Two Chapter Sample
To read all seventeen of the stories in
MY LIFE AS IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN,
please e-mail editor at fictionQ.com
Copyright ©2001 by Paul W. Dueweke
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Paul W. Dueweke
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Chapter Three: Evolution
my first serious scientific adventure
and how a poorly planned experiment
nearly led to disaster
My curb and I shared this summer afternoon. I did my best work here. Chin on arms, arms draped over knees, my two eyes wandered over the cracked concrete beneath me, tracing those faults like river valleys through the deepest jungle.
My eyes stopped where two mighty rivers met. A great monster rose from the river, then another. By the hundreds, they rushed up the bank, dropped their loads, and then returned. A fog settled over me as those terrible ants lost focus. Somewhere a great battle raged as my mind searched, maybe to find it, maybe to flee. The great war of ants against man, my war, stormed behind my eyes once more.
Suddenly, a tank approached from JD's back yard. My arms tightened, my breath came hard, but the vision wouldn't stop. Troops plodded beside the tank, scanning the ground for signs of another attack. Machine gun fire ripped into parked cars in this once quiet Michigan suburb. Each burst of liquid fire from the flamethrowers turned millions of the tiny enemies into glowing embers boiling into the sky. But they came from underground faster than fire could kill.
It was terrifying for a nine-year-old boy to witness, but I realized that I alone had caused this evil. Though just a fourth grader, I'd exercised power without responsibility. I was guilty.
I stood up with a start, gulping my breath and praying for delivery from this curse of my own creation. I searched around me. There were no tanks, no soldiers, no world in flames. I stood under the elm tree in front of my house, feet planted beside my curb.
The scent of sweet peas dusted the air. A robin sang as it settled to hop about a carpet of welcome green. How could I have had such a daydream here?
The source of my fantasy lay between my feet where a small ant house was under construction. I shuddered, though these were just simple homebuilders. But I saw them as part of a great evil that I had unleashed a couple weeks earlier when I tipped the balance of evolution.
* * *
I had always been fascinated by ants building houses. They built fine houses by ant standards; though I couldn't figure out why they kept on building new ones. My dad built our house, but we didn't keep on building. We just lived in it year after year. Why couldn't ants do that?
My parents once talked about moving to a better neighborhood, so I imagined the ants maybe building their way toward ant heaven. But their houses were always in such dumb places like in the middle of the sidewalk or right in front of the tire of a parked car or in the crack in the front porch by the door. They never built in a better neighborhood.
These thoughts crossed on a spring afternoon on my curb. Sister Mary Margaret's lecture on natural history tangled in my mind as I watched a row of ant houses rising from a crack in the pavement. I could see her lovely bare forearm appear from that pure white habit and draw a chalk circle full of plusses and minuses. Then an arrow pointed to another circle with more plusses and fewer minuses. Each time she drew another circle, she'd explain some great leap of evolution like the fish that grew lungs and then legs. When she got to the end of the blackboard, the circle was a man, and only a few minuses remained. Natural selection she called it. Darwin.
Then it came to me in a burst of scientific thought. If ants wouldn't build their houses in such stupid places, maybe they wouldn't have to build so many houses, and they, too, would have time to sit on their curb and discover great mysteries.
I looked down at those ants and began to appreciate their true genius. I saw them in a new light, not as savage beasts but as creatures of destiny. I made my decision: I would help the ant race develop.
I started killing the stupid ants. Each day I would tour the neighborhood and step on any ants coming out of stupid houses, raising the intelligence level of the colony. I alone understood the relation between intelligence and natural selection in the ant kingdom. This may have been the peak of scientific insight of my entire life.
* * *
"Want to play catch?"
JD's voice caught me by surprise as I hunted stupid ants. "Oh. Can't today. I'm kind of busy."
"What you doing?"
"Uh … nothing much," I said as I squished three ants that ventured out in the middle of the sidewalk.
