The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
December 2004
FEATURE
 
 

The Martians Are Not Coming
(Thanks to Me and Johnny)
 

BY STEVE MASON

Steve Mason’s poetry periodically has appeared in The VVA Veteran. This time, however, he offers something new: a short story, written in two parts, 21 years apart. Now at 64 years  old, with failing health, while trying to find things’ proper places, he came upon the story  he started at 43, and he finished it. “It is probably as real as anything I’ve ever  written,” Mason said, “because it had such a profound effect on my entire life and it  occurred when I was nine years old, until I was eleven. Most of you guys out there can relate to this. And you women: The guys you’re living with, the guys you love, the guys you  lost, the guys you will meet, they’ve had similar fantasies that were just as real to them.  And this, by the way, is no fantasy at all. It is a true story.”

Artwork: Travis King

Part 1

A psychic bullet between the eyes, I know what you mean. The guy I used to be never came back from Nam neither. Awarded the Purple Brain for conspicuous confusion, it wasn’t  posthumous but might just as well have been. Him, he’s not here; I am. He’s out there somewhere murdering dreams in the swift back alleys of his dreams; full-time job, I guess, when you’re middle aged and emotionally injured. A damn shame, too. I really liked him, the guy I used to be.

I remember when he was a kid he could bend his thumb all the way back to here and touch his wrist. Bet you couldn’t have done it. And I remember in the really beginning, long before the Viet Cong and the rest, there was the Martians. No shit! And he done real good against the Martians, lots better than he grew up to do against Charlie, which I don’t understand much myself, except either way I didn’t see much of the bad guys, but sure as hell they was  out there, you can count on that, betcha. Bet you anything you got to loose, chump, they was  out there.

You do? You want to hear about the Martians? Okay, but you got to sit down, because first I got to tell you about Johnny, else it don’t make no sense, not without Johnny it don’t.

You ever hear tell of Little Johnny Dumb F**k? Well, this here is about Big Johnny Dumb F**k, my buddy, and that’s for sure. It all starts sort of with me being the smartest,  shortest, youngest kid in the class and the second fastest runner in the whole fourth grade. Yeah, you guessed it: Johnny, Big Johnny, was the first fastest, maybe in the whole world. He was about three years older and lots bigger than everybody else, except for Alice who was really a nice person and the second best writer in the class. Of course, I was the first best writer. I already told you I was the smartest kid in the class.

Big Johnny got left back two years in a row. He got what was called a physical promotion because he outgrew his desk. But that didn’t matter to nobody in our class. Johnny was just the fastest runner, period. That mattered to everyone. Nobody could outrun him. He used to slap his sides when he ran like he was on horseback or something. Big  f**king kid with wild hair before we knew anything about hair. Run your ass into the ground at the end of the ball field. It didn’t matter where you were when he spotted you. Come swooping down like Persian cavalry from the top of a biblical hill and knock you on your ass, rain or shine.

So mean, after a while you wouldn’t even pray for your life, he’d just stand over you and  wave his f**king arms in front of his face like he was a war horse, pawing at the wind. And  then, for Christ sake, he’d start to whinny—can you believe it?—it was im-f**king- ossible to open your eyes. Me? Not really, but lots of other kids in their neat school clothes were scared for sure. Of course, I let on I was so as to calm him down sort of. You know what I mean. Shoot, that kid made you pray you got polio for the week so he wouldn’t pick on you.

But Johnny really liked me, which is really the beginning of this story and that’s skipping  over the part how that came to be. That’s the part about me being able to subtract without changing the eight to seven by lining through it and then changing the zero next to it into a 10, if you know what I mean, which Johnny didn’t. And how he chased me for two recesses until I just surrendered at three o’clock and told him I knew a trick about how I could teach him how to do it, which I never could.

