Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Home Front: When the Sergeant Came Marching Home by Don Lemna

Early in the summer of 1946, an infantry sergeant returned from the war and ruined my life by forcing me to move from our comfortable basement apartment in Wistola, Montana, out to a farm in the middle of nowhere.

At first the return of the Sergeant is great. His mom drives Don and six-year-old Pat down to Great Falls to meet the troop train. The family stays in a hotel, eats in restaurants, and even goes to a movie. The Sergeant marches in a stirring parade, shows Donald a heavy black handgun called a Luger for which he traded a pack of American cigarettes, and buys the family an old truck named Maggie. But then he buys something else--a farm--complete with a ramshackle house with no electricity and a privy with a crescent moon carved into the door.

I looked at my mother with tears in my eyes. I couldn't believe what she was doing to me. I didn't want to leave Milton and all my other friends. I didn't want to leave Mrs. Clarke at Wistola Elementary. I didn't want to leave the downtown, with its two movie theatres and the popcorn man and Riverside Park and all the other excitements.

"Will there be ducks?" Pat asked.

"I don't want to live on a farm," I groaned.

When I said this, my father's eyes became very hard and he looked down at me as if he were still a sergeant in the army.

"You'll do what you're told," the Sergeant said.

Donald spends his first days on the run-down farm sulking and avoiding his father, now the enemy, but as time goes by he begins to see the brighter side of rural life. Sentenced to shovel the droppings out of a long-abandoned chicken coop, he and Pat, become acquainted with their old plow horse when they decide to hitch him up to pull the chicken house to a cleaner spot of dirt. The coop collapses and their father makes them spend days taking the old boards apart and rebuilding the coop, but the boys do learn to ride their horse, curiously named Flight, all around the farm, provided they only turn left, the only direction the old horse will go.

With only girls for neighbors, Donald and Pat are forced to make friends with Charlie Pears, a slovenly and slothful neighbor who takes them on heart-pounding off-road jaunts in his ramshackle truck. Charlie also feeds them an exotic dish called beans and weenies and magnanimously gives them all his beer bottles--hundreds of them, worth ten cents a dozen in Wistola, which affords them a movie every Saturday in Wistola where they sell the eggs from the newly-housed hens. Then there's their farm's resident hermit, an old codger with a Santa Claus beard who tells them tall tales of the Great War while plying them with tea and rock-hard biscuits. And when school begins, Donald falls head over heels in love with the beautiful Miss Scott, who sings Gilbert and Sullivan operettas with her class between lessons.

Still, Donald plans to escape the farm, stashing his savings in a can hidden in the hayloft until he has enough to take him all the way to Hollywood, California. When his rich uncle sends him a ten dollar bill for his birthday, Donald has his grub stake to Tinsel Town and must only wait until school is out in June to be free of farm life at last. But when the long-awaited day comes, Don figures he might as well postpone departure until after the June picnic and concert and the Fourth of July celebration with all the free ice cream he can eat, and soon the long summer seems to be zooming by faster than the freight train he plans to ride to California.

Don Lemna's semi-autobiographical account of post-war farm life in rural Montana, When the Sergeant Came Marching Home, is a touching, authentic, and laugh-out-loud look at boyhood in a time that is fast receding into the past. Blessed with wonderful chapter head illustrations by Matt Collins, this nostalgic novel has broad appeal for all ages and deserves a place alongside Robert McCloskey's Homer Price and Centerburg Tales: More Adventures of Homer Price as classic tales of mid-twentieth century boyhood.

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