Goofing Offby William Rossa Cole
William Rossa Cole
201 W. 54th St.
Enlisted men in the Army can goof off. Officers can’t goof off. They have privileges, certainly: better food and quarters, and someone to shine their shoes. But they have to be on the spot, whereas the G.I. who knows the ropes can disappear for days, even weeks, at a time and no one will be the wiser.
It was September 1945. The war in Europe was over. I had spent the previous two years chasing all over France and Germany with the 28th Infantry Division. Now, through a quirk, they’d been sent on to the States, and I was to be discharged. I had received a minor wound,1 which made me eligible to again be a civilian. I was in a gigantic dispersal area called Camp Lucky Strike, near Rheims. I knew no one; I was one of ten thousand anonymous soldiers; there was no discernible authority, just clumps of soldiers frittering the days away in the Red Cross tent, playing ping pong, and awaiting transport home.
During my five years in the Army, I had always been in, or close to, my regimental headquarters. This had advantages, one of which was that you could usually find out where you were going before you went. Also, it was the source of pads of blank pass forms, which you could fill out on a headquarters’ typewriter, then sign with a fictitious officer’s name—and off you go. Legitimate passes could be secured, surely, but only every so often, and then through tiresome legitimate channels. My motto was: never do it legit when you can do it illegit. I had early on invented a fictitious officer, Lieutenant Gardner E. Lewis, whose name I signed on all my passes, and as I was something of a leading goof off, I signed for my pals. As I advanced rank and wiliness—I was now a sergeant—he also got his promotions, and all my passes were now signed by Gardner E. Lewis, Major, U.S. Infantry.
So it was off to Paris on Major Lewis’s passes each weekend, and, eventually, since there was no one in Rheims to miss me, it was Paris for weeks at a time, since the illegit passes were needed only to get me out of the gate of Camp Lucky Strike, or to have on my person should the Military Police decide I looked furtive. I would drop back to Rheims from time to time to pick up my pay and make sure the troops hadn’t left without me. Not that I would have cared, for to be 24 and afloat in Paris with no responsibilities was a fine situation.
We were paid once a month, and eventually it dawned on me that I really was free, at least for those monthly stretches. Great heavens, I could pick up and go to some unlikely and almost legendary place like Oslo or Seville! Or even England—or Ireland! But how to get there? Ah, that’s where five years of ever-increasing wiliness came in. If an enlisted man has some amount of innate craftiness, and he has the proper tutelage, he will, after a month in the Army, never have to stand in line for anything, never pay for anything, and always have the latest equipment and clothing. And an immense amount of free time to spend where he wishes, within reason. He will, in short, have become an operator.
And here I was with no bosses, and time, and all of Europe west of Berlin spread before me. I had traveled from Normandy to Germany slowly, with frequent stops for reasons of military nature, and I realized that I couldn’t get to Ireland by hitchhiking. But how? By air!
How does an infantryman fly from Paris to London? Such were my questions. You can’t properly hitchhike on an airplane. But, I said to myself, you can have a dying grandfather in Ireland, whose bedside you must attend. It did so happen that I did have—or had had—an Irish grandfather. But long dead, and there were no close relatives in Ireland. I heard it rumored that individual soldiers could get to England for familial reasons. The Air Force boys would frequently pop over to Paris from London on weekends, and empty places on their returning planes were allotted to these troubled soldiers. I nosed around the military establishments in Paris, and sure enough, late one morning, I found the place that dispensed those magical allotments. It was a small office, crammed with G.I.s returning to their pregnant English and Welsh wives, or perhaps seeding off to the bedsides of dying grandfathers.
I watched how the system operated. A man would go to the counter and hand a paper to the sergeant in charge. He’d read it, stamp it a few times, and make out a form, copying some material from the document, which he’d then file. I chose a soldier who had gone through the process, and had left the counter with a form allotting him plane space.
“Hey, buddy,” I said, “do me a favor. Can you remember exactly what your letter said?”
“Sure, Sarge,” and he reeled off a request, in Armyese, for plane passage. Enlisted men always help one another in these ways.
“Thanks,” I said. “See you in Soho.”
Then I walked a few blocks to Red Cross headquarters, where I knew a French girl.
“Jacqueline, how about letting me use your typewriter for a few minutes?”
I took a sheet of blank paper, and at the top of it I boldly made up a regiment. “209th Infantry Regiment,” I typed. “Headquarters.” I knew this was reasonable, since regiments in the field don’t carry around engraved stationery. Then, following the language in my soldier friend’s letter, I wrote that Sergeant William Cole, 32227080, had to be in Dublin, Ireland, within a week to attend his sick grandfather, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (true) at 72 State Street (probably false). At the end of the letter I typed “Gardner E. Lewis,” and then, on a whim, added “Colonel, U.S. Infantry.” The occasion seemed to demand a grand gesture.
