When eight-year-old Harry Spencer’s father returns from WWI with a missing arm, his father’s bitterness shatters their relationship. Though confused and brokenhearted, Harry is determined to make something of himself. Endeavoring with heart and sometimes-humorous results, he sets out on his path in life, working in his granddad’s store, selling medicinal salves, washing windows, and falling in love.
This historical coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of small-town life will tug at your heartstrings as Harry discovers who he is, who his father is, and how to heal the past.
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BETWEEN IOWA AND South Dakota, the Sioux River makes a bend to the west as if to escape its eventual disappearance into the muddy waters of the Missouri River. It can't go far, and soon curves back to its southerly flow. On the South Dakota side, about a mile from the river's westernmost point, a settlement called Richmond took root in the 1860s. It was the merest speck on a map, home to a handful of families who lived a hand-to-mouth existence and didn't expect much more. It's where Gram and Granddad Didier operated a one-room grocery store and barroom.
Dad plunked me down with my sister Polly in that sorry place before he enlisted in the army in 1917. I was eight and Polly was eleven. My three older brothers went to stay with Uncle Lyle and Aunt Hazel on a farm a ways off.
I knew I was supposed to be grateful to Gram and Granddad for giving us a home, but I didn't like it much. Especially in the beginning. The first time I saw their place it took me about two minutes to explore the whole thing. The house had just one bedroom. "Where will I sleep?" I asked.
Gram said she and Polly would sleep in the bedroom. "And you, Harry, will sleep with Granddad on the foldout daybed in the living room."
I soon knew why. Granddad snored. He farted in his sleep too, but, once I conked out, I didn't notice much.
Gram ran the household. She was stout with straight, gray hair fastened in a tight bun on the back of her head. Everything about her was big — her feet, her hands, even her hawkish nose. She wasn't mean, but when her black eyes fastened on Polly or me, or even Granddad, there was no use arguing. She didn't go in much for hugs and stuff, but that was all right with me.
Polly didn't want to stay at Gram's any more than I did. "She just wants me to be her hired girl," she said. If that was so, Gram was in for a surprise 'cause Polly didn't like to work.
The day after President Wilson declared war, Dad showed up on our doorstep whistling "Yankee Doodle." He was the best whistler for miles around, and I could always recognize his sound. I ran outside to meet him.
"C'mon, Harry," he said. "I'm gonna sign up. Want to go with me?" Off we went to the county seat so he could register with the Selective Service. Dad whistled all the way there, and I tried to whistle just like he did. He'd say, "No, like this," and demonstrate again. Finally we both wound up laughing at my efforts.
There must have been a hundred men on the grounds outside the courthouse, standing around talking in excited voices. They'd formed a long line from the street all the way up the marble steps of the building. Some wore suits and hats. Others, like my dad, had on overalls and work boots. Dad got in line and I stood close to him, listening to the men talking.
"Did you hear what happened to John Pankkuk?" one asked.
"He almost got a beating the other night."
"That Kraut's so rich. Folks thought he should buy more Liberty bonds."
"What's a Kraut?" I whispered to my dad.
"Just a nickname for a German," he said. "'Cause they eat a lot of sauerkraut."
I was puzzled. We were mad at the Germans, but I thought they lived across the ocean, not around here.
The line moved slowly in the hot sun. Kids marched around the grounds pretending the sticks they carried over their shoulders were rifles. Dogs barked, and a little brass band began to play patriotic songs. We finally made our way up the marble steps and went inside. I remember the thrill of that building, the grandest place I'd ever seen with its high-domed ceiling and wide staircase hung with red, white, and blue bunting. Posters were plastered on the walls. One pictured a huge boot about to smash something with the words "Help Stamp out the Kaiser."
A big American flag hung over a table set up in the lobby. Behind it, several men sat in shirtsleeves. Dad seemed to know the man with suspenders who wore his hat tipped back over his head.
