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  • Emmett Grogan

Passiondale

Stardate: August, 1981.


We beamed down to the forest behind David Locker’s house, phaser rifles set on stun. Turk Morgan had been spotted on our side of the creek, so we went to set up an ambush in the clearing. The mission was to capture Turk Morgan alive, and bring him back to David Locker’s garage for questioning, after beating the shit out of him, for stealing our bikes. There were seven of us that morning. The crew of the Starship Enterprise, armed with dollar-store squirt guns and water balloons. Me and my best friend James Duke; Bobby Decicco; Stanislaw Malinowski; plus three of the four Kochan brothers, Craig, Brent, and Derek, versus Turk Morgan, a true bad-ass, the only kid in grade six with a mustache.


Poof! I jumped as if stung by a bee. Somebody had shot me with a BB gun. Underneath my science officer blue t-shirt, there was a red mark. It hurt like hell, and I still have a pock-mark scar above my left nipple to this day.


Before I knew what was going on, before any of us could move, Decicco and Malinowski got shot in the forehead, drawing blood.


“Ahh! Jesus! Jesus Christ! It stings!”


“There! Behind that bush! There he is!”


We were right out in the open. Up in the trees, somebody (that fucker, Turk Morgan!) had us pinned down between the edge of the creek and the embankment. The trail back to David Locker’s house was slick with wet soil, difficult to climb. It had rained the night before, and the creek was swollen to twice its normal size, muddy water rushing madly.


From the other side of the creek, the bastard shot Brent Kochan in the thigh, and Brent howled with surprise at the indignity. It could have been worse. Two inches to the side, one inch higher, and Turk would have hit Brent in the nutsack, crippling him for life.


Craig Kochan jumped into the water, charging toward Turk’s position on the hill. The guy was the same age as Turk, two years older than the rest of us. Turk shot him in the gut, with no mercy. I watched a BB pellet arc across the creek gully, glinting in the light, then smash into Bobby Decicco’s upper lip, shredding it instantly. Decicco collapsed into the creek, splashing water on his face, crying with pain. Me and Duker dove into the water beside him, hunched over, and pulled Bobby out of the creek, soaking wet. Decicco was screaming obscenities, despite his split upper lip, dripping blood on the forest floor.


At the widest, deepest part of the creek, where the rainwater runoff from the town sewer pipes pooled before flowing into Lake Superior at the edge of town, Turk Morgan had chucked our stolen bikes. I counted at least seven bicycles in the water.


Brent Kochan got shot again, in the back of his shoulder. I felt a BB pellet zip past my left ear, on its way to striking Stan Malinowski in the neck. James Duke caught one in the face. We had no cover to hide behind, not even a tree knocked on its side by the wind. Derek Kochan was the only one of our gang to escape unshot, as we evacuated the field of battle for the shelter of David Locker’s garage, then limped to the local hospital to get patched up in the surgery ward.


Back at David Locker’s garage, we spent the rest of the weekend trying to figure out what we could do about Turk Morgan. The problem was, the guy had a BB gun. He was hiding in the forest with his mustache, waiting to shoot us dead. We couldn’t set a trap for him because the guy was too clever; Turk never made any mistakes. That mustache! Sneering at us! We had no bikes. We had no guns. We needed guns. What if we burned down the forest? If we burned down the forest, could we blame Turk? Even if Turk wasn’t there for the flames?


So we went back to the forest behind David Locker’s house, and burned it down. It was a controlled burn, our water balloons on standby; just the dead grass from the edge of the creek up the side of the embankment to the top of the hill was reduced to hot ash. We didn’t let any trees burn, that would have been wasteful. We chopped down the trees with our hatchets and dragged them over to our side of the creek to fortify the intricate network of trenches and tunnels we dug into the hillside. It was a lot of work. It took about a week to completely denude Turk Morgan’s side of the forest, after scorching the soil with Vidal Sassoon hair spray. We used Vidal Sassoon hair spray as flamethrowers because stealing the hair spray and disposable lighters from Hebert’s Grocery was easier than mixing petroleum jelly with gasoline to make homemade napalm in the shed behind David Locker’s garage: even though Mrs. Hebert practically lived in her husband’s shop, she never noticed when we cleaned out the convenience store for supplies.


