The crucial events in this story take place in Wichita, Kansas around 1950. Place and street names are generally accurate with some small amount of poetic license.
To set the mood, the big songs that year were:
Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, by Gene Autry
White Christmas, by Bing Crosby
Music! Music! Music! by Teresa Brewer
The Third Man Theme, by Guy Lombardo
Mona Lisa, by Nat King Cole
All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, by Spike Jones
Harbor Lights, by Sammy Kaye & His Orchestra
THE CORRAL THEATER 1949
I woke up that cold winter afternoon in front of the Corral. Struggling with some small core of pride, I always said my name to myself as soon as I awoke after a drinking bout. Some days it was easy. Other days it could be a struggle, like today. It took a while—too long—but I finally came up with a name, Crane, forming the sounds slowly with my lips: "Crane Hanson."
John, the guy that managed the theater was a friend of mine from our days on the cross-country and track teams at North High School. He was about the only friend I had left and he let me sleep in the theater during the winter, after it opened at 2:00 pm.
Now that I was awake, eyes bleary and bloodshot, I struggled with what had awakened me. Maybe the noise of the bottle of rye lying broken on the sidewalk, the small amount left striving for the gutter and an eventual home in the Gulf of Mexico. No, that wouldn't have done it. This happened all too frequently and it never woke me before.
The bells ringing in my ears? Naw, that was constant anymore and this was more of a hoarse clang, clang, once in a while alternated with a bright ding-a-ling. Squinting, I looked up at a vision. There was a young woman, maybe in her mid-twenties, with a sweet angelic face, pale, curly blond hair imprisoned in an old fashioned bonnet. She looked slim in the dark blue uniform and heavy dark blue overcoat as she once again shook that large bell with its distinctive clang, clang.
She was standing behind a large kettle, next to a sign saying "Give Christmas to the Needy", ringing one, then the other bell, smiling at passersby with cheery holiday greetings as they went about their Christmas shopping. I noticed the cold was making her cheeks a bright pink over her too pale face, her lips losing color in the cold.
I started trying to stand up, leaning against the wall, feeling inside my coat pocket for my backup pint of rye, when I saw John opening the theater.
The girl saw me struggling and asked, "Mister! Are you all right?"
I turned back to look at her, shaking my head at her youthful innocence, my memories bringing a sudden wash of tears to my eyes. With a quick shake of my head, I turned back and entered the movie house. Watching a cowboy movie (that was all they showed, hence the name Corral) as I finished my last pint, I fell into a deep but restless sleep.
The images always came first:
The girl, maybe six, lying in the dirt by the barbed wire gate, body emaciated past gauntness, eyes wide open ... staring at some unknown horror, staring at—nothing anymore.
Inside the gate a long row of bodies stacked insanely neat, like cords of logs eight to ten feet high, abandoned in place as they awaited burial.
A huge ditch at least 40 feet long, ten to twelve feet deep, filled with cadavers covered with lime to hasten decomposition. A bulldozer parked nearby ready to cover the pit of inhumanity.
I was sick before the jeep stopped, the pictures of a terrible horror burning their way into my psyche, a part of me turning black, in denial that humans could do this to each other.
The Lieutenant I was with later was said to be the first American officer to enter a concentration camp. We were an advance unit of the "Super Six" the Sixth Armored Division. We entered the camp at Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, on April 11, 1945. The Lieutenant laughed as we passed through the town of Ohrdruf:
"Hanson, do you know that Bach went to school here and received his early musical training?"
He kept chuckling as we drove on to the camp, the location pointed out by an escapee. He stopped smiling when we saw the child.
Because I was married with two kids, I was far down the draft list—but on it! I entered the army about ten months ago and after intense but very short training was sent to Europe. I had been a cop for three years in Wichita, mostly walking a beat in the downtown area.
The next few weeks were a blur, partially because of events. Ike came to visit the camp at Ohrdruf with Omar Bradley and George Patton. Patton threw up at once and we didn't see much of him. We were trying to take care of the prisoners but there were so many so deathly ill and we weren't prepared for this. Sure there had been some rumors but the reality was shattering. No one could possibly have imagined this horrible reality.
