Gabe, Jake, Herbie and I were all trying to figure out about the Civil War. Danny had got me Civil War toy soldiers for my birthday. He said that the war was a hundred years ago. The one team was blue and the other was gray. Since the one team was gray I asked him if they were Germans, but he said they were Americans, “Confederate” Americans. The blue ones were Americans too, “Union” Americans. That sounded really interesting.
Herbie said he knew about the Civil War because he had lived in the “South” before he came to Ann Arbor. He said the Confederates were the “rebels”, and all the kids he knew thought they were pretty neat, because they were better soldiers and had better generals, like “Robert E. Lee” and “Stonewall Jackson”, though that second guy got killed in a battle.
Jake said his dad had told him about the Civil War and read him the book, “The Red Badge of Courage”, about this older boy named Henry who was a soldier in that war. Jake said that Henry was on the “Union” side and in his first battle he got scared and ran away and found these other soldiers who were wounded but were going back to fight in the next battle. Henry pretended he was wounded too, because he was “ashamed” that he was a coward and ran away. But then these other Union soldiers came who were running away from another battle and Henry got in their way and one of them hit him on the head with his rifle. Then Henry went back to the other guys in his army “unit” and they helped him because they thought he was wounded in that first battle. Then they had a third battle and Henry didn’t get scared this time and did what he was supposed to. Finally in the fourth battle he was really brave and carried the “Union” flag when the other guy carrying it got shot. All the other guys thought he was good now and none of them knew what coward stuff he had done before.
The four of us decided we would find out as much as we could about that War. We went to the Bach School library and found that “Red Badge of Courage” book. We also found another book with pictures and maps of Civil War battles that was really neat. The pictures had guys shooting, guys on horses called “cavalry”, dead guys, and cannons. In World War Two the war had been in that “Europe” place, where a lot of our “ancestors” came from. But in this war, the battles were in our country, though not around where we lived. But Herbie had lived in this other place called Virginia, and he said there were A LOT of battles there.
In first grade, because I liked dinosaurs so much and got other kids to like them too, Miss Zimmerman decided to do a “unit” on dinosaurs. But when Gabe, Jake, Herbie and I asked Miss Candem if we could do a “unit” on the Civil War in our second grade class, she said there wasn’t enough time, because we had too much math, reading and writing that we had to learn. She could tell we didn’t like what she said, and that made her kind of worried.
“These reading, writing and math skills you learn in the early grades”, she said, “Are such important building blocks to you being able to explore all these interesting things, like the Civil War, when you get older.”
“How much older?” asked Gabe.
“You’ll study the Civil War in Eighth Grade American History”, she said.
“EIGHTH!” said Gabe, really loud. Then he thought about the subtracting and said, “That’s six years from now!”
“I’m sorry”, she said, “But that’s how school works. The Board of Education tells us what we need to teach each year so our students receive the best possible education.” She could tell that we still weren’t happy.
“But you are SUCH good students”, she said, “I HATE to say no to you pursuing your own learning interests. How about I let you use your free-reading and library time to work together on this?”
“But we don’t sit together in class”, said Gabe, who seemed less worried than the rest of us about talking regular to grownups and even teachers like they were kids. “And you don’t let us talk during free-reading”, he said.
She looked worried again and blew air out of her mouth. “I’ve got an idea”, she said, raising a finger in the air, “How about during free-reading you can use the table in the back of the room. I’ll get four chairs from the supply room and you four can sit back there and QUIETLY discuss your Civil War topic, based on what you’re reading.”
She shook her head and said, “I’ll explain it all to Mrs. Sanderson if necessary. And when you’re in the library, just find a table together in the corner somewhere and try to speak very quietly, and I’ll explain to Miss Carlton, she’s the librarian, what you’re up to.”
