Summary: During the summer of 1944, fifteen-year-old Julia Robertson's life changes when she meets her first love.
Happy Days Are Here Again
By: Kristi N. Zanker
I sat on our front porch swing, leafing through a movie magazine and drinking a glass of cold lemonade. The air was warm and humid. Though it was early June, it felt like August. Inside the house, my parents were listening to the war news on our Philco cathedral-shaped radio. The announcer's voice was filled with empathy as he explained the aftermath of the Normandy Invasion, which happened only day ago on Tuesday, June sixth. My geography teacher, Miss Blair, had shown us on the huge colored map in our classroom where our troops landed. She explained how the Invasion was a turning point in the war. Our neighbor, Mrs. Hutchins has a 20-year-old son stationed in overseas. He might be in France, risking his life at this particular moment.
I took a sip of lemonade, thinking how lucky I was to be here in the United States, instead of war-torn Europe. It was then I heard the locomotive rush down the railroad tracks about a block from our house. The coal train still made a stop at Pennington Lumber and Coal Company in the summer because not everyone had a gas stove. Just then, the front door opened and closed with a bang, interrupting my thoughts. My six-year-old sister, Tammy, came running outside and hopped up next to me on the swing. Her light brown curls blew in the soft wind. We sat silently for a few minutes when all of a sudden he appeared.
This mysterious boy always rode his bicycle down our street after dark. I could not get a good look at him because the street lamps were too dim. With the war on, many useful things like butter, tires, gas, and electricity were rationed. Tammy noticed the boy, too.
Being the curious six-year-old she was, she asked, "Who is he and why does he always ride down our street at night?"
I couldn't answer either of her questions, but I tried.
"Well, perhaps he likes to ride his bike, or maybe he goes and visits someone." I hoped that answer would satisfy her curiosity, and it did.
She hung her feet over the side of the swing and pushed it back and forth. We sat there a few minutes longer, then both of us went inside and sat on the couch with Mother and Dad. I tried hard to listen to the news, but I kept thinking of that boy. He reminded of the radio program, The Shadow, always lurking in the dark.
The next day, when I left school, the warm sun greeted me as I quickly said "Hello" to my friends Leslie, Jane, and Molly. I told them I'd meet them in about an hour at Joe's. They nodded and I ran off. Joe's Diner was the swellest place to hang out if you lived in Pennington, Illinois and went to Pennington High School. I was a sophomore and they were juniors. We went to Joe's every Friday afternoon. This afternoon, I had something interesting and important to tell them. I had been across the railroad tracks again, (which was forbidden by my mother) and I noticed a boy picking up fallen coal from the coal train. Mother didn't like me going over the tracks to that part of the neighborhood. The houses were dilapidated and dirty and yearned for repairs that seemed to be impossible these days. But I went exploring anyway.
Leslie, Jane, and Molly were sitting at a booth when I got to Joe's. The place wasn't too crowded yet, but around seven, people would have to wait in line for a place to sit. It was 4:15. My friends smiled when they saw me.
"You'll never guess what happened!" I said.
"What?" they all chorused.
"A few days ago, when I was taking a walk after dinner, I wanted to look at those houses across the tracks, and you'll never guess what I saw." They all looked at me with their eyes wide. "I saw a boy picking up coal that fell off the coal train that always runs through here."
"I always thought those houses were empty," said Jane.
"I guess one of the houses has people living in it," I answered.
"How bad does that house look? The one with the people in it?" asked Leslie.
"Well, that house is the last house on the street. From what I saw of it, it didn't look too bad. It had a light bulb hanging from a string; one window was cracked, but covered with something. I saw an old bicycle lay on the ground near the steps of the house. That's all I saw from where I was standing before I heard a scream."
"A scream?" said Molly. "Are you sure it wasn't some kind of animal?"
"Believe me, I know a scream when I hear one. Then, I thought I heard a man yelling. I didn't want to find out, so I got out of there as quick as I could."
"That's very interesting," said Jane,
"Considering you were so afraid to walk down that street the first time."
"Well, something told me to do it, because the second time I went I saw the boy by the tracks."
"What did he look like?" Asked Leslie.
"From a distance I could tell he had brownish red hair, from the way it looked in the sun. His black pants had holes around the knees, and his shirt ripped. In a way he looked familiar."
"Wait a minute. It sounds to me like you are describing Johnny Morton," said Molly.
"Who?" The rest of us asked.
"Johnny Morton. He always gets in trouble at school. Shelly Summers told me she saw him come out of Principle Jackson's office, staring at the floor and rubbing his knuckles."
