August, 1973

      Matty stared intently down the steep slope. Nothing stirred as the night closed its grip on the surrounding mountains. The 19 year old cadet waited and listened, and tried to quiet his breathing and his pounding heart.
     It was quiet, almost too quiet, and the worry of that brought back the vicious memories in a flash that the strapping young man quickly dismissed.
      There would be time for that, later, when the week was at last done.’Four more days’, he thought. ‘Four more’….
       Suddenly, the sound of a jeep engine shattered the brittle stillness… It was close, too close, and the dirty- faced soldier turned quickly and headed on his pre-planned escape route, towards a dry creek bed that he had crossed earlier in the day. As he scrambled up the steep embankment, his breathing became labored… The climb was almost vertical, and he was nearly exhausted after 2 days of evading the patrols and eating nothing but some wild berries and dandelion plants for sustenance. He barely reached the safety of the rocky trench before the flickering spotlight pierced the treeline and scanned back and forth in a wide arc.
          Matty crawled  further into the pebbly gully, and rolled onto his back. His chest heaved as his body screamed for oxygen. On the dirt road below his position, the jeep engine sputtered to a stop.
          “Piggy!! Little Piggy!! We’ll find you!! You can’t hide forever!!  Come on down, Yankee coward!!  We have food and water for you!! Warm food!!  Lots of food… chicken, steak, lobster!!” Then, the sound of laughter over the loudspeaker…
          The blond haired cadet quieted his breathing and then rolled onto his stomach. He slowly crawled to an opening in the rocks and peered through. The spotlight was stationary. He could make out the figure of one man, and as he moved in front of the spotlight, Matty could see the profile briefly– the beret of a member of the cadre, the unit that was hunting the last of the missing prisoners.
          Suddenly, the brilliant light cut off. “Fuck it… let him freeze! He can’t take it too much longer. Maybe the other patrol took him down. Let’s head back. If not, the dogs will pick up his scent in the morning.”
         Then the roar of the jeep engine… “Good night, piggy!! Don’t get eaten by the bears!!” The tires of the olive green machine crunched on the gravel strewn road, as the vehicle turned around and pulled away, spitting pebbles and debris at the surrounding boulders.
         Matty took a deep breath and wiped his face with his dirt covered sleeve. He grimaced as he made contact with the right side of his nose. It burned almost as bad as the first night, after the combat boot had connected in brutal fashion, sending the tall young man toppling back from the forced crouch position he had been in… His shoulder had taken the force of the fall because of his hog- tied arms and hands and now it ached as the night air cooled, drawing the heat from the sweat- soaked fatigues. The teenager sat up and leaned  against the sandstone ledge. It would be a long night, full of anxiety and trepidation.
        He reached up and gently pinched his nose, feeling for the broken cartilage that wasn’t there. ‘Thank God’, he thought… ‘Once is enough’, as he closed his eyes and drifted back to happier times, and that day on the farm when he was just 14… It seemed so long ago, but as the boy drifted off into a fitful sleep, the images sharpened and the voices came back to him….

           November, 1968

 ” Hut one!.. Hut two!! Hut…Hut!!  Pick him up, Ty!! Right, Right!! OOMPH!! ” Matty hit the ground hard, his legs taken out underneath and blindsided from the right flank…

The lanky boy untangled himself from the pile of sweaty boys, and groaned. He picked himself up off the ground and the boys gathered in the huddle… “Tyler!! I told you I needed you on the right side… You gotta pick that guy up!!  He had a free shot at me that time!! That’s the fifth time he broke thru your side! At this rate, I’m goin’ to need a new set of ribs, unless he just murders me, by the end of the day…”

      “I tried to stop him, but, he’s too big!!”

      “Well, don’t block him so high!! Get your center of gravity lower… get him down near the waist if you have to! I don’t need much time, but, I do need enough to get a pass off! Bobby was open this time, but, that gorilla hit me just before I  could set. “

      “I’m sorry, Matty. I’ll try to get him this time!!”

      “It’s all right, Ty… Listen, I have an idea! This time, put one good hit on him, and then let him slip by… Run about  10 yards downfield, and  look over your right shoulder. I’ll get a pass off, just as he gets close to me… If he wants to blitz, every time, let’s see if we can make him pay!!”

       “Are you sure, Matty?? You know I’m not the best receiver on the team. What about Bobby?? Maybe you should hit him!”

