“Safe at Home”

by Steven Miller

Billy Procter finished putting a shine on his shoes and tossed the brush into a box in the closet. He straightened his tie and tucked it neatly into his shirt under the second button down. He slipped on his tunic over his shirt and checked himself in the mirror mounted on the closet door. He ran his hand gently over the breast pocket and where his combat ribbons were displayed, and his lapel with his honorable service discharge pin. The sergeant stripes he was awarded after his qualification as Expert Triggerman showed prominently on his sleeves. His dress uniform still looked almost new, since he had not really worn it much when he was overseas.

He had been in southern Italy, part of the 451st Bomb Group that flew the B-24 “Liberators” over enemy territory to targets in France and into Rumania. He had arrived in October of 1943 and was discharged and returned to the States in late August, 1944 after completing his 50th mission. He came back to his parents’ home in Elmhurst, a quiet suburb west of Chicago. His homecoming had been subdued. He had asked his parents and their friends for some time to get used to being home again. And for time to try to understand why he had come back and so many had not.

As he lay in his bed at nights, the one he had slept in since he was a child, sleep was elusive and he awoke often with his sheets soaked in sweat. In his sleep were images of burning airplanes spiraling to the ground, their crews – his friends – trying desperately to escape the falling aircraft and parachute to safety. Most of the time their efforts were fruitless. The B-24 often flew at low altitudes to increase bombing accuracy and had few avenues for rapid escape. More often than not, they took their crews to the ground with them. But by the grace of God, he had flown all fifty missions on the same plane, named the “Texas Rose” after a young lady the pilot had known in San Antonio. She was a sturdy airplane, with numerous patches and holes, but she had brought them home safely every time.

As he looked at his image – physically unscarred by combat – he felt the hollowness in the pit of his stomach, dreading what lay before him today.

Billy walked down the stairs and into the kitchen where his mother had fried him some bacon and eggs and made fresh coffee. When he left for the war at the age of eighteen, he really had not started drinking coffee. Now, it was a staple of his morning routine.  His father had already left for work, and when his mother turned from the stove, she paused, skillet and spatula in hand.

“Billy”, she asked. “What are you doing?”

Billy saw the alarm in her eyes.  “Don’t worry, Mom,” He said with a slight smile. “I’m not going to re-enlist or anything.” He slipped his tunic off and hung it on the back of the chair and sat down.

“I thought you were going to look into starting to go to school or see about an apprenticeship at RCA or something.” she asked as she spooned the eggs onto his plate.

“I haven’t decided what I want to do yet. But I have something I need to do today, someone I need to go see.” He ate quietly as she sat across the table from him and watched the boy who had left for the war and returned a quiet young man. When he was finished, he carried his dishes to the sink and put the uniform tunic back on and buttoned it up. He leaned over and kissed his mother on the cheek.  “I’ll be back later this afternoon, Mom.”

He walked down the hall toward the front door, pausing briefly at the mirror by the door for one final inspection. Everything was in its place. He patted the left breast pocket to be sure the envelope with the four photographs was there and went out the door. At the bottom of the porch steps, he turned right and began to walk toward downtown and the train station.  He was thankful that the September weather had begun to cool off and the uniform would not be too warm. He walked the half mile to the station and bought a ticket to Union Station. Once there, he would catch the CTA Elevated train that would take him to the south side of Chicago. He knew where he was going; the address was a few blocks from Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox. He was a Cubs fan himself and had spent many a summer afternoon in the “friendly confines” of Wrigley Field as a boy. But he had taken the perilous journey to Comiskey on several occasions to watch the Cubs and Sox battle it out for bragging rights.

When the train came to a halt, he boarded and found a seat by a window. It was mid-morning and most of the commuters had already made the trip into the Loop, so the train was not very crowded. Still, he could feel the eyes of the other passengers on him. Some admired him. Others, he was sure, looked at him and felt the pain of a loved one who did not come home. He began to regret his decision to wear the uniform and wished he had worn inconspicuous civilian clothes instead.

