Friday, June 1, 2068
“They’re in here.”
As Cadet Anderson held the door for her, Natalia suddenly wanted to hide. How stupid! She’d landed this prize interview because the last one with this guest went so well. And now her nerves screamed run? How crazy was that?
Natalia took a deep breath while her producer encouraged her. “You’ll do great. Remember, he requested you. You can do this.” The voice in her ear helped. But the tour of the West Point facilities, probably meant to put her at ease only heightened her awareness of how surrounded she was by tradition. Inside, five chairs sat in a circle. Five? Should only be four. Oh, well. Maybe they thought she’d have someone with her. But with all the technology and security, she didn’t need anyone else to accompany her.
A second later, three men, appearing like the same man at different life stages, entered followed by the ever present Secret Service detail.
“So glad you could come, Ms. Alaniz.” The President of the United States, David Joshua Salem, held out his hand to her. “I want you to meet the men of the hour. My father, Jesse Salem, Superintendent of West Point, and my son, soon-to-be Second Lieutenant David Joshua Salem, Jr. Dad, son, this is Ms. Natalia Alaniz, the remarkable reporter who told Ba’s story so well.”
Both the superintendent and cadet shook her hand, and the President directed them to the chairs as her knees turned to gelatin.
“Ms. Alaniz, is this your first time at the academy?”
“Yes, it is.” Natalia had traced the rules of West Point to 1802 and that initial graduating class of engineers. Two hundred sixty-six years was a lot of steeping in tradition. No wonder her knees wanted to buckle after viewing Eisenhower Hall, Washington Hall (the cadet mess), and Michie Stadium. And of course, The Plain where tomorrow’s graduation ceremony would take place. “Cadet Anderson was a fine tour guide.”
Then the door opened again. The men remained standing.
“Before we start, we have a surprise.” President Salem winked at her.
Natalia glanced at the doorway.
It couldn’t be. But it was.
Owen Salem, the ninety-eight-year-old grandfather of the President, entered the room. Though he used a cane, he still stood tall, straight. The focused concern on the other men’s faces proved they would rush to his aid if needed, but out of respect they stayed put, showing him the dignity of coming to them. His smile was warm, and his eyes danced, knowing he’d just pulled something over on this unsuspecting reporter.
Her jaw must be scraping the floor. She resisted the urge to lift her hand beneath her chin, but her producer didn’t hold back. “Holy macaroni! Did you know? You’ve scored an interview with the four Salem men, Natalia! You’ll be up for a Pulitzer.” Breathe. You can do this. She inhaled, exhaled, and stepped forward with her palm outstretched. “It is wonderful to meet you Mr. Salem. Thank you for joining us.”
After shaking her hand, Owen Salem took his seat.
The others followed suit.
She handed out the tie clips which held the cameras and mics, received the tech check okay from her producer and got this once-in-a-lifetime interview started. “I cannot believe I have all four of you here together. Please forgive me if I’m a little star-struck.” Deep breath. She smiled. “This week is special for your family. Why don’t you tell me about it?”
They glanced at each other, mirroring grins that must be standard issue in the Salem tribe. Finally, deferring with respect, President Salem motioned to his father. “Dad, you start.”
Jesse Salem cleared his throat. “I will. You’re right. This is a first, I believe. Can’t recall another instance when the retiring superintendent had a grandson about to be graduated from the Academy.” He glanced at the others who shrugged or shook their heads. “It is exciting and bittersweet as I’ve enjoyed my tenure.”
“And you all can claim West Point as your alma mater. How far back does this go? I don’t recall that Beau Salem, your grandfather, attended here.”
“No, he didn’t. Dad, you need to share this part.” The superintendent, Jesse, nodded to his father, Owen.
“My father, Beau, was a farmer. He enlisted and served in the Korean War, though he never wanted a career in the military. But that doesn’t make me the first in the family to attend West Point. You knew that, right?”
Natalia shook her head. “No, I thought you were. Who was the first?”
“My grandfather, Jimmy. James Roy Salem, Jr. He wasn’t just the first in the family to win an appointment, he was the first in the family to graduate from high school and to attend any type of higher learning center.” She recalled her notes. “He died before you were born, didn’t he?”
“Yes, I never met him. But I do remember my grandmother telling me stories.”
“That was Val? Valerie Salem?”
