Bravery, a novella. Part One

1.     VIRGINIA BEACH, 1980

BENJAMIN HOLST DID NOT WANT TO LEAVE Virginia Beach. He had never known anywhere else as home. 

He walked home from Kempsville Meadows Elementary, kicking rocks and whacking STOP signs. He forgot about Mrs. Walker’s Doberman Pinzer when he punched the stockade fence on Green Meadows Drive as hard as he could. The fence hit back. Slobbering snarling froze him in his tracks. He stood riveted to the sidewalk as the beast shook the fence again, growling and barking. The dog was all teeth, long fangs that seemed to sparkle while flaps of loose flesh pulled back and fell over them. Benjamin thought that the fence just might hold back the monster long enough. His legs started pumping. He saw nothing more as he ran to the end of the block, down Pine Lake Drive two more blocks to his home. He bolted straight to his room and flung himself on his bed.

He lay there sobbing and shaking as he relived that terrible day more than eight years ago…

***

Benjamin had just turned the corner. His parents were behind him, carrying groceries from the Be-Lo Market. An enormous, black, snarling dog charged him. Benjamin froze and screamed, as he fell under the heavy paws. The teeth were all he saw before he blacked out.

And in the dark, a heavy wet stench from the beast’s breath overcame him.

Benjamin woke up in a hospital bed with a headache from a fractured skull and a concussion. In the next bed lay his father. Walter Holst slept heavily, his arms bandaged from wrist to shoulder and tubes running from a bottle near his bed.

His mother was dozing in an armchair across the room. Carla Holst stirred uneasily under Benjamin’s stare and opened her eyes. She looked at Benjamin and his father and rose. Silently she crossed the room and knelt by Benjamin’s bed. She hugged her son. Benjamin felt her shaking.

“Mommy, you’re crying,” he said.

“Grownups get scared, too,” she said, “but it’s going to be okay now.”

“What happened?”

She told him how his father had dropped the groceries and run at the dog, hollering like a wild boar. He distracted the dog, who turned on him instead of biting Benjamin. Walter met the dog’s charge with his elbow, grabbing the dog by the neck with his other hand. He dropped down on the dog, pinning him with his knee and continuing to push down with his forearm into the dog’s jaws.

Carla Holst picked up their son, while a neighbor across the street called 911. Walter bled profusely into the dog’s face. Soon the beast began to choke and clawed him wildly. Walter did not know what else to do to hold down the dog. He was feeling lightheaded by the time the sirens came around the corner, but he held on until the police arrived and shot the dog right under him.

An ambulance took the three Holsts to the hospital…

***

At last Benjamin got a grip on himself. His pillow was wet. So was his pant leg.

His father’s voice drifted in from the study. “Benjamin, is that you?”

“Uh-huh.” Benjamin leapt from the bed and locked the door. He quickly changed his pants and underpants, tossing the wet ones in the hamper. His hands shook as he unlocked and opened the door. He took a big breath and walked to the kitchen.

He was just about to pour orange juice into his favorite cup – a 32-ounce Super Duper from Seven Eleven – when his father walked in.

“Grab two of the smaller glasses, son, and pour me one, too,” said Walter Holst. “We’re going to eat as soon your mother gets home.”

They sat down at the small table in the kitchen. A pasta casserole that would never be captured on a recipe card was baking in the oven. He hoped Dad had gone easy on the green things in it.

“Dad, do we really have to move?” Benjamin asked.

“Yes, son.”

“But why New York?”

“That’s where my new contract is. I’ve already started working on the first job, but we’ve done as much as we can with my flying back and forth.”

“I don’t want to leave Virginia Beach.”

“Neither do I. We’ve been very lucky to stay in one place so long. Your mother and I moved many times before you were born. We even lived in New York when I worked for this company before.” Walter stroked his beard, a nervous habit he had had for as long as Benjamin could remember.

“Your beard is really grey now.”

“That catches up with all of us, Benjamin. You haven’t seen your Uncle Jesse lately. His is almost white, and he’s younger than I.”

The timer rang on the oven just as the car pulled into the driveway. Benjamin ran out and gave his mother a flying hug as she got out of the car.

“Hi, there, big guy. How was your day?”

“Fine.”

“Why do I ask?” Carla Holst smiled and messed up his hair. “Feel like helping me unload?”

“What is all that? It’s even sticking out the windows.”

“Everything. The whole office. I still can’t believe how much of my own stuff wound up in the office until time came to clear it out.”

Benjamin helped her carry boxes into the garage. Then his father called him in to set the table while his mother changed out of her heels and suit.

