He was not literally an orphan, but he was a lost child. He was born in 1939 and his father was in the army—a low-level officer on General George S. Patton’s staff who was gone for the whole of the Second World War—and they would not meet each other until he was seven years old. When he was four, his mother took him—dragged might be a better word—to Chicago, where she went to work in a munitions plant making twenty-millimeter cannon shells. She had grown up on a small northern Minnesota farm, wearing handsewn dresses made out of flour sacks and earning, if she was lucky, twenty-five cents a week. She now had a seemingly endless supply of pocket money from her steady hourly wage but was not even remotely prepared to resist the temptations of the big city. Caught up in a life of heavy drinking and wild partying, she no longer had the time or attention to raise the boy right. She didn’t even celebrate his birthday.
Word of her newfound lifestyle found its way back to a small army of the boy’s relatives in northern Minnesota. His grandmother was working as a cook for a road crew of old men—almost all the young men had been drafted for the war—who were building a road into Canada. A road connecting the United States to the interior of Canadian bush country was thought to be necessary in case the war dragged on or the U.S. was attacked. At that time, no one was remotely certain that America was safe from invasion. The Japanese surprise attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and, six months later, their invasion of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska were both still recent and frightening memories.
Grandmother was critical, then concerned, and finally horrified after learning that the boy’s mother was not only going out more than was good for her, but was also taking him with her to bars, dressed in a small army uniform to sing on tabletops: “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy. A kid’ll eat ivy, too, wouldn’t you?” Except his five-year-old version came out: “Marezeedotes. Andoezeedotes. Anlittlelamzeedivy. Akidleedivytoowoodenyou?” The silly song he sang meant more attention for her.
He thought it was wonderful fun, because the men who wanted to meet his mother—a blue-eyed blonde who turned heads wherever she went—showered him with Coca-Cola and candy bars and fried chicken and hamburgers, all of which were hard to get because of strict wartime food rationing. He was, at age five, becoming something of a celebrity in the beer joints near the war plant.
Despite the fact that time is, of course, a constant, he learned it is differently paced at various points in life. When you’re old, the years race by, but when you’re young, very young, days and weeks seem to crawl and even stop. The period he spent “working” the bars in Chicago, singing to draw men for his mother, lasted only a month or so, but it seemed a forever way of life before his grandmother—now past horrified and well into scandalized—arranged to end it and save him from a life, she felt, of degradation and waste.
The way she solved this problem said worlds about how the rest of his life would go. Her way of thinking taught him, early on, to deal with problems in a really practical, simple way: If it doesn’t work Here, go over There.
His grandmother showed him this lesson the first time that summer in Chicago. His life wasn’t working well Here, she thought, and she had an astonishing number of relatives available There, on farms in the northern part of Minnesota, not to mention that she herself was available to take him where she was, in the southern Canadian bush cooking for a road crew, living on a cot in a cook-shack trailer.
Simple. Problem solved. Get him out of the clutches of the fleshpots in the big city and send him to stay, in turn, on one of the numerous family farms she found available and, eventually, with her in the trailer in the cook camp itself. She ordered his mother in a short and tersely worded letter to put him on a train in Chicago.
And his mother obeyed. She dropped him off at the train station to make the four-hundred-mile run to Minneapolis to connect to a different, slower north-woods train that would take him north another four hundred or so miles to International Falls, Minnesota, on the Canadian border, where he would be met by a total stranger to take him the final rough distance to the first farm his grandmother had selected.
A five-year-old child. Completely and totally alone.
He made this trip during the height of wartime, when masses of people were moving around the world, across the United States; vast, desperate herds of soldiers and civilians shifting from city to city, coast to coast—going to the war, coming from the war, fighting in the war. Air travel—simple two-motor prop planes with limited altitude or distance ability—was virtually nonexistent for the average citizen, and since it was nearly impossible to buy gasoline or tires or oil, which were strictly rationed for the war effort, traveling any distance by car was equally out of reach.
But railroad tracks went everywhere, which meant that anybody who wanted to move across any real distance traveled by train. Consequently, every train, no matter the day or the destination or the hour, was always, always packed with people. Short trips, long trips, slow hauls, fast hauls—it didn’t matter. If you were fortunate enough to find space—because the military had seating priority—you went by train.
His mother took him to the station in Chicago, carrying his small cardboard suitcase. She pinned a note to the chest of his faded corduroy jacket scribbled with his name and destination, shoved a five-dollar bill in his pocket, hugged him briefly, and handed him over to a conductor. He was a kindly-looking older man wearing Ben Franklin glasses and holding a silver hand punch to make holes in tickets, who assured her that the boy would be “carefully watched.” As soon as his mother’s back was turned, he jammed the boy in a seat between two wounded soldiers coming home to recuperate, and disappeared—he would not be seen again for the whole trip.