That’s also skipping over the part about how I went home, forever seemed like to me, to his house at the end of the town where the train slowed down enough for Johnny to jump in between two freight cars that were moving and jump off to the other side. I knew if he  didn’t get killed doing that, he sure as hell was going to be at least the president or  something, something maybe even more important. But when we get to his house, I never had to try to teach him that trick, because we always just end up playing guns, which even Johnny said I was so good at that one day we’d really ride together. Wow. In the meantime, we’d just play at riding together and learn each other’s tricks and stuff.

My specialty was making ricochets. I’d go “pow, pow, pang, pang, ka-ching,” and that’s what got Johnny so excited. He said it was so f**king real he couldn’t believe it. We used to play at him getting ambushed by me behind boulders so my shots could ricochet and  Johnny could die. That’s what Johnny did best: die. You might say it was his specialty; it was never mine. My favorite time was when he’d get wounded in the arm, jump up, switch gun hands, and get hit about three more times, and flop, kick, stagger to his feet, return a little more fire, and finally collapse about five minutes later with a long, last gasp. It was terrific. Johnny said that he’d bet anything that that was the way it really was.

Ten years later in real life, he took one round from a Chicom 765 through the chest, never made a sound, never moved a muscle, was nerve dead before he hit the ground. But that’s another story. Lots of other guys could tell about lots of other buddies. Some smart, some dumb, some fast, some slow, all of what we were and we’ll never, ever forget.

But when he was a kid, he was a real stickler for stuff being real, that’s for sure. He used to make us pretend to reload after five rounds. The sixth had to rest on an empty chamber. I never liked that part much, because I was a fast-draw kind of guy. He used to slap leather and fan his gun. And what the hell, my cast-iron peacemaker Colt held 250 caps on a roll and Johnny was always after me to conserve ammo. What a guy. A bunch of years later I used to teach other guys about surprise, speed, and violence of action. But Johnny was my first real teacher. In the battles we fought as kids, he was always right, that’s for sure.

I remember that first day I went home with him after school. Talk about scared. His big sister was at the kitchen sink with the water running, just as we entered through the screen door that had lots of holes in it. Didn’t turn around, didn’t say nothing, just casually tossed each of us a potato, a raw potato. I almost dropped mine, bobbled it, pinned it against my chest and the ice box before it hit the floor. Geez, was I embarrassed.

Sure, Johnny caught his on the fly, just snagged it out of the air and never lost stride like he was Billy Cox, third baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers. But hey, I wasn’t as fast.
But that’s not the point, is it? What kind of snack is that for a kid, a secret recipe for
meanness or something? Sure, they was washed, you jerk, what’s that got to do with anything? Clean or dirty, they was raw, for Christ’s sake. We’re not talking carrots here, get the picture? Shit. Who cares if the whole house liked raw potatoes: Did they really think the rest of the world ate them that way? What did they go and toss me one for? We ate Oreos and fresh fruit at my house after school. Shit.

What? Sure, I’m going to tell you about the Martians. I’m coming to that. It just don’t make no sense without you understanding about Johnny. I told you that in the beginning. Geez. All right, so there we were on a Saturday morning in mid-winter, me and Johnny— partners. The first and second fastest runners in the whole fourth grade. The smartest and meanest guys anybody in the school ever heard about, just standing there in the new snow, at the edge of the woods in front of the school. Not a footprint or a hoofprint could be seen except for ours.

We had just pretended to dismount and were holding the reins of our horses. Johnny rode a black stallion, what else? Me, I rode a real fast paint with no saddle, like my favorite  Indian hero rode on my favorite radio show, Straight Arrow. I even loved the commercial: “N-A-B-I-S-C-O, Nabisco is the name you know. Pour a breakfast you can’t beat, try Nabisco Shredded Wheat.” It always tasted like chopped broomstick to me, but I made my mother get them anyway. They was the big ones, with no sugar on top in those days, but they came in a great box that separated the three layers with gray cardboard on which were printed “Ingenuities,” stuff like how Indians made fire, and how you could find north, and stuff a guy really had to learn and had to know if he was going to be a real guy.

