Frank Neville still remembers the shape of the big easy chair and the look on his father's face.
"Dad," he said, "I've got a little something for you to sign."
"Oh, no, not again," his father said.
"Yeah, Dad," said Frank. "Again."
He would be the sixth son of Fred and Ella Neville to leave the five-bedroom house on Augusta Avenue in Irvington during World War II. Three went to the Army, three to the Navy.
Joseph had been the first, followed by Nolan, John, Jerome and Maurice. The eldest Neville boys, Gerard and Fred, had tried to enlist repeatedly but were rejected because of their jobs. Gerard was a policeman, Fred a defense industry worker.
Finally, then, Frank was asking for his father's permission to enlist at 17.
He tried to console his mother: "Look at it this way -- if you want this war ended quick. . . . "
"To tell the truth," his father said much later, "I was glad to get rid of you."
The quips seem brave and funny now because all six returned, uninjured and increasingly proud of the job they did. Their jokes and their stories give accent to a defining event in the life of a family and a nation.
Though considerably larger than most -- there were nine other Neville children in addition to the six servicemen -- this was a family much like other American families in those years.
From the third-floor window of the house, Frank's mother, Ella, hung one of the special World War II flags that said, in effect, Our Son is Serving. The flags were sold with a star in the center, representing the serviceman or woman. A few had two or three stars. The Nevilles had to have six, so Ella sewed five along the borders.
Fred never complained about the burden borne by his family, but his worry was clear.
"On Friday nights he helped win the war," says his daughter known as Sissie. "He'd have a few beers at the Half-Mile Track, a local bar, and on the way home he'd think he saw Japs in the trees. He'd shoot them all."
In the years since World War II ended, his sons and daughters have told and retold the story of their patriotic dad walking up Augusta Avenue going "ACK-ACK-ACK" with his imaginary machine gun.
On Father's Day 1945, Joe wrote from the Philippines: "When this war is over, and all of us boys return home to our loved ones, you can proudly say my boys helped to bring forth the peace. . . . I went to Mass and Holy Communion today especially for you. . . . Here's hoping we will all be together again soon."
Departures and tears
At home, it was a time for tears.
"Every time you turned around there'd be one coming or going, and all sorts of crying," Sissie said.
On the day John left, he went to Mass at the St. Joseph's Monastery Church on Frederick Avenue not far from their house. Gerard, the oldest son who is now 80, had carried the cross in a procession when the church was dedicated in 1932. Each of the brothers had served there as an altar boy. Two of the Neville sisters became nuns.
"You're coming back before you leave?" his mother asked.
"Yes," said John, but he went directly to Camden Station and left for Fort Lee, Va. "I wanted to spare them all that boohooing," he said.
"He wanted to spare himself," says his daughter, Mary Joe, a lobbyist with the Maryland State Teachers Association.
With so many of them in the service, one or another of the Nevilles seemed to represent every point on the broad spectrum of young American boys who fought in what some have called the good war. They served eagerly, willingly and with conviction. Everyone they had grown up with was going in with them.
School and work and war
The continuity of their lives embraced the war. The Neville boys had all gone to Mount St. Joseph's High School a few blocks south along Augusta. They had gotten good jobs out of high school and came back to them when the fighting was over: with the railroad where their father worked, at the Post Office, at the phone company, at the Baltimore City Police Department and at various corporations.
Everything was not scripted or guaranteed, of course: One tried the priesthood; one married four times; one had a son who fought in the Persian Gulf war. All have lived on into their late 60s and 70s with some level of comfort and prosperity.
For a time, they moved back into the old brick house with its two-gabled slate roof, occasionally performing white glove military inspections to aggravate their mother and sisters. They shared Jerome's feeling:
"It was a good experience," he said. "I was never out of the back alley otherwise."
Wider horizons, new experiences and peer pressure were the least of their motivations when unambiguous Nazi and Japanese evil threatened democracy and the good life.
The youth of America would ask more questions about later wars.
"Vietnam, I didn't blame them," said Nolan, now 73, a Catonsville resident still. "I wouldn't have wanted to go but I would have. It's the country and you have to do these things." His son, Jim, fought in the gulf war.
After high school, Nolan had gone to work for the B&O; railroad. While he was on the job one day, he decided the time had come. He walked to the post office and signed up.
"I didn't want to go in the Army. My father said he didn't want me to go and sign up, but I said I'm not going to wait until they come after me."
Flying from carriers
He entered Navy flight training, assigned to a base in Florida. He moved from there to "jeep escorts" -- small, hastily built aircraft carriers designed chiefly for convoy duty in the Atlantic. He had just returned from a flight one day when a German submarine and its crew were captured. Contrary to usual practice, the Americans did not sink the boat, towing it to port in Bermuda hoping it might yield some secrets.
"Our captain said he didn't want anyone to talk about it. We swore not to. We went to a restaurant to get a couple of beers and the waitress said, 'Oh, you're the sailors from the boat that got the U-boat, aren't you?' "
Nolan was a gunner in the bubble turret in the belly of Avenger bombers.
