issue 39: November - December 2003 

 | author bio

Pa Don’s Troops
Josh Capps

A few Sundays ago, on a drive back to Fayetteville from St. Louis, I made a quiet detour through my hometown of Lebanon, Missouri, though not to revisit glorious memories or check on dying relatives. I was there for the nostalgia of geography, and because my fuel tank was nearly empty. To make use of my Conoco card, I had to venture into town for a few miles, surprised to discover that the station just off Interstate 44 had been bought out by Texaco. I passed several other buy-outs and remodeled facades in the business loop, an Applebee’s going up in a once vacant lot and a Master Wong’s re-imagined as Chi-Time. At the refurbished intersection of Jefferson and Elm, I caught a red light and had time to admire change at all four corners: Consumer’s to IGA, Country Kitchen’s brown and orange to maroon and cream. Soon, two dirty white buses from the Tabernacle Baptist Church passed through the intersection, heading west on Elm. Peering calmly out the windows of the packed buses were men and women in fatigues, soldiers from the U.S. Armed Forces. At this, I perked up in my seat, and my admiration for change waned, the troops reminding me of something else.
      Lately, amid a chest-thumping tempest of bumper-sticker flags and sermons on disarmament, my disgust with the war machine grows strong. I’m reminded of a commercial for the Marines, currently running in cinemas across the Midwest, that depicts a sword-wielding, flat-topped white fellow climbing a mountain and standing down a fire-breathing rock monster. When the score swells, the action on the screen becomes convoluted; though, by the end, the soldier miraculously topples the rock creature. Sword in hand, he morphs to attention, sporting full Marine regalia, and salutes the theater patrons. The screen goes black except for a tiny flag and a 1-800 number to call in case you’re in the mood for adventure. And while the ad does let the country know that it’s safe from any second-rate Ray Harryhausen creations, I’m reminded that the U.S. Armed Forces’ last major battle was not against a flame-spitting enemy made of rocks, but an enemy so poor that he lives under rocks.
      Perhaps the soldiers on those buses were destined to be involved in the imminent war against the perilous rock monsters of Baghdad. These troops were from Ft. Leonard Wood, a military installation thirty miles east of Lebanon offering basic and advanced training, and home of the U.S. Army Chemical School, which provides "safe and realistic training designed to create chemical veterans," as these days, our rock-enemies do breath toxic fire. I didn’t know if the soldiers on those buses that Sunday were part of the chemical veteran business, but I knew they looked young and weary, pale and black, and I knew exactly where they were heading: the Bowl-a-Rena and adjacent Skate-a-Rena, two dumpy little spots off Elm that have managed to stay alive in the midst of Lebanon’s recent renovations.
      The soldiers were participating in a program in which the owner of the Bowl-a-Rena and Skate-a-Rena offered a giant (and, in the end, profitless) group discount, and, between the hours of two and five, opened the doors to only those servicemen and servicewomen from Ft. Leonard Wood. These soldiers could bowl and skate for three hours, at less than one dollar apiece. They could buy discounted concessions, and play video games in the Bowl-a-Rena’s game room. They could camp in front of the small television in the Skate-a-Rena and check out a football game. They could request various tunes from the DJ at the skating rink, who also served as concession man, grilling Polish sausages and jumbo franks, nuking frozen pizzas and cheeseburgers. As those buses passed, I was reminded that this was how it worked when the program was started by my grandfather, nearly seventeen years ago. By now, under new ownership, a few of the details might’ve changed.
      Then, with those soldiers, I remembered my grandfather, dead now twelve years, and for a while I thought of nothing else.


