Excerpted from ‘Tet’, from Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life © by Michael Moore. Published September 2011 by Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
I can’t quite remember when I turned against the idea of war, but I’m sure it had something to do with the fact that I didn’t want to die. From pretty much the sixth grade on, I was firmly, solidly, against dying.
But up until then, I spent many years dying with verve in our neighborhood. The favorite game to play on our street was War. It beat Bloody Murder by a mile because it had weapons. Bloody Murder was really just a game of hide-and-seek (when you found the person hiding, you would yell “Bloody murder!” and everyone would try to make it back to touch the home pole before those who were hiding could tag you).
Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life
(Grand Central; US: Sep 2011)
War was the real deal—and girls couldn’t play. The rules were simple. A group of boys, ages four to ten, would divide up into two groups: the Americans and the Germans. We each had our own set of toy machine guns, rifles, and bazookas. I was much admired for my fine stash of hand grenades that came complete with the pin you could pull out as you tossed it, accompanied by a very loud “explosion” that would come out of my mouth.
None of us minded whether we were chosen to be a German or an American—we already knew who was going to win. It became less about winning and more about coming up with creative and entertaining ways to kill and be killed. We studied Combat and Rat Patrol on TV. We asked our dads for ideas but none of us got much help as they didn’t seem to want to talk about their war experiences. We all imagined our fathers as well-decorated war heroes, and it was just assumed that if we ever had to go to war we would be every bit the brave defenders of freedom they were.
I was particularly good at dying, and the other kids loved machine-gunning me down. Especially if I was playing a German; I’d stand for as long as I could, taking as many of their bullets as I could, and, long before Sam Peckinpah arrived on the scene, I was going down in a slow-motion agony that gave all the other boys a thrill for offing my sorry Nazi ass. And when I hit the ground, I’d roll over a couple times and, in a fit of spasms, I would expire. As I lay there, eyes open, motionless, I felt a strange sense of satisfaction that I played an important role in seeing one more nasty Nazi bite the dust.
But when I played an American, I would try to stay alive as long as possible. I would find some way to sneak in behind enemy lines, hide in a tree, and then take out as many of the Germans as I could. I especially loved lobbing the grenades from above; it was so upsetting to the “Nazi” boys who could not figure out where all these little bombs were coming from. I would make sure to leave one or two of them alive so they could shoot me. Then I could die a hero’s death, cut down in my prime, maybe taking one last “Nazi” with me as I fell on them, pulling the pin off my final grenade, blowing both of us to bits as we hit the ground.
But by 1966, as the pictures on the evening news seemed nothing like what we were acting out on our little dirt street, “playing” war became less and less fun. These soldiers on TV were really dead—bloody and dead, covered in mud, then covered by a tarp, no slow-motion heroics provided. The soldiers who remained alive, they looked all scared and disheveled and confused. They smoked cigarettes, and not one of them looked like he was having much fun. One by one, the boys in the neighborhood put away their toy guns. No one said anything. We just stopped. There was homework and chores to do, and girls seemed distantly interesting. The Americans won The Big War That Counted, and that was enough.
By the summer after seventh grade our family left the dirt street and moved on to a paved one – the very street that we lived on when I was born. I started to think a lot about the Vietnam War that summer, and most of what I thought about wasn’t good. I did the math and I realized I was just five years away from draft age! And it was becoming clear that this war was not going to be over anytime soon.
Mrs. Beachum was our afternoon lay teacher in eighth grade. Because our nun was also the Mother Superior for the school, she taught us only in the morning. Her afternoons were spent on her administrative duties and doling out the necessary disciplinary measures to the fallen ones among us.
Mrs. Beachum was black. There were no other teachers and only three black kids in the entire school—and perhaps because their last name was JuanRico, we somehow convinced ourselves they weren’t really black, probably Cuban or Puerto Rican! One of the boys was called Ricardo and the other was named Juan. See—not Negro! They were popular, and their parents were at every event helping out in any way that they could.
But Mrs. Beachum was definitely black. There was no getting around it. Her skin was nearly as dark as coal, and she spoke in a Southern dialect none of us were familiar with. Not a day would pass where she wouldn’t say to one of us in her distinctive Southern black accent, “Don’t be facetious, child!” We had no idea what that meant, but we just loved the sound of it. She had a body that was not covered by a nun’s habit, and I would not be surprised if, in 1967, I wasn’t the only boy in our class whose first “dream” had the good fortune of Mrs. Beachum playing a significant role in it.
But in our waking hours we did not sexualize her, as none of us wanted to deal with that in the confessional booth. Plus, the Mother Superior kept a strict and watchful eye on our puberty and its progress, and she made sure to spend time reminding each gender in the class just how much we could trust the other gender—which was, to put it simply, not a lot. Since fifth grade, the two genders of our class did their best to put down or ridicule each other, and by the time we were thirteen or fourteen, we had developed enough of a vocabulary and a streak of meanness to slice and dice the opposing side with plausible gusto. The girls were most fond of pointing out the boys who had hygiene issues, and they would anonymously leave a can of Ban deodorant on the locker of the offending boy for all to see. The boys had already picked up on the girls’ sensitivity to their growing (or not-so-growing) breasts. One boy had swiped his older sister’s falsies and they were thus left on the desks of those girls who had failed to blossom rapidly enough to match the ones we saw in Mike McIntosh’s Playboys.
