[this is part of our continued serialization of the WWII novel “The Last Jump.”
“A good and faithful judge ever prefers the honorable to the expedient.”
Horace, (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) (65 BC – 8 BC)
“I know you came up hard, Jake,” Judge Frank Draper admonished as he addressed a youthful Jake Kilroy in the Bedford County Courthouse. “But you have been before me too many times and I have just about lost my patience with you, son.”
Jake stood handcuffed in silence alongside Sheriff Leslie Abbott, directly in front of the judge’s bench. He was born John Kilroy and like so many boys named John; he quickly became Jack, ultimately corrupted to Jake. He was born in Bedford in 1923, an only child of Margaret and Clyde Kilroy who were both killed in an automobile accident when Jake was nine years old. Martha Tidrick, his mother’s sister, tried her best to raise him but times were tough as the Great Depression gripped America. Eventually, Jake had to be given up to the County Orphanage followed by a series of foster homes administered by the First Baptist Church of Bedford.
Jake was industrious and hard working but grew up with a huge chip on his shoulder and was quick to settle disagreements with his fists. Everyone who met him liked him at first but only had to see his hair-trigger temper once before they decided it was prudent to steer clear of him.
For a while Jake thought he might end up working in the coalmines since they seemed to be the only jobs available until he realized he was claustrophobic. He was lucky his cousin Harley Tidrick got him a part-time job in the Norfolk and Western Railway yards cleaning out boxcars, sweeping the offices and running errands. Harley had since left for the army and Jake moved up to a full time job. It seemed like he might have finally caught a break and would be able to scratch out a living when the most recent fight occurred.
It wasn’t exactly a fight. He had beaten Curley Stevens senseless. Nobody in Bedford had much use for Curley. He was a mean drunk and drank more of the moonshine he made than he sold. Jake lived with Curley and his wife in foster care when Jake was thirteen but was removed to another foster home rather abruptly. Jake claimed the bruises on his face were a result of a fall he took while working around the still and though Curley didn’t explain his own bruises, the inference was clear.
That incident over four years ago was not the reason Jake had recently returned to the Stevens home. For a long time Curley and his wife continued to take in foster children, one at a time, each lasting no longer than a year until the latest young girl, Macie Vance. Jake had known Macie from the orphanage since they were both ten years old. She was a timid, beautiful little girl with black hair down to her waist. There was a hint of mischief in her saucer-like deep brown eyes. Young Jake instantly came to like her and eventually became extremely protective. They would often be seen walking down the dark dreary halls of the orphanage holding hands.
When she came to see Jake at the rail yard early that morning she was still visibly shaken. Macie was frightened to death of Curley Stevens.
“Did he touch you or hurt you?” Jake angrily asked.
“No Jake,” she explained. “Last night he came into my bedroom after Mrs. Stevens went to sleep. I told him to leave but he just sat there, at the foot of my bed. I could smell the stink of liquor on his breath. He rambled on and on about how we could be good friends.” Macie wiped a tear from her cheek. She was having a difficult time explaining this. “I really don’t know what he was saying. He was rambling,” she continued. “I was just too scared to pay attention.”
Jake pulled her close to him and hugged her. She was still shaking in his arms. He looked at her tenderly. “Don’t you worry ‘cause he won’t scare you no more. Go have some coffee at the diner, give me half an hour.”
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“I’m going to take care of this the only way Curley Stevens understands,” he replied. “Just don’t ever tell anyone you came to see me about this, okay?” She nodded quickly, wiped a sniffle with her handkerchief and headed off toward the diner. Jake stuck his head in the office door and yelled to the yard boss, “Be back in thirty minutes.”
He never came back.
Mrs. Gail Stevens was dialing the sheriff’s office as soon as she saw Jake walking up to the front door. By the time the sheriff arrived it was all over.
Jake crashed through the front door and went straight to the bedroom. He found Curley asleep and threw a bucket of water on him. It wasn’t difficult to drag the groggy man into the front yard. As hung over as Curley was, he initially put up a credible fight. He swung his fists wildly. Jake sidestepped the long punches easily and threw jabs at Curley’s eyes. He had learned long ago, when fighting a man bare-fisted, to never throw a punch at the mouth or jaw where his teeth could chew up your hands. It didn’t take long before Curley’s eyes were swollen shut by Jake’s powerful jabs. Even though Curley was still swinging blindly, Jake had no trouble sidestepping and throwing short but hard hooks into Curley’s ears further disorienting him. Sensing Curley was about to fall, Jake threw the last few punches aimed purposely to break his nose, splattering blood onto the green grass. It was a beating Curley Stevens would never forget. As Jake stood over him, hands covered in blood and oblivious to the screams of Gail Stevens, the sheriff and a deputy grabbed him by the arms and pulled him toward the police car.
“Why, Jake?” screamed a hysterical and distraught Gail Stevens. “Why?”
Jake yelled back over his shoulder as the sheriff and deputy cuffed and tucked him into the back seat of the police car. “He knows why!”
Judge Draper peered over his bi-focal glasses. The courtroom was otherwise empty except for the court reporter. It had the smell of wood polish mixed with sweat. The walls seemed to be closing in on Jake and he suddenly felt so alone. He didn’t even have a lawyer.
“You are gonna do some time, son,” said Judge Draper. “But before I pass sentence, tell me, since Curley is in the hospital, was there a reason for this?”
Jake stood before the judge; head bowed concealing his angry gaze. He would not implicate Macie. He lifted his head ever so slightly. “Goes back aways,” he answered.
