefit wounded and mentally disturbed servicemen. The James Poris Servicemen's Cheer Club became a reality in 1943, but it took me quite awhile to become aware of it. In August, 1941, my family moved into a brand-new apartment house on Saunders Street in Forest Hills. My wildest dreams came true when I realized I lived opposite that magnificent ice-cream palace known as Howard Johnson's. My tastes were plebeian in my teen years, and I thought the early Howard Johnsons were the epitome of fine architecture. What could be more striking than those white buildings with orange tiled roofs embellished with turquoise doors and shutters? This branch had the first sit-down dining room. There was even a second floor that could be used for parties and catered affairs. All I had to do was cross the ten heavily-trafficked lanes of Queens Boulevard to get to that renowned establishment. They actually had twenty-eight flavors of ice-cream with so many exotic-sounding names. Would I ever be able to narrow down my choice to one flavor, or should I just stick to chocolate? These were my major concerns in August, 1941.
As an avid reader of Nancy Drew novels, I decided to play sleuth and get to the bottom of what I had seen. After weeks of detective work, I learned that a canteen for disabled service-men met in the party-room of Howard Johnson's every Tuesday night. The men arrived in busses and ambulances driven by the volunteer gray ladies of the Red Cross.
The hostesses had to be at least seventeen years-old, and alas and alack. I was only fifteen. Aha, didn't I pass as a seventeen year-old when I was a counselor at camp? I guess I could stretch the truth one more time. That was when I decided to ask my friend, Barbara Kraus, to join me at the canteen. Thus, there would be two liars, and that would make it okay. Barbara said she would sleep over at my house every Tuesday night.
And so it goes—every week Barbara and I used dozens of hair pins to create high pompadours, put layers of Max Factor pancake make-up on our faces, thickened our lashes with Maybelline mascara and of course, smeared our mouths with bright red lipstick. Yes, we always managed to get some on our teeth. We wore high-neck dresses and thought they were sexy. Our matching shoes had Cuban heels. We looked into the mirror and thought we were the cat's meow. Barbara towered over all the girls in our class. She also stood head and shoulders above all of us in academic achievement. The thought of our first evening, at the club, sent us into spasms of panic. We ran feverishly across the ten lanes of Queens Boulevard. Timidly, we walked through the front door. Later, as old pros, our entrances were much bolder.
The servicemen were served dinner before the arrival of the hostesses. The men drank beer throughout the evening, but the girls were restricted to drinking cokes. The hostesses arrived at different intervals and were seated one at a time, assuring equal distribution in the room. We could find ourselves surrounded by five or six men, and the seating pattern never changed. There were always less girls than guys, and we loved it that way.
World War II poster
Each time I sat down, I wished I had the wit of a Dorothy Parker, the charm of Loretta Young, and the skill with men of a Scarlett O'Hara. The men at the table would vie for my personal attention. They seemed blind to their companions. I tried to be clever, and it became burdensome to come up with an interesting opening line. The war had remained a taboo subject. We had all seen the posters: Loose Lips Sink Ships, and There are Ears Everywhere.
I enjoyed listening to their stories about the Red Cross. They claimed that overseas Red Cross workers sold them donated cigarettes and sweaters. Across the room, the Gray Ladies of the Red Cross sat at tables. The servicemen looked at them with contempt. This was really unfair since these particular ladies were dedicated volunteers.
I often looked around the room and wondered who was from the Cuckoo Ward. Some of the wounded came on stretchers, others in wheel chairs and a few on crutches. There were men who had difficulty walking. Some didn't look as if they shaved once a week. I dreaded being assigned men without limbs. One time I sat down next to a sailor, and he started tapping his fingers to the sound of the jazz music. He turned to me an said, “How would you like to dance?' I answered that I would love to. His reply gave me the chills, “Too bad, I have only one leg.”
Muriel at 17
Another time, an amputee asked me for a date. We had been given warnings about necking at the club and about avoiding dates with the men. My mother felt it would be cruel to turn an amputee down. When he called, we planned to go to a local movie. That night, it snowed heavily, and all wounded were restricted to the hospital. Shortly after that, a rehabilitation center in another state opened specializing in the fitting of artificial limbs. He left, and I never saw him again.
One night, Edwin Grossman showed up at the canteen. We had dated before he was drafted. He claimed to have been run over by a jeep. He asked to sit with me each week. This usually was a no-no, but they made an exception in this case. A month later, he too received a transfer to a rehabilitation center. Many years later, I saw him at a country club, and he still limped.
Many of the wounded were in deep depression, and we truly believed their cure remained in our hands. Most of those baby-faced servicemen had never left their hometowns before. Many came from small villages, large cities, farms and factory towns. Very few thought about going to college. They really needed to be with their own families, and yet, they had been to hell and came back permanently scarred. Their lack of sophistication was astonishing. Words like wholesome and naïve accurately described them. Today, those definitions would be hard to apply to current eighteen year-olds. They were truly innocents being lead to slaughter.
Our evenings always ended at 10 o'clock when the band played Good Night Ladies. We said our quick good-byes and left promptly.
And Jimmy never got to sleep in his own little bed again.
Muriel Lowenthal Quint—October 1999