Pawns Excerpt

1955
The Dip

It was the winter Randy peed on the pork. After butchering a hog, rather than hanging the two sides in the granary, Herman brought them in and laid them across broken chairs on the porch. One afternoon during a blizzard, Randy, almost four years old, didn’t want to stand outside on the steps. Chris caught him peeing on the hog carcass. We rinsed it off and ate it. “Put mustard on it,” Herman told us.

By early spring 1955, Chris and Tim were again trying to ditch me, so I followed Herman like a puppy. I was seven and chores were still a game—pitching hay to the cows, washing manure off teats before the Surge milking machine was connected, scooping manure out of the gutter with my little broken-handled shovel. The barn smell is still vivid sixty years later. Another odor that transports me back to those days and makes me gag is Copenhagen.

It was a typical Saturday. Morning chores were done. We had eaten our breakfast of hot farina. Late in the morning, Herman loaded silage onto a high-sided homemade sled. Randy rode and I helped to pull it. We scooped silage to the cows and then cleaned the barn gutters while the cows were busy eating. The odor of silage mixed with manure smell was ripe; the fermented corn passed through the cows and created manure as soupy as the first few days of lush spring grass.

After lunch, a man came to the farm to purchase some cows. For me it was great excitement to have a stranger in the barn. I showed him my BB gun and the empty Copenhagen snuff can Randy and I used for a target. He challenged me to take a shot and seemed surprised when I hit the target. He was also impressed when I opened the target and proudly showed him how I saved the BB. He laughed when I put it back in the gun.

Abrahamson, the cattle buyer, haggled with Herman over the price of two cull cows. I imagine the conversation went something like this.

“They’re thin—I can’t give you more than twenty cents a pound for them.”

“For Christ sake, by the time I pay trucking and yardage, I’ll be sending them a check,” Herman argued.

“Oh, you’ll get something for them. There’s just so many being shipped right now with this hay shortage. Last summer’s drought hurt a lot of farmers. At least it’ll be two less to feed.” Abrahamson pulled a Copenhagen box from his bib overall breast pocket, rapped his knuckles twice on the metal lid, and twisted it open. Extending the snuff—we called it “snuice”— he said, “Here, have a dip.” Herman took a generous pinch and tucked it in his lip.

“Can I have a dip?” I asked. Abrahamson looked, Herman nodded, and I reached into the round waxed box, seized a fistful and put it in my mouth. I chewed and swallowed.

Nausea rose in my throat. I felt dizzy instantly, as if I had gone too fast on the little merry-go-round on the playground at school. I grabbed for the nearest steel beam, missed, and dropped to my hands and knees, face near the gutter. The two men roared with laughter. Vomit spewed—bitter, brown, peppery. As I write this, I again feel the burning in my nose as snotty snuice juice dripped out. I grabbed the steel pipe and pulled myself up, shivering with dry heaves. The two men howled.

“That’s the best show I’ve seen in a long time,” Abrahamson said, handing me a dollar. “Want another dip?”

A dollar bought ten rides on the electric pony at Ben Franklin or two banana splits across the street at Woolworth’s.

Inheritance

Barb received an inheritance from her grandmother, Idalia’s estate. She spent the money to improve the farm, which was surprising because she still harbored the dream of escape. Maybe, now that she had six children, she realized that there was nowhere to go. By then, during arguments, she told Herman that Chris and Tim would inherit the farm when he was dead so perhaps she considered her inheritance an investment.

First came the indoor bathroom. In the dead of winter, twelve feet from the house, a crew dynamited through frozen ground to dig the septic tank. Herman considered the indoor toilet an extravagant waste. Only Laurel and Barb were allowed to use it.

She persuaded Herman to relocate the kitchen from the west end of the house, where it had been for fifty years. The new kitchen wasn’t practical because there was no room for a table and little room for cabinets. She hired Herman’s brother-in-law, Ben, to cut a huge hole in the east wall of the house and install a picture window. The window did provide a panoramic view across the field to Maple Lake. The kitchen sink was installed below the window. Nine months after the kitchen relocation, Rosalinda was born.

