Not long ago, I watched a late-night TV rerun of the movie Semi-Tough. In it, Robert Preston plays the owner of a pro football team, and seeing the actor on the screen took me back instantly almost 40 years to a historic day in May, a time when I knew Preston well.
I played leftfield on a softball team that was made up of officers from a squadron of a bomb group assigned to the Ninth Air Force, stationed near Saint-Trond, Belgium during the final months of World War II. We flew Douglas A-26 Invaders, twin-engine attack bombers. Except for Robert Preston Meservey, we were all pilots or bombardier-navigators. Bob Meservey, a captain in Intelligence and the first baseman on the softball team, was a ground officer. In civilian life, as Robert Preston, he had by this time starred in an early World War II film epic—Wake Island, in which he shared top billing with Brian Donlevy and William Bendix. After the war he went on to earn lasting fame as Broadway's "Music Man."
In the spring of 1945, Meservey was about 27, the oldest man on the team but also the most competitive. He was a long-ball hitter, batted fourth and functioned as uncrowned team captain and spiritual leader. He also broke training with the same steadfast dedication as the worst of us.
Ours was a good, relaxed team. Everyone probably played better ball than he had as a civilian. I know I did. During the month before this particular day in May, I can't remember ever dropping a fly ball, or misjudging one, or mishandling anything that came to me through the infield or even making a bad throw. "Hit it in the air, out this way," I was always muttering. I wanted to get my hands on the ball, to make every putout. Flying combat tended to give me confidence in other areas.
By May our club had beaten teams made up of officers from the other three squadrons—beaten them each at least twice—and we were looking around for some fresh competition to extend the winning streak. We'd heard that the enlisted men had a pretty good ball club, with talent from the whole bomb group—so we scheduled a game with them.
I was the leadoff man, mostly because at 135 pounds I looked as though I might be fast, but also because I hit a lot of ground balls. On those scarred, lumpy Belgian infields, hard ground balls got you on base almost as frequently as clean base hits.
The first three pitches were wide, but I couldn't have hit them anyway. Their pitcher came on like the Bob Feller of softball. I had never faced that kind of speed. The next pitch, over the plate, was only a blur. I watched it with my bat back and my mouth open. But with the count 3-1 the pitcher threw me a cripple on the inside, and I slapped it between third and short for a single. I moved to second on a ground ball, and Flip Flanagan, the shortstop, walked. The pitcher got behind on Meservey, too, and had to throw him something he could hit. Meservey drove it deep into the gap in left center for a double, and both Flanagan and I scored. The next two batters struck out swinging, but we were ahead 2-0.
We felt good trotting out onto the field, but the feeling didn't last long. The first two batters on the other team, seemingly amused by Willie Silcox's pitching, swung on the first pitch and lined hard singles. The third batter hit an even harder line drive that Flanagan pulled down with a heroic, if ungainly, bowlegged leap. Their cleanup hitter had me worried even before he stepped up to the plate. He was a chunky, powerful man whom I recognized as the master sergeant I'd seen out on the lines working on the planes. When he hit a wicked foul inches outside third base he worried me even more. To allay my fears, I moved back about six steps.
On the next pitch he drove the ball high and hard just inside the left-field foul line. I swiveled, jumped off my right foot and ran diagonally back, moving with speed born of fright. Deeper, I was thinking by now, next time I've got to play this guy deeper. I was somehow able to catch the ball over my left shoulder, going away in a curving run just inside the line.
" 'At's it, Scourge," I heard Meservey yell in my direction, but he could just as easily have hollered out "hot dog" or "showboat." If I had been playing my position deeper I could have made the catch easily.
Meservey had been calling me Scourge ever since a certain mission I had flown a few weeks before. Our planes had dropped our bombs and peeled off to strafe the target. After we landed, we met with Meservey, the debriefing officer. The pilot in front of me gave Meservey a colorful but completely distorted version of his accomplishments, so when it was my turn, I tried to compensate.
"What'd you hit?" Meservey asked, not looking at me, his pencil poised.
"Outhouses," I said. "Four of them." He looked at me deadpan. He could do deadpan better than anybody.
"Four?" he asked, writing.
"Four. Not just possibles. I demolished them. Blew 'em away."
"Anything else?" he asked.
"What more do you want from me?"
"A base hit now and then," Meservey said. We had words about that later. In the last game he'd popped up twice with me on third.
After my next mission, Meservey was behind the debriefing table again. He saw me coming through the door.
"Here he comes," he said with all his actor's resonance, "the scourge of the outhouses of the Third Reich."
My catch had made it two out, but the next man up hit a triple past Glenn Deaver in right to drive in two runs. He scored on a single, but Al Ainsley got the side out with a running catch in center, and we were down only one run after the first inning.
In the next two innings we got one hit, a double by third baseman Eddie Stephenson, but we didn't score. Fortunately, neither did the enlisted men, but they were able to load the bases both innings and had Silcox sweating. We had played some tough opponents, but I'd never seen Willie sweat before.
In the bottom of the fourth, their cleanup hitter came up again with two men on base, and this time I played him deeper than I'd ever played anyone. He pounded the first pitch on a low line toward me in left. When I charged in to take it, the ball seemed to sail and I had to stop, jump like a spastic stork and try to take it over my head. The ball hit the heel of my glove and bounced away. By the time I threw the ball in, two runs were across and the chunky sergeant was pulling up at third.
Their next batter hit a dying line drive to center. Ainsley tried a shoestring catch and drop-kicked the ball all the way back to the infield. When the inning ended we were behind 7-2.
"When you guys start dropping fly balls...," Meservey said, shaking his head and looking first at me and then at Ainsley. "All right, let's get some runs back." He picked up two bats and started swinging them. He was up first that inning.
Ainsley hadn't liked that look.
"Hell hath no fury like a noncombatant," he said.
Meservey struck out swinging.
The final score was something like 14-2. Nobody said much on the slow walk back to the place where the vehicles were parked.
We had driven out to the playing field in two Jeeps, but Flanagan apparently was in a hurry to get somewhere right after the game. He walked faster than most of the rest of us and took off in one of the Jeeps with Eddie Stephenson and a couple of spectators. That left seven of us plus more spectators for the other Jeep, which I had driven out and, by custom, would drive back. When I fitted myself behind the wheel I found that Meservey was sitting on the hood with his back resting against the windshield right in front of me.
"Get your Irish-Italian butt out of the way," I said to him, yanking the gearshift into first.
"No other place to put it," he said reasonably, without turning around. He was right. Driving back, I had to steer with my right hand, my head hanging out over the left side of the Jeep so I could see where I was going.
Outside the mess hall, which served also as the officers' club, a sizable crowd had gathered. Everyone was talking at once. I stopped the Jeep. It was too early to eat and too early for the club's bar to be open.
"What's going on?" Ainsley asked.
"We just got the word," somebody said. "Germany surrendered."
"So did we," Meservey said, but he was laughing. He left the Jeep's hood in one long, joyous leap and I hit the ground only an eyeblink behind him.
The bar did, as a matter of fact, open early that day. The date was May 8, 1945. V-E day.
Where was I and what was I doing on the day when World War II ended in Europe, just 40 years ago?
Playing softball with the Music Man, of course.