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AMERICAN STORIES - Stepping on the Cracks

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Today's story is adapted from the young adult novel "Stepping on the Cracks" by Mary Downing Hahn. This book won the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. The story is about Margaret Bayger, an 11-year-old girl. She tells her about her life in a small American town during World War II in the 1940s. Here is Gwen Outen with our story.

Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn
Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn

My best friend Elizabeth was jumping along the path, "Step on a crack and break Hitler's back!" She yelled. I shouted and pounded my feet into the cracks on the ground. It was because of the German leader Adolf Hitler that my brother Jimmy was away fighting in the war.

Elizabeth was going into the woods where we were not supposed to be. Wondering why I always let Elizabeth lead me into danger, I crept through the woods behind her. We saw a small simple building, a hut, and a boy we knew named Gordy. He yelled, "What the hell are you girls doing down here? Haven't you heard about the crazy old man who lives in these woods?”

There was no more talk of the crazy man until one day in October when Elizabeth and I were walking to school. We saw Gordy looking meaner, madder and uglier than usual. "The crazy man is looking for you," he said. Scared as I was, I saw that one of Gordy's eyes was swollen and shut. "Who gave you that black eye?" Elizabeth asked. “Shut up, Liza!” said Gordy and he pushed Elizabeth so hard, she fell.

By the time school was out, Elizabeth was so mad she was ready to burst. So we went back to the hut in the woods and went inside. I watched Elizabeth tear pages at magazines and throw a can of soup out of the window. When there was nothing left to destroy, we went outside. That was when I saw him.

"Run!!!!!" I screamed at Elizabeth, "It's him, the crazy man! He's coming after us!"

Then one afternoon in December, we saw Gordy carrying big bags of food into the woods. "We're following him!" Elizabeth yelled. When we got to the hut, the door suddenly opened and the crazy man stepped outside. He had a thick beard and long dark hair. But he was young, about my brother Jimmy's age. He was wearing army clothes.

Elizabeth whispered, "Let's go, I know who he is. He is not crazy and he is not an old man. He is a dirty, rotten coward!"

"What do you mean?" I stared at her. "He is Gordy's older brother Stuart." Elizabeth said, "Gordy must be helping hide him from the army. That is why Gordy never talks about Stuart. He is a deserter, Margaret. He left the army illegally."

A week passed without anything happening. We went to the hut again. Stuart ran outside the hut and asked Elizabeth, "Are you Joe Croffer's little sister?"

"Don't you dare even speak my brother's name, you dirty deserter?" Elizabeth said, "Joe is not hiding out in the woods letting other people die for our country!"

"There's been too much killing already." said Stuart, "War is wrong. The Germans, and the Japanese and the Italians are all people, right? They just want to live their lives and let me live mine. Same as us." Stuart put his hands deep in his pockets and lowered his head. He looked so confused and unhappy; I could not help feeling sorry for him. When my brother Jimmy went into the army I had never really thought about his pointing a gun at a human being and shooting it. How could Jimmy do that? How could anyone?

After school one day, we went back to the hut. Stuart was on a small bed inside, coughing.

"You need a doctor and medicine," said Elizabeth.

"So, how come you want to help me all of a sudden?" asked Stuart, "The last time you saw me you said you hoped I would die, remember?"

"Well, I still think if my brother has to go to war, you should go too! But I do not want you to die," Elizabeth answered.

The next time we saw Stuart, he was feeling worse and Gordy was there, too. I forced myself to speak. "Why don't we ask our neighbor Barbara to help? We need someone grown up, we cannot tell our parents about Stuart. They would not understand, but Barbara would."

"Her husband died in the war, you dope," Gordy said, "She is not going to have any sympathy for Stuart."

"She likes him," I said, "she even likes you. Barbara can take Stuart to the doctor," I said, surprising myself. It was the first time I had ever spoken up to Gordy.

We found Barbara pulling her baby Brent on a little sled in the snow. The baby's father had been killed in Italy, three months after he married Barbara.

Taking a deep breath I asked Barbara, "Do you remember Stuart Smith?"

"What if I told you he left the army illegally?" Elizabeth asked.

Barbara stopped so suddenly that Brent almost fell off the sled, "Where is he?" Barbara whispered.

"He is down in the woods," I told her. "And he is sick." Elizabeth said, "He needs a doctor. Gordy says you would hate Stuart for deserting because your husband Butch got killed."

"Hate Stuart?" Barbara shook her head; "We have been friends since we were small children. Stuart was like a brother to me. I guess I'm not surprised that he left the army. Some people are just not meant to be soldiers. Show me where he is. I would do whatever I can."

Barbara drove Stuart to the doctor who said he needed medical care. Barbara suggested taking Stuart to her house.

"Are you crazy?" said Gordy, "Your parents are not going to want a deserter in their house."

"You do not know my mother," Barbara said, "she has the biggest heart in the world." So Barbara took Stuart to her house while Elizabeth, Gordy and I walked home.

An old black car stopped and Gordy's dad got out and yelled, shaking Gordy.

"You dumb kid, where the hell have you been?" He hit Gordy hard enough to knock him down and then pushed him roughly into the car with the other children.

During Christmas vacation I went into my house one day and knew something was wrong. "It is Jimmy," mother said at last, "He has been killed in action."

Crushing the telegram into a tiny ball, daddy threw it into the fireplace. Mother held out her arms. We just hugged each other and cried.

One day in February, Gordy came to school with a black eye. Stuart was still at Barbara's house. But he knew something was wrong. He put on his coat and stepped outside into the wind. Barbara, Elizabeth and I ran after him. But Stuart just put his arm around Barbara and kissed her. Then he climbed the front steps of his own house slowly.

Gordy was not at school the next day and Stuart was not back at Barbara's house either. At Gordy's house, we saw a police car and an emergency vehicle from the hospital. We watched the police take Gordy's father away. The men from the hospital carried Stuart out of the house.

Gordy was crying, "Dad beat Stuart last night," he said, "Stuart would not fight back, he just try to keep the old man from hurting the rest of us. We're going to our grandmother's house in North Carolina."

My mother had heard about what happened. "We were helping Stuart, Elizabeth and me," I said.

"You helped a deserter when your own brother was fighting for his country?" my mother's voice was full of ice. But later, she came to my room and we talked.

"Jimmy always felt sorry for Stuart," she said, "Stuart has had a hard life."

"Stuart cannot stand to see anything hurt," I said, "not a small animal, not a person."

"Neither could Jimmy," mother reminded me, "but he went to war and he did what he had to do even though it killed him." I sighed. There was no answer, no firm ground to stand on.

Several weeks later, Barbara told us Stuart's father had broken a part of his ear, so he would not be able to fight in the army. She said Stuart would have to meet with army officers who would decide what would happen to him. Barbara also said Stuart asked her to marry him. "If you had not dragged me down to the woods last winter," said Barbara, "who knows what would have happened to Stuart." For a minute, Elizabeth and I stared into each other's eyes. Lots of things had changed since the war started, but not us. "No matter what happens," I said, "we will be best friends."

You have just heard the American story "Stepping on the Cracks". Your storyteller was Gwen Outen. This story was adapted for Special English by Karen Leggett from the book written and copyrighted by Mary Downing Hahn. The book was published by Clarion Books in 1991. All rights reserved. Listen again next week at this time for another American story told in Special English on the Voice of America. I'm Steve Ember.

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