“So, has Tidewater Shipping closed its doors in despair now that the Vice-President for Operations has jumped ship?” Walter Holst said with a smile when she came out in jeans and a sweatshirt. She gave him a kiss, and they sat down to the dinner table.

“No. Jim Tagliaferro will work out just fine. He had all the right kind of experience when we hired him in the first place. And he and I had a very detailed turnover with all this overlap.”

“So, you really don’t have to go to work any more?” asked Benjamin.

Carla and Walter exchanged glances. “Not until we get settled, anyway,” she said.

They said grace and not much else as the casserole, the corn and the salad disappeared. Dad had gone easy on the green things this time.

2.    NEW YORK

Carla screamed as the car swerved hard to the right. Walter swore something unintelligible as he struggled to keep the car and its trailer under control. A pair of tractor-trailers thundered past them.

“Thank God this is the last time we’ll have to make this trip,” he said as the car settled down. The two big trucks were barely visible through the rain and mud on the windshield.

“Is this the road you always take to New York?” asked Benjamin.

“Yes, but I’m usually not pulling a U-Haul trailer at 45 mph in a storm.”

“You look like you need a break, Dad.”

Walter caught Benjamin’s eyes in the rear-view mirror. “What do you think, Carla? It’s going to take all day anyway, and there’s a good diner just this side of Salisbury.”

Benjamin’s mother agreed. They stopped at Salisbury. And Dover. And Newark, Delaware. And every rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. The rain never let up.

Just past Cherry Hill, three tractor-trailers chased each other past the VW Golf GL and its swinging load. “I think I’m getting the hang of this,” Walter said, as he steered first one way then the other.

It was past nine at night when they crossed the Staten Island Bridge. There was no first view of the Big Apple. That would have to wait for daylight and better weather.

They drove into the Sheraton Hotel parking lot over an hour later, tired, aching, damp, but glad to be “home” at last.

***

Benjamin woke up first. It was already bright and hot outside. Except for a few puddles on the flat roofs of shorter buildings, he saw no signs of the previous day’s storm from the hotel window. He dressed, wondering if he should wake his parents or sneak downstairs for some breakfast. He decided on the latter and headed for the door. It opened suddenly, and a thin, Oriental woman in a uniform stepped in. His parents started awake.

“I’m so sorry,” said the housekeeper. She took the Do Not Disturb sign from the inside doorknob, hung it on the outside and closed the door gently.

“I tried to get breakfast without waking you,” said Benjamin.

“That’s alright,” said his mother. “We need to get over to our new house and turn in the trailer.”

***

Walter Holst had found a small house in the center of Flushing. The shopping and restaurants on Kissena Boulevard were only a few blocks away, but the neighborhood still boasted small yards and single-family homes. The variety of people was exciting. Benjamin could walk to McDonald’s, the Botanical Garden and back home and hear anything but English on the streets. There were Indians and Malays, Jamaicans and Latinos, Chinese and Asians he did not recognize.

“New York is the Capital of the World,” his father said. “This city belongs to the whole planet, not just the United States.”

They did some touring the first few weeks. The Statue of Liberty, Central Park, the Empire State Building: “The things only tourists and newcomers ever go to,” his mother said.

“Could we go to Council Headquarters, too?” asked Benjamin. “If we can find a Scout troop right away, maybe I can still go to camp and finish my merit badges for Star Scout.”

His Scoutmaster had prepared the transfer forms three weeks before. “All you have to do in New York,” he said, “is to call the Council Office – here’s the number – and let them help you choose a Troop. That’s if you don’t meet some Scouts right away and find a Troop on your own.”

They took the subway to Manhattan. The Boy Scout Council hid on the fourth floor of a skyscraper on Hudson Avenue. Benjamin learned that most of New York did business in those concrete towers with no signs on the outside.

The scout executives gave him a list of six troops in Flushing that met near their home. He noticed that the Parents-Teachers Organization of his new school, JHS 189, sponsored one of the Troops, though it met below a church one block from his house. That was where he met Alex Gronchos.

Alex was leaning against a light post outside the church, whittling what looked like a two-foot broom handle. He was taller than Benjamin’s father. Thick black hair curled around the BSA ball cap. The visor cast a shadow over most of his face, but the three-inch scar in front of his right ear cast its own shadow. Benjamin felt his mother take his elbow.

“Walter —”

“Easy, dear,” said the elder Holst, “let’s not judge the whole troop by one tough-looking kid in a Giants jacket.” He cleared his throat. “Excuse me, you look like a Scout. Is this where Troop One-eighteen meets?” The boy stopped whittling, holding the knife at the end of his stroke. Benjamin noticed that it was a sheath knife. He felt uncomfortable. Alex looked slowly at both adults and Benjamin before moving. He stood up straight, and the knife vanished into its sheath.