Owen nodded, as did the other men. “What do you know of his military career? Did he serve during a war?” The men glanced at each other, determining their spokesperson.
Owen began. It was his father’s story. “He didn’t fight overseas. Instead he was part of one of the saddest events on our home soil. Our government against our veterans. Most are unaware of the circumstances. But he made a difference. To me, he is a hero in the very truest sense of the word.” “What happened? What did he do?” “The first thing he did was win an appointment to West Point and graduate. That alone was a feat.”
Chapter 1: My Angel
FRIDAY MORNING, 25 MAY 1928
West Point Military Academy
Cadet Jimmy Salem itched to twist and look behind him as the other three classes paraded past his graduating class of Firsties. It was only the second occasion he’d been in this position. The first was upon arrival his plebe year. The other cadets paraded to accept him and his class.
Now he and his classmates were honored for completing their time and work. But those he longed to watch him honored weren’t in the stands. At least, as far as he noticed without asking for trouble on his next-to-last day in an academy uniform. He hoped that somehow they decided he was worth their traveling all the way from Indiana to New York.
The band finished “Auld Lang Syne” while the long gray line of graduates stood, the first row of honored guests. As Firsties, they were now among the reviewing party. The last note played, and the other classes marched from the Plain.
The festivities kept to a tight schedule though they allowed room for family gatherings this special day. If one had a family who cared to attend.
“C’mon, Jimmy, you can go with me and my folks.” Ernie Wheaten, his best friend and roommate, understood but would not let him wallow.
“Mom said she’d like to picnic near the water. We won’t have to leave the post. Let’s go.”
Jimmy followed his buddy and found a smile to smack on his face. No need to make Ernie’s family miserable too.
Ernie’s folks turned out to be funny and warm like him. Jimmy was certain he’d never have made it through these four years without his roommate. He’d have chucked it all and crawled home with his tail between his legs, the failure his father knew he was. But Ernie didn’t see him as a failure. Jimmy wasn’t sure what his friend saw, but whatever it was, it came out as encouragement and loyalty all wrapped up in a funny quip or joke. Or a prayer. He did that too. Ernie was a complex guy but a grand pal.
“So, Jimmy, I hear you’re from Indiana. Where abouts?”
“The central part of the state. I’m from a little place called Breadville. We’re about halfway between Peru and Kokomo.”
Ernie’s dad grinned—now Jimmy saw where his friend’s grin came from. “I know that area. Have you ever been to Gibson City?”
“In Illinois? No, but Ernie has told me so much about it, I feel like I’ve been there.” And that was the truth. Ernie loved his old hometown. He’d even kept Jimmy up late reminiscing after he’d received a letter from his mom.
“Well, the central Midwest farming area is all pretty similar.” Ernie’s mom tried to stave off a discussion on Illini versus Hoosier practices.
Jimmy had to laugh. “Bet there’s a few farmers who might disagree. My dad has his dry goods store but his brother farms outside of town. Uncle Lyle’s place has always been a favorite to visit.” The mention of the farm brought back the better hometown memories. Uncle Lyle was the nurturing of the two brothers. He should have just invited his uncle and cousin. They would have come.
Mrs. Wheaten unpacked the picnic lunch and made sure everybody had plenty. “Not as good as I would’ve fixed in my own kitchen, but not too bad for store bought.”
Conversation lulled while everyone ate. Jimmy thought the food was great and tried to imagine how much better Ernie’s mom’s cooking was.
An hour later, after policing the grounds, they needed to join their fellow cadets at the barracks. Ernie kissed his parents goodbye and Jimmy thanked them again for including him. He wanted to add “and for not being too sympathetic” but since they didn’t bring it up, why should he?
But back at their room, he raised it with Ernie. “You didn’t have to include me, but thanks.”
“I couldn’t have you walking around here all droopy faced. You’d scare the plebe class. Besides, my parents always wanted another kid. They’ll just adopt you.” Ernie threw a pillow at him. “See, we’re like brothers already.”
Jimmy chuckled and tossed the pillow back. He’d easily let Ernie’s folks adopt him. “You sure they’d want a Hoosier? I’m not so keen on all that Fighting Illini stuff myself.”
“You’d learn to love it.” Ernie grabbed his towel and headed for the showers leaving Jimmy alone with his thoughts.
