“Hail to the Chief,” said Bettina.
“Good morning is fine,” said Stan. “Besides, it’s Saturday.”
“No, what you were humming, that’s Hail to the Chief, and you’re the chief, so hail to you,” said Bettina.
“That’s what the canary serenaded us with in the basement,” said Stan.
Bettina hummed the tune to herself.
“You’re right,” she said. “I didn’t dope it out when he sang it, but that’s what it is.”
“He said the action would all happen when the little man, Tony de Marco, heard that song,” said Stan. “When he did, he was going to pull the ripcord on his dynamite vest.”
“That means he plans on blowing up Eisenhower,” said Bettina.
“How do you make that?” asked Stan.
“Where have you been?”
“I’m right here,” said Stan, leaning back in his chair.
“All right, all right, don’t get your back up,” said Bettina. “It’s the anthem they play for the president. He walks into a room and the band plays that song. It’s been around about as long as the Star Spangled Banner.”
“I’ve never been invited into the room and I’ve never heard the band.”
“You were in the army, right?”
“It’s the army band.”
“They didn’t play any songs in the part of the army I was in.”
“I’ve heard it on the radio.”
“I read the papers.”
“They play it on TV.”
“I don’t have a TV.”
“They play it at his funeral, too.”
“I don’t go to funerals, unless it’s business. Even then, nobody wants you to take photographs, so unless I can get Snapshot to go with me, who doesn’t care what anybody says, I don’t even do that much anymore.”
“Yogi Berra said you should always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.”
“That doesn’t make sense, and for another thing, Berra plays for the Yankees.”
“Oh, right, sorry. Doesn’t it make you sad, though, missing your own, since everyone says such nice things about you, even though it’s a few days late?” asked Bettina.
“When I breathe for the last time, I’ll be gone for good, and I won’t be missing anything,” said Stan.
“What about the little man’s bomb song? That fuse is burning. Are we going to do anything about it?”
“I’ll be damned if I want to talk to the Secret Service,” said Stan. “They’ll look me up and down as much as they’ll look for him, bomb or no bomb. I’ve got no doubt they are hard to deal with. I have the shrink locked up on my own say so, too. What are they going to say about that? Christ, I had my part of the show done, and now this. If they find that Tony de Marco, fine, but if they don’t, they’ll come back and want to talk to me again and again. If they don’t roust him, and anything does happen, I’ll be in the bull’s eye with them.”
“What if you don’t say anything and something happens?”
“Like Eisenhower being blown up?”
“Exactly that, like Eisenhower being blown up.”
“He made it through the war.”
“He wasn’t on the front lines.”
“He was target number one, the way I used to hear it. The Germans wanted him dead in the worst way.”
“Aren’t you going to do anything?”
“Look, Betty, I know New York City, but I don’t know Washington.”
“It could happen anywhere,” said Bettina. “It doesn’t have to happen in Washington. He travels all over the country, giving speeches, especially now that it’s election time. It could happen here.”
“How could it happen here? How could the little man get close enough, no matter how big his bomb is?”
“Somebody got close to Lincoln, and McKinley, too. FDR dodged it, but only because the fruitcake taking pot shots at him was short and had to stand on a barrel to get the president in sight, and the barrel wobbled, so he ended up hitting everybody around FDR, instead. I think he killed the mayor of Chicago, or the mayor of some place.”
“Why would Eisenhower come campaigning here? He might pick up some votes in Queens, but the other boroughs, no, those are going to the Democrats. He’ll campaign upstate, not here.”
“What about the World Series?”
“What about it?”
“Who do you think throws out the first pitch at the first game of the series.”
“Some big shot.”
“No, not some big shot. It’s always the biggest shot.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Stan.
“All right, give me a few minutes,” said Bettina, picking up her phone.
“Who are you calling?” asked Stan.
“Pete,” said Bettina.
Bettina put her index finger into the second finger hole, turned the rotary dial on the shiny black phone to the far bright, put her finger into six more holes, turning each one to the right, and asked for Pete Murphy when she was connected to the operator at the New York Public Library.
“Thanks, Pete,” she said ten minutes later.
“Well, what did you find out?”
“It got started with William Howard Taft.”
“The fat man?”
“The president after Teddy Roosevelt.”
“Forty-six years ago.”
“Pete said it was because he’d had a tough day, meeting with the Suffragists at their convention, and telling them that if women got the vote power might end up in the wrong hands, or words to that effect. Big fat idiot! They gave him a piece of their minds.”
“That was before women had the right to vote?”
“Ten long years before they got the right.”
“It was that long? That would have been just a few years before I was born. I don’t ever give it a thought, to be honest. If I did, I would say Vicki knows more about who to vote for than me, and Dottie has as much right to vote as any boy, probably more right when it comes to some of her friends, especially some the boys.”
“Amen,” said Bettina.
“Who was playing?” asked Stan
“What do you mean?”
“When the first ball was thrown out.”