The boy was, of course, in awe of the soldiers and wanted to ask them many questions: Had they killed any Germans or Japanese? Did they know his father? Where were their rifles? But they slept, perhaps drugged unconscious by painkillers, the entire journey from Chicago to Minneapolis. He had to satisfy his curiosity about them by merely peeking at the bloodstains seeping through their bandages.
Although meant to be an express, or high-speed, journey, the train virtually crawled. The distance from Chicago to Minneapolis should have taken ten or eleven hours to cover, but the numerous stops along the way stretched the trip over a full day and night.
In a short time the boy became bored, and then restless, so he pushed his suitcase under the seat, eased gently from between the two sleeping men, and set off to explore the train. He immediately learned that the cars were, in fact, a moving hospital. Wounded men were in nearly every seat, and many of them were much worse off than the two men the conductor had put the boy between. He saw half–body casts; shoulder and arm casts that made the arm stand out to the side; countless bound and leaking wounds; horrible red, shiny burns; missing arms and legs.
What he saw on that train was not the face of war that had been shown to the public. This was long before television, but there were newspapers at stands on every corner that reported on men fighting and being hit and killed. Every now and then they might print a picture of a dead enemy soldier, but the pictures were always “clean”; tidy, intact bodies that could have been sleeping. The pictures in the newspapers never showed open wounds, eviscerated or blown-apart bodies, or burned flesh crawling with flies and maggots.
But here, on the train, was the brutal truth, the true cost of war. He was too young to understand much of what he was seeing. Even so, he knew that America was a big place, covered with train tracks and countless other trains, and he thought, if every train had this many wounded and shattered men, how could there be any men left to fight in the war?
Before he walked through those train cars, he had somehow believed that if any of our soldiers were unlucky enough to get hit, the end result would only be a small flesh wound that healed quickly under a small bandage. He had never considered that anyone in war could ever be this badly injured.
He staggered from car to car, dizzied by the overwhelming numbers of wounded men, the cloying smell of blood and wounds, the sickening odor of medical alcohol, and the dead tang stench of stale urine.
Finally, after moving through three or four cars, careful to jump over the clacking cracks between cars, he found the dining car, where he smelled food, pungent and crisp, frying in grease, which could not entirely cover the odor of the wounded men.
He thought suddenly of his father. His mother had a black-and-white headshot of him on her dresser—which she would lay facedown when she was entertaining men—with his cheeks hand-tinted pink to make him look more alive. He wondered if his father was on a train somewhere like these men, and if he was alone and, worse yet, if he would be gone before they ever had the chance to meet. The thought made him violently ill.
He was huddled, retching, in a corner near the end of the car when a tall man wearing a starched white jacket appeared behind him, leaned out and over the boy like a living shelter, and asked in a voice so deep it sounded like thunder: “What is it that makes you so sick, little man?”
“My daddy,” he gasped through the vomiting, “he’s in the war and I thought … he might be on another train like this somewhere … or hurt like these soldiers … I might never get to see him.”
The porter, his name was Sam, wrapped the boy in long, strong arms and held him, making a small sound, like singing from far away, soft and gentle, until the boy settled down.
“Don’t you worry, mister man,” Sam said in a hushed voice, “don’t you worry long. Your daddy’ll be all right, all right.”
The boy peeked at the porter holding him. “How do you know?”
“I see it,” he answered, “see it in you. You got the light, the right light coming on, coming in, coming out—shows all over you, so bright you could read by it in the night. Your daddy’s going to be all right. But some of these boys…” His voice trailed off. “Some of these boys are having to be men too soon and they need help. You want to help me help them?”
The boy had no idea what he was talking about, but Sam’s voice was so soothing and his eyes were so gentle and kind that he nodded. “I want to help.”
“Then here, you take this bucket full of sandwiches and I’ll take this other bucket with the good juice. You follow me and hand out food to those who are hungry. I’ll hand out what I’ve got to those who are just thirsty.” Then he set off for the front of the club car, and the boy followed him, gripping the heavy silver bucket with both hands, his stubby legs churning to keep up.
After they moved to the front of the club car and entered the regular passenger cars, he went seat to seat to the wounded men and, if they were awake, offered them food while Sam offered drink from the good juice bucket. Hardly any of them wanted to eat, but many, most of them it seemed, wanted to sip from the brown bottle Sam carried in his bucket. A bottle just like many of the bottles he saw his mother and her guests drinking from in Chicago.
