by Michael Cassutt
My name is Alfred Kramer, known for the better part of my life as “Lefty.” I was born April 13, 1920, in Owatonna, Minnesota.
Today is my birthday in 2020, meaning that I’ve reached the unlikely age of one century. I currently live in a geriatric facility in Mesa, Arizona. Though mobility-challenged, I am in decent health, but have learned that my facility is going into lockdown due to a new virus that reminds me of the Spanish Flu that ravaged the country just prior to my birth.
My father died when I was three. My mother, who had attended a teacher’s college prior to marrying him, went to work in a local elementary school.
Aside from the loss of my father, I had an unremarkable childhood. There was always food on the table. My mother always had a position. I was cared for by my grandparents until I was fourteen and entered high school.
I was an above average student, though never much of a reader (something I rectified in adulthood).
What I could do was play baseball. Although not tall, I was strong, and fast down the base paths. I also had sufficient hand-eye coordination to hit a curveball. And I could throw one, as well as a decent fastball.
I was also left-handed, a portsider, a southpaw, a trait that attracted scouts from regional major league teams like the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals.
I was signed to a minor league contract during my senior year of high school, and that summer reported to the Cardinals’ minor league team in Duluth, Minnesota, the Dukes. In those bygone days a major league baseball team had a whole network of minor league affiliates scattered around the country, in classifications from D, the lowest, to AAA.
The Dukes were D. I pitched well enough that I was promoted to the Class C Lansing, Michigan, Lancers in 1939, then the B level with the Decatur, Illinois, Commodores, the next summer.
Math was not then my strong suit, but it was clear that at this rate I would be close to twenty-five before I reached the major leagues, assuming I was promoted every year. My win-loss record of 8-5 with the Commodores was not likely to convince the Cardinals that I was worthy of an invitation to spring training with the big club, since we had three other pitchers with much better records.
My mother encouraged me to have a backup plan, so even as I concentrated on learning to throw a better curveball, I began taking college courses in chemistry during the off-season.
When the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor I was twenty-one and attending the winter trimester at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. I enlisted as soon as possible, though I wasn’t called up until May 1942.
I was sent to Camp Grant in Rockford, Illinois, with the goal of becoming a combat medic—the army’s idea, given my two-plus years of chemistry.
In the third week I was injured in the collapse of a platform I and four other G.I.s-to-be were building for a rope-climbing exercise. I not only tore the cartilage in my left knee, but broke several rips and separated my left shoulder.
Given that full recovery was not guaranteed, and would take at least six months in any case, I was discharged as 4-F.
Not only was my time in the army at an end, my baseball career was over as well. I would have spent some time wallowing in self-pity except for knowing that one of the other men died because of that accident, and another was paralyzed for life.
I thought that my best chance to contribute to the war effort was to complete my degree and join a manufacturing firm. As I hobbled my way through the fall of 1942 and 1943, then began to walk more steadily and surely by the start of the fall 1943 term—where I began to hear whispers about the able-bodied young man not being in uniform—I doubled up on classes and did little else but study.
I carried my discharge papers, of course, but rarely showed them, because I, too, felt the same. I was fully recovered. I returned to the local recruiting office and asked to reenlist after a physical.
I was turned down. Or rather, encouraged to appeal the decision. The army was still enlisting so many healthy young men that it did not have time to deal with one questionable situation, especially for a student about to graduate from college with a degree in chemistry.
During this time I wrote to the Office of War Production, and I learned of various munitions factories all over the U.S. One of them was the Kingsbury Ordnance Plant in LaPorte, Indiana, which wrote back inviting me for a visit as soon as I took my degree.
I did so at the end of the winter trimester, March 1, 1944. KOP’s letter had reached me on February 28th.
By that time I had also learned, via letter from the War Department, that my appeal for reenlistment was “under consideration,” but no decision could be expected before May 1.
Telling my mother that any future correspondence could reach me at KOP, I set off, with my one good suit, several white shirts, and other bits of clothing and personal items in a single suitcase.
My trip took two days longer than planned due to snow, which reduced hitching targets and also slowed every driver. And my left knee, which I had thought rehabilitated, gave out when I was forced to walk several miles from a drop off to good old Rockford, Illinois, where I had briefly endured basic training. I spent the night in the one hotel I recognized.
I arrived at the plant on Wednesday, March 8th, having hitched my way from Minnesota in order to avoid the challenges and expenses of getting travel authorization in those days of rationing.
