Secret Files: Lily DeLuna: 1943: The Summer of ’43, Chapter 3: Thefts in Redcliff

by Dan Swanson

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Before she took off to see her uncle, Lily DeLuna had a workout with her mother, Heather. Heather DeLuna was half-Korean, the daughter of an English diplomat who had spent much of his career in the Far East, and an unusually adventurous Korean peasant who had left her small village of Sinshido to explore the world.

Heather grew up traveling throughout the Far East, and when she turned sixteen, her father had sent her to finishing school in London, just before the start of the Great War. When the war began, she became a volunteer nurse at a military hospital, which was where she had met Jacob DeLuna. Jacob was recuperating from a field amputation of his left foot before he was sent back to the United States with a medical discharge. He and Heather fell in love, and Heather returned to Redcliff with him.

Heather was a master of an obscure school of martial arts called Sinshido, named after her mother’s village. Almost no one outside of the village had ever heard of it, but all villagers were trained in the art from the time they could walk. Heather had learned from her mother, and she had taught Eddie and then Lily. Jake had learned as much as he could, hampered by a missing foot and his relative old age at the time he started to learn.

Although Lily had been athletically active by playing baseball all summer, her Sinshido was getting stale, so she welcomed the workout. She had worked out occasionally in a Korean dojang in Chicago, but their art was different from hers, so she welcomed the workout with her mom.

This afternoon, she was going to get caught up on all the news and most of the gossip from the last four months. She had dropped into the administration office for the Redcliff Hawks semi-pro baseball team, greeted the secretary with a sunny, “Hi, Betty!” and breezed right into the manager’s office.

“Hi, Uncle George!” she said to a man who looked at lot like her dad. George DeLuna, Jake’s younger brother, had been the managing partner of the Hawks, to Jake’s silent partner, since their parents had retired to Florida in 1923. George was friends with virtually everyone in town, and he always knew what was going on. He rarely told everything he knew, though, and your secrets were probably safer with George than they were with you.

“So, Uncle George, I hear the Hawks are really good this year.” Lily had often worked out with the team in the past and knew a lot of the players.

“Well, that depends on what you mean, Lil, darlin’,” said George DeLuna. “We don’t have anywhere near the players we had in the past. A lot of them have enlisted or been drafted. We have guys who are too young or too old for the services, or they’re unfit for the service for some other reason. We’re better than everyone else in our league — they all have the same problems with players we have. But we’ve got three secret weapons. Your friend Pete Lincoln is one of the best pitchers in the state, and his older brother Joe is a great center fielder.”

Lily was surprised. “Why aren’t they in the services? They’re young, smart, strong — everything you want in a G.I.!”

“Except their skin color, Lily,” George said sadly. “They both went to enlist, and they were told that the military had enough coloreds already. ‘Don’t call us,’ they told ’em, ‘we’ll call you!’ It’s hard to believe we’re at war with a real enemy, who threatens the whole world, and we treat our own citizens that way.” He frowned for a second, and then looked up again, almost with a smile. “Anyway, their loss is our gain. They’re both having great years for us!”

Lily and Pete had been good friends, because they shared some similar experiences with bigots; Pete because he was colored, and Lily because she was mixed. It rarely happened in Redcliff, where everyone knew everyone else, but there had been bad experiences on school trips, family outings, and occasionally with out-of-town visitors. She would have to drop in and see him soon.

“Say, George, are you playing today?”

“Nope, but we do play tomorrow. If you aren’t doing anything, why don’t you come out and watch? You can come down into the dugout, if you want. In fact, that way you’ll get an up-close-and-personal look at our third secret weapon. Basher Brock, or Bash, he likes better. He’s the best ballplayer I’ve ever seen!”

George looked abashed as he continued. “Even better than Eddie was…” It was George’s opinion that Lily’s brother Eddie could have made the majors, and been one of the best players of all time. Lily had only been nine years old when Eddie enlisted in 1935. She had idolized her brother, and at the time was sure he was the greatest ballplayer ever, already. After a year as a professional, she realized that the Lily of 1935 didn’t know enough about baseball or life to make an unbiased judgment about her brother. She did know for sure, however, that Eddie had wanted to be a pilot even more than he had wanted to be a ballplayer.

