JR Foley


GUNS IN THE FIELD
Prologue
to

Victory Garden Boys: Growing Up in a Suburb of the Cold War


               I'm gazing out the window at cries of children running down the street.

               I see the children but it's really their cries I'm gazing at: children, running their lungs out down Ambler. The only window it could be is in my mother's bedroom. (My father's, too; but ... my mother's.) Except, outside that window stands or stood a huge cedar tree, blocking the view; and the specific vantage point could only be the pitch of Giardinos' roof next door, or even Ericksons' next door to Giardinos'; and the scene -- as present to me as Lyz in my arms -- is not a specific memory.

               The window actually in front of me -- just behind her -- is our own bedroom window, not my mother's; although a cedar tree as huge as the old one also blocks the view to our own street; but the white sheers hanging against the window obscure that view, and I'm only looking toward it, not at it. This is our bedroom, five miles from the window that hasn't been my mother's since 1961. This afternoon is in 1990, or 1988, or 1985; the children are out of the house somewhere. We're rocking on the celery frost nap of the carpet beside our bed. Between our breaths and squeezes I'm fighting to achieve a sharp image before it's too late. Suddenly I'm gazing down the street, a burst of children running their lungs out down Ambler Drive; her breath splits into a sharp high staccato sigh.

               Please don't be spooked by this; clearly it's a double memory, in every sense; that's simply what it is. It's not a scene I can remember -- for the reasons stated -- from all the times between September 1947 and January 1961 I gazed out my mother's window. When as a boy I gazed out her window, in fact, I did not look down the street but across, far across, through trees on the hill of woods behind Srocas' and Appels' houses, down at a patch of sunny grass in a backyard I could never find.

Down in the valley
Where the green grass grows

               The children and their running cries come from that moment in my own bedroom thirty years later. But the children are me and my friends, and not me and my friends; and if I could see down the street from that window, I'm already 13 and they're little kids. Not Danny, not Wessy, or Byron, or Iggy, or anyone else we horse around with. We're already teenagers, or almost, and, gazing at the little kids, we can't take interest in their fun that fails so loudly to be the fun we used to have, or still have. Too bad, kiddies; born too late.

               Never had a real chance to play in the Field -- the Big Field -- especially guns. Since the Field has been turned into a community swimming pool, even we haven't had the fun we used to. Other fun, of course, but not in the Field.

               Do I remember any particular game, beginning to end, or any significant part of one? No. Any particular moments? Only one, when I discovered an ingenious bit of camouflage. So what do I remember? All of it - synthetic, yet as real as the sudden sight of children running their lungs out down the street -- never-ending motion through weeds and bushes, stifled laughing. Usually six of us, dividing into two sides of three each; usually Danny and me on one side and Wessy, Byron, and Iggy on the other. There wasn't always a sixth. Once, I believe, Tommy Aldrich joined us, and at other times others from school or other streets. We also mixed sides at times, and sometimes we were all on the same side, building a fort or spying on, taking pot-shots at girls and little kids.

               We had first played guns, with toy pistols and rifles, in and out of the bushes around our houses. That was before we were allowed to cross the street without asking first. For some time after we were allowed to do that we still had to ask permission to go into the Field. But at some point we only had to give notice where we'd be playing; and once we had that freedom -- I was probably the last to get it -- we seemed to have been playing in the Field forever.

               It was mostly in the spring, the fall, and winter. Summer was tick weather; crawling through the bushes and the high weeds, always in long sleeves, required too much checking of shirts, arms, jeans, socks, and hair (though most of us wore baseball or winter caps). Plus, too quickly we got too hot and sweaty, and had to sit down in the shade, usually under the Big Tree or up on the hill of tall, widely spaced trees behind Pooles', Srocas', and Appels' backyards we called the Little Field. Or we'd go to Poole's house to play blackjack or ghosts or something else – not always watch TV -- until after dinner when it was cooler.

               That vision of kids running down Ambler is really a picture of playing after dinner. We never played guns after dinner. Just out of focus is the late August sunshine, ripening toward dusk. I can even listen for that long, waving, dying caw of the unknown bird that is the sound of summer. (The bird that years later I'm informed is actually a locust.) Nice -- but not much vitality in it; certainly no intelligent vitality. It takes me back; but then I have to go up the street.

