We sweep into Weasel Brook Park at full speed, sometimes playing Robin Hood, other times Tonto and the Lone Ranger, or Frank and Jesse James.
But today being Memorial Day, we both play soldiers or spies, Dave wearing a tattered American flag like a bandana; I wear the soft army hat my eldest uncle wore on his last trip back from his war in Korea.
Dave’s dad doesn’t come home from the veteran’s hospital often or for long; he drinks when he does and won’t talk about his time in the war.
My uncle – my mother’s oldest sibling – doesn’t talk about it either, a tough man, who likes to lecture me at night, refused to kill people and so went to war with a first aid kit instead of a carbine, fixing those who he could fix, trying not to let the soldiers in his care lose too many toes and fingers to the cold when he could do nothing to fix the bullets imbedded in them, even when he got trapped in a cave behind enemy lines for three days, running out of medicine and hope, living with the cold and moans, racing between the stretchers of the dying, feeling like the grim reaper rather than a military healer, coming home later not to drink the way Dave’s Dad did, but not to sleep either, refusing to use a bed, stretching out on the floor as if retribution for those he could not save, and now, on this Memorial Day, I play soldier while my favorite of my uncles, the youngest of my mother’s siblings, fights in Vietnam, and I wear a hat that doesn’t quite fit, and ride by bicycle up the lonely streets where nearly all the house bear flags, and we, having come up Clifton Avenue from a parade where everybody cheered, the remnants of the parade filling side streets in its aftermath like retreating army.
Dave loves playing soldier, carrying around on his bicycle with him imaginary armies in which to beat back communism. But the Weasel Brook Park we come to now is the wrong Weasel Brook Park for that, too grand and open, filled with trees and light and pure wart that paints war too gloriously for me, we always reserving the other Weasel Brook Park for mission so that sort, the dark park near Lexington Avenue and Passaic where the brook rises up into a park mostly made of concrete, where green hardly exists except at the tips of branches of each dying tree, the trunks of which are imprisoned in concrete, and the brook – this same brook – travels in a concrete viaduct this with detritus: old shopping carts, rusted bicycles, broken bottles and trash.
The street gangs from across the border in Passaic go there at night, so we don’t, though sometimes, I get off the bus to Passaic early and search for the park entrance, tucked between two brick apartment buildings, an entrance no wider than a store front to a park barely wider than that inside, and stroll along the asphalt paths and cracked concrete and splintered benches occupied by old people and pigeons, searching for something there I can never find in this the park’s pretty twin sister ten blocks farther west, searching for something real, feeling a little like my older uncle felt when refusing to lie down in a comfortable bed after he had seen some many men dead.
The radio is filled with reports of the new war where my younger uncle is, not a cold war like Korean or even a sane war like the one Dave’s Dad fought, but hot and moist, the way the air feels here in the pretty Weasel Brook Park, with water somehow made clean by its ten block journey underground, bubbling up into channels that have concrete banks down which we ride, through the water and up the other side, giggling and west, cold tears on our pants and cheeks on a hot day that is not yet summer, our holiday still three weeks ahead when school finally will set us free.
This park is bigger than four football fields with the brook winding through its middle, broadening out briefly into a lake before narrowing again, winding under several small wooden footbridge, past trees so large families hold whole picnics beneath them when it rains, passed park benches and cooking grills, and near asphalt path that weave their own way up and down grassy knolls we might ride over, too – playing solider with imaginary armies and imaginary death, winning wars against imaginary enemies in reality we cannot possibly imagine.
Dave pauses at one of the large family picnics to bed for a drink, and the family filled with kids and kites and a few men in uniform asks us in, handing up paper plate with potato salad, hot dogs and hamburgers, giving us cold soda instead of water, laughing loudly as if no war waged on around us, but we see the war, especially in the eyes of those men in uniform who have come home on this Memorial Day for one more pass before they go to where my uncle is, and they think they might not come back.
And maybe, they see something in our eyes, too, the shadow of a war Dave’s dad went to and only partly returned from, and the restless, painful nights in a cold cave in Korea where my uncle still paces in his dream, still doing guard duty not against the threat of a visible enemy, but with a more devious enemy that continues to haunt him long after he has come home.
Then as with the parade earlier, the family dissipates and we true soldiers volunteer to help clean up, inheriting blocks of dry ice we soon discover turn to fog when dumped into the brook, fog that floats over the water and under the footbridge and across Paulison Avenue to the dairy with a fake cow on its front lawn and two real sheep along its side, a fog rising up over us and the park, covering over its beauty like a shroud, disguising the twisted paths and wandering brook as if to hide something, we do not know what, even in the bright sunlight on this next to last day in May.