Sunday, November 4, 2007

Squareface -- Our Story So Far

Part 1 – Down in the Dark 1911-1914

“Squareface” Tony Stayner born in Chicago of recent Lithuanian immigrants works as a mule driver in a coal mine in central Illinois from the age of 12 to 14. Tony grows up fast in the rough world of coal mining, but his love for animals, especially his mules, helps him keep a part of himself safe. A fire in the mine brings Tony face to face with his own mortality at the same time that the growth of his body is threatening to take him away from the mule driving job that is only for boys.

Tony has a rich fantasy life that revolves around letters from his older brother who is a cavalry soldier stationed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, guarding the border during the chaotic revolution that is raging in Mexico. At the age of 14 Tony hops a freight train south, lies about his age and blunders his way into the U.S. Army.

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Part 2 - The Bells of Hell 1914-1916

Tony serves as an infantry soldier at Fort Bliss, Texas. He is part of a unit that is guarding Mexican refugees who survived the Matamoros Massacre of the year before. Tony’s education accelerates on the Army base and he hears his first recorded music on a gramophone at a Mexican brothel.

In April, 1914, during the Vera Cruz Crisis, Tony’s unit is deployed to the Texas border town of San Elizario, a few miles south of Fort Bliss and on the banks of the Rio Grande. While Tony and his fellow soldiers endure a grueling routine of guard duty and vigilance, the Mexican revolution plays out on both sides of the border.

When rebellion heats up in Texas during the Plan of San Diego, war comes home on a small scale for the young men of Tony’s platoon. A close call leaves Tony shaken and his true age is revealed.

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Part 3 - The Supreme Experience 1917-1919

In the spring of 1917 Tony is about to turn eighteen and he is working in the coal mine again. He is no longer a mule driver, but toils at the back-breaking job of a miner. His experience in Texas has left him older than his age and alienated from his family.

When President Wilson announces the War to End Wars and asks Congress to declare war on Germany, Tony is eager to reenlist. He won’t be eighteen until August, so he needs his parents’ permission if he doesn’t want to wait...

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Saturday, November 3, 2007

Squareface Part 1: Down in the Dark

Tony led Randy, his third favorite mule, down a long drift. His flickering headlamp, and the safety lanterns placed at each room necking provided the only light. Along each side of the drift pairs of men worked coal out of the seam.

He walked with a tentative step; nose raised high to catch the whiff of gas that he was always afraid would kill him. His feet felt for each step in the dust covered railroad ties that provided his footing. Randy bobbed his head as he walked beside the boy. The movement annoyed Tony, but he had never been able to break the mule of the habit. Eventually he came to accept it for what it was, the way he did with most of the things he didn’t like.

A short, stocky miner with a face like the craggy mountains of Sweden, where he had been born, stopped Tony and his mule cart with a motion of his hands.

“Step back, boy. We’re going to make a shot.”

Tony knew this meant they were going to ignite the black powder that had been carefully placed to tumble a huge chunk of coal from the wall. He knew he would have at least twenty minutes before he would be able to finish his route down the drift bringing water to the miners.

He backed Randy around and headed down the drift a way to a mined-out room that he knew would provide shelter for them while the miners did their work. When they reached the excavation, Tony unhitched Randy from the cart and led him into the room. He strapped a feedbag over Randy’s nose to keep him out of trouble and made himself as comfortable as possible on the broken rocks of the floor.

As the mule munched his oats, Tony opened his own lunch box. He usually carried it in his cart, because he never got a regular lunch break. While the miner’s ate, Tony had to work. He would eat his lunch sometimes while he walked, but more often when he got an unexpected break like today.

Tony looked forward to his lunches, because they reminded him of Mama. No matter how little money the Stayner’s had, Mama always managed to put a filling and delicious meal on the table. Even if that table happened to be your own lap a thousand feet underground.

