What We May Be
A captivating tale of hope, love, and triumph in a world torn apart.
Bullied, ridiculed, and overlooked, no one expected anything remarkable of Joe, a poor immigrant boy growing up during the Great Depression.
They could not have been more wrong...
Smart, stubborn, and mischievous, Joe Senta refuses to be defined by his circumstances. In a world devastated by economic collapse and war, he will risk everything to protect those he loves, his family, his friends, and his country—
Because for Joe, our lives are not bound by what the world says we are, but rather by What We May Be.
A heartwarming tale of heroic struggle, loss, and perseverance. Laugh, cry, and cheer as you experience the wonder of a bygone era through the eyes of one of the best of the Greatest Generation.
Nathan Reads Chapter One!
Nathan Crocker talks about his newest novel, What We May Be, and reads a sample chapter to help you decide if this book is for you!
Read in one sitting
What a captivating book. I kept wanting to know what happens next so I read the whole book in one sitting. I'm now rereading it to get even more out of it. Joe sounds like an amazing man. His story is remarkable.
A wonderful book! A true tale of a hero! Couldn’t put it down! I cried, smiled, and prayed through the whole book.
An amazing author. Love his style!
Not usually my type of reading, but because of the first book (amazing), I decided to give it a go. I loved it. Great read! His way of writing makes it not only interesting and informative but also pulls you into the world with the characters. Can’t wait for the next one!
A Really Great Read!
Nathan Crocker has captured my attention as a writer. I knew he was special when I read his first book, The Loyal Angel. In What We May Be, he has solidified his ranking with me as a favored author. I look forward to his next book.
Start Reading for Free!
“Tell me your stories, Grandpa.”
He smiled at her, a wan, knowing smile. There was weariness in the drawn features of his aged face, but the eyes were bright, and they twinkled with a mischievous leer. His body might be tired, but his mind was still as sharp as ever, and his expression gave nothing away, even as his granddaughter studied him intently.
He didn’t look much like a hero. In fact, he was rather plain, an ordinary man. Sure, he was old now, but despite that, there was nothing in his stature to indicate that he might have possessed any superhuman faculties in his younger days. He was just her grandpa, but she knew from her mother that there was much more to this seemingly unassuming man than first glance might imply.
“Which stories would you like to hear?” he asked with an amused grin. There was something in that grin and something in his tone that made her wonder if he might be testing her somehow.
She glanced down at the cherry surface of the dining room table and the documents spread out before her; pictures, letters, and newspaper clippings, all of them yellow and faded with age. The pictures were monochromatic, black and white images of young men wearing black leather jackets with white wool linings and goggles set atop their heads. They stood in front of and beneath the towering frame of an old airplane with two giant propellers on each wing. All along the fuselage, gun barrels stuck out at odd angles, like porcupine quills bristling at an unseen enemy.
With the flat of her palm, she moved the pictures aside to reveal a newspaper clipping, the headline of which read, “VICTORY! NAZIS SURRENDER!” in bold black letters. Gently, she lifted the newspaper and moved it aside so she could look at another beneath it. This one was from St. Paul, Minnesota, dated July 3, 1944, and the article was titled, “ESCAPE FROM BEHIND ENEMY LINES: LOCAL HERO RETURNS HOME.”
She smiled as she gazed at the script with its imperfect typesetting, so much different from the clinical precision of modern computerized printers. She had read the articles, of course, and she knew the gist of the stories, but what she was looking for here was deeper and more detailed.
“I want to know how you did it,” she said at last, “how you managed to evade the Nazis and make it back to safety after you were shot down. You were the first B-17 crew to ever do that.”
The wan smile returned, and he nodded slowly, as though he had been expecting this. Then the knowing eyes met hers, and with what sounded like painful regret, he said, “I can’t tell you that.”
She blinked in surprise and disappointment. “Why not?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
A grimace showed her growing frustration. Well, of course, she wouldn’t understand. No one who hadn’t gone through that sort of ordeal could possibly understand. She realized that, but why should that mean he couldn’t tell her?