The window was single pane. During the winter, at night, ice built up and water dribbled down when sun hit it each morning. First, the paint peeled. Over the years, the bottom window casing rotted and the heavy window settled. From the beginning, Herman was not happy with the kitchen arrangement.

The first spring after the toilet was installed, after the ground thawed, Herman felt compelled to empty the septic tank. We used buckets on long ropes to dip out the sewage, carry it about forty yards to the edge of a hill, dump the pail, and go back for another. When we reached the bottom of the tank—the last eighteen inches of sludge—and the buckets just flopped on their side and lay, Herman had me strip my clothes off. He lowered me into the tank on a rope. I stood naked in the sludge and scooped the buckets. Later that spring we trenched a line to the edge of the hill and dug a dry hole—a six foot deep hole similar to a septic tank—and filled it with rocks. Beyond the dry hole, sewer water trickled into the pigpen.

That autumn at school I jumped out of a swing and broke my ankle. Because it was difficult to maneuver around on crutches with my cast, Herman allowed me to use the indoor bathroom. By winter we were all using it.

Another improvement Barb made in the house was a central heating system. A crew installed a wood furnace in the basement with ductwork throughout the house. To heat the upstairs was a colossal failure because there was no crawlspace for ventilation and the roof was not insulated between the joists. Heat rose and escaped through the rough cut boards, tarpaper, and shingles. Ice dams formed and the roof leaked.

One evening, in an effort to help Herman, I went down to the basement and packed the furnace for the night. I overfilled it and by late evening, with the draft completely shut off, the furnace got so hot Herman worried about it igniting the wooden floor two feet above. He sprayed water on top of the furnace in an effort to cool it down. He didn’t get angry at me but I was told never to fill the stove again.

The following winter we used the old wood stove on the main floor. Barb’s dream of central heat lay rusting in the basement until the winter of 1959 when she sold the furnace and all the duct work.

Barb bought a small flock of sheep with some of her money. It was one of the few things she and Herman ever did in agreement. The sheep project was a communal effort. Each child owned a ewe and received the money from wool and the sale of the lambs in the autumn. Barb purchased a small wooden box, the lid secured by a padlock to which she held the key. The plan was to store the sheep profits—everyone’s share—in the box.

I think Herman was excited about raising sheep. Perhaps the idea brought back memories of a more carefree time. He told us stories of how, during the Great Depression, he and his future brother-in-law Charlie had worked out in Montana on a sheep ranch. In the spring, after lambing, we prepared the flock for pasture just as Herman had learned in the 1930s. It was exciting with the new crop of long-legged, black-nosed lambs bleating in the barnyard.

Late spring, before the sheep and lambs were allowed to go out to pasture, they were sheared and dipped. The itinerate shearer set up in the new barn, and, holding the sheep butt- down between his legs, he took about two minutes to clip her. Once in a while the side tooth of the shaft-driven shear caught a fold of skin and sliced the sheep open. The shearer took a thick sewing needle and a length of waxed twine, sat on the ewe’s head and sewed her up as she bleated in pain. After the stitching job was complete he took a cedar chip, scooped a glob from the tar bucket, and rubbed the black goop into the stitched gash.

After the ewes had been sheared, they were dipped in a petroleum-based insecticide—probably laced with DDT— to kill ticks, lice, and discourage flies until the dip wore off midsummer. The sheep left a dripping trail where grass didn’t grow that summer.

We docked—amputated—the lambs’ tails and castrated the males. It was necessary to remove the tail because the lamb’s manure would stick to their fuzzy tail, build up, and create a breeding ground for flies. The docking iron was similar to an old fashioned branding iron, but instead of a heated symbol to sear into the skin, the iron had a sharp blade on the end. Two of us held the lamb securely while Herman stretched the lamb’s tail over an oak block. He pressed down with the glowing hot blade, severed the tail, and cauterized the wiggly stump. I can still smell burning wool and cooking flesh. The twitching tail was cast aside for the chickens to fight over.