We heard later that the commandant at Ohrdruf had orders to starve everyone to try to hide the evidence. We did all we could but ... we just lost so many. It was a time of darkness for all of us.
We moved on to Buchenwald. It was incomprehensible. Again, there was the stack of bodies. They all seemed to be males; all naked, all face up. The bottom row stacked one way and the next crosswise. This continued to the top, alternating each layer. The stack was close to six feet high, maybe eighty feet long, heading up a slight rise in the ground. There were a number of such stacks. I was originally part of a detail to try to do a rough count but I just couldn't do it. I was sick and couldn't eat for two days.
What I remember most were the eyes. Dead eyes. Living eyes looking dead. Eyes appearing huge because of the emaciation of their bodies. It was strange to watch the other soldiers deal with this impossible-to-grasp reality. Some would turn hard; you could see their faces, their expressions, even their personalities change.
Many would slip into denial. It was like going to Joyland as a kid; as soon as we got to the amusement park, our real lives were left behind. Others, too many of us, couldn't deal with it at all. Some requested transfers to other units. Some drank. I was one of the drinkers.
I had always liked a drink now and then; name a cop or soldier that didn't. But now I had to have a drink to eat breakfast. I had to drink to go to sleep. I had to drink to stay asleep. I was haunted. I lost weight; I walked around in a daze. We were cut some slack; it was tough for everyone. Finally it came to a head. I was found in a drunken stupor while on guard duty.
This couldn't be shoved under the rug; I was headed for a dishonorable. The battalion commander stepped in and stood up for me. Two months earlier we had just set up a new battalion HQ. The Lieutenant and I came in for maps and coffee. I saw movement in the bushes. A man stood up holding what looked like a shotgun and pointed it at the colonel. I grabbed my carbine and shot from the hip. It was only about twenty feet and I hit him in the neck.
We walked over and looked at this kid, maybe fourteen at best. At that time it was hard on me, later it just became an unpleasant memory—one among many. I was put in for an award but was gone before it came through. The colonel got me out with a honorable medical discharge; that way I could go back to the police force. I was back in Wichita within a week.
I started again at the force, this time in a patrol car out in the College Hill area. I did better for a year or so. For a few months I stopped drinking completely. I was going out to the VA Hospital on East Kellogg and talking to a guy, a psychologist I guess. Back then they didn't understand Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and this guy didn't help much. My partner and I talked about our experiences; it was impossible to talk to our wives about some of the things we had experienced. Sometimes the sharing of our stories helped, other times it depressed the hell out of us.
One night while we were working the night shift we got a call to go to a house near 13th Street and the canal. A man working the graveyard shift at Beech went home early with an upset stomach. His wife was in their bed with another man. He grabbed his gun, killed both of them, shot his three kids and blew his own head off. We got there at the same time the ambulance did. After making sure everything was clear, we went in, helping the ambulance check the kids first.
A little girl, hair in pigtails, cute and the same age as my daughter was still alive. They took her out of there to Wesley Hospital, not too far away. Later we found out she made it but would be permanently paralyzed. The carnage was shocking to both my partner and I. We were veteran police officers and had both been overseas. He had gone through the chain of islands towards Japan as a marine.
We stopped off for a few drinks after the shift. It was really hard to go home to a loving family and pretend nothing bad had happened. What do you say, "Gosh, honey, you should have seen the baby's brains dripping down the wall onto the dirty carpet." So I went home and looked at the wall for a couple of hours, drinking a few beers and watching the "Baby Brain" slideshow on my wall in living color!
Judy tried to work with me. She would talk and I would listen. She asked me to open up and I'd tell her about the new patrol cars we were getting; tell her about how great the suspension was supposed to be.
The drinking continued; got even worse. My partner put up with it for a while but I was gone from the force about eighteen months after getting back from Germany.
