Actions

Work Header

Canning for Our Boys

Work Text:

By 1917, most of Adenville had forgotten about the devastation my brother had left in his wake, but I hadn't forgotten what trouble he could get into when his money-loving heart and his great brain worked together. TD hadn't lived in his birthplace since 1904, the summer after he graduated from high school in Pennsylvania. He still kept in touch with me by letter, as he had since the first time he had left home to attend the Jesuit Academy in Salt Lake City.

My brother had ridden the trains back East all the way to New York City when summer ended, after kissing Mama and Aunt Bertha and hugging Papa and Sweyn and me. He'd found a job setting type for the New York World, and turned that into a job as an investigative journalist, and then within a year he had set out on his own as the owner of a print shop in a part of New York called Brooklyn. To hear him tell it, he was running the biggest and most successful independent printing business in the whole city inside a year, and knowing TD I would not be surprised.

A big city must have a lot of people with big brains, but that does not mean that they are prepared for my brother's great brain. He sent a Christmas photograph home to Mama and Papa of his whole family, TD and his wife Louisa, and my nephews Thomas Jr. and Theodore, dressed in suits that would have cost me six month's salary to buy. Papa hung the photograph in a place of pride in the middle of the Adenville Advocate's office, where I was still working as his chief assistant. In a few years time he would retire and I would take over the business entirely.

You would think that given all of his success, he would become stuck up and forget about little JD back home in Adenville, but Tom's letters arrived as regular as clockwork, keeping me up to date on all of the latest news from the big city. He told me about the parties he attended and all of the things that people said at them. He always seemed to expect that I would know who the people were, which I didn't, but it was okay with me because it made me feel like Tom cared what I thought.

And then in the fall of 1917 I got a letter from Tom about a visitor whose name I did recognize: Dotty Blake. I hadn't though much about her since she left Adenville nine years earlier to take a position with a newspaper in Kansas. I wrote the notice of her departure from Adenville to appear in the Advocate.

That evening, Mama could tell that something was bothering Papa at the dinner table.

"What's the matter, Papa" she asked.

"It's the Blake girl, Tena. She came to us today to let us know that she was leaving town to become a reporter in Topeka. JD wrote up the notice."

"Well, that's great. She's such a bright girl. Considering she started to read when she was twelve, I'd say T.D.'s tutoring has paid off. I'm sure she'll do a wonderful job in the big city. Why are you worried? Do you think a woman can't be a news reporter the way you can?" Her eyes narrowed the way they always did when she got angry.

"I'm sure she will be great. I only wish I had known that she had an interest in the newspaper business earlier. I could have given her some practice working on the Advocate."

"Well, now, of course you couldn't. You had the boys working for you whenever you needed extra hands. Surely you wouldn't have hired the Blake girl over your own sons?"

Papa admitted that Mama was right, but he kept an eye on her career anyway. He sent a telegram to the editor of the Topeka Daily Capital asking him to send copies of Dotty's articles over to him every so often. Papa would get those bundles in the post every few weeks and pore over the articles after dinner while smoking his pipe. If he caught a mistake, he would telegraph Dotty Blake the next morning to register his disappointment. If he couldn't find any mistakes, he would send his congratulations to her, and would be found whistling a cheerful tune for most of the day.

A few years passed, and Dotty drifted from the Topeka Daily Capital to Des Moines Register to the Cleveland Plains-Dealer to the Buffalo Courier Express, and eventually Papa lost track enough that the monthly packages stopped coming. And then according to Tom she showed up in New York.

My brother almost didn't recognize her, he said, wearing a dress straight out of the latest Parisian fashions. Her multi-layered, multicolored skirt flowed all the way down to her ankles. In those days, it normally took months for European clothing styles to penetrate the thick skulls of the people of New York, and years before they reached the likes of Adenville. The dress she was wearing caused everyone to stare at her. But Dotty sure recognized Tom. She ran up to him in the middle of the street, he said, and threw her arms around him like he was a long lost lover.

At last she released him and took a step back, to look him up and down appraisingly. "Why, if it isn't Thomas Fitzgerald himself. Now there's a sight for sore eyes for a lonely girl in an unfamiliar city. Well, Tom, how are you doing?" she asked in her familiar Utah accent.

