I really didn't belong there. I wasn't supposed to ride that far. I'd crossed two main roads and a highway. I wasn't even in our city anymore. My mother would have had a fit. Well, I thought, what she doesn't know won't hurt me. I leaned my bike against the chain link fence and climbed over.
The old cannon sat rusting in the vacant lot beside the American Legion. I'd been dying to get to it ever since I'd first noticed. Tucked away in an overgrown corner, it menaced North Main Street. I crouched behind its shield, peeking over the flap. The breech was rusted shut. No matter. North Main Street was the road to Berlin, each passing car a Panzer, and I was Audie Murphy. Now Jerry would get his.
Incoming! I shouted orders to my imaginary platoon. Down! Get down! Eeeeeeeee - BOOM! Quick, load, LOAD! I sighted along the barrel. Ready - FIRE! BOOM! One down, men. Here comes another. RELOAD!
No cap gun could compare. This was the real thing.
The real thing.
I felt his eyes on me before I saw him. The Legionnaire stood by the flagpole, lighting a corncob pipe. He nodded and gave me a casual wave. He wasn't going to kick me out. I waved back. The battle raged on.
Sure is a hot one today.
I whipped around. He had come up behind me. If it had been Jerry I'd be in big trouble. Up close, he was slight, but with the straight back and square shoulders that mark so many military men. He had a commanding air: a man that even street punks like me reflexively called "sir."
The afternoon sun slanted in through the overgrowth. For the first time I noticed the heat. A cicada buzzed somewhere overhead.
That's a World War II 105mm howitzer you're playing on. You know that?
You like history?
He nodded approval.
Know anything about World War II, son?
I told him some things I knew. He nodded again.
I was there, son.
Really? Were you a general?
Maybe I'll be a general someday.
You really fought in World War II?
What was it like?
Did you kill anyone?
He paused and stared at me. Silently, slowly, he drew on his pipe and exhaled. The blue smoke hung motionless in the stillness and heat. No cars passed. The cicadas seemed very loud. He looked off into the distance. He looked at the cannon. He looked at me.
You know what I hope, son?
He gestured toward the Legion building.
I hope some day we close this place down.
I hope some day we don't have any members anymore and we can close down. We're the only organization I can think of that wants to go out of business. That's the truth, son.
Um... I don't understand, sir.
I know you don't. Just remember what I told you. Got that?
Been nice talking to you. I've got to be getting back now. You have a nice day. And son?
Remember what I told you.
He turned and left, trailing the scent of Captain Black. For some reason I didn't feel like playing anymore. I pedaled home slowly under the reddening sun. All the way, I could hear his voice in the back of my head. I can still hear it now.