Run With the Wind

A Story of WW II Galveston
(Publication scheduled for early 2019)
This is the story of a  young  Jewish widow who inherits a crumbling Victorian mansion and  decides to remodel it into apartments. . One day, a mysterious but handsome stranger, with an ever so slight German accent, moves into one of the apartments  and into Sarah’s life.
Sarah’s son, crippled by polio, is a focal point of her life. When, at age 4, he is fitted with full braces for the first time, and takes the first  steps he has ever taken in his life, he tell his mom, “Someday I’m gonna go to the beach and run with the wind.”
The stranger with the accent learns of Benji’s affliction, and works diligently with the boy so that, indeed, he may, one day, Run With the Wind.
Does he do this because he sees this as a way to Sarah heart, or is he indeed interested in helping a crippled boy? Or, is something more sinister involved as the United States careens toward WW II?

Chapter 1
July, 1938
Galveston, Texas

Sarah Jacobs could not have known, but in less than 15 minutes there would be a dead man in her front yard.

It was a dreadfully hot, still afternoon in this semi-tropical island-city on the Texas Coast. Sarah was sitting on her front porch in an old wooden rocker with iced tea, the glass wet with condensation, on the floor beside her. She was waiting, with some anxiety, for her 10-year old son to return from Offats Bayou.

Earlier this day she had driven to the Bolivar Ferry Landing on a mission to find Gus, one of the older channel pilots who had an annoying habit of going off on benders. August Morton had spent a lifetime on the upper Texas coast, and knew intimately every shoal, inlet and channel between Port Arthur and Freeport, as well as the entire Trinity Bay system. When sober, there was no channel pilot more experienced or competent among the entire roster of the Galveston Pilots Guild.

She knew that she would find him sleeping off his bender in one of Bolivar Peninsula’s beach-front beer stands.

Sarah was the assistant general manager of Galveston Pilots. Early this morning a radio-telegram told of a tanker that was returning for repairs after an engine room fire. She needed Gus to pilot the crippled ship, and had left the grizzled old channel veteran in a café, eating the breakfast she’d bought and drinking quantities of black coffee. He promised to arrive sober and presentable at the coast guard docks by 3 PM for transport to the crippled ship.

It was on the return ferry crossing that she noted how still the water was. No dolphins followed or ran ahead, and even the ubiquitous gulls were calmer than usual. While the morning had been relatively comfortable, all the signs pointed to an oppressively hot afternoon.

Sarah went to the Pilot’s offices, made several telephone calls about the necessary  arrangements, and then drove home, thinking she’d make a late breakfast for her son.

However, Rae had already given Benji his breakfast, and permitted him to leave for Offats Bayou, about 12 blocks away.

Rae had been brought to the crumbling mansion that Sarah called home back in the days when the mansion was filled with both Sarah’s large and prosperous family as well as numerous servants. At the time, Rae had been barely out of childhood, and she had stayed while storms, influenza, and national financial panics decimated Sarah’s family. Many of the servants also succumbed to the influenza epidemic of 1918. Others left as the family diminished in number. Today, only Sarah and her son remained and Rae was the only servant left. Sarah paid her a monthly salary of $10 and allowed her to live rent-free in two of the rooms over the old carriage house. Rae “day-maided”, as she called it, for several of Sarah’s neighbors, and both cleaned and cooked for Sarah, taking her own dinner up to her rooms after supper.

Sarah’s son Benjamin, once completely paralyzed with polio, today used only a wrist cane and one short brace on his left leg. His passion was fishing, and he pulled his gear in an old wagon, using a rope harness he’d devised. Sometimes Sarah took him and one of his friends to one of the back bays, but often he went alone, using an old pier at Offats Bayou owned by a friend of Sarah’s.

She was now waiting, fretting, for Benji to return. He’d told Rae he’d be back before lunchtime, but it was now almost an hour past noon.

She rocked slowly, longing for the return of the southeast sea breeze, and reached for her iced tea, which left a wet ring on the floor. The two ceiling fans that still worked creakingly stirred the hot air.

She rubbed the cold glass across her brow. Where was Benjamin?

Her fretting worries about Benji, along with her earlier anxieties about Gus and the crippled tanker were overshadowed on this day by a longer-term issue which often crowded into her troubled thoughts.

She needed money.

Benjamin, stricken with polio in his second year of life, had undergone years of doctors, hospitals and therapy. He was better. However, the treatments, the doctors and the hospitals had been expensive, and Sarah’s trust fund was now, for all practical purposes, depleted.

