TITLE: The Canteen
By Glenn A. Hascall
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Glenn A. Hascall
NOTE: These are a couple of sample chapters from another novella I am working on. It is historical in that it demonstrates facets of a real effort by residents of North Platte Nebraska to feed over 6 million soldiers at the North Platte Canteen during World War II. This excerpt does not directly tie to the canteen but are part of the development of main characters as three children from Chicago travel to North Platte to live with Uncle Sol and Aunt Viv.
Sol and Viv
October 18, 1943
"You git out of them biscuits, Solomon Franklin Wiseman," Vivian scolded as she rapped his knuckles with her wooden spoon. Sol stuffed the biscuit in his mouth and then tended to the welt on his fingers. He grinned as his wife shooed him out the back door, "And don't come back 'til I get these things out of sight. No telling how many you'd eat - ya vulture!"
Sol seemed unconcerned as he hummed on his way to the barn. The biscuit had simply whetted his appetite and he was looking forward to breakfast. He fell into a rhythmic wish-wish-wish as he began to fill the milk bucket. If he were honest, which he was, he'd have to say the welt on his fingers was a rather meager payment for one of Viv's homemade biscuits fresh from the oven.
He knew biscuits and gravy and scrambled eggs waited just as soon as he finished the chores.
"Just came to get some eggs," Viv called out as she swung the barn door swung wide, letting in a menagerie of farm cats.
"Ah, now look what ya' done," Sol said sternly as he smiled at the milk bucket. "Shoo!" His voice was strong as he looked at one of the cats. Then in a burst of inspiration he launched a stream of warm milk in the direction of a feline who had been waiting for the tasty shower.
"Now don't you go wasting that milk, Sol," Viv scolded as she checked under another hen, pulling a nice brown egg from the nest. "There's a war on, you know."
"Don't need to remind me," Sol said with sudden soberness.
Viv hid all the precious eggs in her apron and made her way to the barn door. Sol smiled deviously as he sent another stream of milk that hit the back of her leg. Sol attempted to mimic his wife, "Solomon Franklin Wiseman! When are you going to grow up?"
They both burst out laughing and the cow mooed her displeasure. The cats just sat and waited for any errant stream of milk that might come their direction.
When Sol finished up the chores, breakfast was waiting. The coffee seemed a bit weak, but then again this was just one of many staples rationed by Uncle Sam. It was a good thing they lived on the farm, otherwise they would have had to use Oleo instead of hand-churned butter. Sol cringed at the idea of mixing a little tube of yellow goo into a tub of what appeared to be lard. Since he didn't want any part of that, he made sure to churn butter regularly from cream he'd separated from the cow's milk. This pleased Viv which, in turn, pleased Sol.
Sol placed an oversized bite of biscuits and gravy in his mouth the same time Viv asked him, "What do you think they'll be like?"
"Fwhaat?" Sol tried to ask.
"Don't talk with your mouth full," Viv replied sternly.
"Shawwey," he tried to apologize around the biscuit.
"Your kin, I wonder what those children will be like," Viv continued.
"Dunno," Sol replied with a trace of biscuit left in his mouth.
"Don't talk with your mouth full," Viv repeated.
"Then quit asking questions when I'ma eatin'," Sol said as he speared a good-sized piece of biscuit. "Now is there anything else before I commence to eating again?"
"No! Nothing," Viv said absently.
"Good!" Sol stuffed the biscuit in his mouth.
"Do you think we're ready to be parents, Sol?" Viv asked. Sol just kept eating without further reply. "Oh, isn't this lovely, now you just want to ignore me!"
Sol smiled and just kept eating.
Sol and Viv had never had children. Sure - they had wanted them early on but as time went by no children came. Viv decided she already seemed to be a mother to Sol; it seemed he was the world's oldest living child. He could dream up all kinds of mischief, but he was sure good-hearted and their marriage was more than 25 years strong.
* * * * *
Barb was jarred awake and answered the question Bobby had been asking since they had left Chicago. "No, we're not there yet. We'll be there tomorrow."
"Well, I'm hungry." Bobby pointed to his stomach as it growled in protest.
Barb ciphered how much money she had left and decided that the boys would each have breakfast as well as supper that day. All three siblings dressed and then made their way back to the dining car. Barb watched, deciding that she could wait a little bit longer to eat.
The boys were thrilled as they stabbed pieces of egg and bacon and then wiped the remaining yolk clean with a piece of toast. All the while they grinned with a hint of yellow on the edges of their mouths. Barb tried hard not to laugh.
"Do ya think they have horses?" Jake asked as he set his empty milk glass on the table.
"Who?" Barb asked.
"Uncle Sol and Aunt Vivian," Jake responded as if the question was obvious.
"I don't know. I mean, they do live on a farm..." Barb left the thought open for personal conclusion.
"I hope so," Bobby chimed in. "I want to learn to ride."
* * * * *
Viv looked out the south window toward the barn and saw that Sol was whistling as he set about the duties of the day. She was making beds for three children. Most of her extra quilts had the smell of mothballs so Viv had spent time washing the bed coverings and hanging them in the sunshine to freshen up.
It had been a long time since they'd had a guest and they had never had children stay overnight. Viv wondered how things would go.
She squared her shoulders and shook out a quilt - this was just going to have to work. Those kids didn't have a choice - neither did she and Sol. Her husband was their only relative on their mama's side.
