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Told by Tommy Carden
Written by Roy Peter Clark
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 14, 2001
First of two parts
It has become for him an image of hope and longing, loss and regret, and more than anything, a bittersweet reminder of what might have been.
That feeling is captured in an old song. Sung in a crisp tenor vibrato, it echoes through the rafters of an elegant school building by the bay: "So be sure it's true . . . when you say "I love you' . . . It's a sin to tell a lie." It is the voice of Tommy Carden, the night watchman.
Even in his uniform, he is an unassuming figure, limping behind a metal cart to compensate for a bum knee. A fuzz of silver hair covers the back of his head. As he sings, his blue eyes light up, magnified behind reading glasses. His mouth cracks into a broad smile. As he likes to say, he wears "the map of Ireland" on his face.
I'm playing the piano for him. I teach by day where Tommy watches by night, watches and remembers. I've known him for a dozen years now. His is one of the many inspiring lives of a generation that is passing from this earth day by day. Tommy Carden carries the scars.
Of all God's creatures who have worn halos, Tommy is among the least angelic. He survived the worst battles of World War II, but at midlife he was a mess, a failure as a son, father and husband. Full of pain and self-pity, he prayed to God to take his life. Instead, the Almighty gave him a second chance.
To tell Tommy's story, I have rendered it in his voice, as if Tommy himself were the author. Many of the words here are Tommy's own; some are mine, organized to give his story its full context and meaning. I've checked Tommy's memory against documents and historical records and interviewed friends and relatives.
I dare say that every surviving member of the World War II generation has a powerful story to tell. Tommy's is just one of them. What happened to Tommy and the girl in that picture is the kind of story we need to hear over and over. It's part of their legacy and our inheritance.
Day One: Showing Off
That date was Dec. 12, 1923, the place was Youngstown, Ohio, a steel mill town. If you stood on Schenley Street facing our front door, I was born in the upstairs bedroom to the right.
My father was a tall, tough guy who fought in World War I and for a while was a professional boxer, a pug. After he got his nose busted, Dad got a job on the railroad that carried ingots from the steel mill. He worked hard, but even in the Depression he would drink away money that we needed for food. Then again, Dad had a good heart. He would bake bread for neighbors or secretly leave buckets of coal on their doorstep for heat. Imagine that.
Sometimes you can love a person with your whole heart and still be afraid of him, and that's how it was with my dad. Like I said, he was a boxer and knew how to settle things with his fists. I'll never forget the time I missed a 9:30 curfew. He was waiting, and before I knew what hit me I was staring at the ceiling.
I guess there's a reason God gives you two parents, because as rough and tough as my father was, that's how sweet and loving was my mom. Margie Sullivan was her name. She was tiny, but with a big, big heart. I know one thing for sure: You'll never have a better friend than your mother, so you should tell her you love her the first thing in the morning, and tell her again the last thing at night.
My mom and dad were "fish eaters" -- that's what they called us Irish Catholics -- and had lots of kids, six before they were done. When I was 4, Mom gave birth to twin boys, but they only lasted two weeks. Dad lifted me up so I could look into those two little caskets and see the bodies inside.
Theresa came when I was 12. Like I said, my mom was tiny, and it was a difficult birth. Before you know it, the priest comes to perform last rites and I hear my mother tell my father: "Take good care of Tommy," and that's when I lost it.
I ran to my room and cried and cried and fell to my knees and raised my eyes to heaven and begged Almighty God, "Please, God, don't take my mother. Please don't take my mother."
That was the first time Almighty God came to my rescue. God agreed that my mom could live to the age of 82, and that Theresa would grow up healthy and have eight children of her own. From that day on, I was my mother's best friend. I sang Irish songs to her and learned my Latin to become an altar boy for her, not for my dad.
Then one day, out of the blue, my father took the Pledge, went right up to the altar and swore before Almighty God that he'd never take a drink again, and he never did.
Now let me tell you about another tough person in my life: Sister Mary Jane -- my favorite teacher at St. Brendan's, God love that woman.
