This is a continuation of yesterday’s post. You really should read it first.
I spent my first week drunk in Juarez. Or rather, drinking steadily; a controlled drip of Corona that kept me looking and smelling intoxicated while I watched the other Gringos and learned their ways with the natives. Then I moved north to El Paso and spent a few days learning how men treated American barmaids in 1944. I moved on to Austin where I learned how to talk to waitresses and librarians and store clerks.
Sure, America was my native country, but my year of birth was still in the future. I remembered how Dad and my uncles had acted when I was young, but they were always on their best behavior – married church-going Christians in front of the kid. How they had talked and acted when I was not around, or when they were younger, was another matter. There are subtleties, and the subtleties will trip you up.
By comparison, my stop off in San Francisco in ’67 has been a cakewalk. Everyone was crazy, or expected craziness. The weirder you were, the more you fit in. Not so this era.
I wasn’t the only spy in America in 1944. Posters said it in four words: Loose lips sink ships. The stock answer to excessive curiosity was, “Whadda you need to know that for, Buddy?” That didn’t cause me problems because I wasn’t gathering military information. I already knew how the war was going to turn out. I was just learning how to pass as a native of the era.
In Tulsa I pissed in Whites Only toilets and drank from Whites Only water fountains. It gave me chills. Linda had been black; cafe au lait, actually. Marrying her in this era would have landed me in jail – or worse.
I had acquired a limp and a scar that all but closed one eye, and a feigned irritability that kept people at a distance. The shirt I wore was khaki with stitching scars where the sergeant’s stripes had been. I was a wounded veteran who just didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t claim that identity; I wore it like a second skin and no one questioned me.
All in all, I used a dozen disposable identities during those days while I learned who I had to be for my mission. I made my mistakes under those other names.
How far can you joke with a waitress? About what subjects? What will be taken as humor, and what will get your face slapped, or win you a night in jail? What will a cop wink at, and what will get you a nightstick upside the head? I had to know because, ultimately, I had to become invisible.
I wandered west to the Rockies, then east to New York, and finally back southward toward Georgia.
It was odd to find out what felt the most strange. Segregation and Jim Crow depressed me, but did not surprise me. The absence of computers and instantaneous communication I took for granted. It was the heat that came as a sheer physical shock.
I used to think that Thomas Edison was the greatest benefactor of mankind, bringing light to dispel the darkness. After a summer in Texas, I changed my allegiance to Willis Carrier and his air conditioner.
By February of 1945, I was settled into Warm Springs, Georgia, under the relatively stable identity of Bill Taylor, electrician. I shaved my hair back at the hairline, gave it a hint of gray, let my stubble grow, and tinted it gray as well. I gained twenty pounds, walked with rounded shoulders and a forward slump, and wore clothes two sizes too big. That added twenty years to my age, and I no longer looked out of place in a country where all the young men had gone to war.
Now it was time to manufacture an electrical problem at the Little White House at Warm Springs, so I could plant the mechanism under the floor that would reach the dying Roosevelt and give him an extra decade of life.
Will you ever read the rest of this story. Maybe. I like where it’s going, but there are these dozens of other ideas vying for my time. We’ll see.