I could hear that the rain was still outside, and it made me like the quiet cozy basement even more. It was a while before my dad came down the basement stairs to keep working at his desk. He was in the opposite quarter of the basement from where I sat on the hard gray floor looking at my box of plastic toy soldiers and a second box with trucks, cars and boats in it. I wanted to keep playing that story I was playing last night in the bathtub of the pirate ship in the hidden cove shooting at the goodguy ships out in the bay. The captains were trying to figure out what to do to stop the pirates from sinking their ships and killing their sailors.
I looked at the two boats in the box with the cars and trucks. They were ships that were big enough to put some soldiers on them. But only the two of them was not enough, I needed the boats that I had in the tub upstairs. I was thinking that if I went upstairs again dad might wonder what I was doing up there. This was where talking would help me.
“I’ll be right back!”, I said to him, something he and mom said to me and each other. 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 I was trying to figure out where or how to make the hidden pirate cove. Maybe if I could find something to build the land between the cove and the 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 try to make a mountain between the cove and the bay. I put the pirate ship in the cove part and the rest of the boats in the other and looked at how it was set up. I didn’t think it was very good. The mountain island between the pirates and the goodguys just wasn’t big enough in the big basement.
I thought of the laundry basket in the laundry room. If it was empty I could turn it upside down into more mountains hiding the cove. I walked 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, with the furnace on my right and the washing machine and staircase in front of me, it made me think that the laundry room would be a great secret cove. The furnace and the stairway could be the mountains between that cove and my part of the basement, which would be the bay where the other ships could be. The sailors could try to climb up the staircase to get into the cove. I could even build a pirate fort guarding the hidden cove, and a goodguy fort guarding the bay on my side.
I was excited about pretending all this, and I got my ship that had been the pirate ship in the tub last night and put it in the middle of the floor in the laundry room. I looked at it there from different places, including looking down from the basement stairs. It looked good, but I couldn’t really stand the gray soldiers, my pirates in this story, on its deck. I would just have to pretend they were on the ship.
I brought my box of Lincoln Logs into the laundry room and used them to make the walls of the pirate fort plus a house for the pirate guy in charge in the middle. I put two of the smallest log pieces together, leaned them over and they looked like cannons, and put them along the wall of the fort pointed out into the beginning part of the cove, so they could shoot at any goodguy ships that tried to go in it. The gray German soldiers were the pirates and I put a couple of them around each cannon. The gray plastic guy in charge, with his hands on either hip and elbows out on either side, I put in the square house in the center of the fort so he could be in charge of all the cannon shooting pirates. His helper was next to him.
Back in my quarter of the basement, I made a second fort out of the rest of the Lincoln logs. I put it looking down on the bay up on the end of my lowest toy shelf so it could look out on the whole bay. The good guys’ ships could stop under it and they could climb up to the fort. I put different groups of the green American soldiers in and around the fort, each group with a special job. The watcher guys looked out down on the bay. Others worked the cannons. Others were ready to go out on the ships. The last group below the fort helped put things on and take things off the ships. 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 main helpers next to him.
I took one of my bigger boats and put it in the middle of the bay. It was big enough to put five soldiers on it if I put them very carefully – one in the front, three in the middle, and the ship captain, Captain Drake, in the back. They kept falling down, but I finally got them all standing, and I laid on my side and put my cheek on the cold floor and looked at them on the ship, trying to pretend they were real. They looked neat standing on the ship. I looked at the captain in the back and imagined him being worried about his crew. I put the second bigger boat by the dock part of the fort, and then put the other smaller boats in different parts of the bay around the big one.
Once everything was set up just right for the story, I sat on the basement staircase for some time, where I could see both places, the bay and the hidden cove, and I thought about all the different things that could happen. For cannon balls I could use the small plastic wiffle balls I had. Yes, this was all good, very exciting.