It didn't take me long to figure out that I was just plain dumb. I was one of those kids who had to repeat the fourth grade. One day I was working an arithmetic problem on the blackboard, and I just couldn't figure the darn thing out, and Sister was on me real good about it, until I threw down the chalk, said "Aw, s--," and run out of the classroom.
"Ahhh, Sister," my pal Tommy Maley said. "Why'd ya hafta yell at him. He cudda done it!" Wham! Tommy Maley's body flew backwards like he'd been whacked by Joe Louis.
But Sister made up for it later, when it came time for me to graduate from eighth grade into high school. "Tommy," that sweet lady said, "you don't have the grades to graduate." There were tears in my eyes, me thinking about how I was going to get my ass tore up when I got home. "But I'm going to let you go on anyway. Be a good boy and work hard in high school. And stop trying to attract so much attention."
"Yes, Sister," I said. "Thank you, Sister. I will Sister."
I wound up at good old Chaney High School, famous for its football team and its pretty girls. Especially Jean Hoffman. She was the girl of my dreams.
For as long as I can remember I've been what you might call a "leg" man. I guess it started with seeing Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel and Destry Rides Again. Man oh man, when she'd sit up on that piano and cross those legs. Wow! That's all I can say. Just, wow!
It's time to tell you about Steubenville, a town about 30 miles south of Youngstown. That's where the sporting houses were.
Now, in 1939 I was 16 years old. And I could make 10 cents by mowing a lawn. A Steubenville girl cost 50 cents. So although Sister Mary Jane wouldn't like it one bit, I suddenly found use for arithmetic: five lawns equaled one trip to Steubenville.
We piled into my buddy Joe Pacak's 1929 Oldsmobile sedan, "the Green Beast," we called it. We didn't have any gas money, so we brought along Benny, the doctor's kid, but only if he helped us siphon gas from his old man's Lincoln.
And we went into one of them houses, checked in with the madam, and saw all the ladies lounging in the parlor. And I picked one out; she had the leg. I mowed a lot of lawns back in those days.
That's not how it was with my girlfriend, Jean. I didn't take any liberties with her. I met her in the ninth grade, when I made the switch from Catholic school to Chaney. After school, we'd meet at the Westside Dairy for Cokes and ice cream. Jean thought I was good looking and kind of romantic, "a doll," to use her words, and who could argue with that?
She was smart, too. Jean was in all the accelerated classes, while I was with all the dumb asses. We'd try to hold hands in the hallway, although this kind of flatternization was frowned on by the principal, Mr. Ricksecker. If he seen you holding hands, he'd come up from behind and give you a little hand chop to bust you up.
I saved every note Jean passed me. You know, stuff like "I can hardly wait to see you," and, "I think about you all the time." I'd hide them under my mattress.
We were 16 years old -- that would be about 1940 -- and we'd meet at the corner on a Saturday afternoon and walk down to the Mahoning Avenue Theater. It smelled bad from all the popcorn butter, I guess, and the deodorizer Old Man Coates put on it made it smell worse. It was so crummy, my friend called it The Crumb. We could get in to the movies for 10 cents. If I had extra money, we'd stop at the Isaly Dairy Stores for a skyscraper ice cream cone or a milk shake with two straws.
During winter we'd meet at the bonfire at Lake Glacier in Mill Creek Park. Jean and her girlfriends would show up. They called themselves ONO, which was short for Our Night Out, and they'd wear those tight sweaters and short skating skirts that showed off their knees. Jean's father would watch from the hillside to make sure there was no hanky-panky.
If he wasn't watching, Jean would let me help her on with her skates. I'd get to touch her foot and peek up at those long legs. Wow.
You can guess why Mr. Hoffman didn't like me. He was German and a Methodist, and he had something against Irish Catholics, that's for sure. Jean told me that he had once seen a priest try to extort money from a poor couple. But I think he didn't like the idea of a leprechaun like me making a lot of babies with his little daughter.
