I Came Home Early

» What must civilians learn before they can accommodate the men who are coming home? Read this true story and ask yourself.



THE first thing I did, that afternoon I arrived home with my honorable discharge from the Army, was to head for the Uptown Bar. Something had been griping me for two years; I’d stored it up inside me those months in Africa and Sicily and Italy and those other months in an Army general hospital in West Virginia, and now this was the payoff.

The same anemic bartender I remembered from two years ago, my last furlough home, shuffled forward. I said, “You owe me a drink. I’ll take it now.” He gaped at me.

“Two years ago,” I said, “I came in here and ordered a drink. You refused to serve me because I was a soldier. It was my first furlough home in a year; it’s been my last in two years. All I wanted was one short drink. I told you I lived in this town; I was born here. It wasn’t as if I were an outsider, But you refused me a drink. So I put a four-bit piece on the bar and said that was to pay for the drink I’d claim when I became a civilian again. Well, I’m a civilian now!”

“I guess you better talk to the boss,” said the bartender.

I hated him. I wanted to put my hands on his throat and strangle him. But you can’t go around strangling people. It wasn’t the man’s fault he was IV-F; he’d probably have been out there fighting alongside me if he had been physically able. Besides, he only followed the orders of his boss.

I knew the boss slightly — a small-time racketeer. His rat mouth broke wide enough for a pool ball when I told him what I wanted, and he croaked, “Welcome home, soldier. Sure, you’ll get your drink!”

I hated him. I remembered he hadn’t been in the First World War either. But you can’t go around hating every civilian, so I took a sip of the drink, shoved it away, thanked him and the bartender, and went outside. The sunlight was cold, and an almost bitter wind swept down the street. Better be hiking home, I decided. Olive was expecting me.

Olive is my wife. She’d been to see me at the hospital, had remained as long as the rent-gougers in the town near the hospital left us any money, — which was almost a month, — and had preceded me home by three weeks. She still lived in our old apartment, from which I’d gone three years ago. Olive wrote me she arranged it exactly the way it looked that early morning, over three years ago, that I’d gone away.

There were about a dozen of us that early morning — the low numbers among the draftees. Music was by courtesy of the high school band, and they played with their noses sniveling because it was so early in the morning: they were directed by a bandmaster who yawned throughout the performance — to which nobody paid any attention anyway.

My return, at the station, was unspectacular — a sailor home on furlough, and three civilians who looked at me as at a monkey in a cage.

“You’ve got a chestful of ribbons there, Sergeant,” the sailor said.

“Ex-sergeant,” I told him. “As of tonight, this uniform goes in the old-clothes box. And the ribbons go among my souvenirs.”

I had had a sneaking hope there might be a small committee to meet me — after all, Olive had tipped off the local newspaper that I was duo back. I didn’t expect a brass band. I didn’t expect the mayor. But I had won a Silver Star, and three years in the Army should rate some notice, I thought. But no committee appeared. And I found after a time that I was a little glad.

Olive remained in the apartment, according to our arrangement. I wanted her there when I climbed the steps. I wanted to ring the bell, have her open the door, come to the landing and look down, as she used to do when I returned from civilian work three years and some odd months ago.

I bought a copy of the local paper and looked through it for my name. God knows what I expected to find, but one time I’d had some friends on the paper, and I hoped they might rate as news the return to civilian life of a man who had given three years of his life and part of his foot to his country. But it was no go; the important news, it appeared, was a drive currently conducted by a young men’s organization, for worn radios and radio parts. A picture of the committee chairman, as good and solid a IV-F as I ever hope to see, looked out at me. He expressed himself in print as being well pleased with the progress of the drive.

Oh, well, to hell with it. I was home. That was what counted.

The old apartment house looked much the same; there was the caretaker out front, raking up dried grass. I said, “Hi, Joe!” and he peered at me hard.

“Well, I’ll be damned. Jack Paris.”

I shook hands. “Home for good,” I said. “Cold today for this time of year, isn’t it?”

The apartment was the same — the davenport, the desk, and the chairs all arranged exactly as I’d left them, the pictures on the wall hanging just a little off center. I wanted to cry.