"You know, Calvin, with that passel of kids and no wife to look after them, you could get a deferment. You don't have to be the one to save us from the Kaiser."
"I know, Gus, but the country needs every man, doesn't it? And I want to help." Gus smiled and said, "You're a good man, Cal." He handed Dad a paper to fill out, and, just like that, Dad was in the army. The men shook hands, and I swelled up with pride, wishing I could sign up too.
Back outside we passed a ladies' aid stand that offered free lemonade to every man who enlisted. Someone behind us said, "Did you hear about Bill Vogelzang? That damn German got a deferment. Said his dad was too sick to run their farm. When he came through here, the ladies wouldn't give him lemonade. I bet his mailbox gets painted yellow." Dad just shook his head.
When our turn came, a chunky woman in an apron handed a glass to Dad. "We're proud and grateful to you for helping our country. Would your boy like some too?" I nodded and we drank it down. On the way home I asked Dad why those men wanted to paint the man's mailbox yellow.
"I guess they think he's a coward," he said. "Yellow-bellied."
* * *
DAD CAME TO tell us goodbye before he left for the army. He and Polly and I sat on the bare boards of Gram's side porch, our legs dangling over the edge. I could tell he was nervous. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and tried to smooth down the tufts of his red-brown hair. It was useless. His hair was coarse as a horse's tail, and the tufts went whichever way they wanted. He gave it up and his blue eyes crinkled tightly as they always did when his hair got the better of him.
"I know you kids aren't too happy about these arrangements," he said, "but it's not going to last forever."
"A year's a long time, Dad," Polly had said softly.
"It'll go fast, and we'll write letters. You'll be busy in school."
I hadn't been so sure about that. "Please don't go, Dad. It scares me. What if Gram gets tired of us and wants to get rid of us?"
He'd put his arm around me. "That won't happen, Harry. I know Gram's tough, but you're her daughter's kids. She really cares about you." He'd turned to smile at Polly. "You remind me so much of your mother, Polly. You look just like her with your black hair and big brown eyes. Just as beautiful." He'd looked at her a long minute like he was trying to memorize her.
He'd pulled me to him. "Come here, towhead. I'm afraid you got the short end of the deal 'cause you look like me with your big green peepers and all those cowlicks."
I'd managed a little smile. Back then there was nobody I'd rather look like than my Dad. I'd done my best not to cry as we hugged, and he kissed us goodbye. Polly had blubbered a while, then Buster, Granddad's silly, lop-eared dog, brought his ball for us to throw, and Dad was gone.
* * *
THAT FIRST MORNING after Dad left for the army, I heard Granddad get up from the daybed we shared. When I opened my eyes, Buster was staring at me, his head level with mine and his tail thumping on the floor. I reached out to pet his silky black ears, and he licked my hands.
"Breakfast's ready," Gram called. "Better wash your face, Harry."
I got right up and went to the kitchen. Gram fixed us fried eggs and pancakes with butter and syrup. After we ate, Granddad went to his store, and Gram and Polly got busy doing dishes and making beds.
I went outdoors and stood on the side porch where we'd said goodbye to Dad. Dark clouds rolled across the sky, and the air smelled like rain. I didn't know what to do with myself, so I sat down where the three of us sat the day before, and I thought about Dad. He wouldn't be coming home today after work like he always did before. He wouldn't walk in all grins, and say, "Well, if it isn't my boy Harry. How was your day? Did you make a lot of money today?"
I could picture how he'd go to the washstand and roll up his sleeves. He'd scrub his face and arms with our homemade soap and dry himself with an old blue and white towel.
I'd tell him I made forty-nine dollars selling neckties. Or thirty-five dollars picking corn. Something silly. He'd say, "That's good money, Harry. Someday you'll make a lot more than that."
"Will I ever make a hundred dollars, Dad?"
"Yes, I expect you will."
"Sure, Harry. I bet you'll make a thousand, but you'll have to dress up in a suit and tie. And I know you don't like that very much." Then he'd laugh.
