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Godfrey's War: Chapter One - The Train Game
The Madison connector train runs daily between Wilmington Junction and the Eastside loading docks just outside of Ogden, Michigan. It heads down the east-west spur and unloads; then trundles back to Wilmington and loads up again – every hour on the hour six days a week. Sundays, there’s no traffic down the rail pike.
Danny Banner and the boys hung out by the Eastside loading docks near Crockett River all summer long that year. Danny was seventeen or so, and the rest of the lads were about that age too. The first day of school was just around the corner that late, August afternoon.
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It was hot and humid, the red wasps were humming like baby helicopters, and the boys were stripped to the waist, squeezing the last juice out of their fading boyhood days. Crompton poked a tree branch into the gravel pond, stabbing at a fish that weren’t bigger than a finger but he claimed it was a foot long.
Blaine and Jeffrey slid down the bank of the gravel pit and descended on Crompton and the rest of the lads.
“Happy, happy, happy!” exclaimed Jeffrey. He was a Ritalin addict who went everywhere with his older brother Blaine.
Blaine was a chunky ginger with slight acne and pinkish freckled skin but he was duller than an economics class – one day Vincent complained that Blaine was bland and the name stuck. Blaine was Bland.
“Hey guys, what’s going on?” Bland said with his mild-as-milk smile.
Crompton ignored him and pitched his ears to the far off sound of the Madison connector train leaving the dock.
“Train!” he shouted to the others.
The lads charged past Bland who raised his pudgy index finger.
“Hey guys, wait,” he said docilely and ambled after them. Jeffrey scowled at his big brother’s lameness but tagged along behind him anyway. The others raced down the gravel pit road to the rail spur to play chicken with the train.
Their parents loathed the Train Game. One afternoon, somebody called the cops—maybe it was the train engineer – who knew? but the cops hauled ass down the gravel pit road, kicking up dust in a big black SUV like feds or something.
“What’re you boys doing here?” the big fat cop asked. The lanky cop hung back, leaning on the SUV like a sexy gangsta from the movies but the lads didn’t buy it – he was still a cop and nothing would make him cool.
“Just chillin’,” Danny chawed at him, slow with the hang down head and all.
“Playing chicken are you?” The lanky cop spat his dip on the ground.
“Nah,” Crompton walked over like he was going to confront the fat cop. Then he spun and smirked like an idiot, “We’s havin’ a meeting.”
The boys sniggered.
“Special meeting!” Jeffrey chimed in and dabbed like a rapper.
The lanky cop curled his lip.
The fat cop cut to the chase. “Stop playing chicken with the fuckin’ trains, you morons!”
“Otay,” said Cromp. “You doesn’t has to get nasty.”
Jeffrey’s face was turning red, he was trying so hard not to bust out laughing. Danny remained quiet until the cops jumped back into their SUV and drove off. “Who’s next?” he grinned.
Jeffrey darn near fainted he was laughing so hard. He wheezed and imitated the cop: “Stop playing chicken with the fuckin’ trains, you morons!”
“Fuckin’ trolls,” Jones sneered.
DeNarda threw a rock down the road after the trail of dust left behind the SUV.
“Fug aff!!” he shouted after them.
It was like that all summer long—smoke a little doobie and swim in the gravel pit, talk about stupid shit and then the Train Game.
Bettsy stood on the tracks waiting for the next train. He did it blindfolded to crush them all.
They were aghast.
“Omg!” Jeffrey cried after Bettsy jumped free of the tracks seconds before the train barrelled through.
Nobody would dare try it except Danny who shrugged nonchalantly, took the blindfold and laid down on the track until the last second. He rolled off the track just as the engineer laid on the air horn.
“That was funkin’ insane!” Jeffrey screamed, hopping up and down.
“Dan the man!” Vincent agreed and thumped Danny on the back.
Danny grinned like it weren’t nothing.
Glenn headlocked Danny and gave him some knuckles to the bean. He adored Danny, it’s true. They were best friends since first grade, went everywhere together. Fact is Danny was king shit—even got laid sometimes.
That’s what made it hard.
Friday night before the accident they went beasting in Cromp’s station wagon. Crompton's old man gave him the wagon after he got his license. The Buick Estate was the largest production station wagon ever built and could seat twelve. It was one of the ugliest cars on the road but it was the only car big enough to haul them all around in, so that was that.