It was even worse at home with me having nothing to do. I drank at home. When Judy got pissed I drank at a bar. Judy gave me ultimatum after ultimatum. One morning I got home from an all-night drinking bout and she and the kids were gone. Judy left a note—they were going to her parents in Garden City. She said she couldn't deal with it any more and had filed for divorce.
I sold the house and sent most of the money to Judy for the kids. I signed the divorce when it came. I sold my car and moved into a tiny trailer on South Broadway, between the road and the railroad tracks alongside the river. I kept that for about a year and then slept wherever. Sometimes I slept in an abandoned house and in good weather along the river, especially in the summer. Somehow I lost a year. Later after I sobered up I tried to reconstruct my life. That year was just gone forever. At most I would get a flash of something ... digging through the empties behind a bar; I didn't know then how I'd survived and I never figured it out.
One thing that helped was that I was a quiet drunk; I never caused any problems. I would drink until the images would fade then sleep until they came back. I was now drinking the cheapest rye I could find. I would do anything for a pint: shovel snow, mow grass, fix a car that wouldn't start, clean out manure in the barns.
I had worked out a small network of bartenders that put up with me. I'd sleep behind the bar; maybe do some cleaning up and then I might get a pint when he opened up the next morning. I lived for my next drink. I must have eaten at times but couldn't remember very much.
About the only friend I had left was John at the movie house. They didn't do much business in the afternoons so he would let me sleep it off for a couple of hours. Sometimes he would give me a box of popcorn ... sometimes a soda I could dump my rye into to make it go farther. He kept trying to get me to talk to some one, to get help. But I knew nothing could help me. In that part of my soul where optimism used to reign with a fierce vigor ... only dead ashes remained.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, gently shaking me. It was John; the theater was starting to fill up for Gene Autry's latest, "The Blazing Sun". As we walked up the aisle he slipped a fiver in my hand. Gripping his hand in embarrassment, I went to the restroom and outside.
The girl was gone, replaced by an older man in what I recognized as a Salvation Army Officers uniform. I started to stumble by but he touched my elbow.
"Excuse me, sir. Annie, the girl that was here earlier, asked me to watch for you. I'm ready to close here; really I was waiting for you. We are having dinner for anyone hungry at our church around the corner on Topeka. Come with me."
He looked kindly, standing there patiently waiting for the fog in my head to clear enough to understand what he wanted. Feeling apathetic and suddenly hungry, I let him lead me along. Walking over he gave me his name, clearly not expecting anything from me in return.
"I'm Major William Fortson but everyone calls me Bill."
The church—the sign in front said, Salvation Army Citadel Corps—had a hall in the back, next to a small parking lot off the alley. It was warm, almost stuffy inside. There were half dozen tables and maybe ten or twelve guys sitting around eating. Bill sat down with me and waved his hand at the girl I'd seen earlier.
She walked over to the table and Bill introduced her, "This is Annie, Annie Blaine."
She put her hand out, the chill gone now and her hand warm and dry. I was suddenly aware of the ripe smell coming off my body, off my clothes.
I mumbled, "I'm Crane," as I let go of her hand and sat down, embarrassed.
Bill sent her over to get a plate for me: fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce and a cup of surprisingly good, very strong coffee.
She set the plate down with a big smile. "I have to leave now. My mom has been feeling poorly. I'll be in front of the Corral for the rest of this week. Say hi if you are around, Crane."
I cleaned the plate and Bill walked over and refilled it for me and got more coffee. I was to remember this later as the best meal of my life!
I kept waiting for Bill to "sell" me something, I wasn't sure what. I'd learned that you don't get something for nothing and was waiting for the catch. Bill just chatted, pointing out a couple of the guys and telling their stories, the ones that were okay with that. He talked some of what they were doing for Christmas: collecting toys for children, trying to find homes for the ones that need it, feeding people. As he talked his eyes glowed and I kept waiting.
Finally it came out. "You know, Crane, we have a real mess with the toys. We have the basement half filled and they need to be sorted out. We could sure use some help!"
