Melbo was a typical junior hi kid. The type the other kids called a geek, although he'd be labeled a dweeb or a nerd these days. Not that Melbo was particularly smart when it came to his school work. He was an indifferent student. But he had hidden passions and a wealth of secret knowledge.
Melbo was the definitive expert on plastic toy soldiers and Revell model warships. Melbo could quote serial numbers and ship displacement. He knew the difference between a 30 mm cannon and a 16 inch gun. He knew how to follow a model's complex schematic. He had 1/125 scale down pat. Melbo had fought all the major battles of WW II in miniature in his backyard. He was a toy soldier Patton and war was his obsession.
Melbo was an odd looking adolescent, big for his age (13), with grossly over sized feet and ape long arms. He was big, but he wasn't flabby. He consistently beat me in arm wrestling. I was awed my his biceps. He could make them bulge and twitch. He'd put one of these green plastic mine sweeper soldiers on his forearm (he used mine sweepers because they had a broad base and were easy to balance( and twitch the little green guy off through space.Melbo had a complexion like a battle scared mine field, pitted bumpy discolored, his skin was a teenage mess. It drove me crazy that his nose and chin would be covered with blackhead, huge ones ready to burst. How could he stand it? I spent a good deal of every evening squeezing and swabbing, using hot wash clothes to open up the pores and pushing at the nasty little volcanoes with pinching fingers. I'd follow up with then a hot stinging alcohol rub and the Clearasil treatment. But not Melbo. He didn't care about his complexion and you could tell. All Melbo cared about was building models, playing army, and running his trains. Melbo was real interested in trains.
When my folks said I could spend the night at Melbo Millers house, they'd made a big mistake but I didn't realize it at the time.Melbo told me a lot about his army battles, but I'd never been a combatant. Now I had a chance to see his army in action. We set up the army men in the back yard, working them into the cover of the shrubs, making dirt walls for the riflemen, setting up the green plastic troops in defensive positions. The kneeling bazooka man was next to a rock. A line of mine sweepers were on the edge of the lawn. A crouching radio man made his report to headquarters from a blackened rose bush. Melbo had legions of the little soldiers; their arms spread, tiny plastic faces grimacing under the strain of tossing a grenade at the enemy.He carefully dug a trench out of the lawn with a kitchen spoon. We placed each of the grenade throwers in the trench, about 6 inches apart. They became our first line of defense. Scattered behind the lines were numerous jeeps with officers on board. Finally we laid out a line of tanks and howitzers. The heavy guns covered us from sneak attack, the tanks were hidden in the weeds to turn the flank of the enemy force.
Melbo was every inch the general while we laid out all these troops, I was a lowly lieutenant. Rank didn't matter; after all it was his house, and we were both lost in the fantasy of charging troops and toy war heroism. I remember Melbo's intense concentration as he balanced an officer on a rock. The figure was looking through field glasses. It was one of the soldiers that had a small base and would always fall over. Melbo's eyes were magnified behind his thick horn rim glasses. His eyes crossed and the tip of his tongue darted lizard like from his lips.
"Richard! You and Dennis come in now, it's time for dinner."
Melbo's mom never called him by his nickname. In fact she hated the name Melbo, which made it tough when she was around, You could slip so easy and call him Melbo. She'd grimace. "His name is Richard. Remember that! Richard! " Mrs. Miller always seemed like she was in pain, like she'd just heard something that had hurt her. She had a whiny voice. I asked Melbo once how he got his nickname but he didn't know. Melbo had been Melbo for as long as he could remember.
After dinner we went into the backyard to play with our setup. It was getting dark the best time of day to play. The heat is starting to fade. The sky turned colors, and the low sunlight made everything a luminous muted tone. The army was casting long shadows, they looked cool dug into Melbo's back yard. We made air raids with rocks, dropping stone bombs on the troops, rattling machine guns trilled off our tongues. We flicked soldiers down and scored the battle with muted screams and death cries. The battle wore down. Most of the soldiers had been knocked over. It got dark and we went in the house to watch T.V.
Later that night Melbo whispered " Let's go out and finish the battle." He had a crazed look in his eyes. His voice quavered a bit. I didn't get what he was so excited about, but it was Melbo's house so I went along. It was dark out now, just a thin slice of moon showing in the sky. As we walked across the dark lawn I felt and heard a squishy crunching sound. Ugh snails! If you held your head at an angle you could see the silver of their tracks. Melbo just laughed and stomped on several more. He grinned as he ground them into the grass. The snail shells snapped in the moonlight. Melbo laughed again.
