JAY THACKER WAS STANDING BY the backstop. His baseball glove was tucked under his arm. For now, he was just watching. He was new in town and he didn’t know any of the boys who were out on the field. Most of them weren’t very good players—he could see that—but then, he wasn’t that great himself. He thought he’d like to play, but he didn’t want to say so.
The boys were playing workup, not teams, and one guy—Gordy, everyone kept calling him—had stayed up to bat three or four times. He was standing at first base now, chattering on and on, trying to bother the pitcher. His voice sounded rough, like the sound a shovel makes, hitting into gravel. “You better watch me, Freddy,” he kept saying. “I’m taking off. I’m gonna steal second.” And then, after Freddy bounced a pitch in the dirt, “You throw like my grandma. You can’t pitch.”
Jay couldn’t help smiling. This Gordy kid really thought he was good.
Gordy turned and looked toward the outfield. “Move back, boys. Lew’s going to hit the ball over your heads. He’s gonna bring me home.”
Lew was big, but he swung at the next pitch and knocked a little blooper out into shallow left field. Gordy ran hard to second and then kept right on going for third. The boy in left ran in for the ball and fielded it okay. He should’ve thrown Gordy out, easy, but he tried to hurry and tossed the ball clear over the third baseman’s head. The ball rolled out into the street and Gordy ran on home. He jumped on the plate with both feet, then spun around and yelled, “You’re never going to get us out. We’re the Bronx Bombers.” Then his head jerked around and he said, “Hey, kid, do you want to play?”
It took Jay a second or two to realize Gordy meant him. “I guess so,” he said.
“Head out to right field. That’ll give ’em four outfielders, but it won’t make no difference. Those guys are sorry excuses for ballplayers. You any good?”
“Not really. I—”
“Who are you anyway?”
By then he was walking around the backstop, which was nothing more than chicken wire nailed onto some pine poles. “My name’s Jay Thacker.”
“Where’d you come from?”
“Salt Lake City.”
“Uh-oh.” Gordy turned toward the field again. “Hey, we got us a big-city boy here. Maybe he can play. You better hope so. You sad sacks need all the help you can get.” He looked back at Jay and grinned.
Gordy was wearing a faded red baseball cap. Whitish hair, stiff as straw, was sticking out from under it. His face was sunburned and skin was peeling off his nose and ears. His top teeth were goofy, like they were too big for his mouth. At least he’d noticed Jay and asked him to play.
He trotted out to right field and waited to see what might happen, but he was glad when the first few batters didn’t hit the ball his way. He didn’t want to make an error right off and have to listen to Gordy say something about that.
One kid hit a grounder to first base and made an out. That meant Freddy, the guy who’d been pitching, finally made it up to bat. He struck out his first time up, though. He couldn’t hit any better than he could pitch. At least Jay knew he was better than that guy. Gordy and Lew both kept getting on base, but half the time it was because of errors. That didn’t stop Gordy from telling everyone how great he was.
Jay worked his way around to left field, and then he made a decent play on a grounder that bounced past the shortstop. He threw to second and his toss was a little off line, but he didn’t end up looking too bad. Gordy yelled at him, “Hey, Thacker, you’re the best one out there. You didn’t fall on your face—and I figured you might.”
Jay didn’t say anything. Some of the guys were yelling at Gordy, telling him he wasn’t as hot as he thought he was. But Jay had never been able to do anything like that.
After a while Lew hit a fly ball that was caught by a short kid out in center. The kid ran toward home plate and Lew ran out to center. That meant they were playing “flies go up.” Right after that another guy struck out, so Jay moved over to third base and Gordy was up for about the eighth or ninth time. “Look out, boys,” he yelled. “This time I’m going for the fence. You better move way back.”
The sun was getting low in the sky now, but the air was still hot. Sweat was running off Jay’s face. He used his shirt to wipe his eyes.
