Chapter no 46

East of Eden

Sometimes, but not often, a rain comes to the Salinas Valley in November. It is so rare that the Journal or the Index or both carry editorials about it. The hills turn to a soft green overnight and the air smells good. Rain at this time is not particularly good in an agricultural sense unless it is going to continue, and this is extremely unusual.

More commonly, the dryness comes back and the fuzz of grass withers or a little frost curls it and there’s that amount of seed wasted.

The war years were wet

years, and there were many people

who blamed the

strange intransigent weather on the firing of the great guns in France. This was seriously considered in articles and in arguments.

We didn’t have many troops in France that first

winter, but we had millions in training, getting ready to go

—painful as the war was, it was

exciting too.


Germans were not stopped. In fact, they had taken the initiative

again, driving

methodically toward Paris, and God knew when they could be stopped—if they could be stopped at all.

General Pershing would save us if we could be saved. His trim, beautifully uniformed soldierly figure made its appearance in every paper every day. His chin was granite and there was no wrinkle on his tunic. He was the epitome of a perfect soldier. No one knew what he really thought.

We knew we couldn’t

lose and yet we seemed to be going about losing. You couldn’t buy flour, white flour, any more without

taking four times the quantity of brown flour. Those who could afford it ate bread and biscuits made with white flour and made mash for the chickens with the brown.

In the old Troop C armory the Home Guard

drilled, men over fifty and not the best soldier material, but they took setting-up exercises twice a week, wore Home Guard buttons and overseas caps, snapped orders at one another,

and wrangled

eternally about who should be officers. William C. Burt died right on the armory floor in the middle of a push-up. His heart couldn’t take it.

There were Minute Men too, so called because they

made one-minute speeches in

favor of America in moving-picture theaters

and in

churches. They had buttons too.

The women rolled

bandages and wore Red Cross uniforms and thought of themselves as Angels of Mercy.

And everybody knitted something for someone.

There were

wristlets, short tubes of wool to keep the wind from whistling up soldiers’ sleeves, and

there were knitted

helmets with only a hole in front to look out of. These were designed to keep the new tin helmets from freezing to the head.

Every bit of really first-grade leather was taken for officers’ boots and for Sam

Browne belts. These belts were handsome and only officers could wear them. They consisted of a wide belt and a strip that crossed the chest and passed under the

left epaulet. We copied them from the British, and even the British had forgotten their original purpose, which was possibly to support a heavy sword. Swords were not carried except on parade, but an officer would not be caught dead without a Sam Browne belt. A good one cost as

much as

twenty-five dollars.

We learned a lot from

the British—and if they had not been good fighting men we wouldn’t have taken it. Men began to wear their handkerchiefs in their sleeves and some foppish lieutenants

carried swagger sticks. One thing we resisted for a long time, though. Wrist-watches were just too silly. It didn’t seem likely that we would ever copy the Limeys in that.

We had our internal enemies

too, and we

exercised vigilance. San Jose had a spy scare, and Salinas was not likely to be left behind—not the way Salinas was growing.

For about twenty years

Mr. Fenchel had done hand tailoring in Salinas. He was short and round and he had an accent that made you laugh.

All day he sat cross-legged on

his table in the little shop on Alisal Street, and in the evening he walked home to his small white house far out on Central Avenue. He was forever painting his house and the white picket fence in front of it. Nobody had given his accent a thought until the war came along, but suddenly we knew. It was German. We had

our own


German. It didn’t do him any good to bankrupt himself buying war bonds. That was too easy a way to cover up.

The Home Guard

wouldn’t take him in. They didn’t want a spy knowing their

secret plans for

defending Salinas. And who wanted to wear a suit made by an enemy? Mr. Fenchel sat all day on his table and he didn’t have anything to do, so he basted and ripped and sewed and ripped on the same piece of cloth over and over.

We used every cruelty we could think of on Mr.

Fenchel. He was our German. He passed our house every day, and there had been a time when he spoke to every man and woman and child and dog, and everyone had

answered. Now no one spoke to him, and I can see now in my mind his tubby loneliness and his face full of hurt pride.

My little sister and I did our part with Mr. Fenchel, and it is one of those

memories of shame that still makes me break into a sweat and tighten up around the throat. We were standing in our front yard on the lawn one evening and we saw him coming with little fat steps. His black homburg was brushed and squarely set on his head. I don’t remember that we discussed our plan but we must have, to have carried it out so well.

As he came near, my sister and I moved slowly

across the street side by side. Mr. Fenchel looked up and saw us moving toward him. We stopped in the gutter as he came by.

He broke into a smile

and said, “Gut efning, Chon. Gut efning, Mary.”

We stood stiffly side by side and we said in unison, “Hoch der Kaiser!”

I can see his face now, his startled innocent blue eyes.

He tried to say

something and then he began to cry. Didn’t even try to pretend he wasn’t. He just stood there sobbing. And do

you know?—Mary and I turned around and walked stiffly across the street and into our front yard. We felt horrible. I still do when I think of it.

We were too young to do a good job on Mr.

Fenchel. That took strong men—about thirty of them. One Saturday night they collected in a bar and marched in a column of fours out Central Avenue, saying, “Hup! Hup!” in unison. They tore down Mr. Fenchel’s white picket fence and burned the front out of his house. No Kaiser-loving son of a bitch was going to get away with it with us. And then Salinas could hold up its head with

San Jose.

Of course that made Watsonville get busy. They tarred and feathered a Pole they thought was a German. He had an accent.

We of Salinas did all of

the things that are inevitably done in a war, and we thought the inevitable thoughts. We screamed over good rumors and died of panic at bad news. Everybody had a secret that

he had to


obliquely to keep its identity as a secret. Our pattern of life changed in the usual manner. Wages and prices went up. A

whisper of shortage caused us to buy and store food. Nice quiet ladies clawed one another

over a can of


It wasn’t all bad or

cheap or hysterical. There was heroism too. Some men who could have avoided the army enlisted, and others objected to the war on moral or religious grounds and took the walk up Golgotha which normally comes with that.

There were people who gave everything they had to the war because it was the last war and by winning it we

would remove war like a thorn from the flesh of the world and there wouldn’t be any

more such horrible nonsense.

There is no dignity in

death in battle. Mostly that is a splashing about of human meat and fluid, and the result is filthy, but there is a great and almost sweet dignity in the sorrow, the helpless, the hopeless sorrow, that comes down over a family with the telegram. Nothing to say, nothing to do, and only one hope—I hope he didn’t suffer

—and what a forlorn and last-choice hope that is. And it is true that there were some

people who, when their sorrow was beginning to lose its savor, gently edged it toward

pride and felt

increasingly important

because of their loss. Some of these even made a good thing of it after the war was over.

That is only natural, just as it is natural for a man whose life function is the making of money to make money out of a war. No one blamed a man for that, but it was expected that he should invest a part of his loot in war bonds. We thought we invented all of it in Salinas, even the sorrow.

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