That was it, the big pitch? He didn't actually even ask me for help, just that they could use some! Feeling uneasy, I stood up and thanked him for the food. He asked if I needed a place to stay but I begged off and left.
I went to a bar on Douglas, across from the train station. The bartender was also the owner and I used to stop by for a drink once in awhile when I was a beat cop. We weren't exactly friends but we got along okay. He was always nice to me. I didn't want to abuse this so I only came here once a month or so.
I wasn't feeling too good and my hands were shaking some. Gene gave me a shot of decent bourbon and I nursed it for an hour in the back at a small table. There was a mirror on the wall and I looked at myself for the first time in months. It wasn't pretty. Besides my eyes being bloodshot they were jaundiced. My face was pinched; I was starting to look like one of my images: I had names for them: "little girl in the dirt," "the pit," "the woodpile;" too many pictures, too many names.
Gene came back and I asked him what I could do. He started to shake his head; he wasn't dumb. But I stood up and asked what needed to be done. He could see the small thread of pride I was holding on to—knowing that if this thread broke then I would too.
"If you could take all the empties out in the alley, also the trash, and restock from the basement, that would help me a lot."
I jumped into the work, sweating all too easily but getting the job done. Afterward I went in to talk to Gene as he was locking up.
Looking up at me from the cash register he said, "You can sleep on the cot in the back as usual. You can go ahead and pour yourself another shot and I'll give you a pint in the morning."
I poured the shot, taking a sip once in a while, enjoying the richness after the usual rotgut I drank. I watched him as he finished the count, trying to build up a little courage. "Gene," I tentatively started, "do you have any old clothes here?"
With a startled look on his face he said, "Yeah, let me look. I usually keep a set of overalls and a flannel shirt around for when I come in on Sundays once in a while to fix things up. I might even have some underwear."
Thinking for a minute, he continued, "You know about the restroom off my office. You can use the shower there if you want. I'm pretty sure I have an old straight razor lying around that I haven't used for years. You'll have to strop it a bit for sure though!"
He got the stuff for me and locked up as he left. I took the rest of my shot to the table in the back room and sit down. I looked at my hands, watching them shake as I thought about the straight razor, feeling a little nauseous imagining what I could do to my face. I finished the last of my shot, holding the glass up to let the last drop drip down into my mouth, not knowing when I could find that rich flavor again. I knew I could go pour another shot and Gene would never know but he trusted me, and that meant a lot.
I took the razor into the bathroom, stropping it, looking at the mirror trying to gather courage. I bit my tongue as a distraction, the pain an influx of adrenalin. Lathering up my face I shaved for the first time since ... for a long time. I hacked the beard off, stropped the razor some more soaped up again and cleaned off the stubble, ignoring a few minor cuts. I was shocked at what I saw. Was I insane?
I took my shower; water as hot as I could stand. I wasn't sure but I had the feeling of things on my body drowning and washing down the drain. When the water turned cold I dressed in Gene's clothes, actually a pretty good fit. I threw the old clothes away. Like myself, I didn't think they could be redeemed. I'd make it up to Gene somehow for his clothes. I turned out the light and lay on the cot.
I guess my mind went into neutral as it coasted from thought to thought, no pattern, no continuity. I tried to picture my kid's faces and was sad that I couldn't. The image of Annie, looking like a Madonna with her bonnet on, her face pale with the cold but cheeks flushed bright. Annie's image juxtaposed with the image of the "little girl in the dirt," then Annie's image fading.
I thought of the Salvation Army guy, Bill, deciding he was a kind man, nothing more, nothing less. I knew I needed help; maybe it was already too late. I remembered Bill saying he needed help with the Christmas toys. Wondered what it would be like to help someone else. To see the face of a child, having nothing, expecting nothing, receiving a dream. Could I pay the price I knew instinctively that I would have to pay, could I do that to see a smile on a girl's face when she got the unexpected doll? To see the lighting up of a small boy's eyes as he received a toy.
Did I have it in me?
I fell into a troubled sleep. Waking up, I thought of the bottles on the other side of the door, an ache growing in me. The need growing stronger, my body shaking, feeling cold.
