Hammer and Sickle by Michael Cooney

Carl Trampler never attracted much notice in the army until he found a paperback without a cover in the men’s room at the Port Authority bus terminal. “I started reading it in the can,” he told a fellow soldier at Fort Monmouth. “Here, you can have it.” The other guy took one look and passed it on to the sergeant. And so, the book without a cover went up the chain of command until it landed on the desk of a Captain named Cox. He had already noticed a certain slovenliness in PFC Trampler so he was on the alert as he leafed through the book, from which the table of contents was also missing. “Communist propaganda!” he declared to his adjutant. “We are not giving a subversive like this man access to our most sensitive equipment and our most vital codes.” “No, sir!” said the adjutant.

In this way, Carl Trampler’s military career ended in a less than honourable discharge. And in those days a discharge like that could mark you for life. You would never get any decent kind of job, like at GE in Schenectady, or even with the Post Office. The question on his mind as he got off the bus from Albany a few months after the book incident was a simple one: what was he going to do for money? Then his uncle, who never married and had no kids, dropped dead in his barn and left the farm on the Rollway to his only nephew, Trampler. He had done a little work with the old man when he was in high school so he knew a few things about running a dairy farm. Milk the cows every twelve hours. Don’t let the hay rot. Shovel a lot of cow shit. He settled in and more or less made a go of it.

Carl Trampler never read the newspaper but even if he did, there wasn’t any mention in the Little Falls Times of a speech that a Wisconsin Senator named Joseph McCarthy made in Wheeling, West Virginia on February 9th, 1950. The senator entitled his speech “Enemies from Within.” Four months later the North Korean communists invaded South Korea. A lot of veterans who had been discharged from the army were recalled to active service but this did not apply to men in Trampler’s discharge category. The clerk at the Post Office asked him if he expected to be called up and he said no, he didn’t. “Maybe he’s queer,” the PO clerk, who talked about everybody who came to the stamp window, said to his wife. She mentioned that to her sister but it never went any farther. Trampler just wasn’t interesting enough to make a good topic for gossip.

Lydia Kovalchuk was an art teacher at Little Falls High and she was a little older than Trampler. He had seen her around but he only nodded as they passed each other going in and out of the town library. He did a lot of reading in the winter but nothing serious, mostly old Westerns. After his experience with non-fiction back in the army, he was leery of history or anything like that. 

One day in January, 1952, he happened to pick up a heavy art book on the Impressionists and was leafing through it when she spoke to him. “Monet is wonderful, isn’t he?”

“What?” he was startled. He looked up and noticed that her eyes appeared to be green. “Pardon me?”

“Monet. That’s his painting you are admiring.” 

He looked back at the book. “Yes, the painting is beautiful, but around here the haystacks don’t look like that. I was wondering what the French farmers would do once they piled up the hay like that. I mean, how did they get it into a barn before it rained?”

She smiled. “You know about hay?”

“I have a farm.”

“You do? Where?”

“I’ll show you.” He stood and went to the window behind the librarian’s desk. “You see, that’s my barn up on the Rollway. The house is behind it. You can’t see it from here.”

They met a few more times in the library before they went for a walk in February. They both liked winter for different reasons. For him winter meant more free time away from farm chores. For her winter was a source of subjects for her winter water colours. She first went to his farm in March and did sketches of the barn and of the view of Little Falls from his hill. With spring he had to get his fields ready for planting and that involved a lot of manure. She would have come up to the farm anyway but he said he’d be done with the worst of it soon. When she walked up to the farm again in mid-April, she brought two small winter water colours that she had framed. He hung them in the kitchen and made her coffee.

By 1953, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy had been busy for three years finding communists wherever he looked. Carl Trampler and Lydia Kovalchuk talked about marriage but she was divorced and wasn’t sure how her church would take to her marrying again. Her whole family came from Ukraine but she had stopped going to the Ukrainian church in Amsterdam after her husband left her. “Are they like Catholics?” Trampler asked. “I think so,” she answered. The truth probably was that neither of them wanted to take a chance on ruining a good thing by getting married. 