I got all of my small plastic wiffle balls in the plastic bin where I kept 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 talking 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 looked at the men and cannons around his fort and felt good. “The fort cannons are loaded and ready and the cannon shooters are ready for a fight if the good guys find the secret cove and try to come in!” he said.
Captain Black liked that. “Ha ha that’s good”, he said, “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 laughed and said, “Yes give ‘em hell. They won’t know what hit ‘em!”
Captain Black said, “Ha ha you’re right matey!” Pirates talked that way.
The pirate ship sailed across the cove near the staircase mountains that were between it and the bay. Its cannons started to fire. I made the cannon noise and I threw each ball over the staircase and I could hear it hit the floor and bounce on the other side where I couldn’t see it. I moved to the other side of the basement and sat against the basement wall next to the goodguy fort on the end of my toy shelves and looked at what had happened. The fort and all the ships looked like they weren’t hit, but the captains, sailors, and fort soldiers were really worried. Dad was at his desk still working.
Captain Dale in the fort looked out over the bay and was very worried. “Oh my god… someone’s shooting at us. Pretty soon one of our ships or our fort will get hit!”
His helpers tried to make him feel better. “But Captain”, they said, “We built the strongest fort we could on the side of the cliff. The pirates can’t get it!”
Captain Drake aboard his ship was really worried too. “This is really bad!” he said, “Pretty soon one of our ships will get hit!”
His helper thought so too, and said, “You’re right, Captain!”
After looking at and thinking about the fort, bay and goodguy ships for a while, I got all the balls in the bin and went back into the laundry room.
Captain Black was excited. “Keep up the shooting lads! We have them right where we want them!”
Making more cannon and explosion noises, I fired more pirate cannonballs over the staircase mountains into the bay. On one of the shots I heard the crash of the ball hitting something.
Captain Black said, “Sounds like we hit something boys!”
His main helper said, “Yes, but how can we know for sure! We can’t see across the mountains.”
Captain Black thought about what to do, then said, “I think that’s a good job for you mate! Take some of the boys and climb the mountain so you can see what we hit!”
“Aye aye, Captain!” his main helper said.
I took several gray soldiers and began to have them climb up the steep side of the staircase, finally getting high enough on the washing machine where they could see out onto the bay.
I went back to the other side of the basement and sat by the goodguy fort to see what they were seeing. Three of the green soldiers that had been standing on the big ship in the middle of the bay had fallen on the floor around it, their ship had been hit.
The fort guys watching the bay yelled out, “Oh my god, they hit Drake’s ship!” Then to the Captain’s main helper, “Let Captain Dale know.”
“Will do”, he said, then to Captain Dale, “Captain… Drake’s ship’s been hit! There’ll be dead and wounded! What should we do?”
Captain Dale was quiet while he was thinking. Then he said, “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.”
“Aye aye, sir!”
I had the fort captain’s main helper go down to the docks below the fort and talk to the captain of the rescue ship there.
“Captain Strong, time to go to work”, he said, “You need to rescue those sailors! Is your ship ready?”
Captain Strong said, “We’re ready! Sail boys! We must save our men if they can be saved!”
The rescue ship went out into the bay and had a hard time but got the dead and wounded sailors floating in the water and brought them back to the fort. Then the story was about the doctor, Doctor West I named him, who had to get the hospital ready. One area for the wounded and one for the dead. He looked at each rescued soldier and had to figure out which one could be helped and which one was dead. I imagined he was very worried and sad.
Finally, like in my bathtub story before, the good guys sent a team out to climb up the mountain staircase and see if they could figure out where the pirate ship was shooting from. Lieutenant Cord was in charge of that team, and they were taken by boat across the bay to the mountains. Before they could land, I went back into the laundry room and shot more wiffle cannonballs 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 Lieutenant Cord’s team, which finally reached the shore at the bottom of the mountains, ready to climb up the steps. But first the goodguys had to send the rescue boat out to get any dead and wounded from the latest pirate cannonball. Since the boat that was on its side had no soldiers actually on it, I decided there were two dead and two wounded. The rescue boat headed out and got the four of them. The two dead guys were floating in the bay by the ship and the two wounded were below deck in the front part of the ship hit by the pirate’s cannonball. Once the rescue boat returned to the fort the wounded and dead guys were brought to the hospital, and there was more worrying and being sad by Doctor West.
