A man and his two young sons walked toward a gentle, dusty sunset, passing a cemetery that was generally regarded as the western edge of town. They stopped at a field which pressed the cemetery’s boundary. The field, perhaps a hundred feet across and flowinggently downhill from the road to a narrow creek, was framed by the cemetery’s wrought iron fence and two freshly dug basement cubes on its other side, the fresh mounds spilling into the field.
Pop, as he was called by the boys, Ricky, age seven, and Jimmy, age five, tossed away his stubby cigarette and surveyed the field, hands on hips. His face was a mask of concentration. He noted a steam shovel between the cubes, two workmen securing it for the evening, and he turned to the boys.
Ricky was wild-eyed excited. He wore a toy Army helmet and a web belt – genuine issue – which flapped several inches beyond the clasp, even though it had been trimmed. The web held a toy canteen, and the boy held a facsimile rifle, jigsawed from a piece of white pine. An old pants belt served as the rifle’s sling. He was ready for Pop’s instructions.
Pop had planned this event for a couple days, indeed had planned it for eight years, since he manned foxholes and snowbanks during the last months of World War II, the defining days of his life. “If I ever have a son he’ll know what this was like,” he’d contemptuously spit to his buddies, and what was worse, this was no idle gripe.
Pop, given name George, glanced again at the two tired workmen in white tee shirts and jeans – referred to then as dungarees – locking down the steam shovel, their day’s sweat evaporating in the cooling long-shadowed late summer eve. They were nearly silent as they gathered their black metal lunch pails and dropped satisfyingly, wearily, into an old brown Chevy pickup truck while glancing at the trio. The company name, “Christian Brothers” was printed on the pickup’s door. Along the bed was the slogan, “Building Futures One at a Time”. As the Chevy eased on to the sparsely traveled road, George made note of the message and idly thought, well, that’s what we’re doing, giving the boy his future.
George himself had spent the day clearing trees from another tract even further west. He wore green cotton coveralls, work boots, the day’s dirt and stray woodchips. His reddish overgrown crewcut was matted, he wore no cap. He had a blocky, muscular build, just starting to flesh, but his prominent feature, a half-scowl, half-smirk usually was the first aspect people noticed, and it signaled that he was not a person given to idle friendliness. A disgusted glance from his steely blue-grey eyes could wither a circus strongman.
Pop directed Jimmy to play in a small pile of sand- and-clay mix scarcely six feet from the road’s edge. Because he had planned this trip, he’d given Jimmy a small metal bulldozer so the younger boy wouldn’t distract him as he trained the older boy in the tasks of soldiering.
Little round Jimmy happily began bulldozing, complete with sound effects.
Pop turned his attention to Ricky. The older boy was somewhat tall for seven, and had willing, expressive eyes in his thin face. Pop was adjusting the way-too-big web belt around Ricky’s waist as Ricky dropped the pine rifle and adjusted his toy helmet. He wore dungarees and a green tee shirt, the best “Army” style shirt available from the surplus store.
George had Ricky shoulder the rifle, then went through his various basic training commands – present arms, re-shoulder, drop to a knee and various aiming postures.
George’s memory of his own stateside training was all too vivid, as was his bitter memory of scant into-battle training once he’d arrived in Europe. His bitterness seemed an outgrowth of his own tough-kid youth. He had been the c-minus, d- kid, the sometime troublemaker, at times a bully. He relished the idea of combat, figuring at minimum he was at least equal in toughness and skills to anyone. When he puffed himself up, he felt he was better.
He convinced himself he had no fear, as fear was a weakness, but that idea, indeed his smirk, was erased upon his arrival at the edge of the glowering Huertgen Forest, where a barely-civil sergeant placed George and his buddies at tenuous intervals with instructions to shoot anything moving ahead, as nothing in the forest was friendly.
For a few days, no enemy was seen, let alone engaged, but the presence was more than felt. That immediacy of danger was confusing and frightful. George, maybe for the first time ever, was scared, causing his imagination to race, causing him shame.
He pushed fear deep into his psyche, so far that he did not admit its existence, and as long as he stayed on the move it did not surface. He began portraying himself as an unfeeling, unflappable killing machine. The uncaring, caustic, let’s-get-to-it guy. He had pride in that portrayal which in time blurred the true man, so that the make-believe became the only George.
And living this lie was effective. Others thought of him as fearless, if somewhat edgy. He had that chip on his shoulder, the unfriendly look, but he was totally reliable. Anyone would consider him a good, dependable soldier.
In his son Ricky, George saw weaknesses, weaknesses which had to be overcome, and George appointed himself as the one to get it done.
George’s first task was to drive out Ricky’s sense of kindness, because people took advantage of the kind. The kid was not a girl! He also felt Ricky was mentally weak, had to learn that things would seldom go his way. He needed toughness, to be like George, to deal with the inevitability of disappointment.
