In the car trip to a Pennsylvania V.A. hospital when I was twelve, my mother told us that our great Uncle Roy was a veteran of World War I and couldn’t communicate anymore.
The ride was three hours of empty landscape outside the window. AM radio. A song about a roller skate key. Jumble puzzle books and Spider-Man and Archie comics.
At the hospital, Uncle Roy was seated in a wheelchair in the visitors’ area, with a fireplace and couches. When he saw us he howled, like an animal. We stood there, frozen, until our mother motioned my younger brother and sister and myself towards him.
He drooled and stared at me, his eyes opening wide. It’s almost like he recognizes you, my mother said. Then he started crying and she made us sit on the couch, where I heard her tell him how I played Little League and mowed the grass and that we were responsible children when it came to chores around the house.
On the drive back I knew I never wanted to see him again.
When I got home my friends came over to play war games. Our battlefield was the front lawns and woods of a suburban town named for the Indian term for fertile, or pleasant, land. We had Daisy air rifles from Sears and plastic machine guns. And the best gun to play with was a real .45 from the Korean War that my friend’s father had donated to our arsenal.
Across the street, George, one of the older kids, sat on his stoop and smoked. He wasn’t the same after he came back from Vietnam. Before he left for the war he painted bases in the street between the maple trees for us to play baseball on. He had been a high school baseball star. But when he came home he didn’t bother with us, except for the time when we were playing war games and he walked over, picked up the machine gun, and said it was bad medicine. Play kick the can, he said.
Today he just stared at us.
Where did you go this morning, my friends asked.
To see an old uncle, I said. He was in the war.
Do you think he killed anyone?
He can’t walk anymore, I said. It’s hard to believe he ever shot a gun.
We separated into teams. In the woods, I crawled through leaves and waited for the enemy to come into view. The steel of the .45 in my hand made me think of Uncle Roy, playing real war games on a battlefield thousands of miles from home. I wondered if he ever shot anyone, or if he was paralyzed with fear.
A branch snapped and the enemy appeared through an opening in the bushes. I aimed the .45 at his head. Usually, when I killed someone, I’d mimic the sound of a fired gun from how it sounded on TV shows.
Suddenly, the .45 felt like a bucket of sand. And it wasn’t an enemy anymore, just my best friend, Chris.
I put the gun down and leaned against a tree. Chris walked up to me and fired away with the machine gun. But I didn’t put on my usual melodramatic death scene and roll down the hill. I just sat there.
How come you’re not playing, he asked.
Not in the mood anymore, I said.
Can I have the gun? I handed him the .45.
At dinner, I thought of Uncle Roy’s parents once staring at an empty place at the table, their clinking silverware the only sound.
The TV news in the den showed footage of helicopters landing in tall grass in Vietnam. The soldiers carried more modern weapons, not like our plastic replicas from World War II, but real weapons and artillery that deafened ears and caused shell shock, turning innocent Uncle Roys into drooling freaks.
My mother thought he recognized something in me. Maybe youth, caught up in the folly of glorifying violence in backyard war games. Perhaps his crying was a warning I couldn’t understand.
On the news, the broadcaster said the war would be ending soon.
Peter DeMarco’s first published story appeared in The New York Times in 1989 when he wrote about hanging out with his idol, writer Mickey Spillane. He has also published a New York Times “Modern Love” essay about becoming a New York City high school English teacher and meeting his wife. Other writing credits include pieces in Monkeybicycle, Hippocampus, Prime Number Magazine, and SmokeLong Quarterly. Peter DeMarco’s fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in New Jersey.
Cover Design by Karen Rile