Johnny was sharing his plan with me about outwitting our teacher, Ms. Fiory. We called her Ms. Fury, the same name as my horse in Straight Arrow, too. He decided the only way we could get out of our project due on Monday—which was an awful lot of geography that had to do with our making papier maché topographical maps of the entire country and paint them for a thousand hours of mess and another thousand hours of neat India ink charts—was to burn the school down. That’s it, burn the school down. Nobody would ever ask us about our projects being due that week. Shit, what a guy. It seemed like a great plan to me. Only problem was, all Johnny’s plans seemed great to me, even though all of them made me really nervous.

When he had finished explaining how he was going to do this deed that had to done, we just stood there, thinking, like only partners on a mission could think. Real still. Only the  occasional snap of a brittle cold branch falling to the ground broke the silence. We never  even needed to look. We never heard such quiet in the middle of the day. It was just like  before an ambush, but I wouldn’t know about that for many years. But I did know it was  serious quiet and I wanted to be home real bad. Something like a tidal wave I’d read about was rising inside me about three stories taller than I was, but I just kept staring straight ahead. In my mind, the school was already ashes.

In the face of that dreadful silence, Johnny laughs philosophical. He was good at that for a big kid who didn’t get promoted with the class every year. He put his arm over my shoulder and waved his free hand across the snow-heavy sky. “They’re out there, Little Beaver.” He always got to be Red Rider. He even had a Red Rider 500-shot, level-action Daisy BB gun that looked exactly like a real Winchester 73.

“Yep,” he continued, “they’re out there, all right, and when they come, it might just be you and me to stop them. The rest of these folks are just store clerks.” And numbly I just  looked at that vast, gray sky and checked out Johnny from the corner of my eye. Johnny was looking straight ahead, hands at his sides, and I knew in that one enormous, bleak moment that for me, from then on, they were out there. For a kid who had to move his lips when he read, Johnny sure was a powerful speaker.

"Who, Johnny? Who’s out there? Who’s coming?”

“The enemy, Little Beaver, they’re everywhere: Russians, Chinese, Martians. Hell, all of them, any of them, they’re out there, just waiting for a sign of weakness, and that’s what we’re here for, partner. When they come, it’s up to us to stop them. And if I’m not around when they come, you just do this.” He cupped his hands in front of his mouth and made the cry of what I thought was a wolf. “And pretty soon I’ll be at your side. Count on it.” And I always did, and still do.

Even though we moved away that spring and I never saw Johnny again for the rest of my life, I always knew that somehow, some way, when a man just needed a partner, Big Johnny would be there for me, the first fastest runner in the fourth grade, maybe in the whole world—the kid who helped me save the world from the Martians.

Part II

The world of the Eisenhower years pretended to be a flat one, everything under control, except, of course, for the Korean War, Russian A-bombs, UFOs, spies, and lies. It was grand, but by the time we moved out west to Arizona, this kid from New York had just spent years being terrorized and traumatized by duck-and-cover drills, backyard bomb shelters, and movies like The War of the Worlds, When Worlds Collide, Rocket Ship XM, and The Thing. Hell, if it wasn’t for Westerns about cowboys, Indians, and John Wayne  tough guys, we probably all would have just taken up needlepoint and waited for the big mushroom in the sky to put us out of our misery.

Hell, even my comic book heroes needed super powers. Captain Marvel got to say  “Shazam.” Plastic Man got to slink under doorways and stretch across the city street. Nobody with plain old human abilities stood a chance. Geez, I was one of an entire generation of kids who needed therapy before we even had therapy. Sure, dummy, we had asylums for the real crazies, but we didn’t have shit that made a kid feel happy about reading a newspaper. We worried when we went to school in the morning whether we’d ever see the family again. The way we survived our prepubescence was by doing what our parents did: deny everything. Sure, girls would save my life in just a couple of years, but how the hell was I supposed to know that? I was just a kid, for Christ’s sake.

