I could hear the rain continue to fall outside, enjoying the quiet sanctuary of the basement. It was a while before my dad came down the basement stairs and returned to his work at his desk. He was in the the opposite quarter of the basement from where I sat on the concrete floor looking at my box of plastic toy soldiers and a second box with trucks, cars and boats in it. I wanted to explore further that scenario I was playing out last night in the bathtub. The pirate ship in the hidden cove shooting at the ships out in the bay, whose captains were trying to figure out what to do to stop the pirates from killing their sailors and sinking their ships.
I examined the two boats in the box amongst the cars and trucks. They weren’t sailing ships but were big enough to put some soldiers on them. But only the two of them were not enough, I needed the boats that I had in the tub upstairs. It hit me that if I went upstairs again my dad might wonder what I was doing up there. This was where talking would be very useful.
“I’ll be right back!”, I said to him out of the blue. He turned and looked at me and nodded, but I could tell he was mostly thinking about what he was working on. I ran up the stairs and through the house to the bathroom, grabbed the small plastic bin of boats and soldiers there, and ran back down into the basement. Now I had seven boats, that was better.
But now the issue was where or how to create the hidden pirate cove. Maybe if I could find something to build the land between the cove and the larger bay. I dumped all the soldiers out of their box and the cars and trucks out of theirs. I turned the wood boxes over and put them next to each other to create a separation between cove and bay. I put the pirate ship in the cove part and the rest of boats in the other and pondered this set up. It was not as compelling as I wanted it to be. There just wasn’t enough land separating the pirates from the others.
I thought of the plastic laundry basket in the laundry room. If it was empty I could turn it upside down into more mountains hiding the cove. I walked over to and around the furnace into that quarter of the basement. The basket was full of clothes, sitting on top of the washing machine. But as I stood in that area, surrounded by the furnace on my right and the washing machine and staircase in front of me, it struck me that the laundry room was perfect for the secret cove. The furnace and the stairway could be the mountains that separated that cove from my side of the basement, which is where the other ships could be. The sailors could try to scale the staircase to get into the cove. I could even build a pirate fort guarding the hidden entrance to the cove, and a good guy fort guarding the bay on my side.
My imagination was percolating now and I went into action. I got my three masted ship that had been the pirate ship in the tub last night and put it in the middle of the floor of the laundry room. I studied it there from several points of view, including looking down from the basement stairs. It looked most like a pirate ship of all my toy boats because it had masts and sails. Problem was I couldn’t really stand the gray soldiers, my pirates in this case, on its deck. I would just have to imagine them there.
I brought my box of Lincoln Logs into the laundry room and used them to create the walls of the pirate fort plus a square enclosure for the pirate leader in the middle. I put pairs of the tiny connector logs together, leaned over they looked like short cannons, and placed them along the wall of the fort pointed out into the entrance of the cove. The gray German soldiers were the pirates and I put a couple of them around each cannon. The gray plastic leader figure, with his imposing upright stance, fists on either hip and elbows extended on either side, I put in the square enclosure in the center of the fort supervising the cannon guys. His lieutenant was next to him.
Back in my quarter of the basement, I built a second fort out of the remaining Lincoln logs. I located it on the edge of the bay up on the end of my lowest toy shelf so it could look out on and be in charge of the entire bay. The good guys’ ships could dock underneath and they could climb up to the fort. I put groups of the green American soldiers in and around the fort, each group with a specific task to perform. Sentries looked out into the bay. Others manned the cannons. Another group was ready for expeditions. A fourth group below the fort helped load and unload the ships as needed. The green commander, Captain Dale, his figure pointing a hand out in front of him, I put in the center of the fort with his lieutenant next to him.
I took one of my bigger boats and put it in the middle of the bay. It was big enough to stand five soldiers on it if I placed them very carefully – one in the front, three in the middle, and the ship captain, Captain Drake, in the back. After several failed attempts I got them all standing, and I laid on my side and put my cheek on the cold concrete floor and looked at them on the ship from that low vantage, trying to imagine them being for real. They looked good posed there. I looked at the captain in the back and imagined his concern for his crew. I put the second bigger boat by the dock part of the fort, and then put the remaining smaller boats all about the bay around the big one.
Once everything was set up in its initial positions, I sat on the basement staircase for some time, where I could view both venues, and my imagination took in all the possibilities. For cannon balls I could use the small plastic wiffle balls I had. Yes this was all very good, very exciting.
I collected my assortment of small plastic wiffle balls in the small plastic bin that held my bathtub toys. I took it into the laundry room and sat on the floor between the pirate ship and the fort and I imagined the conversation between the pirate ship captain, Captain Black, and the fort captain, Big John.