When the train reached Union Station, he climbed the steps to Madison and walked the few blocks to catch the Elevated. Once on board, he sat quietly watching downtown Chicago pass by his window as the train rattled southward. He looked at traffic and the men and women hurrying in and out of the tall buildings with all their glass windows and wondered to himself if business had gone on as usual throughout the war while he was helping bomb parts of Europe to rubble.

He exited the car at 35th street and walked for a half hour until he found the house he was looking for on a tree-lined street on Chicago’s south side. It was a small bungalow, typical of this part of the city, home to the people who carried a lunch pail to work every day. He stepped up to the porch, stopped and nervously smoothed his uniform. He had spent hours thinking of how he would approach this and what he would say to them. But all that failed him at this point.  He swallowed hard and knocked on the door.  After a moment, the door opened slowly, and he was looking through the screen at Eddie’s mother. She was in her mid-forties, but still attractive. Her auburn hair, which had begun to tun grey, was pulled back in a bun in back. She wore a simple house dress and carried a dish towel in her hands.  She scanned his uniform and then looked him with frightened eyes, saying nothing.

“Mrs. Walsh?” Billy said, a bit uncomfortable. “I’m Bill Procter. I wrote you a letter recently.”

She looked at him for another moment, then seemed to be jolted from wherever her mind had drifted.  She unhooked the screen and pushed it open, stepping back so Billy could enter. He hesitated a moment, then remembered to remove his hat, and stepped tentatively into the house. She turned to look at him and he could see that her face, once beautiful, now showed the signs of age, and no doubt grief.

“Please forgive me,” she said. “The last time a young man showed up at my door in a uniform, he delivered a telegram with very bad news.”

Billy looked down at the floor nervously, and back to her face. “Yes ma’am, I know’” He replied.

“Please sit down,” she said gesturing toward the well-worn sofa with her hand. “I’ll get Mr. Walsh. He’s in the garage out back. He works the second shift, so he has not left for work yet.” She started through the dining room to the kitchen, then stopped. “You must be thirsty. May I get you something?”

“Just water would be great, ma’am. Thank you.” She continued into the kitchen and returned with a tall glass of water with small pieces of ice. Then she turned and went back through the kitchen and out the back door.

Billy sat uncomfortably and looked around the room. Most of the furniture was worn, if not threadbare, as was the rug, a house belonging to hard-working people who struggled to make a living. On the mantle was a framed picture of a young man in uniform, his best friend, Eddie Walsh. The face was not smiling. It was stern, the custom for official Army pictures. But Billy knew that behind that emotionless stare was a gregarious kid from Irish stock who loved nothing better than sharing beer and a few laughs with his fellow airmen. In his mind, Billy could still hear the noisy piano in the NCO club, the men drinking and singing, doing their best not to think about those who had not returned from the latest bombing mission, and more importantly, trying not to think about the next one, the one that could be their last.

His reverie was broken when Mrs. Walsh emerged from the kitchen, followed by a stocky man wearing a denim shirt, and trousers held up by suspenders.  He walked up to Billy and held out his hand. “So, you’d be Billy Procter, would you?” he said, grasping Billy’s hand firmly and covering the handshake with his left hand. “We heard a lot about you from Eddie.”  His voice still carried a bit of the brogue he had brought with him from Ireland as a child.

Billy managed a slight smile. “Yes, sir, I am.”

“Well, sit back down,” Mr. Walsh said. There was a moment of awkward silence, until Mr. Walsh cleared his throat. “You are from Elmhurst, are you?  It was awful nice of you to come all this way to call on us.” Mr. Walsh took the armchair across from Billy, while Eddie’s mother sat quietly at the other end of the sofa, her hands folded in her lap. Her eyes never left Billy.

“Yes, Sir. My dad works for the railroad. I grew up in Elmhurst.”

