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Authors: Herman Wouk

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BOOK: City Boy
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In a tiny dressing room on one side of the assembly-hall platform the boys put on their costumes. Lennie soon became a dignified, glittering man of war, with a noble white beard that looped over his ears with elastic threads. By contrast, Herbie made a shabby Grant. The brass-buttoned overcoat slumped and lost its military aspect on his narrow shoulders and chubby body. The braided cap flopped down over his ears. He looked like the son of a doorman wearing his father's castoffs. Worst of all, the item of whiskers had apparently been overlooked in his case. Out of all his ludicrously oversized attire there peeped a round, clean pink face with a cigar in it. When Mrs. Gorkin came into the dressing room, she was greeted by a wail from the victor of Richmond. “Gosh, Mrs. Gorkin, where's my beard?”

“You have a beard.”

“I have not.”

“It's in your overcoat pocket.”

“Oh.” Herbie reached into the pockets and brought out a square piece of greasy black felt.
“This?”
he said in horror.

“Yes,
that,
” said Mrs. Gorkin. She took it out of his hand and affixed it to the bottom of his hat with two snap fasteners. “There, you look fine,” she said heartily.

Herbie hurried to a mirror, took one look, and almost burst into tears. The black felt looked exactly like what it was: a piece of black felt. It no more resembled a beard than it did an American flag. He tried putting the cigar in his mouth. That gorgeous effect was also ruined. He had to raise the beard like a curtain, and it hung over the cigar on either side, leaving his mouth and chin bare. It was a fraud, a monstrosity.

“What the heck is that thing on your face?” The voice of Lennie Krieger spoke out of a resplendent form fairly resembling the Robert E. Lee of history books.

“A beard,” Herbie faltered.

“A beard!” Lennie emitted a hoot and called, “Hey, guys, look what Herbie calls a beard!”

The wolves descended, baying with laughter.

“Haw! It looks like a shoeshine rag.”

“It looks like a Mohammedan veil.”

“It looks like something out of a garbage can.”

“It is.”

“He looks like he's playin' cops an' robbers.”

“Is that a hat or a soup pot?”

“Is that an overcoat or a laundry sack?”

“Hooray for General Garbage!”

The last was Lennie's contribution. The boys took it up with whoops. “General Garbage! General Garbage!” They danced in front of Herbie with mock bows and salutes. Mrs. Gorkin came charging to the rescue, and silenced the din with a yell of “What's going on here?”

The teacher was wild of eye and mussed of hair. Calm, controlled at all other times, she became a jumpy artist when staging an assembly-hall show. She had once thrown a memorable fit of hysterics just before curtain time at the Gorkin production of
Pinafore.
Glaring at the cowed boys, she snapped, “Another whisper out of any of you, and there'll be no show,” and went out. Lennie drew his sword and brandished it at her retreating back in a highly impolite gesture. The other actors covered their mouths and snickered.

Dress rehearsal had just started when one of the rear doors of the hall opened and Mr. Gauss walked down the center aisle in lone majesty. Mrs. Gorkin was seen to shudder. She rose, stopped the rehearsal with a wave of her hand, and said, “Class, stand.” The children came to attention at their seats while the actors froze in their attitudes. Mr. Gauss strolled alongside the teacher and sat placidly in the front row beside her. “Class, sit,” said Mrs. Gorkin.

“Boys, go right on with your play as though I weren't here,” said Mr. Gauss.

The actors resumed their roles. Lennie, scared by the principal's presence, barked out his lines so that the hall echoed, to the teacher's great surprise and pleasure. Herbie, however, could not be understood no matter how hard he shouted. The black felt over his mouth worked as well as a Maxim silencer. His roars were reduced to murmurs.

“I remember you well from the Mexican War, General Lee,” he howled.

“A
rumble you bell your Max can whoa,
” was what reached the front row.

“What on earth is that thing over Grant's mouth?” whispered the principal.

“That,” said Mrs. Gorkin, clenching and unclenching her fists, “is a beard.”