So we started doing that. During free-reading time the four of us got up from our desks and went and sat at the table in the back of the room. We had “checked” books out about the Civil War from the Bookmobile and the regular library and brought them with us to school. There were so many interesting things to figure out. Why would goodguy Americans fight against each other like they were on different teams? Why did the North team win and not the South team? We had trouble reading some of the words in the books, so we would ask Mrs. Camden for help. We also took those Civil War books out at recess time and sat at the metal picnic table and looked at them and read them. Amanda would come over to look too, and some of the other boys like Theo and Matthew.
Mary and Diane came over to the table too.
“What are you boys up to?” Mary asked. I liked the way she said boys like she llked us but we were the other team.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to be doing school stuff during recess”, said Diane.
“It’s not school stuff DIANE” Herbie said, “So HA HA!” He was teasing Diane back for saying “ha ha” to us all the time.
“We’re figuring out stuff about the Civil War”, I said, “It was a hundred years ago.”
“You girls don’t care about that stuff”, said Herbie, “Because you’re girls. Girls aren’t soldiers.”
“Boys aren’t soldiers either”, said Diane fiercely, “Men are soldiers!”
“Yeah but women aren’t soldiers either EITHER”, Herbie said, being fierce like Diane, “So HA HA again!”
“HERBIE”, Diane said really loud, starting to cry a little bit, “You’re the worst person in the WORLD!” She ran off.
Mary looked at Herbie and said, “Diane’s mom worked in a factory making airplanes during the war. What did YOUR mom do to help with the war?” Then Mary turned and ran off after Diane. I watched her catch up with Diane and put a hand on her shoulder. Mary was being good to her friend, I thought. That was really nice of her. I don’t think Herbie saw that or even wanted to see that.
Jake and Gabe had been looking at a book all this time, like they didn’t even hear us talking to Diane and Mary. Jake finally looked at us and said, “This book says that Robert E. Lee was going to that West Point army school and could have been a general for the Union army, but since his state of Virginia was on the Confederate side, he decided to be a general for them.”
“This other book”, Gabe said, “Says that this one guy was in the Confederate army but his younger brother was in the Union army. Can you imagine shooting at your own brother?”
I couldn’t imagine, but it was an interesting thing to maybe pretend sometime.
As I walked home from school up Fifth Street thinking about the civil war, a noisy car drove by with older kids, maybe those college kids with the top parts of their bodies sticking out of the windows. They were waving those dark blue “Michigan” flags with the yellow “M” in the middle.
They all yelled at the same time, “Think they’re tough. Think they’re great. Go to hell Ohio State!” One of them saw me walking and said, “GO BLUE!” That’s what a lot of older kids and grownups said when the Michigan team was going to play. Tomorrow they were playing their biggest badguy team, Ohio State, at the stadium. Mom said it was the “big game”, the last game of the year, against their “arch rival”. She said that she and dad wanted to go, but the tickets were too expensive because they would have to “scalp” them, whatever that meant. But the game was also going to be on TV. I couldn’t believe it. Something in our town was going to be on TV!
“What’s an arch rival?” I asked her.
“Well”, she said, “A RIVAL is another team that you play against a lot. And it’s usually a good close game that sometimes you win but sometimes they win. Maybe they won the last time you played but you really really want to win this time to get even. Your ARCH rival is your biggest rival. The one team you really REALLY want to beat each time you play them.”
I remembered from some books like Treasure Island that if badguys lost to the goodguys they would want to “get even” or “get revenge” and beat the goodguys the next time.
“Like get revenge?” I asked.
“Kind of like that”, she said, “But hopefully in a more positive competitive way. Not like you want to hurt them or humiliate them, but just show them your best game and beat them.” I nodded, but I wasn’t sure I liked beating people. I liked playing sports, like baseball, but I played because it was fun, not because I wanted to beat the other team. But I guess in a war you had to beat the other team, because if they beat you then really bad things could happen and they might even kill you. I didn’t even want to ask her what “humiliate” meant, it sounded really bad.