The snails had moved in among our troops. Their tracks crisscrossed a fallen rifleman. A Snail oozed over the hood of a jeep. The slimy things had rolled right over the tanks. Melbo looked at me and giggled. His glasses reflected back the crescent moon. "Looks like we got infiltrators!" There was an urgency in his voice. He ran for the back door of the garage, returning with a long aerosol can. "Hairspray" he whispered. A flame jumped out of his hand. He held the lighter up in front of my face and flicked it on several times. "Have you ever made a flame thrower out of hair spray?" I shook my head no in open mouth wonder.
Melbo got down on his hands and knees, carefully positioning himself in front of the line of grenade throwers. The snails were in the trench. A dozen oozed along the scoop in the lawn. Melbo flicked the lighter and held it in front of the spray nozzle. Two feet of roaring blue flame jumped from the can, bathing the trench in fire.
I jumped back, scared. "Jeeze Melbo, your mom is gonna catch us." I was scared of the fire. Kids weren't supposed to play with fire. I glanced at the sliding glass doors on the other side of the patio. I could see the blue rectangle of the flickering T.V set. His mom and dad had to see the flames.
Melbo didn't say anything. He was concentrating on smoking the snails and troops with repeated bursts from the flame-thrower. A grenade man's arms were beginning to bend and melt, already the strained look on his plastic face had dripped away. The snails curled up into their shells when the flames touched them. Then as the water inside their bodies boiled, the shells snapped apart in a black ooze.
"Knock it off Melbo." I felt very uneasy. It was a mean thing to do. But Melbo just kept blasting the snails & melting his troops. The bursts of flame were so large I couldn't believe his parents were still in there in front of the TV. set. "Melbo! Your folks will be out here and catch us any minute. "
Melbo breathed through his mouth. "My parents don't care. I do this all the time."
Flames jumped from his hands, setting a few blades of grass on fire while the soldiers melted. "You wanna try it? Its fun."
I shook my head no. The air was heavy with the sickly sweet smell of hot hairspray, burnt plastic and roasted snails. I didn't want to watch anymore and went back into the house. Melbo came to get me when the hairspray can was empty.
"Come on, let's put some ships out on the pool!"
Melbo was good with models. He'd built several destroyers, a flattop and a battle ship. The guns were all painted silver, the bottoms of the gray boats were painted black with a red stripe at the water line. He had the decals on straight and there were hardly any glue smears. It had taken time to build these models.
We took the ships out to the edge of the pool. Melbo flipped on the pool light and the water turned pale blue. Normally Revell ship models were lousy for floating, they were top heavy and would capsize immediately. But Melbo had weighted the hulls with clay and heavy washers. The boats dropped down in the water and sailed across the pool with an easy shove. I got on one side of the pool, Melbo was on the other. We cruised the ships back and forth over the pool water.
We talked about school, and T.V., models and which boats or planes we wanted to build. Melbo had built the Visible Man. The man stood in a corner of his room. You could look through the clear plastic skin and see all the internal organs. " My mom's gonna get me the visible woman. She's about two feet tall and 'anatomically correct'... " He said that last part like he'd memorized the pronunciation. "You can see everything,." Melbo was looking kind of dreamy.
"You're a goof Melbo, you just want to look at her things!" I laughed at him and shoved the aircraft carrier at him. It swerved half way across the pool and drifted side ways in the middle of the pool.
Melbo was embarrassed for a moment. To cover his thoughts he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small flat square package. He motioned me over. He covered the package in both hands and made a big show of revealing it.
"Firecrackers!" Melbo laughed. The crackers were wrapped in a dark waxy paper. All of the fuses were twined together. Melbo looked at me and then ran back into the house. This time he had scotch tape. "Let's see how the Navy takes a bombardment."
I couldn't believe it. Firecrackers! My folks would kill me for having firecrackers and Melbo was talking about shooting them off in the back yard at night with parents just a few yards away. "Don't worry about it, I do it all the time. " He was so casually sincere I knew he wasn't bluffing.
We taped a bundle of firecrackers to the deck of a destroyer. The thin paper tube was placed just behind the forward turret. Melbo lit the fuse and shoved it into the center of the pool. The fuse sputtered and smoked but the firecracker didn't go off. The destroyer was just floating there in the center of the pool. "Rats!" Melbo muttered as he reached for the boat with the leaf scoop.
Just as he got the net on the destroyer it blew. The explosive cracking sound punched the water. The turret tore through the scoop net and flew fifteen feet into the air, splashing down in the shallow end of the pool. Over the next hour we destroyed the whole fleet. Just as Melbo had promised, his parents never came to investigate the explosions and bursts of light that rocked backyard far into the night. I couldn't believe we were getting away with this stuff.
The evening ended, predictably, with a bang. We'd already destroyed about three quarters of his toys when Melbo returned to his room and brought out a big rubber band powered balsa wood plane. It had wide wings and a red plastic prop. Wire struts with black rubber wheels poked out of the nose. We took turns winding the propeller until the thick brown rubber band was a mass of knots. I held the nose of the plane in one hand and the propeller in the other. Melbo taped the biggest of the fire crackers to the body of the glider, up near the propeller. "This way it will be balanced for a good flight."
