by Jerry Mikorenda
The true measure of any neighborhood in the suburbs where I lived was not who owned the nicest homes, but who had the best tree house.
There was still enough open forest and spare wood from new construction for every pack of kids to stake their claim. Our parents complained all we wanted to do was play in these shacks of broken plywood, two by fours and tarpaper.
They were more than that.
These were forts. Outposts on the perimeter – places of war, diagrams and secret handshakes. They also marked a moment in time that haunts me to this day.
Every Saturday morning we headed to our secret fortress on banana seat bikes armed with old hammers, rusty nails and a jug of Kool-Aid. We imagined ourselves on combat patrol in the forests of Germany just like on TV. David, the sixth grader of our group, who wore an outdated pompadour with a ducktail, was our captain. Billy, a freckle-faced redhead with big ears, was the sergeant. Charley and I, undistinguished fifth graders, were corporals.
One morning, our mothers let us ride our bikes to school. Charley rode up to the pack with a transistor radio his father got for buying a used Ford Fairlane.
We listened to the Apollo countdowns on it.
In early June, my mother slipped saran wrapped rosary beads into my lunchbox.
“I want you to use these today,” she said, without offering an explanation. “Pray for something good to happen and don’t just pretend the way you always do.”
Her eyes were red and watery as she handed my sister and me milk money. During homeroom, an announcement came over the PA. They shot Senator Kennedy while he made a speech in California the night before. He was recovering from surgery. The teacher let us group our desks together and study quietly while we waited for news.
I left the rosaries wrapped in my lunchbox afraid to pray. Not afraid anyone would see me praying, afraid no one would hear me. Mom always told us every prayer we said was like a cup of water filling a well. You can draw on in times of need. But my cup had a hole. I didn’t believe in praying. It seemed just weird asking empty space for things. At the end of seventh period, the principal’s voice came over the PA again.
“Senator Kennedy’s pulse, temperature and blood pressure remain good,” he said reading the Teletype, “and he continues to show the ability to breathe on his own. Let us join in a moment of quiet reflection.”
I sat there my mind a vacuum unable to ignite any shred of belief or summon any petition on behalf of a man the same age as my father lying in a hospital bed. Later at the fort, Billy and I flipped baseball cards before heading home for dinner. The next morning I came downstairs for breakfast. My parents were smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee in the unlit kitchen. They were rarely together unless we did something wrong.
“He died this morning Louie,” Mom said, between long drags on her cigarette. “Our prayers weren’t enough.”
“What’s this goddamn world coming to,” added my father, glancing at his watch.
Guilt followed me around like a stray cat popping up unexpectedly as I passed flag after flag at half-mast and photos of the fallen Senator in storefront windows. Surely, a God who could hear my prayers would sense my doubt and toss my offerings like potato salad gone bad at a picnic.
Sunday was a national day of mourning. I passed drawings of the completed fort to David during Mass. He gave each of us the nod. Ever though his dad worked in Bohack, David insisted he was undercover with the FBI. We huddled in the sacristy among the billowing purple, red and white robes hanging like football uniforms in a locker room.
“We need to finish this fast,” said David, coldly staring at the drawing. “I saw microfilm on my dad’s desk that showed the Russians are planning an invasion this summer.”
Suddenly, our secret project took on new significance. We imagined having to flee our homes and then surprising our families with this hideaway – our fathers impressed with its craftsmanship; our mothers and sisters protected by its durability. Our foresight would help turn the tide on an unforeseen enemy not expecting such ingenuity from Thomas Dewey Middle Schoolers.
That Sunday afternoon the winding dirt path in the woods filled with urgency. Turning the corner, the devastation was evident. Floorboards torn from the structure lay strewn about, steps on the ladder removed and “Assholes” and “Dick” painted on the one remaining wall to our no longer secret fortress.
Hammers banged and pinged as we tried to recover. In our fury to repair the random damage, we didn’t feel the corner joists separating from the trees until we were crashing to the ground.
The whole fort collapsed. I opened my eyes to a pair of large black boots.
“You okay buddy?”
Dazed, I looked up as silver dog tags reflected the bright sun in my eyes.
“I guess,” I groaned, weakly.
“What about the rest of ya’s?” he asked, working his way to the others. “Everyone copasetic?”
We stood gingerly testing joints and limbs eyeing the gangly visitor on his haunches wearing green fatigues. His close-cropped golden hair was in far contrast to the ear length locks we fought our parents so hard to wear.
