Written by Ana Kate Barker
William sloshes through the soggy graveyard in his oversized rain boots and favorite army pants, careful to step on grass, not gravel. He’s a soldier searching through the rubble after an air strike.
Last night he slept over at Nana’s house in her giant, fluffy bed. A scary storm struck with bullets of rain and hail, so he slept on Pop’s side to keep her safe. This morning, Nana wanted to visit Pop at his grave, and William wanted to come, too.
William scours the ground, collecting the scraps with stars and stripes from the debris of muddy petals scattered during the storm. A jet roars overhead, distracting him from his search. He stands at attention. Pop had said that one day he would teach William to fly a plane like that.
William leads the pack of eight glossy red jets in a perfect diamond formation as they loop and dive through the air. He is the best pilot. The synchronized planes comb through the clouds, skidding the blue sky with streaks of smoky grey. He roars ferociously like a mighty engine as he zigzags around scattered airshow spectators, arms outstretched like large aluminum wings.
“Here they come, Wally!” says Pop— that’s what William calls his grandpa.
William dashes, as fast as his little engine can take him, to the fence between his pop and the runway. He reaches for the chain-links to avoid crashing his plane, clutches them, and hoists himself halfway up one link at a time. With his sneakers secured in the metal openings, he jerks his head upward and stares into the sky as the sound of a fighter jet crescendos.
Pop places a hand on the man’s shoulder next to him. “I’m sorry, sir. Wally, you nearly ran right into this gentleman. What do you say?”
“Excuse me,” said William, completely preoccupied as the jet emerges from the clouds.
“No harm done.” The nice man smiles at William and says, “He’s got lots of exciting things going on in that noggin. Maybe one day your grandpa can teach you to fly a plane like that.”
“Sounds like a good idea to me,” says Pop. “What do you think, Wally?” That’s Pop’s nickname for William.
William grins and shakes his head. He turns back toward the sky and points as a speck pops from the plane. A white mushroom blooms from the black dot. The plane spits more specks one right after the other until a troop of white mushrooms floats down from the clouds. He looks back with an excited grin and notices that Pop has shiny eyes.
“You see that first paratrooper, Wally?”
Gradually, the specks take human form. William nods.
“He is a very old gentleman, and this is the first time he’s jumped since he was a young soldier. He is a very brave man. He used to jump from planes into enemy territory.”
William trains his eyes on the first parachute until it drifts to the grass below, hoping to get a good look at the brave soldier. He squints and frowns; the soldier doesn’t look very strong. The elderly veteran crosses the runway, exits the gate, and walks toward a folding table under a white tent. William decides to get a closer look.
William turns toward his pop who is asking the man beside him something about ‘Nam. That’s a funny word, William thinks. He tugs on Pop’s sleeve. “Excuse me,” he remembers to say this time. The men turn toward him.
“I’m going to go shake their hands.” William points in the direction of the white tent.
Pop’s new friend chuckles. “I see you’ve trained him well.”
“Okay. I’m sure they would appreciate that very much.” Pop beams.
William jumps from the fence as the most daring paratrooper. He soars to the ground with wind pounding against his cheeks. As he lands, he is greeted by enemy gunfire. He runs for cover under the tent, making explosive booms as he swerves around the walking trees.
“Be careful, son. Watch where you’re going; you might trip.” William looks up into enemy eyes, barely dodging the foe. He has to watch out for strangers.
Finally, he reaches the tent. He sees A-R-M-Y printed on the black table cloth covering the folding table. “Army,” he recognizes that word and knows he’s safe. William gazes at the paratrooper, an old, old, old grandpa in a grandpa sweater, then at the two young soldiers, wearing pants just like his own covered in green, grainy camo. They look more like the army men William has at home. He crosses his arms, stands by the table looking tough, hoping they’ll notice his army pants.
The veteran walks around the table to face William. “Well hello there, young man. I like those pants.” William grins and moves his hands to his hips.
“He said he would like to shake your hand,” says Pop with a smile, approaching the tent from behind.
“Well, I’m honored. My name’s Richard.” As the elderly man extends his hand, a glint of light catches William’s eye. He notices Richard release his tight grip on something small and shiny and slip it into his pants. “And you are?”
The boy looks into the veteran’s eyes and shakes his hand like a tough soldier. “William.”
“But I call him Wally.” Pop gives him a wink. William scowls, but the corners of his mouth give a slight smile.
William stares back at Richard’s pocket with unsatisfied curiosity. “Why do you have that shiny thing?” No one seems to hear his question.
“I take it this is your grandson?” Richard asks. “He’s a very sharp young man.”
“I’ll claim him.” Pop tousles William’s hair. “Jim,” he says, extending a sturdy hand.
“Nice to meet you.” Richard clasps Pop’s hand firmly.
“Your act today was quite moving. Thank you for your service, Richard.”