My maternal grandfather, Donald Brown, who I grew up calling Pa Don, died when I was an apolitical twelve-year-old, a year or two before I naively stumbled upon politics, one of the few benefits of my teenage rebellion. Because of the timing of his death, Pa Don holds no political relevance to me now. I suppose if I had to revise history, I’d envision Pa Don as a Kennedyesque Democrat, albeit a Ted Kennedyesque Democrat. I often get a free pass upon causing a drunken scene at a New Year’s party, or barking at the television during a basketball game, because, as I’m told by my grandmother (who was the first of Pa Don’s seven marriages), at least I come by it naturally.
      That nature landed him his first heart attack at fifty-two. I was six at the time, and, as he was often my babysitter while my parents were busy breaking up our home, I was spending the night with him when the heart attack occurred. I was too young for concern, but old enough to be upset that he wasn’t able to watch the baseball game on television the next day; I would scream at the umpires alone, not really knowing why. I was told he’d nearly had another attack a few months later, at Christmas, when my parents and I walked into his apartment with armloads of presents and found him crumpled on the living room floor, his hand badly sliced from a broken whiskey tumbler, his thinning, white hair mussed. (As long as I’m revising, I should admit that I now believe he was just really loaded.) In the wake of a few more near misses, he thought a change of scenery might do him good, so he quit his milk route and moved from Lebanon to Phoenix, where he got an apartment near one of his sisters. He developed a nice tan and made several friends at the country club just down his street, but he soon found out that retirement and year-round golf isn’t exactly the path to a healthier lifestyle. By the time I was nine, he’d moved back to Lebanon just as one of the town’s two bowling alleys was put on the market.
      An older woman actually bought the Bowl-a-Rena and the Skate-a-Rena, and rented out the bowling alley to Pa Don. He spent next to nothing cleaning up the place, as its previous owners had left it in decent condition, and he decided on keeping the old-fashioned, projector-style score tabulators. The bowlers had to keep their own score with a yellow pencil on a glass top counter, which was projected to screens just above the lanes. During Pa Don’s run as owner, each one of the projectors eventually went dead. When this happened, he replaced them with paper scorecards. No one seemed to mind. Pa Don quickly figured out that he could siphon off most of rival Starlight Lanes’ profitable church leagues if he refused to sell liquor at the Bowl-a-Rena. As I see now, running the bowling alley six days a week kept him relatively dry. (Not able to give up all his vices, Bowl-a-Rena was enveloped in a smoker-friendly haze that only adds to the atmosphere of my reveries.) Soon, he hired a couple guys to help him outa fat guy named Larry and a thin and greasy pimple-face named Carl. They were both broke, and pitifully married, needing the job enough not to give him trouble. They were handy, too, able to fix or rig any problem with the pin machines or video games. They could also give Pa Don a day or two off during the week. As much time as I spent up there, I grew fond of both of them. Carl shot quite a game of nine-ball. When Larry bowled, he rocked the lanes with thunderous strikes, putting all 275 pounds into those twelve-pound balls, and he was pretty amazing on the video machines, too, memorizing the patterns of Mrs. Pac-Man and Galaga to the point of exhaustion, qualities that to a nine-year-old nearly certified Larry as a god.
      During one of the church leagues, Pa Don struck up the deal involving the soldiers from Fort Leonard Wood. The pastor from the Tabernacle Baptist Church was a regular, and he knew a few administrators from the base. They’d been trying to set up something like that for years, but could never make the schedules meet and find a place that was alcohol-free. As the skating rink was still unoccupied, Pa Don brokered it into his deal for the bowling alley at a minimal price. Then, on every Sunday over the three years Pa Don had Bowl-a-Rena, and I assume for most Sundays after, nearly two hundred soldiers converged on the lanes, the rink, and the video game room.
      On my ninth birthday Pa Don gave me my first real job, paying me twenty dollars to work from one to five-thirty every Sunday afternoon. I helped prepare the hot dog grill and set up the candy before the soldiers arrived, passed out shoes once those buses rolled in, and worked alongside Pa Don’s wife (at the time) Doris, a hairdresser from Lake of the Ozarks. Larry and Carl alternated weekly between working the concessions and spinning records for the soldiers who wanted to skate at the Skate-a-Rena, and working in the back of the Bowl-a-Rena, sweating it out with the pin-spotting machines. Pa Don manned the cash register during the busiest times of the day, supervised both places occasionally, and, from three to five, handled any collect calls the soldiers wanted to make home. Bowl-a-Rena and Skate-a-Rena didn’t have payphones, but Pa Don would make a list, and one by one, place collect calls for the soldiers, allowing them five minutes each. There wasn’t much time, but he tried to squeeze everyone in.
      If things slowed down enough during the last hour, Pa Don let me watch football and basketball games with the soldiers or roller-skate with them at the Skate-a-Rena. I knew of nothing but the moment.


