A Vectorial History of Leroy Pippin

Patrick Keppel

How did I get here?  You mean here?  Well, I was drafted.  When the word came, I was out in the fields with the other boys, in Nebraska, shocking wheat like we used to, not even thinking.  Then all of a sudden I felt my name rising and falling through the air in a soft moan, or maybe like in a song, something like the wind does.  I ignored it at first; I mean I thought it was the wind or maybe locusts, but then I heard it again and again, so finally I ran up to the house where everyone was planted real quiet in their chairs, like at a wake.  I knew the letter had to be something important, cause I’d never once got any mail to speak of, much less something like this, with my name not just written but printed, engraved on the paper, like for all time.  I rubbed my thumb across the letters, left to right, right to left; it was just so hard to believe that all together they meant me.  I ran my eyes down the page inside, not so much reading it but staring right through it to the other side.  Then I took it to my father and asked him if it meant what it said, that I had to report to such and such place by such and such time.  I guess I knew the answer already, but the letter said something about being selected or about what an honor it was, and so sort of made it seem like I had a choice.  Of course, if I’d had a choice, I’d have stayed right where I was, but my father took a long look at it and shook his head, said we’d better go tell my mother.

To tell the truth, I didn’t know why she was so upset until a couple of days later when I got to Ft. Leavenworth where I was inducted.  I thought to myself, “If I go in that tent right there, I might never come back out!”  But I knew I had to go in.  Like everyone else, I went from table to table, but my glasses kept fogging up, and the men behind the desks all looked so much the same that I found I was getting in lines two or three times for the same thing.  And as far as what was happening, where you were going or when—oh, they were real tight-lipped about that.  It was like a big secret; if you asked, they just pretended they hadn’t heard.  They wouldn’t even look at you, just kept writing or stamping or measuring you all around.

Then about a week later, all of a sudden they said, “Let’s go!” and packed us on a train which just kept going and going, all night and all the next day too, until we finally got to Virginia I think it was.  They put us all in a big barn at dawn and said look to the left and then to the right, cause one of you wasn’t going to come back unless the other two were ready to follow orders when their time came, and just think how you’d feel if you were the one who wasn’t ready; you’d be responsible for whatever happened, no one else, and could you live with that?  Then they marched us out of the barn and up and down some hills, up and down until we dropped dead away almost.  Any time day or night they’d charge into our barracks and start screaming we were under attack, and we’d have to run outside to those big guns they had, firing them at these little shacks they’d set up in hayfields that reminded me of home.

After a couple of months, just when we were getting used to things, they said, “Let’s go!” and half of us got on another train, this one headed northeast.  We passed through New York—I remember seeing it out the window, all the lights spinning around like stars, and I said, “Oh boy, I’ve never seen that before.”  But the train kept going, and after a while I fell asleep.  Then all of a sudden I hit my head on the seat in front of me.  Soon everybody was mumbling, and I remember how it seemed to come rolling like a wave from the front of the car to the back where we were that this was Boston.  I asked the guy next to me if this was the end of the line, and he said it had to be.  As far as he knew, you just couldn’t go any further—we’d run out of room!

So then they marched us to South Boston, and we got on a boat to one of those islands out there, which had more of those big guns, and underneath it all a dark, dirty web of dungeons where they used to keep the slaves.  One time they told me to unscrew all the light globes in the barracks and put them in these huge tubs filled with water.  I said Why? but they said “Never mind.”  Then they fired those guns.  The first round popped all the plugs out of the tubs, and all the water drained out.  On the second round, every single one of those globes shattered—one after the other, right on down the line, like when a drummer hits those cymbals.  I had to laugh at that—I guess I thought that was what was supposed to happen; it all looked and sounded so perfect, like a magic trick—but they said it wasn’t funny.  I spent the rest of that day and night gluing the globes back together and made just about all of them whole again, but before I could put them back on the light bulbs somebody got the bright idea of putting them on the heads of the firing range dummies so as to make them more realistic.  So after all that, there they went—pish, pesh, pash—just like before!

