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Country editors boy, p.29
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       Country Editor's Boy, p.29

           Hal Borland
 
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  Father asked no questions either and offered no explanation for Mother’s silence. He said there wasn’t anything special for me to do, that I could have the whole day off if I wanted it. I said I would probably be around part of the afternoon. But Father wasn’t talking either. I seemed to be left in a kind of vacuum, all on my own. I waited around the office another hour, then at a quarter of ten I went up the street.

  Mabel saw me coming and came out to meet me, and we went on up toward the new school, then down across lots to the pond. It was still a pond, well filled with spring melt. By late June it would be a slew, just a wet, boggy place that would dry up completely in July. But it was a pond that morning, with a fringe of bright new green around the edges where the grass was sprouting and with a green look to the water because the grass on the bottom was almost as green as lawn grass. The ducks were still there, the mallards and canvas-backs; and over at the far side were half a dozen newcomers, smaller ducks.

  Mabel exclaimed, “Teal! My teal are here!” and we walked all the way around the pond for a closer look. The teal swam out toward the middle of the pond but didn’t take wing, probably tired after their flight from somewhere down along the Arkansas river. We identified them as blue-wings, and there were three pairs.

  We walked on and I found a sand lily in bloom in a little south-facing hollow and picked it for her. She put the little white star flower in a buttonhole of her blouse, and we went back up the slope. On the flats we saw a couple of ground squirrels and heard the horned larks and stopped to watch the big red harvester ants at one of their mounds. I told her about the man I met on the train, the entomologist, who told me things I never knew about those ants, and who said I should study the insects and the birds and the animals. She listened, then reached for my hand, looked at the lines in it, and said, “Books.”

  I didn’t know what she was talking about, and we turned back soon after. We went back past the school and down the street, and she said, “I’m going back to Denver tomorrow, on the morning train, and I’ve got to spend this evening with the family.”

  “I’ll go to the train with you.”

  “All right.”

  And the next morning I carried her suitcase to the depot and waited with her for the midmorning train. There wasn’t much to say, somehow. We had said it all, everything that seemed to need saying, or maybe everything that could be said. And she wasn’t looking at the plains, or even at the town. Once she said, “On a day like this, it probably is warm in Denver. Nice and warm.” And I had the feeling that she was already gone.

  We stood on the platform, the only people there, and she looked just as she did when she got off the train, the same perky little hat, the same ruffly white blouse under the dark suit. A girl I used to know but never even sat in the same class with. Then the train whistled down the tracks to the east and came rumbling up to the platform and rattled and wheezed to a stop. She looked up at me and put her arms around me and wrinkled her nose and crinkled the corners of her eyes and kissed me on the cheek. “Goodbye, Brother,” she said, laughing. The conductor reached for her suitcase, helped her up the steps, and she went into the car ahead. The train began to move. I couldn’t see whether she came to a window and waved.

  A few days later a letter came, and in it she said almost exactly what she said before she left: “I can’t remember when I had a nicer time than that night we watched the moonrise and the next morning when we saw my ducks.” And she closed it with, “I know you will be very busy with graduation, but please don’t forget all about me.”

  I am not sure even now what I had in mind when I wrote that first letter to her, but I think it’s a safe bet that I didn’t hope to acquire a volunteer sister. When she went back to Denver, and again when I got that “don’t forget me” letter, I had that ache which starts down deep and works up into the throat and won’t go away easily. That ache—and I can still remember it—was for something lost and gone forever, maybe boyhood innocence, maybe the mirage of imagined love. It certainly wasn’t an ache of pleasure at being called Brother.

  23

  MID-APRIL TILL MID-MAY IS magnificent on the High Plains, the very summary of spring. I had planned to spend all my free time outdoors, watching and making notes so I could write it all down in letters. But when I started to write such a letter the evening after I had the “don’t forget me” letter from her, I went back after I had written a page or so and reread her letter. And I tore up what I had written and opened a textbook and studied advanced English.

