The year was nineteen-thirty-nine. The war in Europe had already begun, and the mood in the United States was sour. The Germans were winning on all fronts. Daily news coming over the radio was grim, except for the news from the Russian front where the Finns were winning.
It was close to Christmas, and the members of the DO RIGHT club, Florence, Doris, and Jake's sister, Rose, who organized the club at the beginning of the summer, were at a loss about what they should do for Christmas that would be unique and at the same time mirror the philosophy of the club.
The three young women, all of them juniors in Tilden High School, possessed the imagination to project, if not specifically, the various disasters that lay in the immediate future. And their small mission as defined in their mission statement was to help people, even if it meant helping a single individual, or a family who, because of the depression, was in need.
The club met every Friday night at seven-thirty. The meetings lasted about an hour and a half, including the time it took to read the minutes from the previous meeting, and make any corrections that were put forward. After the formal meeting, tea and home baked cookies were served, anything more would have been a luxury that none of the girl's families could afford.
The meeting place was rotated between the three of them, and when it came time for Rose to host, Jake usually stayed close by. He was specifically there for the tea and cookies, and
didn't give a “tinker's damn” about anything else. He already had his mind set on becoming a soldier; he only had eight years to wait before he would be eighteen and could join the army. He was sure neither of his parents would sign for him when he reached seventeen. His biggest concern was that the war would be over before he could become a hero.
None the girls had boyfriends, so much of their conversation was about current events or school gossip, all of which Jake could tune out and loose himself in daydream adventures. He did this equally well in school, where he occupied the last seat, in the last row. Such a place was reserved for the dumbest student in the class, and the teacher usually ignored him. But Jake considered himself lucky; he sat close to a window where he could see the sky and the houses across the street through the bare branches of the trees, and that made it much easier for him to escape into his own adventures.
Jake's sister, Rose, was ashamed of him. She, of course, was an excellent student, and a confirmed bookworm. All of the club members were excellent students. But Doris was the best, a German refugee she could read and write in German, English and French. Something Jake couldn't imagine doing because he was having a difficult time with English grammar, not that he wasn't a reader. But the rules of grammar flawed him, and they were exceedingly boring.
Jake thought all sisters’ friends were ugly. Doris was short and dumpy, while Florence was tall and very thin. His sister was his sister. She was nothing to rave about, but she did have nice "chinky" eyes when she laughed.
When Jake wasn't in school or at home, he was in the street playing ball or on the nearby lot playing war, which he much preferred to playing ball. He was tall and rangy for his age, and though he was totally unaware of them, many of the girls in his class had "a crush" on him, mainly because he was a bad kid and though by them to be dangerous. Had he known this he would have laughed, gathered a ward of saliva and spit to show his disdain? He had no use for girls.
Jakes best friend was Ben, whose real name was Biaggio Caliendo. Ben sat directly in front of Jake. He too was considered dumb because he couldn't speak, read, or write in English. But if asked to he could do all three in Italian, his native language.
Ben, like Jake, was a wild one. The two somehow managed to get on together, and if it came to a brawl, they would defend one another. Ben was shorter and thinner than Jake, but his black hair was just as unkempt as Jakes’. Neither boy came to school clean and neat. Usually they arrived together, and after the late bell sounded. Bleary eyed from lack of sleep, they often cradled their head on the desk and slept in class.
Both boys came from poor families, but Ben's family was so poor it was forced to live in several makeshift shacks close to the railroad embankment on Remsen Avenue. The shacks were surrounded by open fields, and swamps. During the summer Jake and Ben hunted garter snakes, frogs and muskrats. Ben's father skinned muskrats and sold their skins. During the summer the swamps were alive with all kinds of life and millions of flying insects, but during winter, the land was desolate. Living in a railroad flat with a bathroom, hot water and steam heat the way Jake's family did, would have been considered luxurious by Ben's family.
On the first Friday after Thanksgiving it Rose's turn to host her club, and it was during that particular meeting a decision was made to do something that would help someone. There was twenty-five dollars in the treasury, which was a goodly sum of money. And the girls discussed the matter at great length. But the problem remained the same: they didn't know anyone who needed help, and they didn't want to give their money a general charity like the Red Cross. They wanted something more personal, something more intimate which would give them the feeling of having been part of it.
Jake, who was impatiently waiting for the tea and cookies to be served, had no choice but to listen to the discussion; which, as far as he was concerned, wasn't getting anywhere. It seemed to be going and round, until he said, "Give it to Ben's family."
That stopped the girls’ discussion and brought silence into the kitchen, where they sat around the kitchen table.
"Who's Ben" Rose asked.
Jake explained who Ben was, and how poor he was.
"Do you know where he lives?" Florence asked.
"Sure, I do." Jake answered, and he explained where and how Ben's family lived in three shacks. "There are eight children,” Jake told them. “Ben is in the middle, and the only boy in the family.”
With exception of Doris, who knew how people in desperate straits lived, Rose and Florence couldn't believe what Jake told them.
"Do we give them the money or—" Rose started to ask.
"Food," Jake said. "Ben is always hungry. Food is what they need most."
