Look at One of Those Faces
A vividly poignant story taken straight from life: The story of The Marching Soldier and his memories
Look at them. . .soldiers. . .men. . .we think of them as a mass, and yet each is a man alone in the world. Each one in this company, in this battalion, in this army, in our forces is a man alone. He is lost in a long list of figures—193846, 193847. . . they go into the millions. He is lost in a moving mass of khaki. . . he is lost in a whirlpool of events. . .but he knows he is a man, and that he lives his own life. He is not lost to himself. . .to himself he is somebody somewhere . . .and all the world is “out there.” Look at (hose heavy black boots. . .pounding, swinging, pounding, swinging; those belts, bayonets, gas masks, knapsacks, helmets, rifles. Look at those faces. . .any one. . . look at one of those faces. . .
AND WE sit on the railroad bank, beside the swimming hole in the ditch, on the cinders, on our clothes, our legs spread out, in the sun. It is warm. And the horizon is flat, not like here in England. And there’s the smell of the water from the swimming hole on my body. My hair is in my eyes. I toss my head to one side. I am the shortest in the gang. We don’t count Snort’s little brother. Joe fills Mutt’s shoe with water and comes up the bank. Mutt is digging a hole in the bank. He doesn’t see Joe. Joe dumps the water on him.
Everybody laughs. Mutt gasps and jumps up. Joe runs away.
“Oh, you—you—Joe, wait’ll I get you !”
“You got to catch me first!” Joe laughs. “Hey, now, don’t throw that cinder.”
“Oh, no? Stand still then. Move and I’ll let fly.”
“Hey, Mutt, get one of Joe’s shoes and fill it with water!” Snort says.
“You leave my shoes alone!” Joe suddenly ducks down and gets hold of a cinder. “Hah, now we’re even. You throw yours and I’ll—”
“Hey, guys, here comes a train !” Snort’s young brother yells.
We all turn. The train whistles for the crossing.
“A passenger train !”
“They’ll .see us !”
“Into the water!”
We all dive in. Splashes! We come up. The train roars by. We stand in the water waist-deep and hoot and scream and wave at the people in the coaches. The train is past.
Snort’s young brother remembers he has his pants on. He climbs out dripping.
The Sarge shouts behind me: “Leg) right lep right lep rigid lep right lep right.”
We go back to school in the fall. My new teacher is Miss Bentley. There is a smell of new rulers and newscribblersin theroom. After I’ve sucked the nib of my new pen I write my name on the covers of my four new scribblers. N-o-r-m-a-n B-l-a-c-k-w-e-1-1.
A girl with dark brown hair hanging below her shoulders comes into the room. She’s very smart and has skipped grade three to come into our class on trial. I like her. Every boy in the room likes her. There are two vacant seats, one beside me, and one at the back of the room next to the windows. I hope Miss Bentley tells her to sit beside me. Miss Bentley takes her report card. Mutt Kohler who sits in front of the other vacant seat stands up.
He shouts, “Here’s a good seat back here for her to sit in !”
I could kill Mutt, I’m so mad. Miss Bentley glares at him. He gets scared and sits down again.
“Mildred, you sit over there next to the blackboard,” Miss Bentley says. “I think the desk’s low enough for you.”
“Yes, Miss Bentley.”
She comes down the aisle. I don’t dare look at her. I run my pencil back and forth in a groove on my desk. She sits down. I look at her sideways. She looks scared too, not of me—just plain scared.
“Now, boys and girls,” Miss Bentley says, “I’m going to pass out the readers next. I’ll show you how I want you to open them. Put them down with the back flat on the desk like this. No talking, please! Then open it in the middle with your fingers like this. Then...”
Civilians stand on the sidewalk and watch us march past. They smile and wave. Some cheer.
THE RINK is cleared of snow. The high snow banks around the rink are nearly up to my shoulders. I jump over them with my skates on. I do it often. Mildred tries it and falls flat in the snow. She laughs. Mutt picks her up. Mutt makes a better hit with her and talks to her more then I do. We take her home from skating, Mutt and I.
“No, I’ll carry her skates, Norman! I got them first !”
