(This excerpt from Someone, a work of fiction, is set in the aftermath of World War II. In this chapter, author Alice McDermott ’75 writes about a returned airman telling his near-death story and explaining his miraculous reprieve. McDermott’s lyrical novel examines an ordinary woman’s life as it is lived day by day in an Irish-American Brooklyn neighborhood.)
His parachute training, Tom said, had been short and perfunctory, and after a few easy missions, he’d stopped even imagining himself jumping out of a plane. When the order came, the plane shuddering—like a subway car going over cobblestones, he said—he gripped the door. He seriously considered just hanging on. Going down with the ship. But then he felt a push from behind and then he dropped into the worst nightmare anybody ever had: cloud, smoke, the thick smell of the fuel. A dream’s endless falling.
He laughed telling it, as if it were a joke and the joke was on him.
He said he only remembered after he had pulled the parachute cord—touching his forehead in a comic gesture of despair—that he was supposed to count to ten before he pulled it, not after. And then he counted anyway, a second too late.
And then out of the noise of the worst and loudest sound he had ever heard and hoped never to hear again he fell into dead silence. Nothing at all, he said—and held out his hands and made his eyes wide to replicate his astonishment.
So suddenly quiet that he thought his ears were blown out for good. He saw the air was now blue and there was a serene patchwork world beneath him. Even children running across a churchyard, into a field, and he thought—“I kid you not” he said in his the-joke’s-on-me way—“now, this isn’t so bad. I could get used to this.”
The children were the first to reach him when he fell, tumbling back to the hard earth, busting up his shoulder, breaking his wrist.
“But those kids,” he said, “That was the luck of the Irish, it turned out.”
Because, he said, the next thing he knew a mad old Kraut was pointing a Luger at his head, so close that he could smell the hot metal. “He was in a tizzy,” Tom said. “Mad as hell,” and he apologized to my mother for his language. “I couldn’t understand anything he said but ‘kinder,’ waving the goddamn gun”—he apologized again—“and telling me, I guess, that he’d like to blow my brains out except for the kids who were there, all around us.
He even tried to chase them away, but they were having too much fun, throwing little handfuls of mud in my direction, yelling their heads off. So much excitement. You know how kids are.” He laughed and touched his fingers to the teacup. “The crazy old Kraut had enough decency not to want to shoot me in front of them.”
My mother put her hands to her lips and said, “Glory be.”
Tom gave a self-deprecating wave of his hand. “Well,” he said. “To make a long story short, a German officer showed up—officer hell, he looked all of eighteen—and gave the old man Hail Columbia in German, and then told me in English to get out of the harness and follow him—mach schnell—if I wanted to live. It took me a few minutes to get it. I thought I was already dead.”
He laughed again. He was enjoying our attention. He was a man who loved to talk.
“This fellow grabbed me under the arm. I was still wobbly-kneed, shaking like a leaf. He told me the old man was crazy, crazy with grief. He’d learned just the day before that his son, his only child, a German airman, had been killed by the Allies. So he was out for revenge. He would have put a bullet in my head if those kids hadn’t been there.”
“An eye for an eye,” my brother said.
Tom sat forward. He shook his head. “But here’s the thing.” He was smiling oddly, with less mirth than before. “Here’s the way I looked at it. If the old guy had shot me, then and there, it wouldn’t have been the same. It wouldn’t have been equal.”
He turned to my mother, as if she alone needed an explanation. “I was an orphan, you see,” he told her. “A Foundling Home kid. I had no father to grieve me. So it wouldn’t have evened out, if he’d shot me right then and there. There would have been no counterpart, no American counterpart, so to speak, to match that poor old Kraut and his grief. There still would have been more pain on his side of it. The pain of a father losing a child. There wouldn’t have been any pain like that on my side, since I had no father.
So it wouldn’t have been equal.”
There was an awkward silence. And then my brother said softly, “We’re all of equal value in the eyes of God.”
Tom turned to him with some admiration. “Well, that’s a nicer way to think of it,” he said. He said, “That’s a good point,” and smiled again before he added, “But that don’t mean some of us won’t leave this world without anyone much taking notice.”
Getting Away With It
I stole. It’s hard to believe those two little words follow a man around for 28 years like a shadow but they do. Do the right thing and you forget it in a day, do the wrong thing and you regret it for years. And you can try to justify what you did; rationalize it away but the harder you push it away, the more it sticks. I’ve found guilt seldom has anything to do with courtrooms and trials because in the end we are all our own judge and jury. As long as you know what you did there’s no getting away with it.