Many of the men smiled at them, but some did not. Those men seemed to not see at all and, especially if they sipped from the bottle, kept looking away, off and away, through them, clean through them, as if Sam and the boy weren’t even there, as if they weren’t there either, as if the train did not exist and nothing was there and never had been there and never would be there.
Years later, when he was in the army himself, he would remember those men and the way they stared. Only then did he understand the ripping, tearing, burning thought-pictures that only someone who has been in combat could ever know. The look they called “the thousand-yard stare.”
Of course he did not know that when he was five years old. He saw only that they seemed to be in a daze. As he and Sam handed out the food and drink in the silver buckets and went back to the club car to replenish the buckets—the men drank up the brown fluid much faster than they ate the sandwiches—the wounded soldiers were so completely silent that all the passengers in the train cars seemed ghost-like.
By the third or perhaps fourth or fifth refill, the boy was so exhausted that he started weaving more than walking. He was not sure how or when it happened, but Sam picked him up, buckets and all, and carried him back to the couches at the end of the club car. He did not know anything else until he awakened hours later to a gentle nudging at his shoulder and opened his eyes to see Sam smiling down at him. He was curled up on one of the couches, wrapped in a light green blanket of soft wool, and had been dreaming of something that filled him and made him comfortable. Though he couldn’t remember the dream itself, he hated to wake up and lose the feeling.
“We here, little man,” Sam said, nudging his shoulder again. “We in Minneapolis. The conductor’s got to take you off this train and put you on a different one. Open up, open those eyes, and see me.”
The boy was so thick with sleep and bone-tired that he couldn’t wake up. His eyes closed as he felt himself being picked up and handed to another man—another older man like the first conductor. He carried the boy and his suitcase off the train and into the crowds of people flowing between trains. Set him down on the platform—even though he was still not fully awake—and held the boy tightly by the hand as they moved through the masses of men and women. The boy trundled next to him, staggering along, dragged by the one hand for what seemed an impossibly long time until he was handed to yet another man standing in front of yet another train. This was another conductor dressed in a dark work suit with a small, semi-military black cap, and he, too, picked the boy up and deposited him on a landing between two railroad cars, before climbing the steps and pulling him into the open end of the car.
He jammed the boy in another seat—alone this time as there were no wounded soldiers on this train nor, blessedly, any smell of alcohol or urine—and covered him with a coarse woolen blanket, his suitcase at his feet.
“Stay here,” the conductor said. “When we’re moving, I’ll bring you something to eat and drink.” Then he was gone.
The boy was suddenly wide awake, and as he looked around, he saw that this second train was different from the first. The car was much older than the previous train and, though clean, more threadbare and worn, with cracked leather seats and worn spots through the rubber floor in the aisle. The boy would find later there was no dining car or porters—but the conductor soon handed him a sandwich and a small bottle of milk, which he ate in the seat in the passenger car.
Filling his belly led him to the discovery that the bathrooms at the end of the car—again, while sparkling clean—were not even remotely designed to be used by a small boy. Alert now, having left home nearly a day ago, and now with a full stomach, he needed to use the toilet. For many previously disastrously embarrassing reasons—usually occurring in the bars where his mother had him singing—he had worked very hard and become inordinately proud of being able to properly use the big boy potty. So, after the conductor pointed out the facilities to him, he entered the all-metal cubicle full of confidence and pulled the door closed behind him.
But the commode was absolutely nothing like the toilets in the saloons or the apartment they had lived in. This one had complicated rods and levers and faucets of shiny steel, and the seat was so high above the floor that he had to climb up, using the steel-covered toilet-paper roller for a handhold.
He stood, flummoxed, for a moment, but his pride would not let him go back out, find the conductor, and ask for help. And his stomach pointed out with urgent enthusiasm that he had no time for a delay of any length.
So he lowered his pants, grabbed the steel toilet-paper roller like a mountain climber attacking Everest, and squatted. The toilet fixture had, of course, been designed for an adult bottom with adult dimensions and he was only five and small for his age. He did his business but then his grip slipped and he dropped like a stone down inside the toilet, jammed tail down with his shoulders against the back of the seat and his knees on either side of his face. Wedged in that position he could no longer reach the toilet-paper bracket—the only possible handhold—to pull himself up and out.
A sudden knock on the door brought home to him the fact that he was not only trapped in a toilet, but also on a train with many other people who needed to share the one toilet.
The person who had first knocked politely, now rattled the handle of the door impatiently. The boy panicked and struggled harder, jamming himself still farther in the bowl.
After a few moments of silent, frantic effort to free himself, the door to the toilet opened—thankfully, he had not locked it—and a soldier stood in front of him wearing a wool uniform with stripes on the left sleeve. The right sleeve had been cut away to allow for a shoulder-to-arm plaster cast that forced his arm straight out to the side.