We all failed big time pretending we weren’t scared to death. But if Dad wore a tie at the dinner table, everything looked okay. Shit, we knew style was substance long before Madonna was born. Of course, every kid in almost every neighborhood thought his father was the only one who didn’t wear a tie at supper time. Mine was no exception.

Now, what we were doing was the best civil defense drill in the world, denial in proper form, decorum. We were the Stepford Nation: well-trained, disciplined neurotics. Yeah, we kids knew that if the Russians didn’t blow us up, the aliens would. When I was ten years old, striking out in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded was light comedy. The only thing more frightening than being vaporized was being de-pantsed by class bullies who just looked at you at the start of the last period in wood shop and smiled demonic little smiles. Man, oh man, when the big hand was on 10 and the little hand was on the 3 on that classroom Westclock wall clock, a guy just knew he had 10 minutes before the bell would ring, before he could start to run for his life.

To me, my dignity was my life, because we moved around a lot when I was a kid and I always was the new kid in class. I didn’t have anything but my dignity and I was always alone. Damn teachers almost got me killed lots of times, that’s for sure. Especially that man who taught geography to us only two days before I saved the entire world from the Martians, which I am definitely going to tell you about.

The jerk of a teacher who knows I don’t have any friends—I just moved here—pulls down a wall map of the world, you know the kind, if you tug them, they roll right back up. The guy’s name was Mr. Painter. He takes a red rubber-tipped pointer and hands it to a kid in the first row and asks him to point to South America. The kid gets up all nervous-like and  snickers start to run throughout the room. It takes him about three minutes to find one gigantic continent.

The next kid is a pretty girl with pigtails and a petulant smirk. She knows damn well she’s pretty. She finds Minnesota in about as long as it would take me to walk there from Phoenix. And it goes on for about 30 more boring minutes, until he says, “Let’s see what our new classmate learned about geography in New York.” Yeah, thanks, I really needed that shit.

I walk up from the rear of the room, just a little bit pissed. He passes me the pointer and asks me if I can find the Ural Mountains. Whap, I hit the map before he closes his mouth.  “How about the Cape of Good Hope?” Whap, again. No classroom sounds. I’m in deep shit and I know it.

That afternoon they pulled my pants down in front of the girls and followed me after I left the schoolyard. Two of them cornered me in an alley. I’m really scared because they punched me in the stomach and it hurt real bad. I turned to jelly. I offered them my three- star Duncan Deluxe yo-yo, with a slash of white against a pink background and a wax string. My mother had picked it up for me. She had a heart condition and had walked several blocks the day before to a McCrory’s Five & Dime just to get it for me because  she loved watching me do all those tricks I was so good at. It cost 35 cents.

They took the yo-yo and punched me one more time each. I don’t even remember walking home. I mean I couldn’t have told you the next day how I walked home. To this day, I remember I was a coward that day and in many ways it shaped my life. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I just kept reliving the worst moment of my life. I remember wishing a bomb would drop that night. The guilt about my mother’s sacrifice—and make no mistake, she was my best friend—burned through me like I’d swallowed a branding iron. A decade later she died while I was in a firefight in Vietnam. The attack was on the six o’clock news. She knew where I was and died of a heart attack. Her last words to my sister was, “At least this will bring Steven home.”

A day does not go by these 35 years that I do not find another way to miss her. I truly believe I would have loved her just as much, even if she had not been my mother. But I was pissed at her for dying when I was in the Nam, so my 30-day emergency leave I cut short by ten. I went back to do what had to be done with my buddies.

I didn’t have breakfast that next morning. I didn’t deserve it. I left my lunch bag on the table and left early so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. At school that day I raised my  hand at every question asked, slapped my pencil down on my desk like it was pistol shot so everyone in the room knew I was finished with every quiz, every assignment, long before them. Yeah, they followed me home all right. When we got to that same alley, I turned on both of them. I beat them so badly that an adult passerby had to drag me off one of them, because I was bouncing his head off the curb. Damn right I got my yo-yo back. Never used it again, kept it for many years as a reminder of the danger of fear. Not of fear, because without fear there’s no courage. It’s just the danger of fearing fear, that’s what I kept it around for.