“Grandpa,” she said, forcing her voice to sound patient, “you said you would tell me your stories for my paper. I’ve already told my professor that this would be the topic. I flew all the way out here from Arizona. What do you mean, you can’t tell me?”
This time, there was more warmth in the smile, and as he leaned back in his chair, he sighed aloud. “I mean I can’t tell you the story by starting with when I was shot down.”
“Okay,” she said, her voice more relaxed now. “So, where would you need to start?”
He took a sharp breath and let it out. “I was a pilot, not a soldier. They didn’t train us for ground combat or to evade enemy pursuit. Most guys who survived being shot down were captured and spent the rest of the war in a P.O.W. camp.”
He paused, and she waited patiently for him to continue, nodding encouragingly for him to go on. “What prepared me for that trial wasn’t taught in basic training or flight school. No, that came from much earlier. It was life experiences, like growing up during the Great Depression, that taught me to overcome adversity and rise above my circumstances. Those lessons readied me for challenges I could never have anticipated.”
She frowned at that. “Grandpa, I’d love to hear all of your stories, but this paper is about the war.”
His eyes showed disappointment. Shaking his head, he sighed. “If that’s all you’re looking for, then you can find that in these articles, and I have some notes you can read.”
“But that’s not all I’m looking for,” she insisted. “I want to understand.”
“Then you need to know where I came from, what I went through, and who I was. Those struggles helped to shape me into the brash, headstrong young man who did the things they wrote about in those articles. But for you to truly understand, I would have to tell you my whole story, from the beginning.”
“Okay,” she said. “Then tell me, please.”
“Are you sure? This could take a while.”
Now it was her turn to smile. “I have nowhere to be.”
“Alright then,” he said, but then he nodded at a tape recorder that sat on the table between them. “Should you start that?”
She jerked with sudden recollection. “Yes! Thank you for reminding me.”
Then, having started the recorder, she sat back and repeated her earlier request.
“Tell me your stories, Grandpa. Please, start at the beginning.”
With that, he settled in the chair, and taking a deep breath, he began.
My very first memory in life is of pigs dying. I was three years old, and I shouldn’t have been there. The door to the back porch had been left open a crack, or else I would never have been able to open it. I was too short to reach the knob and too small to turn it. But the door had not been shut all the way, and a tall shaft of sunlight lanced through the crack, beckoning to me. Curiosity demanded that I see what lay beyond, and so I wedged my stubby fingers into the gap and pulled.
The door swung inward, and light flooded the room, making me squint and turn aside. Dazzling spots danced before me, and as I blinked them away, I heard a voice calling from somewhere deep inside the house. It was my mother’s voice, calling my name, but I ignored her summons, and instead, turned back to the door with its irresistible mystery. Using both my small hands, I pulled it open still further, just far enough for my toddler’s body to squeeze through.
As I stepped out onto the porch, I was greeted by a cool morning breeze that cut sideways across the back of the house. Bright sunlight assaulted my vision, and instinctively, my gaze fell to the slats of the porch where green paint had faded and worn away in patches, revealing the dark wood underneath. A big red ant crawled past the toes of my bare feet, and I scrambled back a step. But the ant either didn’t notice my presence or didn’t care, and as it went on about its business, I stumbled out onto the middle of the wide-open porch.
The light didn’t seem as bright anymore, so I lifted my gaze to take in the scene. At the edge of the porch, stairs led down to the dusty ground of our backyard. No lush grass filled that yard, just a few scraggly patches of weeds growing here and there. Off to the right, chickens clucked from within a rundown coop with a rusted metal roof while behind it, a huge barn with faded red walls loomed high overhead.
Voices sounded from the left of the barn, and that’s when I saw them, four men gathered around a pig, a fat sow with a large black patch across its saddle. They were rough, bearded men, dressed in faded denim overalls with the sleeves of their plaid shirts rolled up to their elbows. One stood over the sow, straddling it with his knees pressed firmly against its flanks. The hog trembled and whined, a sound somewhere between a squeal and a baby’s cry as it glanced around warily, seeking some avenue of escape that did not exist.