I guess he had a right to be cautious because Jean and me did have a fantasy about running off to get married, like some of the other kids in school had. Our buddy even drove us to the cottage of the justice of the peace. But Jean decided that she couldn't disrespect her parents. It was a silly notion to run off, but I wonder what our lives would have been like if we had. What happened instead was the war.
They all tried to talk me out of it. My principal at Chaney High, my teachers, my buddies Tommy Maley and Tommy Gilmartin, my mom and dad, Jean, even the guy at the draft board. Why not wait four months, just four lousy months, until I graduated from high school? But there was no talking to me. I was no student, I was a dumb ass.
The one place I felt good about myself was on the football field. Look at our team photo in the 1943 school annual. I'm in the second row, third from the left, with my arms crossed. Old number 38. "Tom Carden -- a 193 pound lad who could not be bowled over" -- that's what the yearbook says about me.
To be honest, going off to war had a lot to do with my father. He was so stern that he was wearing me down. I thought of myself as man enough to play offensive and defensive line for Chaney High, and man enough to drive to Steubenville. And man enough to go to war.
Plus, I loved my country, and I loved Franklin D. Roosevelt. If it hadn't been for that man, we might all be goose-steppin' and saying "Sieg Heil."
I left on a cold day in February 1943. The buses met us at the draft board near the Westside Library. My mother cried and cried; so did my Aunt Aggie. Jean was there with her mom, and my sweetheart kissed me goodbye. I really planted one on her, a long smooch, the first real one between us.
I was stationed in England, near Liverpool, assigned to the Medical Corps.
I was an altar boy, but I was no angel. I loved hitting the pubs, like the White Swan and the Odd Fellows. My Italian buddy Private DiNucci, old DiNooch, he could play that piano, man, he could tear that thing up, and I'd sing and drink, and drink and sing, all night long.
More times than I can remember, the evening would end with a bar fight, and the next day I'd have to go before an officer. I got myself demoted from sergeant to private.
"What is it about you, Carden?" one of them Medical Corps stuffed shirts said. "You don't seem to like it here very much."
"You got that right, sir," I says.
"Okay, Carden, we can take care of that."
Before I know it, I'm in a new division, the 687th Field Artillery battalion, dragging around ammunition for cannons and lugging .50-caliber machine guns. Like I said, I was a dumb ass. I could have rode the war out pretty easy. Instead, I was part of the Invasion of Normandy. Looking back, I can say it was an honor. But that's just the looking back part.
I always thought we landed at Omaha Beach, but I read something that says we landed next door on Utah Beach on July 18, 1944, about six weeks after D-Day.
We didn't know it then, but a lot of blood had been spilled to secure that sand. And there I was on that same ground, carrying my .30-caliber carbine, and, in my wallet, photos of the people I loved the most: my mother, my father and my sweetheart Jean.
We were headed east with one goal in mind, to liberate Europe from the Nazis, and, if I had my way, to stick a howitzer right up the Fuhrer's ass.
Now, the second time Almighty God heard my prayers was during the battle of St.-Lo, a town about 20 miles south and east of Utah Beach.
I'll never forget the sight of dead cattle in the French fields, cows and calves on their backs, their hooves stuck straight up in the air. And I'll never forget the smell. The dead cattle smelled. The dead American boys smelled. The Germans smelled worst of all, maybe because we just let 'em rot in the fields.
Our planes dropped so many bombs that it made the ground shake. Turns out, we was dropping bombs on our own soldiers. Our own Air Force killed hundreds of our own men, including Gen. Lesley McNair. What kind of war is it when you drop bombs on your own general?
But the war wasn't only hell, sometimes it was a little bit of heaven. Like the day in the summer of 1944 when six guys in my outfit, riding in a 21/2-ton truck, took a wrong turn. We come upon an abandoned warehouse, and what was in that place but cases and cases of four-star cognac. We drank it on the spot, and we put it in our canteens, and we loaded cases in our truck and covered it all with tarps.