That taken care of, I went back to Lieutenant Cord’s team, getting ready to climb the dangerous mountain stairs. Seeing that other ships got hit out in the bay, they were all talking and worried and figured out that their mission was really really important. Lieutenant Cord talked to his team and told them they had to do it, even though they might get killed or wounded. They had to find where the pirate ship was or all would be lost. “It’s up to us boys”, he said, “Everyone else is counting on us!” I had heard grownups talk like that, at least in the stories dad read me.
Just then I realized that dad was standing behind me as I sat between him and the bottom step of the stairs. I was startled, and turned to look up at him. His eyes were dark and sad, though he had a smile on his face. He was strange that way.
“I want to get up the stairs”, he said, but he paused without taking a step up and said, “So what is this group of soldiers up to?”
I usually didn’t tell mom or dad the stories I was pretending. I was worried they might think they were bad, or silly, or even stupid. I really liked them, but I wasn’t sure they were going to like them. Or maybe they would think I should change the story and I wouldn’t want to and then I wouldn’t know what to do.
But he was asking me a question, and I felt that now that I was talking, that I should at least say something to answer his question, if I wanted them to answer mine. You had to be careful with grownups, even mom and dad, even though they gave me food, read and sang to me at night, bought me toys, and did other things for me.
So I told him, “Lieutenant Cord is leading his team to climb up the mountain to try to find the pirate ship.” That seemed like a good answer to his question.
His smile, there way above me, turned into a bigger grin. I could see he wanted to laugh but he tried hard not to and didn’t. But then his face got worried, and like he was thinking.
“You know”, he said, “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 to me about it. I knew that real war was not something fun, or something you laughed about. It was what grownups said was “serious”. So I’d never asked him about it, only listened really hard when he did say something about it. And listened when other grownups talked about it too. But now I really wanted to know more so I nodded and looked at him like I was ready to hear his story.
“I was in charge of a platoon of motorized mortars”, he said.
“Mortars?” I decided to ask. What I asked was kind of quiet like I was asking whether it was okay to ask him at the same time I asked him. I wasn’t sure if he’d get mad or sad if I asked him about war stuff.
He pushed his lips together, closed his eyes and nodded, then opened his eyes again but looked over where my toys were and not at me. “They’re like cannons”, he said, “But they shoot way up high in the air”, his finger went up above his head and came back down, “Rather than cannons that shoot more straight.” He moved that same finger from one side of his body to the other without it going up very much.
Even though I had been worried, I could tell that he seemed happy to talk about it, maybe even wanted to talk with me about it. So I figured I could ask more questions.
“What did you shoot at?” I asked
He looked at me for just a second and pushed his lips together. It seemed like he was wondering whether it was okay to tell me this stuff.
“Mostly at German artillery pieces”, he said, “Eighty-eights. That’s what they call cannons nowadays, ‘artillery’.”
I knew eighty-eight was a number with two eights in it, but I didn’t know that it was a kind of cannon or “artillery”. Dad still seemed happy to talk about it so I asked another question to find out more.
“Eighty-eights?” I asked.
His smile turned into more of a frown, but he nodded his head like that was the next question.
“Big German field guns, field ‘artillery’, that shot big eighty-eight millimeter shells”, he said, holding up his thumb and finger, and moving them apart to show me how big. “That could take out one of our tanks with one shot.” He looked over at my toys, and I could see him remembering something.
“During the war”, he said, “When we crossed the border from France into Germany, the German soldiers were dug into their Siegfried Line. They set up their Eighty-eights in bunkers, which are like little forts, 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 we could fire shells, they’re called shells because they aren’t shaped like balls anymore, 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, like a cannon. Hopefully they did not see me!”