The three other men blocked its path and its vision, keeping the sow’s frantic gaze focused on their towering frames. One of the men, standing off to the side, held a double-barreled shotgun in the crook of an arm while another stood with feet wide apart directly in front of the pig. That man had his back to me, but I could see the long narrow-bladed knife that he held in one hand, the tapered tip pointed at the ground. The fourth man, taller and more broad-shouldered than the rest, stood on the other side, glaring at the sow with cold narrowed eyes.
I felt myself moving forward, almost without conscious thought. My short shambling legs carried me to the edge of the porch where I stuck my face between two of the flat wooden posts. Now, I had an unobstructed view of the spectacle, and I could see right through the open legs of the man with the knife. The sow stared straight ahead, its body rigid and trembling as it continued to whine. I could have sworn it peered right at me, pleading with me for aid I could not give.
The big man, the one who seemed to be in charge, nodded to the guy with the shotgun, and that man stepped forward. He raised the weapon and placed the tip of its barrel against the side of the sow’s head while the other two men stepped back. The one straddling the hog tensed in anticipation. Then he glanced up.
And saw me.
His mouth opened and he shook his head. The man with the shotgun lifted the barrel and stepped back while the boss raised his hands, palms up, as though to ask what the matter was. The man straddling the hog just nodded in my direction and the other men turned to look. When the boss spotted me, his expression changed from irritated exasperation to surprised concern. He took a deep breath and let it out, his shoulders slumping as though his entire body had given one big sigh. He lowered his dark-haired head, shook it, looked up again, then turned and headed toward me.
I backed away from the posts and watched as the big boss man walked to the stairs and lumbered up the steps one at a time. The wooden slats creaked as his weight settled onto each, his dirty brown boots carrying him up and onto the porch. He shambled over to where I stood and stared down at me with a contradictory expression, part frustration, part amusement. He didn’t say anything, just bent down and picked me up. Then he carried me back inside the house.
As the door closed behind us, shutting out the light of day, a single shot barked out. And the whining stopped.
That memory is seared into my mind, and it is the only recollection I have of my very early childhood. I can still picture the man’s face, hard, weathered, but kind, and sometimes, I see him in my dreams. I try talking to him, but he never talks back. He just looks at me with that same ironic expression. I suppose, since I have no memory of his voice, my brain can't conjure up one. But I will never forget his face.
That is the one and only memory I have of my father.
His name was Jožef, and I was named after him, although my mother spelled it, Joseph, to make it seem less foreign. She and my father were immigrants from Slovenia, which in those days was a part of Yugoslavia. They had come to America and our small town of Ely, Minnesota, to make a better life, but my father never got to live that dream.
He died of a ruptured appendix one month after the incident with the sow, and overnight, it seemed, we went from a subsistent farm family to one struggling to survive. The year was 1925, and in those days, there was no such thing as government assistance. No welfare. No Social Security. If we were to survive, we would all have to do our part.
Momma milked the cows early each morning while my big sisters, Mary and Josephine, delivered buckets of raw milk to neighbors on their way to school. The chickens laid eggs, and those we didn't eat, we sold to the local market. Mary and I spent our weekends peddling produce to our neighbors. We went door to door with lettuce, radishes, and potatoes piled up in my wooden wagon. We survived, barely, but as hard as those days were, I loved them.
I had the run of the farm, and I would spend my days playing behind the barn or down by the pond. I caught tadpoles at the water’s edge during the day and fireflies at night. It seemed like the only time I went inside the house was for meals and to sleep. Other than that, I was outdoors, playing in the trees or on my old tire swing. I was free, and I was happy. But then everything changed.
It was the summer after I turned four years old, and I was playing behind the barn, building a fort with scrap lumber, when I heard my mother call my name. Dropping my toy gun, a carved piece of wood that vaguely resembled a rifle, I dusted myself off and sprinted to the house. I found her standing on the back porch, dressed in her usual garb, a simple farm dress covered by an apron tied behind her back. Her brown hair was pulled up into a bun atop her head, and her careworn but pretty face was smiling as I came running toward her.
