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The March of
the Grey Men


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It is an early autumn morning in 1980, and my mother and I are walking to kindergarten. We have come through our neighborhood of small mid-century houses near the northern tip of Ottumwa, Iowa. Now we stroll up the frontage road sidewalk along the highway leading out of town. A pedestrian bridge arcs over the highway, and every day as we near the foot of the bridge, I am struck with the same fear: not of falling off the bridge or of being hit by a car, but of being bitten by the rattlesnake coiled at the edge of the sidewalk. The snake is visible for several dozen yards before I am upon it, and it waits, ready and unmoving, for me. It isn’t until I am about ten feet away that I realize the serpent is merely the end of a natural gas pipe sticking up from the concrete. Fears allayed, I begin to breathe again and walk up the ramp to cross the bridge. The next day I am fooled all over again.

Mom drops me off for the morning session, held in a big room with lots of toys, art supplies, and kitchen fixtures. Storytime is my favorite part of the day. I sit with the other kids in a half-circle before our teacher, who sits next to a storybook the size of a standard television set. The book is spiral-bound along the top edge, a picture taking up the whole of each page. We listen to the narration on cassette tape, our teacher turning the pages of the book as the story unfolds, something about a monkey living on an island with a single banana tree.

The classroom has a tiny bathroom that we are allowed to use by ourselves. I never go in there. Just as I am sure of the rattlesnake on the way to school, I am also convinced that there are more snakes, some kind that can breathe underwater, living in the toilet, and I am determined not to let them bite me. After lunch today I trot home, knock-kneed and crying, the urine trickling down my leg before I reach the door.

My parents, my younger brother Kirk, and I live in a long, orange, single-story house on Crestview Avenue. Grandma and Grandpa Marsh live across the street, and I have two younger cousins about a block away. This afternoon, I am sitting in the backyard sandbox with Tony, a kid from the neighborhood, and we are playing with his Star Wars action figures. Tony is a year or so older than me. He is the coolest kid in the entire world, and he happens to be my best friend. His dark hair flops over his left eye, and his smile is brilliant and charming. I call it his Tony Smile, and I am determined to learn it.

I saw The Empire Strikes Back over the summer, and Star Wars was screened recently on television. Like nearly every boy my age, I am enamored by the surfeit of toys based on the film series and advertised everywhere I look. I tell Tony of my plans to ask Santa Claus for my very own Stormtrooper and Darth Vader action figures this Christmas. He suggests that we both dress as Vader for Halloween. This is the greatest idea I have ever heard.

That weekend, Mom takes Kirk and me to Warehouse Market, which as the name suggests is a wholesale bulk food store inside a warehouse on the northern edge of town. She pushes the shopping cart among the aisles, past bins of fruit and giant stacks of cereal boxes. Kirk rides in the main body of the cart. I sit underneath, rocking from side to side, hands grasping the metal frame as the wheels scrabble over the wet concrete floor. I am Han Solo, coolly piloting the Millennium Falcon through the asteroid field. I replicate the movie’s sound effects from the movie with my voice—the roar of the spaceship’s engine, the boom of exploding asteroids, the chirps and electronic gasps of the droids.

When we get home, I pretend to be another of my favorite heroes of the screen. Standing atop the three steps leading out the kitchen door into the backyard, a dishtowel tied around my neck, I am Superman. Something about the Kryptonian’s natural ability to fly puzzles me, so my costume includes a pair of makeshift skis constructed from plastic portions of my toy car race tracks and held to my feet with rubber bands. I am further perplexed as I land in the grass a few feet below, my modifications failing to allow me the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Some flights of fancy aren’t so benign. Kirk and I amuse ourselves one day by chasing each other up and down the hallway that runs the length of our house. Even though he’s young, he’s fast. To lend myself more speed, I make-believe I am a mountain ram. I stand in the living room, snorting and stamping my feet. I can see the steam shooting out of my nostrils just as it does in the cartoons we watch on television. Kirk has run ahead down the hall and is giggling uncontrollably as I prepare to charge. Letting out my best mountain goat bleat I set off running, imaginary curved horns lowered and fists clenched like hooves. My plan to ram whatever gets in my way goes splendidly at first, but instead of butting my brother, I run headlong into the living room doorframe. All thoughts of mountain goats leap from my mind as I fall to the floor and scream, a bit of blood dripping down my forehead.

At the hospital, the doctor patches me up and checks for signs of a concussion. Mom and I are relieved that I seem to be all right. Apparently, my head is similar enough to a ram’s that the accident probably hasn’t caused any permanent damage. As we prepare to leave, the doctor tells me I behaved very well during the proceedings, and that I can have a lollipop in whatever color I like. He gets a bag of the candy off the shelf and asks me for my favorite color. “Black,” I tell him. We settle on purple, and it’s off to home.

It’s past my bedtime, and even though I’ve been lying under the sheets for half an hour with my eyes closed, I’m wide awake. I lie on my side, fingertips nestled into the wide wales of my red corduroy bedspread. My breathing is calm, my mind is still. I am listening to the marching men. They tramp in endless formation through my ear canal, an army of countless golems made of earwax, each one male, naked and muscular, resting a spear on his shoulder as he marches in perfect time with the rest of the troop. Where they have come from, where they are going, and what errand has brought them into my ear canal are all mysteries to me. Are they planning to march out of my head onto the bed sheets and carry out a battle against my toy soldiers? Will they build a fort from my blocks and Lincoln Logs? Are they maliciously plotting to pierce my eardrum, which from books and television I know must look to them like a ship’s sail trembling with each footfall? The sounds begin to fade, and as I drift off to sleep I imagine the marching men tramping off into the distance, keeping time along ledges beside rocky cliff faces, down red-walled tunnels and through dark caverns, carrying out their mission deep inside my head.

In the morning I stand on a footstool in front of the bathroom mirror and, angling my mom’s open makeup compact, squint into the darkness of my ears to see if I can discern any sign of the marching men. Nothing is revealed. I sigh and snap shut the compact, then practice my Tony Smile in the big mirror a few times before running to the kitchen for breakfast.

Soon it is Halloween. I have acquired my Darth Vader costume. It consists of a flimsy plastic mask with an elastic string to hold it to my face, a baggy polyester bodysuit, and a black vinyl cape. The front of the costume is emblazoned not with the circuitry of Vader’s life-support system, but with an incongruous pencil-necked bust of the Sith Lord surrounded by a yellow starburst. This only makes the costume that much cooler to me. I lie on the floor staring at the picture for several minutes before getting dressed to go trick-or-treating. The night air is chilly on Crestview Avenue, and my breath condenses against the inside of my mask, the moist air dampening my nose. Mom and Dad escort Kirk and I from house to house along the street, other families flitting here and there. My plastic jack-o’-lantern fills with Tootsie Rolls, tiny packets of peanut M&Ms, and Starlight Mints. As we leave Grandma and Grandpa’s house to cross the street and go back home, I see Tony and his mom pass right in front of us. His costume is exactly like mine. I flash him our secret smile. It doesn’t even occur to me that he and I are wearing masks. I know he can see my winning grin just as clearly as I see his.

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