Michael E. Tank


The two boys raced across the playing field, one, chasing the other, for no apparent reason except to run. As Chuck, the bigger of the two, caught up to Mike, they slowed to a jog, laughing with the simple joy of being young. When they came to a stop, Chuck kidded Mike that the next time he wouldn’t give him such a big head start. Mike gently pushed the bigger boy to the side saying that he didn’t need one. They laughed as they tried to catch their breath. It was growing dark and they both knew that it was time to get home.

Chuck lived in a large two-story house on the corner with his parents and younger brother. It was just a half a block from the small four-room house Mike shared with his parents, three sisters and two brothers. The house where Chuck lived was across the street from the grade school, which had an enormous field, at least in the eyes of the kids, where the children of this small riverside town played.

Although they lived so close to each other, they had not met until school had started the year before, during a mid-day recess, on the very field that they had just raced across. Since then they had become close friends; the kind of friends that only the very young can be. In this fall season of 1958, both boys were now eight years old but Chuck would soon turn nine. At that young age, boys can show more affection to their pals than they dare to display later in life. So it was not uncommon to see the two boys walking down the street, with one or the other’s arm around a shoulder. Talking and laughing the way kids do. In that short year the two boys had become very close and some people had even mistaken them for brothers because of their warmth and familiarity towards each other.

Chuck was the taller of the two boys, with dark brown hair and brown eyes. Mike’s hair was lighter and his eyes were blue. Both young men had short haircuts. But not the crew cuts, which were popular at that time, more like sandpaper short as their fathers often buzzed a pair of clippers over their scalps.

They were both athletic and seemed to be always on the go. Their fathers were active outdoorsmen and the boys spent a lot of their time with them. Chuck’s father, an auto mechanic, liked camping, fishing and hunting while Mike’s was a part time commercial fisherman and a full time welder. Chuck was gone some weekends and at least one full week in the summer on camping trips with his family. So while Chuck viewed his experiences in the great outdoors as a pleasurable diversion, Mike’s work activities in the wild was looked upon as more of a chore.

But it was while doing these chores with his father that Mike came to know and even worship his Dad. Even at this young age Mike had always looked upon his father as a warrior. He was the type of man who would stand up against anything. A man’s man; rough, tough and strong. A man who said what was on his mind and never backed down from anyone or anything. When Mike read stories of brave soldiers and adventurers, it was always easy for him to transpose his father into the role. But he also had a gentle, kind side. The same big hand that would swat Mike on his bottom when the occasion would deem it necessary could also be as gentle and loving as he laid it on Mike’s shoulder or patted him on the head. Along with a wonderful sense of humor his father had a big bright smile that seemed to make the world a great place to be when it beamed across the room at his children.

Mike was getting used to the early morning trips out on the Mississippi River with his father and older sister, Linda. There they rowed their father’s small boat as he gathered in the trout lines. Mike had never figured out why they were called trout lines when the catch they were after was the channel catfish of the Mississippi River. This was the fun part of his father’s part-time occupation. Watching his Dad pull on the line in the cool, early morning darkness, the line slipping up out of the black water, with the anticipation of what would appear. And then a splash, the catfish flipping its tail in its last desperate effort to escape the hook. Mike would watch his Dad’s strong, powerful silhouette at the bow, pulling the fish toward the craft and then into the boat. It was always exciting to see the catch grow as they moved from one line to the next. By sunrise the threesome was back on shore with their catch. Mike and Linda would eat breakfast, and later, be off to school, while their father cleaned the morning’s catch before leaving for his job as a welder.

After school there were a couple of hours to run and play before his father returned home from work. And this time was usually spent playing with Chuck. Then after dinner it was back out on the River to run and bait the lines before the night’s darkness settled in. But, again, that was the fun part. The hard work of this routine was the gathering of the bait for the lines. Weekends and some evenings were spent on these trying tasks. Mike, his sisters, Pat and Linda, along with his brother Ralph, would catch grasshoppers, worms, crayfish and dive for clams in the river. Sherri, the baby was too small to go anywhere. Little Scottie would go along but he was, well, just too little yet to catch anything. Mike and Ralph would tease him that he was no bigger than the bait and that he had better be careful that Dad did not put him on a hook by mistake.

At Illiniwick Park the kids would sit on the hood of their Dad’s Ford truck, holding onto wooden poles. Attached to a steel ring at the end of the pole was a large net. As the truck moved through the shoulder high grass the children’s nets would scoop up any and all insects in its path. When his father stopped the truck the kids would pull in the nets and start grabbing the grasshoppers that they had collected and deposit the live bait into jars and cans. The trick was not to be bitten by the spiders and other nasty insects that had been collected along with the grasshoppers. When his father decided that he had enough grasshoppers for a while they would all head home where the jars and cans of live bait would be put in the freezer for future use. What always amazed Mike was that even after weeks of being frozen the grasshoppers would come alive again when thawed out and put on the hooks for bait.