Starting after all the ceremonies and traditions tomorrow, he had thirty days of leave. He’d thought of going home. First time in four years. But if his parents didn’t care enough to attend graduation, why should he go back? Could he report early to his post in North Carolina? Or could he take some of his hardearned money and have a brief vacation? One thing was sure, he wouldn’t be seeing Breadville, Indiana soon.
He pulled out a sheet of writing paper. His mother would want to know.
Dear Mom, I watched for you all today. Hoped you would come and celebrate this milestone with me. I’ve worked hard and accomplished what I set out to do. Now I am ready to move on to the next phase. I guess if Dad’s not interested in my graduation, then he’s not interested in seeing me. So I’m not coming home on leave before I go to my new assignment. But I will send you my address once I get there. I don’t know if you receive my letters or not. Guess you aren’t allowed to respond. Just hoping the silence is only Dad. Not you too. I love you both. Can’t help it. I wish… Well, wishing won’t change things. I need to get ready for the Graduation Banquet. The ceremony is at ten tomorrow morning. In less than twentyfour hours I’ll be a second lieutenant. It seems so strange. My new post is in North Carolina, at Fort Bragg. I’ll write once I’m settled. Your son, Jimmy
He read through it one more time making sure it said what he wanted. Then, after folding it, stuck it in the envelope and sealed it before he could change his mind. As an afterthought he sent it in care of his uncle. They’d give Mom the letter. He’d address it to only her so they shouldn’t hand it off to his dad. He knocked on his wooden desk and added a stamp.
Ernie came back, rubbing his hair with his towel. “Better go ’fore there’s no hot water.”
Good idea. The Graduation Banquet in Washington Hall at seven o’clock that evening, (civilian time or at nineteen hundred hours military time), required each graduate to attend in full regalia.
A few hours later, Jimmy and Ernie entered Washington Hall’s Cadet Mess. Ernie’s folks met them at the door and let them lead the way. After showing their tickets, they found their places at their banquet table gleaming with crystal and china and polished silver. This was dining at the finest level. If only his parents were here. He made it through the five-course meal working to be charming and gallant, whatever that was. Ernie’s folks had been so gracious. They deserved his best behavior.
But once dinner was over and the Graduation Ball was about to start, he determined he’d put in an appearance so no one would talk and then slip away. He had no date for the dance and no girl on his horizon to even stoke an interest.
After the first couple songs an announcer entered the stage. Jimmy saw that as his chance to leave but as he neared the door, whoever was playing host introduced Ruth Etting to sing a couple numbers. The crowd inside the ballroom exploded with applause and whistles as the lanky brunette walked out. “I am so honored to sing for you all tonight. This one is special for all our graduates.” The orchestra gave an intro, and she began Irving Berlin’s “The Song Has Ended (But the Melody Lingers On).
She may have been singing about a finished love affair, but the wistful tone fit his melancholy to a T. It was more than he could handle. He took his cue and left for the barracks.
The walk home led him past a few couples enjoying the bits of music floating from the ballroom, adding romance to their evening. If he had a girl, perhaps this trouble with his folks wouldn’t be so difficult to swallow. But he’d kept his nose to his books, focused on his studies and ended up ranked in the top twenty-five of the graduating class.
Ernie was there too. Their friendship was so deep, they’d chosen many classes together. Even penned their senior paper as a joint effort—pass or fail it would be as a team. When the two of them approached Colonel Langstrom about it, he’d been hesitant. But once he heard their outline, he encouraged their plan with the only extra provision to the assignment being he had to be able to tell that both had done equal work. They had. It would be nice to learn how they did on it, but that they were included in the graduation exercises told him they passed.
And tomorrow he’d receive his officer’s commission, his uniform and butter bars—second lieutenant bars. Lieutenant James R. Salem, an officer and a gentleman. The Academy had taught him everything he needed, he only had to go into the world and apply it. Should be easy, as long as he stayed away from Breadville and his father.
The next morning sunshine streamed through the window into his eyes as reveille sounded. Jimmy rolled over. Then it hit him. “Ern, Ernie, it’s today.” He stretched a long leg out and gave his roommate’s bed a push.
“When d’you get in last night?” Jimmy hopped up and grabbed his shaving kit.
“Around twenty-three hundred. Dad and Mom got tired. The time change helped but Dad’s so used to being up at the crack of dawn to milk that he always goes to bed early. Where d’you run off to? Surprised to find you already asleep when I got here.”