               Two farms were subdivided into Ambler Drive and Puller Drive, which cuts across Ambler at the bottom of our hill (and then again, after a long curve, at the farther end of the short steep hump of Little Ambler). The wide pasture behind the backyards on the north side of Ambler -- my side -- was dug into more streets within a year or so after Ambler opened. But the shorter pasture gone to weed on a long slope behind the backyards of the south side of Ambler remained for years. This was the Field, or Big Field, extending from an old abandoned Barn behind a tree-lined red farmhouse (on Summit Avenue) at the top down to a long tangle of saplings and undergrowth behind an enormous tree we called oak without really knowing what it was. The Big Tree spread, at the Beginning of the Field, over a wide, bare, root-broken ground sunken below the abrupt end of the side street turning off Ambler at my house and crossing in front of Byron Poole's. Just west of the Big Tree the Little Field rose under a trampled fence heavy with honeysuckle and other vines. The Little Field leveled out behind Pooles' and Appels' back yards, then dropped, in steep banks, into three backyards on Puller Drive, a block below. There was also, at a far angle below the Little Field, beyond the last house on Puller, a densely overgrown creekbed called the Jungle, but we didn't go there much, till later.

               In guns there were only enough rules to keep it fun; two rules basically. At the start we set bounds (usually just the Big Field: "The Barn to the fence to the Little Field"), if there wasn't a lot of time before lunch or dinner; but with more time the Little Field too, or even Poole's and Appel's yards. It was cheating to go outside bounds to scout or escape, but of course you did it if you got away with it. The other rule was shooting from inside a bush or through a fence didn't count; you had to be in the open, and killable yourself. This did not mean, of course, that you had to be seen. Ambush was the whole point; but at the moment of attack, you had to be smarter and quicker - in the open - or your invisible bullets went nowhere.

               A third rule, too: when you were killed, you stayed dead - and in place - until tagged by someone on your side. You couldn't move, other than roll a little to reach for the tagging hand. The tagger did not have to be exposed to enemy fire; but he couldn't use electricity -- couldn't tag with a gun or something else -- it had to be his hand. So often he had to be in the open, too.

               The guns were actually spears - branches picked up from the ground or broken off a tree and stripped. As we got older we had left Roy Rogers six-shooters and popguns at home. More fun to make your own.

               I always wanted to be on the side with Danny because we were smarter (heh heh!) than Appel and Poole; and if (as he was never afraid to say) Iggy was as smart or smarter than the two of us, or everybody else in the neighborhood, he never played by the rules.

                It's not that Wessy Appel and Byron Poole were dumb. They were smart enough. They caught and killed me enough times, fair and square -- and not just because I did something stupid and blundered into them. But ... they were fat. A distinct disadvantage. They couldn't crawl without shaking the bushes they were hiding in, and when Wessy wasn't clowning, Byron was, so even trying to hold in their laughter made the bushes shake.

                Iggy, on the other hand, was not fat. He was small and fast, all knees and hands. He always spoiled the game unless we killed him right away and used him for tag bait. But that caused a problem, too. If we both guarded him, we had to wait for Wessy and Byron to sneak up. No fun. If we wanted to go after Wessy and Byron, one of us had to stay with Iggy. Or we could take him with us, which caused the worst problems of all. So though we liked to kill him fast, sometimes it was better to leave him for last. Plus, Iggy didn't play to get you, but to be caught. He liked to be chased. He'd let you see him, then vanish. Ducking, running, climbing - throwing stuff at you (strictly against the rules). He often ended with a pink belly - then red-faced tears - then red-faced laughter when we let him go. He was good at fake-crying.

               Let's say sides are chosen and bounds set. And let's say, to make it more interesting, Tommy Aldrich is with us.

               Aldrich is in our class at Holy Redeemer. He looks weird, his face peaked, with a stringy blue vein down one side, and a head so thin it looks like it got jammed in a doorway. He talks through adenoids like a hillbilly; he's from Tennessee or some place. But he's funny. His eyes squeeze when he laughs hard and he doesn't look so homely then. Danny is the one who made friends with him, and once last fall we had him over to play ghosts in the Barn. Aldrich kept breaking out in his hillbilly voice, loud in the empty Barn: "Jumba-lie crow fish pie fee-lay gumbo! For tonight I'm gonta meet my SERRRAMEO!" We found a brick on the hayloft floor near the doors and he sang: "Some big hick Heaved a brick Through the winder!" And we took it up, singing and laughing our heads off, because we were afraid we'd get caught.