I put off getting gas, and decided to follow those buses of soldiers, speeding past as the drivers turned slowly into the parking lot of the Tabernacle Baptist Church. It was a little after one and they seemed to be running the same schedule they’d been running ever since the mid-eighties. They would attend a half-hour devotional in the chapel, and then load the buses again for the half-mile jaunt to the lanes. On that same path, just beyond the train tracks, I took a left into the empty parking lot of the Bowl-a-Rena and Skate-a-Rena. The lights were on and a few people were milling around inside, but the neon "Open" sign was cold. I assumed they were getting things ready.
      Bowl-a-Rena looked a little worse for wear, which is to say it hadn’t changed at all, the windows eternally dusty, the brick forever chipped. The parking lot sloped worse now, and the yellow stripes that designated the parking lanes were invisible. Pa Don might’ve had the place looking exactly the same. In the summer of 1989, Pa Don found out that despite his best efforts to clean up, nature had finally caught up with him. The doctors diagnosed congestive heart failure on a Monday, and by the following Sunday the soldiers were bowling and skating under new management. Pa Don held on for another year and a half, dying in February of 1991. I’d continued to spend as much time with him as I could, though I’d grown into junior high, and I even slept over at his apartment for a few nights that last January. He had a girlfriend, a lady named Sharon who’d served as wife number three and wife six, but he’d lived alone since his divorce from Linda, wife seven. Linda came after the aforementioned Sharon, and Sharon’s second stint came after Doris’s hasty, but rather memorable exit.
      On a Sunday in 1988, Doris argued with Pa Don for a good twenty minutes in the sloping parking lot of the Bowl-a-Rena. I tried to ignore the red-faced woman screaming obscenities at my grandfather, and continued to help Larry and Carl organize the concessions and set up the shoes. It was nearly two when Pa Don finally strolled back into the lobby, ignoring Doris as she furiously stomped across the parking lot. She tripped and twisted her ankle on the grade, but returned to her feet and kept walking. Pa Don let her. "Well," he said. "I guess we’ve gotta get things ready for the soldiers."
      Through the glass door, I watched Doris on up the street. She had quite a limp. "Where is she walking?" I asked.
      "Home," Pa Don told me.
      "Home?" I repeated.
      At this time they lived twenty miles north, near Lake of the Ozarks. My look probably shamed him into it, but he sent Carl after her all the same. Five minutes later, Carl returned with a broken nose and swollen eyes.
      "She socked me!" he kept screaming, blood spilling everywhere. With the soldiers’ arrival looming, Pa Don tried to stop the bleeding with several dozen paper towels, but only made matters worse. Carl’s nose was crooked and splintered, and Larry had to drive him home; there was no other way around it. Suddenly, I was alone with my grandpa, and we had to handle nearly two hundred members of the Armed Forces. With little hesitation, he promoted me to Skating Rink concession-man slash record-spinner and sent me over with a key and the order to call him if things got out of my control. Perhaps this marks the first time I’d ever tasted maturity, aged by the absolute duty of spinning records and cooking special order hot dogs for all those soldiers.
      My stint lasted nearly two hours, and when Larry finally spelled me, I needed it. I’d worked myself into a sweat, slapping extra cheese on the burgers and changing wrinkled ones into quarters for the troops who wanted to shoot pool and play video games. I drew up an "Out of Order" message with a magic marker on the back of a paper plate, and taped it to the pinball machine, making an executive decision to refund twenty-five cents to a thankful soldier. From dusty cabinets, I tried to dig up every phonograph record that the servicemen and servicewomen had requested. They skated round and round to cheesy lyrics, and I sang right along with them. At one point, after I’d failed to find a particular Van Halen song, a soldier told me not to worry about it, and struck up a conversation with me about the Monsters of Rock tour, featuring Van Halen and several other hair metal bands, that he hoped to attend the following summer when he was finally out of the service.
      After he enthusiastically listed the other bands that were part of the Monsters of Rock, I was eager to find one of their records. The other soldiers saluted the choice.