All the work was sort of like that—just go ahead and do it.  They had everything planned out somewhere, every minute of every day.  Sunday nights a boatload of those USO girls would come in, and they had these dances. That was something—every Sunday night, like they were for us.  Oh, but you better not touch them!  Sometimes we got three-day passes and went up to Boston.  One time I went into this bar downtown called The Broken Arrow.  It was a tough bar, I don’t think it’s there any more; I guess they built that City Hall on top of all that.  Well, I had a couple of drinks, until, you know, I started to feel it, and then these two girls sat down in the booth right across from me.  They said it was their first time there, and I said, “Oh, sure!”  Of course, after a while I sat down with the best one, this quiet, pretty Indian girl who told me not to worry, I wouldn’t get killed.  And that was my wife!  I married her before we shipped out.  But first they took half of us to this other island where they asked me if I thought I could be a clerk, since I was so skinny and had a shadow like a flagpole.  One guy said I looked like “a scarecrow in the wind,” so that’s what they called me, Scarecrow.  I said I didn’t think I could be a clerk, since I’d only had two years of school; we lived on a farm, and there was no way to get out.  But I was skinny, so I started to be a clerk for a while, until finally I’d made so many mistakes they got mad and sent me down to the dungeons, where all I had to do was keep the coals going twenty-four hours a day.

That went on for a couple of years; I think they just forgot about us out there.  Then all of a sudden they said, “You’re shipping out,” and we got on a boat to England, where we spent about three months sitting real quiet in the fog.  Then we went to France.  I was driving a supply truck and got stuck in the sand once, but they had these bulldozers roaming around, and if they saw someone stuck they’d just give him a push.  Finally, we caught up to the back of where the fighting was.  Oh, that was terrible; hundreds of people were dropping on all sides.  I think it could have been done different, I don’t know.  Right near me, the cook’s truck got hit by a shell and was blown to bits, nothing left but the chassis upside down and smoking like a gridiron, and the wheels spinning in all different directions.  So later they said, “Can you cook?” and I said, Well, they had me do it for a week in England when the other Roy was sick, but I didn’t really know how.  That was enough though, and I became a cook along with this other guy, Koch.  We didn’t need to flip the bacon!  We used to laugh about that.  You’d be frying them up, and then a shell would hit somewhere nearby, and they’d just flip by themselves.  Oh, that guy Koch was really something.  He was a big burly guy with big hands and fingers that were rough and gnarled like ginger root—the complete opposite of me—so we started this thing up where I was his shadow.  One time we pulled the truck up next to this house, and a woman in the window called down to us something that sounded to me like “What do you feel?” or “Come up for some veal,” or “Jump into the wheel.”  I didn’t know what all she was saying; it was something just to see her lips moving like that, from side to side and up and around at different angles, and all the while that little black circle at the center where all the sounds were.  But Koch understood a little German, or enough anyway.  “Take the wheel, Shadow,” he said and climbed right on top of the truck and into her window.  It happened like that in almost every town:  “You’re in charge, Shadow.”  I used to laugh at that.  “Ok, let’s go home!” I’d say, because that was something all of us always joked or complained about; you never saw who was in charge, not really, no one did.  Koch used to say that the only proof we had that somewhere someone was in charge was that we just kept going on and on as though there was, and what would happen if all of a sudden we just stopped?

But of course we didn’t stop, we zigzagged all across Germany.  Sometimes we had to drive on these pontoon bridges—oh, that was scary with all those big guns, I thought they would sink!  You could see everybody slowly making their way across, the bridge going up and down in waves.  Funny thing, we’d blow up some of these bridges and then rebuild them later.  Why blow them up to begin with?  Oh, you never knew exactly what you were doing, or what you were hitting with a shell, or what you’d come upon after.  I went to take a leak once over behind a bush, and there was this face of a German soldier staring up at me from between the branches.  Just the face.  I said, “Well, hello there.”  It was always like that; it was hard to look at things, especially the children.  I never had to kill anybody up close, thank goodness.  I don’t think I could’ve done it.

Anyway, when we got to the Elbe, we met the Russians coming from the other direction, and all of a sudden we just stopped in our tracks and so did they.  Then after a long pause, half of us went up to the Baltic to help the British for a couple of weeks, and sure enough, we met the Russians again!  We didn’t say anything to them, we just stopped and turned around.  I still don’t know what that was all about.  After that, we passed through Nuremberg, which you might remember from your history.  They still had the flags up before people tore them down.  Then we went down to Hitler’s headquarters.  Inside there was this big round table where I guess he had his meetings with his generals.  I said, “Get the cards!”  That was something we said whenever we saw a table—“Get the cards!”  Everyone laughed, even the Sergeant.  But I don’t think you could have dealt a card across that table, it was so big.  And the kitchen—me and Koch thought we’d died and gone to heaven!  Every bit of it from top to bottom was made of the shiniest stainless steel; when you stood right in the center you could see cloudy little reflections of you hovering all around, like in a funhouse.  One time I sat down in a chair there and fell right asleep—just like that, one blink and . . . gone!  Oh, that was a beautiful place, high up in those mountains—what are they, the Alps?  It was July, but there was snow all around, so we went outside and had a snowball fight in July!  Then another time we looked down and saw all these dark clouds and lightning and rain in the valley, but up there we were as dry as could be.  I never dreamed of such a thing.  The thunderstorm was going on below us!