"I think I saw him in Mr. Wyman's room, once, beating the erasers together," Leslie remembered.
"Why would a boy like him be in Mr. Wyman's math class? I hear that he is very strict. If your numbers aren't written neatly, you lose part of your grade. At least that's what I heard," complained Jane.
"Maybe all the teachers hate him and just want to get rid of him!" said Leslie. We all laughed.
"Doesn't he ride that old rusty bicycle to school everyday?" asked Jane.
"Yes," said Molly. "It's always parked in the bike rack."
"Then, I have seen Johnny before!" I exclaimed. "It must be him who always rides down our street after it gets dark. Very strange. I did see a bicycle there, but I didn't think it would belong to him. He must be the one who lives in the last house." Now things were starting to make sense.
"Do you all want to order malts?" I asked.
They all said yes and a waiter came by and took our orders.
"If any of you ever run into Johnny, it's best you stay away from him," warned Molly.
I didn't listen to Molly either. Johnny seemed interesting to me. Even though he got into trouble at school all the time and did poorly in his studies, there must be some explanation. He was obviously very poor, because not everyone picks up fallen coal from the train and lives in the kind of house that he lived in. I wanted to meet him. But how could I? An idea formed in my mind; since Tammy played hopscotch everyday at school, I told her I'd walk her to the railroad tracks to find new, interesting rocks. While she would be looking for rocks, I could glance down the street and see if Johnny was out. It was a dangerous plan. I really wasn't supposed to be over there, but sometimes I believed that Mother treated me like a child. I was fifteen, so I could decide for myself where I wanted to go.
After school on Monday, I told Tammy about us walking to the tracks to find new rocks for her hopscotch games. She got excited. When we got to the house, Mother was hanging laundry in the backyard; she didn't hear us come in. We put our school supplies down, and hurried back outside.
"Mom, can we go to the park," I shouted.
Mom stood up and wiped her
forehead with a handkerchief, "Okay, be back in time for dinner."
We walked down the street, admiring how beautiful the weather was and how school would be out soon. We got to the tracks a few minutes later. I looked to see if any trains were coming. None were, so I told Tammy she could find rocks in between the tracks. While she searched, I slowly walked towards Johnny's house. I still kept an eye on Tammy, when I saw a figure come out of the house. It was Johnny. He walked to the side of the house, got out an old, dirty wheelbarrow and started wheeling it toward me. It was then, when I noticed piles of black coal along the tracks. He was here to get more coal, I thought. It's now or never. My mind nagged me: Go say something to him. When he was ten feet away from me, bending over to pick up coal, I opened my mouth to speak.
"Do you need any help with that?" I asked nervously.
Johnny stood up, holding coal in his hands.
"No, no thanks," he said quietly. "I'm in a hurry."
"Well, if you're in a hurry, I could help you so you can get that done faster."
"No, I don't want your help," he said, firmly this time and tossed the coal in the wheelbarrow.
"Why don't you just---Hey! Be careful, little girl!" For a minute I had forgotten about Tammy, who had been sitting in a rock pile, trying to lift a rock out from underneath the track.
"Oh, Tammy! What on earth are trying to do? I think you have enough rocks," I told her as
Johnny and I ran toward her.
"I think that's a bit heavy for you, little one," Johnny told Tammy.
"Who are you? Can you get this thing out for me?" she asked.
"My name's Johnny. I don't know if I can get that out, but I have a rock very similar to that one." Johnny pointed to the flat tan colored rock. Only half of it was sticking out. The rest was buried in the ground and underneath the track.
"I could give it to you," he offered.
"Really?!" squeaked Tammy.
"Oh no," I said. "You don't have to..."
"No, it's alright." Johnny interrupted. "I like kids and your sister is really cute. By the way, what's your name?"
"My name is Julia. I live down that street." I pointed to where our house was.
"I live down there," he said, pointing to the house at the end. "Come on, I'll get your kid sister that rock."
Johnny left the wheelbarrow where it was and motioned us to follow him. When we got to the house, Johnny told us to wait outside. He went inside and shut the door. Tammy and I stood there for a few minutes; then the door opened and Johnny came out holding the rock he promised Tammy.
"What do you say?" I asked Tammy when he handed her the rock.
"Thank you!" she said happily.
"My father's asleep, and hates to be woken up, so that's why I asked you to stay outside."
Johnny stood by the door. The sun shined on his face. That's when I noticed a black and blue bruise below his eye, and a small scar on his left cheek. His hands and shirt were blackened with soot. Something didn't seem right. Just then we heard a voice boom from inside the house.