* * *
In the greater world, in the Pacific, American marines were engaged in heavy fighting with the Japanese on the island of Bougainville. Two continents away, the American Army was making progress in pushing back the Germans at Anzio. To the east, the Soviet Red Army was in a brutal battle with yet more Germans near the Estonian town of Narva.
The Allies were making progress, but the war was far from over. People were dying by the hundreds every day.
My first view of the Kingsbury Ordnance plant was inspiring only for its scale. Spread out across almost twenty square miles of former farmland (dozens of famers had been evicted in 1940, when the War Department decided to locate an ordnance plant here) four miles south of the town of LaPorte, population 16,000.
Having changed into my suit in the men’s room of the LaPorte Greyhound station, I had walked that last leg, after being dropped by a trucker in downtown. Fortunately, that morning dawned clear if cold.
Aside from the sheer size, what struck me first about KOP was the number of railroads, literally running east-west and north-south on the facility’s perimeter. (This was surely why this location had been chosen for the plant, allowing for easy shipment to both coasts and to the south.)
I was also mesmerized by the sight of seven huge concrete structures—they were too large and too long to call bunkers—laid out in a row with what appeared to be half a mile’s distance between. Rail sidings ran from the main tracks to the north side of each super-sized bunker. Trucks were lined up at the south.
South of these was a burn pit, which belched a toxic cloud I could taste at a distance of at least a mile.
The structures and pit were enclosed by barbed wire. Outside it, on a broad flat dirt road that led back to Highway 35, was a collection of administrative buildings that looked like taller versions of the barracks at Camp Grant.
People were scurrying between the buildings and not, to my eye, having an easy time of it. There were still patches of snow on the ground, and I could not see any actual sidewalks, just bare frozen paths, so lumpy and pockmarked with ice that pedestrians hobbled much as I did with a torn-up knee.
Following the directions in my letter from February 28th, I located Building One, marched inside, and presented myself and my letter to the first secretary I saw.
As I waited for her to disappear into her boss’s office and return, I realized something: at least half of the people I had seen so far were women.
I would soon learn that KOP employed close to twenty thousand people, making it a bigger “city” than LaPorte.
And that, yes, half of them were women, a fact that was then beyond my experience in school and baseball.
* * *
The secretary told me that Mr. Swenson would see me, and I entered a standard office where a fat, tired-looking man in his forties waited, frowning.
“Good morning, Mr. Kramer, welcome to KOP.” He had my original letter on his desk along with what appeared to be other related paperwork. “Everything seems to be in order. I believe we can get you started right away.”
This seemed precipitous, but there was a war on. And no doubt munitions plants like Kingsbury were desperate for chemists of any kind, even newly minted ones.
It may tell you my frame of mind that it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be hired, or that I would have any objections.
He told me the salary, two thousand a year (“it would be more if you had a master’s, of course”), and assigned me to housing in a dorm at Kingsford Heights, another two miles to the south, out of the danger zone. “There are buses every morning and afternoon, fare’s a nickel each way. You will be charged twenty-eight dollars a month for your room. Food is available in the dorm for a small fee. Everything else is up to you.”
“Where will I be working?”
Swenson opened his mouth to tell me, but at that moment the door opened, and another man entered so quickly I thought he would bounce off Swenson’s desk.
The new man was much younger, close to my age and height, with the darkest eyes I’ve ever seen. He rushed in, all smiles and hail-fellow-well-met.
“Kramer! Glad you made it! I’m Charlie Finley!”
It’s worth saying that in 1944 men wore suits unless they did manual labor. I was wearing my best, only, much-mended gray item, and even Mr. Swenson was garbed in a blue suit with shiny elbows.
This Finley was wearing a frankly beautiful new brown three-piece that must have cost two weeks’ wages.
Yet, as we shook I was surprised to find that his hand was rough, that of a steelworker, not a personnel executive. He turned to Swenson. “Is he all signed up?”
Swenson seemed flustered, surprising to me, since I assumed that he, as personnel manager, out-ranked this exuberant young man. “Nothing we can’t handle later. Let me give him a temporary badge.”
Finley clapped me on the shoulder. “Come with me.”
Before I realized it, I was outside in the cold wind, trying to remain upright on the frozen path leading first to the gate surrounding the pillboxes, a quick entrance past the armed soldiers at the gate, then on a long march toward the middle one.
“Each of these monsters,” Finley said, “is devoted to a single kind of ordnance. They call them ‘lines.’ Twenty-pound fragmentation bombs on One Line, fifty-caliber on Two, forty-millimeter artillery shells on Three, and so on.”