JD leaned against my elm tree and kicked at an ant house nestled safely among the tree roots. I watched with horror as his foot scattered a family of smart ants. "Let's sit on the curb," I said, pushing him away from the tree.
"What are you pushing me for? I know where the curb is."
There were some stupid ants starting a house in the street, but they were in front of JD, and I couldn't quite reach them with my foot.
"Won't be here this weekend," he said. "Got to go to my stupid aunt's house."
"Your what!" I said, looking directly at him in violation of the boy's code.
"My Aunt Minnie up north. What are you acting so weird about?"
"Oh, nothing," I said as I stretched and got an ant that strayed too far from its stupid house, but I thought, What if that ant was running away from home because he didn't like where his house was? "Got to be more careful," I mumbled.
"What?" JD said. He picked up a stick and started scratching at something at the base of the curb. That was a smart spot because the elm tree had pushed the top of the curb out so that spot at its base was well protected. I looked and saw there was an ant house back there. I knocked him off the curb and said, "Come on. Let's play catch." I looked over my shoulder as I ran across the street and was glad that he was following me.
"What's with you today? You're even weirder than usual."
* * *
After keeping up the selective killing for a while, I noted more ant houses sprouting up in smart places than in dumb places. They appeared in that protected crack between the curb and the pavement and between the tree roots where they'd be safe from lawn mower wheels. I even saw some under Mr. Jopp's green Plymouth that hadn't run for years.
I rejoiced in the wisdom that my efforts really were having the desired effect. The intelligence of ants in my neighborhood was clearly rising based on the scientific evidence I'd collected. Then a terrible thought interrupted my happiness. I had activated an awesome force. Suppose this evolution began to spread, and ants' intelligence continued to grow. The idea overwhelmed me.
I looked at those creatures down in the safety of the curb overhang and under the wreck and imagined them as the beginning of an evolution that might threaten the role of man on earth. It was then that the great war of ants against man started haunting me. Visions of armies of ants ambushing a bunch of tanks or attacking soldiers in a bunker plagued me. I couldn't shake these scenes. Submarines might be the last hope of man against the trillions of cunning little devils. Ants would have a difficult time with submarines--unless they grew gills. I winced
What if somebody finds out I'm the one that started it? I thought as I tried to swallow. I've got to do something. It was up to me to save the world from this terrible danger.
For the next few weeks, I hunted down these smart ants. I knew I couldn't get them all, maybe just enough to shift evolution back to where it was when I first interfered with Mother Nature. But I had to be careful not to go too far and actually start the ant population on a decline to eventual destruction. It was a delicate balancing act, but I had no choice. I watched their house building tactics and was pleased by the data.
A few weeks after the grim daydream on my curb, I finally decided that the situation had returned to the preinterference state. The killing stopped.
I've carried this guilt for a lifetime, always believing I could never share my secret with anyone; for someone very wicked or very stupid might use that knowledge to bring about the exact fate of the world that I had worked so hard to prevent. Now it's time for the world to hear this story. Maybe we're ready to look back with the dispassionate eyes of history and learn something from this near-tragedy.
Chapter Nine: JUG
the rigors of military discipline vs.
the elasticity of political expediency
"Yes, Sir," and "Yes, Father," were our standard responses in those high school years in the '50s. The Jesuits demanded respect from us, and we doled it out. We were there to learn, to absorb, to reconfigure our minds from the frivolous ways of grade school boys to the circumspection of men.
But then there was Admiral Jones. He was neither a sir nor a father, but he demanded, and received, more respect than an armada of Jebbies. We would never roll up our sleeves or lower our ties to half-mast in his class. Renfrew H. Jones, great-grandson of Admiral David G. Farragut of Civil War fame, had joined the University of Detroit High School faculty after he retired from the United States Navy following the conclusion of the Korean War. Conclusion was his word.
"We didn't win," he told us in sophomore American History. "We just got tired of playing and went home. Now what would you call that?" He looked around the room, his ribbon-covered chest filling my vision, his eyes dashing from one student to the next. "What would you call it, Mr. Jefferson?"
