Michail Mulvey is an adjunct instructor of American literature in the Connecticut system of higher ed. He holds an MFA in creative writing and has had over two dozen short stories published in well over a dozen literary magazines and journals, print and electronic, in the US, the UK, and Ireland. In 2013 he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lost.
A Short Story
By Michail Mulvey
“We have a new scout. His name is Hank,” said Mr. Purcell, our scoutmaster.
Next to Mr. Purcell stood a tall blonde kid who appeared older than the mutts that made up Troop 36. Hank nervously shifted from one foot to the other, then nodded and said, “Hello.”
“He’s going to be a member of your patrol, so make him feel welcome.” Mr. Purcell patted Hank on the shoulder, then smiled and walked away.
“Where you from,” asked Mickey, in a tone that was not very welcoming.
“I live on Broad Street,” said Hank. There was something about his answer that didn’t sound right, not so much what he said but how he said it.
“No, where are you from?” said Mickey, repeating the question in a way that sounded more like an interrogation.
“We moved from New York,” Hank replied, nervously eyeing us as we stepped closer. Again, there was something about his answer.
“Where’d you live before you lived in New York?” asked Mickey, with a look like he’d stepped in something. But before Hank could answer, Mr. Purcell yelled, “Fall in.”
The three patrols that made up Troop 36 fell into formation, dressed and covered, then stood at attention as Mr. Purcell called the roll. He put us “At ease” then talked about the upcoming camping season. Standing in the front row of our patrol and wearing civvies, Hank stood out. I stared at the back of his head, still wondering what it was that bothered me about his answers.
We broke up into our separate patrols and finalized preparations for the first of our spring campouts in a state forest just north of the city. At the end of the meeting Mr. Purcell took Hank around and introduced him to the other patrols, leaving us with unanswered questions about Troop 36’s newest scout.
There was one thing we were almost sure of. Hank was not from here. He sounded different, foreign, even. I’d heard that accent before – in one of my favorite war movies, Sahara, about an American tank and its crew trying to make its way back to friendly lines. In addition to the crew, on board was a collection of allied soldiers they pick up at a bombed-out field hospital. Along the way they shoot down a Nazi plane that was strafing the tank, killing one of the soldiers. Yeah. Hank sounded like that Nazi pilot the tank crew shot down and captured. Hank my ass. The new kid was a Kraut.
Later, we found out from Mrs. Purcell that Hank’s real name was Heinrich, German for Henry, and he might have moved from New York, but he was born in Germany. Mr. Purcell called him Hank hoping we’d take to someone with an American-sounding name. But to us twelve and thirteen-year olds, Hank became ‘Herman the German.’
At our next meeting we learned real quick that Hank didn’t like the new name we hung on our newest scout. “Hey Herman, how you doin’?” said Russell.
“My name is Hank,” our newest scout replied, giving Russell a hard look.
“Hey, Herman, how many Americans did your father kill in the war?” said Mickey.
“My father didn’t kill anyone,” said Hank, in a softer, uncertain tone. But the uncertainty in his voice was a dead giveaway. Now we knew for sure Herman’s father had been in the German Army and had probably killed someone, maybe even Americans.
Herman became even more of an outsider when we found out he wasn’t even from the projects. He lived in a house just down the street, a house with a front yard and a garage. One Saturday afternoon me and Mickey went to see Hank’s house. It wasn’t big or fancy, nothing like the homes on Hunting Ridge Road or Hycliff Terrace, but it was a house, not an apartment in the projects. Hank’s house wasn’t in the best neighborhood or in the best condition – it needed a paint job and new gutters – but he probably didn’t have to put up with any drunk neighbors, fighting and screaming every Saturday night.
We didn’t understand why our scoutmasters let this outsider – this Kraut – join our troop. We wondered what they were thinking, especially Mr. Kovacs, our assistant scoutmaster who served in WWII. He sometimes told war stories as we sat around a campfire late at night, stories about fighting Germans and losing buddies. We later found out he was wounded in Normandy and won a Bronze Star in Belgium. Mr. Purcell told stories too, but ghost stories, mostly. Too young to serve during WWII and married with a couple of kids by the time the Commies invaded South Korea, Mr. Purcell had no war stories to tell. We liked Mr. Purcell, but we looked up to Mr. Kovacs.