He flipped his towel over his shoulder. “I didn’t want to stand around and wasn’t in a dancing mood. I slipped out while Ruth Etting was singing.”
“What a surprise. They said she’s working on Broadway right now so that’s how they were able to get her. Mom nearly fainted. I think she knows all her songs from the radio.”
“I’ll be back.” He shaved and showered and returned to dress for breakfast. His final meal as a cadet.
Weird to call the graduates Firsties when everything he did this morning reminded him it was the last time.
Afterward they changed into their dress uniforms and headed to where the Firsties would meet to cross the bridge and march to The Plain. Together, one final parade. Jimmy imagined a sky view looking down on a stream of white caps flowing with precision movements toward the pool of lawn where they would take their seats, listen to encouraging words and finally toss those white caps in the air, never to wear them again.
With that huge of a class, it was impossible to find your own. So the Firsties developed a tradition of writing messages inside. The administration allowed children in attendance to run to the field and choose a hat. Something simple could stir important dreams. His own dream came about after a West Point grad who’d fought in the Civil War spoke at his school. Jimmy had been in fourth grade and still heard the sounds of battle that speaker described. Jimmy didn’t know how, but at that moment he was certain he would attend the academy.
Inside the cap he now wore, he’d penned his message “Keep dreaming. They can come true.” He’d tried for profound, but that was his best.
If they’d been seated alphabetically, Ernest Wheaten would have been several rows behind James Salem. But as the powers that be designed them to sit according to their academic ranking, the friends were on the same row with only two classmates between them. They knew neither was the goat.
It wasn’t bad to be the goat—more than one general graduated last with his class —and what do you call the last to be graduated from West Point? Lieutenant. Just like the first.
But if a body wanted to prove to that body’s father that he was worthy, it didn’t pay to chance fate over being the goat.
The ceremony started. Jimmy listened intently to the speaker, hoping for some nugget of truth to carry him to his new post.
“At the academy they taught you men strategies and practices to overcome obstacles, patterns and processes to plan your next move. But I’m here today to tell you it means nothing unless you are strong. I don’t mean physically like General MacArthur meant when he said ‘Every Cadet an Athlete.’ No, I mean the strength that sustains in the worst of times, in the toughest of times. I pray to God that none of you will see another war. The Great War was the one to end all wars. I hope it keeps its word. But war or not, you are adults. There will be hard times and crisis and defeat.
“So how do you maintain your strength? With joy. Joy is your secret weapon. And only one joy will do. The joy of the Lord. That is your strength. Not happiness, joy. That quiet calm amid chaos that reminds you that all this is fleeting, but He holds it together in His hands. That rain or shine, God is still on His throne and He will work it out for your good and His glory. That is joy—knowing that you are intimate with that truth with every fiber of your being and living like it is. If you put joy at the top spot on your strategy list, you’ll make it fine. I didn’t say you would avoid pain or heartache, but you will make it. That is your strength. Go forth in joy and conquer your world.”
Joy is the secret weapon? That wasn’t the nugget he’d hoped for.
The superintendent began calling the Firsties for their diplomas. Soon after their officer had everyone stand, caps on head.
“Class of 1928, Dismissed!”
Caps flew into the air and somehow Jimmy’s sore heart soared a bit with them. He was graduated.
Ernie grabbed him in a bear hug and then pounded his back. “We did it! We did it!” He dragged Jimmy off to find his folks who also had hugs for both young men.
“You still have things to do?” His mom wanted to keep them on the schedule.
“Yeah, Mom. We need to finish packing up our room, change into our new uniforms and get our butter bars.”
“Thanks again, Mrs. Wheaten, Mr. Wheaten. It was nice meeting you.” Jimmy started to tip his hat but realized his head was bare. “Let’s go. I want to get that pin.”
“Me too.” Ernie had one more hug for each parent and then they ran to their barracks.
Their gear was packed and ready. Five minutes later they were in their new Class As and searching for a ranking officer to pin on their second lieutenant bars.
Colonel Langstrom was the first they found, and he smiled at their request. “I am glad to run into you gentlemen. I’ve a bit of news. Your paper was outstanding. You are to be congratulated. Don’t be surprised it if turns up elsewhere.”
Ernie’s forehead wrinkled as he glanced from the colonel to Jimmy and back.
“Why, sir?” Jimmy was as curious.
