‘I just want to get back as much money as I lost,’ B said in the general discussion. ‘You don’t have to,’ said Paddy, ‘we’ve got enough between us to keep you going.’ But he was having none of Paddy’s usual generosity. ‘Well thanks, but I can’t just scrounge off you three; look, you chaps get out and enjoy yourselves in town, I’ll be O.K.’  They were sitting at the breakfast table of the same  Servicemens’ hostel in New York they had left to fly to Washington on this extended leave following their graduation as flyers in the Royal Air Force in Canada. B had lost his wallet in Washington  and now, back in New York, (BLOG – A JOURNEY TO NOWHERE) he had announced his intention to look for some work. Although they had been looking forward to seeing more of New York, now, the others recognising his resolve, the talk veered to an acceptance and it was decided that Ollie would join him while Paddy and Andy would see some more sights until they could meet up again.

He and Ollie found a nearby employment agency; a scruffy office on a non-descript street where they were greeted by an amiable man, sitting behind a cluttered desk, reading a newspaper. He was not at all surprised to be asked to find employment for two lads wearing strange uniforms and speaking in strange accents who said they wanted work and were prepared to do anything.

‘Ya got strong muscles, then?’ he asked.

‘Yes, very strong,’ said B.

‘It don’t look to me yer cud do heavy work.’

They hesitated at that, realising that pick and shovel work would be a step too far. The man’s eyes twinkled in his lean, live face. ‘You boys is quite right to think a bit. I got work here that is real tough work; too tough for boys like you. I got work in a furrier, but it’s dirty work, so I say to you frankly now, don’t you take it, even though it pays good. You get twenty dollars, easy. but I say you don’t go,  I get you something better.’ he was talking to pass the time, knowing what he had to offer but playing with the situation, because this was his style and he had nothing else to do. He asked questions, like all Americans did. ‘How d’yer like America?’ And when he had done with his questions. ‘England is a great country. The people are brave, fighting there face to face with those goddam Germans. This followed a routine that they were now getting used to. First obtain their approval for the questioner’s country, then receive reciprocal approval of their own country followed by some suitable insult to their common foe and then to business.

Now, listen! I got a good job for you boys because I like you. I can see yer’re good, decent boys, and I wouldn’t send any ole trash to this job.’ As he talked, his fingers slid along the tops of filing cards until he extracted a card that he held poised in the air. Yer know the Rockefeller Center? They did; had been ice-skating there. ‘Yer go and ask fer Mr Panyotis. He’s in the sub-basement. He got plenty work.’ He wrote some details on a slip of paper and handed it to B. Then he pulled out two forms which they signed. It was some time before they could get away from the talkative man and make tracks for the address he had given them.

Mr Panyotis was a short, bulky Greek with a five o’clock shadow on his face. He booked them in at once after they produced the paper. ‘You come with me,’ he said; a man of few words; the antithesis of the agency man. He led them along bare corridors and down back elevators to a subterranean hall of cavernous dimensions. Here they saw thousands of boxes stacked one on top of the other. Figures were moving about, stacking more boxes that were arriving into the hall by way of miniature flat top wagons pulled by a miniature railway engine running on tracks that emerged from an opening at one end of the warehouse.

Mr Panyotis stationed Ollie and B by the side of this track that ran on raised trestles around in a circle to an outlet in the same wall. ‘You take boxes from here,’ he pointed to the slowly moving wagons, ‘and put them here,’ pointing to a hand-pulled trolley nearby. ‘Is that O.K? ‘Yes, sure, O.K.’ With the training part of the job over, and not much of a learning curve to overcome, they set to. It was not exactly back-breaking work, but over a period of time there were certain demands growing on muscles unaccustomed to such sustained effort. When the trolley was filled with boxes, someone brought another empty one to them and removed the one they had loaded. Mr Panyotis was satisfied with their efforts and, at the end of the working day, came up to them. ‘You boys done well. You want to work extra time? Time and a half you get.’ The two new warehousemen loaders looked at each other, hesitatingly. Mr Panyotis spoke again before either of them could answer. ‘I give you different work. Easy work.’ Was that a hint of a wink in his solemn, fleshy face? ‘Well, yes,’ B answered for both of them with a doubtful eye on Ollie.

Only three other men stayed behind with Mr Panyotis and the two newcomers. Cigarettes were passed around and the group made themselves comfortable using boxes as seats. Ollie and B , taking their cue from the others, waited contentedly, and wondered how long the break would last before the new light work began. Little by little, as a sense of camaraderie spread through the group, idly chatting, it dawned on them that this was the ‘easy’ work. After about fifteen minutes, Mr Panyotis went over to the door and secured it in a closed position, then he returned and selecting a box containing Scotch whiskey, prised it open with a crowbar. A bottle was removed and opened and the contents poured into mugs that seemed to appear from nowhere.

