I begin with the ridiculous, in June 1952, middle-century Minnesota, on that silvery-hot morning when Herbie Zylstra and I nailed two plywood boards together and called it an airplane. "What we need," said Herbie, "is an engine."
The word engine
--its meanings beyond mere meaning--began to open up for me. I went into the house and found my father.
"I'll need an engine," I told him.
"Engine?" he said.
"For an airplane."
My father thought about it. "Makes sense," he said. "One airplane engine, coming up."
"Soon enough," said my father. "Pronto."
Was this a promise?
Was this duplicity?
Herbie and I waited all summer. We painted our airplane green. We cleared a runway in the backyard, moving the big white birdbath, digging up two of my mother's rhododendrons. We eyed our plane. "What if it crashes?" I said.
Herbie made a scoffing noise. "Parachutes,"
he said. (A couple of his front teeth were missing, which caused bubbles to form when he laughed at me.) "Anyway, don't be stupid. We'll drop bombs on people. Bomb my house."
So we filled mason jars with gasoline. Through July and August, in the soft, grave density of that prairie summer, we practiced our bombing runs, getting the feel of it, the lift, the swoop. Herbie was eight, I was seven. We made the sounds an engine would make. In our heads, where the world was, we bombed Mrs. Catchitt's garage, the church across the street, Jerry Powell and his cousin Ernest and other people we feared or despised. Mostly, though, we bombed Herbie's house. The place was huge and bright yellow, a half block away, full of cousins and uncles and nuns and priests and leathery old grandmothers. A scary house, I thought, and Herbie thought so too. He liked yelling "Die!"
as he banked into a dive; he said things about his mother, about black bones and fires in the attic.
For me, the bombing was fine. It seemed useful, vaguely productive, but the best part was flight itself, or the anticipation of flight, and over those summer days the word engine
did important engine work in my thoughts. I did not envision machinery. I envisioned thrust: a force pressing upward and outward, even beyond. This notion had its objective component--properties both firm and man-made--but on a higher level, as pure idea, the engine that my father would be bringing home did not operate on mechanical principles. I knew nothing, for example, of propellers and gears and such. My engine would somehow contain
flight. Like a box, I imagined, which when opened would release the magical qualities of levitation into the plywood boards of my airplane.
At night, in bed, I would find myself murmuring that powerful, empowering word: engine
. I loved its sound. I loved everything it meant, everything it did not mean but should.
Summer ended, autumn came, and what my father finally brought home was a turtle. A mud turtle--small and black. My father had a proud look on his face as he stooped down and placed it on our backyard runway.
"That thing's a turtle
," Herbie said.
"Toby," said my father. "I think his name is Toby."
"Well, God, I know that," Herbie said. "Every turtle on earth, they're all
named Toby. It's still just a stupid old turtle."
"A pretty good one," my father said.
Herbie's face seemed to curdle in the bright sunlight. He scooped up the turtle, searched for its head, then dropped it upside down on the runway. I remember backing away, feeling a web of tensions far too complex for me: disappointment, partly, and confusion, but mostly I was afraid for my father. Herbie could be vicious at times, very loud, very demonstrative, easily unnerved by the wrongs of the world.
"Oh, boy," he muttered.
He took a few slow steps, then ran.
If anything was said between my father and me, I cannot remember it. What I do remember--vividly--is feeling stupid. The words turtle
seemed to do loops in the backyard sunlight. There had to be some sort of meaningful connection, a turtleness inside engineness, or the other way around, but right then I could not locate the logic.
The backyard was silent. I remember my father's pale-blue eyes, how he gazed at something just beyond the birdbath. "Well," he said, then stopped and carefully folded his hands. "Sorry, Tommy. Best I could do." Then he turned and went into the house.
Afterward, I stood studying Toby. I poked at him with my foot. "Hey, you," I murmured, but it was a very stupid turtle, more object than animal. It showed no interest in my foot, or my voice, or anything else in the physical universe. Turtle, I kept thinking, and even now, in my middle age, those twin syllables still claw at me. The quick t
's on my tongue: turtle
. Even after four decades I cannot encounter that word without a gate creaking open inside me. Turtle for the world--turtle for you--will never be turtle for me.