Her son would need further treatments. How could she pay for it? Her car, older than her son, wouldn’t last forever. The old house she lived in was falling apart, though taxes were still high. College for Benjamin loomed in the future.

Sarah, at 33, was 9 years a widow. Her marriage had lasted only a little more than a year when Glenn, her gentle, gentile husband died in an accident at sea. Compounding the tragedy of her husband’s death, Sarah’s father had taken his own life as the Great Depression took the remnants of the family shipping business. Sarah was left alone with only an infant son, stricken with polio, and an old house.

Money, the slender young widow again thought, as she ground her fist into her forehead. I’ve got to start making more money! She pushed strands of her short brown hair away from her forehead, damp from this day’s heat and humidity, and thought, not for the first time, about the current level of government spending in Galveston. Beads of sweat fell into her dark, wide-set eyes, stinging them and blurring her vision. She pulled an already damp handkerchief from her skirt pocket and wiped it across her brow.

The United States was clearly preparing for war. Galveston was being fortified. Fort Crocket had been reactivated and huge cannon were being placed on the seawall near Fort Crockett. Another cannon emplacement was being built on the island’s east end, overlooking the channel. It was rumored that the new air field on the other side of Offats Bayou would soon be taken over by the Army and runways added. There was a blimp hangar being built across the bay at the Naval Air Station in Hitchcock. Government contractors and Army officers were bringing their families to Galveston. Housing was at a premium.

Maybe, Sarah told herself, again not for the first time, I could rent out parts of this old house. As this thought reoccurred she arose from her rocker and walked to the gate. She again looked along the street for Benji, then turned and looked up at the old house that was her only asset.

She saw a crumbling 22-room Victorian mansion, built by her grandfather in the 1880s. Fifty years of wind and salt air had taken their toll, and the second floor had been closed for years. Repairs would be needed if she was to rent any of the rooms.

She knew nothing of carpentry or painting, and the prospect of costs cascading beyond control overwhelmed her, leaving her feeling weak and helpless.

Her thoughts turned to great-Uncle Levi. Would he help with a loan? Provide advice on what to do? An ironic grin crossed her face. Yes, he’d certainly provide advice, as long as I didn’t argue!  

Levi Weismann, President and founder of one of Galveston’s more prestigious banks, was Sarah’s grandfather’s brother and hers and Benjamin’s sole surviving blood relative.

The patrician banker, though in his eighties, had lost none of his mental strengths. He walked everywhere, his cane the only condescension to his advance age. He lived, since the day in 1918 when his wife died of influenza, in a two-room suite on the ninth floor of the hotel Galvez. His bearing was erect, he always wore a suit and tie, attended temple regularly, and ruled his bank with an iron hand.

Levi Weismann had been incensed when his 21-year old great niece married a gentile. However, the old man had been touched by Sarah’s later presentation of her infant son to Rabbi Cohen, which was followed by the deaths of both Glenn and Sarah’s father. Uncle Levi forgave her marrying outside of her faith.

But, Sarah thought as she turned back toward the porch, shaking her head, regardless of how Uncle Levi might now feel about her, business was business. She was certain no one would loan much money to a widow whose only assets were a dilapidated 50-year old house and a $100 monthly salary from Galveston Pilots.

As she climbed the steps she turned, once again looking for her son. Finally! There he was, still 2 blocks away but moving rapidly, his aluminum wrist cane flashing in the sun. Sarah waved, noting he was wearing his straw fishing hat, which she knew he hated but wore at her insistence, at least when she was watching.

Benjamin spotted her on the front steps and waved. She thought he might have shouted, but the distance diminished any sound. He seemed to be trying to move faster than usual, but the brace and the loaded wagon hindered him. Sarah remained standing on the porch steps, waving, her thoughts now turning from the issue of money to how proud she was of her son, and the progress he’d made against the enemy of infantile paralysis.

Polio! She hated the word, and it became a battle cry, a battle she and her son fought together. She was beside Benjamin every step of the way. Progress was painful and slow. Setbacks were common. Months and then years passed. Ever so slowly, ever so mind-numbingly slow, there was improvement.

Sarah never stopped fighting. She would win! Benjamin would win! Her boy would be well! She railed at the fates, and at God, if there was one, over such torture for her boy as she gritted her teeth and endlessly massaged the baby’s paralyzed limbs. Her jaw would eventually settle into a hard line, making her mouth straight as it lost its tip-tilted young-girl smile. The laughing and playful girl vanished, and was replaced by a strong and determined woman.

