A World War II vet acts on his misgivings about a Hollywood fraud who’s beloved by all. 2,868 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Bellflower, California — September 26, 1954
I take a sip of Lone Star and flip through the fan magazines. Here’s Hollywood movie star Del Hawk as the grizzled platoon leader at Guadalcanal. Here’s another of him leading a tank charge at the Battle of the Bulge. This one is of him parachuting into Normandy with the 101st Airborne. And that’s him again in the cockpit of a B-17 Flying Fortress raining bombs on the Third Reich.
I finish off my fifth beer of the night and set the bottle back on the scratched coffee table. Then I leaf through more of the fan mags. Del Hawk with Spencer Tracy and that ice skater Sonja Henie at the Racquet Club in Palm Springs. Del Hawk on Seabiscuit with Bing Crosby at Del Mar. And, dang if Del Hawk isn’t with that sultry dish Hedi Lamaar in this other photo. She’s wearing a black-and-white polka dot swimsuit by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. And don’t they look all idly rich.
A a fly does a carrier landing on my nose before lifting off and circling overhead inside my home at the Friendly Gardens Trailer Court. I pick up my Colt .45 and take aim at Mr. Flyboy and squeeze off a round. The silence explodes. Brick-a-brat trembles. The tabby high-tails it. Drunk as a skunk, I lower the pistol and slouch into slumber, the TV station already signing off with an Indian-head test pattern. But before I doze off, I make a vow to meet the celluloid hero I’ve followed since I left the Army in 1945. Maybe, just maybe, I can get him to sign an autograph.
Now I’m staring at the girl again and thinking she’s kinda cute. Her name’s Pet. Least, that’s what they call her here in the court anyways. She’s about five-three. Maybe a hundred pounds if carrying a bowling ball. Red hair done in a pixie cut. And can she horse laugh when she’s real tickled! I know cause she laughs a lot when I tell her my stories of Texas outlaw country. She tells me she’s only eighteen and already an excommunicated Mormon. How’s them apples? She knows things about the world, that’s for sure. But she’s never stared into the eyes of an Uncle Sam drill sergeant or spilled Nazi blood.
“Dutch. That a born name?” she asks as we sit downing Pabst Blue Ribbon outside my trailer at Space 4 where the weeds are ankle high and the windows haven’t been washed in weeks. We’re in the shade and that’s fine since the thermometer is expected to climb to triple figures no matter if the Santa Ana winds blow.
“Nickname,” I wipe sweat from my brow with a blue handkerchief. “My buddies gave it to me over in England before D-day.”
“I always want to split the cost.”
“Oh.” She frowns and rubs the rough skin on her tiny elbow. “But you always buy me my meals when we go out to the movies.”
That makes her smile. “How old are you again?”
“I like older guys,” she says, and we grab the necks on our Blue Ribbons and clink the tail end of bottles. “I think I’ll marry an older guy someday cause they buy me meals. Guys my age don’t buy me nothing but beer.” She is barefoot, wearing cut-offs and a cotton top that wants to poof out in all the right places. “Thanks for taking me to the movies last night,” she says. “I loved Sabrina.”
“Pleasure was all mine.”
“And the second feature. Which war is it again?”
“And that’s near Australia?”
“Well, I liked it cause there was a love story starring Rhonda Fleming. She has hair my color. And I like the way she looks up begging to be kissed. Very adult.” Pet laughs. “Bet that gets a man’s juices going.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Wouldn’t know?” Pet looks at me crossways and pauses for a long while. “You like that war stuff, huh?”
“Nobody likes war.”
“Then why take me to a war movie?”
“Wanted to watch Del Hawk. You see him lead his troops right up that hill with all that machine gun rat-a-tat. The way he thrust that bayonet into that enemy’s gut? And how that enemy’s eyes bugged out?”
“I had to turn my head. It all looked so real. My Dad loves Del Hawk. Thinks he’s the greatest movie star on the planet. Mom wants to marry him in the next life. You should see her bedroom — all decorated with photos of Del Hawk. I swear, every time she closes the door and takes her panties off, she goes to sleep looking up at Del Hawk on her walls.”
Pet looks at me for any reaction. I have none.
“So, you never told me what brought you to the trailer court. There’s so much mystery about you, Dutch.”
“I came here to see Del Hawk.”
Pet doubles over in laughter. “You part of A Company! You and him gonna charge up Lamb Chop Hill?”
“Pork Chop Hill.”
She recovers and asks, “Seriously, why are you here? Looking for work? I notice you favor your right arm.”
“Look, I’m serious. I came out here to Hollywood to see Del Hawk.”
“You plan to drive on up to the movie lot and demand to be invited inside? I hear those movie stars have guards and never let ordinary people see them unless it’s in a magazine or at Grauman’s Chinese placing their hands in wet cement.”
“You want to go with me to Grauman’s Chinese?”
