(Editor's note: "Lunch Bucket Paradise," by East Bay writer Fred Setterberg, is a fictionalized account of his youth in San Leandro's Washington Manor -- Jefferson Manor in the novel. Here is how Setterberg introduces this first excerpt: "The suburbs grew in the wake of World War II – built and settled by the young men who dragged themselves home from Normandy, Okinawa, El Alamein, Monte Cassino. They purchased their homes with FHA financing, went to school on the G.I. Bill, and quietly lived with their memories of the worst that history could throw at them." For more information contact publisher, Heyday Books, in Berkeley.)
Folks in our town talked about the War only as it faded from recollection. Aiming to piece together what had actually happened, we spent Saturday nights at the Alameda Drive‑In, absorbing the lessons of Mister Roberts and Teahouse of the August Moon.
When it finally arrived in the suburbs, my father praised the Rodgers and Hammerstein version of history: South Pacific featuring Mitzi Gaynor in Pan‑O‑Vision. Dad spoke pointedly of Rossano Brazzi's rich tenor voice as though it somehow modified the atrocities at Tarawa and cut short the bloodshed in Guam.
My uncle Win, a Navy veteran of both Pearl Harbor and the Solomon Islands, complained always about Hollywood's omissions.
In the movies, Win pointed out, nobody ever got sick. But in the South Pacific – not the musical, but the actual theatre of operations – Win had contracted malaria, dengue fever, and whenever possible, the clap.
In the movies, bullets passed through shoulders, hands, or the fleshy part of a thigh. Win assured me that hot flying metal was just as likely to tear the meat off the arm or shatter the bones or lodge in the intestines or snap the spine or strip the skin from the face and leave the skull glaring back, naked and white.
"Body parts," Win explained in a hoarse and confidential whisper as we stood in line at the snack bar, waiting out the twenty-five‑minute intermission between Hell Is For Heroes and The Wackiest Ship in the Army. "Body parts is what they always leave out."
Win’s half-dollar skidded across the glass counter and landed on the Ben Franklin side. We scraped up two sacks of popcorn, each stamped in red and black newsprint with the terrifying faces of cartoon clowns
"Pieces of men," hissed my uncle, purchasing a twelve‑ounce paper cup of Pabst Blue Ribbon drawn from a cold keg underneath the counter. He slowly lifted the cup to his mouth, denying himself its pleasure by quarter-inches, and then he splashed down a mouthful. Pabst Blue Ribbon smelled to me like the night’s stale cigarettes and Wednesday morning’s fresh white bread straight off the Langendorf truck.
"They're scattered here and there,” said Win. “My sweet Jesus Christ, you wanted to puke – did you ever, Little Slick.” He stroked my head with the same firm, soothing touch he usually reserved for Joe Louis, his dachshund. “Bodies piled up like firewood. Everybody's afraid, that's the plain God’s truth. Everybody's afraid, all the time."
After the war, my uncle read more deeply into the events that his own participation had originally obscured. He picked up William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, but lost interest around the Battle of the Bulge. He nearly finished The Naked and the Dead, though it dragged on far too long, like the war itself. Eisenhower's opus, Crusade in Europe, presented a more basic problem. For Win, the war had not been a crusade. He likened the war to a highway pileup, a vast wreck of jagged metal and human guts, a cataclysm.
"During the war," Win once wistfully explained after I had reached the age of nine or ten and needed to know, "things were fucked up bad, boy. They were truly fucked up beyond belief."
Guys shot their buddies by mistake; he had seen it happen.
Ships downed their own planes.
Planes bombed their troops.
Besides the blunders, there were the dumb rumors. Soldiers feared they'd be docked a quarter of their pay if they lost any equipment in battle. Sailors believed Tokyo Rose was really Amelia Earhart and the Watts towers in Los Angeles were actually Japanese broadcast stations.
Even the officers whispered about allied agents dropped behind the German lines dressed as nuns, about Boston priests with thick Irish brogues working as clandestine Gestapo cell commandos with orders from Himmler to assassinate Harry Hopkins. Berlin was smoldering and Germany was in revolt. Hitler was infected with rabies, insane, foaming at the mouth; he was being treated by a veterinarian. Eva Braun, a secret agent of Eleanor Roosevelt's (and the former lover of Admiral Bull Halsey), had cut the Fuhrer's throat in bed.
The war would be over in a month, a week, by Saturday.
The war in Europe had been over for six months already, but the army brass wanted to keep marching until they reached Moscow.
When the news finally came about Japan, the tremendous news that the Americans had dropped a big bomb, a really big beautiful bomb, and the war truly was over, nobody could believe that one at first either. Thank you, God, prayed my Uncle Win, crying at his ship bunk, thank you, thank you, thank you, even though I don't believe in you. Thank you for ending this war because it has been truly more fucked up than anybody will ever know.
I listened to every word my uncle told me, and wondered if I would ever be ready to take my place in the world.
(Next Wednesday Excerpt Two: Suburbs Spreading.)
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