One day Benjamin was fitted with leg braces, and Sarah cheered and shouted and wept, along with the medical staff surrounding Benji, now 4, when, with crutches, he took the first steps he had ever taken in his life.

“Mama,” the 4-year old boy said, looking up at her with wide-set dark eyes, so like her own, “someday I’m gonna go to the beach, and run with the wind!” Benjamin had just now turned 10, and Sarah wished and hoped and believed that one day her son would fulfill his dream.

As he hurriedly stepped off the curb and onto the crushed-shell street a tour jitney turned the corner, honking. The driver of the open-sided bus shouted rudely. Benji scrambled back onto the curb, almost losing his balance.

The jitneys, gaudily decorated, picked up tourists from the beach or the excursion trains, and brought them through residential areas, passing by Galveston’s many fine and well-maintained Victorian mansions. The drivers shouted an “historic” spiel about each.

Sarah’s run-down home had recently been added to the itinerary, and the so-called “spiel” was insulting at best. Sarah recognized the driver of this particular bus, whose spiel was one of the more obnoxious ones. He always stopped his bus in front of the mansion and shouted insulting references about the “once-rich Jews” who now lived in the dilapidated house. He made a point of noting the rusting wrought-iron picket fence, the weed-strewn yard and the rotten side-porch roofing, which proved, he shouted, that those who now lived here had fallen on hard times. He always added, to derisive laughter, “Now those Jews know how poor folks feel!”

Benji crossed the street behind the jitney and Sarah stepped down to meet him, opening the gate as he moved past. She hugged her brown-haired boy as she heard gears grind and the bus began to move away. Benjamin’s hated straw hat fell onto the walk.

Benjamin was out of breath and seemed anxious as he pointed at his wagon. “Nothing today, mom. All I caught was hard-heads and piggy-perch. I gigged some crabs, but the bucket turned over, and they got away.” Sarah looked down at Benji, “You didn’t get your brace wet with salt water, did you?” He shook his head as he looked again down the street. There was a dark-colored car moving slowly toward their block. Benjamin wrapped his arms around his mother’s waist, clutching at her skirt as he buried his head against her.

Sarah heard the approaching vehicle and turned. She watched as the late-model sedan crossed the intersection and turned toward the left, their side of the street. The car began to turn more sharply and, slowly, jumped the curb. Sarah turned and, taking Benjamin by the hand, moved rapidly toward the porch steps.

Once there, she watched in fascination as the automobile, now moving slowly and inexorably, pushed against the fence. The uprights snapped. A section collapsed. The car turned toward Sarah and her son. She pushed him farther up the steps, onto the porch. She did not see him fall as she turned protectively to face what could be an enemy.

There were shouts from the jitney as the car crossed into Sarah’s yard. “Look at that!” The jitney stopped half-way around the corner. Sarah knew without looking that the tourists were all gawking, open-mouthed. She stayed on the lower steps, protectively. Benjamin crawled toward the front door.

The car came to a stop, fully onto weedy lawn. There were more shouts from the tour jitney. People began climbing out. Several had cheap box cameras.

The door of the sedan swung open. A man climbed slowly, wearily, from behind the wheel. He was wearing a hat and a heavy business suit, He turned toward Sarah and looked at Benjamin, now moving through the mansion’s front door. Sarah did not notice the instant that the staring man’s eyes and those of her son locked.

His eyes moved back to Sarah. He nodded toward her as he stood, weaving, holding onto the car’s door. His jacket gaped open, showing a blood-soaked shirt. He moved around the opened car door and, as he did, he staggered and fell sideways onto the fender. His hat tumbled to the ground. Somewhere, a woman screamed.

Pushing himself upright, still leaning weakly against the fender, the man again focused his eyes onto the slender woman on the porch steps. She saw his lips move soundlessly. It seemed he was trying to speak.

His mouth moved again, and again there was no sound. He shook his head in exasperation, and tried to push himself off the fender, and fell onto his knees.

He needs help! What can I do?

Sarah moved off the steps toward the injured man. He was crawling toward her.

A number of the tourists from the jitney crowded into Sarah’s yard, chattering excitedly. A heavy-set woman in overly-tight orange rayon slacks, sweat staining her crotch, screamed as she watched the man collapse onto his face and then roll over onto his back. Sarah looked at the invading tourists as they scrambled through her gate, and shouted,

“This is private property. Get out!” No one listened.

A man in a white shirt and slacks reached the prone figure and pulled the man’s jacket open. He moved away quickly.

Sarah looked at the prone man at her feet, lying on his back. His eyes were blank, staring sightlessly into brassy hot sky.

He was dead.