It was supposed to be a summer vacation. That's all, just two months with the family in London. Clearly though, most people would not have chosen Europe as a vacation destination in the summer of '39. Even a self-centered fifteen year old with no real interest in world affairs knew Europe was edging closer to war. But England was really just on the edge of Europe and besides, that's where Mother's family lived. It was a chance for Dad to do some research for work, Mother to visit her family, and my brother TR and me to spend some time together before he went off to college. It might be the last time the whole family went away together. Besides, it was an opportunity for me to put many, many miles between me and my classmates at DeWitt Academy, the prep school I attended in Stamford. After the way the school year ended, the moon would be too close to them.
It had been a warm afternoon in late May and we were outside playing baseball in gym class. As a skinny, non-athletic sort, I was playing right field, as usual. Since only the left handed kids hit the ball out that way and there weren't very many of them it wasn't a crucial position. It was the bottom of the final inning and my team, of which I had been the last player selected, of course, was ahead by one run. There were two outs and a man on first base when Tom Lyons came to bat. He was the most-popular and most athletic boy in our class, and in my opinion, the best-looking as well. And left handed, although that wasn't what I was thinking at the time. I was too absorbed in his tousled blond hair hanging down over his forehead and the thought of his deep blue eyes. I was brought out of my trance by the loud thwack of the bat hitting the ball. The ball was coming right toward me, or so I thought. I took a few steps toward it before I realized it was going to go over my head. I back-pedaled quickly but, as luck would have it, tripped over my feet and fell flat on my back. The ball hit the ground about ten feet behind me and rolled away. By the time I got to my feet and chased it down, Tom had circled the bases and was scoring the winning run.
My disgusted teammates didn't speak to me on the way back to the locker room. Tom Lyons did, though. He patted me on my back and thanked me.
"Couldn't have done it without ya, Coop. Thanks." I was willing to overlook the sarcasm in his voice just to look into his eyes and hear him say my name. Unfortunately, things got worse in the locker room and then in the showers. My teammates were riding me about my ineptitude, of course. That was almost an everyday thing. But Ed Jamison had seen Tom speak to me and razzed me about it.
"Just because you've got a crush on Lyons doesn't mean you have to screw the whole team to get him to speak to you, fairy-boy."
One of the others picked up on it.
"Screw the team? He'd probably rather have the team screw him."
"I don't know why they make these sissies play on our teams and ruin the games for us."
"That's bad enough but we sure shouldn't have to put up with them in the locker room, gawking at our privates."
I was staring down at my feet as I dried off, wishing I could just disappear and desperately trying not to look at anyone. I'd realized some time before that I was interested in other boys but thought I'd been careful not to show it. I couldn't afford to make a slip.
The jeering got worse as we went back to our lockers. Words like fairy, sissy, queer and nancy-boy were repeated over and over. I just wanted to get dressed and get out of there. I was reaching for my underwear when I felt a hand firmly grasp my shoulder.
"Nancy-boys like this don't belong around real men like us. What do you say we throw him out, men?"
All of a sudden there were hands all over me as I felt myself being pushed toward the door. I panicked, reaching out, grabbing at the others but that only seemed to make them angrier when I touched one of them. The door opened and next thing I knew I was standing out in the sun, stark naked, as the heavy door slammed shut behind me. I tried to open the door to get back in but the others were holding it from the inside. I pounded on it but that only succeeded in drawing attention to myself. Finally, I gave up and ran as fast as I could across the campus to my dorm, holding my hands over my crotch. I must have passed half the student body on the way. It only took a couple of minutes but it seemed like forever until I was in my room. I collapsed on the bed, crying.
The last two weeks of school were hell. No one in my class spoke to me, only at me or about me. And my name had become Nancy. That was all anyone called me. My brother TR was a senior and lived in the upperclassmen's dorm. And while he was my best friend and always supportive of me, I was hesitant to go see him about this. It was just so embarrassing and I was afraid he'd ask questions I didn't want to answer. But he had obviously heard some talk about my humiliation and so he tracked me down the next day and dragged the story out of me.
"I know it had to be tough on you, but don't let them get you down, Woody. Lots of guys our age put others down to build themselves up and it's not your fault."
"But look at me. No wonder they pick on me."
"So you're not athletic. Lots of boys aren't. Bullies are always going after guys who are smaller than themselves. That just shows what cowards they really are. Try to avoid the worst ones and whatever you do don't let on how much they upset you. If they think they're not getting to you, they'll probably let up after a while. And I'll put out the word that anyone who has a problem with you has a problem with me. Maybe that will stop them."
"I appreciate that but I can't come off as hiding behind my big brother. That might only make things worse. And I don't want to get you involved in this."
"Don't worry about getting me involved, but I understand what you mean. I'm proud of you for wanting to get through this on your own."
"Proud? I'd think you'd be ashamed having such a wimp for a brother."
TR looked me right in the eyes and spoke very seriously. "Woody, don't let me ever catch you calling yourself names again. You're my brother and I love you. There's nothing that could ever make me ashamed of you."
