Boys Town by Jim Shepard

I find it fitting that I picked up this short story by Jim Shepard Saturday morning after having watched Winter’s Bone the previous night.  Sky was overcast and drizzling parallel to my springer spaniel’s ears after taking a sip from her over-sized water bowl.

Boys Town focuses on a man in his late thirties, post-divorce, who is living with his mother.  As usual with New Yorker shorts, I don’t recommend this one for a bed time story with the kids.  I do recommend it for you, however, especially if you have any opinion on veterans (or if you are a vet yourself).  The main character splices both the cultural value placed on men today (as worthless boys who need to grow up) and the eventual value of our veterans (empty shells).

Halfway through the piece, Shephard shows his cards as several of these newer guys often do by pointing to the character’s VHS copy of Boys Town “the movie where Spencer Tracy’s the priest and Mickey Rooney’s the tough kid who goes straight because he gets a new baseball glove or smells some home-cooked bread or some ******* thing.”  By the end of that column, the following comes as a key to the passage:

I didn’t think I’d seen the movie that often, but I got it in my head, so I must’ve watched it a lot.  There’s this other scene where they’re about to strap a guy who didn’t pan out into the electric chair.

He should have reworded that last sentence.  Then…

The guy goes to Spence Tracy, “How much time have I got, Father?” And Tracy goes, “Eternity begins in forty-five minutes, Dan.” And then the guy asks him, “What happens then?” And Tracy goes, “Oh a bad minute or two.” And the guy’s like “Yeah, I know.  After that?” And Tracy tells him, “Dan, that’s been a mystery for a million years.  You can’t expect to crack that in a few seconds.”

Shepherd says two things with these words: death comes soon (especially in this story) and life doesn’t allow us to contemplate eternity (especially for this vet.)  This crescendos when he says:

People talk about, Oh this kid’s sick and that kid’s bipolar and this and that and I always say, Well, does his piss all over himself? And the answer’s always no. That’s because he chooses to go to the bathroom. Because he knows better. He controls himself. People control what they do. Most people don’t know what it’s like to look down the road and see nothing there. You try to tell somebody that, but they just look at you. I don’t know why people need to hear the same thing ten thousand time, but they do.

To see nothing down the road. No future. No life. No hope for this divorced vet who lives on a steady diet of watching his mom get drunk and criticize him, he survives on even less, and has nothing to show for his service in the military. He, as I said, embodies what we do to the boys in our town: belittle them, ignore them, drug them, deprive them of rites of passage, then ask them to fight our wars. His predicament by the end of the story shows us where the culture places our children – suit ’em up in a uniform, send them to the wilderness, give ’em a gun, surround them, and kill ’em dead.

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That’s all we have for today, kids.

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