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PORK CHOP HILL

Z Miscellaneous 4.1

     There was a day in the autumn of 1947 when it got really bad for Mike. It was the same day that Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy, was captured by the Japanese and tortured horribly although he coolly refused to reveal the location of the fleet that had launched his squadron. Mike almost couldn't listen when things got very bad for Jack but in the end he kept the radio on and went through the whole thing with Jack and was glad he did.
     At 5:15 Captain Midnight came on, and urged Mike to help build a strong body by drinking more Chocolate Flavored Ovaltine. The day before, Mike had received the orange and blue plastic Captain Midnight Ovaltine shaker he had sent away for, and it seemed like Captain midnight was speaking personally to him. He went into the kitchen between radio shows, took down the shaker, and got out the milk and Ovaltine. After three quick shakers his stomach was bursting. He thought he could actually feel the Ovaltine moving through his body and increasing his strength and vitality, but he also knew he had a long way to go to catch up with Captain Midnight.

     Every afternoon after school that year, Mike would run home from the school bus stop and lie on his stomach on the hooked rug in front of the Motorola radio with its rich dark wood case and rounded top, almost as tall as he at age seven. Every afternoon a band of heroes spoke to him from the radio, transporting him to locales of danger and intrigue that eclipsed the surrounding Connecticut countryside and left him twisting on the rug with excitement. The radio segments were 15 minutes long and one tumbled after the next: The Lone Ranger, Green Hornet and Speedy, The Shadow, Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy. Captain Midnight, who derived his phenomenal strength and intelligence from Chocolate Flavored Ovaltine. And Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, who tracked the criminal element to the North with his faithful husky, King.
     Those afternoons in front of the radio were the best times that year because he could lose himself completely for a while and that stopped the questions in his head about why his Dad had moved away and why his younger brother Benny had been sent away to a special school. Mom said anything was better than living with Dad's drinking but she also said she sometimes didn't know how she was going to keep going. Things just seemed to happen, things outside her control, and that sometimes made her scared and angry.
     Mike was sometimes one of those things. He had too much energy. "You're a real handful," she would say, and when she was feeling good she would smile, but when she wasn't, when she was angry, she said it very differently.

     Mom sold advertising space for a local paper and usually got home while Mike was listening to Sergeant Preston. She would either cook dinner for the two of them or they would drive over to her friend, Mr. Gaston's, for dinner. Mr. Gaston had a boy, Jimmy, who was Mike's age. Mike didn't like Jimmy and he didn't like Mr. Gaston much either, although Mr. Gaston made a big show of liking him to get on Mom's good side.

     On the really bad day, Mom arrived home with a bag of groceries, looking very tired.
     "Hi, Mikey. How was school?"
     "Okay."
     "Just Okay?"
     "Yeah." Sergeant Preston was lost in a howling Yukon blizzard which made it hard for Mike to concentrate on Mom's questions.
     Mom passed through the living room but continued to speak to him from the kitchen. "What do you want for dinner, honey? Pork chops or hamburgers?"
     "I donno."
     "Well, if you don't know, I'll make the pork chops."
     "Okay."
     The episode ended with Sergeant Preston still lost, which worried Mike. Mom called him to dinner. She opened a kitchen window to let out the heavy smell of frying pork. She then set a plate before him with two pork chops and steaming piles of peas and mashed potatoes, each with a pat of butter on top.
     "Have you washed your hands?"
     "Oh...yeah."
     "Have you?" She looked at him sharply.
     "Um. No."
     "Go and wash them then. But hurry or your dinner will get cold."

