Blaze of Glory
When you're brought into this world
They say you're born in sin
Well at least they gave me something
I didn't have to steal or have to win
~Blaze of Glory - Bon Jovi
The boisterous din of merrymaking teenagers fell back to nothingness as Hank watched his mother's face crumple in the midday sun. She bit her lip and pressed a gloved fist to her pastel-pink painted mouth. Hank winced as the color stained the bright white cotton. More work for Ma to do later, another expensive hand-me-down to wash. Maybe she could sneak it in with one of her customer's loads, make it part of the work day.
Pop didn't look much better. The color drained from his thin, drawn face, and he gaped at Hank so long a magpie could have set up shop in his open mouth.
Hank's siblings frowned and shuffled uncomfortably. The eldest, Charlotte, leaned heavily against her new husband and glared hotly at Hank. His older brother Franklin shook his head and reached for Ma.
Only little brother Michael seemed to think Hank's announcement was a good thing. "Gee! That sounds exciting! More exciting than climbing date trees all summer, that's for sure."
"There's nothing exciting about war," their baby sister Susan snapped.
Michael recoiled slightly, then turned wide eyes to Hank. "Hey... do you think you'll have to go to war?"
Hank smiled, glad to answer a question that might set his family at ease. "The Korean war's been over for a couple years now, Michael." Hank looked up at Pop. "I wouldn't have joined the Army if I thought I'd be shipped off to war." He looked at his mother. "This way, you have one less mouth to struggle to feed. I'm eighteen now. I should be fending for myself."
"You're just a baby," Ma said.
"My feet hurt," Charlotte said. "I want to get off this football field."
"Hank didn't say bye to his friends, yet. If they're all going to college, he might not get another chance," Michael said.
Everyone glared at Michael.
"I'm gonna be back eventually," Hank growled.
"Running away isn't the answer to our problems," Pop said. "You can come with me, we can find work together. And you aren't hard to feed, son. You're no burden."
Hank pressed his lips together. He looked to the bright desert sky, pale blue and drier than sand, and waited for his tears to evaporate before facing his family again. "Pop. I've already signed the contract. I'm going to eat sandwiches with you all tonight, I'm going to pick up my diploma from the office in the morning, and then I'm going to report to my recruiter in two days. I thought about this for a long time - ever since my birthday. Before that, even. But I've been planning since then. It's done. I'm joining the Army."
"But Henry, what about summer vacation?"
Hank wrinkled his nose. "Ma, summer vacation just means less book work and more back breaking labor. If I'm gonna do that, I'm gonna let Uncle Sam feed and house me, and I'm gonna get paid more than what these stingy rich folks around here want to put out."
Tony, Hank's new brother-in-law, was the first to break the sudden silence. "Amen. I think you're gonna do swell, Henry." He grabbed Hank's hand and shook it vigorously. "But before you go, we've got to get you home to celebrate the end of high school!" Everyone pasted on pale copies of the smiles they'd been wearing before Hank blurted his confession and ruined the mood, and together they marched off the football field, towards the tiny bungalow they shared in the middle of nowhere, a half day's march outside of Palm Springs.
A banner made of old, wrinkled butcher paper was tacked to the awning of their rented house. Wax crayon printed in neat, blocky letters announced their middle son's grand achievement: Congratulations Henry Stanley Class of 1956. A pair of balloons hung from corners of the tatty banner, and the jangle of electric guitars piping through AM radio sparked the dry hot air. His kid siblings snapped their fingers and skipped and hopped away from the group, called to the newfangled sound like lemmings to the sea. Big sister and her hubby chuckled, but he was bopping his head, and she was snapping her fingers to the beat. Even Pop looked like he wanted to dance - but he'd always liked music, any kind of music. No one was surprised when he'd run out and bought a pressing of Heartbreak Hotel with his summer raise, and everyone pretended to believe him when he said it was for the kids.
Hank didn't care much either way about the new sound on the radio. He didn't care about banners and public announcements, either. The party, the music, the display that faced the street, these things were more for his family than himself. But he smiled a little harder and pulled Ma in close and kissed her right out there on the street. The celebration wouldn't do his family any good if they didn't think he liked it, and he needed to make sure everyone got every wonderful little thing they could out of the afternoon. He wouldn't be around anymore - one less mouth to feed, yes, but they'd also be short a working body, and none of the other kids were ever quite as conscientious as Hank.
Of course, none of the other kids ever seemed particularly bothered by all the moving around and scrounging for work that had to be done, either. Only Hank ever seemed to notice the knife's edge they all teetered on. Maybe it was his age - too young to simply get out there and help at first, too old think this was just how it was. His memory was hazy, more of an impression than the clear cut recall of thumbing all over the southwest, but it was there. There had been a home once, one that they didn't have to scrimp and save to keep, one in a neighborhood that didn't scream Dust Bowl Scroungers.
Ma was watching him again, and Hank knew that his worries showed on his face. He forced a laugh and swept her up in a bear hug, and whisked her onto the porch and into the house. No more worrying for either of them today. Sandwiches and punch and no more homework!