She hardly ever spent the night at the farm and didn’t think anybody even noticed their interest in each other. But Little Falls is a small town and of course the teachers at the high school knew all about her and Carl Trampler. The older ones remembered him as a student and thought he was odd. “Then again, Lydia has some funny ideas herself,” said Miss Fields who taught algebra. “And she isn’t exactly a looker,” giggled the Home Ec teacher. The other women told her it was mean to say that.

On June 19th, 1953, the Rosenbergs were executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing. Lydia was shocked by the executions, especially of Ethel, the mother of two small boys. She was surprised that Carl knew so little about the case but once she explained it to him, he was very distressed. She mentioned that she read that Julius had worked at Fort Monmouth during the war, and that he was accused of stealing secrets from the base. “I don’t really know much about the base,” he told her. “I only did about a month of the Signal Corps training before I got kicked out.”

“Over a book?” she asked. They had talked about it briefly but it wasn’t something he was comfortable with. “You never said what kind of book.”

“I don’t remember. It didn’t even have a cover.”

“It wasn’t like a dirty…?”

“No, Lydia, it wasn’t any kind of dirty book,” he laughed. “The captain said it was a communist book. It was pretty boring, I remember that. I started reading it on the bus back to base and fell asleep right away.” 

The next week Senator McCarthy and his aide Roy Cohn showed up at Fort Monmouth and demanded to be allowed into the Army Signal Corps Labs so they could investigate the spy ring set up by Julius Rosenberg. They invited the networks to film their attempt to get to the bottom of what was going on at the base. 

When he returned to Washington, McCarthy announced that two close friends and fellow spies of Julius Rosenberg named Barr and Sarant had already fled to Russia. He said that the pair had given the Russians all kinds of secret plans for radar and bomb sights on which they had worked while at Fort Monmouth. 

Many Americans had televisions by the summer of 1953 and the army-McCarthy hearings occupied the attention of most of those people. Neither Carl nor Lydia owned a television.

In August two FBI men were in town to ask questions. They didn’t find many people who could say that they knew Carl Trampler very well. “Keeps to himself,” said the post office clerk. “No phone,” said the girl at the phone company. “No criminal record,” the police chief told them and they noted it down. The high school principal told them, “He keeps company with one of my teachers. She’s a foreigner.”

In Amsterdam the FBI men did a thorough investigation of the Ukrainian community. Although the grandparents who brought Lydia from Ukraine at the end of the war were dead, they found plenty of other Ukrainians who could provide details about the Kovalchuk family. Yes, Lydia was born in Kiev. No, she wasn’t Jewish. The Jews were all killed. The FBI men asked how it was that her grandfather was able to leave the USSR so easily after the war. Who else but a spy would the communists allow to come to the west? The grandfather’s old friend Makhno would not tell the agents that they had fought together for the Germans and that is why they could not go back to Ukraine. He did not want to get into trouble.

One of the hundreds of witnesses called in November by Senator McCarthy was Colonel Pierce A. Cox, formerly stationed at Fort Monmouth and brought back from West Germany to share what he knew. “Please tell me, Colonel,” asked Roy Cohn after the Colonel had been on the stand for three hours, “what was the first evidence of communist subversion that you observed?”

“The first?” he searched his memory. He knew that he couldn’t mention the Rosenbergs because they were never at the base when he was stationed there. Barr? Sarant? Greenglass? Although he would love to be able to mention such notorious Reds, he had never met them.

“Maybe around 1948?” Cohn prompted. No matter how many times he coached these idiots, they couldn’t seem to remember a thing. “Do you recall an issue of subversive literature being circulated? An attempt to recruit innocent young men into the communist conspiracy?”

“Trampler!” the colonel shouted. “I will never forget that name! How fitting that name was for one whose mission in life was to trample on our liberties, to trample on our flag and on everything we Americans hold sacred.”

Carl was able to keep the newsmen away from his farm by blocking the dirt road that led up the hill from Flint Street, but Lydia didn’t have it so easy. She had signed the loyalty oath like all the other teachers but that didn’t help. The principal said he was sorry but he had to let her go. 

