JUST LIKE A REAL MAN
Tell me about when you were in grade 3.
It has been a long time since I was in the third grade. In fact, it was during the year of the big flood, that I was in third grade, 1927…
“Finish your breakfast, Junie,” Mother told me as I picked at my eggs and oatmeal. “Hurry up so you can get to school on time.” She stood at the stove preparing food for herself.
“He’s not going to school today, Florence,” Daddy hollered on his way in the door, Uncle Squirrel following close behind. “Sawmill’s closing. They can’t get enough wood in here with all this flooding.”
Mother turned over the dish towel in her hand, taking no notice that I had stopped eating. Squirrel fixed a plate of his own and sat down beside me.
“Come on, Junie, I’ll race ya,” he said. “First one done with breakfast wins!” Squirrel and I went to town on our breakfast. My fork was racing to catch everything my toast scooped up into it. Still, I was able to keep an ear on my parents’ conversation.
“So where’re we gonna go, Cecil?” Mother asked in a lower voice. “Columbia’s flooded. Sicily Island’s flooded. Ferriday, Vicksburg, all flooded!”
“Think your father’s got work for us?” he asked.
“I tell ya what, we’ll run to town and I’ll give him a call.”
Mother shook her head and tapped her fingers on the counter, but didn’t say anything.
“Let’s take today to prepare everything,” Daddy said, taking her hands, “and we’ll leave first thing tomorrow.”
I dropped my fork on the plate, signaling that I was done eating. A split second later, Squirrel dropped his. “You win again, Junie!” he said.
“Well, I guess I did have a head start.”
“Come on buddy, let’s go pack up. We got a long trip ahead of us.”
Packing wasn’t too difficult for me. I only had three changes of clothes, which I stuffed in Daddy’s army satchel. Daddy already had his Model T running when we got outside. There was just enough room for Mother or me to sit in between the other two passengers on the bench seat. My feet reached the end of the bench, just short of the shifter. Daddy drove until he got to Uncle Lawrence’s store, which had the only telephone in town.
“Gotta call Dab,” Daddy said on his way in the door.
“Skippin’ town on us?” Uncle Lawrence asked.
“Got no choice, mill’s dried up. But they might just have work for us up in Ohio.”
“Coolidge’s supposed to send relief. Think that’ll get us anywhere?”
“I think it’ll last as long as Pat lasted in the Army.” Daddy looked up at three people sitting on a bench. “Ya’ll waiting to use the telephone, too?” he asked.
I saw L.Z. Martin sitting next to his daddy outside. I walked out there and sat next to him.
“Your daddy keep you home, too?” I asked.
“Yep, we’re leaving to go to Texas. All the farms being flooded means he’s got no crop to grow and no work for his men.” He pointed at all the men around him who were looking for someone to come along and hire them for a day’s work. “Daddy said there’s no more work left with all these refugees here. They’ll live anywhere they can set up a tent, and Wisner’s the only dry place for miles.”
L.Z. got up and went to the side of the store, where he found a metal hoop laying on the ground. He picked up a decent-sized stick and then pushed it toward me. I found myself a stick to push with, which soon turned into a sword, and then into a gun.
Squirrel came outside and got L.Z.’s daddy and another man to help load wood into the back of the truck. When Daddy came out, I got in the cab of the truck and L.Z. got in the back with his daddy.
“Squirrel,” I said, “Who’s Pat?”
“I don’t know. Which Pat you talking about?”
“Daddy said it’d last as long as Pat lasted in the Army.”
“Well, when the War Department sends out draft notices, they might send out one to, let’s say, Pat Jones. Only, when Pat shows up at the recruiting depot, they find it didn’t go to Patrick Jones, but Patricia Jones.”
“You ready for an adventure, Junie?” Daddy asked, patting me on the head.
I jumped out of my seat. “We going to stay with Dab and Granny?”
Squirrel sat me back down. “Sure are. And we’re gonna be camping a lot on the way up there.”
“Just like real men in the Army?” I asked.
“Yeah, just like real men,” he replied.
“Is mother gonna be camping like real men with us?” Both of them laughed out loud, and Daddy stopped the truck for a moment.
“Of course,” Daddy said, pulling himself together. He pulled back out on the road. “Your mother can be a man with the best of us.”
We stopped outside of St. Louis one night on the way up there. It was cooler in Missouri than it had been anywhere else, and I didn’t have to swat any mosquitoes. For once, there were a lot of other children running around and, since we had been on the road for several days straight, Daddy decided to stay an extra day. While the grownups made camp, I found some other kids playing kick the can.
When I came back to camp, my parents were cooking around the fire with a man named Frank Gordy. Mr. Frank had built one raft out of cypress logs and put a henhouse on it, then put his pigs on another one. The pigs had their corncrib up at the center of the raft and they could drink water from the edges.
The next morning, Mr. Frank volunteered some of his eggs to share with mother’s breakfast, and he sent me to fetch them. Basket in hand, I walked into his henhouse, and stopped dead in my tracks. I didn’t exactly scream, but I wasn’t silent either. It must have been more like a whimper. Either way, it was loud enough for the family to hear.
Mother rushed over first, and as soon as she caught sight of it, she started doing what I was doing, only she managed to compose herself enough to whisper “F-F…F-F…FOX!” I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. Its hair stood on end as it crouched, back arched, tail low to the ground. I had no clue if it would try to pounce on me or run past. Standing there, I felt a hand on my left shoulder and the wooden stock of a rifle slide into my right hand.
“Take it with both hands,” Squirrel whispered as the trigger reached my right hand. I was still shaking, my eyes dead locked with the fox’s. He placed the butt of the rifle against my shoulder, held it underneath me to ensure I didn’t drop it, and steadied my back against his shoulder.
“Fire,” he whispered. The fox’s tail quivered. “Fire,” he said again more urgently. The fox’s legs began to shake. “Junie, pull the trigger!” he said. The Fox’s eyes narrowed. It leaned back and I squeezed my eyes shut tight. “NOW!” Squirrel yelled.
The shot went off. All the chickens started cackling out loud.
I opened my eyes when Squirrel started breathing again. The fox lay dead about halfway between me and where he was before. My finger still held the trigger tightly with Squirrel’s finger keeping it in place. I focused in on the dead fox’s body, and I saw two bullet holes: one in the head and one in the side. Daddy’s rifle lowered next to me.
“I guess you all three get credit for that kill,” Mother joked, finally able to breathe. Squirrel took his rifle, stood up, and started walking away.
“Daddy?” I called, running up alongside him. “Is that how real men live? Like in the Army?” Daddy and Squirrel stopped walking and looked at each other. Neither one said anything.
“Time to pack up, Junie,” Daddy said. “Time to get a move on.” They walked a little further while I stood there. Daddy turned back around. “Good shot, son. I’m proud of you.”
“Just like a real man?” I asked.
Daddy walked over and patted me on the head.
“Just like a real man.”