After the tail was removed, we checked the lamb’s sex. Males were held upside-down, front and hind legs held together and spread apart, exposing their groin area. Herman, using his jackknife, severed the tip of the scrotum and pushed the sack’s skin down against the bleating lamb’s body until two slippery pink testicles popped out of the hole. He leaned down, took a tiny testicle between his teeth and pulled. The lamb screamed as it was ripped from his urinary tract. After the second one was removed, hot tar was rubbed into the empty scrotum to discourage flies and infection. Herman spit the testicles into the dust for the chickens.

“Out west they fry them up between docking irons and eat those— Rocky Mountain oysters,” he told us with a grin. “I never tried them.” The bleating lamb was then bathed in the tick-dip and ready for pasture. By midsummer, the pasture was grazed down to stubble. It was the only paddock with woven wire so we couldn’t rotate the flock to fresh grass.

We belonged to the local 4-H chapter and brought lambs to the county fair—never won a ribbon. Looking back, I realize we never had a chance. Because of the pasture situation, we had to take our project lamb away from its mother and tie it to a stake in the yard in lush grass. In retrospect, the lamb probably would have done better on the “ball diamond” as Herman called the pasture, because the poor lamb frequently had no shade, was often out of water, and suddenly wasn’t able to nurse.

When the buyer came for the lambs, Barb cashed the check, and with great ceremony, placed each child’s share in a separate envelope with our name on it, and locked them in the wooden box. That was the last I ever saw of my share. I don’t know about my siblings. Chris told me that he once suggested savings accounts be opened for each of us. Barb slapped him and the wooden box remained locked. Eventually the sheep flock dwindled. Here’s a chilling event that twelve-year-old Randy shared with our grandmother seven years later, the spring of 1962.

This morning one of our sheep had a lamb and the pigs ate it all up bones and everything not a piece of blood left.

Sheep are very susceptible to internal parasites that deplete nutrients, including blood. My wife and I raised sheep for several years on our farm. Each spring after lambing, we vaccinated the lambs and the ewes for disease and treated them for parasites. Over the course of the grazing season, I’d rotate the pasture each week and continue a preventative worming maintenance schedule. As I look back on the crude husbandry practices we used on the farm in the 1950s, I’m amazed that any animals survived.

It was the year that an Encyclopedia Britannica salesman sat in the front room. Midsummer sweat dampened his shirt armpits as he closed the sale on the deluxe, gold letter embossed edition. The twenty-four elegant volumes came jacketed in faux leather with a dark mahogany case to store them in. I remember the salesman returning to the farm several times seeking payment. Eventually, he quit. I don’t know if he just gave up trying to collect or got fired.

Barb was very proud of the new set, often reading the volume about New York. She tried to monitor our use of the encyclopedias. The bookcase was the first casualty. Within two years, the volumes were scattered across the house, pages colored, ripped out, and dog-eared. Today, more than sixty years later, I have the fourteen surviving volumes stored in the steamer trunk that Barb took from Chelan. We all used the encyclopedias through our school years. It was perhaps the greatest tangible gift Barb acquired for us. Today, I think those books were my gateway into a love for history.

I recently pulled one of the old encyclopedias out—it happened to be #24, Text Index Atlas/Atlas Index. The old volume fell open to a yellow index card near the center. I tucked my nose down into the spine and smelled again my childhood and the stuffy upstairs of the old farmhouse. Then I noticed a note, written in the margin with an arrow pointing to Yokosuka, Japan.

Fifty-two years earlier, when I was eighteen and in the Navy, Barb had written, Where Windy is—May 8th, Mother’s Day 1966

Strawberries and Randy

Randy and I spent countless hours together. I recall it as a carefree time, before I was old enough to work full days. I was seven the summer of 1955 and Randy was going on five. Whippoorwills called in the night, the garden was planted, and purple lilac petals lay shriveled among mint leaves. Randy and I had finished breakfast. We headed north from the house, ready to conquer the world—at least our little corner of it.