It was 1984, the fall of my junior year at SUNY Oswego. Like a lot of college kids I took loans, paid my own way and was broke all the time.
Money was as rare as free time and as anyone who has ever struggled can tell you there are weeks where you literally have to watch every penny if you want to eat. It was a week like that, that led me down the road to perdition. I had exactly ten dollars in my pocket which had to last me six days. Whenever I was this broke, I’d go to the store in the student center and buy a bagel for fifty cents. The bagels were huge and filling so they were a nice substitute for lunch. I went to the counter, handed the guy my ten dollar bill, took the bagel and change and turned to go. I counted the money before putting it in my pocket and realized the clerk made a mistake in my favor. He gave me change for twenty dollar bill not a ten.
When times are tight and money falls into your lap the voices of your better angels are easily drowned out by the sounds of a growling stomach. You start to talk yourself into doing the wrong thing. I told myself in that moment that this school had overcharged me for so many things. They had fees on top of fees for courses and services I’d never use. Heck even the laundry machines in my dorm must have stolen from me. Soon enough you convince yourself that you are entitled to that extra ten bucks the guy gave you. They won’t even miss it.
I knew it was wrong to keep it but I was young, broke and stupid, so I took it. For the next few days I found myself avoiding that store for fear the guy might realize what he’d done and ask me about it. Even when I did eventually go back I hung my head and found it difficult to meet his eyes when he rang me up at the register. To the casual observer I’d gotten away with it but the truth was I hadn’t. That ten dollars owned me now and wouldn’t let me go.
Long after I graduated from Oswego that ten dollars I took kept turning up in my mind, like a stone in your shoe. I couldn’t understand how such a small stone could cause such a large ripple in the pond that was my conscience. Then in 1994 I went to see the movie Quiz Show and had a moment of clarity. Toward the end of the movie there’s a scene where Rob Morrow tells a story about an uncle who cheated on his wife and never got caught. Many years later he came clean about what he’d done and everyone in the family asked him why in God’s name he confessed, after all he’d gotten away with it. He said, “It was the getting away with it that I couldn’t live with.”
So why am I telling you this story now; confessing to a petty larceny I committed 28 years ago? Same reason I guess. I haven’t been to confession at church in a long time but I do believe you can talk to God and ask for forgiveness whenever you want. So there I was sitting at a red light on Route 9 near Hoffman’s Playland in Latham when I had a short yet long overdue chat with the big guy. I said I know I can’t go back in time and give the money back but please know I’m sorry, I learned from it and I’ll never do something like that again.
The light turned green and then something very odd happened. I put my directional on and pulled into the Stewart’s shop to grab a cup of coffee. I handed the clerk a ten dollar bill, took the change and turned to go. Anyone in the store that day would have seen me stop and smile because for an instant it was 1984 again. In my hand wasn’t change for my ten dollar bill but a twenty. I looked up toward the ceiling and said under my breath, “Thank you for the second chance.”
The manager was pleasantly surprised when I told him of his error and handed back the ten dollars extra he’d given me. “Wow, thanks,” he said. He probably thinks I’m this rare good guy who did the right thing when in reality I’m just the dummy who did the wrong thing 28 years ago and has paid interest on the debt ever since.
I haven’t been back to Oswego since graduation but a part of me will be visiting soon. The store in the campus center will soon receive an envelope with a ten dollar bill attached to a newspaper column telling this tale of avarice and absolution. I’m sure that guy who gave me the wrong change is long gone but when it comes to one’s eternity and passage at the pearly gates, the sheep that got away needs all the help he can get. •
Reprinted with Permission of the Troy Record.
John Gray ’85 is the news anchor at News10 ABC in Albany, N.Y. He also is an award-winning columnist for the Troy Record newspaper and Capital Region Living Magazine. While he resides in the Albany area helping raise his three children and his dog Max and has traveled extensively, he still insists he has never seen a sunset prettier than those outside of Onondaga Hall on Lake Ontario.
Ed. note: SUNY Oswego gratefully accepted John’s donation last autumn.
OSWEGO alumni magazine welcomes submissions for consideration for “The Last Word.” They should be no more than 600 words and should reflect upon the writer’s Oswego experience. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org.