I’d heard other war stories, from my father, an Army medic, and my Uncle Jimmy, wounded in Italy by a German mortar round. One Saturday afternoon, after he’d had a couple of drinks, he showed me that piece of shrapnel that caught him in the chest.
“Never heard it coming,” he said. “Knocked me down and out. Woke up on a hospital ship.” He kept his citations, discharge papers, medals, and that piece of shrapnel in a box on the top shelf of his closet. Down in his basement he had a duffel bag filled with his old uniforms, a Nazi helmet, a bayonet, and other souvenirs. In a locked cabinet next to his tool bench he kept a real Luger, wrapped in an oily cloth. “Took it off a dead SS officer,” he said, fondling the pistol. He took out the clip and let me hold the Luger. It was heavy and cold – like that dead SS officer must have been. Before I left, Uncle Jimmy gave me an Army patch for my collection.
Spring finally arrived, the weather turned warm, the ground dried up enough to hold a tent peg, and Troop 36 set out on its first weekend camping trip. As we set up our pup tents, Mr. Purcell told Paulie he’d be bunking with Herman. Paulie helped Herman set up their tent, but later, when it came time to hit the sack, Paulie asked if he could bunk with me and Georgie. It was a tight fit but we were buddies and didn’t mind. Herman slept alone.
A couple of weeks later, Troop 36 took part in the annual Memorial Day parade. We marched behind the American Legion color guard, the Marines, the local National Guard company, the Navy Reserve unit, the high school marching band, the cops and firemen, and the floats and fire trucks, but ahead of the Girl Scouts, the Kiwanis Club, and the local beauty queen who smiled and waved to the crowds from the backseat of a white Buick convertible.
The crowds cheered as we proudly marched by in our neatly-pressed scout uniforms – our merit badges sewn to a sash proudly draped across our chests – up Atlantic Street, past the reviewing stand on the steps of the town hall. The mayor and other dignitaries smiled, waved, and saluted us.
At Memorial Park we took a right and headed west on Main. The names of servicemen from our town who’d fought in the Second World War were listed in orderly rows on the memorial, including my father’s name, the names of most of my uncles, the names of family friends and neighbors – and the name of our assistant scoutmaster, Mr. Kovacs. Standing out from the rest were the names of the servicemen killed in battle. Next to their names were gold stars.
Herman marched along with us, wearing his new Boy Scout uniform – at least the top half. All he had was a scout shirt, a scout hat, and a scout neckerchief. Instead of scout pants, he wore brown corduroys. Before the parade we overheard him explain to Mr. Purcell that C. O. Millers, the clothing store that sold Scout uniforms and equipment, was out of his size. His height and those corduroys made Herman stand out from the rest of us. As we marched down Main, I almost expected him to forget where he was and break into a goose step.
I wondered how Herman felt, marching in his American uniform, in this American parade celebrating the wars we’d won, the Americans who’d won them, and those Americans who’d died in those wars. I wondered what he was thinking, surrounded by people who’d kicked German ass – in two world wars. I wanted to ask him what his friends did on Memorial Day back in Nazi-land.
After taking a right onto Main, we marched three blocks west to another war memorial, this one honoring the city men who fought and fell in the First World War.
After the parade, my father took me to the VFW hall in the south end of town, crowded with vets drinking beer and trading stories, their old uniforms loaded down with multi-colored decorations and campaign medals.
“See that guy over there?” my father said, nodding at a tall man standing at the bar, staring into his drink. “He won a Silver Star in Belgium. Earned a Purple Heart the same day, wounded by a German grenade.
It was the second week of June when Nathan Hale Junior High finally cut us loose. The days grew long, the weather turned hot, and the buildings in our housing project soaked up the summer sun like concrete sponges. We lay around in any shade we could find, panting like dogs chained to a tree, patiently waiting for the third week of July when we could escape to Camp Toquam.