“And you, for yours.” Richard releases his grip and moves his hand to his pocket. His fingers fiddle with the shiny thing.
William breaks the respectful silence.
“What do you got in your pocket?”
“This?” Richard removes his hand and holds out a small metal rectangle.
William nods eagerly.
“This is a can opener—my good luck charm. I’ve taken one of these with me every time I’ve jumped.”
It does not look like the can openers his mom uses. Richard laughs at William’s apparent confusion. “It’s a US P-38—what we used in the war to open our K-rations. Rations are the little cardboard boxes of food we used to get, but they weren’t very tasty.”
Richard hands William the tool. “Here. Hold it by the longer end and be careful not to touch the blade; it’s sharp.”
“Neat, isn’t it?” Pop asks.
“Uh huh.” William looks at the shiny metal piece with wonder.
“Best little tool ever invented,” Richard adds. “Never breaks or rusts. You can even use it as a screw driver or knife.”
The two young soldiers conversing behind the table laugh, diverting William’s attention. He hands the can-opener back to its owner. “What’s their names?” William asks, turning his head toward the laughter.
“They are Private Nick and Private Max,” Richard replies.
The two young men direct their attention to William.
“Did you enjoy the show?” the tall one with a limp named Max asks.
William shakes his head vigorously. “Why do you walk like that?”
“I took a bullet to the knee in war,” says the young man.
William shifts his weight to one leg. He doesn’t lose his balance because he’s had lots of practice playing injured soldier. Limping makes his character tougher, same as when he wears his pirate patch. But walking this way is only fun for a little bit.
“Would you like an army water bottle?” The red-headed soldier, Nick, picks up a yellow re-usable bottle etched with “ARMY” in black lettering.
“Yes!” William reaches for the bottle in Nick’s hand.
“Not so fast. Don’t you have to join the army to receive one?” Richard gives a playful smirk.
“Oh that’s right,” Nick pulls his arm back.
“Would you like to sign up?” Max winks at Pop.
William really needs an army water bottle to go with his pants and he definitely wants to be friends with the tough soldiers. “Yes, sir.”
“All right,” the tall one says, “Step right up.”
The redhead slides a clipboard and pen across the table. William grasps the pen, props his elbows on the table, and tilts his head, staring intently at the paper. He looks up embarrassed, not exactly sure of what he’s supposed to write.
Max points to a large empty space. “We just need your name here.” He points to a smaller square. “And your age here.”
William clenches the pen in his hand and his tongue between his teeth as he carefully writes his name and a big, fat 5 onto the paper.
“What’s he doing?” A twelve-year-old version of William walks up to the table with an armful of free loot covered in company logos from various booths.
“I’m signing up for the army, Douglas.” William responds without even glancing up from his paper. Maybe his big brother will be jealous.
The older boy turns to his pop. “Does he think this is for real?”
Pop nods and motions for him to be quiet.
Douglas laughs. “This is going to be fun,” he says under his breath.
William sets his pen on the table triumphantly.
“Thank you, soldier.” Nick hands William his plastic prize.
“What war am I in?” asks the little recruit.
“I’ve got one more thing for you.” Richard reaches into his pocket. William, wide-eyed, knows exactly what’s coming.
He pulls out the silver can-opener. “It’s for you, but I’m going to let your grandpa hold onto it for safe keeping.” Richard hands the item to Pop. “You may appreciate it even more one day.”
“Wally, this is very special,” says his pop. “What do you say?”
“You’re welcome, young man. You’re going to make a great soldier.”
“You boys ready to meet Nana for some lunch?” Pop starts the car.
“Can we eat tuna from a can?” William asks.
His pop laughs. “You’ll have plenty of opportunities to use your new tool in the army.” He turns his head toward the back seat. “Wally, put your seatbelt on.”
William huffs quietly. Soldiers don’t wear seatbelts. William is the bravest soldier. Right now, he is strapped into a tank about to ambush the enemy.
“You ready to be in the army, Wally?” Pop asks.
“Yeah.” William sits up straight in his seat.
“Are you sure?” His brother chimes in from the passenger seat. “It’s really dangerous.”
William gazes out the window. “I know,” he says. He knows he’s really brave, and that man said he would make a good soldier.
“You have to go home and pack your bags because the army could call for you any day now.” Pop grins at Douglas.
William feels a few butterflies in his stomach. “I don’t want to…when are they going to call for me?”
“Sometimes they call when you least expect it.”
“But…you’re probably going to have to leave next week,” says Douglas.
“Oh.” William slumps in his seat and stares at his hands.
“Yeah, and boot camp’s really rough,” Douglas adds. “They yell at you and make you go in a gas chamber.”
William looks out the window in deep thought. He doesn’t know what a gas chamber is, but he doesn’t like when people yell at him.
“Would you even be brave enough to jump out of a plane?” Douglas asks.
“Yeah. Of course.” That actually did look fun.
