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Chapter 18

JIMMIE HIGGINS TAKES THE PLUNGE

I

Jimmie went home one evening to the Meissners, and there got a piece of news that delighted him. Comrade Stankewitz had come back from Camp Sheridan! The man to whom he had sold his tobacco-store having failed to pay up, Stankewitz had got a three days' furlough to settle his business affairs. "Say, he looks fine!" exclaimed Meissner; and so after supper Jimmie hurried off to the little store on the corner.

Never had Jimmie been so startled by the change in a man; he would literally not have known his Roumanian Jewish friend. The wrinkles which had made him look old had filled out; his shoulders were straight--he seemed to have been lifted a couple of inches; he was brown, his cheeks full of colour--he was just a new man! Jimmie and he had been wont to skylark a bit in the old days, as young male creatures do, putting up their fists, giving one another a punch or two, making as if they were going to batter in one another's noses. They would grip hands and squeeze, to see which could hold out longest. But now, when they tried it, there was "nothing to it"-- Jimmie got one squeeze and hollered quits.

"Vat you tink?" cried Stankewitz. "I veigh tventy pounds more already--tventy pounds! They vork you like hell in that army, but they treat you good. You don't never have such good grub before, not anyvere you vork."

"You like it?" demanded Jimmy, in amazement.

"Sure I like it, you bet your money! I learn lots of things vat I didn't know before. I get myself straight on this var, don't you ferget it."

"You believe in the war?"

"Sure I believe in it, you bet your money!" Comrade Stankewitz, as he spoke, pounded with an excited fist on the counter. "Ve got to vin this var, see? Ve got to beat them Yunkers! I vould have made up my mind to that, even if I don't go in the army--I vould have make it up ven I see vat they do vit Russia."

"But the revolution--"

"The revolution kin vait--maybe vun year, maybe two years already. It don't do us no good to have a revolution if the Yunkers walk over it! No, sir--I vant them Germans put out of Roumania und out of Russia und out of Poland--und, I tell you, in this American army you got plenty Roumanian Socialists, plenty Polish Socialists, und the Kaiser vill be sorry ven he meets them in France, you bet your money!"

So Jimmie got another dose of patriotism, a heavy dose this time; for Stankewitz was all on fire with his new conviction, as full of the propaganda impulse as he had been when he called himself an "anti-nationalist". He could not permit you to differ with him--became irritated at the bare mention of those formula-ridden members of the local who were still against the war. They were fools--or else they were Germans; and Comrade Stankewitz was as ready to right the Germans in Leesville as in France. He got so excited arguing that he almost forgot the cigars and the show-cases which he had to get rid of in two days. To Jimmie it was an amazing thing to see this transformation--not merely the new uniform and the new muscles of his Roumanian Jewish friend, but his sense of certainty about the war, his loyalty to the President for the bold deed he had done in pledging the good faith of America to securing the freedom and the peaceful future of the harrassed and tormented subject-races of Eastern Europe.

II

Jimmie got a sheet of letter paper, and borrowed a scratchy pen and a little bottle of ink from Mrs. Meissner, and wrote a painfully mis-spelled letter to Comrade Evelyn Gerrity, nee Baskerville, to assure her of his sympathy and undying friendship. He did not tell her that he was beginning to wobble on the war; in fact, when he thought of Jack Gerrity, chained up to the bars of a cell window, he unwobbled--he wanted the social revolution right away. But then as he went to drop the letter into the post office, so that it might go more quickly, he bought a paper and read the story of what was happening in France. And again the war-fervour tempted him.

By desperate, frenzied fighting the British had succeeded in holding up for a few days the colossal German drive. But help was needed--instant help, if civilization was to be saved. The cry came across the seas--America must send assistance--guns, shells, food, and above all else men. Jimmie's blood was stirred; he had an impulse to answer the call, to rush to the rescue of those desperate men, crouching in shell-holes and fighting day and night for a week without rest. If only Jimmie could have gone right to them! If only it had not been necessary for him to go to a training-camp and submit himself to a military martinet! If only it had not been for war-profiteers, and crooked politicians, and lying, predatory newspapers, and all the other enemies of democracy at home!