Another fun time for the kids, including most of the children from the neighborhood, was when Mike’s Dad cleaned and dressed the fish they had caught in the afternoon. His Dad had a large table covered with a sheet of metal in the back yard. Sticking up out of one corner of this table was single rust covered 16-penny nail, bent over like a hook. Using the sharpest knife Mike had ever seen, and a pair of channel lock pliers, his Dad would clean his catch with the speed and ease that only time and experience can teach. His big hands moving in a rhythm and grace that Mike would never accomplish, could skin and gut a large catfish in a matter of seconds.

In his father’s skillful hands the knife made a quick circle around the fish at the base of its head. The master fisherman would hook one of the catfish’s gills on the bent nail. Then, with the pliers, take a corner of the catfish’s skin where the knife had cut it. And with a swift pull, strip the fish clean, as the skin snapped at the end of the pliers by the sheer force of the movement. Usually in one swift move the fish would be stripped completely. Again with the knife in his amazing hands, the fish was gutted from the tail to its head, the body cavity cleaned out and the head cut off. Over and over again this routine was accomplished until all the fish were cleaned and wrapped in newspapers then deposited in an old freezer. And this was all on display every night, to the joy and wonderment of a crowd of kids from the neighborhood.

One afternoon Mike’s father was cleaning the fish, with all his little audience in attendance. At the end of the table, away from the 16-penny nail hook, in direct line with where the catfish’s skin snapped on the end of the pliers, stood a small freckled faced, red headed boy, peering over the top of the table. Now Mike’s Dad didn’t seem to mind the long days and hard work that he accomplished every day. But he didn’t want to prolong the day’s labors any more than he needed to either. He noticed, as he snapped the skin from the fish that it was coming awfully close to this little boy’s freckles. Not wanting to be slowed down in his work, he told the young boy to move over, out of harm’s way. The little guy complied. But as kids will do, in the boy’s eagerness to see it all, the boy slowly edged his way back into his original position, in harm’s way. Once again the patient father of six, told the boy to move over, again the lad moved, and again the lad slowly made his way back, into harm’s way. Believing the boy had been warned enough, the fisherman changed his routine on the next fish. Instead of pulling the skin off all at once, Mike’s father slowly pulled the skin down the fish until only a small section remained attached. Gauging the distance between the end of the fish and the freckles, he flicked his wrist making the fish’s skin snap off the tail and lightly smacking the red headed boy “right in the kisser!” The boy took two steps back, his eyes wide with surprise, licking his lips with his tongue, Mike supposed, just to make sure the lips where still there. Almost as surprised as the little red head were all of the others in attendance that afternoon, as they too all took a step or two back from the table. Mike looked at his father, wondering what was going on. Then he saw a slight smile cross his Dad’s face and a little twinkle in his Dad’s eyes as he said, “I told you that was a bad place to be little buddy.” Needless to say the red headed kid never stood in that spot again, nor did anyone else who was there that day.

Late one afternoon, behind a neighbor’s house, Mike, Chuck and some others were playing. In this yard was a large, round propane tank with a meter at one end covered with a metal cap. Mike climbed onto the tank and straddled it like he was riding a horse. Then he started hitting the metal cover of the meter with a stick, like he was playing a drum. What he wasn’t aware of was the hornet’s nest under the metal cover. And it didn’t take long for the hornets to decide that they hated the tune that Mike was tapping. Out from under the cover swarmed the angry insects, attacking their young agitator with a vengeance. Stinging Mike again and again as he jumped from the tank and ran, flailing away at his attackers with no success, until he was apparently far enough away from the nest to no longer present a danger to the hive. As suddenly as the attack had begun it ended, leaving a shaken, frightened and crying boy in its wake. Chuck and Mike’s sisters led the sobbing boy home.

His mother took off his clothes and set him in the large steel tub on a table by the pump handle in the kitchen. As they had no indoor plumbing in the house, his mother filled the tub from the pump handle with cool well water. Soon the boy began to feel the relief that was brought on by the cool water and his mother’s gentle touch. His crying stopped and the pain from the hornet’s stings became less. Welts covered his small frame from head to toe, and down his arms to his fingertips. His mother’s soothing assurance that he would be all right quieted the boy just as his father walked through the door, home from work. As his mother explained what had happened, his father inspected the welts left by the savage attack. Telling the boy that he would be fine, his father picked up the boy’s hands and held them in his own. Seeing all the welts on the child’s hands and arms his father asked Mike if he had killed any of the hornets as they stung him. Mike replied that he didn’t think he had, that he was just trying to get away. Mike’s father told him that he should have fought back. Pointing to a welt on the boy’s hand, he asked why Mike hadn’t killed the hornet that had stung him there, as it would have been easy to hit. The boy mumbled that he did not know why, he had just thought of running. Mike’s Dad then left him to his mother’s care saying that you have to fight back. The warrior father had wanted revenge, while the scared child had just wanted to escape.

