The August sun shone mercilessly upon the three kids as they meandered down the back roads of the quiet town… During days like this, the stillness was interrupted only by the buzzing chatter of the cicadas.

Matty led the way, shepherding his recalcitrant brother, who dragged his sneakered feet on the dirt roads, and, took ‘the long boat to China’ , as his dad would say, walking in zigzagged fashion, from one side of the road to the other, his arms sometimes extended, as if he had sprouted wings and, at times, a machine gun or two… The older boy picked up a crooked stick from the brushy shoulder of the road  and aimed it at the younger boy as he veered to the left, and gave him his own burst of machine gun fire, complete with sound effects,  catching the 7 year old by surprise… “Got you in the fuel tank with that burst!!  Crash and burn you Nazi Messerschmidt!!”

     “Hey, that’s not fair!!” whined the little boy. “You didn’t tell me we were at war!”
     “What’re you talking about? You were strafing my convoy!! I have to protect my troops, so, now you’re full of holes… 50mm holes, from my 6 machine guns!!”
     “Six?? That’s not fair!! What are you, anyways?? A Warhawk?”
     “Warhawk!!” Matty scowled… “No way!! You know my favorite fighter was the P-51 Mustang…. Well, that and the P-38 Lightning… That was one cool plane!!”
      “Well, then I’m a Warhawk, and, you can’t shoot me down… remember?? You told me it was impossible to shoot down a P-40…”
       “Not impossible!! Just hard to do… Besides, what kind of crazy Nazi are you anyways?? The Warhawk was an American plane!!”
       “Well, then…. I stole one, from when you shot me down and captured me last time, remember?? You tied me up, after I parachuted down behind the lines…”
       “WHAT are you two talking about??” interrupted Lucy. “Mustangs, Warhawks, machine guns… why are you always playing war games??”
       “Because that’s what guys do…” Matty responded. “Look in your history books… girls don’t fight wars, guys do, and…”  The bark of a large dog interrupted the older boy… It was ‘Blackie’, the neighborhood retriever… Even on a hot day like this one, he came bounding out of the woods, his ears flopping and his tail wagging violently as he approached the small cadre…

         “Blackie!! Hey fella!!  Where you been??” Matty crouched down and hugged the shaking bundle of energy… For his kindness, he was rewarded with a sloppy doggy kiss that left him laughing and wiping his face with the back of his hand. Then, he told  Gerry and Lucy, “Watch this!!  I’ll make Blackie growl… ” He put his face really close to the dog and froze, staring into the pooch’s eyes without blinking… Blackie had played this game before, and, usually got nervous after a few seconds, but, this time, he just stared back at the skinny blond boy, altho his ears gave away a certain curiosity, perking up and twitching a little… He held the stare, and, to Matty’s disappointment, suddenly whimpered, and laid down, his  head resting on his front paws…
        “Blackie!!” Matty giggled, “What’s the matter? Too hot??”
        The black Lab just rolled onto his side and yawned, a big doggy yawn… he seemed to be smiling, too, but, that wasn’t unusual– Blackie was a happy dog!!
        Matty stood up. “Well, we’ll catch you on the way back, fella… Unless you finally catch that squirrel that you’ve been after!!” The boy laughed, and, patted the dog on the side, one last time.

        The trio resumed their journey, this time on a tarred macadam road from which waves of superheated air rose and occasional damselflies hovered and darted about… It had become a kind of competition amongst the local children to catch the fragile insects.  All it took was patience and a steady but quick hand… The trick was to wait for the needle-like creature to alight on the road or the top of a plant… Then, if possible, to sneak up behind the still insect and carefully, slowly, reach with 2 fingers ready to pinch, towards the wings, which are held parallel to the body and together, at rest. Then, when both fingers are within an inch of the body, to quickly pinch the wings, and, the fly is immobilized and officially captured, and, ready for inspection… They can be very interesting and pretty subjects, but, unresponsive pets, so, most of the time, the children released them almost as quickly as they caught them. Many times, when a group of boys was immersed in this competition, Matty swore that he was capturing and releasing the same damselfly, several times!!  They weren’t that hard to catch for an experienced ‘hunter’, so, usually the games lasted only a half- hour or so, until a ‘bug king’ was crowned– a status symbol roughly equal to that of ‘tadpole general’, only less messy!!

        Now, tho, the damselflies could wait, because, in the distance, the large brick building was in sight- the Town Hall that also housed the tiny police station and courthouse. Before Matty’s time, the town library was also located in the structure and was supported by donations of books and money from the citizens. Eventually,  some of the wealthier families  raised enough funds to make possible the construction of the first separate facility, that was named after the ancestors of the farmer who Matty worked for during the growing season….Old money- the elixir that lubricates the wheels of progress.

