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She looks for her lover but he isn't there anymore; he's disappeared, it's magic. She asked if she could try. All this in an instant. Crocker was nice enough sober but a mean drunk. You could see my aunt and uncle looking at one another every now and then as if to say Jesus, get these people out of here. Two days later I me out with his at the hairdressers when of intravaginal HSV-2 challenge.

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Almost gently. The rain does the rest. The Volvo reels, swerves, glides over an embankment and suddenly she and her lover are tumbling through space, they are weightless and turning, and up is down and then up and then down again.

At some point the steering wheel breaks her shoulder. The rear view mirror cracks her wrist. Then the rolling stops and she's staring up at the gas pedal overhead. She looks for her lover but he isn't there anymore; he's disappeared, it's magic. She finds the door on the driver's side and opens it, crawls out onto wet grass, stands and peers through the rain. And this is the image that haunts her-a man like a sack of blood, flayed, skinned alive, lying in front of the car in a spray of glass spackled red.

And this is why she's closer. Even though she blocks what she knows-even though she sleeps nights. She knows that pain is not just a matter of hurting, of her own. Pain can work from the outside in. I mean that sometimes what you see is pain. Pain in its crudest, purest form. Without drugs or sleep or even shock or coma to dull it for you. You're host to a long white worm that gnaws and eats, growing, filling your intestines until finally you cough one morning and up comes the blind pale head of the thing sliding from your mouth like a second tongue.

Kids get second chances. I like to think I'm using mine. Though after two divorces, bad ones, the worm is apt to gnaw a little. Still I like to remember that it was the Fifties, a period of strange repressions, secrets, hysteria. I think about Joe McCarthy, though I barely remember thinking of him at all back then except to wonder what it was that would make my father race home from work every day to catch the committee hearings on TV. I think about the Cold War.

About air-raid drills in the school basement and films we saw of atomic testing-department-store mannequins imploding, blown across mockup living rooms, disintegrating, burning. About copies of Playboy and Man's Action hidden in wax paper back by the brook, so moldy after a while that you hated to touch them.

I say to myself something weird was happening, some great American boil about to burst. That it was happening all over, not just at Ruth's house but everywhere. What we did. I'm forty-one now. Born in , seventeen months to the day after we dropped the Bomb on Hiroshima. Matisse had just turned eighty.

I make a hundred fifty grand a year, working the floor on Wall Street. Two marriages, no kids. A home in Rye and a company apartment in the city. It may be that I'm about to marry again. The woman I love knows nothing of what I'm writing here-nor did my other wives-and I don't really know if I ever mean to tell her.

Why should I? I'm successful, even-tempered, generous, a careful and considerate lover. And nothing in my life has been right since the summer of , when Ruth and Donny and Willie and all the rest of us met Meg Loughlin and her sister Susan.

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I was alone back by the brook, lying on my stomach across the Big Rock with a tin can in my hand. I was scooping up crayfish.

I had two of them already in a larger can beside me. Little ones. I was looking for their mama. The brook ran fast along either side of me. I could feel the spray on my bare feet dangling near the water. The water was cold, the sun warm.

I heard a sound in the bushes and looked up. The prettiest girl I'd ever seen was smiling at me over the embankment. She had long tanned legs and long red hair tied back in a ponytail, wore shorts and a pale-colored blouse open at the neck.

I was twelve and a half. She was older. I remember smiling back at her, though I was rarely agreeable to strangers. She dropped down off the bank just like a boy would, not sitting first, just putting her left hand to the ground and vaulting the three-foot drop to the first big stone in the line that led zigzag across the water.

She studied the line a moment and then crossed to the Rock. I was impressed. She had no hesitation and her balance was perfect. I made room for her. There was suddenly this fine clean smell sitting next to me.

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Her eyes were green. She looked around. To all of us back then the Rock was something special. It sat smack in the middle of the deepest part of the brook, the water running clear and fast around it. You had room for four kids sitting or six standing up. It had been a pirate ship, Nemo's Nautilus, and a canoe for the Lenni Lennape among other things. Today the water was maybe three and a half feet deep. She seemed happy to be there, not scared at all.

She peered down into the can. Time went by and we said nothing. She studied them. Then she straightened up again. They can't hurt you, though. And the little ones just try to run. I mean, you can't keep a lobster like a pet or anything, right? They die. One day or maybe two, tops. I hear people eat them too, though. We lay across the Rock side by side. I took the can and slipped both arms down into the brook.