“I’m stuck,” the boy said in case the soldier had not noticed.
“At least nobody is shooting at you.”
“Is that what happened to you? You were in a hole and somebody shot you?”
He didn’t answer the question. “Do you want help?”
The boy nodded and held up his hands.
The wounded soldier leaned forward, twisting sideways to clear his awkward plaster cast, and used his good arm to grab the boy’s hands and jerk him out of the toilet. He turned away politely while the boy cleaned himself up with wads of toilet paper, hoping he would not stink of urine or worse, and pulled up his pants.
“Do you want help?” the boy asked as it occurred to him that the soldier’s arm might be as problematic in this small space as his own size had been to him. He wondered, too, if this was what it meant to be a grown man, helping another man out of tricky situations.
He shook his head. “I’ve had plenty of practice now.” He waved the boy out of the toilet and the boy went back to his seat. The soldier did not come out for a long time, and the boy worried that maybe he did need help after all. But finally he emerged and gave a small nod to the boy as he moved to the end of the car, where he sat down next to a woman, his arm jutting into the aisle. They began talking in low voices and the boy could not hear what they said, but he looked very serious and she pointed once to his arm and then looked out the window, as if she were mad at him. Embarrassed at watching something so private, the boy turned away.
It was late in the day—nearly dark—and he settled back, not quite lying down, and probably would have slept except that the train stopped at every little set of buildings, shacks, really, that seemed to be in the center of countless small farms stretching on either side of the train tracks. The train did not stop long at any of the stations, but, at each one, a number of people left the train—usually soldiers, both wounded and not—and other people came on, usually older women carrying dented galvanized-metal farm buckets filled with food they handed out to people on the train. One of the women gave the boy two hard-boiled eggs and a huge sandwich made with great chunks of meat on thick-cut homemade bread slathered with salted lard that tasted like butter, enough food to make two meals for a small person. She also gave him a pint jar of warm milk rich with cream, so sweet it must have had honey or sugar in it. He ate part of the sandwich and drank some milk, before screwing the lid back on the jar and wrapping what was left of the sandwich in some newspaper from the seat in front of him. Then he tucked the leftovers in the corner of the seat next to him, propped up so the milk wouldn’t fall over, leaned back, closed his eyes, and was instantly asleep.
Even with the stop-and-go slow progress, the gentle motion of the train lulled him into a deep, dreamless sleep. When he finally awakened, he was lying down, curled up on the seat, and had, again, been covered with a thick wool blanket as he slept.
The wounded man from the bathroom and the lady had left the train at one of the stops he had slept through, and he was nearly the only passenger in the car. He ate some more of the sandwich, drank his milk, picked the shell off one of the hard-boiled eggs, putting the pieces in an ashtray on the seat arm, and gulped that down before he turned back to the window and rested his head against the glass.
Although full and sleepy, he slept fitfully, dreaming of his father sitting on a train with his cheeks tinted pink, as they were in the photo—the only way he had seen him—even though all of the other soldiers were pale and wan. As the train moved north, darkness came slowly, a gray wash of diminishing light, as it always did in far northern areas. The country changed dramatically as the cleared farmland, with rolling gentle hills and tailor-cut bands of hardwoods between groomed and manicured fields, fell away, replaced by thick forest.
He awakened to full morning light and saw the trees growing so thick and wild they seemed to crowd themselves against the railroad right of way, so packed together and dense it looked impossible to even push a hand into them. And green—as green as the color crayon in the box one of his mother’s friends from the bars had given him, trying to impress the boy’s mother.
If anything, the train went even slower than it had in the southern part of the state, often stopping seemingly in the middle of nowhere. He would peer through the windows to spot a tiny shack or cabin along the tracks. There were many small lakes scattered throughout the running forest, and every now and then, the train would stop near a dock where one or two boats were parked, waiting to pick up departing passengers.
He awakened hungry and ate the second hard-boiled egg and another bite of the remains of the meat-lard sandwich he had kept. He had to use the bathroom again, but he proudly solved his prior dilemma with the too-big potty by going for arc altitude.
Back in his seat, he returned to watching the forest slide by. He saw several deer in the clear grass by the tracks, and maybe a gray fox or a scrawny wild dog, and who knows how many rabbits and, once, where the tracks crossed over a small stream, a black bear. The train was moving slowly and the bear didn’t seem bothered, but stood on its hind legs to watch it pass. The boy thought the bear looked at him, into his eyes—or so it seemed—and appeared so natural and so much like a person that he wondered if the bear had a name. And if he did, what it would be.