I’d been thinking all day at school about setting up a whole Martian world in the basement with Martian people made out of Tinker Toys, or maybe they’d be dinosaurs. And then the Earth people come in their spaceships, they would be the soldiers. Excited about my pretending idea, I ran down the stairs into the basement and stopped on the bottom step and looked around. David was the only one there and he was sitting in dad’s office quarter of the basement by dad’s desk. He had ALL the Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, soldiers and wooden trains set up EVERYWHERE. In the quarter of the basement where our toy shelves were, the quarter where the TV was and dad’s office quarter. He saw me and pointed under dad’s desk where he had set up some dinosaurs.
“That’s the dinosaur cave”, he said, “Go-zilla lives there too. He’s in charge of the dinosaurs.” He still couldn’t say the whole “Godzilla” word.
“And look”, he said, “The train goes all the way across the basement.”
He wanted me to like it. ALL of it. But I used to have all the big pretending ideas and he would either help me with one small part, or want to wreck everything with “Go-zilla”. But now, how could I do the Martian idea I’d been thinking about all day with all the toys already set up? His stuff didn’t look like any of my Mars ideas!
I made an extra sad face and said, “All day at school I was thinking about setting up a whole Martian world here in the basement, but you’re already using everything.” He looked at me worried, then thinking.
“You can play with the building set and the Rector set”, he said. He didn’t say the whole word “Erector”.
That was the first time he’d ever said anything like that to me, like he was the older brother and he was in charge. I’d spent all day with grownups in charge of me at school and now this.
“Don’t you want to do a pretend Mars with me?” I asked, “It’ll be really neat.” Then I thought he probably didn’t even know what Mars was yet because dad had not read him the Tom Swift books. Dad was reading us that “history of the world” book.
“We can play that next time”, he said, “Let’s play this way this time.” I felt myself getting mad, and I started looking at what he had made and seeing all the ways it wasn’t as good as what I could make, so he would see why I should be in charge.
“Your train track just ends”, I said, “And doesn’t go in a circle at the end so the train can turn around and go back the other way.”
He looked worried but then he said, “That’s okay, it goes all the way across the basement. I used all the track things. Look how far.”
“Let’s play this way”, he said again, walking up to me, and I could feel myself getting more mad. All day long my teacher was telling me what to do and I couldn’t say no, but now I could.
“No”, I said, “I don’t want to!” I could see his face look sad, and then look mad.
“It’s no fair”, he said, “I always play the way you want to!”
I looked up at the ceiling and shook my head. “Because you don’t know how to play things right yet”, I said, “You’re still too little. Look how you made that fort, the walls don’t even hook together. What kind of a fort is that, the bad guys can just go around the wall and get in!” I could see him getting sadder and madder as I said that.
“You’re not very nice”, he said, with a loud mad voice that sounded like mom. She could say stuff like that to me because she was my mom, but he couldn’t, because he was just my little brother.
“Don’t talk to me like that!” I said.
And then he hit me on the arm with his fist. He had never done that before. I was really surprised that he did that. How dare he, I thought.
So I pushed him, before I did any other thinking about it. He kind of stepped back and his foot stepped on one of the wooden trains on the track and it made him fall backward on his bottom and then his head fell back and hit the metal beam thing in the middle of the basement with a clunk noise. He looked at me afraid and then I could see a red thing on his head above his eye. The red part got redder and blood was dripping down. He looked surprised and then scared and started crying really loud.
I figured I had done something bad, and now I was afraid that mom and dad would find out and wouldn’t let me do stuff by myself anymore. I really wanted them to think I was good. David was still crying loud and put his hand on the red part of his head, saw the blood and got even more scared. I decided I would run upstairs and tell mom that David fell down and hurt his head, before David could tell her what happened.
So I ran upstairs with David still crying behind me. Mom was in the living room doing painting.
She looked at me really worried and said, “What happened?”
“David tripped and fell and hit his head”, I said.
“Oh Jesus”, mom said, running by me in the kitchen and down into the basement. I ran just behind her, worried what David would say to her. She saw him with the blood on his head now dripping down his cheek.
“Did you fall and hit your head on that damn beam?” she asked, “I knew that thing would be trouble!”
David gave me a fierce look, but sad too, and just nodded and said, “I fell and hit my head!”