I let him carry her skates. He tells her jokes. I can’t think of any jokes.
Mildred bursts out laughing. “Oh, Mutt, you’re crazy! Where do you get all those crazy things?”
“I make them up. I’m a genius!”
“You a genius!”
And they both laugh.
Mutt sticks Mildred’s skates in front of my face. “Here, Norman, put your tongue on these.”
“Oh, no, don’t, Norman ! It’ll stick to it.”
Mutt says, “I heard of a man once who got his tongue stuck on a railroad track.”
“Oh, you never did! You’re just making that up too!” Mildred says.
“No, I’m not. It was in the paper. They had to
build a big fire around the rail to heat it up.” “Say,” Mildred says excitedly, “how was the strap you got this afternoon?”
“Oh, Miss Bentley can’t hit hard.”
“Gee, we could hear it plain as anything in the room.”
“Oh, I’m used to it now. The only one who can make me feel it is Mr. Tareyton. 1 got it from him once for climbing upon the roof of the school. Pie can really give it.”
“Four on this hand and five on this one. His strap has a shaped handle. It ain’t straight like Miss Bentley’s, and it’s narrower. He keeps it in the bottom drawer of his desk. Zowie, does it sting !”
“I’ve only got the strap once for telling Richard Porter some answers in arithmetic exam last year,” Mildred confesses. “We both got it.”
“Oh, I’ve had it hundreds of times,” Mutt boasts. “I got it twice in one morning once.”
“Sure,” Mutt laughs.
I wish I could talk and laugh when I’m with Mildred like Mutt can. Mildred is nice to me, but she seems to like listening to M utt more, and talking to him, and laughing at what he says. Yet his nose is wide, his face is fat, and he never combs his hair.
I pick up some snow, and make a snowball, hard, very hard. 1 squeeze it and squeeze it. 1 throw if at a telephone pole.
“Oh, you missed,” Mildred shouts.
“Hah, watch me! Bet I can hit it,” Mutt says. We stop where we are. Mutt scoops up a handful
of snow and makes a snowball. He throws it at the telephone pole. Pie misses it too. We have a contest. 1 hit it two out of five. Mutt doesn’t hit it at all. I trip Mutt in a snowbank. I try to rub his face with snow. Mildred helps me. Mildred and I, holding hands, run away from Mutt, along the road. I am so happy !
St. Valentine’s. We have a party at school. We make a post office in one corner of the room. I kept my money from Sunday School collection for four weeks so that I could buy Mildred a huge Valentine with a lot of sections that fold out. I don’t put my name on it. But I hint to Mildred that I sent it to her. She gets a box of candy from somebody else. She likes the candy better.
1 wish 1 was back there. I didn’t know what fun it was. I had troubles. But it was fun. And now I’m in England. We’re going to the docks to board ship, off somewhere. Action., the way the sarge talked. Ten years ago no one thought 1 would ever be here, doing this. Ten years ago. . . 1 was thirteen. . .
I’M ON my way home from school on my birthday. 1 take the short cuts across the fields now. The snow is gone except where it drifted extra high on the north side of some of the houses. The girls pick crocuses on the way home. 1 don’t. Flowers are sissy, and I’m in a hurry. My birthday present is waiting for me at home. Mom and Dad are in the kitchen. Dad works at nights.
“Oh, what a one 1 am!” Dad says as I open the door. “Mere’s our son home already, and I forgot to get him his birthday present! Oh, if my head wasn’t screwed on !”
I don’t know whether he’s fooling or not. 1 look at him. lie looks serious, and sorry. I take long deep breaths. I try to grin.
“Oh, don’t tease him, Cliff!” Mom says. “Don’t worry, Norman, he’s got your present for you.” “Pm telling you I forgot it !”
I know he’s fooling now\ He’s pulling a long face, and shaking his head.
“Norman, go out on the front porch,” Mom says. “What’re you sending him out there for, Mom?” I go into the dining room, and into the living room. My heart is pounding. I don’t run through. Mom and Dad follow behind me. I pull open the door and step out into the front porch. There’s a new bicycle there, a blue one, twenty-dropeighteen. It’s shiny. It has the smell of a new bicycle, there is no smell like it. I put my hands on the black rubber grips. I pull it up straight and run it back and forth a few inches. Gosh !