It was instantly dubbed the Beast and Friday nights were spent beasting around town, smoking shitty weed and drinking warm beer – and the goal of teenage boys from the beginning of time – trying to pick up teenage girls.
It never occurred to them that most girls wouldn’t want to get into a horrendously ugly station wagon with a bunch of half-drunken assholes, but the fact is they were occasionally successful.
The Beast was normally parked in the Crompton family driveway, next to an assortment of gardening tools, lawnmowers and garbage bins. Crompton’s family was a rambunctious crew of disheveled kids, dogs and toys, TV screens and tribal noise.
Crompton lived up the street from Bettsy and Steve Jones. Crompton and the rest of the lads often hung out at Crompton's house or at Bettsy’s house, but never at Steve Jones’ house because Steve Jones’ dad was a police officer.
Steve Jones’ dad was an intimidating cop, he weighed over 300 pounds and played college football before entering the police force. It was pretty obvious he was a useless parent because Steve Jones was an arrogant prick. None of the boys liked him and he didn’t like any of them, except maybe Robbie Bower.
Robbie Bower was a blonde-haired, undersized boy who looked like an innocent ten year-old but he was actually a little shit like Steve Jones. They played tennis together sometimes and then they’d come hang out with the boys. Steve Jones would sneer with his long, orange hair and his head thrown back like he was a rock star or something.
“Niiice,” he would sneer, drawing out “nice” like “niiice face,” or “niiice life…niiice.”
Bower would echo, “Niiice” like Jones’ trained dog.
Just to show you how it was, one day Jones got in a fight at the tennis courts with Bettsy. There wasn’t any reason to get in a fight but fights don’t need a reason, just like a fire doesn’t need a reason to burn.
Crompton instigated the whole thing, egging Steve Jones on.
“Bettsy is killing Mr. Jones,” Crompton said slyly.
“Instigator Cromp,” Jeffrey scowled.
“Fucking troll,” DeNarda agreed.
“Mr. Jones and me!” Crompton sang, undeterred.
Crompton was dubbed the Instigator for good reason. He liked to call up Bland’s little sister, Marianne who was an overweight thirteen year old. When she answered the phone Crompton hissed, “FAT! FAT!…Fat! Fat! Fat!” and hung up.
Marianne wailed and ran to her mother crying, “Crompton is mean to me!” but it was useless to try and complain to her mother because Bland’s parents were too busy getting rich to bother with their kids’ problems.
Bland’s dad had so much money he bought a fully-restored 1972 Plymouth Satellite and Bland was allowed to drive it sometimes. Too bad Bland drove it like a grandma and hardly got it out of third gear, let alone stomp on it and lay some rubber.
“Just the Satellite!” Jeffrey clapped when they all piled in the Satellite to go for a spin.
“It’s a pleasant afternoon for a drive,” Bland managed to say.
“Burn rubber!” they screamed but Bland smiled his milk toast smile.
“Do you all have your seat belts properly fastened?” Bland inquired.
“Fack!” Jeffrey screamed. “Burn some fackin’ rubber!” But to no avail—Bland drove a conservative five miles under the speed limit until they were all disgusted and bailed out.
Let’s return to the tennis courts on the day of the fight: Bland was waiting to play the winner, warming up by stretching his podgy freckled legs.
“Bettsy is kicking your ass, Jonesy,” Cromp chided from center net at the tennis courts.
It was inevitable Bettsy would win. He won regionals two years straight.
“Jonesy must like pain,” Vincent joked to Glenn. The only one cheering for Steve Jones was Robbie Bower.
“Smash it, Steve!” Bower urged, but Steve Jones was no match for Bettsy and he was steadily getting crushed. Finally, to save face, Jones opted for a fight. He strutted angrily when Bettsy nailed him in the leg with a fast serve.
“Watch it, dickhead!” Jones threw his racket at Bettsy.
Bettsy picked up the racket and threw it over the tennis court fence where it landed in the upper branches of a big tree.
Jeffrey choked with glee. “In the fagging tree!” he shrieked.
Jones lost it and charged at Bettsy.
Steve Jones was a foot taller and Bettsy wasn’t much of a fighter but he stoically stood his ground while Jones kicked and landed a few good shots. Danny waltzed over with his alpha-male swagger and got Steve Jones in a headlock and dragged him off, ending it.
Steve Jones backed away from Danny but he taunted Bettsy some more.
“Nice loser, Bettsy,” he jeered with his head held back. “Niiice!”