               Danny chooses me and Aldrich and we take the Barn. With a long time till lunch, or after lunch, bounds will be the Big Field, the Little Field, and the Jungle. "Backyards too?" A dead giveaway for Poole or Appel to ask that. "Sure!" Because that tells us exactly where they're headed. Iggy, of course, will go who knows where.

               We scatter. The rule - number four - is run in opposite directions, hide, and wait Fifteen Minutes. Danny, Aldrich, and I run into the line of bushes up along the backyard fences in the direction of the Barn. Friml, Appel, and Poole run up into the Little Field. You have to count Fifteen Minutes by ones. So we each take five minutes ... and count as fast as we can.

               "Wonuthreefofyesisevenaynitin, wonuthreefofyesisevenaynytin, wonuthree fofyesisevenaynytin...."

               (In a few months Danny and I would become altar boys, and that's how we'd say the Confiteor.)

               It's only cheating if we find Poole and them too fast.

               We sneak back the way we came, find the coast clear under the Big Tree, dash to the path between the honeysuckle and Poole's fence, and crouch-run along the fence, up into the Little Field, till we're behind Poole's tool shed. We listen. No noise. We climb the fence, creep to the door; the padlock's on, so we slip back over the fence and crouch-run along to behind Appel's garage. Appel's garage is built into the big hill in his backyard. I creep down the hill to the entrance, while Danny scouts the attic through the open door in the back at the top of the hill. Danny has Aldrich keep guard. I'd rather be the one crawling over the rafters of the attic, but Danny's smaller and quieter. I get on my belly, to peek round the entrance, when I hear a crash. I jump up and blast away.

               "Foley! You stupid!"

               "I thought you were Iggy!"

               Of course I knew it might be Danny, but just in case. Doesn't count anyway, we're on the same side.

               So we decide to hit the Jungle but we need someone to stay back and cover the Little Field.

               "Aldrich can do that."

               "I was thinkin of you, Jackie."

               "Well, Tommy don't know the Jungle."

               "He don't know the Little Field either. We only need one guy who knows the Jungle. But we need somebody who knows the Little Field."

               "The Little Field's just trees and wide open spaces, there's nothin to know!"

               "That's why it's easier to get tricked." Danny laughs. "You can do it better!"

               Tommy laughs and the two of them take off down the hill to go around That Betty's house to the Beginning of the Jungle. I could shoot them both.

               But when they get back I'm the one that's dead.

               Iggy!

               Jumped out of nowhere. I was dashing back from Appel's fence, where I'd gone doublechecking the garage attic. He shot me as I reached the top of That Betty's hill, just as Giardino and Aldrich were crawling up along the rail fence at the top of the Jungle hill, right next to us.

               I fell spectacularly and rolled to the bottom of the hill, while Iggy screamed "Cheater!"

               But he'd also seen Danny and dived behind the cyclone fence at the top of the next yard.

               Now Danny covers him from the rail fence, Aldrich hightails it back the long way to the Beginning of the Jungle and then from the front yard up to the edge of That Betty's house.

               I sprawl in That Betty's back yard, bottom of the big hill. It's one of the yards that might be Down in the valley Where the green grass grows. I can never figure it out for sure, because through the hole in the trees from my mother's bedroom window you can't see if there's a fence or a swing or anything but grass. Actually I hope it isn't, because as the Valley where the green grass grows, it would be a big disappointment.

               Iggy's stuck at the top of the hill, round the corner of the cyclone fence, because Danny's got him covered. So he can't shoot me again. The dead can't move unless ordered by their killers. So I keep one knee on the ground, and my hand stretched out for Aldrich.

               Tommy dashes, we tag, we slam into the lower cyclone fence and charge up the hill.

               When we get him, Iggy is laughing so hard, holding his skinny stomach, if my spear was a real machine gun he wouldn't have felt a thing.

               He won't tell where Appel and Poole are. But we're pretty sure now they're in the Big Field.

               We take the prisoner back to the Big Tree.

               "Who's gunna guard Friml?" Danny, looking at me.

               "Nunh uh! Not me! No sir! I'm goin after the two fatsos."

               "Yeah," Danny says, trying to keep a straight face. "But you know Iggy and his tricks better'n Tommy."

               Tommy looks at both of us.

               "I kin guard Iggy-."

               Iggy knocks his hip against me, hand to head, wiggling his eyebrows.

               "Na, Foley knows me better."

