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THE LITTLE SOLDIERS WERE marching. We called them worms.
Not a one was over five feet.
They wore light blue pants with red stripes down the sides, navy blue jackets with brass buttons, white garrison belts, and white visor caps.
They were billeted in Slaughter, a gray house in the circle of barracks and buildings that surround the large concrete square known as The Yard.
Last year I was one of them, but Slaughter wasn't my billet.
I've always lived in the large, white colonial house on the hill, the residence of General Patch Reber.
A West Point graduate, and a veteran of Vietnam, he is the commanding officer of Blister Military Academy. He is the designer of the Blister logo, which somehow ended up to look like
... earning the academy the nickname BAM.
My father is a control freak.
He's as hidden as BAM is with its high, ivy-covered walls. His hair is black, his eyes are technicolor blue. He has a bone-chilling stare which would soon be directed at the 150 cadets enrolled for that academic year.
He's my father, but I'm not named for him. Blister men don't have juniors.
The Little Soldiers chanted as they marched.
We're marching smart,
Left right left right,
We take the flag down
We're worms right now,
And so it goes,
But someday we'll
Be Blister crows!
Everything stops for "Retreat."
Even I did. I put my pencil down, stood up, and placed my hand over my heart.
Everyone at Blister was doing the same thing, including the senior "crows" who couldn't see The Yard from their barracks.
Even Ike, our dog, got to his feet and wagged his tail.
Bugles blared out from loudspeakers all over Blister.
I am called Nick.
I was fourteen the year of this story, the year that changed my life.
A story about me is one about my father, too, as surely as a story about Old Dominion, Virginia, is about Blister Military Academy, which looms over that village like an apparition.CHAPTER 2
THERE WAS ALWAYS TENSION in our house near six in the evening.
My grandfather shuffled into the living room at ten to, and asked me what I was drawing.
I was working on my idea for a cartoon strip. I'd invented a world of these teeny insects who live in books—you see them sometimes crawling down the page like tiny dots the size of a pin's head. They're book lice.
My strip concerned a louse who lived in Frankenstein. He really belonged in a horror library but his owner had lent him out before he ever got there, so that he ended up among books of poetry, music, art, and literature.
One of my father's favorite sayings was, "You are where you came from." It was usually accompanied by "Blood will tell," meaning your background will give you away.
In my cartoon world, these lice took after the book they lived in. Frankenlouse is a monster and all the lice in this library fear him. Their dialogue bubbles call out reports on him, and warnings concerning his ways.
I didn't tell my grandfather this.
I told him I was sketching Caleb Purr, who was on report for insubordination, and as punishment was raking leaves in our yard.
Caleb's father was Peter Purr, the famous weatherman from The Good Morning Show and After Dark.
I did have one sketch of Caleb. I showed it to my grandfather.
He said, "I saw his father on TV the other night." He looked at his watch. He was carrying a Scotch and soda.
I imitated Caleb's father's trademark: "This is Peter Purr, and I'll be purrin' atcha!"
My grandfather snorted. He said, "We get 'em all, don't we? All the sons of famous fathers, and now we got her."
He meant Jessie Southgate, our fifth female cadet. She was twelve, which made her a Little Soldier. But if I'd glanced out the window to see them break from "Retreat," I wouldn't have been able to tell which cadet she was. Females wore the same Blister uniform. They tucked their hair up under their caps.
Jessie's mom was Unique Southgate. Unique never used a last name. She was like Madonna or Cher, and she was on MTV like they were. She'd made movies, too, mostly X-rated ones.
All of BAM knew who Jessie was. But the press didn't know she was enrolled at Blister, and my father wanted to keep it that way.
I looked at my watch, too.
It was almost time for him to come barging through the door.
Our housekeeper, Fanny, was in the kitchen with the cook. She was probably eyeing the kitchen clock. She was making sure dinner would be ready on time ... If it wasn't, The General would explode.
We ate on the dot of six. Or at 1800 hours, as my father put it.
My grandfather, Stone Reber, padded about in his moccasins checking the time again.
All Reber males have black hair and blue eyes. His hair had silver in it. He was an old soldier, a West Pointer, too. Sometimes he called The Point "Woo Poo."
He was a World War II veteran.
Our dog headed for the door. He had built-in time. He knew that in a few minutes my father would appear. Ike sat there waiting.
My grandfather wore khaki pants and a khaki shirt. He put on a striped tie every night at this time because my father wouldn't sit down at the table with a tieless male.
