Click on the headline to link to a YouTube film clip of the Inkspots performing I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire.
He was scared, scared silly, and he didn’t care who knew about it. Rugged hills and hollows born, Appalachia mountain Kentucky hard-scrabble farm born, fear hid under the rug, or somewhere else born he was still scared. He, Prescott Breslin, just weeks, maybe a couple of months if he counted it up, out of those hills and hollows, was scared because his unit, his semper fi 1st Marine Corps Division unit had just received orders to head out in the morning, head out west. Since he was sitting by himself just then in a Camp Pendleton, California make-shift Quonset hut PX at a picnic table munching coffee and cakes west could only mean the Pacific islands that dotted the way to Japan. Some units had already gone out, gone out quickly all through early 1942 and as 1943 approached all hell was breaking loose with men and material heading west, just like in old time pioneer west if he had thought about it that way then.
[Prescott Breslin, even forty years later, in relating this story to his son, Josh, would not give the precise day that his unit left California just in case some Nips or Chinks (Prescott’s terms) might be lurking around and could use the information in the future. He was certainly a man of his Great Depression/World War II times. ]
But sitting with that cup of black coffee (hell, nobody back home ever had it any other way besides who had extra milk or cream left over for such fixings, and black was fine anyway) and cruller donut (he had grown to love this donut business after a lifetime of Ma’s old patched-up bread pudding and sunken baking soda-laden cakes) he was not thinking about pioneer west stuff, or even, after he bit into the cruller, scared thoughts so much but about how life was funny. Not funny to have a laugh over but just the way the cards were dealt funny. It might have been the sugar, or it might have been the caffeine but his started to think about all the stuff that he hadn’t done, and some stuff he had done, to keep the thoughts of the days ahead in check.
First off though was his pride in being one of the best troopers in his training unit down at Parris Island, and then his assigned unit at Pendleton. It wasn’t so much that it came natural to him, although coming from the hard rock country didn’t hurt when they went out into the “boonies” on those twenty mile full-pack hikes or when he busted out number one on the rifle range with that silly M-I pop gun. It was more that, at first, guys, yankee city guys from Boston and New York, or northern farm boys anyway, laughed at him about his back mountain drawl, about his not knowing about donuts, about not knowing about how to handle a folk and spoon right and all kinds of yankee stuff that didn’t make sense to him, or them when he asked them to explain what they meant and why.
After a while, after a ton of callouses and blisters, after a ton of KP, after half a ton of pranks, and after about eight weeks of showing guys, yankee guys and farm boys, that he could be depended on if something happened to them they were practically competing to have him as their “buddy.” More than one guy said, said straight out, when they got the news of the move out that as long as Prescott Breslin was going along with them he wasn’t quite so scared. Here was the kicker though, the one that made him beam. A couple of days before they got orders they had all chipped in to by him drinks at the enlisted men’s club to show their appreciation AND a dozen donuts, assorted, the next morning. Still sitting at that piney table Prescott Breslin was scared.
While he was thinking an odd-scared thought or two somebody, a guy he didn’t recognize sitting with a nice- looking tanned Oceanside girl, at another table had gotten up to put some nickels in the jukebox and he, still thinking about life’s ups and downs, could hear the strains of I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire and that song got him kind of choked up at first. He then laughed, not a funny laugh, as he listened to the lyrics and thought that he sure didn’t want to, and hadn’t, set the world on fire. He sure hadn’t.
Getting into the heart of the song, the lonely guy misery part, he hadn’t a girl left behind to think of him while he was away blasting Pacific islands to smithereens. Out here, out here in sunny California, he had had not too much luck finding a girl, not much luck at all really. The girls seemed too fast for him, to ready to dismiss his back mountain drawl and write him down as a damn hillbilly. One time at the Surfside Grille in Oceanside where all the guys went when they had passes he met a girl, a pretty girl who liked his looks she said, liked his black hair, and brown eyes. She nevertheless told him flat out once she found out where he was from that she would pass him by. Why? Well, she, herself was from some podunk okie town and now that she was a California girl she was thinking of becoming a blonde and had definitely shaken the dust off her of okie kind of boys. She wanted, and she said this flat out too, a movie star soldier boy like Robert Taylor. Jesus, women, California women.
Sure, back home, he had had a few nibbles, a couple of girls from Prestonsburg and Hazard, girls with nice looks and manners and who couldn’t complain of his drawl. But nothing serious happened, nothing serious because from about age fourteen all the girls where he came from, even Prestonsburg girls, got all moony over being married and, in order to get from under being embedded in their own large families, start families of their own. He had wanted no part of that, not at twenty, no way. But he got just a little melancholy, taking another sip of that sweet black coffee, when he thought that he might never have a chance to get married. Never have a family of his own to take care of him in his old age, if he had an old age.
Mainly though he thought about the things he did had done over the past few
years before he had enlisted and wished that he had had more time to do them. Hell, it wasn’t nothing big, nothing to set the world on fire, but it was his life. His life, six or seven years ago, once he knew the score, knew the hard-scrabble Kentuck farm score, and that if he didn’t want nothing but hard calloused hands and looking eighty at forty (like his pa and grandpa) he had better hit the highway. Since there were twelve kids at home, and only enough to feed about eight right nobody (except Ma, he later, much too much later, found out) missed him when he set out for Lexington one dark night. He got a ride from Colonel Eddie (not really a colonel but everybody with two bucks for a genuine certificate called himself that) the local long-haul driver who was always looking for company on his runs west, and knew how to keep quiet when a guy asked him to about stuff like where he was going, and why.
