Karl had the playground to himself. It was noon and most of the other kids were out on the ball field playing in the fresh snow. He sat on the merry-go-round watching the big boys who were huddled against the side of the school. Dale Lindstrom, the oldest of them, was tracing something on the palm of his upturned hand while the others nodded their heads. Karl knew that whatever they were up to, it had something to do with him.
Worried he’d be caught looking at them; he pulled his stocking cap down over his face. It was the blue one his mother had made for him at Thanksgiving right before the first snow. Karl loved helping his mother with her knitting. He’d sit at her feet and hold a skein of yarn between his hands, watching the threads slowly unravel as she wound them into a ball. She’d then pick up a pair of needles, cast a row of stitches onto one of them, and taking hold of the other, quickly add row after row, the points of the needles going click click as she knitted.
Karl felt his breath start to warm his face under the cap as he slowly pushed his feet against the snow-covered ground. The merry-go-round started to turn, the chains gently clanging against the metal post in the center. Around and around it went, gaining speed with each turn. Karl pushed harder and harder. He closed his eyes, lifted his feet, and held tight to the railing, allowing each turn to pull him further out from the seat. He imagined letting go, his body flying up into the sky and through the clouds, far away from the schoolhouse and the big boys making their plans. Gradually the merry-go-round slowed down, losing speed with each turn until once again it was motionless and he was sitting there alone with his legs dangling over the cold ground.
If only the day would be over so he could go home! He pictured his mother standing in the front window of the farmhouse looking for him to walk down the long driveway, waiting until he was inside before putting out a cup of hot cocoa and a plate of sugar cookies on the Formica table in the kitchen. But the day was only half over.
Karl shivered as the cold from the metal seat began to numb his behind. He pretended it was still early morning and he was asleep in his bed with the quilts and blankets piled on top of him. It had been so quiet and peaceful until his mother called up the stairs, “Liebchen, time to get up!”
Karl awoke with a start. Slowly he turned onto his back and opened his eyes. As he lay there he watched his breath turn into vapor in the unheated bedroom, enjoying for a moment the stillness of the morning. Knowing he wouldn’t have time for breakfast if he didn’t get up, he threw back the covers and jumped out of bed, gasping as his bare feet hit the ice-cold floor. He dressed quickly; shivering as he tore off his flannel pajamas and pulled on the school clothes his mother had laid out the night before after tucking him into bed.
He hurried down the stairs and felt a rush of warm air as he opened the door and stepped into the dining room. His mother had the radio tuned to the morning farm report on WCCO. Karl loved the maroon colored radio that was made of something called Bakelite. When he was in first grade and learning to read, he asked his dad to write out the word “Bakelite,” immediately seeing that it was two different words put together: “bake” and “light.” Well, not exactly “light,” but “lite” the way some of the kids at school spelled it. Karl thought it hilarious that the radio in the kitchen would be “Bake-Light.” The fact that it sat on the same shelf as the canisters of flour and sugar made it even funnier.
“Did you put on your long underwear?” Karl’s mother asked as the radio host announced that the day’s high temperature would only be ten degrees.
“Yes, Mama,” he replied as she filled a bowl with hot oatmeal and placed it on the table. Karl pulled out his chair, careful not to scrape the legs on the new linoleum that Mr. Schultz had put down the previous day while he and his sister were at school. Mr. Shultz had been helping out around the farm since Easter when Karl’s dad had gone away. Karl didn’t know where he’d gone, but that’s what his mother and the rest of the family said whenever anyone asked where Junior was. “Junior” was what his dad was called in order not to confuse him with his own dad who had the same name: John.
Karl’s sister Ella had already eaten and walked out to the road to catch the bus that picked up the farm kids to take them into town for junior and senior high school. She was four years older than Karl and had looked out for him his first two years at the country grade school. More than once she’d gotten between Karl and the big boys who often shoved him around on the playground. One day last spring while everyone was crowded in line to go down to lunch, Dale Lindstrom, who was standing behind him, pinched Karl so hard that he cried out. Ella had run over and pushed Dale down the staircase giving him a bloody nose. That had kept the big boys from bothering him the last few weeks of school. But now, with Ella in seventh grade, he was on his own.
The sound of an engine backfiring gave Karl a start. Carefully he pulled up his stocking cap to see what was going on. It was Curt Lemke’s beat-up old pulp truck coming down the gravel road that wound past the school. As the truck came nearer it backfired again, causing the girls who were down by the ditch making snow angels to scream, pretending they’d been shot. As the truck came closer they struggled to their feet and ran over to the fence to wave as Curt drove past, the engine backfiring one more time before disappearing around the corner.