I was finally able to return to my question of the day. “Which line am I working on?”
“None, in that sense. Most of the line work is done by women, our WOWs, Women of War. Small hands and patience, and they like wearing those white gloves. You’re going to be in the Chemical Lab.” He pointed to a smaller bunker near the base of Three Line. “They work on everything there, supervising the initial mix and manufacturing, and riding herd on the loading and testing.”
“I don’t know anything about any of this,” I told him. “Why there?”
“Son, nobody knew anything about any of this when they arrived, least of all me.” He laughed. I was about to ask him what his job was when he said. “How’s the pitching arm?”
“Good enough. Is it going to be important in my work?”
“Oh hell no. But we not only have a company league, we have an actual traveling all-star team, and I’m the manager.” He smirked in a way that would become very familiar to me. “It can be a great way to, shall we say, supplement your income.
“I’m going to tell you a secret.” And here he put his arm across my shoulders and pulled me close. There were no humans within five hundred yards, if not more. “Your F.B.I. check had several pages on your baseball career, which caught my eye, let me tell you.”
“It must have mentioned my injury.” I rotated my left arm as a demonstration. It didn’t hurt, but I hadn’t thrown a baseball in two and a half years.
“In great detail, but come on, Lefty, you know the difference between a professional-level ballplayer and a good amateur. You could probably throw right-handed and strike out most of the batters you’ll face. I’m a good amateur player, and I know the limitations.
“We can also use your speed and hitting.”
Even seventy-six years later, I can still recall how angry and disappointed I was to learn that my new career in chemistry, my contribution to the war effort, was due to baseball.
“You never told me what you do, Charlie.”
“Oh, a little of this, a little of that. I’m sort of a deputy to the chief engineer, technically in production, meaning that I oversee everything that comes into KOP and everything that goes out. I don’t know much about science, frankly. I see myself as a manager, cracking the old whip.”
None of this was encouraging. I was beginning to regret my hasty choice of Kingsbury, and I’d only been on the site for an hour. But we had reached the solid-looking door to the Chemical Lab Building.
“Speaking of managing, how do you get along with . . . eccentric types?”
“What do you mean?”
“Weirdos. Bookworms. Head in the clouds, men like that. Nothing like ballplayers.”
“Well, Mr. Finley,” I told him, “I’ve been in a liberal arts college most of the past four years.”
My glib response belied my anger and frustration. If Finley noticed, he pretended that he didn’t. All I got was a big smile and another clap on the shoulder.
* * *
“Everyone calls us the Siberians.”
Ten minutes later and I was perched on a folding chair in the “bullpen” of the Chem Lab, an open space dominated by an ancient conference table that looked to have been salvaged from a garbage dump: it was weathered and scratched, and one corner had somehow broken off.
The chairs were mixed, also appearing to have been salvaged. There was a scarred and stained Formica counter along one wall with a sink and a coffee pot. Cupboards held some snacks, I would learn, though not many and very little variety. (America’s food industry was still rationing sugar.)
There was a large bulletin board on the facing wall, filled with a calendar and a multitude of notices from KOP ADMIN—and several strange images, covers from what appeared to be a pulp magazine called Astounding Science Fiction. They showed a strapping man in what I assumed was futuristic garb in front of fanciful shiny vehicles of some sort.
There were seven Siberians scattered around, some sitting like me, others leaning against the walls. All of us wore the same type of white shirt, most with ties as well. A couple of them had jackets.
Most appeared to be under thirty-five, except for the speaker, a fit, bespectacled man in his fifties named Edward E. Smith. He had gray eyes and graying hair with a hint of red. “Ted to my family, Doc to these characters,” he had said upon introduction.
“I’ll play along,” I said, seeing the eager looks on the Siberian faces, like children with a secret. “Why Siberians?”
“Because we’ve been exiled here,” Smith said.
“To keep you safe?”
“Oh, these walls are sixteen inches thick where they face the Lines, and no less than a foot everywhere else. A whole bunker could blow up and we’d barely know about it.
“No, Siberia because we’re all ornery cusses who are only interested in making the best weapons to end this war fastest. We don’t give a hoot about the money or the perks—”
“—Or the damned quotas.” This from a burly, dark-haired man of maybe 29, later known to me as Tug Tugwell, Ph.D. He had played football at Michigan State.