They couldn’t get together anywhere in town without people staring at them, and Lydia felt self-conscious now going to his farmhouse. He drove her in his truck up to Utica where they had lunch in a diner. “Come away with me, Carl.” She held both his hands. “Come to New York City with me. People are different there. My cousin says I’m certain to get a job in the art field. I’m sick of this town anyway, aren’t you? Down there I can really concentrate on my art and you could…”

“That’s just it, Lydia. What could I do in New York? I was there on a couple weekend passes from the army, and it was just too big for me. I went to the USO and they gave me tickets for some shows but I didn’t care for it.”

“I need you, Carl. I can’t stay here without a job but how can I go to the city without you?”

“You can work there. You’re an artist. What could I do? I’m a farmer, Lydia.”

“You’re not really a farmer, Carl. It’s just something you do because your uncle left you the farm. You could sell it and do anything you wanted.” 

“I guess, but it would take time to sell it. I don’t even know how much I should ask.”

“Carl, there are real estate people who sell houses and farms. Leave everything to them and come with me.”

“Maybe in a little while? I guess I could wrap things up here and come down to New York in a little while.”

Lydia began to cry. “Carl, I know how you are. If you don’t come with me now, you’ll never come. You’ll keep finding some excuse and never leave this place.”

When she got on the New York Central the next day, she was almost certain that she would never see him again. He kissed her like in the movies and neither of them cared who was staring at them now. She cried all the way to Kingston until finally she stopped and started looking forward to life in the big city.

The next week Trampler was told by the manager at the dairy co-op that they would no longer accept his milk. “I’m sorry, Carl, but you have no idea of the pressure I’m getting. The board says if I don’t kick you out, it’s my job.”

“What am I supposed to do with this milk?” He pointed to the cans in the back of his truck.

“I don’t know, Carl. I’m sorry.”

He poured out the milk when he got back to the farm. For the next five days he kept milking his fifteen cows and pouring out the milk. On the sixth day he sold the cows to Gansevoort Farms, a much bigger operation. He sold them at way below market value but that was all they would offer him.

Without the cows Trampler didn’t have much to keep him busy. He knew the smart thing would be to put the farm on the market, but he didn’t. He spent his days in the library, reading. In the back room he found shelves full of books that nobody had taken out in years. He read part of a 1930 biography praising Mussolini. He found a book by Jack London. It was called The Iron Heel and was about socialists fighting against a capitalist oligarchy. He found a 1901 copy of The Communist Manifesto wedged between two volumes of the life of U.S. Grant and read it three times. Instead of asking Miss Richards to check it out, he put the booklet in his pocket and read it twice more when he got back to the farm.

The next day he bought a can of red paint at the hardware store. The first thing he painted on the side of his barn was really too small for people in town to read it, even if they looked up at the Rollway. But the clerk at the PO stamp window kept a pair of binoculars at work just to keep track of what was going on around town. He told the postmaster what he saw and handed him the binoculars so he could see for himself.

“I guess it’s true what they been saying about Carl Trampler,” said the clerk.

“Well, he did write ‘workers of the world, unite.’ I’d say that cinches it,” the postmaster said. Then he called the police chief. The chief asked his most kind-hearted officer, Al Baker Jr., to go up and have a talk with Trampler. Al had to leave the prowl car at the base of the Rollway for fear that the ruts in the road would break the axle. When he got to the top, he found Carl messing with a vegetable garden full of weeds. They had a good chat and the policeman felt that Carl understood the situation.

The next morning the people in Little Falls looked up and saw a twenty-foot-tall hammer and sickle painted in red on the side of Carl Trampler’s barn. Nobody could miss it.

About The Author

Michael Cooney has taught English in the New York City public high schools and community colleges and currently works as a facilitator with the New York Writers Coalition. A few years ago, he began writing novels inspired by the history and legends of the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys. “The Witch Girl & The Wobbly” is included in the 2021 Novella Anthology from Running Wild Press and his story “The Colonel Takes Command” is in the February 2021 issue of Sundial Magazine. He has also published poetry and flash fiction in 101 Words, Badlands, Bitter Oleander, Second Chance Lit and other journals.

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