Lessons in Probability Theory

Tony Gorry

It’s a late summer afternoon in 1945. On the side of Tongue Mountain in the Adirondacks, a male deer is leading two females along a switchback. They’re on their way to a special meadow to enjoy its late summer bounty in peace, undisturbed by occasional hikers passing along the trail.

They’re halfway across the last switchback when the sharp crack of a rifle splits the air. The buck stops abruptly and stands rigidly in the soft light. The does freeze as well. For some moments, only his ears and nostrils move. Then he shakes himself, sending a ripple under his coat from his neck to his haunches. He snorts, and turns from the trail onto a narrow rocky track that is largely hidden by bushes. The inner side of the path clings to the mountain, but the outer edge drops off sharply to a valley below. With no hesitation, the buck and his companions clatter out along the ridge. As they round a bend, the buck again stops. Standing still, he surveys the shimmering vista of the lake laid out below him. The females behind him fidget slightly, awaiting his direction. Some twenty seconds later, he snorts once more, gives another rippling shiver, and starts up again. The three deer round the bend and soon will be gone.

As the second doe makes the turn, one of her back hooves dislodges a small rock, spinning it over the edge of the trail and sending it caroming down the hill. The falling rock flickers when it exposes a polished side to the fading summer light. Silently, it drops until it glances off the side of a large boulder embedded in the hillside. With a click, the encounter sends the rock spinning sharply off course. It bounces twice, once left, once right, into a patch of mossy stones. Then, continuing its journey, it strikes the edge of a large tree root, seems to poise for a moment, and finally nestles into a depression among some mottled leaves.

Below the deer, between the mountain and the lake, lies the Knob, a loose cluster of cottages and a few permanent homes on an abutment into Lake George. During harsh winters, only a few hardy souls live in the Knob. In summer, however, the cottages are filled with families drawn by the swimming, boating, hiking, and the sheer beauty of the lake. During the war years, it’s mostly mothers who bring their children. They want a few days’ break from work and escape from some of their loneliness and fear for their husbands overseas.

The Ice House is the gravitational center of the Knob. Flanked by a number of boat slips and a gas station, it stands on a packed dirt road that follows the edge of the lake. It’s festooned with hand-painted signs. The largest proclaims “Beer, Pop, and Pinball.” Another promises “Honest Weights and Square Trade.”

During the deep winter, workers with pickaxes and large ripsaws gather blocks of snowy ice from the lake and pack them in a windowless cellar in back. Covered with burlap and sawdust, the lode lies for months in the dark room, waiting for delivery to neighboring houses and cottages. From the road, a forking concrete walk runs some forty feet to the Ice House, one arm curving around the side of the building to the storage, and the other leading to its front door.

In summer, visitors and residents usually find their way to the Ice House at least once a day. Some come for ice, of course, but more for bait, ammunition, beer, cigarettes, and newspapers. Two chalkboards list prices for trout, bass, and perch; and the other, prices for vegetables. At dawn, deer can often be seen at the back of the Ice House drinking from the lake before retreating to their refuge on the mountain.

These days, there is almost continuous conversation about the war. Exchanges that in the previous couple of years had been laden with gloom are now lightened by news of Allied advances in Europe and the Pacific. Still, some women whose husbands have not yet returned avoid even chatting about the conflict.

In the early forties, with so many fathers at war, stays in the cottages are often short, because many of the women work at least part-time. But, because the Knob is less than ten miles from town, a mother might bring her children several times over the course of warmer months. Sometimes, several women might join to bring a gaggle of energetic kids for a visit. They relax, and their children rejoice in exploration and modest adventure.

Several older residents of the Knob can be usually found seated along the long counter that serves as an informal bar. Throughout long summer days, the owner sells six-ounce bottles of Cream Soda, Lithiated Lemon, and Coke, chilled in a tub of icy water. Late in the afternoon, he adds bottles of Dobler beer to the mix.

For the kids, the lure of the Ice House is great, although the sawdust on the walks and floor grinds their bare feet. Outside, they can sometimes cool off on a burlap-covered block of ice set for delivery. Inside, they get to “Shoot the Jap” at the pinball machine, which sits against a back wall at the far end of the counter. With its dull blond finish and multi-colored jungle backsplash, it quickly draws the attention of anyone coming through the front door. Whenever kids are there, the game is sure to be in play. One after another, following the command emblazoned on the glass facade, they fire away.

