It was morning, and David and I finished eating our Cheerios for breakfast. Mom had brought some of David’s toys that he liked to play with up from the basement and put them in the living room. Then she closed the door to the hallway that went to the bathroom and bedrooms. She did that, she said, so she could watch David in the living room while she “worked” in the kitchen. She took David out of his special chair and he ran into the living room where his toys were. She then put a bunch of pieces of paper all over the kitchen table. I looked at them and they had a lot of words on the left side and numbers on the right side. She also had this yellow paper “pad” with lines on it that she wrote words on the left side and numbers on the right.
She saw me looking at all the papers on the table and said, “Oh Cloob, it’s that time of the month when I’ve got to sort out all the bills. Your dad works so hard at his four different jobs but none of them pay very well.” Molly’s dad, Paul’s dad and Kenny’s dad just had one “job”, the place they did stuff to get money.
“It’s kind of tough right now”, she said, “But it’s going to be so much better when he gets his PhD and can get a real teaching job with a real paycheck.”
I nodded. I had seen her do “bills” on the kitchen table before and talk about money. It always made her look worried. I ran down in the basement and dad wasn’t there. When he wasn’t down there in his office, I liked to look through the books he had. The ones I liked the best were those two red ones about that “World War Two” war that he was a soldier in.
I still couldn’t read most of the words but there were lots of pictures. Pictures of tanks, trucks, airplanes and ships. Pictures of soldiers, American, German and Japanese. Some were standing and smiling. Others were walking or running. Some were shooting. Some were lying in beds right next to each other because they were wounded. Some were lying on the ground dead. There were also pictures of other dead people, regular people that did not look like soldiers, lots of them all lined up next to each other on the ground. Their eyes were closed and their faces looked worried, even though they were dead.
I found that picture of the halftrack with the mortar on the back of it. That was what dad and the soldiers he was in charge of had. I remembered asking him if you had to be “tough”. How he grabbed that baseball he kept on his desk, moving it around in his hand, squeezing it, and rubbing it with his thumb. He puffed out his cheeks and then blew air out of his mouth and did that laugh through his nose.
“I guess so”, he said, “But the tough part wasn’t the actual combat, it was all the rest of the time when you sat around or drove around and worried about the next time you’d be in combat and if you’d make it home in one piece.”
“One piece?” I asked. He nodded.
“Well that’s just an expression”, he said, “It means make it home alive and not missing an arm or a leg so you wouldn’t be crippled for the rest of your life.”
“Did you ever get shot? Or just blown up?” I asked. He had told me the story several times about when the German Eighty-eight shot at him.
“Well I never got shot with a bullet. I saw other guys who had. And I really didn’t get ‘blown up’ exactly. If I had, I probably wouldn’t be here now. But a shell from a German Eighty-eight did explode close to me, knocking me over and my face hit the hard frozen ground and it broke my nose.
“So you were wounded?” I asked. He didn’t look at me but he pushed his lips together, opened up his eyes wide, and nodded.
“Yeah. They give you a special kind of medal when you get wounded”, he said, shaking his head and laughing through his nose again. “You want to see it?” I nodded. I really wanted to.
He opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a small box and opened it. There were silver and gold looking metal things in it. He pulled out a thing with a dark blue cloth part and this gold metal circle thing attached to it that was pointed at the bottom. The circle thing had this side of a man’s face in the middle of it, just like that face on the quarter or the nickel. Not a regular man like right now, but one of those guys from a long time ago.
“It’s called a ‘Purple Heart’”, he said, “Even though it’s really more blue than purple.”
He looked at me and smiled and said, “You don’t have to be brave to get one. You just have to be officially wounded.”
“You weren’t brave?” I asked. He shook his head and laughed again through his nose.
“Not really”, he said, “When we were in combat all I was was scared, and I just did my job as best I could to try to not think about being so scared. And my guys were depending on me. I couldn’t live with myself if I did something stupid and got any of my guys killed. Does that make sense?”