Oo-whee! For a whole month, six happy GIs celebrated the Fourth of July every day with the best hooch France could offer. It might have gone that way till the end of the war except for the night one soldier got bombed. I mean drunk-bombed, not bomb-bombed. He wanted to save his butt, so he blabbed to the officers where we had hid the cognac. You know and I know what happened to all that booze. It got taken from us grunts and went right down the officers' throats.
If Almighty God saved me throughout the war, it was not just me praying, it was also my sainted Aunt Agnes, God love her. Aggie was Irish Catholic from her head to her toes, the only girl in a family with 10 brothers. She attended Mass every day, prayed the rosary, made novenas, wore miraculous medals and lit votive candles. All for me, her little altar boy, who recited all his Latin prayers, "Dominus vobiscum" and all that. Aggie wrote me every day and would always tell me that Almighty God was watching over me.
My sweetie Jean, she sent letters all the time, too, sharing news and going on about how much she looked forward to the day old Tommy would come marching home. She worked in a factory that made gas tanks for fighter planes. I'd think about her sweet face behind that welder's mask. And those legs.
As the war went on, my letters got spicier. At the end of one, I wrote, "Be sure and keep your legs crossed." She had no idea what I meant, so she asked her mom and dad. I'm sure Old Man Hoffman appreciated that one.
I'm coming now to the worst day of the war, one of the worst days of my life, and I can barely think about it without crying. They say the Irish have bladders behind their eyes, and that's surely the case with me. Now, during the war when a soldier was killed in action, they sent a telegram home to his family. The official car would roll up to the house, and the chaplain or somebody would deliver the telegram: "We regret to inform you that your son. . . ."
Now, my mom and dad never got that telegram, but I did, in Dekirch, Luxembourg, after Nov. 13, 1944.
"Capt. Brown wants to see you, Carden." It was 1st Sgt. Buckles.
What the hell did I do?
Capt. Brown was tall and husky and from Oklahoma; you could just look at him and tell he was a leader. He handed me a telegram from the Red Cross. "Please advise the soldier that his father passed away."
Capt. Brown had followed me down into the basement, and he put his big arm around me. "Go ahead and cry, Carden," he said. God love that man.
He promised that he'd try to get me a hardship discharge, which never came, of course. What came instead was the Battle of the Bulge.
Hitler, that sneaky SOB, had ordered one last counterattack. The Germans advanced far enough into the Forest of Ardennes to create a bulge in our lines. That's how the Battle of the Bulge got its name. It began Dec. 16, 1944. I still play those numbers on my lottery ticket: 12/16/44.
The fighting lasted until Jan. 31, 1945, 47 days of frostbite, diarrhea and constipation. I wore a mackinaw with big pockets in it. I had my ammunition and my K-rations and my rifle and wore the same pair of socks for a month.
When the battle was finally over, more than 75,000 Americans were killed or injured. But Aunt Aggie's prayers were still working their magic. Thank you, Almighty God.
Then came the news; my buddies and I heard it on the radio on April 12, 1945: FDR was dead. We all broke down and cried. Every last one of us. What FDR did for this country, getting us out of the Depression, saving the world from the Nazis. The greatest man on God's green earth. And now he was dead. And my father too. What next?
Well, that question was answered about a week later when we moved into a place called Buchenwald. For years I carried photographs of what I saw that day because when I got back home no one would believe me.
It was right out of hell. Not human beings, but living skeletons. There were more than a thousand of the sick, crammed into stinking barracks. Naked corpses piled in the courtyard, stacked like cordwood. I put my hands on the cremation ovens. They were still warm.
We captured some of the SS guards and, given everything we seen, it was easy to figure out what to do with them. I could never have done it myself, of course, but we turned them over to some boys from Texas and Oklahoma, we called them the "goon squad," and bang that was all she wrote.
By May 8, 1945, Hitler was dead, good riddance you lousy no-good SOB, and Germany had surrendered. We was all collecting souvenirs, including weapons. One guy cleaning a German weapon had it go off in his hand, killing the soldier sitting at his feet. How the hell was that Red Cross telegram going to read?
The damn war was supposed to be over. And guys were shooting other guys with souvenirs. I've got to get out of here, that's all I could think about.
