“Daddy, what was it like?” the small boy asked.
“What was what like, son?” the Father answered.
“War,” he said.
“Aren’t you too young to know about that sort of thing?” the Father said.
“No! I’m in third grade, Dad. We learned about that stuff last year too, but you said I was too young again,” the small boy beckoned.
“Do you think you’re old enough now?” the Father asked.
“Yes—I’m a whole year older now!” the small boy said.
“I have an idea,” the Father said.
“What?” the small boy said excitedly.
“How about we play a game?” the Father said.
“We did that last time!”
“It’ll be a different game this time. I promise I will tell you when you’re old enough, but if you complain, I’ll never tell you.”
“Fine, but you promise you’ll tell me when I’m older?” the small boy asked.
“What game are we going to play?”
“How about Candy Land?” the Father asked on his way to get the game.
“Dad! We played that game last time,” said the small boy.
“No, you’re remembering wrong. You’ve never played this Candy Land before,” the Father said.
“You said that last time too!” screamed the little boy, but the two played having respected the Father’s promise not to tell if the small boy complained.
“Do you remember who won last time?” the Father asked.
“I did,” the small boy said.
“How did you win?”
“I don’t know. It just happened,” the little boy said staring at the board.
“How do you think I won this time?”
“How?” the small boy said.
“I don’t know how I won, either,” the Father said. And the boy began to become restless in his confusion, “—because it’s not up to me or you,” the Father said. Every year, this would happen, but the child still demanded to know about the war. The small boy turned into a big boy and then a small man and then a man. Just before the boy’s eighteenth birthday, he even noticed he was taller than his father, the old man starting to hunch occasionally and shuffle along when the days got long. “What’s that in your hand there, son?” the Father asked over his newspaper. The boy stood facing him with something behind his back, but he remained still, wearing a wry smile.
“Dad, you have not asked me what I want for my birthday yet,” the boy said.
“Fact,” the Father said, “but you’re supposed to let an old man know these things, you know,” he said looking at the boy, “though I have a feeling I’m about to find out.”
“Yes,” the boy said.
“Well then, you have my undivided attention. Please, tell me,” the Father said.
“Tell me about war, Dad. It’s the only thing I want and it’s the last time I’m going to ask,” the boy said to the now silent man.
The Father remained still, only his fragile chest lifting and falling under his bagging shirt. The boy became a blur behind the old man’s glasses, a movie playing over them. He heard the screams, felt the helplessness and saw the faces that God allowed home. He remembered even false motivation is motivation nonetheless. “I will tell you when you are old enough, my boy,” the Father finally said, “It wouldn’t be a very good birthday present.”
“Then I guess Uncle Sam is giving me my birthday present this year,” the boy said lying a folded piece of paper down on the coffee table over his father’s newspaper. The old man let go a whimper, but maintained his bearing. He took three steps toward the boy, shocking him altogether, and wrapped his arms around his son until he felt through.
The old man bought the boy a wallet with a little cash inside, a few beers and shook his hand like he had planned; however, eighteen had a whole new meaning after the boy’s decision. The days passed and the old man didn’t see much of the boy, off chasing women and bragging about the papers he signed. The boy’s friends applauded him and he became a hero: no medal, no training, and no war. The boy liked the attention and grew excited about the life that lay ahead of him. Finally, the day came where his destination awaited him and his ticket sat hot in his pocket.
Out of the door came the boy’s father, respecting the stairs with caution and looking as though he could be in need of a cane soon. But the boy brushed the thought from his mind, ready to become a man, ready to answer his own question. Steadily and in upward posture, the old man made his way to the boy: proud, eager and ignorant. He stuck out his hand, looked the boy straight in the eyes and shook it until each felt satisfied. “I have something for you,” the old man said.
“You do?” the boy asked, now looking down at his watch.
“Don’t open it until you are clear of this place, but remember it when you cross into their land,” the old man said.
“Thank you, Dad. I don’t really know what to say.”
“You’re not supposed to yet,” the old man said dropping his hand with the letter into the boy’s and walked back into the house—taller and faster than he had before.
The boy entered the car, the backseat to his lonesome and thought of the old man as their house faded and ceased to exist in the distance. After enough anticipation, the boy had to know—potentially it was the answer! Carefully, putting a finger through the crease of the envelope, the driver of the car became a peripheral whisper. With a little patience, the envelope opened and inside it sat a small, tethered note. Confused, the boy could hardly order his fingers to grasp it. Finally, they captured the small secret from his father. He heard the old man’s voice when he read it aloud to himself:
We remember our signatures and the day we signed them, laughing and smiling and tightening our racks in Candy Land.
And I laugh when I see my fate before me, the hand that grabbed me, the ground I’m made to march here in Candy Land.
But it’s my brother beside me I weep for, the look on his mother’s face and why not me, why not my funeral here in Candy Land.
Lord we laugh no more, winning be losing and losing be lost; there’s no direction here for us wandering in Candy Land.
If we’d only known of the silly little game heroes call Candy Land.
The boy’s stomach ached and somersaulted with the letter as it drifted over the seat and onto the floor. Now he had the old man’s answer, but headed for the experience. Why hadn’t his father told him? Why hadn’t he made it clear all those years. Squirming and fighting, the boy continued on through his sickness, through his father’s horror. The boy remembered his father when he crossed into their land. The boy met and lost his brother. The boy prayed. But winning be losing and losing be lost, the boy knew not what a life cost.
After many years of the drink, alone and pensive, the old man thinks: false motivation is motivation nonetheless. A flicker of yellow sits in the window as does the dying man on his front porch. Across from his old hands and shaky voice sits an envelope, weathered and solemn even in its mere undisclosed presence; however, still it sits. And in between he and his son sits what so little know and too many rush to see. If we’d only known of a silly little game heroes call Candy Land.