On that unusually warm winter’s day, nine year old Jimmy Underhill and his fourth-grade classmate, Patrick Brian Floyd–called P.B.–met at their usual spot behind the Williams construction company. They liked the loud sounds from the big cement trucks coming and going all day after being filled with the thick gray semi-liquid. The welders working with the hissing blue flame rods that melted onto other steel parts fascinated both boys.
Although their parents had warned them against hanging around the yard, Saturday mornings usually found them lurking about for a time before they drifted off to the woods beyond. Here, among the poplar trees and thick underbrush, the game was the same: tests of bravery and skill to prepare them for the real thing later in life. It couldn’t be too soon for Jimmy, whose older brother Don had returned from serving his country in Iraq; everybody thought him a hero and treated him accordingly.
Unknown to the boys, there were whispers in the small northern Ohio town of Springdale that Don was “not right”. He had returned months before, and still had not found a job. Recently his girlfriend Liane had explained a bruise on her face as having walked into a door.
Jimmy turned to his pal, and assumed what he believed to be a military pose, feet planted apart, arms akimbo. “My name is General Bolt Flambeau, and I’m on a mission to capture terrorists. Advance and identify yourself.”
P.B. snickered, “I am General Bulge Gunn, counter-intelligence. What kind of name is Flambeau? Are you French, you dork?”
“No, but I’ll bet you’re one if you won’t take the waterboard test.” Jimmy had seen a man being waterboarded on T.V. You hold your breath, breathe through your nose, no big deal. Torture meant the whip, beatings, like what they did to Braveheart.
“Where they put a wet washcloth over your mouth and pour a little water on it? That ain’t nuthin’. Bring it on!”
P.B.’s small-boy bravado served partly to reassure himself. He had listened to his parents talking about whether or not this was actually torture. Their voices had gotten louder one night watching the evening news when the Attorney General subtly refused to call waterboarding torture. Under pressure, he had admitted it would be if it were done to him. P.B. thought that was a weird thing to say.
P.B. let Jimmy tie his hands behind his back with some kitchen twine. He used a bandana to blindfold P.B. and laid him on the ground, face up. Jimmy took a small water bottle from his poplin windbreaker and soaked another bandana. He placed the wet cloth over P.B.’s mouth and nose, straddled the boy’s thin chest and dribbled water onto the sopping rag.
P.B. gasped, inhaling almost an ounce deep into his lungs. Thinking that P.B. was faking and not realizing his friend was in mortal distress, Jimmy remained sitting on P.B. and could not see the smaller boy’s eyes roll up under the blindfold. Shock and adrenaline surged through the young heart, which struggled harder to breathe water, then simply stopped beating before Jimmy had the wit to release his friend.
Suddenly frightened, Jimmy pulled off the blindfold, and knew at once that P.B. was dead. From the reptile part of his brain came a signal, a voice not his repeated: Run. Hide. Your life is over. He backed away slowly, then turned and began to run back home, crying as he ran. His cries grew louder as he ran and his mind could not stop replaying the scene over and over. It was a game, just a test. But the young boy knew, as surely as he knew the days of fun and games were over, no one would believe him, life would never be the same.
In that instant, sobs racking his body, Jimmy understood his brother Don as one adult understands another. Some people can kill and learn to live with it. Jimmy and Don were not those people. As he ran sobbing and breathless up the porch steps back home, his mother came outside wiping her hands on her apron. She took one look and knew at once that now both of her sons were lost to her.
Mike Whitney writes from a hillside in North Carolina. The Clay County Progress publishes his weekly entertainment column, Livin’ in the Hills.