Grandad once wanted to be a poet. He went to Woo Poo instead, where he read and memorized all the poems he spouted on special occasions: birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving, etcetera.
His favorite poet was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
In my cartoon world there was a louse who lived in Longfellow's collected works. He always spoke in rhyme.
I wanted to be an artist since I was old enough to hold onto a pencil. One of my favorite artists was an ex-Marine named George Booth. He was famous for the animals he drew, wild-looking cats with frizzled whiskers and a grumpy-looking English bull terrier.
Once I showed my father a Booth cartoon.
It didn't knock his socks off.
Cartooning wasn't a profession in his eyes. It was a waste of time. Sketching was okay and not okay. I sketched all the time and it was okay when he was in a good mood, and not when he wasn't. But trying to make anything like a cartoon strip from my sketches would have been a red blinker light of warning to him. It would warn: WATCH OUT! It would bring mental pictures to his mind of a future in which I would not choose to go to The Point. It would threaten him, and if he knew I had such an idea in my head he would stamp it out like someone beating away at a brushfire until there was only charred remains and dying smoke.
Ike was on his feet.
Grandfather was taking a last swallow of his drink.
Fanny had come out of the kitchen.
The old clock in the tower bonged ONE ... TWO ... THREE, and on FOUR the front door opened.
My father was home at two minutes to six.CHAPTER 3
LAST YEAR ON SPRING break, when my parents were still together, my father took us on a camping trip at Lake Leary, in Georgia, a boyhood haunt of his.
I was sitting on the dock, fishing, my pole hanging in the water, while I thought about a cartoon featuring a gentleman carrying a pair of hands into a hand laundry.
Suddenly my father shouted: "Nick! Don't move!"
Behind me, my father kicked a long, ugly-looking black snake off the dock, where it was poised to strike at me.
I watched it flip into the water.
I heard my mother shout, "Oh, thank heaven you didn't move, Nick!"
It would never have occurred to me to disobey an order.
I am a child of discipline.
The snake was a poisonous sidewinder, and I would have been dead if I had not been Patch Reber's son.CHAPTER 4
"WHAT ARE YOU DRAWING Caleb for?" my father asked after dinner.
He had picked up my sketchbook, open to the drawing of Caleb in our front yard.
My heart skipped a beat. I was afraid he'd flip through the rest of it and see Frankenlouse wearing his celluloid eyeshield, crawling from the bookcase toward Longfellow.
All monster lice liked to eat the letters from the words other lice lived on. Since Frankenlouse was the only monster louse in this particular library, he could eat all he wanted for he had no competition. He had no friends, either, so he ate, ate, ate, earning the reputation of a hungry and horrible creature.
Longfellow lived on the sentence From the waterfall he named her, Minnehaha, Laughing Water.
Frankenlouse had already made quite a dent in Longfellow's address, which now read: From waterfall e named er, Minne a a, Laug ing Water.
"I drew Caleb because he was there," I told my father.
That was his kind of logic. Straight ahead. Men climb mountains because they're there. A follows B. One follows two. Night follows day.
My father never removed his tie until he put on his pajamas. Once I did a sketch of him crawling into bed in the white BAM pajamas, with a necktie on.
"Three days into the first semester and Caleb is already on report," my father grumbled.
Caleb was drawn to trouble like a moth to the flame. Caleb was fourteen, too. He'd normally be billeted in the barracks. But at commencement last year he'd managed to drop a whole bottle of Bromo Seltzer in the water carafe on the dais a moment before the program began. As my father welcomed parents to Blister, the water rose, pushed through the lid and began flowing down on my father's prepared speech.
That earned Caleb another year in Slaughter.
The other thing Caleb was drawn to was skateboarding.
My father said, "I never met a skateboarder I really liked."
Caleb is Captain of Blister's Yard Bombers.
"How many have you met, sir?"
"Enough. It's where they skate, maybe. Behind the gym here, and in town they skate in back alleys, and back behind the 7-Eleven."
I was waiting for him to start turning the pages of my sketchbook, waiting for that look he'd get on his face when he saw something that upset the perfect order of his life ... like the day he came home and found a large trunk on the floor in my mother's room.
But he simply said, "I doubt that Caleb will ever be a crow," and he put the sketchbook down. (Thank God!)
Seniors were called "crows" because of the black capes they were issued in their last year at BAM.
"You waste too much time drawing, Nick," my father said.
"Yes, sir." It was always easier to agree with him, unless you had no plans for the following hour.
He sat down in his favorite armchair, the big, comfortable leather one no one was allowed to sit in but him.