As the shadows lengthened, the field slowly lost its cheer. George surveyed the slightly downhill overgrown field, its few saplings, the brook at the end, a few large rocks strewn throughout. Ricky was again adjusting the canteen.
“Here’s what you have to do,” Pop barked, and pointed. “Go down there to the creek. When you’re down there, hide, yell out when you’re ready. When I tell you to go, try to make it back up here – crawling, I don’t care how – without being seen. So what we’re doing is, if I see you, you’re dead, you’re not a soldier, just dead, got it? If you get up here,” and he tapped the ridged ground with his foot, “then I’m dead, you win. I might have to kill you a couple times but we’ll do it till I think you’re getting it. Now be a man and get going!”
Ricky, eyes blazing with confidence and gameness, eager to please, started through the waist-high grasses, weaved past a little fresh spillage from the large mounds, hop-skippedover the uneven terrain and reached the creek. He crouched behind a few saplings which were younger than him, saplings currently surviving the relentless progress “one at a time.”
Hearing Pop’s rules, his mind had raced – he’d not thought of this outing as a task, or even as a game. To him it offered excitement, maybe a chance to gain Pop’s approval, something foreign in his experience. So he accepted Pop’s terms, as if he’d had a choice in the first place, and formed a basic strategy as he bumbled down to the creek. Go to the deep grass. No! The border, up the cemetery side! No! Use the big hills made by the steam shovel – that’s it, I’m small! No, wait! Pop’ll expect that! It’s where I’d looked the whole time he talked! Think! Think! I have to go to those hills!
This task, like so many other seemingly innocent ones, was overshadowed by the consistent, unshakeable quality Pop had of looking at him with that half-smirk, reinforcing the concept of “Not Quite”. Pop never named his trait, but that’s what it was. Nothing Ricky did was ever enough, it was always, “Not Quite.” I, Pop, am better than you, you cannot win. I win. You cannot earn anything that I am unwilling to give. Indeed, this task was to teach Ricky that he could never be as good as George. The “soldiering” was secondary, or actually just a means of proving George’s superiority.
Yet Ricky continually, inexorably tried. He was only seven. He wanted Pop’s approval, if not his affection. He wanted to succeed. He wanted Pop to look at him the way he’d seen other fathers look at their boys, a sort of beaming glance of satisfaction. A tussle of his hair. Was it too much to ask? Till now, for Ricky the answer was “yes”. “Not Quite.” He didn’t understand, but he didn’t get angry, and he never gave up.
Not Quite was not confined to the family. The family was just closest and most easily accessed. No one inside of it, or the continuously expanding circle of inferiors, ever faced what George faced! You couldn’t handle what I handled because I said so. Who could challenge that?
One of his favorite sayings, indicating disagreement, was “What kind of outfit is this?” Then he’d set the offender straight. For instance, the day at the surplus store when George bought the web belt, he fiercely told the clerk – a combat veteran himself – that he was all wrong about some aspect of a piece of gear, and then he spouted the “real” truth, real because he’d been at the Bulge and all. “I see,” said the clerk, in this case eyeing him politely and with caution as George lectured.
The Bulge was used by George to excuse and explain himself clear of any annoyance, and if others couldn’t accept him, well, too bad. Ironically, other vets like the store clerk usually gave him slack, while not totally excusing him, at least accepted that combat may have created him. It was the uninitiated, the children, the women, who had difficulties. They tended to move away or at least stay silent and guarded, if uneasy, in his steely presence. George took that as acceptance, respect.
Ricky, unfairly dogged and too young to know, began accumulating snippets of self-doubt. He was too inexperienced to think of self-doubt as abnormal, he couldn’t know that he’d never crack “Not Quite”.
In his favor, Ricky was developing an embryonic defense to beat Not Quite, to gain a feel-good sense of accomplishment. He pulled himself into a quiet world he called “White Zero”. This brain-stop blanked the experience, told him he was okay even while hearing, but not necessarily listening, as Pop degraded and criticized him or Mother, or life itself. His characteristic aspect during White Zero was distraction, inattentiveness.
It had begun about a year earlier, as Ricky and Mother watched an appliance store clerk turn off a display television set, indeed, one of the only tv sets in town. As it clicked, Ricky was fascinated by the line-and-dot image on the screen as it faded to murk.
Shortly after that, Ricky experienced an event that became one of his earliest seminal memories. He was awakened late one night to the sound of Pop bellowing violently. He couldn’t make out the words, but heard the violence, the smacking of hands on the kitchen table, other rough sounds sailing through the walls, maybe a few dishes being broken. So, he pulled a blanket over his head thought of something pleasant, became fetal. The image of the television shutting off flashed into his brain, as if he was trying to turn off the violence. He stopped thinking, and had reached White Zero. It passed as peace.