“Yes, Momma?” I asked as I slowed to a jog and bounded up the steps, bouncing on both feet like my legs were made of springs. I said it in Slovenian, our native tongue.
“Come inside, Joey,” she said in English, and I was puzzled by that. We mostly spoke Slovene in the home, and Momma’s English was thick with her European accent. I wondered why she was speaking English now, but before I could ask, she added, “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
I followed her inside the house to discover four people waiting in our den, a man and three children. The man, middle-aged with dark hair and a narrow, clean-shaven face, sat in one of our two wooden armchairs next to the fireplace while the oldest of the children, a youth, sat in the other. He looked like a younger version of the man, and he smiled at me reassuringly, which only confused me further. The other two children, girls, stood on either side of the man. They were young, probably only a few years older than me, and they each held onto the man’s arms while they glanced around the room, a small room, that was suddenly full of people.
My sisters, Mary and Josephine, were there too, sitting at the kitchen table, and Josephine held Gally. That’s what we called my baby sister, Angela. She cooed as Josephine bounced her lightly on her knees.
“Girls, come on in here,” Momma said, and I felt her hand on my back as she led me to the middle of the room.
The man stood and stepped forward with a smile. The girls shuffled to stay right beside him, holding onto his hands and pressing their small bodies firmly against his thighs.
“Children,” Momma said, “this is Frank Chernivec.”
“Hello,” Frank said.
Then, looking to Frank’s children, Momma said, “And my name is Mary.”
None of the children spoke. We just gazed around at each other, wondering why we were being introduced.
Momma let out a slight sigh and smiled. Then she said, “Frank and I have decided to get married.”
Josephine let out a breathy gasp, but no one else reacted. The boy seemed contented with the news while the other girls appeared to be as confused as me.
“What’s that mean, Momma?” I asked.
“It means Frank is going to be your new Pa,” she answered.
The older of Frank’s two girls looked up at Momma and with a flash of comprehension asked, “Does that mean you’re going to be our new mother?”
“Yes, dear, it does,” Momma said reassuringly. “We’re going to be a family.”
It took a minute for that news to settle in, and we all just looked at each other for a long moment. Then the boy, I guess, deciding that the silence was getting awkward, stepped forward and knelt in front of me.
“Hiya,” he said with a broad smile, “my name’s Frank Jr., but people call me Cherne. What’s your name?”
I blinked, but he seemed nice enough, so after only a brief hesitation, I answered, “Joey.”
“Nice to meet you, Joey.” He held out a hand to me, but I didn’t understand why. Then I felt Momma’s hand press against my back.
“Go ahead,” she said. “Shake his hand.”
I raised my hand, and Cherne took it gently. Our hands bobbed up and down as he grinned at me, nodding his approval before standing back up.
“Hello, I’m Josephine, and this is Gally,” my oldest sister said, indicating the baby in her arms.
She looked over at my other sister who seemed to suddenly realize that it was her turn. Blushing, she said, “I’m Mary.”
The older of Frank’s girls lit up at that and said, “That’s my name too!”
Mary brightened and asked, “How old are you?”
With that, Frank’s Mary let go of her father’s hand and rushed forward. The girls met in the middle of the room and started talking about other things they had in common like their dolls’ names and what they liked to dress up as.
“Can we go play?” our Mary asked Momma, and Frank’s Mary turned to look at her father with pleading expectancy.
Both parents smiled and nodded, and a moment later, the girls were gone. That left Frank’s youngest daughter standing there with everyone looking at her. She glanced around frantically, then started to cry. Frank picked her up and patted her on the back. Turning back to Momma, he said, “This is Marjory. She’s seven.”
“Hello, Marjory,” Josephine said. “Would you like to come help me with the baby? It’s time for her to eat.”
Marjory blinked through her tears, then, looking at Gally, she smiled and said, “I like babies.”
She squirmed in her father’s grasp, a clear signal that she wanted to be let down. Frank obliged her, and she bounded forward as Josephine stuck out a hand. Marjory took it, and Josephine led her into the kitchen.
“Well,” Frank said to Momma, “that was easier than I expected.”
