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William Vernon

From the Backseat


The lights radiated from the poles so the ballpark in the hollow glowed and made me blink. It seemed more dreamlike than real. Surrounding us were the dark hills and the Wayne National Forest.


Dad got out, closed the door, and looked back into the car. "I'll be right back."


I leaned toward him. "Can I go with you?"


He shook his head. "Eat your ice cream. I won't be a minute."


John said, "I want to go."


"Stay here with your mother."


Then he turned away from us, passed the nearest car, and stopped at the next, where I could see a hand reach out a window for his. Then Dad bent toward the window.


I swallowed a hunk of cold chocolate. "Who's he talking to?"


Mom turned enough in the passenger seat to look back at me. "Old friends. I bet Pete knows everybody parked up here."


We were in a big pull-off area that was covered with gravel as well as clinkers from coal furnaces. Fourteen cars counting ours faced the ballpark. Before us the players ran out, took their positions, and warmed up. The umpire hollered, "Batter up!" and I heard the first pitch thump into the catcher's mitt. "Stee-rike one!"


When I looked at Dad, he bent over farther, waved at someone deep in that car, straightened up, walked farther away, and rapped his knuckles on the next car's roof. The driver's door opened, a man jumped out, and he and Dad pumped one another's hand. I could hear their laughter and delight if not their exact words.


He wandered among the cars, talking at each one. Mom said it had been years since he'd seen these people. Dad had been in school with many of them until he'd dropped out in the 8th grade. The depression. He'd had to earn money to help his family. He'd probably played ball with some of the men he was talking to as well, and she named a few names.


"What position did he play?" I asked.


Mom pointed. "Centerfield. He was one of the team's best hitters and throwers. The year before we married I watched all of his games here. Sat in the bleachers down there by the infield."


Our ice cream cones disappeared. My brother and I wiped our sticky fingers on our pants, crossed our arms, and lay back in the seat. I imagined my father in one of those gray uniforms with red trim in the outfield below us. Imagined him hitting a home run and circling the bases while Mom cheered in the bleachers. 


My brother and I were asleep when Dad returned to the car. The scoreboard showed two strings of five innings of zeroes. The game was a shut-out so far. The players were yelling at the pitcher and the batter. Dad leaned over toward Mom and kissed her. Mom reached for Dad's hand. They didn't know I was awake. 







Lloyd and I sat together eating lunch from brown paper bags while the other kids in our class took trays and ate the school food. None of them sat beside us.


One day Mrs. Dogbreth told us the "Japs" had murdered many GIs. She mentioned the Bataan Death March and some prisoner of war camps. Americans were just now realizing "what animals the Japs were."


Well, okay, but Father Krusling had told me about Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Father was among the first troops to enter Nagasaki after its atom-bombing, and he said the results were too horrible to describe. A newsreel at last Saturday's matinee had shown the shell-like remnants of the cities and some bandaged-up residents who were slowly dying. 


I raised my hand so Mrs. Dogbreth recognized me. "The Germans were the worst. The Germans killed millions of Jews and gypsies and Catholics." Months ago, newsreels had shown piles of naked bodies, piles of hair, jewelry, shoes, etc. I felt sorry for the Japanese, but not the Germans, who seemed like cold-blooded killers.


The teacher stared at me for a second. “An interesting idea, William.”


At recess Heidi Grindlebacher grabbed me on the steps just outside the door. "I'm German and so are my parents!" She slapped my face, and Karen Handel swung at me too. 


I put my arms up to ward off the blows. When Heidi hit my nose so it hurt, I swung and hit her jaw so she went over backwards onto some of her friends. They helped her stand, then yelled and surged up the steps toward me.


There was nowhere to go, but just then Lloyd ran up from the playground and began pulling the kids back, slapping and cursing them. I started down into them from the other direction, swinging, slapping and shoving. Later, when I described the scene at home, my mother said there were many children of German ancestry at the school. "This Lloyd boy seems like your friend."


"Yeah," I said, "I guess we're friends."


"Well, ask him over. You can play together."


I invited him, but he worked for his father at a filling station and didn't have time to "play around." A few days later he helped me fight the same people after school was dismissed for the day, but during this tussle Lloyd accidentally kicked me, chipping one of my permanent front teeth. He'd been trying to kick one of my assailants in the head. 


After that we ate together silently and guarded each other's back. He never made friends with any other kid. He was the largest person in the 5th grade, having failed two years of school. He was also rougher in speech, manner and dress than the rest of us. I was a newcomer and a Catholic, and Lebanon's Catholic congregation was tiny. Lloyd and I were both outsiders, and that fact held us together. More complicated things kept us apart.








I didn't get mad when Emil called me chicken. We were friends. But when he shoved me down in the gravel, all the other kids turned to watch us, and that was too much. I jumped up, got him in a headlock, and tried to throw him down. He wrestled loose, though, and ran up the steep bank toward the alley. I looked around. The other kids were laughing, saying stuff like get him, but I didn't care. He'd run from me. I sat on the nearest swing facing uphill and thought the fight was over.


"Chicken!" Emil yelled. "He's a little girl. Come and get me girlie." I didn't even care about that except that we had an audience. The other kids laughed. 


So I started up the hill, bent forward, watching where I stepped until halfway up. Then I looked up and Emil threw something. I felt no impact, but liquid flowed down into my left eye. I wiped it away with a finger—blood—and felt something stuck in my skin just above the eye. I pulled it loose: a piece of glass. Emil had thrown a hunk of glass that had just missed putting out my eye. Emil, who was my friend. Blood flowed over the eye again.


I raced straight uphill, wrestled him to the ground and rolled us downhill. All the time I was squeezing his head or arm or any part of his body I could get hold of. When we came to rest by the swing set, I put my knees on his shoulders and started swinging at his head. It was the only time I'd ever hit someone with my fists. I really wanted to hurt him. I was screaming incoherently, sobbing, yelling words too but they made no sense. I was bawling like a hurt animal, thinking how Emil had only by chance missed my eye by less than an inch. 


I might have seriously hurt Emil had Sister Teresa not stopped me. Her intervention calmed me down. I became aware of myself again. Tears, mucous, blood, and saliva were covering my face like a viscous mask. The nun took me inside, cleaned me in the boys' room, and bandaged the cut. 


The nuns, my parents, Emil's parents and any others who saw the cut and heard the story commented with the same astonished conclusion about how lucky I'd been. Emil apologized and we became friends again. We children played innocently among ourselves the rest of the year. But whenever I looked in the mirror, I saw that scar and remembered how angry I'd become, not how lucky I was. How everything in me had focused on hurting someone else. How I'd turned into a raging animal. That was scary. But I'd also remember feeling invulnerable, as if I'd been so strong I couldn't be hurt or stopped. That was something I liked.



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