"Johnny! Haven't you gotten the coal for the stove yet! I'm hungry. The damn stove's ice cold!"
Johnny's face turned to a shocking shade of pale. He opened the door to the house and said,
"Sorry Pop, I was helping some..."
It was Johnny's father; I held Tammy's hand tightly, with my heart pounding.
"I don't want to hear none of your damn excuses! Get out there and fetch the coal, or I'll teach you a lesson you'll never forget!"
"Yes, sir," Johnny's voice quivered. He turned to us and said in the harsh tone I recognized earlier, "You should go now. You got what you were lookin' for. Go!"
We were off and ran all the way home. When we got to the steps of our house, Tammy and I caught our breaths. I told Tammy she mustn't tell Mother or Dad what had happened. We weren't supposed to have been there anyway. Tammy was brave. I expected her to start crying when we heard Johnny's father, but she didn't. She promised she wouldn't tell. I hugged her extra hard. It was then, that I realized why Molly had told us to stay away from Johnny. But from seeing his face, there was pain in his eyes and it wasn't just from his father's blows.
After that meeting with Johnny, I took more notice of him. On nights after dinner, I would see him coming up the street on his rusty bicycle. He would wave to me and I would wave back. No words were spoken. We both knew what would happen if my parents found out that I was becoming friends with a poor boy from a broken home.
Several weeks into the summer, our friendship became very solid. During the day, I'd talk with Johnny while he picked up coal from the tracks. We would talk of all sorts of things. We were very comfortable with each other. He would find interesting rocks for me to give to Tammy. Tammy, I believed, was another reason that kept Johnny and me friends. He was so sweet to her, as if she was his own sister. He would listen to her talk about her day, play with her, and sometimes hug her. Johnny would sometimes hug me too, and give me a tiny kiss on the cheek. When he did that, I blushed and Johnny would laugh. Even though it was never said, I had a feeling Johnny and I were becoming more than friends. However, around other people, like his father or other boys, you wouldn't know Johnny even had a heart. He'd put on this look that could kill. He'd pick fights with the other boys. His face and arms would look worse than ever. He would then have to go home and face his father. Johnny was hurting inside. I didn't know the exact truth, but I suspected that his father might be the worst person in Johnny's life.
One night in July, after
dinner, I told my parents I was going for a walk. I was sitting on the porch,
reading a book, and waiting for Johnny to ride by. When the sun was setting,
I knew he wasn't coming. I was worried, so I told my parents I was leaving
for my walk. Tammy wanted to go with me, but I told her it was getting too
dark for her to be outside.
Walking down the street, I felt my heart pounding harder with each step. I walked down the tracks, and noticed that most of the coal was gone. Johnny must've picked it up this afternoon. The front light was on. The house looked as eerie as ever. My body trembled as I walked up the crooked steps to the door. I rang the bell and waited. I imagined Johnny's father throwing open the door, cursing at me, and pushing me down the steps. I heard footsteps from with in, and was prepared to run, when the door swung open. It was Johnny. I breathed a sigh of relief. I noticed several bruises on his face, some fading into a light blue, others the color of deep purple.
"What are you doing here?" He asked surprised.
"I thought I'd come by and see where you were, since you didn't ride by tonight." He knew well enough now that he didn't have to hide anything from me.
"Why don't you come inside, I have something to tell you." I stepped inside his house. "Sorry about the mess, my father went out. He won't be back for awhile." Newspapers and empty milk bottles littered the front hallway. We went into the living room and sat on the couch. I looked around and I saw a floor radio in front of us. Next to it, there was an old chair with the stuffing coming out of it. Pictures hung crooked on the walls. I noticed one of a beautiful woman in a summer dress. Johnny's mother, I thought. Johnny saw me staring at that picture.
"That's my mother."
"What's her name?"
"Where is she?" I was uncertain about asking.
"She died," he said, looking at the picture. "Three years ago, when I was fourteen. She went into the hospital to have a baby. It was a girl."
Maybe I shouldn't have asked. It's not my business, but I wanted to know.
"When my father called," Johnny started twisting his fingers together, "to tell me she had a girl, I was so excited. I always wanted a little sister. I wouldn't have minded if it was a boy, but I really wanted a sister."
Johnny stood up and kicked aside some clutter on the floor as he walked over to the wooden desk in the corner. "He told me," Johnny stared at the desk. "The doctors tried everything, but there was nothing they could do. There were complications during the birth. My father said she never even held baby Annemarie."
