CHICAGO

The YMCA was the worst accommodation they had ever experienced. There were cavernous dormitories filled with closely packed beds, where figures were either sleeping or groups were sitting on beds talking in whispers. When they booked in they were warned to watch their belongings and, after seeing some of the characters admitted, B wondered whether it was even safe to fall asleep or, whether the only risk was to lose one’s wallet. It was evident that some of the men were winos, addicts or mentally disturbed. There was an atmosphere of subdued apathy and a whiff of unwashed humanity and rancid cabbage over-laying the main odour of carbolic soap that was the most pronounced smell in their dimly lit hall. They were given beds located in a distant area from the night desk and, sitting together discussed the situation in low tones. ‘I tell you, it’s dangerous here,’ said Paddy, ‘some of these johnnies would cut a throat for what we’ve got.’ He had lived in Splott, a tough area of Cardiff and knew more about these things than the others. ‘Put your money under your pillows tonight,’ said B., not too convincingly. ‘Maybe we can find somewhere else tomorrow,’ said Ollie. ‘I’m going to ask for a change now,’ was Andy’s contribution being more fastidious than the others. He did not want to stay even one night here. Arriving late at night in Chicago they were fortunate in finding this place on the shore side of Lake Michigan. There was a different attendant who understood their feelings. ‘I can arrange a move for you all tomorrow, but this is all I have tonight.’ Reluctantly they accepted this offer and sorted out their belongings before creeping into their beds for fitful sleep, through a night of coughing and groans and retching all around them and the fearful thought of a sliding hand searching for the money they had each secreted away beneath their pillows.

There was much for them to see and do in Chicago, and the days were full of curious and mobile activities. They found that by walking about in a circular sweep beyond the City Centre was to pass through a microcosm of variable living cultures brought here from distant lands. These cultures, once planted, had spread their distinctive characteristics and racial identities, radiating outwards from the centre like bicycle wheel spokes, forming segments of the whole, each backing on to other groups so that some streets would divide the ethnic polarities of the Polish settlement from that of the Italian, and elsewhere, the Jewish from the Irish, German from Russian, Negro from Chinatown. This was the condition of undigested and un-assimilated immigration, and questioned the myth of the great melting pot that was America.

A walk through Chinatown, where it seemed that hardly a sign in English was on view, led them to the Irish sector, with a companion bearing the name of O’Sullivan, and another able to give a passable rendering of the Irish brogue, gave them a degree of acceptance in the taverns and local stores as being of the right sort from across the seas. The real McCoy, in fact. An acceptance that the more Anglo-Saxon credentials of Andy and B were happy to share in. Both Paddy and Ollie were Roman Catholics, and since leaving the UK, where church parades in the RAF on Sundays was compulsory, and in Canada they were not, had backslid to the extent of not once going to Mass. It was pointed out to them by their hard drinking hosts, that they were in very great spiritual danger indeed. The issue of Andy and B’s inevitable damnation , as non-Catholics, was discreetly avoided, in the enthusiasm of saving the souls of the other two. ‘So yer’ll come on Sunday, will ye not?’ were the parting words, as the lateness of the hour, concentrated their minds on the journey back to their sleeping quarters in the building by the lake. This was an invitation or more, an exhortation, for Paddy and Ollie to attend the Catholic Church of the Irish Community, on the following Sunday. The time and the location settled, the four departed, leaving the company to continue their drinking.

It was still a strange experience for them to be able to drink at any hour, for many taverns never seemed to close as long as there were customers wishing to stay and were prepared to buy drinks. The British had their strict licencing hours. The Canadians had stricter laws on alcohol usage, sale and consumption, and these laws varied in the different Provinces. In Quebec only private drinking had been allowed, and the sale of alcohol was restricted by a monthly ration. Chicago in the State of Illinois was liberal with its alcohol laws, whereas other American States were more restrictive. In some States the airmen were challenged about their ages before being allowed to buy a beer and once, to B’s amazement, he found that the proof demonstrated by his pay-book to the fact that he was nineteen years of age, was not able to get him a beer in a State where the drinking alcohol limit was twenty years of age. It was a very confusing state of affairs, and seemed to have been the legacy of the Prohibition years, but it did not unduly worry them, as they rather despised non-English beer, and had no taste for spirits, while wine was just not a drink at that time in any non-Latin country.