Now near the creek, he yelled out that he was ready, Pop yelled “Go!” and he crouch-crawled a few feet up the hill, then realized the taller grasses might bend and give him away, so he gently flattened, then folded the foliage with his hands, then by slightly raising his rump and bringing his knees under, he tortuously labored up the gentle slope, the only physical problem being the nagging rub of the canteen in the small of his back.
He imagined Pop’s eyes were somehow burning the weeds and grasses, exposing him, so he gravitated with natural instinct toward the mounds. The hills would hide him, and indeed, he reached the far flank of the most western one fairly quickly, stopped, rolled onto his back, struck by the sudden thought – when does Pop win? – he’s not saying anything so he might be watching all my moves for all I know. So he moved cautiously higher, mindful of preventing a minor avalanche, working silently to the top, checking what he thought was a too-audible sigh, knowing in his heart that he would probably lose when he thought he might win, finally concluding he would win the only way he knew - in his own mind.
Right now, he calmly accepted that Pop was somehow going to turn the tables, even when he surprised him by breaching the top of the mound and firing three rapid “shots” into him as the man flinched – too late – in the direction of the popping noise. Ricky yelled, “I won!” then waited.
George, staring hard, full of surprise, then recovery, his left hand reflexively dusting his white name oval stenciled above the breast pocket of the hunter green coveralls, gave an exasperated sigh, and said quietly with slight disapproval, “No, you didn’t win. The Krauts would’ve covered that flank. I figured myself you were there,” he lied, “and just wanted to see what you’d do. Besides, these dirt hills are out of bounds.” Pop was squinting, Ricky being west of him, and the late summer sun just now slipping past a bronze horizon. “So,” he commanded while exhaling heavily and raising his voice, “get on back down and do it again, I’ll give you a little credit here for what you did, but you have to be better this time.” He turned his head to Jimmy, bulldozing a ridge of sand at the street’s edge. “And by that I mean stay quieter, and I’m not going to give you any slack on that! Yell when you’re ready!”
At least he wasn’t real mad, thought Ricky. Just a little bawling out, no slap, nothing physical, so “White Zero” only had a short life.
The whole of the field was dappled by the time he reached the creek, the lines of soft sunlight replaced by various shades of darkness contouring the wholeness. He shouted his readiness and crabbed through tall weeds to the cemetery’s lower boundary, figuring to use small clumps of saplings near the property’s wrought iron fence to cover him right up to Pop’s position on the ridgeline. He thought of the saplings as islands. A southerly breeze seemed to push him up the slight grade as he felt this time, for sure, he’d win, and Pop couldn’t do anything about it.
George casually walked from the ridge to the base of the closest mound, flipped a cigarette, and gathered a few large clods of clay, cradling them in his left arm. A few steps later he was back on top of the narrow ridge. He scanned for Ricky, didn’t see him, and yelled, “Eighty-eights coming!” He lobbed a couple of the clods high in the air and far down the meadow. Sensing that he’d stopped Ricky, or at least scared him, he scrambled over to the pile again and filled the crook of his arm with as many more clods as he could carry, then scuttled back to the ridge.
“Eighty-eights! Mortars! Fifty caliber!” George shouted as he threw cods in several directions, one after the other. He couldn’t see Ricky but it didn’t matter. This was George at George’s best, teaching the lesson of “Nobody experienced what I experienced.”
The lesson had an immediate impact. Ricky couldn’t see Pop, but he heard him just fine, maybe like Pop had first heard those Germans in the forest, and he twisted in an almost fetal curl, nearly choking on the fine dust which lingered on the tall grass and weeds. When the shouting stopped he crabbed cautiously forward, still hugging the field’s far eastern border near the cemetery fence.
George reloaded with clods and not a few rocks, as the game had materially changed. He’d induced remembered bitterness, and not an inconsiderable amount of anger to what had been merely an object lesson, a hard one, but still, it had been just a lesson. Now it was in his mind a test of wills and the kid would know how tough the old man could be by the time it was over! After all, the kid had an obligation to learn.
George resumed shouting and throwing the missiles from the ridge, adding to the “eighty-eights” babble. “Too cold out there? Come on out where I can see you! No deep cover. No trees. No place to hide! Ha! You think you see it now, I bet, you think you see what it was like! And this just the first taste! Child’s play!” And on and on he went, similarly, as he threw, adding curses and epithets as he grew to his task. His face contorted as he released his ordnance. He brought forward his anger against the memories of the splintering trees of the Huertgen, the snowbanks during the Bulge.
