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. And since he was sitting by himself just then at a Camp Pendleton, California make-shift PX 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 old time pioneer west if he had thought about it.
But sitting with that cup of black coffee (hell, nobody back home ever had it any other way besides who had 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 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 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 here. 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 is the kicker though. A couple of days ago they all chipped in to by him drinks at the enlisted men’s club to show their appreciation AND a dozen donuts, assorted. Still 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. And hadn’t, getting into the heart of the song, a girl left behind to think of him while he was away blasting Pacific islands to smithereens.
Sure, he had had a few nibbles, a couple of girls from Prestonsburg and Hazard but nothing serious, nothing serious because from about age fourteen all the girls where he came from got all moony over being married and, in order to get from under their own 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 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.
But mainly he thought about the things he did had done over the past few
years 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 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 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 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, had a decent voice, and best of all he knew all the old-timey songs that the hills and hollows folks wanted to hear. 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 was popular 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.
That lasted for about a year or so, maybe a little bit more, but then times got so bad about 1936 or 37 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).
There he was 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 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 put another nickel in the jukebox to play If I Didn’t Care.
Labels: growing up absurd in the 1930s