Nobody ever followed me home again from that school. To this day I take offense from no man. Death before dishonor was branded into my soul before I had even kissed my first  girl. I never killed a man who could not have killed me, never hit a man when he was down, never raised a hand to a woman or a child. My mother taught me something I’ll share with you. I don’t know why, I just think it’s probably the right time to do it. She told me: Always act like a man but think like a woman. I’ve always tried.

And, oh yeah, the following week I was the school hero. The two bullies wanted to hangout with me. The girl with the pigtails asked me to come home after school sometime to help her with her homework. But I didn’t feel like a hero. Mr. Painter told the class, without mentioning any names, yeah right, that something new in our lives didn’t  mean it was bad. Everybody turned around and looked at me, and I just made myself even smaller than I was. But at recess I was the first one picked to play dodge ball and a kid offered me a bite of his apple and asked me were kids in New York all good ball players and did we study geography a lot there.

The next day was a Saturday. I told my family that my bruised and bloody knuckles were from playing tether ball. I knew they’d never seen it played. I spent most of the rest of the day just cleaning my gear. My gear was a Rawlings baseball glove I treated with oil and wrapped around an official Major League baseball my dad had caught. It was a foul ball caught while we were watching the game together at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. A man of infinite grace, he was my best playmate. Everything he did seemed effortless. Everything we did he made fun. My parents taught me how to parent. Could a guy ask for anymore? I don’t think so.

The second part of my gear was my single-shot, breach-loading BB gun and, of course, my BBs. I stored my BBs in my ammo box, which was a round tin button box that was a candy tin before that. I made certain that I poured just the right amount of BBs in the tin so that they lay in a single layer, with just enough room so that I could hold the tin at the bottom and with just the slightest rotation of my hands, at the base, they would make a rolling motion that sounded like a train rushing down the rail.

The gun itself I oiled with my small can of 3-In-One oil and then, carefully wiping off the  excess, would shine the rifle with cheese cloth. I loved my gear, loved it as much as I  loved my 45-rpm record player on which I would play my classical music so I could just lie on my bed and dream the dreams that boys have always dreamt. It was a good life, if it wasn’t for the f**king Russians, the atomic bombs, the aliens, the lies, and—of course—the damn New York Yankees.

Proper form on Sunday during the Eisenhower years consisted of two mandatory, solid-citizenship exercises: going to church in the morning and a mid-afternoon family
dinner. Ours was usually about 2:00 p.m. I remember that particular Sunday like it was  yesterday. It was about 1:30 when I went out and stood on the small porch that overlooked the backyard. I was just leaning on the railing and looking around at what I could see in the neighborhood. Not much, because of the bushes and the palm trees and the fruit trees that separated us from our neighbors. But it was real quiet and I knew that, as usual, there would be no one in the street in the front of the house. It was Sunday; nobody wanted to be seen outside wasting time on a Sunday.

Our job was to be respectable as One Nation Under God. When I grew up I never expected God to be on my side, but I always wanted to be on His or Her’s. That day I just stood, rested my arms on the wooden railing, and did what I had always done the best: brood.

I was trying to make sense of the past two days, and then suddenly I became aware of a presence, an eerie feeling of being watched. I couldn’t tell from where or by whom. All I  felt was like there was no air to breathe and the quiet was absolute. Couldn’t even hear a  sound from inside the house. It was creepy and I got scared, and I got mad that I was  scared, and I got angry at me. No more being scared, that was settled on Friday forever. Was I having an asthma attack or something?

Then I did what I learned to do in later years: I made myself a smaller target. I got off the porch and bent down to pick up a stick, real casual-like. I just pretended to doodle in  the hard dirt, like it was a big pen, all the while rolling my eyes to see what I could see.  Nothing. But I’m not kidding you, I could absolutely see the silence. You could have cut it  with my Old Timer folding pocket knife, also part of my gear since my Straight Arrow ingenuities taught me how to whittle. I don’t know whatever happened to that Old Timer, but I still have the Buck I carried with me in the Nam. Right now it’s in the glove compartment of my car.

