There was nothing Dad wouldn't do for me. He whittled away in his shop, and came home with a tiny Frenchman, his blue coat buttoned back into flaps, his legs marching. I named him Pierre. The next day it was a Tommy that Dad brought home, with the tiniest Union Jack I'd ever seen painted on his sleeve. I put him into the battle on the fifth day of August, 1914, the night that Britain went to war.
All of London seemed to celebrate. Men joined up by the hundreds, by the thousands, marching away in tremendous, cheering parades. They passed my father's toy shop, stepping along, singing along, as the women shouted and the children dashed in amongst them. Through a blizzard of rose petals, they passed in such numbers, with such a stamping of feet, that the smaller toys shook on my father's shelves. But Dad didn't go with them.
"Aren't you signing up?" I asked him. "Aren't you going to the war?"
"Johnny," he said, "I'm afraid the King doesn't need me just now."
We were watching them pass, the new soldiers. They were clean and smart, like freshly made toys.
"Don't you want to go?" I asked.
"But what about you? What about your mother?" He shook his head. "No, Johnny, I think I'm better off here. Some of us have duties at home."
"Like what?" I asked. The soldiers were still passing by.
"Well," he said, "I have to build up your little army, don't I? Someone has to stop your nutcracker men."
Already, they had captured nearly all of the kitchen. They were spilling through the parlor door, where my lone Pierre was putting up a brave fight. Then my mum stood by mistake on my army, and one of the nutcracker men got his hand broken off.
"Look what you did!" I cried.
"Oh, Johnny, I'm sorry," she said. "But do they have to be underfoot like this? Can't you play somewhere else?"
So I rushed them forward, into the parlor. And leading the charge was the man with no hand. I pretended it was Fatty Dienst. "Go forward!" he shouted as the Frenchman retreated again. "Go forward for Chermany!"
Down the street, in the little butcher shop, the meat turned gray and then brown. A horrid smell came out through the door. Someone smashed the windows; then a bobby came round and boarded them up. And the Germans kept marching, west across Flanders, rolling armies ahead of them with no more bother than my nutcracker men.
Ambulances carrying soldiers from the front went rattling past my dad's shop. People turned out to cheer them as loudly as they'd cheered the soldiers going the other way. Big advertisements appeared everywhere, enormous posters that said, "Your Country Needs You." And more parades of new soldiers marched down the streets, though Dad stayed home. He built up my little French army one man at a time.
"Is Dad a coward?" I asked my mum.
"Of course he's not," she said.
"Then why doesn't he go to the war?"
"Well, he doesn't like to say this, but he's just not tall enough, Johnny."
"Not tall enough?" He seemed like a giant to me.
"He's five foot seven," she said. "An inch too short for the King."
It made me sad that he was too short, and sad that the King didn't want him. But Dad was even sadder; he never laughed, or even smiled, as summer turned into autumn, as the war went on in France. He started flying into rages at the least little thing, and he scattered my army of nutcracker men when they came too close to his favorite chair. In Europe, the French and the British turned the Germans back at the Marne, but even that didn't cheer up Dad.
In late September he brought home a cuckoo clock that was all in pieces. "Someone smashed it," he said. "I had it in my window, and a fellow got into a fit because he thought it was German!" The little cuckoo bird dangled from a broken spring, and it chirped as Dad shook the clock. "Anyone can see that it's Swiss."
Excerpted from Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Lawrence Copyright 2001 by Iain Lawrence. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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