When Tommy Hastings and Freddie Merrill saw the first glimmer of sunlight on water, they bolted off the road, stumbled through another ditch, and made through the brambles and over rough ground until they came to a flat, cow-pie marked meadow. By the time they reached the shore after laughing hysterically, dodging the cow-pies, they’d started to peel off their clothes.
The shore was rocky – but by then, they dove together and the cold water just under the surface brought them both up laughing, screaming, and clean after days hiking on the road and swimming in muddy ditches.
It also brought a small group of men watching them from across the road. Neither of the boys noticed right away until, after an excited dunk, Tommy said, “I think it’s them.”
Freddie lunged to dunk him back, but Tommy dodged, slow-swiping Freddie’s feet out from under him, then pulling him up by his armpit. Freddie sputtered and said, “Why’d you do that? Who’s ‘them’?”
Tommy spun his friend toward shore and said, “‘Them’ them.”
Freddie’s eyes bugged out as he shouted, “We’re naked!”
“They’re all men, who cares?”
“I...” Tommy dunked him and turned around. When Freddie came up sputtering again, he said, “We dive down as far as we can go, hold our breaths and swim as far as we can to the left.” Freddie started to gasp. Tommy said, “Good idea. We gotta be able to hold our breath a long time.
“I ain’t doin’ it to hold my breath! I’m gonna die naked!”
Tommy said, “We was born naked. If we die that way, who’s gonna care? One, two, three!” He dragged Freddie under with him and arrowed left, swimming like a frog for all he was worth, very, very slowly bubbling the air out of his mouth. It wouldn’t help them at all if they swam on the surface, but him and Freddie’d done frog racing a million times before. [MENTION FROG RACING AT MINNETONKA – instead of or in addition to Chicken Fighting – AT THE BEGINNING!] He swam until he thought his lungs were going to burst, then he swam some more. Finally he felt like he couldn’t move his arms any longer and let himself glide to the surface, feeling for the rocky bottom. He couldn’t hold it any more. He lifted his head and pulled in a deep breath of sweet, clean air.
Freddie surfaced right beside him. Tommy tried to wipe the water from his eyes, but Freddie was the first to say, “We’re in the middle of the lake!”Tommy waved his hands alongside his body – Earl had called it sculling, what they taught every Navy man to do when they fell into the – and turned to shore. They were like, a million miles from shore!
That’s why he almost had a heart attack when a boy’s voice said from behind them, “The hell are you guys doing out here? Near as night gave me a heart attack when you jumped outta the water! Thought you were Mille Lacs Millie!”
“Who’s that?” Freddie asked.
“The local lake monster, of course.” He scowled at them from under his baseball cap and said, “You’se guys ain’t from around here, are you?”“We’re from the Cities!” Freddie cried. “And there’s these men up on the shore who wanna kill us!”
His scowl got even deeper as he looked up at the shoreline. “I don’t see nobody.” He looked down at them and said, “You ain’t wearing swim suits, are you?”
“How can you tell that?” Tommy cried.
“I can see your white butt cheeks through the water. I’s gonna have ya come up in my boat and I can take ya ‘cross the lake to my place, but I don’t think I can. Mom’d ask about me bringin’ a couple of naked boys to the house.” He turned from them, sat down and pulled up a pair of oars, dropping them into the oarlocks, and raising them in the air.
Freddie yelled, “You’re just going to leave us in the middle of the lake?”
“Well, I can’t take you to my house naked, now, can I?”
Tommy thought frantically, then called, “I’ll pay you!”
Freddie slugged him, “We don’t got no money!”
The boy in the boat looked down at them, then back in his boat and held up a light blue denim shirt that was obviously too big for him and said, “Hey! I forgot I had my brother’s shirt in here!” He looked down at them, adding, “He died during the Guadalcanal Campaign.”
Tommy said, “My sister’s boyfriend just came back.” Freddie tried to slug him but sank over his head.
The boy was reaching down to Tommy, and said, “My brother and your sister’s boyfriend were family. I guess I can save your life. You can wear his shirt so Ma don’t have to see nothing. My brother, Lars was long in the waist. His shirt’ll hang down to your toes, pro’ly.”“What about me?” Freddie cried.
The boy shrugged, reached down and pulled up a flannel shirt. “You can have this one.”
The boy helped Tommy and Freddie into the boat and they pulled on the shirts. The boy started rowing, though not back to where they’d come in. Finally Tommy said, “Why do you keep his shirt in here?”The boy rowed in silence for a while, then said, “I dunno. I guess ‘cause Lars taught me to fish and when I’m out here with the shirts, I feel like he’s sorta-like still alive.” He kept rowing for a while, then added, “I know that sounds weird.”
Neither of the other boys said a word as the other boy rowed in silence. Freddie finally said, “You got a name, buddy?”
They rode in silence for a while longer, then Tommy said, “Thanks for saving our lives.”
Nilson shrugged then said, “Your sister’s boyfriend probably saved someone’s life. Could have been my brother, maybe.” He shrugged again. Tommy and Freddie looked at each other, nodded, and kept quiet for the rest of the ride to shore as the sun slid down to sunset.