And then it hit, hit me like a bat slipped out of somebody’s hands and caught me upside my head. It was the Martians. Oh shit. They were looking right at me, through their zigging, beady little eyes. I was the only one outside for them to see. Oh man, what do I do? What do I say? Call for help, who’d believe me? My mother would give me allergy medicine and my father would ask me to play that Italian game of cards he loved so much that his father had taught him. Where could I get help and why were they watching me?

Then I remembered. They was out there all right, and it was up to me to stop them. The rest of these folks were just store clerks. So I made like I was coughing, but what I was really doing was making a soft wolf call and Johnny was there with me, just like he said he would be, if a man just needed a friend. I wasn’t alone anymore. The Martians were coming and we was going to stop them, stop them sure, me and Johnny.

Of course I couldn’t see him, you jerk, he was there in spirit. Oh, what would you know, you damn store clerk? This was man’s work to do, and ain’t nobody does anything worthwhile alone. Red Rider and Little Beaver were together again. Wow. I could hear him saying, “We’re going to beat these chumps, partner. This is what we practiced for; let’s  get to it.”

Right away we needed a plan, but first we needed to know what they were planning. Later when I was in combat, I’d draw up a five-paragraph operations order, and I’d always write in paragraph one the enemy situation. I needed to know it fast. I needed to know it now. And then—just like I learned years later about not to listen to what a gal at the bar was  saying, but to pay attention to how she was sitting, and why she was saying what she was—I just turned myself off, went into some neutral zone, like it was a DMZ or something, and felt at the moment what it could mean. And then, blam, I just knew it, could feel it. It wasn’t fair. The whole plan just wasn’t fair. Not even me and Johnny could  pull it off. This was the worse possible scenario.

The Martians were tired of waiting. They were ready to attack. But they were smart, real smart. They figured the best way to know how the men on our planet would react was to test one ordinary Earth boy, me. They knew what the Vietnamese knew. If you are  planning for a year, plant rice. If you plan for ten years, plant trees. If you were planning for a hundred years, grow men. The Martians wanted to know if we were growing men down here. I was the test case. It’s just that the test couldn’t possibly be passed and they, with all their ray guns and such, would just vaporize us without waiting another second. Everything I loved, everything I knew, would be gone just like in the movies.

The test was in two parts. I had one shot to hit the target, which was a propped-open match book at the back of the yard. I was about ten feet past where I could aim a perfectly good shot looking through the rear open side of my BB gun. I’d have to make an adjustment for the distance, tough enough without practice shots. The second part was I was to pick the right exact BB from the hundreds in my ammo box. I thought about all of this for a minute or two, knowing time was running out, and realized they had made one enormous mistake. How were they to know that I was not an ordinary Earth kid, that I was actually the finest BB-gun shot in the whole world? What I needed was Johnny to help me pick out the right BB they had selected. And how did they know about my BB?  And how did they know about anything? And why would they know that each BB was

just a little bit different than the others? Maybe they just knew this was not a perfect world and wanted me to pick the one that was the least round, so that even a perfect shot would go wrong. Damn aliens.

Real quiet and calm, I looked up at the sky and just said, “It’s a deal, but if I win, you
never, ever mess with us again.” And I could feel an answer: “It’s a deal, but if you fail,
your entire planet will vanish immediately.” I just nodded as calmly as I could, walked back inside my house, and got my shooting gear. Mom said, “Sweetheart, dinner in about five minutes.” I mumbled something about “okay” and walked back outside wondering if I’d ever see her again.

