NEVER MUCH OF a town for showing off, Gros Ventre waited around one last bend in the road, suppertime lights coming on here and there beneath its roof of trees. As the bus headed up the quiet main street toward the hotel, where the lobby served as depot, Ben Reinking saw the single lighted storefront on the block with the bank and the beauty shop. Of course. Thursday night. His father putting the newspaper to bed after this week’s press run.
"Here will do," he called to the driver.
The bus driver jammed on the brakes and heaved himself around to take a better look at this final passenger. Using all the breath he could summon, the man let out slowly: "I’ll be goddamned. You’re him. Awful sorry, Lieutenant, I didn’t—"
"I’ll live." Most civilians could not read the obscure shoulder patch on his flight jacket, and any camouflage he could get anytime suited Ben.
Right there in the middle of the street, the driver laboriously dragged out the duffel bag from the luggage bay and presented it to him. The man looked tempted to salute. Ben murmured his thanks and turned away toward the premises of the Gros Ventre Weekly Gleaner. Well, he told himself as he swung along under the burden of his duffel, now to see whether his father had picked up any news about the repeal of the law of averages, as it apparently had been.
Habit dies hard, even the military variety that never came natural to him; he caught himself surveying these most familiar surroundings in terms of ambush and booby trap, and with a shake of his head sought to change over to observation of a more civil sort. Storefront by dozing storefront, the town still looked as if the world of war had nothing to do with it, yet he knew better. It was simply that buildings don’t read casualty lists. He tried to put that thought away and just come to terms with being home. Gros Ventre, he’d learned growing up here, was the same age as the tree rings in the mature cottonwood colonnade along its streets, and altered itself as slowly. Only the season had changed appreciably since the last time he had to do this, early evening unrolling a frosty carpet of light from the front of the Gleaner building now as he approached.
He stopped to read the window as he always did. Posted beneath the gilt lettering on the plate glass were handbills announcing a war bonds box supper and a farm machinery auction on lower English Creek. Both were set in the familiar exclamatory typeface his father called Visual Braille. Fooling around as a printer paid for the indulgence of being a small-town editor, Bill Reinking liked to say. Just this moment, Ben spotted him there at the back of the office in the job shop, running the addressograph himself. As ever, his father looked like a schoolmaster out of place, peering foggily through his bifocals while he fed the dog tag–sized subscription plates into the small machine for it to stamp those names and addresses onto the out-of-town mail wrappers. Ben remembered now: the office help, Janie, had moved to Arizona, where her husband’s tank corps was in training.
Past his own reflection in the glass of the door, Ben watched his father at his lonesome chore until it started to hurt. This part doesn’t get any easier either, does it. Two bylines under one roof. At least we both write with the pointed end, he taught me that.
With that he stepped inside to the subtle smell of ink fresh on newsprint, calling out as cheerfully as he could manage: "All the news that fits, again this week?"
"Ben!" The addressograph made empty thumping sounds onto wrappers until his father could shut it down. "Surprise the living daylights out of a man, why don’t you. We weren’t expecting you until the weekend."
"Well, guess what, the Air Transport Command turns out to be full of surprises. It’s only a forty-eight-hour leave, not the seventy-two I put in for." He tried to cover the next with a shrug. "And there’s something I have to do out of town tomorrow. Other than that, I’m the perfect guest."
"Better enjoy you in a hurry, hadn’t I," his father said in his dry way as they shook hands. His face alight, the older man gazed at the younger as if storing up on him. He was dying to ask what was behind this trip home, Ben could tell, but doing his best to be a father first and a newspaperman second. That was fortunate, because Ben himself did not have the right words anywhere near ready. In the strange labyrinth of TDYs—temporary duty assignments—that Ben Reinking’s war somehow had turned into, this one was the hardest yet to talk about.
Bill Reinking could see most of this. Not wanting to prompt, he ventured only: "You’ve seen a lot of the world lately."
More than enough. England, bombed stiff by the Luftwaffe. New Guinea, beachheads backed against Japanese-held mountains two miles high. The close call from ack-ack over Palau on the B-17 ride; the even closer one no one was being told about. Not exactly pleasant conversation, any of it. Ben got rid of it for now in mock-heroic fashion: "It was hell out in those there islands."