Ike got up there sometimes. Ike was a longhaired, black dachshund, and often my father found a dark hair on the chair and started yelling at Ike, "Did you do this?"
Ike would run for cover, tail between his legs, nose pointed straight ahead.
My father put on this old celluloid eyeshade he wore when he read. He liked to read books about the military. But first, every evening after dinner, he read two newspapers: The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
Without my mother there, the house was as tidy and quiet as a barracks room during class time. My grandfather was looser in attitude than my father, but they were both Army men who were unlikely to play music or kick off their shoes as they sat around, or leave open magazines across chairs, or apple cores in saucers on tabletops.
I did my homework on the couch across from my father. Write a composition about a family. The minute Lieutenant Meadow assigned it, hands shot up. Whose family? She said, "That's up to you." An imaginary family or a real family? She said, "That's up to you." A whole family or someone in a family? She said, "That's up to you." On and on. It was a trick. Lieutenant Meadow hoped to learn more about the new cadets in English 1.
I was stuck. I couldn't write about my mother, the only interesting member of our family. My father had warned me that I was not to wash our dirty linen in public.
Was I supposed to coax snores out of Lieutenant Meadow with the exciting revelation that both my grandfather and my father were named after Generals Stone and Patch?
My father said, "Nick, you're jiggling your knee."
"What are you working on?"
"I'm not working on anything yet. I'm blocked."
"Blocked?" My father said it in the tone of voice he might use if he were asking "Robbed?" "Defeated?" "Ambushed?" It was unfathomable to him—this idea of being blocked.
I told him about the assignment, and that it was hard to think of anything.
He said, "Leave your mother out of it."
"I know that."
"It might be interesting to write about the fact that both your grandfather and I were named after famous generals."
"That's an idea," I said.
Then he returned to his newspaper.
Five minutes later he said, "Nick, you're humming."
"Humming and drumming your fingers."
I finally went up to my room to jiggle my knee, hum, and drum until an idea came to me.
My grandfather had gone for a walk, taking Ike with him. He was a smoker in a smoke-free environment, an issue which was argued back and forth between my father and him when he moved in last August.
He smoked while he walked Ike. During the day he sneaked smokes, then sprayed the house with Glade air freshener.
His room was my mother's sewing room. My mother never sewed anything, but that was my father's name for it, anyway. That was what he imagined a woman did in a room she took as her own. She'd paid bills in there, written letters, and ridden an exercise bike. She'd had a small RCA TV in there, too, which my grandfather used now to watch old movies late at night. She'd also painted in there, sometimes, or made collages. I suppose that's where my own interest in art came from ... The Patch side of the family thought Art was a nickname for Arthur.
Fanny was upstairs turning down my father's bed.
My father liked clean pajamas every day, laid out on the top blanket, with a Kleenex containing a multivitamin, an aspirin, a blood pressure pill, and extra vitamin C. He took them into the bathroom at bedtime, and swallowed them down after he used the Water Pik. Then he gargled very loudly with Listerine.
I sat on my bed and tried to think some more about the composition.
I thought of Frankenlouse, instead. I needed some female lice, or one, maybe, who might be the only character unafraid of Frankenlouse.
By the time taps sounded, I had entered all the dialogue from Frankenlouse in my little Mac, but I had no idea for the English assignment.
Taps sounded at eleven o'clock on the dot. It was my favorite part of any day. Three buglers played it from far ends of The Yard, answering each other. One went first, then the other, then the last so that you heard taps three times.
Loud first, then softer, and the third bugler, muted.
I missed my mother most then.
When the phone rang near midnight, I knew it was trouble of some kind.
I sneaked sleepy-eyed out into the hall, leaned over the banister and tried to guess what was up, from my father's end of the conversation.
I heard him bark, "No, I'm not coming down there! She's not thinking straight!"
Then, "Yes, yes, I'm aware it will be in all the newspapers! But if I come down there now it will be a dead giveaway there is some connection between her and BAM!"
Finally, "She would not want that! Good night!"
I went downstairs. My father was pacing.
"What are you doing out of bed, Nick?"
"What about the phone?"
"Is something wrong?" I wanted to add "with Mother" but I knew better.
My father pointed to the staircase I had just come down.
"Go!" he said. "On the double!"
"My God!" I muttered. "This place!" I muttered.
"And don't sleep in your underwear! What do you think your pajamas are for?" I kept going, kept muttering. "Did you hear me, Nick? Put on pajamas!"
Excerpted from Frankenlouse by M. E. Kerr. Copyright © 1994 M. E. Kerr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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