"I, ah, don't know, Admiral."
"How about you, Mr. Harrison?"
"I don't know either, Admiral."
"Huh!" he grunted. "Mr. Fillmore? Mr. Lincoln? … You can't think of what to call it? … Mr. T. Roosevelt? … Ah! I'll ask the man who was actually there. How about it Mr. Truman? What would you call it? You, of course, must know," he said with a wide grin. "You were there, weren't you? What do you call it when you don't win a war but just steam away from it?"
"I … ah …" I said.
"Remember, Mr. Truman, the buck has just stopped! What would you call it?"
"I … ah … guess it must be sort of … ah … like losing, Admiral," I gulped.
"Mr. Truman! Please stand at attention!"
Oh my God! I thought as I leapt from my seat. Why did I say that? Why couldn't I have said something non-committal like checkmate, or we taught them a lesson, or … shit … anything … but not losing! That word probably launches him into attack mode.
"Gentlemen, I want you to look at Mr. Truman. He says we lost the Korean War. He says that the United States of America, the world's greatest nation, the nation that has never lost anything, the nation that has never backed down from a fight, the nation that bailed out the entire free world--twice. Mr. Truman says we lost. Can you imagine that we could lose a war?"
Admiral Jones's eyes interrogated the class as I tried to reformulate a better answer. Do I dare change my mind now? You know how he hates wishy-washy. Shit!
Many heads were now shaking no, in pencil, of course. No one dared offer an opinion in ink.
"There is one among you, gentlemen, who has the courage and the wisdom to speak the truth!"
My eyes rose from the back of Mr. Harding's head to meet those of Admiral Jones. What, I thought. He's saying I was right? He's saying we lost the war?
"Mr. Truman, would you please explain why you think we lost the war?"
Wait a minute, I thought. He might have been referring to himself about the courage and wisdom … but no … he must have meant me … unless …
"Mr. Truman! Please!"
"Well, Admiral" I stammered. "I guess you either have to … win … or … lose?"
"That's exactly right, Mr. Truman. Checkmate only works in games, and the only lesson we taught anybody is that we don't know how to win anymore. I retired after my last run in with the politicians. Now, I'm as proud as any man can be of my country, and the US Navy is the greatest fighting force ever assembled by man, in spite what you hear about those new kids they call the Air Force. I'm just ashamed of what those politicians are doing to this world's greatest fighters. That's why I want you to be presidents in my class, so you'll get the feel of the power and responsibility … and the danger of letting those powers exceed your constitutional authority and your promise to 'preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.'"
This early skirmish with The Admiral had ended positively for me. I would soon learn, though, that it's dangerous to extrapolate the outcome of a battle from a lucky encounter.
* * *
The Jesuits institutionalized discipline and called it Jug. Minor infractions of the school code would lead to one or more days in Jug, which consisted of memorizing a page of the original version of Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic Wars after school. Jug was not a place or a time. It was a culture--and not my favorite culture.
An option was offered that the more intellectual students spurned but seemed like a Godsend for kids like me to whom Latin looked like a string of random letters. The faculty ate lunch together in the Faculty Lounge and needed some slave labor for serving the tables. Volunteers were recruited from the Jugees, and it was always my choice.
The duty consisted of serving lunch, refreshing coffee and water, and clearing the tables. My first Jug of my sophomore year occurred one warm day in mid September. I already had my Korean War encounter with Admiral Jones and was well immersed in my indoctrination with "American History according to The Admiral." Meanwhile, his naval tradition of discipline carried our school's tradition to new levels.
As lunch neared its end, I made my last round with the coffee urn. Approaching Admiral Jones, he pushed his cup toward the side, indicating that he wanted a refill. When his cup was nearly full, I stopped the pouring as Admiral Jones carried on some animated conversation with Father Hinkle about his adventures as a destroyer commander at Guadalcanal. He seemed totally immersed in his story, but as I proceeded toward the next begging cup, his unmistakable voice arrested me. "Mister!" he said with enough authority to command the attention of a flotilla of servants.