“Let’s check the wren eggs,” Randy suggested. Dew on the oats binder steamed in the morning sun as we approached it. The tiny brown bird flitted from the hole in the twine box as we crept forward.

“Open it,” Randy said.

I pried the hinged top up and peeked. Inside were three hairless baby wrens.

“Let me see, let me see,” Randy begged.

I lifted him up and he stuck his finger down and touched them. Their heads shot up, eyes closed, mouths open wide with little chirps.

“They think my finger is a worm,” he laughed. “Let’s go catch frogs.” We slammed the lid on the twine box, walked back over the hill past the pothole, and down to the bog surrounding Maple Lake. The legal name of our little lake was Smyth Lake. Why it came to be called Maple Lake is a mystery—maybe it was the autumn-time crimson maples bordering the north side.

But that long ago summer morning, flies rose lazily as our bare feet squished cow pies along the edge of the swamp. Water-filled divots—deep holes made by cow hooves the summer before—swarmed with tadpoles. The new growth grass was short and stood out against the burned over black stubble. Soot puffed up between our toes with the smell of burnt grass.

Earlier in the spring we had set the old swamp grass ablaze with our Cracker Jack magnifying glass. It may have been the same spring I taught Randy how to angle the glass until a tiny dot of sunlight focused on the brown tinder-dry pile I had bunched together. In previous years, I’d watched Herman start swamp fires, so I knew he wouldn’t mind. It was great fun to watch sheets of flame race across the swamp and up into the woods. As in past years, the fire died out when it reached the still-damp tree line.

“Let’s bring some tadpoles home and put them in jars, like the goldfish at Ben Franklin,” I said. Randy scooped his cupped hands into a hole and came up with several squiggly critters. The water quickly leaked out.

“We’ll never get them home alive,” he said, and cast them into the swamp.

We walked around the bog to a small creek that flowed between Maple Lake and Round Lake in early spring. Mayflowers were gone and yellow swamp flowers had not yet bloomed. Sliding down the bank into the creek, Randy fell into the knee-deep water.

“It’s cold,” he said, scampering out.

Instead of wading, we lay on our stomachs and raced sticks in the flowing stream.

“Look, there’s a real minnow,” I said. “We could make them goldfish.”

“We need a bucket to catch them. My stick is beating yours,” Randy laughed. “Let’s go find the cows.”

Stopping at the bog again, we shed our shirts in the warm sun and splashed swamp water from the tadpole holes at each other. Tiring of that, dripping wet, we grabbed our shirts, crossed the alfalfa field, and crawled under the electric fence onto the lane.

“I got to pee,” Randy said.

“I dare you to pee on the fence.”

Randy unzipped his jeans, stood tip-toed, and squirted onto the wire. He jumped back with a squeal when he got zapped. “I’m going to tell Daddy on you.”

I doubled over laughing. “He won’t do anything. He dared me when I was your age.”

We followed the lane out into the pasture. Cows grazed in the late morning sun. A constant, low, tearing sound accompanied the herd as we approached them. We stood watching as the Holsteins ripped grass, dandelions, and young weeds up by the mouthful, trailing the smell of fresh manure.

“Let’s climb trees,” I said, looking over toward the edge of the pasture. “Race you!” I took off running, Randy far behind. At the tree line I selected a young maple and shinnied up. Randy picked one nearby, wrapped his hands around the trunk, jumped up as he pulled, then wrapped his legs around the trunk as he reached for a higher hand hold. Soon he was fifteen feet off the ground, looking across at me.

“Swing yourself down. That’s the fun part,” I said. “Watch this.” Holding tightly, I swung my legs out away from the tree and the young sapling swayed over, lowering me slowly toward the ground. I let go and dropped the last four feet. “Okay, your turn.”

Randy swung out. The tree quivered, but stayed upright. He tried again, casting his feet out on the other side of the tree. Slowly it bent over, leaving Randy eight feet above the ground.

“Hold on tight. I’ll get you.” Climbing onto a nearby boulder, I jumped toward him, caught his foot, and pulled him down. We hit the soft ground and lay laughing.