“Huh? You’re joking, right?”
“I’m not joking. This afternoon, they’re having a big premiere of Hawk’s latest film. Fans will be lining the streets.”
“Hold your hat,” the girl says, jumping to her feet. “Let me get into something nicer!”
“I can’t believe it. Me, Petulia Asperger, going to Grauman’s Chinese!” She closes her eyelids and wraps both arms around her shoulders and squeezes real tight. “I just wish Haley could see me now.”
“This girlfriend of mine back in Utah. Her name ain’t Haley, though. It’s Lurleen Bradley. I call her Haley cause of this song Shake, Rattle And Roll by Bill Haley and his Comets. She’s always got that tune in her head. Don’t matter where we’d go, she’d always be humming Shake, Rattle And Roll. She’d be eating a cheeseburger and Coke and humming Shake, Rattle And Roll. Even on the school bus, she’d dance and the driver would tell her to get back in her seat. She had Bill Haley on the brain.”
“So, you really like the movies, huh?”
“I love the movies!” Pet points to her Capri pants. “Can’t you tell? This black top and black pants. It’s just like in Sabrina. Which, by the way, I’ve already seen three times. See my hair? When I get a job, I’ll dye it black and then I’ll have the complete Audrey look.”
“Right. Then William Holden won’t ignore me.”
“What actresses do you like?”
“Audrey, of course. I’m not a fan of Monroe. Same with Ava Gardner. I’m too flat-chested, don’t you think?”
“Don’t short-change yourself.”
“Audrey is flat-chested. If I had it, I’d flaunt it.”
She laughs and I have to laugh along with her. She’s infectious.
We head up to Hollywood Boulevard in my red Fargo. The pickup truck purrs like a kitten and Pet gabs all the way. We pull over to the curb and park. Dusk is descending. Pet reaches into her purse for an autograph book. “I brought this in case we get up close. What about you?”
I reach into my pocket and show her mine. “I wouldn’t miss getting Del Hawk’s autographit for the world,” I tell her. “Even brought two pens.”
“Look at us, two of the biggest movie fans in the world.” She giggles.
We get out of the truck and she clutches my arm, leans her head against my bad shoulder, and says, “If I pass out, will you catch me?”
We stop at the corner and wait for the Red Car to clang past the Hollywood Hotel. We cross the street and head for the theater. The crowds are already there. Huge lights crisscross the night sky like dueling swords and Pet’s eyes fill with neon. There’s a Red Carpet out front with a rope leading into the theater and dozens of photographers lining the sides. Gleaming black limos are already pulling up with passengers.
We squeeze our way through, nudging aside a family of hayseed tourists, then a group of over-excited school girls and even some guy who is still wearing his smudged Flying A uniform. Nearby, a cop who is chewing gum talks to Mr. Flying A. They share a laugh over something. It’s too noisy to hear them. The cop moves away with a two-fingered salute to Mr. Flying A and someone else catches his eye. I see that the cop is armed with a service revolver and is carrying a billy club. He stands about six-one. Little on the pudgy side. Shined his shoes, I see. Other cops are stationed along the rope about every fifteen feet keeping the fans at bay. But they allow the photographers to go crazy.
I should have brought a camera. They’d a let me through with a camera, dammit. If I owned one. Then I’d be right up front.
A deafening roar goes up and all heads turn. Now I see him. He’s stepping out of a limo as flashbulbs light up his face like bee stings.
I reach into my pocket and pull out the U.S. Medal of Honor and slip it around my neck. Pet gives me a puzzled look.
“Hawk! Hawk! Hawk!” fans and photographers shout. “Over here!”
I can seem him now. His name, I’ve forgotten. But he’s bleeding from the gut on Omaha Beach. He must be only eighteen — Pet’s age. Blond. Blue-eyed. He looks like he’s from one of those corn-fed states.
Dying right in front of me. His parents don’t know that I’m the last sight he’ll ever see. I reach into my trousers and pull out the Luger. I coil my finger around the trigger and raise the Nazi weapon to belt level.
Now I’m staring at his face. Del Hawk is posing beside a platinum blonde. She has boobs out to here and then some. I have no idea who she is. Seen her face before, probably in one of them fan mags I keep on the coffee table. Noise level is so loud. “Over here! Over here!”
Del Hawk rotates. Bends down. Scrawls his signature on a kid’s cap brim. Fans move forward to touch him. Cops push them back.
“Dutch,” Pet asks, “what’s that medal you’re wearing?”
I’m back at the Battle of the Bulge. Shells exploding all around me. Arms flying off screaming buddies. Tanks incinerated. Smell of death in the air.
I lift the Luger and point it at Del Hawk.
He waves. So many teeth. Crowd sways. People scream.