I nodded even though it didn’t really make sense to me. But I figured since it was the War, I should probably say it did anyway.
“So I like talking about this stuff”, he said, “And feel free to look at those books I have about the war and ask me any questions about it that come to your mind. I don’t talk about it much with your mom or other grownups, but it’s okay talking about it with you.”
He looked up at the ceiling and blew air out of his mouth again, making a kind of flapping sound with his lips. He looked at me and said, “Now I’ve got some tests to grade.” I nodded.
“That’s okay”, I said. Usually I would just nod, but I didn’t want him to think I was mad at him for not telling me anymore because he had to work. Dad didn’t talk about stuff much, but when he did it was really interesting and I didn’t want him to stop.
I remembered all that he had said as I looked at that picture of the halftrack with the mortar on it. I needed to figure out how to read so I could read these books and figure out about the War without having to wait for dad to tell me about it. There was so much I wanted to know. Like all those “badguys”, Japanese and Germans, why were they bad? None of the people I’D ever met or saw were badguys like that, trying to get you or kill you. Grownups or even kids might get mad and do things I didn’t like, but they weren’t really “bad” ALL the time.
Each day now I would go over to the park, because I could do it whenever I wanted to, even by myself, as long as I came home when the streetlights came on. It seemed like each day there were more and more kids in the park. It was a place where the grownups weren’t in charge of most of it, so I liked being there with just kids. The older kids talked about being almost done with school, almost at “summer vacation”, when they could play all the time. They all went to school though most of them wanted it to be over. I would ask some kids why they went to school, like Ricky, Danny and Marybeth, and others I talked to in the park, and they all said because you had to. Some said they liked school because you “learned things”, like how to read. But school was something grownups made you do, and I think mom and dad were going to make me do it too when summer was over and it was that “fall” season again. At least maybe at school I would figure out how to read.
I had been going to “playschool”, and I thought that was pretty fun. That school had lots of really neat toys and all we did when we were there was play with those toys. But when I told older kids about playschool, they said it wasn’t like regular school, where you had to do “work” instead of playing. “Work” was something grownups did. I don’t think they liked it because they kept saying they “had” to do it. They’d say things like, “That would be fun, but I have to work tomorrow”, or, “That’s too much work”. Kids would never say, “That’s too much fun” or “That’s too much playing”.
When kids said they “had” to do stuff, it was because grownups made them, because grownups were in charge. When grownups were around they were always in charge. Even at my playschool the grownups were in charge, though they pretended a lot of the time that they weren’t, and sometimes they didn’t say anything unless you asked them a question or for help with something.
That was what was neat about the park. There usually weren’t grownups around, so no one was usually in charge. There were a couple grownups who wore those special blue shirts and were around that “lodge” building in the middle of the park. They would give you balls for playing sports and other sports stuff, like bats and helmets and those special gloves and masks you’d use to be that “catcher” guy in a real baseball game. They would also put the bases out and make those white lines for real baseball games. But those grownups were usually only around the lodge and the baseball diamonds, and they might only try to be in charge of you if you were close to them.
But in the other parts of the park, like where the lilac bushes were, or where that “playground” place was with the swings, monkey bars, merry-go-round and other stuff, there weren’t any grownups there who were in charge. Maybe a grownup mom would come with their little kid to help them play, but they would only try to be in charge of their kid and not the rest of you. And even when kids played baseball on the baseball “diamonds” the grownups who were around there didn’t try to be in charge, except if it was one of those special games where all the older kids had those colored “uniforms” and caps. Then there would be grownups there who were always in charge and telling those kids with the uniforms what to do, even getting mad at them if they didn’t do it right. They called those kinds of grownups “coaches”, and they called those games “little league”. In those games only boys played.
So when no grownups were around, sometimes older boys would try to be in charge. But that was really different. You didn’t HAVE to do what they said. You only did what they said if you WANTED to play with them. Like if they were picking teams for a game you wanted to play, like either baseball or pretend war.