“This is my last semester here too. They’ve accepted me at the Army Industrial College, and I plan to take your paper with me. It’s possible students there might be interested in discussing your theories.”
He had no words. Jimmy’s mouth worked but his brain couldn’t push out a meaningful sound.
Ernie squeezed his shoulder. Hard. “Thank you, sir. That is splendid news. Thanks!”
When Jimmy glanced at him, Ernie’s eyes were rounder than he ever thought they could be.
Colonel Langstrom busted into a laugh. “Now I figure out how to make you two speechless. Let’s get these bars pinned so you can start behaving as second lieutenants.”
04 JUL 1928 Fort Bragg, North Carolina
Second Lieutenant James Salem returned the salute from the infantry corporal who high-tailed past on some important mission but knew he’d better acknowledge a superior officer before resuming his quest.
A part of Jimmy couldn’t get used to all the saluting at him. He’d been well-schooled in the protocol, for sure. But this was the real world. Somehow, he feared it was a dream and he might wake to learn Dad was right.
He was to meet Ernie for dinner at the Officer’s Club. Though they landed in different areas, they were stationed close, for which Jimmy was grateful. Ernie chose Army Air Corps at Pope Airfield next to where Jimmy picked Infantry at Fort Bragg. Just like in their paper.
Still no word from Colonel Langstrom concerning that. It was a pipe dream, anyway.
Ernie arrived at the door seconds after Jimmy and they entered together to find a table. It being a holiday, they hoped for good entertainment. The place wasn’t crowded. They wrangled a spot near the stage and ordered the barbecue dinner with peach pie à la mode for dessert.
Before heading for the club, Jimmy had checked his mailbox. It was a shock to see he had mail. A part of him wanted to tear it open right away, but he waited. Only now, with Ernie there, he changed his mind and pulled out the envelope. “Found this in my box today. It’s not my mom’s handwriting so I’m a little nervous.”
“Is it from Breadville?” Jimmy nodded. “But Mom is the only person I gave my address to, so I haven’t a clue.”
“You never will unless you open it, sap.”
“Fine.” Jimmy slipped his finger under the flap and tore it open. It revealed several pages covered in a feminine script. He read the first page and then passed it on to Ernie while he kept reading. At the end he handed over the last one and shook his head. “I had no idea my dad was so stubborn. Nor that Uncle Lyle was so…”
“Brotherly? Of course he would hand it to his brother. It’s a good thing your cousin was there to retrieve it from the trash and watch for the next letter. At least you know what happened. And that it wasn’t your mom.”
Ernie was right. Uncle Lyle wouldn’t have expected his own brother to keep mail from Jimmy’s mother. His cousin Melanie said her dad was as shocked as anyone but didn’t want to get in the middle of things. Good ol’ Mel. What was she now, thirteen?
He shook his head. Guess he was lucky she was there when he delivered the letter. “So, what will you do now? Your dad won’t let your mom have any of your letters and she doesn’t know where to send to you.” Ernie wasn’t offering sympathy or commiserating.
His questions inspired problem solving. Jimmy counted on him on for that. “Guess I’ll write to Mel and keep her informed in case she ever gets to talk to Mom alone. I don’t think my Uncle will keep my letters from her. She said he didn’t like what Dad did. I can only hope. At least it’s something, and it solves the mystery.”
Ernie nodded and handed back the letter as the stage curtains opened to a piano with pianist. Jimmy relaxed in his seat letting the patriotic music wash over him. Others had given up a lot more for their country. Why should he be different?
An announcer came next to introduce the singer for the evening. Valerie Beauregard. A nice southern name for sure. Then she walked out. A nice pretty southern girl. For sure. But when she opened her mouth to sing, he changed his mind. Nice. Beautiful. Angel. Wow.
Her first song was the same number Ruth Etting sang during graduation weekend, “The Song Has Ended (But the Melody Lingers On).” Ruth had nothing on Miss Valerie Beauregard.
Jimmy hadn’t been this affected by a girl in a long time—not since Sylvia McAllister his freshman year of high school, and then only until she started talking. She wouldn’t shut up. He shivered at the memory of that close shave. But this baby vamp had it all. Poise, beauty, and a voice sweet as dew drops on a spring morning.
It was impossible to tell, her up on the stage and all, just how tall she stood. Plus her shoes had heels. But her dress showed off her long, lean figure with gams that went on forever. He couldn’t take his eyes off her.