       “Ty… You have great hands!! Don’t worry, just look over your shoulder, and I’ll lob one nice and soft, into your hands! Maybe a few completions on the right side will get Seth thinking!! Bobby, you run your regular route downfield, only make a big show of it, like you KNOW that I’ll be passing to you. Joe, you take over at center, for Mack. Mack, you hang back and get in Seth’s way once he breaches the line, but, let him come most of the way. We don’t want him dropping back into coverage. Make him commit! “

        “Aww Matty!!  You mean I have to line up, across from my stupid brother?? “
        Matty sighed. “If he’s so stupid, you should be able to block him, if they decide to rush two guys,  right? Come on, Joe. Grant’s not that tough!! Whatta ya afraid of??”
         “I ain’t afraid!! I’ll flatten his ass!! I just don’t want to touch him, is all!”
         Bobby snickered at that. “Well, you don’t have to kiss him, just put him on his ass! That way, you can help Matty, so he has time to get a pass off!!”
          “OK, OK, I hope I don’t end up with his cooties all over me… he hasn’t taken a shower for a week!” The auburn haired boy grimaced and shuddered at the thought.
          “A whole week?? Jeepers Creepers!! He must really stink up the place at dinner! How do you even know if he farts??” Bobby clutched his stomach and laughed, shaking his head in disbelief.

           Matty added, “Listen, just push him back, or knock him on his butt. I don’t care if you wear oven mitts to do it, if you’re so worried about touching him!!  Just make sure he doesn’t get around you, OK??”

            With that, the squad of grass stained boys lined up on the tattered field. The other 5 boys dug in, crouching in their 3 point stances, waiting for the snap of the ball. They looked fearsome, clawing at the autumn -browned grass, their breaths registering in little clouds in the crisp air.. Seth, the stocky farm boy with the buzz cut, snorted and scowled as Matty went through the pre- arranged count…

   “Hut one… Hut two… Hut three… Hut, Hut…. Hut!! Matty took the ball from under Joe’s crotch and started back, looking to the right and at the big blond-  haired German boy. Just as he took the ball, though, he heard a sound that came from his left that resembled that of a rubber mallet hitting a melon… A distinct ‘CLUNK’!!  He glanced back to his left, to check to see if a rush was coming…Lying on the ground, both holding their heads, were the two half brothers, Joe and Grant. Joe was writhing in pain, Grant just held his face in his hands.
      “Dead play, dead play!!” Matty yelled — Both teams had agreed on that condition before the game. If there was a real injury on the field, all play stopped immediately, to attend to the injured party.
        Matty put the ball on the ground and all the boys gathered around the two brothers to find out what happened… The blond teenager crouched down near Joe and grabbed the boy’s arm, stopping him from rocking, and tried to pull the boy’s hands away from his face.

        “Joe… Joe… Are you OK? Let me see…”
        It took a few seconds for the writhing boy to cease his strange ground dance, but he finally let Matty take a look at his head. He asked Matty in as fearful voice, “Do I need stitches?”
        Confused, Matty studied his face and head, running his fingers through the boy’s hair, including the back of his head…
        “Stitches?? For what?? What happened? I can’t see anything wrong!!”
        “It was my stupid brother!! He stood up and rushed me, and we head butted… REALLY hard!!”

        “Well,” Matty replied, “You seem intact… I don’t see anything!” He looked over at the other boys that were helping the stepbrother.
         “OOOO!!” exclaimed a queasy 14 year old… “He’s bleeding… Real bad!! Oh  my God!! Look at the size of that gash!! Oh, GROSS !!”
         Matty scrambled to his feet and went to the other group of boys, and pushed his way to the center.
         Grant was lying there, and his face was covered with blood… An open wound under the boy’s eye poured blood and was pooling in the teenager’s eyelid, obscuring his vision. He reached up and tried to clear the cobwebs from his head, in a daze… He was muttering something indiscernible. Matty grabbed his trembling hand, and pulled it away from the damaged cheek. “You’ll be OK, Grant,” the boy said, soothingly. “Just let me help you a little bit… No, don’t touch that!! You’re bleeding a little. Here, I’ll see if I can stop it for you, until you get it looked at.”
          “Looked at?? By who?” , the boy said deliriously…
          Matty quickly stripped off his sweatshirt, then, as an afterthought, his t-shirt, leaving him naked from the waist up. He took the t-shirt and folded it and gently pressed it against the boy’s cut face, motioning to Bobby, and then whispering to the boy as he leaned near, “Go warn his mom that Grant’s  hurt. If he can walk, we’ll be right behind you…”
          Bobby left, running towards the boys’ house, that was visible through the trees. Matty and the other boys slowly stood the fallen warrior up. He was unsteady at first, but, slowly, the cobwebs cleared enough so that he could understand what had happened. Matty held the t-shirt firmly against the bloody cheek with his right arm around the boy’s neck, and with his left hand, pushed the opposite side of Grant’s face, essentially like his hands were the two jaws of a vise.  They walked gingerly, side by side, in this manner, towards the yellow house, followed by the other boys, with Joe bringing up the rear, shaking his hard, undamaged head.
          By the time they reached the corner of the little Ranch house, the news had broken, and, a concerned mom walked headlong into the group of boys… There were many ‘Oh dears’, and one or two ‘Good Lords’, but, it was par for the course, in that ‘all boys’ house, and Matty was relieved of his duty (and his shirt) and the group headed back to the combat zone, arguing the strategy of resuming play, with a younger boy substituting for the injured ‘regular’. There was never a doubt that the game would continue. How could it not?? I mean, how often had such a freaky thing happened, to anyone’s memory?? All agreed that it was the strangest of flukes… Oh, Boy….