Gordy took a big swing at the first pitch and slammed a hard grounder straight at Jay. He was ready, but the ball skipped over his glove and hit him like a fist, right in the throat. He dropped to his knees and grabbed his neck. He was choking, but he didn’t want to look stupid, so he stood up as quick as he could. Tears were running down his cheeks, not from crying, but just from coughing and trying to swallow.
Gordy came running out. “Hey, you all right?”
“Sure,” he tried to say.
“Did it hit your chin or . . . oh man, it caught you right in the throat, didn’t it?”
“I’m okay.” Some of the other guys were coming over.
“Can you swallow all right?”
“Yeah.” And he could now. But it hurt.
“Hey, I gotta tell ya, man. You’re tough as nails. That was a blue darter I hit at you.” Gordy grinned, showing those funny teeth again. “That woulda put a lot of guys flat on their back.”
He was thinking he didn’t want to stick around and play anymore. He didn’t want to say that, though, not with Gordy talking that way about him.
“Are you a Indian?”
“You look like a Indian.”
He wasn’t sure what to say. He didn’t like to talk about that. “My dad’s half Navajo.” More guys were gathering around him now. Lew had come in from left field.
“No wonder you can take a blow and get back up,” Gordy said. “You got Indian blood in you.”
He didn’t mind that, but he knew all the bad things people said about Indians. He’d heard plenty of that in Salt Lake. Indians were dirty and lazy—stuff like that. He didn’t want these guys to think that’s what he was.
“What are you doing in Delta?”
He was getting his breath back now, and his throat didn’t feel all stopped up. He wanted the game to get going again. “Me and my mom came down here to live for a while. My dad’s in the war.” But talking made him cough again.
Gordy gave him a couple of slaps on the back, like that was going to help out somehow. “Where’s he fighting?”
“Out in the Pacific. He’s in the navy.” He didn’t want to tell the rest.
He rubbed his hand over his throat, and then he flicked away some tears from one cheek. “We don’t know exactly.”
“Yeah. It’s prob’ly secret. I know what you’re talking about. What’s he on? A battleship?”
Jay tried to think of something else to say, but he couldn’t think of anything. So he said it. “His ship went down. He’s missing in action.”
Jay saw Gordy’s reaction, the way his head jerked back. All the boys had been holding their gloves under their arms, kind of waiting, like they wished Gordy wouldn’t carry this on so long. Now they were changed. They were staring at Jay, and he knew what they were thinking.
Gordy said it out loud. “My dad says ‘missing in action’ just about always turns into ‘killed in action.’”
“My dad’s not dead, though,” he said, louder than he meant to say it. “He’s a good swimmer. He probably made it to an island or something like that. Or he could’ve been picked up by the Japs and made into a prisoner of war.”
“Hey, that’s worse than death,” Gordy said. “The Japs starve people and torture ’em. They pull out their fingernails with pliers—all that kind of stuff.”
“Come on, Gordy,” one of the boys said. “He probably made it to an island. You don’t need to—”
“Hey look, Eldred, I’m not saying he’s dead. Or that the Japs are working him over. I’m just saying that’s how it is when they get hold of you. Everybody knows that.”
“My dad’s alive,” Jay said. “When the war’s over, he’ll come home.”
“I think he’ll probably get home,” Gordy said. “I’ll bet he’s as tough as you—maybe tougher. He’s half Indian, not just a quarter.”
At least he hadn’t said Jay’s dad was lazy or dirty.
“Lay off, Gordy,” Eldred said. “You don’t need to get into all that.” Eldred was the short kid who had caught the ball out in center. He wore wire eyeglasses that made his eyes look big.
“How long’s he been missing?” asked Gordy.
“I can’t remember exactly.”
But he did remember. His dad had joined the navy right after the war broke out, and his ship had been sunk early in the year—February 1943—out by the Solomon Islands. He’d looked at a map; he knew where they were, clear down by Australia. That had been four months ago—a little more than that. If Jay told Gordy, though, he would say that was a long time not to hear.
