American Fiction Sad

The ancient vendor lifted a plastic sheet from his wares that lay on top of an even more ancient, if that was possible, drab blanket. Ashes fell from his reeking Gauloises onto the faded US initials in one corner of the blanket. The old man looked up, his eyes hooded in the sort of contempt you’d expect from a dusty peasant trying to eke out a living with a display of mostly junk to a goofy, smiling, and obviously, American tourist.

“Hi,” said Mark. “I mean ‘bon jour’” At least he was trying. The tourist guide said the French appreciated it when Americans tried to speak some French. That may have been true in Paris. But in this small market town, outsiders, even Belgian outsiders, were looked at with a high degree of disdain. And Americans? Well, hadn’t they bombed this town back in 1944, killed a few dozen civilians, and then marched through, not even stopping to spend their money, as if they owned the place? The cigarette dangled from the old man’s thick lips as he blew smoke toward Mark.

“Oui?” he said, not caring for an answer.

“Do you speak any English?” Mark pressed a button on his iPhone. Désolé, je ne parle pas très bien français, said a voice in a beautiful Parisian accent. The old man’s scowl grew deeper if that was possible.

“Non,” he said as he turned to lean against the wall of a church that bordered the vendors on this market day. He said something to the man selling vegetables, amazing vegetables, who shrugged his shoulders and went back to stacking his produce.

Mark had been walking back to his bed and breakfast when the rainstorm hit. He had covered himself in a plastic poncho that cost him a ridiculous five Euros off a street vendor who had followed him a block trying to sell him a selfie stick when Mark ran off the main drag to find himself in a local farmers market. This could be fun.

Alas, he didn’t need any fruit, cheese, vegetables, bread, or poultry (dead or alive), and saw little of interest other than the loud bantering between the purveyors of such goods and the matronly ladies of the town presumably complaining about prices or the food itself. There was a lot of hand waving in the air, pursing of lips, and sounds of contempt, but ultimately money was exchanged and things went into string bags.

The women walked past the old man’s blanket, looked down, then turned away. His wares were non-edibles; dusty old books, old French postcards of the lurid sort, dirty magazines in plastic bags with no effort to hide the pornographic promises inside the page. A few men stopped to look, glanced around to see if they were being watched, and, too, hurried on. A young man stopped as well. He laughed at the sight. “Ancienne pronographie!” he said to Mark. Mark shook his head saying he didn’t speak French. “Dirty magazines from the 50s,” he said in perfect English. “Old men, dirty old men, seem to like them, especially if they’re German. But we have the internet, non?” he elbowed Mark with another laugh and walked away.

Mark too was about to leave, when one of the books on the blanket caught his eye. On its dusty cover in English were the words My Life in the Service written in gilt inside a red shield with a worn gold eagle on top.

He looked to the vendor as if to say may I and the vendor shrugged his shoulders in vague acknowledgement. Mark blew the dust off and opened it. The inside cover showed US Army insignia, from private to four-star general. The opening page had a paratrooper landed on the ground. The publication date was 1941.

It was a journal given to servicemen during the war. On the first page of the journal part was a name, Ira Epstein, and a date, March 2, 1942. The ensuing pages were written in beautiful penciled script, a talent lost in the post-war years, and told of a soldier’s day-to-day experience in the Army from basic training in Georgia to combat in France. The entries ended abruptly in early October of 1944 with the words “c’est la vie.” There was a maroon stain, a smeared fingerprint, at the bottom of the page. And doodles, oodles of them depicting maps of where he was, silly cartoons – not bad either – of army life. Simple line drawings yes, but a glimpse of life through his eyes.

Mark leafed through earlier entries intrigued by the beautiful handwriting. They told of an unwilling draftee in his late 20s, worried about not being in good shape for the army – “I’m no athlete” he wrote “and these kids look like could outrun Jesse Owens!” He wrote of a wife blaming him for getting drafted and complaining, “always complaining” about money, and barely holding lousy jobs. An early entry, just after he’d managed to get through basic training, spoke of some relief at being away from her. “She wrote to me saying I should be a paratrooper. She read in Life that they get paid more, jump pay. I’m surprised she didn’t tell me to get more life insurance!”

He never became a paratrooper. Ira Epstein was just a dog-faced GI, a GI Jew he called himself, complaining about the food, the sergeants, the cold, and wondering if he’d stay with that wife of his when he got back. The guys in his company called him Pops because at 29 he was the oldest guy in the outfit and as combat took out the soldiers he’d trained with, the replacements were even younger.

They clung to him, those replacements. That’s what he said. “I’m just an old softy,” he wrote. As the war took its toll, the veterans didn’t care to get to know the new guys. They’d lost too many friends and these inexperienced kids weren’t worth the bother; they didn’t last. But Epstein was different; he was Pops. In August 1944, his entry noted a promotion to sergeant. “The guys ribbed me,” he wrote. “But they aren’t as surprised as me. All I know about being a sergeant is yell a lot. Bigamy says it’s because I’m the oldest and the Army figures that is worth something. The pay is better. That’ll mean more to her than the stripes. Help with that baby anyway.”

