Solace in Silver

Donald Briggs sat in his living room in Rochester New York listening intently to the radio, much like he did most mornings before work. He enjoyed his black coffee, sweetened with nothing more than the company of his new wife Helen. As they sat in the quaintly sparse living room, they listened to their favorite station, one of six broadcasting at the time. It was December eighth 1941, and the events of the previous day made today anything but normal for Mr. and Mrs. Donald Briggs. Turning up the dial they listened as the voice of so many fireside chats bellowed through their living room this early morning. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was addressing Congress and the Nation: “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific… No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory… I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.”

That morning instead of going to work, Donald Briggs, joined by his brother George and most American men, stood in line for hours to enlist in the United States military and help defend their country and the world. Donald Briggs enlisted in the United States Navy, while his brother George chose the United States Army Air Corp. The World War had finally come to American soil, and no one could ignore it any longer.

Within the next month, Donald and his brother George were shipped off to basic training. Donald trained at Seneca Lake in upstate New York, not far from his home. He trained on beach landing crafts, for troop deployment and retrieval. After completing his basic training he was commissioned a private first class in the United States Navy; he was officially a motor mechanic for beach landing crafts. His brother George had chosen the Army Air Corp, and chose to work on planes that would eventually help the allied bombing invasions. Both brothers chose very different military paths and with all certainty would not see each other until the end of the war, presuming they both made it back home alive.

On the eve of their respective departures, the two brothers sat together in their neighborhood bar, as would have been their custom normally. However tonight was much different, neither knowing if the other would return from his odyssey. As they sat their sipping Usher’s Green Stripe Scotch, the two brothers shared stories and laughs from years past. As the night got later, and the drinks piled up, the mood became more and more somber. The two brothers said their goodbyes, not knowing if they’d see the other again.

* * *

During World War II, as is common in every war, letters and communication to loved ones around the world and back home were read or monitored, and censored accordingly. Depending on the communication, the recipient, and the secrecy of a soldier’s mission, the soldier’s entire letter could be blacked out except for his greeting, a few choice words, and his salutation. Soldiers’ locations and movements were on a need to know basis, and very few people were in the know.

* * *

In November of 1942, Operation Torch began lighting up North Africa. Operation Torch was a series of allied bombing raids in North Africa, designed to limit, if not eradicate the German presence in North Africa, and prepare for a ground invasion. After a successful invasion, the allied occupied towns in North Africa were under strict blackout conditions, for fear of enemy bombing raids. With windows and doors covered, street lights out, and light usage as a whole at a minimum, the city had vanished from view, even to most of its inhabitants.

Donald had recently been reassigned to North Africa from the Pacific. He had successfully aided in Operation Torch, and was now on leave, after his first year in the Navy. Donald took his leave in the allied occupied port city of Mers-el-Kebir, now known as Oran. The city was completely dark, adhering strictly to the blackout orders. Donald and a few of his fellow Navy enlisted men set out in town together in search of a bar, which was easier said than done in utter darkness. Rumbling through the city in search of a much needed drink, Donald stopped for a smoke. Asking a passer-by for a light, the block was illuminated with the light from the standard issue Zippo presented to him. Inhaling the filterless Lucky Strike tinted with the flavor of gas, Donald looked up to thank the Good Samaritan. As their eyes met Donald’s cigarette slipped from between his lips; the glow of the Zippo had illuminated the face of his brother George, who for all Donald knew was on the other side of the world or worse, dead. The two brothers grabbed one another, hugging, jumping up and down, screaming, yelling, and carrying on. They had left each other over a year ago, and now found each other once again a world away.

As the commotion continued between the two brothers in the darkness of Mer-el-Kebir, their friends and fellow soldiers, whom they were out with at the time, came to their respective aids, thinking that this had to be a fight. A brawl soon broke out in the streets of Mer-el-Kebir, each brother trying to protect the other, as well as their comrades. With the screaming whistles and billy clubs of the Military Police, the brawl was brought to a sudden halt. And after long explanations, the smoothing of feathers and possibly the greasing of palms, the men were allowed to go freely. So the two brothers, Donald and George, found the nearest sheeted saloon, and pulled up their stools, telling the bartender to just leave the bottle. After hours of recounting their past years to one another over buckets of scotch, the two brothers made a pact in silver. Each pulled a silver half dollar from his pocket and put it on the bar, passing it to the other. They swore that when the war was over they would use their silver half dollar to buy the other a drink back home in America, in New York, in the little dreary bar they frequented outside of Rochester, where they always had. As morning grew near, and the bottle empty, the two brothers shook hands and hugged. As they embraced, they clutched one another, as well as their silver dollars.

As the war dragged on, and casualties rose, it seemed that North Africa would be the last time the two were together. As the war in Europe escalated, Donald was reassigned for troop deployments on the beaches of Europe. George, having completed his role in North Africa, was sent to aid on the Russian Front. Neither had any idea where the other ever was, and neither really wanted to think of the possibilities.

George was the first to return home in 1945, his tour was over, as was the war for the most part. Donald returned a few months later, after aiding in some troop transport stateside. In 1946 the two sat down at their favorite dank dive outside of Rochester, New York and each ordered the other a shot of Usher’s Green Stripe Scotch, slamming their silver half dollars on the slab of mahogany. But almost as fast as they had slammed them on the bar, they retrieved their coins, realizing the true value that they held. Paying with a paper bill, the two told stories, laughing and drinking into the early morning.