I think I could have stayed up there forever, or at least another few weeks.  I think Koch did stay there, or somewhere; one day he just disappeared, and I don’t think he was shot.  The rest of us were sent back to Paris where we took over the barracks the Germans had lived in during the occupation.  They have the best subway in the world in Paris.  You can get on at one station and ride all the way around the city and come right back to where you started, then get out and take another one across, and then up and down, like a pinball.  Sometimes I’d end up in Pig Alley—what a wild place that was.  I don’t know why they called it Pig Alley.  Girls would come down from the farms, you know, for extra money.  Sometimes they’d just talk to you in French and try to pull you upstairs.  Of course, you had to pay for the motel room, and whatever else they wanted.  I didn’t fool around—well, I did a little, I guess.  One time I was just sitting at a bar there, and these two skinny little girls maybe thirteen or so sat down right in front of me.  The one who spoke English put her hand on my knee and said, “So, you made it home, good!”  I kind of smiled and looked away.  We were always careful about jinxing things like that; we’d seen too many people run right into a stray bullet just a day or two before they were supposed to leave.  “Well, almost,” I said, and they both just laughed.  Then I had a funny feeling, so I got right up and made a beeline back to the barracks.  I stayed there for the next two weeks, shining my shoes.  I guess I’d had enough adventure.

I couldn’t believe it when we were finally on the boat coming back home.  I remember thinking, “What next?”  My wife met me at the harbor, and we put down roots here in Boston—started having children, one right after another.  There were four in all; they’re all married now and live all over the place.  My wife’s brother set me up with a job at Sweetheart Plastics, where I worked making those straws with the bend in them until fifteen years ago when I turned sixty-five.  My wife and I had all kinds of plans to travel after I retired, maybe get a camper and circle the country, but all of a sudden she got cancer, and that was the end of that.  She died right here in the house where she was born, right in the same bed.  That doesn’t happen too much any more.

I thought I’d never get over that, but I barely even think about her any more, not even if I try to, and even then it’s like looking through a fog, you see just the outline.  Every once in a while something happens, like this bowling jacket—see how they spelled my name on the shoulder?  They made it Ray, not Roy—and while I was taking forever to mark out the one line there and put a couple of stitches in on top to make an O, I thought something like “Rose and her patterns,” because Rose was good at sewing things; there was always torn tissue papers and pins and pieces of fabric scattered everywhere on the floor, you know, Step A, Step B—oh, but you better not touch them!  I still haven’t had to buy any new clothes.  This belt buckle with the striped bass on it my sister-in-law gave me because I like to fish, and this cap with the rainbow trout and the lure is from my son.  Once a summer I take the ferry up to New Brunswick to camp and fish, up near Magnetic Hill.  That’s the only traveling I do any more, except that every once in a long while I feel a strange pull inside and head back to Nebraska for a visit.  I still have three brothers there, right where I left them.  Well, the old house has fallen in; a pair of elms are growing right through the walls.  In the basement my brothers keep mounds and mounds of potatoes, I’m not sure why; I always worry I’m going to see someone’s head in there!

It’s real quiet at my brothers’; the TV is on a lot.  I guess there isn’t much to say any more; a lot of it is just, who’s dead now?—every week it’s someone new.  They tease me about living so far away—like it was my fault!  Well, I guess it is in a way.  Sometimes we get going pretty good though, and we sit around and remember things again, things we didn’t realize at the time.  Like that night we were out shocking wheat because it was too hot during the day, and all of a sudden I looked up and said, “Hey, the moon is disappearing!”  Pretty soon it was so dark we had to quit for the night.  We were afraid to tell anyone!  Well, we didn’t know about eclipses and such, they didn’t announce them back then.  It’s funny what you remember, piecing things together in a way they probably didn’t happen the first time, because everybody remembers them different and sometimes not at all.  And then when you’ve got the whole story remembered and framed like a picture, it’s almost like it’s not you you’re seeing but somebody else disguised as you.

Yeah, first you fly into Omaha and then take the highway for about eighty miles or so until you get to the Six Corner Road.  Take a right there and then go about six miles, and just as you get to the top of the hill, stop right there!—that’s Humboldt.  Oh, I can’t tell you what it means to me to see it all spread out below in a big circle, like a spinning wheel.  I feel all light-headed, almost empty.  Humboldt—that’s my hometown!


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