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The Boy Who Wanted to Be a ManA Novella
By Paul Bouchard
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Paul Bouchard
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLittle Roger Nadeau was having dinner with his parents, Bob and Jeannette. It was a Thursday night in October of 1979, and the trio was at the dinner table in their home in Frenchville, Maine.
Bob, forty-two, was a forklift operator at Fraser Paper, a large paper mill in the adjacent town of Madawaska, while Jeannette, thirty-nine, was a seamstress at the non-union textile mill in nearby Fort Kent. Bob and Jeannette had three children: Bill, eighteen, who was in the Army and currently stationed in Panama; Lisa, thirteen, a member of the French Club and currently taking part in an 8th-grade class-sponsored trip to Quebec City, Canada; and Little Roger, eleven. Though Roger was of average height and weight for his age, "Little Roger" was his nickname nonetheless because the nickname "ti" was very common in French, and "ti" translated to "little" in English.
The Nadeaus were one of five hundred or so families who lived in Frenchville, a small town that hugged the St. John River-a river that in some parts served as the border between Maine and Canada. Nestled in the northernmost corner of the northernmost of the New England states, Frenchville was close to four hundred miles north of the port city of Portland, and some two hundred miles north of Bangor.
"And how was your day at school, Little Roger?" asked Jeannette as she took a bite of her steak.
"Good, Mommy," replied Little Roger. He took a quick sip from his glass of milk. "Pretty regular day-I've got homework and all. But I did get this interesting assignment from Mr. Morneau for our history class."
"Oh, what's that?" asked his mom, genuinely interested.
"Well, Mr. Morneau told our class that every student has to write a ten-page paper by Thanksgiving about a topic we covered in class."
"That sounds interesting," said Jeannette, a petite French Canadian brunette with rosy cheeks.
Bob, wearing his work clothes of blue jeans and a flannel shirt, chimed in with, "Yeah, sounds like you'll be busy with that assignment, Little Roger."
"Well see, Mom and Dad, that's not the half of it," Little Roger said in an excited tone. He took another quick sip of milk, and then he said, "See, after class, Mr. Morneau came up to me as I was leaving, and he said, 'Little Roger, I want your paper to be about Frenchville and the St. John Valley.' That's when I said, 'But Mr. Morneau, Frenchville and the Valley weren't covered in our history textbook,' and then he said, 'I know, Little Roger, but I'm making an exception with you. I liked your last book report about Mickey Mantle and Jackie Robinson, and I don't even like baseball. You write well about people, Little Roger. Write about the Valley, and you can also write about people and your parents."
"Well, that's a nice compliment Mr. Morneau gave you, eh, Little Roger," Bob said as he gently patted Little Roger on the shoulder. "Atta boy."
"Yes, Little Roger, congratulations," added Jeannette.
"Thank you. Thank you, Mom and Dad." Little Roger was all smiles. "But I need your help. I need help describing the Valley, and I'll need to know more about your families-my aunts and uncles."
The next fifteen minutes or so involved Little Roger asking numerous questions of his parents-questions whose answers would help him write his latest history assignment. At one point, Little Roger took a break from the Q and A because he was getting so much information, he needed to get a history-paper notebook to take notes and write it all down.
"Don't forget to mention that the Valley is basically French Canadian on both sides of the border," reminded Jeannette.
"Yes, but French is dying on the American side," added Bob, spreading margarine on a slice of white bread. "The kids still speak French, but it's dying a slow death."
Seconds later, Jeannette said, "Little Roger, I think you need to mention that Valley residents are almost all Catholics. Your dad is a Knight of Columbus, you know."
"Okay, Mommy." He wrote down Dad-K of C.
Suddenly, the phone rang.
"I'll get it," said Bob. He took a napkin, wiped his mouth, and went to the small foyer next to the kitchen where the phone was. "Hello."
"Mr. Nadeau, my name is Captain Richardson. I'm calling from Panama. I'm your son's company commander."
"Is there a problem?" Bob asked, genuinely concerned. He was still standing up, with the phone receiver hugging his ear.
"Well, I'm afraid your son is AWOL, sir."
Bob, not being a military man, was not following. He asked, "What does that mean, sir? What is this AWOL?"
"Stands for absent without leave, Mr. Nadeau. It means your son is absent. We haven't seen him or heard from him in over a week."
"Oh, I see," said Bob.
There was a pause and then, "Mr. Nadeau, I will keep you posted on any developments on our end, and if you learn of your son's whereabouts, please let us know."
"Yes, of course," answered Bob.
The captain gave Bob his contact information in Panama.
"Who was that?" asked Jeannette when Bob returned to the dinner table. Not one to sugarcoat things, Bob got right to the point: "That was one of Bill's military officers. He said they haven't heard from Bill in over a week."
"Is he in trouble?" asked Jeannette, her tone a worried one.
