I woke up. I heard the sounds of guns shooting and people yelling.
“Get your boots on and grab your rifle”, someone said, “The soldiers have found us, and our only chance is to get across the river!”
I sat up. I’d been lying on the ground using my backpack as a pillow. I pulled a boot over my left foot and watched my fingers move quickly, making the first loop, surrounding it with the other lace, and then pushing the second loop through and pulling it out the other side, and pulling on the first as well, making a tight knot. It was like I didn’t have to even think about it to make my fingers move. Then the other boot, doing the same thing. There was more shooting and a person screaming in pain.
“I’m hit”, he yelled out.
“No time to help him”, someone said, “We run now or we’ll all be dead.”
Boots on and laces tied, I put my pack on my shoulders and finally my rifle. My whole body shivered with fear but it lessened a bit when I started running. I followed the guy in front of me as he ran through the woods, branches and leaves crunching under our feet. I could hear the bullets whizzing by my head and hitting the trees around me. We slid down a steep slope of mud and leaves into the cold water of the river. My boots felt for the river bottom but it wasn’t there as my head now went under the water. I realized that I didn’t know how to swim.
I woke up. Again. This time I was in a small bedroom with white walls and an empty wooden crib across from my bed between two windows. The air was warm and felt like it was surrounding my body, which was sweating in pajamas and the sheet pushed down below my feet. I didn’t have a rifle or a backpack or boots.
A man peeked his head through the doorway and looked at me. His nose was long and his face was square. His eyes sparkled.
I heard a woman’s loud voice from the kitchen, “Eric. You need to get going because I need to get to the grocery store before lunch. There’s not a scrap of food in the house!”
I realized that I was back to being a kid and that man was my dad and that other voice was my mom.
“Yeah Liz I know”, dad said with a loud voice, turning his head away from me, “You told me five times!” He looked at me and rolled his eyes. “I’ll be outside fiddling with the lawn mower. Come out as soon as you’re ready!”
I REALLY LIKED going out to places with dad. There were so many streets and those “store” places where you could get things. All kinds of different ones and they were all interesting. And that bakery place smelled really good like the lilac bushes in the park, except you could eat that smell too. And that other “Schlenker” place had all sorts of neat stuff that I couldn’t quite figure out.
I rolled out of bed, pulled off my pajamas and threw them on the bed behind me. I felt the warm air covering my body like I didn’t even need to wear clothes. But I opened the top dresser drawer and pulled out underwear, shorts and a t-shirt. I didn’t even think about wearing socks as I looked for my sneakers and finally found them. I grabbed them and ran barefoot out of my room through the empty living room into the kitchen. Mom was changing David’s diaper on the kitchen table and didn’t look at me when I came through the doorway.
“MOM”, I said, “I need you to put my shoes on so I can go with dad!” I wanted her to do it right away.
Mom puffed her cheeks and blew air out of her mouth.
“Cooper”, she said, her voice was fierce, “I’m trying to change David’s diaper and it’s a bit of a mess. Just a minute dear, please.”
I felt like she was getting mad at me when she should be getting mad at David. I felt mad inside that I still couldn’t tie my own shoes and that maybe mom hadn’t shown me the right way to do it. She showed me how SHE did the laces but she didn’t show me the right way for ME to do MY laces. I tried her way and it wasn’t working. So she made me keep asking her and feel like a dumb kid. So I really didn’t like that she was making me wait.
I sat down hard on the chair and it made a banging noise on the kitchen floor. My body was filled with energy and my knees started bouncing up and down as I sat. Okay I’ll wait, I thought, but I REALLY don’t want to, she should have already shown me the best way for me to tie my shoes so I could do it myself.
Her eyes looked at me quickly, sitting there bouncing my knees, and those eyes looked fiere too. They returned to looking at David and she squeezed her mouth and nose together as she worked on the diaper.
“COOPER”, her voice was sounding like she was mad at me now, but then got softer but still fierce, “Just be patient. This damn diaper just won’t pin together.”