"Yes, Admiral," I replied, frozen.
"Do you recall my order to pour coffee?"
"Do you recall my order to stop pouring?"
"No, Admiral, but your cup …" I realized now that everyone was looking at me, but it was The Admiral's single pair of eyes that halted my excuse. "No, Admiral."
"I'll be the one to decide when my cup is full, Mister. When I tell you to pour coffee, I expect you to pour coffee. That doesn't mean as much coffee as you want me to have. It means pour until I tell you to stop. Is that too much for an admiral to demand?"
"No, Admiral. … I'll pour some more for you, Sir … Admiral." I continued pouring, and he signaled me to stop.
"An order is a very serious thing, Mister. Subordinates do not have all the facts at hand to countermand or terminate an order. A subordinate can question an order only when the superior becomes incapacitated by enemy fire. Do you see any bullet holes in me, Mister?"
"Remember that. If I give an order, only I can terminate it. You may continue serving now."
I started wondering about the wisdom of this alternate Jug duty. Maybe serving lunch to an admiral really isn't easier than memorizing a fleet of Latin.
* * *
It was nearly a month before I was able to offend the sensibilities of a well-run Jesuit school again. My fear of Latin won over my fear of admirals, so I found myself, once more, doing lunch duty. The atmosphere seemed ordinary that day. Subdued voices competed with the creaks of cracked leather. But Admiral Jones's voice rang with authority here just as it surely had on the bridge of an aircraft carrier. As I drew closer with my coffee urn, the voice transformed into recognizable words. "There never was an Army leader who could hold his own against the Navy's finest, but if I had to pick one to serve beside me, it would be General Mac Arthur. He's a man you can count on, and he won't cave in to political pressures like Eisenhower did in the European theater."
Father Sullivan beside The Admiral and Father George across from Father Sullivan, listened intently to this uncommon prophet. I stopped behind The Admiral. "Eisenhower took orders from those Commies in Moscow and served up Berlin on a silver platter. Now if Mac Arthur had been in charge of Europe, we wouldn't have to deal with those pinkos in Germany today."
I stood silently behind The Admiral awaiting the right time to offer coffee. He sensed its presence, and his right hand signaled me to pour him coffee without ever acknowledging my presence. I obliged. I didn't want to pour so fast that it might splash or slow enough to stimulate his impatience. And all the while, his lecture on orders tolled in the distance.
No sooner had the column of brown liquid reached his cup and the level began to rise, than Mr. Potmyer, sitting on the far side of Father Sullivan, said, "Admiral, how do you feel about Admiral Rickover's nuclear initiative?"
Admiral Jones's eyes gleamed in glints off the ripples of the rising coffee. As he stretched forward to make eye contact with this questioner, the white plastic tablecloth wrinkled under his right elbow and stopped against his saucer. "That's very interesting, Mr. Potmyer. As you know, the carrier force I commanded …"
The coffee level was approaching the top of the cup as The Admiral shifted his attention to this latest entrant who afforded him the opportunity to further disperse his wisdom.
"… in the Korean Gulf had no nuclear-powered vessels. One of my biggest problems …"
The coffee had now reached the top of the cup, and my pour rate had choked down as far is it could without excessive splashing. I cleared my throat as the coffee began to fill the saucer.
"… was having to stay on station long enough for the oilers to service the fleet. On one occasion, …"
My hand was now trembling, and the coffee was dribbling out of the urn as slow as I could manage without it stopping altogether. Just make sure it doesn't stop pouring, I said to myself. Just keep it going a little and I won't be disobeying his order. I cleared my throat again, louder. My eyes search the table for help. The men to my left were totally engaged with Admiral Jones and Mr. Potmyer. To my right was a discussion of yesterday's debating team performance against Catholic Central.