               Then he feints to run, but when I catch his wrist and whip around, Danny and Aldrich are already running through the little trees behind the Big Tree toward the far fence.

               Danny waves.

               "You win, Jackie!"

               I whack my spear on the ground so hard it cracks.

               Guarding Friml is like guarding a fly. He's a year ahead of us in school, but he's so small he once curled up in a tire and we rolled him down the street. I would get stuck with him while Danny runs off to have the fun. If it was Poole there'd be no problem. Once Poole sits down it takes a cherry bomb to make him scramble. Wessy is fatter but he has that sneaky lion grin, and if you only half turn your head he'd be all fouring away, crashing through the bushes like a rhino. Still, he's nothing compared to Friml.

               I want to keep Friml in the little trees behind the Big Tree. In spring or fall it's well-camouflaged in there with leaves, green or yellow and red; only in winter is it bare. But through the little tree branches and the vine bushes no one can shoot me or tag him unless he's right on top of us.

               "Friml get back here!"

               He makes his mouth an O, jigging by the Big Tree in the open.

               "Darn it, Iggy, you're always ruinin the game. You know if Ralph sees you he's gonna barge in--."

               "Crap."

               Psychology! Big Bad Ralph, his brother. He throws an acorn and came back into the little trees.

               "Come on, just sit down here for a minute, let's rest."

               I keep standing, inside the trees, until he plunks down. I stand with my flintlock.

               He snickers up at me.

               "What's so funny, idiot?"

               He throws his bird's head back and laughs and pounds his dirty crossed knees.

               "Shut up Fri- If you don't shut up I'll do it for ya-" But already I'm grinning. "Ralph could hear ya."

               "That's what I'm laughin about, Foley, the way, he got you to sit in that tree--."

               "Aw heck. Yeah, he put you in the brig!"

               "I didn't look like an ass-hole."

               He collapses on his back, holding his stomach.

               "Shut up! You're really gettin dirty, Iggy."

               He's in the Sixth Grade now.

               He giggles all over again. I glance around. All the time we talk, I squat, and kneel, and whisper and keep alert. "Well," trying to keep my face straight, "nobody else ever said, 'I ain't gonna play no more, Ralph, if you take over.'"

               '"Oy ain't gonna play Ralph.'" He sticks out a big lip.

               "Well you should talk! You started the tent fort."

               "Yeah and then you guys took over it!"

               "Us guys! Us guys, Friml? Danny and me were with you when you found those ties."

               His frown wiggles.

               "Why, darn it, you couldn't even pick up the darn thing, you almost dropped it on your foot. You called us to help you."

               He laughs.

               "You look so funny when you get mad, Foley!"

               "Shut up. Look who's talkin."

               Iggy laughs harder. I reach and cup my hand on his mouth but he digs for my balls and I jump back. Then he grabs his own balls, just holding at first, still on his back, then starts rubbing, rubbing and rubbing. He looks like Mrs. Giardino at a washboard.

               "I kissed your girlfriend the other day, Foley!"

               "Shut up, Friml, rubbing your balls and-- I DON'T HAVE A GIRLFRIEND!"

               He goes limp. Then he's on his feet, squatting between his dirty knees, wiggling claw fingers. Then collapses again.

               I stand up, spear ready, scouting.

               He says her name.

               "WHO! That -- she's a Fourth Grader!"

               I knew who he meant. They're all saying that, to get me mad. Which was O. K., in a way, because then they never guess the girl I really like.

               "But she likes me better!"

               "You can have her. Sh!"

               "WHAT'S A MATTER, FOLEY?"

               "Sh, darn it, I heard a noise."

               "A NOISE?"

               "Shhhhhhh!"

               "IN THOSE BUSHES OVER THERE?"

               "Iggy--!"

               I aim the spear. He makes a girl-scream face. I can't help laughing but turn back, scouting the little trees where I heard the rustle.

               "You know YOUR GIRL FRIEND threw me down in the bushes and kissed me, Foley!"

               "She's your girlfriend."

               The little trees seem so still. I squint at every little stirring leaf.

               There's a sudden dash behind and I whip around so fast I lose balance. Friml's past the Big Tree. Just as I break out of the trees I see a crewcut and two eyes sticking up from the bushes next to Poole's fence, and Appel's fat arm and his spear.

               "Pow! Gotcha Foley!"

               I'm already on the deck and spinning back for the trees.

               "No ya didn't!"

               "I got you, Foley, you cheater!"

