“Take me! Take me! I wanna play soldier man too!”
Junior sighed. “No, Donnie. It’s big boys and they — nobody likes it when I bring along my kid brother. It’s big boy play. Understand?”
Donnie screamed, “I am a big boy! I’m bigger than you!” In an attempt to illustrate the point, Donnie jumped as high as he could and managed to touch the shoulder of his older brother.
“Donnie, we’ll play another time. I’m just going to go play with the big boys for a while. We can play something when I get home.”
Donnie screamed even louder, “I am a big boy! I’m bigger than you.” In an attempt to prove his point, he leapt onto the bed and bounced up and tapped his teeny fingers on the top of his brother’s head.
“Look, Donnie, the answer’s no. Later.” Fred Junior began lacing his Keds.
“MOMMY! MOMMY!” Donnie screamed.
Mom, who was downstairs doing dishes, sighed, dried her hands and yelled up the stairs, “What’s all the commotion about?”
“Fred says I cannot go out and play! He won’t let me! It’s a free country, Mommy!”
Mom shook her head and trundled up the stairs. “OK, look, I’ve got work to do. Junior, Donnie’s allowed to play outside too. Why don’t you just watch him for a little while so I can get my work done, okay?”
Junior closed his eyes and hung his head, “Ma, he just — he always causes trouble when he plays with my friends. He’s just — a pain.”
“He’s also your little brother. Now take him with you. And make sure he doesn’t get hurt.” She could see that Junior was about to protest, “No, no. I don’t want another word. Come back in time for dinner.” She turned and left the room.
As soon as she was out of sight, Donnie yelled after her, “Thanks Mommy!” Then, he turned to his bigger brother, stuck out his tongue and blew a raspberry. He snatched his sneakers out of his closet and began tying them.
Junior sighed and shook his head. Maybe it would be safer to walk along the creek. The two of them could look for dragonflies. Junior liked dragonflies. But then, the memory of their last walk flooded his mind — Donnie had taken great delight in catching dragonflies in his butterfly net and then pulling the wings off. What the hell was wrong with that kid, he wondered.
Fine, he thought, I’ll let him play soldiers. Maybe I can convince him to stay put and follow orders.
When they reached the vacant lot where the boys often played baseball, there was already a good-sized crowd. With — Fred counted quickly — 15 boys, they could’ve had a decent baseball game, but they hadn’t brought equipment for that. Each boy had a “sword” instead — a kind of pointed stick — not so thick as a club, but thicker than a whip. If you got hit by someone’s sword, it stung and sometimes left a bruise. Parents had occasionally seen this kind of battle and had warned the boys that “someone will get their eye poked out.”
When the parents uttered that dire warning, the boys always stopped — until the parents were out of sight — and then resumed their games. They chose up teams after deciding that today, they would be Robin Hood’s band versus The Sheriff of Nottingham’s men. Donnie, being the smallest, was naturally the last to be chosen. Donnie was on Junior’s team — one of the Sheriff’s men.
Mainly the boys enjoyed clacking their wooden “swords” against that of their opponent, making a nice “THWACK!” sound when two swords clashed. They didn’t really try to “hurt” each other but they occasionally stabbed someone (carefully) who would either fall down while groaning in agony or slash someone across the back or shoulder. Of course, the swords sometimes landed a little harder than intended.
One of “Robin Hood’s Merry Men,” Joe, tended to be a bit rough. Almost none of the older boys liked Fred’s little brother. They considered him too much of a cry-baby. But, they all cut each other a break when it came to following parents’ orders. So, they tolerated Donnie once Junior had explained that his mom had ordered him to let Donnie play too. Joe kept faking to one side and then side-stepping Donnie’s thrust in order to whack Donnie on his butt.
“STOP IT!” yelled Donnie. “Let me hit you! It isn’t fair! Make him stop, Fred!” Donnie gritted his teeth and promised himself that Joe would pay for this humiliation.
Fred put a little of his attention on blocking the blows that were aimed at Donnie as well as defending himself. This was pretty effective. Joe only managed to get one more good hit on Donnie before a “truce” was called.
