THE SAILOR AND THE SONGBIRD

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Chapter 1

 “He wants a break? What a jerk!” Jackie screamed, tapping her phone violently. “See if he likes this post, that’ll show him.” 

“I assume you’re not mad at your phone. So, what’s wrong?” Jackie’s great-grandmother smirked and brought her a plate of chocolate-chip cookies and iced tea.

“My boyfriend broke up with me with a text,” Jackie explained in frustration. “He didn’t even have the nerve to talk to me. So, I posted he was a snake and a two-timer and had bad breath. Ooo. I’ll put a meme on Snapchat too.”

“Did you say meme or meanie?”gently smiled G-gram, as Jackie called her. I know very little about your social cloud stuff, but I do know about broken hearts.”

“He likes this other girl better than me. And he posted pictures of them together and I found out, so I asked him about it. He lied and said he didn’t like her and then just texts me? It’s so rude!” Jackie huffed and bit hard into a cookie.

“I know you think of me as just an old lady, but once upon a time I had boyfriends too,” G-gram smirked. “Some would break up in a note or a letter. Yes, people used pens and paper to communicate in those days. I know this seems like the worst tragedy of your life right now, but trust me, it will get better.”

“Maybe, but why do guys have to be such jerks?” Jackie said. “I bet boys in your day were nice and polite, like gentleman.”

“People are always people. The clothes and circumstances change through the years, but there will always be sweethearts and snakes.” G-gram bit into a cookie and gave Jackie another. “You’ll have many boyfriends in your life. You’ll break hearts and sometimes you’ll get your heart broken before you find your one true love. But it’s the ride that’s the fun part of life.”

“I’m seventeen,” Jackie said. “I don’t know how many times I can go through this. I really liked him.”

“A distraction is what you need,” G-gram chuckled. “You said you would lend a hand with the move. The attic is a good start. There are boxes of clothes, jewelry, books and pictures you may like. Take what you want and sort the rest of the boxes for sale, keep, donate or garbage. I trust your judgment.”

Jackie was staying with her G-gram while her mother was out of town on business to help pack for the pending move from the family home.

She tucked her electronic lifeline in her pocket and carefully walked up the narrow, almost-secret stairs into the attic. It was a big open space with a tall peaked ceiling in the middle, which angled down on both sides and had one big window shining the only daylight into the room.

Jackie quickly surveyed the room. Old chairs and pictures hung from the ceiling and on the walls. Furniture lay under dusty protective tarps, never to be seen again. Racks of old clothes in plastic sleeves lined the walls. Boxes labeled as books and important papers were stacked in every nook and cranny. The attic was stuffed with everything time forgot.

“Hmm. Wonder if I can get a signal on my phone to check Insta?” She took her phone from her back pocket. “Rrr, no bars! Oh, well, maybe there’ll be something cool in all this junk.”

After sorting through one boring box after another, Jackie accumulated a few trinkets of vintage jewelry, a few tie-dyed t-shirts, some scarves, a pair of green-tinted, round-rimmed sunglasses and a big-brimmed straw hat with flowers that she wouldn’t mind being seen in. She was making progress when she tried to move a small covered table in front of a stack of boxes. She pushed it with all her strength, but it would barely move. When she removed the cloth, she found a huge brown leather steamer trunk with worn straps. It was like a travel log of the USA with stickers papered all over it from New York, Miami, Ohio, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles.

She opened the trunk and waved off the clouds of dust to reveal a variety of faded colored and sequined dresses, a myriad of long and short white and black gloves, hats, ribbons, sheet music, posters, playbills, picture scrapbook, a couple of worn stuffed animals, and some old dried flowers.

Jackie didn’t know what kind of treasure trove it was, but she was interested. She started taking things out so she could put them in the appropriate boxes she previously labeled “keep,” “sell,” “donate,” “toss” and “mine.”

It was a nice trunk with a cream-colored satin lining that was tinted yellowish-brown from age. It was worn by time and use and looked like it toured from coast to coast and it had the labels to prove it. She saw trunks like this in classic black-and-white movies she watched with her G-gram.