I sailed the pirate ship over to the fort and imagined Captain Black waving from the ship to Big John in the fort. Big John surveyed the men and cannons around his fort with confidence. “The fort cannons are loaded and in position and the cannon shooters are good and ready for a fight if the good guys find the secret entrance to the cove!”
Captain Black was impressed. “Ha ha that’s good. We’ll sail to the far side of the cove where we’ll have a better shot at ‘em and give ‘em hell!”
Big John: “Yes give ‘em hell They won’t know what hit ‘em!”
Captain Black: “Ha ha you’re right matey!”
The pirate ship sailed across the cove near the mountainous staircase that separated it from the larger bay. Its cannons began to fire. Making an appropriate cannon firing noise I flung each ball over the staircase and I could hear it hit the floor and bounce somewhere on the other side beyond my vision. My dad continued with his work at his desk despite the cannon fire. He was used to me playing like this while he worked quietly on his own. I moved to the other side of the basement and sat against the basement wall next to the good guy fort on the end of my toy shelves and surveyed the situation. The fort and all the ships looked as yet undamaged, but the captains, sailors, and fort soldiers were very concerned.
Captain Dale in the fort looked out over the bay in great distress. “Oh my god… cannonballs are raining down from the sky. It is only a matter of time before one of our ships are hit or our fort takes damage!”
His lieutenant was looking for reassurance. “But sir, we have built the strongest fort possible into the side of the cliff, it can withstand any assault!”
Captain Drake aboard his ship was deeply troubled as well. “This is terrible! It is only a matter of time before one of our ships is hit!”
His first mate agreed. “You’re right Captain!”
After surveying and savoring the scene for a couple more minutes, I collected the balls in the bin and went back into the laundry room.
Captain Black was energized. “Keep up the barrage lads! We have them right where we want them!”
With the appropriate soundtrack of explosions I fired another round of cannonballs over the staircase mountains into the helpless bay. On one shot I heard the crash of plastic on plastic.
Captain Black: “Sounds like we hit something boys!”
His first mate responded. “Yes, but how can we know for sure! We can’t see across the mountains.”
Black pondered the problem. “I think that’s a good job for you mate! Take some of the boys and climb the mountain so you can report on the damage their taking!”
“Ay ay Captain!”
I took several gray soldiers and began to have them scale the steep side of the staircase, finally attaining a vantage on the washing machine where they could see out onto the bay.
I returned to the other side of the basement and the vantage of the good guys fort. Three of the green soldiers that had previously been standing on the big ship in the middle of the bay were scattered on the floor around it, obviously the ship that had been hit.
The fort sentry cried out. “Oh my god, they hit Drake’s ship!” Then to the Lieutenant, “Let Captain Dale know.”
“Will do sentry!” And then to Captain Dale, “Captain… Drake’s ship’s been hit! There’ll be dead and wounded! What should we do?”
Dale was quiet in thought for a moment. “Send out the rescue ship to get the dead and wounded and bring them back here. Tell the doctor to get the hospital set up.”
“Ay ay sir!”
I had the fort lieutenant’s plastic figure descend to the docks below the fort and speak to the captain of the rescue ship docked there.
“Captain Strong, time to go to work! A rescue is needed! Is your crew ready?”
“We’re ready! Sail boys! We must save our men if they can be saved!”
The rescue ship sailed out and with difficulty collected the dead and wounded floating in the water and brought them back to the fort. The drama then focused on the doctor, Dr West I named him, who had to organize the hospital. One area for the wounded and one for the dead, and each of the casualties were examined and a decision had to be made whether each one could be saved or was “too far gone”. I imagined the grief of the doctor with each of his fateful decisions.
As the steady fall of the rain was audible outside, so it went back and forth between the hidden cove and the exposed bay while my dad worked in his office corner of the basement. He was aware of my audible cannon fire and explosions though not the drama of the spoken interchanges, which were heard only in my mind.
Finally, like in my bathtub drama the previous evening, the good guys sent a scout party out to scale the mountainous staircase and see if they could figure out where the pirate ship was shooting from. An intrepid party, led by Lieutenant Cord, was taken by boat in a dangerous journey across the bay to the mountains. Before they could land, I moved back into the laundry room and fired one more volley from the pirate ship’s cannons into the bay.
Returning from the laundry room I found that another ship had been hit, but not the one with the scout party, which finally reached the shore at the base of mountains and ready to scale the steps. But the first order of business was sending the rescue boat out to collect any dead and wounded from the latest cannonball strike. Since the boat that was on its side from the wiffle ball strike had no soldier figures actually on it, I decided there were four casualties, two dead and two wounded. The rescue boat headed out and collected the four of them. The two dead men were floating face down in the bay by the damaged ship and the two wounded were below deck in the bow of ship hit by the pirate’s cannonball. Once the boat returned to the fort with the casualties, they were brought to the makeshift hospital, and there was of course more grief and consternation from Doctor West.