A sudden flash from somewhere deep brought a picture of Judy with Cindy and Jimmy, their features sharp and clear. That was the day we went out to Lake Afton, the year before I was drafted. The picture, a favorite of mine with Judy and the kids in new swimsuits. I had lost the picture somewhere in Germany, probably after Ohrdruf.
I was suddenly desperate to see my kids again. I wanted to see Judy but I knew it was over with her, even if I could pull out of the sickness in my soul. I had heard she had found a new man, a nice one. I wanted her to have a chance at happiness.
Crying I lay there, lost, alone, a shell of the man I was before Ohrdruf!
THE CORRAL THEATER 1949
I woke up the next morning, more sober than for ... I couldn't remember. But I felt like hell. My hands were shaking and my head felt funny. Gene came in and opened up and gave me a pint, not the best stuff but better that I usually drank. I had this image of me standing there, ripping off the top and guzzling the bottle down, feeling the hot relief, burning at first, then peace.
Instead I put the bottle in a pocket of the overall's, nodded a thanks to Gene and mumbled something about the clothes. I went outside into a brilliantly sunny day. It was cold in the shade but more than a hint of warmth in the sun. There was not a breath of air.
I'd thought that with the big meal I'd eaten the previous night I wouldn't be hungry. I walked east on Douglas, almost to the Chevy dealer. There was a breakfast place that had simple but good hearty food. For two bucks from the five that John gave me I had ham steak and eggs, biscuits and all the coffee I could drink. With a smile the waitress gave me a tall glass of cold milk. She remembered me from before when I was a beat cop and would stop off after the night shift. This was the first time she had seen me clean in a long time.
On the way back uptown I stopped off to talk to Gene for a few minutes. He was cleaning the mirror behind the bar but stopped and grabbed two cups and filled them from the coffee pot always there at the end of the bar.
"Crane, I've got to say, you clean up pretty good! You should get yourself looked at, it's lookin' like the jaundice is getting worse!"
I looked down and then looked him in the eye. I wanted to really thank him. I started to talk but he beat me to it.
"I might be outta place here and if I am tell me. I can be a blunt old fool. I like you, Crane, always have. I remember what you were like before you went off to the war and it's sad, the way you are. People talk about war and fighting like it is a manly, gallant thing to do. I don't think that way, never have! War is sometimes necessary; a man's gotta take care of his own. But war kills people; it ruins lives.
"I'd like to help you if you'll let me. I know you're still a man. You look like hell but you got some pride left! I felt good leaving you here alone last night. I didn't have to worry none 'bout someone breaking into the bar, like it's been happenin' up on North Broadway. I knew you weren't gonna take no booze I didn't give ya. I trust you man!
"I'd like you to know you can stay here any night. You can have a glass at night and a pint in the morning. I'll give you a couple bucks for breakfast. You can use the shower like you did last night. I like the way you left everything clean! I just ask that you maybe clean up the bar a little, sweep up, things like that. Okay, Crane?"
I couldn't answer, with tears in my eyes I nodded and walked out.
It was a little warmer. I crossed to the train station and sat on a bench in the sun. I was lookin' at myself and it wasn't good. I thought of my kids. With a sad heart I sat there, dozing a little in the sun. Later I looked up at the clock on the tower and saw it was maybe time I could go over to see John at the movie theater. I could sweep the floor or something for him. It sounded good—to do something for someone.
I got to the corner down from the Corral and could see the girl, (Annie was it?), standing there in the sun, ringing her bells. The Saturday shoppers would walk by and for a cheery, "Merry Christmas" would drop a few coins, maybe a folded up bill into the kettle. I walked a little closer as I saw four or five others, three men and two women dressed like she was, in the dark wool uniform.
They started singing and I realized they were going from kettle to kettle, maybe to draw more attention to the kettles or maybe just to sing Christmas carols. They sang several of the old standards and then started in with "Joy to the World." On one of the stanzas, Annie did a solo. The crowd hushed and you could hear her clear contralto voice rising above the traffic on Douglas.
