By Mickey S.
This is a fictional story. Most of the characters and events are figments of the author's imagination. However, some of the fictional characters take part in real events and some real characters take part in fictional events. In spite of that, this is a fictional story. My thanks to Tim and Drew for all of their help. The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent. Comments are appreciated at NJMcMick@yahoo.com.
When we returned to London a few days later we learned that the big bombing attack had concentrated on the City, London's financial district. Not only was the bombing much heavier than usual, the resulting fires had caused much destruction. It seemed that although the Germans were no longer bombing London every night, they were inflicting more damage with each raid when they did.
One day in late January when Terrence and I got home from school the smell of cigarette smoke as we entered the house told us we had company. We went into the parlor where Dad and Granddad were talking to a slim, dark-haired man about 30. On the table next to him was a small bowl half-filled with cigarette butts and a pack of Camel cigarettes with a lighter. That surprised me since normally there was no smoking allowed in the house. Both Mother and Gran were very sensitive to it. In fact, Dad had quit smoking when he and Mother married for that reason. I had inherited a little of the sensitivity, mostly just getting itchy eyes and a runny nose when I was around smoke.
"Boys, I'd like you to meet a colleague of mine, an American reporter who works in another medium. This is Ed Murrow, who I'm sure you've heard on the radio now and then. Ed, my son Woody and his friend, Terrence Atkins."
"Nice to meet you, boys. William talks about you all the time." Mr. Murrow stood and shook our hands. I was amazed at how young he looked. Somehow he sounded older on the radio.
"Terrence and I listen to you on the BBC whenever they air your reports. You're the most famous American in London."
While he worked for CBS and his nightly reports were broadcast all across America, the BBC also aired clips of them. And they often interviewed him to get 'the American point of view.'
"The most vocal, at any rate. But we're all doing what we can in whatever our medium to let the folks back home know what's going on here and how much the brave British could use some help."
Terrence and I squeezed onto the sofa next to Granddad.
"You certainly have a way with words, Mr. Murrow. You report in such an unemotional way, but you manage to convey so much - the terror, the destruction, the bravery of the people. You're a great broadcaster."
"I'm flattered, Terrence, but you folks have the best broadcaster in the world right here in London - Winston Churchill. Now there is a man with a way with words."
"Do you think America will get into the war?" Terrence, as usual, was perfectly at ease meeting someone new, even one as famous as Edward R. Murrow. I, on the other hand, was my shy self, and somewhat star-struck, to boot. I just sat on the sofa next to Terrence and listened.
"I think we're getting closer, now that Joe Kennedy has gone home and the election is over. But there are still many America First isolationists back home, led by the likes of Colonel Lindbergh. I think President Roosevelt will do whatever he can to help the British, but it will probably take something dramatic to actually get us into the war."
"Dramatic? Such as ... ?"
"Well, something that directly threatens the United States. Back in the Great War we managed to stay neutral for three years, even with the Germans sinking ships like the Lusitania in the Atlantic. But when we learned they were trying to forge an alliance against us with Mexico, that was too close to home."
"So maybe Germany will do something foolish like attack the U.S., although I can't imagine how." I finally spoke up, although it was more like I was thinking out loud. I knew it would be impossible for them to attack us the way they attacked Britain. It was hard enough for them to fly to London and then return to Germany.
"An air attack might be out of the question, but u-boats can get right up to the East Coast. And with all of the supplies and arms America is shipping to Britain, they can make an awful lot of mischief. I'm surprised more ships haven't been torpedoed." Dad said.
"At least with America gearing up its war industries to supply Britain we'll be ready when we do finally decide to join in the war." Mr. Murrow added.
"You say when, not if, Mr. Murrow. Does that mean you think it's definite that we'll get in it soon?" I asked.
"I can't see any other way, if the continent is to be freed. Britain is doing a superb job holding out but the way things are right now it's a stalemate. Germany hasn't been able to break Britain, but Britain isn't strong enough alone to go on the offensive."