“Especially the quotas,” Smith said. “We pour tetryl, we monitor production, we test for quality. Munitions pass perfectly or they don’t get shipped. No one wants some mortar to blow up on a G.I. who’s trying to save his buddies and himself.”
Who could argue with that? “Then I’m proud to be a Siberian.”
“You’ll be a Siberian when you prove yourself,” another man said. This one was the oldest-looking, aside from Smith himself, floppy-haired, red-faced, his eyes hidden behind thick lenses. He looked so shaky that I feared for any one sharing a tetryl lab with him.
“Steady there, Comrade,” Smith told the man. I would learn later that the territorial one was literally named Carl Marks. “We all have to prove our mettle. But we’re not a country club. Far from it.”
(For the record, in addition to Tugwell and “Comrade” Marks, the other Siberians were:
Harold “Swede” Gunderson
Roy “Hawk” Hawkins
Lawrence “Garbo” Garby
Marvin “Ivy” McCann IV
Another slightly older, high-strung individual named Hubert “Blondie” Wanacek.)
Then the door opened, and, to be a bit melodramatic, my life changed.
A woman entered, shedding an overcoat to reveal a polka dot dress. She was, I judged, in her mid-twenties, raven-haired, blue-eyed, slim, and a bit jittery. “And this is Kay Brannick,” Smith said, fondly, and saving me one half of an introduction I immediately desired. “Without her we’d all be deported to someplace worse than Siberia!”
“Because none of you can follow simple rules.” She held out her hand. “You must be Mr. Kramer. Nice to meet you.” Her voice was—can I describe it after all these years? Eager and amused?
I choked a response as Kay glided to the end of the conference table and sat down, pulling a steno notebook from her purse. She seemed to be in a hurry. Smith resumed his briefing, running through a tedious list of status reports on various explosive mixes and deliveries, each statement punctuated by some raucous comment from one of the Siberians. It was like watching a junior high science teacher trying to wrangle an unruly mob of twelve-year-old boys into making a baking soda and vinegar volcano.
Smith didn’t seem to mind. At that time I thought he was a weak leader. (I could only imagine the managers of my baseball teams, each one more gruff than the last, hearing this kind of backtalk. The offender would have been slammed into the nearest locker.)
All through this cacophony Kay took notes with a serene confidence notable only for what I took to be a charming gesture: as she wrote, using her left hand like me, she frequently placed her right hand over it. To steady herself? Or just an unconscious tic? I didn’t care. Other than Smith himself, and silent Lefty Kramer, she seemed to be the only adult in the room. The only woman, obviously, and perhaps that was no coincidence.
I did catch one or two Siberians glancing her way with undeniable longing after some jocular remark, exactly like that of high school boys pining for attention from the cheerleader. It was silly rather than sad, the silliness enhanced by the truth that these men were old enough to be in combat.
I never had a steady in high school or at Carleton, and certainly not while playing minor league ball. I had dates, of course, more than most of my fellow students and teammates. But as I look back on it, see that I was always reluctant to commit, feeling that a relationship would lead to marriage and the end of ambition.
And with my baseball home shifting every summer to a different Mid-American tank town, I had no chance to build a relationship. I was worse than a traveling salesman of that era, since those loverboys hit the same towns every year if not several times a year.
Well, on that day in March 1944 I knew I would probably be at KOP for some time. Kay’s presence promised to make it more interesting.
“Say, Doc, got our man all squared away?” Finley had arrived. This was the first, but nowhere near the last time, he demonstrated an uncanny and disturbing ability to appear like magic. I later realized that he wore soft-soled shoes for exactly this purpose.
“We’ve covered the basics,” Smith said.
Clearly he wanted to say more, but Finley didn’t care. “Let me have him for a while; then he’s yours for the duration.” Hearing the word “duration” reminded me that we were making armaments, that there was a war on, that men like me, and Finley and the Siberians, were dying on beaches and hillsides and the seas. In those days we would occasionally concentrate on matters unrelated to war—but trust me, it was never out of our thoughts.
It was obvious even then that Smith and the Siberians, and Kay Brannick, all seemed resigned to interruptions like this from Finley. They simply turned away from me as if I’d never been introduced.
Finley led me down a path that was different from the one connecting the Chem Lab with the main gate.
We were walking south, away from the lab and the line structures beyond, the admin area to our right. There was nothing in front of us but a few storage tanks and some idled trucks. “What’s out here?”
“Patience, my son.” I found this irritating: Finley was essentially my age. “Did Smith tell you anything about his background?”
“He only talked about things I needed to know here, where I might fill in.”
