Authors: Herman Wouk
“Ah, yes, Lucille. Lovely little child. Perfect example of a Manitou camper.”
“And Lennie Krieger, too—is that right?” asked Jacob Bookbinder.
“Krieger?” said Mr. Gauss doubtfully. He reached for a notebook.
“Lives here on Homer Avenue, two blocks down. A tall boy, twelve or so. He's the son of my business partner.”
“Of course. Lennie. I'm glad you mentioned that,” said the principal, dropping his voice to a confidential tone. “I have a question to ask you. Do you feel—I must ask your honest opinion—that Lennie Krieger is the type I have described to you as a Manitou camper? The kind of boy you'd like to see side by side with a lad of Herbie's caliber?”
Mr. Bookbinder grumbled, “Nothing wrong with him that I know of.”
The principal unscrewed his fountain pen and made a careful note in his book, saying, “Thank you. In that case perhaps—I say, perhaps—Lennie may be coming to Manitou after all.” And he privately decided to call next evening upon the parents of the boy, of whose existence he had not been aware until a few minutes ago.
There were seven other children in the neighborhood deserving the honor of a summer at Camp Manitou, at the price of three hundred dollars per child, so Mr. Gauss did not tarry. His visit had clearly had some effect. Mr. and Mrs. Bookbinder were taken with the flattery of the principal's presence, the charm of the pictures of cabins by a mountain lake, and the descriptions in the booklet of the amazing mental, physical, and religious improvement of children in a summer at Manitou. When the principal left, he received their humble thanks for the honor he had offered them, and a promise that they would earnestly examine their resources to see whether they could afford to accept it.
Herbie went to bed that night in a fever, and dreamed, until Felicia shook him at seven the next morning,' of lakes, cabins, shrubbery, Indians, campfires, roasting frankfurters, a lovely little red-headed girl darting among green trees, and religious improvement.
hree days later Herbert Bookbinder lay on a bank of new grass beside the Bronx River, explaining the astronomical reason for spring to his cousin, Clifford Block, who did not understand a word of it.
Both boys were dressed from head to foot in those articles of ward-robe which, being most recently purchased, had exclusive Sunday status. They wore the customary boys' costume of the time: black shoes, long stockings, “knickers,” short jackets, white shirts with four-in-hand ties (askew five minutes after tying), and soft round felt hats, jeered at by boys too small to wear them as “cake-eaters.” They carried their finery with mixed feelings, disgust at the constraint of it struggling with the bit of peacock that is not absent from a boy's heart. Their parents would not send them into the street on Sunday except in this gala state, especially so soon after Passover, when their new clothes were really so new.
The springtime will not be denied its annual entrance, even in Herbie's home town of stone. Beneath the buildings, beneath the streets, beneath the whole hard plating, there is quick earth yet, showing green at every chink, whether it be a little corner park, a vacant lot, or just a crack between cobblestones. Boys snuff the air and go wandering until they find a green place where they can inhale the pleasantness. The fit of nostalgia for the land under the stone does not last long, nor do the boys really understand what it is. Soon they resume their sports in the familiar paths of the angular canyons in which they live. While it lasts, this springtime mood causes great waste of child hours, lowers school grades, and brings on scoldings and blows. For the boys it is little more than an inconvenient costly frenzy.
Herbie and Cliff found the vacant lots along Homer Avenue too commonplace to still the restlessness of the first warm Sunday in May. They had gone down the long hill of Westchester Avenue past Byron, past Shakespeare, past Tennyson Avenues, to the creek which they avoided all year round, partly in obedience to the sternest sort of orders from their parents, but more because of the legend that the river bank was the haunt of a pack of boyish cutthroats known as the “creek gang.” Many bloody tales were told about this band. They all carried knives. The bigger boys carried guns. They captured boys and girls, robbed them, and performed nameless outrages upon them. And they killed each other, when there was nothing more profitable to do. Nobody of Herbie's acquaintance had ever seen a genuine gang menber, but this did not prevent all the children on Homer Avenue from scurrying indoors and peeping out through windows whenever the cry “Creek gang! Creek gang!” startled the neighborhood. The cause of the alarm generally proved to be an exceptionally shabby, dirty boy from another avenue, ambling along the deserted sidewalks in puzzlement.
