Author's Note: This story was written as an assignment. It is 10 percent stuff my mom told me about my great-uncle Frank, 30 percent research, and 60 percent stuff I made up off the top of my head. All mistakes are my mom's...er, mine. You can critique my writing without hating on my family, don't worry. The 'Stops' in the telegram are supposed to be like periods in normal writing. I have never sent or recieved a telegram, so forgive my ignorance in this area.
Long Night Up
Frank hesitated a moment before he opened the door to the squad tent. It wasn't that he didn't want to go in, at least in there he would be safer from the bugs, but he was so tired that he swayed and had to clutch a tent pole for support. When the dizziness cleared, he pulled open the cloth flap – the 'door'- and entered.
Father MacNearry was sitting on a folding cloth chair, the kind used by directors of Hollywood flicks back in the states. Here he sat behind a folding table; behind him was the bulky shadow of the telex. His clerical collar appeared to be itching him, but he had too much dignity to scratch.
"Good evening, Francis," he said. As the chaplain's assistant, Francis Lawler was close enough to be called by his first name, but it seemed disrespectful to call the man of God anything but 'Father MacNearry'. He couldn't even remember MacNearry's full name, if he had ever heard it.
"Good evening, Father," he said, yawning in the middle of it.
"I'm afraid you have a long night ahead of you, Frank," MacNearry said. "I've telegraphed Francis Spellman, the Archbishop of New York. It's about the plane crash."
Frank crossed himself reverently. "God rest their souls," he said.
"Amen," MacNearry agreed. "But it's resting their bodies that I'm worried about. We've considered cremating the bodies- truth be told, they're half cremated already. Because this is a controversial subject, I have decided to ask a higher authority in the Church. Unfortunately, I have to administer to the men in the hospital tent, and don't have time to wait for his reply. That will be your job."
"I see," Frank said. His heart sank. He forgot the time difference between New York City and here in the South Pacific, but he imagined that he would have a long time to wait – and remain awake. He wondered if Patrick back in the mess hall-tent would lend him the pack of cards again.
"I will also need to write condolence letters to the young men's families," MacNearry continued. "That will be my job. Just wait for the telegraph." He nodded to the telex.
"Yes, Father." As the chaplain left the tent, Frank added ironically, "Good night."
Francis Lawler was twenty three years old in 1943. He had grown up in Milwaukee, graduating from St. Lawrence Seminary in '38. His family was there- he remembered his last visit, the year before. He and his sister- Sr. Imeldis, whose pre-convent name had been Ruth- had managed to get leave to return home at the same time, and he had been able to see his nieces Ruth and Corinne, and their parents Will and Magdalene. Willis Lawler had avoided the draft because of his wife and the two girls, but Frank didn't begrudge him. He just missed the family.
As he sat down in Fr. MacNearry's vacated seat, something crinkled in his shirt pocket. He pulled out an envelope, yellowed with time and humidity. Ileene Donahue's most recent letter. It had been short, and had included a picture of her. The photo was now tacked to a post in Frank's squad tent- though it was in black and white; he could imagine the shades as in a Technicolor movie- black wavy hair, pale blue eyes, and a spotless Irish complexion. He was sure he loved her more than life itself, more than perhaps anything in the world except his faith. She was back in Chicago now.
Frank read the letter, re-read it, continued reading it until he feared he might grow bored of it. Then he folded the paper, reverently, and tucked it back in the envelope. His name on the front- Francis Charles Lawler- was streaky now. He borrowed one of MacNearry's fountain pens and retraced the words, trying to save them for as long as possible.
Once he had done his best to retrace the words, he rested his head on his arms. The rough surface of the table stung his palms and dark stubble on his chin scratched the back of his hands, but he didn't mind. He just wanted to grasp a few moments of shut-eye.
The Catholic Church didn't really approve of cremations. The main reason was that it showed a lack of respect for the dead, who rightly should be buried in the earth as God intended. Even in the Roman times, underground Christians would risk their lives to give their beloved proper burials in the catacombs. Frank felt a little uncomfortable going against tradition like this, but he understood the necessity.
He must have drifted off. The small alter in the tent swam before his eyes, a crude wooden crucifix set above stacks of seashell cups that the chaplain used for Holy Communion. His mind wandered over the times he had assisted Father MacNearry serve mass, then back to his days as an alter server at the Seminary. Then somehow they wandered back to the service and the war.
In February of '43, a German torpedo had sunk a ship crossing the North Atlantic. Sadly, this was nothing truly new, as Germany had been sinking anything carrying personnel or supplies to England for years, but there were four special personnel aboard the Dorchester: one Catholic, two Protestants, and one Jew. All chaplains. All had died, giving their life vests to others and praying together as the ship went down. Even though it had taken place on the other side of the world, it had affected Frank more than any of the news he had heard during the war, except perhaps the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
"Japs," he growled, a little surprised to have said it out loud. Hate the sin, not the sinner, MacNearry would have said, and would have probably given him the penance of a few Hail Marys. With that thought, Frank located his rosary- in the pocket right below Ileene's letter- and began to pray it.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…
He had made his way through what must have constituted a Novena when the telex began to cough mechanically. Frank got up and took the telegram from the machine.
To Father James MacNearry from Archbishop Francis Cardinal Spellman (stop). Have received your message (stop). Permission has been granted to cremate the remains (stop). God bless (stop).
Frank scanned the telegram, feeling a sort of awe. Despite the circumstances, Archbishop Spellman was a very impressive person to him, and he sometimes hero-worshiped the man. Being able to hold something containing his words- well, maybe a secretary's words, but a secretary from his office- was an impressive moment. He put his rosary away and left the tent, looking for Father MacNearry. He took care to genuflect before the makeshift alter as he passed it.
God grant there will not be too many more young men dead like this, he prayed. God grant the war is soon over. And God bless my nation.
As he stood up, his chest felt heavy and his breathing constricted, but he was at peace. He felt that God would answer his prayer.
He also felt very, very tired.