“Daddy thinks Rosie might have her calf today. Let’s go find her.” We started walking and I got quieter. “Mommy sure got mad when Daddy named her Rosie,” I said.

“I don’t like when they fight. It scares me.”

I nodded. “You know he did that so Mommy wouldn’t name our new sister Rosalinda,” I said.

We walked toward the back of the pasture where forest had been bulldozed into windrows a few years earlier. Rosie stood on the south slope, her tail twitching.

“I think she’s getting ready to have her calf. Let’s watch,” I said. “Hey, look at all the strawberries.”

Thumb nail-sized wild strawberries dotted the hillside. We gathered handfuls and stuffed them in our mouths. It became another race. Pick a handful, gobble them down. We giggled as we raced. Rosie stood watching in the warm sun. I flopped onto my back and looked into the sky.

“Look at that cloud. It looks like a smoke puff.”

Randy lay down beside me and looked up. “Look at those eagles floating. They don’t even flap their wings.”

I watched them spiraling below a small cloud.

“Someday I want to fly like that,” Randy said. “But fast, like those jets over the house.”

I looked over at Randy and snickered.

“What’s so funny?” he asked. “I can fly a plane someday.”

“Your face is red with strawberry juice. It looks like somebody hit you.”

Rosie’s face was suddenly above mine, her huge nostrils woofing fermented grass smell.

“You stink, old girl. Get away,” I said, pushing at her jaw. She slowly ambled off.

 “It’s cold when that cloud goes in front of the sun,” Randy said. An anvil shaped cloud covered the sun, lightening flickering high in the sky. “That’s weird. Just that one dark cloud—look how fast it’s moving.” A few rain drops splattered down as the cloud thundered past. Five minutes later, the sun was out, steam rising from the squall.

“Hey, look, Rosie’s laying down,” Randy whispered, peeking through an opening in the tree windrow. “Let’s sneak around behind her and watch.”

We got on our hands and knees and, what we called Indian-style, crawled through the opening to where we could see Rosie’s rear end. A small black nose and two hooves peeked out as Rosie grunted and strained. We watched in silence. Rosie was breathing fast. She stood up, pawed the ground, turned in a circle, and lay back down. Suddenly she gasped, became rigid and pushed. Out popped the calf’s head and front feet. Rosie lay panting. We remained silent. The cow squeezed. The calf’s neck slipped out. Rosie took a deep breath and pushed. Shoulders, body, and back legs slid out. Rosie lay moaning. The calf was on the ground, gasping muffled bleats. Rosie stumbled to her feet, turned, and began licking.

“Yuck, how can she eat that stuff?” Randy asked.

“I don’t know. I sure wouldn’t if I was a cow,” I said. “Let’s go get some more strawberries.”

“I’m not hungry anymore.”

In 1978 Randy’s Navy P-3 Orion, a four-engine turboprop, went down off the coast of Africa while on an anti-submarine surveillance exercise. He never had the chance to tell our stories to his young daughter and infant son. A few years ago, I spent a spring morning walking the path Randy and I had taken more than sixty years earlier. As I walked, I scribbled images that popped up in my memory of that morning so long ago.

The ditch between the two lakes was still there. The bog has crept farther out into Maple Lake—climatologists predict that in another thousand years the lake will become a hundred acre bog. The windrow opening—where we’d watched Rosie—was overgrown, but flowering strawberry plants flourished at the tree line. The large stone—the boulder that I stood on to reach Randy when he dangled in the tree—was still there, lichen covered and shaded by hazel brush. No cows have been in the pasture for many years. I lay down in a warm, grassy dandelion patch and watched an aircraft pass high overhead, eagles soaring beneath the vapor trails.

(Late summer, 1955) Calves and lambs. (Left to right) Laurel holding Bonny, Wendell, Tim holding a lamb, Randy, and Chris. We are behind the new barn, the dried up pothole and treeline in the background. Note all the stumps. Late in the winter when we ran out of firewood, Herman cut trees close to the buildings and we hand-carried logs up to the house through deep snow.

