“Be quiet . . . it’s coming . . ., ” my mother said so softly that we couldn’t hear her.
She spoke the words aloud, but she appeared only to mouth them. She couldn’t be heard above the radio. It had been on continuously for days. The announcer kept breaking in to say that it was almost over, that any minute now an announcement was expected from supreme headquarters that World War II was over.
It was summer and hot. Usually my West Second Street Irregulars and I would be out playing. We usually played war. It was all we had played for the last four or five years. But now, at only nine or 10 years of age, I, like the rest of the world was weary of war. Besides, I had gone to the door several times, and catlike, stepped into the front yard to see if anything was going on, to see if any of the kids were out playing.
They weren’t. The street was quiet. It had been quiet for days. No one moved. Nothing stirred. No cars went by. None of my friends lurked behind my hedge waiting to take me prisoner of war. For the first time that I could remember, the battlefield upon which I had repelled the enemy time after time was empty . . . silent, except for a lawn sprinkler hissing into the hot afternoon.
I stood there, listening. It was as though the world held its breath, and so did I. Inside, I was glad no one had broken the afternoon silence with “READY FOR WAR!!!,” the battle cry of the West Second Street Irregulars. It was a challenge that could be delivered at any time by any one of the Irregulars. It could not be ignored under pain of excommunication from the war games we played during those years.
Any one of us could step out his door, screaming at the top of our lungs — “READY FOR WAR!!!” — and the rest of us were duty and honor bound to respond. We poured out into the yard and streets, which, in our eyes, became battlefields. Hedges became hedgerows concealing German tanks with their dreaded 88 mm guns. In my backyard, the concrete lily pond my parents installed when they built their house, and my mother’s flower beds and my father’s garden, both brimming with bounty, became our Sumatran jungles, our Pacific islands. Behind each well-staked tomato plant lay a Japanese machine gun nest. The back fence, laden with Concord grapes, concealed Japanese invasion forces who, due to their numbers, were always difficult to defeat. We fought like animals, but once they breached the grape-lined barrier, our casualty rate soared. Over the years, I must have died a thousand times defending my home as division after division of armed Japanese soldiers poured through the gap and took up machine gun and mortar positions amid the strawberries and behind the tomatoes and corn stalks.
In my mind, I could see my cousin, Donny Schaaf, dying again and again as enemy bullets tore and jerked his body in several directions at once. Donny got medals for dying. He was the best dyer on West Second street — no — in McCook, Nebraska. Maybe the whole state. No one could die like Donny. I often thought he would have been a great secret weapon in our struggles against the wily Japanese. Had Donny been there, and actually got shot, he would have made it sound like ten men just got hit.
Donny could throw his body in at least two directions at one time. His feet would fly, his head would spin almost 360 degrees, neck twisted like a wrung out dishrag, his torso and arms going the opposite direction, his gun arcing out across the back yard like a missile. And he had another gift that was the envy of us all. He could levitate. At the apex of his death-leap, he seemed to hang motionless, face contorted, eyes bulging, sinews taut, body stretched in opposite directions, and on special occasions, one or both shoes flying randomly through the summer afternoon. It was great.
And it wasn’t over when he hit the ground. Most of us just screamed and fell. Not Donny. He looked like six cats in a gunny sack, all fighting to get out. His death throes were legendary. He lurched, wretched, stretched, gurgled and sputtered. Arms and legs jerked involuntarily, drool dribbled into the grass, eyes glazed over. But it was his final lurch that usually got him the medal. He could bend his skinny little body into the most incredible shapes. Legs somehow twisted around his waist, an arm protruded out the center of his back, his head appeared attached to his hip. We often called time-out from the war to inspect his corpse.
But today, as it had been for the last few days, no one wanted to play. No one wanted to do anything. Adults put off going places. Across the land, houses stood silent, doors open, windows agape like giant beings staring out at empty streets shimmering expectantly in the heat, seemingly empty except for the sound of radios turned up an extra notch.
I went out on the porch for awhile. Nothing stirred. Even the wind seemed to stop. It was so quiet I thought I could hear the earth trundling through space. I sat next to one of the flower boxes that flanked the steps leading up to the porch. Throughout the war, these flower boxes had been gun positions, lookout posts from which we spied on the enemy, and occasionally, the podium from which the Imperial Japanese Commander delivered ultimatums to those of us unfortunate enough to be captured.
From inside my house, the man on the radio talked on about the coming end of the war and about a bomb that had been dropped on the Japanese. It was a big bomb, he said again and again. Big enough to destroy a whole city. We did it twice, in fact. Two cities. Wiped out. I looked around me, up and down my street. Somehow, I could imagine it. I could imagine my suddenly disappearing into a puff of mist, of my not being here anymore. I could see the rubble, hear the cries, and sense the despair.
And then it happened. I knew it happened because suddenly the steam whistle atop the Burlington Railroad roundhouse way downtown began screaming. It was a high pitched shriek that spread over the rooftops. The man on the radio screamed. I couldn’t understand a word he said.
And then, like a fog rising around me, the noise began. Car horns, distant at first, but growing louder and louder. Anything in McCook, Nebraska that could make noise was put to use. Every church bell, door knocker, and now and then a shotgun blast, anything that could make noise pealed the news.
“Come on,” my mother yelled. “We’re going to grandma’s.” Throughout the war, grandma’s house had been a place of refuge, where kids could dunk homemade cookies in sweet, cold milk and listen to adults talk about the war and censored letters from relatives, and who was and wasn’t coming home anymore. My mother fairly danced out to the car, and away we went, across town as best we could. Suddenly, every car that could run was on the street, horns honking, arms waving, faces smiling. Mom honked, too. And waved. And when we got to grandma’s house, everyone got hugged twice or more. Neighbors drifted in and out. Every house in town was open to anyone. Women wept and held hands. It’s over, they kept saying. It’s over. Everything is okay, now . . . .
My mother and father smiled a lot that evening. They cried, too. There were friends and relatives who wouldn’t be coming home. They would always be in our prayers. They were our heroes. They had made it safe for us.
The church bells, car horns and occasional shotgun blasts continued into the evening and on into the night. They were still blaring when I went to bed. I lay there for a long time, listening. We were safe. Safe at last. Mom and dad said so.
But as sleep began to claim me, I saw again my cousin’s crumpled form lying in the grass, his body fluids seeping into the earth, and I wondered just how safe we really were. Hiroshima . . . Nagasaki . . . they didn’t seem that far away anymore. When it started, which I still remember with great clarity, I couldn’t get a fix on exactly how far away was Germany or Japan.
But that had been ages ago — like four or five years — when I was five or so. I was older now. I had seen the pictures . . . pictures of a hole in the ground that was once a city. Somewhere deep inside me, I felt that a great wheel was turning and that like summer passing and winter coming, and then passing and coming again, I and the war and the Germans and the Japanese, or something very much like them, would all come around again someday.
I slept lightly that night, as I have ever since.