Run Like the Wind, a story of WW II Galveston
There was no way Sarah could have known, but in less than 15 minutes there would be a dead man in her front yard.
It was a supremely hot afternoon. There was no sea breeze. The sun shone down out of a brassy-tinted blue sky. Even the ubiquitous gulls were silent. Sarah could hear light afternoon traffic on Broadway, two blocks away, as she sat rocking on her front porch. She had a glass of iced tea in her hand, droplets of condensation forming and running down the glass in rivulets.
She rubbed the cold glass across her brow, already wet from sweat. The beaded moisture on the glass added to the wetness, and several drops rolled down her cheek. She wiped it off with the back of her left hand as she put the iced tea on the floor beside her, rose and went into the front hall. She switched on the overhead porch fans, and the two that still worked began stirring the hot air. She returned to her rocker.
Where was Benjamin? Her nine-year old boy had left shortly after 7 this morning, pulling his old wagon, loaded with his fishing gear and casting net, telling her he was on his way to Offats Bayou. He would return after noontime, he’d said. It was already 1:30.
Sarah needed to go downtown to her office at Galveston’s docks. A radio-telegram had been delivered earlier. A tanker that left Texas City only the day before reported a fire in the engine room. The fire was under control, but the tanker’s engines were damaged. The ship had barely enough power to maintain headway, and was returning for repairs. A tug boat, along with a pilot from the Galveston Pilots Guild would be needed, and it was Sarah’s job to make the necessary arrangements.
She was secretary and assistant General Manager of the Pilot’s Guild. She had already made several telephone calls, and now needed to go to her office to insure that everything necessary was being done. A confirming radio message needed to be sent to the crippled ship.
Sarah lived with her son in an enormous 19th century mansion, crumbling and dilapidated, needing maintenance and repairs. A Negro maid, older than Sarah by almost 20 years, lived on the property in two rooms over the old carriage house, which once housed servants for the main house. Sarah and Benji lived in four of the mansion’s downstairs rooms. The remaining downstairs were kept clean and ready for use even though there was no prospect for such, but all the rooms upstairs were closed, the furniture covered in dust cloths, Carpets rolled up.
The Negro woman’s name was Raye. She was brought to the house at a young age by her uncle, who had once been a man-servant to her grandfather. As the family’s fortunes had declined, servants left. Only Raye remained, living rent-free in two rooms of the carriage house, and working one day a week for Sarah. She “day-maided”, as she called it, for other families up and down Broadway. Sarah considered Raye a friend.
The 22-room house on 49th and Strand was the sole remnant of a once-grand Galveston shipping fortune. The shipping company, formed by her grandfather in the late 19th century, was, as the twentieth century approached, a strong, vigorous and enormously profitable enterprise. It was one of the larger of such companies on the Gulf Coast.
The mansion had been built by her grandfather in the 1880’s. The first floor had a ballroom, a library, several parlors, a huge dining room and an enormous kitchen, designed to provide food service for large numbers of people. The second floor, however, was designed for family living quarters, and was intended for more than one family. Sarah’s grandfather planned that his children would marry and bring their wives and resulting children into the mansion and live with him and his wife. But by the time the mansion was finished, Sarah’s grandfather’s sole remaining heir was his son, her father, who’s two older brothers were taken simultaneously by accidents at sea late into the last decade of the nineteenth century.
Sarah’s parents moved in with her grandparents shortly after their wedding. Sarah was the youngest of three children, all of whom had been born in the house.
Sarah had been told many times of the grand and happy years of the 1890’s, before her birth, when both her uncles, their children and Sarah’s two older brothers were alive. The house was a happy place, full of people, and there were numerous parties, both for adults and children’s birthdays and holidays. The carriage house was full of servants, and her grandparents maintained a stable and a magnificent Victoria carriage, along with several buggies. The family was a centroid of Galveston Jewish society.
The great hurricane of 1900, five years before Sarah’s birth, not only devastated the shipping empire founded by her grandfather, it also took him and two of his grandchildren along with their mothers and Sarah’s brothers. The mansion, damaged but livable, survived along with Sarah’s mother, father and grandmother.
Her father took over the remnants of his father’s business, planning to regrow it into the empire it once was. The storm-damaged mansion was repaired and refurbished. The United States Corps of Engineers began construction work on an enormous seawall to protect the island from ever again having to experience such devastation.
Sarah’s father was not the strong-willed and powerful personality that his father had been. He had difficulty rebuilding the business. A newly-constructed ship channel to Houston, 50 miles inland from Galveston, siphoned much of the shipping business away from the island city. Her father struggled, and borrowed heavily from New York bankers to keep the business going. The short financial panic of 1919 brought about additional losses and higher interest payments. Then, ten years later, what would be called America’s Great Depression took what remained of the shipping enterprise that had once been the envy of the Gulf Coast. Sarah’s father, a widower by that time, took his own life.
Sarah’s grandmother and mother died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Thus, after her father’s death, a twenty-four year old Sarah was left with only the mansion, now showing its age, and a relatively modest trust fund.
In 1927, two years before the great financial collapse and her father’s death, Sarah met and married Glenn Jacobs, a gentile. Her great-uncle Levi, her grandfather’s brother, was incensed and demanded that his nephew disinherit her. Sarah’s father refused, and a schism developed in what had once been a close-knit, prosperous and happy family.
Her laughing dark-haired brown-eyed baby boy and her gentle loving gentile husband became the mainstays of Sarah’s life. With Glenn’s agreement, Sarah presented the boy to the Rabbi, and appropriate ceremonies were held. It had seemed to her that the boy should be brought up in accordance with his Jewish heritage and Glenn professed no particular religious leanings. He encouraged her to bring the boy to the Jewish faith.