Jimmie dropped his letter in the slot, and turned to leave the post office, when his eye was caught by a sign on the wall-a large sign, in bold, black letters: "YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU!" Jimmie thought it was more "Liberty Bond" business; they had been after him several times, trying to separate him from his earnings, but needless to say they hadn't succeeded. However, he stopped out of curiosity, and read that men were needed to go to France--skilled men of all sorts. There was a long list of the trades, everything you could think of-- carpenters, plumbers, electricians, lumbermen, stevedores, railwaymen, laundrymen, cooks, warehousemen--so on for several columns. Jimmie came to "machinists", and gave a guilty start; then he came to "motor-cycle drivers" and "motor-cycle repairers"--and suddenly he clenched his hands. A wild idea flashed over him, causing such excitement that he could hardly read on. Why should he not go to France--he, Jimmy Higgins! He was a man without a tie in the world--as free as the winds that blow across the ocean! And he was looking for a job--why not take one of these?

It was a way he might share all the adventures, see the marvellous sights of which he had been reading and hearing and without the long delay in a training-camp, without waiting to be bossed about by a military martinet! Jimmie looked to see what pay was offered; fifty-one dollars a month and an "allowance" for board and expenses. At the bottom of the sign he read the words: "Why not work for your Uncle Sam?" Jimmie as it happened was in a fairly friendly mood towards his Uncle Sam at that moment; so he thought, why not give him a chance as a boss? After all, wasn't that what every Socialist was aiming at--to be an employe of the community, a servant of the public, rather than of some private profiteer?

III

Jimmie went to the window to inquire, and the clerk told him that the "war-labour recruiting office" was at the corner of Main and Jefferson. He came to the corner designated, and there in a vacant store was a big recruiting sign, "War Labour Wanted", and a soldier in khaki walking up and down. A week ago Jimmie could not have been bribed to enter a place presided over by a soldier; but he had learned from Emil and Stankewitz that a soldier might be a human being, so he went up and said, "Hello."

"Hello, yourself," said the soldier, looking him over with an appraising eye.

"If I was to hire here, when would I start for France?"

"To-night," said the soldier.

"You kiddin' me?"

"They ain't payin' me to kid people," said the other; and then, "What's your hurry?"

"Well, I don't want to be stalled in a trainin'-camp."

"You won't be stalled if you know your business. What are you?"

"I'm a machinist; I've repaired bicycles, an' I know a bit about motor-cycles."

"Walk in," said the soldier, and led the way, and presented Jimmie to a sergeant at the desk. "Here's a machinist," he said, "and he's in a hurry to get to work. Runnin' away from his wife, maybe."

"There's a bunch of men starting for the training-camp to-night," said the sergeant.

"Trainin'-camp?" echoed Jimmie. "I want to go to France."

The other smiled. "You wouldn't expect us to send you till we'd tried you out, would you?"

"No, I suppose not," replied Jimmie, dubiously. He was on his guard against tricks. Suppose they were to enlist him as a worker, and then make him fight!

The other went on. "If you're competent, you'll get to France all right. We need men over there in a hurry, and we won't waste your time."

"Well, now," said Jimmie, "I dunno's you'll want me at all when you hear about me. I'm a Socialist."

"Thought you were a machinist," countered the sergeant.

"I'm a Socialist, too. I was in the strike at the Empire a couple of years ago, and they blacklisted me. I can't get no work in the big places here."

"Well," said the sergeant, "it's a good town for you to quit, I should say."

"You want a man like that?" persisted Jimmie.

"What we want is men that know machinery, and'll dig in and work like hell to beat the Kaiser. If you're that sort we don't ask your religion. We've got a bunch that start to-night."

"Holy smoke!" said Jimmie. He had thought he would have time to ask questions and to think matters over, time to see his friends and say good-bye. But the sergeant was so efficient and business-like; he took it so completely for granted that any man who was worth his salt must be anxious to help wallop the Hun! Jimmie, who had come in full of hurry, was now ashamed to back water, to hem and haw, to say, "I dunno; I ain't so sure." And so the trap snapped on him--the monster of Militarism grabbed him!

IV

"Sit down," said the sergeant, and the anxious little Socialist took the chair beside the desk,

"What's your name?"

"James Higgins."

"Your address?"

"I'm just stayin' with a friend."

"The friend's address?" and so on: where had Jimmie worked last, what work had he done, what references had he to offer. Jimmie could not help grinning as he realized how his record must sound to a military martinet. He had been discharged and blacklisted at the motor-truck factory in Ironton, his last job; he had been discharged and black-listed at the Empire Shops; he had been arrested and sent to jail for "soap-boxing" on the streets of Leesville; he had been arrested in the bomb-conspiracy of Kumme and Heinrich von Holst. The sergeant entered each of these items without comment, but when he come to the last, he stared up at the applicant.

"I didn't have nothin' to do with it," declared Jimmie.

