It had been a blustery day of Autumnal Kentucky weather, wildly shaking the last leafy hangers-on from their Red Maple tree perches. Winter was fast approaching the back roads of Henderson County and leaf raking was a natural rite of seasonal passage in Dan Grayson’s part of the world. It also provided a calming respite from the lingering combat memories of his military service to his country, years prior.
Living on the corn and tobacco farm inherited from his late parents, Dan worked tirelessly to maintain a tradition passed down over six generations of his family, but rising costs made each years’ net return seem like a losing proposition. It wasn’t always easy growing corn, harvesting it, sourcing buyers, and trucking it out to the middlemen. There were droughts, bad harvests, dreaded tornados, and unscrupulous buyers that consistently wanted to low-ball the purchase price. To Dan, it felt like a lottery. No matter how much hope he put into a crop, profit was not always guaranteed. In addition, the tobacco he was able to produce sold for a price less than its production cost, so Dan would tease his buyers that rather than continue, he was prepared to let the tobacco part of the business “Go up in smoke.”
“Hun, I’m going into town to get some essentials for your birthday dinner tonight,” Dan’s effervescent wife announced as she headed toward her pickup truck. “Y’all gonna be okay without me for a bit?”
Jenny Grayson was a kind, gentle woman. The type of woman easy to fall in love with. On their wedding day, Dan’s speech had been interrupted several times by tears of gratitude to the person that helped him through the toughest time of his life after returning from fighting in South-East Asia. While he was away on his extended tour, everything at home changed drastically. Dan went away to help President Lyndon B. Johnson stem the flow of communism throughout South Vietnam and returned to a people tired of seeing the war on their television news every night, disgusted at the daily casualty rates, while listening to a new president trying everything he could do, to wash his hands of the embarrassment. Public opinion against the war and anger toward its homecoming military personnel was so fierce, Dan made sure no-one outside his circle of family and friends knew of his participation. Being labelled “Baby Killers” sent a lot of war veterans spiralling into mental health declines. Dan became reclusive and threw all his energy into his family business; however, the vivid dreams of jungle warfare took their toll on him, pushing him to the brink of suicide. It was Jenny that helped him come down from the ledge of no return. She got him to a point where he candidly talked about his experiences, helping him to finally exorcise the demons that threatened to possess and destroy him. She rocked him when he cried and comforted him through the vivid torment of unwanted memories, and it bonded them closer than ever.
“I would not be the man I am without Jenny by my side,” Dan snuffled and grunted to their wedding guests.
In a tender wedding reception moment, Jenny soothed him with a loving embrace, then whispered to him her undying love for the man that made her eternally happy. Ten years later, love still blossomed between them.
“Just gonna rake me up some leaves, Jen. Might have us a bonfire later.”
“I’ll be back in a jiffy… Love ya! Oh, this was in the mailbox addressed to you. Looks like a birthday card. I’ll leave it in John Deere One.”
A few small beads of sweat formed on Dan’s forehead as he energetically gathered the fallen foliage into a large pile. The thick jacket he wore had raised his body temperature beyond comfortable, so he decided to take it off and hang it on a low-lying branch before continuing his chore. Something caught his attention as he draped the jacket over a tree branch. No more than twenty feet above his head – amongst the remaining canopy of stubborn leaves and bird nests, a curious object dangled precariously. Staring into the brightness of the clouded sky, Dan strenuously squinted to see what it was, but a strong gust of wind flared up and dislodged it from its thorny incarceration, sending it plummeting towards him. Quickly stepping back to avoid it hitting him, Dan let out a small gleeful and recognisable laugh as it appeared to fluff out, becoming larger, drifting surprisingly slowly to the ground. It was an old plastic paratrooper toy. The very same one that he and his best friend Harlan Williams used to play with when they were boys.
“Well, I’ll be,” Dan muttered. “We thought you were K.I.A.”