  I was busy with graduation; at least that’s what I told myself. The senior class had sent away for class rings, and we had decided that instead of a formal class party we would have a Truant Day during the second week in May. We would just walk out, with the post-grads too if they wanted to come, and go somewhere and have a picnic and a final get-together. Of course we still had final examinations, but we didn’t worry too much about them. There wasn’t a senior who hadn’t kept marks up, and for the last semester it was customary to go on classwork, not the exams, for the final mark. We were all going to be graduated. And unless my classwork had really taken a dive this past month or two I was going to head the class, which meant I would give the valedictory. But the day Miss Ward called me aside and said, “I think it would be a good idea for you to get some notes together for your speech at graduation,” was not the ideal day to tell me. In fact, I said to her, “Miss Ward, I may not be here for graduation,” and I turned and walked away before she recovered from the shock.

  It had been one of those days, and it still wasn’t over with. It began that morning when Mother opened my door and said, “Son, it’s time for you to get up. It’s almost eight o’clock.”

  I had sat up late the night before, trying again to write a letter and giving up again. I had a pile of notes, about flowers and birds and animals, even about grasshoppers and tumble-bugs, but when I tried to put them into a letter it sounded like a sixth-grade theme. Like a little boy writing a duty letter to his big sister, I told myself. I went to bed annoyed at her, mad at myself, and hating the world. When Mother called me and I got up and dressed and went out to the kitchen and saw that the clock showed only twenty minutes after seven I was all set to boil over. Father hadn’t even gone to work, and she had told me it was almost eight o’clock.

  She looked at me with that tight-lipped half smile she had had ever since the scene at the office over the letter. And I said, “I wish you would either learn to tell time or to tell the truth.” I was as surly as a bear cub with a sore nose.

  That was all that was needed to open the floodgate. “Why!” she exclaimed. “Why, what do you mean, talking like that to me? Saying I don’t tell the truth!”

  “You don’t, about time. You—”

  “I never told you a lie in your life! I tried to bring you up to be a credit to your father and me. I’ve tried! And now you think you can do just as you please. You sneak around behind my back, and then you say that I tell lies!”

  “I haven’t sneaked around behind anybody’s back!”

  “Oh, yes, you have.”

  “If you’re talking about the letters, and the fact that I met a girl at the train—”

  “Girl? A married woman. And divorced! And you, not even eighteen years old!”

  “Mabel is a nice girl, and if I want to write to her I don’t see that it’s anybody else’s business.”

  Just then Father came into the room. He had been out in the front yard filling a hole in the lawn that Fritz had dug, trying to dig out a ground squirrel. He came in and saw us spitting fire, both of us, and heard Mother say, “To think, that my own son would talk to me like that!”

  “What’s going on here?” Father asked sharply.

  “Your son,” Mother said, “called me a liar. And he just said it wasn’t any of my business what he does.”

  He turned to me. “Well?”

  “She said it was almost eight o’clock, and it was just a little after seven.”

 
; There was a hint of a smile in Father’s eyes. “That,” he said, “is just exaggeration. What else did you say?”

  “I said I didn’t think it was anybody’s business who I write letters to.”

  “That,” he said, “is debatable. You’d better apologize.”

  “Why? What for?”

  “On general principles. Because you said things you shouldn’t have said.”

  I hesitated. He said, “Let’s not have any argument. Go on, apologize.”

  I said, “All right, I’m sorry.”

  Mother had begun to cry. Father looked at me and shook his head. He took her into his arms and said, “Don’t take it so hard.”

  “You—you don’t know how it hurts,” she said, “when—when my own son talks to me like that.”

  Father was making gestures to me, signaling me to get out, go somewhere. I put on my jacket and left. I went over to the office, opened up, got the mail, went down to the café and had coffee and doughnuts. Father didn’t arrive at the office till just before I had to leave for school. He took one look at me, shook his head, and shuffled through the letters in the morning mail. Then he said, “Won’t you ever learn?”

  “Learn what?”

  “Learn not to start trouble.”