"It must be hard to talk about the war objectively when you clearly have strong feelings about it."
"Many of my colleagues would disagree with you on how objective I am, Terrence. I report the news but I make no secret that I'm anti-German and pro-British."
"I've found an easy way of remaining impartial in my reporting by writing separate human-interest stories." Dad wrote daily news reports but then also did a weekly column that was much more subjective and personal. "And I tried to get Woody to keep a journal of his experiences that we could publish to give the folks back home a view of London from an American teenager's point of view but he didn't want to."
"You're the only writer in the family, Dad. You know I can't write anywhere near as well as you." I noticed Terrence giving me an odd look, probably because he knew that I was keeping a diary.
"I told you that didn't matter, that I'd take whatever you wrote and edit it down to something we could use. The idea was to get a fresh, unjaded view of the war."
"Can't you men think of anything to talk about but the war? One would think with your jobs you'd want to get away from it now and then."
Mother and a younger woman entered the room. We all stood as Mother introduced Terrence and me to Janet Murrow.
"Ed, you might at least open a window if you're going to insist on smoking like a chimney. Lydia and her mother are very sensitive to the smoke, you know." Mrs. Murrow crossed the room, reached through the blackout curtain and raised the window a few inches.
"Gran has your tea ready in the kitchen, boys. We had ours a bit early as we're going out to dinner and the theater this evening."
Terrence and I excused ourselves and went to join Gran while the ladies stayed in the parlor.
"That man's a great talker but he should really cut back on those cigarettes," Gran complained as she poured our tea.
"That was an American brand he was smoking, wasn't it?" Terrence asked.
"Yes, I suppose he gets them through the embassy. From the way the kids at school talk, the ones who smoke, anyway, it's often hard to find even British brands in the shops."
"Janet said she quit smoking a while back so he gets her allotment at the embassy." Gran said as she put a plate of biscuits on the table. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll join the grown-ups."
"So I take it your dad doesn't know about your diary, Woody. Why not, if it was his idea that you keep one?"
"Yes, he gave me the idea, but I write more about my feelings than the war."
"I got the impression that's what he wanted, to be able to record your feelings about the war."
"But I write about everything, not just the war - school, life in England, my parents, missing TR, you."
"You write about me? What do you say?"
"What I write is private and personal. That's why I don't want Dad to publish it. My writing is just for me to clarify my thoughts and feelings. It's not for anyone else's eyes."
"Not even mine?"
"Not even yours." Especially not yours, I thought. I couldn't imagine what he'd think if he saw the extent of my feelings toward him.
Keeping Dad in the dark about my personal diary didn't hinder his writing, however. One of his best human interest pieces, at least in my opinion, was one he'd written about the death of a World War I veteran in his own home in Finchley. And then there was another about a pair of elderly grocers who had lost everything in the bombing of Coventry.
I changed the subject and got Terrence talking about school. After a while Mother came in to tell us they were leaving so Terrence and I went back to the parlor to say goodnight. The room didn't seem quite as smoky as before. Not only had the open window helped but the cigarettes were no longer on the table, so maybe Mr. Murrow had refrained from smoking while the ladies were in the room. The adults rose when we entered the room and said their goodbyes before leaving for their night on the town.
In spite of the war, night life continued in the city. Our whole family went out to eat once a week, sometimes to restaurants in Mayfair or the West End, sometimes at hotels like the Savoy or Claridge's. In addition, Mother and Dad usually had one night a week out on their own, sometimes going to the theater, sometimes to a party. On those nights Terrence and I stayed in with my grandparents, which wasn't bad since Gran was the best cook in the family.
The Ministry of Food had established an institution known as British Restaurants, places the average person could eat out cheaply. They charged no more than 9 pence per meal. That way people could still eat if they ran out of coupons. Mother and Dad stayed away from them, not because they were snobs, but because they could afford regular restaurants and felt the British Restaurants' food should go to the less fortunate. Regular restaurants prices were capped at 5 shillings, significantly more than the British Restaurants.