Mom told David to sit down and told me to run up to the hall closet and get a couple washclothes. I ran upstairs wondering what else David was going to say to her while I wasn’t there, and came back down and then mom told me to take them into the laundry room and put water on them from the big gray sink. I did, and brought them back, dripping with water, worried that she would find out from David what I did. But she thanked me and pressed one of them against David’s head where he was bleeding.
“There you go sweetie”, she said, “I hope that feels a little better.” He was still crying but he nodded. “Looks like it’s only bleeding a little bit, but we should probably take you to the doctor to get it checked.”
Mom looked at me again. “Run up to the bathroom and get the bandaids and the mercurochrome”, she said. I ran up again and got them from that “medicine chest” in the bathroom above the sink, then I ran back down. When I was running it was easy not to do much thinking about what happened.
When I came back she looked at me worried and asked, “What happened?” I didn’t want to tell her that he hit me and then I pushed him.
So I just said what he had said plus a little more about why he fell, so mom would think I was trying to help. “He stepped on the train by accident and fell and hit his head on that beam.” She pushed her lips together and nodded.
Finally, when the blood stopped dripping, mom put the mercurochrome on the red part and made the area around it all red too. David said that that hurt, but mom said that even though it did, it would make it feel better soon. She found two big bandaids in the box and put them over the red part.
“There ya go, kiddo”, she said, “Patched up for now.” She held both his hands and had him stand up. He was still crying but only a little bit.
“How does the INSIDE of your head feel?” she asked, “Your eyes look okay. Do you feel like you’re going to fall down?” He shook his head.
“Oh good”, she said, “Let’s go over here and sit on dad’s mattress.”
David stood and walked over to dad’s little bed thing and sat on it. Mom watched him walk, carefully. “Your walking looks good”, she said, “But I still think we should run you over to the doctor just to double check.”
Dad came home from “running errends” and took David over to the “doctor’s office”. I remember going to that doctor place. It was on this bigger street with some houses and some buildings but lots of trees. He was this strange grownup who wore a big white jacket and used all these tools that looked like Tom Swift stuff. I remembered going there when I got those “measle” spots on my body, and then David got them too. He also gave you these “shot” things in your shoulder or even your bottom. THAT was pretty strange!
So with David gone I sat on the basement floor on the rug that was now in the TV part of the basement, which was like the rug in dad’s office part of the basement except it was a different color and had different lines, boxes and dots on it, what mom called a “pattern”. I looked at all the toys David had set up everywhere, and thought about changing everything to the way I wanted it to be. I
It was hard to even think about what I wanted to make and where I would put it, with everything out and already set up. I figured I would have to put all the Tinker Toys back and the Lincoln Logs back in their tubes and the train tracks back in their wood box that said “Cutty Sark Scotch Whisky” on the side, whatever that was. Then I could look at the plain floor and figure out what Mars stuff to make and where it should go.
But I figured I better not change anything, just in case when David got home he would be mad about it and then tell mom or dad what I did. I had to make sure he was extra happy with me, at least for a while.
Mom came down the stairs and sat down on the floor next to me.
“Well”, she said, “Your dad called from the doctor’s office and said that David’s okay. They’re patching him up and they’ll be home in a little bit.”
Then she looked at me with a worried face. I got worried that she might have figured out somehow that I’d done something bad to David.
“Are YOU okay?” she asked.
That question always worried me when mom asked it. When OTHER grownups asked it, even dad, they just wanted you to nod or say “yes”, so they could think about other things that they really wanted to think about. But usually when mom asked, she wanted to know if there was a REAL answer instead, and she would look at my eyes and it felt like she would see what I was really thinking, and I didn’t want to tell her what I was really thinking about pushing David. So I just looked at her and got really worried that she might somehow make me tell her.
I was trying really really hard to make all the grownups think I was really good, and always did good and smart stuff, when I was at school and when I was just by myself, or with other kids and no grownups around. I figured if they alway thought I did good and smart stuff, they would keep letting me do more stuff by myself, which is what I always wanted, specially now that I was going to school and my teacher was always telling me what to do. So I felt like I had to say something or she might figure out the real thing I was thinking or somehow make me say it.