“You may land in a dark jungle and see things you’ve never seen before, but you can’t let it make you sad. You have to keep moving,” Pop says.
Douglas interjects. “And what if your parachute doesn’t open?”
William heaves a frustrated sigh. Now he wasn’t so sure. Douglas and Pop exchange amused glances.
“Do you even know how to shoot a gun?”
William folds his arms across his chest. “Yes,” he says, still trying to sound as brave as possible. But he knows he has no idea how to shoot a gun; it scares him.
“Make sure you eat a good lunch today because soldier meals are not tasty,” says Pop.
“Yeah, no candy,” says his brother.
No candy? William hadn’t thought about that. He might starve. He feels tears push their way to the front of his eyes, but he blinks them back.
“And guess what else?” Douglas proceeds. “No toys. No blanket. And no mommy.”
“So?” William folds his arms across his chest. Soldiers don’t need mommies, but that makes him really sad. No matter how often he blinks, his lashes just get wetter. Annoyed, he smears the tears with his sleeve. He cannot cry.
Pop peers in his rearview mirror. “Okay, Douglas, that’s enough. No more teasing. Wally, your brother was just kidding about you having to leave so soon.”
“Sorry, Will,” says Douglas. “You won’t have to go until you’re eighteen.”
William wipes a tear-stained hand on his pant leg. He still needs to look tough. “How big is eighteen?”
Pop and Douglas exchange uncertain glances.
William tries again. “As big as Douglas?”
“No, bigger than that,” says Pop. “About like those two soldiers you met today.”
“Nick and Max?”
“Yes, and you won’t be that big for a while.”
William trudges into the fast-food restaurant, straight past the kid’s meal toy display and the gumball machines, completely ignoring the colossal playground to his left. Why did he sign his name on that paper? Now he has to go to war. He wrote his age too—the soldiers will know when he turns eighteen. He climbs into the nearest empty booth and curls up in the corner where the cushion meets the wall. He pushes the bill of his baseball cap further down so no one will see his sad, droopy eyes. He ducks his chin to his chest.
“Hey, there! How are my favorite young men?” Nana strokes the few strands of wiry grey on top of Pop’s bright, bald head and slides into the booth next to him. She looks over at the sullen boy crouched at the back corner of the table.
“What’s wrong, William?”
He says nothing but continues to stare at a chewed piece of gum dried to the table; he doesn’t even feel the urge to poke at it.
Nana reaches across the table and places a palm to his forehead. “What’s the matter with him?” she turns to Pop.
“The soldier’s preparing for war.”
Douglas snorts, suppressing a snicker.
“What do you mean?” Nana glares at Douglas, then back at Pop.
“William signed up for the army, and we just told him that he may have to leave for boot camp soon,” Douglas replies.
“Jimmy!” Nana scowls.
“What? He’s been very brave and hasn’t complained once, has he, Douglas?
“Well he’s doing better than you did, then.” Nana turns her attention to her grandbaby. “William,” she coos. “You don’t have to go to war.”
“I already signed up.”
“But they were just teasing; you don’t have to go.”
“I’m a soldier now.” He shrugs with resolve.
Pop beams and nudges his wife. “See?”
“Sounds like something you once told me.” Nana kisses Pop on his cheek. “William, what if your pop calls and tells the army that you won’t be ready until you’re much, much older? Would that make you feel better?”
William looks up with hopeful eyes. “Okay, that would be good,” he sniffs.
“You hear that, Jimmy? You need to call the army.”
Pop nods. “I will.” He smiles reassuringly at William. Want to go get some ice cream now?”
“Yes, sir!” William springs from his seat like a jack-in-the-box.
“Good idea. You may never get it again once you go to war,” Douglas taunts.
William squints and pokes out his tongue in reply.
Pop carries the sleeping soldier to the door of his house. William is actually awake, pretending to be an unconscious, bloody soldier with only one arm because it was asleep from the car ride.
Pop kisses his head and passes William to his mother. “He made me quite proud today.”
William overhears and secretly smiles.
“He’s growing up too fast.” William’s mom gave her baby boy a little squeeze.
Once the familiar scent of mama reaches his nose, he remembers the army tent and knows for sure that he’s not ready to leave home yet.
“Hey, Pop!” William lifts his head sleepily from his mom’s shoulder.
“What is it, Wally?”
“Don’t forget to call those soldiers.”
William strains his eyes until the jet shrinks to a speck of dust and blends with the grey sky. His hands begin to tingle with cold from squeezing his collection of damp fabric. He walks back toward Nana. She continues to stare at clouds where the airplane flew just moments ago.
William kneels down in the mushy grass next to the slab with Pop’s name on it and arranges his scraps of stars and stripes. Water soaks through the knees of his army pants. Nana has a picture of Pop in pants like his. She said he was a brave soldier. When he grows a little maybe he will wear Pop’s pants. He lays down his last bit of cloth and pats it in place.