Blackout

HOVE, SUSSEX, U.K., 1944: Lt. Johnny A. Purdy has let himself get adopted by a limey family, and this December Saturday, already dark at five-thirty, he splits off from the boys at the George and Dragon and heads up Warrington Hill. There’s a cold drizzle, though Army Weather said it would be clear. Johnny is singing under his breath, not knowing it:

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition,
All aboard, we’re not a-goin’ fishin’.
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition,
And we’ll all . . . stay . . . free.

Almost at once he passes Reefer Ruth and gives her a salute smart enough to cut her off, in case. Reefer Ruth is wearing a tatty black fur wrapped across her bony chest and buttoned under the arm with a cigarette holder two feet long. Her hair is hennaed and marcelled, a black bowl hat bent so far to one side it skims her scrawny neck. She has wings of rouge on her cheekbones, her beak blood red.

“There’s a poppet,” she calls after him and sways seductively on her thick high heels. One night Reame offered her a pint of Bell’s if she could get Johnny to dance, and Cole started badgering him for a Calvinist, so the next week was chilly between them. Farley says she’s not a prostitute, although she took him (Farley) home once—and once Reame. Cole asked Reame what he had to pay, and Reame said, “Man, are you crazy? There’s two kinds of people in the world, them that pays for it and them that gets paid.” Johnny said nothing; he doesn’t know if that was true or bragging.

Johnny is in Supply, U.S. Army Air Corps, stationed just outside Hove with the Eighth Bomber Command, proud of being a cog in a crack machine. Mostly he desk-jockeys, but every couple of weeks they get pressed for personnel, and he’ll be sent aloft to load up plasma or insecticides or parts. He is six-foot-two and thick chested, known to be shy but tough. He will slap a back and crack a joke when they swing up into the cavernous belly of a stripped Boeing Stratoliner in the predawn fog, heading for Prestwick, New Brunswick, Goose Bay. He is also nineteen, from Abbeville, Missouri; also married and the father of a six-month-old baby girl he hasn’t seen—didn’t even see Joyce Milner Purdy from Jepson (the next town over) lose the flat shaft of her belly from breast to thigh, and—she says—get it back again.

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