“Yes, sir, right here. I’m Alex Gronchos, Rat Patrol.” He stuck his left hand to Benjamin in a Scout handshake, then his right to Benjamin’s parents. “Come on, I’ll take you to Mr. Whalen, our scoutmaster.” He led them to a large room in the basement, where about a dozen scouts were engaged in a relay race which was mostly shouting and joking. Alex pointed to a pair of adult scouters in the far corner. One of them noticed the new family and beckoned them over. Benjamin felt a tug on his jacket as his parents made their way across the room. “Hey, Ben, the Rats are one short. Get in the race, man.” Alex took off his jacket, exposing his Patrol Leader’s stripes.

“It’s Benjamin.”

“I know. Sorry.”

3.    CAMP

TROOP 118 NOT ONLY MET NEARBY, but most of the kids went to his school. And this troop camped, almost as much as his old troop in Virginia. They were going out to eastern Long Island that first weekend. Best of all, he had not missed summer camp.

The big city might take some getting used to, but Ben was at home in the wild, be it woods or swamp or seashore. His new friends in Troop 118 admired his easy confidence in the outdoors. He enjoyed being accepted. Even Mr. Whalen would sometimes ask for help in identifying trees or animals or showing the scouts different camp crafts.

Jim Sabatini was the Troop Historian. He also knew more about cameras and photography than anyone. He could even capture faces around the campfire. The kids said you could see the flat notes in his pictures of Mr. Whalen singing. Jim never went anywhere without a camera.

On the third day of summer camp, all the units competed in a nature trail. Each patrol had to record and identify as many different animals as they could in a two-mile hike. Jim and Benjamin had already logged over twenty-five different species, and Jim had photographed half of them. Then Benjamin reacted to a familiar motion in his peripheral vision. He grabbed Jim’s arm and put a finger to his lips.

He whispered in Jim’s ear. “Deer! Move real slow and gentle.” Benjamin pointed slowly. A buck, a doe and a fawn had just emerged from the woods onto the far side of the meadow.

“I don’t see a thing.”

“Use your telephoto. Three of ’em. They’re standing real still, ’cause they’re still not sure it’s safe.”

Deer were not on the list of possibilities in the camp staff notebooks, and the Rat Patrol had won the competition on sheer numbers already. When Jim produced the negatives from his portable developing kit, Benjamin became an instant hero. The camp-wide popularity felt exciting and even a little embarrassing. Benjamin felt good, very good.

Then he met the dog.

They were coming back to the campsite from the swimming merit badge class. The path took them near the trading post and the main parking lot. Ben was not paying particular attention to the parking lot, though Jim and Alex were admiring some of the Cherokee and Bronco trucks. Benjamin saw a dark shape jump from the window of a large Buick, down among the cars. His hair tingled on his scalp.

He was running before the dog burst out of the parking lot. Alex and Jim started after him, then called the dog back. It was a Labrador puppy, frisky and playful, but almost full-sized. Jim led the dog away. Alex went after Benjamin.

Benjamin was shivering on his cot, crying hard and trying to get control of himself. Alex stopped, not knowing what to do next.

“Take it easy, Ben,” he said. “I’ll get Mr. Whalen.”

“It’s Benjamin.”

“I know. Sorry.”

Alex explained what happened on the way back to the tent. By the time they arrived, Benjamin had just about recovered, but was still shaken.

“It was just a puppy,” said Alex, as they sat down. Mr. Whalen shut him up with a stern look.

“Benjamin, just relax now,” the Scoutmaster said. “The dog is back in the car and gone. Jim called him back and returned him to the owner. You want to talk about it?”

“I hate big dogs,” said Benjamin. “They scare me.”

“They scare me, too,” said the man. “I have to try very hard not to lose my cool when they’re around, especially in front of the troop. Can you believe that?” Benjamin looked up at him. Mr. Whalen met his gaze and held it.

“I guess so.”

“It’s true. Fear comes with being alive. It’s okay.”

“But what about the Scout Law? ‘A Scout is brave.'”

“Being brave means being able to do what you have to do in spite of your fear. It does not mean not being afraid.”

Benjamin did not move or talk. Mr. Whalen had seen the puzzled look before.

“Look at it this way, Benjamin. If no one was afraid, how would we know what brave is?”

“I never thought of it that way,” Alex butted in.

“That’s the way it is, boys. The more afraid you are doing what you have to do, the braver you are. No fear, no bravery.” He put a hand on Benjamin’s shoulder. “You feeling better now?”

“Yes, sir. And hungry, too.”

“Good. Alex, go collect your Rat Pack. It’s almost time to assemble for supper.”