The thought that they might encounter these desperadoes lent an edge of pleasure to the excursion of Herbie and his cousin, for today they were in a mood for braving the unknown. To reach the bank of the stream they had to cross railroad tracks, another tremendous taboo. They slid carefully down a gravel embankment and picked their way across the cinder bed on which the tracks rested. Of course they avoided the rails, which were supposed to have a power of suction that could hold unwary treaders fast until the next train destroyed them, and they leaped anxiously over the death-dealing third rail, along which they both averred they could hear the hum of the fatal electric current. These hazards passed at last, the boys reached the side of the creek and lolled on the fresh grass and spiky weeds that covered the narrow strip of wasteland between the railroad bed and the river mud. The sun was high; the ground was warm; the smell of the mud and slime of the inlet at low tide was pungent and interesting. The boys were alone in a new place, lying on the ground in Sunday clothes, successfully defiant of their parents' orders and their own fears. Perhaps they could have been made happier at this moment by the arrival of the Messiah. More likely they would have regarded it as an unnecessary interruption.
Herbie's lecture on the mechanics of spring, delivered as both boys lay on their backs with hands clasped under their heads, had reached a point beyond which Cliff's earthbound imagination would not budge.
“Look,” said Herbie in exasperation. “Let's start from the beginning again. What shape is the earth?”
“Does the sun go around it?”
“No, it goes around the sun.”
“O.K. You do know that much. Now you only gotta realize one thing more. The earth slants.”
“That's what I don't understand.”
Cliff's brows were knitted. He was a meek-appearing but sturdy boy, with light brown hair and exceptionally long arms and legs. He was two classes behind Herbie in school, though they were the same age, and he regarded his bright cousin with deference and affection.
“What's so hard about it? Watch.” Herbie picked up a stick and held it vertically. “It slants.” He tilted the stick. “Like that. It slants.”
“Now, hold on, Herbie. The earth ain't no stick. It's a ball.” Cliff pulled a rubber ball out of his pocket. “See this? I'm holdin' it straight up 'n' down.”
“Yeah, I see it. So what?”
“Now I slant it.” He tilted the ball. “Does it look any different? You know it don't. How the hell can you know when a round ball slants?”
Herbie was silenced for a moment. The question had never occurred to him during Mrs. Gorkin's glib explanation of spring. But after puzzling over it, he said, “Oh, now I get it. Look, there's a North Pole an' a South Pole, ain't there?”
“All right. The North Pole points in toward the sun. That's how we know the earth slants.”
Cliff nodded slowly. “Now you're talkin'. Well, but how does that make spring?”
“Easy. If the north part of the world is pointed toward the sun, that makes it warmer, don't it?”
“Well, there you are.”
“Yeah. But that means it oughta be spring or summer all year round. Why ain't it?”
This question hadn't occurred to Herbie, either. But instead of admitting that his grasp of the subject was imperfect, he said, “What's so hard about that? After a while the earth just flips over 'n' slants the other way.”
“Now, wait. Are you tryin' to tell me that the earth keeps goin' flip-flop, flip-flop around the sun every year?” Cliff turned the ball back and forth in his hand to illustrate.
“I ain't tryin' to tell it to you. That's what the books say.”
“Well, those books are crazy, then. Herbie, you don't believe that, either. The earth wobblin' around the sun like a drunken bum. It don't make sense.”
“You got it all wrong,” mourned Herbie, standing up reluctantly. “This,” he said, pointing to a rough gray rock imbedded in the mud, “is the sun. And this”—he placed near it a stone half as big—“is the earth.” (Pedagogues always falsify proportions; it makes their job easier.) “Now the earth starts moving—” But the rest of the discourse was not to be spoken. “Cliff!” said Herbie with a violent change in tone. “The creek gang!”