It took him a moment, but eventually my brother's big brain put all the details together and he realized who she was. I imagine even a big brain living in the big city with nobody else around from his childhood will get homesick from time to time, and when he realized that the girl he had once trained out of her tomboy ways was right there in front of him he was delighted. He invited her to come to his home for supper that night and had a messenger send a note to his wife to make sure she served a special supper for his guest.

Louisa hired a taxicab and paid a visit to a butcher in Greenpoint, where she picked out the exact lamb chops that she wanted. On her way home she stopped at a peddler's cart, where she picked up some herbs to season the chops, and some sprouts to serve with them.

The butcher had her address on file, and by the time she returned home his delivery boy was waiting to drop off the chops. She slipped him a dime and a piece of candy and carried all of her food in for the supper. Over the next several hours she carefully seasoned and cooked the chops over her stove until they were tender and juicy.

Over the meal, Dotty regaled them with stories of Paris, where it emerged she had recently been forcibly made to return from.

"I followed General Pershing down to Mexico when he led the hunt for Pancho Villa back in nineteen fifteen. There weren't many other reporters who could keep pace with the troops, but I had a good tough stallion in those days who thought the whole chase was a bit of fun. And when I filed my reports, I told the truth about what I saw instead of the sensational bushwah the other reporters were writing. I told our readers what really happened. The General trusted me, and he gave me full access to his soldiers, so when he was named head of the Expeditionary Force, I convinced my editor at the Plains-Dealer that I would be able to get better stories than any male reporter he would send. Also," she winked. "I think my editor is always glad when he can send me out of town. He's a know it all and a show off and he hates it when I get the better of him.

"My steamer made it to France with all the other reporters telling me that the Army would never give me credentials as a woman. I didn't believe them, but it turned out they were right. But I wasn't going to be stopped at that point. I marched right up to General Pershing and I said to him 'Jack, you'd better get me access to the soldiers or the only reports back to the American people will be from idiots like Harry Samson and Jake Sandhurst. You know I'm tough enough. I rode with you on the hunt for Pancho Villa.' So General Pershing gave me papers with special permission to go anywhere in his camp."

Tom Jr. badgered her incessantly for stories about the soldiers, and she happily complied while all of my brother's family listened, hanging on every word.

She spoke about the soldiers in their dirty tents, eating their food rations over open fires in the vast fields outside Paris, antsily hanging on every word of news from the front that they knew they would be sent to as soon as their training was complete.

As she wound her tales, my brother's great brain started to hatch an idea.

"What would you say..." he asked Dotty, a scheming glint in his eye, "Would be the most welcome reminder of home to a soldier out on the Front?"

She considered for a second. "A home-cooked meal, the way their mother made it."

Tom nodded, as if this confirmed his own suspicions. "And morale is the key to the effective operation of an army, right? If General Pershing had a surefire way to boost the morale of his soldiers, the Army would pay good money to make it happen?"

"Within reason, yes. Giving all the soldiers diamonds would make them happier, but General Pershing isn't going to authorize that. But Congress gave General Pershing discretion in how the quartermasters manage the budget. He'll do whatever he needs to make sure his men are in good fighting shape."

"Then I need you to give me a way to send a telegraph to General Pershing. I have an idea that he will need to hear about as soon as possible."

Dotty agreed, and then Tom Jr. asked her to tell more about the hunt for Pancho Villa. To a boy who had seldom seem a horse, Tom said, Dotty's gleeful stories of cavalry charges and hard rides through the desert brush could not be more gratefully accepted. As she noticed this, she began to embellish her stories, until she was singlehandedly fighting off cadres of Mexican bandits with a six-shooter as Louisa kept her laughter hidden behind her hand. It reminded Tom of the stories Uncle Mark used to tell us when we were kids. Of course, Tom and his great brain had never believed those stories as a kid, but he didn't see the harm in letting Dotty try out a few on his own son.

"I shot the first one with my pistol," she said, "Straight through the heart. He fell, plop, right off the horse. But I was surrounded, there must have been ten of them, and I knew that if I didn't escape them fast there would be more coming out of the hills. And Heller, that was my mustang, he was worn out from several days of riding with little rest to keep pace with Pershing."

"But if you were with General Pershing, why didn't he come to save you?" Teddy asked. He was younger than Tom Jr. by a year, but Tom had told me that he was already showing signs that he had inherited more of my brother's great brain than his brother had.