They had been moved to decent cubicles at the YMCA and it was to these they had returned after the change to make this their base for as long as they remained in Chicago. On Sunday morning Paddy and Ollie rose early and set off for the church in order to assuage the guilt in them at the earlier encounter. Andy and B slept on. This life they were now leading of unlimited freedom, the eating of different types of food at irregular hours and the late nights with continual activity and the absorption of unfamiliar sights and customs, brought about a need to relax in a withdrawal, where they could rest and recharge their batteries, so their minds and bodies could catch up with the unheeding pace they set themselves.

It was mid-morning when two forms flopped down on B’s bed. ‘Missing parade and sleeping on duty; put him on a charge, Sergeant.’ He’ll live to regret this day if I have anything to say about it.’ ‘Shut up and clear off,’ growled B drawing the covers high and trying to blot out the two, wide awake, boisterous intruders. ‘Come on, wakey, wakey,’ shouted Paddy, ‘we’ve got an invitation today.’ By the time that B had surfaced, he learned that the drinkers of the previous evening who had been responsible for their twinge of awakened conscience, had not been at church, but the two were hugely welcomed, and had been invited for the afternoon by a family. ‘Nice work,’ said Andy who had joined them from his cubicle. ‘But you and Bill can come too; they said bring your buddies. This was yet another example of the open-handed way that Americans dealt with initial relationships, so different from, and appearing to be impulsive, the English way of doing things. This was to be their first domestic contact with Americans since leaving the de Vries in Detroit, and they immediately began getting ready.

The Riley family lived in a large clap-board house with open gardens to the front in a quiet tree-lined road. When the four airmen arrived it was to a scene with the neighbourhood children out on their bikes or at play along the roadside and many of the residents pottering in front gardens or sitting in the porches at the front of their houses. It was a very typical North American suburban scene and one they had seen in various towns. Curious young cyclists rode around them and alongside them as they walked in a group, along the road from the bus stop. ‘Which army are you in?’ ‘They’re in the air corps, can’t you see the wings.’ ‘Why d’yer wear blue uniforms then? Jackie’s brother is in the air corps, he doesn’t have a blue uniform.’ ‘Have you been in battles?’ Andy threatened to strike an attitude, possibly his wounded hero war act, trailing a gammy leg and with one arm sleeve dangling. ‘The flack was coming up at us in shovelfuls…..’ but Ollie asked where was the Riley house, and the directors and the directed proceeded in a cluster, while Andy spoke his spiel to an uncomprehending rump, trailing behind.

The household they were invited to was another example of open American hospitality that so impressed them. Each one was treated in that particular, and uniquely, flattering way that an American’s contact with strangers projects. This was in sharp antithesis to the English manner of half ignoring strangers so as to allow them to integrate into the group by their own efforts and in an evolutionary manner. The treatment they received rather went to their heads to begin with as it opened up new avenues of personal contacts for them, and they found it to be a most acceptable and positive reception. There was no beating about the bush; Andy was encouraged and applauded, Paddy was pressed for stories on Ireland – where he had never been – Ollie’s humour was allowed full reign, and B was dubbed ‘Big Bill’ and made to sit at the head of the large table, around which sat more than a dozen Rileys and airmen in full flow. Mrs Riley – Edna, please, boys – piled dishes on the table and the guests were pressed to eat, while a continual communique of the proceedings was conducted by a young Riley and some of his friends on their bicycles, clustered outside around the screen porch door.

It was when the subjects of their homes and families had been discussed, and it was here that they learned much of one another’s background that they had not known before, that they talked about the war and their service training. When they came to their present plans, or lack of them, for this long furlough, the hosts came in with suggestions, as had occurred with Ray and Amy, less than a week earlier in Detroit. It made B wonder at the extent that Americans enter into the affairs of others, something his upbringing had taught him, would have been intrusive. Here, evidently, not. Andy’s idea of going to Hollywood was again taken up, but visiting New York and Washington was positively recommended. It was clear that at this time Chicagoeans looked eastwards for their centre, and that meant New York.

The day passed in confused jollity and animation and it was only at times that B felt a strain in keeping up with such continuous bonhomie. If there was any constraint or awkwardness at any time it was because of the English youngsters not being able to always respond quickly enough to such a cultural difference in socialising. ‘We’d like you boys to come again,’ said Elmer Riley, as they were preparing to leave, ‘we know you have plenty to do and see, so don’t you feel under any obligation.’ There was much calling out and noise turmoil as they said their thanks and goodbyes, leaving the Riley house to retrace their route, down the road again, accompanied by two of the family offspring, to the bus stop.

