Cherise Wyneken


Photo of Cherise Wyneken by Nan Phelps






War Torn



I’m fourteen years old and my brother still hasn’t come home from the war. World War II. U. S. Infantry, Private First Class. If a girl ever needs a brother it’s in her teens. This war’s followed me all the way through high school. So far. I’m a sophomore now. Wade was here my first year – keeping his eye on me. Like that time I met him in the hall during class. What’re ya doing out of class?  I had my permission slip in hand. Never thought to ask what he’s doing. He and his friend Swede. Swede had a car. They were off someplace fun!  I bet Mama never knew he did stuff like that. She sees no fault.


You should’ve seen her expression that day Wade and Swede came running up our front porch. Wade asking did he get his?  You know – draft notice. Mama didn’t like it – not one little bit. She always used to say she wished she could take us far away from war. Like to the South Sea Islands. Till we started fighting there. That’s Mama’s way. Always trying to save us from something. Poor health. Fires. Anything bad. Always blowing out the candles before we barely smell them or stuffing us with vitamins.


But she couldn’t keep Wade from war. She does what she can though—writing air letters, sending packages. Cookies, chocolate bars, warm socks—for when his feet get cold and wet in a fox hole. European theater you know.


I try to do my part, too. Scrounging round for foil from cigarette packs and Wrigley’s chewing gum wrappers and rolling it in a ball. Mama uses our ration books carefully. She’s always worried we don’t get enough meat. You know—protein. So she started raising rabbits. That’s a laugh. She gives most of them away. Can’t bear to kill ’em. Dad can’t do it either. But that’s not really war like in the News Reels or the movies. The movies aren’t really war either. Our side always wins. Like in the “Flying Tigers.”


So I’ve been going along making do without a brother. Well—that’s not exactly true. When Uncle Elmer died Aunt Rose and cousin Tiny (his real name’s pesky.  Not like Wade. When my cousin Joyce came for a visit we got so tired of him we took our library books and climbed up in the neighbor’s tree to read. It’s a big ole fig tree—so thick with leaves he couldn’t see us. He’d call and call. We just kept on reading till our legs got tired being so scrunched up. Then we’d get down climb up the back porch and sneak into my bedroom through the window. We’d stretch out on the bunk beds (knotty pine) and read some more till he came by and asked where we’d been. What d’ya mean?  Been here all the time.


That porch is good for sneaking out too. I wish you could see the roses climbing there in spring. American Beauties. Really red. I always pick a big bouquet for Mama for Mother’s Day. She took a picture of me standing by them in my Confirmation dress. I felt pretty grown-up. Still—I like to play hide and seek around the funeral parlor. It’s scary after dark. I guess a grown-up wouldn’t do that.


I say the country may be in war but that doesn’t stop the walnuts from growing. We have these three big English walnut trees in front and one black walnut in back. Actually they’re all black walnut to start and then they graft the English ones onto the stronger trunks—something  like that. We never use the black ones much. They’re so hard to open and you have to be a lawyer to get the meat out (That’s what Mama says). Come September Dad gets the bamboo pole out of the cellar. I love the musty smell down there. (Not the rats.)  The walnuts are covered with a thick green husk. When Dad knocks them down it looks just like green rain. The hulls crack open when they hit the sidewalk. Hopefully. I say hopefully because then us kids have to carry them to the backyard by the bucketful and tear the hulls off. If they haven’t split by falling you have to use a knife. I hate knives. Then we spread the wet walnuts on newssheets from the Sunday paper and leave them there to dry. It’s an icky job because the sap oozes onto your fingers and turns them brown. You have to scrub for days before it comes off. Everyone at school knows who’s got walnut trees. Wade’s off risking his life for us and here I am worrying about brown fingers.


And everyone else in town is celebrating walnuts. Well—the town is called Walnut Creek!  Every year after the harvest we have this big festival. There’s a carnival and parade and all. The mayor and other politicians ride in their convertibles and wave. The ranchers ride their horses. All dressed up in fancy riding clothes. Silver buckles jingling spurs cowboy hats whatever. The ladies wear bright colored ruffled skirts and embroidered peasant blouses. Like at a square dance.


Tiny went to the carnival with me last time. He tried to talk me into going on the airplane ride but when I saw it spin and turn upside down I was out of there. Afterwards we went to the Elk’s Club barbeque and stuffed ourselves on ribs and corn. Did you hear?  he says  Mr. Bruebaker’s palomino won first place in the parade.


I was glad. Mr. Bruebaker’s always nice to me. He owns the Auto Shop on Main and our house is kitty corner across the alley from its back door. He never gets mad when we short-cut through. He’s in charge of the school buses and when it’s real stormy he lets me off right at my front door. He gave me a job filing receipts and bills once a week in his office.


Walnuts aren’t the only things that need harvesting around here. The farm workers went off to work in the shipyards and factories but tomatoes can’t wait for Peace. So us kids get commandeered on the work crew from school. We change into our gym shorts and get shuttled to the fields in big open-bodied trucks. Twenty-five cents a lug working in the hot sun and adobe dust. The smell of fermenting fruit and droning from the buzzing bees puts you in a kind of trance. Sets your insides roiling. Specially working close with boys like that. They keep looking at your legs. We stash away the biggest ripest tomatoes for our ride back and get rid of those feelings throwing red beef stakes between the two trucks. A kind of war within a war. But fun.