My attention returned to Lieutenant Cord’s scout party, organizing itself at the base of the mountainous stairs, preparing for the treacherous climb. Seeing the damage to an additional ship out in the bay, they were abuzz with concern and realized their mission was truly a life or death matter. Cord gave a rousing speech to his team, that despite the dangers of the climb. Their mission to find the location of the pirate ship must be successful or all would be lost. “It’s up to us boys. Everyone else is counting on us!”
Just then I realized that my dad was standing behind me as I sat between him and the bottom step of the stairs. I startled and turned to look up at him. He towered over me like some giant god looking down from above at this human drama below, like the stories of Zeus and the other Greek gods he had read me. His eyes were dark and sad, though he had a smile on his face. He was strange that way. He spoke.
“I want to get up the stairs.” But he paused without taking a step up. “So what is this group of soldiers up to?”
I generally did not by choice share with my parents the stories I was playing out. I was concerned the details of those stories might reveal somehow how immature and naive I was, or that my stories were implausible somehow, which if true, would ruin them for me. The stories seemed compelling to me in my own imagination, so best keep it that way.
But this was a direct question from one of my parents, and I felt that now that I was talking, it was generally good policy to provide at least a minimally acceptable answer, so they would be satisfied and go on their way. Adults were like capricious deities to me, even my mom and dad. Despite the fact that they fed me, read and sang to me at night, bought me toys, and otherwise did things for me.
“Lieutenant Cord is leading his men on a dangerous climb up the mountains to try to find the pirate ship.” That seemed like a sufficient answer to satisfy his question.
His smile, there way above me, turned into a broader grin. I could see him wanting to laugh but with difficulty repressing it. But then his face got serious and thoughtful. He spoke again.
“You know I was a lieutenant in World War Two!”
I had heard him talk to his friends about the War, and that he had been a soldier in it, but this was the first time I could remember that he talked directly to me about it. I knew this was a serious subject, war, and I wasn’t sure it was appropriate for me as a kid to ask about it or be told details about it. But I was fascinated by the topic all the same, and wanted very much to learn more. He continued.
“I was in charge of a platoon of motorized mortars.”
I had heard the word “mortars” before. It was some sort of weapon like a cannon. I did not want to sound so immature to ask the obvious question, so I just repeated the word.
“Mortars.” I nodded my head like I understood, though I think my dad could see that bit of puzzlement in my eyes.
“They are small artillery pieces”, his voice getting sing songy like it did when he was explaining things, “Like cannons but smaller, and they shoot more up in the air than cannons and other artillery does.” His finger pointed up at the ceiling, and I looked up in that direction.
I had heard the word “artillery” before but now I had a better sense of its meaning, a word that covered all sorts of cannons and big guns. I sensed from him that this was stuff that he was happy to share with me, even wanted to share with me. His willingness and my intrigue to know made me suddenly brave.
“What did you shoot at?”
There was a kind of faraway look in his sad dark eyes. Then he pursed his lips and I could see his mind return to the basement, ready to answer.
“Mostly at German artillery. Eighty Eights.”
I knew eighty eight was a number but I had not heard it used before in terms of artillery. It seemed like my dad was getting into more details so it would be appropriate for me to ask more questions.
“Eighty Eights?” I dared frame it as a question this time.
His smile tightened toward more of a grimace as he nodded his head to indicate that yes, that was the appropriate next question.
“Big German field guns that shot eighty eight millimeter shells”, he held his thumb and forefinger about three and a half inches apart, “That could take out one of our tanks with one shot.” He looked up and off to the left, recalling an example.
“When we crossed the German border they were dug into their Siegfried Line. They set up their Eighty Eights in bunkers in groves of trees on hilltops guarding the road we were trying to advance on. My unit would be sent up to hide behind another hill near those German guns, in range but where they couldn’t see us to shoot at us. I would go up to the top of the hill, hide in the bushes, and try to spot the bunker with the Eighty Eights on the next hill and radio back to my unit how to aim our mortars to try to knock them out. Since mortars shot upward they could fire shells over the hill and drop them down on the enemy guns from above. That is if I could spot their guns and give my gunners the correct direction and distance. Their Eighty Eights could only shoot at something they could see. Hopefully they did not see me!”
“Give me just a minute and I’ll show you something!” and he took a big step over my soldiers on the bottom stair and quickly went up the stairs.