We had just got the cement floor poured when Turk Morgan seized our fortress. Our intricate network of trenches and tunnels overlooking the decimated slope on the other side of the creek was captured without a single shot fired. After T-ball practice one night, me and Duker and Brent Kochan returned to the compound to find somebody had removed our Canadian flag, and hoisted their own banner, a swastika. Our bikes had been chucked back into the creek! But all mangled together, like a box of Christmas lights! Then Brent Kochan got shot in the face with a BB gun from the direction of our bunker, I got clipped in the shoulder, and James Duke caught a pellet in the arse as he dragged both me and Brent off the battlefield, to David Locker’s garage.


By midnight, the gang was together. At 3:34 AM, we launched our assault on the base. No more screwing around with squirt guns and water balloons – we mixed petroleum jelly with gasoline in pop bottles, and tossed homemade napalm. We dug in deep on Turk Morgan’s side of the creek, foxholes cratering the clear-cut forest, and prepared for the end of the world.


The opening skirmish of the battle raged for a week. It rained nine days straight. The sky was covered in mud. But we never gave up. Each of us boy soldiers got shot at least a half dozen times by Turk Morgan with his BB gun, in the chest, in the arms, in the legs, in the face. It was a meat grinder. Running out of pop bottles and gasoline, we launched fireworks at Turk’s fort. Big screaming sparklers filled the valley with gunpowder smoke, but they couldn’t get Turk to show his face. In the fog of war, we soaked rags in urine and held them over our mouths so we would be able to breathe the poisoned air. Though wounded, exhausted, we never left the field of battle, not even for food or water. Twice a day, Mrs. Kochan, the mother of Craig and Brent and Derek, brought us sandwiches and juice boxes. From the shreds of a tattered American flag, we stitched Mrs. Kochan a banner with three blue stars, to display in her front window.


She wasn’t quite sure what to do with the banner. All she’d wanted was a daughter; somebody to sew pretty outfits for, and dress up like a girl.


It was Stan Malinowski’s idea to use his brother’s car as a kamikaze bomb to blast Turk Morgan out of his position on our side of the creek. Murray Malinowski abandoned his car when he left for college in North Bay, and it was good for pretty much nothing, except listening to old Cheech and Chong cassette tapes in the Malinowski garage. So we pushed it over the edge of the embankment, into the ravine. It tumbled down the hill, flipping end over end at least twice, but it missed the concrete pillbox we had aimed it at. Turk was never in any jeopardy. In truth, the car landed at the bottom of the creek on top of our stolen bicycles, crushing them flat, making them unrecoverable, before exploding in a terrible fireball. That was pretty cool. Then James Duke got shot in the foot, and we had to take him to the hospital before gangrene set in, and he lost both of his legs to amputation.


It was time to get one of the parents in the neighbourhood involved.


While Bobby Decicco and Stan Malinowski stood watch over Turk Morgan in the forest, me and Duker and the Kochan band of brothers went to see Turk Morgan’s dad. Turk Morgan’s dad was this fantastic, fabulous weirdo who used to walk around his welfare apartment wearing nothing except a leopard print housecoat, not even slippers. His speckled ballbag would hang out while talking to you. For years, the story around town was, Turk’s dad owned a private Xerox machine, a personal luxury unheard of by the outdoorsmen of Northwestern Ontario, the hunters and fishers with their half-ton trucks, and 39-foot cigarette boats. Was Turk Morgan’s dad some sort of eccentric genius? Would he be willing to help us if we explained our situation to him? We weren’t snitching on Turk: that would have been wrong. We were seeking tactical advice from the enemy of an enemy. To beat him, we needed a doomsday device to use against Turk: something like a photon torpedo, or low-grade nuclear weapon.


“Boys, I can’t help you. I haven’t seen Turk since before Christmas. The boy is totally out of control. He beat the shit out of me when I asked him to clean his room. See these scars? It could have been worse. It could have been a lot worse. I thought he was going to kill me. Would any of you like a drink? I’ve got Labatt 50 on tap. The only thing that can slow Turk down is a dog whistle. Turk used to crap on the kitchen hardwood, until I got him trained in proper human behaviour. Higher pitches give him headaches; have done since he was a baby.”


Turk Morgan’s dad was the greasiest bastard I ever saw. He wore sunglasses despite the pulled drapes of his living room window. He had two VCRs stacked on top of his TV, dubbing a stack of rented movies. The entire household was decorated with school photographs of Turk, all the way back to kindergarten. Each year, Turk’s lumpy white hands were folded underneath his bushy mustache like a choirboy. The guy had a mustache even in kindergarten!