          Matty had reclaimed his sweatshirt and donned it, shivering… Bobby stood next to him, grinning. “Oh, my hero!”, he proclaimed, mockingly, all the while rubbing the blond boy’s arms vigorously, trying to warm his best friend. “What would have happened if Dr. Koles hadn’t been on duty?? Oh, I can see it now, ‘Teenage boy loses eyeball through slot in face… Desperate search underway to locate missing peeper … Last seen, rolling down I-91… Be sure to tune in for all the details on the 5 O’Clock report!!’ ”  He laughed hysterically while the other boys giggled at his expressions. Matty grimaced and shoved his friend away playfully, but, that just emboldened the boy, and he returned with even more zeal, and put his friend in a headlock and kissed him with gusto on the cheek, to the howls of the other boys, and to Matty’s complete consternation!!

        With the replacement in place, the game started anew… The score had remained tied at 14- all for the better part of the 1st half, and now it was agreed that the next half hour would determine the outright winner, as the day was getting long and the afternoon shadows had crept across the field, leaving only the northern ‘endzone’ in the sun.
        After about 15 minutes and a stalemated game, Matty’s team had the ball. He gathered his troops. “All right… here it is– Time for the quarterback sneak… They’ve rushed two guys on the flanks the past two plays and they can’t wait to do it again, especially that doggoned Seth… I’ll take the snap, and step back, like I’m gonna pass, but after a two second count, I’ll  take off, downfield. I know Seth can’t catch me!!  Bobby, you take Tommy down the right sideline,  past  the cultivator and head for the far corner of the end zone… That’ll leave just one guy to beat,  and I think I can take him… He never caught me in all those games of ‘Fox, fox, fox’, we played during recess in 7th grade… If I could juke him out then, I can still do it today!!”
         So, the boys lined up, five against five, both teams muddied and nicked but ready to do battle for the last 15 minutes … It was all on the line, and had become a game of guts as the boys  hurled their bodies at each other, leaving the last of their resolve on the field, and willing their tired legs to push on, despite the aching pain from the countless tackles and valiant blocks each combatant had endured.

         “Hut one… Hut two.. Hut… Hut, HUT!! ” It became like a slow motion dance as the sneakered feet  chewed on the beaten turf, and forearms took their purchase of exposed throats, boys spinning and grunting and yelling…. Matty stepped back, and counted to two, then faked a deep pass to the sprinting Bobby, but, pulled the ball back, just as suddenly, and jetted through the opening in the surging line, and, in an instant, found himself behind the defensive line. He gathered speed as the pursuit commenced from behind, but, the lanky boy knew that there was no way for any of them to catch him. He was accelerating and they had been caught completely off guard… It was a thing of sheer beauty!! And, as he sprinted past midfield and towards the endzone, the final obstacle was dead ahead. A boy by the name of Dominic. A tall kid, like Matty, known for his long gait and graceful, dogged pursuit. Matty saw him and headed directly for the center of his position, which had become static- the boy was so far downfield, thinking that Bobby was going to be the targeted receiver, he had gone into double coverage, hoping for an interception. Now, he backpeddled, trying to gauge Matty’s pattern, zigzagging backwards and sideways, desperately trying to time his potential tackle. At the last moment, Matty used a patented head fake to the right and veered left and then right again. The result was an absolute laughfest, at least for a moment, as Dominic lurched  right and then quickly to the left, committing his off -balance body to a tackle in that plane, but, Matty had already changed direction and the boy lost complete control then, and like a drunken scarecrow, his ability to stay upright, falling over as he ran, desperately trying to regain some morsel of balance, but, it was useless, and he staggered at speed, kind of falling at the same time, towards the sideline…

       The absurdity of it all, and the emotional exhaustion of the past week, caught up with the sprinting Matty at that very moment… He started to laugh, at the unbelievable result of his head and body fakes, and then, the laughing took control of him, and, he started to lose his reserve power and his legs became like lead weights, and they stopped churning… He was now starting to stagger himself, in a strange type  of irony… There was noone who could catch him, unless he allowed them. It had been a brilliantly executed play, and the game was his to win, but now that he saw the empty endzone ahead, it didn’t matter anymore. He let the laughter wash over him and stopped running. He stood there in the only sunny area of the field, near the protruding granite ledge that marked the ten yard line and turned to watch the oncoming train that was now speeding towards him. It was like a dream, that the boy had as a child, where he mounted a speedy stallion, to escape the demons that were chasing him, but, in the blink of an eye the spirited flesh of the dark stallion turned to lacquered wood and the boy was on a merry go round… a carousel… And, the lacquered horse went up and down, but the creatures that had almost abandoned their pursuit, now homed in on the terrified boy, their fangs dripping with the blood of the innocents that had perished before.