Melbo lit the fuse and I threw the plane into the air. It took off with a whir, climbing fast up toward the top branches of the big walnut tree near the house. Just when it seemed the plane must crash in the branches before it could explode the plane banked sharply, twisted and headed back at us.
We ran for it. The aircraft honed in straight and true. I heard the whir of the propeller, the balsa wing brushed my ear, then the explosion flashed in my eyes. I felt stinging and flying pieces of wood peppered my cheeks. I opened my eyes and saw the front wheels and propeller flying alone across the patio. It so amazed me that I forgot my fear and pain in the wonder of the sight. The prop still spun and the wheels rolled on across the lawn, past the charred ruins of a dozen snails, crashing into the line of tanks with a clatter before it came to a rest.
My ears rang, and I had to pick a couple of slivers out of my cheek. My mom's remembered warning, "You'll put your eye out someday .." played across my mind. But my eyes were okay. We both laughed when it was clear that I wasn't hurt. Melbo laughed a little harder than I did. We retold the flight of the prop and wheels across the grass several times before falling asleep that night.
I fell asleep wondering at all the stuff we'd gotten away with. What did his parents think when they scooped broken plastic from the pool filter? Weren't they bothered by the sunken hulls of shattered war ships drifting among the leaves at the bottom of their pool? Didn't the blobs of melted soldier and roasted snail gum up Mr. Miller's lawnmower? I'd never get away with this stuff at my house.
I was sure we'd get caught eventually. There was big trouble coming to Melbo Miller and anyone who played with him. I was sure of it, absolutely sure, but I still agreed to go down to the rail road tracks with Melbo the next day.
"I play down here all the time" he laughed as he showed me down a path through the high weeds. The tracks were about a mile from Melbo's house. The whole rail bed was elevated, we had to climb up a steep bank to reach the tracks. The tops of the rails gleamed like polished silver making a long curve back into a tunnel. The tunnel was a black round mouth yawning in a concrete enforced wall. A few cars and trucks moved over the bridge above the tunnel. The odor of tar and burnt steel radiated from the black dirt crusted gravel hugging the thick square ties.
Melbo pulled a handful of pennies out of his pocket and began to lay them out on top of the tracks. "A big train will be through pretty soon. We'll smash these pennies flat!"
It was a hot day and I was sleepy. I never got much sleep when I went to visit a friend overnight. I felt fuzzy and dull, being on the track was dreamlike. Watching Melbo prepare the pennies consumed all my attention. He was meticulous. He laid them out one at a time, six inches apart. Each penny was aligned with Lincoln's head facing back down the tracks toward the tunnel. Each new penny gleamed in brassy contrast to the silver rails.
"You can tell when a train is coming by touching the rail. It tingles and shakes for a long time before the train is in sight. "
I touched my hand down to the rail. The wheel burnished rail was hot to the touch and absolutely still. No train was coming.
"If you put your ear on the rail you can hear the train from even farther off."
Melbo laid his ear down on the rail. I expected him to jump up burned, but he just winced and stayed down there listening.
Several minutes passed. A breath of air stirred some dust on the bank. Melbo had that dreamy goofy look on his face again. He was breathing through his mouth and humming to himself. He had the same thousand yard stare I'd seen when he was roasting snails and toy soldiers. "Come on, give a listen. I think one's coming."
I shook my head no.
"Come on I dare you. I dare you!" his voice had an edge. Melbo wouldn't let up and my uneasy shame at being chicken drove me down on the tracks. The gravel poked my knees. The hot rail stung my ear, but as the pain faded I could hear and feel something different. It was a faint keening. The tar and metal smell was overwhelming down near the ties. The rail started to tremble and hum. "Its a train, " Melbo whispered.
I jumped up and stepped off the track. Melbo stayed down low, on hands and knees, with his ear to the track. "Its a train..."
I was feeling really scared now. A hollow place had opened up in my stomach. This wasn't any fun at all. I could tell that Melbo had something in mind. The thought made me ill.
Melbo jumped up and began walking down the tracks. We turned our backs on our pennies and the tunnel. If you set your pace the right way you could step on every other tie. The bank was steep tumbling down into weeds and rocks, the rail bed was the only flat place to walk. About a hundred yards beyond the pennies Melbo stopped. Turning to face the tunnel he jumped up on one rail, flung his arms out and started to balance walk it.
"You ever played chicken? It's a great game. You just stand on the tracks and wait for a train. The first one to jump is chicken."
"You're crazy Melbo, we could get killed. "
"No way man, I do this all the time."
"No way, you're full of it!