“It looks like a flap of black felt,” said the principal.

“Herbert, speak louder!” cried the teacher.

Herbert screamed so that his ears rang. “I regret we meet again in such melancholy circumstances.”

“Rugger meegin smellnek shirtshtan,”
Mr. Gauss dimly heard.

“Really,” he said to the teacher, “the boy must take that thing off.”

“And have Grant look like a fat boy of eleven?”

“Yes, rather than have him sound gagged.”

So Herbert's beard came off, to his relief. But Mrs. Gorkin steamed. Things went smoothly after that, however, and she was beginning to simmer down, when Lee drew his sword to hand it over in surrender.

“One moment,” called the principal. Action was suspended.

“Wherever did you get this playlet, Mrs. Gorkin?” said Mr. Gauss.

“I wrote it myself.”

“Surely you are aware, my dear, that the legend of Lee's surrender of his sword is spurious?”

“Yes,” said the teacher. “But it's a famous legend and has a good moral.”

“Nothing that is false has a good moral. I think we will cut out this part.”

Mrs. Gorkin gasped and trembled. “There's no point to the play without it. The curtain line is what General Grant says as he returns the sword: ‘General Lee, I have not defeated an enemy; I have found a lost brother.’”

“A very nice line, my dear. But we can't go on planting these silly stories in children's minds.”

“There's no drama, no entertainment whatever without the sword,” shrilled the red-haired teacher.

The invisible fingers pushed the ends of Mr. Gauss's mouth up in his well-known smile.

“We are not here to entertain, but to instruct,” he said with satisfaction.

Mrs. Gorkin threw her head back and screamed into her handkerchief.

The children were aghast and delighted. Mr. Gauss was stupefied. The silence of the huge hall was rent by a second muffled shriek. The principal rose, patted Mrs. Gorkin's arm, and said, “Please, please, collect yourself, my dear.
(Shriek)
I had no idea you felt so strongly.
(Shriek)
Please, we'll
leave
the scene as it is.”

Two or three short sobs, and Mrs. Gorkin emerged from the handkerchief, bright-eyed and happy. “Thank you, Mr. Gauss,” she said.

“On with the rehearsal, boys. All right, Lennie. ‘Sir, in yielding this sword—’”

Lennie, who had been staring open mouthed at her, quickly drew the sword once more and held it high.

“Sir, in yielding this weapon I give you the sword of the South, but not its soul,” he said.

“One moment,” said Mr. Gauss.

Mrs. Gorkin jumped as though a spider had walked on her.

“May I merely suggest,” said the principal, “that etiquette would require him to unbuckle his belt and hand over sword, scabbard, and all?”

“Mr. Gauss,” said the teacher, her voice like the plucking of an overtightened banjo string, “it is more dramatic to see the sword drawn.” She took her handkerchief from her cuff again.

“Merely a suggestion,” said Mr. Gauss hurriedly. “I withdraw it.” But at this moment the gong rang, summoning the school to assembly, and the dress rehearsal had to be adjourned. Children lugging violins, cellos, trumpets, and trombones began straggling in through the rear doors. Mr. Meng, the slight, dark teacher who played the piano and led the school orchestra, appeared with three boys staggering under piles of folding chairs which they dropped at the piano and began setting up with much scraping and banging. Mrs. Gorkin left her acting troupe in the dressing room with a terrifying final warning, spoken with hands shaking and eyeballs showing white all around the pupils, and then led her class out of the hall. Mr. Gauss took his place in the large ornate armchair at the center of the platform. The assistant principal, Mrs. Corn, large, yellow-haired, and ferocious, sat on one side of him; on the other was a stout lady from the Board of Education. The school gong clanged once more. Mr. Meng, at the piano, lifted one hand in the air and looked at Mr. Gauss. The principal nodded. Down came the hand, yowl went the wind instruments, squeal went the string instruments, slam went the percussion instruments, and an obscure, muddy fog of sound arose, through which the piano could vaguely be heard, pounding out “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” double fortissimo. A line of boys began marching in from one side, a line of girls from the other. Mrs. Gorkin, whatever her trials as a theatrical manager, had this unique blessing: her productions never failed to play to a full house.

