by Kenneth Robbins
Sandy spent a long weekend with his first cousin, Alfred Thornston. Alfy’s mother was Sandy’s daddy’s sister and his daddy was Fuzz Thornston, noted hero of Iwo Jima, decorated with a Purple Heart and commendation for bravery in the face of the enemy. Alfy was proud of his daddy’s war record and bragged about him at every possible turn. Sandy wanted to brag about his daddy’s war record, but Howell didn’t care to talk about it for some reason.
Alfy was six months older than Sandy, and when you’re nearly six-and-a-half, six months can make an impressive difference. Because of his advanced years, Alfy was Sandy’s boss, and Sandy didn’t mind. Time (or as he would put it, “the sun”) was on his side: he knew his turn for bossing others would come. Besides, Sandy was the guest in Alfy’s house, so it was logical to take orders. When Alfy returned the favor by spending a weekend with Sandy on the farm, surely the roles would be reversed. Of course, life doesn’t work that way, but Sandy was too young to realize this factoid of human interaction. He would have to learn it on his own.
Uncle Fuzz worked five days a week in the cotton mill. He was a foreman. He was important. On Saturdays, he fished. He kept his fishing gear in the back of his pick-up truck and spent the entire day on the banks of Johnson Lake a few miles in the country. Alfy wasn’t allowed to accompany his daddy on the fishing expedition. “In a year, maybe,” Uncle Fuzz promised, “but for now, you stay home with Sandy here and take care of your momma.” Of course, Aunt Betty didn’t need taken care of, which meant Alfy with his cousin Sandy in tow, was free to do whatever came to mind.
“Whatta you wanna do?” Sandy said. He was already bored. Alfy did that to others, made them bored rather quickly.
“The hutch,” Alfy whispered. Sandy saw no reason for whispering, but Alfy seemed to think it was necessary. “Let’s explore the hutch.”
The hutch to which Alfy referred was a homemade free-standing one-room storage unit near the rear of Uncle Fuzz’s and Aunt Betty’s property. It was made of cast-off lumber, recycled fence posts, and the trunks of small saplings. It was quickly and crudely constructed. The most impressive thing about the little out-building was the lock that secured the lone door. It was massive, far more substantial than the door it held in place. It spoke the message: “Do not mess with me!” If the entire building had been torn down, the only element worth salvaging would be the lock.
“Do you know what my daddy keeps locked up inside the hutch?” Alfy asked.
“Nuh-uh,” said Cousin Sandy.
“Me neither.” Alfy walked around the perimeter of the building. It didn’t take long. It wasn’t that big. “Must be important, though,” Alfy said.
“Ain’t it obvious? That’s a twenty dollar lock, Sandy. That means: whatever’s inside the hutch has got to be worth at least twenty dollars, probably more.”
Sandy was obviously too practical for his years. He asked, “Why don’t you ask your daddy what’s inside?”
“He won’t tell me.” Alfy kicked at the rickety door and marveled at how flimsy the building materials were. “He said. Stay away from the hutch, Alfred. I asked him how come. And he yelled at me. Just stay away from it. That’s an order, soldier.”
Sandy nodded. “Wow,” he said. He didn’t say he knew how to get inside the hutch. He had it figured out without giving the question more than a glance. Piece of chocolate cake his daddy, Howell Madison Cobb, would say. He wanted to know what his Uncle Fuzz considered so important that he kept it under lock and key. Instead, he said, “He called you soldier?”
“Sure as shooting,” Alfy said.
“Then, let’s you and me play war. Come on.”
The rest of that Saturday morning, the two first cousins played at war. Sticks were rifles. Sticks with a shorter stick tied to the end were rifles with bayonets. Clods of dirt were hand grenades. The flocks of Guinea hens that roosted in the trees around Alfy’s house were the enemy. It took patience and conning to manage an imaginary kill with a mean-spirited Guinea hen. After a few flawed sneak attacks, the two gave up on using the Guineas as playmates. It made no difference how many times a Guinea was hit by rapid firing machine guns or exploded with perfectly tossed grenades, they refused to play dead. Instead, they pecked at the dirt clods and charged with ruffled feathers and a challenging squawk at the two boys when they ventured too close.
“I know,” Alfy said. “I’ll be a GI and you be a Jap.”
“Why can’t I be a GI?”
“Because it was my idea. You’d make a better Jap than me. You’re skinny.”
“Japs are skinny?”
“Cause they eat raw meat and fish. I’m gonna count to ten and you go hide. Then, I’ll find you and kill you.”
“’Less I kill you first.”
“Not gonna happen, slant eyes, not gonna happen.”
“Okay. Shut your eyes.” With that, Sandy darted away, leaving Alfy with his eyes only partially closed.
The next thirty minutes, the game screeched to a boring halt. Alfy could not find his quarry. The Thornston property wasn’t that expansive, but search as he might, Alfy could not locate the Japanese stronghold, meaning, the war came to an anticlimactic stoppage before it had begun. Just as he was ready to give up, locate his cousin, and propose another game, he was attacked by submachine gun fire and a perfectly lobbed grenade which threw dirt and dust on his shoe tops. “You’re dead, Yankee GI! Fall down and die!” Sandy’s voice was filled with the elation of victory.
“I can’t be dead!” Alfy complained. “GIs don’t die. They just get wounded.”
“Then, fall down wounded cause I got you good.”
Alfy fell to the ground and groaned in agony. After a few seconds of thrashing, he said, “Where are you, Sandy?”