"Do they know what caused the complications?" I could hardly believe I asked, but I knew he had to tell the story, no matter how painful it was. Johnny stood silently for a minute. He pulled open the top drawer and started digging through it.
"Nobody told me, but I knew." He slammed the drawer shut and continued.
"For years, my father would go to the bar, get drunk, come home, and beat on her. He never hurt me. At nights, I remember, my father would go to the bar, and my mother would go to her bedroom and cry. One day she told me she was going to have a baby. I was so excited. I wanted someone to play with, to teach new things. The night before my mother went into the hospital to have the baby, my father really banged her up bad. I actually thought she was going to have the baby. She was only six months pregnant. I didn't know that then. He never said anything or apologize, but I know it was my father who killed my mother and Annemarie."
"Oh, my..." was all I could say. I looked at him; he was wiping tears from his eyes.
Johnny opened the second drawer of the desk and pulled out a little black leather bag. He grabbed the golden donkey statue off the desk and sat down on the couch. He set both the bag and the donkey on the coffee table.
"Don't you ever tell anyone what I just did, okay? Please don't."
I nodded, trying to hold back tears of my own.
Johnny unzipped the leather bag and took out a little rectangular piece of paper and a small paper bag of Pall-Mall tobacco. He placed paper inside the back of the donkey and then sprinkled some tobacco on it.
"I never told anyone that before. I didn't want to be different from everyone else. After my mother's funeral, my father turned on me. Up until then he'd never hit me. Once it started it never stopped. All he cares about is that damn bar, his bum friends, and using me as a punching bag."
"I'm so sorry,"
I said, placing my hand on his shoulder to comfort him.
Johnny was silent again. Then he pulled the donkey's tail up and a rolled cigarette popped out on to the coffee table. Grabbing the lighter off the table, he lit the cigarette and glanced around the messy room.
"When she was here," he said. "She'd keep the house so clean...she had a beautiful voice. I remember watching her every Saturday morning, cleaning the living room; singing to whatever song was on the radio. The song I loved to hear her sing the most was, "Happy Days Are Here Again." Not only was it a song for our country after the Depression hit, but also it was for our family. She believed bringing a baby into our family would make things happy and perfect. It didn't happen that way. My life has been so miserable since she died." How took another deep breath with the cigarette and slowly exhaled. Johnny watched as the smoke slowly curled through the air.
I took his hand and squeezed it, letting him know I was still here for him.
"I have a Victrola in my room, and I play that record every night before I go to sleep. It would be my only few minutes of happiness. My happy days will never return."
I still wanted to cry, but held back the tears. Then he told me something I would never forget.
"But, then again, maybe my happy days have come, since I met you and your sister. Tammy reminds me of what my sister could've been like. I want to thank you for listening to me. I never had a real friend before. You are the first person I could talk to about my mother and father. I know at school I'm a terrible student. That's because I don't want to be there. I don't want to be here." He inhaled the cigarette again, slowly exhaling. He seemed nervous. Next thing I knew his cigarette was finished and he began to roll another one.
During the time Johnny was gone, I told my parents about him. I thought they'd be angry with me for being with someone like Johnny, but they weren't. They told me that I was a good person; I was there for someone who needed me. I also told my friends. They were happy for me that I had a boyfriend. I told them that Johnny wasn't just a regular boyfriend. He was a special person. I think they understood. Tammy and I wrote to Johnny, and once we received a letter. Only two words were censored. You couldn't tell where you were fighting in the war, because anyone could read the mail. When I opened the mailbox, and found Johnny's letter inside, I was ecstatic. I found Tammy in the kitchen helping Mother with dinner, and together we read the letter in the living room. I read it out loud.
"Dear Tammy and Julia," I began.
"Everything's fine here, not much to tell you. I'll be at (here's where the letter was censored) for a while and then moving on. Not much excitement yet, but I have a feeling the war could be over really soon, maybe after Christmas. Remember to keep listening to the record, then I won't seem so far away from you both. Tell Tammy I miss her and I'll go rock collecting with her to make up for the time I've missed. Give her a hug for me..." I skimmed the next part of the letter.
"Does it say anything else? Is that it?" asked Tammy. I didn't want her to hear the rest of the letter.
"There is more, I can tell by the look on your face! Please read it."
"I can't," I told her, "you won't understand what I'm reading about. You have to be my age to understand." Tammy sulked. She missed Johnny as much as I did. Just then, Mother called Tammy into the kitchen to help her finish dinner. She obeyed her and left. I had the living room to myself now. I continued to silently read the letter.