Ten minutes later, Duke, the Kochan brothers and I were hitchhiking up the highway to the town dump. There was a guy who lived there among the garbage named Inno Dubelair. Inno was either paid by the township, or else he did it for free, which doesn’t make any sense, because who wants to live in a garbage dump, but hey, why would anyone pay for the local bum to live at the town dump as a scavenger? He must have been a volunteer. He had a little shack in the centre of the dump where he kept his belongings. Inno Dubelair spent his entire life picking through the town’s garbage looking for trash he could salvage. He had a rifle to protect him from bears, and owned a flare gun to scare away seagulls while raking the trash before burning it. The flare gun was what we were after. The flare gun was custom-rigged to fire off a canister that whistled as it went up in the air. It would be the ultimate weapon, or so we allowed ourselves to hope.


Inno Dubelair’s clothes were covered in shit, but he wore a gasmask to filter out the stink of his environment. The gasmask had tentacles, like an octopus. Nobody had seen Inno’s face, or heard his voice, for as long as they could remember. The gasmask made it pretty simple for Duke and the Kochan brothers to sneak into Inno’s shack and steal the flare gun, since the guy couldn’t hear or see anybody around him, while wearing the gas mask. Derek pretended he was a bear cub to distract Inno, but Inno didn’t even notice the boy crawling around in the trash, pawing through bust-open garbage bags, looking for empty soup cans and rotting fish heads.


By the time we got back to the forest behind David Locker’s house, Bobby Decicco and Stan Malinowski were suffering from severe heat stroke. Despite it being the hottest day of the year, Bobby and Stan were wearing winter parkas and hockey pants as body armour to protect themselves against Turk Morgan’s BB gun. Underneath six layers of clothing, you could barely feel it when you got shot, and the bruising was minimal. The punishing trade-off was, you had to walk around with a body temperature of 232o Celsius, which meant potential brain damage, but that didn’t stop us from wearing the body armour. It was total war. We had to beat Turk Morgan at his own game, no matter what the cost. One of us needed to pry Turk Morgan’s BB gun from out of his hands, and drop it so deep into the creek that Turk would never see it again.


At dawn we began our assault. Not everybody would be making it home for lunch that day. Through the mist, we snuck across the creek. Stan Malinowski carried the flare gun over his head, like a pagan idol we should fall down and worship. You could hear the jungle breath. The forest was littered with empty firework shells. Turk had discovered our pile of porn mags in the fortress, and thrown them down the hill, scattering our imaginary girlfriends to the wind, but it didn’t matter. We could always steal more skin books from the back room of Hebert’s Grocery, after Turk Morgan had been taken care of. It was time to use the flare gun.


Bam! The canister on the tip of the flare gun went up like a rocket, emitting a whistle. It was worse than fingernails on a chalkboard, a horrible, high-pitch screeching sound. And it went on for a good minute or so, getting louder as the screaming canister fell back to earth. My nerves finally cracked. It wasn’t the unending battle, the filth, the squalor, the waste, the hate, the fear or the paranoia. It wasn’t the diarrhea, the dysentery, the scurvy, or even the shell shock. It was the loss of innocence when Turk Morgan stole our bicycles, then chucked them down the creek that summer. We may have all been miserable sinners, arseholes, neighbourhood children like in any small town, but Turk Morgan had pulled us across a line from which there was no going back.


You can’t put toothpaste back into its tube.


Turk crawled out of a sewer pipe behind us. He was wearing no shirt, he was wearing no shoes. His beard was crusted with mud. His long dark hair was uncombed. His chest was slick with dirty sweat. His pupils were dilated, and he looked malnourished. His camouflage pants had a large hole in the crotch. And his BB gun was covered in both cobwebs and rust.


From less than ten feet away, Duker threw a piece of wood at Turk, and hit him in the jaw. The piece of wood had a rusty nail sticking out of it, but the spike didn’t puncture Turk’s skin. We screamed as Turk batted away the piece of wood, mostly with relief. Nobody wanted Turk to have to get a tetanus shot, not even Duke. Turk dropped his BB gun in the creek, as the rest of us chucked large rocks at him. The BB gun dropped like a stone into the deepest part of the creek. Then Turk scrambled up the hill behind David Locker’s house, and was gone.

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