Soon the hall was full. Heads, eyes, and arms of the standing children were motionless. Mrs. Corn stepped forward and shouted like a drill sergeant, “Color guard, forward—MARCH!” Three well-combed and -washed honor boys from the eighth grade came down the center aisle, the middle one carrying a flag on a staff. The drum and cymbal speeded them on their way, dying off uncertainly as the flag reached the platform. Mrs. Corn snapped her right arm to her forehead; all the children did likewise. From a thousand young throats came a chant: “I pledge allegiance to the flag…”

The eye of Mrs. Corn swept the hall, looking for a wavering hand, a straying eye, a dirty shirt, or a neckerchief of the wrong color. At the end of the pledge two piano chords sounded, and all the heads sank at once as the children sat. Mrs. Corn came down the steps of the platform and silently glared a girl (who had yawned during the pledge) out of her seat, up the aisle, and into her office to await doom. As she returned to her armchair Mr. Gauss rose and read from a Bible on a stand the Psalm beginning,
“Lord, how numerous are persecutors”
but if the children caught the appropriateness, there were no grins to show it.

Meantime, the actors stranded in the dressing room were very gay. Few things are so sweet in this world as seeing your fellows go through a foolish rigmarole while you are free from it yourself (this is the secret of the popularity of all parades and military reviews). A hot game of “tickets” was going on, organized and dominated by Lennie. It was a sort of poker, evolved in the gutters of New York like scores of other games, played with small villainously colored pictures of baseball players which sold in strips of ten for a cent. Herbie, having no tickets, was out of the game, and was curiously examining General Lee's sword, which lay in a corner. Finally he buckled it on, and drew and brandished it a few times, yearning over it.

“Take off that sword, General Garbage, or I'll push your face in,” growled Lennie, looking up from the game. The other boys laughed.

Herbie, his face burning, obeyed. As he was putting the sword back in the corner he noticed a little black button on the hilt. He pressed it. With some difficulty it yielded, and the sword settled another inch into the scabbard. He tried to pull the sword out again, but it remained locked in place until he pressed the catch, whereupon it slid out easily. This was a feature of the weapon which Lennie had clearly overlooked. In his boastful flourishing he had pointed out every detail he had noticed to the envious boys. Herbie glanced over his shoulder at General Lee, intent on heavy betting of tickets, his beard pushed up on his forehead. The small stout boy reviewed several incidents of the day in his mind: concrete against his nose, jeers at his black felt beard, “General Garbage,” and the recent threat to render his face concave. Then he softly pressed the catch, locked the sword in its scabbard, leaned it against the wall, and strolled away to watch the assembly through the crack of the dressing-room door.

A tall girl with lank black hair and heavily rimmed glasses was standing in the center of the platform, reciting “In Flanders fields the poppies blow.” The rows of rigid children sat listening with eyes dulled by an overdose of poppies, for this was the third rendition of the poem in ten minutes. The fifth, sixth, and eighth grades had each been asked to furnish one recitation, and had each sent its best English student to the stage primed with the same Decoration Day warhorse. Nothing could stop the repetitions. An assembly, once started, ticked itself off like an infernal machine. For the third time the children heard the performer make the daring turn around the elocutionary corner in the last verse:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw THE TORCH;
Be yours to hold it high.

instead of the usual:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.

This was considered original and very fine by each of the three teachers who had coached the reciters. It was sad to find that the others had all had the same inspiration. The unlucky girl reached the last line and sneaked off the platform to feeble applause.

Now Mr. Gauss introduced the stout lady from the Board of Education, Mrs. Moonvess. He stated that a great musical treat was in store for the children, as she was going to teach them a song of her own composition. Mrs. Moonvess stood, adjusted her pince-nez, produced a conductor's baton, and came forward, coughing nervously.

BOOK: City Boy
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