From his metal lunch box Tony took two parcels wrapped in paper. Opening them carefully he found a chunk of black rye bread and a thick slice of skilandis, a heavily smoked pork sausage. His mother said it was bad manners to eat his meat and bread together, but Tony liked it best that way and Mama couldn’t see him down here in the ground.

As he tore the bread in two a large crumb fell on the ground. Tony put down the sandwich he was making and quickly picked up the fallen piece of bread, kissed it and popped it into his mouth. He had been brought up to believe that bread was one of God’s greatest gifts to man and that it was far more valuable than gold. Tony thought that his Mama’s bread was especially precious. He would rather have a piece of Mama’s bread than cake from anyone else. And Mama’s cake…

Tony chewed reverently on the bread. He could see the flicker of another miner’s lamp approaching his room. After a few seconds a head poked into his room. It was Erasmus Dobbins, another driver boy.

‘Ras wasn’t the first person with black skin that Tony had ever seen, but he was the first one that wouldn’t turn white with a little scrubbing.

“Hey Squareface, you got room for one more mule in here. They’s just about to blast.”

“Come on in, ‘Ras.” Tony was already eating his sandwich and his words were clogged with bread and sausage. The strong scent of Mama’s homemade mustard filled the room.

‘Ras led a small female mule into the room and strapped a feedbag over her nose. He plopped himself down on the rocks next to Tony and opened his own lunchbox.

“Whooo hoo, your sandwiches are stinky, Squareface, but that sausage your Mama makes is good. You were just joshin’ me when you said it was wrapped in a pig’s stomach, weren’t you?”

Tony smiled around a mouthful of sandwich and ‘Ras unwrapped his own lunch and started to eat. The voices of the miners in the drift had increased a bit in volume as the explosion neared.

Suddenly there was a flat “whump” sound followed by a huge cracking. Then a shattering thump that shook the mine and a clatter as the coal started to break itself into pieces. The pressure increased suddenly and Tony’s eardrums popped. He chewed the tough pork sausage as hard as he could to relieve the pressure in his ears.

It was a few minutes before Tony and ‘Ras had enough hearing to notice the cracking sounds that were coming from behind them. They first became aware of trouble by the behavior of the mules. Randy and the female became very jittery, rolling their eyes toward the back of the room and skittering their hooves in the rubble of the floor.

Tony looked over his shoulder where Randy was staring with bulging eyes. He saw the 6 inch timbers that held the roof of the room he occupied, buckling under the weight of the roof they held.

Tony threw his sandwich into his lunch pail and slammed down the lid. He grabbed ‘Ras by the shoulder.

“’Ras, we got to get out a here, now.”

The other driver boy had already seen what Tony had and was clutching his lunch pail in one hand and grabbing his mule’s halter with the other.

Tony did likewise and the two boys scurried out of the room into the main drift with their mules bolting behind them. Three or four miners had taken the blast as an excuse to rest their aching muscles and stood in the drift watching the miners breaking and loading the fallen coal. When they saw the driver boys running with their mules they began to laugh.

“Look at Squareface and the jungle bunny run. What happened, boys, did you see a mouse?”

Tony didn’t like to talk much around the older miners. He pointed into the room from which the two boys had run. ‘Ras spoke up.

“It’s a cave-in.”

This made the miners laugh harder.

“What do you know about cave-ins, boy?” A red-headed Italian miner with a wooden peg where his lower left leg used to be barked derisively, “I’ll tell you about the cave-in back in ’03…”

Squareface Part 2: The Bells of Hell

The platoon, which had been formed into two neat lines, exploded as the men raced toward the barracks, Tony among them. The barracks was a long wooden building lined with metal bunk beds. Each soldier had a foot locker to hold his gear.

Joining the Army as he had, Tony had been assigned to a division that had no regional identity; although most of the divisions of the U.S. Army at that time did. Tony’s unit included soldiers from all over the United States. The diversity of language and custom reminded Tony of the coal mine and made him feel right at home.

He hurried to his footlocker and began stuffing things into his duffel bag. He had missed part of what the sergeant had said, so he didn’t know exactly what was going on, but he knew what an alert meant.