As she emptied it, she saw two satin tabs on either side of the trunk. She pulled them and lifted out a tray, revealing a secret stash of old letters bundled and wrapped in different colored ribbons of white, green, pink and blue.

She put aside the letters and sorted the clothes first. She thought the gloves were pretty and a few hats could have some use for Halloween, so she placed those in the “mine” box. Many of the dresses were too faded and moth-eaten with holes to be of use. As she separated them into trash and donate piles, she wondered if most of them were costumes for the stage or what people wore in real life back in the olden days.

“No one would wear these out on the street nowadays. These padded shoulders are as big as football pads. And these tiny waistlines are so small,” Jackie said.

She dug through the piles she created and put some items in the “keep” box, as they seemed like memories her G-gram may want to preserve. The picture scrapbook definitely belonged in the keep pile, but before it was stowed, she thumbed through it to see if she recognized anyone.

The black and white pictures were faded, and some parts were worn or torn, making it difficult to make out the people and places. She recognized her G-gram and some friends she talked about over the years.

“These guys were gentlemen, I just know it,” Jackie insisted and flipped through the pages. “Look at them, they’re always smiling and dressed nice and neat. And here, they’re standing respectfully next to these ladies, arm in arm. I’ve seen old movies. Men back then were considerate and romantic and would never be snakes like guys now.”

She knew her G-gram was a singer in the 40s, but she knew little more. When they watched movies together, their favorite late night pastime, G-gram talked about her friends and similar things they did, but never talked about the war.

Jackie put the scrapbook aside and turned to the discarded letter bundles. They were obviously important enough to be hidden under the trunk’s secret bottom, so they would be kept. Curious, Jackie unbundled some letters. She thought they could fill in some blanks and explain the varied contents of the trunk and the people in the photographs. The letters had no envelopes, just folded papers. She took one pile of letters and started to read. White ribbon first …

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January 7, 1944

Dearest Mommy and Daddy:

We’ve been here in New York for nearly one week now. New Year’s and Christmas seem like so long ago. I know it hasn’t been that long, it just feels like it.

New York is very different from Danville, Illinois. It’s really big and has a lot of people and a lot of lights. Of course, the first place we went was Broadway. You should have seen all the lights and marquees with all the wonderful shows. Kate says one day we’ll be in one of those theatres. I’m not so sure, but I would love it. She’s sure who knows? Maybe.

We also saw Times Square. I think it’s the busiest place on earth. Everyone seems to know where they’re going and what they’re doing. No one looks up or wanders around aimlessly. People here must be so successful; they don’t have time to even walk slowly.

I just stood and looked around, and no one even paid attention to me. They just went around me like I was a light pole or a statue. I feel like a tiny pea in a big mattress—invisible and no impact. Every time we go on the street, I nearly get run over because I don’t walk fast enough.

Kate is trying to teach Janie and me to be like real New Yorkers. She is like a native already. Even though she’s never been here, she’s been reading The New Yorker magazine for the last year or so, so she knows what to do. I’m glad she’s here. She’s so confident about everything. She fits like a glove already. I’m like an oven mitt.

We found a boarding house to live right away, which was a relief. It’s nice, but it sure is a different way to live. Not like our home. It’s an old brownstone with ten stairs to walk up to the front porch. It has a drawing room on one side and a big dining room on the other side with a big rectangular wooden table for all the boarders. I’ve never seen so many chairs around a table in one house. Not like holidays, where we would bring out other tables for everyone. The furniture is older, more Victorian, with a lot of tufts and buttons, but it’s nice.

Kate, Janie and I share a smaller room with a closet, a dresser and two single beds—one has a trundle. We take turns on the trundle bed. It’s hard not to get stepped on in the middle of the night when someone has to get water or go to the bathroom. The closet is small for three girls to share, but since we each brought only one suitcase of clothes, its fine.