Using a homemade slingshot, young Dan and Harlan would launch the paratrooper high into the sky, then compete to see who could catch it first, until one day, Dan fired it straight up and into the camouflage of one of the Red Maple Trees scattered around his parent’s property - snagging it on a spikey branch, beyond simple rescue.
“Welcome home, soldier,” Dan warmly commented out loud as the toy landed. Stooping to retrieve it, Dan was pleasantly surprised that its green figurine and plastic black parachute looked completely intact. Picking it up to examine it, he was so elated to see it looking none the worse for wear, a juvenile-induced, reactionary excitement caused him to immediately wrap the chute around the small paratrooper, then launch it as hard as he could into the air.
Catching him unaware, an echo from the past whispered hauntingly through the breeze.
“I’m gonna beat you to it!”
Turning in the direction of the voice, Dan saw a young boy – transparent in his initial appearance - running toward an area that the toy was descending on; all the while, looking up concentrating on its flight.
“Harlan…?” The shocked call escaped from Dan’s lips.
“I got it, I got it!” The boy triumphantly exclaimed. “I told you I’d beat you.”
Panning his surroundings for anyone nearby to confirm the scene playing out before him, Dan realised he was alone with someone that had materialised into a physical existence. A boy resembling his old friend, triumphantly stood in the meadow’s opening, arms raised in an imaginary gesture of victory. Feeling a sudden change of awareness surround him, Dan felt compelled to examine his own physical sense.
“My hands,” he surprisingly yelled. “They’re… smaller… like a young…”
“Danny Boy!” Shouted Harlan. “I’ve brought the slingshot. It’s time to fly. Airborne all the way!”
In a youthful act of spontaneity, Dan found himself running over to his friend.
“Harlan, is it really you?”
“Who else, Danny boy? Gosh darn, you sure are as white as a ghost, bud. Y’all comin’ down with something?”
Before Dan could explain, Harlan drew back the thick elastic on his slingshot and launched the toy skyward.
“Come on! I’ve got a Bazooka Joe bubble gum for the one that catches it,” Harlan enticingly offered.
Immediately and without question, Dan sprinted alongside Harlan, chasing after the free-falling toy, now descending with its parachute opened. Both boys concentrated so much on the trajectory of the plastic paratrooper, that while looking up, they accidentally collided with each other and fell into a huge pile of leaves gathered on the grass - awaiting disposal. Ending up on their backs, looking skyward, the boys laughed uncontrollably as the toy landed feet-first exactly between them.
“Aw,” a disappointed Dan yelled. “I wanted a piece of gum.”
Unwrapping the colourful wrapper, Harlan carefully broke the unveiled brick of bubble gum into two pieces along its centre divide, handed one piece to Dan, then inquisitively unfolded the free comic strip that came packaged with every Bazooka Joe bubble gum. Dan was so happy to be chawin’ on a piece of gum that Harlan couldn’t help but notice.
“Boy, you grinnin’ like a possum eatin’ a sweet tater,” he commented.
“Uh huh,” Dan replied in an Elvis Presley style of voice, then blew a large, sticky bubble that burst and adhered to his face.
As the saliva glands of both boys went into overtime from the sweet sugary taste of the bars in their mouths, Harlan began to read the short comic strip out loud.
“Bazooka Joe and his gang,” Harlan recited. “It’s Herman and Mort on their own… Herman says, Hey Mort! Do you know who’s in hospital? Mort looks a tad nervous, like bad news is about to upset him. Mort asks, No, Who is in hospital…? Herman says, Sick people! Then, he runs off faster than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking competition while Mort shakes his fist at him.”
Both boys giggle at the silly joke, but Dan wants to hear more…
“Whassa Bazooka Fortune part say?”
“It says, You would be much happier if you gave more consideration to others,” Harlan’s cheap-shot imitation of his mother’s voice caused him to chuckle at something she would probably say.
“I don’t get it, Harlan.”