“Okay”, I said, though I didn’t really feel it was okay. I didn’t want to be “patient”. My knees were still bouncing.
“There”, she said, then breathing out air, “Got it. Finally!” She’d been leaning over David on the table and she stood up straight and groaned and reached her hands behind her head with her elbows out. Her back made a cracking noise.
I was waiting for her to tie my shoes now, but instead she picked David up under his shoulders and put him in his special “high chair”. Why was she making me wait so long?
Now, I thought, she’d finally do it. But she turned away from me and walked over to the sink and started washing her hands. Why wasn’t she helping me? Was she thinking so much about David she forgot I was sitting there waiting for her. Was he more important than I was?
“Mom!” I said, drawing out the word. I don’t know if I wanted it to be so loud, but it was.
She was turned away from me, still washing her hands, but I could hear her blowing air out of her mouth and she looked up at the ceiling. I thought I heard her say some really quiet words but I couldn’t tell what they were. Now she was rubbing her hands with the little towel that hung on the front of the stove.
I felt like I was going to explode. She had already said a swear word. Why couldn’t I say it too. Then it just came out of my mouth.
“Why can’t you tie my damn shoes?” I said. My voice sounded loud and fierce. I couldn’t remember ever talking like that before, and especially not to a grownup. David, who had been trying to say words, got quiet and looked at me like his eyes were saying “uh oh”. Then I got scared that mom was going to get really mad at me and not want to help me anymore, ever.
Still turned away from me, she threw the towel down on the counter and put both hands on the front of the sink, and was quiet. Then she turned her head around to look at me. I was really scared now that she was going to yell at me, and I thought maybe I should run out of the kitchen back to my bedroom. But before I could, it was like she started coughing and it turned into laughing.
“Cooper”, she said in her fierce voice, “I really don’t like being talked to that way by anyone, adult or kid. I know you want to be able to tie your shoes yourself, so I get your frustration. I’m feeling frustrated by a lot of things myself right now. And I get that you’re four.” She paused and finally looked at me. “But you’re going to have to learn to be a little more patient.”
Afraid now to say anything, I nodded my head up and down really fast so she knew I really meant it.
“Why don’t you take your shoes outside and ask your father to help you”, she said.
I grabbed my shoes and ran past her and out the side door.
I realized dad was behind me, and I felt his hand strike my bottom.
“Don’t ever talk to your mother like that!” he said. I could only remember him talking fierce like that one time when he and mom had a really big argument. Usually he talked soft, even when he and mom were arguing, like he was sorry and wanted mom to feel better.
I realized that he had just “spanked” me. I’d seen other kids at the park get spanked by their moms or dads when they did something really bad like hit another kid. And Kenny said that his dad would spank him sometimes for doing bad stuff. I remembered mom talking at parties that she did not “believe in spanking”, and that it was “no different than just hitting children”. Dad had never talked about spanking, but I couldn’t remember either of them ever doing it to me. Had what I’d said to mom been so bad that dad finally had to spank me? I was afraid and didn’t know what to do.
Dad took my shoes and pointed at the “stoop” by the side door for me to sit down. He got down on one knee and started putting them on my feet and tying them. I could see his hands shaking a little and he had some trouble doing it right, but finally did.
“Get in the car Cloob”, he said, and I could tell that he was trying hard not to sound like he was still mad, even though he was. I had figured out how to open the car door by myself, so I grabbed the shiny handle, pushed in the button with both thumbs, and then opened the door and climbed up on the seat. Dad closed the door behind me. He looked really worried as turned that key to make the car start.
I heard mom’s voice from the kitchen. “Eric. What just happened?”
Dad didn’t say anything but drove the car backwards to get out of the driveway. I wondered if mom knew he had spanked me. I wondered how long he would be mad at me, because sometimes, when he got mad at mom, he would stay mad for a long time. Was I becoming a “bad kid”, and dad would be mad at me and spank me more often? I really did not want that to happen. I really did not want mom and dad to start watching me all the time or even telling me what to do and what not to do.
