Almost everyone in town that had an extra room took in a boarder. There were no apartment buildings or hotels as of yet. The Howard Johnson was built a few years later but in the meantime bachelors needed to be looked after and single women certainly had to have a respectable place to live. Most people considered it their Christian duty to take them in whether they needed the few extra dollars a week or not, and some of the boarders stayed on for years. Mr. Pruiet, a bachelor from Kentucky with long thin feet, boarded with the Haygoods so long that they eventually forgot he was not family. Whenever they moved, he moved. When he finally did die at seventy-eight, he was buried in the Haygood family plot with a headstone that read:
STILL WITH US
PAID IN FULL
The homes on First Avenue North were located within walking distance of town and school and were where most of the town’s boarders lived.
At present the Smith family’s boarder is Jimmy Head, the short-order cook at the Trolley Car Diner; the Robinsons next door have Beatrice Woods, the Little Blind Songbird; the Whatleys up the street have Miss Tuttle, the high school English teacher. Ernest Koonitz, the school’s band director and tuba soloist, boards with Miss Alma, who, as luck would have it, has a hearing problem. But soon the Smith family will take in a new boarder who will set in action a chain of events that should eventually wind up in the pages of history books. Of course they won’t know it at the time, especially their ten-year-old son, Bobby. He is at the moment downtown standing outside the barbershop with his friend Monroe Newberry, staring at the revolving red and white stripes on the electric barber’s pole. The game is to stare at it until they are cross-eyed, which seemed to them to be some sort of grand achievement. As far as amusements go, it is on a par with holding your breath until you pass out or dropping from a rope into the freezing swimming hole outside of town named the Blue Devil, so cold that even on a hot day when you hit the water the first shock jolts you to your eyeballs, stops your heart, and makes you see stars before your eyes. By the time you come out your body is so numb you can’t feel where your legs are and your lips have turned blue, hence the name. But boys, being the insane creatures they are, cannot wait to come crawling out covered with goose bumps and do it all over again.
These were some of the activities that thrilled Bobby to the core. However, for Bobby just life itself was exciting. And really at that time and that place what red-blooded American boy would not wake up every morning jumping for joy and ready to go? He was living smack-dab in the middle of the greatest country in the world—some said the greatest country that ever was or ever would be. We had just beaten the Germans and the Japanese in a fair fight. We had saved Europe and everyone liked us that year, even the French. Our girls were the prettiest, our boys the handsomest, our soldiers the bravest, and our flag the most beautiful. That year it seemed like everyone in the world wanted to be an American. People from all over the world were having a fit trying to come here. And who could blame them? We had John Wayne, Betty Grable, Mickey Mouse, Roy Rogers, Superman, Dagwood and Blondie, the Andrews Sisters, and Captain Marvel. Buck Rogers and Red Ryder, BB guns, the Hardy Boys, G-men, Miss America, cotton candy. Plus Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen, Amos ’n’ Andy, Fibber McGee and Molly, and anybody could grow up and become the president of the United States.
Bobby even felt sorry for anyone who was not lucky enough to have been born here. After all, we had invented everything in the world that really mattered. Hot dogs, hamburgers, roller coasters, roller skates, ice-cream cones, electricity, milk shakes, the jitterbug, baseball, football, basketball, barbecue, cap pistols, hot-fudge sundaes, and banana splits. We had Coca-Cola, chocolate-covered peanuts, jukeboxes, Oxydol, Ivory Snow, oleomargarine, and the atomic bomb!
We were bigger, better, richer, and stronger than anybody but we still played by the rules and were always good sports. We even reached out and helped pick up and dust off Japan and Germany after we had beaten them . . . and if that wasn’t being a good sport, what was? Bobby’s own state of Missouri had given the world Mark Twain, Walt Disney, Ginger Rogers, and the great St. Louis World’s Fair, and aboard the battleship Missouri the Japanese had surrendered to General Douglas MacArthur. Not only that, Bobby’s Cub Scout troop (Bobwhite Patrol) had personally gone all over town collecting old rubber tires, scrap paper, and aluminum pots and pans. That had helped win the war. And if that wasn’t enough to make a boy proud, the president of the entire United States, Mr. Harry S. Truman, was a true-blue dyed-in-the-wool Missourian, and St. Louis had won the World Series. Even the trees stood a little straighter this year, or so it seemed to Bobby.