“I recken’ it means you gotta spend time with people’s feelings… Hey lookie here, there’s an advertisement for a free pocket chess and checkers set…”
Imitating a radio ad, Harlan proceeded to read further. “Finely molded chess and checkers pieces in durable plastic case. Enjoy your favourite games wherever you go. Send 275 Bazooka comics or fifty-five cents and ten comics to… There’s an address in Brooklyn, New York to send y’alls payment to.”
“How is that free?”
“Beats me. My Pa says nothin’ in life is free. He says, If it’s too good to be true, it aint.”
“Don’t matter none. I’m so poor, I can’t afford to pay attention…”
A sudden gust of hot wind rushing over them from feet to head, caused the boys to roll over on their stomachs trying to protect their faces from the scorching heat, but Dan quickly recoiled as an explosion ripped apart a nearby small tree, no more than ten feet from them. The smell of cordite, human excrement and blood filled the air, while from the heavens, heavy blobs of monsoon rain pummelled their heads and faces, making it extremely difficult to focus more than several feet beyond their position. Shocked by the realisation of an M-16 assault rifle gripped tightly in his hands, Dan looked at Harlan, instantly older and rapidly firing his own weapon indiscriminately at some unseen targets.
“Eat that, Charlie!” Harlan mockingly shouted through a dense canopy of ground-based jungle fauna and torrential rain, while sporadic gunfire echoed all around the stifling humid environment.
“What the hell, Harlan!” Dan cried.
“There’s Gooks on the wire, Dan!”
“So, why are we out here in the shit?”
“The captain told us to get out here and capture us a VC.”
“Who in the fuck is Us.”
“Well, me, you, and the others.”
“It’s just you and me, Harlan. You gotta stop with the LSD. It’s fucked up your brain. You know that preacher masquerading as our CO has had it out for you from day one. This is a suicide mission, you asshole, and you’ve included me in on it.”
“You didn’t have to come…”
“I did have to come,” Dan yelled back. “I ain’t goin’ home without you! What’d he promise you?”
“…Two weeks R&R, if we brought back just one Dink for interrogation.”
“Well, there’s goddam hundreds out here, Harlan! All trying to goddam kill us! Just take yer fuckin’ pick!”
“I thought it was too good to be true when he said don’t y’all come back until you got a prisoner… or did he just plain say, Don’t come back?”
“Fuck this shit. Private, get your ass back to the fire base, now!”
Grabbing Harlan’s shirt collar, Dan dragged the two of them - crawling on hands and knees through the thick foliage and slippery mud. Hot tracer bullets zipped past their ears and thudded explosions of mortars sucked into the thick quagmire of the South-East Asian jungle night, rapidly swallowed up their resolve and desire to fight. With every inch of retreat, Dan could distinctly hear the insults of a foreign origin chasing them all the way back to base. Reaching a clearing, Dan stood them both up to make a final dash of thirty yards toward the safety of their fire base. They had taken approximately seven long strides when everything went eerily quiet - except for the sound of one single, ominous click. Milliseconds before an explosion threw both men several feet into the air, Dan’s eyes focussed on some gun-metal-grey-coloured embossed words that read, “FRONT TOWARD ENEMY.” The inevitability of the moment, resigned Dan to close his eyes and pray; however, at the very split-second of tripping the Claymore mine, two black-pyjama-dressed Vietcong fighters crossed their path in the dark and bore the full brunt of the subsequent explosion. The force of the detonation – although deadly to the VC Sappers – bounced the two muddied but not bloodied childhood friends closer to the barbed wire bordering the fire base, where they were unceremoniously dragged to safety by a couple of wide-eyed sentries. The last thing Dan saw before losing consciousness, was a flare lighting up the sky, slowly descending on the end of a parachute. Seeing this too, Harlan snarled and offered up his own vocalised proposition.
“I’ve got a Bazooka Joe bubble gum for the first one that frags that asshole captain,” he angrily spat through gritted teeth. Several days later, the captain’s body was found with his throat cut, nailed to a tree just beyond the perimeter of the base – a parachute canopy draped over his body. Everyone thought the VC had grabbed him in the night, but from Harlan’s detached emotional response to the news, Dan suspected otherwise.