“Jacqueline, please sign this name. And thank you. If there are any silk stockings in Ireland, you’ll have some. Or is there anything special you’d like?”
“Mon Dieu! Shoes!” She cried.
Back to the allotment office, where they accepted my letter and newly-created regiment casually, stamped it a few times, and put it in a file that probably still exists. I got my two-way chit to London and back, and off to the airport, where, within an hour, space turned up on a small plane and I was in London by teatime.
I felt, somehow, silly. Back home, in Rheims, my ten thousand buddies would just now be lining up for chow, mess kits dangling.
I spent the night in London, and the next morning took a leisurely train to Port Talbot, in Wales, where I revisited a girlfriend from the months when I was stationed there. Then, the following morning, by train to Fishguard, whence an overnight boat sailed to Rosslare, Ireland. The ship was crowded with Irish men going home on their “hols.” Most had been working in England throughout the war, and I suspect what really drew them back to the old country was the unrationed, unlimited supply of fresh eggs. I was the only American soldier on board.
I was leaning on the ship’s rail, contemplating the wake in the approved shipboard fashion, when an attractive girl came up and stood elbow-close to me.
“Will it be a rough crossing?” I asked.
“To be sure,” she said. “There’ll be many a meal in the air tonight.”
That must be the silver Irish tongue I’d heard about. Except that, far from having a brogue, she spoke in what was, to my ear, upper class English; what my mother would have called a “cultivated” accent. We talked. She was Norah Kelly, a secretary in London, and came from County Kerry, where her father had a lot of land and horses. The more we talked, the more it emerged that her beautiful English lay in her pronunciation only. Her grammar was pure peasant. “I could have went to college,” she said, “but my sister and me decided to work in London instead.” And “I done some typing for a man in Tralee.” It was interesting to hear that fluting voice, not knowing when the next grammatical bomb would fall.
The crossing was rough, indeed, and we spent the night under a lifeboat, kissing and hugging and feeling, and at dawn Norah threw up on my ankles.
Just before we landed, Norah produced a sister from the innards of the ship; a plainer version of herself with protruding teeth, named Kathleen. I treated them to breakfast, which for me was six eggs, six rashers of bacon, and the worst coffee I’d ever tasted. I had promised myself that I’d visit the little town of Rosscarbery, where my grandfather had come from, so we parted.
“You won’t have time,” Norah said, “But if you should want to spend a few days with us, here’s the phone number of the constabulary, who can get a message to the farm.”
I spent that first night in Cork, in a sepulchral temperance hotel, and wandered around the city the next day followed by a swarm of small boys who had never seen an American soldier—or for that matter, an American—before. “Gimmie a panny, Mister, gimmie a panny.”
I decided that I didn’t want to spend another night in that creaking, gloomy hotel, so I took a bus to Rosscarbery, a couple of hours along the coast, in West Cork. It was raining. In fact, it was always raining. Rosscarbery turned out to be a generous square lined with shops, and one pub-restaurant-hotel. I created a sensation when I blew in the pub out of the rainy dark and asked for a room. When I told them about my grandfather, there was much more of a hubbub, and the sending of messages for Pat and Malachi to come to the pub. My grandfather had been a noted Fenian rebel who had been imprisoned by the English, treated horribly in jail, and finally banished to the States. I was just beginning to find out how famous he was in Ireland. I spent the evening as the center of attention in the crowded lounge with what must have been half of the town’s male population, drinking stout and singing. It was my first experience of real Irish folk song, and I was woozily entranced. An embarrassing moment came when they asked me to sing an American song, and the only one whose words I could dredge up was “Swanee River,” which they all knew anyhow. They were fascinated by the array of pretty, meaningless ribbons on my uniform, and asked me to identify them. This went well until I pointed to one and explained that it was for good conduct, then hilarity broke out.
“Sure, haven’t you got one for good posture, lad?” The silver Irish tongue again.
The next morning a delegation showed me the sights of the town and exhibited me to the town. They took me to visit what surely must have been the oldest living Irishman, one who had known my grandfather. But he was lost in some Celtic mist, and there was a comical scene of them shouting in his ear, “Thady, this is Rossa’s grandson,” and the old boy saying “Eh? Eh?” over and over again.