Carl, he thought. He was named Carl, because the bear reminded the boy—with his rounded shoulders and brown eyes—of a man who lived in the apartment next to them in Chicago who was named Carl whose breath always smelled like raw whiskey but who was always nice to the boy even when he accidentally kicked over his milk bottle by the door when he was running down the hall.
Carl. And because he—the man—had been nice to the boy even though his breath always smelled like raw whiskey, the boy thought the bear named Carl might also be nice, and he started then to like the woods, which were home for Carl the bear. In some way seeing the bear made him see the other things in more detail. It was not just a forest, it was trees and grass and lakes and lily pads, and even though he was on the train and viewing the woods through the windows as they moved, he became part of them, or more accurately, they came into him, the woods grew into him.
He wanted to be in it. He knew nothing of the forest except for some painted pictures in books about fairy lands where small people lived sitting under mushrooms. And yet he believed, no, knew, that it was the right place for him. Because he could see—not just the forest—but each tree, and he wanted to touch each leaf and pine needle, feel the grass on his feet and legs as he walked barefoot. He needed to hear-see-smell-touch it all. The woods would be where he wanted to live and that certainty made him smile. And although he had been a little homesick, missing his mother and the bars and the men who bought him Coca-Cola and fried chicken and candy while he sang in his uniform, all of that seemed to disappear once he saw and knew and longed for the woods and grass and lakes.
He leaned back in the seat with his head sideways, happy to watch the trees slip by the window. But bone-tired as he was from the journey, his eyes closed, opened, closed finally and once again he napped until the conductor came to find him and picked up his cardboard suitcase.
He blinked, looking out the window—still daylight, the middle of the afternoon—and the conductor held out his hand to help the boy stand.
“This is where you get off,” he said. “There will be somebody waiting for you.”
The boy was a little groggy, but the conductor took him by the hand and he followed clumsily after him to the end of the car, out on the small platform and down slick metal steps—far enough apart that he had to be helped down—and onto an embankment made of earth and logs. On the other side of this dirt and timber structure, away from the tracks, stood a small shack made of rough-sawn pine and on that was a plank sign painted bright yellow with numbers and letters: CAMP 43.
“You go stand by the hut away from the tracks and wait like a good little boy.” With that, the conductor waved to somebody leaning out of the locomotive side-windows at the front of the train. Then he climbed the steps, and with the hissing of released brakes, the train slowly started to move, picking up a little speed, before disappearing around a gentle curve into the distant forest.
Leaving the boy alone, in the middle of the woods.
But when he turned away from the tracks toward the little shack, he could see the end of a rutted trail through the woods. A small junk truck was parked—deserted, he thought—at the place where the woods cleared.
He didn’t see anyone and he thought—even having lived in the city with thousands of cars and trucks, all old because no new vehicles were being manufactured as a result of war rationing—that he had never seen a vehicle so decrepit. He assumed it was an abandoned, ancient wreck left to rot. It must have been some sort of old-fashioned car, but the original body had been hacked, turned into something like a small truck with a wooden box-like structure on the rear. Old burlap bags and garbage were tossed among rusty pieces of metal that stuck out at odd angles from the truck bed. Where there should have been a windshield, he saw a four-pane house window, tied on with what appeared to be clothesline rope. To cap it all off, the narrow wooden-spoke wheels were wrapped in faded rubber strip bandages.
The entire vehicle seemed to be made of rust held together by spots of faded black paint.
Suddenly, he felt intensely alone and desperately lonely. There was nothing around him but forest and the shack and the tracks fading into the distance. He was about to sit down on his little cardboard case and start crying when an old man staggered out of the thick brush to the side of the truck, pulling up a pair of heavily patched bib overalls.
The Second World War had drastically affected every single aspect of life. Due to severe rationing, many kinds of basic food—sugar, flour, meat, and almost all vegetables—were virtually nonexistent for the civilian market. Rubber was no longer available for tires and tubes; gasoline could only be purchased in very small quantities and only on certain days with restrictive rationing coupons.
The biggest fundamental change in American life was most evident by the absence of young men, mainly lost temporarily to active military service or permanently to the ultimate sacrifice. Women, and men too old for military service, were all who were left at home, so it was common to see old men working—driving cabs, collecting trash, and bringing ice (this was before many people had electric refrigeration and used literal iceboxes).
But the boy had never seen a man this old. He was bent almost double in an advanced stoop, his arms hanging at his sides, swinging ape-like as he shuffled toward the vehicle from the woods. He hadn’t shaved in what must have been years, and his beard looked to have been chopped away with a sharp knife or dull scissors. The front of his chin—the boy could see this even from where he stood—was stained from spitting and dribbling tobacco juice.
