BOBBY COHEN - FIVE THINGS
When I was a little girl, I always knew what my parents were thinking. I didn’t have to make any special effort, or do anything weird—I just knew. It was the same as if they were talking—to me, to each other, or to anyone else. I actually heard the words. It took me quite some time, as I recall, to be able to tell when they were really talking and when I just heard them in my mind. Of course, when they spoke normally, their lips would be moving, but as a child, I didn’t think about that. By the time I started school, I began to realize the difference.
My first day at school was the most confusing day of my life. I could hear what everyone was thinking—my classmates, the teacher, even passersby in the hallway. The profusion of garbled words in my mind was beyond frightening. I didn’t know what to do, having never told my parents about this strange curse. I cried all the way home, but when I got to our West Philadelphia row house, I made sure my mom, who worked at night, and my dad, who had a disability pension and stayed home to care for me, never saw my tears. I was afraid they’d be disappointed with me.
By the end of the first week, I learned how to focus only on what the teacher was saying, and could avoid the other voices. Doing that made me a better student but also had the effect of isolating me from my classmates. They said I was stuck-up and thought I was better than they were. If they only knew how I really felt.
By the end of the school year, I had figured out how to hear some voices while avoiding others. That control came too late for me to become more popular with the other kids that year, but at least I could get a fresh start the next semester.
Summer vacation made things much easier because I had fewer voices to worry about—only my parents and two neighborhood girls that I saw for short periods of time each day.
With each passing week, I learned more about my curse and how to control it. By the time I was in junior high school, it was no longer a curse, but a gift that I could put to my advantage. Knowing what people were thinking, it turns out, made me not only a straight A student, but also a very popular girl.
When I was twelve, my father died. Mom said he had a very sick liver, and after many years of struggling, his body was too weak to fight it anymore. I had spoken to him just before he passed, so I knew exactly what she was talking about, but I never told her how that came to be, although I suspected that, somewhere in her most hidden thoughts, she already knew.
I had always been closer with Dad because Mom worked at night and slept a lot during the day, while he was home all the time. I was able to talk to him more, and eventually told him about my strange gift. He accepted my story without comment, other than to say he loved me very much and always would, but his thoughts told me that he knew exactly how I felt and he couldn’t wait to share it with Mom. I was asleep when she got home from work, but I knew later that she not only understood, but somehow even expected me to be special. It was unsettling for me to realize it was something that both of them thought about regularly, but never spoke of to me.
I can never forget my last conversation with Dad, shared as he lay on his death bed. He wanted to tell me about how he met Mom and the source of my gift. As he rambled on, only half conscious from pain medication, I could hear the whole story, the true course of events, from what I heard in his memory, far more than from those last delirious words.
What follows is the real story of Joseph and Mary MacDougall, my beloved parents. I tell it as if I were simply an observer, relating it as objectively as I can.
Joe MacDougall brought five things home with him from World War II. He got them all as a result of his fourteenth, and, as it turned out, his last combat mission, in February, 1945.
Joe was a waist gunner on a B-17. A waist gunner sits in a glass bubble which protrudes like an outie navel from the belly of the Flying Fortress. His only protection, on the theory, he supposed, that a good offense is the best defense, were the pistol grips of the two .50 caliber machine guns, with which he was to shoot German aircraft from the sky.
On that particular day, Joe’s plane was carrying forty 500-pound bombs to drop on the city of Dresden. The mission should have been a milk run. Dresden is fewer than six-hundred miles from London, not far from where the flight originated, and what was left of the Luftwaffe was busy trying to stem the Allied invasion of the German homeland. To make things interesting, the Nazis peppered the sky with anti-aircraft fire, a rarely effective device.
Not being preoccupied with Messerschmitts, Joe watched through his bubble as the bomb bay doors opened, just forward of his position. He saw the dark finned Blockbusters fall, two by two, fluttering in the air like cardboard toys. Through his headset, he heard the bombardier, Lieutenant Gibson, yell, “Bombsawayletsgetthehellouttahere!” He felt the plane bank sharply to starboard to come about to due west, the shortest route back to base.
Then hell broke loose.
The explosion was deafening, filling the fuselage above him. Amidst the screams he heard the skipper, a Midwesterner named Braun, yell, “MacDougall, can you hear me?”
“I hear you, Skipper,” he said.
“Then get your ass forward to the cockpit, now.”
The cockpit was a disaster. There was a hole in the starboard fuselage, aft of the glass. Stein, the co-pilot, lay dead in his seat, the right side of his head gone. The turret gunner, Joe’s best friend, Matt Pocock, hung like a rag doll from his bubble overhead, blood dripping from his lifeless left arm onto the remaining half of Stein’s face. Gibson was unconscious in the bombardier’s seat. Braun’s right arm, riddled with shrapnel, lay useless at his side, his left hand on the yoke in a death grip.