“Are you sure about that, Uncle George?” said Lily. “I’ll bet you wouldn’t dare say that at a town meeting!” Eddie, like George, had been friendly with everyone in town, and when he died, he became sort of a town legend. Some of the more belligerent people in Redcliff might actually start a fight if they heard someone say something like that about Eddie.

George thought for a while. “Well, Eddie was only seventeen the last time I saw him play. Bash is around twenty-five, so he’s been playing more than Eddie did. Say!” He looked at Lily thoughtfully, and with a little apprehension. “Eddie was the age you are today, when he made his choice of the Navy over baseball. I hope you aren’t going to do something crazy like that, are you?”

“I tried, George. But the Navy isn’t accepting any women to be fighter pilots — even if I can already fly rings around half of them!” Lily said this a little sharply; this really bothered her. “Anyway, tell me more about Basher Brock!”

“Big, very athletic, got all the tools. He can hit, run, throw and field! Best player I’ve ever seen, Lil darlin’, and you know I’ve seen a few!” Indeed, a half-dozen Hawks players had played in the majors since the team had been founded. George looked thoughtful again as he compared Bash Brock to his memories of his nephew Eddie. “Probably not nearly as fast as Eddie, or Joe Lincoln. And he strikes out more than I like to see. But he’s hit some home runs like you’ve never seen before. I swear, some of them still haven’t come down!”

Lily was puzzled. “Well, if he’s so good, why isn’t he in the majors or the services?”

Now George looked puzzled, too. “Says he’s got epilepsy. No Major League team will take a chance on him having a fit on the diamond. And nobody could trust him in battle, if he might have a fit at the wrong time. He told me, though, that it doesn’t happen very often. He’s been with us since the end of May, and I never seen one of them fits. I’ve seen him a few minutes afterwards, though, and boy did he look awful!”

“OK, George, I’ll be there to watch for a while, anyway, since the ticket’s free!” said Lily. “So, what’s the news around Redcliff?”

“There’s been a whole string of houses robbed this summer! Somebody gets in late at night, sneaks around the house, and steals money and jewelry. The police have no idea what’s going on, but it’s bad. Why, most people in Redcliff have started to lock our doors at night!” This was shocking to Lily. Her family had never locked their house, even if they were going to be away for a while, and they had never had a theft, either.

“So, Unc, is there any pattern to these robberies, or any suspects?” Lily already had the curiosity that would soon lead her to become an investigative reporter.

George rubbed his chin, which indicated to Lily that he was thinking hard. “For a while, it looked like only people who were involved in some way with the Hawks. People who came to games, homes where the players are living, that kind of thing.” Lily knew that many of the Hawks players who came from out of town lived with local families during the season.

Sighing, George said, “So all the newcomers on my team are suspects. But some people think it’s the ‘boes.” Redcliff was a popular stopping-off point for hoboes riding the rail, as the Erie Railroad had a switching year nearby. There were always half a dozen trains coming in or going out every day. It was an easy place to hop a train, and an easy place to hop off.

“Gas and other kinds of rationing have put a lot of people out of jobs since the war began. We’ve seen more ‘boes this month alone than we usually see for all the summer months added together. There must be at least one thief amongst them. But they usually do a good job of policing their own kind. Could be a ‘bo, but I ain’t convinced.”

Another mystery for Lily to solve. She would break both these stories, and give them to the Redcliff Review. She had written stories for the Review since she was fourteen, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer had even picked up a couple of them. She thought the gasoline story would probably get some national play as well.

George changed the subject. “Do you remember Biff Redondo, the jock you beat up when you were a sophomore?”

Now Lily was really surprised. She had never told anyone about that, and she had been sure that Redondo and his sidekick, “Skinny” Spooner, would never have told anyone, either. Imagine the shame of two boys being beat up by a girl. “Uncle George, how did you find that out? I kept it top secret!”

“Skinny told everyone. Well, I think it was Skinny. See, Biff enlisted right after Pearl Harbor. And right after their fight with you, Skinny stopped hanging out with Biff and started doing the Charles Atlas thing. He’s not skinny any longer!”

Skinny was a little younger than Lily, and particularly after their fight, had never moved in the same circle of friends. “I guess I never noticed that, Unc. Well, good for him!”