“Smith is also a writer!” Finley grinned. “He’s published about a half dozen pulp serials, Buck Rogers stuff, ‘scientifiction’ is the word. Clearly a sideline, he says, and he’s given it up for the war. No wonder. Seems like a lot of work for the money.”
“How much money could he make?”
“I asked him. Says his best rate was a penny a word for one of those things, the last one. Seven hundred and fifty bucks for months of work, and no guarantee that anyone will buy the silly thing. There are better ways to make a living, believe me.”
“But pulp writing aside, Smith had a job as a chemist before coming to KOP. And get this . . .” Finley smiled as if he were about to deliver the punchline to the best joke in the history of humor. “He made doughnuts.”
“What?” I was picturing Smith in a white smock and a paper hat behind a counter, a tray of old fashioned or glazed donuts in his hand.
“He spent, I don’t know, twenty years designing the mixes for doughnuts. I guess they’re not just some old family recipe. And, even better . . .” Here Finley grabbed my lapels. “He was considered the champion donut mix guy in the whole damn country.”
He found this hilarious. I thought it spoke well of the man. “He must have given up a lot of money to come here and do war work, at his age.”
Finley liked this even more. “Oh, the F.B.I. found out he’d been laid off back in 1940. I’m sure he had some kind of dispute with the management. He was lucky the war came along. Now,” he said, before I could hear anything else that made me dislike him, “I present ‘Finley Field’!”
As we walked around one of the storage tanks, we came to a broad flat area that was, like most of the terrain at KOP that day, still mostly hard-packed snow or dead grass.
But even with that I could spot a low mound of earth and base paths.
“This is where we play?” Yes, it was a baseball diamond, but without stands or even a few benches and no backstop. “No fences?”
“Oh, we put everything up when the season starts. We have a bunch of intramural teams that play here, but the real action is with the plant team, the Kingsbury Koppers. For the past two seasons we’ve been competing against town teams all over Indiana.”
“How have you done?” Town ball was big in the Midwest in those days. There were teams that could have done well against D, C, or even B level pros.
“Not nearly as well as I’d like, which is why you’re here.”
“Other than making explosives for the American military.”
“You’ll get plenty of that. But all work and no play, right?”
I didn’t remind him that for a professional ballplayer, the game really wasn’t “play.” And standing in the cold late winter breeze on this muddy stretch of ground, I was in no mood to think about testing my injured shoulder, ribs, and knee.
“We’re going to start practicing next week. First game is April 7th against Rolling Prairie right here.”
As we made our careful way back to the Chem Lab, I asked about the rest of the team, hearing pretty much what I expected: a couple were veterans of town ball, one had played in college, the rest were high school “stars” from cities big and small. Our likely opponents had the same mix. “Except for an ace like you, Kramer.”
Back at the Chem Lab, Finley opened the door as if the place belonged to him. Smith’s briefing had ended, and the Siberians dispersed to their caves, I imagined.
Only Kay Brannick remained, firing up the coffee pot. I will admit that all I wanted at that moment was for Finley to depart and leave me to spend time Kay.
But when Finley said to Kay, “Why don’t I walk you back to admin?” she said, “Thanks but no. I have to deliver messages to Four Line.” And with the briefest of smiles at me, she picked up her notebook and her overcoat, and walked out.
I have already noted the general Siberian appreciation of Kay Brannick and characterized it as immature, almost puppy-like.
Watching Finley watching her depart, however, was to witness such pure and obvious lechery that I was embarrassed and suddenly protective.
Not that I had the courage to speak up. What I said was, “What’s the story with Kay Brannick? Is she married, involved?”
“Oh you baseball boys with your girls. The lovely Miss Brannick is indeed single, and I got here first. Am I clear?”
I had been in situations where baseball teammates and I found ourselves chasing the same woman. How these resolved depended on the nature of the chase—was the woman in question simply thought to be an easy lay, or was there an emotional attraction? With the former, the solution was quick, if sometimes involving shoving or some other form of male dominance nonsense. Or whether one party had seniority over the other, as in coach to player.
If one of us had a crush on our target, it was more difficult. (The woman’s feelings rarely concerned us. The possibility that a woman might find both men of interest was, well, scientifiction.)
“Sure thing,” I said. So articulate.
Finley smiled. “There are other fish to fry here, Lefty. Ten thousand of them.”
I think I just grunted at that. Finley was headed out the door, but turned for one last word. “By the way, you should thank me for keeping you out of uniform.”
