Off to War

Posted on September 18, 2016

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Robert Joe Stout

From Broadkill Review Vol. 10, number 4

Larry Hardy left for Canada the day after his eighteenth birthday. It must have been a Saturday because my dad was working in the garden and came around to the front of the house when he heard that Larry was asking for him.

“Just want to say goodbye,” Larry extended his hand.

My dad carefully wiped the dirt off his own hand before taking Larry’s.

“So you’re really going to do it? Head off to fight Hitler?”

“Yessir.”

“You’re sure the Canadians will take you?”

“They have to. They need me.”

         “Umm.” My dad pulled his glasses away from his face in order to wipe the lenses. “You never can be sure. About Canadians, I mean.”

“Sure? Sure of what?”

“Being able well, you know, to cross the border. Sometimes the Mounties…”

“The Mounties?”

“They could challenge you to a fight. Fists. Knives. Bullwhips.”

“They…? Why?”

My dad sighed like he always did when he had to explain something to someone who wasn’t as smart as he was.

“Canadians are funny people. Their Mounties are always out to prove they’re tougher than anybody in the world. One time when a friend of mine tried to cross the border a Mountie stopped him. ‘Hit me as hard as you can,’ the Mountie told him. ‘If you knock me down you can cross.’ Now this friend of mine was a big guy and he knew about Canadians. He grabbed a two-by-four and clobbered the Mountie across the side of the head, a blow that would have killed a moose. The Mountie didn’t blink and the two-by-four shattered into a dozen pieces. ‘Now,’ the Mountain grinned, ‘it’s my turn!’ He lifted his fist and this friend of mine, he ran all the way back to Boise. He never tried to cross the border again.”

“But, but…” Larry spluttered then caught the twinkle livening my dad’s face. “Jeez,” he sighed, “Jeez, for a minute there I believed you.”

My dad chuckled as he re-inspected his glasses and put them back on. “Wait here a minute,” he told Larry, “I’ll get my keys and give you a ride to the station.”

“You don’t have to, sir. It’s only a few blocks. I can walk.”

“Nonsense! It’s the least I can do.” My dad suggested I help Larry with his suitcases as he turned to go up the steps into the house. I grabbed the bigger of the two and Larry laughed and picked me up with it.

“Hey! I’ll take you with me!”

“Good!” I shouted. I really wanted to go.

But of course I couldn’t. It wasn’t something I even could ask about, or talk about. As I perched behind Larry and my dad in the backseat of our old Plymouth I pictured Larry in a crisp military uniform charging through machinegun fire to blow up a Nazi tank. Or squinting through the sights of an English Spitfire as he saved an English city from being bombed. Or parachuting behind enemy lines to destroy Hitler’s headquarters. I must have been making the sounds of imaginary gunfire because Larry peered around to look at me. I squeezed my lips together and he winked.

“Give ‘em hell!” he whispered.

I blushed and he laughed and turned back to answer something my dad was asking. I half-listened as Larry explained why Barry, his twin, wasn’t going to Canada to join the fight against Hitler.

“We look alike but we think different. He’s a stay-at-homer.”

The phrase stuck with me as I helped Larry carry his suitcases into the depot and took a seat beside him and my dad on one of the heavy oak benches. So there were ‘stay-at-homers,’ I digested this new bit of knowledge and ‘off-to-war-ers.’ Going off to war seemed far more exciting but I realized that if everybody went off to war there would be nobody to defend our home places from attack. That was something that I never had thought of before. There would be old people, like my mom and dad of course, but they couldn’t fire machineguns or throw hand grenades. And there would be kids like me, and where would we get machineguns or hand grenades?

I tried to interrupt to ask about this but Larry and my dad were talking about train connections between Great Falls and Calgary. My dad, of course, knew all the details and was explaining them to Larry. I absorbed only a skittering, just enough to make me realize that Canada was far, far away from where we lived and that the war in which Larry was going to fight was even further away. Questions occurred to me that I’d never thought of before. What was Canada like? Was it cold? Did they have wild animals there? How would Larry get from there to the war? Would it take a long time?