Mark wondered who Bigamy was. A nickname? A buddy? Either way, lost to history. And the reference to a baby, “that baby.” It was the first mention. The only mention as he glanced through the journal. Maybe that’s why they called him Pops.

His last entry was brief; c’est la vie. A few days earlier, Ira had written that they’d come through Belgium and the fighting was heavy. They were getting close to Germany and Germans were defending their home now. In a few days, the war would take US troops to Aachen, the first town in Germany to fall. Mark knew that much. It would be a stop after he toured the grounds around Bastogne on this back-to-the-front trip he was on.

That final entry, with what Mark thought might be a bloody fingerprint, said a lot or it said nothing at all. C’est la vie. Such is life. He didn’t write to his wife and baby. He didn’t lament his lot. Whatever he faced at that moment, he took it in stride. Such is life.

A puff of dense smoke made him cough.

“No library here. Do you buy it?” It was the vendor, slightly more engaged with the prospect of a customer. “It’s a real war thing. Sixty-five Euros. Pas de négociations. Firm price.”

“I thought you didn’t speak English,” said Mark.

“I don’t,” said the vendor, his face unchanged in its scowl.

He accepted fifty Euros muttering something rude as Mark handed it over.

The B and B had limited WIFI, but enough to allow for a search of US graves in France and Belgium. There were two Ira Epsteins; one was a Major, a doctor from Syracuse New York, who was 46 when he died. The other was 31 years old, the right age, and listed as a sergeant, the right rank. He hailed from Wellesley, Massachusetts – an unlikely place to live in the 1940s for a guy named Epstein. He was born June 5, 1913, married, one child. A further search in a US Army graves website listed him as killed in action. There was a link to an obituary. And then the WIFI crashed.

Mark read and reread the pages that told the story of a reluctant soldier’s trials and travails through training, and more training, his friendships with unlikely comrades from parts of the country he’d only read about. One was a chubby butcher from a Polish area of Chicago who claimed he never met a Jew and joked about wanting to see Ira’s horns. Another was a shy kid, Gerald, from West Roxbury who clung to Ira as a fellow Bostonian – and Red Sox fan.

The kid had a first fling, paid for with a pack of cigarettes, with a French woman twice his age. Ira convinced him he’d probably not go to hell since he was drunk at the time and, anyway, he’d have lots of company. “I felt sorry for him, poor kid. These Irish Catholics are one messed up lot. The unit’s chaplain laughed when I asked him to talk. He told Gerald to do some Hail Marys and then asked for the woman’s address. That chaplain was versatile.”

There were more stories like that. More about the other soldiers and civilians they encountered than the fighting. But there were enough entries about so and so getting hit and these guys wounded. After his buddy from Chicago was killed he wrote, “I almost would rather be home.”

“I almost would rather be home.” A strange entry thought Mark. Didn’t all soldiers want to go home? Ira wrote about things – food, hoping to do some fishing, maybe go to college – but home, family, rarely got mentioned other than a note about a letter from his wife, that the baby was sick again, that she had to pay doctor bills and one about his promotion. “She writes, ‘The extra money does help. Thanks.’ What a prize.”

No love lost. That’s what hit Mark as he read. Ira’s entries were not without feeling. He genuinely liked the men in his outfit, and they liked him. When he got his sergeant’s stripes they gave him a party of sorts, saluted him all the time for the fun of it. He seemed to enjoy it all. “We liberated a cask of cognac to celebrate. Its owner was in tears. The sauce was over 100 years old! It tasted old, too. He relaxed with two packs and joined us. He even kissed me on both cheeks calling me ‘Mon Capitaine!’ It’s good that war is so awful otherwise I might start to like it.”

The Wi-Fi returned the next day along with a pelting rain that kept Mark indoors. It was a good thing. Jet lag had set in, and he wanted to go over the journal. Another search came up with a newspaper archive of The Wellesley Townsman with the date October 11, 1944. The front page led with a story about a tree that had fallen on a train track, no injuries, a housefire, no injuries, and a police blotter that raged about a series of broken windows at local elementary schools titled Arson Wave Continues. The Congregational Church had a new minister and a local farm said there’d be fewer turkeys this season due to the government’s need to get them to soldiers for Thanksgiving. “We’ve got more men overseas, so order early,” was the caption beneath the grainy image of a farmer in overalls. “They’re not rationing them,” he said with the warning, “Yet.”

And buried in the way back was a brief, “Sgt Epstein of Wellesley, Killed in Belgium. Mrs. Kelly Epstein of Newton Lower Falls has been notified by the War Department of the death in action of her husband, Sgt Ira Epstein, during the recent Aachen campaign. Epstein was 31.”

The obituary mentioned that besides his wife, Epstein is survived by his parents, Morris and Rose Epstein from Malden, a sister, Miriam, and an infant daughter Margaret Estelle.