I decided that I had to be more careful when talking to mom or dad or any grownups. And I better not do any of that swearing stuff, even if I was talking to other kids and they were swearing, just in case some grownup was listening. When I was around them I’d have to do everything the way they wanted me to and talk nice. I hoped they would forget about what happened and things would go back to the way they were before. But I was scared they might not, that maybe I WAS a bad kid, and they had finally figured that out. I wondered if that was true, but I hoped it wasn’t.
Dad drove the car around to the other side of the park where he turned on the street that went down between the big trees on either side towards the bakery. It was like we had gone into this giant tunnel under a green sea above us. Our street didn’t have big trees in the front yards like this street did. But we did have our big maple tree in the backyard, and Molly’s house had smaller trees in her backyard.
Kenny’s house had that big tree in his back yard that had those “cherries” you could eat. It was strange because usually you had to go to the store to get cherries if they even had them. But I had been over at Kenny’s the other day and we had climbed up in that tree and “picked” the cherries right off the little branches and ate them. The ones that were really dark were usually super sweet and the ones that were really red just made your mouth all yucky when you tried to eat them. Danny said those ones were “sour”, but if you let them stay on the tree they would get “ripe”, which meant they’d get darker and finally be sweet. Kenny’s dad actually liked eating the cherries when they were sour. Grownups had some pretty weird stuff that they liked to eat. Mom and dad liked this stuff called “sour kraut” that tasted pretty bad. And once we went to this eating place called the “Old German” and they had this stuff called “sour brotten” which tasted REALLY bad.
We got to the bakery and stopped the car close to it.
“Come on”, dad said, which was what he usually said when we got out of the car when he wasn’t mad, so I was happy about that. And I figured once he was eating a sweetroll he’d be happy and I hoped he also wouldn’t be mad anymore.
The bakery was like a big house with a big window in the front so you could see the inside. We went through the door and it smelled really sweet. Dad pulled this little piece of paper out of this round thing up on the wall and stood in a corner next to a woman who was sitting in one of the chairs. The paper had “167” on it. You waited for the person who worked at the bakery to say that number before you could tell him what you wanted. I knew how to say that number. I figured dad would like it if I said it.
“Our number is one sixtyseven”, I said to dad.
“Yep”, he said, with one of those smiles where you don’t open your mouth that I think grownups called a “grin”. He made that click noise with his mouth that he made when he threw me something and I could catch it.
The woman sitting next to us looked down at me and then up at dad.
“Your son is very bright”, she said, then looking at me again and made a big smile with her mouth open so I could see her teeth, so not just a grin.
Thanks lady, I thought. Dad can’t stay mad at me if everybody thinks I’m “bright”.
“He sure is!” dad said, and he patted me on the shoulder and rubbed my hair. Usually I wouldn’t like that, but I figured it was good right now, so I just nodded and tried to smile too.
The guy behind the glass thing with all the rows of donuts and sweet rolls said the number on the piece of paper dad had. Dad told him he wanted a “dozen” cinnamon rolls, which I knew was the same thing as twelve, though at some bakeries they gave you one more so it was thirteen.
“How ‘bout you Cloob”, dad said, looking down at me, “You want a chocolate covered donut?”
I wasn’t sure it was okay to say yes, still thinking about the spanking thing.
“Well?” he asked, putting his hands on my shoulders and patting them.
I finally nodded.
“Thanks dad”, I said. I usually didn’t say that “thanks” word, but I figured I better say it more often, at least for now. That’s what grownups said to each other when they were being nice.
He made that clicking noise and even scrunched the side of his mouth and closed his eye for a second. All good.
The guy behind the glass thing grabbed a big piece of that hard white paper stuff and folded it where there were these kind of lines, and stuck sticking out parts into slits and turned it into a box thing. It was REALLY interesting how he changed it from a flat thing into a thing that wasn’t flat anymore. Then he put a big piece of the crunchy white paper, that you could kind of see through, on the bottom of the box. Then he took a smaller piece of that same kind of paper and used it in his hand to take all the cinnamon rolls from the lines of them all next to each other inside that glass thing. He put each one in the white box. When it was filled up with twelve, he got the chocolate covered donut and slid it in by the edge. He closed the top part of the box and gave it to dad.