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as the curse is found.
Before I hadn't really been listening to the words but this time they jumped out at me. I don't know, I guess it was Annie doing the singing, or her voice was so pure and clean ... but then maybe I needed those words at that time.
As the carolers finished and the crowd cleared, I stood there, watching Annie. She had the uniform on, as I'd said but the bonnet was off today and the sun made her hair shine, almost a halo sitting on her head. She looked like a porcelain doll, clean-cut features, an aurora of innocence hovering over her.
As I walked over, her face lit up with a huge smile and as she put out her hand and said, "Good afternoon, Crane! You look nice today."
Her hand felt comfortable in mine soft but capable. Somehow I got the feeling it was a no-nonsense hand one made for doing, for working and not just an appendage to decorate with paint and jewelry. Managing a small smile I saluted her with my hand and turned towards Corral. Hesitating at first, then giving in to some atavistic need I thrust my hand in my pocket and with a quick movement put the three dollars change from breakfast in the kettle and turned hurriedly back to the theater.
It was about an hour before opening and John hadn't had a chance to sweep up between all the seats. He was glad to have me there to help. I started working, not feeling too good. There was a sharp pain where I knew my liver was. I started sweating and had to sit down for a bit. I got the job finished and went out to get a soda from John. I felt dehydrated and knew I needed some liquid.
I went in and sat, waiting for the people to arrive and the movie to start. I dozed a little and woke up to hear Gene singing to his horse, Champion. I pulled out my pint to have a small nip; to be honest I didn't want it, it was a habit! I felt like crap. I tried a swallow anyway and gagged as I broke into a sweat again. I put the bottle back into my pocket and managed to fall asleep.
I awoke when John turned the lights on; everyone was gone. As I walked up the aisle with him, he turned to me and asked, "You don't look too good—you got a place to sleep tonight?"
I mumbled a faint, "Yes" and walked over to Gene's place. There was only one customer and Gene asked if I wanted a shot. I shook my head no and asked if it was okay if I went in and lay down.
On his nod I went into the storeroom and collapsed on the cot. I realized later my body was totally worn out.
It was a strange night. A vision of "little girl in the dirt," came to me but somehow different. She had a "Mona Lisa" smile on her face. Later the face was Annie's on the emaciated little girl body. By that time I was half delirious.
The next morning, Sunday, the bar didn't open so I took my time shaving and taking a shower. I noticed Gene had left a stack of used clothes on the table in the storeroom. The clean clothes felt good on my body. I felt a little better but shaky. I made some coffee and emptied the pot sitting at the bar, a cup at a time, looking into the mirror.
I thought about pouring some of the bourbon into the coffee but I wasn't sure I could drink it. I wasn't hungry at all. I felt ... apathetic. I went back and lay down on the cot. I woke to darkness outside. I felt like there were large rodents inside my body, gnawing away. Even the thought of drinking water made me dizzy. I staggered down the street to the Corral.
I had to stop every few doors. A cold wind had come up and I didn't bring a coat. I felt like my body was shutting down, as if it had independently decided it didn't want to live like this anymore. At that point I wasn't going to argue with it.
I made it down to the Corral again. Leaning against the poster of Gene Autry, trying to catch my breath. I could hear music, horns playing softly in the distance. Was this it? Was this what it was like to die?
The music came closer; I could now hear singing, a song heard years ago:
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
I could see them coming, a band playing music, dressed in the uniforms Annie and Bill had been wearing. There were trombones, trumpets, baritones and a bass drum. I could see Annie in the first row alongside a small dark haired girl, both of them playing alto horns. Behind the band was another group, dressed the same way but without instruments, as they marched past I could hear the singers, continuing:
Gates of hell can never 'gainst that church prevail;
We have Christ's own promise and that cannot fail.
I started walking on the sidewalk, following their progress. When they got to the corner of Broadway and Douglas, they pulled up in a semicircle facing the Kress Five and Dime, standing in the bus stop. They started playing Christmas carols and a crowd gathered round, watching the free entertainment.