Since I had first started coming to the park, I had watched kids figure things out for themselves. It was interesting all the different ways they figured out how to play baseball together. The kids were usually always just boys, but sometimes there was one of those “tomboy” girls too. The boys would only let her play if she showed them that she was really good at playing, or maybe was older than most of the boys.
So if there were a bunch of kids, but only enough for one team, then everyone would have their glove on and be out in the “field”, playing a “position”, either in the dirt “infield” part or the grass “outfield” part. Each boy would take a turn “batting”, even though they were all on the same team.
In these kinds of games, sometimes one boy would be in charge, usually because he was the oldest, though sometimes some other kid, who was not the oldest, would talk like he wanted to be in charge, and other kids would let him. Other times nobody would be in charge, which meant that everybody would take turns saying something like they were in charge, so they all could figure things out together.
If there were enough kids who wanted to play baseball to have two teams, then two boys would decide to be in charge, usually two boys who were the oldest and were already friends. The two would “pick teams”, which meant they would take turns picking one of the other kids to be on their team. The oldest kids, or the ones who played best, or their friends, would usually get picked first. But by taking turns picking, not all the oldest or best kids would be on the same team, which made the game more “fair”.
If after teams were picked, kids on one team thought all the best players were on the other team, they’d say the teams weren’t fair, and then say they didn’t want to play unless the teams were changed to be more fair. The boys in charge had to figure that out, because they weren’t REALLY in charge, they couldn’t MAKE the kids on the other team play. So they’d all have to figure it out, and some of the really good players on the better team would have to play on the other team so the other kids thought it was more fair and were okay playing.
Before, when I watched the older kids play, I still wasn’t old enough to play in one of those baseball games on one of those picked teams, because they played with a regular baseball, a “hardball”, not a “wiffle” ball or “tennis” ball that I played with with my mom or dad or Molly or other friends my age.
When I was in our basement, and dad wasn’t around, I would pick up that regular baseball hardball that he kept on his desk. It was covered with stuff called “leather” and had “stitches” on it that felt kind of neat when you held it in your hand or ran your fingers over it. Dad liked to squeeze it and rub it with his hands sometimes when he was thinking. I liked to hold it too, because it was a regular baseball that grownups and older kids used when they played. It was easier to catch when you had a baseball glove on, because it was heavier and didn’t bounce off your glove like a wiffle ball. A wiffle ball or a tennis ball was easier to catch with your “bare” hands.
Now I was getting older, and sometimes I took my baseball glove when I was in the park and I was around and watching the older kids when they were picking teams. Even though I was younger, they might pick me too on one of the teams if they didn’t have enough older kids. When the other team was hitting they would have me “play right field”, because kids didn’t usually hit the ball out there unless they were left-handed, and most kids were right-handed. Even if I couldn’t catch the ball if it was hit up in the air close to me, or get it while it was still going on the ground near me, I could run and get it once it stopped, and then try to throw it to someone else on my team before the kid that hit it got a homerun.
If you tried to catch a regular hardball baseball with your glove and you messed up and it hit your arm, your leg, your chest, it hurt. If it hit you in the head, that could hurt real bad. To be able to play baseball you had to practice catching the ball A LOT so that didn’t happen very much, and there were three different ways you had to practice catching it.
The first way was when someone threw the ball to you. That was the easiest way because they really WANTED you to catch it, so they tried to throw it so it wasn’t hard for you to catch. That meant that they threw it to you not super hard so you could catch it with your glove in front of your body in front of your head so you could see the ball coming really well. If you couldn’t catch balls that were thrown to you, that was really bad, and you couldn’t even play. So that is what you had to practice the most. But it was easy to practice that, because all you needed is one other person to “play catch”. I could play catch with Molly, Kenny or Paul. Mom and dad would even play catch with me sometimes. Dad had his own glove too, but sometimes he wouldn’t even use it, and catch the hardball with his bare hands, I guess because he was a grownup. Mom didn’t have her own glove, though she could use dad’s, but she could also catch the hardball with her bare hands too, at least when I threw it to her because I couldn’t throw very hard.