“Looks like Charlie did a number on your CP.”
“Did not! It was those loud mouthed Guineas from Howell Street,” screeched Charley, his round face blowing up like a balloon.
“Charlie…” the stranger said, “the enemy, son.”
“You a solider?” asked Billy.
“Lieutenant Adam Wheaton, Company H, 2nd Battalion, 4th US Marines,” he responded, with a cut salute from his eyebrow. In turn, each of us introduced ourselves. David finished with a full heel-clicking salute.
“Outstanding,” the Lieutenant said, putting on his aviator sunglasses.
While we spoke, the rest of our edifice fell to earth. Nothing remained from two months of toil.
“Might need to un-ass from here,” he said, pointing west with a thick black and white composition notebook in his hand. “…You know, leave.”
I explained the importance of our outpost to the Lieutenant in light of David’s FBI reconnaissance. The Lieutenant sat under a tall maple tree smoking a cigarette, listening, scratching his face studying my drawings.
He smiled, folding the sheets of paper in one hand and offered to help us rebuild. We left for Sunday afternoon dinner with enough building material to set a measly frame. We agreed not to tell anyone about Lieutenant A because he told us he had his own secret mission.
It rained hard for the rest of the week. Our thoughts turned toward final exams and the end of the school year. With the weather clearing, Billy and I agreed to check out the site coming home from catechism.
As startling, as the destruction had been the week before, what we saw next caused Billy to drop his bike and push backwards into me. There emerged a two-story, walled structure with plywood corners as straight as any on the new homes in Pickwick Gardens were.
“Say NCOs, what’s the blow?”
We didn’t find his voice in the trees until he chucked a bone at us. Jumping down, he offered us some of the same from a mess kit buried in hot ash. Rabbit, smoked or otherwise, wasn’t an appealing prospect to a generation raised on Wonder Bread and baloney sandwiches.
Lieutenant A invited us up.
Climbing, I could see the diagonally cut studs under the main floorboards had their own seamless majesty. He pointed out how he used my plan to lay out the first floor and open balcony and then added a short loft for sleeping. A lookout could go in between the two limbs on the big oak.
In the coming weeks, we moved all our important stuff into Nui Vu or New View as we called it. Lieutenant A named it that because this place reminded him of an observation post overlooking a valley in Southeast Asia. Every morning we visited our new base of operations with leftovers, slices of bread, stray Ballantine’s from the back of the fridge or an orphan cigarette or two. The Lieutenant was always grateful for these offerings and in turn taught us things our father’s never had time for – how to hammer a ten-penny nail straight in three swings, play Crazy Eights, stalk animals and spit through our teeth.
At night, Charley’s small white radio dangled from a string under the center of the loft. Our portal to the world. Billy’s safecracker fingers adjusted the dial to pull in stations from all over the coast. New voices emerged, strange and powerful; guitar riffs we had never heard before smashed through the relentless replaying Top 40 hits.
“There must be some way out of here,” lipped the Lieutenant to the music, gazing out into the darkness, “said the joker to the thief…”
America burned in the summertime.
Riots incinerated Trenton,
Police with Plexiglas shields clashed with college students as our cities went dark and panthers prowled the streets. The antiwar violence spread like a plague across Europe. The summer was one continuous broadcast of sustained dread interrupted by cheery reruns vomited from the TV. Barricaded with hedges and chlorine pools we felt immune from the sickness surrounding us.
After a while we didn’t want to listen anymore, but the Lieutenant insisted. All the time, he feverishly jotted in his notebook. None of us thought the country would survive the onslaught from the Soviets, Hippies, Black Panthers and Viet Cong.
“Don’t worry little brothers,” he said, reassuring us as we left for home each night. “It’s just the Sixties flaming out in style.”
During the daytime, Lieutenant A slept with that notebook clutched to his chest while we stood guard over the post. He always seemed cold, shaking in his sleep. Even the blankets we took from home didn’t help. Like all adults, he smoked too much taking drag after drag of his hand rolled gitanes. He laughed as we went on about comic book heroes, which of us cheated at Battleship or some alien or Soviet plot. Often these conflicts led to Lieutenant A’s “fortune cookie advice” about his own childhood.
“Enjoy it while you can, 007,” he’d say to David, or “Don’t sweat the small stuff Flaps,” winking at Billy as he pulled on his ears. To me, it was always, “Spock, it takes more than nails to hold a ship together.”
