Once, when I was 8 or so and things were 8,000 ways different than they are now, I saw a thing that defines the word transformation. It’s funny how such things stick, and haunt, and turn life into a ponder-able thing on an ordinary evening.
One of the things you consider doing as an 8 year old is to band together with your contemporaries and go aft a’glang canoeing or camping in the wild or such, all the while coiffed in a green uniform with sundry badges and the odd bit of brass. Sort of a precursor to military things, these Scouts of the suburbia with kerchiefs about the neck and high topped canvas sneakers.
Part and parcel of any grouping of 8 year olds is to have a leader or two, an adult, because letting loose a tribe of wet nosed leaderless boys on the wilderness is akin to premeditated murder on a mass scale and highly undesirable. Naturally, since the adults thought up the idea of Scouting in the first place, it became necessary for them to see it through and provide a requisite ratio of Dads to boys and equip the Dads in complementary uniforms, plus a whistle and a very official looking hat. Snappy they were, the Dads, if not a touch self conscious. I never saw my Dad wear the hat around my Mother, for example.
I don’t know if they still do it this way, and somehow I would doubt that they do, in this generation of being correct in every way, but back then there was a huge thing about marching. Drill they called it. Standing at attention, about face and march your little feet in a smart military fashion with arms stiff, faces solemn and minds clear of 8 year old thoughts. In reality it was more like a herding of the asshats. Small boys respond to terse commands with giggles and pokes and talk of farting. And not a lot of cooperation. The Dads were given to privately tossing a coin to see who got Drill Duty, and we all got the feeling that the glum selectee would much rather be off with his fellow tossers playing pinochle in the Janitors Closet of the Baptist Church, rather than out in the parking lot trying to make two dozen small idiots do a proper right face or two.
There was certainly something to roll eyes at. When you assemble (or try to assemble) a group of kids in the church parking lot on a Friday evening when they were fresh from dinner and full of themselves, a reasonable man would vote for pinochle every time.
That all ended when my Dad showed up. Rather abruptly, it ended.
Understand that Dad was the mildest of men. A man short of stature and unremarkable in a lot of ways. Soft spoken and given to condescension. He had suffered my brother and his foray into Scouting and now it was my turn. And one Scouting evening, under a flawless summer sky, he drew Drill Duty. I knew enough about Dad to know that he would never volunteer for it and call attention to himself but he likely didn’t think much of the other Dads drawing straws to avoid any unnatural suffering at the hands of us, the tribe of drooling nose pickers.
He situated himself with a pass of the hand over his hat, adjusted a pair of dead-green RayBans and coughed. I remember that cough. It wasn’t a clearing of the throat sort of cough, but a signal. A rumble, as it were. A few small eyes glanced at him.
“Ten-HUTT!” And there was no tittering from the plebes, because the man had just gone from mild mannered to rockets roar in the space of ten seconds. We snapped to, because there simply wasn’t any other choice in the matter. There was no arguing with that command and no need to.
I swear, within a few minutes we were gliding around that lot as if connected by a tight string. Dad fell back to half quarter but the voice never ceased, counting a cadence or barking the occasional signal, and it was a voice full of gravel and steel. If I hadn’t lived with him for all 8 of my years and didn’t know that it was he behind the sound I’d have sworn there was another man back there, a basso profundo man, driving his charges around a parking lot by the force of his will and the terrible chill that ran up your spine with every change in direction, every harsh sounding command.
It was over in perhaps 20 minutes, we rolled to a halt and faced forward in perfectly spaced order, broke to a parade rest stance and listened. Dad removed the sunglasses and tucked them into a pocket, frowning over a smudge, and spoke. “That was fine boys, a little more work and we’ll be marching like soldiers. Now then, dismissed!” And that was it. The voice was back to that of a 45 year old businessman, stuck in a parking lot on a summer evening with two dozen kids wearing funny hats.
Somewhere on the ride home I leaned over the front seat, in those days of no seatbelts at all, and broached the subject. “Dad, did you ever do Drill Duty before?”
His voice was very mild, even if his answer was short. “Yep, used to do it quite a bit, son.”
I waited, but that was it. He never was one for long explanations. And I never was one to run off at the mouth and prod for answers, and I suppose that was his legacy to me, for I do much the same to this very day. The whole thing might have laid there as a forgotten moment of life but for my Mother, who often fleshed these things out and filled in gaps as Moms often do. A couple of days later she asked, “So, how did Scouting go on Friday?”, as she always did.
“Dad had Drill Duty,” was my answer. Nothing about Tommy and his hidden pocket squirt gun, or learning how to stack firewood. “We marched really good, too.”
She smiled at the pile of bed sheets she was folding and smoothing and spoke as if I wasn’t there. “I’ll bet you did, if your father was in charge,” she murmured. “I’m sure you did.” There was something there, even an 8 year old could hear it, and her eyes were large behind her glasses.
“Dad showed us how to march to a quarter.”
“And keep in step with the one in front of us.”