Suddenly, the school bell began to ring calling the kids back inside from recess. Karl glanced over to the side of the school to see if the big boys were still there, but they were nowhere in sight. Knowing he was safe for the moment, Karl eased himself off the seat of the merry-go-round and quickly made his way in through the front door, nearly running into Louise Mickelson who was that day’s bell ringer. She was the first girl ever allowed to ring the bell, a much sought-after duty that had always been the sole responsibility of boys. The bell rope dangled down into the front entrance of the school and when not in use was held in place by a bracket in the shape of a small hand. The older kids tried to scare the younger ones by telling them it was the petrified hand of a misbehaving boy who’d been a pupil there when it was just a one-room school built for the community by the first settlers.
When word got out that Louise had been chosen to be a bell ringer, a number of the boys complained to Mrs. Poquette who taught the upper three grades. They felt that if she rang the bell all the other girls would want to ring, too, which would mean fewer chances for them. For a moment she listened to their objections but then cut them off saying, “If girls are able to run our beloved stars and stripes up and down the flagpole without desecrating it, then they’re certainly capable of ringing the bell.” The boys knew it was pointless to argue so reluctantly accepted her decision. Although now and then they could still be heard grousing about how it just wasn’t fair.
Finally, after the last of the students had trudged back into the schoolhouse and were busy removing their wet coats and boots, Louise let go of the rope, relishing the last sounds of the bell as they echoed out over the barren fields surrounding the school.
It was then that Mrs. Weberg, who taught the lower grades, came out of her classroom and shouted, “Time for assembly!” and began lining up the children to go downstairs to watch an educational movie. Once a month the school in town sent out a short film in order to expose the country kids to what was referred to as “the world out there.” Movies such as, Our Living Declaration of Independence, President Eisenhower and the First Family, America’s National Parks and one that turned out to be rather problematic, The Nuclear Bomb and You. It had so frightened some of the younger kids that whenever movie day was announced, numbers of them would start to cry and refuse to get up from their desks. For months afterwards, “The Bomb,” as it came to be referred to by the kids, Scott Eckstrom, a second grader, would pee his pants, which, when discovered, made the other children roar with laughter.
Nuclear bomb or not, Karl loved sitting in the dark on the benches of the small lunchroom listening to the whir of the projector as it pulled the narrow strip of film from one reel to the other. He leaned against the counter where that noon Mrs. Melton, the lunch lady, had served chop suey. Karl loved the crunchy dried noodles piled on top of chunks of chicken, vegetables, and water chestnuts along with a good-sized portion of rice, which for most of the kids was a novelty, potatoes being what they most always ate.
Today’s movie was called The Miracle of Plumbing. It traced the history of wells and bathrooms starting with the Romans on up to the present day. None of Karl’s aunts and uncles had indoor bathrooms. Like most everyone else they still had outhouses. The only reason his family had an inside one was that after the war when his father stayed in Germany and married his mother, she’d refused to come to America if their house didn’t have a bathroom. Karl’s grandparents couldn’t retire until their son came back to take over the farm so wrote to tell him they’d wall off part of the washroom in the back of the house so a bathtub and toilet could be installed. They didn’t have much choice as they’d already built a little cottage in the corner of one of the pastures and were ready to move in there as soon as Junior brought home his war bride.
In the Miracle of Plumbing there was scene in a village in India without running water. The women had to walk miles to fill containers and then carry them back on top of their heads. They had gold rings in their noses and ears and wore colorful cloth that looked like some of the fancy fabrics sold at the Ben Franklin dime store in town. Karl watched as one of the women removed the container from her head and waded down into a stream to fill it. As she bent over, one of the big boys, Pete Lemke, the biggest kid in school—he’d been held back a year—whispered something to the boys sitting near him that made them snicker and start to laugh; the kind of dirty laugh Karl’s mother told him only boys from bad families made.
“Now, that’s enough!” yelled Mrs. Weberg. Usually a reprimand from her was enough to get the kids to settle down, but today they were restless, keeping up their snickering, until in frustration, she turned off the projector and told everyone to get back to their classrooms. On their way up the stairs there was a lot of pushing and shoving. Suddenly Karl felt a sharp jab in his side and Dale Lindstrom whispered in his ear, “We got a surprise for you at recess, Kraut.”
