Sound and Fury
It was sometime in 1942 that I discovered I was different. In what way,
exactly, I could not have said, but the feeling itself was painfully
clear: like a child left behind by aliens that my parents mistook for
Perhaps not surprisingly, this epiphany occurred just after I discovered
other people. Awakening abruptly, I found myself in the midst of a
garrulous gathering of folks in a place called Meridian, Mississippi.
Quickly, my four-year-old eyes discerned that these people were nothing
like me at all. And yet, they were “family,” mama said, and indeed,
they all seemed to live in my home.
As it turned out, there were actually only six of us (my mother, father,
sister grandmother, Uncle Henry and I) who slept and ate in our house
every day. The rest of these characters—a deep south gumbo of uncles,
aunts, cousins, step-siblings, ex-spouses, friends and a handful of
undetermined status—were present, less often, individually, perhaps,
but collectively, almost around the clock.
By ones and twos, this curious throng arrived and departed
continuously— especially on weekends. They came, they hugged, they
talked, they laughed, they wept, they ate and/or drank and then
left—only, in many cases, to come back and do it all over again. They
might stay ten minutes or stay the night. A stranger observing our home
that year might have guessed he was witnessing a family reunion or a
wake—one that curiously never ended.
If all that seems odd, consider still another strange aspect of this
intriguing pageant: most of these people parading in and out of our home
wore fascinating uniforms. Here was Uncle Ralph in khaki and brown, an
outfit resplendent with brass insignia and impressive, multicolored
ribbons. There was Uncle JD in his spiffy, starched whites, blue
kerchief tie and perky, immaculate white cap. And look, here was Uncle
Fred in my favorite—a blue, red and white costume as dazzling as a
Christmas Nutcracker. Not to be outdone, even Aunt Maude wore a grey
uniform trimmed in red, signifying, she would inform me later, her
position with the American Red Cross.
The old Malloy home (it had been my father’s parents’ home before it
was ours) resounded with an extraordinary vitality. At the time,
however, I assumed this intensity was typical of human behavior, and I
could not have been more delighted. After all, I received lots of
attention. Our manic visitors would invariably hug me or tousle my head
and rave about how much I had grown—even if they‘d just seen me the
day before. Then they might give me a peppermint or a stick of Juicy
Fruit, or maybe even a nickel (indeed, those who’d had a nip or two
might even spring for a quarter). And because they were all
“company,” (not to mention “family”) mama usually had snacks on
the dining room table—nuts, candy, chips and dips, or even those
little sandwiches with the crusts cut off.
Like the movies of that era, scenes in our home were often accompanied
by 1940s music—especially the big band variety. We didn’t have a
record player, but who needed one when we had radio? Glenn Miller, Artie
Shaw, Woody Herman and the Andrews Sisters set the mood for my early
life story—and for plenty of dancing, too.
And oh, how my mama loved to dance. For “Babs,” dancing was right up
there with silk stockings, Chanel Number Five and black walnut ice
cream. Give her a shot of Early Times bourbon on a Saturday night, and
she was transformed into Ginger Rogers. Never mind if no one else was
dancing, mama was going to ‘cut a rug’—even if she had to do it
alone. Sometimes she could lure my introverted father onto the floor,
sometimes not. If it wasn’t past my bedtime, she was just as delighted
to dance with me. Charleston, jitterbug, tango, waltz—she was good at
them all, and eventually, I would be, too. In the meantime, I was
thrilled to dance with her.
But dancing was not the main attraction at our house in that magical
time. Nor even all that great music. No, our family’s favorite pastime
in 1942 was lively conversation, especially around our big kitchen
table. Take any Friday or Saturday night, add a half dozen relatives or
friends and bottle of cheap bourbon whiskey, and the old Malloy home
came alive. Raucous laughter, maudlin tears, passionate arguments—in
the dark of my adjacent room I heard them all and was secretly
enchanted. Now and then, mama or one of my “aunts” or “uncles”
would come in to check on me, and I would pretend to be asleep. How
lucky I was to have this family, I thought. Weren’t these people
simply the grandest? I could not wait to grow up and be just like them.
Meanwhile, I knew I wasn’t like them at all. They seemed to share some
secret wisdom that no one had bothered to reveal to me. They
knew—well, how to be in the world, and I did not. But, wait—maybe
they’d never find out. Perhaps I could pay close attention, learn to
mimic their behavior and pretend to be one of them.
Little by little, I came to comprehend what all the excitement was
about: everyone was overwrought because our country was “at war.” We
were fighting the “Japs” and the “Krauts” in a place called
“Oversees.” These bad guys had done some terrible things, and we
were mad as hell about it. Mad enough, in fact, that most of the men
could hardly wait to join the fight against them. My uncles Fred, JD and
Ralph, as we have seen, were already in uniform, and my father
(“Babe”) and Uncle Henry would have been, too, if only they had been
Daddy and Uncle Henry were both turned down by the armed services,
because they were something called “fore-eff.” Later I would learn
that—at forty-plus—they were both simply too old for war, not to
mention that neither had very good eyesight (in fact, the lenses in
Uncle Henry’s glasses looked as thick as the bottoms of “CoCola”
bottles). On top of all that, my father had a family to support—mama,
me and my baby sister, Ida Rose.