“So, tell me, how did you and Eddie get to be chums? I know he liked you a lot. Said you were looking forward to seeing some baseball games when you got back.” In spite of Mr. Walsh’s upbeat demeanor, Billy could sense the pain in his eyes.

“Yes, sir. We met not long after I got to Italy. I flew in with my crew from Nebraska where we picked up our ship. We named her “Texas Rose” and we flew her all the way to Italy. Eddie had gotten there about a month before I did. He was on the crew of the “Annie Lane,” what they named their plane.”

“Yeah” said Mr. Walsh. “Eddie said some of the boys wanted to name it “Sassy Lass,” but the pilot overruled them. And I guess what the pilot wants, he gets, eh?”

“Yes, Sir. That’s pretty much how it works.” Billy paused a moment. He looked at Mrs. Walsh who sat silently, listening. “Anyhow, by the time I got there, Eddie had already done three or four runs.  We were getting Rose ready for her first mission and Eddie walked over to see how we were doing. He introduced himself and asked if any of us were from Chicago. Of course, I raised my hand.  ‘You a Cubs fan?’ he said. I said I was, and he just shook his head, spit in the ground and walked back to his plane.”

Mr. Walsh smiled a bit. “Yeah. Eddie was a Sox guy. Every chance he got, he would skip school and run over to the ball park to watch a game. About flunked out ‘cause of it.”

“Well,” Billy continued, “we didn’t fly that day and I was walking back to my tent and I heard someone shout, ‘Hey, Chicago!’  I turned and saw Eddie walking up behind me. ‘You really a fan of them sorry Cubs?’ he said. I started to get a little sore, but he just laughed and stuck out his hand. ‘I’m Eddie Walsh,’ he said. ‘Welcome to the war.’ We walked over to the mess tent and had a Coke and talked. “

“Yeah, Eddie liked to rib people about being Cubs fans,” said Mr. Walsh. “Most of them would give it right back to him.”

“He was incredible,” said Billy. “He knew all the Sox players for the past ten years, their batting averages, home runs, everything. He especially liked to get under Cub fans’ skin.” Billy paused for a moment, looking down at the floor. “We were looking forward to getting home after the war and going to the games, especially the Cubs – Sox games.”  Billy paused again, feeling the lump rise in his throat.

Eddie’s father spoke up. “So, tell us about this place where you and Eddie were. He said it was pretty miserable.”

“Yes, sir, it was. The first place was called Gioia del Colle. I think it means ‘jewel of the hill’ or something like that. They should have called it jewel of the mud hole.” Billy managed a small chuckle. “When we got there, it was mostly tents with stoves in them for heat. They had laid big steel mats for runways, but it got so muddy the mats sunk into the muck. Planes would leave a rooster tail when they took off. But in the winter, it was cold and muddy. After a while the brass decided the field was unusable. They moved us to a place called San Pancrazio. It wasn’t a lot better.”

“Yeah,” said Eddie’s father. “Eddie wrote home that it was hard to really get warm. He said he felt sorry for the guys from the south that weren’t used to being cold. Not like us Chicago guys. He said it was cold in the planes, too.”

“Yes, Sir. It was. But they gave us long underwear and the flight suits were leather lined with sheep’s wool. Still, it got cold, especially for the side gunners who were near the gun ports.”

“Eddie said he was a turret gunner.”

“Yes, sir,” Billy replied. “He was in a bubble that stuck out of the top of the plane. It turned so he could shoot in any direction.” Billy paused for a minute. “He was in my squadron. I manned the gun on the right side of the ship and sometimes when his ship was to the right of mine, I could wave to him.”

Billy set down his water and reached into the breast pocket of his tunic and pulled out a photograph. “He bought a camera at the PX and before one of the missions, he gave it to me. He wanted me to take a picture of him once we were in the air and I could get a good shot of his plane.”  Billy hesitated a minute, glanced at the photo in his hand to be sure he had the right one, and then handed the it to Mr. Walsh. “I wanted to make sure you had this.”