The boys could see a summer storm coming. One half of the sky was blue and the other side was a foreboding blackish gray. The boys lay down on the nearby baseball diamond to watch the storm. The game now was to see which boy was brave enough to keep laying there even after the rain started. Who would be first to jump up and run home? Who would be last? The boys began to taunt each other and scream that the storm was about to hit. Everyone was fascinated by the wall of air that was moving toward them.
No-one noticed that Donnie still held his “sword” in his teeny hands and that he had snuck up behind Joe. Just then, the storm front hit one side of the baseball field and began screaming across it. The boys could hardly stay still. Suddenly, far too close for comfort, a huge lightning streak hit the metal backstop. Everyone yelled, including Joe who felt an excruciating pain in his eye.
Donnie dropped his stick and began running home. He ran just as fast as his legs could carry him and ran up the front steps and flung open the door. He looked around wildly. Mommy was in the living room listening to the radio and ironing. He ran into the room screaming, “Mommy! Mommy! Freddie put somebody’s eye out! It was terrible! I told them not to play swords!”
Mom turned and stared at Donnie. “What? What are you talking about?”
Donnie pretended to sob uncontrollably, blurting out words senselessly. “I told them. I thought we were going to play baseball, but the boys were all poking sticks at each other. There were about fifty-jillion kids there. I’m not even sure Junior did it on purpose. Maybe it was accident. Oh, it was bloody! Will Joe see? Will he be blind? Don’t hurt Freddy, Mommy. He didn’t mean to do it. I’m sure he didn’t. I’m pretty sure. He was mad at Joe. But I don’t think he’d poke his eye out on purpose, do you?”
“Slow down, Donnie. Who did what? Where’s your brother? He was supposed to watch you!”
“I ran home to tell you. I think he must have run away from home. He must feel bad about poking out Joe’s eye, don’t you think, Mommy?” Donnie rocked his head in his teeny hands and snuck looks at his mom to make sure that she was swallowing this, hook, line, and sinker. She was! He mentally patted himself on his own back. God, I’m good! he thought to himself.
“Mommy, Mommy, do you think Joe will be okay? Maybe his eye is just scratched, right Mommy?”
Mom was sure Donnie was exaggerating but she could “see” that he was genuinely upset.
Joe wasn’t the only half-blind person in the neighborhood. “I’m sure Joe will be fine. Now, Donnie, I know you’re upset but sit down and tell me what happened. Slowly. Step by step.”
Donnie almost began skipping happily to the nearby ottoman but caught himself in time. He made himself shudder and shuffle and he continued to hide his face so Mom wouldn’t see the huge grin.
“I — I — I don’t know. It all happened so fast. They wanted to play soldier. With big sticks. Junior wanted me to play but I remembered that the grown-ups had said people could get their eyes poked out. So — I didn’t want to play. Fred told me I was chicken. So, I almost joined them, then it began to rain. Hard. I think that made the sticks slippery. And, then, Joe was bleeding and Fred said, ‘Serves you right!’ And I got scared and ran home and I wanted — maybe you should call and ambulance.”
Mom shook her head. “Boys!” she muttered under her breath. Crap. How could she keep this from Fred Senior who would likely beat his son half to death. The phone rang. I can’t answer that. I have to think. She didn’t know that a lot of research had gone into designing the ringing drone of a phone so annoying that people generally felt compelled to answer it.
She strode over, patting Donnie on the shoulder as she did so.
“Hello?” she said tentatively.
Donnie could hear a woman screaming on the other end. He smiled so broadly, he had to bury his face in his hands so Mommy wouldn’t see.
And she didn’t see. Of course, she didn’t. Joe, it turned out, was only partially blinded in one eye. He never was able to play baseball very well after that.
For many years, on a boring rainy afternoon, Donnie would entertain himself by watching two raindrops race down the window pane. He would call one of them, “Fred gets beaten up by Daddy” and the other one “Joe can’t play baseball” and he would try to decide which one he liked better. It was really a tough choice.
But his favorite raindrop was probably the one he called, “No-one believes Junior when he tells the truth, but Mommy and Daddy believe me no matter what.”