Later, in the fall, Mike, Linda, Pat, Ralph and Chuck, were allowed to paint pictures of Halloween on the big windows of Quinn’s Pharmacy. Mike’s mother still has a picture of them all standing in front of the store next to a painting of a headless horseman. In the short time that Mike had known Chuck, he had become to feel like they were more like brothers then friends. It was hard to explain, but they seemed to have so much in common. All their free time had been spent together. Playing cowboys and Indians, soldiers, kickball at the school fields, snowball fights and sledding down the hills that winter. They had built snow forts and had held off countless imaginary enemies inside the protective walls.

They had run throughout the neighborhood playing kick the can and hide and seek with Mike’s brothers and sisters and a host of other kids. Chuck had been the one who had pushed that big old tomboy Vickie off of Mike when she had sat on him at the school grounds. Saving him from God knows what as she was too heavy for Mike to get off his chest. And then Chuck too had to run for his life from this boy-girl.

Early in fall of 1958 Chuck’s parents had a problem with the septic tank in their back yard. It was not doing the job that it was needed to do, so a new one had to be installed. His father enlisted the help of Chuck’s three uncles. Mike had never met these men before but they were Chuck’s uncles so he figured that they must be nice. The two boys watched the four men as they went to work one Saturday morning and by Sunday afternoon, they where the proud owners of a large hole in Chuck’s back yard. It was about five feet deep and ten feet by ten feet wide.

It was a great hole. And all dug by hand with a shovel by the four men. Chuck and Mike could only sit on the edge and wonder at what great games could be played in such a hole. What a great fort it would make! As the two boys let their imaginations fly, the four older brothers relaxed with the satisfaction of a job completed and a few beers. One of the uncles asked the boys if they wanted to get into the hole. “Of course” cried the eager adventurers. So the older man lowered the boys into the hole, by one arm. Mike and Chuck raced around the perimeter of the hole, not really knowing what to do first. They began throwing small chunks of dirt against the walls of the hole, then at each other like a snowball fight, all the time laughing and just having fun. That’s when the uncle who had lowered them in yelled at Chuck.

“Don’t let that kid hit you with that!”

The boys stopped, looking at each other, stunned. The other three men, who had been talking and drinking their beer, also stopped and looked into the hole to see what was going on.

The uncle said, “Dammit boy, don’t let that kid hit you with that dirt clod. I’d punch somebody if they did that to me.”

Chuck’s father came over to the side of the hole and asked his brother what was going on.

The uncle spoke again, “That little bastard was hitting Chuck with dirt clods.”

“Is that right?” asked Chuck’s Dad. “Well boy, you better make him stop.”

Now the others had joined the two men on the side of the hole. All four stood by the edge, a beer in their hands, glaring at the two boys in the bottom of the hole.

Another uncle spoke, “You gotta fight him, Chuck, gotta show him he can’t get away with that.”

And now the last uncle, “Hit ‘em Chuck, hit him!”

Mike was scared. He looked at his best friend and then at his best friend’s Dad and uncles. Why were they mad at him? What was going on? We were just playing and now these men are all yelling and they want Chuck to hit me. He looked around, hoping to see a spot to climb out of the hole. There was nowhere to go. The sides were too steep and there was nothing to grab on to. He was trapped and these grown men were yelling for his best friend to hurt him. He was alone among these strangers and they were mad. Mad at him! Mike started to feel sick.

Chuck was just as confused and more than a little scared. He didn’t like it when his father yelled at him. And he sure didn’t want to disobey him. He knew what that would mean, the belt. And his uncles, he had seen how angry they could get when they were drinking. He had seen them fight each other when they had too much to drink. And he knew that he could get into just as much trouble if he disobeyed them. But Mike was his best friend. They were just playing. Didn’t my father see me throw dirt too? Didn’t my uncle? He had been watching us the whole time we were in here after he lowered us into the hole. What is happening?

Now all the men on the top of the hole were yelling at Chuck to hit Mike, demanding him to. “Fight him! Fight him!” They yelled! “Hit him!”

Chuck was scared, confused, and angry. Angry that his father, and his uncles were making him do this against his will. But he knew he had to do what his father and uncles were telling him to do. He took a step towards Mike, and then another. Drawing closer to his friend he doubled up his fist, just like his father had showed him, then without thinking, he hit Mike square in the nose.

Mike’s head was spinning. His stomach was queasy and he felt like he might vomit. These men were crazy. Mike had never felt so alone or so helpless. He looked at Chuck and suddenly realized that Chuck was coming towards him. He was going to hit him. He was going to do what his father and uncles were telling him to do. No! Chuck would not harm him. He was my friend! Mike saw Chuck move, and then a white flash as the fist hit his face. He felt the sharp pain as his eyes instantly began to tear up. He fell back against the dirt wall of the hole holding his nose with both hands. Chuck had hit him and the men cheered.