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The trick was to turn the stones one at a time, slowly so as not to muddy the water, then have the can there ready for whatever scooted out from under. The water was so deep I had my shortsleeve shirt rolled all the way up to my shoulders. I was aware of how long and skinny my arms must look to her. I know they looked that way to me. I felt pretty strange beside her, actually. Uncomfortable but excited.

She was different from the other girls I knew, from Denise or Cheryl on the block or even the girls at school. For one thing she was maybe a hundred times prettier. As far as I was concerned she was prettier than Natalie Wood. Probably she was smarter than the girls I knew too, more sophisticated. She lived in New York City after all and had eaten lobsters.

And she moved just like a boy. She had this strong hard body and easy grace about her. All that made me nervous and I missed the first one. Not an enormous crayfish but bigger than what we had. It scudded backward beneath the Rock. She asked if she could try. I gave her the can. She rolled up her sleeves and dipped down into the water. And that was when I noticed the scar.

It started just inside her left elbow and ran down to the wrist like a long pink twisted worm. She saw where I was looking. I don't know why scars are always so fascinating to boys, but they are, it's a fact of life, and I just couldn't help it. I couldn't shut up about it yet. Even though I knew she wanted me to, even though we'd just met. I watched her turn over a rock.

There was nothing. She did it correctly though; she didn't muddy the water. I thought she was terrific. She laughed and looked at me a certain way and I got the message. And then I did shut up for a while. She didn't answer that at all and I didn't blame her. I knew how stupid and awkward it sounded, how insensitive, the moment I said it.

I blushed and was glad she wasn't looking. The rock slid over and the crayfish backed right out into the can and all she had to do was bring it up. She poured off some water and tilted the can toward the sunlight. You could see that nice gold color they have. Its tail was up and its pincers waving and it was stalking the bottom of the can, looking for somebody to fight. She poured the water out slowly so as not to disturb her or lose her exactly the way you were supposed to, though nobody had told her, and then when there was only an inch or so left in the can, plunked her into the bigger can.

The two that were already in there gave her plenty of room. That was good because crayfish would kill each other sometimes, they'd kill their own kind, and these two others were just little guys. She looked primitive, efficient, deadly, beautiful. Very pretty color and very sleek of design. Then all you could hear for a while was the wind whooshing through the tall thin grass across the embankment and rustling the brush along the brook and the sound of the brook running fast from last night's rain, and us chewing.

We've got shopping to do. But I wanted to look around first thing. I mean, we've never had a woods before. Susan and I. Susan's my sister. We're cousins. Second cousins. I'm Ruth's niece I guess. Her voice had gone odd on me too. It sounded flat-like there was something I wasn't supposed to know.

And Ruth was.. Even if her kids were jerks sometimes. Ruth was great. I watched her climb the embankment. When she got to the top she turned and her smile was back again, the clean open look she'd had when she first sat down beside me on the Rock. Neat, I thought. I'll be seeing her all the time.

It was the first such thought I'd ever had. I realize that now. That day, on that Rock, I met my adolescence head-on in the person of Megan Loughlin, a stranger two years older than I was, with a sister, a secret, and long red hair. That it seemed so natural to me, that I emerged unshaken and even happy about the experience I think said much for my future possibilities-and of course for hers.

When I think of that, I hate Ruth Chandler. Ruth, you were beautiful then. I've thought about you a lot-no, I've researched you, I've gone that far, dug into your past, parked across the street one day from that Howard Avenue office building you were always telling us about, where you.

I parked there and it looked ordinary, Ruth. It looked squalid and sad and boring. I drove to Morristown where you were born and that was nothing too. Of course I didn't know where your house was supposed to be but I certainly couldn't see your grand disappointed dreams being born there either, in that town, I couldn't see the riches your parents supposedly thrust upon you, showered you with, I couldn 't see your wild frustration.

I sat in your husband Willie Sr. In Fort Myers, Florida, where he'd been ever since he left you with your three squalling brats and a mortgage all these thirty years ago, I found him playing barkeep to the senior citizens, a mild man, amiable, long past his prime-I sat there and looked at his face and into his eyes and we talked and I couldn't see the man you always said he was, the stud, the "'lovely Irish bastard," that mean sonovabitch.