“Are you all right?” Braun said, his voice distorted by pain.
“I think so,” Joe said. He was preoccupied with grief and anger over losing Matt, but barely had time to realize it.
“Good. Then get him out of there,” he chin-pointed at Stein, “and climb in.”
Robotically obeying his skipper’s orders, Joe unbuckled Stein’s seatbelt, pulled his body onto the deck, and dropped into his place. The belt was shredded, the buckle torn half away from the strap, so he didn’t take the time to try to re-buckle it.
“Is your head okay?” Braun said.
“I guess so. Why?”
“Because it’s bleeding. But never mind that. You’re going to fly us home.”
Joe remembered hitting the left side of his forehead on one of his pistol grips when the explosion came, but never felt the blood dripping down onto his cheek.
The ship was way off course, never having completed its turn. Through his headset, Joe got a quick flying lesson in a shaky voice from Braun, and, his face blasted by the force of inrushing air from the hole next to him, guided the plane out to the Channel, leaving the mainland north of Le Havre. Joe looked through the glass and saw nothing but choppy green-gray water. He turned to Braun only to see him passed out. If it weren’t for the blood bubbling in and out of his nose, Joe would have thought him dead. He’d never felt so alone, so filled with fear.
After an interminable length of time, during which he was sure he’d strayed too far off course and would eventually crash into the Atlantic, he saw coastline starboard-side. Praying that it was England and not some hostile land, he ditched the plane as carefully as he knew how, as it turned out, between Brighton and Southampton. When the plane hit the sea, Joe, still beltless, smashed his left leg into the instrument panel hard enough to shatter both bones below his knee. Somehow, the ship stayed afloat long enough for Joe, Braun, Gibson, and the two tail gunners to be rescued.
Two surgeries were needed to insert stainless steel pins in Joe’s tibia and fibula, and to cut skin from his buttocks to be grafted onto his shin. By the time he was able to get out of his hospital bed and move around, the doctor told him he was lucky to be alive, let alone able to walk. But walking was a painful process at best, despite his cane. It was a herky-jerky motion by which he tried to relieve the pressure on his injuries, but at the price of considerable lower back pain. That, in addition to the lower leg pain, which was almost constant after the last of his morphine prescriptions elapsed, would have confined a lesser man to a life without physical activity. But Joe refused to become a “basket case”, as he would say to anyone who cared to listen. His way of easing the pain was drinking gin and taking aspirin, both of which were readily available without prescription.
As soon as it became possible to walk far enough to leave the base, Joe began spending his time at a nearby pub, The Quarterdeck. Southampton, on England’s southern coast, was a seafaring town, and Joe became absorbed in the stories that salmon fishermen swapped over their beers, not to mention the green-eyed, red-haired barmaid who worked there. Mary O’Brien was a perky lass with a turned-up nose and a set to her chin that spoke of stubbornness, and before long she took a liking to the dark-haired yank who walked with his head held high and a defiant glint in his deep blue eyes, despite his strange limp. Though she was only twenty, she could tell by the way he held his liquor, and the stolid front he put up, that he had character. It didn’t take long for the soldier and the barmaid to fall in love.
Joe arrived at The Quarterdeck every evening and talked with Mary whenever she wasn’t busy. Long past the time when the alcohol had lost its power of intoxication, he sipped his gin for the gentle numbness it brought, which was his only means of tolerating the cruel trick life had played on him.
Every night, when Mary finished her work, he walked her down to the modest cottage near the coast where she lived with her father, a retired seaman, and her grandmother. What little lovemaking that took place between them was accomplished awkwardly and incompletely in Mary’s front yard, on a wooden bench shielded from the house by an ancient privet. When it became apparent to them that they would marry, she brought Joe inside to meet her family.
Sean O’Brien was a tall, spare man with large features, his weathered face a series of broad, flat surfaces, upholstered in wrinkled leather, framed in a Lincolnesque, salt and pepper beard, and punctuated by sparkling, ice-blue eyes. He sat in a cushioned rocking chair, chewing on the stem of a curved meerschaum pipe, smoothed and yellowed, with a patina that bespoke years of fondling. His white knitted turtleneck sweater and blue denim trousers hanging from his frame like scarecrow’s rags, he eyed Joe critically, unaware of the pain he’d endured to walk to this first meeting. Joe stood proudly before Sean O’Brien, wearing two ribbons above the left breast pocket of his olive-drab uniform blouse, representing the Distinguished Flying Cross and, though he disdained it because he did nothing positive to earn it, the Purple Heart. Mary stood beside Joe, clutching his left arm and smiling inanely at her father and his mother-in-law, who sat sipping tea at a nearby pine table.