By the summer of 1955 Chelan was a distant memory. Chris was twelve years old, Tim was ten— both old enough to work long days through the summer and do chores morning and evening. Herman became more demanding, expecting them to perform a day’s work equal to his.

I was assigned the hateful job of washing the separator and milking machines that summer. I had to scrub them in the kitchen sink, which meant that I also had to do last night’s supper dishes and the breakfast cereal bowls before I could take the scummy separator and the manure-crusted machines apart. Barb was usually in the shaded front room playing with the younger kids.

In the summer, after breakfast Herman took the hoe and worked the dirt around the potato hills in the garden while he watched Chris and Tim weed their assigned vegetable rows. Herman seemed to have eyes of a hawk and watched for seedlings pulled accidentally with a weed.

War Games

In the mid-1950s, Herman began bringing us up to Redby, a small town north of the farm on the Red Lake Nation, to the movie theater as a reward for our work—tickets were about thirty-five cents. I remember the movie Chief Crazy Horse. I was surprised by the Native children who cheered when a cowboy or soldier was killed and how they booed when an Indian was shot off his horse. It was confusing. The Indians were the bad guys, weren’t they?

Barb claimed that James Fenimore Cooper was one of our ancestors. In searching Cooper genealogy, I discovered that Anthony and Thomas Cooper emigrated to North America in the 1630s, the same decade as my ancestors, Richard Olmsted III, his younger brother, John, and their sister, Rebecca. There weren’t many Europeans in North America at that time, so it’s certainly possible there was a connection through marriage. Barb had grown up with Cooper’s Leather Stocking tales. She passed them along to us, so we were well-versed in Hawkeye’s exploits and the heroic Uncas in The Last of the Mohicans.

We became Crazy Horse, Cochise, Uncas, and Geronimo. For bows, ironwood was best; it was tough, flexible, and it bent but didn’t break. A supple stick about four feet long was cut and notched at the ends to hold the twine string. We used hazel brush for arrows, trimming several pencil-thick sticks, sharpened to a point, and packed in our quiver. We cut a target from a cardboard box. The arrows wobbled thirty feet and skidded into the dust.

Wendell in front with a Mohawk, Tim on left, and Chris. I wonder if by the time this picture was taken they felt too mature for such antics.

Chris gave us Mohawk haircuts with the cow clippers. Tim, a year and a half younger, sheared Chris’s black curls off. We scratched our wrists bloody with jackknives, and pressed them against one another.

Barb was furious. “You boys are from New York City. Your ancestors came over on the Mayflower. You are not filthy redskins. Don’t be surprised if you get blood poisoning.”

Herman was pleased, no doubt because it angered Barb. With his hands resting on Randy and me, he ruffled our Mohawk strips that arced from forehead to nape of neck. “You hunyuks ought to dance in the powwow.” Hunyuk was a term of endearment.

Sunday morning, we tuned to the local station broadcasting church services in the Ojibwe language. We listened intently, not understanding a word they preached to our blood brothers, but we chanted prayers with them.

One summer day, Randy and I rode into Bemidji with Herman when he made the cream run. We delivered to Land O’ Lakes Creamery, then went downtown on some forgotten errand. Randy, about four that summer, and I got bored and wandered outside. We must have crossed Second Street, heading north, past Gene’s Tap or The Flame. Two heavy-set Native women sat on the sidewalk outside the bar.

“You’re cute little shits,” one of them said. “I’m taking you home to be my boys.” I think Randy’s blond Mohawk had grabbed her attention. We scampered back to the Co-op store.

Chris convinced Barb to buy him a bow and arrow set for his birthday. The new professional arrows only had blunt tips. Chris filed the head off a three inch nail and taped it to the blunt end, nocked the arrow, and told Tim to set up the target. Anxious to try the new arrow, Chris released it while Tim was still near the target. The arrow whizzed through the air and into Tim’s head, the nail embedded between his ear and skull. I don’t recall any repercussions. I don’t think Tim went to the doctor.