Later that night cruising around in the Beast, they were all drinking some beers. Steve Jones mocked Bettsy some more.
“Hey Bower, what did I do to him next? Oh yeah, I booted him in the head, yeah that’s right, I booted him in the head.”
“Bettsy still kicked your ass in the tennis match,” Vincent commented dryly.
Jones scoffed but Glenn dug in, “Bettsy is the tennis god.”
“Tennis god!” Jeffrey squawked and he and Vincent traded fake punches.
Friday night before the accident, Crompton drove the Beast over to the parking lot at the Safeway. Some girls were hanging out with two older guys, sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck.
Cromp rolled down the window, “Got any weed?”
The guys with the two girls gave them a stony stare and the girls just shook their heads, but Jeffrey stuck his head out the window and shouted, “Show us your tits!”
“Idiot!” Danny Banner hissed at him.
The guy got cross and walked over to punch Jeffrey in the head but Cromp gunned it.
Bland giggled. “It’s a jolly evening.”
Jeffrey tossed an empty at the truck and it sailed high and long before smashing into the front windshield of the pickup and shattering the window.
“Fack! Fack!” Jeffrey shrieked, laughing hysterically. The two guys jumped into the pickup and the engine roared as the Beast exited the parking lot.
Bland smiled like it was bingo night. “We may have upset those boys,” he marveled.
“Go! Go!” they all screamed at Crompton. The station wagon was as slow as an old wheelbarrow and the pickup truck was on their rear by the time they hit the lights at the corner. The two guys piled out and grabbed tire irons out of the box of the truck.
“Drive! You fuckin’ idiot!” But Crompton just sat there.
“It’s a red light,” he pretended to care, amused at their anxiety.
The bigger of the two guys smashed the back window of the station wagon with the tire iron. Glass spewed into the back seat and sprayed the backs of their heads.
Danny shook the glass from his hair and got out of the car followed by Crompton who inspected the broken window.
“Who’s going to pay for that?” he asked nobody.
Bland stayed in the back with DeNarda and Glenn’s younger brother Vincent, eating jelly donuts they bought from the donut shop earlier. The rest followed after Danny and stood outside facing the two guys.
The two guys stood their ground holding the tire irons. They were much bigger and older and not adverse to kicking the shit out of some mouthy teens.
Danny walked right up to the two guys and eyeballed the biggest one.
“You broke my fucking window!” he yelled in Danny’s face.
“No I didn’t,” Danny answered.
“Fuck yeah, you did,” the other guy leaned forward like he was going to use the tire iron.
“Get the fuck outa here or we’re gonna kick your asses,” Danny warned coolly.
“Fuck you, shithead,” the bigger guy lifted his arm to use the tire iron and Danny punched him square in the face. His nose exploded with blood and he dropped the tire iron, holding his bloody face.
“Hell yeah!” Jeffrey screamed and hopped up and down.
Glenn charged the other guy and pushed him down. The others jumped in, laying the boots to both of them while Crompton picked up the tire iron and commenced smashing all the windows of the pickup truck, and then put out the headlights.
The two girls walked over from the Safeway parking lot and were standing there watching. Bland got out of the wagon and went over and started chatting them up. Before long, the girls were in the back of the Beast and they took off, leaving the two guys moaning on the pavement, holding their ribs.
So there they were with two girls. Bland continued his relentless small talk with the blond one. The other cuter one cosy’d up to Danny and he put his arm around her cool and easy.
DeNarda was jealous. He watched Danny put the squeeze on the cute girl and moodily sucked on his wine. He couldn’t pick up a girl if she landed in his lap, so he got revenge by getting into a stupid argument with Bland and Vincent to ruin everything.
He eyed the donuts they were munching on. “Gimme a donut dickhead!” he said sullenly.
“Get your own!” Vincent snapped. He hated it when DeNarda drank too much which was always.
Bland pulled away, hugging the donut box protectively.
“Vincent stole one when you weren’t watching,” Crompton said slyly, as usual instigating.
DeNarda complained huskily, “I paid for them! Fuck! Give me one at least.”
Bland had eaten most of them without paying his share.
“I only had one,” Bland lied.
“No, no, no…” Cromp egged them on. “Bland had many bland donuts with bland sprinkles.”
“Shut up Cromp!” they all yelled in unison.
DeNarda wrenched the box from Bland and pulled the last donut out of the box. Bland got irate and took Vincent’s donut from his hand.
