Washington State Magazine is pleased to present a chapter from the book, Home Stand: Growing Up in Sports, by James McKean ’68, published in 2005 by Michigan State University Press. Reprinted by permission. To read a review of Home Stand, click here.
About the size of a toilet-paper roll, the white cardboard tube—a thick, green fuse taped along its length—felt a little heavier than a baseball. Printed on the side in army font was “Hand Grenade Simulator,” above the warning “Do Not Ignite Within 15 Feet of Anything Flammable.” On a warm summer night in 1969, at one in the morning on the sleepy, half-deserted campus in Pullman, Washington, I pulled the fuse cap and threw what my friend Jane called a “big firecracker” off the roof of the Sigma Nu house into an alley. I watched over the edge like Kilroy, with Jane at my side and our friend Duncan, who had been assigned to look after his empty fraternity house all summer, himself the only ROTC English-summer-school graduate, student-deferred cadet at Washington State University with a beard and shoulder-length red hair covering his ears.
If I had thought about it beforehand, a fifteen-foot radius means a thirty-foot flash, but the tube and its sizzle had already plopped onto the gravel. Then exploded. Filled every sense, ears boxed and ringing, breath blown out, a slap in the face, my eyes pitted with orange and red, two bright circles I saw everywhere I looked. The echo of bludgeoned air rolled down the campus hill into Pullman. No toy did that to your heart.
We hid for an hour or so, watching a police cruiser circle the block, washing its searchlight across the empty fraternities and sororities. Frightened and exhilarated, I tried to see, through the red circles fading in my retinas, if we had blown out the windows in the sorority house next door. Then at 2:30, having learned nothing, we tried the flare. I removed the cap with its firing pin from the top of the tube, placed it on the bottom where the primer shell was, held the tube pointed up and out, slapped the cap with my hand, and fired the flare, which rocketed high over the Victorian house of the university president. There in green light lay his tidy backyard: swings, a goldfish pond, and manicured evergreens. Beyond his iron fence, a small park and run-down neighborhood of old houses. Hung beneath its parachute, the burning phosphorus fell for a long time, eerie and surreal, casting more shadow than light, giving fear enough time to show itself, I imagined, before the dark filled in.
Where Jane got these things I didn’t know, but she had given them to me—not to symbolize our relationship, as I probably thought once, but because they scared her. They meant Vietnam to her. She had seen what such things lead to. Kind, affectionate, and dutiful to her friends, Jane had gathered me in as her new friend that summer, me the ex–basketball star at loose ends, lost between my playing past and what I might do for a living in the future. We had known each other at a distance as undergraduates at Washington State University, but then we lost contact when I went abroad to play, briefly, for a washing-machine factory in Bologna, Italy, and then for the Gillette All-Stars, a touring team made up of American players suspended in the great hardwood purgatory between college basketball and the NBA. It was temporary work, I realize now, but having focused so intently on basketball all those years, I couldn’t see clearly where I had been, and certainly not where I was going. That is, until I was momentarily blinded that summer in Pullman, and Jane helped me to see.
On the roof she said, “John Nebel told me the white tube was like a big firecracker. He’s back from Vietnam. In the hospital, you know, at Madigan in Tacoma.”
“I didn’t know,” I said, too surprised and ashamed just then to explain I hadn’t even known he was in Vietnam. He had been a teammate for two years, the first year in 1964 on our undefeated freshman basketball team at WSU, and the next year when we both played for the varsity.
“I think he’d like to see you,” she said.
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