He spit now, a great brown dollop, wiped his chin haphazardly with his sleeve and, seeing the boy, waved an arm hook-like to motion the boy to come across the tracks to him.
The boy didn’t move. He wasn’t exactly terrified—he had seen scarier, dirtier people in the city—but his legs didn’t seem to work.
The old man waved again.
And still the boy couldn’t move.
“You’re Gary.” Not a question but a statement, and it came out as a raspy, gurgling croak.
The boy nodded.
“You’re Gary,” he said again and then, “I’m here for you.”
He spoke with a heavy Scandinavian accent, and mixed with the odd sound of his voice and the gurgling of spit, the words were nearly unrecognizable.
“From the second sister,” he croaked. “I’m to take you to her.”
“Eunice was the first, Edith the second.”
Eunice. The boy’s mother’s name. Something familiar.
“I’m to take you to Edith. Come and get you in the truck.”
He knew he had an aunt named Edith. Although he had never heard her called anything but Edy, it was close enough to kick-start the boy into motion. He lugged his little box to the truck and pushed it over the wooden side into the back.
The car-truck had neither doors nor a back seat. The boy went around to the passenger side and climbed up on what passed for a front seat. There was no padding, just bare wire springs with a single layer of filthy gunny sacking for a cover. He could see through a bottom pane of glass on the makeshift windshield. There was no door to close, just a vast open space, and nothing to hang on to except the bare wire in the seat. He didn’t think the truck would—or could—run so he wasn’t really worried about falling out.
The old man came to the driver’s side of the truck, stood there wheezing and spitting, then looked at the boy.
“I’m Orvis. People on the route call me Orvis. So you can call me Orvis. They’re far from here, Sig and Edith, too far to walk, and no telephone centrals up here, not even party lines for rubbernecking, so they didn’t know when you were coming.” In all the time the boy knew him, this was the longest string of words he ever heard Orvis say. “They told me to check on the route every day, and get you when you come.”
“What’s a route?”
“Mail. I deliver the mail to the farms on my route. Used to be the Pederson boy’s route, but he’s gone to the war, and I took it until he gets back. Used to have a horse and wagon and a sleigh in the winter. But the horse got colic and died, so now I use my old truck.”
While he was talking, he leaned in and clicked a big switch on the dashboard, then adjusted two levers that were on opposite sides of the steering column just under the wheel.
“She starts hard when she’s been sitting a time.” With that, he moved to the front of the truck where the boy had noticed a crank sticking out of a hole in the frame beneath the radiator. Orvis put one hand on top of the front end of the car, reached down with the other, grabbed the crank, and gave it a hard jerk.
Nothing. The truck sat silent.
He swore and cranked again. Again, nothing happened. He swore once more, louder this time, although the boy didn’t know the words—he thought later, looking back, they were Norwegian—but he could tell from Orvis’s expression that they were curses. Detailed curses. Vile curses.
“The throttle!” Orvis yelled, splattering the window with tobacco-stained spit and phlegm. “The lever on the wheel pipe! Give her some more throttle, now! Push the lever up a few notches.”
At this moment, three things became evident to the boy. One, Orvis was—almost literally—frothing at the mouth as he swore at the crank. Two, the boy was afraid to the point of being terrified by someone who could be so insanely enraged over a car.
And three, there were two levers. Not just one.
The boy didn’t dare ask him which of the levers was the throttle. Thought, if one lever is good, two should be better, so he reached over and slammed both levers to the top.
One lever was indeed the throttle.
By pushing it up, he sent more gas to the engine. By jamming it to the top, he sent a lot more gas to the engine. Way more than was needed to make it start or even run. Decidedly much more than it was safe to do. Enough to make the engine into a barely contained potential bomb.
The other lever was to adjust the timing of the spark that was sent to ignite the gas when it arrived in the engine.
Which meant that two levers were not necessarily better. Indeed, two levers were completely wrong when jammed wide-open.
Which the boy had done.
If the timing of the spark is adjusted correctly when the crank turns the engine over at the precisely correct instant, the spark will ignite the gas fumes and the engine will run properly in the direction it was cranked, moving the hand crank smoothly and safely and gently clear of the hand of the person making the effort.
And if the spark is only slightly out of timing, the motor simply won’t start at all and nothing happens, which is what Orvis had faced when he tried to crank start the car.
But if the engine is flooded with explosive gas and fumes, as it was now, and the timing of the spark is hugely incorrect, say from jamming the timing lever upward, as it also was, then the engine will fire at the completely wrong split second, when the pistons are in the very worst position. The motor will not start and, indeed, an explosion on top of the pistons as the gas blows will force the engine to run impossibly, powerfully, and horribly backward.