He looked like a man gone soft and old to me. A drinker's nose, a drinker's gut, a fat fallen ass in a pair of baggy britches. And he looked like he'd never been hard, Ruth. That was the surprise, really. Or maybe it was that for you-funneled through you-lies and truth were the same. I'm going to try to change that now if I can. I'm going to tell our little story. Straight as I can from here on in and no interruptions.

And I'm writing this for you, Ruth. Because I never got to pay you back, really. So here's my check. Overdue and overdrawn. Cash it in hell. Early the following morning I walked next door. I remember feeling shy about it, a little awkward, and that was pretty unusual because nothing could have been more natural than to see what was going on over there.

It was morning. It was summer. And that was what you did. You got up, ate breakfast and then you went outside and looked around to see who was where. The Chandler house was the usual place to start. Laurel Avenue was a dead-end street back then-it isn't anymore-a single shallow cut into the half-circle of woodland that bordered the south side of West Maple and ran back for maybe a mile behind it.

When the road was first cut during the early s the woods were so thick with tall first growth timber they called it Dark Lane. That timber was all gone by now but it was still a quiet, pretty street. Shade trees everywhere, each house different from the one beside it and not too close together like some you saw. There were still only thirteen homes on the block.

Ruth's, ours, five others going up the hill on our side of the. Every family but the Zorns had kids. And every kid knew every other kid like he knew his own brother. So if you wanted company you could always find some back by the brook or the crab apple grove or up in somebody's yard- whoever had the biggest plastic pool that year or the target for bow and arrow. If you wanted to get lost that was easy too. The woods were deep.

The Dead End Kids, we called ourselves. It had always been a closed circle. We had our own set of rules, our own mysteries, our own secrets.

We had a pecking order and we applied it with a vengeance. We were used to it that way. But now there was somebody new on the block. Somebody new over at Ruth's place. Ralphie was squatting out by the rock garden. It was maybe eight o'clock and already he was dirty. There were streaks of sweat and grime all over his face and arms and legs like he'd been running all morning and falling down thwack in deep clouds of dust.

Falling frequently. Which he probably had, knowing Ralphie. Ralphie was ten years old and I don't think I'd ever seen him clean for more than fifteen minutes in my life. His shorts and T-shirt were crusty too. Except for Ruth, nobody called him Ralphie-always Woofer.

When he wanted to be could sound more like the Robertsons' basset hound Mitsy than Mitsy could. He was turning over rocks, watching potato bugs and thousand-loggers scurry away from the light. But I could see he wasn't interested in them. He kept moving one rock after the other. Turning them over, dropping them down again. He had a Libby's lima beans can beside him and he kept on shifting that too, keeping it close beside his scabby knees as he went from rock to rock. He was concentrating, frowning, moving with that jerky nervous energy that was patented Woofer.

Like he was a scientist in a lab on the brink of some incredible fantastic discovery and he wished you'd just leave him the hell alone to get on with it. He flipped another rock. Which meant that Donny was inside. And since I felt kind of nervous about going inside I stayed with him awhile. He upended a big one. And apparently found what he was after. Red ants. A swarm of them down there beneath the rock-hundreds, thousands of them. All going crazy with the sudden light. I've never been fond of ants.

We used to put up pots of water to boil and then pour it on them whenever they decided it would be nice to climb the front-porch steps over at our place-which for some reason they did about once every summer. It was my dad's idea, but I endorsed it entirely. I thought boiling water was just about what ants deserved. I could smell their iodine smell along with wet earth and wet cut grass.

Woofer pushed the rock away and then reached into the Libby's can. He dug out a nightcrawler and then a second one and dumped them in with the ants.

He did this from a distance of about three feet. Like he was bombing the ants with worm meat. The ants responded. The worms began rolling and bucking as the ants discovered their soft pink flesh. He pointed to a rock on the opposite side of the porch. Gonna collect 'em and put 'em in with these guys here. Start an ant war. You want to bet who wins? Pretend you're Son of Kong or something.

I climbed the stairs to the porch. I knocked on the screen door and went inside. Donny was sprawled on the couch wearing nothing but a pair of wrinkled white slept-in boxer shorts. He was only three months older than I was but much bigger in the chest and shoulders and now, recently, he was developing a pretty good belly, following in the footsteps of his brother, Willie Jr. It was not a beautiful thing to see and I wondered where Meg was now.

