I have decided to tell you a story. Not a traditional one, like “Cinderella” or a “Jack Tale,” but an original story. I am making it up as I go, and I only have a vague idea where it will end up.
When my Uncle Albert came home from World War II in 1945, he brought a lot of boxes and parcels that contained souvenirs that he wanted to give the family. Some of the boxes arrived a week after Albert, and some of them weren’t opened for a couple of years. There were delicate cups and saucers that he had “acquired” in Japan, and there were a lot of strange dolls, silk scarves, carvings of animals. He told me that he bought most of the stuff in a PX which was like a warehouse for “souvenirs” for enlisted men. I was 12 when he gave me my presents and without a doubt they were among the most bizarre and original gifts I ever received in my life.
One was a German Mauser rifle. I have no idea what a German rifle was doing in Japan, but there it was. It must of weighed 20 pounds, had a “spiked” barrel and the stock was made of three different kinds of wood. I immediately took it on a test drive through our pasture, crawling through broom sage and sawbriars as I pretended to be spying on a pill box like the ones in “Wake Island.” The pill-box contained a platoon of Japanese soldiers (or “The Sons of Nippon” as I called them) and I intended to wipe them out the way my grandfather wiped out the caterpillar nests in our apple tree. With a flame-thrower. (Grandpa used a burlap sack wrapped on a broom handle and soaked in kerosene.)
The second gift was a Japanese gas mask. It was bright yellow and was attached to some kind of metal filter canister. When I put it on and tightened the straps, I managed to frighten myself when I looked in the mirror in my grandparents’ bedroom. I also had trouble breathing, and my grandmother told me that she could hear my struggles from where she sat on the front porch – even when I was out of her sight on Painter Knob. The glass windows always fogged up, and sweat would drip from my canister. I practiced my encounters with poison gas and sometimes frightened our cow, Myrtle, who usually fled to the barn when she heard my struggles to breathe and saw me when I crawled out of a brier patch.
There was a wonderful summer in 1947, in which I arose each morning and after breakfast and a cup of Ovaltine, I would don my gas mask, find my Mauser rifle and depart for a few hours of surveillance of the Japanese camps that infested much of Painter Knob. I was aided in this dangerous maneuver by my imaginary companion, Audie Murphy. (If you don’t know who Audie Murphy is, he was the most honored American soldier in WWII. I had seen “To Hell and Back” three times. It was about how Audie had killed over 200 Sons of Nippon.) He always waited for me at the top of Painter Knob where we would plan our attack for that day. Audie was always careful to stay out of sight, so my grandmother never knew about him.
I was usually exhausted by the time I got to the top of Painter Knob. Crawling on my stomach while dragging a 20-pound Mauser and struggling to breathe while peering through the fogged glasses of my gas mask was difficult. Although out of breath and covered with brier scratches, I always made it to Audie’s lookout post, and it was a pleasure to see him when he stepped from behind a big locust tree on the crest of the hill.
“Welcome, Private Carden,” he would always say. “I think it is safe for you to remove your gas mask.”
I gave him a sharp salute. “Thank you Sergeant Murphy.”
On this particular day, Sgt. Murphy told me that my job was to locate a group of Japanese snipers who were hidden somewhere near the Cope Creek bridge. He told me that I should use my gas mask since there was always a possibility of poison gas. He reminded me that the Sons of Nippon were crafty and heartless. Sgt. Murphy said that he would follow my progress from a camouflaged outpost and would come to my aid if I got into trouble.
As I crawled down the slope of Painter Knob dragging my Mauser behind me, I heard movement from the bushes along Cope Creek and crawled in that direction. However, when I reached the creek I was surprised to see two naked girls standing knee-deep in the water. They were laughing and splashing each other. I knew them. Jessie Mae Carnes and Ida Lee Bryson. They were the same age as me and were in the fifth grade. I gave them a pretty good scare, I guess. I had on the gas mask and was breathing hoarsely through my canister. When I managed to stand up, I abandoned my Mauser and took off my gas mask.
Both girls were screaming and hanging onto each other. I noticed that their shirts and shorts were hanging on a support of the Cope Creek bridge.
I also noticed that I was between them and their clothes. Jessie Mae recognized me and yelled, “Gary Neil Carden, what are you doing with that awful mask on?”
“I’m looking for the Sons of Nippon!”
“The Yellow Peril! There is a nest of them somewhere on this creek.”
“Well, they ain’t here.” Both girls were now sitting down in the muddy water.
“Go on, Gary Neil,” said Jessie Mae. “Go away so we can get our clothes.”
I didn’t know why, but I knew I didn’t want to do that. There was some mystery here that needed to be solved. So, we sat there and stared at each other. I guess I was as bewildered as they were. They weren’t exactly built like the high school cheerleaders and both of them were as slim and undeveloped as a couple of brown trout. Yet, there was something fascinating about them. What? For whatever reason, I felt that under no circumstances did I want them to put on their clothes. There was something wondrous and strange going on here.
Ida Lee yelled, “I am going to tell your grandma!”
Oh, my. That would not be good. Then, I got crafty. “Look, I’m not stopping you.” I climbed up on the bridge and sat on the railing. I gave a winsome smile. “Come on.”
We sat there a long time and it was getting late. Jessie Mae and Ida Lee were shivering. They were also whispering to each other. Then, suddenly, Jessie Mae stood up. She had a big handful of black mud and she threw it at me. It caught me full in the face, and as I tried to scoop the muck out of my eyes, I heard them. They waded to the bridge and got their clothes. By the time I crawled down the bank and washed the mud out of my eyes, they were long gone. Somewhere up the trail I heard Ida Mae yell, “Just you wait! I’m going to tell your grandma!”
It was almost dark by the time I got back to Painter Knob, but Audie was waiting for me. I was walking upright and carrying my gas mask. Audie looked at me and said, “Private Carden, I observed your encounter at the Cope Creek bridge, and I have some bad news.” He shook his head and continued, “As you know, I have three Purple Hearts and more awards than any enlisted man in WWII. However, there is nothing in my experience that qualifies me to give you advice at this point. You are on your own.”
Then, I heard my grandmother call me. That meant that it was supper time and I should have been home a long time ago. It might also mean that Jessie Mae and Ida Lee had been by to talk to my grandmother – but maybe not.
I said, “I guess this means that you won’t be meeting me tomorrow morning so that we can plan to erase the Sons of Nippon from Painter Knob.”
Sgt. Audie Murphy snapped to attention and gave me a salute. Then, he said, “Goodbye, Private Carden. I wish you luck in your future maneuvers.” Then, he smiled and vanished.
When I got to the porch, my grandmother was upset. She leaned forward in her rocking chair and gave me a hard look. “Where have you been? Is that mud in your hair? Why are you wet?”
So maybe Jessie Mae and Ida Lee hadn’t been there.
“I fell in Cope Creek,” I said.
“How did that happen? Why are you acting so queer, Gary Neil? What has happened to you?”
I couldn’t answer that because I didn’t know exactly what it was. I just knew that from here on for the rest of my life, things would be different.