Seems like everything I do for the war turns out fun. Except going without my brother. One day I came home from school and found this really cute sailor visiting with Grandma (Mama was at work in the walnut sheds). This is Jimmy says Grandma. A friend of your cousin back in Dakota. He’s stationed here in Alameda. Blond—blue eyed. I tried to still the rattle in my heart—lolled back on the sofa listening to them talk. Grandma poked me. Sit up!  Why do grown-ups always read something into everything we do?  (Maybe she was right. I did feel seductive.)


Mama wouldn’t let me go out alone with a grown-up sailor but Tiny chaperoned. Good for something at last!  Jimmy and I never even once held hands but you don’t need to touch – to feel. It just comes sizzling through your arms like one of those electric wires left dangling from a storm Mama always warns us about. He’s out to sea now but I liked being with Jimmy. He comes from South Dakota like me and is used to things like our old paint-cracked house and second hand unmatched furniture. He gave me status with my girl friends too.


A few weeks ago Marion (she’s Catholic) invited me to a dance put on by St. Mary’s to entertain the soldiers. These guys were on their own—not like going to the Sophomore Hop with Dewey and being chauffeured by his parents. (That’s not putting Dewey down. He’s sort of round and not very tall but I like the way he makes me laugh.)


The dance was just the same though. Same agony looking at that wide room waiting to be filled. Will someone ask me to dance?  Same strains of  “Sentimental Journey” from the record player. Only this was Big Time stuff with soldiers. Barely fuzzing beards they seemed like men to us. We weren’t much to look at with our bobby socks and washboard chests. They liked us anyway.Home girls. Fresh from church. Trying to warm a soldier’s heart with smiles. No matter that our sweaters sagged. Then I had to go and spoil it. I’m a prince from Hawaii. Will you dance with me? he says. Of course I would. You remind me of  Calinda—back home. I didn’t like to be like someone else but it seemed a compliment. How could I rise to that image?  Me—a plain girl from a poor family. We wear uniforms to school I say. Some girls are poor and can’t afford expensive clothes. We get around that by the sweaters we wear. (A monster lie. I hate myself.)


War is everywhere. It came even closer to home not long ago. Me and Robin the boy next door were sitting on the hood of Dad’s car (we don’t have a garage) talking and enjoying the warm summer night. We were gawking up at the sky trying to find Orion when all of a sudden a jillion stars burst across the sky. It was really scary and I ran into the house hollering for Mama to come outside and see. Is it the end of the world?  But Mama only came out wrapped her arms in her apron and said it was beautiful and wasn’t it past time to come inside and go to bed. No way! I’m waiting to see if it was the Second Coming like I learned at church. Well the next minute I was sure it was the end of the world. There was this huge flash of light and then the houses shook and rattled.


Everyone came running out. Must’ve been at least a five on the Richter scale says Robin. Part of the ceiling fell on top of our bed says the man across the street. Glad we weren’t in it. Then Robin’s Dad came running out pulling on his naval officer’s jacket. Just got a call from Port Chicago. (It’s about twenty miles away). My ammunition ship blew up. Blew up!


Shook up—that’s what we were. And that’s not all. Aunt Rose worked there in the payroll department and Dad and Uncle Walter on a survey crew. That’s what I call close. Too close for comfort. But you know—even though you’re glad your family came through safe you feel kind of guilty when you think about the others.


Nothing brought that home plainer than that Western Union Wire: “We regret to inform you, your son Wade has been wounded in action.” Mama almost fainted. When it finally hit her that he wasn’t dead she was relieved. Until the word “wounded” grew pictures in her mind—some unbearable. She was almost glad when we finally found out it was something he can live with. At least he won’t have to go back into battle.


Wade told me how it happened. It was the night before the famous Battle of the Bulge. Their battalion was scheduled to cross the bridge in the morning. His platoon swiped a couple chickens from a Belgian farmer and settled in his house. They sat around the pot-bellied stove waiting for their meal to cook. One of the guys fiddled with his grenade and pulled the pin by accident. Wade was the lucky one —holed up behind the stove —the only one alive. His wrist and hand were battered and he lost half his right index finger. My cousin told me later that our other Grandma back in Dakota got everybody up that night and made them pray for Wade. She always did have ESP.


I didn’t know I could ever be so glad when we heard Wade was transferred from the hospital in England to one in Los Angeles. Mama had to see him. Dad had to stay home and work. So she and I set off for the Greyhound Bus Depot. At first it felt like we were in a church with that big dome and benches shaped like pews. Then I saw the dirt and scruffy people trying to catch a ride somewhere – like us. Bus #27 to Los Angeles now loading at Gate #2 blared from a speaker. I swear it felt like we were pulled along with the crowd. Like undertow at Santa Cruz. We were way far back. The bus fast filling up. My heart sank. We’ll never get on!  Then I got this vision. Dad shoving his way to the front of a ticket line making sure we wouldn’t miss our one chance to see the Ringling Brothers Circus. I snatched the tickets out of Mama’s hand slithered through the crush and waved them underneath the driver’s eyes. For me and my mom. We gotta see my wounded brother. Let her through the driver says. He closed the door behind us and we hunted out the last two vacant seats.




Published in Palo Alto Review, Spring 2001, Bombshells: War Stories and Poems by Women on the Homefront (Omni Arts, 2007), and Stir-Fried Memories, by Cherise Wyneken (Whispering Angel Books).














Cherise Wyneken is a freelance writer.  Selections of her prose and poetry have appeared in a variety of anthologies and journals, plus two books of poetry, two poetry chapbooks, a memoir, a novel, and a children’s book. She is a member of the Bay Area Poets Coalition, the Women’s Poetry Potluck and Salon, and enjoys reading her work at various other local venues.  She is the mother of four, grandmother of eight, and lives with her husband in Albany, CA.


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