Author’s Notes: This is one of my favorite chapters in A Spent Bullet. It reveals the tension in the Reed family between a father who has personally experienced battle and an idealistic young son who yearns for war.
You cannot understand the weeks leading up to Pearl Harbor without being aware of the national struggle taking place then between the isolationist “America Firsters” (led by Charles Lindbergh) and the interventionists led by President Franklin Roosevelt.
A Broken Record
As Elizabeth got out of the car at her family’s rural home, she pushed the two letters deeper into her purse. She hadn’t told Peg about the letters. That could wait.
Ben ran toward their family farm dog, Blue. “Hey boy, didja miss me?” Elizabeth watched him freeze at the sounds from inside the house. He hung his head. “They’re fighting again.”
Elizabeth handed him the crate of biddies. “Go put these in the brooder.” Peg, who avoided conflict like the Bubonic Plague followed him toward the barn. They left Elizabeth alone as she cringed at the loud arguing coming from her brother Jimmy Earl and Poppa. It was clear the root of this ruckus: the war in Europe had come home to Bundick Community again.
The Victrola played in the background. She knew it was the source of the trouble. It was “Lindbergh: Eagle of the USA,” a song her father and brother had been skirmishing over for weeks. Poppa, whose hearing had been damaged in the Great War, played the Victrola at full volume. Elizabeth listened to the scratchy recording:
Lindbergh, what a flying fool was he.
Lindbergh, your name will live in history.
There was a lull in the arguing.
Over the ocean, he flew on alone,
Daring and danger, he faced all alone.
She listened carefully as the argument quieted and the song continued:
Others may make that trip across the sea
Upon some future day, but take your hats off to lucky, lucky Lindbergh
The Eagle of the USA.
Author’s Notes: I grew up next to a family home we call the Old House. It was built in the nineteenth century and featured a RCA victrola. I loved winding it up and listening to “Lindbergh.” The noise of the plane in the background gripped me and it is still one of my favorite songs.
Jimmy Earl said, “I’m tired of that song.” The sickening scratch of a needle ripping across a phonograph record followed this. She hurried into the house where her father and Jimmy Earl stood toe to toe.
“You’ve ruined my favorite record.” Poppa put the needle back on the record as the clack-clack-clack of the needle revolved over the scratch. He took “Lindbergh” off the turntable and flung it against the wall where it shattered into a dozen pieces. Elizabeth felt her own heart splintering.
“Son, you know how much that record meant to me.” There was more hurt in her father’s husky voice than anger.
“Poppa, Lindbergh’s a traitor. He ought to move to Germany since he says we can’t beat them.”
“Son, there’s a lot about it you don’t understand.”
Jimmy Earl glared. “Lindbergh—and his isolationist friends—are wrong. We can’t stick our head in the sand.
“Most of them opposing the war fought in the Great War. They know what it’s like.” Poppa’s voice cracked. “I know what it’s like—I was there.”
Jimmy Earl braced his feet. “We’re going to have to take our stand sooner or later.”
“Then let it be later. Too many Americans died fighting a European War. We don’t need to do it again twenty-something years later.”
“The President says we have no choice but to take a stand.”
“Well, Roosevelt is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.”
Elizabeth saw the anger ratcheted up in her brother’s face. “Poppa, you taught me to always respect the President.”
“Saying the President is wrong ain’t disrespect. It’s simply a matter of opinion—my opinion, in fact.”
Jimmy Earl stiffened. “And my opinion is that your hero Lindbergh and his ‘America First’ crowd are traitors. Especially him.”
“You don’t have to agree with him, but don’t call him a traitor. He’s a great American.”
“No, he’s a traitor.”
Elizabeth put her hand on her brother’s chest. “Jimmy Earl, you’ve said enough.”
He turned on her. “No, Sister. I ain’t said enough.” Facing Poppa, he lowered his voice. “I feel so strongly about it that I’m joining up.”
“What’d you say?”
Jimmy Earl’s voice was clear and strong. “I said I’m joining up.”
“Yes Sir, I’m joining the Army.”
“J.E., you can’t. You’re only seventeen.” Poppa was the only one who called Jimmy Earl by his initials. It was his term of endearment for his oldest son. He lamely repeated, “J.E., you can’t.”
“No, Poppa, you’re wrong. I can and I will.” Elizabeth lowered her head. If her brother had wanted the last word on this argument, he’d just gotten it.
No one had noticed Ben standing in the door. “Jimmy Earl, you can’t leave us. What would I do without you here?” The three Reed family members turned toward Ben. Poppa, shoulders sagging, walked out of the house and toward the barn. It was as if his rigid anger had been wrung out, and Elizabeth could only form one word watching him: sadness.
Jimmy Earl stormed into his room, slamming the door behind him. Elizabeth put her arm around Ben as he sobbed, “It’s always about that dang war, ain’t it?”
She stroked his hair. “It seems like everything is tied to that war. Soldiers, maneuvers, the news, the radio, everything.”
“Jimmy Earl can’t really join the army, can he?”
“He’s seventeen. He could probably get in with a parent’s signature.”
They walked hand in hand to the porch, where Elizabeth sank into the swing and put her arm around her little brother. “Bradley, we never know from day to day what’s going to happen.”
“Why’d you call me Bradley?”
“I didn’t call you Bradley.”
“Yes, you did. Who’s Bradley?”
“I’m sorry Ben. Bradley was . . . someone I knew in Shreveport.” She glanced down. “He reminded me of you.”
“Then he must be a fine fellow.”
Ben leapt off the porch, hitting the tire swing in full stride. Elizabeth sat in the swing, the only sounds being the distant drone of an overhead plane, the creaking of the swing chains, and her little brother’s whistling as he swung.
There was no doubt. He was whistling “Lindbergh, The Eagle of the USA.”