Eddie’s father studied the photo a minute. It was a little grainy, but it clearly showed Eddie’s B-24 Liberator with the name “Annie Lane” painted on the side beneath the cockpit. On the top, slightly to the rear of the cockpit was the clear turret, twin machine guns facing to the rear. Inside was a shadowy shape of a man. “It that Eddie?” asked Mr. Walsh, tapping the photo lightly.

Billy leaned forward and looked to where Mr. Walsh was pointing.  “Yes, Sir. He’s in the turret.”

Mr. Walsh handed the photo to Eddie’s mother who looked at it briefly and handed it back. She was still silent and stiff, tears welling up in her eyes. They were quiet. Mr. Walsh sat forward in his chair, forearms on his knees, hands clasped in front of him, staring down at the floor.

After a moment, Billy cleared his throat nervously and said, “Well, I had better head back. I need to catch the El back into the Loop.”

As he started to rise, Eddie’s mother spoke for the first time in a quiet voice. “Did you see it?”

“See what, Ma’am?” Billy replied, although he knew what she meant.

“Did you see it happen? Did you see Eddie’s plane go down?” Her voice broke slightly as she spoke.

Billy was quiet for a moment, glanced at Mr. Walsh, then back at Mrs. Walsh. “No, Ma’am, I didn’t,” he replied. “It was a week or so later and he was in another formation. I didn’t hear until we got back.”  She was silent again. Billy knew what she was thinking. Was there any chance that it had been a mistake, that Eddie had made it out of the plane safely, and that maybe he was still alive and hiding somewhere over there? But Billy knew better.  And he knew it was time for him to leave.

Billy rose from the couch and moved to the door. He paused by the screen but couldn’t bring himself to turn to look at them, looking instead at his cap in his hands. “I’m really sorry about Eddie,” he said quietly. “He was my best friend over there.” His voice faltered from the lump in his throat. “I’m really sorry,” he said again. He fought hard to keep the tears back.

Mr. Walsh grasped Billy’s hand in both of his. “Thank you for coming, son,” he said. “I know it’s hard. But I’m glad you made it home safely, and I’m sure your mom and dad are thankful to have you back.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Eddie’s mother stepped to Billy and put her arms around his neck, squeezing him for a minute. Billy knew what she was thinking.  Why had this young man managed to come through fifty bombing missions and return home safely, while my son is buried in some field on the other side of the world? It was the question Billy had asked himself countless times, with no good answer. She finally released him and stepped back, her eyes full of tears.

Billy left and walked back toward the train platform. He was aware that they had not asked him to visit again sometime. But he understood. He was an all-too-painful reminder of what they had lost.

He boarded the El car and rode it back to the Loop and boarded the commuter train to Elmhurst. About half way home, he reached into his breast pocket and removed the envelope and withdrew three more photos he had not shared with the Eddie’s parents.

The first was taken moments after the one he had left with them. It showed the sky full B-24 Liberators flying through of bursts of anti-aircraft fire and smoke.  The “Annie Lane” was in her usual formation to the right of the “Texas Rose”. In the grainy photo, he could see another plane falling nose-first, smoke and fire streaming from the engines.

The second showed the “Annie Lane” rolling to the left, her left wing and engines torn from the fuselage, pieces of her falling into the empty sky below.

The third showed the “Annie Lane” spiraling downward, engulfed in flames, taking her crew, including his best friend, Eddie Walsh, to their deaths below. Billy sat back in his seat, his hands dropping to his lap. He remembered screaming at Eddie to get out. Please, Eddie! Get out! He remembered straining by his gun port, looking for some sign of parachutes. There were none.

The flack was terrible that day over Ploesti that day. In all, over fifty Liberators went down, over six hundred airmen were lost.  The “Texas Rose” had limped home on three engines, with several gashes in her fuselage. The gunner on the left side of the plane had been killed by shrapnel. Billy made it back. And he had made it back every time after that.

And now he was safe at home. He slid the envelope back into his pocket and stared out the window at the quiet Chicago suburbs passing by.