***

Jim and Alex soon forgot the incident with the dog. The week at camp was too short, but long enough for the three boys to become good friends. By the time they returned to the concrete and asphalt of Flushing, their bond had been sealed by the shared experience of fishing holes, swimming ponds, woods, and campfires.

3.    JHS 189 – QUEENS

THE WIND FROM THE NORTHEAST felt cold and damp. Alex and Benjamin wore tee-shirts and jeans.

“Is it always this cold?” asked Benjamin. “It’s only the beginning of September.”

“Heck, man, this isn’t cold. Besides, it warms up fast in the morning.” Alex leapfrogged a fire hydrant. “You play any sports?”

“Some club soccer.”

“Aw-right!” Alex slapped Benjamin on the shoulder. ” We got four Rats on my team already. Wanna try out?”

“Sure. Where and when?”

“Flushing Meadows, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Games on Sunday afternoons”

They turned the corner onto Sanford Avenue. The noise of hundreds of kids hit Benjamin like a wall. The stern, barred windows of Junior High School Number 189 rose three stories above the shifting sea of brightly colored shirts and pants. The basketball backboards shook from the slapping of slam-dunks. Barbed wire topped the eight-foot chain-link fence that circled the asphalt playgrounds.

“Here’s home for this year,” said Alex. “What do you think?”

“Looks like a happy prison.”

Alex laughed. “Right! We got everything here, the good, the bad, and the worse.”

He led Benjamin into the school and helped him find Room 24 – seventh grade, section 7G. Mr. Harris, a skinny man with thin black hair whose shirt collar looked about three sizes too big, met him at the door.

“Holst, right?” He motioned Benjamin into the room. “Find a seat anywhere. We’ll get around to seat assignments later today.”

“Yo, Benjamin! Over here” Jerry Westerbrook was pointing to an empty desk between him and Jim Sabatini.

“Hey, guys,” said Jim, “this is Benjamin Holst from Virginia. He’s got awesome eyeballs. Can see little animals a mile away.” He turned to Benjamin. “This is Mike, and Grubbo, and Jack O. Jack I is over there by the door.”

“O is for Osterhuis,” said Jack O. “Can you really see that good?”

Benjamin did not get to reply.

“Take your seats everybody, please!” Mr Harris banged a fat textbook on the edge of his desk.

They had sat down only about three minutes when the bell rang just outside the door. The class rose and started to leave.

“What’s going on?” Benjamin asked Jerry. “That doesn’t sound like the fire alarm bell.”

“Drug search,” said Jerry. “We go out to the school yard while the police dogs sniff the lockers and other places. Then they come out to the yard and check us for stuff.”

“What kind of stuff?”

“You know, stuff.”

“He means weapons and drugs,” said Alex, coming up behind them in the hall. Benjamin bit his lip. “It’s not so bad if you’re clean. The cops get to know who the Scouts are after a while, even without our uniforms.”

Benjamin stepped out and stopped. Seven hundred shouting voices careened off the brick walls of the paved school yard. The early sun blinded him from half a dozen windows. He felt a little dizzy from the traffic fumes and the strangeness of the scene. A heavy-set girl ran into him from behind.

“Whadya stop for, huh?”

“This way, Ben.” Alex grabbed his shirt and led him to a group of seventh graders forming a line near the doors.

“It’s Benjamin.”

“I know. Sorry.”

The doors swung open, and the two policemen came out with a thin, pale man behind them. One policeman handled a German shepherd. The catcalls from the other lines died out as the dog sniffed each student. The other policeman checked book bags and jackets. The dog barked at two different boys’ back packs. The handler simply pointed to the police van parked by the gate. The boys sauntered to the van, trying to look cool.

“What was that all about?” Benjamin asked Alex.

“Probably drugs in the packs. The dog smells for dope, the big cop frisks for guns and knives and such.”

Benjamin backed up as the dog began to sniff their line.

“Don’t worry, Ben,” said Alex. “He won’t pay any attention to you, even if you act scared. The police brought a dog to troop meeting one night and showed how they are trained to concentrate only on what they are told.”

Benjamin still shivered and tried to hide behind Alex when the dog got to them.

“Take it easy, son,” said the policeman. “She just wants a whiff. She won’t hardly touch you.” Benjamin read the name Mendoza on the policeman’s name plate.

“O-Okay.” He shut his eyes until Alex tapped him on the shoulder.

“They’re gone, Ben.” Benjamin saw the dog was already at the end of their line.

The thin man from the school office was holding the door open.

“It’s Benjamin.”

“I know. Sorry.”

© 1993, 2022, JT Hine

========

Next week, Part Two. Come back!

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