“Yup — once he stopped following Biff around like a sick puppy, he turned out to be not such a bad kid, after all. Anyway, before he finished basic training, Biff was involved in some kind of electrical accident and blinded in his left eye. The army gave him a medical discharge and sent him home. He wears an eyepatch these days. Thinks it makes him look dashing. Well, he came home and tried to step back into being king of the roost. Figured his injury in training would make him into some kind of war hero. Anyway, you know how Biff is…”

Indeed, Lily did know. Biff Redondo had always been a hotshot athlete, winning all-state honors in football and track. He had stopped playing baseball because he was always being compared, not favorably, with Eddie DeLuna, and he was tired of it. That may have explained why he had never liked Lily, until after she had whipped him in a fight.

“Well, the kids in his clique have all grown up a lot, and they weren’t interested in hero-worshipping at his feet any longer,” continued Uncle George. “He couldn’t stand not being a big shot, I guess. He tried to lord it over Skinny, but Skinny wasn’t having any, I’ll tell you! Biff got so mad, he started swinging. Skinny didn’t want to hit a guy that was half-blinded, but Biff kept swinging. Finally Skinny tackled him, rolled him over, and sat on his back. Told him, real gentle-like, to leave him alone. Then he got up and walked away. Leastwise, that’s what I heard. Sometime later, the story about your fight got out. I ain’t certain, but I’m guessing Skinny leaked it.

“Biff’s life fell apart after that. He couldn’t find a job. He was doing odd jobs for a while — he hung around the drugstore downtown and asked people for work. For a while, a lotta people felt sorry for him, and gave him chores and yard work and stuff like that. But, whenever he got a couple of bucks, he got drunk, and then he’d get mean, and nobody wanted to fight with him, so after a while everyone started avoiding him. If his folks hadn’t left him the house when they moved to Florida, I don’t know where he would even live. He’s letting the place go to hell, too! Funny thing, though, I haven’t seen him around for a while. He was talking about finding a job in Cleveland. Well, good luck to him! And if he finds something, good riddance! Anyway, he’s bitter, and he’s decided to blame you and our family. So you watch out for that boy! He’s afraid of Jake and Heather, and he knows I’d take my shotgun and salt shells to his backside if he messed with me. You may have whipped him once, but don’t let him sneak up on you!”

They spent another hour or so catching up. Just before closing time, Frank Coles, the coach of the Hawks, rushed into the office.

“Hey, boss! We got a big problem! Them idiot Bannister brothers got in a bar fight last night over in West Falls. Billy ended up with a broken arm, and Chris has broken bones in both hands! I got nobody to play left field tomorrow. I called Timmy Amerela, and he says he can help us out for a couple weeks, but he can’t get here in time for the game. I could try that kid from the Falcons–” That was the Redcliff High School baseball team, Lily knew. “–but everybody knows he can’t hit the curve ball!” He finally ran down and noticed Lily. “Hey, Lil! I followed your every game; you had a great year.”

Suddenly he stopped, and then turned to George. Then they both turned and looked at Lily. She looked back and burst out laughing.

“You guys aren’t serious? Does your league even allow women players?”

George started talking again. “Damn right we’re serious! There’s nothing in the league rules about player eligibility. Not a thing! I know, because when Joe Lincoln started to play for me, the other teams tried to claim that the rules didn’t allow coloreds. I went through that book a dozen times, and there ain’t one word about coloreds, or women, for that matter. A couple of times since then, some of the other owners have tried to change the rules, but I just threatened to pull out of the league. Our gate is twice the gate of any other team in the league, and we pull great on the road, too. They’d stand to lose big bucks without us. They always back down. If I say you can play, Lily Loo, you can play. What do you say?”

“When’s the game? I’ll be there — with bells on!” Lily loved a challenge.

***

Before it closed, Lily DeLuna headed to the town library for an hour of research. The string of thefts had caught her interest. Redcliff had always been a very safe town, and nobody locked their doors. Everyone looked out for everyone else, and it was hard to believe that someone could rob so many different houses and not get caught, particularly if it were several different thieves. You would think that several strangers in town at once would be noticed.

Lily didn’t even notice her automatic assumption that the thief was a stranger; she just couldn’t imagine someone from Redcliff stealing from his neighbors.

She looked through the back editions of the Redcliff Review. About a dozen house thefts were reported, beginning in early June. She couldn’t see any obvious pattern. She made a list of all the dates the thefts had been reported, and read everything she could find about each theft, which wasn’t much; she usually just got the names and a description of what was taken. Lily knew most of the victims, so she decided to go talk to them later in the week. She had a party to go to, so she wrapped up her research.

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