"I don't know. You know Bill-he's always been an independent sort. I'm sure he's okay."
"Maybe he's out hunting, Dad."
"Uh, I don't know, Little Roger. Sure, Bill likes to hunt, but Panama is not like here. Remember Bill's last letter? He said Panama is jungle. Not sure if there's a lot of hunting there."
The Nadeaus resumed eating. Bob, ever the optimist, always looked on the positive end of things, and though he was concerned about Bill, his concern was not overwhelming because in the end, Bill was independent and resourceful. Bill's probably hooked up with some GIs and they're out drinking and chasing girls, he thought. As for Jeannette, she was worried about Bill, but seeing that Bob had defused the matter some meant things couldn't be all that bad.
More passing of time at the dinner table ensued, and Bob at one point asked for seconds.
"Mommy, tell me, what was it like growing up in Clair?" Little Roger asked. His mother's hometown was in nearby New Brunswick, Canada.
"Well, Little Roger," she said, "you know I grew up on a small farm and that my father-your grandfather Long-also owned a small sawmill." Jeannette proceeded to talk about tending to large gardens in the spring and summer, shoveling snow in the winter with her siblings, helping her father with yet another side business that involved boiling maple sap in a small cabin to derive maple syrup, how Catholic Mass-when she was growing up-was all in Latin and no one knew Latin, and then, "Where I'm from, a boy is not considered a man until he kills a deer. Both my brothers-your Long uncles-killed deer before they were sixteen. Gerard killed one when he was thirteen; Maurice got his first when he was ten."
* * *
After dinner, Little Roger went to his bedroom to do his homework, but before he got started, he went to the small desk that occupied the north corner of his bedroom. He pulled open the desk's top drawer and removed an eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch notebook that was green in color.
My Goals Notebook, he thought as he looked at the notebook. He flipped open the notebook, grabbed a pen from the desk drawer, and wrote the following:
GOAL: Get an A on history paper, Mr. Morneau's class. I want to become a man. I want to kill a deer and become a man.
He closed the notebook, placed it in the desk drawer, and closed the drawer. Then he started his homework for the next day's classes.
Period One-Reading. That's what Little Roger read from his homework assignment notepad, a notepad he had placed on his bed. The first entry was his first-period class, which was reading. The words Period One-Reading were written in his own handwriting.
Mr. Daigle assigned us fifteen pages of O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. Boring, thought Little Roger. I much prefer reading about Mickey Mantle and Johnny Bench and General George Patton. Then he paused for a second or two. Hmm, I bet Mr. Daigle will ask us some questions about the reading tomorrow. Well, I better read those fifteen pages and get ready to answer some questions if I get called on.
He peeked down at his assignment notepad.
Period Two-Science. Do four problems on page 83.
Darnit, thought Little Roger. Fifteen pages of O Pioneers! and three science problems. That will take me at least an hour right there.
He continued reading from his assignment notepad.
Period Three-History. Cool, my favorite class. We've got twelve pages to read, thought Little Roger. We're still on President Kennedy, and our next reading's about LBJ and the Great Society. Also, I need to start an outline for my history paper on the St. John Valley.
He glanced down at his assignment notepad some more.
Period Four-English. No homework. Thank you, thank you, Mr. Bosse.
Earlier that day, shortly after Mr. Morneau had assigned the history paper to him, Little Roger had approached and persuaded Mr. Bosse to allow him to work on his "special history paper" during Friday English classes because it was Mr. Bosse's practice to assign short writing projects to his students on Fridays, and it was also his practice on Fridays to select a student and have him or her read what they wrote during that class period.
"What's the topic of your paper?" Mr. Bosse had asked Little Roger.
"It's about the Valley," Little Roger had responded. "Mr. Morneau assigned it."
"Okay, Roger, sure," Mr. Bosse had told him. "You can work on your history paper assignment during Friday English classes, but like every student in your class, I can call on you anytime and ask you to read out loud to the class what you wrote that day."
"Yes, okay, Mr. Bosse," Little Roger had told his English teacher. "Thank you, thank you very much."
All right-no problem with period four English tomorrow, Little Roger reminded himself. Just work on your history paper during class.
He glanced at his assignment notepad some more.
Period Five-French; Period Six-Math; Period Seven-Physical Education.
French-no problem, he thought. Do questions on pages 41-43. That's what Mr. Lavoie assigned for tomorrow's French class.
Little Roger liked his French class primarily because it was easy for him. His French homework almost always consisted of the conjugation of verbs: je, tu, ils, elles, nous, vous ... Little Roger was fairly good at that. And this-the fact that his French homework was easy for him-explained why it was Little Roger's practice to do his French homework quickly and during the short morning homeroom period before the start of classes.
I'll do my French homework during the homeroom period, tomorrow, he thought. As for math-yuk! Math's tough stuff, he thought. Four problems due tomorrow for Mr. Boucher's math class. That'll be the first assignment I do tonight, because it's the toughest subject.