“Kraut.” That’s what the big boys called him on account of his mother. The war was long over, but for many people it might as well have been 1945 and not 1959. Folks were still mourning the men who’d been killed fighting and the memory of their loss fresh enough that Karl’s mother was often the object of contempt; hence, “Karl the Kraut.” He fantasized about having a normal name—an American name—like Steve or Mike, and not the name of his German grandfather, his Opa, who for Christmas and Easter would send Karl and Ella candies unlike those found in the stores in town: chocolate covered marzipan, miniature chocolate bottles wrapped in foil and filled with liqueurs, and black licorice so strong it tasted like medicine.
When the lower grades had returned to their room and were sitting at their desks, Mrs. Weberg announced, “Time for penmanship!” The kids opened their notebooks while she stood at the front of the room and demonstrated how to correctly hold a pen. As soon as she felt they were doing it right she gave a nod and everyone bent forward and began practicing their letters. Karl had learned to write when he was in first grade. His sister, who had made it her duty to see that he did well in school, had started to teach him when he was still in kindergarten. She’d take a pencil and place it between his fingers while she held his hand and moved it across a piece of paper, slowly making the letters of the alphabet.
Today, Karl was bored with the letters. He wanted to write longhand, but that wasn’t allowed until fourth grade. Sometimes when he had to use the restroom, Karl would sneak down the steps to the other classroom just so he could look in and see the cursive letters written in white on a green background—the whole alphabet, capital and small letters—displayed above the wall of blackboards on the side of the room. Karl’s dad had gone to the same school when he was a boy and had what everyone called a “good hand.” Sometimes, in the evening when he came in from milking the cows, he’d sit down to write a letter to one of his army buddies. Karl would quietly come up behind him and watch as his dad’s hand glided over the paper making perfect letters and words.
The ticking of the clock in the classroom seemed to get louder the closer it got to recess. Karl was filled with dread knowing that something was going to happen. He felt sick to his stomach. When he looked down at the letters he’d made in his notebook, they seemed blurry and faint.
Finally, the bell rang. All the kids hurried from their desks and piled into the hallway, pulling on their coats and caps as they poured out onto the playground. Karl stayed in his seat unable to get up, knowing the big boys were waiting for him.
“Time to go outside, Karl,” said Mrs. Weberg.
“I don’t feel well.”
“Well, you felt fine five minutes ago, so get going.”
Reluctantly, Karl got up from his desk and went out into the hall to put on his coat and scarf. He sat down on the wooden bench and slowly pulled on his overboots, closing the buckles one at a time and feeling his fear grow with each snap. Leaning over his legs, he felt the soft corduroy of his trousers against his face and wished he were at home sitting by the stove in the kitchen listening to his mother sing while she baked.
“Karl, go outside!”
Knowing he couldn’t wait any longer, he slipped on his stocking cap, walked to the door, and slowly turned the handle as he pushed himself against its great weight.
“Kraut!” “Kraut!” “It’s the little Kraut!” The words hit him as sharply as the frigid wind blowing off the fields. In a second they were all around him, the boys from the bad families with their coarse excited faces. He felt the roughness of their wool and leather as they took hold of him and dragged him through the snow past the silent merry-go-ground to the pine trees behind the schoolhouse. They pulled off his cap and pushed him to the hard ground beneath the trees. Circling, they began to pummel him with packed balls of ice and snow. Karl could do nothing but close his eyes and lie there, feeling the sting of the ice against his face.
“Little Kraut!” “Nazi!” “Your mother’s a big, fat Nazi!”
Karl tried to curl up on his side, but two of the boys held down his arms and legs while the others pelted him with the last of the packed snow and ice.
Then as suddenly as it began, it was over and the boys ran off, whooping and hollering as they leaped through the snow back to the school. But Karl didn’t move. He lay there and felt the cold, frozen ground beneath him as the snow on his neck began to melt and run down his back, his face burning where the ice had scratched him.
The bell rang signaling the end of recess, its sharp tones echoing out over the cold winter afternoon, mixing with the shouts of the children as they went back into the schoolhouse.
Still Karl didn’t move, even knowing that by now the big boys were inside and had hung up their things in the hall leaving the snow and ice to melt into dirty puddles on the floor.
He listened to the wind as it blew through the pines above him, lifting their branches and dusting him with a fine, white powder.
Karl opened his eyes and through their cold wetness saw the now deserted playground and the empty fields stretching out toward the hills.
Then, slowly, he stood up, brushed the snow from his clothes, picked up his cap and walked back to the school.