“That’ll be eighty nine cents please”, the guy said and made a grin smile.
Dad reached into the pocket on the side of his pants and I could hear a bunch of clinking noises. I knew that was “money”. Mom had shown me all the different “coins” and what number they were. He pulled coins out of his pocket and held his hand open so he could look at them all. He picked out two of the bigger silver ones called “quarters”, three of the smaller silver “dime” ones, and nine of the brown “penny” ones, and gave them to the guy, who said “thank you”. That was the longer way to say “thanks”.
Dad took a bunch of those other paper folded things called “napkins”. He had a place in the kitchen where he kept them, because he said, “Better to get them for free so you don’t have to buy them.”
We got back in the car and dad turned right on a different street with big trees on both sides that made it look like another green tunnel. There were also some big houses behind those trees with that extra top part like Molly’s house, only bigger. As we kept driving, the trees and houses went away, and we went over railroad tracks and there were those “building” and “store” places instead, where you went to get things. I remember mom calling it “downtown”.
That Schlenker building had this flat place next to it where you could leave your car when you stopped driving it. The store mom went to to buy food had a flat place for cars too, but that one was a lot bigger. When we got out of the car I could look down at where the railroad tracks were going off into the distance. Dad showed me that we could see Ferry Field and the Michigan Stadium. He said that Ferry Field was where mom used to take me when I was little like David, where she sat in the middle and I could go wherever I wanted because there was a wall around it and also a fence where the railroad tracks went by.
“Hey cloob”, he said while we were looking at all that stuff far away, “I’m sorry about that swat on your bottom earlier. When I get angry sometimes I just do things I regret later. It’s a lot of extra work for your mom taking care of David right now, along with everything else. She needs both you and I to be patient with her and help her out any way we can. Okay?”
I nodded. I didn’t say anything, because I was still thinking about that he could spank me like that. That I could be so bad that he thought I had to be spanked, even if he said he was sorry later. It had changed everything.
He did that blowing air out of his nose laugh. “I’m sure your mother will not be happy with me when we get home.”
I was glad to hear that. I didn’t want that to ever happen again, but now I wasn’t sure anymore. You had to be careful with these grownups and the things they thought they could do to kids. Even mom and dad sometimes.
At bedtime dad came into David’s and my bedroom as usual to read and sing songs, which made me feel a little better about things. He read a chapter of the Tom Swift book we’d been reading, Tom Swift and His Space Solartron. Tom was building this machine that would make stuff – food, water, metal even – out of just electricity, so he could build a “colony” on the moon. I liked that “colony” thing, because he and his “crew” would create a whole big place for them to live on the moon. They could build their own houses and stores and parks inside their colony. They wouldn’t have to live in houses and go to stores and parks that grownups had already built a long time ago. Me and Molly and all my other friends could have our own colony without all the grownups and all the places they had set up. We would build it our own way and it would be just for us.
Dad sang three songs, all ones we had sung many times. The one “college song” he sang got me thinking…
On Wisconsin, On Wisconsin
Plunge right through that line
Run the ball clear down the field, boys
Just one touchdown more, rah, rah, rah
On Wisconsin, On Wisconsin
Praises we will win
Fight, Fellows, fight
For we will win today
Dad had said before that they called them “fight songs”, and on TV shows, fighting someone meant hitting them or shooting them. Was dad “fighting” me when he did that “swat” on my bottom? Did he think I was the other “team” or the “bad guys”, because of what I said to mom, so he wanted to fight me? I had heard boys and grownup men talking about “fighting” and “beating” the other “team” or “side” or army. I liked pretending with other boys being part of an army and fighting the bad guy army. Or part of a crew of spacemen fighting bad guy aliens. But REAL fighting, where you REALLY hit somebody, that was very different.