Vincent tried to grab it but it got squished in the process.
“Vincent you fag!” Bland frowned, starring dejectedly at the mutilated jelly donut in his hand.
Vincent had enough of his shit and pushed the jelly donut into Bland’s face.
“Jelly face!” Jeffrey squealed.
Bland wiped the jelly goo off his face.
“You little shit!” It was the only time any of them had ever seen anyone get a rise out of Bland.
“Bland is having a bland attack,” Crompton smirked, gleeful at being the cause of trouble.
Bland started wailing on Vincent, lamely beating him but Vincent was laughing too hard to protest. The blonde-haired girl moved over to sit with Glenn.
DeNarda drained the last of his wine and tossed the bottle out the window. It smashed on the sidewalk.
“Fuckin’ sluts!” he shouted, drunk and hostile.
They pulled into a gas station and Danny and Glenn bailed out with the two girls. Crompton got bored and said he had to get the Beast home. He asked everybody to chip in for the broken window but only Vincent gave him anything.
“What the fuck is this?” he moaned, staring at the two dollars in his hand.
The next day was Saturday.
They didn’t hang out again until that fateful Monday afternoon at the gravel pit. It was Labor Day and school was starting the next day.
They swam in the gravel pit reservoir and laughed a million laughs about Friday night, bragging about their bravery even though it was only Danny Banner who had any balls.
Crompton tried to weasel information out of Danny and Glenn about the two girls but neither of them were the kiss-and-tell types.
“C’mon guys,” Crompton whined. “Give us the scoop!”
Danny only grinned and tossed rocks into the water.
Jeffrey grew frustrated at the lack of info and blurted out, “Did you fuck ‘em or what!?”
Danny laughed. Glenn was preoccupied with a box of .308 shells he found, probably left behind by some locals doing target practice at the back end of the quarry.
Glenn handed one to Jeffrey who tried to set it off by holding a lighter to the end. He laid it on a rock and when it finally went off, they all jumped out of their shoes it was so loud. The bullet ricocheted off the rock wall and whizzed out of the quarry.
“Bang!” shouted Jeffrey.
DeNarda fell on the ground, already half in the bag. Dennis DeNarda’s father was an Italian immigrant from the old country and he made homemade rotgut wine in his wine cellar in the basement. DeNarda usually brought some with him. None of the others could really stomach it. Beer was all they could handle and wine was for fags.
“Gimme that,” he slurred and grabbed for the box of shells.
Glenn held it back from him. DeNarda lunged but when he tried to grab it again, Glenn turned him sideways and dropped him into the pond.
“Holy fuck!” DeNarda slurred as he went down and came up soaked. He had big, thick lips and coarse black hair. He was handsome but his inner ugliness made him ugly. Girls avoided him like the plague.
It was getting late in the afternoon and they heard the train whistle blow.
“Train Game!!” Bower yelped and they raced for the tracks. The train was due in minutes.
“Let’s set the bullets up on the rails,” Glenn pulled out the box. There was a handful left.
“Ah, no,” Bettsy put his hand on Glenn’s arm and shook his head.
“Don’t worry,” Glenn said and pulled away from him.
“Just do one,” Vincent agreed. “They’re bullets, man.”
“We’ll duck down here,” Glenn pointed to a mound of dirt left over from some workers doing maintenance on the tracks.
Nobody really seemed to like this idea, but Glenn insisted. He lined up over twenty bullets on the track and pointed them forward so they would fire in front of the train and not to the side where the lads were stationed behind the dirt pile.
The thing is, the fact that remains even to this day – train wheels are beveled. The inside of the wheel has a lip to keep it on the track and the edge slopes up from the bevel.
They heard the train approaching and they hunkered down behind the mound with their heads popped up to watch what Glenn anticipated would be an epic, simulated machine gun when the train wheels hit the bullets.
The train horn sounded, and it roared over the bullets – they went off like a machine gun just as Glenn imagined. Except they sprayed right at them and pounded into the mound and whizzed by over their heads. They all instinctively dunked down.
“Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat!!” The bullets went off in a burst.
The thing is the beveled train wheel turned the bullets sideways before they were crushed and when the bullets fired they were pointed at the boys.
Glenn crept up grinning after the train passed and nudged Danny, but Danny didn’t move.
“Danny?” he said and looked over to see the others all standing there looking down at Danny Banner laid out with the bullet hole in the center of his forehead and the blood running down his face.
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