“I was just thinking about school”, I said. I hadn’t REALLY been thinking about school just now, but I did think about school a lot. Usually in the morning when I had to wake up and go there.
“Ah… okay”, she said, “So how’s school going?”
“We’re doing lots of reading and writing stuff”, I said, “And lots of math too.” I used that “math” word that mom used a lot and always seemed happy when she was talking about it.
She smiled and asked, “Do you enjoy math?” Grownups said that “enjoy” word sometimes instead of “like”. Kids never said it, because it sounded like you were pretending to be a grownup to be in charge of everybody.
“Are you figuring out all the adding and subtracting and carrying and borrowing okay?” she asked, “Because I’m always happy to help you with that, but only if you want me to.”
I nodded and said, “I get almost all the answers correct, except when I mess up and write down the wrong numbers in the problem.” I made sure not to say “right” instead of “correct”.
“Great”, she said, laughing through her nose a little, “Your mother loves math, so she’s happy to hear that.” She talked strange that way sometimes, like she was pretending she was somebody else talking about my mom.
“It’s just that our teacher has us do so many problems”, I said, “And do so much penmanship and spelling stuff that…” I wasn’t sure whether to say the rest because I would be saying bad things about school, and she and dad liked school so much.
“It gets boring”, she said, and she breathed in, puffed out her cheeks and blew out the air between her closed lips that made a whooshing noise. Then she shook her head and clicked her mouth.
“Drill”, she said, “It’s a military word for doing something over and over again until you get it perfect. If I recall, next year it’ll be your times tables, over and over. ‘Ad nauseam’ as they say.”
“Ad nauseam?” I asked.
“Yeah”, she said nodding, “It means doing the same thing so many times it makes you sick.”
I wondered if that’s the way school was going to be more and more as the grades got higher. But I was afraid to ask her about that, because if she said yes, and I still had to go to school, that would be really really bad. Better to pretend things were okay than know they were super bad. I think she figured out what I was thinking.
“School won’t always be like that”, she said, “You just have to learn some basic reading, writing and math skills, which can be boring. But then you can APPLY them to a world of really interesting things. Algebra, history, science, literature. Just hang in there kiddo.”
That was good to hear. I mean I could do all that school stuff, I just didn’t want it to get to be boring ALL the time. I guess just SOME of the time would be okay.
Then mom asked, “So how’s it going with your brother? He seems to be getting into a new phase where he’s got the whole basement set up with all the toys. He doesn’t just see what you’re playing and play along anymore. I would think it might be hard for you to adjust. Maybe a little of what they call ‘sibling rivalry’, like you two are competing with each other.”
Mom had just told me about that “rivalry” thing, and I kind of knew that “competing” word. It had to do with sports and being on different teams.
“Well”, she said, standing up. That was another word grownups said a lot when they wanted to be in charge. Kids never said “well” like that.
“Tomorrow’s the big game”, she said, “ARCH rivalry!” I nodded.
“Go Blue!” she said, raising her fist in the air. I nodded again.
I didn’t say anything because I was too busy thinking about why David decided not to tell mom and dad that I pushed him and that made him fall and hit his head. I wanted all kids to be on the same team, but David was making it hard for me to be on the same team with him. But maybe he still wanted us to be on the same team with me. I still had to figure that all out.
The next day was the football game. All around our house people “parked” their cars so they could walk to the Stadium. They were mostly grownups though some had kids with them. Most of them were wearing clothes with the blue and yellow colors that were for Michigan. Mom and dad called the yellow color “maize” instead. A few of the people had the red and gray colors of the other team, Ohio State. When they were walking near each other, some of the people wearing blue and yellow yelled out bad things to the people wearing the red and gray, and then they yelled bad things back. It kind of felt like they were real enemies, though mom had said they were just “rivals”.