He looked up at me from a copy of Plastic Man. Personally I'd pretty much quit the comics since the Comic Code came in in '54 and you couldn't get Web of Mystery anymore. Ruth had been ironing. The board was leaning up in a corner and you could smell that sharp musky tang of clean, superheated fabric. I looked around. He closed the comic and got up, smiling, scratching his armpit.

Willie's got a nine- o'clock appointment with the dentist. Willie's got cavities. Ain't it a killer? Donny and Willie Jr. He was always at the dentist's. We laughed. Donny looked at me. I guess I wasn't fooling anybody. Down by the Rock yesterday. It wasn't exactly enthusiastic praise, but for Donny-and especially for Donny talking about a girl-it was pretty respectful.

Of all the kids on Laurel Avenue Eddie was the one I tried to stay away from. Eddie was crazy. I remember Eddie walking down the street once in the middle of a. Nature Boy. He threw it at Woofer, who screamed, and then at Billy Borkman.

In fact he kept picking it up and throwing it at all the little kids and chasing them waving the snake until the concussion of hitting the road so many times sort of got to the snake eventually and it wasn't much fun anymore.

Eddie got you in trouble. Eddie's idea of a great time was to do something dangerous or illegal, preferably both-walk the crossbeams of a house under construction or pelt crab apples at cars from Canoe Brook Bridge-and maybe get away with it.

If you got caught or hurt that was okay, that was funny. If he got caught or hurt it was still funny. Linda and Betty Martin swore they saw him bite off the head of a frog once.

Nobody doubted it. His house was at the top of the street on the opposite side from us, and Tony and Lou Morino, who lived next door, said they heard his father beating up on him all the time.

Practically every night. His mother and sister got it too. I remember his mother, a big gentle woman with rough thick peasant hands, crying over coffee in the kitchen with my mom, her right eye a great big puffy shiner. My dad said Mr. Crocker was nice enough sober but a mean drunk. I didn't know about that but Eddie had inherited his father's temper and you never knew when it would go off on you.

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When it did, he was as likely to pick up a stick or a rock as use his hands. We all bore the scars somewhere. I'd been on the receiving end more than once. Now I tried to stay away. Donny and Willie liked him though. Life with Eddie was exciting, you had to give him that much. Though even they knew. He went down the hall to his bedroom and it occurred to me to wonder how they were working that now that Meg and Susan were there, just who was sleeping where.

I walked over to the couch and picked up his Plastic Man. I flipped the pages and put it down again. Then I wandered from the living room to the dining area where Ruth's clean laundry lay folded on the table and finally into the kitchen.

I opened the Frigidaire. As usual there was food for sixty. I took out the Cokes, pulled open the right-hand drawer and got the bottle opener. Inside the silverware was stacked all neat and tidy.

It always struck me as weird how Ruth had all this food all the time yet had service only for five-five spoons, five forks, five knives, five steak knives, and no soup spoons at all. Of course except for us Ruth never had any company that I knew of.

But now there were six people living there. I wondered if she'd finally have to break down and buy some more. I opened the bottles. Donny came out and I handed him one.

He was wearing jeans and Keds and a T-shirt. The T-shirt was tight over his belly. I gave it a little pat there. Girls are skanks. Girls and homos are skanks. You're the skank. I'm the Duke of Earl. We went out through the back door into the yard, then around the driveway to the front, and started up to Eddie's. It was a matter of honor to ignore the sidewalk.

We walked in the middle of the street. We sipped our Cokes. There was never any traffic anyway. He glanced back over his shoulder. Makes a difference. Blood or something. I dunno. Before, we never saw 'em. Broke everything from there on down, my mom says. Every bone you got. Hips, legs, everything.

She's all casted up. Got those-what do you call 'em? Kids with polio wear 'em. I forget what they're called. Like crutches. We finished our Cokes. We were almost at the top of the hill.

It was almost time for me to leave him there. That or suffer Eddie. Just like that. I knew who he meant, of course, but for a moment I just couldn't get my mind to wrap around it. Not right away. It was much too weird a concept. Parents didn't just die. Not on my street.

And certainly not in car accidents.