Sean looked at the old woman, bald save for a few wisps of silky, white hair, her face a lumpy mass of wrinkles protecting a pair of green eyes clouded from age. He spoke to her in a language Joe could not understand, after which she glared at the soldier, pulled her grey, woolen shawl around her bony shoulders, and took another sip of tea. Then she spoke to her son-in-law, talking at length in the same strange tongue he’d used.
Her father turned to Mary, removed the pipe from his mouth, and said, “It can’t be done,” then clamped his jaw resolutely back onto the meerschaum.
“I will Marry Joe,” she said, putting extra emphasis on the “will”, her chin jutting defiantly.
“You heard your grandmother,” he replied, removing the pipe from his mouth with an unsteady hand. “There’s the curse. You can’t marry the Yank.”
“What curse?” Joe said, his first words since entering the house.
“It’s not fair to me,” Mary said, interrupting Joe’s question. Her petulance drew his attention from Sean.
“It’s not fair to the Yank, girl,” her father said, ignoring Joe’s question.
“Excuse me, sir,” Joe said, his voice louder than he might have wanted. “I’d like to know what you’re talking about. If something isn’t fair to me, I think I should be the judge of it.”
Sean’s gaze flicked from his daughter’s defiant green eyes to Joe’s determined blue ones, and back again. He sighed heavily, shrugged, struck a match on the underside of the rocker, and held it to the bowl of his meerschaum, sucking the stem and puffing smoke. All of these gestures were performed slowly, deliberately, as if he were alone in his parlor. Once he had the pipe going to his satisfaction, he returned to his daughter’s impatient, but still respectful stare, which spoke of having endured similar situations many times before, and said, “All right, then. Tell him.”
Mary grasped her lover’s hand and led him to a tweed covered divan placed against the yellowed plaster wall. After a few seconds of silence, her fingers fidgeting in her lap, she said, “There is supposed to be a curse on my family that was put there hundreds and hundreds of years ago by the Blue People.”
“Do you mean real blue people, like with blue skin?”
“I’m not really sure. I don’t know how it got started, but it had something to do with Saint Augustine and the Druids, who were called the Blue People.” She paused, reluctant to continue.
“And…?” Joe said.
Mary glanced at her father, who kept his icy eyes on her, pipe clamped firmly between his teeth.
“They had magic men,” she continued, “who were supposed to have somehow made themselves blue to frighten their enemies. They felt it would make them more powerful. They were said to be able to use the forces of nature and the change of seasons in their magic, and…and…it’s all just superstitions and whatnot, you know, from so long ago.” She stopped again, unsure of herself.
“Please go on,” Joe said.
“It has something to do with those converted by Saint Augustine to Christianity. I’m not sure of all the details—don’t know if anyone is, really, but the Blue People cursed those who became Christians. What it means to us is that…that no sons are born into our family, only girls. You see, no one to carry on the family name. I’m still not sure it has anything to do with it, but my mother fell from a cliff into the sea many years ago. She was eight months pregnant. It was ruled an accidental death.”
“I’m so sorry,” Joe said.
“It was long ago, but thank you.”
“So that’s it? No sons?”
“No, there’s more.” She looked back at Sean, who tapped his pipe into the ashtray and refilled it, now avoiding her eyes.
“Any one of us born at the equinox, Spring or Fall, is cursed with strange powers, witch’s powers. Those born at the solstices die by their own hand. My mother was born on June twenty-first.”
Mary glanced at her father, his eyes squeezed shut as he puffed on his pipe. Her grandmother, mumbling softly to herself, had also closed her eyes.
“The curse ends only when one of us dies childless.”
“How could you possibly know all these things?”
“From my grandmother, who heard it from hers, and so on, back into time.”
“It’s only superstition, you know.” Joe spoke softly, as much to calm Mary as to avoid being heard across the room. “Certainly, your mother’s death was a coincidence. Nobody can prove that it wasn’t. In either case, I still want to marry you.”
“Let’s walk outside,” Mary said, her heart filled with joy, now that Joe had confirmed his love for her.
Joe looked back to find Sean O’Brien and his mother-in-law still sitting as they were before, their eyes closed. He never saw them again.
Mary O’Brien and Joe MacDougall were married by a United States Army Chaplain on what would have been her mother’s fifty-third birthday, June twenty-first, 1945.
Two weeks later Joe brought five things home with him to Philadelphia: his limp, his addiction, his Distinguished Flying Cross, and his new bride.
The fifth thing was me, Barbara MacDougall, at that time barely the size of a fingernail clipping while I grew in Mom’s womb. I was born on March twenty-first, 1946.
Leave a Reply.