“I’m in here,” he said. “Inside the hutch.” Then, he said, adopting his cousin’s whisper, “I think I just shot you with the real thing, a real, honest-to-goodness Japanese rifle.”
“Get out of there, stupid. My daddy’ll kill you if he finds out.”
“Okay,” and in a moment, he was sitting on the ground beside his first cousin.
Alfy wanted to protect himself and Sandy from his daddy’s anger but the opportunity to know something new was too much for him. “What’s in there?”
“Oh, stuff you wouldn’t believe. Boxes of it. Things like this.” And he pulled something that looked like a shrunken pineapple from his pocket. “I think this is the real thing, Alfy.”
“Jumping Joseph’s Christmas Morning,” Alfy said, taking the object and fondling it like an over-ripe orange. “Do you really think this is the uh the uh the. . .”
“Real do-hickey, yeah. Careful, don’t pull that thing on the end. That would probably activate it and send us to the other side of yonder.”
“How do you know that?”
“I don’t,” Sandy said. “I just figured there must be something that sets it off, and that pin sort of says ‘I’m it.’”
“We gotta put it back, skinny.”
“Okay.” He gently returned the object to the pocket of his dungarees.
“Wait a minute. How’d you get in the hutch in the first place?”
“Easy,” he said with a shrug. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
The rusted hinges of the slab of wood that served as a poor replacement for a door were mostly floating free. A little tug at the bottom and it swung clear enough to admit a kid the size of Sandy who slipped into the hutch with no problems. Alfy, a bit larger, a bit less facile with his coordination, became stuck halfway in. The hinge bolts at the top of the “door” creaked in protest as he placed more and more stress on their bindings. Then, he was in. It was dark. It was dank and smelly. It was . . .
“Holy Joseph and Mary,” he whispered.
What he saw was this: the hutch was a storehouse of armature—a rack of rifles, some with bayonets, rifle clips, boxes of cartridges, boxes of grenades, several mortar rounds, and items that neither Sandy nor Alfy could identify. There was a small greenish tunic with several reddish emblems attached. Under the left shoulder was a hole about the size of a thimble and under that a small smudge of blackish hardened fluid. There was a small cap next to the tunic, so small that it would not fit on Sandy’s head. The paraphernalia took up most of the rear wall of the tiny shed. So this is what Uncle Fuzz found valuable enough to merit a twenty dollar lock. It was well worth it, every cent.
“What’s this?” Alfy said, taking a small box from a shelf.
“We shouldn’t be in here, cuz,” Sandy said. He fully expected his uncle to crash through the flimsy door at any moment and thrash the two of them with his military belt.
“Would you lookit this,” Alfy whispered. He had opened the sealed box and pulled a few browned paper-covered sticks from inside it. “What do you think this is?”
Sandy held one of the sticks in his hand and smelled it. “I don’t know but I can sure guess.”
“Me, too,” confirmed Alfy. He put the end of one of the sticks in his mouth and grinned. “Look at me, skinny, I’m a Jap soldier. Wanna light up?”
“I guess,” Sandy said. He wasn’t sure if it would be safe to put a match to one of the sticks. He didn’t know if it would burn or blow up. Besides, he breathed with assurance: neither he nor Alfy had a match.
Alfy dug deeper into the box, dumping several of the sticks on the ground. Then he produced a small book of matches. The outside of the match book showcased curious symbols, or maybe they were pictures of the Japanese homeland. Maybe the pictures were really Japanese writing, telling anyone who could read it that the matches inside the book weren’t matches at all but secret exploding devices intended to kill or maim anyone stupid enough to strike them. That is what Sandy said but Alfy ignored him.
He struck a match. He put it to the end of the paper stick. He sucked in. He coughed. He sucked again. “This is great,” he said with smoke pouring out of his mouth like the kid was on fire. “Try it.”
Sandy tried it. The sticks were indeed cigarettes unlike any he had ever seen before. Both his momma and daddy smoked, but their cigarettes looked nothing like the one he put a match to. The aroma of the smoke wasn’t like that produced by their cigarettes either. This cigarette stank. It smelled of rubber burning, of old clothes simmering, of dried stink weeds and week-old cabbage and pancakes that had been left on the stove too long.
Sandy said, “This thing is . . .”
“Great! Right? Hey, stinky, we’re real . . .” but he didn’t finish. The door to the hutch swung open and sunlight flooded in. In the door stood a giant, black and faceless but definitely a man, feet apart, hands on hips, and fishing rod dangling in the open doorway.
“What in God’s name!” the giant bellowed. “What the hell do you think you’re doing!”
Sandy did not spend the weekend with his cousin after all. Aunt Betty called his mother and said she should come collect her son right away, the sooner the better. He was in trouble, this much he knew, but not as much trouble as Alfred Thornston. The poor kid was gonna get his butt whacked but good, but such a punishment would not be meted until after Sandy’s departure. “Oh, Joseph and Mary,” he said to Indella as she stuffed him into the backseat of the car “I don’t feel so good.”
That’s when he discovered that upchucking in the backseat of his parents’ car wasn’t a good idea at all. It only extended the whipping his daddy gave him by a good five minutes.
After all was said and done and Sandy had been exiled to the tool shed, he rummaged through his memory of his play date with Cousin Alfy. As intriguing as it had been, as much fun as it had provided, as much delight he felt in doing something that he knew was going to bring the wrath of his daddy upon him, the one thing that he knew for certain: he determined that he would never smoke a cigarette again.
To my knowledge, Sanders Elliot Cobb was true to his decision. He did many things wrong in his life that followed, but smoking wasn’t among them. He would leave smoking to others who possessed a stronger digestive system.