Three young boys in a small southern town know what it’s like to be outcast, never picked on the playground…always the butt of jokes. Then one day, a violent playground assault by bullies brings them together, sowing the seeds of friendship and opening the door for a summer of wonder. Their lives intertwine through joy and tragedy, and the discovery of what real love and friendship mean.
“Momma?” Frankie said to his mother, staring out the window of the old Rambler she gingerly navigated through the gauntlet of potholes in the crudely paved country road.
“Yes, baby,” she replied distractedly.
“Why did my daddy have to die?” he asked, his sullen mood overshadowing the crisp spring morning.
“What was that, darlin’?” she asked, the question tak-ing her by surprise.
“Why did my daddy have to die?” he repeated.
Her mind had been on a thousand other things, like the bills she had barely enough money to pay, or the new clicking sound from under the hood that joined the erratic symphony of squeaks and rattles.
“Why do ask such a thing, baby boy?” his mother countered, feeling a little ambushed by his question.
“I dunno. I guess I just wanna know how come I don’t have a daddy, an’ all the other kids do,” he replied poignantly.
He never talked much about his father’s death. He vaguely knew when and where; he’d been told all that years before, but his young heart was troubled by “why.” Why had his father gone off to war and left him and his mother alone? Why had none of the other kids’ fathers had done that? It just wasn’t fair.
She drew a deep breath, desperate for a good answer, “Well . . . your daddy was a soldier, hun.”
“I know, Momma,” he replied, “but why did he have to go?”
“Baby, that’s what soldiers do.”
“I know that, too,” he said, slightly irritated, “but all soldiers don’t have to go to war, do they? Why did he have to?”
It was a good question; he had every right to ask it. She could sense his frustration, and she began grasping for a way to explain to a ten-year-old something that she had difficulty understanding herself.
What makes a man leave his family and risk death in a foreign land in the service of his country?
“Well . . . some really bad people in a country far away were killing other helpless people who couldn’t fight back,” his mother said. “So our government sent . . . “
Some really bad people? his mother thought. Geez, he’s not five! This is so lame . . .
“Momma . . . “ he stopped her. “I know all about the war. We talk about it a lot in school.”
But it was never any fun for him. When they did talk about the war, he could feel the looks and hear the whis-pers aimed at him. Kids would ask him questions as if he were some kind of expert on the war, just because his father was killed in it.
But usually the looks and comments felt more like accusations, as if the war were somehow his responsibility . . . just because his father was killed.
“Why did he think that other folks in a ‘nuther coun-try needed him more than you an’ me did here at home?” the boy started to ask. “I mean, I know helpin’ to protect folks that can’t protect themselves is a good thing to do an’ all, but . . . “ His question faded on his lips.
He thought, Did my daddy really love us? Maybe it was just me? Maybe he didn’t really want a kid.
Outside, the weather-gnarled fence posts, strung with sagging, rusty barbed wire, clicked slowly by. A white-faced brindle cow chewed contentedly on her cud, while her new calf eagerly sought breakfast from her huge udder.
“Darlin’, soldiers don’t get to choose what they are sent to do. They just do as they are ordered to do. That’s what being a soldier is about, and your daddy was a good soldier.”
She understood what soldiering was about. She just never understood why Jack had chosen to be one. She had always admired the nobility of his choice, but that noble choice had cost her a husband and a soul mate, and it had denied their son a father. He had left a huge void in their lives, with no good explanation.
“Well, don’t that stupid country have their own sol-diers?” he spat bitterly. Stupid Veet-nam people! Why don’t they just fight their own war?
“Yes, baby, they do, but they’re just not very good.” She struggled to find the right words. She could hear the anger in his voice.
“The bad guys had help from another big country like ours, so the people they attacked couldn’t defend them-selves very well,” she explained.
She tried to keep her explanation as simple as she could. He would never understand the politics behind the war. Not many grown-ups did.
“You see, their government isn’t a very good one or a very strong one, either. They were afraid the bad guys might take over and kill a whole lot of people, so they asked our government for help. We sent soldiers like your daddy . . . and other kids’ daddies, too . . . to stop them.”
“But they didn’t stop ‘em, did they?” he asked irritably. He’d seen the evening news often enough to know that the war wasn’t going well, or so Walter Cronkite said.
“Well, not completely . . . not yet,” she answered. She shared his irritation. “That’s why the war is still going on.” She wondered if she was ever going to be able to turn on the television and not see the gruesome battlefield reports or hear the daily body count, so faithfully and morbidly presented by the sanctimonious talking heads.
Network ratings required reporting death and destruction in the name of “public interest,” while Americans consumed frozen dinners on their TV trays, amid the soft glow of the smiling faces in living color. “It’s like the Nazis and the Japs in the movies, ain’t it?”
he asked, as he struggled to understand.
“Well, yeah, sort of, but it’s a long story, sweetie, a little too long for Momma to go into it right now. But we’ll talk about it later, I promise. We can talk at dinner tonight, if you want.”
“Okay, Momma,” he replied, mumbling dejectedly. “Why couldn’t he just stay home and protect me an’ you?” His question tugged urgently at her heart. She pulled the car off to the side of the road and stopped.
Turning to him, she asked, “Darlin’ boy, why do you ask that? Do you need protecting from something . . . or someone?”