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That kind of thing happened elsewhere, in places more dangerous than Laurel Avenue. They happened in movies or in books. You heard about it on Walter Cronkite. Laurel Avenue was a dead-end street. You walked down the middle of it. But I knew he wasn't lying. I remembered Meg not wanting to talk about the accident or the scars and me pushing. I knew he wasn't lying but it was hard to handle.

We just kept walking together, me not saying anything, just looking at him and not really seeing him either. Seeing Meg. It was a very special moment. I know Meg attained a certain glamour for me then. Suddenly it was not just that she was pretty or smart or able to handle herself crossing the brook-she was almost unreal.

Like no one I'd ever met or was likely to meet outside of books or the Matinee. Like she was fiction, some sort of heroine. I pictured her back by the Rock and now I saw this person who was really brave lying next to me. I saw horror. Suffering, survival, disaster.

All this in an instant. Probably I had my mouth open. I guess Donny thought I didn't know what he was talking about. My mom says they must have died instantly. That they didn't know what hit 'em. Neat, huh? You should see Susan's though. Scars all over the place. My mom says she's lucky to be alive. There isn't anybody else. It's us or some orphanage somewhere.

And then he said something that came back to me later. At the time I guessed it was true enough, but for some reason I remembered it. I remembered it well. He said it just as we got to Eddie's house, I see myself standing in the middle of the road about to turn and go back down the hill again, go off by myself somewhere, not wanting any part of Eddie-at least not that day. I see Donny turning to throw the words over his shoulder on his way across the lawn to the porch.

Casually, but with an odd sort of sincerity about him, as though this were absolute gospel. It was a week and a half before I got to see her again apart from a glimpse here and there- taking out the trash once, weeding in the garden. Now that I knew the whole story it was even harder to approach her. I'd never felt so shy. I'd rehearse what I might say to her.

But nothing sounded right. What did you say to someone who'd just lost half her family? It stood there like a rock I couldn't scale. So I avoided her. Then my family and I did our yearly duty trip to Sussex County to visit my father's sister, so for four whole days I didn't have to think about it.

It was almost a relief. I say almost because my parents were less than two years from divorce by then and the trip was awful-three tense days of silence in the car going up and coming back with a lot of phony jolliness in between that was supposed to benefit my aunt and uncle but didn't.

You could see my aunt and uncle looking at one another every now and then as if to say Jesus, get these people out of here. They knew. Everybody knew. My parents couldn't have hidden pennies from a blind man by then.

But once we were home it was back to wondering about Meg again. I don't know why it never occurred to me just to forget it, that she might not want to be reminded of her parents' death any more than I wanted to talk about it. I figured you had to say something and I couldn't get it right. It was important to me that I not make an ass of myself over this.

It was important to me that I not make an ass of myself in Meg's eyes period. I wondered about Susan too. In nearly two weeks I'd never seen her. That ran contrary to everything I knew. How could you live next door to someone and never see her? I thought about her legs and Donny saying her scars were really bad to look at. Maybe she was afraid to go out. I could relate to that. I'd been spending a lot of time indoors myself these days, avoiding her sister.

It couldn't last though. It was the first week of June by then, time for the Kiwanis Karnival.

To miss the Karnival was like missing summer. Directly across from us not half a block away was an old six-room schoolhouse called Central School where we all used to go as little kids, grades one through five.

They held the Karnival there on the playground every year. Ever since we were old enough to be allowed to cross the street we'd go over and watch them set up. For that one week, being that close, we were the luckiest kids in town. Only the concessions were run by the Kiwanis-the food stands, the game booths, the wheels of fortune.

The rides were all handled by a professional touring company and run by carnies. To us the carnies were exotic as hell. Roughlooking men and women who worked with Camels stuck between their teeth, squinting against the smoke curling into their eyes, sporting tattoos and calluses and scars and smelling of grease and old sweat. They cursed, they drank Schlitz as they worked. Like us, they were not opposed to spitting lungers in the dirt.

We loved the Karnival and we loved the carnies. You had to. In a single summer afternoon they would take our playground and transform it from a pair of baseball diamonds, a blacktop, and a soccer field into a brand-new city of canvas and whirling steel.

They did it so fast you could hardly believe your eyes. It was magic, and the magicians all had gold-tooth smiles and "I love Velma" etched into their biceps. It was still pretty early and when I walked over they were still unpacking the trucks.