               "The tree was in the way, you cheater! Friml, you're still dead!"

               I'm screaming at myself, too. Appel must have thrown a stone. I fell for the oldest trick in the book.

               "Watch out, I got you covered! One false move and plowee! Is Poole with you? Friml, you're gonna ruin the game!"

               Wessy yells I'm dead and he's coming after me. He's not standing up, though. I yell if he really thinks I'm dead he won't be afraid to stand up. Then I turn and run as fast as I can, vines and branches whipping my face, running deep into the little trees. I could stay back at the Big Tree and they couldn't do a thing. But neither could I. I know that look Danny will give me when I say Friml got away. But I can blame it all on Iggy. The important thing, Giardino, is they didn't get me. Right!

               I wouldn't halt to listen, at the far edge of the little trees, if I really heard them coming after me. There's a tear in the shoulder of my shirt. O well, my mother will sew it. I get down on my stomach and crawl out of the trees into the high weeds. No shots. This is where I experimented with camouflage that time. I lay flat on my back, listening to the crickets, watching the white clouds changing in the blue sky, but holding a bunch of weeds on my stomach, blowing a little in the breeze like the other weeds, as Appel or Poole or somebody, anyway, walked by not ten feet away. But I don't want to do that now. More little trees stand ahead of me. I snakecrawl fast and there are still no shots. I scramble up and flatten against the Other Big Tree. (We had actually chopped it down by this time, to prove we could be lumberjacks; but until we did that had used it in guns. Iggy often liked to spider into the tip top branches, where nobody could reach him.) It's a lot smaller than the Big Tree, but ... bigger than the little trees.

               In the fall this will be near the big hole the bulldozer will plough for the swimming pool.

               Suddenly shouts and shooting break out like thunder in the Barn. Then there's a big rustling in the bushes next to the fence on the far side of the Barn.

               In the fall the bulldozer, the hole, and the hills of dirt could protect me part way, but I have to move fast.

               Ta da!

               At least Danny is in the Barn.

               Crouch-running I make it to the dirt hill, and along toward the shallow end of the hole, tingling with my plan. Then I spring, all exposed, and tumble into the hole and flatten myself against the far wall. I squat-walk and crawl up to the top of the hole. The clay is cold through my shirt and jeans. It has that hard, damp, metallic smell, the smell of dirt on potatoes just pulled out of a garden. I like it. I've always liked it, whenever we've played where they were building new houses in the neighborhood. Once I put some in my mouth. Even now, the smell strong and damp and hard, my tongue is tempted to see if the dirt tastes as good as it smells.

               I peek up over the edge of the dirt wall and see heads bobbing in the bushes next to the Walkers' and Bocks'. I'm still too far from the Barn, but maybe, on the other side of the Barn, they don't see me. Below the nearest corner of the Barn there's a slight bank, running across the front, or back, of the Barn (depending how you look at it). It runs toward the bushes. The heads in the bushes seem too busy pushing through the vines to be looking my way. Any second they'll come out. I might shoot them but at that distance they could easily say I was shooting through the bushes. Besides, I want to get to the Barn.

               I charge for the slight bank like a soldier who's going to get his brains blown out, and dive. I hit the weeds just as Iggy yells. Worked!

               "I gotcha covered, ya crumbums!"

               I wave the spear.

               "One false move and you're both dead!"

               "Boooooo, Foley! You couldn't hit the Barn!"

               I shout back. But I'm stuck, too. I want to get in that Barn. But I also have to get closer to the bushes if I want them to fall dead without any cheating.

               My chin digs into the weeds tickling my face. But I have to call:

               "Dannee!"

               From somewhere in the Barn he yells.

               "Friml and Appel are in the bushes in front of the Barn!"

               He yells back, screaming. I think he said, "Friml!"

               "He cheated! I'll tell ya later! Keep an eye on that door!"

               He screams back again. Can't make out the words.

               I don't answer. Just suddenly I know what to do and I spin upfield out of Appel and Friml's range. Shots are fired from the bushes, which don't count even if they hit. I get to my feet and run to the Barn and throw myself against the old wall. Otherwise nothing would get going. I duck around to the back of the Barn. (Or front, facing the farmhouse fence.) I crawl under the window.

               "Na na," I hear Poole's voice, unexcited. "I was just experimentin."

               So Poole's in the loft, and Danny and Aldrich are in the horse-stalls below, aiming spears at the hole in the loft floor where the ladder hangs. Aldrich and Danny laughing.