By the time Mother and Dad came up from the city to get us, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It was probably obvious to them that something was wrong but I couldn't bring myself to tell them what had happened. TR just told them that I'd had a problem with a couple of my classmates but that I was handling it.
So even though it was just for the summer and I probably wouldn't see any of my school mates even if we stayed in Manhattan, I was thrilled that we were leaving the country. Dad had chosen our weekly Sunday dinner at my grandparents' house on Gramercy Park to announce the trip. Grandfather was appalled.
"Are you out of your mind, William? Do you have any idea what's going on over there?" He paused. "Of course you do, and knowing your political inclinations and your sense of adventure I can understand why you'd want to go, but why would you risk taking your family? Those idiots over there are going to end up killing each other again, and that socialist in the White House is going to do his damnedest to get us involved, but at least we're safe here for now."
"Father, England is perfectly safe. While war is probably coming soon, right now there is peace. So this is a good time for me to go to do some research, some investigating. And it may be the last chance for a while for Lydia to see her family and for the boys to see their other grandparents. Besides, once the war begins I'll probably be traveling a lot and this may be the last chance I have to spend some time with my boys while they're still boys."
* * *
I should probably introduce myself and my family before I go any further. My name is Woodrow Wilson Cooper, Woody to my family and Cooper or Coop to the other boys at school. I pretty much answered to anything - except Nancy, that is. In the spring of '39, when this story begins, I was fifteen, almost sixteen. The country had been in a severe economic depression most of my life but it hadn't affected my family much as far as I could see. The Coopers had lots of money, thanks to my great-great-grandfather, Thomas. He started with a mule and a small barge on the Erie Canal, developed a booming freight business and then was smart enough to see that the future belonged to railroads, so he sunk all of his money into that new industry. The succeeding generations proved as capable of managing and enlarging the family fortune as Great-great-grandfather had been in starting it, so by the time I was born we were quite wealthy and it would take more than the Great Depression to affect us.
The family had also grown to be quite conservative, aristocratic and snobbish over the years. Grandfather, Thomas Cooper III, was the king, reigning from his mansion on Gramercy Park. Dad's older brother, Thomas IV, was the heir to the throne and helped run the business. That was lucky for Dad, since he seemed to have inherited a completely different set of genes.
Instead of going into the family business, he studied journalism at Columbia and when he graduated at 20 in 1915 he left for Europe, ostensibly to report on the Great War. Instead he enlisted in a regiment of the French Foreign Legion made up almost entirely of American volunteers. Throughout the war he was a soldier but also a reporter, sending articles on the war back home to New York when he could. In 1918 he was injured and met Mother, an English nurse working in a military hospital in Paris. It was love at first sight and when the war ended they married and settled in London, where Dad continued his career as a foreign correspondent for the New York Journal. My brother TR, short for Theodore Roosevelt (what can I say, Dad was and is a progressive), was born in 1921 followed by me in 1923. The scandals of the Harding administration were too much for a political reporter like Dad to resist so he brought the family back to the States when I was an infant and firmly established his career as an investigative journalist.
For as far back as I could remember there had been tension between Dad and Grandfather but it was apparently worse right after we came back from England when I was a baby. A lot of it had to do with Dad's politics, even the names he gave TR and me, but there was quite a bit of snobbery involved, too. My grandparents weren't happy with much that Dad had done, from enlisting in a foreign war to marrying someone of a lower class, someone they didn't know, and a foreigner at that. And then Dad didn't return home but stayed in London for all of those years. I know they didn't like that. But we were all Coopers, so no matter how much they disagreed with the way Dad lived his life, they put up with it. We were family, not that it was a very warm family, but we had to present a united front to the outside world. Appearances mattered, after all.
While Dad was considered a radical rebel by the rest of the family, we didn't exactly live a life of poverty. He was not only very successful in his career, he had income from a family trust fund as a supplement to his earnings. So TR and I grew up in a very comfortable brownstone on East 44 th St. just a block from the East River and attended private schools. And while we were much more pampered than most kids, due to Dad's political interests and Mother's middle class family background, we were a bit more grounded than most of our classmates.
* * *
Although I had my own personal reason for wanting to run away that summer, I was looking forward to the trip for all of the reasons Dad had given to Grandfather as well. Many people seemed to think the British were cold and formal, stiff upper lip and all that, but my grandparents in Coventry were so much warmer and more loving than the ones in New York. We'd made two trips to England before; one when I was a small child and one when I was 11. I didn't remember much about the country from either trip but I did remember Mother's family and I loved them.
And I adored TR. Talk about hero worship, he was my idol, everything I wasn't - tall, good-looking, athletic. So many boys his age thought of their little brothers as pests, but he always had time for me.