In early February Dad asked Terrence and me to join him and Mother in his study after Sunday dinner. Usually that room was his private office and no one dared interrupt him when he was working there.
"I know we've talked all around the issue over the past year, but with school ending for you both in a few months, I think it's time we had a serious talk about your futures," Dad led off.
"Yes, you both turn 18 in the next few months, so once you're finished with school you'll be subject to the National Service law." Mother added. "You've talked casually about going into the army, but I think you should give some serious thought to what you're going to do. You could stay out of the military by going to university if you wanted."
"I know my parents wanted me to go to university, but I can't see any way I could afford that right now. I have a little money in the bank, but without my father's income it's just not possible." Terrence replied.
"Forget money for a minute, Terrence. Think about what you would want to do, if money were not an issue."
I was sure Dad was thinking of helping Terrence out with school if that's what he wanted, but he couldn't very well come out and say it. Terrence had a lot of pride.
"Of course I'd love to continue my education. It was my Dad's dream that I be the first in the family to go to university. But with the war on, I think it's my obligation to join the rest of my generation fighting for our cause."
"What about you, Woody?' Mom asked. "You're in a somewhat different position. As you were born here, you're subject to conscription, but you're more American than British, and America isn't at war."
"I think it's only a matter of time until America gets into the war and then I'll be subject to the draft there, too. So as long as I'm here I might as well enlist now."
"I know you were planning to go to college back home, son, but you could start at a school here and then enlist once the US joins the war if you'd rather serve in an American force."
"A couple of years ago I would have agreed with you, Dad, but having gone to school all this time with English kids I don't see a big difference."
I wasn't eager to be in either army, not at all, but if Terrence was enlisting I had to as well. I would feel terribly guilty if he were fighting in the war and I wasn't. And it was true - once I got used to a few minor differences and slang terms, school in London wasn't very different from school in Connecticut. And I wasn't used to any kind of military life at all, so either army would mean a major adjustment.
Dad sighed. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but after all these years I can finally understand how my father felt when I left home to fight with the French in the Great War. I suppose no parent wants to have their child risking his life in battle."
"Maybe you should write to Grandfather and tell him." I grinned. "It couldn't hurt."
"Maybe I should, but to get back to you fellows, are you sure this is what you want to do? It's still months before you'd enlist, but if you want to go to college in the fall you'd have to apply soon. That's why we're talking now."
"As much as I would prefer continuing my education, I think university will have to wait until after the war, Mr. Cooper. And maybe I can save a little of my army pay for that."
"Your uncle has clearly not told you anything about military pay." Dad laughed.
"Speaking of the Colonel, maybe you could talk to him to get an idea of what you might do in the army. He might be able to see that you're stationed near London doing something that's not battle-related." Mother probably would only be happy if we were stationed in a classroom at Cambridge.
"What do you think, Terrence? Maybe he could make sure we stayed together, regardless of where that ended up."
"Well, he's only a colonel but he does seem to have some influence. I could talk to him. If you and I were in the same unit that would make being in the army a lot more bearable."
"Don't count on being able to stay together, boys. It could happen, I suppose, but generally the military brass isn't terribly concerned with the wishes of individual soldiers," Dad observed, stifling our enthusiasm a little.
Mother and Terrence both had birthdays the first week of March (Mother's 45th and Terrence's 18th). To celebrate we decided to have a night on the town. There hadn't been a direct attack on London in well over a month and life had relaxed a bit.
Dad chose the Café de Paris, a hot spot on Coventry Street just off Piccadilly. He and Mother had been there many times and liked the jazz band there. The six of us managed to squeeze into a taxi which dropped us off in front of the Rialto Theater. Dad explained that the nightclub was actually under the theater.
"That's convenient. It's like having a restaurant in a bomb shelter."
"Not really, Terrence. People think that anything underground is safe, but there's really nothing protective over the club. The theater is nothing more than a big empty box." Dad explained.