At the back of the machine is a glass-fronted box encasing a painted jungle scene, perhaps copied roughly from a Rousseau painting. Instead of a tiger in the grass, however, this painting shows a man crouching in the grass with a machine gun on a tripod. Back and forth in front of this picture, the Jap in question struts from one side of the box to the other. He jerks his arm spasmodically, as though he’d been trained by Nazis. Under a black mustache, his teeth protrude, making him look even more like a Nazi gerbil. But to resolve any questions regarding his true nature and allegiance, he carries a sword in one hand and a Japanese flag in the other. The object of the game is to kill him.

Although his chances of escape are slim, the Jap won’t die easily. He’s been killed many, many times before. It’s not the gun mounted on far end of the box. That’s solely decorative. It’s a shiny ball rolling down a slope through a maze of holes and bumpers that holds his fate. Thumps on the sides of the box urge the ball toward a special hole—the Hole to Hell. Sometimes the ball seems to have a mind of its own. It bounces erratically from side to side, from bumper to bumper, as it rolls down the slope. It may pass by that dark hole. Then the Jap will escape death. More often, the ball falls in. Then a bell clangs, and he dies again, slumped midway along his run. Those who have killed him cheer.

Adults often try their hand, some several times a day. Occasionally, one who successfully shoots the Jap mutters, “Gotcha, you yellow bastard!” or “Take that, asshole!” When the kids play, their language is more restrained, but their shouting leaves no doubt regarding their exhilaration in killing him.

During the bitterly cold days of February 1945, only regulars can be found at the Ice House. Some still buy bait for ice fishing. Others just gather for coffee and gossip—and to once again kill that lone enemy soldier. With no children around, they can give full voice to their contempt for that yellowed, buck-toothed figure. Curses unsuitable for the ears of kids often fill the air.

While the war in Europe seems resolved, the push across the Pacific continues. So an undercurrent of worry persists. Several local boys have returned, some wounded. A few have passed through hell unscathed. Throughout February and into March, attention focuses on Iwo Jima, where the Allies confront bitter resistance from the fanatical entrenched enemy. Newspapers recount the assault as, seemingly foot-by-foot, the two forces contest the mountainous terrain. Finally, the photograph of the flag raising on Suribachi at the end of the month bolsters spirits.

In the Knob, however, joy is tempered by the knowledge that one of their own is fighting with the Marines at Iwo Jima, where casualties are reported to be frightfully heavy. And that joy is extinguished altogether two weeks later when a dreadful message arrives. Rob Wilson has been killed in action.

For many years, Rob’s parents, Marge and Tom, have run the gas station next to the Ice House. Until he was called to war, Rob worked at both places whenever he had time off from school. In winter, he cut blocks of ice, and in summer delivered them to houses and cottages around the Knob. Everyone knew him. Everyone cared for him. Now everyone mourns him.

In late June, women and children begin to return to the cottages at the Knob. Happily, some of their husbands have returned to join them, eager to put behind the horrors and loneliness of recent years. The Ice House becomes a stage on which a wonderful return to the ordinary plays out.

But there are no parts in the play for Rob’s parents. They busy themselves with the gas station, and they often drop in for coffee or beer at the Ice House. They seem like actors reading for parts they know they will never win. Those who have known them for years attend carefully to their own performances, hoping that in time, grief will loosen its hold on Tom and Marge.

The kids, however, are immersed in the freedom and adventure of summer. Subtle aspects of adult behavior pass over them like a light breeze, which only occasionally diverts them from their activities. “Shoot the Jap” still appeals to them, particularly to those kids visiting the Knob for the first time. Even after the climactic bombs bring Japan down, the pinball machine attracts many of them. But by implicit agreement, it is not put in play when Tom and Marge are around.

One August day, Rob’s parents are sitting at the counter in the Ice House, drinking coffee with several friends, when some kids burst in excitedly to announce that a visitor is looking for them. The swinging doors open to reveal a young, uniformed Marine. Stepping inside, he immediately sees the pinball machine and “Shoot the Jap!” He stands still for a few moments, staring at the Jap, who slumps unmoving at the midpoint of his track.

A tug at his sleeve startles him, and one of the kids directs the Marine to Tom and Marge. He removes his hat and, with a noticeable limp, slowly crosses the sawdust-covered floor. Standing stiffly before the couple, he introduces himself as one of Rob’s buddies. They welcome him warily, and he takes a seat.

