“Your uncle come home scratched up?”
Kenny Rascoe looked up at the group of town boys standing by the door of the junior high. Frank Ashline was looking back at him, with a laugh already started on his face.
“You can get pretty scratched up running through the woods in the dark,” Frank said.
“I didn’t see him this morning,” Kenny said quietly, and walked up the steps past the group of boys and into the school.
“Tell him don’t worry,” Frank called after him. “Everybody else got home all right.” And they all laughed.
He didn’t even have to ask what they were laughing about. His uncle Raymond was a customs officer; he must have been trying to catch bootleggers again last night. And, to hear Frank tell the story, the bootleggers had gotten away again.
The rumrunners would go to Canada and buy liquor, then try to bring it back into the United States. If the customs officers or the State Police came close to catching them with a load of hooch, they’d ditch their cars and run away through the woods. The cars usually had phony papers and there was no way to tell who they really belonged to.
Some of the smugglers were from the city, but many of them were from northern New York, local people who knew the back roads that ran across the border. Even for local officers like Raymond, they were hard to catch, especially since so many people didn’t like Prohibition.
Kenny walked down the long hallway until he came to his homeroom, then went in, sat down and put his books in his desk. He glanced up at the picture of President Coolidge over the blackboard, then looked out the tall windows at the leaves on the tree branches. A few more weeks and school would end and he could go home for the summer.
This had been his first school year in town. Before that, he lived on his grandparents’ farm in Altona, but Pépé and Mémé wanted him to go to school in Plattsburgh, so now he stayed with Raymond during the week.
On weekends, he’d help Pépé and Uncle George on the farm, and then, on Monday, George would give him a ride to school. On the good days, he’d get a ride in George’s Buick Roadster, and the town boys would watch jealously. On the other days, George would be driving Pépé’s old Nash farm truck, and they’d all snicker.
When he first came, the town boys would “moo” after him in the hallway, especially on Mondays. No matter how much he washed up before school, no matter how he kept his school clothes separate from his work clothes, he just couldn’t seem to get all the smell of the milking parlor off.
Or maybe they were just pretending to smell the farm. They mooed on other days, too, when he hadn’t even been back to the farm the night before.
Most of it stopped after Frank tripped him in the hall one day. Kenny got in trouble, Raymond had to come meet with the principal, and both boys were suspended for three days for fighting. Raymond made Kenny spend those days at the farm giving the manure spreader a thorough cleaning and then scraping and repainting the shed.
That might have ended things, if the teacher who had pulled Kenny off Frank had simply made them shake hands before marching them down to the principal’s office. Instead, as he blotted Frank’s nose with his handkerchief, he told him that “a boy who spends his time pitching pennies should think twice before picking on a boy who spends his time pitching hay.”
Everyone had laughed at that, and the embarrassment hurt Frank more than anything Kenny had done. Frank didn’t want another bloody nose, but he still teased Kenny whenever he could, knowing that Kenny had been ordered by his uncle not to fight again.
Kenny listened to his uncle. Raymond was his father’s little brother, and they had been in France together during the Great War. Uncle Raymond was with Kenny’s dad at Belleau Wood, and had helped carry him to the field hospital where he died.
Kenny was eight then. He was nine when Raymond came home from the war, and he had just turned 10 when the influenza took his mother.
When she got sick, Kenny stayed with Raymond at his apartment in town, because Mémé and Pépé were old and Aunt Irène and Aunt Hélène had babies. Raymond said that, in case Kenny had it, too, he shouldn’t be around little kids or old people. Raymond wasn’t scared of the influenza. He said that, if he didn’t get it when he was in France, he wasn’t going to get it now.
After his mother’s funeral, Kenny went to live with Mémé and Pépé and Uncle George, who was the youngest of the family, only 16 then. Four years later, George still lived with his parents and helped at the farm, though he often went off for a day or two to work construction in Quebec, where the money was good and he had many friends.
But Raymond was the oldest now, and, while Pépé was still head of the family, everyone turned to Uncle Raymond when there was a problem.
If Uncle Raymond told him not to fight with Frank Ashline again, Kenny wasn’t going to fight with Frank Ashline again.
text c. Mike Peterson, illustration c. Christopher Baldwin