     Mike returned to the kitchen. His stomach still felt drum tight from all the Ovaltine and milk. He ate some peas and potatoes and pushed the rest around on the plate so it looked like he had eaten more than he really had. The pork chops lay there, thick, dark and greasy. A sweetish, faintly decaying smell rose from them.
     He pushed the plate away. Mom looked at him.
     "What about your pork chops? You haven't touched them."
     "They look funny."
     "There's nothing wrong with them. Did you eat something before dinner and spoil your appetite?"
     Mike decided not to tell her about Captain Midnight and the Ovaltine and his new physical development program.
     "Don't like pork chops. They smell funny."
     "That's not fair, Mikey. I asked you what you wanted. Those pork chops are expensive!"
     "Don't want 'em. Won't eat 'em."
     "Don't start with me, young man. You will sit there till you eat those pork chops."
     This was the way it had started with Jack Armstrong and the Japanese. At first it had been just talk and threats. Mike crossed his arms over his narrow chest and stared straight ahead. The pork chops loomed just below his line of sight, leathery lumps in small pools of congealing fat. In the periphery of his vision, with the overhead light glancing off her dark hair and high cheekbones, Mom really did look kind of oriental and scary.
     "Mikey, just eat one chop. You don't have to eat both." When he didn't respond, her voice took on a high edge.
     "I mean it. You can eat one of those chops or you can sit at this table all night."
     The phone rang. Mom got up from the table and went through the pantry into the hall to answer it. As soon as she left the kitchen, Mike picked up one pork chop, tiptoed out the back door, put the pork chop in the garbage can on the porch, and tiptoed back. He was wiping his hand with his napkin when Mom returned.
     She looked at his plate, and then at him.
     "Where's the other pork chop?"
     "I ate it."
     "Did you eat the bone too?"
     It was a detail Mike hadn't figured on, but he didn't hesitate.
     "Yup," he said, and coolly met her eye.
     Mom walked out the back door onto the porch.
     "Come out here," she said. He went out the back door. She was holding the garbage can lid in one hand and pointing to the pork chop with the other.
     "What is that?"
     "Pork chop."
     "Where did it come from?"
     "Don't know."
     "Is that your pork chop?"
     "Nope. I ate mine."
     "Young man, you're lying. I won't stand for that." She led him back into the kitchen and sat down while he stood before her.
     "You have one more chance," she said. "One more chance to admit you threw out that pork chop."
     He knew it was coming now. She rarely hit him, but something in her voice caught the rising cadence of Japanese rage leveled against Jack Armstrong earlier in the afternoon and he knew he was in for it just like Jack.
     "All right, young man, take off your belt and give it to me. Then take down your pants. You cannot defy me like this."
     The first belt stroke stung his buttocks. He jumped, but caught his lower lip in his teeth and didn't yell.
     "Did you throw out that pork chop?"
     Jack gave them name, rank, and serial number. He wished he had a rank and serial number to shout at Mom. The belt struck again, and he danced from one foot to the other biting his lower lip. Again he didn't yell, but tears welled up in his eyes.
     "Did you throw out that pork chop? Answer me!"
     The belt struck again. Then Mom went into a little frenzy, and without asking him about the pork chop again she struck him three times, quickly. Still, he would not cry out, but he was hopping up and down, his face wet with tears, his breath coming in gasps. Then Mom stopped, and she was crying too.
     "Oh God, did I hurt you, Mikey? I'm sorry." She turned him around and tried to embrace him but he stepped back and pulled up his pants and underpants with one quick motion. His buttocks burned like fire.
     "That didn't hurt," he said. "Gimme my belt."
     "Mikey, please. I'm trying to make a family. I'm doing the best I can."
     "I want my belt. I want to go to my room."
     "Let me put some lotion on your behind."
     "No. I want to go to my room."

     Mike lay down on his stomach on his bed and began to think about what had happened. It was such a big thing he could only think about parts of it at a time. He wanted to talk to Jack Armstrong about it. He wanted to tell his brother Benny about it but Benny was away till Thanksgiving. He would save it up and tell Benny everything about it at Thanksgiving, except the part about crying which he couldn't help.

     That night Mike dreamed he was in Jack Armstrong's plane on a bombing run over Japan. He was sitting right next to Jack in the copilot's seat, and they were under heavy attack. He turned and looked at Jack's handsome smiling profile and gleaming white teeth and he felt no fear. The arcing tracers and bursting shells were beautiful, like fireworks against the night sky of his mind.

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