Which it cannot do.
And much, most, of the explosive energy will be transmitted back down into the crank, forcing it to rotate wildly in a reverse motion with all of the slamming force of the engine into the hand, arm, and body of the person trying to turn the crank and start the engine.
The boy initially heard a sound—a whummphh! that shook the whole truck—followed by a large, deafening crack, like an enormous gun detonating. Then a shaft of fire shot out of the vents on the side of the hood. A cloud of heated smoke-gas spewed from the engine compartment, rising into a hot gray mushroom, and through this cloud, Orvis was airborne, flying through the smoke with an outpouring of Norwegian obscenities.
It turned out that the kickback on the crank handle had caught him stiff-armed so that the force lifted his whole body and threw him through the air off to the side into the weeds and brush, where he did not land gracefully.
His body looked like a pile of dirty, smoking rags with legs sticking out of it, and the boy thought, If he isn’t dead he’s going to kill me. He didn’t know what had just happened, but he knew it was his fault. Because it was always the kid’s fault.
For a long time the pile of smoking rags didn’t move. But at last it quivered, shook a bit, and slowly—very slowly—rose to a sitting position and became an old man again. Then, folding from front to back, he rolled over onto his hands and knees and, without rising, crawled, clawing at the soil, up from the brush and dirt. When he reached the truck, he pulled himself to a stooped-standing position, all the while staring at the boy sitting on the other side of the front seat.
Into the boy’s eyes, the stare, into his life and all that he would become and past, way past his eyes, while Orvis gasped and hacked and spit down between his feet, lifting his hand, trembling, to pull the two levers back down to the middle position as he continued hissing and croaking, phlegm gurgling, his eyes boring through the boy’s head:
“A little too much spark,” he wheezed.
Finally, in the end, the engine did start, and after much forward and backward maneuvering, Orvis got the vehicle lined out on the road and moving along. But it wasn’t like any car or truck the boy had ever seen. The top speed was about as fast as he could run, judging by how fast the dirt moved underneath them. And the vehicle did not run straight, but seemed to wobble, sliding of its own volition to the left and then back to the right in a gentle S-pattern. The boy felt like they were skimming over water. He would find later that this motion was caused by the wooden spokes being dried out and slightly loose, which required Orvis to pay constant attention to the steering wheel to course-correct.
That might be why he talked to the car. Sig—Edy’s husband and therefore his uncle—told the boy later that Orvis had worked so long with a horse and wagon and sleigh, talking to the horse all the time, that he was used to urging his ride along in angry Norwegian. The boy thought, based on how he talked to the car, he must have really hated the horse, but Sig said you couldn’t hate a horse. You could always, he said, hate a car. Because it had an engine, and engines would always let you down when you needed them—you hated the engine, and that made you hate the car. Plus they were noisy and smelled bad, and it was easy to hate something that was loud and smelled bad and would let you down.
The engine was so loud that it didn’t much matter that Orvis was talking and swearing in Norwegian. The engine alone made a deafening buckity-buckity-buckity noise, and everything else on the car seemed to be rattling all the time and when they started up any hill—and there were many—the cacophony grew much louder as a growling came from beneath the seat.
“Come on, get on up that hill before I—no you don’t, you stupid slab-sided son of a gun—you get over or I’ll come up there and hammer you with a brick so hard cars all over the county will feel it.” And then he’d lapse into Norwegian, just ripping off words, spitting and hacking, clawing at the boy by the jacket to catch him when he started to fall out of the side of the truck, which was often, and then grab a breath, spit a gob, and pitch into it again.
The boy had no idea how far they had to drive. The road was not even a real road, just twin dirt ruts disappearing into the distance, or over one of the many hills or turns, so narrow the trees on either side nearly touched over the top as if they were driving through a long green tunnel.
The boy thought it must have been very pretty, but he had no chance to appreciate the view because he was always on the hair edge of falling out of the truck as it weaved, jerking in and out of the ruts. All there was to hold on to was the exposed wire under his rear, which did not help much. When he would start to fall, Orvis would grab the collar of his jacket with the clawed hand and jerk him back so hard he would slam all the way over to Orvis’s side. Whereupon he would swear at the boy, the truck, the world, and then push him back and away so forcefully the boy would nearly fall out again.
And so Orvis would have to grab and pull the boy back once more.
Back and forth, back and forth, amid the buckity-buckity roar of the engine, the whining growl of whatever was under the seat, and a storm of swearing. Each time Orvis swore as he was looking at the boy, he would get a spray of spit that was brown and wet. And sticky.