There was no pat reply the night Charley asked the one question we all wanted answered.
“Did you ever kill anyone?” Charley quizzed, his big bloodhound eyes staring up intently under the Bunsen glow.
The Lieutenant put his unlit cigarette behind his ear. He rubbed the back of his head, looking like one of us caught doing something. As he talked, our circle pulled closer and closer together like iron filings in a magnetic field.
“I’ve stopped a lot of things from living,” he said, quietly looking down. “I can’t say taking down one thing felt any different than another. Soldiering demands a certain casualness about dying that’s always with you. It’s in the heaviness when you breathe, the smell of your flak jacket and the constant pounding in your helmet. Pulling the trigger is part of the program. Humping through the yard as the One-Six, you’re so piss full of adrenaline you’d shoot anything that moves. Then something moves and you’re in the ballgame pumping an M-16 into a sea of green just like out here,” he said pointing toward the darken trees.
“Sometimes you get a BZ, but you don’t know why. Then you hear there was a hit and you figure out you were the one that did it. Later on during the sweep, you look. You don’t want to but you do because that’s what the After-Action report calls for. Then you think how could one human being ever have done that to another. But you know it was you. I wouldn’t sleep for days afterwards, nobody does.”
He began to pace back and forth stretching his arms and hands out straight as he spoke as if he were about to fly.
“Every time it happens a little piece of you goes with them, and you know that they could just as easily been the one staring down. You pray to anything and everything you can think of that it won’t be you next time, but you can’t think of one goddamn reason why it shouldn’t be.”
The steady huff from the gas lamp was the only sound for a long time. No one wanted to hear anymore after that. Lieutenant A looked younger in the after light as he slipped from story to story.
Billy’s eyes nodded toward the trap door. I shook him off. As the Lieutenant described the exploits of his unit CAP Sigma C – Ditto, Coconut Jones, Betty Boop, Viceroy, GG Tarzan and Eggs. They operated in a village called Duc Li to “Defend and Befriend” the locals by building schools, digging wells, protecting rice patties and keeping the bad guys away. Ditto, who said everything twice, was the first to go, killed in his sleep by a grenade. Viceroy and Tarzan were reported MIA after a firefight in the dreaded Arizona Territory. Eggs’ wounds on patrol got him sent home.
The villagers loved the Marines of Sigma C and after months of intense fighting, a sense of normalcy returned. There were public works projects during the day, patrol and killer teams by night. To build community pride, the Lieutenant started a Boy Scout troop and received twelve official red and gold neckerchief s from his Dad. The Lieutenant passed around a crumpled black and white photo of the group to us. They were younger than we were. Their small faces were wide with grins as they hugged and crowded his lanky figure with affection. International Troop 987 was featured in ‘Boy’s Life’ as a model of world cooperation.
On the Fourth of July, we came to surprise Lieutenant A. Fireworks launched from the Knights of Columbus hall where our parents were at a clambake dancing to Brasil 66. We entered with unlighted sparklers. Charlie couldn’t wait to tell him that the Howell Street kid’s fort had burnt to the ground. Halfway up the ladder we heard soft moans coming from the loft and stopped before the trap door.
“He probably has a girl up there,” I whispered as we slowly climbed back down.
“Or he’s flippin’ out,” huffed Charley, as we peddled away. “You saw the way he shakes. Maybe he went nuts-o and torched Howell?”
“What if he’s been taking notes on all the crap we’ve said about our parents,” chirped David.
“Maybe he’s not even in the Marines,” hissed Billy, circling around us. “Maybe he’s just a crying queer!”
“Could be he’s what he says he is…” I added, as we stopped to watch the fireworks boom overhead.
“What shit is that, Louie?” said Billy, jumping on my shoulders followed by the others.
We wrestled and rolled about as lion cubs as the sky exploded. In a way, we were each championing our positions on the blonde stranger we casually let become part of our group. What did we owe this man for reassembling our lives? Taking fragments of plywood, shattered beams, and shaping them into a structure that broke us away from structure?
Gave us sanctuary.
There were no words spoken, no decisions made or voted upon, yet somehow we each knew the inevitable outcome.
The morning the police arrived the Lieutenant was enjoying a smoke off the balcony where he always waved us up. We watched from afar, as he sat waiting quietly as the blue uniforms made their way onto the main floor before suddenly bolting over the railing. He rolled to his feet running uphill, then sliding back down as two more officers pursued. We circled the perimeter just as he taught us and watched from a nearby hill as the Lieutenant eluded his captors fleeing across an open meadow toward a deep stand of evergreens.