The daughter, thought, Mark, that’s the first mention of her name. How old would she be? An infant in 1944?  She’d be 79 today, maybe 80, and very possibly alive.

There were not a lot of Margaret Estelle Epsteins to be found on the internet. There was a Margaret Estelle Costello, however, in Wellesley, a 1962 graduate of the HS, and 1966 graduate of Mass General’s nursing program. The graduation dates fit.

Margaret Costello was on Facebook, a long shot for anyone her age. There were faded photos of her with her husband, a Frank Costello who’d died years before. Margaret with grandchildren. Margaret with friends who looked like extras for The Golden Girls and rare and rather dull updates about trips to the coast of Maine, the Cape, and the sort of entries that speak of a lonely person trying to be less anonymous in the world.

She had one was one memory, no details mentioned, from June 5, 2013; “Ira would have been 100 today.”


Mark added her as a friend and sent a message. “Hi, you don’t know me but I have something that might be of interest. I’m traveling in Europe and found the WW2 diary of an Ira Epstein. I think he’s your father. It’s an amazing piece of history that I imagine would mean more to you than me.”

He had an immediate response; “It’s a long story, but I’m very interested.” A back and forth ensued with a request from Margaret, who called herself Peg, for a phone call ASAP.  “I’ll call you now if it’s not too late.”

They spoke. And spoke. She asked him to read from the start even after he said he’d send it to her overnight if she wanted. It’s her history, he said, and only happy to do the honor to Ira’s legacy. Peg asked him to read specific dates in late 1943. He wrote of rumors, that they might be sent to the Pacific instead of Europe, about a guidebook issued called Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain. “Hmm,” he wrote, “I wonder if that means we’re going to England, Duh. It would be just like the army to give us these and send us to the Pacific!”

They laughed at his humor, his keen observations. She interrupted him to say his words gave her a sense of a man she knew little about, a man she wished she’d known. A man she wondered about her whole life. Her mother, she said, rarely spoke of Ira. She’d remarried when Peg was a toddler, then divorced, then remarried, then divorced again. “Mum was a beauty, a bit of a tart, and a lot of a bitch truth be told. Father figures didn’t hang around a lot.”

Peg pressed Mark further. “Read more. Does he say anything about going to England?” 

Indeed, he had. He’d been on what had been a passenger liner converted to a troopship for the war. His entry made note that while it may have been a luxury at one time, the triple bunk he was in below deck was something else. He was seasick half the time. His strongest memory of the stench. “I was up on deck enjoying the cool weather. Finally got my appetite back. I would have slept up there if an officer hadn’t ordered me below. I must have lost 5 pounds which I didn’t need to lose.”

She made him read that piece several times. “The date. Tell me the date again,” she asked. He repeated, “Sept 9, 1943. Ship left New York last night and first thing we did was do a lifeboat drill. Rumors again, this time of U-boats. Feeling ill already.”

“September twenty-fourth,” Peg asked, “Are you sure?” Mark said they left the night before, the 8th. There was silence at the other end. “Peg are you still there?”

There was a deep breath and then a sniffle. “I’m here. I’m okay. Not surprised to be honest, but still.” She explained the “but still” part.

“I suppose you can keep that diary. He sounds like a wonderful man, and I wish, I really wish, I’d known him. Who knows how how life might have been? You see Mark I was born in August. August 1944. Typical Virgo control freak. And good at detecting lies.

“Ira left the country 11 months before I was born. My mother, well, she said he was my father to everyone, undoubtedly to whatever authority pays survivor benefits. I wanted to believe, of course. I wanted my father to be a hero. But I suspected as much. His parents, my grandparents, never let on. It was kind of them to be so good to me. Don’t you think?”

Mark agreed saying if the diary reflected Ira’s upbringing then they must have been wonderful folk.

“I’m sorry,” said Mark. “I didn’t mean to, you know, bring up any pain, I just thought….”

She interrupted him “Don’t apologize, Mark, please. C’est la vie, is all I can say. C’est la vie.”

May 23, 2023 20:23

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Kirsten Wall
23:37 May 31, 2023

Great descriptions of the French people and market. I could really visualize the environment!


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Katy B
16:43 May 26, 2023

Thank you for another great piece of historical fiction that reads like a true story! I especially enjoyed your descriptions of the French.


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Tommy Goround
03:45 May 25, 2023

Feeling wrong on "...as if they owned the place." Try...as if they didn't care As if... It wasn't good enough... Bbs Good narrative: just enough unique material to keep the flow through the "filler". The priest, the oldest at 29, the shaky wifi. Good. The internet research all believable. The French scowls are famous and you portrayed these very well. You had a maxim...'good that war is bad or I'd like it'? I don't want to search up....that's about right. Don't recall such a quote in Remarque or pfft...probably 20 authors of this tim...


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Mary Bendickson
22:24 May 23, 2023

Great idea and execution of prompt. Lots of details made it feel like this was a true story.


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