The second way was when someone hit the ball towards you and it was bouncing on the ground. That was called a “ground ball” or a “grounder”. That was harder, because each time it bounced was different and you had to put your glove down between your legs and wait for the last bounce closest to you then try to catch it. You might get a “bad bounce” and it would hit your body instead. And if you were worried about bringing your glove up for a bad bounce, the ball might roll right under your glove and between your legs. THAT was a really bad mess up.
The third way was if someone hit the ball up in the air and you tried to catch it before it got to the ground. That was called a “flyball” or a “fly”. That was the hardest kind to catch. You had to figure out where the ball was going to land, before it did, which was really hard, because it was way up in the air and it was hard to tell where it was going until it was too late and it came down to the ground before you could get there. I could almost never catch a flyball like that.
One time when I was in the park with my glove and they picked me on a team and I was in that right field place, someone hit the ball up in the air towards where I was. I thought I might be able to catch it and went over to where I thought it would come down, stuck my glove up and then got scared that I’d mess up, and I did. The ball didn’t go into my glove but hit me on the shoulder and hurt bad. I started to cry and this older kid who was in “center field” ran over to me. He picked up the ball and threw it to someone else on our team.
He said, “Hey kid, don’t cry. You’re not a girl. Ya gotta be tough, cuz ya don’t wanna be a sissy, right?”
I really didn’t want to be a sissy, because they wouldn’t let me play anymore and they might even tease me too. But it hurt really bad. It hurt so much that it scared me, which made me cry even though I didn’t want to. I put my glove over my face and I said to myself, “Don’t cry!” over and over again until I finally started to stop.
One of the kids on our team in the “infield” part yelled out at the older kid next to me, “Is that little kid okay?” I could see the kid next to me nodding. I was glad he hadn’t told on me, and I took the glove off my face and nodded too, even though I was still kind of sniffling and it still hurt.
The kid next to me tapped me on the shoulder with his glove and said, “Shake it off! Way to be tough there, kid!” and then ran back over to where he usually was in center field. He was really nice not to tell everyone else I had been crying.
I kept thinking if I could get hit by a hardball and be tough and not cry, then I really would be a big kid. Even better would be to practice so much that I always could catch the ball and people would think I was a big kid because I could always do that.
And if I was playing on a team and our team was hitting and it was my turn, they’d pitch it to me underhand from close up so I could try to hit it. If I did hit the ball I knew how to run to each of the bases, because mom and dad showed me how and I had watched the older kids do it many times. Sometimes I’d hit it and run all the way to “first base” before they got me out. That felt really good. And I knew when to run to the other bases too, when someone else on my team hit the ball. I was a pretty fast runner.
But when the older kids wanted to play soldiers and war that was a lot easier because it was all just pretending. If you got killed or wounded it didn’t really hurt like getting hit with a baseball. If you got pretend wounded it didn’t matter how bad it was because it didn’t really hurt you. So it was fun to get wounded or even killed, because that meant you were a “hero”, like our dads had been in the real war. It was neat to be pretend wounded, even wounded bad, because no one could say you were a sissy and weren’t “tough”. And when you were wounded bad, the other boys would at least pretend to help you, take care of you, even “patch you up”, because soldiers were supposed to care of other soldiers, at least other soldiers on the same team.
Sometimes when a bunch of kids wanted to play soldiers, two of the bigger kids would pick teams like when they played baseball. One team would go to one side of the park and the other would go to the other side. Then the fun part was making a “plan” to “attack” the other team on the other side of the park, and you and the other kids on your team would try to sneak across the park through the lilac bushes on one side or through the trees on the other side. Or sometimes you’d do an “all out attack” or a “charge” across the baseball diamonds in the middle of the park in the open, when you were ready to “die for your country”, stuff like that.
Other times, maybe when there were less kids that wanted to play war, there would only be one team and the other team, the “badguy” team, would be pretend. That’s when we would play “World War Two”, and our team would be the Americans and the pretend badguy team would be the Germans or the Japanese. No real team of kids playing war wanted to be one of those badguy teams. Our real team would maybe be in one of the bunches of lilac bushes, which was our “base” or “headquarters” or “fort”, and we had to “defend it to the death” from being attacked by the badguys, the pretend badguys.