       So, the building loomed, and, the children were simultaneously excited and apprehensive… You see, the entrance to the targeted area (the corridor outside the police dispatch office), had a large sign affixed to the weathered brickface.  It read, OFFICIAL BUSINESS… EMPLOYEE ENTRANCE… Well, it might appear suicidal or insane, for a kid to read that sign and proceed anyways, but, truth be told, in the one dog town that was home, the sign had been ignored ‘forever’ and, had actually taken on a quaint ambiance… It seemed to be ignored by most people, but, it still said what it did… so, the 3 siblings crossed the small, grassy barrier and, seeing no activity, quietly crept up the 13 steps to the rickety door with the diamond meshed window. The second floor hallway was quiet as Matty peered through the window, his hands on either side of his face, shielding his eyes from the blinding sun.

         Seeing noone, he turned to his little brother and sister, and, putting his finger to his lips, went into ‘silent mode’, directing them through the creaky door, and, into the shadowy corridor with the dark brown linoleum tiles. He held the door as it closed until it softly shut, the latch clicking into place more noisily than expected, to the consternation of the blond boy, freezing all the kids in their tracks, ready to reverse their direction and flee… But, there was no reaction, just the drone of the large pedestal fan and the distant crackle of the dispatcher’s radio as a patrolman reported on his location… So, with the three machines only 30 feet away, the children crept quietly down the eerie hall, stopping momentarily when another call crackled through the station’s speakers. Matty retrieved the loose change from his secret pocket under the waistband of his swimsuit, and handed a quarter to Lucy, whispering, “Coke… not grape soda!!” She scowled at that, being partial to the latter, but, accepted her mission. After all, she had no money, and, something was still better than nothing!!

       Matty led his younger brother past the cigarette machine, and, to the green candy machine… Already, the 8 year old was lobbying in a breathless whisper for a Baby Ruth bar, even tho Matty hadn’t promised him a choice. Matty took the first 15 cents and gently dropped it into the money slot… As it disappeared, it made a few clings and clangs on it’s route to the bowels of the machine, and, the 2 boys exchanged nervous looks. It was Ok, tho, so Matty tugged slowly on the selector knob under the Payday bar until the chocolate confection dropped from the window and into the tray below… Gerry grabbed the bar, and looked at it in dismay– he was not pleased, but, Matty looked sternly at him, and whispered, “I’m buying for 3 people, not for just you!” He dropped the last 15 cents in the machine, as Gerry tugged on his arm, pointing to the Baby Ruth, and shook his head… The Hershey’s chocolate bar with almonds fell to the tray.
       Gerry was now close to meltdown, and Lucy was smiling broadly, her mission complete, holding TWO bottles of soda!!
      “How???” Matty whispered.
      “If you pull the second soda out as you are pulling the first one, sometimes you can get two!!”, said an excited Lucy.
      “You can’t take that!! That’s stealing… Put it back!!”, Matty whispered frantically.
      “How am I supposed to do that?”
      “I don’t know, you figured out how to take it out without paying, figure out how to put it back!”
       With that, he motioned to his wilting, deprived brother, and, headed for the door. Lucy looked confused, but, she placed the second soda on the floor, near the machine, and went outside right behind Matty. As they walked away from the building, the thin blond boy gave her a piece of his mind.
       “Where did you ever get THAT idea? Now you’re a thief? In a police station, no less??”

       “Me and Gail figured it out a few weeks ago… It’s not really stealing if the machine let’s you take them, is it?”
       “Are you kidding me? As it is, we’re only paying 25 cents for the soda… everywhere else, it’s 35 cents!! So, you’re trying to get 2 sodas for a quarter, when you would have spent 70 cents somewhere else!! We’re not even supposed to be using those machines!! And, what kind of thing is that to teach your younger brother??”
        Lucy was embarrassed by her convoluted logic, and, fell back on the battleworn excuse- “I didn’t know…”, her voice trailing off in shame.
       “Well, now you do!! And….” Matty suddenly realized that something was missing… No whining complaints from the youngest of the bunch… He spun around, expecting to see Gerry trailing the procession, but, he was nowhere in sight!!
        “Where is he?”
        “Who?”
        “Who do you think?? The little maniac!!”
         Both kids spun around, searching the vicinity for the younger brother, but, he had vanished!! It was at that moment, that an unexpected friend arrived, also… From the edge of the adjoining woods came a bundle of raw energy in the form of a Labrador retriever. It was Blackie, just in time for the manhunt, and another concern for the skinny 11 year old.
         “Blackie, go home!!”
          Blackie, however, just grinned and woofed in pleasure, eyeing the ice cold Coke in Lucy’s hand– He was a dog with exquisite tastes!!
         Matty groaned, “Just what I need… Hold onto him… Gerry must have sneaked back in to get that other soda… See what happens when you do that stuff!! God’s already on our case!! Stay here, I’ll be right back… “