Dotty had an answer ready. "Oh, but didn't I tell you? I'd gotten separated about a half day earlier from the American soldiers. We hit a river and with all their supply wagons the soldiers had to find a safe fording spot, but Heller was a great swimmer and I cut across right where we hit the river. I was planning to meet up with them at Guerrerro, where I knew they were planning to try to pin Pancho Villa. But I ended up down a dirt road into the hills, and instead I got pinned by a group of Villa's men. But anyway, I killed the first one, but I knew there would be no help from Pershing and the Americans, and I knew that I couldn't fend them all off."

"What'd you do then?" Tom Jr. asked eagerly.

"Well, as your father will tell you, there's nobody in the whole West knows horses better than I do. Until I was twelve, the wild horses were my only friends. I saw the one horse, the one whose rider I'd shot, was scared. He was a skinny, underfed Appaloosa with a dirty coat, and having his rider shot out from on top of him had made him jittery as all get out. So I came up with a plan. It seemed like a longshot, but it was either try it or be captured by a band of Mexican bandits who would do who knows what to me. I waited until the horse was looking straight at me and I fired three shots, directly up in the air. Bang! Bang! Bang! Well, if that old horse didn't flip out like it'd seen the end of the world! It started baying madly and galloping around in all directions, right at the horses that were surrounding me. And when those horses saw the crazy old Appaloosa heading for them they all started bucking and baying and making all kinda of fuss. And while the bandits were trying to get control I patted Heller calmly and gave him a little rein, and we rode away with those gunmen helpless to stop me."

After that, Tom Jr. followed Dotty around like a dog on a leash for the rest of her visit, and he was very cross when Louisa told him that it was time for him to undress and go to sleep. Dotty offered to help with the dishes, and Louisa found her finishing up when she returned from tucking her children into bed.

"Thank you for helping out," Louisa said as she took a station to help dry the last of the dishes.

"It's no trouble at all. It's the least I can do after the meal you just served for me. I haven't seen food like that in months. It's been troop rations and stale drytack and on the steamer back to New York, occasionally a fresh fish."

"Oh, it was a pleasure to have you. I only know Adenville from the stories Tom tells us. And he doesn't tell those stories very often."

Dotty grinned. "No, I can't venture as Tom would like to tell you all the stories of his childhood. He made his father a prematurely old man, I'd say, with all of his stunts. That was one wild boy."

"Oh, he was, was he?" Louisa and Dotty shared a smile. "What are you planning to do now?" Dotty's smile turned into an exaggerated grimace.

"I don't know. I imagine my editor will want me back in Cleveland. He can't exactly fire me, after all the stories I sent him from the Front, but he's none too happy about having to pay my fare back and the fare to send another reporter out to Europe. I'll probably be stuck doing local news again for a while."

"You're just going to take it? You're just going to let those Army men in Washington tell you that you can't do your job? Now listen to me, Dotty Blake, you are smarter than them and if the stories you told at dinner are even one tenth true, you are braver than them. You can't take their stupid rules without a fight. Listen to me, here's what you're going to do. Take the first train down to Washington tomorrow morning. My Tom will drive you down to Penn Station in his Ford. And you park yourself on the steps of the War Department and tell them you're not leaving until they give you your credentials back."

Dotty looked at the woman in front of her, spittle flying and arms flailing with the conviction of an honest woman and wondered how Tom had ever found someone like her. "Well," she said, "Your plan has mine beat all to rights. I'll do it." And that was exactly what Dotty did, and finally after two months of badgering the War Department she became the first female reporter officially accredited as a war correspondent.

But that's not the end of the story. Before she left for Washington, Dotty gave my brother the information to contact General Pershing by telegraph. As soon as he was sure that she was on the right train, he ran to Western Union to send the General his proposal.

A furious interchange of telegrams ensued that occupied my brother's attention for the next several days. Ultimately, it was determined that telegram was not the ideal method of settling the matter, so General Pershing dispatched an army colonel from Fort Hamilton to negotiate directly with TD. By the next morning, he had a signed contract with the War Department and then it was off to the races for good.

His first meeting after signing the contract was with Peter Ponashevsky of the Greater Brooklyn Can Company. Ponashevsky was a big Pole with male pattern baldness and only four fingers on his left hand as the result of a childhood accident. Tom knew him socially from events at the Madison Club, but he had never had the privilege of doing business with Tom and his Great Brain.

"So you want me to sell you the cans at a nickel for ten, when they cost me eight cents for ten? Are you crazy, Mr. Fitzgerald? I won't sell my cans for less than a dime for ten."