He finally stopped talking but was still looking off at my toy shelves. I kept thinking about what he had said to me. It was a lot of interesting new stuff to figure out and lots of new words, like “Siegfried Line”, “in range”, “spot” and “bunker”. He seemed to like answering my questions and wanting me to ask more. I wondered if he might even be sad about me if I didn’t want to know. I couldn’t stop thinking about that last thing he said, so I figured I’d keep asking.
“What if they saw you?” I asked.
He pushed his lips together, nodded, and his eyes got really big, as he still looked at my toys.
“Sometimes they’d see me”, he said, “And they’d start shooting at me, and I’d have to run for my life. If I was running at least they knew I couldn’t radio in their location.”
He looked at me, smiled, and said, “Let me show you a picture.”
He went over to his bookshelf and pulled out a big thick book with a dark red cover and sat down in his chair. He opened the book, then touched a couple fingers to the tip of his tongue and used those fingers to turn the pages, as he looked carefully at the pages in between. I went around behind him so I could see the book pages too. They were full of words but lots of 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 tube pointed up in the air.
“That’s a mortar”, he said, “But ours were set up on the back of halftracks.”
I nodded, but it didn’t look like any cannon I had ever seen in pictures.
He turned a bunch of pages with pictures of things I had seen before, tanks, airplanes, ships, soldiers marching, and people lying on the ground with their eyes closed. Finally there was a picture of a bunch of what looked like trucks but their back wheels looked like tank wheels. His big finger tapped on the picture.
“These are halftracks”, he said, “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, like a tank but not as much, so the soldiers have some protection if the enemy shoots at you. The ones in this picture are set up to carry soldiers in the back. The ones in our platoon had mortars mounted on the back and carried the gun crew.”
I looked at the picture carefully and he waited for me to show that I was done. It all seemed interesting but made me worried too about all this “war” stuff, and if dad would tell me I would have to fight in a real war too. I finally nodded without saying anything and he closed the book with a clap noise and I watched him slide it back onto the shelf next to another book that was the same size and color. He looked at all the books on the shelf, smiled and nodded.
“You’re welcome to take any book off the shelf and look at it if you like”, he said “Just put it back when you’re done, okay?”
I nodded again. I would be sure to do that. Look at them and put them back.
“I have to get back to grading papers!” he said, pushing his chair with his feet so it rolled back to his desk. Then he 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 blow it out. He took his red pencil in his right hand, and looked down at the papers on his desk.
I went back to the bottom of the stairs where Lieutenant Cord and his men, his “platoon”, slowly made the dangerous climb up the stairs. Finally they reached a stair step where they could see into the hidden cove where the pirate ship was.
Lieutenant 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 cove too. Tell Captain Dale and Captain Drake!”
Captain Dale in the goodguy fort told Captain Drake to have all his ships with cannons fire into the cove. I got all the whiffle balls and started to throw them over the stairs into the laundry room. I could hear them bang against the floor, and that different sound when they hit the washing machine or the furnace. When I had finished shooting, I raced back up to Lieutenant Cord and his platoon up on the stairs looking at the cove. The pirate ship didn’t look like it got hit, so Captains Dale and Drake were told the bad news.
After a couple more times of firing cannons back and forth, hitting, and this time sinking one of the goodguy ships, Captain Drake, had a new plan. “We must sail to the secret entrance of the cove, sail in, and destroy the pirate ship”, he said.
“But the fort cannons sir,” Lieutenant Cord said, “They’ll tear our ships apart!”
It didn’t change what Captain Drake was thinking. “We have no choice!” he said.
On my hands and knees I moved the rest of the goodguy ships across the basement floor by the furnace to the “secret” entrance to the laundry room and the pirate cove.