He says he had been through a lot with Rob, including the long struggle on Iwo Jima. Patting his leg, he recounts how he’d been wounded on what proved to be the last day of the battle. Rob had gotten through it all with only a few scrapes and bruises. The day after Suribachi had been taken, a bunch of the guys had been lying around on the slope, exhausted by their efforts of the previous days. Rob announced he had to “clean up.” He’d poured some water from his canteen into his helmet and was fumbling in his pack for an old razor they shared. A Jap suddenly burst out of a brush-covered hole on the hillside, screaming and firing. “Our guys shot him,” the Marine says softly, “but not before that Jap killed Rob. Shot him in the head.”

Their visitor chokes. He can’t say more. Marge and Tom sit in stunned silence. It is as if, impossibly, their son has just died a second time.

One afternoon, near the end of the summer, the kids are leaving the Ice House after a day of swimming, tag, sodas, and shooting the Jap. One of them spots something glinting in the grass by the edge of the walk. It’s a rifle shell. Spent shells are artifacts of deer hunting the kids have seen many times before. They often collect the empty casings to use as money in their card games. But this shell is different; it hasn’t been fired. Its head still protrudes from the case. It’s no artifact. It is, they quickly realize, a real bullet. Having shown it quickly once around, the boy puts it in his pocket out of grown-up sight.

After supper that night, the kids gather to ponder the fate of the bullet. Early opinions incline toward giving the bullet to an adult. It is, they know, a dangerous thing. But when one of the girls suggests “launching it like a rocket,” new prospects open. But how to launch it without a gun? After inventing and discarding a few complex methods, they decide they could throw it hard, butt-first onto cement. That might work. That becomes the plan.

Tomorrow will be their last day at the Knob, with school in the offing. While their parents are packing, the kids assemble at the Ice House at dusk. They bring the bullet. The concrete path that runs between the Ice House and the gas station extends into small parking lot at the back of the two buildings. There, with an old broom, they sweep sawdust away to clear a small circle on the cement. Spacing themselves on its circumference, they wait. When he is sure no adults are in sight, the caretaker produces the bullet. Holding it aloft, he steps into the circle, chants what he takes to be a magic charm, and hurls the bullet straight down. The other kids wince and turn away. But the bullet just bounces several times and rolls toward one of them. He, in turn, throws it onto the cement with the same result. Laughter and excitement rise. New magic charms are proposed. Others want to try their hands.

Tom Wilson is in the back of the gas station straightening up, a job Marge would ordinarily handle. But she isn’t up to much these days. Neither is he, but at least he can shuffle along with the routine. He hears the noises of the kids and, through curtains on the back door, sees the quick rising and falling of their hands. Curious, he opens the door and steps out.

The unmistakable crack of a rifle shot rips the late afternoon stillness. It has to be close by, thinks Tom, looking around frantically. But he sees no gun. The pitch of the children’s screaming rises sharply. They twist about in agitation—or in agony?

Seeing nobody but the kids in their writhing circle, Tom stumbles forward and clutches the closest, who squirms trying to pull away. No blood. He lets the boy go and grabs a girl who is jumping around nearby. Again apparently no harm. And the others are too active to have been shot. But as Tom lunges about among the kids, he pieces together the story of the bullet launch. He begins to moan, first softly, then more and more loudly. His harsh, raspy gasping brings the kids to a halt in a ragged, larger circle around him. He tries to speak, but can’t still his sobbing. He falls to his knees. Finally, he is able to croak “crazy kids” and “stupid,” but then sobs again overcome him.

The kids stare at him, transfixed by such strange adult behavior. Finally, one of the kids breaks the spell and retreats furtively over the sawdust and down the walk. The others join an accelerating flight toward their cottages. But before they round the corner of the Ice House, they look back one more time. The remarkable sight of Tom, now crouched on the cement, will embellish the story of the bullet launch for many days to come.

For a long time after their nervous laughter and the slapping of their bare feet have faded, Tom sits shuddering in the circle of sawdust.

A short time later, the deer have settled in their meadow high up on the mountain. From there, the view validates the locals’ claim that theirs is one of the world’s most beautiful lakes. Certainly a match for Lake Geneva, although they know that lake only from some old picture postcards. Indifferent to the panorama, the deer browse contentedly as the sun begins to set.

Tony-GorryTony Gorry holds a chair in management and is also a professor of computer science at Rice University. Over a long career, he published many academic articles. Lately, he has turned to writing essays, memoirs, and short stories. These works have appeared in The Fiddleback, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Chronicle Review, The Examined Life, The New Atlantis, and War, Literature and the Arts.

Image credit: Darron Birgenheier

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