“Moiphy, did you catch what’s going on?” Tony called to the soldier in the next bunk who was also stuffing things into a green canvass bag.

Murphy, who everyone called “Moiphy” because of his thick Boston accent, was a tall soldier with closely cropped hair that was so red it made his skin seem transparent. He looked at Tony with a smile and a twinkle in his green eyes.

“Sgt. didn’t say what, but something is happening,” Murphy was only a few years older than Tony and he grinned with anticipation, “Maybe this is it. Maybe we’ll finally get to see the elephant.”

Tony didn’t have anything to say to that. He packed his duffel bag and made sure that all of his gear was in good order. “Seeing the elephant” was how the older soldiers referred to combat. To a veteran who had really seen combat, the phrase meant one thing. To Tony and the other soldiers of his platoon “seeing the elephant” was exciting and something to be desired. Tony felt a thrill of excitement as he went about the rote tasks of preparing his gear.

By 3:25 all of the soldiers of Tony’s platoon were packed and ready for deployment. They were five minutes early. The young men stood nervously and talked while they waited for Sgt. Williams to return.

“I heard this morning there was some trouble in Vera Cruz, wherever that is,” said a soldier with the flat tones of the Midwest in his voice.

“It’s on the coast, east of Mexico City,” said Corporal Muldoon in his semi-educated New York accent.

The voices of the platoon blurred into a meaningless jumble as the men traded and argued over rumors, scraps of information and dogmatic opinions. Tony couldn’t figure out what trouble in Vera Cruz on the coast east of Mexico City could have to do with him on the Rio Grande.


Sgt. Williams’ raspy voice cut through the chatter and brought his platoon to attention, each in front of his own bunk with his packed duffle bag at his feet.

The bantam sergeant marched down the length of the room inspecting each soldier as he went. Tony held himself at stiff attention, keenly aware of the single drop of sweat that made its itchy way down his spine.

“At ease!”

Sgt. Williams sauntered back down between the rows of men.

“You men are making me wonder. Are you really that well trained?”

No one said anything. Sgt. Williams’ boots creaked on the floor boards.

“I can’t hear you!”

“Yes, sergeant!”

Tony’s voice startled him as he joined in the loud response. He hadn’t thought about speaking, it had happened automatically.

Sgt. Williams’ leathery face broke into a wide smile.

“Well, you’ all know the motto of the U.S. Army by now: Hurry up and wait. Now we wait. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.”

Squareface Part 3: The Supreme Experience

Tony Stayner took a last pull on the stub of his unfiltered Camel and then dropped the butt, crushing it under his heel in a practiced move. The nasty habit he had picked up in the Army had stayed with him and now he used it to set himself apart from the other miners. Most of them who smoked used cigars and pipes; cigarettes were a habit for the new generation.

Tony looked at his stubby fingers with black coal dust in the seams of his knuckles. He hadn’t been as careful scrubbing himself clean as his mother had been when he first started working in the mine as a boy. He was still a boy. Seventeen until August and that was still over four months away.

What would he do when he turned eighteen? Return to the Army? Not likely. He had found soldiering to be mostly boring, except for the horrible moments that he didn’t even let himself think about much. Stay in the mine? Sometimes he felt like he might be stuck here by plain inertia, but he wanted something more. Something…better.

Tony was not very tall and at seventeen he was as tall as he would get, but he was a large. His big hands and feet and head added an impression of size to his body. He had a wide, thick chest and a big neck. Some people would say that he had a wrestler’s body. To others he might evoke a bear.

Tony’s face was square-shaped and the nickname Squareface stuck to him in the mines. He had lots of wavy red hair. Waves of dark red hair; one on top of another, worked back from his broad square forehead and over the top of his head. He kept his hair short and very trim on the ears and neck, a habit he had picked up in the Army, but he liked to let it get long on top so people could see the waves.