"Oh yeah? Well you just wait and see chicken boy, you just wait! You're chicken alright. Chicken through and through! Bawk, bawk, bwaaak!”
Melbo walked up the rail, head swaying, arms flapping like wings, dragging out the chicken call and sneering at me. It was the worst thing in the world to be called chicken. "Come on Dennis I double dare you, chicken!!'
"Okay, Okay. We'll see who's chicken!"
I stood up on the rail. By now I could feel the rails telegraphing up through my Keds. I was trembling. The train was coming. Melbo walked back and stood next to me.
"The game really begins when the train rolls over the pennies. The first one to jump off the track is a chicken." Melbo looked at me like I was one of his toy soldiers. There was both a challenge and the plain assumption that I was going to take this risk. It seemed extra hot all of a sudden.
"Did you ever see that story about the kid in Life Magazine?"
"Come on Melbo, knock it off." Everybody in school knew the story. We'd passed the magazine with its gross photographs around during lunch period. The kid had been doing just what we were doing standing on the rail road tracks playing chicken. Only he'd jumped too late and the train had clipped him. Somehow this kid managed to straggle back to his house. When his mom came to the door she saw her son with his arm just hanging on by a thread. The doctors sewed the arm back on. But the kid could only move the arm a little bit now, the fingers were almost useless. I remembered the picture of the kid laying in a bed, the whole top of his body in a cast.
"Yeah I got that magazine in my room. The arm was just hanging by a thread."
The train was getting closer. An angry scream came from the train. The whistle yelled, "Get of the track, get off the track you idiots!" I lost my balance and stepped down from the rail. The train must be just on the other side of the tunnel now. The rails were beginning to rumble. Melbo looked over at me with a really stupid grin.
"Don't worry I do this all the time!"
The train came through the tunnel slowly. It seemed to be going no faster than a car in light traffic. We both stared at the train as it got closer. We were on a conveyor belt rolling toward the train. The whole world was rolling toward the train. The headlight on the nose of the diesel grew bigger and bigger. The headlight was bright even in the full daylight. The whistle blew a bellow again. The monstrous red diesel was getting closer to the pennies and to us.
"Come on Melbo let's quit this damn game. It's dumb."
"You chicken out if you want. I'll win."
The rails were really shaking now. The diesel ran over the pennies and let out another blast from the whistle. It was just too close. I jumped to one side, tripped and slid down the gravel embankment. I shoved my hands out trying to balance. My palms scraped and burned across the rocks. I stopped stumbling down in the dust and big rocks at the bottom of the bank. Melbo still stood on the rails laughing down at me, shouting, "I Win! I Win!".
I slipped again and when I looked up the train rumbled past, it was moving faster than I thought. The engineer and brakeman shook their fists at me and shouted something that was lost in the noise from the engine. The big wheels clacked along, clicking over the rails, nicking at the spots where the rails met. The cars rolled from side to side: Pacific Northern, Cotton Pacific, Northwestern, steel pipe cars and open bins. The train was a long one. I tried to look through the wheels to the other side of the tracks.
There was no sign of Melbo.
I scrambled back up on the tracks well after the train had passed but the rails still rumbled when I stepped on them. "Melbo! Where are you?" I felt kind of silly, and kind of afraid calling out his name. But I couldn't see him anywhere.
Melbo was down by the pennies. As I walked up he was squatting by the rails, holding his glasses on with one hand. The ear piece on his glasses was broken. His shirt was torn and the knees on his jeans were both blown out. " I really tore up my knee when I slid down the bank, see...." The knee was badly scrapped, bits of black grit were pushed into the skin which oozed red blood.
"You're gonna have a big scab on that."
"Yeah... Catch a penny!"
Melbo flipped a quarter sized piece of flashing copper at me. I caught the disk. It was hot! I bobbled it and dropped it in the dust. Melbo grinned at me as he played hot hands with another penny. The thin disks of copper didn't look anything like pennies. They were smashed into something entirely different.
I thought about the guy in Life Magazine, and what could have happened to both of us. I felt sick. I tried to not let Melbo see how badly I was taking it. Melbo didn't seem to notice.
"Richard! What's happened to you?" Melbo's mom was really upset. "Your new jeans...they're ruined!" I'd never seen her so mad. She got even madder when she spotted Melbo's skinned up knee. I got my stuff out of Melbo's room. I waved at him as his mom closed in. Then I left. Mrs. Miller was still yelling when I shut the door.
I called Melbo the next day to see how it had gone. Mrs. Miller answered the phone.
"Is that you Dennis?" Mrs. Miller's voice sounded sort of mean.
There was a sharp sound in the background. It sounded like a small explosion.
"I don't want you playing with Richard anymore. I'm afraid you're a bad influence on him."
A memory from 1961.
~ Written 1990