Old Man in a Baseball Cap: A Memoir of World War II

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9780060932275: Old Man in a Baseball Cap: A Memoir of World War II

Conceived in a storytelling workshop given by Spalding Gray, Old Man In a Baseball Cap is not your typical story of World War II. Rochlin recounts in gritty detail how he--an ordinary young man--was thrust into outrageous circumstances during an extraordinary time. Whether he's bumping up against the army's bigotry because he's Jewish, aiding in the delivery of a baby by cesarean section, being ordered to obliterate a Hungarian village, or parachuting from his plane in the middle of Yugoslavia and then walking 400 kilometers to safety with an amorous guide, Rochlin captures the Intensely powerful experience of a teenager away from home for the first time. Old Man In a Baseball Cap is an astonishingly fresh, candid look at "the last good war." At once naive, candid, and wise, Fred Rochlin's voice is unforgettable.

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About the Author:

Fred Rochlin lives in Los Angeles, California, with his wife, Harriet. Old Man in a Baseball Cap is his first book.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

In December 1941, I finished my cadet training, was commissioned a second lieutenant, and was ordered to Mather Field near Sacramento, California, to meet the crew I was to be assigned to.

We were to take an eighteen-week training course in practice bombing, formation flying, aerial gunnery, and navigation, and do all the stuff that you have to learn to get ready for combat.

We started training flying the very next day, and the first week, we just flew all over the United States, dropping bombs on bombing ranges, practicing formation flying, aerial gunnery, weird navigation exercises; we did very well, so well that, by the end of the first ten days, we were the hottest crew on the base and had the best record in everything.

Shorty Haden, the bombardier, was my roommate at the BOQ, the Bachelor Officers' Quarters, and we got to be really good friends. We were about the same age, and we'd just talk and talk and talk.

When we weren't flying, all the guys would get off the base, go to Sacramento or San Francisco to try to pick up girls or at least get drunk. Kind of relax, try and have a good time, you know, what guys are supposed to do.

Well, not Shorty, he'd go to town and spend quite a bit of time in church. He was very religious and then he'd go and haunt these little antique shops.

The first Saturday we had off, we all went to the Wagon Wheel Hotel in town. Shorty said he'd meet us back at the base later.

I got in about midnight, and Shorty was there still awake and waiting for me and he was just gushing, alive with excitement, and he said, "Oh, you'll never guess what I found today."

I said, "What?"

And he said, "Look here," and he opened the lid to his foot locker and there were his clothes and three little cups and saucers.

So I said, "Look at what?"

He blurted, "At these, at these," and he took out those little cups and saucers and said, "Aren't they just precious? Can you believe this one is a genuine Worcester, late eighteenth century? Can you believe how lucky I am? Aren't you jealous? And this is a Miessen, and this is turn-of-the-century Wedgwood, not really rare but still very nice."

I tried to be enthusiastic, I didn't want to be a wet blanket.

I said, "Swell. Where'd you find them?"

He said, "Sacramento is just a gold mine, no one here knows what they're worth."

"Yeah, what they cost."

"Only eighty-five dollars."

I said, "Jesus, that's half a month's pay."

He said, "Yes, but they're worth five times that, these are museum pieces. Oh, my mother will be thrilled when she gets these. And I have to borrow fifty dollars from you till payday."

Well, I thought, This guy is a nut case, but what could I do, so I said, "Sure."

The next night, he took my fifty dollars, went to the Officers' Club, got into a poker game and won one hundred twenty-five bucks. Then he paid me back the dough he owed me, got in another poker game and won two hundred dollars and change.

Then he went to Sacramento and brought back a whole mess load of those damn little cups.

So I said, "Shorty, what are you going to do with all those damn little cups and where'd you learn how to play poker so well?"

Shorty said that he was an only child and his mother was a widow and she loved these little cups, had a collection of them, and she and Shorty studied about porcelain almost every evening after school when he was home. He knew all about Spode, and Rockingham and Royal Danish, and St. Ives, and Rouen and Lowestoft, and every other damn cup.

And he said, "And everybody in Jefferson City plays poker and it's not too hard to win if you understand how, just be patient, don't be afraid to fold, play the odds, only bet on the good hands, and the most important thing, don't expect God to intervene to make you win."

He thought the guys at the Officers' Club were nice guys, but just didn't know anything about playing poker.

So I figured Shorty wasn't so nuts after all, he just had the hots for little cups, okay? Look, it takes all kinds of guys.

After three weeks Major Ferguson, the chief training officer, called in the whole crew. We were worried, didn't know if we were in some kind of trouble.

Major Ferguson said, "Your crew has been here three weeks and you've got the best performance record of any crew on the base. Do you men feel you're ready for combat? Do you think you can fly fifty combat missions?"

"Yes sir." We were getting excited.

"Well, you've only been here three weeks, but you're doing better than crews that have finished the whole eighteen-week course. They're desperate for replacements in the 15th Air Force in Italy. Can you handle that?"

"Yes sir."

Major Ferguson said, "Okay, we'll issue the orders this morning. Get packed up and fly to Wichita this afternoon and pick up a new plane there. Good luck, gentlemen."

That was that.

Outside, we said, "Italy -- WOW!" We were excited, we were hoping for England, we didn't want the South Pacific -- never thought of Italy.

We flew to Wichita that afternoon, where we picked up a brand-new bomber, a Consolidated B-24. The next day, we flew from Wichita to Miami. The next day, we flew from there to Trinidad. Next day to Natal, Brazil. Next day, from there across the Atlantic Ocean to Dakar, Senegal, in West Africa. Next day, from there across the Sahara, over the Atlas Mountains into Marrakech, Morocco.

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