The Yanks Are Coming

As told to Keith by his father Edward Kenny

We were the Class of ’41, Lincoln High School, Van Dyke Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. Graduation was in June, seven months before Pearl Harbor, and I was seventeen.

Jobs were scarce that summer—the country was climbing out of the depression—but all my buddies from school had found some sort of work. We called ourselves the “Cherokee Club.” When I wasn’t working or visiting with my high school sweetheart, Phyllis ‘Phyl’ Bender, I met with them to play basketball or have fun. The war changed everything.

We all decided to go down and enlist in the United States Army Air Corps and become flyers. Of the 28, eight managed to pass the physical and mental tests, and three eventually qualified for flight training. Bob Schronic died the year after he was called up in a flight school accident. Bob Brown made flight officer but shifted to bombardier training.

It was several months before I got into the Aviation Cadet Program for ground school. I was called to active duty in February 1943 and shipped to Miami Beach, Florida, for Army Basic. That May I was sent to Kent State University in Ohio for Officer’s Candidate School, meteorology, and geography. There I was appointed student officer of cadets.

Phyl had written to me every day and was my lifeline throughout training. We married on campus in the chapel of Kent State University on June 27, 1943. It was a quick wedding. Her family drove down from Detroit. We got a license at the county clerk’s office. Phyl changed to her wedding dress at the back of the office, and I wore my uniform. All my buddies attended. They’d taken up a collection for a present, twenty-one dollars, mostly in pennies.

That night, we had dinner at a hotel in Dayton. Next morning after breakfast, Phyl’s family left for home. When the sergeant told me that my two-day pass had not been approved, I went AWOL for the weekend. I was back for muster Monday morning. The sergeant gave me fifty guard tours for punishment—it was worth it. Phyl took a room off campus, and we got together whenever I could get a pass.

Graduation came later that summer. After the ceremony, the sergeant handed me rail and meal tickets for the entire class of 110 students. As Officer of Cadets, I was in charge of getting us from Kent State to the Aviation Cadet Center in San Antonio, Texas. We boarded three buses for Cleveland early the next morning, everyone in crisp tan uniforms, dark ties, and brown leather jackets. We caught the Nickel Plate train that ran from Cleveland to Chicago on the Kankakee line. We were to have lunch in Chicago and change trains to head South.

We pulled into Chicago a little late, but veteran services had our lunches ready on the platform; a row of picnic tables with bags of sandwiches, fried potatoes, soft drinks, and, of course, popcorn balls, all served by pretty girls and their mothers in bright print dresses. The popcorn balls had names and mailing addresses rolled up inside—in case a soldier wanted to write a girl back home. While the cadets ate, I looked for depot number three, where we were to catch the train to San Antonio.

The stationmaster checked our tickets and boarding time then scratched under the bill of his uniform cap. “Sir, these are for the CB&Q, the Burlington train leaving Union Station on Canal Street. This is Central Station, Michigan Avenue.”

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“How do we get over there?” I asked, noting the boarding time.

“You could wait for a bus, but you can’t all get on one, and it’s not due for another twenty minutes. It’s not a long walk. A little over a mile and a half.” He pointed the way. “Cross Michigan Avenue Boulevard, take 12th Street West across the Chicago River, turn right on Canal Street North. Takes you right to the Canal Street station.”

I ran back down the platform to rouse the cadets from their lunches and conversations. “Gotta march, boys. Grab your bags. We’ll finish eating on the way.” I heard some grumbling, but no one lingered. We lined up smartly and headed out two-by-two. When we crossed Michigan Avenue, the walkway narrowed and our march slowed. A Chicago policeman rode up on a motorcycle.

“Officer,” I showed him the tickets, “we’re supposed to be on the Burlington train leaving the Canal Street station at 4:40.” He nodded, waved us from the walkway onto the road then led us up the street. At the next corner, he talked to two policemen directing traffic. They jumped in a patrol car and sped off, clearing our path to the Canal Street.

We lined up four-abreast and made good time marching in the center of the road. About a quarter mile out, one of the cadets took up singing and everyone joined in.

Over there, over there,

Send the word, send the word, over there

That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming

The drums rum-tumming everywhere …

Other songs followed. It was a beautiful sunny day. People left the shops and sang with us; some marched with us, too. Musicians pulled up chairs along the sidewalk, played, smiled and waved. We turned north on Canal, and the crowd followed. Policemen stopped traffic and waved us along.

As soon as the station came in sight, we broke into a run. By the time we reached the platform on our tickets, our train was nearly out of sight. We’d missed it.

“Whatcha got,” the stationmaster asked, waving me over. He was a short, heavy-set man in a tight, dark uniform and a billed, conical cap. I showed him our tickets, and he checked them against the passenger train schedule.