I was just thinking something the other day, if the war is over by Christmas, I could be home by spring. I miss you terribly Julia. I told my Army buddies about you and they want to meet you, too. I laughed and told them that you were mine and mine only. I never got the chance to tell you, but I'll tell you now. Julia, I love you. This isn't the best way to say it, but I wanted to tell you so bad before I left; but I didn't want it to sound like I wasn't coming back. But don't worry, play the record and think of me and I'll definitely be thinking of you. Remember, I'll always be with you.
He signed the letter Love, Johnny. There were tears in my eyes. He loved me! No one has ever told me that before. On the inside I felt a mixture of pain and happiness. Johnny loved me and I really loved him. I wish I could've told him that. I played "Happy Days Are Here Again" on our phonograph in the living room every night. My sister and I would sing along. Now it was our few minutes of pure happiness. Johnny felt close to us, every time we heard it. Mother had bought a blue star to hang in our front window for Johnny. There was no one home to hang one in his window. His father will remain in jail for a while. Now our house looked like Mrs. Hutchins' with her star for her son.
On April 30th, 1945, my family was gathered around the radio listening to the news. Adolf Hitler, madman of all madmen, had just committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. We were still feeling the effects of President Roosevelt's death, which had happened on the 12th. We felt a shock of relief when we heard the news about Hitler. It was then we knew that the Nazis couldn't hold up anymore without their leader. The war could end soon and Johnny would come home and who knows what would happen? Perhaps, Johnny and I would get married. Maybe not right away, but we knew we were in love with each other. I was sitting in the chair, hearing the news, when the doorbell rang. I got up to answer it. When I opened the door I saw a man in a uniform. It was a man from Western Union.
"Good afternoon, miss. Is Mrs. Robertson in?" I had a funny feeling in my stomach. I told him that she was and called for Mother.
Before Johnny left, he had told me that he wrote my address to have letters or worse, telegrams sent to. He didn't want to send anything to his father. The man waited while Mother came to the door. He handed her a telegram. No words were spoken. It seemed as if time had decided to stop. No words needed to be said, because my mother already knew the answer, and so did I. When the Western Union man stood and waited with a telegram, it only meant one thing.
The man left after few minutes. Even though I knew the right answer, my mind bounced back and forth in denial, until I saw the two stars marked on the crisp, clean, typed paper and the words:
WE REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT JOHNNY MORTON WAS KILLED IN ACTION...
I couldn't read anymore. I started screaming. My parents tried to calm me down, but it was no use. I ran outside to the tracks where Johnny and I last saw each other. I sat down on the ground and wept. I knew he shouldn't have gone! Now he would never be coming home. I dreamed all the time about what could happen if Johnny came home, ever since he told me that he loved me in his only letter. Those thoughts about getting married were gone. It would never happen. Johnny wasn't ever coming back. I didn't want to know where he died. He would probably be buried in some Army cemetery in Europe. I hated his father for mistreating him; making him go to war. I hated Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito for starting this terrible war. It took the people we loved away. I sat there for who knows how long. My parents and sister came to me and walked me home. Tammy looked like she had been crying. She told me she was going to keep her rock collection forever as a memory of Johnny. I was going to keep the record, Johnny's only moments of happiness. A couple of days later, Mother bought a gold star to hang in our front window.
I stood on our front porch, with my family, and watched the parade go by. Confetti was thrown everywhere and there was laughing, hugging, and crying. A week ago, I found out that Johnny had died. If only he could've just held out a little longer. But who knew the war would end the first week in May? At least it was the end for Europe. We were still fighting the Japanese. But that could be ending soon, also. Now everyone was excited that one part of the war was over. I cheered along with everyone else, but felt emptiness in my heart. It was then, when I understood Johnny's mother's words. Even though Johnny's father beat him and hurt him terribly, Johnny didn't stay bitter long. He had met Tammy and me. It occurred to me that we were the "happy" part that Johnny got in return. Johnny did tell me that before he left. It was only now that I understood the words. Even if it was for a short time, perhaps, God had a plan. Who knows? I was still sad that he would never come back, but I was also glad that he had a happy part in his life.
First, it was his mother, and then it was Tammy and me. Johnny was with his mother and sister again and was probably very happy. That thought stayed with me as I went into the house and into the living room. I put 'Happy Days Are Here Again' on the old phonograph. The needle came down on the grooves and the voice started to sing... "Happy Days Are Here Again..."
"This is for you, Johnny," I said quietly and kept on listening to the song.
Copyright © 2000 by Kristi N. Zanker
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