He glanced down again at his assignment notepad.
Period Seven-Physical Education with Coach Dugal. Never any homework in that class, and it's the best of all my classes, thought Little Roger. Sports are the best-even better than history.
Little Roger got off his bed and thought, Better get going on that homework. Then I wanna do thirty sit-ups and thirty push-ups and then take one hundred swings with my baseball bat. After that, I'll write a bit for my history paper on the St. John Valley.
* * *
By nine-fifteen that Thursday night, Little Roger had finished all his homework, save French. Of all the homework assignments he had completed, he had enjoyed reading about JFK and LBJ the most.
It'll be easy to remember where LBJ got sworn in as President, thought Little Roger when he first saw the LBJ photo in his history textbook. It's dark and people look cramped in there. They're inside a plane-that's where LBJ got sworn in. Then he thought: I bet anything Mr. Morneau will ask us tomorrow where LBJ was sworn in as president. If he does, I'll raise my hand for that question.
* * *
After completing his homework, Little Roger stepped out of his bedroom, walked into the kitchen, and got himself a glass of water. Unlike in nearby Madawaska, where homes were connected to a public water system, all Frenchville homes had individual water wells.
Little Roger looked up at the kitchen clock as he drank the glass of water. The clock read 9:20 P.M. Then his mother entered the kitchen.
"Ta tout fait tes devoirs, mon ti Roger?" she asked, questioning whether he had done his homework assignments.
"Oui, maman," replied Little Roger. Then he went back to his bedroom to change into his workout clothing and work on his baseball swing.
* * *
After changing his clothes to sweatpants and a T-shirt, Little Roger began his nightly training regimen with sit-ups. He was in his bedroom, lying down on the carpeted floor. His feet were supported by his bed.
Little Roger exercised every night for two reasons: to be in the best shape he could be in, and to be the best baseball player he could be. The latter was the primary reason, because baseball was Little Roger's passion.
The co-captain and catcher of the Frenchville Little League baseball team, Little Roger loved baseball, and his dream was to one day be the starting catcher for the Boston Red Sox. (Yes, that dream of his was written as one of his many goals in his green Goals Notebook.) Just two weeks earlier, the Frenchville Little League team had lost the Valley Championship to their archrival, the Madawaska Red Sox. In that game, Little Roger, standing in the on-deck circle, saw his good friend Garold Dubois line out to deep centerfield for the game's final out. It was at that moment that Little Roger, ever the optimist, turned around and said for all his teammates to hear, "We'll get 'em next year, gang," but inside he thought, Will we ever beat the Madawaska Red Sox? Who knows-maybe next year.
Little Roger started doing the sit-ups, and when he was in the up position-the position where his elbows were touching his knees-he would glance up and admire his posters of Johnny Bench and Pete Rose, posters that were scotch-taped on an adjacent wall.
Pete Rose, the great Charlie Hustle. Hustle-that's what you've got to do, he thought as he kept doing repetitions. Especially if you're not the biggest or most talented athlete, you have to hustle.
After thirty sit-ups, Little Roger switched to doing pushups-thirty of them, too. It took Little Roger slightly more than a minute to do the push-ups.
Next, Little Roger stood up and started doing toe-touches and backbends, and as he stretched he again glanced at the Bench and Rose posters.
I'm eleven years old and I'm a little over five feet tall. I weigh one-hundred-ten pounds. Will I ever develop into that great backstop like Bench? he wondered. Well, whatever. The key is to keep hustling like Pete Rose. There's room for the little guy in baseball-also soccer, of course, but I love baseball.
After stretching, Little Roger took five steps forward, reached in his bedroom closet, and picked up his baseball bat. He also bent down and picked up the rubber-coated donut weight next to his bat. The dense donut was the weight device used to make his bat heavier during practice swings.
Little Roger placed the bat through the weight donut. He then took four steps backward, got himself into a nice stance, and started his one hundred swings.
Shoulder to shoulder, he reminded himself as he swung the weighted bat. Two hands on the bat at all times, hands starting near right shoulder and ending with hands near left shoulder.
Shoulder to shoulder. That was the way Little Roger swung the bat because that's how he had learned to do it at Dr. John Winkin's two-day baseball camp the previous year. The well-respected coach of the UMAINE Black Bears college team-a team that had qualified for the College World Series numerous times-had visited the St. John Valley the previous year to conduct various mini baseball camps in area high schools. Little Roger, along with many of his buddies, had attended one of the camps, and that's how Coach Winkin had taught the baseball swing: "Two hands on the bat at all times, and remember young boys-shoulder to shoulder," was how Coach Winkin had put it. "Just like the beautiful swing of the great Hall of Famer Ted Williams-shoulder to shoulder."
Excerpted from The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Man by Paul Bouchard Copyright © 2010 by Paul Bouchard. Excerpted by permission.
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