Weekly feature by: Steve Sibra
My friend Paulie lived in a big house with a big yard, all fenced in and with a huge Saint Bernard roaming the grass. We liked to play War — we cut the ends off watermelon and we hollowed out the red sweetness; packed the inside of the rind with newspaper and put them on our heads like Army helmets. Thin red watermelon juice ran down by our ears and eyes. You could say it ran like bloody tears, except that we were kids at the end of the Baby Boomer generation, middle class children living in small town America — the product of unbroken homes, with loving parents, and no real understanding of the true depths of sorrow that the world had to offer.
My friend’s brother died in Viet Nam one day while we were doing this. Well, I didn’t know exactly when he died — but that was when the messengers came. The big black car pulled up in front of the gate; two men in uniform emerged. Paulie and I stood with the gigantic dog between us. We dropped our plastic guns in the grass and we stared. The watermelon helmets fell forgotten from our heads. The men came through the gate and they walked up to the porch.
I had no idea what was going on. I never asked if Paulie did or not. We were nine years old and it was 1965. We had just discovered the Beatles. It was an exciting time. The life we knew was life in a farming town of eight hundred people out in the middle of eastern Montana. We didn’t feel like we were really part of the world — not the real world, the one on TV and in the newspapers.
Death was something for farm animals and old people.
Paulie’s parents were both home and after the men came and went, they stayed in the house. We stood in the yard and they just stayed in the house. After a while my mother drove up in the big powder blue Mercury station wagon that we owned. She motioned me over to the car and just then Paulie’s mother came to the door and called him into the house.
There was a cured cowhide in the back of the Mercury. We kids used to crawl under it on trips and play games. For some reason I remember looking in the back of the car as I got in and saw that it was all folded up in a square. It was never folded up.
My mother said little until we got home; then my father explained to me that Paulie’s brother Ralph had been “killed in the war.” I wanted to call Paulie but my mother said, wait. I waited. I waited for a week. Then another week. It was summer and now I waited and I waited but not because of my mother.
I saw him in school that fall. We didn’t have much to say to one another. As it turned out we weren’t friends any more. I didn’t understand this, but at the same time I did.
I thought about those two hollowed out watermelon helmets in the yard.
I wondered who went out and picked them up. Perhaps they were still lying there. I wondered if they eventually just rotted away, or if time stopped and they just lay there, unchanged as the winter dropped its snow like a shroud and silently covered them all up in white.