“Oh, the Phillies were playing the Washington Senators. The White House thought it would pick Taft up if he went to the ball game, after his run-in with the Suffragists. The funny thing is, Taft was supposed to throw the ball to the catcher, Gabby Street, but instead he stood up from his seat in the stands and threw it to the pitcher, Walter Johnson, who wasn’t ready for it, and almost got beaned. Anyway, they’ve been doing it ever since, except not during the war.”
“You think Eisenhower is going to be throwing out the first pitch on Wednesday?”
“I don’t think,” said Bettina. “I know. Pete said Ike is going to be there, throw out the first pitch, and stay for the game.”
“Goddamn it!” Stan growled.
“Where do we go from here?” asked Bettina.
“We’re not going to the Secret Service.”
“We’ve got to do something.”
“All right, have Otis type out a warning, a warning in no uncertain terms, that a man is going to try to blow up Ike when he’s in the city for the game, on a typewriter he’s got in the shop that can never and never will be traced, even if he has to trash it the minute he’s done, and mail it with a Brooklyn postmark, the main post office out there, next day delivery, marked urgent. Tell him to make sure it’s white gloves service, no fingerprints, and tell him to do it right now.”
“Do you think they’ll take it seriously?”
“I don’t know how many threats they get,” said Stan. “It’s got to be a boatload. I don’t know how they map out what’s serious and what’s unserious.”
“What if they don’t take it seriously?
“They take their precautions. It’s a serious business. I don’t know how they do what they do, but it’s got to be day-and-night, round-the-clock. It can’t be easy safeguarding the top man, but it’s got to be a lot harder killing him.”
“We could try to find that Tony the doctor fingered ourselves. What do you think?”
“I’ve been thinking about it,” said Stan. “I think tomorrow is Sunday, Ezra and I have tickets for the game on Wednesday, so we would only have to put aside two days of work to stay on this. We’re not in business to do right, but to turn a profit, which is the right of way in our line of work, but if you and Ezra are willing, we could try.”
“You know Ezra, he’s mad as a hornet, and as for myself, I brought Barney on board, so I’m on board for this,” said Bettina, calling Otis at Osner Business Machines, where he almost always worked on Saturdays, so he could work calmly and quietly by himself, the rest of the workshop more than half empty. He would sooner be neat and organized and methodical than yak it up with the other repairmen.
“Ask Otis if he’s available the next few days, too.”
“Do you want him to join us for lunch?”
“Yes, that’s a good idea, ask if he’s free.”
“Otis is never free.”
“You know what I mean.”
Bettina put her hand over the mouthpiece of the handset.
“He says he can meet us for lunch, but he’s busy, wants to know if we can come up to the restaurant at the boat basin, since he can make it over there in just a few minutes.”
Osner Business Machines was south of 79th Street on Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side, north of Hell’s Kitchen. The restaurant was inside the 79th Street Rotunda, built by Robert Moses during the West Side Highway’s conversion into a parkway.
When Stan and Bettina left the office for lunch at 12:30, Dwight Eisenhower had left his office five minutes earlier, changed into swimming trunks, and gone for a half-hour swim in the mansion’s pool. Unlike Richard Nixon, his vice-president, who had lately been lobbying for installing bowling lanes in the White House, Ike had been athletic all his life. He had been a linebacker at West Point, a good one, although when he collided with Jim Thorpe in the 1912 Army – Carlisle Indian Academy game, the All-American running back was hardly messed-up when “Little” Ike tried to drag him down.
“Nobody is going to tackle Jim,” said Jim Thorpe.
“You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world,” said King Gustav V at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. “I would consider it an honor to shake your hand.”
Ten minutes after getting out of the pool President Eisenhower was being photographed, fresh dressed smiling, for the newspapers, shaking hands with Judge William Brennan, who he had just appointed to fill the existing vacancy on the Supreme Court.
“Do you ever wonder about why they only ever sing the first part of the Star Spangled Banner,” asked Bettina when she and Stan were settled in their cab on the way to lunch.
“No,’ said Stan.
“You go to all those ballgames, and you were in the service, you’ve heard it hundreds of times.”
“I don’t want to disillusion you, Betty, but I don’t pay attention to the songs, star spangled, or otherwise.”
“I shouldn’t be surprised, so I’m not,” said Betty,
The first performance of the Star Spangled Banner at a ballgame was at the opening game of the season at Union Ball and Cricket Grounds in Brooklyn in 1862. It became enshrined in baseball’s frame of mind after furloughed Navy sailor and Boston Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas sang the song during the seventh inning stretch of the first game of the 1918 World Series.
“The mind of the baseball fan was on the war. The patriotic outburst following the singing of the national anthem was far greater than the upheaval of emotion which greeted Babe Ruth, the Boston southpaw, when he conquered Hippo Him Vaughn and the Cubs in a seething flinging duel by a score of 1 to 0,” was how the newspapers put it.
“It wasn’t even the real anthem until 1931, when Herbert Hoover signed a bill into law making it official,” said Bettina.