Gordy only nodded—like maybe he knew Jay didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He even said, “So do you guys want to keep trying to get me out, or have you had enough for one night?”
The sun was glowing, turning orange, and Jay knew it had to be pretty late. In June, here in the desert, the sun never seemed to go down, especially on “war time”—with all the clocks set forward.
“I gotta go,” a little kid said—a guy who had made more errors than anyone.
“You’re no big loss, Will,” Gordy told him.
But some of the other guys said they had to get home too, and the game broke up. Jay took a step away, but Gordy said, “Where you living, Chief?”
He stopped and looked back, surprised by the name.
“His name’s not Chief,” Eldred said.
“It is now. That’s what I’m going to call him. You don’t care, do you, Chief?”
“My name’s Jay.”
“I know. But I like that name. Chief. It fits you. ’Cause you’re tough and everything.”
He didn’t want to be called that, but he didn’t say so.
“So where you living?”
“With my Grandpa Reid.”
“Kimball Reid? From the drugstore?”
“He’s your grandpa?” Gordy looked surprised. “I didn’t know one of his kids married a Indian.”
Lew had stepped over next to Gordy. “No kidding. Brother Reid’s your grandpa?”
“He gave me my patriarchal blessing.”
Jay knew his grandpa was the patriarch in Delta. That was something in the church—the Mormon church—but he wasn’t exactly sure what it meant.
“Before he was patriarch, he was my bishop,” Eldred said. “He’s about the best man in this whole valley. I’ve heard my dad say that.”
He could see that all three of the boys were looking at him in a new way. Eldred’s big eyes were staring hard at him. Jay said, “I’ll tell you what else. My dad’s a war hero. Before his ship got sunk, he won some medals. Quite a few.”
“Which ones?” asked Gordy.
“I can’t remember what they’re called.”
“A silver star or a bronze? Anything like that?”
“Yeah. I think so.”
“Hey, then, he is tough. He can stand up to the Japs, all right. He’s not a drunk, is he?”
“A lot of Navajos are drunks. And they’ll steal anything that ain’t tied down. My dad don’t trust any of ’em.”
“My dad doesn’t steal,” he said, loud again.
“I didn’t say he did. That’s just my dad talking. I know some other stuff. Indians can run fast—a lot of ’em. And they know everything about hunting and tracking down animals, all those things. Is that how you are?”
He didn’t think so. But he didn’t say that. He said, “I can run pretty fast.”
“You can take a hard grounder in the throat, too, and get back up.”
Eldred shook his head. “Don’t start that again, Gordy.” Eldred’s overalls were all faded out and too small for him. He had his hat off now, and Jay could see that his hair was cut straight around, like maybe his mom had cut it, not a barber.
“So are you going to live here for the rest of the war?” Lew asked. He was taller than any of the kids. He had a nose that looked flattened out a little, like it had gotten broken sometime. He looked mean, a little, but he didn’t sound that way. He’d gotten a lot of hits, the same as Gordy, and he hadn’t yelled about it.
“I don’t know how long we’ll stay,” he said. He touched his hand to his Adam’s apple. He could feel that the skin had been roughed up, but the pain was deeper in, like a bruise.
“We play ball pretty much every night once the sun drops down a little,” said Lew. “It gets too hot in the day—and most of us have to work around our own places in the mornings. But you can come over any night you want to and just about always get in a game.”
“How old are you, Jay?” Eldred asked.
“Is that right? I figured you for fourteen. Most of us will be in eighth grade next year, some in seventh. The high school boys play on the good diamond—the one the town team plays on—so we come over here. That way, nobody bothers us.”
“Do you have any arrowheads, Chief?” Gordy asked, like that was what everyone had been talking about. His hands were stuck into the front pockets of his jeans—old ones that had been patched in the knees a couple of times. He had a grass stain across the shoulder of the old undershirt he was wearing. He was still grinning. Jay didn’t know why.