Captain Drake was very brave. “Man your guns boys”, he said, “We’re going in. Give ‘em hell!”. I moved the four remaining good guy ships past the cove entrance and where the pirates in the fort with their cannons, could see them, and were ready for a fight. I made the sounds of lots of cannon shots and explosions, as the battle started. The goodguy ships were hit and got damaged, but the fort was hit too. Captain Black turned his pirate ship guns towards the goodguy ships and joined the fight. Lieutenant Cord and his men watched from up on the stairs.
His men were sad and mad. “What can we do?” they asked.
But he had an idea. “Did you bring the bag of bombs, Joe?” he asked.
“Aye, aye, Lieutenant!” Joe said.
“There is a path along the mountains there that leads to a spot right above the pirate fort” Lieutenant Cord said, “It’s dangerous, but we have to do it so we can drop those bombs on them.”
There was a narrow ledge between the bottom and the top half of the furnace, about three feet up from the floor. From the stairs they made the dangerous climb up to that path and continued from there. As the battle was going on below his platoon made their way to the far corner of the furnace above the pirate fort. Some pirates on the washing machine saw them and started shooting at them. One was hit and fell and was killed.
“Oh my god, we lost Sam!” said Lieutenant Cord.
“Keep going men”, he said, “We still have Joe and the bag of bombs!” He couldn’t worry about who was dead, they had to keep going. The rest of the platoon reached the place on the mountain path just above the pirate fort. I ran into my quarter of the basement and got all the whiffle balls into their box, and very excited, went back into the pirate cove. As the battle kept going below, Lieutenant Cord and his men 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 pirates shooting them were knocked over, dead or wounded.
The pirates in the fort were suddenly scared. Big John from his house in the middle of the fort yelled at his men to keep firing and not to get scared. But Lieutenant Cord and his men dropped their next two bombs right onto Big John’s house. Logs scattered, and the Big John figure was badly wounded and started to die. The pirate gun crews left their guns and ran to his side. I put all those gray soldiers in a circle around his fallen figure. Big John breathed his last breath and died. The rest of the pirates in the fort surrendered, not being able to figure out what to do about the bombs from above. The goodguy sailors got to the fort and pointed the fort’s guns that weren’t wrecked at Captain Black’s pirate ship out in the cove. He then also decided to surrender.
All the pirates that weren’t dead or wounded were marched onto the goodguy ships and brought back to the goodguy’s fort. One of the parts of the fort was turned into a jail for those pirates. Lieutenant Cord and his platoon were the last to return to the goodguy fort. They were now heroes.
That night at bedtime, dad read the next chapter of Tom Sawyer, Chapter 18. It was the morning after Tom surprised the grownups by coming to 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 another kid named Alfred to pour ink in Tom’s spelling book. She did that because she wanted Tom to get in trouble. The next day when the teacher found the mess, Tom would be “whipped”. Dad said being “whipped” was like being spanked, but they did it with a stick instead of their hand.
I liked that Tom always figured out what to do and then did it, no matter what. My Lieutenant Cord was like Tom, even though he wasn’t a kid. I also wondered about girls not liking to be “ignored”, which meant you weren’t talking to them when they thought you should be. I wondered if girls were different than boys that way. I thought about Molly. She didn’t seem different like that.
After we finished reading, dad added a new song to the end of his singing. I always liked hearing a new song, and this was a war 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
Dad said that a “caisson” was a wagon that was carried behind a cannon that had the “ammunition” for that cannon, now shells but in the old days cannonballs. It was interesting, because he sang it like a happy song. I guess it sounded happy, because the guys singing it were brave soldiers, like Lieutenant Cord, ready to fight the badguys, even if they might get killed or wounded.
Mom came in after he had wiggled my big toe under the covers and left. She told me that tomorrow was my birthday party, which if it didn’t rain, would be across the street in the park. I remembered about that tricycle up in the attic but didn’t say anything.
“Night night birthday boy!” she said.
Now that I was talking, instead of just nodding I said, “Almost!”
She looked at me and grinned, nodding her head and said the same thing, “Almost!”
She kissed my forehead, looked at me and then left the room. I was still thinking really hard about 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.