The door was next to the theater and led to a long staircase down. At the bottom was a small entrance hall which opened out into a slightly larger balcony. The dance floor and bandstand were down in a pit with the balcony completely surrounding it. The maitre d' led us to a table against the wall in a wide part of the balcony. Dad explained that he had requested a table there rather than downstairs near the dance floor because it would be somewhat quieter.
While the adults sat down Terrence and I went right to the railing overlooking the dance floor. There were two curved staircases going down from the entrance hall. The bandstand was between them at the bottom.
"This place is really elegant. Who'd expect to find something like this underground?" Terrence observed.
"They say that this was modeled after the first class dining room and ballroom of the Titanic, though much smaller, of course." Dad had walked up behind us. "They were both built around the same time."
"That's not a very good omen." I said nervously.
"I don't know. The Titanic went down on her maiden voyage while this place has been around for nearly thirty years so maybe the resemblance is only superficial."
Back at the table Dad ordered champagne all around. Terrence was now 18 and I would be in three months, so Dad allowed us to drink. Terrence looked old enough although I sure didn't, but the waiter didn't mind. Dad toasted first Mother, then Terrence and then the waiter took our orders.
Our reservation had been for eight o'clock and when we arrived the place was only about half full. Within an hour, however, every table was occupied and the bar was standing room only. Terrence and I spent most of the time we weren't eating standing at the rail, looking down on the crowded dance floor. After we finished our entrees we went down to the lower level and stood near the bandstand, alternately watching the band and the dancers. From the festive atmosphere it would have been hard to imagine that a war was going on, if not for the fact that half of the young men were in uniform. And not just British uniforms either. Terrence pointed out Dutch, Belgians and Canadians, even a few Australians.
After a while we reluctantly tore ourselves away from the frenzied dancers and went back upstairs for our dessert. We had just sat down when two waiters approached, each carrying a small cake with a single lit candle. At Dad's direction they put them down in front of Mother and Terrence who looked at each other self-consciously. They paused, then blew out their candles together.
At that moment there was the sound of a crash, just barely audible over the music. A second later there was a loud explosion and the lights went out. The force of the explosion rocked me back in my chair and I hit my head against the wall. Gran was thrown to the floor next to me and Granddad fell face down on the table. Things were flying through the air. I felt something hit my shoulder and my face stung as it was hit by a light object. The blow, which had only lasted a few seconds but had seemed much longer, ended suddenly. There was only one light coming from across the room and the whole place was dim, but my eyes quickly adjusted. I helped Gran back into her chair and she held her left wrist tenderly. Granddad sat up and I saw his face was bloodied. Mother and Dad had had their backs to the explosion and seemed to be okay. Terrence was holding a hand against his forehead and I could make out a trickle of blood running down his cheek.
Dad went to the railing while Mother quickly checked us all out. Granddad's nose was bloodied and Mother thought it might be broken. She was also concerned about Gran's wrist which she'd landed on breaking her fall. Terrence's forehead cut was superficial, though bloody. All in all, nothing too serious. Dad looked very serious, however, as he returned to the table.
"It looks like a battlefield down there." He looked up at two holes in the ceiling." The bombs came down through there and went off right on the dance floor."
"It sounded like only one explosion, Dad."
"Either they went off at exactly the same time or one was a dud. I think we should try to get out of here."
He led the way to the staircase in the entrance hall. There was a gaping hole in the floor where one of the bombs had fallen through. We carefully skirted it and joined the crowd trying to get up the stairs to the street. I looked down at what had been the dance floor and saw bodies everywhere. The room was filled with moaning and crying, pierced by the occasional scream. There were people down below wandering around in a daze.
We finally made it up to the street. There were rescue units there as well as the fire brigade but I didn't see any ambulances. It was dark and smoky, with the smell of explosives in the air. The only light came from searchlights panning the sky. The ack-ack of anti-aircraft guns nearly drowned out the drone of overhead planes. Mother took charge of our situation.
"William, take Mum and Dad to Piccadilly and try to find a shelter until the all-clear sounds. Then get a taxi. They have to get to the nearest hospital to be checked out. I think Mum's wrist is broken and Dad's nose may be as well."
