"A Far, Far Better Thing"

Father and Mother marched them down Cresson to see him off at the station. Their brother’s duty was his to perform, so his three sisters theirs. They all had dressed in their Sunday best. Father and Mother were filled with a pride that hurt their hearts, a pride that labored their breath.

Clara was twenty and a fervent aspirant at St. Josaphat’s. In self-righteous waddle, she led the family procession, her imagination bedecked with streamers. He would be not just a soldier, but an avenging angel upon the Pacific. Vengeance is mine the gunboats proclaim, and woe upon him who attacks a sleeping fleet. The Prince of Peace would approve. Mercy and retribution were not incompatible. This she believed to her dying day in the convent seventy years later.

Cissy was seventeen, her vision different. He was no wreaker of wrath divine but a man to be envied, a witness to the Great Event, greater than Father’s Great War. Oh, how she longed to tag along, pencil and notepad to catch the history, every intricacy in the grand effort of repelling empires. Oh, it could have been a Pulitzer of a story, she lamented, if only she had been allowed to go. This she believed to the day she retired from the Philadelphia Inquirer fifty years later.

But Maggie’s obsession was Jack himself. Little Maggie in her sailor suit, braids thrashing petulantly and her pug nose wrinkled in denial. She had begun the morning in a terrible sulk. Now gray skies had given way to storms. Jack was her world and not to be taken away.

Quite natural for a girl of fourteen to idolize a brother almost twice her age. The gap between ages was easily explained—the consequence of events beyond one’s control. Her father, bold with his truncheon and tolerant of graft but surprisingly diffident among the ladies, had waited to marry zaftig Fiołek Dychovsky until right before the Kaiser broke hell loose overseas. He fathered a son, wanted more, but was called up and forced to delay his brood of boys. When he returned from France, all girls—one, two, three.

Maggie was inconsolable. With heaves of sobs, she flooded Mother’s coat.

“I want no tears when we meet him at the station,” Father said.

“Oh, this will be exciting for him,” Cissy said.

“It will be noble of him,” Clara said.

“He’ll be home soon,” Mother said.

“If he goes, he’s never coming back!” she whined.

Since she was twelve, Maggie had plenty of fuel for nightmares. Hiding under the dining room table, she had heard Father recount the Great War for Uncle Mac, who had not been, the horrors of the trenches, bodies indistinguishable from the mud, lifeless arms snagged and held aloft by barbed wire, the foamy lips of men melting inside, the inhuman specters of gas masks. “Shit, Alf,” Mac muttered, and then they left for beer. Blank, black, unholy eyes of goggled phantoms invaded her dreams and followed her everywhere. It was monstrous to send someone as pure as Jack into Hell.

“Laddie Jack” their father called him. Husky and red-cheeked like their mother. He could pick her up with one arm yet, averse to mindless violence, had refused to tackle quarterbacks for Rocksboro High. The rumble of his laughter made daisies quake. Impatient to express affection, unlike Father, he had married at nineteen, and so Maggie was barely older than uncles and aunts.

“Do you hear me, Maggie? No tears.”

Father pried her from Mother and lifted her into his arms. She peered up through the shadow of the el. Its girders, grimed with exhaust, echoed the tires of Cresson’s passing traffic.

“I want those tracks to go away!” she muttered, jabbing an accusatory finger.

“It has to be. Nothing we can do to change it.”

“Where are they taking him?”

“He has to see someone in Philly, and from there to a place where he’ll, oh, do exercises and learn to take orders and march around. Soldier stuff.”

“What for?”

“Well, lots of stuff….”

“Don’t tell me! I already know! What if they took him someplace else instead? Someplace safe?”

Her little finger swerved from tracking the line back southeast into the city and chose a perpendicular route through Nowak’s barber pole and across the Schuylkill.

“Tracks only go in one direction, sweetheart.”

“No, they don’t! No, they don’t!”

Which brought on more bawling.

Mr. Wiśniewski the watchmaker came to the door of his shop.