“Well, can you ride it?” Dad says. “You’d better take it out and try it. No good if you can’t ride it. Plave to take it back if you can’t! Here, let me help you get it outside.”
Mom says, “Don’t scratch it getting it out.” She unfastens the porch door and shoves it open.
I steer the bicycle. Dad takes hold of the back mudguard to help me, and we get the bicycle outside. I can ride. I’ve learnt sneaking loans of bikes at school during recesses. Dad’s never seen me ride, but I’ve told him I can. Now I’m scared! What if I fall in front of him?
“Well, aren’t you going ¡to climb on?” Dad asks. “I’ll hold it; Pll steady it till you get going. Come on, cowboy! That’s it, swing your leg over. How does it feel? Can you reach the pedals all right? Good! Away we go!”
Pie runs with me for a little way. Then he gives me an extra shove and I’m off—on my own! I’m a bit wobbly. I feel so high up, but I don’t fall.
I ride around the block. Mom and Dad are still outside waiting for me. They are grinning.
I ring my bell as I come up to them.
“Whoa! Whoa! Don’t run into us!” Dad backs away and puts out his hands. “Pley, there!”
“Is there a fire?” Mom laughs. “Oh, my dear boy.”
“ ’Al’s it, you Canadians! Ce-ow after ’im! They got me house last, night! Ce-ow get. ’im!” It’sa thin, round-shouldered man, in an old grey coal. His fist is clenched.
I like high school. It’s so grown-up. We don’t have to line up and march into our rooms. We just go into them. I’m on the midget rugby team.
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Halfback. We take algebra, and elementary science, and French, and Latin—new subjects! Our form teacher, Mr. Crawford, puts his feet up on his desk and tells us jokes about Dutch-Irish parties! He used to play pro-baseball. Dad’s coming to watch the game tonight.
I run my bike up against the side of the house and leap up the back steps. Lunch—I’m hungry!
Mom looks over at the kitchen clock. “Oh, you home already? Is it that late?”
Dad rubs his forehead. “Yeah, must be. Must be.”
“I’ll have to get a move on.” “Yeah, must be. Must be.”
What’s wrong? Dad’s so serious. He’s going to give me a bawling out. Mom must’ve told him what time I got in last night. Or he’s found my tobacco pouch.
I go into the back bedroom and hang my hat on the back of the door. I feel in my baseball glove on the shelf in the closet. My tobacco pouch is still there.
Mom comes into the bedroom and shuts the door behind her.
“Norman, your dad’s been laid off. They’re closing down the plant. Don’t say anything to him now about it; don’t mention anything about it when he doesn’t go to work next week. Just—just take it as a matter of course. He’s been there fifteen years. Since before you were born.”
The door opens again. It is Dad. “What’s this secret session going on in here?—Oh, you’ve told him, eh? Well, I’ll look around for another job. But—but we’ll have to skimp for a while.”
“It’s not Dad’s fault he lost his job.”
“Oh, you don’t need to tell him that. He knows. I guess we won’t be able to go to the hockey games like last winter. Until I get a new job.”
“What are the other men at the plant going to do?” Mom says. “Same as me.”
“Two hundred of them?”
Dad nods. “In a town this size— looking for work.”
0‘Most of them’ll have to go on relief.”
“What we got in the bank’ll keep us for a few months. By that time I should run into another job. Maybe the plant’ll open up again by that time.”
“Why doesn’t the Government do something about this depression?” “Oh, it can’t go on much longer— What’s that burning?”
“Oh, my biscuits! Oh, I got to go !” Mom hurries out.
“Well, son. . .huh. . .How do you think you’re going to come out in the
rugby game against Tech? Going to smear them?”
England. Such green grass. Not like the prairies in Saskatchewan— grey grass. The poor farmers. Boy, did they get batted around by Ma Nature in the Thirties. When this war’s over they’re going to be the good Samaritans, feeding all the starved people in Europe and Asia. Wonder if they’ll get the credit and money they’ll deserve. . .