“What do you mean?”
“The army approved your reenlistment last month, but I wrote them and got you classified as a vital defense worker for the duration.”
Thus ended my first and best day with Charles O. Finley.
* * *
And thus began my indoctrination in the art and craft of creating bombs. I spent several weeks learning all about pelleting and testing chemical compositions for different kinds of explosives, from incendiary to tracer to igniter. Opting to specialize in forty millimeter, I became an expert in TNT “pours,” in “miking” them to size and ensuring that they were free of cavitation prior to their transfer to the Three Line.
My melt-pours had a very low rate of rejection, better than most of the Siberians who were, I learned, considered to have the highest quality explosives of any ordnance plant in the country. Very soon I had the sense—familiar to me from my season with the Commodores during a winning streak—that I was on a great team, and helping it become so.
I even had a small office next to Tug Blackwell’s and across the hall from the larger one Doc Smith shared with Kay Brannick.
However, I was not yet a full member of the Siberians. Even with Doc Smith’s graciousness, and Tug’s grudging instruction, I was an obvious outsider—like a ballplayer newly traded from a rival team. Conference room chatter still ceased whenever I entered, at least for a while. I was invited out for a beer by Tug, but only him and only once. When I rode the bus to and from KOP, none of the other Siberians sat with me—though to be fair, it was rare to see any of them on the same bus. I believe they took the earlier one to, and the last one from, the plant.
They were a clannish bunch to begin with, and I began to suspect that they saw me—in spite of any skills I might have demonstrated—as the man from Charlie O. A spy or a stooge.
I resolved to change that belief, starting with Doc Smith.
* * *
During my first week I had taken a moment to examine the items on the conference room bulletin board.
The magazine covers promoted something called Lensman, apparently written by a “Skylark Smith.” At least those from 1939 issues did.
But there was one from November 1941 that identified the author of “Second Stage Lensman” as “E. E. Smith, Ph.D.”
I had never been a reader of scientifiction. To my mother’s disappointment, I had never been much of a reader at all. (You can’t spend hours with your nose in a book, as we used to say, and still be a good athlete. The other guy is going to be out there bouncing or throwing a ball.) I worked my way through a few boys’ book adventures, mostly historical or biographies of people like Ben Franklin.
I had seen Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in the funny pages, of course, and had some memory of a movie serial starring one or the other. Comics and serials were amusing in the same way Superman was, but flying superhumans, rocket ships, rayguns, other planets? Alien beings? They just didn’t interest me.
(Here is where honesty compels me to add, “then.”)
One morning perhaps three weeks after I arrived at KOP I was in the conference room in search of coffee. No one else was present and the pot was empty.
So I began opening cabinets in search of some Folger’s or Chock Full O Nuts.
What I found was a stack of pulp magazines, the very same Astounding Science Fiction whose covers graced the bulletin board. (Several of the volumes were coverless, obviously the source of the art work.)
I had twenty minutes before I needed to be on Line Three and sat down to sample the epic.
I chose to start with “Second Stage Lensman,” the most recent and, frankly, the one with the most intriguing covers.
I had barely opened the magazine, which was already shedding flakes of pulp paper, and read the first few pages before I was plunged into some ancient conflict between Mentor of Arisia and entities from a place called Boskone as a man named Kimball Kinnison prepared to marry the brilliant Clarissa, but might not have time as Earth was in danger—
“Well, what do you think?”
I looked up and Doc Smith was in the doorway, empty coffee cup in hand.
“Very imaginative,” I said, adding quickly, “but I’ve only read five pages.”
“It’s not mandatory. In fact, it’s perfectly jake with me if you never read another page.” He filled his cup, then sat down. “If you do persist, however, I would suggest going back to the beginning of the saga. Galactic Patrol.”
I carefully shuffled the pile of pulps until I found several issues from 1937. “Here they are.”
It was obvious that this discussion embarrassed him. He actually blushed. “See here, Kramer. Writing was always a part-time activity, a way to exercise my imagination and possibly make a little extra money, at least now. When I wrote my first story, The Skylark of Space, I couldn’t get it published for ten years, and even then I made $125 that I split with my collaborator!” He found this more amusing than I would have.
“I did several sequels, then started the Lensman series. I have some devoted readers, including some of these Siberians. Tugwell is the best, or worst, depending on your point of view.” He tapped the pile of pulps. “He was the one who brought in his collection. I never mentioned the stories at all, when I arrived. To me this is war work and pulp writing is just a distraction.”