There were more balloons inside, just dropped willy nilly. They were on the second hand couch, in the potted palm Pop had rescued from one of the farms, on the table (with the sandwiches, no less), on the cart with the transistor radio, and all over the floor. The two young ones were kicking them around like little fluffy soccer balls and dancing to the latest Bill Haley song.
Hank plopped on the couch and watched his family dance and sing and laugh. Even at home, Hank played the role of wallflower to a tee. There was no longing to join the ruckus, though. He was comfortable watching the party unfold like a play, happy simply to watch the people he loved be happy for him.
Charlotte nuzzled her husband, and Hank's warm contentment chilled a bit. He liked Tony, he really did, and he was truly happy for his sister, but... it wasn't fair. He'd been slowly cut out of his big sister's life as they'd grown, and he hadn't been interested in following along behind his big brother for companionship. He hadn't been interested in trying to figure out the strange magnetism his brother's friends had, or the fact that no one else seemed to go dreamy around any of them - no one except his big sister.
"What if there is a war?"
Hank jumped and turned to look at Michael. Young, goofy, impressionable Michael. Hank had always expected Michael to take off after Frank, but Michael stayed right under Hank's feet. If you wanted to find Hank, just ask Michael was the running joke. Even when he'd run off to do something silly and childish with Susan, somehow Hank would find himself dragged along to watch. And now Michael sat panting next to Hank, while Susan leaned heavily against Michael, and they watched him with wide eyes. "What if there's a war, Hank? Will you have to fight?"
Hank wrinkled his brow. "Probably, if I'm still contracted for service. But I'm not too worried about that. And you shouldn't either."
"Told ya," Susan said, and drooped off to bother Frank and Pop.
Michael scooted in closer to Hank, until Hank could smell the Vaseline in his brother's hair and the mustard on his breath. "I don't want you to go to war, Hank," he whispered. "You're too gentle."
Hank bristled. "Gee, thanks, Mike."
Michael nudged Hank gently. "Don't be sore. You're not a meathead like Franklin. You're not even feisty like Charlotte. You're like me."
"Sure... you know..."
"No, I'm afraid I don't."
Michael's cheeks turned a deep crimson, and he looked away. "Never mind. Hey! We should get some envelopes, so we can write to you while you're in training. And some stamps. We need stamps." He jumped up and ran off, leaving Hank to puzzle the mysteries of the universe.
Charlotte and Tony danced cheek to cheek, softly kicking balloons out of the way as they waltzed into Hank's line of sight. Ma and Pop watched the dancing couple with blissful smiles, probably lost in memories of life in Nebraska, before the wind kicked black clouds that blocked the sun and choked the life out their town. Hank was glad they'd found their happiness again, glad his sister had a chance at the same kind of joy. But he was sick of the unspeakable cloud that darkened his own life, the certainty that he wouldn't be finding that kind of joy for himself.
He wouldn't wish that kind darkness on his worst enemy. And now he was rubbing off on his kid brother. He had to get the hell out of Palm Springs.
Hard work and discipline came hard to most of the ragtag group of desert bums at the training compound, but it didn't faze Hank in the slightest. Private Stanley was used to long hours in the hot sun, picking dates and clearing brush and hefting bushels on the local date farms. Running around a bunch of bungalows with a rucksack on his back was nothing.
What didn't come so easily was avoiding the crass talk during what little down time they had. It seemed like everybody had a girl back home, and all the girls were exactly the kind of girl no boy would think of marrying. A few of them even showed up on the weekends, wearing tight skirts that wouldn't let them walk if it wasn't for the obscene slit halfway up the thigh, deep cut blouses that showed a peekaboo of the satin and lace contraptions that held up their assets, and bright ruby red lipstick that usually wound up smeared on the privates faces (and sometimes uniform collars, if they were stupid).
Hank had visitors, too, but they were named (at one point or another) Stanely, and none of them wore revealing clothing or bright lipstick. Susan did wear a beautiful red dress that had belonged to one of the well off little girls Ma chased after between loads of laundry and stacks of dishes the first time they came, but after the third lecherous trainee asked to be introduced to his VERY little sister, Hank decided Susan should keep her pretty things for school dances and wear her usual dull cotton shifts when she came to visit. After that, the boys respectfully kept their distance while he entertained his family, and told him what a lucky girl Susan was to have three protective brothers, and how they'd be protective of a sweet girl like her too. They'd be protective dates, too, just in case he was wondering. He wasn't. They reminded him anyway.
It was a relief to be shipped to Germany at the end of training. The never ending angling to get permission to ogle his little sister was infuriating, and the big sad eyes Ma made every time she came to visit chipped a little more at his emotional armor. He was nearly at his wits end when the order came through that he'd made the cut. Four years away from the desert, away from his well meaning but hovering family, away from the pimply scrawny tumbleweeds that wanted nothing more apparently than to get into Susan Stanley's knickers.