Forty years later, where my daughter is serving in Iraq, there are no trees. They removed them along the main highways to give military vehicles a better view.
Claire was born with my first wife Ellen at a time when serving in the military was no longer a dire issue. Our divorce and my wife’s return to Chicago, limited the role I could play with my auburn haired daughter. With each succeeding visit, Claire became a pre-Internet instant messenger between parents.
“Make sure you tell your father that your tuition is due on the fourteenth,” Ellen instructed her.
“Your mother has to slow down, manage the money better,” I’d warn.
On visits, we toured malls stopping to buy, yet never really talking. I convinced myself that “quality time” was important. We compressed all our activities into those few moments between courses at franchise restaurants promising family fun.
“I understand about you and Mom,” she’d say, sipping on a straw, “you don’t have to explain.”
But how could she understand something I had no clue about? One minute you’re building toward a goal, the next, the whole thing collapses with no explanation. We rented movies, ate pizza and drove by all her old friend’s homes.
As she grew older, visits became less frequent, calls summarized weekends and then one day she was taking computer science at a community college.
“That’s great honey,” is all I could muster. “Keep up the good work.”
Then the announcements came. She was marrying a bartender near school, sorry for the late notice, please come if you can. The children, Dylan and Chad arrived as quickly as the bartender disappeared. With each failed credit card, they moved further and further south – Knoxville, Tulsa, Wichita Falls before she finally landed a programming job at a call center outside Plano. I sent what I could, I always did.
Joining the National Guard brought her enough extra cash to make ends meet. During active duty, the boys took a Greyhound up to Chicago while mom went to extended summer camp. I never brought up my experiences with the Lieutenant to Claire. It seemed out of place like wearing a Nehru shirt and striped bell-bottoms in a mosh pit.
This spring, the 39th Signal Battalion deployed from Fort Hood to Iraq. Grandma Ellen’s hernia operation knocked Chicago out of the picture, landing a six and four year-old on our front porch. Rachel, my wife for three years now, cleared out a storage room and furnished it with bunk beds and dressers from IKEA. Ever the corporate lawyer, she looked upon this as an assignment, a trial balloon of sorts for the family she desperately wants and I’m too old to argue against.
She dutifully mapped out and accounted for each childhood situation – constructive play, learning experiences, social assimilation – bonding exercises. Today is Combo Day. I called in sick on my County Home Inspector’s job to bring the boys to the local interactive heritage center for “Liberty’s Eternal Ring.” Rachel printed out our itinerary: Two hours learning, one half-hour of “free” fun, and fifteen minutes of low-impact roughhousing accompanied by a healthy snack that I left in the fridge.
I ran back into the kitchen to grab it.
They say if you’re in a rush, never answer the phone. I always pickup after two rings.
“No time,” I say, to the droning voice, “kids are in a running car, got to go.”
“… officially reported missing at 18:32 AST… Status, whereabouts unknown.”
The words float over me. Fireworks smoke at the fairgrounds until I hear her name drift by again. I glance out at the boys strapped in their car seats. In a flash, I see a little girl bouncing in the front passenger side without one. Blood drains from me and I shake. I ask him to repeat the message, read the whole script again if need be. He does and while doing his best customer rep impersonation informing me that this is all the information he can disseminate.
No, there is no more information to share, but if there was, this is all the information he can state. Trampling the same words over and over again, he tells me I should be patient and go about my business until further data is available.
He offers an 800-mega number that lists all 800 numbers that can link me to any kind of support services any of my family members or I need.
Suddenly, I’m off the phone and the silence hits me like an avalanche. The kitchen reverberates with a deceptive sameness.
We stumble forward, purchasing one patriot and two mini-minutemen daylong “Revolutionary” passes. I dread the calls to Ellen and Rachel. To Ellen, for all the years of moist dark guilt her accusations will illuminate and to Rachel for the tsunami of enthusiastic concern in which she embraces any tragedy. The boys bounce with glee as they trot on stage wearing three-cornered hats and disguises to surprise the British.
I slip into lobby to call Ellen. I remind myself to stick to the facts and not speculate. It runs through my mind in flash cards. About sixteen hours ago, Claire went on a “chow run” in Bagdad when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the armored Stryker in front of her Humvee. There was a crash. There was Gunfire. Three snipers killed. Afterwards, Claire and two male soldiers, corporals, were not at the scene.