“Under the circumstances,” said Olive, “it’s not unmanly to cry, Sergeant.”

Her eyes were watery. So I let loose with a snort or two and then dived into the clothes closet. My clothes, all freshly cleaned and pressed, were still there. I got out tweeds, which had been a favorite before the Army, and hastily shucked off my OD’s.

“ Bath first,” said Olive. “ Wash the Army off you.”

While I bathed, I could hear her crying, and I permitted myself a bit of emotion. Later, the tweeds felt funny — they fitted all right around the waist, but the cuffs on the trousers irritated me. I looked at myself in the mirror, and the sight shocked me.

“It’ll be in reverse this time,” I said.

Olive wanted to know what I meant. I told her about when I first went into the Army; how each day I looked into the latrine mirror, until one day my uniform no longer appeared strange. I had become a soldier. Now the process would be in reverse. I’d look into the mirror each day, wondering at the strangeness of the tweeds, until one day I should no longer wonder. Then I should have become a civilian again.

“What are you going to do?” Olive asked.

“I want to lie on top of a mountain, in the sunlight, and never be hot or cold again,” I told her. “I want to drink gallons of cold beer and cokes and thick malted milks. I don’t ever want to hear a gun again. I want a beautiful woman — namely, you — to look after me and see I’m not disturbed. It’s a nice dream, but tomorrow or the day after, I go back to my old job — if I’ve still got it. The apartment rent needs paying. How much do we have in the bank?”

“About forty dollars. That long spell of illness I had — ”

“I’ve got $300 separation pay,” I said. “It’ll have to last us.”

I had difficulty sleeping that night and bad dreams when I did sleep. I wondered where Bill and Ed and the Big Swede and the rest of my buddies were, and what they were doing. Probably in France, fighting, and dreaming of the day they’d get out of the Army.

Well, I had been lucky. I could easily have lost a whole foot or a log. Or my life. I hoped Bill and Ed and the Big Swede wouldn’t consider that I had run out on them, wherever they were fighting. After all, bullets get you according to your number, and my number, just like my draft number, had been low.

I lay around the apartment next day. Many a time, in the foxholes, I’d promised myself that, once home, not even the Devil would get me out of bed before noon; but a curious kind of nervousness got me up before seven. I made breakfast for Olive. The morning paper confidentially predicted astounding military successes within the next twenty-four hours. Local news headlined the success of the drive for radio parts; the chairman smirked again from the head of a column, and his printed comments took a dozen inches.

Nothing about the return of a sergeant from the war. I said irritably, “Where are my reporter friends?” and Olive said, “They’re all in the Army. You might as well face it, Jack. You’re forgotten around this town.”

“‘The forgotten man.’ Where have I heard that expression before? Back in the 1930’s, wasn’t it?’

She was reading over my shoulder. “Well, nothing is too good for you, it says hero.”

I looked at the item. Some politician talking.


A COUPLE of days later I dropped around to the office — or what I had called “ the office’ three years ago. I’d been editor of a trade magazine, sponsored by a powerful state business organization. The editor — a local athlete of about four years back, with punctured eardrums or a hernia — greeted me with less than enthusiasm.

I could read his mind. It wasn’t a bad job, and he’d have to find another. I hated him; in my mind I cursed him, and then with equal fervency I cursed myself. I couldn’t go around hating people like this. But for three years he had been safe and warm — or cool if he chose— in my office, while I wallowed in slime or froze.

The executive secretary of the association, boss of the outfit, was out. I said hello to the stenographer, a girl whom I had never seen before, and told her I was back from the war.

“Oh, yes, I think I’ve heard Mr. Brown speak of you.”

“Well,” I said, “I want to talk to him. I’ll be back this afternoon at one.”

“Oh, but this is Saturday, and Mr. Brown won’t bo in the office this afternoon. He plays golf —”

I saw a red haze. You damn fool, I warned myself, you can’t hate people like this. I said, elaborately, “That’s too bad. I’m sorry. I’ll be back Monday. ”

I caught Brown in the following Monday. He greeted me effusively, shook hands, and for twenty minutes told me how too bad it was he hadn’t been able to land anything in the Army — he’d had just as much tough luck as in the First World War when they turned him down because of dependency, but he’d been very active in bond sales, folks on the home front, he said, have made sacrifices, too; no soldier realized the awfulness of rationing, the overtime people worked.