DAD CAN’T get work. We live on relief. Dad isn’t rough, and teasing, and full of fun like he used to be. Sometimes when he’s with other people on relief he cuts up and forgets himself. But when he’s with people who’re working he keeps very quiet, just answers when somebody asks him a question. I don’t like to stay at home at nights if I can help it. Dad flies off the handle every time I do anything wrong around the house. It’s only when Mom persuades him to come and watch me play baseball or rugby that he kids me and mauls me around like he used to. I hear Mildred’s gone east with her family. I’ve hardly seen her at all since grade school. Neither’s Mutt. Gee, the gang’s stuck together pretty well—Mutt, and me, and Joe, and Snort. Huh, Snort’s young brother’s got a girl. It’s funny how the gang hasn’t bothered much about girls. Too busy with sports, I guess. Maybe I’d ask a girl out if I had a little money. Everybody thinks I’m quite the tough guy who doesn’t give a darn ! Oh, but I do, I feel lousy.. .about nearly everything.
I read in the papers that I graduate from high school with honors. The same week I get a job.
Mom dishes out the dinner. “I’ve got quite a boy !”
Dad hands me a piece of bread. “Chain store, clerking, eh?”
Mom says, “It’s lucky you heard about them firing that other boy, Norman.”
Dad says, “Lucky the other fellow lost his job, eh? Wonder how he feels now.”
“Oh, Cliff, you know that isn’t what I mean.”
“Well, son, it looks like you’re a better breadwinner than your old man,” Dad drawls . . .
Mom is giving Mrs. Kohler a snack before she goes home after a visit. I’m sitting with them.
“Norman, hand Mrs. Kohler the plate of cookies. Take one, Mrs. Kohler.”
“Thank you, Norman.”
“Hás Mutt found any prospects yet?—Oh, I guess I shouldn’t call him Mutt. But Norman and all the boys call him that. They’ve got me into the habit.”
Mrs. Kohler takes a sip of coffee. “They’ve always called him Mutt, haven’t they? Oh, I wish I knew what to do with him. Loafing all day, it’s not good for him. I get him to do things for me around the house, but I can’t keep him busy. He wants to go to the Coast with Joe McMurchie, on the freights.”
J “Are you going to let him?”
“I don’t want him to go, and neither does Mr. Kohler. But I j suppose we can’t stop him if he— j They say there’s a little work out I there, at the Coast. Oh, what’s going to become of all these young fellows?”. . .
She buys something at the store, nearly every day. A lot of beautiful girls come into the store, but I never have the nerve to ask them for a date. She’s not as beautiful as some of them, but she’s friendlier. She works down the street in the beauty parlor. She doesn’t go as soon as she’s got her order. She stops and talks to me. She seems to like me. When she comes in today I’m going to ask her for a date. No more putting it off. I come into the house.
“Hello, Norman,” Dad says. “You’re a bit late for supper. Norman, have you heard about I Mutt Kohler? He was killed early this morning. He fell off a freight,
; just outside of Calgary.”
I I don’t eat any supper. Mom and ; Dad let me be. I go outside. The sun j is low in the sky. There are a lot of clouds, red and purple. The sky doesn’t seem to know that Mutt is I dead. I stand on the steps a long time and then sort of wander over to Kohlers’ house. I want to tell Mr. j and Mrs. Kohler how—what can I ; say? I stand and look at their house ; from the street corner. The propeller Mutt and I made out of a lath and put up on the top of the house five years ago wobbles and turns slowly in the wind. I know I should go in. But I don’t go in. I feel so helpless. Mutt was a good guy.
Sunday I’m wandering around, by myself. The funeral was Saturday. I find myself at the old swimming hole by the tracks. I didn’t mean to : come here. Some kids are sitting j on the railroad bank. One kid is j pretending to swim by kicking his I feet and keeping himself up with his hands on the bottom.
“See, I’m swimming! I’m swimming! The Australian Crawl !”
Mutt and Joe and Snort and I used to do that at first. Joe came back with the body to the funeral. Poor Joe. . .poor Mutt. . .poor me. . .