There was a time when she would have welcomed the patter of little feet but after so many years it was more than she could think clearly about. She hated to admit it, but she liked things the way they were.
Viv saw Sol stop what he was doing and look toward town, as the sweet sound of the stream locomotive was carried on the breeze. Sol had always stopped whatever he was doing when he heard the trains; they had held a fascination for him since he came home from the last war.
Despite his flaws, Sol had always made things fun and Viv felt that, if given half a chance, her husband could be a good influence on the young'uns - either that or she'd be raising four children alone.
Viv suddenly felt a warmth toward her husband and in a burst of inspiration she opened up the window and called down to him, "I'm glad I married you, you old codger."
Sol didn't quite know how to take the admission from his small-framed wife. "Uh, are you all right, Vivian Clarice?"
"I'm fine, ya old goat." Viv shut the window and opened it up again quickly, "and I love you!" Viv smiled as she shut the window once again.
Sol chuckled to himself as he grabbed a pitchfork to move some hay, and said out loud, "Tomorrow you're gonna learn a bit about bein' a mama, Viv. 'Course I've been good practice." He took a deep breath and continued, "I hope we're ready for this."
The cackling of the hens didn't do much to make him feel very confident about his soon-to-be fatherhood.
October 19, 1943
"If that don't beat all." Sol came into the house wiping his brow.
"What's wrong?" Viv asked in concern.
"It's those blasted tires I got in town. They ration the tires and then when you get 'em, they're not worth a plug nickel. I had a new one put on a couple of days ago and now look at the thing." Sol pointed to the pickup tire.
"It has a big crack right in the middle," Viv confirmed. "So what are we going to do." Viv asked in concern. "We need to get to town to pick up the children."
"I guess we hitch up the horses and take the hay wagon into town," Sol offered.
"Oh no you don't, Solomon Franklin Wiseman. I'll be the laughing stock of the ladies auxiliary if I ride to town in that," Viv fumed.
"Well unless you got a better suggestion…" He left the thought stand as he placed his hands on his hips.
* * * * *
At a stop in Omaha there were soldiers that got on board. Jake looked at the men in uniform and thought about what it would be like to be a soldier. His mind romanticized the notion.
He was surprised to see Barb get up after a spell and walk over to the soldiers.
"Hello," she said sweetly.
The soldiers seemed to fall all over themselves trying to leave a good impression.
"My name is Barbara Schmidt," she offered, introducing herself.
She laughed at little jokes and smiled brightly at the military boys. They soon confided where they grew up and where they were going and how they were doing. They talked to her of home, the girls they left behind, pet dogs and grandmas.
Suddenly Jake thought that those soldiers looked more like the older boys back in Chicago. These were just frightened homesick boys fighting a war and looking for anything that might remind them of home.
Homesick boys - just like him.
When Barb finally came back to the seat she was smiling.
"What are you grinning for, Barb?" Jake asked.
"I was just thinking," she replied.
"`Bout what?" Jake asked.
"Those boys needed someone to talk to. They needed someone to let them know everything was okay." Barbara paused and smiled contentedly. "I think I did a good thing."
Jake thought that it seemed like she was having her own share of fun talking to those soldier boys, but maybe he was just too young to understand.
"Next stop North Platte," the Porter called as he passed through the coach.
"Oh my goodness!" Barb gasped.
"We're here?" Bobby asked as he clapped his hands softly.
"How will we know Uncle Sol?" Jake asked.
Barb thought for a moment, "I never really thought about that."
The train slowed down considerably as a small town came into view. Several people stood by, looking toward the train - some waving.
The children looked out on the station platform, trying to guess which was their aunt and uncle. There were women in fashionable hairdos and men in classy suits and hats. Then Barb noticed a horse-drawn wagon between several automobiles. A large man in bib overalls sat on the bench seat as a little woman half his size seemed to be chattering like a ground squirrel - she seemed very embarrassed.
Barb could understand - this man must be pretty poor to bring a horse-drawn wagon into town. Back in Chicago the only horse-drawn wagons she had seen were a couple of milk and ice delivery wagons.
She continued watching as the man got down from the rig and began walking toward the train; his wife continued her chatter from behind.
"Come on, it's time to go," Barb said as she herded her brothers to the nearest exit. They accepted help getting off the train. Barb was grateful, for she was a little unsteady. The boys stretched muscles that had been cooped up too long on the train.
They fetched the trunk and waited on a bench at the depot for their Uncle Sol and Aunt Viv.
"I had no choice," the large man from the wagon was saying as the couple passed the children heading inside the depot.
"But a wagon?" the lady asked as the door closed behind them.
The boys smiled slyly at one another. Barb just looked very tired.
A few minutes passed and a railroad agent stepped outside the depot and looked around. He spotted the children and asked, "Are you the Schmidts?"
"Yes sir, I am Barbara and these are my brothers Jacob and Robert," Barb replied as she smiled nervously.
The man opened the door of the depot and called, "Sol, the young'uns are out here."
So they were going to finally meet their Uncle Sol. Suddenly the large man with bib overalls stuck his head out the door and looked toward the children. "Barbara?" he asked.
Barb entertained a flood of thoughts and emotions - the loss of her mother, the desertion of her father, the long train ride from Chicago, a new life in Nebraska, a horse-drawn wagon, not nearly enough food in her stomach… The thoughts grew fuzzy.
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