“So I’d be hurting my work by reading these?”
“I wouldn’t go that far. A man needs balance in his work or the work suffers. Besides . . .” And here he peered at me with an entirely new look, as if testing me. “There is a lot of wild speculation in those stories. We live in an age of super-weapons and jet aircraft and even rockets. Writers in Astounding and similar magazines, not to mention a genius named H. G. Wells, thought of these things years ahead of time.”
“Ah. Reading these stories, not just yours, might inspire me?”
“If you have that kind of mind,” he said. “Not everyone does, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Though his voice suggested that it absolutely was something to be ashamed of.
Just then Kay entered, papers in hand, apparently surprised to find Doc lollygagging with me. She told him, “I looked these over and the math checks out fine. Not sure that the number of units will satisfy production.”
“The war is a hungry beast,” Doc said, checking Kay’s calculations, making a single annotation with a pencil before handing everything back to her. “As always, please make sure we get Finley’s signature.”
“He’s never far away,” Kay said. Forcing a smile, she left.
“She seems smart and capable,” I said, a general statement when I wanted to grab Doc by the lapels and compel him to tell me everything he could about his secretary. I suspected such passion would not be welcomed.
“Very capable and objectively brilliant,” Doc said. “She’s got a degree in physics, or at least most of it. I think she left school a few units short because of the war.”
This was one of the most surprising statements I heard at KOP. “I didn’t know that was possible. Where did she go to school?” There had been co-eds at Carleton since it opened in the 1860s, but they were limited in what they could study, and forced to live off-campus. I was vaguely aware, then, that a small number of universities would admit women to engineering or science programs, though I could have counted them on one hand.
“Case Western in Cleveland,” Doc said.
I had been hired almost sight unseen simply because I had a degree. “Then why is she just a secretary?”
Here Doc laughed so hard I thought his glasses would fall off. “My father used to say that women could be pretty or smart, but not both. I tend to agree, though Miss Brannick has forced me to reconsider that belief at times.
“But what else can she be, especially here? Women have a place in this world, and it’s not calculating tetryl or using a slide rule. If not for the fact that she has a slight tremor, she’d be wearing white gloves and working as a WOW.
“And don’t say ‘just a secretary.’ She’s the one who keeps this operation running smoothly and corrals these Siberians when they get rambunctious.”
I changed the subject. “What do you think of our Mr. Finley?”
Given the time it took for him to answer, I believe I had stumped Doc. Finally he said, “He’s an intelligent young man, has experience as a miner so he knows what it’s like to work with your hands.” During my single session with Tugwell I had learned that Doc Smith had done a great deal of manual labor, from lumberjacking to farming to railroad work, and if not for an accident—jumping out of a second story window to escape a fire, breaking a leg, several ribs and his wrist, making manual labor impossible—he might never have gone to college. Given this, I sensed that Finley’s background as a steel worker was one small point in his favor. “He possesses a great deal of energy.”
“I’m not sure he is as devoted to the war as he is to his own pursuits, political and financial.”
Now I had made Doc Smith uncomfortable. “Isn’t there a pour starting on Three?”
“There certainly is.”
I stood up and carefully placed the various pulps back in their cupboard, in chronological order.
When I turned around, Doc Smith was gone.
I was encouraged by the encounter. Certainly I did not get the idea that Smith considered me a hopeless outsider, at least not yet.
But I also realized that I ought not to play cards with this man.
* * *
Several days later, the first lovely spring Sunday encouraged me to explore the inside-the-fence grounds instead of grimly marching from the main gate to the Chem Lab as I did most days.
To my surprise, making my first circuit on foot of the entire structure, I discovered a door on the north side of the building that didn’t open. It bore a painted sign, long faded, calling it the “Nitrosyncretic Storage, Keep Out!”
I had a degree in chemistry and had never heard of “nitrosyncretic.”
There was no obvious lock, but the door was not going to be opened by the likes of me. In fact, when I touched the knob I had the distinct sensation that my hand never really touched the metal fixture.
The next day I did some exploring from inside the Chem Lab, which, while a fraction of the size of the Line structures, was still a big building—and honey-combed, I found, with dark, many-angled hallways, offices ranging in size from normal to those, like mine, that were little more than cubby holes, the conference room, various lavatories, and several other locked doors, most of them unmarked.
Somewhere on what appeared to be the inside north I found a door that, while locked, appeared to be opened and closed frequently. (Some of the other mystery doors had cobwebs on them.)