I also loved being with my parents. They were different from any other grownup couple I knew. Most of my friends' parents and most of my parents' friends had another kind of relationship. The men spent most of their time with their men friends. The women spent most of their time with their women friends. Yes, Dad did belong to a club and Mother spent some time with her ladies clubs, but they enjoyed each other's company more than anything else. Other couples seemed to be more business partners than life partners and it was clear the men were the senior partners. But Mother and Dad were friends, pals, equals. They talked, they laughed, they hugged and kissed. After twenty years, they were still on their honeymoon.
We were booked for passage on the Queen Mary the second week of June. Mother spent the whole prior week packing. She always went overboard when we traveled; her motto was 'better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.' But even by her standards I thought she was packing a lot for just two months, especially for herself and Dad. After all, we'd have our laundry done several times while we were away so we didn't need to take everything with us. The day before we sailed a small truck came to the house to take the trunks which were being shipped as freight. Mother had packed suitcases with what we'd need for the four-day voyage and we took them with us in the cab the next day.
The last time we'd sailed to Europe the Queen Mary was still under construction and we'd taken the Aquitania. It was an old ship but huge and luxurious, in first class anyway. I knew the Queen Mary was larger than the Aquitania so I was surprised that it didn't hold as many passengers. It was more modern, of course, and had lots of luxury, too, although I'd read that the French ship, the Normandie, was nicer. And not only did the Queen Mary hold far fewer passengers, it wasn't full for the voyage. One of the crew told Dad that because of all of the talk of war transatlantic travel had been down for several months.
TR and I were sharing a stateroom adjoining Mother and Dad's in first class, which was called Cabin Class on this ship. When I saw how enormous our room was I realized why the ship held fewer passengers than the older one. Dad led us on a quick tour of the ship. My favorite part was the huge map of the North Atlantic taking up one whole wall of the first class dining room. It laid out the route of the voyage and Dad said the position of the ship would be constantly updated on the map, so we would be able to see where we were all through the trip. Mother was most impressed by the cozy, elegant Verandah Grill.
When it was time for the ship to depart, we all went out to join the crowds on deck. We had no one who was seeing us off - the family was barely speaking to Dad due to his irresponsibility of taking us into a possible war zone - but we stood there and waved to the throngs on the dock anyway. It was a huge party and we took part to the fullest. Once the ship had inched away from the pier Mother and Dad excused themselves and went below - Mother to our staterooms to unpack and Dad to meet a newspaper friend in the first class lounge. TR and I stayed on deck, enjoying the party atmosphere and watching every detail of our departure.
As the ship reached the middle of the Hudson and turned downstream, TR nudged me.
"Will you take a look at that?" He whispered in my ear. I followed his gaze into the crowd but had no idea what he was talking about. "The blonde," he added.
Then I saw who he was looking at. Even I recognized that she was a beauty. Though I wasn't attracted to girls, I could still tell which were pretty and which weren't.
"Wait here, Wood." Without another word, TR was off in her direction. He went right up to her and started talking. When she looked up into his face a big smile broke out on hers. In no time they were chatting as if they were old friends. After a moment he turned and pointed in my direction. I blushed, having been caught staring at them. As the ship passed Battery Park and entered the harbor, TR excused himself and came back to me.
"Okay Woody, it's all taken care of. We have dates for lunch tomorrow."
"W-we? What are you talking about?"
"She's got a little sister around your age so it's a double date."
A date? With a girl? I must have looked as distressed as I felt. TR put his arm around my shoulder and led me to a railing near the stern, away from what crowds were still on deck.
"Look, little brother, I know you're not interested in girls." I knew I must have looked alarmed at that but TR just smiled. "At least not yet. We Coopers tend to be late bloomers. But it would be a great favor to me if you'd be willing to put up with the sister for at least a meal. After I've had a chance to work my charm on her she probably won't feel the need for a chaperone after that."
"Sure, TR, I suppose I can do that. But won't her sister be disappointed? I mean, she may be expecting a smaller version of you. Look at me. I'm short and scrawny, not at all like you."
It was true. TR was about 6'1" and while he didn't have a large build, he was muscular and all in proportion. With his blond hair and blue eyes, he looked like a matinee idol. I, on the other hand, was 5'6" and skinny. My hair was blond but darker than his and my eyes were an odd blue-green mix.
"Don't be so hard on yourself, Woody. You may not have noticed because I've always been bigger than you, but I've grown quite a bit in the past couple of years, As I said, we Coopers are late bloomers. You may not end up as tall as me but you're not going to be short either. And you've got a good frame so once you start to fill out you'll look great. Besides, it's not all about looks, you know. You're a great guy and any girl who doesn't see that doesn't deserve to be with you."
"I'm not sure I buy all that but I'll go to lunch with you and the girls tomorrow. How bad can it be?"
TR grinned. "That's not exactly the attitude you should have going into your first date, but it'll do for now, I suppose."
The ship was about to leave the harbor through the Verrazano Narrows and I turned back to look at my hometown. The Statue of Liberty was holding her torch up toward us, as if she were waving goodbye. Little did I know how many years it would be until I saw her again.