“Yes, that’s what soldiers do.”
“Mom, was Dad a soldier?”
She laid the sheets in a plastic bin with the edges crisp and lined up with each other and was very matter of fact. “Well of course he was honey. Everybody was a soldier back then. Your Uncle and your Father and everyone.”
Everyone a soldier. “Did they wear green, like my army men?” Once you get an 8 year old rolling there’s no stopping him, and I had a vision of Fathers and Uncles tumbling out of the big plastic bag full of green plastic army men that I kept on the shelf in my bedroom. Some with a rifle, some with just a pistol, some kneeling and some running.
“Yes honey, they wore green,” and she laughed just a little, because she knew that at any minute I was going to ask if they were green in the face and hands, like my army men. Or if my Dad had carried a green machine gun, or some other fool thing.
It wasn’t an every night event, but somehow it seemed the right night to haul the bag of army men downstairs for playing before bedtime and set them up. Right on the thin carpet, sprawled out with the toes of my sneakers digging in, eyes at soldier level and spacing the small figures in even ranks, facing an unseen enemy since I only had the green ones. Tommy had the full set, he had green AND gray, but for now the green would have to do.
Dad rustled his newspaper and held forth from the Eyrie of an easy chair as platoons advanced and a steady Chung-Chung sound effect whistled from the battlefield, or a Blam! as one of my stiff little men was twirled and tossed a grenade at an enemy pillow. He glanced down and chuckled.
“Where’s your Sergeant, I don’t see him for all the smoke and commotion down there?”
I hadn’t a clue where my Sergeant was, and said so.
“Why, he should be here!”, and Dad plucked a solitary army man from the fray, one with only a .45 pistol drawn and hanging from his right hand, the left arm thrust forward in a directive sort of way. “He should be at the rear, showing them the way to go!” The soldier was moved to the back of the whole group, a little bit to the right quarter. “There, now the army has somebody to holler at them and make them march up that hill.” And Dad leaned back satisfied, and rustled his paper again, and said not another word.
In the way such things were discussed they were not discussed at all, and I suppose it was another ten years before I had much of a grasp of what my Dad did as a soldier. It came out in little scraps of conversation and was never volunteered, sometimes popping up at the oddest moments from the jog of a phrase or a song on the radio. Things would happen and Mom or Dad might lose the careful veneer for just a second and say, “Remember that? They were playing that song just before I left to go to Carolina back in ‘42”, or “That’s the same car Bob Ellington had before the war, the one his father put in the barn and wouldn’t let anyone drive after he . . .well.” Tantalizing fragments, and if I were to follow up on them the moment would pass, and the subject changed, and 1942 had never happened and was a chapter unpublished. But eventually, a story emerged.
The little Sergeant at the rear of the field. Sent to Carolina and put in charge of hundreds, maybe thousands. Training, shooting, bayoneting and sleeping in canvas tents. Months upon months in a searing Carolina heat, and rolling out polished units of green plastic to be packaged in large numbers and shipped off to war. And not a war fought on suburban carpet, facing down the divan or davenport or end table, but North Africa. And not a troop of 8 year olds marching around a parking lot, but a platoon of men lashed through the swamp with curses and mosquitoes and full packs.
Drill Duty, indeed. A voice full of the steel that the very .45 at his hip would know.
It came to my Mother to end the story, one porch twilight, and she rocked in her wooden chair and looked far out into the backyard with me, in a rare mood for the telling of tales and the making of dreams.
“He was scheduled to go on the very next transport ship. His whole Division, they were set to go and he was working those men 14 hours a day in that heat.” Something about the way she said “that heat” was familiar to me, the boy from upstate New York where heat came from a stove and not from a noontime sky. “His Captain was the one who wrote me the cable and it came just the week before they were due to leave and he said I might want to take the train and come.” She was silent for a moment. “The Captain said your Dad was in the hospital and might not make it. Pneumonia, he caught pneumonia in that heat and they weren’t sure if . . .”
She was working it out, in hitches. “There wasn’t any money for trains, even if you could get on one. Everything was about the soldiers going here and there, you know.”
She rocked, and fussed with the cat in her lap. “But he came home. All those soldiers gone over there, and he came home. Why, he was the only man his age around here for quite a while.”
It was something to consider. North Africa led to Italy, then to France and Germany. Little green men, and a long road in front of them. Everyone a soldier.
And the many who knew the sort of Drill Duty that got them around the road, and off to the side, with a small man at their rear telling them to get up the hill.
There isn’t a way to go back and change things, and I doubt mightily that Mom or Dad would want to, since they had 4 children to get started on. Four lives that likely exist because some piece of bacteria laid their Father in a hospital bed and left him watching thousands leave to go shoot and march in the way he taught them to.
But I often wonder what Dad must have been thinking, on a summer evening, watching small versions of himself step smartly around the church parking lot with hats cocked to the right and arms swinging.
Wanting for nothing, but a bag full of green plastic men on the shelf at home, silent and waiting.
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