Ricky managed his way to the wrought iron fence. A quick glance through some scrub showed Pop standing on the ridge, right in the middle. One of Pop’s random clay bombs unfortunately exploded only a few feet away, spewing grit and stone into his face, stinging and filling his eyes with defensive tears, stopping him cold. He looked into the cemetery, away from the exploding dirtballs and dangerous rocks which seemingly surrounded him, as he’d frozen unwittingly into Pop’s comfortable throwing range. Dust swirled in front of him, reminding him of printed images of ghosts in illustrated story books. Now a rock splashed nearby, then another, Ricky curled again, and was in fear.
The cemetery’s trees were mostly large sycamores, their shagged bark shimmering an unreal, coppery patchwork in the waning western twilight, and as Ricky eventually uncurled, he cleared his eyes, then felt new tears spilling onto his cheeks, shouting an unwillingness to continue the game.
He steeled himself against his natural instinct to quit, as a need to rush Pop tempered fear, and after a pensive glance through gaping weeds signaled that Pop was gone from sight,probably reloading, he readied. Determination overcame fear.
He crouched, zigged his way past a few jagged rocks. A breezy puff of wind, not a gust, seemed to help him up the gentle slope. He was about ten yards from the summit when first Pop’s sweat-oiled head, then his body, crested, and his arm simultaneously launched a heavy clay clod that burst into Ricky’s chest. George was oblivious to the pain he’d caused. Ricky absorbed it, crying softly, doubling over, and dissipating the physical while fearing the terror growing inside Pop. He felt that he was an object now, not a person, as he struggled to breathe.
“You’re meat, you’re chewed up! Eigthy-eights! Hah! This one’s from a Tiger. They had those Tigers out there and we didn’t have a damn thing not one damn thing to stop em! A Tiger got you! They wouldna found enough of you to put in a matchbox and send home! Missing! Missing! How do you like it? Do you see what it was like? Do you see?! Can you see?! Your mother with a telegram! Just like that! You better believe it happened to a bunch of ‘em, that’s what you don’t know. None of ‘em know!” He gestured emptily toward the east, toward town. “Most of’ em were dummies, like you, too dumb to get outa there! You see what old George Unger had to go through? Eighty-eights, Tigers! And divisions they threw at us! Divisions!” He made another sweeping gesture and shook his head contemptuously. At last he focused on Ricky and was silent for several moments as he stared. He noticed but never addressed Ricky’s sobbing. He never considered that the boy was hurt. If he was crying it was because he was weak, and he knew it. And this was only the first lesson. George surmised, the kid can’t take it, but he learned to respect me.
Ricky was ordered back down the gentle sloping meadow for two more re-tries. Both ended in predictable failure. On the first one, Pop saw him wriggling through some lain-over grass, and the second time he hit Ricky with a barrage of clods after hearing him approaching near one of the mounds.
After this fourth failure, and allowing that darkness was then pushing twilight, but mostly because George had satisfied his own needs, he called the game. He called Ricky closer, growled softly, “Okay, that’s it, get over here you useless hunk of Tiger meat,” his face now smoldering in disappointment at the same time his insides swelled satisfied. “Pathetic,” he assessed the boy. “Just plain pathetic. But if you listen to me, maybe we’ll make something out of you yet,” he snorted through a patronizing smile. He examined Ricky with embarrassment, as if Ricky was too stupid to be embarrassed himself, so he’d have to do it for him.
Ricky heard, but did not listen. George thought the kid was a little distracted. Ricky was in White Zero, and he was convinced that he was not so much his father’s son, maybe he never could be his son, maybe he didn’t want to be his son, either.
Pop stepped toward Jimmy who was contentedly pushing talcum-fine dirt with his bulldozer. It was time to go. All seemed to be breathing moist twilight dust.
George brushed his hands on his coveralls. He looked balefully at Ricky, then down to Jimmy again. Toward Jimmy he said, “He’s no soldier, ah, I don’t know about him. Do you think he’s a soldier? Is he a big tough soldier like he thinks he is?” He flashed Ricky another patented half-smirk, the one look the boy absolutely had grown to fear.
But this time, Ricky, whose nose was running a little, mixing with the drying tears on his face, felt a new sensation when returning Pop’s stare. White Zero was there, but is was being pushed away, still there but forced more toward some darker space in his brain, and replacing it was a sensation of nascent resistance, not yet defiance. He was not consciously aware but it was there just the same, a need to play protective offense instead of retreating. Fear was being dared.
"What're you staring at?" spat George.
That'll be the day, George thought. He looked at Jimmy again. "What do you think about this big tough soldier, Jimmy-boy? Sorry this big dead nothing-but-Tiger-meat we couldn't find. Is he a tough guy or what?"
Jimmy pointed the bulldozer at Ricky and said, "He's my bruvver."