“Hey, don’t throw that cinder!” “Move and I’ll let fly. Stand still !” He bends down quick. “Hah, see, now we’re even! You throw yours and you’ll get this right in thekisser !” They laugh at each other.
You kids don’t know we used to • do that, just like that! On that bank, with those same cinders. It was fun ! Which one of you is Mutt?
It is the soldier, Fraser, marching beside me, talking.
“. . . it’s a long way where we’re tramping, eh?”
His face is shiny with sweat. I can feel that mine is too.
“Think we’re going to really invade Hitler’s back yard?”
“Lots of rumors about it.”
“Yeah. I’ll be glad to see action. Sitting around bored all the time.” “Yeah.”
WE SIT drinking milk shakes in a cafe, Clare and L Black marble-topped tables. Clare sucks away on her straw and looks over at me. She smiles, and moves the straw around her glass to make the foam go down. I didn’t think she was beautiful when she first used to come into the store. Oh, she is beautiful ! I slide my hand over and take hold of her wrist. She wrinkles up her nose, happy.
She says, “My dear .. . hello, Butch.”
I wish I could marry her. A few years ago fellows married at my age. I want to do so much for her.
“Mmm, I like chocolate flavor the best,” she says. “I had an orange milk shake once. I didn’t like it at all. Oh, I’m down to the bottom of my glass. The last dribble.”
She mades a crackling sound as she sucks up the last bit.
“I shouldn’tdothat! It’snot polite. Haven’t I awful manners?” She clicks her tongue. “You’re so quiet tonight, Norman. Love me?... Huh, I wish I didn’t have to work in a beauty parlor. Two and a half years ago I thought it’d be the most wonderful thing in the world. I wanted to be either a hairdresser or a movie star. Silly, aren’t I? It would be fun being a movie star.”
I’m saying good night to her in her doorway.
“Why can’t we get married, Norman, now that you’ve been made assistant manager of the Bell Street store? It pays enough, nearly. I’ll keep working for awhile. And your parents—other people live on the money they get on relief ! Why can’t your parents?” . . .
I’m helping Mom with the dishes. “Norman, you don’t know how much you hurt your dad tonight when you said it was your money to do with as you wished. Your dad knows that. You’ve been very good about giving us most of your cheque, and we appreciate it. We know you want to go out and have a good time with your money. We know you want to save some to—so you can marry Clare someday. . . ”
Clare holds me so tight. She wants to get married. She wants a home with me. Her work is just a job ! — whose isn’t?
And Dad. If he could get a job ! He works for three days unloading some cars for a warehouse. He works for a month selling vacuum cleaners, only he doesn’t sell any. He works for two weeks at Christmas in a furniture store.
I stand with him in the high school gym after listening to a political speech. A man I met somewhere—
I can’t remember—comes up to us.
“Well, Norman, and how’s work coming along at the store? And this is your father? My, you two sure look alike. What’s your business, Mr. Blackwell? What do you do?” “Nothing.”
Oh, the way Dad says that— nothing. I hate the world that’s made him so old, so meek, so pitiful! He was a good man, and a good worker. The world doesn’t seem to
care about him. The world doesn’t seem to want him. And he knows it. And that’s the worst thing of it all. . .
We hear the news on the radio.
Mom says, “It’s happened at last: war. And you’re just the right age, Norman. What’re you going to do?”
“There’ll be conscription, don’t worry. He’ll have to go,” Dad says.
“War.” Mom looks off into space, and then looks at Dad. “I think those who haven’t any dependents should go first—”
“Sure, Norman has to stay home and look after his poor mother and —father,” Dad says bitterly. “Go on, you decide yourself, Norman. I went last time. If you think you should go, if you want to join up, it’s up to you.”. . .
I don’t for a while. There doesn’t seem to be the need.
I’m taking stock at the store. I have a clip board and the lists in one hand.
The phone rings. I set the clip board on the shelf and answer the phone. I’m alone in the store.
“Hello, son.” It is Dad. “A letter came for you from the Government in the mail just now; brown envelope. It’s your call. First of the month. For training.”. ..