  “All I said was—”

  “I don’t care what you said, you shouldn’t have said it.”

  “So you are going to give me a going-over too?”

  “Any time I think you need it, yes. Just as long as you are at home you will hear from me if you start trouble. When you were a little kid your mother did the spanking. She thought it was her job. Now you’re growing up and getting too big to spank.”

  “Thank you! At least you admit I am grown up!”

  “Growing up, I said. Not grown. But it’s time you began to act grown up. Don’t you realize your mother is upset about a lot of things right now? You are, as I said, growing up. You are not her little boy any more. You are about to graduate from high school. You’re going away for the summer, and after Chautauqua you’ll be going to college. And on top of that, you’ve just been out with a girl who is older and a lot more experienced than you are.”

  “Less than two years older.”

  “All right! That’s not the point. The least you can do is hold your temper and keep your mouth shut.”

  “Thank you!” I said, this time bitterly, and I stalked out of the office and went up the street to school. Simmering, full of resentment, a young rebel, 1918-style. And when I got to school Professor Ward called me into his office and said, “When are you seniors going to take this sneak day, or truant day, or whatever you call it?”

  “Next week,” I said, “or the week after.”

  “I want to know when.”

  “I’m not telling you when. It’s a senior privilege to go when we feel like going.”

  “I need to know when.” He had begun to flush, angry at my insubordination. “Do you know the date?”

  “Yes.”

  “And you won’t tell me?”

  “No.”

  “Suppose I were to suspend the whole class.”

  “You don’t have to suspend the whole class. Just expel me. Again,” I added, completely rebellious. Actually, I had been thrown out twice that year, both times for pranks. The first time Little Doc and I locked two stray kittens in an equipment drawer in the science laboratory and threw the key out the window. The uproar lasted several hours, until the janitor was called and broke the lock. We admitted our guilt, were expelled and not allowed back in class until we went to Clarence Smith, head of the school board, and apologized. The second time was just before Christmas vacation, when I took a small bottle of carbon disulphide from the lab and left it uncorked back of a radiator in the auditorium. Within an hour the whole auditorium reeked with the odor of rotten eggs. It took three frigid days to air the place out, and I had to apologize to Mr. Smith again.

  Professor Ward frowned at me now, then laughed. “I’ll find out,” he said.

  “Not from me!” And I left his office with a great big chip on my shoulder, defying anybody to knock it off. Nobody tried.

  I didn’t go home for lunch. I went down to the café, and when the waitress asked, “Is this getting to be a habit, or are you really an orphan?” I said, “Who cares?”

  When I went back to school a Marine in dress uniform was in the schoolyard, surrounded by half a dozen boys. I joined the group. The Marine was a recruiter, and two boys, farm boys in the junior class, had already signed up. The recruiter saw me join the group and handed me a couple of leaflets and an enlistment form. I took them and went on into the school building. I read them through before my first afternoon class began.

  I paid practically no attention all through that class. When the next class started I took out the enlistment form and began filling it out, name, date of birth, parents’ names, right down the list. I was really fed up, and I couldn’t see that it mattered to anyone whether I enlisted in the Marines or what I did. I had been practically thrown out of my own home. Mother was fed up with me because I insisted I had a right to do things in my own grownup way. Father had given me a going-over, practically said I was all through around both the house and the office. Besides, he wouldn’t need me at the office even if I stayed home. He was buying out the Progress and he was going to put in a linotype, which meant no more handset type. Anybody who could use a typewriter could run a linotype, so Mother probably would take that over. There wasn’t any need for me around there, even if they wanted me. Which they obviously didn’t. Good Lord, even my dog had walked out on me! Fritz seemed to have adopted Father, followed him around and spent most of his days at the office. When even your dog quits you, I told myself, you’d just as well get out.