“Grandpa has some arrowheads, but I don’t,” he said.
“You ain’t much of a Indian, are you?” Gordy laughed, making a scratchy sound, like the way he talked. “Around here, we collect arrowheads. I’ve got about two dozen, I guess, if you count broke pieces. We go out in the desert and look for ’em, or we go over by Topaz Mountain and look for chunks of topaz, and we shoot BB guns. You ever done stuff like that?”
“Do you want to?”
“We’ll have to teach you the stuff a Indian is supposed to know.”
“I’m not an Indian. I’m just—”
“I know all that. But we’ll teach you about the desert—and how to find stuff out there. When we can get ammo for our .22 rifles, we shoot rabbits. Or we just shoot what we can with our BB guns. We’ll show you all that stuff.”
Jay was nodding again, but he wasn’t sure about any of this. Everything was different here. Maybe he and his mom should have stayed in Salt Lake. He didn’t want everyone, right off, thinking he was an Indian.
THE BOYS WALKED OVER TO Main Street together. Gordy kept talking the whole time—asking him about Salt Lake City, the Great Salt Lake, all kinds of things. And then, when they reached Second West, the street with the nicest houses, Jay said good-bye. His grandma and grandpa had a house on that street. It was old but big—a lot bigger than any place he’d lived in before. That was okay, but sometimes Grandpa tried to act like he was his dad, not telling him what to do, but asking him all about everything.
Everything here was different. He didn’t like it much so far. Grandma was nice, but he’d heard her talking to Mom about his dad, saying things that weren’t exactly right. His dad was a good ballplayer. And he was funny, always making jokes and everything. Grandma didn’t know about things like that. She didn’t have to be saying things about him.
When he got back to the house, his mom was sitting out on the porch. “Jay, you promised me you’d be home by nine o’clock,” she said. She sounded upset. That’s how she was a lot lately.
He stepped up onto the porch. “What time is it?” he asked.
His mom was wearing slacks—something Grandpa didn’t like very much—and her hair was loose, hanging down her back. Everyone said how pretty she was, and Jay thought maybe she was, but she didn’t look at all like him. He had black hair, and she had reddish brown hair and green eyes. She was tall for a woman, and thin, and he was thick through the body, like his dad. “It’s a quarter to ten. You’re forty-five minutes late.”
“It seems like it’s still early.”
“That’s because the sun stays up forever. I just hate setting the clock forward two hours.” She glanced over at Grandma, who was sitting next to her, both of them on white wicker chairs.
The crickets had started in, chirping loud, but the sun wasn’t gone yet, not all the way.
Grandma was nodding. “I know what you mean. When the sun finally goes down it’s time to go to bed, and it’s still hot as blazes.” She fanned herself with her hand, the way she always did. Mom and Grandma said the same things to each other every night.
It was true about the heat, though. The middle of Utah was worse than Salt Lake, which was up by the mountains. Delta was in a flat place, with no mountains very close. In the afternoon there wasn’t a cool spot anywhere, not even in the shade.
“You need a wristwatch, Jay.”
He looked at the screen door and saw his grandpa standing there, sort of hidden by the dark screen. “Walk into my office and I’ll give you one I don’t use,” Grandpa said.
“That’s good,” said Mom. “And then you’ll have no more excuses. I’m not going to have this, Jay—you making promises and then running around all hours. This might be a little town, but there’s still bad kids you can fall in with. What have you been doing?”
“I don’t know. A bunch of boys.”
“What were their names?”
“Gordy and Lew and Eldred. I walked back into town with those three.”
“They’re okay, Louise,” Grandpa said. “Gordy’s the Linebaugh boy. You know his family. And it was probably Lewis Larsen, Jack’s son. And little ol’ Eldred Parsons; he’s as good a boy as you’ll ever find. His family just barely gets by, but they’re good people.”
“That’s all well and good. But you know how people talk down here, and you know the first thing they’ll say about Jay. When I tell him to come in by a certain time, I want him to do it.”