The bathroom is down the hall. We share it with four other rooms. But that’s not bad. Some houses have one bath for everyone to share. We’re lucky, but we have to sign up for 15-minute periods in the morning and night so everyone gets a turn. And don’t worry, the men stay on a different floor and use a separate bath. It’s all very respectable.

Our house mother, Mrs. Arnold, runs a tight ship and wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s an English widow with a great accent. She looks like a small pear and waddles around, but moves remarkably fast.

This is a big house with twenty people, and it’s a lot of work with cleaning and cooking for everyone. Mrs. Arnold says she’s slowed down a bit since she turned fifty. Wow, I can’t even imagine being fifty.  

She has a young Polish girl to help her named Anja. She’s very hard to understand, but very pretty with light blonde hair and very fair skin—like milk. Mrs. Arnold said she came here on a boat with other Polish people after the fall in 1939. She’s Jewish and thinks her family was taken to German camps. It’s so sad. She is so alone—no family. We’ve been palling around with her, trying to be her friends. She’s probably around eighteen, but she looks very young. We’ve been teaching her some American slang. I don’t think she understands, but she’s trying. She’s very funny. I like her a lot.

We’ve met many friendly people so far and some strange ones. We’re close to Broadway, so most of the people staying here are singers, dancers, actors and some former vaudevillians who try to find work where they can in local theatres, and for large groups and parties.

One of the nicest men is The Amazing Al. He’s a small Italian man and is very kind. He’s a clown and a juggler who also throws knives. He’s very talented and does a lot of street shows where people throw coins at him if they like his performance. And he sometimes does a few minutes at movie houses before a movie or play. Mrs. Arnold always laughs that he pays his rent in pennies, nickels and dimes.  

My love to everyone. I miss all of you very much.

Love, your little girl Suzy

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 “We just have to get jobs to pay for our room—we’re nearly out of our pin money,” Suzy said.

“And so we can buy things,” Janie added.

 “Come on, girls.” Kate led Suzy and Janie through the streets of New York. “We’ll find something, but auditioning is our top priority. We need to find a job we can do at night.”

The three girls walked up and down Broadway for two whole weeks looking for restaurants, bars or all-night diners where they could work evenings to leave the days open to try out their singing trio.

Suzy and Janie met in high school. They were in choir and drama group together and became fast friends.

Janie was a cheerleader, spunky and pretty, always the life of the party. With her brown hair, hazel eyes and beautifully tanned Italian complexion coupled with her toned athletic build, she turned the eye of many boys. And with her friendly, giddy personality, she reveled in the attention.

Suzy was the girl next door, inside and out. Her milky alabaster skin contrasted with twinkling brown eyes and pretty dark chestnut hair. Suzy was a little shy compared to Janie, but also enjoyed being noticed by boys. Growing up a little skinny, she now grew into her looks with a petite, but curvy, figure.

The girls met Kate when she came up to them after a school choir concert. Janie and Suzy did a duet, and Kate was impressed at their natural and cohesive harmonies.

Kate was a few years older than the other girls and determined to become a professional singer one way or another. She loved all music, from jazz and blues to the bebop music of the day. Kate was tall in stature, with soft blue eyes and sandy brown hair. Her height, strong drive and confidence made her intimidating to boys and young men, which was fine with her. Kate thought she didn’t have time or focus to waste on the opposite sex; marriage was far down on her list of life goals.

After joining Suzy and Janie, Kate honed their style into a synchronized harmony trio like the Andrews Sisters and booked them locally in bowling alleys, school dances, barn raisings, ribbon cuttings and any other singing gig in the small metropolitan farming town of Danville, Illinois.

“Look!” Kate grabbed the sign in the window, smiling. “Wanted: Waitress/Cigarette Girl.”

Manny’s Steakhouse was a dark and dingy place, even in the daytime. It had faux wood paneling on the walls and ceiling with low amber-colored lighting over the tables and very few ceiling lights, which gave the place an odd jaundiced glow amid the heavy smell of cigar, cigarette and pipe smoke mixed with steak and alcohol.  

“I’m Eddie, the manager,” said the small, skinny man approaching the girls. He was so slight, only about five feet, that he almost looked like a child, except for his cigar puffing and the race forms sticking out of his narrow-brimmed straw hat.