I continued to process what he had said to me. It was a treasure trove of information for my mind to catalog and process. Catalog the words that were new, like the “Siegfried Line”, and update the meanings of ones I had heard before, like “in range”, “spot” and “bunkers”. Try and understand the context that the words fit into. He seemed to be enjoying answering my questions and anticipating that I would want to ask more. I wondered if he might even be disappointed if I didn’t. In a couple minutes he returned, came quickly down the steps again easily clearing the bottom one and the soldiers on it. He motioned me into the office part of the basement and he sat in his chair.
I asked the question that had been percolating in my mind while he was upstairs. “What if they saw you?” It seemed the obvious question as I imagined myself in his shoes.
He shook his head and looked off into the distance again rather than at me.
“One time they saw me and turned one of their guns on me. I had to run for my life across a field as they shot at me. If I was running at least they knew I could not radio in their location.”
His focus shifted to scanning the wall of books to his right. He pulled a big thick one out with a dark red cover. He opened it, then touched a couple fingers to the tip of his tongue and used them to peel open the pages as he focused all his attention on what was on those pages. I maneuvered myself to see the book pages as well, and they were full of words but pictures too. Not drawings like some of the books he and my mom read me, but pictures that I figured were from a camera because they were black, gray and white and looked like pictures I had seen in newspapers. There was a picture of three smiling soldiers in their helmets and uniforms standing around a large metal tube pointed up in the air.
“That’s a mortar, but ours were set up on the back of a halftrack.”
I nodded, though dubious. It did not look like any cannon I had ever seen in pictures. He pointed at the word “mortar” which started with an “m” which made sense to me since that was the sound it started with. But I still had no idea what a “halftrack” was.
I could tell my dad was looking at me intently as I looked at the book. I was used to him doing that, since I had not been talking, and he was always trying to figure out what I still needed to know.
He turned a number of pages with pictures of things I recognized, tanks, airplanes, ships, soldiers marching, and people lying on the ground with closed or empty stares in their eyes. Finally there was a picture of a line of what looked like trucks but their back wheels looked like tank wheels. His big finger tapped on the picture.
“These are halftracks.” He spoke with his eyes on the picture rather than looking at me, and as I glanced at him briefly he looked concerned, like he was thinking about a lot of stuff at the same time. “You drive them in front like a truck with wheels but instead of back wheels they have treads like a tank which help them go over rough ground where a truck would get stuck. They are also armored, unlike a truck, so the soldiers have some protection from enemy fire. The ones in this picture are set up to carry infantrymen in the back. The ones in our platoon had mortars mounted on the back and carried the gun crew.”
I noted the word “crew” as it applied to a gun. I studied the picture as best I could and he waited for me to indicate that I was done. It all sounded complicated but interesting and I was a bit intimidated, which caused me to revert to my silent mode. I finally nodded without saying anything and he closed the book with a flourish and I carefully watched him slide it back onto the shelf next to another book that was the same size and color. His concern softened as he pondered all the books. Finally he smiled.
“You’re welcome to take any book off the shelf and look at it if you like. Just put it back when you’re done, okay?”
I nodded again. I would definitely do that. Look at them and put them back.
“I have to get back to grading papers!” He pushed his machine of a chair with his feet back towards his desk, then reached behind him with a hand to grab the desk edge and spin him around to face it. I watched him sigh, fill his cheeks with air and then blow it out audibly. His red pencil was poised in his right hand, ready for action, as he focused his eyes on the papers below him.
I returned to bottom of the staircase where Lieutenant Cord and his men, his platoon, slowly made the dangerous climb up the stair runners. Finally they reached a stair step where they could see into the pirate cove.
Cord was excited. “Boys we’ve found it! There is the ship that is shooting at us. And look, they also have a fort guarding the secret entrance to the cove. Notify Captain Dale and Captain Drake!”
Captain Dale from his vantage in the good guy fort told Captain Drake to have all his ships with cannons fire into the cove. I collected the whiffle balls in their box and started to throw them over the stairs into the laundry room. They clunked against the walls and floor. A couple clanged against the washing machine. When the salvo was complete I raced back up to Lieutenant Cord and his platoon on their perch on the stairs overlooking the pirates lair. The pirate ship looked undamaged, Dale and Drake were notified of the bad news.
After a couple more rounds of cannon fire back and forth, hitting, and this time sinking one of the good guy ships at great loss of life, Drake, steely voiced and holding back his anxiety, proposed a new plan. “We must sail to the secret entrance of the cove, sail in, and destroy the pirate ship.”
“But the fort cannons sir,” Lieutenant Cord noted, “They’ll tear our ships apart!”