She sang another of Ruth Etting’s hits, “Love Me or Leave Me,” followed by a couple made popular by Helen Kane—“I Wanna Be Loved by You” and “That’s My Weakness Now.” To close, she leaned on the piano and sang the Gershwin brothers’ “The Man I Love.”
Jimmy could have sworn she stared at him. It caused little tingles to run up his back, daring him to be the guy the song described.
He needed to meet this girl.
As she took her last bow, he stood searching for a way backstage.
“Where are you going?”
Jimmy startled. He’d forgotten Ernie sat at the same table. He ran his hand over his face and grinned. “To see her.”
Ernie didn’t stop him—probably could tell it wouldn’t work. He shrugged. “Go get ’em tiger.”
Jimmy winked and headed toward the side of the stage. He was only a couple yards away when she stepped through a door and ambled in his direction. Was she coming his way?
He smiled and did a little finger wave. She tipped her head to the side, like she didn’t understand something. “Did y—”
A busboy with a full tray of dishes plowed smack into her, dumping a pitcher of water down her front.
Jimmy rushed to her aid. “Oh, are you all right?”
The busboy lay on the floor, a gash on his arm.
She stemmed the blood with her scarf. “Can ya help him up? Maybe we’ll find him a bandage in the office.”
Jimmy got the poor guy—whose dusky skin turned rosier— on his feet while she kept pressure on the wound.
She led the way down a short hall where she knocked on a door.
“I’m sorry to bother you but do y’all have a first aid kit?”
A captain Jimmy hadn’t met rounded the desk. “Yeah, sure. Bring him in here. What happened?”
“He was loaded down, and I didn’t see him when I stepped in his way.” She took the fault, probably keeping the guy off report for carrying a load too large for the safety of the patrons.
Through the whole incident, the busboy who was a private on duty and assigned to the Officers Club, never said a word.
“Don’t worry about it.” It was then the captain noticed Jimmy who saluted. “Pulled you away from your meal, huh, Lieutenant?”
“No, sir. I was on my way to speak with the young lady when it happened.” Now she’d know his plan. Would she still be willing? With her soaking dress and all?
“Perhaps I should help the lady unless you need us?”
The captain shook his head. “I’ve got this. You two go on. Thanks for bringing him.” They were dismissed.
Jimmy guided Miss Valerie Beauregard down the hall and toward the dining room. “I’m sorry about your dress, but wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your singing.”
She kept glancing in the office’s direction. “That’s sweet. Ya sure he’ll be okay?”
“I’m sure. My name is Jimmy. Jimmy Salem.” A thought struck him, and he acted before he could talk himself out of it.
“May I give you a ride home? I’ve got a car.” They continued toward the front door as they spoke.
“Y’really don’t need to—”
“Oh, no trouble. I’d be happy to escort you home. Good thing it’s not winter, or you might freeze. Or does North Carolina get that cold? I’ve only been here a month.” He held the door for her.
“A month? That’s not long at all. The winters get colder but I’m guessing not like where you’re from. And really, y’ don’t need to—”
“Val, this guy bothering you?”
Jimmy glanced away from Miss Beauregard in time to see a middle-aged joe grab her by the arm and yank her behind him.
“What did you do to her? How’d she get all wet and why is she bleeding?” The guy shoved Jimmy against the Officers Club wall as a crowd appeared.
She tried to pull the man away. “Uncle Teddy, stop. He did nothing. He was helping me. Teddy!”
“Is there a problem here, Lieutenant?”
Jimmy glanced over Uncle Teddy’s shoulder to Ernie and a couple other officers.
“No, no trouble here, right? Uncle Teddy?”
The fella let Miss Beauregard pull him back. But after a step he spun. “You Army jerks are all alike. Well y’can keep your hands off my niece, even if she thinks you’re only helping.” He stormed off, his voice floating behind as he yelled at her. “Just get in the car.” He turned the crank on the front and hopped in.
Jimmy exhaled and discovered he’d been holding his breath.
The others wandered away, but Ernie remained. “Did you at least learn where she lives?”
Jimmy shook his head. “No, but I will. Ernie, that’s the girl I’m going to marry.”
SATURDAY, 14 JUL 1928
Jimmy parked the Model A in front of the Five-and-Dime.