Mom hugs me. “My, you look nice and brown! Doing you good to get some sun and fresh air up at the training camp. You have to go back Sunday night, eh?—Oh, say, we’ve got some good news for you! Dad’s got a steady job ! Back at the plant. They got a war contract. Shell boxes.”
“Yeah, at last. It’s going to be funny starting in again on Monday back at the old place. It had to take a war to make me a job.”. . .
It’s dark, I can’t see Clare’s face very well. She has on a perfume that smells beautiful. I love her.
“You’ve joined up for active, Norman? You’ll be going overseas? And what about us? Mother doesn’t think we should get married if you go overseas. She’s against it. But I want to marry you, no matter. I’m not afraid.”. . .
I’m glad the ceremony’s over. We go into the back room of the church to sign the register. The old wrinkledfaced minister opens up the register book. He takes a pen out of his pocket and unscrews it and tries it on the corner of the page. It won’t work; it’s dry. I haven’t my pen. Snort, my best man, hasn’t his either. He has to go back out into the church again, and ask around for one. Ages we wait. At last he comes back with a small green pen. We laugh. And sign.
I’M WALKING down King Street.
Just been to the meat market to get some meat for supper. I see Mrs. Kohler coming toward me. She walks so wearily.
“My, running into you on the street. You’re on embarkation leave, your mother was telling me. Why haven’t you come around to see me? None of you boys come around to see me—hardly at all. I miss you boys making a racket around the house with Mutt, and the whole bunch of you always hungry. Remember how the gang of you used to come in in the spring with your feet all wet, from playing around on
those silly old rafts in the hollow, j and you’d take off your shoes and stockings around the kitchen stove so | you wouldn’t get it when you got home, and you’d run around in your bare feet all over the house...”
Dad and I are painting the kitchen while I’m on leave. Blue and white. The window is open. I’m painting beside the window, breathing in the fresh air after the sharp smell of the paint most of the afternoon. Dad is painting on the opposite wall, his back to me. He talks much more now that he’s working again.
“You know, I made a big mistake, Norman. After I fought and was wounded in the last war, I thought I’d done enough in the fight for freedom and justice. Most of us felt that way. We had something 1 coming to us. Something came to us all right, but not what we expected. The depression, that’s what we got.” Dad stops talking. I know he hasn’t finished what he wants to say. But we have lots of time. I stir the big can of paint and pour some into my little pail.
Dad turns around to me. “Heard a good speech on the radio last night.
I don’t remember his name. He said that when the things we fought for in the last war didn’t jell—ran away like water—we all got bitter, gave up. We had the idea that because we fought for four years to save the world, and won, the world was saved, and that was that. Yeah, pretty silly all right—Think there’s enough turpentine in this paint? No,
I guess it shouldn’t be any thinner.” He goes back to his painting. “Yeah, the fight for a better world’s never over; but I couldn’t see it. When you come back from this war, don’t sit around and wait for things to come to you, and when they don’t, give up. That’s what we did. After you’ve fought and saved the things we put stock in, you’ve got to buckle down in peacetime and put them into practice more. Don’t make the mistake we made—Oh, I wish I was as young as you are, Norman.” We paint away, in silence. Dad and I are close once again. ..
Clare is intense, like an animal. “Norman, take care of yourself, take care of yourself. I love you so much. And write to me every week. Write some every day, and then send the whole thing off at the end of the week. Tell me everything you do. I love you so much. Oh, darling! If I could go with you. . .”
A thumb is dug into my ribs. It is Fraser.
“There she is, by gosh,” he says.
“There’s the dock, and that must be the ship we go on.”
“Yep. Good-by to England, eh? For a while.”
“Yeah, sure looks like we’re going to hop Hitler in his own back yard, all right.”
“I wonder where.”
“ Your guess’s as good as mine.”
“I just been thinking about back home. And—”
Fraser grins. “Yeah, so was I. When we get back how ’bout you coming and spending a couple of weeks with me in Saskatoon?”
“And bring your wife.”
“ Yeah—We’ll have a great time!”