          So, the anxious boy raced back to the building and bounded up the 13 steps to the creaky door and peered inside…

          What he saw did not register at first. He stared through the heavy glass… It was then, that a rush of memories flashed through his racing mind… Gerry was 4 years old, and, mom had made a chocolate cake for Matty’s birthday. She had frosted it, and, placed it proudly on the kitchen table on the crystal cake plate for everyone to see. A stern warning was issued- no raiders, no grubby mitts. The cake was off limits till the evening celebration!!

         Gerry had picked his opportunity carefully. Everyone was outside in the back yard when he disappeared. One moment he was swinging away on the swing set, the next he had vanished!! It took mom about 4 seconds to realize what had happened. She raced to the kitchen door, and Matty heard all the way in the backyard, “Why, you little chocolate fiend!! Look what you’ve done to your brother’s cake!!”
        Followed by the sound of a giant butt wallop and the wail of the 4 year old chocoholic…

        But now,  Matty couldn’t believe what he was seeing!! He opened the door, and crept inside… As his eyes adjusted to the dark corridor, he was shocked to discover that it hadn’t been an optical illusion.
        Lying on the floor, at an odd angle was his troublesome brother… He was directly in front of the candy machine. In fact, it appeared that he was PART of the candy machine, his arm apparently swallowed by the green devil, the rest of him not yet consumed… squirming like a fish on a hook, whimpering like a starving puppy, his pale blue swim trunks cleaning the brown linoleum as he slid around the base of the rabid machine. Matty’s heart raced…”What the heck are you doing?” he desperately whispered as he reached the frantic boy.
        “Help!!”, was all the young lad could say.
         They say a picture says a thousand words… It was at that moment that it all crystalized for the older brother, for in the little area of the Baby Ruth bar, behind the glass, Matty could make out the twitching tips of a little boy’s fingers… Somehow, Gerry had managed to reach his hand up inside that unforgiving teeth rotter, and, in a valiant effort to resolve his urgent candy quest, he had underestimated the enemy again, and was being held prisoner, despite his best efforts at retreat. So close, yet, so far away…
        Matty’s heart was just about leaping out of his chest. He grabbed his brother’s skinny arm and tried to pull it back from the machine’s death grip. The 8 year old yelped, and, Matty quickly covered his mouth with his hand.
       “Quiet!”, he demanded.
       He tried to turn the boy’s arm and pull, to no avail. Then he tried to reach up, into the machine like the little monster had done, but his arm was just too long to be as larcenous as his brother’s!
       Out of sheer desperation, he grabbed his brother’s legs, and, started to slowly pull, hoping that a gradual force would somehow free his brother… It was at that moment that the door opened at the rear of the building, and Lucy poked her head in.
       Even from a distance, Matty could see her eyes widen and become like saucers. He pulled harder, and, suddenly there was a loud ‘Woof’, and a miscreant pet bounded through the partially opened door, and ran towards the two boys, his paws slipping on the waxed floors… Matty’s jaw dropped as the dog skidded to a halt in front of the Coke machine. The happy canine had spotted the rogue bottle of Coke and had decided that it was left there for him!! He started to gnaw at the top of the bottle…
      “No, Blackie!!”
      The nightmare was almost complete, as things were spiraling out of control…
      “AHEM!!”
       It was now complete… Matty turned towards the direction of the sound, still tugging on his brother’s suspended body, and, saw a large man in a blue uniform standing in the doorway to the dispatch office. On his shoulder he wore the 3 stripes of a sergeant. He stood with his burly arms crossed, and Matty’s eyes fell to the black holster around his waist, and the .38 revolver it held.
       The cop said two words only- “Wait here…” He walked back into the office.
       Matty released his brother’s legs, and, Blackie stopped gnawing on the Coke bottle and sat down, apparently believing that the command for ‘sit’ had been given… The pooch sat there, grinning away, oblivious to the storm that had arrived.
       Lucy closed the door, and went to find a good hiding place.