They all settled back to enjoy their drinks. Mr Panyotis was a different man with a drink in his hand; he spoke openly and encouraged the others to speak. It was as though he became liberated within a group of convivial drinking companions. The same routine was enacted with bottle number two. Ollie and B., unused to hard liquor, topped up cautiously, the others more generously. When the contents of the third bottle circulated , they declined, already feeling overly elevated by what they had consumed.

They learned that the Rockefeller Center which contained this vast warehouse where they were working had  been completed only a few years earlier and the miniature railway ran underground from the New York docks. All this incoming liquor, imported from other countries, was unloaded from the ships on to the small wagons and transported to this subterranean storage in the Rockefeller Center.

When the party was over, Mr Panyotis smashed a couple of the empty bottles and poured the remnants of another bottle over the box. ‘They allow for breakages,’ said a fellow drinker, seeing their enquiring faces. The foreman then signed for the hours they had worked and an additional three hours overtime. As they left he slapped them on the backs in a gesture of goodwill. ‘You will be back tomorrow, yeh?’ ‘Yeh, sure thing,’ they answered freely.

The rest of that evening until bedtime was spent in a floating sensation of timelessness, but the next morning brought its retribution. ‘Are you awake, Ollie?’ ‘I think I’m dead. But I might be awake as well.’ ‘I can’t move. Ouch!’ ‘My head gets giddy when I turn it.’ ‘My whole body aches.’ ‘What’s the time?’ ‘Shall we go today? I can’t face another evening like that.’ ‘I’ve got to go, I need the money.’ ‘Come on, then.’

Their feelings of nausea wore off during the day as they transferred boxes from the wagons to the trolleys, with a near silent Mr Panyotis checking occasionally. The afternoon dragged. Over lunch they had been uncertain  as to how they would respond to the expected repeat invitation to work ‘overtime.’ They both agreed it was a form of cheating and it worried them. What Mr Panyotis did with his responsibility, was his business, but it was against their code of conduct to get paid for not doing what they were being paid to do while, at the same time, participating in drinking stolen whiskey.

They felt uneasy yet, at the same time, thinking that this was a wishy-washy Boy Scout attitude to take. That they were now in the big, wide world, where these things were viewed in a different light. Here was subtle corruption at work, exercised by those at the bottom of the heap against those above who were doubtlessly exploiting these fellow-workers. Without the moral arguments at their disposal, they didn’t want to take sides, and agreed to decline should they be asked.

At knocking off time, Mr Panyotis appeared. ‘You ready for some more ‘easy’ work, yeh?’ ‘Well, we can’t today,’ said B. ‘What’s that? You got a date with a girl?’ ‘No,it’s not that.’ ‘What, then?’ Too late they realised they had not agreed an excuse, as Mr Panyotis bored in with questions. They had no particular reason to give in reply to his persistence , and ended up weakly agreeing to stay. He looked as pleased as his heavy, lugubrious face would allow, and pushed B down on to a box.

On the third day they put up no resistance but the edge had gone from their keenness. B felt that a decision should come from him as he was the one needing the money and he and Ollie had been working as a team and he had no right to put Ollie’s loyalty to the test. ‘I don’t think I want to go on doing this job after the week, Ollie; what do you think?’ ‘That’s O.K. by me.’ Paddy and Andy had been getting around New York and said they would be ready to move on and so that was that. He and Ollie went round to the agency to inform the talkative man that they were finishing. He was disappointed and said that Mr Panyotis was pleased with their work. Fortunately he was busy and so they were able to receive their money without too long a verbal barrage from him. They shook hands and left the dingy office with the occupant making lightning movements between the telephone and the filing cards, talking non-stop.

With enough dollars in their pockets Ollie and B headed for the Service-mens’ hostel to meet up with Paddy and Andy and enjoy the remaining week of their Leave.

Forward over half a century and B’s elder daughter Julie was flying off to New York with her family. B sent a fax to the Rockefeller Administration explaining briefly his wartime connection with the building and asking if the family could be shown round it if they presented themselves. And they could, and they were. At the end of the tour they enquired about the underground miniature train and were met with puzzled stares. No, no underground warehouse, someone who had worked in the building for over 30 years knew nothing about such a thing.

Now it is 2016 and B’s Grandson, Christopher, is flying to New York to work this April and maybe he will have better luck in finding out what happened to the Rockefeller Railway.

OCTOBER 1944/APRIL 1996/APRIL 2016