War

February 3, 2012


We loved to fight. We were Catholics. And they were Protestants. Were Irish, Italian and Polish. We didn’t know what they were. Didn’t care. And then mere pitch battles between students became an all out war between the two schools. Catholic and Protestant. No one who witnessed those days could ever feel more joy in his heart.

This is a small book about a large event. War. A children’s war. Fought between children in an adult’s world. A half-century has passed since those heady days and today and I can never remember an event committed to by so many that seemed so right. If we’d had guns, the story would have been heard all over the world.

………………………

Punishment was swift and decisive. Three boys, Cormier, Flannery and Brady, were chosen and declared to be the ringleaders from the ‘war’. They were dragged around to each classroom like circus bears and exhibited before their fellow students. No one knew why Brady had been chosen. At first he took his inclusion as a badge of honour, but as it became clear what the rewards were for his this newly appointed position, Brady’s enthusiasm waned. What had he really done? His only sin seemed to be an overwhelming urge to be liked. (Brady wanted to be a friend to everyone so much that he was constantly being swindled out of his valuables. David had managed to trade some trifles for a couple dozen comic books before David’s father intervened and forced his son to return them to Brady.) Brady was no hoodlum, no delinquent, just a boy with bad timing. And though all the boys felt that punishing Brady was a miscarriage of justice, none felt an overwhelming urge to replace him.

In each class Mr. Wickenhauser listed the boys’ crimes. He gave a short speech about setting an example for other children and threatened that future reprisals would make the present punishment pale in comparison. And then they were punished, five swats of the leather strap on each hand.

The leather strap resembled the long strip of leather that a barber used to sharpen the straight blade he used to shave customers. The strap was black, about ten inches long, four inches wide, flat, as thick as the blade of a hockey stick, and stiff. Every teacher was provided with a strap that they kept in the top drawer of their desk. Mr. Wickenhauser liked to carry his strap on him, dangling out of his trouser pocket like a six-gun.

While the tour went on, Miss Ponick had taken over David’s class. Marcus kept winking at her.

“Is something wrong with your eye?” she asked.

“No mam. I’ve got a twitch,” he said.

The class laughed. Miss Ponick glared at the room.

“This is not the day to be funny,” she said. The class was silent.

Poor Brady didn’t manage to get through the first class without tears streaming down his face. It had gone beyond humiliation for Brady. His pleas for mercy could be heard down the school halls, dampening everyone’s enthusiasm for math that morning. As they moved from class to class, the boys’ screams could be heard throughout the school. Everyone sat in their seats in eager anticipation of their arrival. Some of the girls whispered amongst themselves. Little Jimmy Higgins couldn’t stop snickering.

“Have you heard Cormier scream yet?” he whispered. “Flannery’s been broken. I’m sure of that.”

By the time they reached David’s class, Mr. Wickenhauser looked beaten. His tie was undone, the top two buttons of his white shirt were unbuttoned, he was no longer wearing a jacket, and his shirtsleeves were rolled up. The three boys stood at the front of the room by the blackboard like suspects in a police line-up. Flannery and Cormier stood erect and composed like boys preparing to compete in a public speaking contest. Brady leaned against the blackboard, rubbing his hands, his face flushed red like the first spring sunburn.

Brady was the first one up.

“Why don’t they put the poor bastard out of his misery?” Marcus whispered from behind David. “He ain’t going to make it through the day.”

There was silence in the classroom as Mr. Wickenhauser’s gaze moved across the class like a spotlight from a tower on a prison wall.

“You know why these boys are being punished,” Mr. Wickenhauser bellowed out his well rehearsed speech. As he spoke his Adams’ apple bobbed up and down in his throat. If he’d had a hanger he could of hung his jacket on it. His jaw was clenched like a prize fighter, his cheek bones shining, sweat dripping from his eyelids.  As he babbled on for several minutes about good and evil, right and wrong, setting examples, David could hear the mocking mumblings of Marcus behind him. Then the great man took the black leather strap out of his trouser pocket and waved it threateningly at the three boys.

“Dunn!” he barked and turned on the small boy beside him.

Stepping forward, Brady whimpered, clutching his hands to his side, his head receding between his frail trembling shoulders. Mr. Wickenhauser reached for Brady but Dunn retreated to the blackboard, and began sobbing.

A couple of girls giggled nervously.

Mr. Wickenhauser turned on the class, spotting the girls.

They gasped.

“What’s your name?” he asked one of the girls.

“Mary Alice Deverell,” one of the girls said, her voice shaking.

“You want to take Mr. Dunn’s place, Mary Alice?”

The girl shook her head.

The tall menacingly handsome teacher grabbed one of Dunn’s hands, wrenched it from his side, and brought the strap down twice on Brady’s fist.

“Palms!” he cried.

Reluctantly Brady opened his hand. Lightning fast, the strap fell slapping the tips of Brady’s fingers. Brady fell to the floor weeping and crying, begging incoherently.

“Open your hands, Mr. Dunn,” the teacher growled once more, still holding onto Brady’s hand.

Brady opened his hand again. Three times the Gattling Gun strap fell on Brady’s palms punctuated by the most awful screams any boy could have produced. Mr. Wickenhauser called for the other hand. Brady had all but given up now, his hand awaiting each blow, like a steak on a butcher’s block.

Kim Levy, the great beauty of the classroom who had earlier been giggling, burst into tears and ran out of the class. Miss Ponick glared at Mr. Wickenhauser briefly then flew after Kim.

“Perhaps some of you think that all of this is amusing. How about you sir?”

“No sir,” Jimmy Higgins stammered.

“And you, Mr. O’Reilly!” the teacher turned his laser vision on Marcus.

Marcus shook his head.

Flannery was next. He stepped forward, his eyes red, a tattoo of tears down his cheek. As he put his hand out his lips began to quiver. He bit down on them. The pupils in his eyes enlarged, waiting.

WHACK!

Flannery fell to his knees in pain, biting down on his lips, trying to restrain the tears that seemed destined to burst out.

“Oh sir!” he whimpered, climbed back to his feet, rubbing his left hand on the leg of his trousers. Mr. Wickenhauser waited. Flannery put his right hand out. Except for Brady’s continual wheezing, the room was dead silent.

WHACK!

Flannery cried out, bending but not falling to his knees.

After the third round of swats, Flannery too began to howl.

“No more, sir!” Flannery pleaded, his face flush with tears.

David couldn’t look. Mr. Wickenhauser caught him. He glared down at the small red headed boy.

“You look away again son and you’ll be next.”

David forced himself to look. His mouth was dry, his throat aching. For a brief moment he thought he was going to vomit. He wished he was invisible so that no one could see the fear in his eyes.

Mr. Wickenhauser seemed to take an extra relish in presenting Cormier to the class. The good soldier, Mr. Wickenhauser described him. Cormier stood leaning to one side with a smirk on the opposite side of his face as if to balance himself.

“Mr. Cormier and I have had a lot of fun this morning, haven’t we sir? There has been a long history between the three of us,  – Mr. Cormier, myself, and the strap. But this history is going to end today, isn’t it, Mr. Cormier?”

Cormier nodded still smirking.

Cormier hardly flinched during the first two rounds. Apparently five straps on each hand were not enough for young Cormier. On the third strap of round two, his left hand betrayed Cormier. He cried out. By the fifth strap, Cormier too was on his knees, biting back tears. Mr. Wickenhauser called for another round.

“Sir!” Cormier said pleadingly. It was the only word he would utter.

There were still three classes to go.

As the three boys headed out of the class, heads bowed, sniffling and wheezing, Cormier looked up at his comrades, and winked.

 

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