That wasn't going to happen today. Maybe it would never be like that again. As those thoughts sank in, my whole body hurt. I felt so low. At first, the idea of Dad joining the army was exciting, but it sure wasn't anymore. It was awful.
The rain began to fall gently, and then came down harder and harder. I slipped off the porch and crawled underneath where I could sit cross-legged in the half darkness. Cobwebs stuck to my face and hair, and sow bugs scurried around in the loose dirt. I spied bones scattered here and there where Buster had left them. Pretty soon he found me and crawled under the porch too. He put his head on my lap, and we sat there together watching the rain. I let the sad, lonesome feelings come down over me like thick, gray fuzz. I felt more alone than I'd ever felt in my life.
What would happen if Dad never came back? Or if he got killed? What if I had to stay here for my whole life? And my brothers. Ty and Gabe and Eddie. When would I see them again? I chewed on these unhappy notions for a long time, missing Dad, missing my brothers, until the rain finally began to let up. The squeal of the screen door spring interrupted my low feelings. I heard Gram's heavy tread on the porch boards above my head.
"Harry? Harry? Where are you?"
I crawled out from my hiding place. "Here, Gram."
"Just look at you. You're filthy."
I tried to brush myself off.
"Harry, I need you to take this jar over to Aunt Lida's and get some fresh milk. Mine has turned."
I took the jar, feeling a little relief to have something to do, and I set off walking the three blocks to my great-aunt's house. On the way I met a group of six or seven boys with their bikes in the middle of the road. One called out, "Hey, kid. What's your name?"
I stopped. They seemed big, older, a little threatening.
"Harry Spencer," I said.
"You live here? I ain't seen you before."
"I just came to live with my grandmother."
"How come? Where's your folks?" They moved closer to me, and one of them tried to grab the jar I was carrying. I pulled back.
"Don't," I said, fear making my voice weak.
"What's the jar for?"
"I have to get some milk."
"Oh, the little boy has to get some milk," one kid said in a taunting voice. "Little Harry needs his milk."
The others started saying, "Little Harry. Little Harry," in singsong voices.
The tallest boy came over to me. He shoved his face close to mine and said, "Who'd you say your folks were?"
"My dad's Calvin Spencer. He's in the army. My mother's dead." The others shut up when they heard that.
He said, "Your dad's in the army? How long's he been gone?"
"He just left yesterday."
His blue eyes bored into mine for a long minute. Then he said, "I'm Wes. My brother Clete joined up too. He left this week." He grinned. "You miss your dad?"
I nodded. He pointed at the other fellows and said, "This here's Billy, and that's Bucky. Over there is Don Beaubien and Skinny Nelson and his little brother."
I said, "Hi."
"Look here, Harry. We've got a clubhouse over back of Billy's barn. We meet there every afternoon to talk and plan things. You can come if you want to."
"Okay," I nodded. "Thanks."
"All right. Maybe we'll see you over there."
They climbed on their bicycles, and I watched them ride off. One of them called back, "So long, little Harry," but it didn't sound mean this time.
After that, I spent every minute that I could with those boys. Playing with them was like being with my brothers. Lots of fun and plenty of mischief. One time we caught ancient Betty Sykes's cat and put it yowling in a box on her front porch. Another time we tied a string to an old pocketbook and laid it on the main road. Then we hid in the tall grass in the ditch and waited for it to be spotted. When a driver got out to pick it up, we'd yank on the string, and the pocketbook would be gone before he could get to it.
These boys were tough and sure of themselves, and I wanted to be just like them. They had bicycles and fathers who took them fishing. And mothers. I'd never had a chance to know mine, 'cause she died when I was a baby. I yearned with my whole heart for all the things they had, but mostly for a house where our family could live together. What I remember today is how at night in bed I'd make up stories for myself and fall asleep dreaming I had everything they had.
