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The Dead Possum Gang By Dan Strawn

Adventures with an American flavor reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Tom and Huck.

The Dead Possum Gang

The Best of Times 1944 “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” That’s the trick Dickens used to time-frame his work on the French Revolution. I didn’t know about Charles Dickens then, back when I was living with Mom and her widowed older sister on a quarter section of southeastern Idaho farmland. I knew about corn, pinto beans, potatoes, chickens, and milking shorthorns. And the irrigation ditch that ran across the front of the property next to the gravel road, and how Mom and Aunt Marge said that ditch was off limits. And the coyote-skin rug lying on the hearth—its soft fur, the head with yellow glass eyes and sharp, white teeth that gleamed from lit logs in the fireplace. And fairy tales and storybooks. And short, snowy winter days, when Mom, Aunt Marge and I parceled out dried corn and chicken mash to starving pheasants huddled in snow-bound harbors of dead corn and beans—the same pheasants that scant weeks earlier patrolled the fields during long twilight summer days. These were the forties—the 1940s. These were my best of times. The rest of the world? The rest of the world wept. They were in their worst of times.

I don’t remember living anywhere before Aunt Marge’s farm. I learned from Mom we came here to live when my dad, like most dads in these worst of times, went to war. I vaguely remembered him, but I think I connected more to the pictures in Mom’s bedroom—one on the night stand next to her bed, him in his army uniform, and the other on her dresser, him in a suit and Mom in a wedding dress.

Mom said we came here because we needed a place to stay while Dad was away, and Aunt Marge was lonely.

I never knew my Uncle Henry. He died just a little while before we came to live with Aunt Marge. I remember thinking I knew him, but maybe not. Maybe it was all the mementos around the house—pictures of Uncle Henry, the Barnaby Briar pipe leaning up against the unopened tin of Sir Walter Raleigh tobacco on the mantle above the fireplace, and stories Aunt Marge told.

Mom missed Dad a lot. I could tell by the way she talked about him with Aunt Marge, and the way she hung onto his letters, all of them, after we shared them as soon as the mailman dropped them in the box out on the road. They came in tissue paper envelopes. Victory letters, Mom called them. There was no letter, just words written on the insides and backs of the envelopes.

In September, after my sixth birthday in March, I went to the first grade. I loved school—the kids my age, new stories in class, and games at recess. And I loved after school—helping Aunt Marge feed the chickens or cows or tossing rocks at crows out in the bean fields, and after dinner story time with Mom or playing Go Fish or Chinese Checkers with Aunt Marge.

Then, in the week of carving Jack-O-Lanterns, we got the word about Dad.

When I came through the front door from school, Aunt Marge was sitting at the dining room table across from Mom. This time of day Aunt Marge was usually out in the barn getting ready to milk. Mom had her back to me, but I could tell by the look on Aunt Marge’s face something wasn’t right. Mom turned when I closed the door. I could see the wet on her cheeks and the sadness in her face, even though she smiled at me. “Come here, Ricky. We have some news.”

I came into the dining room and set my lunch pail on the table. Mom opened her arms and pulled me in to her. For long seconds, the room was quiet, the only sound was her heart thumping on my eardrum. In time, she sighed, lifted her head, and pushed me back so we could see each other’s eyes.

“Your daddy’s been hurt. He’s been hurt but he’s going to be okay.”

She forced a smile. Tears pooled and spilled down her cheeks.

“Don’t cry, Mama,” I remember saying between sobs of my own.

She wiped her eyes, pulled me back into her, kissed me on both cheeks, hugged me and rested her chin on my head. “My tears are coming for your daddy. Sad tears because he’s hurt. Happy tears because he’s going to be okay and will be coming home to us soon.” She kissed the top of my head and held me closer.

I stood, wrapped in my mother’s arms, my head pillowed on her soft bosom, her beating heart once more echoing in my head. Aunt Marge slid her chair back, and her booted footsteps moved across the carpet. I felt her nearness to Mom and me. Her finger tips brushed my shoulder.

The time came, after Mom read me yet another letter from Dad, that I asked her about how he was hurt. She laid the letter on the kitchen table. Her fingers tarried on the edge of the writing. She placed her hands in her lap and looked at me.

“Your daddy was hurt in several ways. He had cuts. An arm and a leg were broken. It takes time for those things to heal, especially the leg. He’s in a hospital, across the ocean in a place called Scotland. When he’s healed, when he’s out of danger…” She stopped talking, took in a deep breath and let it out. “…When he’s healed, he will come home. I promise you, it’s only a little while longer.”

We looked at each other for a long moment. I knew there was more. Mom was like that, always taking her time. I waited, but about the time I felt too fidgety to remain quiet, she reached over and tousled the lock of hair that fell over my forehead.

“One injury…” She stopped talking. Her eyes pooled up. “One of Daddy’s eyes was hurt. They can’t make that well. He’s coming home with only one eye.”

“What happened to his eye?”

“What happened to it? Well, it was injured when Daddy’s plane crashed.”

“Where’d it go? Is it still in the airplane?”

“I…don’t know. Why would you…why does that matter?”

“If it’s still in his head, then he’s coming home with two eyes. He just can’t see out of one of them.”

I’ve not forgotten the look on Mom’s face, nor will I ever. When she got over the shock and caught her breath, she laughed, reached over and pulled me in to her.

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