Tony was still very shy around girls, but he was starting to be noticed by them and he was always glad for the attention. He moved with the physical grace and economy of a physically fit young man. Tony had done hard physical labor eight to ten hours a day since the age of twelve, except for his time in the Army. That was probably the best thing about the Army; at least the work wasn’t too hard.

Tony smiled at the thought, curling his lip in a way that always got him attention from girls. Then he thought of the work one moonless night on the Rio Grande and the smile froze on his face. Better not to think of some things, he thought.

He walked briskly as he always did. Tony always went around as if he had something important to do. Now he was walking to his parents’ house for dinner. Most nights he had dinner with his family, although now he had a room of his own – which he rented in a neighbor’s house.

Spring was coming on fast and the wan sun was still up as he walked home from work. He had gotten used to walking to and from work in the dark and the pale sunlight seemed like a luxury after the long days in the dark mine. The sun at the end of an early spring day in Central Illinois hardly seemed like a relative of the merciless sun Tony had found in Texas. There he went, thinking again.

His feet crunched on the damp gravel of the road. The early evening air felt clean and fresh in his lungs after the long day of breathing the close and redolent air of the mine. Tony walked alone. He was respected as a worker by his fellow miners, but Tony didn’t have many close friends these days. Not any more. The one man in the town of Westville that Tony felt close to was Erasmus Dobbins.

‘Ras and Tony had worked together as mule driver boys when they were just little children. They had grown up together and they both remembered Stani; other things not to think about. Friendships between white men and black men were discouraged in the mine and in the town, so it was difficult for Tony and ‘Ras to see much of each other.

So Tony walked alone through the ending day toward Mama’s supper. He could see the glow of light in his mother’s kitchen window as he neared the small house that the mining company rented to Tony’s father. He pulled his crumpled pack of Camels from his pocket and lit up, slowing his step so he could finish the smoke before he arrived.

The pungent smoke made his lungs ache a little and he could feel his head start to swim as the nicotine hit his blood stream. That small rush from the first puff was what Tony liked about smoking, but it seemed more elusive now after smoking for over a year. He took the second puff and held the smoke for a few seconds before exhaling it through his nose.

Tony had worked the timing out over the monotonous days since his return from Texas. He dropped the butt and crushed it under his heel without missing a step. The cigarette butt joined its fallen brothers in the gravel of the road in front of the Stayner home.

Tony entered the small house without knocking, it was still his home. Inside the house was filled with warm steam from dinner cooking and the fragrant cloud of Papa’s pipe. Tony’s father, still known by his Lithuanian name Stanisauskas, sat at the table reading a newspaper while he smoked.

Papa had grown old in the last year and he worked shorter days in the mine. He wasn’t able to keep up with the man-killing labor of ripping coal from the rock seams of Illinois, so now he worked in less physical support jobs that had him working earlier in the morning, but home in the evening.

Mama’s bulk filled the kitchen and her energy was mirrored by the young woman who bustled around her assisting in the preparation of a meal. Tony was amazed at the changes in his little sister Tillie. She wasn’t quite a woman yet, but the day was not far off. Pauline had married recently and now had her own miner and her own house to tend to.

“Good evening, Mama, Papa,” Tony said politely, wiping his shoes before entering the small house.

“Tony!” Tillie called, running to hug her brother. She had been very affectionate to Tony since his return. Sometimes she seemed to fear that Tony would go away again.

“Hello, Tony,” Papa said, setting aside his paper. Mama turned from her work and gave Tony a warm smile.

“Sit, sit,” Papa beckoned to an empty chair at the table.

Tony sat down and stretched his legs under the table. Sitting down after a long day of breaking and shoveling rocks always made Tony feel like he was a deflating balloon. He hadn’t noticed how tired his body was until he let it start to rest. He let his back slump against the hard wooden chair.

“Tired?” Papa asked, knowing very well what the answer was.

Tony nodded his head. Tillie set a glass of gira on the table in front of Tony and he thanked her with a smile. Tony enjoyed the caraway flavor of the soft drink made from slightly fermented rye bread.

