Monday, June 19, 2006

Howard Vincent O’Brien, the Brilliant and Long Forgotten Daily News Columnist. November 2, 1943—Another Glimpse of His Son At War.

[I grew up as a kid reading Howard Vincent O’Brien in the Daily News. On re-reading him now, more than sixty years later, I can’t believe how good he was and how simply he expressed profound thoughts. I already gave you one, describing when his son left for the military service, for what was then known as the Army Air Force. Here is the second column out of three that I’ll give you from O’Brien.]

It was a bright October morning. Nature smiled through her veil of green and gold and scarlet.

I had no appointments—nothing exciting on the day’s calendar. The infant was being readied for school. The cook was dressing for her day out. Grandma was starting for the grocery.

Then the phone rang. Four times before anybody answered it.

There was a choking silence at the dear, familiar voice. “Only an hour between trains, Mom. Yes, it was sudden. These things always are. Yes, I’m committed. No, I can’t tell you. England, I think.”

There was a mad scramble into city clothes, a race for the train, a ride that never seemed to end.

He was waiting for us at the office—so straight, so gravely gentle. The navigator’s wings gleamed on his tunic and there was a droll little wisp of a mustache under his nose, hardly visible against his clear skin.

In one respect he hadn’t changed. He was broke. He grinned when he told us.

He kissed his mother and patted her on the shoulder. Her lip trembled but she caught herself quickly. “Your face needs washing,” she said, just as if time stood still.

Furtively, he glanced at the watch on his slender wrist. “It wouldn’t do to be late,” he said. “The Army might call it desertion.”

The hands on the station clock seemed to be spinning. We talked against time, pressing out the words. There was so much to be said, so many questions to be asked. But one forgot what one wanted to know. Or perhaps one really didn’t want to know. My fingers shook a little as I wrote down his serial number.

We skirted the reefs on which our thoughts were. We wanted off to other waters, aimless but safer. We talked about the new gyro compass, the accuracy of flak, the merits of the B-17 against the Liberator, the cold at thirty thousand feet, the chance of a broken leg when bailing out.

One listening might have thought we were really interested.

The silence grew longer. We just looked at him and he looked away—not at us, not at the restaurant walls. He looked far away and I do not know what he saw.

He was close to us then—and oh, so very far away! I thought of Noel Coward’s poem about the bombers droning in the night—I could only remember one line—something about “we’ll never know.”

I asked him if he would be glad to find it was England. He said he’d rather go to the Pacific. “I don’t think I like Japs,” he said.

That was all he said. I think his mind was on his school days in Germany—on his classmates, especially the blond, blue-eyed boy who led the Boy Scout troops when he went camping in the Alps…the boy who held him when he slipped on the edge of a crevasse.

There was a long silence. He looked at the clock. “You have all the dope—about the insurance, I mean?”

“Yes,” I said. “I have it all.”

“Then I think I better be going.”

He kissed his mother as he got into the taxi. Then he did a strange thing. He turned and touched his lips to my cheek. And with a faint little smile he said to his mother, “Don’t let the Ancient One worry too much, will you, Mom?”

That was all. For a minute I felt a little sick and my eyes hurt. Then I went back to the day’s work.

[I don’t think you’ll read anything like that in the current newspapers. Why not? You tell me. Too sentimental? Too politically incorrect? I mean with the mention of the “Japs” the `40s colloquial reference to the Asian enemy? Too gravely serious for these entertainment-addicted times? Too patriotic for these days when skepticism and doubt is popular with the elites? Your comments, please.]


  1. I've seen footage of troops saying good-bye to their families on TV "news-magazines", but broadcasts reports often aren't worth a couple hundred words.

  2. Just remember that the confidence Americans had in their government got squished by the lies put out by our leaders during VietNam and Watergate. It recovered for awhile during Reagan's tenure. Then, it went downhill especially with Clinton who never quite figured that the definition of the word "is" means that you keep your pants zipped for everyone, but your wife. I'm not even going to get started on "mission accomplished" Bush and company.