Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Return to the Hollywood Canteen!

Almost two years ago, I did a post on the Hollywood Canteen, the World War 2-era nightclub for American soldiers created and run by the film industry, in which movie stars served and entertained enlisted men. My post was in the form of an original short story, centered around an old film star remembering her time there, as well as the boyfriend she had to leave behind. At the time, I wrote it with one eye focused on trying to convey information about the Canteen and the war effort in general, and as a result, it wasn't as much of a fictional narrative as perhaps I would have liked. 

Therefore, I went back recently and revised it, with the goal to make it read more like a proper story. If you look at the original version, you'll see there's not enough going on; it's basically Nan, the main character, reminiscing about the war and why she and her old beau Matthew didn't stay together. So what I've done is to give their conflict more of a central role, while trying to capture some of the magic of the Canteen at the same time. I'd appreciate any and all comments about this new version. I believe it works better as a story than before.

Because I'm terrible with titles, I've given this the tentative title Nice Work If You Can Get It. I would greatly appreciate a better one.

*          *          *

The raucous laughter and music hit him as he entered. A faint scent of old wood wafted through the air, mixed with cooking smells and draft beer. Other servicemen crowded around him, clustered in groups at the bar and at tables. 

What stood out for Matthew the most, however, was seeing the movie stars. Here was Joe E. Brown at the bar, serving drinks. There were Dick Powell and George Raft, bussing tables. And on the dance floor: Claudette Colbert, and Paulette Goddard, and Jeanette MacDonald, all dancing with servicemen just like him!

The Hollywood Canteen was everything Matthew had heard it was.

He and his fellow G.I.s queued up at the bar. Matthew could feel his khaki-colored tie choking him, but he endured it – after all, his uniform was his ticket inside this nightclub for enlisted servicemen. 

This was his unit’s last night stateside before they joined the front lines. For a boy from Aberdeen, Washington not quite three years removed from high school, leaving his hometown was daunting enough, but to fight a war in another country? The idea was bigger than any he’d ever had.

And yet he knew it had to be done. His parents and his grandpa agreed as much when they talked about it after Pearl Harbor. Dad did his bit in the Great War, and Grandpa before him with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. The threat of the Axis powers was greater than any of Matthew’s forebears had faced. Even Mom agreed that the call to arms must be answered.

Halfway through his beer, though, thoughts of combat left him. He saw several of his cohorts dancing with the movie stars as the band played. He didn’t think he could summon up the courage to ask these actresses to dance. He spotted Ruby Keeler waiting tables. He’d always had a crush on her as a boy.

The song ended, and the emcee approached the microphone amidst applause. “And now, ladies and gentlemen, here’s a real up-and-coming star who you’ve already seen in last year’s humdinger of a musical from Metro, Tickling the Ivories. Please welcome Miss Nan Barber!”

It was as if a vacuum had opened, devouring all other sound. Matthew saw, without seeing, the young woman take the stage. Then sound returned and the band played a boogie-woogie number and out came that voice he knew so well. He looked up and there was that bouncy bob of blonde hair, that long, thin nose, those perky lips.

She was exactly as he had remembered her… and more.

She finished her song and the crowd applauded. Matthew excused himself and went outside for a smoke.

It’s too late. The thought blinded his vision, made his guts churn as if in sympathetic agony. He knew it was too late the first time he had heard that she was going to be in an actual movie, and she wasn’t going to come back home. He knew it.

So why do I feel like my heart’s gonna burst outta my chest if I don’t talk to her?

He stayed outside for almost an hour, deciding to go back in and then changing his mind, over and over again, before she found him, leaning against the side of the nightclub wall, a pile of cigarette butts at his feet. “Matthew?”

He wouldn’t meet her eyes. She walked over to him. She wore an off-white evening dress with spaghetti straps, and high-heeled shoes.

“I thought that was you I saw while on stage. I would’ve looked for you sooner, but a bunch of guys wanted to dance with me.” She paused. “Almost didn’t recognize you in your crew cut. Looks good on you.”

Did that mean she still cared? He couldn’t tell. He sucked on his cigarette, blew out smoke. He turned his head to face her. “You look great, Nan.”

“Thanks.” She blushed. “Momma wrote me you enlisted.”

He nodded. “I leave tomorrow for someplace in Italy. Can’t even pronounce it. This was supposed to be our big blow-out night. Had no idea you’d be here.”

“Didn’t think so.” Another pause. “How’s your family?”

“Okay, I guess. Pop’s arthritis still gives him hell.” He took another drag. Don’t do it. Let things be as they are. You won’t change them. Let her go. “Everybody saw you in that movie. Mom said the first time you came on screen, the whole theater cheered.”

She smiled. “You didn’t see it?”

“Missed it. Basic training.”


He looked at his shoes. “You really made it.”

“I wouldn’t call one low budget programmer ‘making it’ yet.”

“Tell that to the folks back home. They already think you’re the next Ginger Rogers.”

“What about you?” She held her hands up to her chest and looked up at him expectantly. “What do you think… now?”

He grimaced. There it is, then. The big question. If you still love her, you’ll say you’re happy for her and you’re glad she’s living out her dream. Go on. “I think I still want my girl back with me in Aberdeen.”

Her head dropped and she sighed. “You haven’t changed.”

“We coulda been married by now. Maybe even with a kid of our own. My job at the mill was going great --”

“Until you decided to join the army.”

“That’s different. This is something I have to do.”

“And so is this.” Nan stood with her hands on her hips. “You never understood that.”

“I supported your acting!”

“So long as it was convenient for you! But I can’t live that way, Matthew, when will you get that through your thick head?” She dropped her arms and turned away. “Summer stock plays with old Mrs. Willoughby won’t do anymore. This is the life I want.”

Matthew’s fists balled up at his sides. He knew what she would say, but seeing her tonight brought everything about their lives together back again. He had to try one last time. 

He dropped his cigarette to the pile at his feet, mashed it with his shoe. “Okay then.” He headed for the entrance.

“Matthew.” He stopped and shut his eyes. “I don’t regret our time together. I hope you don’t, either.”

He took a deep breath, and reopened his eyes. “Goodbye, Nan. See you in the movies.” 

He went back inside and returned to the bar as the band played a swing tune. Tomorrow he would be shipped off to a place in Italy he couldn’t pronounce. He tried to get Joe E. Brown’s attention so he could have another beer. 

What the hell. They were free, after all.

The WW2 record of Brigadier General James Stewart
Books: Five Came Back


  1. Bravo! You are a great writer, my friend! This short story has emotion, a bit of suspense, and a lot of heart. Congratulations, you got me hooked since the first sentence!

  2. High praise. Thanks. That means a lot.

  3. Has this been nagging at you for a while or did it come to you in a flash? Atmosphere is set up beautifully and I found it very poignant to get the other side of the story. Well done.

  4. Thanks.

    It nagged at me a little, not a lot. See, ever since I got published in our local zine, Newtown Literary, I thought well, if I can get published in one, maybe I could get published in another. Then I remembered this piece, and I decided to clean it up and submit it to other zines. So far, no one has bit yet, but I'm still hoping.

    1. Fingers crossed it will get to the right reader.

  5. This is very cool, indeed. Well done!


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