Papa knew better than to ask about work. He and Tony had argued enough about the mine. He cleared his throat and ruffled his newspaper.

“It looks like it will be war,” Papa’s voice sounded as tired as Tony felt, but the word sent a thrill through Tony’s body.

“Did something happen?” Tony asked. He couldn’t quite keep the excitement out of his voice. Why did he feel that excitement after what he had seen and done in Texas? He didn’t know the answer, but he knew that he felt it. He also knew that if there was a war, then he would be back in the Army.

“President Wilson has armed the ships, even though Congress said no,” Papa’s voice seemed to give weight to each word, “And it looks as if the Tsar may not be able to hold on.”

“Can you imagine, Mama,” Papa addressed his wife with an expression of awe, “The Tsar may fall from power? Maybe we should go home…”

Mama shot her husband a glare that changed his expression from awe to anxiety.

“You’re talking crazy again,” Mama scolded, “This is our home.”

An expression of horror mixed with reverence passed over her face the way the shadow of the sun passes over a snow swept field in an afternoon.

“But the Tsar?” she rolled her eyes to heaven and mouthed the words of an old prayer. “Ach…” she scolded as she returned to her work.

“What’s the Tsar, Mama?” asked Tillie.

Tony smiled at her naiveté, but waited eagerly for an answer. He knew the Tsar was someone important back in the Old Country and now he had a role in the important events that were sweeping over Europe, but that was it.

Papa chuckled at his daughter’s words. Mama kept a geological silence.

“To think, these children have not had to fear and love the Tsar,” he shook his head at the wonders the world wrought, “You’re right, Mama, this is our home now.”

“The Tsar, my children,” Papa began with the voice he used to read stories to his family, “Is the ruler of the Russian empire. The father of the father of the Tsar’s grandfather conquered and enslaved our little homeland of Lithuania long before any of us were born.

“In the village where I was born we had a prayer that we liked to say for our beloved Tsar,” Papa smiled with nostalgia at the thought of the home of his youth and the far away life that he had led.

“We prayed solemnly,” He continued, “May God bless and keep the Tsar....” Papa paused for the length of two breaths, “…in Russia where he belongs.”

Papa laughed at his joke.

“Isn’t that right, Mama?” Papa’s voice was thick with levity and the heaviness of his talk about war had lifted a bit. Mama crossed herself and gave Tillie a job to do.

Papa picked his pipe up from the table, examined its bowl with care and then placed it in his mouth. Striking a match, he puffed at the pipe and took a long look at his son. He had seen the excitement in the boy’s face when he had spoken of war.

Papa puffed a miniature cloud front of tobacco smoke into existence around him while he gazed at the young man his son had become. He was proud of the boy who had already become a man. He worried about Tony, though. Tony wanted excitement and Stanisauskas knew that was a dangerous desire in a boy or a man.

“Why don’t you light one of your little cigarettes and join me?” Papa asked. He thought cigarettes were a bit effeminate, but he recognized that as a base prejudice.

Tony looked sheepishly in his mother’s direction before pulling the battered pack of camels from his pocket. He slipped a small white cigarette between his lips and then leaned in to the flaring match his father held for him.

The two men puffed in silence for a few minutes, feeling a bond of affection between them. No matter their differences they both knew the bond of one generation to another.

“I thought you had enough of war down south, Tony?”

Tony looked into his father’s eyes and saw an older, tired version of his own.

“That wasn’t war, Papa,” Tony inhaled smoke from his cigarette and let it out slowly through his nose, “That was stupidity.”

Tony’s word’s seemed to hang in the air between the men. Papa began to puff smoke rings in silent competition with his son.

“…And worse,” Tony finished.

Papa shook his head.

“Tony,” his voice was serious and heavy again, “Won’t you learn that war is only stupidity and worse? There is nothing else to it.”

“Probably, some day,” Tony said in all seriousness.