Tom laughed. "No, of course not. I want you to donate the cans to the war effort for half price. This isn't about profit, Pete. It's about our poor soldiers across the pond in France. I was speaking to a prominent war correspondent the other day and I was told that the number one thing that would improve the morale of our soldiers was home cooked meals the way an American mother makes them. They simply can't get that in France right now. But I had a brainstorm. I thought back to my childhood way out in Adenville, Utah and I remembered how much joy we used to take when fresh fruit would come in from the fields and our mothers would can them to preserve those delicious flavors for the winter. I want our boys to have a chance to have that flavor again, that freshness and sweetness. Now I happen to know that your little brother Alexander is serving under General Pershing right now. You should be very proud of his service to our country. I think he's a very brave man. But would you want him to know that when Uncle Sam came calling, asking what you could do for the war effort, you wouldn't even drop a few cents off the price for your own brother?"

Ponashevsky was defeated already, but he still put up some resistance against my brother's Great Brain. He looked angry, his nostrils flaring, but he kept looking at the photograph of his family on the wall of his office, and Tom knew that ultimately would make the difference."I deal with the US Army all the time. I supply many of the cans they use for food right now. They pay full price for that, why can't they pay full price for this?"

Tom looked at Ponashevsky like a parent explaining something simple to his grade school child. "That's for normal rations. Congress understands that the Army must be fed, and they've provided sufficient funds to make sure that the Army is fed well and fair prices are paid to all of the Army's suppliers. But like I said, I'm not asking you to accept less than fair prices. I'm asking you to donate the cans at half price. This isn't for the normal rations. An army of American mothers is going to prepare special meals for our boys over there so that just for one night it will be as close as they can to the experience of home cooking. Those mothers are donating their time. I'm donating my printing services to promote the program and my organizational skills to run it. The White Star Line is going to donate its shipping capacity to bring the food over. The whole home front is coming together and you're standing there in the way because you don't have the kindness in your heart to help own your own brother!"

Ponashevsky looked affected by this speech. "Well, I suppose I can donate the cans at 7 cents for ten. I'll only lose a penny per ten cans that way. Would that be acceptable to you, Mr. Fitzgerald?"

Tom appeared to mull this over. "I suppose so. I'll have to find donors to cover the other two cents somehow, or I'll be out the money myself. But if that's all you're willing to give for Alex, that's all there is to it. I'll be back next week with the details of the order. Thank you for your patriotism, Pete."

They shook hands and Tom made to leave room. As he was crossing the threshold, Ponashevksy called out "All right, I'll do it for six cents." Tom grinned and then made his face sober before turning around. "Very well, then. I'll see you next week."

Tom's conversations with the White Star Line, several agricultural suppliers, and the dockworkers went similarly. By selecting points of contact who had family members in the service, my brother was able to negotiate favorable rates for all of the supplies and services required to put his plan in operation. Unfortunately, he hadn't anticipated the organizational effort required for a project of his chosen scope.

The problems started when he posted a notice in all of the major New York papers and the Adenville Advocate, announcing a program called Canning for Our Boys.

Announcing Canning for Our Boys

CALLING ALL MOTHERS

Our sons and the Sons of Proud Americans from across this Great Country are serving the Flag right now by fighting against the Imperialist Germans in Europe. They are being Brave and Tough, like all True Americans Are. How can We on The Home Front help them fight this War? How can we Help to Restore Freedom to our Allies in Europe?

Donate your Time and Enthusiasm to Canning for Our Boys. Help Us make sure that EVERY SOLDIER in France gets a meal the way their Mothers made it.

Cans have been Donated! Food has been Donated! All that is needed from YOU is your cooking Ability! LET'S Give our Boys a taste of the Home Front they'll Never Forget!

It ran for two consecutive days and then Tom had to visit all of the newspaper offices and beg them to cancel the notice ahead of its intended seven day run because he was already overwhelmed by the volunteers. Louisa and all of her friends were quickly inducted as Project Coordinators because Tom still had to run his printing business and the pressing questions of over three hundred patriotic ladies needed to be addressed with promptness.

For two months, Tom had to make do with cold stews for supper because his wife was even busier than he was, but he endured it because he knew that when the project was completed he would be able to enjoy its profits.