“Since I didn’t know that, I probably don’t know how many parts there are to it,” said Stan. “How many are there?”
“There are four verses.”
“I know the part they sing at ballgames.”
“That’s the first verse.”
“Why don’t they sing the other verses?”
“It would take too long, there are too many words, and some of the words, some people don’t want to hear them.”
“What words are those?”
“Their blood has washed out their foul footstep’s pollution, no refuge could save the hireling and slave, from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”
“I’ve never heard those lyrics,” said Stan. “How do you know them?”
“I didn’t know them, either, until last month,” said Bettina. “Pete told me about them.”
“He sounds like he might be a Commie,” said Stan, making Betty burst into laughter.
Stan thought the Red Scare was a dodge and sometimes wondered where the money in it was. He admitted to himself it got ambitious men elected, and supposed they were printing hundred dollar bills with the ink the fear they inspired bled their way.
When they got to the 79th Street Boat Basin on the Henry Hudson Parkway, they detoured slightly to the restaurant, spotted Otis waiting for them as their cab pulled up, and got a table inside of a few minutes under one of the archways.
“What’s it all about?” asked Otis, after the waitress beat a retreat, Bettina had wanted to make sure there were no “pre-fabricated meats, frozen foods, pre-pared potatoes, or commercial cakes in the larder.”
“There’s none of that, miss,” said the middle-aged woman, smoothing her apron. “I’ve been here nine years, and we make everything fresh to order.”
Stan ordered three glasses of Rheingold on draft.
“Is it about that shrink on Park Avenue?”
“Yes and no,” said Stan.
“Wait, let me ask Otis about the anthem,” said Bettina. “Did you know the Star Spangled Banner has four verses, but nobody ever sings the last three verses?”
“Sure, everybody knows that,” said Otis.
“Is this a set up?” asked Stan, reaching for his glass of beer.
“Ezra told me that gal down on 66th got elected Miss Rheingold this year,” said Otis.
“It’s not official, yet, but she’s going to be the winner, at least, the way we hear it,” said Stan.
Rheingold Beer was brewed in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and every year a new Miss Rheingold was elected. Everywhere the beer was sold were ballots with pictures of six pretty girls to pick from. “Want to give a pretty girl a great big break?’ is what it said at the top of the ballot. The only election in the country that drew more votes than the 25 million the Miss Rheingold election drew was the presidential election every four years.
So many ballots poured into the brewery, nobody could count them.
“We divide the ballots into six piles and weigh them every day,” said Walter Liebman, a chip off the old block of the Liebman’s in 1837 who malted mashed boiled fermented and kegged the first mugs of Rheingold.
Miss Rheingold was in magazines, on billboards, and on the side panels of beer trucks. She wore white gloves and signed autographs. She made promotional tours on both coasts, wore a rhinestone tiara and carried a scepter, rode in parades in an open-top Cadillac wearing a hand-stitched ivory satin dress, and waved to her admirers.
The only thing she never did was ever be seen or photographed drinking a glass of beer.
The Duluc Detective Agency was one of the agencies that did background checks on the six finalists.
“One of the things you don’t want is a Miss Rheingold who is a problem,” said Walter Liebman.
“Who is she?” asked Bettina.
“Her name is Hillie Merritt,” said Stan. “She’s a $25-a-week receptionist at Fortune magazine, married, with a one-year-old.”
“How can you be a miss when you’re married?” asked Bettina.
“You can’t, not technically, but it doesn’t seem to matter to old man Liebman. One of the finalists had to be dropped when Ezra found out, even though she was married to a working man, she was living with a drummer.”
“Out of wedlock?”
“Out of wedlock.”
“My God, such a beautiful girl,” said Walter Liebman. “But living with a drummer!”
“Aren’t drummers usually broke?” asked Bettina.
Otis and Stan both knew Bettina was a jazz band fan and probably knew what she was saying. “If you say so,” said Otis.
“Hillie was next in line, got on the ballot, and in the end it wasn’t even close,“ said Stan. “She won going away.”
Over lunch Stan filled Otis in.
“I can give you the next three days, no problem,” said Otis when Stan was done. “We should be able to brainstorm our man down tomorrow, then go look for him. I am thinking he has got to be close to the Dodgers somehow, otherwise he wouldn’t have much chance of getting close to Eisenhower.”
“Are you figuring it the same way I am?”
“I think so.”
Stan studied the busy river. “He’ll fly into LaGuardia, after lunch, they drive to Ebbets Field, the big man throws out the first pitch, watches the game, and is back in D. C. for dinner by 5 o’clock, unless the little man blows him up first.”
“That’s the way I see it.”
“He’ll do it during the game.”
“That’s how I’m looking at it.”
“Did you get that letter mailed?”
It was 3 o’clock when Stan and Bettina got back to the office. Stan picked up the scrap of paper Ezra had left lying in the middle of his desktop.
“Bumpy wants to talk.”
Storm Drain – A Stan Rittman Mystery
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.