“Goes back aways, your honor,” barked Judge Draper.
“Yes sir, your honor.” Jake was surprised and taken off guard.
“I figured this was bad blood simmerin’ for a long time, Jake,” the judge began, putting his eyeglasses down on his bench. “But that ain’t no excuse. This was not self-defense. You went to the man’s home and beat him stupid. I know Curley is not exactly a role model, but he has rights too.”
Jake decided the judge was right. He had no defense. At least none he wanted to put forward. He would just shut his mouth and take the punishment. The silence was interminable.
“Assault and battery,” continued Judge Draper, “and since you’ve been before my court before, carries a sentence of eighteen to twenty-four months.” For the first time since he stepped into the courtroom, Jake looked directly at Judge Draper.
The judge raised his gavel, about to formalize the sentence by a stroke when he hesitated. “Or,” and he waited.
Sheriff Abbott nudged Jake. “Or what?” asked Jake.
“Or what, your honor,” responded an exasperated Judge Draper as he put the gavel down gently. He motioned to the court reporter to stop recording, clasped his hands and leaned forward. “This country will be at war soon, or haven’t you noticed what’s goin’ on in the world. I’ll make this simple. You are probably going to get drafted as soon as you get out of jail. You were probably going to get drafted anyway. The choice I’m about to give you today son is… county jail or the army.”
Jake thought for a few seconds and said, “Your honor, sir. Are you saying if I go into the army I won’t have to do any time in jail?”
Judge Draper took a deep breath. “Look Jake, you’re a young man who’s made mistakes. Your life will be much harder in the future with a criminal record. I think it’s a waste for you to be in jail when your country needs you. So, go into the army and your record stays clean. Simple.”
Jake felt pressured to make a fast decision but he wanted time to think it through. He looked over at Sheriff Abbott who nodded back at him. Jake needed to stall for time, to think. “How long, your honor, will I be in the army?”
“That is not the point, Jake,” sighed Judge Draper, “The point is you stay out of jail. And we have our own National Guard company right here in Bedford. Company A of the One Hundred and sixteenth Infantry Regiment, Twenty-ninth Infantry Division. I’m sure the National Guard recruiting office down the street can arrange to take a Bedford boy into the Company. So, what will it be?”
“It’s a fine regiment with a great tradition,” offered Sheriff Abbott.
“I don’t know anything about it, your honor. I never heard of it,” Jake lied. He was stalling for time. His cousin Harley was in Able Company of the 116th Infantry Regiment.
Judge Draper let out another audible sigh. “That is the trouble with you young people these days, you have no sense of history. Let me tell you about the roots of the One Hundred and sixteenth Infantry Regiment. Their nickname is the ‘Stonewallers’. Know why?” Judge Draper didn’t wait for an answer.
“Even though they trace their roots back to Seventeen-sixty, truth be known, what the boys are really proud of is the fact that the Second Virginia was the senior regiment in Stonewall Jackson’s First Virginia Brigade of the Army of Northern Virginia. At First Manassas, the Yankees called it Bull Run, the brigade held firm like a stone wall. That is how Stonewall Jackson got his name and how the One Hundred and sixteenth Infantry Regiment, direct descendents of the Second Virginia, became known as the Stonewallers. The regiment has twelve rifle companies all over Virginia and Able Company is made up of mostly Bedford boys, so you’ll be serving with some of your friends, I’m sure.”
Jake didn’t have any friends. Times were hard and many young men were either going into the service or joining the Civilian Conservation Corps. The only appeal this offer had was it kept him out of jail. Jake was far removed from the wars ravaging Europe and raging in China. He never considered enlisting when those foreign wars started and never thought much about getting drafted. And he was a little embarrassed he knew so little about the culture and history he was born to. He stood there, head bowed, mind racing, trying to make a decision.
“In fact,” Judge Draper continued, “the Twenty-ninth served with tremendous distinction in France in the Great War. It can trace all three of its infantry regiments way back to the Revolution. But here in Virginia we’re partial to the Stonewallers.”
Jake shuffled his feet nervously and looked back down at the floor.
“Tell you what, son,” said the judge finally, “the sheriff here is gonna walk you out the door. Down the street to the right is the recruiting office. To the left is the county jail. You got until then to decide which direction you’re gonna go.”
Jake nodded and turned. Sheriff Abbott walked him to the door and out into the street. The air was cold and crisp but the sun warmed his face. They stood in silence in front of the old red brick building alongside the tall white columns that graced the entrance. “You know, Jake, the judge and me both have sons serving with the Stonewallers. That’s how come he knows so much about them.” Abbott turned to face Jake. “Whatever you decide to do, I’ll keep an eye on Macie for you.”
For the first time that day, Jake smiled slightly. Abbott had a reputation in town for being fair. Jake sensed Macie would be all right. And the prospect of spending so much time confined in a small jail cell sealed his decision. Without saying a word, he held out his hands so the sheriff could unlock his cuffs. He turned right toward the recruiting office.
Judge Draper stood by the window and watched young Jake Kilroy join the army. He wouldn’t be the first felon the judge steered in that direction. He had been doing this same thing for years and most of those would-be criminals had decided not to squander their youth on some work gang. However, in this case he felt particularly gratified. He was taking a quick-tempered young hothead off the streets of Bedford and at the same time putting him into the fight with his country’s enemies. Somehow, where Jake Kilroy was concerned, the judge felt just a little bit sorry for his country’s enemies.
The next day, 3 February 1941, the 29th Infantry Division (National Guard) was activated into Federal service.