The Lady Project Coordinators set up in a warehouse Tom rented near the Manhattan Bridge. By the loading dock they set up shelves for storing the jars and cans Pete Ponashevsky's men were carting in by the crate, as well as the cartons of fresh fruits coming in from Victory Gardens and small farms across the Tri-State area. Then there were the vats, where women eager to help the war effort oversaw the boiling water heating of the cans.

"We're doing it on an almost industrial scale, but we're putting the heart and soul of all of these mothers into every jar. These preserves and jams aren't going to taste like the terrible canned food our boys are eating over there. They're going to taste like a memory of home," Louisa told Dotty, stopping in for a tour on her way to the steamer that would bring her back to France.

"I can see that. You seem to have a little bit of Tom's Great Brain in yourself, the way you've structured it. These women have been essentially working factory shifts for weeks, but they're smiling like they're having the time of their life."

"Oh, no, they're not working factory shifts. We had so many volunteers we had to turn some away. Nobody works more than three hours a day, and we have some ladies we have to kick out at the end of their shift by force. It makes it harder on me and the Coordinatorettes to have to manage so many schedules, but I figured out how to do it. Women put on colored ribbons when they start working, so every hour or so we circulate and kick out the ladies whose stickers say they've worked three hours."

Dotty looked awed. "You've got everything figured out, haven't you? The soldiers are going to be so happy. The day the preserves appear will be a holiday in the trenches, I promise you that."

Later that day, Dotty confronted Tom. "Your wife gave me the tour of the Canning for Our Boys warehouse," she said. "It's amazing. The food is going to be a delicious, brightly colored bright spot in the lives of those young men. You should be incredibly proud of yourself and your wife for the work you've done. I just have one problem with the whole thing."

"What problem is that?" Tom asked.

"I've done a little poking around. I was planning to write an article about the program for my paper while I'm here. I spoke to Pete Ponashevsky at the Greater Brooklyn Can Company, who's a little unhappy to be selling his cans to you at a loss. Imagine how upset he would be if he learned that the War Department contract pays a penny a can. And the landlord who owns the warehouse is getting only three quarters of the amount specified in the contract. And I've only spoken to two of the farmers supplying produce, but neither of them is getting market value either, even though the contract says that you would be paying market value."

"They all agreed to donate those things to the project at a discount. In the name of patriotism and the War Effort. We here on the home front need to band together to help our boys abroad."

Dotty folded her hands across her chest and glared at Tom. "Oh, so you'll be giving all of the money you saved the War Department back, right? In the name of banding together on the home front, of course."

"Well..." Tom stammered. "I have administrative costs to pay. I'm printing all of the labels for the cans. I'm giving up time from my print shop to work on organizing everything. And there's the costs of printing advertisements in all of the city's newspapers. The important thing is that the troops will be getting a sweet and flavorful taste of home. It's going to be a memory trip for all of them. You remember how canning days used to work back in Adenville? All of us kids would gather around for a taste of the fruit. The smells alone were heavenly. The morale lift these cans will provide is well worth the price the War Department is paying. It's only fair that I get some help in covering my costs. "

"And those costs are fairly covered in the contract, Tom. I'm friends with General Pershing, remember? I've seen the original contract you negotiated. I personally think it is more than fair. I don't think there's anything fair about squeezing all of your other suppliers if you're not willing to squeeze yourself. And I am prepared to write a telegram to your father saying so."

Tom caved immediately, though the thought of giving up all of the money he stood to make must surely have hurt his money-loving heart deeply. But I think he made the right decision. If our father had gotten a telegraph from Dotty Blake telling him that his son was trying to cheat the War Department and a number of New York businesses, he would have died on the spot from shame at producing a war profiteer for a son. "Fine. I promise you that I will donate all of the extra money I have saved by accepting those donations to the Red Cross. I'll only take as much for my administrative and printing costs as I originally negotiated in the contract. Is that acceptable to you, Dotty?"

She considered for a second. Then she nodded, satisfied. "I will hold you to your word, Tom Dennis Fitzgerald."

They shook hands. For a moment, Tom was taken back to their days in Adenville and the first deal he had made with Dotty Blake, to read Black Beauty to her in exchange for reading lessons. It had been a profitable deal for him, back then, but perhaps it was Dotty who had profited more than he had. Ruefully, Tom shook his head back and forth. "You're a sharp girl. Remind me never to try to pull one past you again. I'll probably come out even worse for it the next time."

"I had a good tutor," she said, grinning.