       What seemed like an eternity was probably just a minute, but, soon enough, three large men, all in uniform, came through that door, the sergeant in the lead. Each one seemed larger than the one in front of him, and, Matty turned sheepishly to face the men.
       “There is someone that I want to introduce to you, young man. What is your name, by the way?? We’ll need that, for the report.”
        “Matthew, sir”, the blond boy answered quietly.
        “Speak up, son!! This man behind me can’t hear you!! And, you’ve taken him away from very important matters!!”
         “My name is Matthew, sir,” the boy said louder.
         “Ah… a nice Irish name…” the man in back replied. “My name is Captain McClellan, the man to my left is Lieutenant Webster, and in front is Sergeant Christiansen. You can call each of us Sir. Now, unless you want to spend the next few months in jail, I think you owe us all an explanation!! What is going on here??”
           Matty was terrified… Jail… months… Gerry’s sobbing turned into a wail, much like the time 4 years earlier…
          “Well, sir, my brother got his hand stuck in the machine… He was trying to get a candy bar that I didn’t want to buy him… only…. he didn’t mean to do a bad thing like steal it, it’s just that he can’t stop himself when he wants chocolate…I don’t know what to do, but, I’ll give you as much money as I can, if you could just get his hand out of the machine… I think it might be breaking or something…”
         By this time, all three men were standing around the boys, towering over them, but, strangely, all three had covered their mouths with their hands, as if they were about to sneeze, or something…
        “So, what you’re telling us is that you let your brother stick his hand into the machine to get the candy?”
         “No sir!! That was his idea!! I would NEVER let him steal, but, I did mess up, because he got away when I wasn’t looking…”
          Just then, Blackie yawned, a very loud doggy yawn, followed by a woof of agreement.
          The lieutenant burst out laughing and pivoted on his heels and went back into the office, waving his hand at the other two men, who seemed to be holding back some laughter of their own…
          Matty was confused, but, very anxious as well. He had given up on the notion of freedom, and, was praying that the jail wouldn’t have murderers and deadly criminals waiting for him… But, his little brother was squirming on the floor still!!
         “Well Sergeant, do you think we can get this youngster’s hand out of there without cutting it off??”
          “No guarantees, sir!! I guess we can try, tho…”
           Gerry was now strangely quiet… terrified, in reality. Matty crouched down near him and tried to comfort him, and the sergeant squatted down on the other side to survey the situation.
           He gently ran his hand up the 8 year old’s arm, but, ran into the same problem as Matty…
          “How in the hell… I mean, heck, did you get your arm in there?”
          ” I dunno..”
           The large man tried pulling on Gerry’s arm and the boy screamed in pain…
          “Jesus, Joe!! I think we’d better get that saw!!”
           That remark broke the dam for the blond 8 year old, and, he started to cry uncontrollably.
           “DDon’t cut my arm off!!  PPLEASE!!  Matty, don’t let them cut my arm off!!”
           Matty looked at the men… This was no longer funny. He held his brother tight and whispered in his ear, “Don’t worry, I won’t let them…”
            “Kid, we were just joking… nobody even has a saw around here!! We’ll have to get the key to the machine, and open it up. Then, we can push your hand out from the inside!!”
          
            It took about 10 minutes for the janitor to arrive with a special key, and, then, one of the men picked up the 8 year old reformed thief, and carried him backwards as the door opened and the internal mechanism of the candy purveyor was exposed. Sure enough, there was the little hand, wedged between parts of the workings, at an awkward angle, and, starting to turn blueish in color… The men noticed that, and, worked feverishly, but the little hand had swelled and was really stuck.
           Blackie seemed to sense the severity of the problem and hovered nearby, whimpering as the men tried various things to free the boy.
           Just when it seemed impossible, and, there were whispers about cutting devices to eliminate pieces of the machine, the lieutenant returned with a jar of mayonnaise… It was messy, but, it worked like magic!!  Within a minute, Gerry was free, and, in one piece… The front of his bathing suit took the worst of it– it got a little wet, somehow, but, all in all, it was the least of the older boy’s worries.
         Both boys now stood in front of the towering men, and, waited…
         Finally, the captain spoke, breaking the awful silence. “I hope you boys learned something today… Doing wrong starts with thinking wrong… This never would have happened if you thought about all the trouble it would cause for all these men, who have better things to do, than this kind of nonsense. And, to top it all off, this kind of thing can land you in jail, where you won’t see your family for a long time! Now, I think that you’ve both learned a very important lesson, but, I think you also owe all these men an apology and thanks for saving you from what could have happened… ” He looked directly at Matty. “Your brother could have lost his hand, because you weren’t doing your job as his big brother. So, what do you have to say for yourself?”
        Matty felt ashamed. He looked at the towering man and with a shaky voice, said, “I’m sorry… I won’t let this ever happen again.”
        They were heartfelt words… magic words… They carried the boys through the rest of their childhoods. Two brothers, bonded together by the incidents of that fateful year, in ways that can not be explained.

                                 But, such is brotherhood…
    

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