MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Every morning the students of Mr. Vargas’s class pledged allegiance to the flag. They stood behind their desks with their hands over their hearts and their eyes on the flag, and they said with one voice—I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Among them was a boy named Jake McCauley, and he, too, stood behind his desk with his eyes on the flag and the palm of his hand pressed to his heart. His palm was always a little sweaty because the classroom was hot, even in the morning with all the shades down.
Jake McCauley was proud to be an American. He was proud of the flag and he was proud of liberty and he was proud of justice for all, but when he pledged allegiance, he would only pretend to say the words like the others. Instead, he would whisper to himself his own secret pledge. It went like this—I pledge to save my dad from the Russians and to bring him home so my dad and mom and I can be a regular family like we’re supposed to be in America.
This all happened a long time ago, in the year 1953, when the dads of some of Jake’s friends from Mr. Vargas’s class were fighting in the war in Korea. You could listen about that war on the radio and then talk about it at school with your friends. And Jake did, but his heart was not in it.
Here is why.
His dad still had not returned from the old war, the big one, the one with the Nazis. That war had ended a million years ago, or at least it felt like a million years to Jake. He had just turned twelve in December.
Why his dad did not return from that war was explained in the letter Jake’s mother kept in the drawer beside her bed. The letter was from the United States Air Force, and it said that Jake’s father went MIA, which meant missing in action. Missing in action did not mean Jake’s father had been killed, of course. It only meant that the air force did not know where he was.
Once, Jake heard a program on the radio about American GIs imprisoned by the Russians and forced to work in the mines above the Arctic Circle. GI stood for galvanized iron, from which some of the army stuff was made, but Jake believed that the American soldiers were called GIs because they were as strong as iron. His dad was surely as strong as iron, and he could surely survive working in the Russian mines until somebody would rescue him.
Jake wrote a letter to the radio station asking them who could help him rescue his dad. When nobody answered his letter, Jake knew that even if his mom had checked it for spelling, he could not have counted on the radio station for help. He could not count on anyone and would have to save his dad all by himself. He even had a plan for how he would do it.
“Class, I have inspiring news,” Mr. Vargas said when everyone sat down after the Pledge of Allegiance. “As we all know, our brave troops are fighting Communists in Korea, but we also have Communists here at home, in America. Mr. Hirsch, our principal, has proposed that once a week, the father of one of the students visit each classroom to share his method for fighting the threat of Communism. Today, Duane’s father, Major Armbruster—”
“What’s Communism, Mr. Vargas?” said Trudy Lamarre from the front row.
Jake elbowed his desk buddy, Duane Armbruster, whose dad was to visit them today, and peeped in his ear, imitating Trudy, “What’s Communism, Mr. Vargas?” Duane did not reply, and Jake shook his head, adding in his own voice, “Who is she kidding?”
“Who can tell us what Communism means, children?” said Mr. Vargas.
Jake’s hand shot into the air. “Ask me, sir! Ask me! I know!”
“Go ahead, McCauley.”
Jake sprung to his feet and, filling his lungs with air to shout, realized that he did not know the answer. Communism was bad all right—that was all you heard on the radio, or saw in the movies, or read about in comics—but he did not know how to explain it. He glanced at Duane, hoping for help, but Duane was looking away on purpose.
“It’s the Russians, sir,” Jake said. “They cooked it up.”
“Cooked what up?”
He felt his ears burning and knew that they were turning red. The Communist flag was red, and also red was a large chunk of the right hemisphere on the world map hanging beside the blackboard. The red on the map was Russia, where his father was locked up in the mines.
“What the Russians do, sir, is this,” Jake said. “If they catch an American GI, for example, they send him to dig for uranium in the top secret mines above the Arctic Circle. The Russians need uranium to make A-bombs so they can drop them on us, sir.”
He felt everyone gaping at him, waiting for what he would say next. He wanted to tell them that at this very moment his dad was digging for uranium in one of those mines, whacking at the permafrost with a pick in his hands while a Russian guard was aiming his machine gun at him, but the mocking eyes of his classmates stopped him.
He shrugged and said, “I heard it on the radio, sir.”
“Well.” Mr. Vargas sighed. “We can’t trust everything we hear on the radio, McCauley, can we now?”
“We can’t?” Jake said, astonished.
Mr. Vargas glanced up at him quickly, and Jake could have sworn that the teacher looked frightened.
“A good try, McCauley,” Mr. Vargas said, as if he were apologizing for something. “You can sit down now.”
Jake plunged into his chair and elbowed Duane again. “Don’t expect me to save your bum when it’s your turn, buddy.”
Duane did not look back at him and did not answer, and Jake peered at him out of the corner of his eye, confused by Duane’s odd behavior.
“Well, Trudy,” said Mr. Vargas, “perhaps I can explain.” He stepped closer to Trudy Lamarre’s desk, cleared his throat, and said quietly, “In theory, Trudy, Communism is a society in which everything is shared; there’s no private property.”
Jake’s hand shot up again.
“What is it now, McCauley?”
“Can you speak a little louder, sir?”
Mr. Vargas nodded and went on in the same hushed voice. “The homes and the farms and the factories belong to everybody equally. Nobody owns anything, but at the same time, everyone owns everything.”
Jake leaned into Duane. “Why the heck is he whispering?”
“In this way, Trudy,” Mr. Vargas continued quietly, “people can work for themselves and not for somebody else, you see?”
“No, sir,” said Trudy Lamarre. “I do not see. If I didn’t have something, I would work for it, but if I already had everything, why would I work?”
“You’d work your fanny off, no matter what!” Jake shouted, and when the classroom quaked with laughter, he looked around, smiling.
“McCauley!” said Mr. Vargas.
“What? She’s never even had an A minus,” Jake protested. Trudy Lamarre had beautiful red hair and eyes that made him stutter: deep, dark brown eyes. Jake despised her.
“I wish you’d work a little harder, too, McCauley.”
Mr. Vargas flung a nervous glance at the door, as if worried that someone might barge in at any moment. “Well, you see, Trudy, the idea of Communism is … And it’s only an idea, you understand? The idea is that everyone works for the common good, and everyone gets paid for their contribution, but only as much as one needs, no more and no less, you see? Everyone’s equal.”
“And why is that bad?” said Trudy Lamarre.
Then there was a knock on the door. What happened next was so amazing that no one in the classroom even remembered to laugh. Instead of answering the door, Mr. Vargas darted to his desk and sat down, then changed his mind and sprung up and rushed to the door, then changed his mind again and wheeled toward the blackboard and snatched a piece of chalk and began writing: Today’s Topic: The Threat of Communism.
When the door cracked opened and the principal stuck his head in, Mr. Vargas glanced away from the blackboard and, clearly faking surprise, said to him, “Ah, Mr. Hirsch. We didn’t hear you knocking. Stand up, children. Major Armbruster is here.”
Copyright © 2019 by Eugene Yelchin