“What is it you think they’re going to say?” Grandpa was asking.
“You know very well. He looks like his dad, and you know what people think about that.”
That made Jay mad, but he only said, “I’ll come home at nine from now on.” Then he walked on into the house.
Grandpa had a room he called his office. It had been a bedroom once, when all the kids had been home—eight of them. His mom was the baby of the family, and Grandpa was over seventy.
Grandpa stepped to his desk and opened a drawer. “Everyone’s wearing these wristwatches now. A salesman gave me one to try out, but I never remember to look at the thing. I always reach for my chain to pull my pocket watch out. I finally just stuck this thing in here. Do you want it?”
Grandpa wound it and set the time, and then handed it to Jay. It was silver, with a leather band. He watched the second hand sweep past silver dots instead of numbers. It looked nice, but he didn’t want to wear it when he was playing ball. He took it, though, and he told Grandpa, “Thanks.”
“So did you have fun with those boys tonight?”
He didn’t tell about the ball that had hit him, but his throat still hurt when he swallowed.
“Do you think you’re going to like living down here with us?”
“It should be all right.”
“You’ll get so you’ll like everything after a while. It’s just a little different from what you’re used to.”
“Well, if I were you, I’d go in and take a bath—so you won’t be so hot when you go to bed.”
“I don’t mean you have to. I was just thinking that might be what you’d want to do.”
After he walked out, he wished he’d said more. He liked Grandpa all right. He just didn’t know what to say to him. And he didn’t want him asking so many questions, the way he did sometimes. About Salt Lake and his dad and everything.
• • •
He played ball the next few nights, but he didn’t talk much with anyone. Even when the boys played in teams and he had to wait for his turn at bat, most of the boys didn’t say much to him. He never had been able to think of much to talk about. But Gordy never stopped talking.
He and Gordy were sitting next to each other on the grass one night when Gordy poked him with his elbow and said, “Hey, Chief, you ever seen a naked girl?”
Jay shook his head.
“We did. Me and Lew. We snuck up on some girls skinny-dipping down at the canal. We watched ’em for a while, and then we started hollering that we could see ’em, and they about drowned trying to stay under the water. But it didn’t matter. They didn’t have much of anything anyway.”
Jay didn’t know what to say.
“I seen my sister once too, just by accident. Now that I know what a girl’s supposed to look like, I know it ain’t like those flat-chested girls we seen down at the canal.”
“What about Elaine Gleed?” Lew asked. “She’s not so flat.”
“What are you looking at her for? She likes me.”
“You’re the only one who thinks so.”
“Yeah. Me and her. We’re the only two.” Gordy turned back to him. “Hey, you wanna go out to the desert with us in the morning? Me and Lew and some other guys are going out real early before it gets hot.”
“I can’t,” he said. “I’ve got to work for my grandpa, at his farm.”
“Is that what you’ve been doing every day?”
“No. Tomorrow’s my first day.”
“You must be starting up to cut hay.”
“It’s already cut.”
“Then you’ll be raking, and after that, hauling. Most of us do some of that. That’s why we’re going in the morning—before our dads get us busy doing the same thing.”
Actually, he had done next to nothing since he’d been in Delta—except wait to head over to the ballpark late in the day. His mom had taken a job already, at D. Stevens department store, and Grandma was the only one home all day. He talked to Grandma sometimes. She liked to gab a little too much, but she laughed a lot. And sometimes he could think of things to tell her. But mostly he had read old comic books that some of his uncles had left behind, and he had tried throwing pitches at a big cottonwood tree out back, just to see if he could get better at throwing a ball where he meant to throw it—and maybe get so he could be a pitcher.
That morning, at the breakfast table, Grandpa had said, “Jay, I’ve got a boy from out at Topaz working for me at the farm. I’ve tried to get out there and help him a little, but I can’t seem to find much time. I—”
“You shouldn’t be out there in that heat anyway,” Grandma had said. “You know what Doc Handley told you.”