This one was labeled “Wreck Room—No Admittance Without Authorization!”
It, too, appeared to be not only locked from within, but slippery to the touch.
Mystery 2, or at least 1, part B.
I had no time to play detective, however. The quotas for forty millimeter seemed to rise every other day, and that pressure spread across all the Lines. Doc Smith said, “I am not revealing any secret, since I don’t have access, but I believe the need for munitions is due to the imminent invasion of Europe.”
No one tried to argue the point. It wasn’t just our own production quotas. All of KOP seemed to be doubly busy. The trains that rumbled up to each of the Lines every day were now constant and constantly noisy.
It made our work more difficult, but was also exciting.
During this insanely busy month, in addition to twelve-hour days and adjusting to life in my Kingsford Heights dorm, I had to devote time to my secondary career—semi-pro baseball player.
The day I arrived at KOP was, as I have written, in early March, still too early for proper baseball weather. The ground was frozen in places, and where it had thawed, it was mud.
This did not deter Charlie Finley.
He acknowledged the situation to the extent that our first workouts took place in the corner of a large warehouse inside the fence, where I threw my first pitches in something like two years, to a catcher named Harold French, known, naturally, as “Frenchy.”
Twenty-six years old and a fork lift driver by trade, Frenchy was a large block of a fellow, a good target for a pitcher with a suspect arm. I remember him as gentle and very soft-spoken. I knew that Finley had briefed him on my background and injury. “I don’t want you doing anything more than lobbing the pill,” he said. “I don’t care if you roll the ball to me.”
That’s really what I did in our first session, under the lights a week after I arrived at KOP. I didn’t try to fully extend the arm and certainly made no effort to throw hard, merely hefting the ball and first tossing it underhand.
Success in that encouraged me to throw overhand, nothing more than a lob.
This seemed to go well. I wasn’t actually pitching, and in fact was barely throwing. But without pain in my shoulder and especially in my knee, since it bore the weight of my throwing motion, serving as my anchor.
All through this I was aware that Finley was off to one side, watching me intently. He was joined by a man of forty in an army uniform. I was too far away to see the rank insignia, but later learned that this was Colonel Bruck, one of the Army Ordnance officers who “commanded” KOP.
Glancing at them, between pitches, I noticed a change in Charlie O’s posture and mannerisms. Gone was his cock of the walk, hail-fellow superiority. He was actually kissing up to Bruck, laughing all too loudly at every sentence the man uttered, and hastening to offer him a cigar.
Here was another clue to his remarkable personality . . . the ability to make friends with power.
Perhaps energized by this realization, I finally broke one off, firing what may have been a seventy-mile per hour fastball, still a bit less than my velocity prior to the injury, and not only felt no pain, but heard a loud, satisfying smack in Frenchy’s glove.
He pulled it off and shook his left hand. “Goddammit, that hurt!”
“Get used to it,” Finley boomed. I looked at him, and he was smiling like a new father. “Don’t overdo it, Lefty! Maybe take a few swings!”
In another corner, Finley had set up a batting cage surrounded by nets. There was a long, narrow alley of sorts, with one of the Kops’ other pitchers hurling slow straight pitches.
Given the confines of the building, though, this contraption was wildly asymmetrical—a right-handed batter could belt a ball some distance, but a player who hit from the other side of the plate, like me, had netting almost in his face. The first swings I took found me quickly dodging balls that rebounded toward my head.
To great laughter from Finley and Bruck. (There weren’t many left-handed hitters on the Koppers.)
Remember this, however: pitchers were often the best all-around athletes on any baseball team, especially in those long-ago days when they were required to bat—no designated hitters.
Once I conquered my immediate fear of bouncing balls, I concentrated on making good contact and quickly blasted several balls into the furthest reaches of the net, each impact resulting in a sharp, echoing crack that was louder than anything generated by previous batters. (I will immodestly state that while I was a good pitcher, I was a better hitter. But if you are left-handed in baseball, you are urged to throw.)
Finley’s pleased laughter echoed in the hall. “That’s my superstar!”
Bruck having departed, Finley was waiting for me when I emerged from the batting nets. “You don’t have a glove of your own.”
“Mr. Finley,” I said, “I don’t have any proper equipment.”
“Let’s get you some.”
“Sure.” I didn’t have much cash, so I was hoping this would be some days later, after I’d received my first paycheck.
“Now.” Finley read the look of financial panic on my face. “Don’t worry about the money.”
Copyright © 2022. Kingsbury, 1944 by Michael Cassutt