"It was pretty hairy. Scared the hell out of me. We cracked up three times and never got a scratch," he said. His worst crisis came one day when he had to go to the bathroom and didn't realize it until he was airborne. That predicament and how he managed it at several thousand feet is another bit of Neville family lore.
In the Pacific, Nolan flew in and around Okinawa and Guadalcanal, flying one mission after another in and out of a refueling area known to the Japanese as a prime target and to the American fliers as "Suicide Alley." He was awarded three Air Medals and a presidential unit citation.
He got out on Dec. 15, 1945, after 29 months and 15 days: "I forget how many hours it was." After a week or two at home, he went down to the B&O; to see about going back to work.
"They told me my job was there but they didn't want me. 'We got a girl there.' I said it's too damn bad. I went back to work in January." After 43 years, he retired, by then an accountant.
Anyone from Baltimore?
Maurice Neville wanted the Marines, but they weren't taking more recruits by then. The Navy was training Seabees, so he signed up there. After nine months of training, his unit boarded a ship without knowing where it was going -- not an uncommon occurrence.
In time, he landed at a base in Algeria.
"I cleaned out a shed so a priest could say Mass and I served as altar boy." He arrived during the invasion of southern France.
By then he was a signalman and he communicated with all the ships arriving at the port for repairs: "Anybody from Baltimore?" he'd ask, using the semaphore code system.
One day he got a message saying a Pete Neville was aboard.
"I said, 'Oh, my God, that's my uncle.' "
Jerome, 71, who lives on Kent Island, was in communications, too. He had amphibious training, instruction in mountain climbing and other skills that might equip him for stringing phone wire to the front and, occasionally, into enemy territory, with "bullets flying this way and that."
He saw action in France, Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia with the 97th Signal Company, moving from battlefield to battlefield. At one point, he says, he volunteered to run wire through a mine field.
"I didn't care," he said. "They were going to pick me anyway." There was a limit though: Asked to re-enlist later, he declined.
Doing his part
Frank, 69, who lives now in Pasadena, seemed to spend much of his service time chasing ships. Assigned to a destroyer berthed in New York City, he went there but found no ship. He was told to try Norfolk. Not there, either. Back to New York. This time, he connected and after several trips to the European theater he was sent to the Pacific, but the war ended before his ship arrived.
Back in New York for the decommissioning of his ship, Frank settled there and soon met the first of his four wives.
With a shortage of men in those days, Frank says he tried to help out by marrying four times. "Don't stop now," one of his brothers suggested during a recent reunion.
Training at the beach
Seventy-two-year-old John Neville can still rattle off his Army serial number as if ordered to do so by the company commander: 13136799.
He enlisted on Nov. 20, 1942, right before Thanksgiving. After stops at Fort Lee, Va., and Richmond, he reported for training in Miami Beach, where the Army took over the President Madison Hotel.
"We trained on the golf courses and sang our marching cadences through the city. People complained that we were waking them up. I thought, 'You ought to be damn glad it wasn't the Germans waking you up.' "
He was stationed in Texas for Christmas and then in Mississippi, outside of Jackson. From there it was on to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey and then to England aboard the Queen Elizabeth, where he served Mass with a priest from Immaculate Conception Church.
He knew the great Normandy invasion was at hand because he saw the accumulating stockpiles. He was assigned to an air base in the middle of the country. The military life was, at times, almost sublime.
"We got bikes and rode out to an inn, open from 2 to 4 in the afternoon, closed for a while, and then open in the evening. I have pictures of my buddies and I sitting there drinking beer. We went to a mansion owned by a Lord Halifax. He took us through and then we went back to the pub till it opened. We played darts for a while and then rode home."
Though he endured the bombing of England, he has wondered over all these years if he did his part, since he was never at the front. When he returned, he went to work with the B&O;, too.
The company gave him a nice leather folder for his military papers. "To John M. Neville," the inscription read, "in appreciation of your service to our country, Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, R. D. White, president."
Haircuts and hot dogs
The youngest of the Neville boys, William Paul, or Billy, of Woodlawn was 10 years too young for World War II, but there was a tradition to uphold: He enlisted in the Navy even though doctors said he wasn't healthy enough.
When his brothers returned, they came back to the house on Augusta Avenue as if they had never left, almost. Joe, who is 75 and lives now in Ellicott City, arrived without announcement one night, too late to wake the family. He fell asleep on the couch. One of his sisters shrieked the next morning when she saw an unfamiliar form asleep in the living room.
John Neville ended his journey at Camden Station where it had begun, bought himself a hot dog and went to see his father at the B&O; offices.
"Dad," he said, "I just had the best hot dog of my life. First one I've had in three years."
The price of a haircut had risen from 25 cents to a $1 during that time, but there was much of life that he recognized immediately. His Catholic father's admonishing stare, for example, after his hot dog report.
"Young man," he said, "are you aware that this is Friday?"
C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.