He had a mother, a father, and a grandmother and had never known anyone who had died. He had seen only photographs in store windows of the boys who had been killed in the war. He and his best friend, Monroe, were now official blood brothers, an act so solemn that neither one spoke on the way home. His big sister, Anna Lee, a pretty blue-eyed blond girl, was quite popular with all the older boys, who would sometimes hang around the house and play catch or throw the football with him. Sometimes he was able to make a quarter off the guys just to leave them alone on the front porch with Anna Lee. In 1946 a quarter meant popcorn, candy, a movie, a cartoon, and a serial, plus a trip to the projection booth to visit Snooky, who read Mickey Spillane books. And after the movie he could go next door to the Trolley Car Diner, where Jimmy, their boarder, would fry him a burger if he was not too busy.
Or he might stop by the drugstore on the corner and read a few of the newest comic books. His father was the pharmacist so he was allowed to look at them for free as long as he did not wrinkle or spill any food on them. Thelma and Bertha Ann, the girls who worked behind the soda fountain, thought he was cute and might slip him a cherry Coke or, if he was lucky, a root-beer float. Downtown Elmwood Springs was only one long block so there was never any danger of getting lost, and the year-round weather couldn’t have been more perfect if he had ordered it off a menu. Each October a nice big round orange harvest moon appeared just in time for Halloween. Thanksgiving Day was always crisp and cool enough to go outside and play tag after a big turkey dinner and snow fell once or twice a year, just when he needed a day off from school.
And then came spring, with crickets, frogs, and little green leaves on the trees again, followed by summer, sleeping out on the screened porch, fishing, hot bright sunny days at Cascade Plunge, the town’s swimming pool, and so far every Fourth of July, after all the firecrackers, whirligigs, and sparklers were gone, lightning bugs and large iridescent blue-and-green June bugs showed up in time to make the night last a little longer.
On hot muggy August afternoons, just when you thought you would die of the heat, clouds would begin to gather and distant thunder boomed so deep you would feel it in your chest. Suddenly a cool breeze would come from out of nowhere and turn the sky a dark gunmetal gray, so dark that all the streetlights in town got confused and started coming on. Seconds later an honest-to-God Missouri gully washer would come crashing down hard and fast and then without warning pick up and run to the next town, leaving behind enough cool water to fill the gutters so Bobby could run out and feel it rushing over his bare feet.
Although Mr. Bobby Smith had only been on this earth for a very short time and at present occupied only four feet eight inches of it, he was already a man of considerable property. Most of which he kept in his room on the floor, on the walls, on the bed, under the bed, hanging from the ceiling, or anywhere there was an empty space. As the decorators would say, he was going in for that casual, devil-may-care, cluttered look that his mother had the nerve to say looked like a Salvation Army junk store. It was only an average-sized bedroom with a small closet, but to Bobby, it was his personal and private magical kingdom full of priceless treasures. A place where he was the master of all he surveyed, rich as a sultan. Although in truth there was nothing in the room that a sultan or anybody else, for that matter, would want unless they were in the market for a box of painted turtles or an assortment of rocks, a flattened-out penny he and Monroe had put on the streetcar tracks, or a life-sized cardboard stand-up of Sunset Carson, his favorite cowboy, that Snooky had given him from the Elmwood Theater. Or maybe two silver dollars or an artificial yellow fish eye he had found behind the VFW or a small glass jeep that once had candy in it, for about five seconds. Among his possessions that year was a homemade slingshot, a bag of marbles, one little Orphan Annie decoder pin, one glow-in-the-dark ring, one compass, one Erector set, three yo-yos, a model airplane, a boy’s hairbrush with a decal of the Lone Ranger on it (a birthday present from Monroe that Monroe’s mother had bought), a cardboard Firestone filling station complete with pumps, a bookshelf full of ten-cent Terry and the Pirates, Joe Palooka, and Red Ryder books. Under the bed were several Spider Man, Porky the Pig, Little Audrey, and Casper the Friendly Ghost comic books, plus an L&N train set, his plastic braided Indian bracelet a girl gave him that he thought he had lost, and one white rubber handlebar cover from an old bicycle.