I thought it would be educational to visit the estate of an Irish country gentleman, and furthermore I wanted another shot at Norah, so I put in a call to the Ballybunion constabulary and asked them to tell the Kellys I was coming.
“Which Kellys, man? We have 18 families of them!” After speaking to three separate thick brogues, it was established that it was the Kellys whose girls, Norah and Kathleen, were over from England, and it was promised that the message would be delivered.
Traveling by bus, I made my way to Tralee, in Kerry, some 10 miles from Ballybunion, which town, it turned out, was reachable only by the postal van early the next morning. It was a bare village, with chickens in the main street. When I asked for a taxi to take me to the Kelly farm, I was amazed when a long, handsome, black limousine pulled up to the constabulary.
“This is a great taxi,” I said to the driver.
“Sure, ’tis for the funerals,” he answered. “We don’t get so much as a dozen calls for a taxi each year.”
I have the habit of picturing to myself what I’ll find at the end of any journey. Riding in that funereal taxi, I saw myself waking up the next morning in a cheery, second-story guest room, hearing the stamping and snorting and the clink of the harness as the groom readied the horses beneath my window. These visions are usually far off the mark, and this one certainly was. There was no guest room; there was no groom, and there wasn’t even a second story. There was land and horses. Bleak scrubland in all directions, without another dwelling place in sight. And three huge, shaggy farm horses. The manor house was a two-room thatched cottage of the kind dear to the hearts of postcard buyers. I had to stoop to enter the doorway. The main room was long and low. It had a dirt floor, on which chickens were pecking about. Hams hung from the rafters. There was a roaring fire, beside which sat the father, a rugged old man. The mother was bustling about making tea, and two hulks of brothers with huge wrist bones gawked at me. The conversation, led by Norah’s fluting accent, was stilted. At one point I produced a cigar, a rarity everywhere but in the Army, and handed it to the old man.
“Phwat’s this?” he asked, puzzled.
I told him it was a cigar—a smoke—an artifact he’d never seen before. He had trouble with the cellophane, also new to him. I told him that he could either smoke the cigar straight, or crumble it up in his pipe.
When lunch was served, I had the suspicion that there was one less chicken pecking around on the floor. I was touched. Norah and I spent the afternoon riding about the countryside in what I suppose was a jaunting car pulled by one of the plough horses. We visited a nearby aunt, and had a heavy tea. Late in the afternoon, back at the ranch, I asked to use the bathroom.
Norah blushed. “I’m afraid we haven’t got one. Just walk and find yourself a place in the fields.”
Enough, enough! That was my clue for deciding not to spend the night. I had done plenty of that sort of thing in the Army. It would have been embarrassing for the Kelly family to have me sleep among them in what appeared to be the only other room in the cottage, and to have me fumbling for the door to God’s own bathroom in the middle of the night.
Norah understood, and it turned out that there was a bus from the village to Tralee—one a day—in a couple of hours, and it also turned out that she and Kathleen had some shopping to do in the big city the next day, and would go and spend the night in a hotel, or, as she said, “an ’otel.” Me, I decided that I would stay at the same ’otel.
Tralee is a small city with a big hotel, Benners. I regarded the room clerk as sadistic when he assigned the girls to a room on the fourth floor in one wing of the building, and gave me a room on the second, in another wing. Kathleen turned out to be a properly imperfect chaperone, and after a large and watery dinner said she’d go off and read herself to sleep. “I’m bushed entirely,” is how she put it. Norah and I sat talking nervously in the lounge until the hotel seemed to have settled for the night; then we skulked up to my room. It seemed, the whole evening, that everyone in the hotel knew we were up to something disgusting. Norah, it turned out, had been, up to this point, a good Irish Catholic girl, which meant that she knew absolutely nothing about sex. I didn’t know very much more, so the activity for the next two hours made up in enthusiasm for what it lacked in skill. She had the largest breasts I had ever had dealings with up to that point, and remarkably short legs. I remember thinking it odd that they could barely reach around my waist.
It was two o’clock, and Norah thought she had better get back to her room.
“I hope Kathleen hasn’t locked the door,” she said. “It’s the devil’s own trouble waking that one once she’s gone off.”
She had locked the door. But the light was on, showing through a crack under it. We knocked, softly. We whispered “Kathleen!” through the keyhole. Nothing. We tried my key. We scratched on the door. No result.
I told Norah to stay where she was, and made a reconnaissance. The bathroom, shared by many rooms, was around the corner of the corridor at a left angle to the room, and by poking my head out the window, I could see Kathleen. She was propped up on the pillow, her head nodded forward, her mouth slightly open, with the buckteeth peeking through. Her window was wide open. I went back to Norah.