His father laughed uncertainly. After a moment, the bifocals tilted up in appraisal. "Nice addition to your uniform, by the way. The Ernies"—Pyle and Hemingway preeminently, but newsman slang for war correspondents as a species—"don’t have that."
"This?" Self-consciously Ben rubbed the new silver bar of a full lieutenant on the tab of his shirt collar. Another hole in the law of averages. The promotion had caught him by surprise almost as much as the blindside orders that landed him back at East Base yet again. He lacked the time in grade, base commanders were never glad to see him coming, and for its own murky reasons the Threshold Press War Project did not bother with fitness reports—So why boost me from shavetail all of a sudden? What do the bastards have in mind for me next? For his father’s sake, he forced a grin. "It doesn’t amount to that much, Dad, to outrank civilians."
All during this each looked the other over to see how he was holding up since last time. Bill Reinking was bald to the back of his head, but his ginger mustache still matched the color of Ben’s hair. His strong glasses schooled a square-cut face on a chunky man into the most eager kind of lookout—the newsdigger’s close curiosity that he had passed on to his son. That and the ginger follicles and not much else. Ben had the Hollywood lineaments of his mother’s people—the bodily poise, the expressive hands. Those and that unbuyable mark of character: a deeply longitudinal face, neighbored with latitudes of experience—a surprising amount for a twenty-three-year-old—evident in the steady sea-blue of the gaze. The difference in stature between the two men was long-standing. Tall enough that he just skimmed under the Army Air Corps height limit, Ben had an altitude advantage over his father in a number of ways, although he usually tried not to press it. Even so, the college education, the football fame, the TPWP correspondent patch, the bylines and datelines from his stopovers in the world’s many combat zones, those all came home with him every time, and both men stood back from it a bit.
"How was the trip up here?" Bill Reinking asked, to be asking something.
"Like Gone with the Wind without somebody to neck with," his son said and laughed in a way he did not recognize. "Long."
Wondering how many more times this could happen in one lifetime, early that afternoon he had stepped out into the familiar blowy weather of Great Falls and pointed himself toward the same old tired bus that again and again had taken him to college and from college, to the war and from the war.
This time around, a person could tell there was a war on from the melancholy wheeze of the bus driver. On easier journeys home, he had been accustomed to forking over his fare to this narrow-shouldered fatherly man—an asthma sufferer, from the sound of it—in the drowsy waiting room of the Rocky Mountain Stageline depot. Now there was a sallow woman in that job who issued "God bless you real good, sonny," along with the ticket, and the ex–ticket agent was puffing around out in the loading area, dragging mail bags and the civilians’ suitcases toward the belly of the bus. The war effort, preached on posters everywhere you turned these past two years since Pearl Harbor: it wore on people, without doubt, although that did not seem what the sloganeers intended to convey. Ben tried to slip his duffel into the bus and the seat next to him so he could lean against it and possibly nap during the familiar trip, but the hunched driver grabbed it away and insisted on stowing it for him. "Save your strength for the enemy, Lieutenant," he panted.
Keeping that to himself at all costs, Ben boarded. He never liked being last at anything, but the half dozen other passengers, farm people with their city shopping clutched in their laps, long since had claimed specific seats and were giving him the gauging looks that young men in fleece-lined flight jackets tended to draw. If they only knew. Swiftly nodding in everyone’s general direction the way he imagined someone who looked like a hotshot pilot was counted on to do, he deposited himself nearest the door as always, the coat leather crackling as he folded his considerable height into the worn confines of the seat. In his travels through the world of war, he had learned never to shed the fleece jacket on any means of transport, whether it was plane, train, ship, jeep, or bus, until he had proof the heater worked.
In this case it did not, at least to any noticeable degree, and by the time the bus lumbered away from the depot and rumbled west onto the bridge across the Missouri, he had turned up the coat collar for the full effect of the wool. In more ways than one, he had never really warmed to Great Falls. Scrunched in the perpetual bus seat he felt less comfortable than ever with the thought that this smokestack-marked city—the Anaconda Copper stack there above the Black Eagle smelter dominated the sky of centermost Montana with a constant plume of smoke—seemed to have some kind of unquenchable claim on him.
Copyright © 2008 by Ivan Doig
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.