  I filled out the enlistment form. And when Miss Ward summoned me as I was leaving that class, and said what she did about getting notes together for what would be a valedictory speech, I was practically in the uniform of the United States Marine Corps, the Halls of Montezuma and the Shores of Tripoli behind me and all set for France and the Boche. I gave Miss Ward my answer and walked out. Out of the room, out of the school, out of the whole juvenile, schoolboy mess of triviality. I walked proudly across the schoolyard to the Marine Corps recruiter and handed him my enlistment form. He said, “Congratulations, son!” and he shook my hand. “You will be proud of this day all your life.” Then he glanced down the form and said, “Oh,” and scowled at me. “You’re not eighteen?”

  “I will be in a couple of weeks.”

  He sighed and leafed through his forms, chose one, clipped it to the one I had filled out, and gave them to me. “Get your father to sign this and give it to me down at the hotel this evening. Then,” he added, “you’ll be all set.”

  I glanced at it and walked away. It was a parental permit for a recruit under the age of eighteen to enlist.

  I went down the street, anger and rebellion fighting pride and disappointment. The nearer I got to the News office, the more reluctant I was to face my father. I hesitated at the bank corner, killed time by going to the post office. Somebody had got the afternoon mail, probably Mother. I went back to the corner and tried to see if Mother was at the desk, if I had to face the two of them.

  I was standing there, peering, like a six-year-old playing games, when a feminine voice behind me said, “Peek-a-boo!” Then the hearty laughter of Posey Briggs, Marjorie Miner’s aunt, her mother’s old-maid sister. I turned, undoubtedly flushing beet red, but Posey went on across the street, laughing to herself. I went on down the stairs to the News office, too chagrined now to care whether I had to face one parent or both.

  I was relieved to find Father alone. He looked up from the stone where he was making up the form for an order of letterheads, said hello, and went on with what he was doing. I hung up my coat and he said, “There’s a letter for you there on the desk.”

  I looked for the familiar gray envelope and blue ink but couldn’t find it. Then I saw a long fat envelope addres
sed on a typewriter, addressed to me. It was from the Standard Chautauqua Company, in Lincoln, Nebraska. I slit it open and found a letter and half a dozen enclosures. The letter welcomed me as “a member of the Standard Family” and told me when and where to report. It called attention to various enclosures. One was an itinerary for my particular tent, starting in western Nebraska, going through northern Colorado and over to the Western Slope, back to northern Nebraska, and finishing in central Iowa. One was a list of clothing I would need. One was a printed folder giving all the circuit’s programs with the names of all the singers, lecturers and other entertainers. There was even a diagram of the tent, showing seats, stage, dressing rooms, and a list of materials the local committees were to provide.

  I read the letter again, then took the whole sheaf over to Father. He wiped his hands on his apron and leafed through. “So,” he finally said, “you’ll have to leave here just two days after graduation to get there on time.”

  I hadn’t taken that in.

  Then I remembered the enlistment papers. I went to the coat rack, took them from my pocket. Father asked, “What have you got there?”

  I handed them to him and he glanced at them and laid them down beside the chase. “I heard that fellow was in town. Wondered if you wouldn’t run into him.” He reached into the overhead rack for a slug, put it in the form he was making up, moving two lines of type a fraction of an inch farther apart. He nodded, said to himself, “That’s better.” I reached for the papers and he looked up, asked. “You want me to sign these?”

  I didn’t answer. I tore them in half and went over and dropped them into the waste basket. Father didn’t seem to be watching, but when I went back to the stone he said, “Next fall, when you’ve fulfilled the contract you made with the Chautauqua company, you won’t need any permit. If you’d rather enlist than go to college, nobody can stop you.” Then, with only the slightest pause, “By the way, I told your mother about the Progress. Ed Gibson stopped in this morning and we had a talk. He wants to sell, and I’m going to buy him out. We haven’t agreed on price, but we’ll work things out. He’d rather wait till the end of the summer, and that’s all right with me. I just want to consolidate the two papers before next fall’s elections.” He was silent for a moment. “As I started to say, your mother knows now. You don’t have to keep it a secret from her any longer. But don’t tell anyone else.”

 
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