This was when you couldn't talk to them. They were too busy. Later while they were setting up or testing the machinery you could hand them tools, maybe even get a sip of beer out of them. The local kids were their bread and butter after all. They wanted you to come back that night with friends and family and they were usually friendly. But now you just had to watch and keep out of the way. Cheryl and Denise were already there, leaning on the backstop fence behind home plate and staring through the links.

I stood with them. Things seemed tense to me. You could see why. It was only morning but the sky looked dark and threatening. Once, a few years ago, it had rained every night of the Karnival except Thursday.

Everybody took a beating when that happened. The grips and carnies worked grimly now, in silence. Cheryl and Denise lived up the street across from one another. They didn't have much in common. Cheryl was a tall skinny brunette who would probably be pretty a few years later but now she was all arms and.

She had two brothers-Kenny and Malcolm.

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Malcolm was just a little kid who sometimes played with Woofer. Kenny was almost my age but a year behind me in school. All three kids were very quiet and well-behaved. Their parents, the Robertsons, took no shit but I doubt that by nature they were disposed to give any. Denise was Eddie's sister. Another type entirely. Denise was edgy, nervous, almost as reckless as her brother, with a.

As though all the world were a bad joke and she was the only one around who knew the punchline. And there was the mockery, just pronouncing my name. I didn't like it but I ignored it. That was the way to handle Denise. If she got no rise she got no payoff and it made her more normal eventually. Denise said, "I think that's the Tilt-a-Whirl there. Last year that's where they put the Octopus. See those platforms? She was right. When the cars came out it was the Tilta-Whirl.

Like her father and her brother Eddie, Denise was good at mechanical things, good with tools. It was very exaggerated. I smiled. That's where they had it last year and the year before.

Want to see? We skirted the Tilt-a-Whirl and some kiddie boat rides they were unloading on the macadam, walked along the cyclone fence that separated the playground from the brook, cut through a row of tents going up for the ring-toss and bottle-throw and whatever, and came out onto the field. The grips had just opened the doors to the truck. The painted grinning clown head on the doors was split down the middle.

They started pulling out the girders. She had good white teeth and a lovely, delicate mouth. But something always went wrong with Denise's smile. There was always something manic in it. Like she really wasn't having much fun at all despite what she wanted you to think. It also disappeared too fast. It was unnerving.

I waited. I thought maybe she expected me to answer. I didn't. Instead, I looked away toward the truck. The Game, I thought. I didn't like to think about The Game. But as long as Denise and some of the others were around I supposed I'd have to. It started early last summer.

A bunch of us- me, Donny, Willie, Woofer, Eddie, Tony and Lou Morino, and finally, later, Denise-used to meet back by the apple orchard to play what we called Commando. We played it so often that soon it was just "The Game. Maybe Eddie or the Morinos. It just seemed to happen to us one day and from then on it was just there.

In The Game one guy was "it". He was the Commando. His "safe" territory was the orchard. The rest of us were a platoon of soldiers bivouacked a few yards away up on a hill near the brook where, as smaller kids, we'd once played King of the Mountain. We were an odd bunch of soldiers in that we had no weapons. We'd lost them, I guess, during some battle. Instead it was the Commando who had the weapons-apples from the orchard, as many as he could carry. In theory he also had the advantage of surprise.

Once he was ready he'd sneak from the orchard through the brush and raid our camp. With luck he could bop at least one of us with an apple before being seen.

The apples were bombs. If you got hit with an apple you were dead, you were out of the game.

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So the object was to hit as many guys as you could before getting caught. You got caught because, for one thing, everybody else was sitting on a fairly good-sized hill watching and waiting for you, and unless the grass was very high and you were very lucky, you had to get seen. So much for the element of surprise. Second, it was seven against one, and you had just the single "safe" base back at the orchard yards away.

So here you were firing wildly over your shoulder running like crazy back to your base with a bunch of kids like a pack of u dogs at your heels, and maybe you'd get one or two or three of them but eventually they'd get you. And as I say, that was the point. Because the captured Commando got tied to a tree in the grove, arms tied behind his back, legs hitched together.

He was gagged. He was blindfolded. And the survivors could do anything they wanted to him while the others-even the "dead" guys-looked on. Sometimes we all went easy and sometimes not. The raid took maybe half an hour. The capture could take all day.