"What about us?" I asked. "Should we get a cab back to the house?"
"You and I are going back inside. There are so many people wounded, they'll need everyone with any first aid experience at all to help."
"What should I do?" Terrence asked.
"It's up to you. You can go along to hospital or come back inside with us."
Terrence paused but only for a second.
"I think I'll stay with Woody, if you don't mind. I don't know much about first aid but I'm sure I can help with something."
It was total chaos around the door of the club. No one seemed to be in charge. People were pouring out the door so it took us a while to get back inside. We squeezed down the stairs past the flow of people heading up. The crowd on the balcony had thinned out considerably and there didn't seem to be anyone injured too badly there so we went on down to the lower level.
The scene was even worse up close than it had seemed from above. Mother spoke to someone who seemed to be in charge and we were directed to the area across the room from the bandstand. We passed a number of still bodies along the way. I tried not to look at them but they were everywhere. Mother stopped at a woman who was moving, stooped down and examined her. Then she went to work on her.
"Woody, that man over there is bleeding. Do what you can to stop it. Terrence, try to find some clean napkins to use as bandages."
So we went to work as well. I bandaged wounds using napkins Terrence handed me. He didn't react well to the sight of blood so I put him to work helping people get out of the building. Some could walk with his assistance but others he had to practically carry. From the number of people helping there must have been quite a few doctors and nurses among the patrons of the club. Terrence reported that ambulances had finally arrived and he began helping carry people out on stretchers.
There didn't seem to be an end to the wounded. It seemed that every time we moved a dead body there was someone injured underneath. Some of the injuries were pretty gruesome. One man had lost an arm, another both legs. Some, like those, were so bad I was sure they weren't going to make it no matter what we did. Once or twice I was sure Terrence was going to lose his dinner, but he somehow managed to keep it down. The worst part for me wasn't the bloody wounds but the cries of the victims. Finally we reached a point where there were more first-aiders than injured, so Mother proposed we leave.
I barely had the strength to make it up the stairs to the street. I leaned on Terrence, amazed at his strength, as he had already made so many trips up these stairs, many of them carrying heavy weights. I was surprised that it was still dark when we reached the street. We'd been working so long I was sure it must be morning.
The sky was just starting to lighten in the east when we got home. Dad was up, typing away in his study. He stopped when he heard us come in.
"How are Mum and Dad?" Mother asked.
"Broken wrist, broken nose, just as you called it, but they'll be fine. They're downstairs sleeping. How did you make out?"
"It was a battlefield, just as you said. I never want to see anything like that again. If I'd known it was going to be that bad I would have sent the boys home."
"It was horrible, Dad, but I'm glad Terrence and I were able to help. But now I'm so exhausted I could drop."
"Wash up and then go to bed."
Terrence and I first went up to my room and got out of our suits, which were covered with dust and soot. We went into the bathroom together to clean up. I was surprised to see that in addition to all of the dirt on my face I had several small patches of dried blood. Apparently the stinging I'd felt during the blast had come from shards of glass flying through the air. We washed up, tending to our wounds, and then went down to the cellar to sleep.
"You were fantastic tonight, Woody. It was all so horrible I don't know how you stayed so calm."
"Believe me, I wasn't calm. All of the practice with Mother in her classes didn't prepare me for the real thing, all of that blood and the people in pain."
"So how did you do it?"
"I just had to separate it in my mind. I knew I'd be no good to anyone if I let my feelings get the better of me. So I just concentrated on what had to be done and not what I felt."
"That's tough to do."
"Yes, but even you did it tonight. I could see how much it all bothered you, but once you got busy doing what you could to help, you functioned pretty well."
"Yes, keeping busy helped. It helped keep my dinner down, at any rate. But I don't know that I'd want to ever go through something like that again."
"None of us wants to, but when the time comes we do what we have to."
"I know I've said this before, but you're a lot stronger than you look, Woody."
To Be Continued