“Next train out to St. Louie ’ll be here Thursday, three days.” My face dropped and my arms fell to my sides. The stationmaster added, “Course that won’t get you to San Antone. These tickets call for switchin’ trains in St. Louie, I—” He looked at the tickets again then at a pocket watch he pulled from his vest. “Hmmm. There’s a three-hour lay over.”

He walked into the station house, cranked up the wall phone, held the speaker to his ear, and leaned into the mouthpiece. “Helen, Charlie, be a doll and connect me to the president CB&Q. Got a problem at Union Station, Canal Street.”

I looked back at my 110 pilot cadets. One played “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” on his harmonica. Most sat on their bags or leaned on platform posts, smoking or waiting silently.

The stationmaster hung up the phone then hurried to collar an engineer and conductor coming off shift. They had a quick exchange. Both men looked at me, nodded, and ran off across the yard. The stationmaster strolled back with a swagger in his step and a wide smile on his muffin face.

“Mister, we got you a train to St. Lou. A fast ‘n, too, so you should make your connection to San Antone.”

“How—?”

“Courtesy of my boss, the President of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad.” His smile told me he held something back. “You said a hundred and ten cadets?” I nodded and he nodded back. “I told the engineer to hook up five Pullman sleepers and a diner car, so you’ll be ridin’ in style.” Hearing that, my cadets cheered, jumped up, and began talking loudly.

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The locomotive was the Burlington Zephyr Rocket, top of the line, with seven cars attached. The conductor helped me get everyone settled in their bunks and cleared it with the diner to accept our meal tickets. We’d had a long day, so it wasn’t long before everyone turned in. I heard a long, sharp whistle, felt the train lurch, and saw the lights of the Canal Street station slip slowly past the windows.

I thanked the conductor, a tall, lean, black man who never lost his smile, then said, “Now I need to find some place to curl up.”

“No thanks necessary, sir. Come with me.” He led me to the back of the train to the last car, unlocked the door, and motioned inside. “The President of CB&Q Railroad said you was to have his personal coach.” He showed me around. It was a millionaire’s executive rail car, done up like a nineteenth-century luxury hotel room, polished brass, cut glass, imported furniture, and a full bath.

“You’ll want to say goodbye,” the conductor said, leading me outside onto the rear platform. I heard the wind rush by, the powerful chugging of the engine, and the clickety-clack of wheels running over the rails.

As the city lights receded in the distance, the conductor handed me a cold bottle of Old Milwaukee beer. “Sir,” he said, holding up one of his own.

We clicked bottles, and I offered a toast, “To your fine city, to Chicago, and to fine folks like yourself.” We drank down the beers and had a couple more.

As I looked out and listened to the clickety-clack, clickety-clack, I thought of Phyl taking another train to San Antonio. She followed me throughout my year of training, camp-to-camp, and took rooms off post.

Invaders from Space, Part 2

In last week’s blog post: At the clan council fire, bird-like warriors discussed how to deal with the invaders from space. Leal suggested that they might be trying to communicate.

 

It had been five hundred years since Galactic Phoenix left Earth for a distant star system. Peter Odanoff hadn’t uploaded until just before the landing, but standing on the deck of the lander and viewing the deep orange sunrise made him nostalgic for home.

Wispy clouds on the western horizon indicated a summer storm building. The undulating string of winged creatures flying just ahead of the storm could have been a flock of migrating geese. He imagined his actual eyes squinting and the warmth of sunshine on his face. He swept an open-fingered hand over his head then jerked it back. He’d forgotten. No hair. Only contoured metal and the memory of hair.

After surveying the landing site, they’d spent the first day cutting and splitting cane stalks to build the deck. Its ramp was the only way to access the lander other than the telescoping ladder, which was difficult for Julia’s and Jeninne’s engineering chassis and for their dog Chloe.

Julia Rabkin the physical scientist had selected the landing site, a bare, level spot beside a gorge with access to potable water. The mountain-ridged horizon meant possible mineral resources. Jeninne Sobek the life scientist had started a research and vegetable garden. Our robot chassis required no organic food or medicine, but if things went well, soon there would be children, real children.

Peter was the pilot and chief technician. Though he missed Earth, he had no regrets. Interstellar travel had fascinated him from his youth. He knew his real self had lived a normal human life and been dead for centuries. How many children and grandchildren did he have now? Maybe they’d sent pictures along with software updates. He’d check when the day’s work was done.

The Russian engineers had done an amazing job, but Russians are known for their no-frills practicality. They put optical and aural sensors in his head, and thermal, tactile, and chemical sensors in his hands—so Peter’s hands could smell. He held one up to the morning light. To keep him sane, they’d reproduced his old physiognomy wherever possible. He flattered himself that he was strikingly handsome and was pleased the humanoid chassis reflected that image with a few cosmetic touchups.