We each had a jackknife by then—just like Herman—and, when bored, we pulled them out to whittle, trim finger and toe nails, or just flip and stick into the ground. The latter usually evolved to a game of stab: we stood an arm’s length apart, spread our legs so our feet were about two to three feet apart, and took turns flipping the knife at each other’s bare feet, seeing how close we dared come, and knowing that our opponent would soon have his turn.

BB guns added a dimension to playing war. We could shoot each other, but only below the waist. If we wore long pants, the pellet would not penetrate our skin and only left a red welt. Randy got a new BB gun. He and I declared open season on anything that moved. Airplanes, cats, birds of any kind, dogs that were tied up, cows—nothing was safe. When a cow was hit, she jumped like a bee had stung her.

When we played war, it seemed like I was always the Nazi, the Jap, or the Indian, depending on the movie we had most recently seen or which comic my older brothers were reading. They’d give me a count of one hundred to escape, before hunting me—I never got very far before they began tracking me.

As a Jap, I learned early that it was a losing proposition to mount a one man banzai charge against two grenade-wielding American soldiers. We used rotten chicken and goose eggs in the spring; fist-size rocks after the eggs were expended. Usually, I’d hide behind the chickenhouse. As time went by, I realized that the squawking hens betrayed me. I’d charge out; Chris and Tim (Patton and Eisenhower) would drop to one knee, level their Tommy guns and fire. I couldn’t feign a hit because they’d examine my corpse for red welts. If I got within range, the grenades were thrown. A close rock was considered lethal; like the old cliché, “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”

Rotten goose eggs were contact weapons, and it took days for the smell to wear off. Just grabbing the eggs was hazardous duty. After the goslings hatched, the female goose still guarded her nest. With a warning hiss, she’d dart forward pecking, clawing and beating us with her wings. It took three of us—two decoys for her to chase—and a third person to streak in, grab still-warm eggs, and rush back. Once I was hit on the side of the head with a goose egg. They were heavy and had a hard shell. It stunned me, exploded into my ear, my hair, down inside my coat, and ran down to my belly button. By evening it was dry, but I wiped it off the best I could. Our baths were often two weeks apart. At school the kids called me “Stinky” for the rest of the week.

Being a Nazi wasn’t as suicidal as a banzaiing Jap. I was allowed to ambush the Americans. I remember one summer after the eggs were gone, I had fist-sized rocks for close-in combat. It was haying season and the big door on the new barn was open for hoisting bundles into the loft. When Chris began the count, I raced for the barn, climbed into the haymow and up a ladder to the big door, about twenty feet above the ground. Peeking around the corner, I watched them advance. Chris flanked me, around the side of the barn, in the back door. Tim crept forward, rushing from cover to cover—brooder house, to chickenhouse, to corn crib, to hay wagon. He didn’t see me as he crouched below the lip of the hay wagon. Hanging onto the ladder with one hand, I positioned myself and, like my hero, Audie Murphy, lobbed a grenade and struck him in the head. He flipped over and quivered like a beached bullhead. A thrill shot through me—for once I won, no question. Then I realized he might be dead. I yelled to Chris; he ran out to inspect Tim as I looked out from the big haymow door. When Chris raised bloody hands, I knew I was in trouble. I don’t remember my punishment for that victory, but it was no doubt worth the beating. Again, I don’t think Tim went to the doctor.

Being Indian was my favorite. I raced to the bull thistles and cockle burrs where the straw pile was blown each fall during threshing. By late summer the weeds stood four feet tall—jungle thick. I’d hunch low, still and silent, as BBs phh’ted past, often followed by grenades. In the early summer we used the sumac patch north of the sheep pasture. Sumac must be poison because sheep wouldn’t touch them, unlike the high browse line they created on other bushes. I raced ahead, circled in from the forest behind, and lying flat, I’d creep through the sumac patch, often escaping unscathed.

One time I was hit in the back with a rock grenade. It left a welt that took weeks to heal. Tim said he saw the tops of the bushes moving. A decade later I remembered that childhood incident as I crawled toward a medevac chopper through jungle foliage along a riverbank.