Although I’d been to Camp Toquam the summer before, I had only a vague idea where it was located – an hour’s drive north of the city was all I knew. Camp Toquam: a week of swimming, canoeing, hiking, shooting, camp craft, sports, games, snipe hunts, mess hall sing-alongs, solemn ceremonies on the parade ground, and late night stories around campfires told by counselors and scout leaders – a week of fun, fresh air, and freedom.
After an hour or so drive, our convoy arrived at a quiet country town called Goshen. In the center of the town green stood a war memorial topped by a Civil War cannon. We took a left at the green and drove a couple of miles more till we came to a sign that read, “Welcome Boy Scouts of America.” We turned onto a dirt road and parked in a grassy field. Before we got out, however, Mr. Kovacs turned around gave us all a short talking to.
“You know, you boys haven’t been very friendly to Hank. He’s one of us now. He’s a member of Troop 36. And I don’t want to hear any of you calling him Herman, either. His name is Hank. Got that?” We nodded and looked away, avoiding eye contact with Mr. Kovacs. “OK, now get your gear and follow me.”
We unloaded the van, shouldered our knapsacks, hoisted our duffel bags and followed Mr. Kovacs and Mr. Purcell down a path in the woods to the mess hall where a half dozen scout troops had already gathered. The room buzzed with excitement. Troop 36 assembled in a back corner, laughing, trading put-downs, and exchanging playful arm punches. Herman stood alone, next to Mr. Purcell.
The mess hall sat on the edge of the parade ground where every morning before breakfast and every evening before dinner the assembled troops stood at attention and saluted while two scouts raised and lowered the American flag. Adding to the solemn ceremony, a scout played something patriotic on a bugle. Or tried to.
When everyone had arrived, the camp counselors welcomed the assembled scouts and leaders, talked briefly about the week’s activities – with a special emphasis on safety – then sent us off to our assigned campsites scattered in the surrounding woods. Back home, I made sure that Mrs. Purcell – our unofficial troop secretary – assigned me and my buddies to the same tent. And I saw to it that Herman was assigned to any other tent but ours.
We lived in large, OD-green Army-surplus tents set on raised wooden platforms, three metal Army-surplus bunk beds to a tent. Our first meal that afternoon consisted of hot dogs and beans – with sauerkraut and/or chili if you wanted. On our walk back from the mess hall, Russell gave Herman a hard time.
“Hey Herman, did ya have any kraut on your dogs?” he yelled. “Must have felt right at home, huh?” We all had a good laugh, but Herman ignored us, looking straight ahead as he walked back to his tent.
Monday morning, right after chow, Mr. Purcell and Mr. Kovacs took us on a five-mile hike – to toughen us up, they said. Mr. Kovacs led us up a long, winding rocky trail to the top of Mount Tom where we dropped our packs, guzzled water from our canteens, munched on beef jerky, and picked at our sore feet.
Just when we got comfortable and began to doze off, Mr. Purcell yelled “Saddle up!” We hoisted our packs and hiked back down to camp, arriving just in time for a lunch of burgers and fries washed down with grape Kool-Aid. We spent the afternoon swimming, paddling around in aluminum canoes, and waving to the girl scouts on the other side of the lake.
We woke up the next day to a chill, damp, and drizzly morning. We huddled under our brown, Army-surplus wool blankets – in the center of each were the letters US, stenciled in bold black. To me they meant United States, Uncle Sam, us.
Unwilling to brave the muddy path to the latrine, we all stood at the entrance to our tent, shivering in our underwear while pissing out into a large puddle at our doorstep. Reluctantly, we dressed, donned our ponchos – and carefully stepping over that large puddle of piss – made our way to the parade ground. As we assembled in our troop formations around the flagpole, the drizzle turned to a downpour. There would be no swimming or trips to the rifle range until the weather cleared, said Mr. Purcell. Hoping to earn my marksmanship merit badge that day, I prayed to the sun gods.
Trying to kill time, our scoutmasters and camp counselors kept us in the mess hall after breakfast singing camp songs till we had covered our entire repertoire. When we ran out of ditties, they lectured us on various scouting subjects until the assembled scouts threatened mutiny. We were sent back to our tents and told to study our scout handbooks until the weather cleared.