A vote was taken and passed unanimously: the Caliendo family would be given twenty-five dollars’ worth of food for Christmas by the members of the Do Right Club. Jake was sworn to secrecy, and it was decided the food would be delivered to the Caliendo family by all of them on Christmas Eve. And Jake would serve as a guide, leading them to where the Caliendo's lived.
Jake was glad the discussions were over and the cookies and tea would soon be served.
Rose and her friends made lists of food items they would consider buying for the Caliendos. Then, they discussed each item and decided whether to eliminate it or keep it on the list. Beef was expensive and scarce because of the war in Europe. Butter too fell into the same category. Poultry was still cheap, as was pasta and potatoes. Canned vegetables took the place of fresh vegetables. Margarine took the place of butter. A five pound sack of flour was included. The shopping took several days to complete. A large, fresh ham was the center piece of their gift to the Caliendos.
On the twenty-second a light snow fell. Traces of it were still on the ground on Christmas Eve, and it turned bitter cold. A brisk wind put more of a bite into the cold than it would have had.
Bundled up, and with their hands gloved, each of the girls carried to shopping bags; while Jake lead the way with flash light. Crossing the open fields, was a punishing experience for all of them.
Rose and her friends tried to have a conversation about THE GRAPES of WRATH, a new novel by John Steinbeck, but the wind ripped at their words and stopped them. Jake bent his head into the wind and imagined he was with Amundsen at the South Pole, and in midst of a blizzard.
The moon came up and illuminated patches of snow still there from the previous snow.
"The shacks," Jake said, waving the flashlight off to his right, where there were three low buildings. One of them looked like the back of a big truck.
The girls remained silent. They were too cold to comment.
Suddenly they heard barking.
"The Prince and Princess," Jake explained. "Guard dogs."
"What's to guard?" Florence asked.
"What little's there is," Doris said, before Jake could answer.
The dogs' barking became louder, and sounded more vicious.
Jake stopped, and shouted, "Ben, it's Jake … It’s Jake."
A couple of seconds passed, and a light shone, a lantern was waved back and forth.
Something was yelled in Italian and the dogs stopped barking.
"It's okay to go now," Jake said. "Ben is at the door."
The girls followed his lead.
They were glad to be out of the wind, but where they were offered practically no warmth. A meager fire burned in a make shift hearth of stone and brick built into one wall. The room was almost completely dark, except for the wavering light coming from the fire and Ben's lantern. The entire Caliendo family was there, gathered along the wall near the hearth where their elongated shadows splashed on the rough wood floor.
No one spoke.
Rose whispered Jake, "Tell Ben we have food for the family, our Christmas gift to them."
"I'll try," Jake said. "But he doesn't understand much English."
Jake stammered. He tried to find words that Ben would understand. "No use," he said.
Mr. Caliendo, a tall, used up looking man, with long skinny fingers pointed to them and the bags they were still holding, while he spoke sharply to Ben in Italian.
"We're not doing well," Doris commented. "The father is suspicious. He seems to be angry."
"Show them the food," Florence said. "I'm sure they'll understand that."
Jake shrugged. He didn't like the way things were going. He felt a growing tension, or maybe he was just anxious.
Florence went to the table and put a loaf of bread on it.
The Caliendos stared at it. Ben looked as if he might make a grab for it. But he didn’t.
She put other things on the table until her bag was empty. Doris did the same, and Rose followed them.
The table was piled high with food. There were even a a few candy bars and Christmas canes for the younger children.
Wide eyed, The Caliendos looked at the food; then at their father. His face was flushed; his hand clenched into fists.
No one moved or spoke.
Suddenly Mr. Caliendo shouted, “Portare il cibo a casa mia, rubano il mio onore. Io sono l’uomo dell’ Aula; Io potare il cibo per la mia famiglia" And with a swift sweep of his arm, he sent an avalanche of food crashing to the floor. What had been neatly stacked was now a confused mixture of spilt milk, broken glass and sundry food item mixed with tomato sauce, and the high pitched wailing of children. Mr. Caliendo turned his back on Jake and girls.
Ben looked at the food, then at Jake and shook his head. “You bring food to us, but take away his honor.” Like his father, he gave his back to him.
"Let's skedaddle," Jake said.
"But the food!" Rose protested.
"Leave it; the dogs will eat it," he answered, and headed for the doorway with the girls close behind him.
Out of the shack, the four of them ran until they were out of breath and were forced to stop and gulp air.
"What happened?" Rose finally asked.
Jake shook his head. "Something bad. We did something bad."
"But we —"
"Bad," Jake said. "We did something very bad."
He couldn't find the words to answer her; he didn't know the words. But he knew it was bad; and because Ben knew it was bad too, they wouldn’t be friends any more. And that made him sad, very sad; sadder than he ever felt on Christmas Eve.
About the Author Dr. Irving Greenfield: My work has been published in Amarillo Bay, New Works Review and The Stone Hobo; and in Prime Mincer, The Note and Cooweescoowee. My Wife and I live in Manhattan. I have been a sailor, soldier and college professor.