Momma agreed, then, looking down at me, said, “Joey, we’re going to be moving into town with Frank and his children.”
“What about our house?” I asked.
“We’re going to sell the house.”
I took a halting step backward and said, “But what about my fort?”
“I’ll help you build a new fort,” Frank said, smiling, but I wasn’t going for it.
“I don’t want a new fort!” I shouted as tears streamed down my face. Then I glared up at Momma and, in Slovenian, said, “I don’t want to move, and I don’t need a new Pa!”
Spinning around, I darted out the front door, leaving a stunned Momma and Frank to contemplate if things had still gone easier than they expected.
I was sitting in the barn on a pile of straw, whimpering while I stabbed at the ground with a stick, when I heard movement behind me. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw Cherne walk in and look around.
“Wow,” he said, “this is a neat barn!”
I turned back, ignoring him, and redoubled my efforts to dig a hole in the dirt before me.
“I wish we had a barn like this,” he said as he walked around, glancing at the inside of the structure and peering into the empty stalls. “Where are all the cows and horses?”
“Don’t have any,” I said, still staring at the ground.
“Had to sell ‘em. All we have left is some chickens.”
“Oh,” he said, seemingly concerned. “Why’d you have to sell them?”
I shrugged. “Momma said we needed the money.”
Cherne turned to me, and with a sympathetic look, he asked, “So, how are you going to get more money if you don’t have any animals left?”
He walked up and knelt in front of me. I ignored him at first, determined not to meet his gaze, but he was patient, and after a minute or two, my eyes lifted to look at him, and he smiled.
“Joey, our two families need each other. I’m getting ready to leave for Jr. College next year. My Pa can’t handle my sisters by himself, not and work eighty hours a week at the mine. And your Momma is struggling too. She’s trying to run a farm while she takes care of four children, and your farm is losing money. It won’t be long until you have to sell it, and then where will you go?”
I stared at him, my four-year-old brain spinning to comprehend what he was saying. I was starting to understand, and it scared me.
“So, we’re gonna go live with you, in your house?” I asked him.
“Our house,” he said. “We’re going to be a family, so everything we have will be yours, too.”
“You promise?” I asked.
“Promise,” Cherne replied, holding out a hand to me. When I hesitated, he added, “And we’re going to be brothers.”
I stared at him in astonishment, only now beginning to realize the implications. I’d always wanted a brother, and that revelation did it for me. I took his hand, and we shook on it.
There wasn’t much of a ceremony. The Justice of the Peace met us at the farm, and Momma and Pa were married in our den. Cherne let me hold onto the ring, a cheap brass ring, until he was ready to give it to Pa, and as he slid it onto Momma’s finger, Pa offered me an encouraging smile.
When it was over, we packed up the few belongings that wouldn’t be sold with the house and farm. Then, loading it all up in a wagon that Pa and Cherne took turns pulling behind them, we left the house. We walked beside the railroad tracks, up a steep hill. Our new stepsiblings went with us, and Marjory held my hand as we walked up the road into town. At the time, I thought it was an odd road because it wasn’t made of dirt or gravel, just a sticky black surface that steamed in the heat of the sun, sending up smelly waves that wafted into the sweltering summer air. It was the first paved road I’d ever seen.
When we reached the top of the hill, grassy fields gave way to tall brick buildings, and we stepped onto a sidewalk as we made our way down the city street. Then we came to an intersection and turned to the right. A man in a navy-blue uniform with a badge on his chest stood in the middle of the intersection and blew a whistle while he waved his arms at cars driving past. When he held up his white-gloved hand, the vehicles would stop. When he waved at them, they would go again.
"Is that man a genie?" I asked Marjory.
"Who?" she said, glancing around.
"That man over there, the one who's making the cars move with his hands?"
She giggled. "He's a policeman, silly."
We waited at the intersection until the policeman blew his whistle and the traffic stopped. Then he turned to wave at us, and his magic must have worked on us too because we started walking again. We crossed the street and came to a store with huge windows. There were words painted on the tall glass panes, and I asked Marjory what they said.