After a time the boy could not begin to measure, they came to a lone mailbox next to the road where he saw another set of twin ruts going off to the side away from the mailbox, vanishing into what appeared to be thick forest. Orvis stopped the truck.
“Get out,” he said, spitting in the direction of the side ruts. “This is where you are to be.”
“Where?” The boy could see nothing but dense trees and brush and even more of a tunnel than they had been through on the road. “How far is it?”
“Not far,” he sputtered. “Not far from here, but we cannot take the truck down there.”
“Why not?” If he was afraid to take the truck down there, the boy thought, what would happen to him, five-year-old, short-legged him, carrying a cardboard suitcase?
“He runs along the side.”
“Is he mean?” Does he, the boy thought, eat kids?
“He hates the wheels and runs along the side and bites the tires to make them lose the air. I can’t get new tires until the war is over.” More spit. Gurgling. “So I don’t drive down there. Get out.”
The boy obeyed him—not that he had much choice—and went to the back and pulled out his box-suitcase. Orvis reached around to a canvas pouch tied on the driver’s side and handed the boy an envelope. “Here, take their mail with you.”
“What do I do?” The boy stood there, holding the envelope on top of his box.
“Walk down there”—he pointed one claw—“or don’t. You can wait here until they come to check mail, but they don’t come every day. You might have to spend the night.”
Of course, the boy thought. I’ll just spend the night. Here. Alone. Sure.
With that farewell, Orvis pushed the throttle forward, everything started snorting and rattling, and in moments, he was gone. The boy was surprised and a little alarmed at how fast he disappeared and how the slamming, violent noise so completely fell dead silent in what seemed like a split second.
For a very short time, the silence was absolute. He heard only the sound of his heart in his ears. But in another breath or two, the sound of the woods rushed back in and took over: frogs and birds singing, a soft breeze rustling the leaves, and things—sounded like something heavy—scurrying in the shadows.
He tried to be brave or at least choose the lesser of two evils: Didn’t want to wait here so he might as well move down the side road. He felt tempted to run—panic being such a good motivator—but his suitcase made swiftness impossible and he stumbled along for what felt like forever. He’d only covered forty or fifty feet when he heard a new sound: a loud and most definitely life-threatening snake-like hissing. He looked farther down the trail to see a lane-wide, enormous, rolling gray-and-white monster with wings sticking out at odd angles obviously coming to attack him.
He’d heard the soldiers on the train say there were times when a man didn’t know whether to fight or run. He had no such dilemma; he immediately dropped his box and the envelope and turned to try to run back down the path toward the road.
Two things stopped him.
First, the monster shape-shifted from an indistinct pile of doom into a visible flock of geese. The geese were clearly coming to attack and he was still terrified. But at least he didn’t think geese would eat him, which of course an unknown monster would have done, as all unknown monsters always do. It had been in every one of the fairy tales that had been read to him—children were always being eaten by monsters.
Second, directly to the rear of the geese, he spotted a huge, shaggy-looking dog who, with a large bound, piled into the middle of the flock, snarling and biting left and right so hard he could hear teeth snapping. There was a wild explosion of feathers and goose poop (he could smell it) and while the geese didn’t flee—indeed they turned on the dog—he kept them busy and, as Sig later said, when the boy told him about the attack, they made “a whole life’s effort of beating the tar out of that dog.”
Rex, as the dog turned out to be named, gave a really good account of himself—judging by the quantity of feathers in the air—and it occupied the geese long enough for the boy to pick up his box and the envelope and make his way around the melee. He hadn’t trotted another twenty yards past the dog-and-goose fight when he saw a figure coming.
“Edy.” He thought how like a dream she was. That she was suddenly there. Just like a perfect dream. “Hi.”
She was wearing patched bib overalls and a sweatshirt and a tattered straw hat, and she smiled so that her blue eyes crinkled at the corners. She held out her arms and said, “Why, Lord, little peanut, where on earth did you come from?”
“Chicago,” he said, falling into the hug that was, right then, the most wonderful thing he had ever known. “I came all the way from Chicago.”
“And how,” she said, holding him tight, “was your trip?”
He looked at her face, thinking, remembering. Sick on the train, the wounded soldiers, the awful smells, changing trains for the run north, seeing the lakes and woods, people coming on the train with food and milk, warm thick milk that still smelled of cows in some way, being alone, no, alone, then the car-truck and the woods and smells again and Orvis, oh God, he thought, Orvis and the crank kicking him into the air with too much spark and being left alone, no, alone in the woods and then the horror of the goose monster coming to eat him and what could he say?
He took a breath and said:
“I got stuck in a toilet.”
Text copyright © 2021 Gary Paulsen
Pictures copyright © 2021 by Anna and Varvara KendelAll rights reserved