Maybe they are in a clinic; maybe they’re making their way back on foot or are with another platoon.
We don’t know.
We don’t know why a systems analyst was getting Big Macs, falafels or whatever they get in town. Hell, we don’t know why she’s in a war zone, but she is.
We’ll cope. What else can we do?
Music starts in the theater again. I promise to call back. I’m almost to my seat when Chad the youngest yells out, “Grandpa Lou, look at me, look at me!” as he and his older brother hit a Redcoat to the ground with plastic clubs. Off to the left, a pony-tailed Minuteman jumps from a prefab tree onto the stage surprising the rest of the Limeys.
I think of Lieutenant A’s long-forgotten escape that summer and I wonder if Claire was in some distant neighborhood needing help too. I remember what Adam – that’s who he really was – said about praying to everything. Here I am all these years later the grandfather of two boys who are about to receive “I Love Liberty” buttons for terrorizing ancient Brits.
Yet, I’m afraid to think about what Adam and my daughter lived through every day. And I’m mad at myself for burying those memories. For thinking, clean vinyl siding, properly recycling and paying the cable bill on time are more important than preventing kids from going to war.
That long ago summer, we thought our little town immune from all the ills that plagued the rest of the world.
Our group never figured out how the police found the Lieutenant. For a while, we blamed each other with Billy and his outbursts of anger the most likely culprit. But I knew differently. I knew it was the only one of us above reproach. The only one whose lack of religious conviction and the guilt over it led to confessing a summer of strange fears and events to a mother who promised to make everything right.
It was an empty promise as empty as our prayers.
The day after the police chased him, workers came to knock down Nui Vu. It wouldn’t budge so they took chainsaws to the trees to topple our outpost. All our favorite stuff was lost along with our childhoods. In the brush nearby, I found Adam’s marble notebook. I hesitated to open it at first, knowing the time and care he took in writing it. Peering inside, revealed page after page of the same phrase written over and over again.
Be Prepared, Be Prepared, Be Prepared, Be Prepared, Be Prepared, Be Prepared, Be Prepared, Be Prepared, Be Prepared, Be Prepared, Be Prepared, Be Prepared, Be Prepared, Be Prepared, Be Prepared, Be Prepared, Be Prepared, Be Prepared, Be Prepared, Be Prepared, Be Prepared, Be Prepared…
The whole notebook filled with the same words in increasing frantic handwriting.
Eventually our parents told us that a twenty-two year-old Marine officer had wandered away from the new VA hospital under construction a few miles away. He couldn’t go back to Indochina they said, but he didn’t belong in this neighborhood either. No one was interested in why, or what, caused his problems.
No one wanted to deal with the details.
Years later, I found out what happened. Lieutenant was a high rank for leading a CAP unit and for good reason. Adam coordinated a major underground railroad of informants from the tiny farming village. One of them who had saved his life and the lives of his men many times warned of a VC raid. Circling behind the enemy, they could stop the attack before it started. Adam and Coconut Jones took a detail of 15 PFs leaving GG and Betty Boop with the rest to guard the village.
After a night of fruitless searching, they returned to a smoldering ruin. GG and Boop were shot and left on a pile with fifty villager’s bodies. The few villagers who survived were weeping pointing toward the Quonset hut school the Marines built. Adam went inside and began weeping too.
There the VC killed all 12 members of his Scout troop thinking they were part of a PF militia.
What happened next depends on what version of the events you find on the internet. Some say he slaughtered the remaining villagers as sympathizers, others say he was guilty of using children as young as my grandsons as spies. Another version claims he removed the red and gold neckerchiefs from their mouths, carried out each of the tiny bodies and lay their broken remains in shallow graves dug with his bare hands.
Then he sat down and never spoke another word.
Until he met us.
I begin sobbing, quietly.
At first for Claire,
his Scouts, the Sixties,
A young mother sitting behind me with a Bluetooth wagging on her ear touches my shoulder.
“Oh, you must be so proud,” she exclaims, “They’re just adorable.”
She’s right. The boys are cute, innocent and wondrously trusting with eyes as blue as bowls of holy water looking at me.
Their faces hold the same believing promise Claire’s did looking up at me from the back of the closet she hid in during thunderstorms. I said then I would protect her always no matter what.
I study my grandsons’ eyes. They remind me of Adam staring into the dark green woods and of Claire as she gazes into a webcam.
I ask myself, why do we still find it so hard to look back.