"I had launched two squadrons of F-100s against Pyongyang, and we were lining up into …"
The coffee had now begun to overflow the saucer, I began to whine, and my right arm spasmed, making the urn shake so the coffee came out in clumps. Each plopped into the cup causing a wave to ripple over the edge of the cup, then over the edge of the saucer, and then into a small reservoir held back by the tablecloth dam. My whine evolved into the meekest, "Uh … Admiral … Sir … Admiral …"
" … the wind so we could pick them up as they began to return. Then my starboard destroyer escort …"
The lake grew, as did my supplications. "General … I mean Father … no, no, I mean Admiral … Admiral!"
The Admiral jerked around and was met by my trembling hand and a nearly empty urn. But the major event was just beginning to unravel. As he turned around, he lifted his elbow, thus removing the force holding up the plastic dam, which held back the coffee ocean. A tidal wave quickly formed and rushed toward lower ground, which happened to be The Admiral's lap. A bellow rose from The Admiral as the hot liquid saturated his loin.
I continued pouring and whining. "Please tell me to stop, Admiral! Please! Please! Oh please! Germinate your order!"
"God damn-it, boy!" The Admiral shouted as he rose. "What the hell are you doing?"
"I … I … I'm pouring this stuff like you ordered, Admiral!" Just then, the last drop fell from the urn, and I turned it upside down to show that it wasn't my fault that I had stopped pouring.
"I'm sorry, Sir … or Father … but I couldn't …"
"You're the God damnedest fool of a boy there ever was. I can't believe you … you did this!"
Now everyone at the table was standing, and in their rush to rise, not a single cup of coffee or glass of water remained upright. I set the urn down on top of Father Jernau's coffee soaked debating team schedule and grabbed a napkin to help dry The Admiral's sodden groin.
"Stop your poking at me!" he shouted, swatting the napkin out of my hand. He stood there in his summer khakis, a large dark brown spot on the front of his pants with tendrils expanding down his legs. "You deliberately attacked me! I'll have you before a general court martial! You'll learn something about Navy discipline before this day is out, Mr. Truman."
"But, Admiral, …" I whined, bending over to retrieve the napkin.
"Silence! There is no defense for this! And stand at attention when a superior officer addresses you!"
I caged my eyeballs straight ahead as I'd been taught in American History, and The Admiral clasped his hands behind him. I was glad to see those hands disappear. I didn't know what an enraged admiral might be capable of. By then, a number of snickers rose from the reviewers, and Admiral Jones squelched them with his glare.
"Mr. Truman, I'm ordering you to leave this room. I am not prone to violence," he said as he leaned toward me and spoke through clenched teeth, "except under extreme provocation. But you are pushing me in that direction. Do you think you can carry out that simple order without further problems?"
"One more thing, Mr. Truman."
"Come to my office after the last period today … so we may discuss your future."
"Yes, Admiral," I said and saluted as I had seen Frank Sinatra do. I turned and walked toward the door, my perfectly clean and dry white apron swishing in front of me.
* * *
The rest of the day was a torture. As a minimum, I'd be expelled. And what about a general court martial? I didn't think they could do that unless you were a soldier, but this guy had three stars. Maybe he could do it to anybody. I toyed with the idea of calling home between Geometry and Latin to prepare Mom for the inevitable. How could I face her? And Dad would dismember me.
Normally Latin seemed to never end, but today we "steamed through it like a battleship through sampans" as Admiral Jones would say. I stood outside his office ten minutes after the end of Latin. Now it would be just him and me, no witnesses.
I wonder if that's what he did in the Navy, I thought. Maybe get some unlucky sailor in his office up on top of an aircraft carrier and pitch him out the porthole and then write to his family that he was lost at sea. He could get away with that real easy. Who'd report him? In fact, maybe that's what he did with sailors that saw him doing it to somebody else. But then another voice in me would say: Come on, he'd never get away with it. You can't just kill kids in high school. There are laws.
