“It is only prudent never to place complete confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.”
Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650)
“I can’t tell you gentlemen how much I appreciate you telling me about my father,” J.P. said as the waitress cleared the dishes.
“Our pleasure,” said Sky.
“Hey kid, anything for a free meal,” joked Harley.
“Seriously, I really do appreciate this very much,” J.P. repeated. “It must be difficult for you to relive some of these memories.”
They all nodded somewhat sheepishly. J.P. continued. “So they started out in the Five-oh-five PIR. How did the Eighty-second Airborne play into this?”
“The Oh-five was assigned to the Eighty-second,” answered Sky. “But if you ask anyone in the Oh-five, it was the other way around. The Eighty-second joined us.”
“Proud outfit, huh?” J.P. asked.
“Very,” replied Sky. “Gavin trained us to a razor’s edge. When we got back from leave the whole regiment moved to Camp Billy Mitchell on the Alabama side of the Chattahoochee River, known as the ‘Alabama Area’. We trained there for six or seven months. Hard training. We learned hand-to-hand combat. Plenty of night jumps. Thirty-mile speed marches. If you dropped out, Gavin would have you transferred to another regiment by the next morning. Only the best of the best was good enough for him.
“Sounds like Gavin was running his own little army,” J.P. quipped.
“He probably was,” Sky answered. “But it was the best damn little army in the world.” Sky sipped his drink. “He was the smartest SOB in the army when it came to anything airborne. He wrote the freakin’ manual.” Sky pondered the memory for a moment. “He was a damn good leader, an excellent fighter and an outstanding teacher. We were lucky to have him. Well anyway, your dad, Jake, Danny Boy and me became tight. We’d go into town on weekends. Cotton’s Fish Camp in Phenix City was a real popular place. And there would be a brawl almost every weekend. Sometimes we fought the Five-oh-four or Second Armored guys but mostly we teamed up with the other army outfits and had it out with local civilians and police.”
Cynthia slipped a cigarette from her pack. “Does anyone mind?” No one objected so she lit it. “You actually fought with the police?” she asked incredulously.
Sky shrugged his shoulders and nodded. “That’s the way it was back then.” He looked at J.P. “They were always looking to corner a few GIs and gang up on them. But the four of us always watched each other’s backs. Gavin had a hell of a time keeping us out of jail.” Sky chuckled. “But when you have that many tough hombres in one unit, each one trying to show the other how bad he is, all that fighting was inevitable.”
“And that made Jake and my father even closer?” J.P. asked.
“It made us all closer.” Sky took another sip of his drink and looked over his shoulder for the waitress.
Frank jumped into the lull in the conversation. “In August of forty-two, the War Department decided to form its airborne forces into division-sized elements, after the British and German models. So the General Staff named the Eighty-second Division as the first airborne division. At the same time, that division’s cadre was split in two to form the other new airborne division, the Hundred and first. Problem was they had no paratroopers. The airborne regiments being formed were eventually assigned to one of those two divisions. I was with the Five-oh-six PIR and we went to the Hundred and first in June of forty-three.”
J.P. was impressed by Frank’s knowledge and recall. Still, something didn’t feel quite right about what they were telling him. Or was it their body language? He couldn’t put his finger on it but his reporter’s instincts told him something was amiss. He still wasn’t sure how Harley fit and decided to take a shot.
“What about you, Harley?” J.P. asked.
Harley studied his face for a moment and answered. “Like I said, I’m Jake’s cousin. The Twenty-ninth shipped out to England in September on the Queen Mary. So while Jake and Johnny were stomping about the Alabama woods, my division was already in foggy old England. Later, I met your father there.” Harley hesitated for a moment. “But Jake wrote regularly and talked about your father a lot. I may have some old letters and pictures somewhere back home. If I can find them, would you be interested?”
“Yes. That would be great,” J.P. answered.
Cynthia stood up and placed her napkin on the table. “Excuse me, gentlemen, while I powder my nose.” She walked toward the ladies room without wobbling.
That gave J.P. an idea. He reached across the table and picked up the recorder and made a show of turning it off. “I actually have to take a leak, too.” He reached down into his lap with the recorder in his hand. He deftly switched it on and covered it with his napkin. As he rose, he casually dropped the napkin on the table with the recorder tucked into the folds.
After J.P. was out of earshot, Harley asked the other two, “Do you think he knows?”
Frank answered first, “He’s pretty smart. If he doesn’t know for sure I’m convinced he’s at least suspicious.”
Harley looked at Sky, “He hasn’t said anything or asked any questions that would lead me to believe that he’s suspicious. What do you think, Sky?”
“He may be playing it cool but I don’t think he knows. Actually, I don’t think he has a clue. He may find out if he keeps going down this road but right now I think he is absolutely clueless.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Frank warned.
“Well, in any case, we took an oath of silence,” Harley reminded them.
“I know, but maybe we should reconsider since his mother is gone,” Frank suggested. “If it were me, I would want to know.”
Harley looked at Frank harshly. “It’s not up to us to decide to change the rules. We just can’t ignore the promise we made. You’re not seriously considering telling him, are you?”
“Of course not,” Frank answered. “I was just thinking out loud. I’ll keep my word.”
Harley looked at Sky. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll keep my word, too,” Sky answered the un-asked question. “Funny thing is, the answer is right under his nose. But he’ll probably find out anyway when he talks to Lincoln.”
“I’m not so sure,” Harley replied. “I don’t think Lincoln will tell him anything either, but we can’t worry about that now. I’ll talk to Lincoln again before J.P. gets in touch with him. But we three are still solid, right?” Both Sky and Frank nodded. “Good, then just keep telling him what we truthfully remember right up until it happens and then let me finish the story. After all, I am Jake’s cousin.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes when the waitress came to their table. “Gentlemen, your dinners will be out momentarily.” She scanned the table quickly for empty glasses and noticed the napkins on the table. She picked up Cynthia’s napkin, refolded it and placed it neatly on the table. Then she walked to the far side of the table to refold the other loose napkin.