It didn't take long before I got in trouble because of those boys. I gave myself a good scare too.CHAPTER 2
IT HAPPENED ON a sweltering day that summer. The boys were sitting around practicing their cussing and trying to smoke a pack of Lucky Strikes that Billy had filched from his father. It was daring and risky stuff when I was eight, and the others were eleven or twelve. They'd all had a few puffs when Wes said, "Let's go swimming in the Brule," and off they went, leaving me behind.
Every one of them had a bicycle except me, and I boiled with jealousy. I tore down the road after them, my bare feet afire from the sunbaked dirt and gravel, my lungs burning. They left me like that all the time, but today I'd made up my mind I wasn't going to be left behind anymore. Not this time or ever again if I could help it.
Panting and breathless, I broke through the willow trees that hung over the water, cloaking the swimming hole from the road. Cooler air hit my face, and I smelled the dampness. The pond was huge, the water dark and deep, and I wasn't supposed to be there.
Ever since we'd moved to South Dakota, my grandmother had warned me. "Don't ever let me catch you at Brule Creek, Harry. I'll tan your hide. The current's too fast, and whirlpools can suck you under. You hear?" Her eyes never left my face. "Your mother'd tell you the same thing if she were alive. You stay away from the Brule." But here I was in spite of Gram's threat.
"Can you swim, Harry?" Wes asked.
"Well, it's time you learned." He picked me up by my overall straps and threw me into the water before I had time to take a breath. I sank fast, and the cold rose up my pants leg to my crotch; the cold, cold flowed into my ears. Fear grabbed me hard when my mouth and nose filled with water. I couldn't breathe.
Just when I thought I couldn't stand it any longer, I came to the surface, choking, my arms thrashing. I snatched a quick breath before I went down once more, convinced I was drowning for sure. After another panicky time below, I bobbed up long enough to hear somebody yell, "Kick your feet, Harry, or you'll drown yourself." Well, I kicked like a crazy man, and, to my everlasting astonishment, my head stayed above water.
Breathless and coughing, I looked around and spied a branch hanging over the water. I aimed for it with no idea how to propel myself. Somehow, instinct took over, and I made it to the edge where I grabbed on to that stick for dear life. Oh, it was sweet to know I hadn't drowned! I hung there for a long time, catching my breath and giving my poor heart a chance to slow down.
The others had stripped down to their skivvies and were jumping and splashing, paying no attention to me. I was glad 'cause otherwise they might have been able to tell how scared I'd been. I dragged myself out of the water, my clothing heavy. I took off my wet overalls and laid them over a bush to dry. Gram would kill me for sure if I came home in wet clothes.
I sat in the sun for some time, warming myself, marveling that I'd been able to swim, or at least dog paddle. Then it dawned on me that I'd ended up on the bank opposite the path that led home. Terror gripped me again. I'd have to swim across the pond in order to get back. I watched the others cavort in the water. Maybe I could sneak across the creek upstream through the woods. Downstream it was all rocks and falls. Yet, in my heart I knew I had to swim back or the boys would think I was baby. They'd call me "Little Harry." I couldn't let that happen.
For some reason a conversation I overheard the night before popped into my head. Gram and Granddad were discussing the shaky finances at their grocery store. I wasn't paying much attention, but I heard Granddad say, "It looks like we'll either sink or swim this summer."
Gram said, "Well, let me tell you, Alfie. I have no intention of sinking. We're going to work hard. We'll persevere."
Persevere? I wasn't sure exactly what that meant, but I knew it was what I had to do. I'd swim back across that pond if it killed me. I felt resolve in my belly, and I wasn't so afraid this time. Wes carried my overalls over his head so they weren't quite so wet when we got to the other side. He even gave me a ride back to town on his bike. I knew I'd be in big trouble, but I didn't care. It was the first time I'd made myself do something that terrified me, and I was proud of it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Green Years"
Copyright © 2019 Karen Wolff.
Excerpted by permission of BHC Press.
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