Anybody’s Hero

An Excerpt from “Anybody’s Hero

Chapter 1

No Way for a Gentleman to Behave

“Bluebelly! Yankee!  Spy!”  Luca heard yells close behind him.  He walked faster along East Bank Street.  “Italian! Yankee!  Dummy!” came another voice.

Luca turned to see Freddie Purdy, a big, red-haired boy, and his shadow, an anemic-looking, cross-eyed boy called Creepy Eddie.  Both boys went to Anderson Seminary, a school for poor boys.  Luca had noticed that whenever they could, these two bullies tormented boys from his school, Petersburg Classical Institute.  He guessed they were jealous of the well-to-do boys that went to Classical.

Luca put his head down and kept walking.  He hated being picked on.  How dare they call him a Yankee spy!  With the war between the Confederacy and the Northern states in its third year, and the invading Union army threatening even the Confederate capital at Richmond, it was about the worst thing they could call him.  They were hateful.  He passed the Farmer’s Bank and crossed to the other side of the street.  “Hey, you,” yelled Freddie, “slow down if you’re not a Yankee-Italian-Bluebelly!”

Luca’s heart started to pound.  He wanted to run.  Instead, he slowed his pace and turned.  A couple of small boys playing marbles in the street stopped to watch.

Luca said nothing.  He pushed his unruly, dark hair off his damp forehead.  He was just about out of patience.  Today had not been a good day.  After school, he had walked to the Adams farm on the outskirts of town to get fresh eggs for his mother.  He usually didn’t mind the chore, but today he had followed a group of boys from Classical for a good part of the way.  They had not asked him to join them, and he had felt left out, excluded as if he were really a Yankee spy.  He had tried to make friends in the two months since he and his mother moved to Petersburg.  But the boys in Classical didn’t seem to want anything to do with him, and these boys from Anderson were downright mean.  He’d show them.  He’d show them all.

Luca reached into his book bag and took out an egg.  He pitched it right at Freddie Purdy.  It hit the side of Freddie’s stringy hair.  The marble-players laughed.  Freddie’s broad face flushed and with his right hand he swiped at the egg dripping down his neck.  Without hesitating, Luca grabbed a second egg and hurled it at Creepy Eddie.  The egg fell wide of its mark, and Luca reached into his bag again.  He lobbed another egg at Eddie.  It smashed into the boy’s back as he fled up an alley between two brick office buildings.

Now Freddie Purdy’s face was beet-red, his fingers were sticky with egg, and he was shouting, “I’ll get even with you, you low-down foreigner!”

Luca groped for another egg and hurled it at Freddie.  Freddie jumped backward and it missed him, but he stumbled and almost fell.  “You’ll be sorry, you dirty Yankee,” he yelled as he ran away.  “I’ll get you!”

Luca smiled at the retreating, egg-splattered bullies.  This wasn’t the first time they had taunted him.  He felt fine for a few moments, thinking about the mess in Purdy’s hair.  Then he realized that he had only two eggs left and no money to buy more.  The War of Succession had caused Confederate money to lose its value and eggs were expensive.  He had made the long hike to the Adams farms for the eggs, and now he would have to go home without them.  What would his mother say?  She needed the eggs for a cake, and she didn’t approve of fighting.

Luca didn’t share his mother’s views on fighting.  Ever since he had gotten his first toy soldiers, he had imagined taking part in heroic adventures.  Someday, he would be a hero.

Right now, however, the prospect of telling his mother what had happened filled him with dread.  He knew she wouldn’t punish him, but her look of disappointment would be worse than any punishment.  His elation at pelting Freddie and Creepy Eddie with the eggs passed as Luca thought of his mother and Freddie’s parting threat.  What would happen the next time he crossed paths with Freddie Purdy?

Luca headed toward home, trying to decide what he would tell his mother.  He walked about half a block when someone called after him in a commanding tone.  “Boy!”

Luca recognized the deep voice.  He turned.  His grandfather stood, hat in hand, scowling at him.  He was an old man, at least sixty, with a shock of white hair and a full beard, as bristly as his abrupt manner.  Before moving to Petersburg from Richmond, Luca had seen his grandfather only six or seven times.  Luca’s father was a diplomat, and he was far away in England, trying to secure aid for the Confederate government.  Before leaving, his father had helped Luca and his Italian mother move to Petersburg where they would be closer to family.  But so far, Luca’s Virginia relatives hadn’t been especially friendly.  His fair-skinned aunts and blue-eyed cousins seemed uneasy around them, and they insisted on calling him Luke, the English version of his name.  Their confusion was understandable since he’d been named for his grandfather.  Yet, he didn’t like to be called Luke, instead of Luca.  His grandfather was even worse.  He was always gruff and never called him anything but “boy.”

“Boy,” the senior Luke Streetman said again.  His heavy eyebrows knitted into a frown.

Luca went to where his grandfather stood in front of the Farmers Bank.

Farmers Bank

Author’s Photograph

“Dad blame it!  I saw you just now,” his grandfather said.  He raised his hand and pointed a finger at Luca.  “That’s no way for a gentleman to behave.”

“No, sir,” said Luca, looking his grandfather directly in the eyes.  His father had told him again and again that he should always look people in the eyes.

“Saturday morning.  Ten o’clock.  Meet me at the woodshed behind the house.”

“Yes, sir,” Luca said, realizing that he was being dismissed.  He again headed toward home.  He had read or heard that the woodshed was the place where boys in the South were punished.  He felt like Atlas, carrying the world on his shoulders.  Why did they ever come here?  Petersburg was an awful place.

“Boy!” his grandfather called after him.

What now, Luca thought.  He took a deep breath and went to where the old man stood with a hand in the pocket of his well-tailored suit.  His grandfather took out a wad of Confederate dollars and gave him several.  “Get some eggs at McIlwaine’s.  This is between us.  Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” Luca said as he took the dollars.  “Thank you, sir.”

Luca didn’t like the idea of keeping something from his mother, but he didn’t want to tell her about the eggs or that he’d been fighting.  In any case, his grandfather was not the kind of person you contradicted.  Luca headed for McIlwaine’s store, wondering what the old man had in mind for him on Saturday.  As soon as he rounded the corner, Luca took one of the last two eggs from his book bag and flung it furiously at a white picket fence he was passing.  It exploded with a satisfying splat.

An advertisement for McIlwaine’s Grocery Store

Eugene Ferslew, Directory for the City of Pertersburg for 1860.Petersburg: George E. Ford.