         Despite his anguished pleading, the horse would not come back to life, and the carousel turned and turned with the lone blonde boy riding and looking back as the terrors of the past gained on him…

        He turned to escape, but, it was too late, and the weight  of two large boys buckled his strong legs and he went down, still laughing, until his face made contact with the protruding ledge and everything went black…

         “Matty…. Matty…. Matty!!”  The terrified voice of his best friend slowly seeped into his thoughts from afar… “Matty, talk to me… Oh my God, Matty!!” Bobby’s voice was shaking and as the blond boy regained consciousness, the face of his lover solidified … But, it was upside down, and, he could feel the strong hands, cradling his pounding head. He tried to focus, and looked up at the tear filled eyes… “What’s up, maniac”, he mumbled, trying valiantly to smile. “You look horrible… what’s the matter? Someone steal your lunch, or something??”
           Bobby blinked back the tears in his eyes, the best that he could. “You scared me, Bubba!! I thought you were a gonner, when you went down on that fuckin’ rock!! I knew we shouldn’t have kept playing here!! It was just a matter of time before someone got tackled on top of that!! “
           “Oh well, it’s OK… I mean, I’m OK…”
           “No you’re not!! You were out for a whole minute, you know!! And you’re bleeding worse than Joe was!! Don’t you feel it??”
            “Naw… did we win?”
             “Are you sure you’re all right? Win?? Who gives a damn?? You’re lucky your brains aren’t plastered on that rock!!  Oh, and, one other thing… Seth went to Joe’s house, to call an ambulance…”
              “No way… shit!! Oh man,. Bobby… My parents are going to be so mad!! Let me up… I’m OK…”
              The blond boy sat up, with Bobby’s help, and again tried to focus… The trees were swaying for a moment, only there wasn’t any wind. “Ohhh!! Wow!! That was quite a shot… Hey, what’s going on over  there?” Matty looked towards the sidelines, where Dominic had careened out of bounds and saw a group of 3 boys, standing over someone who was sitting against the parked cultivator…
              “Uh, well, Dominic went flyin’ out of bounds when you juked him out, and he ended up crashing into the hitch on the disc tiller.”
               “What?? Oh my God! Is he all right??”
               “Not really… they think he broke his arm, and he caught one if the discs in the back, and it cut him up a little…”
               “Dammit!! All that, on ONE play??”
               “Yup… Ain’t it grand?? I’ll bet when Mr. Eddy finds out, he’ll be real pleased!!”
               Matty groaned… “How am I gonna explain this? ” He reached up and felt his nose… It hurt, but, it also was getting numb, so, he struggled to his feet with Bobby’s help and the help of two other boys and went to see how Dominic was doing.
               When Dominic looked up and saw the blood covered face and sweatshirt, his eyes got wide…”Matty, is that you?? God damn!!! Oh man, we really did it, huh??”
               Matty tried to laugh, but, he was suddenly light headed and noticed that he was still bleeding and dripping blood…He sat down next to the quiet boy.
               Bobby came up from behind the two boys and draped Matty’s  brown leather jacket around his shivering best friend, and rested his strong hand on his lover’s shoulder. The boy looked up, and smiled at the anxious teenager…Thank’s Bobby… Don’t worry, I’m OK…Then he looked at the injured combatant… “Dom, how’s your arm?  Does it hurt a lot??”
               “Well, right now, it’s not too bad Matty, if I stay just like I am, but, the second I move, it’s hurts like a bitch!  So, I’m trying to stay still and not breathe too deep, either…”
                “Well, maybe some day, we’ll finish this war, once we’re all patched up… If I ever get off that damned carousel alive…
                 Bobby looked quizzically at his best friend as the wail of the sirens grew louder in the distance and the two wounded boys watched the sun set gently, leaving in it’s wake a spectacular sky of autumn reds and ambers… Matty sighed, as he felt Bobby’s warmth through  the brown leather of the bombardier jacket that Mike had given him. November…A whole year…The tears welled in his eyes and rolled down his bloodied face as the warm memories washed over him.

  Continued in Part 7…