A year after Benjamin’s birth Glenn was gone, dying in a freak accident while boarding a ship he was to pilot back to Galveston.
She looked up from her reveries. Benji had spotted her on the front porch and shouted. He was a block away, on the opposite side of the street, pulling his old wagon with its load of fishing gear. She arose from her rocker and waved.
Benjamin was crippled. As an infant he’d been healthy and robust, seemingly always laughing. In the first year of his life Sarah and Glenn often sat with the baby, all of them laughing at nothing, at each other, and at the joy of simply being alive and loving one another.
But that changed, it seemed to Sarah, when Glenn died. While Glenn’s death and the onset of Benjamin’s polio were not simultaneous, it often seemed so to Sarah.
The polio was severe and crippling. There were long hospital stays and visits to resorts that advertised hot mineral springs, which some thought would have a therapeutic effect, For a short while, the child was in an iron lung. And almost all the time, her once-happy laughing brown-haired baby was racked with pain which drugs and the massages Sarah learned to give the boy could not assuage.
Sarah struggled along with the doctors. No one, it seemed, had answers. Sarah read voraciously, seeking, somewhere, knowledge to help her baby. She learned of the Australian nurse, Sister Kenny, who developed a series of massages she claimed could help. Sarah often massaged her crying son through the night, while her hands ached and cramped and tears of desperation flowed down her cheeks.
Gradually, Benji began to improve. It was slow. There were setbacks. Months and then years passed. Finally, the day came when Benji could sleep through the night, though the pain would return during the day. And, ever so slowly, ever so mind-numbingly slow, improvement began. At first, there was slight movement in his hands. Then, months later, he could move both arms.
Sarah never stopped fighting for her boy. Her life was dedicated. She would win! Her boy would be well! She railed at the fates, and at life, which had decreed such torture for her boy. But the day did come. Other days came along. One day, he was fitted with leg braces, and she cheered and shouted and wept, along with the medical staff surrounding Benjamin, now 4, when he took the first steps he had ever taken in his life.
“Mama,” the 4-year old boy said to Sarah, “someday I’m gonna run like the wind!”
Benjamin, at 9, had yet to fulfill that promise, but he was close. His only remaining brace was from the left knee down, to help correct a foot-drop. He used one wrist cane to help stabilize himself.
When he went fishing at Offats Bayou, on a small private pier owned by a friend of Sarah’s, or, sometimes, in one of the back bays of Galveston Island, he pulled his gear in an old wagon. He used a rope harness he’d devised to manage the wagon along with his wrist cane and the leg brace.
The happy, laughing baby boy that Benjamin had been in his first year of life was not back completely, but he was on his way. He maintained a bright outlook on life, did well in school, ignored taunts when other children teased him about his cane or brace, and often laughed in their face as they demonstrated their own ignorance and bigotry. His teachers often told Sarah they suspected her son had superior intelligence, and sometimes suggested that he “skip” a grade. She demurred, believing he needed to be with children his own age.
As Benji crossed the crushed-shell paved street toward his mother, a tour jitney turned the corner. These open-sided vehicles picked up tourists on the beach or at the excursion trains, and brought them through the residential areas, stopping in front of Galveston’s many fine historic mansions and providing a “historic” spiel. Most of the information provided had little to do with Galveston or history.
Sarah’s 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 more obnoxious than most. He slowed the bus as Benji hurriedly limped out of the way and shouted about the “rich Jews” who once lived here. He made a point of noting the rusting wrought iron picket fence, the crumbling masonry and lack of paint, providing proof that now those who lived here had fallen on hard times. He always added, “Now those rich Jews know how we poor folks feel!”
Sarah stepped down from the porch, meeting Benji half-way. She hugged him as the tour jitney’s gears ground and the bus moved away around the corner.
Benji pulled away from his mother, dropping the rope harness and pointing at the wagon. “Nothing today, mom. I had some good bait, too. All I caught was hard-heads and piggy-perch.”
Sarah looked down at the wagon, then up again at the sound of another approaching vehicle. It was a large dark-colored late-model sedan, moving slowly and somewhat erratically. It rounded the corner and headed toward the curb that ran along their side of the street. Moving almost in slow motion, it climbed the curb and pushed against the fence, which leaned inward and then collapsed as the uprights snapped. The car crossed the now-broken fence and stopped halfway into the weed-strewn yard.
The driver’s side door opened. A man climbed slowly, wearily, from behind the wheel. He was wearing a hat and a dark, heavy business suit, He turned toward the two, his jacket gaping open. Sarah gasped as she saw his shirt, soaked in blood. The man moved around the opened car door and staggered, falling toward the fender.
He held himself upright, leaning against the fender. His eyes, dark and staring, seemed to bore into Sarah. He gasped, and his lips moved. It was as if he was trying to speak, but somehow it did not seem to Sarah that he was asking for help. The expression on his face, the intense stare, seemed to imply that he instead had a message. To Sarah it seemed to be a message that he was willing to die for in order to deliver. Sarah stood protectively beside her son, both rooted in place on the front walk.
The man’s mouth moved again, and again there was no sound. He shook his head, almost, it seemed, in exasperation, and tried to push himself off the fender and move closer to Sarah and her son. He fell onto his knees and began to crawl forward.
The struggling man was nearly to Sarah. She knelt, reaching toward him. He needed help. As she leaned toward him, arms forward as though to offer him safety, he fell onto his face and rolled over onto his back. His eyes were opened wide, staring into the brassy hot sky, his face a mask of frustration.
He was dead.