"It says, Miller's Food Market," she answered. Pa left the wagon sitting on the sidewalk, and we walked inside. As the door closed behind me, I came to a stop, my mouth falling open with astonishment.
I had never seen so much food in one place. There were apples piled up one on top of the other, cans of vegetables lined up in rows, and wicker baskets full of dainties and little packaged treats. Momma brought us over to the counter, and Pa ordered us all an ice cream cone from a tall man in a starched white apron.
I had never eaten ice cream before. It was pure heaven, so cold and sweet. I licked at it, chasing little white rivulets with my tongue as they ran down the cone, turning my hand left and right to make sure I got them all before they could drip onto the tile floor. I wasn’t about to waste a single drop.
When we were done, we continued our trip, and as we turned back up the road, a shiny new car drove by. Cherne whistled, turning his body to keep the automobile in view as it cruised past.
"Would you look at that!" he said in admiration, "A nineteen twenty-three Duesenberg Model A Touring!"
The car was a shiny apple red color with white-walled tires, chrome accents, and a tan fabric awning. The people in that car must have been fabulously wealthy, and I stared after the Duesenberg as it rolled on down the street, leaving behind just the faintest smell of burning oil.
We started walking again, and as we rounded a corner, Pa said, "This is Sheridan Street. Our house is up here on the left."
We walked through the gate of a white picket fence and up a concrete path to the steps of a two-story house with a fenced-in porch. I walked through the front door and stepped onto a spacious area rug that covered the dark polished wood of the foyer. On the left, a staircase wound up to the second story while to the right, the hallway opened into a den with a fireplace.
We were given a tour. The kitchen had a wood-burning stove and running water. I was excited about that because it meant we wouldn't have to go to the street hydrant anymore. There was even a toilet inside the house!
When Pa showed me to the room that I would share with Cherne, I asked him, "Are we rich?"
He smiled and answered, "No, but we are blessed."
He mussed my hair before leaving to show my sisters to their rooms.
Summer turned to fall, and the other children started school, all except for me and Gally. One day, about a week after school started, we were all having dinner in the kitchen when Josephine said, "Momma, my teacher said there aren't enough children in the Kindergarten class, and if any of us has a brother or sister who would be starting next year, and if they can pass a test, they could start school now."
Momma was ladling out soup to my other sisters, but when she heard this, she turned and pointed the bulbous utensil at my face.
"Joey, you are going tomorrow," she said.
The next day, I was paraded through the living room for inspection, dressed in my new sailor boy suit, a sailor cap, short pants, and long cotton stockings.
"Is that what you're sending him to school in?" Pa asked.
"I want him to be presentable," Momma replied.
"Do you want him to come back alive?"
Momma gave him a sour look and pursed her lips, placing her hands on her hips. "I think he's adorable."
Pa laughed. He moved his hand over my head to muss my hair, but Momma gasped, and breathlessly snapped, "Frank!"
Pa's hand froze, hovering above my head. Momma had spent half an hour rubbing Pomade into my hair and combing it until it was just right. Pa withdrew his hand and instead gave me a reassuring pat on the back. Then he leaned over and kissed Momma on the cheek. She handed him his lunch pale, and with a smile and a wink, he walked out the door to go to work.
I struggled during my first year of school, and I wasn’t alone. Most of us were the children of immigrants and few spoke English well. But once I caught up with my English, I learned my other studies quickly, too quickly, it seemed. Halfway through first grade, the principal called a meeting with my parents. Apparently, I was ahead of the rest of the class, and it was creating a distraction. I'll admit, I got frustrated easily. I wanted to know what was next and my teachers wouldn't tell me.
"Patience. We haven't gotten to that yet," was the most common phrase I heard.
Patience wasn't one of my particularly stronger virtues, and I pushed back against the teachers, challenging them when they moved too slowly for me. It was decided I would be moved up to second grade to be with children who were more on my level, and so, I was only six years old when I started third grade. I would turn seven that November, but I would always be one or two years younger than the other kids in class. That also meant I would always be the smallest.
The bullying started almost immediately.