Sergeant says check our weapons. Synchronizes his watch with the captain’s, then, “Let’s go!” he orders his men. We fall behind a tank for protection and move forward. Everywhere, Krauts are laying down suppression fire. Emil falls right next to me. Lawson’s head explodes like a watermelon. Joseph gets it in the nuts. We’re only eight feet from where we started and a shell explodes. I can’t take this. My buddies are dying all around me. It’s holy hell. I narrow my eyes and rush the enemy. It’s me against them. Do or die. A Kraut tries to stick a bayonet in my gut. I slug him with the butt of my rifle and open up on his face. Two more Krauts come at me. I bull them over. I see blood in the snow. I raise my rifle and begin shooting at anything that moves. One down. Two. Three. This is for Emil. This is for Joseph. This is for the sergeant. This is for the folks back home. A shell explodes and my shoulder shatters. There’s no pain. Am I dying? I fall face forward into the snow.
Pet screams. “Don’t shoot, Dutch!”
Hawk pivots. A lane appears between the hayseeds and Mr. Flying A. A sure shot. Ten feet away, Hawk keeps waving. I raise the Luger. My arm. It’s stuck. Someone’s pulling it down. Someone screams in my ear. Tugs me backward. I stumble. The Luger — it’s gone. Where is it?
Pet slaps me in the face. “C’mon! Let’s get out of here!“
Running away. Blind rage. Hear nothing. Head pounding. Shoulder throbbing. Pet at my side. Luger in her hand now.
She pushes me into the Fargo. Demands the keys. Turns on the ignition. Glances in rearview. Floors it. Screech of burning rubber. Sirens. Window rolled down now. Air rushes over my face. I’m being carried in a stretcher off the battlefield with IV tubes sticking in my veins.
“Holy Jesus crap, Dutch!”
She’s pulled over and parked the Fargo. Pet circles me while waving the Luger in the air and pointing it at the stars. I sit cross-legged, my head not moving an inch but both eyes seeing everything from all directions.
“What were you thinking?”
She reaches down and grabs my good shoulder. She shakes me out of my stupor. She crouches in front of me now, her voice a tender ballad.
“Oh, Dutch, what happened back there?”
Silence ensues — like the aftermath of a battle.
Pet caresses my cheek. “You can tell me. Please, Dutch.”
I can hear sirens in the distance.
“Cops are everywhere,” she says. “I had to pull off here, but we can’t stay long.” She shakes my good shoulder again. “You hear me, Dutch Kagen?”
Pet sighs and sits down cross-legged just like me and lowers her head just like me. She’s bawling her eyes out, still clutching the Luger.
I lift my head. “Look magazine,” I exhale listlessly. “I was in the Army hospital back in the States. It was several years after the war. Third surgery on my bum shoulder. I came to and this nun who had the face of a mouse was seated at my side and she was flipping pages and staring at photos of that movie star Gene Tierney. And I asked the nun for a glass of water. She put down the magazine. There was a whole stack on the stand next to my bed. And the nun put the glass to my lips and the water tasted so good. When she left, I picked up a magazine from the stack. There was this interview with Del Hawk and that he’d been on Omaha Beach and was at the Battle of the Bulge where he got wounded and had to be taken back to England to recuperate. The writer didn’t challenge what he said. When I got home, I went to the library and started reading about Del Hawk. He was definitely in the Army during the war, but I did some checking and nobody remembers him at those battles. I got awarded the Medal of Honor, but the Army told me they can’t exactly prove anything one way or another. Which got me to thinking: maybe the Army is covering for Hawk since he got out of the service and became a big star. Maybe they don’t want to offend Hollywood. Now, don’t get me wrong, there were some movie actors who were real war heroes. Hell, Jimmy Stewart flew combat missions. Hitler put a price on Clark Gable’s head. But the closest Del Hawk ever got to combat, as far as I can tell, was in London and the only fighting he saw was in pubs.”
“But you were gonna shoot Del Hawk tonight. With this gun,” Pet says, holding up the Luger. “Why? You could have gone to the electric chair.”
“I don’t know. It’s just that my buddy Don died in the Ardennes. Don had both his eyes gouged out by a Nazi and his throat slit ear to ear and a couple fingers cut off just for spite after he already was dead…”
Pet cocks her head. “Another siren going by. We can’t stay here, Dutch.“
“Del Hawk wasn’t at Omaha. He wasn’t at the Bulge. Where was he? The government and Hollywood are covering up. Damn, it’s all fake.”
Pet stands and tells me to get up. Slowly, I rise to my feet and then manage to stand tall. Pet takes my hand and asks if I’d like to dance with Audrey Hepburn. I look down all confused into her eyes. She rests her head on my good shoulder, the Lugar still in her hand but pointed at the stars. And she starts humming Le Vie En Rose from the movie we’d seen. Pet’s voice is as sweet as syrup on a country morn. She hugs me tight around the waist with her free arm and we slowly dance. One step. Then two. A few more. Until the images of Omaha Beach and the Bulge vanish.