As ordered, we retreated to our bunks and studied our handbooks. Huddled under my wool blanket, I started a postcard to my parents – Having a great time. Wish I could stay forever. Bored with studying, we gave up and joked about the girls on the other side of the lake, bitched about the weather, and traded put-downs.
“Hey Paulie, if there was a merit badge for farting, you’d have earn yours last night!” said Mickey.
“Yeah? Mine are all noise,” said Paulie. “Yours are enough to gag a maggot.”
“Check your shorts,” said Mickey. “You probably got more skid marks than the Indianapolis speedway.” Our banter was cut short by a splashing sound outside. Suddenly Herman appeared at the entrance to our tent.
“You lost? Germany’s in the other direction. Head east till you come to the lake, then jump in,” said Russell.
“You were ordered to study your scout handbooks,” said Herman, again in that accent that reminded me of the Nazi pilot in Sahara. “What are you doing lying around on your asses? There is no merit badge for loafing!” When we ignored him and continued to joke amongst ourselves, Herman stepped into our tent. “You are nothing but a bunch of girls!” he said, giving us all a hard look.
“Who elected you fuehrer?” said Paulie. “Go invade some other freakin’ tent.”
“Yeah, take a friggin’ hike. Berlin’s that way,” said Robbie, nodding in the direction of the path that led to the latrine.
“Yeah, why don’t you take a long walk off a short pier, asshole,” said Mickey.
“Yeah, get lost,” said Georgie. But Herman just stood there, glaring at us.
When Herman didn’t leave, I got up from my bunk and faced the enemy. “This is an American tent, ya fuckin’ Nazi. Hit the road.”
“I am not a Nazi . . . and I told you all my name is not Herman,” he shouted, taking a step toward me. Herman was a head taller and at least a year older, maybe two, but I wasn’t about to back down. This was our tent.
“Are all Krauts as stupid as you?” said Russell. “No wonder you lost the war. You walked right through that big puddle we all pissed in this morning. What a moron!”
Herman looked down at his wet boots, then out at the puddle. He gave Russell a long look, then lunged out and grabbed Russell by the foot, trying to drag him out of his bunk. But Russell held on to the metal frame, kicking out with his free leg, trying to catch Herman in the nuts.
I was the one who called Herman a Nazi, but instead of coming after me, he grabbed the smallest kid in our tent. Just like a Nazi, I thought. I jumped onto Herman’s back, wrapping my arm around his neck in a choke hold I’d seen professional wrestlers use on TV. When Herman reached back, trying to loosen my arms from around his neck, we fell backwards, Herman landing on top of me.
“Kick his ass!” my bunkmates yelled. Herman tugged at my arms, trying to loosen my grip. Suddenly aware of his strength, I tightened my hold, knowing that if I let go, I was a dead man. My bunkmates were screaming now; “Kill him! Kill the Kraut!” Herman pulled at my arms, trying to get loose, but I tightened my hold on his neck even more. With one hand he reached back and tried to gouge my eye, but I moved my head to the side, avoiding his thumb. Slowly, his labored breathing turned to a wheeze and his tugging on my arms became desperate.
The cheering stopped.
“Maybe you should let him go, he looks like he’s had enough,” said Georgie standing up.
“Yeah, his eyes are starting to bug out,” said Mickey, getting out of his bunk.
“You won. You can let him go now,” Russell yelled.
But I didn’t want to let go. I wanted to kill this outsider, this invader. In Sahara, the Nazi pilot is killed when he knifes someone and tries to escape. One of the allied soldiers catches him and shoves the German’s face in the sand and holds it there until he stops struggling.
“Let him go, he can’t breathe!” yelled Mickey, tugging at my arm. Georgie joined in, tugging at my other arm, trying to pull me off. Now I was fighting three: Mickey, Georgie, and the Nazi pilot.
My two tent mates yanked and finally pulled my arms from around Herman’s neck. I pushed him off and stood up. But Herman was still down, holding his neck, staring up at the roof of the tent, wheezing, panic still in his eyes.
“You almost killed him,” said Paulie, softly.