“Listen,” I whispered, “If I had some pebbles—something to throw—I think I could wake her up.”
“Pennies,” said Norah, and dug in her bag. She had a half-dozen of those large Irish coins.
“You wait here,” I said, and slipped back into the bathroom. I realized that I wouldn’t be able to throw with any accuracy by leaning out the window, so I took off my army shoes, and, leaving them in the middle of the bathroom floor, climbed out the window onto the gutter. I edged along toward the bedroom as far as I could, up to a point where the sturdy gutter suddenly ceased all together. Then I began tossing coins at the sleeping Kathleen, who must have been about 20 feet away, missing the window completely on the first two tries, hearing the coins ring in the courtyard below. As my third coin landed with a plop on the window beside the girl, I heard a noise from behind me in the bathroom. Someone was in there! I froze. Suppose whoever it was saw those large shoes in the middle of the floor, and the wide-open window, and decided to look out? A shoeless American soldier balancing on a rain gutter of a large hotel in a small Irish city at two in the morning is not a site you’d quietly note and go back to bed. There was some harrumphing, the toilet flushed, the sound of teeth being brushed, then silence. I inched back and peered in the window. Nothing.
My penultimate coin landed on the bed, and, ah! The last one hit the backboard by Kathleen’s head. She stirred, opened her eyes, and stared out the window at me. She later said that she didn’t really see me, but just a moving mass in the blackness. It was enough to frighten her, and she let out a little “Oh!” Then, as she was gathering breath for a real wowser of a scream, she heard Norah hissing through the keyhole. “Kathleen, it’s me out here!” I tiptoed back to my room and slept until noon.
We shopped that afternoon. The girls had ration coupons to spare for shoes, so I bought a pair for Jacqueline, having some trouble converting her French size to its Irish equivalent. And while I was at it, I bought a sturdy pair of men’s shoes.
I parted from Norah and Kathleen late that evening, with vows of letter-writing and meetings in the future, which, alas, came to nothing.
The next 10 days were spent in Dublin, where a barrister friend of the family took me under his wing. His idea of showing a young American the sights was to take me to every Godblessed Catholic Church in the city and extol the glass windows—who designed them, who was commemorated by them, and what they cost. However, he also arranged a half-hour audience with De Valera,2 during which I recall standing back to back with the great man to see who was the taller (he was), and a trip to the Presidential mansion to meet the diminutive President Seán T. O’Kelly. These meetings, while salutary, and good material to write home about, were not as memorable as seeing Geraldine Fitzgerald, at the peak of her beauty, in a first night theater audience.
The Irish customs passed me and my two pairs of shoes without a glance. I stopped in Paris long enough to deliver the female pair to an ecstatic Jacqueline, and to sell the male ones on the black market for more than enough money to pay for my trip.
When I got back to my barracks at Rheims, I found a stranger occupying my cot and all my clothing and equipment missing. There wasn’t a single face I recognized. I was Rip Van Winkle! I reported to the Orderly Room, where a harassed and totally unfamiliar sergeant shuffled through a mass of papers and finally found me.
“Cole! For Chrissakes we been lookin’ all over for you! Where you been? We shipped your group out four days ago. You better see the lieutenant.”
The lieutenant—the Army is full of coincidences—was an old friend, George Ord, who had been wounded when I had, but more severely, and had been sent to a hospital in England while we were sashaying around the continent. He had rejoined the division just as our Regiment had been dispersing, and because of his Purple Heart, had not been returned to the States, but left in France with mountains of paper work to finish up.
“Jesus!” he said when he saw me. “All of this talk of a Sergeant Cole missing—I knew it had to be you, goofing off as usual! Where were you? In Paris shacked up with some floozie?”
“Oh, not at all, Loot,” I answered, examining my fingernails carefully. “I popped over to Ireland for a couple of weeks. Quite a place they’ve got over there.”
“Christ!” he cursed, his eye roving around the office, the piles of paper, the overflowing cabinets, the mess. “Christ! And I busted my gut to become an officer!”
1. During the Battle of the Bulge, Cole was injured by shrapnel from a strafing German plane in the Northwestern French town of Saint-Lô. For the rest of his life he would say that he was injured in “Saint-Lô in the back.”
2. Éamon de Valera, a leading figure in 20th-century Irish opposition to British rule.
ContributorWilliam Rossa Cole
WILLIAM ROSSA COLE (1919 - 2000), editor, essayist, and light-verse poet, authored or co-authored over 80 anthologies and children's books, including the classic Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls.