I captured him, so that made it my job to put the rope around his neck and shove him off the box, Joe said.
As the rope suddenly snapped tight around Donny’s neck, my stomach and throat fused, and I remember thinking, “This isn’t right.” His face turned all blotchy, varying between red on his forehead to green and yellow around his mouth and nose.
He squeezed his eyes together, making deep furrows on his forehead. As luck would have it, Joe picked the end of the limb from which to string the rope instead of the crook where the limb joins the tree. Donny felt the branch give and he began bounding up and down each time his toes touched the ground. With each upward bounce, he sucked in little squirts of air through his nose. He made little puff-puff noises, mixed with a guttural grunt, when he exhaled. For some reason, he couldn’t open his mouth.
He struggled mightily to free his hands, which were behind his back, held fast by a pair of cheap handcuffs that came from a child’s Mr. Policeman Kit back in the early l940’s. They had a little ratchet gizmo that held them closed. They could be opened simply by pressing the spring-loaded release button. Donny knew this because, being cousins, we shared our toys. Now, as his body turned slowly at the end of a hangman’s rope, I could see his fingers groping desperately for the release button. A big, white fleck of broken thumb nail flipped up like a flag of surrender as Donny clutched at the cuffs, but with no luck. The cuffs held. The rope held. His tip-toe dance of death was all that was between him and the end.
I was glued to the spot, unable to move. Embarrassed at watching my cousin bounce and sputter, I turned my eyes upward, high above us, and watched the tree limb twitch and jerk in the bright, fresh, flower-scented May morning.
The spot we had chosen as the site of the execution of Private Donald Schaaf, Age 8, a regular trooper in the Headquarters Brigade of the West Second Street Irregulars, was at the edge the driveway beside my house. A large old lilac bush shouldered up to the tree, and it’s overflowing foliage made a perfect hideout, which I and the rest of the West Second Street Irregulars often used as an ambush hideout in our war games. That’s where I captured Donny that morning.
It was near the end of the World War II. Everyone was tired of the War. Donny and I couldn’t find anybody else in the neighborhood who wanted to play war that morning. There was a time when all we had to do was step out the door and shout at the top of our lungs, “READY FOR WAR!!!” In less than a minute of yelling the challenge, a volley of big, black dirt-clod mortars would rain down on us, hurled by anyone in the neighborhood within hearing distance who had heard and taken up the challenge..
But it was getting more and more difficult to muster the troops. Supreme Allied Headquarters — my back yard — had begun to look like those pictures in the paper of almost empty supply dumps in Britain. Day after day, we assaulted the same hill or lay in wait for the same troops, and day after day, we expended vital resources — resources, which, it turns out, was ourselves. Even play-war had its price. Like those empty dumps overseas, we were running out of the resource that made us who we were.
But, Donny and I kept the faith. We soldiered on. Often we were the only two out there on the field of honor. It was difficult for us because, traditionally, we fought on the same side. When we went to war alone, one of us had to be the good guy, and one of us had to be the bad guy. So, at times like that, we had an unspoken rule that said, simply, we were on opposite sides. Another neat rule, when there were only two of us, was that we could get killed and come back to life again and again until we tired of the game.
That’s how things went that fine morning in May. Even better, one of the neighborhood’s big kids — a guy named Joe — had taken an interest in our game. He was three, maybe four years older than us, which made him about 12 or 13, a vast difference between him and us. Joe used to ridicule our childish games. He scorned us openly without fear of the fake bullets and grenades we hurled at him.
But today, for some reason, he took an interest in us. He nodded approvingly at our feints and probes, at our cunning and daring, and he cheered when one of us killed the other.
Joe’s sudden interest and approval felt good. It spurred us to new inventive heights of warfare. Donny, always an acrobat when it came to taking a bullet in the chest and sliding headlong down a dirt pile, showed off by tumbling, sprawling face up in such a way that one eye stared vacantly at the cloudless sky. I, on the other hand, was good at spinning belly-flops with a bone-jarring thud at the end. I found I could push off with my trailing foot, complete the flop, and slide so that my corpse kind of rolled up in a heap, usually with a leg propped against something like an abandoned baseball bat.
Joe ambled across the street from his house, and stood at the edge of the battlefield — my back yard — to cheer us on. The battle raged through all corners of my yard:– the old Lilly pond, empty, now, and in disrepair since the war began; the alley-way between the back of the garage and the chicken house dad built to produce meat and eggs to go with our Victory garden (the chickens didn’t care for war at all); the thick growth of overhanging Concord grapes and vines along the back fence; an old weeping willow tree in the far corner of the yard, and, of course, when mom wasn’t looking, her giant peony bushes. The garage was off limits. In fact, it was padlocked. That’s where dad stored the gasoline he pirated from used cars at his Buick dealership.
“Might blow up,” he said.
And then, there was the old standby — the lilac bush near the tree in the corner by the back of the house. This time of day, it was shady and cool. I suspect that’s why Donny chose it. Somehow, he had squirted around the garage and made it to the bush without my seeing him. I was crawling on my belly to all the known hideouts in my backyard when I looked up to see Joe jerking his head toward the sweet-smelling bush.
He saw that I understood, and something happened to his eyes. It was as though something unspoken had passed between us. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but Joe seemed to know. I raised up on my elbows, as if to fire from the prone position. But Joe shook his head and made prodding motions with the forefingers of both hands. I understood. He wanted me to capture Donny.
It seemed like a good idea, so I boldly strode toward the bush, gun at the ready.
“C’mon outa there. You’re a prisoner of war,” I proclaimed. I remember wondering vaguely what I was going to do with a prisoner. Guard him, to be sure. But that effectively ended the game. With only two of us playing, if one had to guard the other, the war over.
Still wondering what I was going to do with a prisoner, I motioned Donny to raise his hands in the air.
He must have sensed the dilemma, too, because a look of uncertainty crossed his face as we exchanged glances.
I motioned Donny to move ahead of me toward the stockade — the empty lilly pond — and as he did, he reached down for his gun. In this situation, the deal was that I would guard the socks off of him for a minute or so, and then he’d make a break for it and escape. He got to take his gun along so that he would have a weapon when he fled.
That’s when Joe interrupted. He chided me for letting the prisoner touch a weapon.
“Prisoners,” he said with great authority, “should be executed.”
Well, there it was. After all, he was older. And he said it like he knew what he was talking about. It was the first time anyone that old or with such an air of authority had bothered to tell lowly soldiers how it ought to be.
Still, a curious twinge rolled up my back. EXECUTION? That was unheard of. In the war we waged, men fought and died on the field with great honor. Even the dreaded Bosch. Bloodthirsty as they were, they died like men, rattling off rounds as we, the always victorious Allied troops, rolled over them. And, if by some great tide of fortune, we managed to capture all the Germans who fought against us, they were simply marched off to the brig. A couple of minutes of taunting, berating and belittling, and they were let go, en masse, and a new game was under way.
I shook my head as I looked at Joe, trying to understand exactly what was going on.
“Look, I’m the General . . . okay?” he said, placing his hands on his hips. It made him look a trifle exasperated, and a trifle adult. “And the General says execution!”
Well, I thought, if that’s what he wants . . . .
So, I raised my gun. Donny, sensing that he was about to make the supreme sacrifice, was preparing to hurl his tiny body through space as the bullet ripped into him. I could tell he was about to outdo himself this time. He was not only dying for the cause, but because someone in authority said that’s how it was to be.
I took my time sighting on Donny, while Donny, on the other hand, used this time to stand a little straighter, square his shoulders, place his hands at his sides and await the particularly nasty “P-kewwwyyy” sound I would make by scraping my tongue against the back of my throat while injecting air from my lungs. The depth and breadth of tone I imparted to the mimicked sound of my gun firing would tell Donny how serious the shot was going to be, how hard it would strike him, how viciously he must fling himself down.
I was preparing my most deadly P-kewwyyy-sound when Joe interrupted.
“That’s not how you do it,” he said, as though talking to children. “Prisoners of war are hung,” he announced.
What happened next, even all these years later, is still something of a blur. From nowhere, it seemed, Joe produced a rope. It was one of those thin little clothesline ropes. In a flash, it was over the limb. The noose was already in the end of the rope, as though prepared in advance.
At Joe’s orders, I removed the Mr. Policeman handcuffs dangling from my belt and secured the prisoner’s hands behind his back. Joe also seemed to know where the box was, and directed me to it.
Then, and now, it was like looking at a movie running in slow motion and at double speed all at the same time. Things happened with great clarity, but too fast.
“Push!” Joe ordered.
I hesitated. He repeated the order.
The little box squirted into the bushes like a watermelon seed. The leaves on the branch above us began rustling. Donny’s face turned color and shape, and he began bouncing up and down.
It was about that exact moment when mom appeared. Usually, in the business of children, the arrival of moms means trouble. But, for once in my life, I was overjoyed to see her descending on the scene like a guardian angel come to drive out the forces of evil from this miserable land.
“What in the world is going on, here?” she yelled.
Joe vanished like a bad dream in a bright light.
As fast as Joe and I hung Donny, mom and I set him free.
Mom had one of those “little talks” with me. Donny stood around shuffling from one foot to the other, listening to me get my perspective on life realigned. He nodded in the affirmative on more than one occasion.
When it was all over, mom told me to put my arm around Donny and say “Sorry.” I pretended not to want to. But inside, I was glad to do it. I remember, as I hugged him, that he had a peculiar smell about him. I knew it had to do with the level of excitement he achieved at the end of the rope that morning. It wasn’t a bad smell. But it was distinct . . . something akin to a fresh washed baby smelling of soap and new life.
I resolved right then and there that I would never again kill anyone just because someone else said that was the thing to do. Donny and I spent a lot more time playing at other things, things that kept us away from generals like Joe, and a war that really made no sense at all, a war that, in more ways than one, touched everyone, a war that changed me forever.
Years later, I heard about the trials in Germany, and about guys who said they did what they did because they were following orders. I think they were wrong, just as I was wrong. But also, in some small way, I think I understand what they were talking about.
The control of a person who has power, or usurps it, coupled with a little attention and adulation, is virtually unbeatable . . . and sometimes fatal.