               "Hey!" I shout. "What's goin on in there!"

               "Keep your stupid head down, Foley!" Danny shouts. "Byron's right there in the hole."

               "That ain't the only hole!" Aldrich says, and they all laugh.

               "Hey what's goin on, I thought this was a war!"

               "You should talk about war, Foley, lettin Friml get away!"

               "I didn't let him get away Listen, him and Appel're probly sneakin up the other side the Barn right now!"

               "Foley, shut up and get around to the other side!"

               I lean and listen. Then I take a suicide-peek around my corner. Nothing.

               "Listen, they're comin up the other side! But if I run around past the front door Poole can get me. Now if I came in and got shot you-all could tag me. "

               "Yeah, c-come on in, Foley." Poole, laughing.

               "Hey, Ah just found me a surrender flag." Aldrich, laughing. "Looks like somepm you wiped your belt on, Poole!"

               They all laugh. Now I know what they're talking about. Poole's old story about how, one time when his cousin Jinny spent the night, he saw a hole in the bottom of her pajamas as she was sleeping and kind of snaked his Cub Scout belt into it, then sniffed it.

               I peek again, then throw myself around the corner. There's a window high up the paint-flaking wall, where Poole could take pot-shots at me. But if he moves away from the hole in the floor he's a goner. I suicide-peek around the next corner: just in time to see the bushes empty and Iggy's sneaker disappearing behind the next corner. This is it. What took those guys so long? I hold my spear out like a musket with bayonet and charge. I pass the door too fast for Byron to shoot.

               "Pchow! Pchow! Pchow! Pchow! Pchow! You guys're awfully slow!"

               Friml and Appel gape around at me like they are struck by lightning.

               I run back to the half-open door shouting the news.

               "Don't do any surrenderin, Alderge, they're all dead! Now let's get Poole!"

               I'm ready to get shot storming him.

               So it's a surprise to see the hole in the hayloft floor empty. The boards creak. Danny shouts something but I charge in the Barn door and hurl myself on the dirt of the first horse stall.

               "Foley, did you leave those two guys out there!"

               "What?"

               Just then there is a resounding thud, where I had left those two guys. It's followed instantly by Hoorays! and loud laughing, running away.

               "Durn you, Foley, you let 'em get away again!"

               So - how should this adventure conclude?

               Action ...?

               Danny scowls and throws something in my face.

               "There's your surrender flag, Foley!"

               I catch it, dazed as it falls from my nose. It's an old balled-up mud-crusted sock.

               Aldrich says:

               "Hey, 'at's blood."

               "What's blood? Did I bleed my nose? I mean--."

               From the sock? Wipe my nose. No blood on my fingers.

               "FOLEY! ALDERCH!"

               "No, on the sock!"

               I don't see any. But we're running, Danny far ahead. I make up my mind. I pick up speed. Danny has slowed up at the bushes, just before the open ground under the Big Tree. A blue jacket has just ducked behind the mound of honeysuckle at the corner of the trampled fence next to Poole's fence. I wave and jerk my arm but don't shout. I wave Danny to run past the Big Tree and take them from that side. I run, leaping over the entangling vines and jumping up the humps of weedy ground.

               Appel's and Friml's and Poole's heads stick above the ivy, laughing as they shoot their spears. The bullets kick through the weeds past my feet. I wham into Poole's fence. I crouch. They scream Gotcha's! at me, and then my yell breaks out.

               "HAAAAAAAAGGGGGGHHH!"

               And spear aimed straight for their throats, I spring -- and jackknife, face first, into a bush of thorns.

               (This climax belongs to our hero.)

               "Sometimes I forget the bullets ain't real." Dabbing at the scratches with my fingers.

               ... or symposium?

               We're still laughing as we get ourselves seated around the roots of the Big Tree. The six of us sit there laughing and shouting and monkeying with our spears. One will go to Vietnam and get his leg shot at Chu Lai; one will ship out to the Med on a carrier, in charge of nuclear warhead maintenance; one will declare himself a C.O., and as it happens, not go to prison; one will move away and disappear; one will take up arms not ten miles from this Field, locked in a cordon of National Guardsmen the night Martin Luther King dies, watching street fires and figures race while his rifle and ammo belt hang empty; and the one who will come closest to death, before his time, will do it in a car, not a war, and he will bear a metal plate in his head forever after.