Drake was unswayed. “We have no choice!”
On my hands and knees I moved the remaining good guy ships across the basement floor by the furnace to the “secret” entrance to the laundry room and the pirate cove.
Captain Drake was resolute. “Man your guns boys. We’re going in. Give ‘em hell!”. I moved the four remaining good guy ships past the cove entrance and in sight of the fort and its cannons, all ready for a fight. Mouthing plenty of cannon shots and explosions the battle raged. The good guy ships were hit and took damage, but the fort was hit too. Captain Black turned his pirate ship guns to the good guy ships and joined the fight. Lieutenant Cord and his men watched helplessly from their vantage on the stairs.
Cord’s men were distraught. “What can we do?”
But Cord had an idea. “Did you bring the bag of bombs, Joe?”
“Aye, aye, Lieutenant!”
“There is a path along the mountains there that leads to a spot right above the pirate fort. We need to risk the dangerous path so we can drop those bombs on them.”
There was in fact a narrow ledge between the bottom and the top half of the furnace, about three feet up from the floor. From the stairs Cord and his men made the dangerous climb up to that ledge and proceeded from there. As the battle raged below his team snaked their way to the far corner of the furnace above the pirate fort. The pirates on the washing machine saw Cord’s men and started shooting at them. One was hit and fell to his death.
“Oh my god, we lost Sam!”
“Keep going men. At least we still have Joe and the bag of bombs!” Cord was as pragmatic as he was resolute. The rest of the team reached the vantage point on the mountain path just above the pirate fort. I ran into my quarter of the basement and gathered all the whiffle balls into their box and with great anticipation returned to the seen there in the pirate cove. As the battle raged below, Cord and his men lit the fuses and dropped the bombs on the fort below. The first wiffle ball hit the fort wall. Two Lincoln Log cannons flew apart and most of the gunners manning them were knocked over, dead or wounded.
The pirates in the fort were suddenly in disarray. Big John from his enclosure yelled at his men to keep firing and not to panic. But Cord and his men dropped their next two bombs right into Big John’s enclosure. Logs scattered, and the Big John figure was mortally wounded. The pirate gun crews left their guns and ran to his side. I placed them in a circle around his prone figure. Big John exhaled his last breath and died. The remaining pirates in the fort surrendered, unable to defend themselves from the bombs from above. The good guy sailors entered the fort and turned the remaining guns on Captain Black’s pirate ship out in the cove. He raised the white flag to surrender.
The surviving pirates were marched onto the good guy ships and brought back to the good guys’ fort. One of the levels of the fort was turned into a jail for those pirates. Lieutenant Cord and the surviving members of his platoon were the last to return to the good guy fort. They received a hero’s welcome.
That night at bedtime, my dad read the next chapter of Tom Sawyer, Chapter 18. It was the morning after Tom made a surprise appearance at his own funeral. All the other kids at school thought he was a hero. Except for Becky, who was mad that he was ignoring her. After Tom left she got their classmate Alfred to pour ink in Tom’s spelling book, knowing that Tom would be blamed the next day by the teacher and punished by being whipped.
I admired Tom’s ability to always know what to do and then do it, no matter what. My Lieutenant Cord was like a soldier version of Tom. I also noted that, for what it was worth, girls did not like being ignored, at least in the story, even though they might not be interested in the same things that boys were. I was not sure if that was really true.
After finishing reading, my dad added a new song to the end of his singing. I always enjoyed hearing a new song…
Over hill, over dale
As we hit the dusty trail
And those caissons go rolling along
In and out, hear them shout
Counter march and right about
And those caissons go rolling along
Then it’s hi! hi! hee!
In the field artillery
Shout out your numbers loud and strong – two, three
For where’er you go
You will always know
That those caissons go rolling along
He explained that a “caisson” was the cart that was carried behind a cannon that contained ammunition for that cannon. It seemed to me an appropriate song given what he had told me early that day about being in the war. It was rousing and consistent with my sense of the courageous spirit of being a soldier fighting the bad guys, whether pirates or Germans.
My mom came in after he had wiggled my big toe under the covers and left. She reminded me that tomorrow was my birthday party, which if the rain held off would be across the street in the park. I remembered about that tricycle up in the attic but did not say anything. Adults did strange things. But they were adults so what did I expect!
“Night night birthday boy!”
Again, now that I was talking, instead of just nodding I said, “Almost!”
She looked at me and grinned, nodding her head. “Almost!”
She kissed my forehead, pondered me for a moment and then left the room. My mind was racing on at least two things. First my dad being a soldier in the war, and second that tricycle up above me in the attic. It was a long time before I finally fell asleep.