But Bobby’s world was not limited to just what he could see or touch or to the space inside the four walls of his bedroom. He had traveled a million miles in the L&N train under his bed, ridden up treacherous mountains through long black tunnels over raging rivers, and in the little plane hanging from the ceiling he had flown around the world, often over Amazon jungles teeming with alligators. Even the streetlight on the corner provided Bobby with a wonderful show. As he was lying in bed on breezy summer evenings, watching the shadows made by the leaves of the poplar tree dancing on the side of the house next door, they soon became palm trees, swaying back and forth in the warm trade winds of the nearest tropical island. Some nights he could hear the faint strains of Hawaiian music and see rows of hula girls dancing right above the Robinsons’ bedroom window. So enthralled was Bobby with this image that he had sent off for a ukulele. Nobody was more disappointed. He had expected it to play a song when strummed but it had not. The sound it made was a far cry from music, Hawaiian or otherwise, so he quickly moved on to the harmonica and was convinced he was really playing a song when he wasn’t. So great was his imagination that when he rode a broomstick handle around the backyard he could see the dust and hear the sound of the thundering hoofs as he galloped across the dry western desert. That year he went to sleep each night with his eyes full of cowboys and Indians and his head filled with voices. “Tom Mix and the Ralston Straight Shooters are on the air!” “From out of the West comes America’s fighting cowboy!” “Quaker Oats . . . delicious, nutritious, makes you ambitious!” “You bet ’um, Red Ryder.” “I’m back in the saddle again.” “Well, I’ll be a lop-eared kangaroo if it isn’t roundup time.” “Me Tonto, you Kemo Sabe.” And his favorite, “Hi-yo, Silver, away!”
An outside observer might think his life was just about perfect. However, to be fair, there were two distinctive and troublesome drawbacks to being Bobby Smith. One was his appearance. He was a nice-enough-looking boy with brown eyes and brown hair. His teeth were straight. His ears stuck out slightly but nothing out of the ordinary. One problem was that his mouth turned up a bit at both corners, making him look like he knew a secret and was pleased about it. This expression caused his mother and his teachers to ask constantly, “What are you up to?” even when he wasn’t up to anything. No matter how much he professed his innocence, they always replied, “Don’t lie to me, Bobby Smith, I can tell you’re up to something by the look on your face.”
The other drawback was his parents. Everybody knew who they were and would tell on him the minute he did something wrong. His father, the town’s only pharmacist, a Mason, a Rotarian, an Elk, and a senior elder at the First Methodist Church, was just naturally on a first-name basis with the entire town. But to make matters even worse, his mother was a local radio personality known as Neighbor Dorothy, who five days a week broadcast her show from their living room. And each year she would send her listening audience Christmas cards with the family’s picture on them, so that people for miles around knew who he was and what he looked like, and sometimes when a guest did not show up his mother would grab Bobby and make him be the guest and ask him all kinds of questions as if he were a complete stranger. On holidays his mother would put him on the radio to recite some stupid poem. And to add insult to injury, his personal and private business was often discussed on his mother’s radio show and everything he did, good or bad, was talked about for all the world to hear.
His only consolation was that this was a cross both the Smith children had to bear. This was of little consolation to Anna Lee. Last year his sister had gotten hysterical when their mother happened to mention that Anna Lee did not have a date as of yet for the prom because she was holding out, hoping the boy she thought looked just like Glenn Ford—her major movie-star crush at the time—would ask her. Dorothy had always shared things about her family with her audience before but when Anna Lee heard that piece of information going out over the airwaves she ran through the house screaming as if someone had shot her and flung herself on the bed sobbing, “Oh, Mother, how could you? You’ve ruined my life. I’ll never get another date as long as I live. I might as well just kill myself.” She stayed in bed wailing with a cold cloth on her head for two days while her mother, who felt terrible about it, tried to make it up to her by bringing her homemade peach ice cream and promising never to mention her name over the air again.
At the time Bobby thought it was pretty funny but Bobby was not yet at the sensitive stage where what other people thought about you was a matter of life and death. So for the moment, other than not being able to get away with much, he didn’t have a care in the world and, like most ten-year-old boys, believed that something wonderful was always just about to happen.
From the Hardcover edition.