Cliff jumped up, and looking in the direction of Herbie's terrified stare, he saw two small, swarthy, ragged boys with bottles in their hands, about fifty yards down the river, walking toward them.
“Let's run,” said Herbie.
“What for?” said Cliff. He was a head taller than Herbie, more agile of body and rather less inflammable of mind. “They're smaller than we are.”
“Are you crazy?” said Herbert. “They've got knives. Come on!”
He turned toward the railroad tracks. At this moment, unluckily, a long freight train appeared, the engine chugging heavily as it dragged its chain of freight cars of different shapes and hues out of the mouth of the far-off river tunnel. To cross the path of an oncoming train was beyond the daring of both boys. To flee along the river bed was useless; a short way from them it was blocked by the concrete base of a bridge. Caught between sure destruction and probable destruction they stood at bay, their holiday mood quenched, and awaited their fate.
The two small terrorists came within a yard of them, stopped, and inspected them insolently with keen brown eyes. Then they exchanged guttural remarks in a strange tongue. They moved closer slowly until the unhappy cousins could have reached out and touched them. The bottles they carried were full of greenish water in which many tiny fishes were darting. The strangers' knee breeches were patched, their stockings were torn, their sweaters had huge irregular holes, and from the shoe of one of them a toe poked out. To boys brought up in the politeness of Homer Avenue and Public School 50 they were as picturesque as pirates—and more dreadful, because they obviously regarded boys as worthy antagonists.
Finally Herbert, unable to endure the tension of the scrutiny, said, “What you guys got in them there bottles?”—mutilating grammar as much as possible to suggest manliness, but making the mistake of swallowing loudly in the middle of the word “bottles.” The quavering of his voice was full of information to the two strangers, who exchanged a swift glance.
“Never mind that,” one of them snarled. “Gimme a nickel.”
“Ain't got no nickel,” faltered Herbie.
“All I find I keep?”
Herbie did not reply.
“All I find I keep?” repeated the enemy, with a gesture at Herbie's jacket pocket. The boy winced; it was the pocket containing the key to heaven, fifteen cents for the movies.
“I got a hundred dollars,” said Cliff suddenly. “Let's see one o' you guys search me.”
Herbert grew weak at this insane effrontery of his cousin. He looked for the glitter of long knives.
“Oh,” sneered the talking one, turning on Cliff. “A fresh guy.”
“That's right,” said Cliff, and stepped up to him so that they were toe to toe. The well-dressed boy was several inches taller; even Herbert was almost as large as the bigger of the two strangers. Instinct, undistracted by a hot imagination, had risen to tell Cliff that the advantage was on his side so long as fear did not weigh in the balance. “How about searching me?”
“Yeah, or me?” said Herbert, plucking up heart the instant he saw the situation shifting. He faced the smaller foe.
There was a silent opposing of glares between the paired-off boys for several seconds.
The smaller bandit broke the spell, and informed Herbie, “I can fight you.”
“You can not,” said Herbie. He jerked his thumb toward Cliff. “Anyway,
“Who can fight who?” said the large opponent fiercely, turning on Herbie.
“My cousin can fight you—I bet,” said Herbie, with slightly less assurance.
“I can fight you,” barked back the big creek gangman.
“Never said you couldn't.”
can fight you.” (Pointing to his small henchman.)
” (Pointing to his tall cousin.) Cliff said nothing.
“I can fight both of you,” said the leading enemy, “with both hands tied behind me.”
“O.K.,” said Herbie, “let us tie your hands, then.”
“Pretty fresh, both of them, ain't they?” said the leader to his minion.
“I can fight him,” said the small one doggedly, pointing at Herbie.
The fat boy, who was sure this was quite true, said, “You guys better not start anything. My cousin is the champion boxer of P.S. 45. He knows all the tricks.”