ᨊI wanted to ask him what the hell, really, his organization had contributed to victory; I knew they had held their conventions as usual, taxing hotels and travel. But I needed a job. I held my tongue. I hated him.

“Now, I suppose you want your job back?” he said, after talking about himself for another twenty nauseating minutes. “The present editor has done a marvelous job. Did you know our advertising had jumped 20 per cent? We can’t put him out at once, can we? I would suggest you take a vacation of, say, a month —”

“With pay?” I asked.

He went into a rigmarole about the financial difficulties of the organization. I let it ride, bargained for two weeks. We shook hands; I shook hands with the editor and his anxious look. I hated them.

Down on the street corner a local lawyer, with a high draft number that had tided him over until the Army stopped taking older men, — men my age, — shook hands with me. Limply. His car had new tires,

I noted, and the shine on it was an insult.

“Well, I must be going,” he told me nervously. “I have a golf date. We’re going to keep the course open late this season — plenty of activity out there. You must come out sometime.”

“I’m not a member of the club; I have no money for dues; and I sold my car when I entered the Service, so I’d have to walk to get there,” I said.

“Oh,” he said.

Nor did I receive any courtesy card from the club later. What the hell, I thought, I’m sensitive. I’m sore because nobody is paying me any attention. Hell, that’s the way it is. It’s just the way things are. You can’t go on hating everybody.

About the fifth or sixth day on the job I blew up. There was a lot of copy on the desk — laudatory stuff on the job the organization was doing. I started to edit it. About midmorning I got ants in my pants; it was difficult to sit still. The stuff blurred before me.

“You take it easy,” I advised myself. “You’ll be working here a long, long time. Sure, you can go out and try to get another job, or let them try to get you a job, but you won’i get anything as good as this.”

Just then Brown edged his bald head into the room and said benevolently, “And how is the soldier making out?”

That finished me. “Look,” I said, “I’ve been in charge of a platoon of men. Our lieutenant was killed and I took over. That’s how I won my Silver Star. I commanded those men pretty well. I dealt in life and death; my commands determined whether those men lived or died. Hell, and now I’m expected to sit here and read tripe and make corrections with my little red pencil — when I’ve dealt in life and death.”

I said more. But I concluded by getting out. The former editor could have his job back, I decided; I wanted to do something where I’d not have to sit all day. It was too nerve-racking.

On the way back to the apartment I saw the lawyer and his shiny car. I wanted to hit him. I found myself thinking, furiously: After the war he’ll buy a jeep to go fishing in, sure as hell he will — when the rest of us won’t have enough money to buy a jeep. He made a pile while the rest of us were getting our guts blown out.

But you can’t hate everybody, and after a while I calmed down. On the corner I did have a bad moment when one of the local big-shots I’d known three years ago bumped into me. He shook hands, with the dazed look of a man forcing himself to remember.

“You’ve been in the Army, haven’t you?” he said. “How does it happen you’re back?”

He said it, I thought, accusingly. I let it ride. I said, “Still have those noonday luncheons and guest speakers? How’d you like to have an ex-soldier tell you how it feels to be out of the Army?”

He shifted uneasily. “This week we have the chairman of the drive for old radios,” he said. “Next week and for several weeks thereafter we shall have various candidates for state offices address us — ” He’d let me know.

It didn’t matter, anyway; I had just asked him out of meanness, to see what he would say.

Olive was calm about the loss of the job. I didn’t understand until she told me she had another job for me — the father of some friend of hers owned a mine and wanted an ex-soldier. I went to work there. It’s work with the hands, it doesn’t pay so much as the editorial job, and it’s tough on my foot, but the stuff we mine goes into the making of guns. Bill and Ed and the Big Swede can’t say I’ve run out on them. And I am too tired, come the end of the day, to hate anybody.