Suddenly self-conscious, he pulled his hand down. The last thing he wanted to do was stir resentment. Until they manufactured other humanoid chassis, Julia and Jeninne were stuck with the engineering frames the Russians had given them—more practicality.

“Amazing sight.” Jeninne’s voice came from the agro-planter below the deck.

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“Yes,” Peter said and pointed. “If not for that second light, the illusion would be perfect.” Beside the sun was its yellow dwarf companion star.

Peter leaned over the rail as Jeninne’s gimbaled sensor whirled to look up. “Did Julia leave? I asked her to wait.”

“She took the geo-rover up the ridge.” Jeninne extended a pruning hook to the horizon. “She said that area tested radioactive. We don’t have feed materials, and the fabricator needs heavy metals.”

“I’d planned for us to scout that area together, but I know she’s been anxious. Any predators about?”

“There’s a man-sized moa-velociraptor-thing stalking the compound. I’ve only seen one, but there could be others. So far it’s kept to the forest. I’m more concerned about that pack of six-legged predators. Two dozen were sniffing the perimeter last night and pooping. They stayed out of the light. Each must weigh about fifty kilos. Julia calls them devil-dogs. They’ve got some vicious fangs and claws. If they go after her on the ridge, she has the laser stun gun, but it only gets three shots to a charge. Until we know what they’re after, I don’t want Chloe running loose.”

Hearing her name, Chloe barked. She was the only live member of the crew. The Yellow Labrador Retriever would soon be the mother of their first children. The nano-implants had already corrected Chloe’s cryo-damage and reset her gestation time.

Jeninne’s lenses swiveled back to Peter on the deck. “Need help with Chloe?”

“No, but would you unhook her tether?”

Peter called, “Chloe, come.” The big, yellow dog bounded up the ramp and, without slowing, made a hard left into the lander’s open bay.

“I don’t imagine Julia’s rover will attract any devil-dogs,” Peter said, “not for food anyway, but they might defend their territory.”

“I’ll try not to worry,” Jeninne said, rotating on her ball-base and rolling to the garden. “I’m testing the seeds we brought from Earth along with some local tubers and seed cases, also a few fern fruits and fungi for possible medicinal applications.”

The base station lab resembled a twenty-first-century, camper trailer kitchen. Peter lifted Chloe onto the white, MechMed counter. He stroked her ears, checked her pulse and breathing, then inserted the anesthesia needle.

He took a rack with four embryo tubes from the incubator, placed one tube in the MechMed, and hit scan. The timer bar glowed soft blue, ninety seconds, eighty-nine, eighty-eight.

Peter pressed the queuing button beside the comm switches above the examination counter. His preferences flashed by—Bach, Beethoven, Dvorak, Sibelius—as they had every morning for the past seven days. He liked starting the workday with the final movements of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, “The Choral” in D Minor, Op. 125.

A bell chimed once and the panel beside the timer bar flashed CLEAR in soft blue. Peter removed and examined the tube, restored it to the rack, and placed a second tube in the scanner. He hummed then whistled along with the music. This time, after ninety seconds, the bell chimed three times rapidly. The panel flashed ERROR 0.07% alternating with CORRECT? Peter touched the panel. A fraction of a second later a single bell chimed and CLEAR displayed. Quantum deterioration could be expected after so long a time, even near absolute zero. He removed the second tube, switched it, and placed a third into the MechMed.

When the “Ode to Joy” began, Peter sang along, Freude, schöner Götterfunken. He had sung in the chorus at Swarthmore and felt a familiar thrill rising. Suddenly, from the open hatchway behind him, he heard the sound of a melodious flute accompanying him.

“Wonderful, Jeninne, how are you doing that?” A bell chimed and CLEAR displayed. As he removed the third tube, Peter continued singing.

The flute accompanied the melody flawlessly.

“Magnificent,” Peter said, turning to the hatchway. “How do—”

A six-foot, bird-like creature blocked his exit. The creature rocked on its powerful haunches, its black tongue vibrating in its hooked beak like a silver flute. At the end of the musical phrase, the creature lowered and widened its horn-ridged, purple eyes, and centered its beak on Peter’s chest.

He stumbled back against the counter almost dropping the embryo tube. Without thinking, words tumbled from his mouth.

“That … that … that was pretty good … you just do the classics?”

The creature folded its scale-like feathers and opened its beak. “All I hear,” it said in a chime-like voice. “Come for know.”

Peter pulled erect. “You speak English?”

Leal dipped his beak. “Music better.”