And he also thought about how once he got to Lexington, after a few crop-picking and dish-washing jobs to keep him alive in the city, he met up with a couple of guys, Doc and Hank, at Lucy’s Diner who wanted form a band and make some money playing what they called the coal-dust circuit. He played a fair guitar for a kid, had a decent voice that had become deeper and more tuneful as he aged, and best of all he knew all the old-timey songs that the hills and hollows folks wanted to hear. Boy, did he know them all. Stuff like Tom Doulas, Ommie Wise, and Come All You Fair And Tender Ladies.
A couple of weeks later with some practice, a small stake, and lots of dreams, they hit the back road Saturday night places where the locals held their weekly barn dances (complete with plenty of moonshine to liven things up). Sometimes they, now known as the Kentuck Sheiks (that sheik name had been made popular a few years before and you just added your state name in front and you had a genuine band name), passed the hat, sometimes when there was no dough they just took a couple of days room and board for their troubles.
He remembered too the time that through some white lightning connections, some Moonshine Johnnie, the king of the illegal local whiskey ring, or whatever the liquid was by the time it got boiled down, packaged, and run through the hills and hollows just in front of the revenue agents, the Sheiks got to play before a crowd in his hometown of Hazard. And they were billed on flyers, handbills, and posters as the Kentuck Sheiks featuring Prescott Breslin. Moonshine Johnnie’s idea was that he would throw a free Saturday barn dance down at Farmer Ben’s, a place where locals had been having their weekly dances since, well, since there was a Hazard as far as anybody knew. Johnnie wanted to introduce those who didn’t know to his product, or who knew and had a thirst. In short to move product, be an outstanding citizen, and listen to the mountain-etched music just like any other hillbilly.
The Sheiks were to pass the hat like they had done at a hundred such gatherings and with a hometown boy on the stage they expected a little extra haul. Additionally, Johnnie, just in case the cash haul was short, threw in five jugs of his premium liquor for the boys. That addition proved to be his undoing. The art of drinking hard liquor, hard still-made liquor takes some cultivation, some time to get used to it. Young men need to grow into with age like drinking wine is for some Europeans. The night of the barn dance, that Saturday afternoon really, he had started drinking a steady stream out of the jug so that by show time his was in good form (as were Doc and Hank partners), and as far as the show went they were a great success. As far as the show went.
But this was just flat-out the wrong night to develop his whiskey skills. Just before the dance, while the band was setting up and checking things out, Becky Price, an old Hazard sweetheart came up and started to rekindle some flame. Becky sure did look fine that night he thought with a pretty, frilly store-bought dress (really Montgomery Ward catalogue bought he found out later) and her hair done up in ribbons. She had heard he was playing that night and had gotten herself all pretty for him. They talked some then and some at intermission and agreed to meet after the dance at Lance’s Diner over on Route 5 when he was finished packing up after the show. But that is where the liquor proved to be a demon. After the show, things packed up, he decided to take a little curse off the liquor in his system by having a couple more hits at the jug. After the second swallow he just keeled over dead drunk. When he woke up the next morning the boys were up front in their sedan, Doc driving, while he laid across the back seat as they headed for a show in Steubenville, Ohio. Poor Becky, I hope she didn’t wait long that night.
That band job lasted for about a year or so, maybe a little bit more, but then times got so bad about 1937 or 38 that three guys just couldn’t make it on bread and butter, literally. So he got off the road, headed back home, and started to work in Mr. Peabody’s coal mines (not every mine was owned by the Peabody Coal Company as he was at pains to inform his fellow platoon members when they had asked what he did in the “real world” but that is what everybody called it around home when a guy went into the mines).
Now even a hills and hollows boy who grew up in that hard –scrabble country but who grew up on a farm needed to adjust to the hard times in the mines. The early hours, the wash up time that was unpaid for adding to the long day, the damn coal dust, the noise, the deafening noise, from the machines drilling against god’s ancient rock, and the sweat, the infernal sweat even on cold days once you got down in the pits. After a couple of months he adjusted to the routine, got to know real coal-miners who were the third or fourth generation going down there, and got some respect when he told the boys that they were not getting paid nearly enough for the tough work they did for the damn Johnson Coal Company. The boys listened, and knowing Kentucky coal fields traditions, hell Harlan, bloody Harlan, was just down the road they prepared to strike one time. Somehow the company got wind of it and offered a small raise and paid wash-up time just to keep the production moving. That was enough, enough then with plenty of guys out of work, and plenty of guys, scabs, with hungry mouths to feed ready to cross the lines if anything happened.
There he was though stuck in the mines, the damn black-lung mines (his mother cried every time he came home at night looking, well, looking like a damn nigra, and coughing the dust out half the night) when the news of the Japs hitting Pearl came over the radio and guys, guys like him, all over the country, were lined up three, maybe more, deep, to enlist. Funny though he could, having worked his way up a little in the mines, have gotten a vital industries draft deferral and been sitting right then in the Prestonsburg hotel with some pretty town girl drinking real store-bought liquor and working up his courage to ask her up into his room. But no, on December 9, 1941 he had gone to Prestonsburg and enlisted in the Marines right on the dotted line. And he never looked back.
Scared, scared to death, or not, sitting at that wooden table having a second cruller and a third cup of mud Private First Class Prescott Breslin thought it over for a minute. He then said to himself, hell, between shoveling coal for Mr. Peabody forever and fighting the damn Japs I’ll take the Japs. And that made him just a little less scared as someone walked up and put another nickel in the jukebox to play If I Didn’t Care.
Labels: growing up absurd in the 1930s