               The six of us shouldering our spears, sitting around the roots of the Big Tree. We are so good! We've had so much practice playing guns, how could any enemy beat us if we all fought together in a war!

               "You done purty good yourself." Aldrich nods at Poole. "Durn I think the ground shook when you jumped outa that loft. "

               A grin sneaks into Byron's long baby face.

               Appel unlocks his hands and sits up straight.

               "The whole Barn shook and slammed its doors."

               "No it didn't." Byron laughs.

               "I bet the graves in the cemeteries opened!" says Danny. "And the real ghost in the Barn came out."

               We laugh.

               "Did anybody see the sun fall?" I laugh. "It knew Byron was goina jump and just stayed home!"

               "It hid!"

               "Now I know what Rosemary meant," say I, "that time she said at the end of the world all the clowns will come out."

               "What?"

               Wrinkled noses. By the time I finish explaining the grins are only smiles, but Friml laughs.

               "Foley, you get everything fouled up. Fouled-up Foley. Jackie Fouly. Jackie Fouled Up."

               I toss a stone at him and he jigs.

               The six of us shouldering our spears, sitting around the roots of the Big Tree. We are so good! We've had so much practice playing guns, how could any enemy beat us if we all fought together in a war!

               More to the point ....

               "Hey, Alderge," say I, looking at the red smears I've dabbed from my forehead and cheeks. "Did you say there was blood on that sock in the Barn?"

               "Yeah, dried blood. Brown. All over it. It looked muddy there was so much. It looked like sompm else!" -- to Poole -- "What you musta found with your experiment belt!"

               Poole gets shoves and punches.

               "I d-didn't get any a th-that!"

               "So much blood?" I get in.

               "Yea."

               "Are you sure?"

               "Purty sure."

               I had dropped it back by the barndoor. I don't feel like getting up but I get up and go up. It's right by the Barn doorway. I bring it back, pinching it by a piece of the corner that is not stiff with brown stain.

               "Hey, y'know? This is a girl's sock."

               It has the kind of top that is supposed to be folded down like a cuff. I pass it around.

               "Are you sure that's all blood?"

               "Sure. Mud don't look like that, look at the mud on your own socks."

               I look.

               "Yeah but this mud, it isn't all that muddy where they're diggin, not creamy mud like peanut butter. Besides this mud looks more red."

               Danny looks at the sock. He says it's blood. So do Wessy and Iggy.

               "Where'dya find it?"

               "In the leaves and stuff under 'at trough by the winder."

               I vaguely remember seeing it there before, some sock balled up and thrown away. But none of the girls ever play in the Barn. Maybe a girl from the family in the farmhouse?

               "What would girls be doin in the Barn?"

               As soon as I say it I remember, and at the same second Danny laughs.

               "Hey, remember those girls Mr. Long caught walkin around nekked in the Barn?"

               Everybody laughs and brings heads closer together.

               "I remember," Wessy grins. "There was boys walkin around nekked too!"

               "But that was a long time ago," I say.

               "It was just last year. This year! Last winter."

               "Yeah but anybody--."

               The guys are already joking about how it got all bloody.

               "Bet it was Foley's girlfriend!"

               "Shut up, Friml, she's your girlfriend!"

               "Who?" They all laugh. Etcetera.

               "Maybe," me to change the subject, "she cut her foot."

               Iggy snickers.

               "Maybe somebody stuck his finger in her pussy."

               I throw a handful of dirt at him.

               He throws a handful back at me, and stones and acorns and sticks.

               "Well if they wore socks," I laugh to join the laughing, ducking Friml's missiles, "they weren't bare nekked."

               Then it hits me:

               "Somebody got a bloody nose! Maybe that's what happened!"

               I take it by the corner, turning it around. But when I get bloody noses I use Kleenex and throw them right away, still bright red.

               "Hey, Ah know." Aldrich says, eyes squeezing happily. "Ah bet it's her flow."

               "Her what?"

               "Her flow."

               Wessy lights up but it's Iggy and Byron who chime in.

               "Monthly flow?"

               "Yeah!"

               "Yaaaaaaaach!"

               It jumps out of my hand as though it's bit me.

               They're howling.

               Iggy picks it up and before I can duck it hits my face again.


The Big Field ploughed up for the Cedarbrook Community Swim Club.
The Barn preserved -- rebuilt and repainted -- as a Clubhouse ... verboten to children.




Kensington, Maryland, 1950