I felt for Johnny as I opened the tin box to reveal all the BBs, after I slipped my clean, shiny, single shot out of the fragile case I had made for it by sewing the two sides of a  pants leg from a pair of Levis, just like Straight Arrow had taught me how to sew. I ran my  hand over the top of the tin and cradled it in both hands and made it do that rolling,  rushing thing. Hundreds of BBs, just revolving in a slow circle. Which one? Which one?

Then I heard Johnny’s voice behind me. “I’ll do it,” he said. And I could feel my hand being lifted above the tin and being forced down into it. I could sense the Martians’  apprehension, as serious as my own. I put my thumb and forefinger just above one of them, and just as I was about to pick it up, Big Johnny Dumb F**k just laughed. “Not that one, Little Beaver. I was just letting you fool with them a bit.” And I could actually feel the  intake of one huge Martian groan as I moved without hesitation to grab a lone BB at the other end of the tin. It was the right one for sure.

Before I could ask Johnny how he had known, he said to me, “On any day, any person is as good as any other person. We’re just all different is all, same as BBs.” Man, what a friend. A true philosopher, even if he couldn’t spell and even if I didn’t understand what he meant.

Now it was just up to me. I was on my own. I lifted the rifle, kissed the BB, and dropped it down the front of the barrel. With one clear movement, I brought the stock up to the trigger guard and locked the round in place. Years later I would know that I was locked, cocked, and ready to rock, but right then I just had to make the best shot anybody in the world ever made. The whole world depended on it.

It was a plain white book of matches opened like a tent at the end of the yard. It seemed miles away. I wet my finger on my right hand and raised it in all directions to gauge the  wind like Straight Arrow had taught me. It was calm. Raising the stock to my shoulder and fitting it securely so that my shooting finger was comfortable above the trigger and my left hand was firm on the familiar, smooth wood beneath the barrel, I tucked my left elbow into my side for a secure hold. I was ready and the Martians were waiting.

I lined the target up so that it was centered just above the sight picture formed by the  open rear sight aperture in the front side of the top of the barrel. Sure I wanted to holler, but just as we did in the Nam when we would be so cool on a PRC 25 and when we were  surrounded, our voices sounded as flat and as calm as if we were reading from a  phone book. I just said to me, to Johnny, and to the Martians, “Ready.”

The match book was centered. I calculated it for the shortfall of my gun’s velocity and  trajectory, raised my aim so that it was just exactly above the match book and couldn’t be seen. I took a breath, let most of it out, and exerted a slight pressure on the trigger  until all the slack was gone, and just squeezed it off. Two seconds later the match book was down, with a hole in its dead center. I looked up and didn’t sense Johnny anymore. I could hear laughter from the street, so the quiet and the Martians were also gone.

I called in the house and hollered, “Mom, are we ready? I’m starving!” She called back, “Perfect timing as usual.”

“Well I’ll be right in, just give me one more minute.” And I walked up to the match book,  opened it, and found that brave and true BB in the middle of the soft pack of matches. I  wedged it out and put it in my pocket. A slightly oblong BB with a glory no one could ever take away.

Later I would wrap it in a piece of silk and place it back in the tin in which it stayed  until we moved away that summer. I buried the BBs and the gun in the backyard, as my dad was just doing the final packing of our car for our move back to New York.

And that’s how me and Johnny saved the world from the Martians and you don’t owe us a thing. We were just doing what had to be done, like so many guys before us. He was with me, too, along the Cambodian border, that day before I came back to the States and I buried my 45-caliber, 12-point-five pound, open-bolt action top submachine gun with the  stock removed. I could hear him say to me, “You know, Little Beaver, when whoever they are show up to fight, partners like us will always be there to stop them. But sometimes, it’s just right to do what you’re doing: Bury the hatchet.”

I agreed, and I still do. If Big Johnny taught me anything in my life, it was that if you  had a friend you could count on, you had everything in this world that counted. Now there’s some folks who believe that Johnny’s dead, but not me. Every time I’ve ever needed him, he’s been there for me. And every time I think of him, he’s just as alive as on those cold winter days when we rode together, fast and free, partners for sure.

   

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