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By Wes Prussing
When I was eight, my favorite battlefield was in the backyard near a tall elm which was planted the same year our house was built. Although it offered a generous amount of shade during the hot summer months, its roots made it difficult to construct a proper theater of warfare. For this reason I was compelled to move off to the side near the high hedge that served as a shield from our neighbor's yelping rottweiler.
Using a teaspoon I carved furrows into the hard-packed dirt. I lined my miniature trenches with small flat pebbles, staggering the joints the way they did with sand bags in the movies. I carefully molded the rolling hillsides and sloping valleys with the dirt I had dug and placed broken branches and larger rocks between the opposing forces.
My men were green - good or bad, it didn't matter, they were all green. When not engaged in warfare they existed peacefully together in the cellophane bag that they had arrived in, locking arms, legs - even weapons. Embracing like brothers, which I was convinced they were.
But when equally divided into opposing forces and laid out on the battleground, they became bitter enemies. Some knelt, rifle to cheek, elbow twisted outward. Others sat defiantly, legs crossed, rifles raised, gun stock to helmet. There were some who could only stand at attention, their rifles welded to their sides or over their shoulders. A few were too ill to fight, deformed at the factory - a withered arm or leg, a defective base. These I gathered up and tossed back into the bag. This was not a parade, this was combat.
My favorite were the prone riflemen. These were compact soldiers that needed no base to support them. They could be placed almost anywhere. They never retreated, they never surrendered. Made for the trenches, they were true warriors. They often died first, sometimes in wholesale numbers as hand grenades and mortar fire tore apart their lines. I often flipped them over, one by one, as phantom bullets tore through their ranks or sent them flying through the air as imaginary bombs fell all around them.. The carnage was massive. The destruction devastating. All died heroes. It was glorious.
Over time my network of trenches and craters began to expand. New battles required new battleground. I was running out of room. I tried to fill in some of the deeper holes and even scattered some grass seed left over from last year's attempt to cultivate some sort of lawn. But it was useless. Nothing ever grew. Soon even the small tufts of crabgrass and weeds that spotted our narrow slice of land like bread mold, disappeared too.
One day in early summer, after a long and brutal battle, I sat on our front stoop admiring the lawn across the street. Mr. Casey had done an exceptional job that year. His grass was deep green and perfectly cut like the tight nap of an expensive rug. The edges were neatly trimmed and straight. I looked back at my own yard, at the ashen landscape where I fought all my wars and built my many battlefields. Not even a dandelion grew.
I went to the basement and found an old garden rake, crusted with cement. I gave it a whack against the oak tree and scales of hardened mortar dropped to the ground. Beginning at the south corner of our backyard I began to rake the dirt as best I could until it took on a freshly tilled texture. I filled in every hole and every crease in the earth. I patted down the dirt and raked again. When this was done I moved on, working in small square girds. Every so often I'd have to stop to move a bicycle or a garden hose, or beat down a stubborn crown of dirt. Sometimes my rake would catch on a root and I'd yank hard until it snapped free. My t-shirt was soon soaked with sweat and caked with dirt. I kept raking.
Gradually I made my way to the front of the yard. The sun was now very low and that mysterious nocturnal string-section of crickets and katydids was just tuning up. When I reached the farthest front corner of the yard I had a small pile of rocks, bark, broken toys, marbles, Popsicle sticks, cigarette buds, broken glass and a wooden yo-yo which I tucked into my pocket. I shoveled the rest up and dumped it in the trash. I leaned on the rake and surveyed the job. The ground looked like one broad swatch of gray-black corduroy. I put the tools away and sat down on the front stoop.
Twenty minutes later I saw the bus stop at the corner. My father stepped off with two other riders. He lit a cigarette and stared after the bus as it continued its route. He sighed and let a funnel of smoke stream from his nose. He straightened his cap then reached for his nightstick which hung from his wrist on a rawhide cord and gave it a flip. It spun like a pinwheel and slapped his palm. He started down the street, stepping to the cadence of his twirling stick, his polished badge flashing prisms of color like a tiny mirror - the slow, steady pace of an weary beat cop.
When he came to our house he stopped at the gate and picked up the paper. He scanned the headlines, refolded the paper and looked down at me.
"Where's your mother and sisters?"
I shrugged. "I dunno."
"What'd you do today. Did you play?"
"What'd you play?"
"Stuff, but nobody was home, I had to play by myself."
He tucked the paper under his arm. "It's a hot one, today," he said wiping dots of sweat from his forehead with the back of his wrist. "I guess summer is here to stay."
"Mom says we can go to the beach tomorrow if it don't rain," I offered.
He looked over at the yard, then peeked around the corner of the house. "We'll see," he said. He didn't seem surprised at the expanse of freshly turned soil; at least he didn't say anything. "We'll see," he said again, his voice a half octave higher.
I tugged at his leg. "Dad?
"Can we plant some grass sometime? Everyone else has a nice yard except us."
He pinched the cigarette and flipped it across the yard. It landed with a puff of red ash.
"I don't have time right now son. We tried it last summer, remember. Nothing wants to grow here. Sometimes there's just not much you can do. Ya know?"
"Yeah, I know Dad. I thought we could have a yard, too."
"We have a yard - .'
"I mean a nice one. One you can play in, do things."
