A Soldier's Son
Temple, Maine, 1943. One Sunday in early spring, Pa's friends Vilio and Elmer come to the house, each carrying a bag filled with a quart of Krueger or a few stubbies of Genesee ale. On other Sundays they have been relaxed, but not today. Sipping out of their bags, they talk hollow at first, uneasy, not nervous but fidgety. Pa goes down cellar and fills a pitcher from a wooden barrel of last year's apple cider, fermented enough now to be a possible cure for cancer, and sets it on the kitchen table.Someone produces a deck of cards. They break matchsticks: plain halves are a nickel, sulfur-headed ends a dime. Pa fills a glass. Elmer deals and bets a sulfur head to open. Vilio follows. Pa folds, takes a Camel from his shirt pocket, taps one end of it on his watch crystal, puts it in his mouth, and lights the other end with a sulfur-headed dime. My heels start to bang against the cupboard doors, impatient for something more exciting. Pa tells me to quiet down.
Pa mentions the war first. "John get his draft notice yet?" he asks. The others shift in their chairs.
"John who! Hell, you know. Lives up on Gallup Road."
"I heard he did," Elmer says. "Goes to Portland Tuesday for his physical. I expect to hear from the draft board myself soon. Before it's done, we'll all be over there."
Not one says he wants to go; not one admits he's afraid — and they all agree that they want to get Little Adolf, as they call him.
"You stayin' in shape?" Pa asks Elmer. Elmer, a short and stocky bull of a man, smiles and nods.
"Little Adolf will get his. Right up his. . . . "
"Yeah, and I'd like to be the one to give it to the sunnavabitch."
Pa reaches for his glass of cider, sips, and sets it down. "Maybe we'll all be over there to give it to the little barstard," he says.
"Did you hear 'bout that Pierce fellow there? Wa'nt that awful?"
I think Vilio, a man who shuns frivolous notions, has come today to ask just that question. The room goes quiet.
"Aah, he never knew what hit him."
"I bet he did."
"No one will ever know." They sip from their bags and blow cigarette smoke into the kitchen air.
Vilio asks another question. "So what do we do?"
"Do?" Elmer shakes his head and tosses in his cards. "Ain't nothin' to do but wait. So deal."
In a few minutes, Vilio has won most of the broken matches, and the game breaks up. What happens next is so clear it's like I am still there. Pa gets up, goes into the bedroom, and comes back with a .30-caliber Remington rifle he has shot deer with the past three years. He hands it to Vilio and asks him how it feels. Vilio balances it in his hands, opens and closes the chamber, holds it to his shoulder, and squints down the open sights at an imaginary target right there in our small kitchen. Pa and Elmer sip beer and cider and wait for a turn. I leave the counter and slide around the kitchen to stay behind where they point it.
Elmer lifts it to his shoulder and squints along the barrel, "Right there. That's it," he says. "I could hit a beer bottle a hundred yards away with this thing."
Vilio guffaws. "The hell you could."
Elmer gets serious. "You got any ammo? I wanna show you guys how to shoot this thing."
I follow them outside, beyond the shed and the lower garden, to the stream bank where the old autos lay, where broken headlights stare out of the skeletons of rusty sedans like the hollow eyes of human skulls.
Someone puts the open end of an oil can down over the top of a fence post. One after the other, they fire at it, first standing, then kneeling, and finally prone on the damp earth. The can pops and shakes each time a slug tears into it, and it finally falls to the ground in shreds. I hear the men shout with pride, "See that! See that!" They are comfortable and skilled with rifles, and they know that survival at war, their very lives, will depend on that skill. Thus, they practice. I watch, first in awe, then in fear.
I try to imagine what it will be like with Pa gone. I sense he wants to go. Ma is terrified, but I want to see him walking around town in his uniform like the other men and to listen to his stories. I don't think about him getting hurt or dying. I want to be proud of him.
He doesn't talk about it. Usually someone else — Ma or Aunt Marion or a friend like Vilio — speaks for him, that he won't have to go because he has kids. But he waits. And he stands in the auto graveyard on a Sunday with his friends and fires his deer rifle at a tin can. He knows. He knows he has to be part of it.