“Here?” I shouted loudly, forcing my voice through the heavy cardboard box, and tapping the top of the box with my hand as though Donny, my cousin who was inside the box, could see where I tapped.
“No . . . here,” he tapped back, as though I could see where he tapped.
“Here?” Tap, tap . . . a little farther back.
“No . . . here,” tap, tap . . . somewhere else.
I grew impatient. I had been standing on my tiptoes for what seemed like hours. Donny’s dad’s super genuine bone-handled, double-edged dagger in my hand. As soon as Donny and I settled on the exact place, I would plunge the knife through the thick cardboard box. Inside, in its dark interior, my cousin waited and watched for the blade to pierce the box, to allow a ray of light to enter what would soon become the escape hatch in the top of the box.
What we were doing was making a tank.
What we didn’t know was that my cousin, Private Donald Schaaf of the West Second Street Irregulars was about to become the first trooper in our little army to shed real blood. Up to this point, the West Second Street Irregulars daily fought imaginary, but dreaded, German and Japanese troops. It was our way, I suppose, of trying to understand war, which, at our ages, was truly imponderable.
It was somewhere near the end of World War II. By now, Donny and I had tired of the usual shoot-’em-up war games with stick guns and dirt clods. The war had progressed both in Europe and in the Islands, and so had we. We yearned for artillery, half-tracks, armored personnel carriers . . . TANKS!
Finally, we worked out the details of building our own tank. It required sweet-talking our grandfather out of a large cardboard box. He owned a little neighborhood grocery store not more than a block from where Donny and I lived. He usually made us work for them, but he always seemed to have just the box we needed.
And so it was on that fine summer morning, we dragged the box across the street to Donny’s house, placed it on his wagon — THE RED FLYER — and set to work.
Donny made several attempts to get into the box. It straddled his wagon, making the open top of the box just about head-high. At last, he managed to scrabble up the side of the box with me using my hands, clasped together at the fingers, to make a stirrup. He slipped over the side, plunging headlong into the darkness with a thump and a grunt. Two skinny legs with non-descript, ugly brown, worn-toed, war-shoes attached, poked out above the rim of the box.
“You Okay?” I asked.
His legs slowly descended below the rim of the box and, after much grunting, were replaced with his face, which was red on one side from being scraped along the inside of the box. His hair stuck out in all directions. He was sweaty, dirty, hairy and scraped.
“I’m Okay,” he said.
Now, 50 years later, it’s easy to see that this was the point where we made our first big mistake with this project. But back then, with a global conflagration in full swing, it made perfect sense to a couple of eight-year-olds to tape the top of the box closed, and then cut a hole in it for the top turret.
The idea was that instead of four box flaps flopping in the breeze as we pursued the dreaded Hun in our tank, it would look neater of we had a flap we could open by reaching up and pushing on it. Of course, there would be other flaps. One in front so we could see out, and from which we would fire the main cannon, and side flaps to deal with crafty pincer movements that guys like Rommel were fond of.
Which led to our second big mistake: taping the top of the box shut. Donny and I had finally settled on the spot in which I was to plunge the knife. It was done mostly by Braille. There was a small hole in the box, and that’s where I thought I saw Donny’s finger. It was kind of squiggling around, like a worm, and from inside the box, I heard him saying, “Here . . . here!”
“Here?” I tapped, near his finger, double checking the entry point for the dagger.
“Yes,” Donny affirmed.
“Okay . . . here goes,” I said.
I took a deep breath, and raising myself on tiptoes, I brought the gleaming dagger over my head with both hands clutching the bone handle. I paused to steady my eye on the spot, and then with a giant grunt, plunged the knife down in a short, swift arc.
Its gleaming blade barely paused as it slit the heavy cardboard. Onward and downward its polished steel surged . . . until its descending path halted abruptly. So abruptly, in fact, that my little hands slid down the handle, over the safety-thing, and down onto the portion of the blade that remained in view.
At first, I was perplexed. But all of a sudden, an ominous quiet seemed to engulf me. The sound of the day, the breeze, the birds, the gushing garden hose . . . it was as though someone had dropped a giant bell-jar over us.
And then, as though from the other end of the planet came an ear piercing shriek, small and tiny at first, but growing in intensity with each thousandth of a passing second. Finally I recognized it as Donny’s voice, the one he used when he was really in trouble.
At the same moment, the box began to move. It kind of rocked from side to side. Then, as if wild animals were inside fighting, it began to oscillate, gyrate, sway, and rock until if toppled and fell onto the grass. All the while, Donny’s shrieks grew louder and more insistent.
“HELP . . . Mom . . . HHEELLPP . . . Argh . . . gurgle . . . gulp . . . ffmpf . . . MOM!!!!”
Somehow, the box tipped right side up again, and that bone-handled dagger, once so beautiful, once so coveted, now danced up and down in the top of the box. Clearly, it was attached to something, and in my heart, I knew its sharp point now lay imbedded in my cousin’s head.
I’m not too clear as to what happened next. My memory shows me Donny’s mother appearing as if by magic. It also shows me chasing that flailing knife, grasping it in shaking hands, and extracting it from Donny’s head.
Donny was whisked away, I remember that, blood spurting from the top of his head like a lawn sprinkler.
I wondered whether he was okay, and while I waited, I sat looking at the box that was to have been our tank, our protection from the enemy.
Gingerly, I approached the box. It was lying on its side. I sank to my knees and cautiously raised one of the flaps that had burst open as Donny hurled himself around inside the box.
It was dark inside. So dark that at first, I didn’t see the blood. What made me sick was the smell. The sick-sweet smell of blood. As my eyes grew accustomed to the dark interior, I saw streaks and blobs of dark red.
Something bigger than me caused me to fall backward in the cool green grass. I lay gasping beside the box.
Until now, war had been a game. We had fired a million bullets, but no one bled, and no one died.
But on this day, with the sick smell of blood deep in my nostrils, and the sight of my cousin and best friend’s blood soaking into a cardboard box, I rolled onto my side, shivered, and threw up.
Donny was okay, thank God. My thrust had, indeed, done some damage, but, as luck would have it, we lived only a couple of blocks from the local hospital. Donny had a bald spot on the top of his head where they shaved it to put in the stitches, and he was bruised from his ordeal in the box.
In my mind, he looked bunged up, like some of the men who were returning from the war in those days. I used to stare at them on their crutches, or watch them walk awkwardly on new legs.
But that was before the tank. After the tank, I was careful not to stare anymore. Somehow, I knew what they had seen and smelled in those distant places.
Once again in my young life — and Donny’s — a far away war had come calling, and left within my cousin and me the look, the scent and the sense of war’s utter despair.
I never look at a shiny hunting knife anymore that I don’t hear again the far away wail of my cousin in near mortal pain. Something tells me his cry is the sound of all the hundreds of thousands of real soldiers who walk funny . . . or who don’t walk at all.