Nor this: corn
Nor this: Pontiac
Have you ever loved a man, then lost him, then learned he lives on Fiji with a new lover? Is Fiji still Fiji? Coconuts and palm trees?
At sixteen, in a windy autumn cornfield, I made first love on the hood of my father's green Pontiac. I remember the steel against my skin. I remember darkness, too, and a sharp wind, and rustlings in the corn. I was terrified. Pontiac
means: Will this improve? And that Indian-head ornament on the hood--did the bastard bite my feet? Did I hear a chuckle? Peeping Tom, ogler, eyewitness, sly critic: the word Indian
embraces all of these meanings and many more.
The world shrieks and sinks talons into our hearts. This we call memory.
In the backyard that afternoon, alone with Toby, I felt a helplessness that went beyond engines or turtles. It had to do with treachery. Even back then, in a dark, preknowledge way, I understood that language was involved, its frailties and mutabilities, its potential for betrayal. My airplane, after all, was not an airplane. No engine on earth would make it fly. And over the years I have come to realize that Herbie and I had willfully deceived ourselves, renaming things, reinventing the world, which was both pretending and a kind of lying.
But there were also the words my father had used: "One airplane engine, coming up."
His intent, I know, was benign. To encourage. To engage. And yet for me, as a seven-year-old, the language he had chosen took on the power of a binding commitment, one I kept pestering him to honor, and through July and August, as summer heated up, my father must have felt trapped by a promise he neither had intended nor could possibly keep.
"Right. I'm working on it," he'd say, whenever I brought up the subject.
He'd say, "Pretty soon, partner." He'd say, "No sweat." He'd say, "Be patient. I've placed the order."
But a turtle?
Why not broccoli?* * *
The next morning was a Sunday. Maybe an hour after Mass, Herbie walked into my backyard.
"Your dad's a liar," he said.
"Yeah, sort of," I told him, "but not usually," then I tried to mount a defense. I talked about Toby, what a fine turtle he was, how I could get him to stick his head out from under the shell by putting a pan of water in front of him. I talked about using Toby as a bomb. "It'll be neat," I said. "Drop him on the mailman."
Herbie looked at me hard. "Except your dad's still a liar, Tommy. They all are. They just lie and lie. They can't even help it. That's what fathers are for
. Nothing else. They lie."
I stood silent. Arguments, I knew, were useless. All I could do was wait--which I did--and after a few moments Herbie strolled over to our plywood airplane, picked it up, and carried it across the lawn. He placed it tail down against the garage.
"It's not a plane anymore," he said. "It's a cross."
"Cross how?" I asked.
"Like in the Bible," said Herbie. "A cross
. Let's go get my sister. Lorna Sue--we'll nail her to it."
"Okay," I said.
We walked the half block to Herbie's yellow house. The place was enormous, especially to a child, and it took a long while to find Lorna Sue, who sat playing with her dollhouse up in the attic. She was seven years old. Very pretty: black hair, summer-brown skin. I liked her a lot, and Lorna Sue liked me too, which was obvious, and a decade later we would find ourselves in a cornfield along Highway 16, completely in love, very cold, testing our courage on the hood of my father's Pontiac.
The world sometimes precedes itself. In the attic that day--September 1952--I am almost certain that both Lorna Sue and I understood deep in our bones that significant events were now in motion.
I remember the smell of that attic, so dank and fungal, so dangerous. I remember Herbie gazing down at his sister.
"We need you," he said.
"What for?" said Lorna Sue.
"It'll be neat. Tommy and me, we've got this cross--we'll nail you to it."
Lorna Sue smiled at me.
This was love. Seven years old. Even then.