Chuck heard the men cheer as he hit his best friend. Mike was against the dirt wall holding his face, looking shocked as blood began to flow between his fingers. A deep feeling of shame overcame him and he started to cry. His uncles did not notice the tears and were yelling at him to hit Mike again, to go get him. Chuck wanted to get out of the hole. He wanted to go home. He wanted his mother. He looked up at his father who was grinning down at this spectacle. His father motioned with his arms for Chuck to get closer to Mike and hit him again. His father and all his uncles were grinning and laughing. They all had their fists clenched and were swinging uppercuts at the air, as if they were the ones doing the fighting. He knew he would still be in trouble if he disobeyed so he stepped toward his friend again and started to swing, but this time not as hard as before.

The pain of the blow was gone as fast as it had come. Through the tears in his eyes Mike saw Chuck coming closer. He could hear the men yelling but could no longer understand what they were saying. Everything was starting to blur, the sights, the sounds, everything moving as one. Chuck raised his arm, he is going to hit him again, but this time he was ready. Mike reached out and caught Chuck’s arm as it grazed his shoulder. He threw his arms out wide and wrapped them around Chuck’s chest. Then with all his strength Mike threw them both to the ground. The boys landed hard on the dirt. The impact seemed to momentarily stun the young friends and they lay without moving for a moment at the bottom of this ugly hole. There they stayed wrapped in this bear hug. Chuck unable now to fight and Mike with no desire to.

As they lay there Mike could again start to make out what the men were yelling again. They were calling him a sissy; telling him to get up and fight like a man, and calling him names that his young ears had not yet heard or could comprehend. Telling Chuck to fight free and get on with the fight. But the boys did not move. Neither boy said a word to each other. They laid in silence until the men on the edge of the hole quieted down. Soon it was silent and Mike released his grip. The boys separated and stood up. Mike’s nose had stopped bleeding and his eyes were clearing. Chuck stood with his head down. The boys did not look at each other and neither spoke. Chuck’s father kneeled down and extended his hand to his son, and lifted him from the bottom of the hole; another uncle, different from the one who had lowered him, did the same for Mike. As soon as Mike’s feet hit the ground outside the hole, he was running for home. He heard one of the men shout at him about being a sissy and that he better run. Mike never looked back, and he would never talk to his friend again.

Now Mike had another problem. On his way home he stopped to think about what he could tell his parents, especially his Dad. When the hornets had attacked him his father had made it clear that he was to fight back. Now he had been in a fight with his best friend and had not fought back. His Dad would be upset. But most of all, his Dad would be very disappointed in him if he found out what had just happened. Mike hid behind the neighbor’s house to think things through. Then he began to cry. He cried because of the fear and helplessness that he had felt and was still feeling. He cried because his nose was starting to hurt now more than when it had been punched. He cried because these mean, evil men had called him names that had hurt his feelings. He cried because he was going to have to lie to his parents and because at eight years old, he was a disappointment to his Dad. He cried because he was angry, angry because he was just not big and strong enough to go back and punch those men in their evil, ugly faces. And he cried because he knew he had just lost his best friend.

It was after dark before Mike got home. He did tell his mother a lie. He was playing ball and ran into another kid and hit his nose on the kid’s shoulder. He never told the true story to anyone. His father never heard the story. And it is probably a good thing. In the years to come, as Mike heard of his father’s hard nose fighting reputation and learned about his will and strength, Mike was sure that those evil men would have had a handful that night if his father had found out what they had done. Mike made a promise to himself, a promise that he did keep, at least so far. And even though he has never been the hardnosed fighter like his father or as his brother would become, he would always fight back. And he has.

Mike and his family moved away from that town a few months later. The small house they had been renting there was traded in for a bigger two-story in another small town. How did they afford the move? Well all those fish that Mike’s father used to catch were sold to different establishments. The money was deposited into a large metal box that his Dad had welded together. There was one small slit at the top of the box big enough to slide money into the box, but too small to get any money out of it. And all the money from the sale of the fish, the fish that were caught and cleaned by Mike’s father, the fish that were caught on the bait that Mike, his brothers and sisters went out and gathered all of that money went for the down payment on that house. I guess you could say that the whole family bought the house together.

Chuck and Mike ended up at the same high school. They might see each other but they never again would speak, even to say hello. In the summer of their senior year, Chuck drowned in the Mississippi River at the age of eighteen. Chuck was on the river that both of the boys had loved. He was doing what he loved to do, being outdoors. Mike didn’t go to his funeral. There would be uncles and a father there that he never wanted to see.

But that day Mike did let the boy cry once more for his lost friend.