He and Ernie put in together to buy it. Jimmy had the afternoon free, but Ernie got called away on something else. The perfect time to cruise the town. Word had it on the base that Buster Keaton’s recent film was a riot, so he figured why not?
Though not a large city by any means, Fayetteville was bigger than Breadville, for sure.
It didn’t take long to find the movie theater. The next showing was in an hour. No problem.
There was that diner he spotted up the street. Bet he might grab a piece of pie. The sign in the window advertised a soda named Cheerwine and suggested a Cheerwine float rather than a root beer float. He was game.
The bells on the door tinkled as he entered. He sat at the counter.
A brunette at the rear booth called, “Be right there.”
He shrugged and grabbed a menu from the holder. There might be something else worth trying, though that Cheerwine float sure sounded good.
“What can I get ya?”
A charge ran up his spine. He knew that voice. In fact, he’d been at the Officers Club every night since Independence day hoping to hear it again. And now here she was. He lowered the menu. “Miss Beauregard?”
She stared at him a minute and then smiled. “I remember. You’re Lieutenant Jimmy Salem. Been wanting to say how sorry I am about how Uncle Teddy behaved.”
“No big deal. He was protecting you. How’ve you been?”
“Jake, just jake. So what can I get you?”
He smiled at her idiom. “Tell me about Cheerwine. What is it?”
“My favorite soda. Not wine, if that’s what you’re thinking. Nah, they call it that because of the color. But the taste is the elephant’s eyebrows.”
“You sold me. I’ll take a Cheerwine float.”
She tapped her pencil on the order pad and then tucked it behind her ear. “Okeydoke, be right back.”
Jimmy put the menu away and glanced around the diner. Business was slow. Beyond slow. More like dead. When did they close?
She returned with a mug filled with a couple scoops of vanilla ice cream and a dark-red liquid poured on top. A straw and long-handled spoon stuck out. It reminded him of a root beer float but for the color. “Don’t be timid, try it.” She watched as he used the straw to draw up a sip.
“Hey, this is delicious.”
“Told ya. Well, gotta get back to work.”
“What time are you off?”
“Why?” She stared, her gaze daring him to say the wrong thing.
“Just wondered if you might want to see Steamboat Bill, Jr. with me. It starts in about fifty minutes.”
“Ya plan to take me to a petting pantry?”
His face grew fiery. “Oh, no, nothing like that. Thought you’d enjoy the picture.”
She smiled. “Won’t be off in time. Maybe another?”
“Sure, sure. Now that I know where you work, I might become a regular customer.” He winked, and she chuckled. He loved her chuckle—warm, friendly, not forced.
“I’ve got some napkin holders to fill. Call me when you’re ready to pay.” She headed toward the kitchen.
At least they’d had more conversation than last time. And she didn’t talk his ear off. In fact, he enjoyed hearing her, especially when she used slang. It went with her voice. Well, not her singing voice. That was symphonic. But her speaking with that bit of soft southern drawl was music to his ears.
He shook his head. Here he’d only seen her twice, and he was getting goofy. Imagining them setting up a household on base. She was the one. For sure.
After a glance at his wristwatch, he figured daydreaming time was over if he was going to make the picture. He slurped the last sip through the straw and then spooned out the rest. Even if Miss Beauregard didn’t work here, he’d crawl back for another one of these. “Ready.”
She appeared faster than he expected. “I guess ya liked it. Fifteen cents.”
“I did. Will definitely get more. Thanks for recommending it.” He handed her a dime and a nickel.
“I could recommend other stuff on the menu. I’ll show ya next time.”
He liked how she said next time. “What if I come back? After the picture? I’ll give you a ride home.”
She shook her head. “I couldn’t put ya out. Plus, ya don’t need to tangle with Uncle Teddy. He’ll be by to pick me up when he gets off work.”
“Oh.” Someone popped his happy balloon.
“But I’m glad ya stopped by so I could apologize.” Her gaze made him want to hide behind his hands like a two-year-old. How did she turn him to jelly?
“Don’t give it another thought. But do decide what I should order next time.” He winked, hoping he appeared more suave than he felt.
“I’ll do that. See ya around, Jimmy Salem.”
“Yes you will, Valerie Beauregard.” He gave her a brief wave and headed out the door.
Yes, you will for sure. So now he had to answer an important question. How soon was too soon to return? Forget that question. The real one he wanted answered was, how soon was too soon to propose?