He climbed the stoop and tapped the newspaper on my head. "Where'd you say your mother was?"
"In the kitchen I guess."
"You coming in for supper?"
"In a little while."
He tucked the paper under his arm.
"Dad, ya' see what I did - ."
He let the storm door slam behind him. I sat and watched a few cars go by and threw some rocks at the fire hydrant near the street. When I couldn't see where the rocks hit anymore, I went into the house. My father was already settled into the chair next to the TV. His gun belt and cap hung from the hall closet door. My mother was in front of the stove mashing a pot full of potatoes while my little sister played near her feet. She called to me: "wash your hands before dinner, young man, you've been playing in the dirt all day."
I went to the bathroom, turned on the faucet and waited for the water to warm up. I stuck my hands under the tepid stream but immediately yanked them back. I examined the broken blisters on my palms and on the inside of one thumb. I waited for the needles of pain to subside then picked up the soap and lathered up. That done I turned the hot up as far as it would go and shoving my hands under, accepted the sting I knew would come - a real trooper.
A week later while I was seated on our overturned milk box tightening the chain on my bike, a long flatbed truck trailering a rusted forklift pulled up in front of our house. Short, dark men, flashing sinister-looking machetes and speaking in a language I did not understand, hopped from the truck and swarmed among the pallets of sod which were deposited around the house like stacks of poker chips. The men worked quickly, flipping the mats of grass, kicking them into place, trimming around trees and bushes and along the walkway.
My father stood near the front stoop and smoked. When the job was completed he went into the kitchen and returned with cold cans of beer which the men drank in hurried gulps. From where I sat I could see their adam's apples slide up and down their leathery throats like they were swallowing a pouch of marbles. They wiped the foam from their upper lips with the backs of their hands and bowed with gratitude as they placed the empty cans neatly on the walkway.
I took my bag of soldiers and went to the back yard where I always played. I sat down near the elm. I dumped the bag onto the grass and began arranging my men. But something was wrong. My battlefield had been buried beneath the sod. Not an inch of ground was left exposed.
There was no way my soldiers could stand among the tangled blades of grass. Even my favorite riflemen would not lay flat. I tried jabbing them into the spongy mat of grass but it was useless.
As I sat trying to devise an alternated plan a shadow fell across my indolent army. My father crouched down and squeezed my ankle and gave my leg a playful shake. "How do you like our new lawn, pal?"
"Good," I said.
"You're going to have to help me take care of it you know."
"Yeah, I know dad."
"Wha'cha doing here?"
He picked up one of the soldiers and turned it in his hand. "Can I play with you?"
I pitched the soldier I had been holding against the base of the elm. "They won't stand like before - it’s this stupid grass."
"Here -" He knelt, and folded back a piece of sod like he was opening the cover of a book, revealing a crust of hard dirt. "This will be yours, okay? This patch right here. We'll leave it just like this - and we won't tell anyone. Only you and me will know about it."
"And we won't tell no one?"
"No one," he said, his hand on my head, his fingers making tiny circles on my scalp. Then he stood up and snapped a small branch from the tree and sat down next to me. I could smell the beer on his breath mixed with the smoke of countless cigarettes. He began scratching an S-shaped trench in the dirt. "This is what you do," he said, widening the sides with the tip of the stick, scooping out the dirt with the tips of his fingers. "You need to build your trenches first - see?"
He selected three or four of the men lying in the grass and sorted them in his palm. "Then you take your men. You see how they're made? They go on the line, like this ...."
I nodded again.
"You want these guys in trenches like this - okay? You see the way they hold their rifles? You want the barrels just over the edge ... like this ...."
"Then you take the others, over here ... the ones sitting down ... you watching son?"
"Once you've got them set ... you want to keep them spread out, you know, to protect your flank. See how I'm doing it?"
He was kneeling, sitting on his heels and dropping soldiers in the shallow trenches. He continued with his instructions, pulling more men from the bag. " … Got to protect your high ground. That way the enemy - these men over here - they can't attack you without exposing ...."
And on he went. But I wasn't listening anymore. I was on my back, stretched out on a blanket of new grass with my hands locked behind my head and the sweet breath of summer on my neck. Smiling up at the crimson blush of the mild June evening, at the gently nodding treetops and at the low spark of the evening's first fireflies; feeling like I was being held in a wide cozy palm and drawn in tight to a cool, moist breast - the world's own heartbeat steady and gentle across my back. And it wasn't warmth exactly or even love for the man kneeling over me that I felt stirring deep inside my anxious soul, it was something more ... like ... like peace.
In the years to come I would cut the lawn many times. I would spread fertilizer in the spring and pull weeds in the summer. I would set out sprinklers when the days were dry and I would rake leaves in autumn. I would do all these things for all the years I lived at home. And our yard would always be green and well kept.
Yet when I think on it now, I cannot for the life of me recall doing any of these chores - though I know I did. There's even a home movie where I can be seen dragging our old push-mower from the garage and charging into the tall grass, the handle bouncing just below my chin. But I do not remember it.
I only remember that one afternoon in the early summer, earnestly raking our measured plot of earth and waiting for my father to return home from battlefields I could not yet imagine - but are forever reveled by fathers everywhere, one small patch at a time .
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Document last modified on: 08/19/2002