"Well," she said, "I guess
And so the three of us trooped back to my house. Impatiently, under Herbie's supervision, Lorna Sue stood against the cross and spread out her slender brown arms. "This better be fun," she said, "because I'm pretty busy." Herbie and I went into the garage, where we found a hammer and two rusty nails. I remember a frothiness in my stomach; I felt queasy, yes, but also curious. As we walked back toward Lorna Sue, I lagged behind a little.
"You think this'll hurt?" I asked.
Herbie shrugged. His eyes had a hard, fixed, enthusiastic shine, like the eyes of certain trained assassins I would later encounter in the mountains of Vietnam. Herbie gripped the hammer in his right hand. Quietly, like a doctor, he told Lorna Sue to close her eyes, which she did, and at that point, thank God, my mother came out the back door with a basket of damp laundry. The basket was blue, the laundry mostly white.
"What's this?" my mother asked.
"Sunday school," Lorna Sue said. "I get to be Jesus."
At dinner that evening, the hammer and nails lay at the center of the kitchen table. It was a long and very difficult meal. Over and over, I had to explain how the whole thing had been a game, just for fun, not even a real cross. My father studied me as if I'd come down with polio.
"The hammer," he said. "You see the hammer?"
"Is it real?"
"Naturally," I said.
He nodded. "And the nails? Real or unreal?"
"Real," I told him, "but not like . . . I mean, is Toby a real engine
My father was unhappy with that. I remember how his jaw firmed up, how he leaned back, glanced over at my mother, then segued into a vigorous lecture about the difference between playing games and driving nails through people's hands. Even as a seven-year-old, I already knew the difference--it was obvious--but sitting there at the kitchen table, feeling wronged and defenseless, I could not find words to say the many things I wanted to say: that I was not a murderer, that events had unfolded like a story in a book, that I had been pulled along by awe and wonder, that I had never really believed in any of it, that I was almost positive that Herbie would not have hammered those nails through Lorna Sue's pretty brown hands.
These and other thoughts spun through my head. But all I could do was stare down at my plate and say, "All right."
"All right what
?" my father said.
"You know. I won't nail anybody."
"What about Herbie?"
"He won't either," I said. "I'm pretty sure."
But he did. The left palm. Halfway through. Almost dead center.
Herbie Zylstra was not a mean-spirited child. Nothing of the sort. Hyperactive, to be sure, and so impulsive he could sometimes make my stomach wobble, but I never felt physical fear in his presence. More like wariness--a butterfly sensation.
In a later decade, Herbie would have been a candidate for Ritalin or some similar drug, gallons of the stuff, a long rubber hose running from pharmacy to vein.
September. A Saturday morning, two weeks after school opened. Around noon Herbie stopped by. "I'll need the cross," he said.
I was busy with Toby; I barely looked up.
Herbie muttered something and picked up the cross and carried it over to his house and set it up against a big elm tree on the front lawn. He found Lorna Sue. He told her to stay steady. He squinted and pursed his lips and put the point of the nail against the center of her left palm and took aim and cocked his wrist. He did not have the strength, I suppose, to drive the nail all the way through, or maybe it wasn't a solid strike, or maybe at the last instant Herbie held back out of some secret virtue, pity or humility.
I was not there to witness it. All I can attest to is the sound of sirens.
Voices too, I think. And maybe a scream. But maybe not.
Later in the day my mother called me inside and told me about it. Immediately, I ran for my bedroom. I slammed the door, crawled under the bed, made fists, yelled something, banged the floor. What I was feeling, oddly enough, was a kind of rage, a cheated sensation: denied access to something rare and mysterious and important. I should have been
there--an eyewitness to the nailing. I deserved it. Even now, half a lifetime later, my absence that day remains a source of regret and bitterness. I had earned the right. It was my plywood. My green paint. Other reasons too: because at age sixteen I would make first love with Lorna Sue Zylstra on the hood of my father's Pontiac, and because ten years later we would be married, and because twenty-some years after that Lorna Sue would discover romance with another man, and betray me, and move to Tampa.
Excerpted from Tomcat in Love by Tim O'Brien. . Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.