Again I tried to interrupt but again neither Larry nor my dad paid any attention to me. My dad was explaining that the food served in most dining cars was not worth the price and he’d always carried snacks with him when he’d traveled long distances. He said he’d be happy to hustle down to Galloway’s Market and buy something for Larry but Larry said no, his grandmother had packed some sandwiches and apples. He said he’d saved enough money from his job picking up and delivering milk to live on until he got into the Canadian army. My dad suggested that he wait until he got to Calgary to change his U.S. money into Canadian money because the rate there would be better.

I drifted away, disappointed with their conversation. Here was Larry going off to fight against Hitler and he and my dad were talking about sandwiches and changing money as though nothing important was happening. As though Larry was just going to the next town and would be coming back in a day or two.

I heard the train whistle before either of them did and jumped up. “There she is,” my dad confirmed. Larry nodded and quickly checked to make sure both of his suitcases were beside him. I started towards the doorway to the platform—I wanted to see the train huff in—then abruptly turned.

“Aren’t you scared?” I asked Larry.

His face did funny things. “I—I don’t know, I guess I never thought about it before.”

“Being scared is part of being brave,” my dad assured me but I understood that the really meant the phrase for Larry. That both of them were looking at me made me feel uncomfortable so I shrugged as though I understood and made some funny little the-train’s-coming gestures and monkeyed out onto the platform.

Four or five people waiting to get on the train followed me. My dad and Larry came out last. My dad was laughing—that way he had of laughing without making any sounds, as though only some inner part of him was involved—and saying something about the day he’d left home to join the Army. I sidled over to listen but it was just about train connections and a package he’d forgotten. Not about the war or anything else really important.

“Well, really, really sir, thank you, thank you very much,” Larry put his suitcases on the platform and extended his hand. My dad took it in both of his. For a moment I thought the two of them were going to embrace but my dad pulled away, saying something like “…good luck…let us hear from you.” Larry mumbled an answer, his hands still lifted as though he wanted to grasp something he couldn’t find then seeing me he grabbed me and swung me around in circles.

“Hey you! Hey you! You take care of your mom and your dad and my grandpa and grandma and…” He gasped, breathless and dropped me back onto the platform “…and if you, you don’t I’ll, I’ll, when I come back I’ll, I’ll bop you on the kisser! I’ll, I’ll bop you all the way to Boise!”

“You don’t need to bop me! You bop Hitler. You bop Hitler for me!”

“I—I…” will! I thought he was going to say but he shook his head. “I…” he turned to face my dad. “Sir, I hope, I mean, I thank…I hope, I mean…” He was trembling, whether from the exertion of swinging me in circles or something else I couldn’t be sure.

“I hope it’s the right thing, what I’m doing. Barry says to wait, you know, until we—the U.S.—gets into it but I don’t know, I don’t know if we will. And my grandma, you know, she tightened up, wouldn’t say goodbye. Grandpa said it’s because she thinks she’ll never see me again. Maybe she won’t. Maybe…”

He scowled, twisting around to glance at the trainmen as though annoyed that the engine noise and the banging of the baggage car doors were making it difficult for him to finish all that he wanted to say.

“Maybe I won’t see you again either. Or him…” he gestured towards me “or anybody. Maybe…”

For a second I thought he was going to cry. But he didn’t. He thrust his shoulders back, took a deep breath and sighed. “Anyway, it’s not like both of us are going. Barry will be here to help Grandpa. And you’re next door. And they need me—the ones fighting Hitler, I know they do. That is, I mean, I mean, if, if I can get past them Mounties!”

He laughed and so did my dad. But it wasn’t real laughter, not something-is-funny laughter. Larry turned to pick up his suitcases, then swung back around, grabbed me and whirled me around in circles one more time. Finally, responding to the conductor’s call, he stumbled across the platform and jumped onto the train.

Feeling small and helpless I stared at the big iron wheels. Some passengers were visible, arms through the open windows, but I couldn’t see Larry. Clouds of steam surged between us and the wheels began to clack. Suddenly Larry reappeared in the space between two cars.

“Bye!” he waved, “Bye Chuck, bye Bobby!” as the train pulled away. His lips still were moving and I couldn’t hear his words but I was sure, sure beyond all shadow of a doubt, that he yelled to me, “I’ll give ‘em hell! I promise you, I will!”

 

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Posted in: Fiction