Friday, December 11, 2009

The Ride

The usual way was to pile a bunch of boys in a car and get to the camping ground that way. But on this day, for whatever reason, the boy and his father rode unaccompanied by others in the family car.

It was a sunny day, and it wasn't winter. They headed north into Wisconsin. He realized he wasn't often alone with his father on these Boy Scout affairs. Usually they would split up; the boy would would spend these camp-outs erecting tents, going on the hikes, doing the rest in a cluster of friends; getting signed off on various Boy Scout instructional lessons which impart some actual useful skills and are designed to keep the boys on the right path. His father would meanwhile be doing father things with the other men - moving logs, fueling lamps, unpacking chests of food. Each of them enjoyed the company of those who were not seen every day.

He was always slightly afraid of his father. A gentle man who probably feared his own anger, mild as it was, more than he feared any other man, he had really only spanked the boy, or his brother, once or twice, years ago, and perhaps whacked his backside once long ago with a belt - enough so that in later years he only had to frown and touch his belt buckle, and he and his brother would quickly realize they were on the wrong side of a line.

A transplanted Southerner, one day over the supper table he had announced a new deal. He had detected some disrespect, he said. The children became serious. He went on. From that point on, the children were to say "Yes sir" and "No sir" and "Yes ma'am" and "No, ma'am." Over the next several months, he even trained the boys in the rudiments of military formation. And the boys, like dogs, loved it.

But mostly it was a vague feeling of not wanting to disappoint. The boy let the moment dissolve in the sun and the road. It was good, too, to have his father all to himself. The quiet between them became comfortable. After a while the boy spoke:

"Why don't you tell me a story about when you were in the Army?"

"Once in Alaska, I had night time guard duty, and I had to walk around the outside of the fence. Yes, it was very cold. We wore parkas over our uniforms. I turned the corner and came face to face with an Arctic timber wolf. I think it surprised both of us. They aren't like a dog; they're big, maybe 80 pounds."

"I was very scared, because he didn't run away; he just sat there looking at me. So I drew back the bolt on my rifle. I didn't even see him go. One second he was there and then he was gone. He just disappeared. They're smart. He knew that sound, what my gun was; they know about man."

"I'll tell you about a fellow I knew up there. He was an older man. I was a little older than most of the other men but he was a lot older. He didn't get along with the younger men very well. In his forties I guess. He was a writer. Books, detective stories. Yes, I read some of them after the war. They were all right, I guess."

The boy's interest faded a bit; he looked out the window for a few seconds. For some reason the man raised his voice a bit, and lightly slapped the steering wheel. "Listen! This is important!"

"I was his only friend. But he was always complaining about the Army's ways of doing things; about how there were better ways or how stupid they were. I finally told him, 'Hammett, it just doesn't do any good to complain; you may as well try to look on the bright side of things.'

"He looked at me like he had never thought of it that way. Yes, I think he was a little better after that.

"What happened to him? Well he got out of the Army when the war was over, just like all of us! A few years later he died and your mother and I were invited for me to speak at his funeral service. His wife sent a letter. No, we didn't go. He was a communist. At that time, if I had gone, they would have thought I was a communist too."

Just then, the man and the boy saw part of the convoy of Boy Scouts had stopped a couple of cars at the side of the road at the turn off, signaling to the car that this was the turn onto the dirt road that led to the camp ground. The story was over.

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