The following evening Ollie and B were in a bar, sitting on stools, drinking beer, they exchanged talk easily with other customers, as is the way in American bars. Back of them were seating stalls lined up against the far wall. These stalls were crowded with other customers, talking, drinking and laughing. To the left where they sat, at the end of the bar counter, was a swing door leading to a small room with a juke box. Here customers could feed the juke box and listen to the music or dance. Two sailors came into the tavern and sat down on the stools to B’s right, and very soon the two airmen and the sailors were talking and exchanging drinks. A good sense of camaraderie developed and other customers joined in curious as always at seeing two British airmen. Time passed agreeably with more beers being consumed.

A girl from one of the stalls who had been in the talking came up to the group and said she would like to dance. ‘How about you?’ she asked, looking at B. He fished in his pocket for a nickel and he and the girl went through the swing door to start the juke box. They were alone in the room and danced slowly round together. There was a glass ball of revolving coloured lights hanging from the ceiling, the first of its kind B had ever seen; the effect was somnambulant. The evening was beginning to become dream-like, a combination of the drinking, the dancing, the revolving lights, the music and the close proximity of the girl. When the music stopped they went back through the swing doors into the noise and chatter of the bar. Ollie and the sailors were still drinking.

As B sat back on his stool and the girl returned to her companions in a stall the sailor next to him began to object to her intrusion. He had conveyed his disapproval by a gesture when they had gone off to dance. ‘She’s a no-good broad; you don’t want to have anything to do with that sort of dame.’ He said it loudly and the girl burst into tears, which enraged B. ‘There’s no need to say that sort of thing, if we want to dance, what’s it to you?’ He blurted out angrily. The sailor became adamant and soon truculent when it became apparent that B, now committed to the girl’s defence, would not back down. In a very short time the altercation changed from a spark to a flame and then an explosion.

The sailor launched himself at B from a very close range, the bar stools were toppled over as, from trading blows, they were soon rolling on the floor, wrestling one another for supremacy. The reaction in the bar was instantaneous, and amidst the screaming and shouting, B who had finished up on top, was dragged off his opponent and taken by many hands to one end of the bar. The sailor was picked up and removed to the opposite end. They faced each other along its length, pinioned by many hands, glaring in gladiatorial rage. The bar tender came over to B’s side of the arena and said to Ollie, ‘there’s a side door out through the dance room; get out that way, fast, with your buddy.’ All a-flame by this time he spurned the sensible proposal. ‘I’m not leaving, let them leave.’ The barman went to the sailor’s end. The agitation all around eased by degrees and the two sergeants found themselves wedged into seats in one of the stalls, where other customers sat between them and the passageway.

The sailors had been similarly settled at their end, but the atmosphere’s easing tension did not last. A message came up; a challenge to finish the fight outside. B was on his feet when the barman returned. ‘Look buddy, what you do is your business, but you’re from out of town, and maybe don’t know the ways of this one. Bodies with bullets in them are picked up off the streets every day here. If you go out there for a fight, you could be in that sort of danger.’ With his bravado evaporating in the face of this strong delivery, and the appeals of the supporters around him, Ollie clutched at his arm and forced him back into his seat again. The highly charged situation eased once more.

The sailors left the bar. The girl who had asked B to dance and cried when when rounded on by the sailor had left the tavern with a friend when the fighting started, and the opinion at the table was divided about her. But the evening’s excitement had not yet run its course; news came from the other end that the sailors had left to collect reinforcements. This could have been a mere threat on their part but was taken seriously by those around them. Someone mentioned that one of the sailors had said he was the boxing champion of the American Pacific Fleet. This sounded like pub-talk, but the genie, so abruptly let out of the bottle, would not be returned to it whilst they remained at that bar, it seemed. There were whisperings and side talks, and then it was eventually put to Ollie and B that it would be safer for everyone for them to leave.

The barman had already called a cab. Some initial reluctance, particularly on B’s part, in having their movements decided for them, resulted in two of the table occupants agreeing to go with them as a sort of escort. They were called Patsy and Rose Marie. ‘Where shall we ask the cab to go?’ Asked Patsy when the foursome had left the bar and were sitting in the waiting taxi. There was no desire on either B’s or Ollie’s part to return to the YMCA. ‘Let’s go somewhere else and finish our drink,’ said Ollie. He, as a non-participant in the earlier event had, nevertheless, experienced a tightening up of his resolve to expect just about anything to develop out of the unexpected fracas. The two girls conferred in verbal shorthand and named a place. The driver put some questions which their answers sorted out, and they moved off into the sprawling unknown immensity of a Chicago night.

NOVEMBER 1944