by Randy Parker
The cub scouts moved in waves over the campground commons like blue and yellow wildflowers in the wind. They misbehaved away from their parents, away from the fetters of common sense. They cussed and spit with abandon as if it were something they naturally had to do. The way horses jump and fart when they are first let out to pasture. It was a perfect evening for running and jumping, climbing ropes and whittling with official scout pocket knives. Fat scoutmasters stood on the edge of the field near the mess hall and laughed with low voices.
“How are things?” Thomas asked his daughter Cricket as they scoped out their campsite. They were camping near Shiloh, so that he could show her the storied battlefield first thing in the morning. She wore a thick, colorful sweater, the one he gave her last year, and she sat in last year’s leaves looking into the forest.
“Okay.” She said. But this seemed too cordial. “Momma says she needs more money for my camp this summer.”
“What your Momma needs is—“ he stopped. He did not want to talk about Momma.
They put the tent together. They were silent except for the occasional, “hand me that pole” and “hold this for me.” They built their little house together. Thomas looked at the camp stove and the ice chest and couldn’t stir up an appetite.
Scouts were all around in need of a good whipping. There was talk of war. Unrest was in the air. And when darkness fell, all hell broke loose. Thomas and Cricket had just finished hotdogs when the battle began. A flashlight war. Scouts hid behind trees and cars and in shadows and they fired beams of light at each other. If you were directly hit by the beam of someone’s flashlight, you were out for the battle. Thomas found himself weighing his own flashlight in the palm of his hand as if it were a pistol. He aimed it toward a group of scouts and gazed down its ribbed side.
“We did the same thing when I was a cub scout,” he told Cricket. He was amazed at the continuity over decades in which almost everything else had changed.
“When are you going to pick teams,” he asked one boy.
“There are no teams,” he said breathing hard, “just one-on-one guerilla warfare.”
Some of the scouts had the biggest hand-held flashlights Thomas had ever seen. It would be a bloody war. Boys compared arms with expressions on their faces that betrayed their secret desire for blowtorches instead. The scoutmasters stood on the sidelines by the mess hall with their arms resting on their full bellies. In the tall oaks and poplar trees, an after dinner breeze blew, refreshing March gusts that sounded like water in dead leaves that clung to the oaks as if they had a chance at revival or renewal. Crickets and tree frogs filled the woods with sound.
Thomas saw that some of the dads were fighting with the boys, and being a dad, too, he wondered if perhaps he could, just for a few minutes, have some mindless fun, be the zany, carefree dad he wished he were, under the cover of darkness.
He reached into a pack and pulled
out another flashlight. “You want to join them?” He asked. Surprisingly, she said yes. “Be back here in 15 minutes. I don’t want to go looking for you in the dark.”
They left camp, each on his own. He hadn’t run so fast in years. He lost himself in the moment. He was invisible, except when he switched on his flashlight. He felt as he did when he was a kid, hiding behind the woodpile or behind the giant cannas in the back of his yard. Nobody knew he was there and there was no freer feeling.
He fell into believing that he was still young. And then he fell into a hole. He used it like a foxhole, peering out, trying to decide if he should go on the offensive. The commons looked a lot like the sky, dark with white lights twinkling in every quadrant. He saw a guy with the mother of all flashlights, the WMD, who panned the entire area with his beam, massacring little uniformed scouts left and right. There were shouts of “Hey that’s not fair,” and Thomas decided he was his target. This fat ass was a machine gun emplacement and Thomas was Sergeant York. Thomas took to the woods, darting from tree to tree. On the way, he killed three scouts and a scoutmaster who was so out of breath he thanked Thomas for having the mercy to end it all for him. All around there were vocal explosions. Pow. Pow.
Thomas sneaked up behind his ultimate target, who was fat and slow. He fired at the back of his sweaty neck. The boy turned and Thomas fired again into his belly and his face. The boy just looked at Thomas as if he was some old geezer trying to ruin his fun.
“You’re dead.” Thomas said.
“No way, man. You’re not in charge.” He ran off as if he wanted to get away from the crazy old guy. But Thomas knew that he knew he was dead.
He returned to base camp, out of breath and slightly embarrassed at his lack of self-control. He made a fire and waited for Cricket. He wished things were normal for her. Like they used to be. Cricket—he almost forgot her name was Ashley—got her nickname one spring when she was very small. She ran in the backdoor to tell her dad that crickets were hanging in the newly planted oak. Sure enough, they were, two crickets hanging on small twigs by their exoskeletons.
They did some research together and found out that this is how they molted. They hung there and slowly climbed out of who they were. They molted to grow, shedding old exoskeletons for new. His daughter was fascinated and so was he, and he thought she was not so unlike these young crickets. Growing, changing, leaving her already too-small clothes behind the bathroom door.
Now she was the more elusive cricket, the one somewhere in your house keeping you up at night, but nowhere to be found.
“Bang, bang!” She shouted behind him. He turned to find her beam in his face. “You’re dead,” she said, “if you weren’t already.”
“I’m dead, all right,” his said still breathing hard. “What happened?” he asked, eager to tell her of his victories.
“Some brat said I couldn’t play because I wasn’t a scout or even a boy. I let him have it and went looking for you.”
“Did you see the fat guy with the huge light?”
“I killed him.”
“He’s still out there running around,” she said, disbelieving.
“Yeah, but he knows he’s dead. That’s what counts.”
They rolled out their bags, took a trip to the restrooms, and then sat by the little fire Thomas had made in the rusted fire ring. Thomas drank the only beer he brought with him. Cricket didn’t say much, but then Thomas hit a hot button.
“When’s your mom’s business trip? You coming to my house on Wednesday?”
“I guess. You know, Rachel Ann doesn’t move back and forth. She stays in the house where her room is, and the parents move back and forth depending on whose week it is.”
“Wow, you mean like your mom would move into my house while I come and stay with you?”
Not a bad idea on the surface of it, Thomas thought. Much better for the kid, for sure.
“It’s not like it’s Rachel Ann’s fault, you know. She shouldn’t have to keep moving around.”
“You’re right about that.” But then, as he too often did, Thomas cracked the stick of reality over Cricket’s head. “If her parents can get along that well, they should probably still be married.”
Silence followed. Except for the frogs.
“The bugs are out.”
They got in their tent and Thomas zipped up the screens. The campground grew quieter. The war had ended as batteries were drained. The scouts were bunked in rustic cabins on the other side of the commons. Cricket was at a loss not being able to IM her friends. She lay on her back looking up at the tent roof in the dark.
“Tomorrow we’ll see Shiloh,” Thomas told her with great anticipation.
“You’ll like it. Thousands of men died there. I thought it was the greatest place when I was a kid, a real Civil War battlefield. Lots of blood. Lots of strategy. Lots of history. Grant was there. There’s this cool film you watch before you tour—I hope they still have it. My favorite part is when the Rebel Flag bearer gets shot and goes down. Another soldier snatches up the flag before it can hit the ground and keeps it flying for the troops. I loved that part. And then, in the little museum you can see the grape shot. It’s a basket full of small cannon balls that when shot from the cannon opens up sending the balls flying all over, like a really big shotgun, and the balls tear through the enemy lines taking arms and legs with them. And there’s Bloody Pond. And the Sunken Road, where the Hornet’s Nest was. And then there’s the exact, very same tree where General Johnston was mortally wounded on day one. The same tree!”
Thomas sensed a change in Cricket’s breathing, and he knew she was already asleep. She’ll see it all tomorrow, he told himself. He tried to sleep but couldn’t. He thought about Rachel Ann and her Rachel Ann-centric life, about how that could be a way to make things normal for Cricket. He would be able to share some sort of a life with Beth again or at least a cooperative spirit. Perhaps in their cooperation they could find something more. Perhaps she would be ready to bring the family back together again, and Thomas would try harder to make things work, to not do whatever he did to drive her away. He knew this was what Cricket wanted. He wanted to give that to her, if he could.
He wanted Beth, too, but that was more than he dared admit.
The next day was overcast and cool. Cricket seemed to have more life. She said she’d cook breakfast if Thomas would just light the stove. She had already rekindled the fire to run off the morning chill. Sometimes she didn’t seem like a child at all.
They ate eggs and bacon. Thomas drank some instant coffee and she downed a juice box. They broke camp, packed everything up and put it all in the back of the Escape.
“Sure,” she said, almost sincerely eager.
They stopped in at Ed Shaw’s souvenir store. It had been there since Thomas was a kid, but it had seen better days. There was more camp and kitsch than civil war items, bumper stickers that said “Save your Confederate money ’cause the South’s gonna rise again” and others that happily proclaimed “Ass Kickin’ Patrol.” They left empty-handed.
Even before they entered the park, they began to see the stamped metal markers that showed where this regiment or that was stationed. They could see them deep in the woods where hardly a soul would bother to go or perhaps a quarter mile out in a field. It would take someone weeks to read every marker in the park.
Once through the entrance, Thomas recognized the place immediately, although there were more memorials and statues than he remembered. They drove to the welcome center and went inside. The movie would start in ten minutes, a ranger told them. Just time enough to look at the exhibit. He showed Cricket the basket of balls and recounted their destructive ability.
“Gross,” is all she had to say.
“Yeah, good and gross,” Thomas responded.
But it was the movie he wanted to see. They went into the auditorium. At one end was the big screen, but it was dark. Instead there was a large flat screen TV on a cart. Thomas thought they had done away with his movie, the one he remembered, the one made by the National Park Service in about 1958, complete with fake-bearded actors and real battle excitement. Then the flat screen lit up, and much to his delight, it showed the same old movie, jittery and faded but preserved for posterity on DVD.
The movie did a great job of describing events and Thomas looked over at Cricket to see if she was paying attention. She looked bored. And when the flag bearer fell he looked over to her to see if it had an impact but her stare is empty. “That’s the cool part,” he told her. She shrugged.
Soon the movie was over and Thomas was eager to start the car tour. But first they bought some snacks from a vending machine out back and made their way on foot to the cemetery that overlooked the Tennessee River. Rows of markers, names and dates. There was a cannon with a barrel so big, he asked Cricket to put her head in so he could get a picture. She did it reluctantly. They looked out at the Tennessee, and tried to imagine the thousands of Union troops coming down in the night to reinforce Grant’s last defensive hold. They looked down at Pittsburg Landing where the soldiers came ashore and turned the tide at Shiloh from a Confederate victory to a huge loss for both sides.
They got in the car and started the auto tour. “When we get out and walk, keep a sharp lookout,” Thomas told her.
He knew they would not find any. It was something his Dad had said to him, and he never did find one. It was something his Granddad had no doubt told his Dad. Go back far enough, and sure enough, somebody had found a miniball, back before metal detectors and federal protection.
Father and daughter stopped at the Hornet’s Nest where the Union was constantly barraged by rebel cannon and bullets. They stopped at a Confederate burial trench where 1728 Confederate dead were buried. They stopped at Shiloh Church where there was a replica of the original meetinghouse, and they saw where one of the very first field hospitals was established.
“Isn’t all this fascinating?” Thomas asked his daughter as they stood looking out at a line of cannon in the distance.
“Don’t you think we could do something similar?” she asked.
“What?” Thomas answered, perplexed.
“What Rachel Ann is doing.”
“Ah.” Actually, Thomas had been thinking about it all morning. About how much better it would be for Cricket. Her life would be stable, and it would be her parents who would come and go, schlepping their lives back and forth. Surely Beth could see the value in this. It seemed right for them to revolve around their child, somehow. And could he possibly dare to think that their orbits might cross, or that they might even collide? There is good reason to hope, he thought. And what could it hurt? Yet, he didn’t want Cricket to get her hopes up, certainly not as high as his were.
“You know your mom,” Thomas responded. I don’t think she’d buy it.”
“Could you just ask her?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why would she care? She’s out of town so much anyway.”
This was true. Besides, Thomas’ place wasn’t so bad.
“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to talk to her about it.”
“Do it now!”
“What, call her now?”
“Yeah, why not?”
“You go look at those markers over there and I’ll see if I have any bars.”
Cricket meandered away while he called her mother. He was surprised that she answered.
“Hey,” she said, “you guys at Shiloh now?”
“Yeah, it’s great; Cricket’s eating it up.”
“That’s good,” she replied, doubtful.
“Yeah,” he continued. “You know they have the same movie, the old one, and . . .” He knew she was already bored with him.
“Well, have a good time.”
“Hey . . .”
His voice grew shaky.
“Cricket was telling me about Rachel Ann and how her parents share the house, you know, every other week, so she doesn’t have to move back and forth.”
“She’s on that kick again?”
“It sounds like a good idea.”
“It won’t work.”
“Why?” He regained his strength and pressed on. “My place is pretty nice and you’re out of town a lot anyway, and I’d clean and do some laundry and all that sort of thing. I’d stay out of your way, of course, you know, for Cricket’s sake.”
“Thomas,” she declared like a mother, “it won’t work.”
Why, he thought, was she so damned negative about everything? Why did she have to be in control? Could she not, for once, put Cricket first instead of herself?
He realized he had been silent when Beth repeated herself.
“It won’t work.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Because I’m seeing someone.”
The crack of gunpowder resounded as a park worker demonstrated how muskets were fired. Thomas almost fell to the ground there was so much pain in his gut.
The wind blew in his eyes.
He saw Cricket standing at the end of a long line of cannon, her hand moving up and down the last bronze barrel, looking over at Thomas, hopeful, impatient.
“Ah,” he answered finally, as if it was but a trifle. “Okay.”
He hung up.
Cricket saw that he was off the phone and came running toward him. He tried to gather himself, looking out toward a field where there were dozens of some kind of cages standing out in the open.
“What did she say?”
“Did you know she was seeing someone?’
Cricket’s expression told him that she did.
“He’s a jerk.”
The tour saved the best for last. The Bloody Pond, the Peach Orchard and General Johnston’s tree.
Solemn and bemused, they arrived at Albert S. Johnston’s memorial. It was a cannon pointed straight up into the sky surrounded by pyramids of black cannon balls. Thomas looked everywhere for the tree impounded by the iron fence, the very tree where Johnston was mortally wounded.
“Where is the tree?” he asked aloud.
“The one where he was shot. It was right here with a fence around it, covered in vines.”
“It must have rotted.”
“Couldn’t they put Thompson’s Water Seal on it or something?” He was incensed.
The marker referred only to the spot nearby where “the tree once stood.” He could see small bits of concrete in the ground that held the fence posts. He just couldn’t believe the tree was gone. His spirit sank deep into the woods, down in the ravine below where there was another marker defining the place where soldiers took the General to die, away from the gunfire.
His disappointment only mounted as they stopped at the peach orchard. This was the place where so many bullets were flying that the peach blossoms fell like snow on the battlefield. Here all they found were rows of tiny seedlings protected from deer by the wire cages he had noticed before. This was the peach orchard? This was not how he remembered it. How long did peach trees live, anyway? How long had this been going on, this replanting of history? And then he spotted on the edge of the orchard three remaining old trees, bent and gnarled. He wondered if these could have been here when he came as a child. He took their picture.
“What’s your deal with trees?” Cricket asked.
They moved on to the last attraction, the Bloody Pond. It was a shallow peaceful puddle where, legend had it, men from both sides crawled to nurse their wounds. Supposedly so many men and horses died there that the water was stained red.
“Let’s go home,” he mumbled, and that’s what they did. Past the markers and monuments to the West Tennessee countryside and back to Memphis. They were silent most of the way home. The loss of the tree did not leave him. Headlights shone at him, revealed his position, passed, and then left a darkness greater than before.
He looked over at Cricket who was looking straight ahead and whose mind was probably on her friends and school.
“I love you,” He told her.
“I love you too, Daddy,” she said, still looking forward.
They got back home and ate bowls of cereal for dinner. He got on the computer and looked for pictures of Johnston’s tree. He found one taken only a few years ago. What was left of the tree was bone white, and there, surrounding it, was the iron fence he remembered. He showed this to Cricket. Then he looked for older pictures and found a black and white one that showed the tree just as he remembered it, top taken away by the elements, trunk choked by vines.
“Here it is,” he showed her. “This is what it looked like.”
“I see,” she said, but he knew she didn’t really.
He Googled again and found a postcard on eBay depicting the tree, dated 1927. And the tree was still alive! Amazing, he thought. Soon, though, he found reports that explained that the park removed the tree’s remains after recent scholarship deduced that it probably wasn’t the actual tree after all. Sometimes it is wise not to dig too deeply, Thomas thought.
“They’ve rewritten my history,” He told Cricket. They had uprooted his memory. He continued to look at the postcard from 1927, and he wondered if the tree even looked big enough to have been a big tree in the war so many years before. Of course, it didn’t. How could they have made such an error?
“Why must they be so right?” He asked aloud.
“Why can’t things just stay the same?” She asked. “You know, the good things.” She headed to the kitchen with their cereal bowls. Then her cell phone chirped Dixie, and she disappeared behind a wall.
Randy Parker has an MA in creative writing from the University of Memphis and makes his living as an advertising writer in Memphis. Recent creative work as been published in Sierra and The Avatar Review.