This was how we spent our mornings in eighth grade, fighting back the heat inside with some church-sanctioned cool cruelty—all done with the good intention, I am sure, to keep us out of trouble and way out of wedlock.
After lunch, though, it was all jazz.
Mrs. Beachum would have none of this “boys versus girls” stuff. She believed in “love” and “being in love,” and though we couldn’t quite put our finger on it, years later we knew she was also the only teacher in the school making love (or so we wanted to think). When she taught us history, she made the characters come alive.
“What do y’all know about Teapot Dome!” she’d say, never meaning it as a question. We had no thoughts about Teapot Dome, but we knew we were going to hear a sassy story about it.
“Warren G. Harding — uh-huh! He sure was sumpin’! Scandal? Lordy, he wrote the book on it!”
Every class was like this.
“Lemme hear some sweet poetry today, children! Who’s written a poem just for me?” Oh, believe me, we were all writing poems. She had us rhyming and she taught us rhythms, and sometimes she would take our poem and sing it back to us. Every once in a while, the Mother Superior would stick her head in to see what was going on. She didn’t object, just as long as the boys were still sitting on one side of the room and girls were on the other. Her tacit approval of Mrs. Beachum’s methods made us less worried for her, and it relaxed the room to the point where on the day Mrs. Beachum proposed her Big Idea, there was surprisingly little objection among us.
“I think it’s time to teach y’all a little manners! You ever hear of ‘etiquette’?”
We had heard of it but certainly had never been practitioners of it.
“Well, boys and girls, I think it’s time we all went out to dinner with each other and learn how proper people do things! Boys, I want you each to pick a girl to be your dinner partner. Then for the next three weeks we’ll all learn proper table manners. When we’re ready, we’ll go to Frankenmuth for one of those famous fried chicken dinners!”
Of course, what she had in mind wasn’t “learnin’ manners” or “etiquette.” She was going to teach us how to date. I’m sure she had to sell this idea to the authorities without saying the word date, and I guess they saw nothing wrong with us knowing which one was the salad fork and understanding how the releasing of toxic gasses during a meal was not how God expected us to enjoy the fruits of his earth.
The twenty-seven of us in Mrs. Beachum’s class had just been told that nature’s gates could now be opened. For a few minutes we all giggled and twitched and—and, dang, we liked this idea! It was remarkable how quickly we each took to this concept of “going out” with someone else in the classroom who didn’t have our specific reproductive organs. (In years hence, I’ve wondered what this must have been like for the nonheterosexuals in the room—finally a chance to acknowledge sexual feelings!—but, damn! With the wrong gender! For them, I guess, it became an early lesson in faking it.)
The proper order of the world fell into place quite perfectly as each boy in the room rushed over to ask out the girl who was “appropriate” for him. The basketball star asked out the softball whiz. The piano player asked out the dancer. The writer asked out the actress. The boy from the trailer park asked out the girl from the trailer park. The boy with the hygiene issues asked out the girl with the hygiene issues.
And I asked out Kathy Root. I’m not quite sure how to explain the matchup, but perhaps the easiest way is to say she was the tallest girl in the class and I was the tallest boy. For my part, I couldn’t have cared less about our height – I had not taken my eyes off her for the past three years. She had long tan legs and a constant smile and was truly nice to everyone. And she was whip-smart. She was the girl most of the other boys would be too afraid to ask out – including me—so she made it easy on me and came across the room to where I was, frozen and petrified at my desk.
“Well, I guess it’s you and me,” she said gently so that I wouldn’t collapse into my pants.
“Sure,” I responded. “Yeah. For real. It’ll be fun.”
And that was that. I had the catch of the room. The girl who in high school would be elected our homecoming queen was going to be my “date” at our “etiquette” dinner.
By the next afternoon, though, tragedy struck.
“Michael,” Mrs. Beachum called out to me in the hallway after lunch. “Can I have a moment with you?”
She led me to a corner so that no one could hear us.
“I just want you to know that you’re probably the only boy in the class to whom I could ask this favor.”
She had the most encouraging eyes. Her hair made it seem as if she were the fourth Supreme. Her lips… Well, I didn’t know much about lips at thirteen, but what I did know, now standing closer to her than I ever had before, confirmed to me that there were no more inviting lips than those that Mrs. Beachum carried with her.
The lips parted, and she began to speak. “I’ve already talked to your date, to Kathy Root, and she said it was OK with her if it’s OK with you.”
Yes, go on. Please. Don’t let the twitch on the left side of my face distract you.
“There are thirteen boys and fourteen girls in the class. So all the girls have a date except Lydia.”