"You got to prove that to me," said the sergeant.

"I proved it once," replied Jimmie.

"Who to?"

"Mr. Harrod, the agent of the Department of Justice here."

The other took up the telephone and called the post office building. Jimmie listened to one-half of the conversation--would Mr. Harrod look up the record of James Higgins, who was applying for enlistment in the Mechanical Department of the Motor Corps? There was some delay--Mr. Harrod was talking--while Jimmie sat, decidedly nervous; but it was all right apparently--the sergeant hung up the receiver, and remarked reassuringly, "He says you're just a dub. He told me to congratulate you on having got some sense."

Jimmie made the most of this more than dubious statement, and proceeded to answer questions as to his competence. Was there anybody at the Empire who could certify as to this? The sergeant was about to call up the Empire Shops, but reconsidered; if Jimmie had actually worked in a machine-shop and in a bicycle-shop, they would surely be able to find something for him in the army. In an hour of such desperate need they took most everyone. "How tall are you?" demanded the sergeant, and added, "Weight don't matter so much, because we'll feed you."

The office of the medical examiner was upstairs in the same building, and Jimmie was escorted upstairs, and invited to remove his coat and shirt, and have his chest measured, and his heart and lungs listened to, and his teeth counted, and his nose peered into, and a score of such-like stunts. He had things wrong with him, of course, but not too many for army purposes, it appeared. The doctor jotted down the figures on a sheet and signed it, after which Jimmie and the soldier went back to the recruiting-office.

And now suddenly the little Socialist found himself with an enlistment paper before him, and a wet pen in his hand. He had never once been asked: "Is your mind made up? Do you really mean to take this irrevocable step?" No, the sergeant had taken it for granted that Jimmie meant business. He had done all this inquiring and writing down of information, this weighing and measuring and what not, and now he sat with a stern, compelling eye fixed on his victim, as much as to say: "Do you mean to tell me that I've done all that for nothing?" If Jimmie had actually refused to sign his name, what a blast of scorn would have withered him!

So Jimmie did not even stop to read all the paper; he signed. "And now," said the sergeant, "the train leaves at nine-seventeen this evening. I'll be there to give you your ticket. Don't fail to be on hand. You understand, you're under military discipline now." There was a new tone in these last words, and Jimmie quaked inwardly, and went out with a sort of hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach.

V

He rushed away to tell Comrade Stankewitz, who hugged him with delight and shouted that they would meet in France! Then he went to tell Emil Forster, who was equally glad. He found himself with an impulse to hunt up Comrade Schneider and tell him. Jimmie discovered in himself a sudden and curious antagonism to Schneider; he wanted to have matters out with him, to say to him: "Wake up, you mutt--forget that fool dream of yours that the Kaiser's goin' to win the war!"

There were others Jimmie thought of, upon whom he would not call. Comrade Mary Allen, for example--he would let her get the news after he was out of the reach of her sharp tongue! Also he thought of Comrade Evelyn; he might never see her again; if he did see her, she might refuse to speak to him! But Jimmie repressed the pang of dismay which this realization brought him. He was going to war, and the longings and delights of love must be put to one side!

He went to the Meissners for supper, and broke the news to them. He had expected protests and arguments, and was surprised by the lack of them. Had the little bottle-packer been impressed by the experiences of Comrade Stankewitz? Or could it be that he was afraid to voice his full mind to Jimmie--just as Jimmie had been afraid in the case of Emil Forster?

Jimmie had some commissions to entrust to the Meissners; he would leave with them the diary of "Wild Bill", which he had hung on to, but which seemed hardly the sort of literature to take on a transport.

"Sure," assented Meissner. "Besides, the subs might get it."

And Jimmie gave a sudden start. By heck! It was the first time the idea had occurred to him. He would have to pass through the barred zone! He might be in some fighting after all! He might never get to France! "Say!" he exclaimed. "That ocean must be cold this time of year!"

For a moment he wavered. Surely it would have been more sensible to wait till later in the season, when the consequences of a plunge overboard would be less distressing! But Jimmie remembered the armies, locked in their grip of death; never would despatch-riders need their motor-cycles more urgently than now! Also Jimmie remembered the sergeant at the recruiting-office. "You understand, you're under military discipline now!" He set his jaw in a grim resolve. The "subs" be damned, he would go and do his part! Already he felt the thrill of his responsibility in this mighty hour of history; he was a military man, with a stern duty to do, with the destinies of nations depending upon his behaviour!

Upton Sinclair

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