A kid has drunk turpentine that Mommy left on the porch in a tin can.
What is “turpentine”? What is “the hospital”? What does it mean to “get your stomach pumped”?
“Darn that Dale Price,” Mommy says, “always getting into things.”
We do not have stomach pumpings every day. Most days, it’s only ice chips.
We beg them from the iceman when he goes back to his truck with empty tongs after bringing a huge cake of ice to the kitchen in one of our units. The iceman always has loose chips in his truck, mixed with straw flakes and dirt. He gives a chip to each of us. We wipe the end clean and suck on it as long as our fingers can stand to hold the other end.
Why is ice so cold? Why is it mixed with straw? Where did last week’s ice block go? What did the icebox do with it?
Maybe Daddy knows. In winter he broke an icicle off our unit’s roof, brought it in, and ran hot water over it. He looked sad when the icicle went away, but he wanted to show me that it does go away. Ice can’t stay under hot water.
I have a girlfriend. Her name is Hea-th-er. That’s hard to say, but I call her Hado. She is a year younger, so I always have to tell her things. Her mommy and daddy play cards with my mommy and daddy every night, in our unit or theirs. When they play next door, I lie in bed listening to switch engines shuttling cars in the “Q” yards till Mommy or Daddy comes back to check on me because they’re dummy. When they play in our unit, I hear the thwop of cards being shuffled, the slip, slip, slip of cards being dealt, and the odd words that follow: “One heart . . . one spade . . . two diamonds . . . pass . . . .”
What’s it about? Why are they a “dummy”? What are clubs and spades for? Where do you find diamonds? If you don’t have a heart, does that make you a dummy?
What is a no-trump? I don’t think they want me to find out. The grown-ups drive me crazy. They know all these things, like a secret code. I can only ask questions, over and over.
Soon—maybe today, maybe tomorrow—Something Great will be revealed.
Then I can tell Hado, so she’ll know, too, and we won’t be left out anymore.
When I was three years old, life was exciting. I thought once I grew up, I would have it all figured out. I would no longer be on the outside, looking in.
The way to gain enlightenment was to worm the facts out of my mother and father, since they already knew everything. The trouble was getting them to take my questions seriously.
Today we worry about the formation of our children’s psyches. Back then, children were only small, deficient beings who ought to be ignored until they reached maturity and somehow became adults. Of course, we children were sent to school to cure the worst of our ignorance; but not much could be expected from us, at least until we held full-time jobs.
As to my parents’ magisterial authority, I had no doubts. Mommy and Daddy were primeval; they had always been there. I never inquired into their antecedents.
It took years before I understood that I had come in at the end of a great war—a long ordeal that devoured half the world and damaged the rest. My father, Lloyd Sommers, had joined in that war when he was barely out of high school. He had served in the 132nd Infantry Regiment, Americal Division, on the Southwest Pacific islands of New Caledonia, Guadalcanal, Fiji, and Bougainville.
Then he had come home to the small town of Knoxville, Illinois, and married his high school sweetheart, Barbara LaFollette. I was born nine months later, in June 1945. Both my parents were then twenty-three years old.
In September, at three months of age, I moved with Mommy and Daddy to the campus of Knox College in nearby Galesburg, where Daddy had enrolled as a freshman, hoping for a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Such a goal might have been out of reach if not for the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944—the “G.I. Bill”—which sponsored a college education for millions of war veterans. America was raising a great wave of future scientists, engineers, teachers, and managers out of the surplus manpower shaken loose by the largest military demobilization in history.
At Knox, our friends were other young families like ourselves, headed by young men four years older than the usual college freshman, men who had tasted war and who yearned to make up for lost time now that peace was at hand. We all lived together in “the units,” triplex shacks lined up like barracks at the south end of campus.
Each apartment held a small living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, a small bedroom for the parents, and a smaller bedroom for one or possibly two infants. There was a sofa and a lamp, an icebox and a stove, a large bed and a crib. Daddy put glow-in-the-dark images of five-pointed stars on the headboard of my crib—“decals,” he called them. I liked the glowing stars. The idea was that I would be hypnotized by these stars and would fall into blissful sleep. This might have happened had not my parents spent every other evening playing contract bridge, at full voice, with Helen and Bud Steele in the next room.
Even on those nights when the card game was held next door, my ears registered the all-night operations of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, whose hump yard fanned out just south of the units. Switch engines pushed cars over a hump, where they were cut loose. Each car rolled down a long incline, through a switch, and onto a pre-assigned track to couple with a string of standing cars. The grunt of a diesel engine, the long roll of wheels on steel track, and the bang released by a fifty-ton car smacking into a stationary string of other cars: These mere sounds, not yet cluttered by explanations and rational understanding, held me entranced.
I was not alone in the adventure. My bear, Teddy, huddled in the dark with me and shared the drama. Teddy’s shiny eye caught a glint of light from a streetlamp outside my window. By placing my eye next to his, I could see through that tiny glint into a translenticular world of strange machines crawling over jumbled terrain—an industrial landscape, where mechanical beasts toiled at obscure tasks. This scene—immensely packed into its microscopic sphere—perfectly illustrated the alien sounds from the railyard.
What if I could actually crawl through the glint and descend bodily into that bear’s-eye world? Would I fit in? Would I measure up to that test?
It was a harsh, black-and-white place, lit from high above, almost a lunar landscape. The ground was jagged, all up-and-down, in-and-out, strewn with I knew not what, so the not-exactly-animals but not-quite-machines which ranged over it had to rise and plunge like boats in a sea-storm, requiring huge wheels (or something) to master the chaotic substrate.
How could I find my way in that remote domain?
Teddy is still with me. He sits like a sphinx on my dresser. Between the two of us, we hold the secrets of seventy-five years. Our eyes have frosted over. Ted’s pupil is no longer a gateway to an alternate world. For me, no separate vision remains.
The stark bear’s-eye vision is only a memory—the lingering enigma of an astonishing landscape still waiting to be discovered.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer