School was finally out and I was standing on a picnic
table in our backyard getting ready for a great summer
vacation when my mother walked up to me and ruined
it. I was holding a pair of camouflage Japanese WWII
binoculars to my eyes and focusing across her newly
planted vegetable garden, and her cornfield, and over
ancient Miss Volker's roof, and then up the Norvelt
road, and past the brick bell tower on my school, and
beyond the Community Center, and the tall silver whistle
on top of the volunteer fire department to the most
distant dark blue hill, which is where the screen for the
Viking drive-in movie theater had recently been erected.
Down by my feet I had laid out all the Japanese
army souvenirs Dad had shipped home from the war.
He had been in the navy, and after a Pacific island
invasion in the Solomons he and some other sailor
buddies had blindly crawled around at night and found
a bunker of dead Japanese soldiers half buried in the
sand. They stripped everything military off of them and
dragged the loot back to their camp. Dad had an officer's sword with what he said was real dried blood along
the razor-sharp edge of the long blade. He had a Japanese
flag, a sniper's rifle with a full ammo clip, a dented
canteen, a pair of dirty white gloves with a scorched
hole shot right through the bloody palm of the left hand,
and a color-tinted photo of an elegant Japanese woman
in a kimono. Of course he also had the powerful binoculars
I was using.
I knew Mom had come to ruin my fun, so I thought I would distract her and maybe she'd forget what was on her mind.
"Hey, Mom," I said matter-of-factly with the binoculars still pressed against my face, "how come blood on a sword dries red, and blood on cloth dries brown? How come?"
"Honey," Mom replied, sticking with what was on her mind, "does your dad know you have all this dangerous war stuff out?"
"He always lets me play with it as long as I'm careful," I said, which wasn't true. In fact, he never let me play with it, because as he put it, "This swag will be worth a bundle of money someday, so keep your grubby hands off it."
"Well, don't hurt yourself," Mom warned. "And if there is blood on some of that stuff, don't touch it. You might catch something, like Japanese polio." "Don't you mean Japanese beetles?" I asked. She had an invasion of those in her garden that were winning the plant war.
She didn't answer my question. Instead, she switched back to why she came to speak to me in the first place. "I just got a call from Miss Volker. She needs a few minutes of your time in the morning, so I told her I'd send you down."
I gazed at my mom through the binoculars but she was too close to bring into focus. Her face was just a hazy pink cupcake with strawberry icing.
"And," she continued, "Miss Volker said she would give you a little something for your help, but I don't want you to take any money. You can take a slice of pie but no money. We never help neighbors for cash." "Pie? That's all I get?" I asked. "Pie? But what if it makes her feel good to give me money?"
"It won't make me feel good if she gives you money," she stressed. "And it shouldn't make you feel good either. Helping others is a far greater reward than doing it for money."
"Okay," I said, giving in to her before she pushed me in. "What time?"
Mom looked away from me for a moment and stared over at War Chief, my uncle Will's Indian pony, who was grinding his chunky yellow teeth. He was working up a sweat from scratching his itchy side back and forth against the rough bark on a prickly oak. About a month ago my uncle visited us when he got a pass from the army. He used to work for the county road department and for kicks he had painted big orange and white circles with reflective paint all over War Chief's hair. He said it made War Chief look like he was getting ready to battle General Custer. But War Chief was only battling the paint which wouldn't wash off, and it had been driving him crazy. Mom said the army had turned her younger brother Will from being a "nice kid" to being a "confused jerk." Earlier, the pony had been rubbing himself against the barbed wire around the turkey coop, but the longnecked turkeys got all riled up and pecked his legs. It had been so long since a farrier had trimmed War Chief's hooves that he hobbled painfully around the yard like a crippled ballerina. It was sad. If my uncle gave me the pony I'd take really good care of him, but he wouldn't give him up.
Excerpted from Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos. Copyright © 2011 by Jack Gantos. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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