Dad watched the game on the TV and listened to it on the radio in the basement at the same time. He said he liked that Bob Ufer guy who told you about the Michigan games on the radio. I watched some of it too, and it was strange listening to that guy on the radio talking about the stuff that was happening on the TV.
Football games on TV were harder to figure out than the baseball ones on TV. In baseball, even the real games on TV, the guy on one team was pitching and all the other guys on his team were in “the field” behind him, except for the catcher guy. The guys on the other team would take their turns trying to hit the ball and run around the bases to score “runs” until they got three “outs”.
But in football, there was that main “quarterback” guy who was in charge, but all the other guys on the team did different stuff and it got really confusing when it all got going. Dad had told me you got four chances, called “downs”, to get “ten yards”, which he said was how far it was across the basement. If you didn’t get that far after three tries you usually “punted”, and your guy kicked the ball so the other team got their turn. Or maybe if you were almost that far you would “go for it” on the fourth chance. If you got “ten yards” then you’d get four more chances. But then all this other stuff happened. There were these “referee” guys with striped shirts. Dad said they were like the “umpires” in real baseball games who told you if it was a “strike” or a “ball” and if you were “out” or “safe”. But these “referee” guys did all kinds of things all the time, like they were really in charge of the game instead of the guys on the teams.
I mean when KIDS played football in the park it was pretty simple, you got the ball and ran with it to try and cross a line to make a “touchdown”, and the kids on the other team would try to touch you to make you stop. Or you would try to throw the football to someone else on your team so THEY could run with it. It was kind of like playing “tag”, and the guy with the ball was “it”. I played sometimes, because that was what all the other kids, mostly older, were doing. The older kids would play sometimes with just a few people on each team, even just two, but they really liked it when there were more kids on each team, because that made it easier to pretend it was like real football.
So in the football game on TV that that guy was talking about on the radio, the Ohio State team did really good most of the time, and the Michigan team only did pretty good sometimes. The Ohio State team always had more points than the Michigan team. I could tell dad was getting really worried, and when the Michigan team messed up, like when a guy dropped the ball the quarterback threw to him, dad would even get mad. He’d bang his hand on the arm of his chair and even say swear words, like “damn” or “what the hell was that”. And when the Ohio State team finally won the game, fifty points to twenty points, dad seemed sad and mad and worried all at the same time, and didn’t want to do any of the stuff he’d been doing before the game started.
Mom liked the Michigan team too, but she didn’t get worried or mad about them. She watched some of the game too, while she “ironed” and folded clothes. And when Michigan guys did good things she would say stuff like “all right” or “nice play”. And when they messed up she might even say “damn” or “ugh”. But she never seemed worried about the game like dad was, or ever got mad. And when the game was over she said, “Well, we’ll get em next year”, and dad would look at her like she shouldn’t say that. It was like mom thought they were “rivals” and you only won sometimes but dad thought they were more like enemies and you had to win all the time.
And just like it seemed that girls and boys were on different teams at school, sometimes it felt like MOM AND DAD were on different teams. They would get mad at each other, and sometimes dad would try to “beat” mom by trying to show that he was right and she was wrong. And mom sometimes would talk to her women friends about dad, and her friends would talk about their “husbands” like they were on the other team too. I wondered if dad talked to his men friends about mom, but I had never heard him do that.
Paul’s mom talked about grownup men a LOT, though she called them “boys” most of the time, like they were kids and not grownups. When I was over at Paul’s house and we were in his basement, we could hear her talk on the phone up in the kitchen. She would laugh and say “boys will be boys”, but I don’t think she was talking about kids, she was talking about Paul’s dad and other men. She would talk about all the stuff they did that she thought was silly or strange. Like when she said on the phone that Paul’s dad was “in love with his Triumph”, which was one of those little “sports cars” like Molly’s dad had. Paul’s mom would laugh and say that he was “probably making out with it when he was alone in the garage.” I think “making out” was another word for doing all that kissyface “love” stuff, like the older kids sometimes did when they thought no one could see them in the lilac bushes.