The two brothers held onto their coins for the rest of their lives. However when George passed away, Donald asked his widow for the silver half dollar that had gotten them home safe. George’s widow informed Donald, that regrettably George had lost the coin years before but was too ashamed to admit. Donald was not angered in the least, laughing and lamenting his brother whom he had cared for so deeply; at least it had gotten him home.

* * *

In December of 1969 James Briggs, along with his brother Donald and a few friends, registered for the draft. Jim and Don had heard stories from their father and uncle about life in the military. They had been regaled with stories throughout their lives of courage and valor while they sat on the slab of mahogany, listening to their family and other patrons. That bar was like another school desk for Jim and Don, learning from real men about the real world. And undoubtedly the stories would always turn to the story of the silver half dollar. Their mother had shown them the article in the Rochester Democrat Chronicle numerous times. And every time the two young brothers heard their father and uncle tell the story, they would end by each slamming their silver half dollars onto that thick slab of mahogany.

As Jim got older he continued to hear the same stories from the same men, and he would often ask his father to show him the silver half dollar. The coins had gotten his family home, when many others had not been so lucky. When the brothers received their high draft numbers, it was obvious they would never be drafted into service. Some of their friends were not so lucky. As Jim watched friends on his block return in body bags or caskets and attended funeral after funeral, he made a decision that it was his time to serve. Quitting his union electrician apprenticeship, that was nearly complete; Jim enlisted in the United States Marine Corp.

When he came home and told his parents the news that he was going to fight in Vietnam, their reactions were similar, yet quite polar. His mother wept at the news, knowing what had happened to the boys on the block and around the country, and that the Marines were always the first to fight. She had survived being a Navy wife; she certainly did not want to be a Marine mother. His father called him a “damn fool”, and then proceeded to shake his hand. His father beckoned him upstairs. Entering his parents’ room, Jim saw what was in his father’s extended palm. The coin that had slammed against that familiar bar so many times that Jim could see it in his mind. The silver half dollar sat there in his father’s palm, as Jim stood their room transfixed on the family heirloom. His father, noticing his son’s unwavering stare, shoved the coin into Jim’s hand. Immediately, almost instinctually, Jim tried in vain to give the coin back to his father. His father refused, pushing the coin back into Jim’s hand closing his fist around his son’s. Donald told his son that this silver half dollar had gotten him his war and brought him home alive, and it would surely do the same for his son. Jim was afraid to take the coin, and really did not want to be entrusted with it for fear of losing it. But at his father’s insistence, he pocketed the coin, promising to carry it with him until he could give it back to his father upon his safe return.

Jim went to Vietnam where he was a mechanic working on jet fighters, specializing on the A-4 Skyhawk. He served aboard aircraft carriers as well on airbases inside Vietnam. He did face enemy fire and attacks on numerous occasions. While stationed at an airbase during one such attack at night, everyone was ordered to take cover in underground bunkers until the bombing raid was over. Jim made his way for the bunker, but in his haste he dropped the silver half dollar in the sand. Frantic, Jim dropped to his hands and knees, sifting through the sand while there were explosions on the ground and fighters overhead. His fellow Marines yelled, ordered, and even attempted to drag him into the bunker. Jim told them that he was not leaving without the silver half dollar, in much more colorful language of course. Eventually he recovered the coin and was able to wait out the rest of the airstrike in the safety of the bunker.

Jim survived several other harrowing moments while in Vietnam, but the silver half dollar always remained with him. When he returned home the first thing he did upon seeing his parents was to hug his mother, salute his father, and place the silver half dollar back in his father’s palm, where it belonged.

* * *

As Donald Briggs lay on his screen covered porch, in that same house in Rochester, New York, he fiddled with his silver half dollar. The air whistling through the porch was the one thing that could help him forget the pain from the cancer that was tearing through his body. As my father sat next to his dying father on that porch in Rochester, I sat across from them, barely weaned in my mother’s arms. My Grandfather held out the silver coin, as he had two decades before, my father still urging him to keep it. My Grandfather, struggling to sit up, cajoled my father towards him. Placing the silver half dollar in my father’s hand, clenching his fist around my father’s, telling him that the coin was his now, and that one day he would give it to me. As he retracted his hand, my father still in awe of the gift, my grandfather beckoned dad even closer, whispering in his ear, “You always were my favorite.”

* * *

Now I, like my father once did, listen to the tale of Donald and George Briggs, and the silver half dollar that has protected two generations of Briggs’ and always brought them home safe. Like my father used to do, I still ask to see the coin every time I hear the story. And as if my grandfather were telling it, my father always slams the silver half dollar on whatever slab he can find.

On my twenty-first birthday, after all the boozy celebration had quieted and all the people were gone, and it was just me and my father he gave me my birthday present. As I opened the box I knew what it might be and what I wanted it to be, but never would I have believed what it was. Opening the small box I found a silver half dollar exactly like our family heirloom, but much shinier, almost new. Taking it out and inspect it I cast an inquisitive glance towards my father. Noticing my curious glance he removed an identical coin from his pocket. He said, “We will always have your grandfather’s coin stowed away in our safe (since our house had been broken into years before and all my father could think to look for was that coin), but now we both have one, just like George and Dad did.”

I always carry our coin on me, and whenever my dad and I are together we put our coins on the bar, just as Donald and George would have. And whenever I miss my family or really need guidance, I can just reach into my pocket and find solace in the silver half dollar and know that my dad might be doing the same.

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