Sometimes when we played war we had real toy guns that we brought from our houses. Mom didn’t really like the toy guns, but dad thought they were okay, because he said boys would make toy guns anyway out of Tinker Toys if they didn’t have them to play soldier. So I usually had just a couple toy guns, maybe one pistol and one machinegun. Most kids said that machineguns were the neatest kind because they could do so much shooting and it made you seem tougher. If you didn’t have a real toy gun you could use a stick or just pretend that you had one and hold your hands like you were shooting it.
The kids playing baseball or war were almost always just boys, because the older boys said that real baseball players and real soldiers were always men. But sometimes, one of those “tomboy” girls would play too, because they liked playing with boys. The girls that did play baseball were usually pretty good, because if they weren’t, the boys would tease them and they wouldn’t want to play anymore.
Molly liked to play baseball, I guess because she was one of those “tomboy” girls, even though she said she wasn’t. She had a baseball glove like I did, but hers went on her left hand, because she was right-handed. She had a baseball bat, but only that plastic one for hitting a wiffle ball or a tennis ball. She didn’t have a wooden one like I did that you could hit a real hardball with. She and I would play catch a lot with our gloves because that was how you got better at it. First we just threw the wiffle ball or the tennis ball, but now we threw dad’s regular baseball hardball too sometimes, but not super fast or hard like some of the older boys did.
Molly liked playing war too, but her mom wouldn’t let her have toy guns or let me bring one over to her house. I think Molly liked playing war because she liked getting pretend wounded or blown up. She liked it when we were playing pirates or soldiers together and we both got blown up at the same time, and we would lie next to each other and be almost dead but still able to talk. I think that was part of us feeling like we were the same, that we’d both get blown up or wounded at the same time.
I thought about dad fighting in the real war, and wondered how bad it would hurt to get shot or blown up for real. I thought again about that time in the real war when he almost got blown up, and got wounded. And even though he told me he was scared all the time when he was fighting in the war, he still did his job. He didn’t run away like a “chicken” or a “scaredy cat”, because the other guys on his team needed him to do his job or they might get shot or blown up.
I figured when you were fighting in a war, even though you were scared, even really scared, you had to pretend you weren’t scared and help the other guys on your team pretend too. So I liked playing soldiers and war with the other kids, because I thought that we had to practice pretending so we’d be ready to pretend not to be scared if we had to fight in a real war, like with those Russian Soviet Union guys. Even if you were scared, if you could pretend not to be scared, then no one would think you were a sissy.
That seemed to be the thing that was the most important if you were a boy or a man, to not be a sissy. If I was a sissy it wouldn’t just be bad for me, it would be bad for dad too, because he couldn’t say, “That’s my boy!”, which I’d heard dad and other dad’s say, and make them feel happy about you, and about them too. I guess girls were already kind of like sissies because they were girls, but that was okay for them. That made Molly and me different, though Molly didn’t want us to be different that way because she was a “tomboy”, even though she didn’t think she was.
So in a war, or at least a pretend war, if you were supposed to “charge” the enemy or “fight to the death”, then you just had to do it, even if you were scared you might get shot, or blown up, or even dead. And if you did get shot or blown up, and you weren’t dead, you didn’t cry about it, because, like in baseball, you had to be “tough”.
It was strange because it was all pretending, but if you got pretend shot or blown up when you were playing war, and pretended to be tough about it, the other boys you were playing with seemed to like that, and wanted to be your friend and even take care of you. It was like that with Molly too, maybe because she was a “tomboy”. If she and I were pretending and got blown up and were “wounded” or dead even, she’d fall down next to me and put her arm over my body, like moms and dads did to each other when they wanted to show that they liked each other a lot. That felt really good, but she’d never do it unless we were pretending to be blown up, wounded or dead.