“You ever think of growing weed?” Harlan’s distant voice enquired.
Opening his eyes, Dan sat upright on the blue-tinted grassy knoll where he and Harlan had lain, calling out the various animal shapes forming among the cumulus clouds. The surrounding Red Maple trees were in exceptional full bloom on what appeared to be a glorious summer day. In the adjacent fields, Dan glanced over toward the corn rows growing tall and healthy, almost ready for harvesting. It was going to be a bumper year, he thought.
“Why would I want to do that?” Dan petulantly replied.
“It’s big money, Dan. I’ve got some cousins in the Eastern counties making beaucoup bucks.”
“Yeah, and creating beaucoup problems with the law.”
“Hell, the law ain’t their problem. Lot of them good ol’ boys just want a piece of the action. My cousin Johnny’s offered me a job, driving his trucks.”
“You gonna be a part of the Cornbread Mafia, Harlan?”
“It’s just weed, Dan. Not LSD. You know I don’t do that shit no more…”
“…When are you leaving?”
“How do you know I accepted?”
“…I just know you, Harlan, you asshole. You need excitement in your life and driving a tractor for me, just ain’t it.”
Dan’s insightful words drifted in the summer breeze, then faded as a newspaper headline filled his whole visual perspective. “Blue Grass organised crime gang busted,” it read. “Over 100 members of Kentucky’s Cornbread Mafia now behind bars.”
Quickly scanning the list of arrested names, Dan could not find Harlan’s recorded anywhere.
“You stay hidden, Harlan. Don’t you ever come back home,” Dan advised into thin air, hoping the approaching Autumn winds would carry his sentiment all the way to his old friend. “I just hope you’re still alive.”
A swishing sound disrupted Dan’s train of thought. He felt a chill pass through him as he realised that he was back in the here and now. Retrieving the rustling toy paratrooper from its leafy landing site, Dan grabbed his jacket, then headed toward his tractor. Throwing the toy into the cab, he donned his warm jacket, buttoned it up to his neckline, then jumped up into the enclosed insulation of John Deere One.
“No more visions, Dan.” He censured himself – believing he was experiencing a side effect from the medication combatting his ongoing PTSD. “Let’s get back to work, shall we?”
His finger on the ignition switch, Dan hesitated as he saw the envelope perched on the dashboard. Several inner-reflective moments passed before he reached for the package that bore similar dimensions to a birthday card. There was no return address. Just a Canadian postmark and stamps identifying its origination. Dan immediately knew who it was from. Each year on his birthday, a card would arrive simply signed, “The Asshole…” Planted inside, would be a half brick of Bazooka Joe bubble gum, haphazardly detached from its missing other half. With a tinge of melancholy, Dan read the encapsulated signature, then unfurled the small comic strip attached to the gum wrapper.
“Little Creeps,” he musingly read out loud. “Must be a new Bazooka Joe comic strip.”
Briefly studying the comic, he noticed that a couple of the speech boxes had been crudely altered with a black pen. The scene depicted a young boy and girl standing in front of a classroom chalkboard discussing a form of pupil favouritism.
Continuing to read it aloud, Dan adopted a youthful characterisation of distinct voices as he spoke.
“I know I’m the policeman’s pet.
Why do you say that?
Didn’t you hear it when he said… He wants to put me in a cage?”
Dan’s shoulders involuntarily jerked upwards at the black humour of the edited dialogue, before continuing to read the remaining text out loud.
“Bazooka Joe’s Fortunes…
Don’t wait until the last minute…
…Value: three comics…
…That about gives me enough for the chess set…”
Slipping the comic strip into his breast pocket, Dan fired up the tractor, popped the half brick of gum into his mouth, and closed the cab door. Then, as if he had just heard the most asinine joke whispered into his ear - he laughed healthily out loud.
“Harlan… you asshole…!”