Still, the Malloys were well represented in the war, and not only on my
father’s side. My mother’s younger brother (my Uncle), Barry had
also joined up, much to her conflicting anxiety and pride (he was, in
her eyes, still a baby), and was presently in flight school in the Army
It is difficult to convey the palpable omnipresence of the phenomenon
that was World War II. From the beginning (or at least my awakening),
the war touched every aspect of our lives. When my parents were not
congregating with friends and family to talk about the war—family
members serving, troop deployments, battles, victories, losses, injuries
and deaths—they were gathering around the Philco console radio in the
living room to hear Edward R. Murrow or Robert Trout tell us how the
conflict was going.
If people chanced to forget about the war for a moment, there was always
something to yank them back into its all-consuming reality. Everywhere
in Meridian, it seemed, there were signs and posters (“Uncle Sam Needs
You” or “Buy U.S. War Bonds”). Shoppers complained about the
shortage of ration stamps they needed to buy groceries and gasoline.
Scrap metal drives to help the war effort were always in progress. And
the newsreels at the movies (indeed, many of the movies, themselves)
were almost entirely about the war.
SOMETIMES THE WAR HIT CLOSE TO HOME
In the front windows of neighborhood homes, there were stars
representing each family’s involvement in the war: a White or Silver
star meant a family member was serving in the armed services; a Gold
star signified that a family member had been killed in the war. There
was nothing sadder than noticing that a White star had been replaced by
a Gold one.
Mrs. Morton, one of our next-door neighbors, had two Silver stars in her
front window—one for her husband, Pete, another for their son, Pete
Jr., whom we all knew as Sonny. Most days, she, like half the
neighborhood, was waiting by her mailbox when the mailman arrived,
hoping for a letter from a loved one. Very often, my mama or daddy would
wave to Mrs. Morton and ask if she’d heard from Pete or Sonny. Most
days, she’d just wave back and say, “nothing today.” If she did
get a letter, she might open and read it right on the spot, then walk
over and share some of it with them.
It was all a mystery to me. What was the big deal with these letters?
Why were they so important? Mr. Morton and Sonny had only been gone a
couple of months. I mean, I really liked Sonny a lot (sometimes he
played catch with me), but I wasn’t worried about him. If anything, I
was envious. In my eyes, he was a hero—like Captain Marvel or the
Green Hornet, except that I knew him personally.
It was Claude Junior (in Mississippi, Claw-joonya) Hobbs, a kid from
down the street, who fractured my innocence and provided one of my
“You hear about Sonny?” He was half out of breath, apparently having
run all the way from his home to our front yard.
“Sonny next door?” I said, perplexed. Of course I knew about Sonny.
He was somewhere Oversees fighting Japs.
“Yeah, Sonny,” Claude Jr. said, as if there were no other Sonnys on
the planet, “he’s dead.”
“No, he’s not,” I said, “he’s Oversees.” Stupid
ClaudeJunior. Thinks if he hasn’t seen someone for awhile, they must
“Yeah, I know,” he said, wiping his sleeve across a runny nose,
“But now, he’s dead. He got hisself killed over there.”
“Did not,” I protested, unable to grasp what he seemed to be saying.
“Did too, I heard my mama tellin’ somebody on the phone.”
“Well, she’s wrong,” I said, sacrilegiously. Parents were never
wrong, were they?
I turned and ran—up the steps and into the house. When I got to my
room, my heart was pounding, and I thought I might cry. I pictured Sonny
just before he left to go Oversees. In his new starched khaki uniform
and his funny looking hat, he had looked older and somehow wiser than
his 18 years. In fact, he had looked like a different person.
“What kind of hat is that?” I asked. He was sitting on a lawn chair
in the Morton’s back yard, smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer.
From a radio on the back porch, a big band was playing “I’ve Got a
Gal in Kalamazoo.”
“S’called a cunt cap,” Sonny said lazily, exhaling a cloud of
“A cunt cap? Why do they call it that?
“Because it looks like…well, that’s another story.”
“What story is that?”
“A story,” he chuckled, “for another time.”
He had seemed wistful that day before his departure. Not sad, maybe, but
reflective, a lot quieter that the Sonny I knew.
“Wanna play catch, Sonny?”
“Don’t have time right now, little buddy,” he said, with an
exaggerated wink, “got a hot date.”
He meant Mary Lou Caskey, the pretty red-haired girl who had been his
sweetheart forever. He had even given her his graduation ring to wear
around her neck while he was gone.
“But you’re leaving tomorrow, right?”
“That I am, Johnny boy.” He chugged a last swallow, got up to leave
and gave my arm a squeeze. “But we’ll do it again soon as I get
“When do you think you’ll come back,” I said, as he headed inside.
“Soon as I can,” he said, turning back. “See you in the movies,
That was the last time I saw him. He had left early the next morning.
Next thing we heard he was some place in the Pacific. That’s all
anyone knew—even Mrs. Morton.
And now, he was dead? Catch-playing, hair-combing, fag-smoking,
finger-snapping, ukulele-playing Sonny Morton was dead? Was no longer
breathing? Would never be back? I could not get my head around it.
But wait. Maybe we wasn’t dead. What if Claude Jr. was wrong? What if
he had not heard what he thought he heard? That was it—it was all a
big mistake. I bolted from my room, ran down the hall and found my
mother in the kitchen.
“Is Sonny dead?” I blurted.
Her pained expression gave it away before she uttered a word. And now I
could not stop the tears. “No, no,” I said over and over, and she
held me for a long time.
Excerpted from "The Great Pretender: Confessions of a Semi-Incorrigible Southern Catholic Boy" by Robert R Randall. Copyright © 2016 by Robert R Randall. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.