“Well, now, I guess I know what I can do and what I can’t do.”
“No, you don’t. You never have known that.” But Grandma was laughing, the way she did all the time.
Grandpa made a little motion with his hand, like he was saying, I’m not going to talk about that, and then he set his hand on top of one of Jay’s. Grandpa had big hands, all covered with spots, and his fingers were twisted at the joints. “I’m just thinking you could go out and give that boy—Ken’s his name—a little help. I’ll pay you for it, half a dollar a day, if you’d be willing to do that.”
He could hardly believe it. That was a lot of money. He liked the idea of working, too, not sitting around. It was like being a man.
“You don’t mind working with a Jap, do you?”
That took him by surprise. Why would Grandpa want him to work with a Jap?
“He’s a nice boy, and he works like a demon. He’ll keep you laughing, too.”
He had known a Japanese boy in Salt Lake—a kid at one of the schools he’d gone to. But that was when he was little, way back before the war. Most Japs weren’t like that boy. Japs were about the worst people in the world—except for Nazis. They’d bombed Pearl Harbor, out in Hawaii, for no reason at all, and that was pretty much the same as bombing America. They were ugly little yellow guys with glasses. He had seen lots of pictures of them on posters all over Salt Lake, and down here in Delta, too. Japs weren’t as tough as the Marines, or anything like that, but they kept coming and coming, dying until they were stacked up like cordwood. They liked to torture people too. Gordy was right about that. What they wanted more than anything was to bomb California, and everywhere else in America after that. They wanted to take over the whole country, but Americans weren’t going to let that happen. That’s why they were fighting a war.
“Ken’s seventeen. He just graduated. He’s a good ballplayer—played for the high school out at the camp. You know about the camp, don’t you?”
“Topaz. It’s what they call an ‘internment camp.’ It’s out in the desert about twenty miles from here. After the war broke out, the government brought in over eight thousand Japs—a whole lot more people than live here in Delta—and set them up in barracks out there. They say that some of them are spies, and they want to blow up ships and airplanes, and do all sorts of things. But I don’t know. They come in from Topaz on buses and shop at my drugstore sometimes, and they’re all nice folks as far as I can tell.”
That didn’t sound right. Grandpa always liked everybody. Maybe he just liked to have Japs spend money at his drugstore. Jay didn’t want to work with one.
Sometimes, in Salt Lake, boys had called him “Injun,” and they’d made Indian noises, slapping their mouths and whooping. Gordy didn’t seem to care if he was part Indian, but what would he say if he found out he worked with a Jap? Then he’d probably be a dirty Indian, not a Chief.
His dad had said things about Indians sometimes. Maybe he was half Navajo, but he made fun of Jay anyway—when he was joking around. “Hey, red man,” he would yell, “don’t scalp me,” and then he would pretend he had a tomahawk and chop at Jay’s head. But that was just joking. He liked to remember things like that now—when Dad was funny and playing around.
Mom had been mad at Dad way too much back then. But he was fun sometimes. That was what she always forgot. Once his dad had taken Jay up by the mountains to a zoo, and they’d walked all over and seen all the animals and everything. He’d even told Jay about things he’d done when he was a boy and had gone out to the Navajo reservation in the summer. He said, serious, he didn’t mind being half Indian. His mother had taught him good things.
It seemed like Mom was still mad about everything. She remembered all the bad stuff too much. She hadn’t even gone to the zoo with them. She should have done things like that, and not always told Dad what was wrong with him. He was a hero now, and when he came back, everything would be different. He wouldn’t get mad when he got back.
Missing in Action
An understated and moving story about an unlikely friendship from the author of the acclaimed SOLDIER BOYS, this is one of Dean Hughes's best novels to date.
- Atheneum Books for Young Readers |
- 240 pages |
- ISBN 9781416915027 |
- March 2010 |
- Grades 5 - 9 |
- Lexile HL620