“You heard him, giving orders, trying to take over our tent,” I said. “You saw him attack Russell!” But my buddies, my bunkmates, my fellow scouts said nothing, just stared at me, forgetting all about Herman, it seemed. They looked at me like I’d done something wrong, like I was the enemy now.
Herman stood up, still holding his neck, struggling for breath, his eyes wide, his face a shade somewhere between red and blue. “You are all weak,” he finally said, in a low and raspy voice, looking around at Russell, Paulie, Mickey, Robbie, and Georgie. He looked at me for a moment, then backed out, retreating through the rain and mud.
For the rest of the morning we quietly lay in our bunks, acting like we were studying our scout handbooks. Nothing was said until noon when a distant voice yelled “Chow.” We put on our ponchos and silently headed off to the mess hall, avoiding the puddles. At the mess hall Herman sat quietly at another table, eating his macaroni and cheese, his Boy Scout neckerchief wrapped high up around his neck.
I thought that would be the end of it, just a bunch of us kids from the projects protecting our turf, getting into another quickly-forgotten tussle. After lunch the rain stopped and the sun won its fight with the clouds, emerging long enough to allow a trip to the lake. We spent part of the afternoon swimming, then changed out of our trunks and marched to the range where we fired .22 rifles at silhouette targets.
The following morning, on our way to the mess hall, I found my mother and Mr. Purcell waiting for me outside Mr. Purcell’s tent. “Go ‘head, I’ll catch up,” I said to my tent mates.
“What are you doing here?” I asked my mother. “It’s only Wednesday.”
“Mr. Purcell called and told me what happened yesterday, what you did to that other scout.” It was then that I realized someone must have reported the fight. Or maybe Mr. Purcell noticed the marks on Herman’s neck and asked questions. Or maybe someone from another tent heard and reported the ruckus. For a second I thought maybe one of my own buddies had reported the fight. No, I said to myself. They’d never rat me out . . . would they?
Before I had a chance to tell my side of the story, Mr. Purcell turned and walked away, heading for the mess hall. “Go put your things in the trunk,” my mother ordered, in a tone that told me I was in deep shit, deeper than usual.
Stunned by the possibility that one of my own buddies had reported the fight, I walked back to our tent, packed my knapsack and duffel bag, looked around one last time, walked up that dirt path to the parking lot and threw my gear into the trunk of our car. We drove out of the camp, past the sign that read “Welcome Boy Scouts of America,” and headed south, back to the city.
“Mr. Purcell told me your friends had to pull you off that other scout,” my mother finally said, breaking the silence. “He told me you tried to strangle him.” She paused then added, “Mr. Purcell told me you are no longer a member of Troop 36. They’ve kicked you out.”
“I was fighting with that German kid they call Hank,” I yelled. “He attacked us! I defended Russell when Herman tried to drag him out of his bunk! I was defending our tent! Why am I being thrown out? Herman started it! Why wasn’t he thrown out?” I was screaming now, trying to understand what was happening, why I was suddenly the bad guy.
“They kicked me out?” I asked. “Even Mr. Kovacs?” Of all people, I thought he would understand.
“Mr. Purcell showed me the marks on that boy’s neck,” my mother said. “You’re lucky they didn’t call the police.” I had no comeback. I’d put those marks on Herman’s neck.
We sat silently the rest of the trip back. When we got home, my mother dropped me off and drove back to work. I took the elevator up to the sixth floor, went to my bedroom, tore off my uniform and dumped the contents of my knapsack and duffel bag out onto the floor, kicking and scattering my uniforms and equipment.
I took my uniforms out to the garbage chute at the end of the hall, by the elevator. One piece at a time, I shoved my scout shirt, pants, belt, hat, and scout neckerchief down the chute. Then the sash that held my merit badges – including the one for citizenship. I opened my Boy Scout Handbook to page 19 – On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country . . . I ripped out and crumpled the page, then shoved it down the chute, followed by the scout manual. The manual thumped as it bounced off the wall on its way six floors down to the basement incinerator.
I ran back and grabbed that shoebox from the shelf in my closet, the one that held my Army patch collection. I took it to the garbage chute and shoved it in. Monday morning, Mr. Zelinski, the building maintenance man, would burn it all, along with all the other garbage.