Kate, always first forward, went right up to the man and shook his hand. “Hi, we’re singers looking for work. I see you need some help,” she said, pointing to the sign in the window.

Eddie didn’t say anything, but slowly walked around the girls, looking at them with a wry smile peering through his cigar. “You’re all cute. Maybe… but I don’t need any singers,” he said, staring at them. “I need a cute cigarette girl and waitresses. Have any experience?”

Janie and Suzy looked at each other, dumbfounded, half-afraid, and unable to speak. Kate was older and worked in a diner, but Suzy only served people at school and church fundraisers, never for money. And Janie’s father was very strict and didn’t approve of women in the workplace, so she rarely got out of the house. She ran away to go with the girls to New York City to change her life. 

“Sure we do,” Kate said, as she stepped in front of the girls to block their blank stares. She grabbed his hand to shake it. “Give us a try—you won’t be disappointed.”

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January 18, 1944

Dearest Mommy and Daddy:

We got jobs finally. We’ve been pounding the pavement and reading the newspapers for a couple weeks now. Every job we saw or could get was during the day, every day. Kate said that won’t leave time for auditioning. She’s always thinking ahead. She still says we can be the next Andrews Sisters. I hope so. Singing in church and at the bowling alley at home is one thing. New York, movies, records, Broadway—that’s another thing.

People here sure move fast. I know I said that before, but I still can’t get over it. I like to watch the people. There are a lot of servicemen, with the training base nearby. They have all kinds of uniforms. A lot of them seem as wide-eyed and lost as I am. That makes me feel better.

I also see a lot of businessmen in suits. The other day, I saw a group of older men smoking cigars and grumbling at the newsstand about the war. That makes me feel like home when the men gather at Homer’s store and talk about the war.

And you should see some ladies here. They are so fancy and dressy, with big hats with feathers and high-heeled shoes. And some of them even have real stockings. You can tell because the lines are even not like when we draw them on. These women are so made up; they must be rich people or movie stars. I thought I saw Betty Grable the other day, but Janie said it wasn’t. She reads all the Hollywood magazines, so she knows. She said when she sees someone famous, she’ll let us know.

I miss home and all of you. It makes me homesick when I see families together. But New York is where we need to be if we want to be discovered.

All of this is so new and frustrating. Thank goodness for Janie. You know her; she’s so funny and makes friends so easily. She has everyone in the boarding house smiling all the time and always keeps us in stitches. I don’t know what I’d do without them. It makes it easier having them here.

I’m really glad we got some work. Mrs. Arnold was letting us do housework for half our room and board, but I think she was just being kind. Anja has been training with the magician to be an assistant, so maybe Mrs. Arnold needs our help. I’m not sure. We’re really dipping into our piggy bank, but now we’re gainfully employed working at a steak house. It’s only open in the evening and they have dancing, food and a live stage show.

Kate told the manager we had waitressing experience, but we don’t. Luckily we’re starting at the bottom now. Eddie, the manager, said he would let us sing for him sometime as soon as something becomes available. Kate liked the place because we can work at night and then audition during the day. Plus, if we can get on stage, we can get noticed. Right now, Janie and I are working as hat and coat check and cigarette girls and helping clear tables. Kate is a waitress, since she’s experienced. She’s teaching us so we can earn more money.

Eddie said we all can wait tables soon. I’m just glad we have jobs. We’re practicing waitressing when we can and at the boarding house. Plus, we eat dinner at the steakhouse for free. We have to eat fast when there’s a lull and only get to eat what is not popular that night, but it helps. The food is good enough—at least we won’t starve. Ha ha.

I will write as much as I can. Still miss you all very much. Tell Jules I’ll write to her soon. She’s sending me so many letters—I really appreciate it. Hearing from you makes me feel like I’m not so far away. Love to you all and kisses to everyone there.

Your little girl, Suzy

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This work is copyrighted (c) 2021 Suzanne Rudd Hamilton, all rights reserved.

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