Now it's time to tell you about Marseille, France, which was the place we were shipped to begin the trip home to America. It was a little like Steubenville, except the girls spoke French.
The officers warned us, they said that if we contracted a venereal disease we might be delayed six months being sent back to the states. But you know me. At least I took precautions.
For each encounter with a mademoiselle, I wore not one, but two condoms. One right over the other. I called them "inner tubes." For good measure, I'd stop at a place the Army set up called a "pro station," where we'd get a "short arm inspection" and a good disinfecting. I guess that was a lot to go through for a little ooh-la-la.
Within two weeks, I was on a ship headed home. I thought about being reunited with the three women I loved most: my beautiful mother, my sainted Aunt Aggie and, of course, my sweetie, Jean.
But first there was a meeting with another woman, in New York Harbor. All of us were on the deck of the ship as we approached the city, and there she was, and if I've ever seen a better sight, I don't know what it is. No one spoke or cheered. We just stood against the rail looking at that beautiful statue -- with tears in our eyes.
I was decommissioned in Indiantown Gap, Pa., on Nov. 2, 1945. After all these years I can still recite my serial number: 35-534-119, sir.
I swung my duffel bag over my shoulder, bought a jug of Old Crow and got on the train to Youngstown. I took the streetcar down Mahoning Avenue, stopped in a tavern for a couple of toddies and walked down Eleanor Avenue.
I was still in my olive drab uniform with my medals on my chest: one star for each of the great campaigns of the European war, the Presidential Unit Citation and the French Croix de Guerre with a Gold Star.
The first one I see is my dad's brother, Uncle Eddie, up on a ladder painting a house. He just flew down the ladder and grabbed me up in this big bear hug. We talked about how bad we felt about my dad dying and all. Then a neighbor, Mrs. Davis, sees me through a window and comes running out of her house and throws her arms around me. And then I hear, "Oh my God!" and my mom is running down the street like she's floating on air. God bless that woman. You'll never have a better friend than your mother, so don't you forget it. Call her up now and tell her you love her.
Jean didn't know I was home until she heard this Irish tenor's voice on the telephone. She and I picked up right where we left off: going on dates, holding hands. Except I had a little money in my pocket, so we didn't just go to the movies or out for milk shakes. I took her dancing at a club called Mickey's, and it must have been the first time she had anything much to drink because before I know it we're out on the sidewalk, and she's hanging on to the lamppost getting sick.
By now you probably understand why Jean's dad didn't like me. He was a wiry little guy, a building contractor who had painted most of the Catholic churches in town. But he didn't care much for us fish-eaters. He had three daughters -- and he watched over them girls good.
These days people from different churches get married all the time, but back then it was a big deal for a Catholic boy like me to marry a Methodist girl like Jean. Her family didn't like the idea, that's for sure. They told Jean that she was too frail, that I'd force her to have 10 kids or something.
My family was against it, too. My mom and Aunt Aggie being so Catholic and everything, they squealed on me to the parish priest, a guy named Father Prokop. He knew me from my altar boy days. So one day after Mass he comes up to me, starts giving me the third degree. Who is this girl? What about her family? Is it true you plan to marry her? A real cross-examination.
I'm thinking, that's none of your damn business. But he was a priest and I was too respectful, so I didn't say nothing to him. But I should have, because something happened right after that that changed my life forever.
Before I knew it, Jean was gone. Gone away. Out of Youngstown. She told me she was going to visit her sister in Florida, but she never came back, and no one would tell me why.
Nothing that happened in the war, except my dad dying, hurt so bad.
One day I'm browsing through the newspaper, the Youngstown Vindicator, when I saw it. An engagement notice. Jean Hoffman was getting married. To someone named Bill Hale.
My Jean was going to marry another man.
The conclusion of Her Picture in My Wallet
What happens to a young man, returning from the war, who loses his first great love? In the case of Tommy Carden, he descends into a life of alcoholic self-destruction. Then, when all hope seems lost, two events -- a prayer and a phone call -- clear the path for a second chance. Click here
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