“No, Momma, I’m okay. I mean. . . . Some of the kids tease me a little . . . sometimes, but I don’t really care. They’re just bein’ buttho . . . “ he stopped, seeing his mother’s eyebrows rise.
Not having a father was tough on a boy in a small farm town. But at least his parents had been married and his father had died “honorably.” He knew about other kids who weren’t so fortunate. He knew how they suf-fered mercilessly at the hands of the “normal” kids.
However, being “fatherless” had still made him an outcast among those “normal” kids. Sadly, being “nor-mal” was desperately important in a small farm town.
“I just wish I had a daddy, too. Like all the other kids,” he said, looking down at his worn Red Ball Jet sneakers and fidgeting with the handle on his Superman lunchbox.
Her response stuck in her throat. What could she say? All she could do was lean over and draw her son into an embrace and hope he wouldn’t notice her eyes starting to water.
“I know, baby.” She managed keep her voice from trembling. “So do I. . . . So do I,” she said, rocking back and forth, as much to comfort herself as to comfort him.
After a brief moment, she released him and turned back to the steering wheel, discretely wiping the tears she couldn’t hold back.
“I’m sorry, Momma,” he apologized sadly, seeing her tears. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
“That’s all right, sweetie, you didn’t make Momma cry,” she said, her voice cracking. “I miss him, too. More than you know. But Frankie . . . baby boy . . . don’t ever be afraid to talk to me about your daddy, okay? That’s how we keep him alive . . . in our hearts. He was a good man, and a brave man, too. He helped save a lot of people who would have died otherwise. You should be very proud of him.”
Smiling a watery-eyed smile, she added, “He was a wonderful father. . . just like you’re a wonderful son. He was so proud of you.”
It hurt her deeply that her son would never know how great a man his father was. But there wasn’t much she could do about it. She could only try and be there for him with answers to his questions and stories about what kind of man his father had been.
She steered the sputtering car back onto the road. Mother and son spent the rest of the drive to school in silence.
He imagined what it would have been like to have a father to play football with or to go fishing with . . . or maybe to even build a model with.
A short while later, they pulled up to the elementary school. Frankie opened the creaking door, but before he got out, he reached up to kiss his mother’s cheek.
She smiled warmly and said, “Your daddy would have been so proud of his little man. I know I sure am.”
He scrambled out of the car and paused as he closed the door. He looked back at her and said, “I think he’d of been proud of you, too, Momma. I know I sure am.”
She sat for a few minutes, wiping fresh tears from her cheek and watching him amble slowly into school with the other children.
Then, with effort, she shoved her emotions back into the heart-shaped box she kept them in and drove off into another day without Jack. But try as she may, thoughts of her husband forced their way out of that box and brought more tears.
One by one, they crept relentlessly into her aching heart. Her thorny reverie was only briefly interrupted as she pulled up to the gates of the factory. The crag-gy-faced security guard, as old as the factory he guarded, smiled a toothless smile and waved her through. She wove through the gravel parking lot, searching for the closest spot to the factory entrance as possible. The trek across the rutted lot was dusty but, thankfully, short. Well, at least it wasn’t raining.
All that day, her son’s questions haunted her thoughts. Time after time, driven by mere rote repetition, she pushed the big mushroom-shaped button that brought the hydraulic press slamming down to cut large sheets of asbestos tile into small squares.
Normally, the pounding din of the machines around her was mind-numbing enough to keep her from think-ing about anything for very long.
But today, the painful memories relentlessly plagued her thoughts. It was as if they stood in line waiting to take their turn sticking their particular pin into her heart. With each stack of freshly cut tiles she placed on the waiting pallet, another memory imposed itself upon her. There was no escape, no respite.
The monotony of repeatedly moving one tile-filled pallet and replacing it with an empty one only made things worse. Nothing different offered itself to rescue her from the overwhelming brambles and snares her thoughts imposed upon her.
Some small salvation came when the lunch whistle screeched over the cacophonous din of the production line. The usual buzzing chatter of the factory cafeteria managed to push her thoughts aside and brought her some temporary sanctuary.
Taking her usual place among her fellow worker ants at one of the long rows of picnic tables covered with red-checkered, plastic tablecloths, she made a concerted effort to get caught up in chitchat and the latest gossip around town.
For an all-too-brief a time, life felt normal amidst the chatter and the smoke of hundreds of cigarettes being hurriedly chain-smoked before the whistle herded the worker ants back to their respective anthill duties. She shared her neighbor’s Marlboro, whether she wanted to or not.
But, back on the line, the lingering specters shang-haied her once again and promptly marched her back into the shadows of her mind.
She was thankful that no clock had been placed where workers could watch it. Watching the clock would have made things infinitely worse. She could not remember anticipating a shift change so much as she did on this endlessly bothersome day.
Her job was tedious and boring, but it paid the bills . . . barely. Though dusty and hot during the muggy Southern summers, it was better than the noxious fumes and freezing cold Northern winters she had endured at the paint factory she had worked at before returning to Haleyville.
Neither did she did miss the obnoxious advances from every horny hound dog, single and married alike. At least here, the men behaved themselves and were even courteous, in a Southern sort of way. She suspected that such behavior happened because the women work-ing on the line knew their wives and their girlfriends, so the married men behaved and even kept the single men in line.
Cynically, though, she was sure they would gather after work at any one of the taverns near the plant and crudely speculate about what they would like to do to this woman or to that one.