Okay, I'll just knock real gentle, and maybe he won't hear me. I can just leave and say I tried but he wasn't there. I was overjoyed by my simple plan and stepped toward the door ready for a light duty knock. But in my haste, I stepped too far, and my foot landed squarely on the bottom of the door, which happened not to be closed tight. The door snapped and rattled as it slowly swung inward, creaking to a stop with The Admiral at his desk staring at my raised fist.
"Is that how you knock on a door, Mr. Truman?"
"No, Admiral. I … uh …"
"Come in," then he paused, "and close the door."
Oh my God, I thought. He wants me to close the door. This is it.
"You're a very lucky lad, Mr. Truman."
Okay. Maybe he's not going to kill me. I might get out of this with just a court marshal yet.
"If you had pulled that stunt on one of my ships, you'd be in the brig right now. But it occurred to me this is not the real Navy, and you're not a real sailor. Would you concur with that, Mr. Truman?"
"Yes, Admiral," I said as I thought, Yes! Oh, yes! Oh, yes, yes, yes!
"Given that you're not a real sailor, what really are you?"
"Well, Admiral, I guess … I guess I'm a high school student."
"That's right, Mr. Truman, but more precisely, what are you in my American History class?"
"I'm a president, Admiral."
"That's right! And why did I tell each of you to take on the character of a president?"
"You said you wanted us to see the forces at play between the military and the politicians."
"That's right. But it's occurred to me you probably don't understand what I meant by that."
"Well, I guess not, Admiral."
"And if you, my most promising student, don't understand, then it's likely that others don't either. Today, you acted purely military, not at all political. But acting military is my role in class, not yours. So I've decided that tomorrow we'll reenact today's event, but this time you will act like a politician."
I gulped, "You mean do that whole thing over again, Admiral?"
"Yes, of course. And all you have to remember is that a politician merely gives the impression of serving his constituents while, in reality, doing exactly what he wants to do. Now, since this lesson may be of value to the rest of the class, I'll announce tomorrow that the entire American History class will assemble around my table in the Faculty Lounge at 12:17 to witness this demonstration of a politician at work."
* * *
And so, at 12:18 the next day, I and my coffee urn waded through a sea of students toward The Admiral's table. He signaled to me with his right hand to pour coffee in his cup. But this time, as my arm stretched out for the pour, every eye in the Lounge except for a single pair, was firmly fixed on my performance. The Admiral dutifully leaned toward the left to talk to Mr. Potmyer who, this time, was paying no attention to him.
My hand trembled as the urn approached Admiral Jones's cup. The pour began. As the level reached the top of the cup, I tilted the urn back slightly until the coffee stopped flowing, but the urn remained exactly over the cup as if still discharging coffee. The Admiral's mock discussion continued for some time as I maintained my position like a bronze statue. My trembling vanished as I found how easily this charade could be played.
Finally, The Admiral turned back to his full cup with the urn poised over it and gave the signal to terminate the pour. He reached for the cup and took a sip as I straightened up in great relief. "There, Mr. Truman. I'm satisfied that my order has been obeyed. You're satisfied that you don't have a bellowing admiral all over you. And there's an additional benefit that my uniform has remained dry and unstained. Which exercise was more difficult, Mr. Truman?"
"There you have it!" announced Admiral Jones. "It's easier to be a politician than a sailor!"
With that, applause surrounded me, and handshakes proclaimed my fine performance.
The Admiral stood up and said, "American History Class, dismissed!"
There was a rush toward the door, and my name fell from the lips of many who passed.
* * *
In a fantasy world, I would have learned such a lesson from that incident that I never again would appear in Jug. In my case, however, there were many more Jugs in my future. But there were no more lunch duties in the Faculty Lounge. I made my peace with Latin, as I memorized the deeds of one of the great leaders of the ancient world. And I pondered the role of Caesar as a politician and a general.
To read all seventeen of the stories in
MY LIFE AS IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN,
please e-mail editor at fictionQ.com
Paul W. Dueweke
editor at fictionQ.com