As I sat parked in Bowl-a-Rena’s sloping parking lot, I should’ve recalled the innocent, glorious stupidity of that day, how a strange chain of events led to my now ironic moment in the sun, a big boy in front of all those soldiers. Or maybe I should’ve been reminded solely of Doris’s one-legged journey back to Lake of the Ozarks. (Apparently, she only walked the first few miles, catching a ride on the outskirts, but, oh, the contempt it must’ve taken to begin that journey!) Instead, I remembered the last hour of that afternoon, after I’d returned to the Bowl-a-Rena to run concessions while Pa Don placed calls for the soldiers.
      Pa Don had occasionally gotten a busy signal or a disconnected number when a soldier asked him to place a collect call. Sometimes the troops came up with another number, and sometimes they decided against it. But, until that day, Pa Don had never had a mother turn down a collect call from her son. When it happened, Pa Don sort of shrugged his shoulders and told the soldier bluntly, "Son, she wouldn’t accept the call." A sadness passed over the young soldier’s face, and he sauntered back to his buddies on the lanes. At the time, I had no idea what had happened (I heard about it later from Pa Don, who stayed on our couch that night instead of facing Doris), and the troop’s sad look didn’t really clue me in either; a lot of them wore sad looks. As the years passed, I put the look and the event together, accepting the story as a lesson on how awful parents could be. Maybe, I was being told, I should appreciate my own. This was a naive perspective, of course. But, even as I matured and believed I saw things in a more sensible light, I kept my naive perspective about this particular story. I’ve kept my naiveté about a few.
      Lately, the cynic in me is reminded that the story could’ve been about a mother who was actually the good guy in the scenario. The son was the awful one. Against her passive wishes, he strode off to serve the United States’ masters of war, ready to fire missiles, crack skulls with the butt of his rifle, rape and destroy villages, and tell me to love it or leave it when I put my "No Iraq War" sign in the front lawn. The mother wanted no part of that war machine. And thus she refused to accept his collect call. The sadness I saw on those soldiers’ faces was actually rage, a rage that might serve their duty well. Soon, a bus full of red, white, and blue rage and fury would join me in the Bowl-a-Rena’s parking lot, and soldiers would invade the alley, taking out their aggression on ten pins, relax with snacks and sodas in these quiet days before they take on Arab rock monsters, while I could only sit back and watch, silently.
      It’s funny how some naiveté you can grow out of, and some you settle into. The truth be told, that soldier’s mother was too poor to accept his collect call. She wanted to talk to him and he wanted to talk to her. She was crushed not to take it, and he was broken up as he walked off. That poor flat-top never signed up to battle a rock monster.
      I remembered a pause in Pa Don’s actions after he turned that soldier away, a lump in his throat when he called out the next name on the list.


The last time I ever spent the night at Pa Don’s, Operation Desert Shield transformed into Operation Desert Storm, right before our eyes. He cooked us a couple of T.V. dinners, setting up television trays in front of his recliner and couch, and we watched CNN until nearly midnight, Bernard Shaw narrating the explosions as he ducked under his hotel’s coffee table. There were various blasts, quickly annotated. The coverage was uninterrupted by commercials. Even after we finished our cheese enchiladas, neither of us spoke. Being an awestruck twelve-year-old kept me quiet, but I really don’t know what to make of Pa Don’s loss for words. Maybe he wasn’t feeling himself, that heart disease in its final weeks, though just an hour earlier we’d shared a spirited conversation about the NFL playoffs. Or maybe he was thinking back to the days of running Bowl-a-Rena, and the soldiers that had used those lanes. Perhaps some of those soldiers were involved in the murky process we were watching unfold: live, chaotic and paced, massive and precise, while the voice of God, if God sounded like Darth Vader, later told us, "This Is CNN."
      The Masters of War in the U. S. Armed Forces thought it would be interesting to put a camera on the nose of a missile. We watched the results.
      We said nothing.
      And whatever the reason, I’m glad Pa Don remained quiet. I’ll choose now to remember him silenced by the entire notion of war, its brutality like a lump. How could he explain it to a child if a man could never explain it to another man? There was a camera on the nose of a missile, for God’s sake! Then he’d shrug in the same way he shrugged off Doris, letting her march back to Lake of the Ozarks on a bad ankle, the same way I shrugged off the pressure thrust upon me that very day, doling out wieners and spinning the Monsters of Rock for all those who would someday destroy them.

© Josh Capps 2003

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author bio

Josh Capps is an MFA candidate at the University of Arkansas, and his fiction has appeared in The Mississippi Review, Carve Magazine, and Conversely. His story "Hellraiser" was selected by Carve for their Best of 2002 print anthology, and his story "Dealing," from the March 2003 issue of Carve, was recently reviewed by Storyglossia. He is currently at work on a novella and a collection of short stories.
e-mail the author

stories available online:

Dealing from Carve Magazine
It Counts from The Mississippi Review
Border Pieces from Conversely
Connecting from Storyglossia


issue 39: November - December 2003 

Short Fiction

Jesse Shepard: First Day She’d Never See
Heather Imani: Martini
Nick Antosca: Where You Can’t Go Again
Marc DuBois: Match End
H.A. Fleming: Who I Was Supposed To Be

   picks from back issues
Irvine Welsh: A Fault on the Line
Pinckney Benedict: Dog


Josh Capps
Pa Don’s Troops


18th-Century English Literature
Answers to last issue’s Book Titles

Readers' Poll

Vote for the best and worst of 2003

Book Reviews

Timoleon Vieta Come Home by Dan Rhodes
The Last Summer of Reason
and The Watchers
by Tahar Djaout

Kids’ Stuff by Henry Sutton
The Long Haul by Amanda Stern
Back Around the Houses by Amanda Boulter
Bliss Street by Ken Kenway

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