A boy confronts prejudice and intolerance in this striking, “emotionally honest coming-of-age story” (Publishers Weekly) set on the American homefront during World War II, from the acclaimed author of Search and Destroy and Soldier Boys.
Dirty. Lazy. Good-for-nothing.
Jay Thacker is used to being called names because his dad is half Navajo. But he gets a chance at a new life and a new identity when he and his mom move to the small town of Delta, Utah, to live with Jay’s grandfather. In Delta, Jay can convince everyone, and maybe even himself, that his dad—who is missing in action as he fights in WWII—is really a POW and military hero, and not gone forever.
As the summer wears on and Jay finds himself growing up a little faster than he expected, he learns to look at some truths that had previously been impossible to face. Truths about his father; about Ken, his new friend from the Japanese internment camp nearby; and about himself, too.
In this understated and moving story, Dean Hughes offers a glimpse at the choices a boy must make as he decides what kind of man he’ll one day be.
Missing in Action CHAPTER 1 JAY THACKER WAS STANDING BY the backstop. His baseball glove was tucked under his arm. For now, he was just watching. He was new in town and he didn’t know any of the boys who were out on the field. Most of them weren’t very good players—he could see that—but then, he wasn’t that great himself. He thought he’d like to play, but he didn’t want to say so.
The boys were playing workup, not teams, and one guy—Gordy, everyone kept calling him—had stayed up to bat three or four times. He was standing at first base now, chattering on and on, trying to bother the pitcher. His voice sounded rough, like the sound a shovel makes, hitting into gravel. “You better watch me, Freddy,” he kept saying. “I’m taking off. I’m gonna steal second.” And then, after Freddy bounced a pitch in the dirt, “You throw like my grandma. You can’t pitch.”
Jay couldn’t help smiling. This Gordy kid really thought he was good.
Gordy turned and looked toward the outfield. “Move back, boys. Lew’s going to hit the ball over your heads. He’s gonna bring me home.”
Lew was big, but he swung at the next pitch and knocked a little blooper out into shallow left field. Gordy ran hard to second and then kept right on going for third. The boy in left ran in for the ball and fielded it okay. He should’ve thrown Gordy out, easy, but he tried to hurry and tossed the ball clear over the third baseman’s head. The ball rolled out into the street and Gordy ran on home. He jumped on the plate with both feet, then spun around and yelled, “You’re never going to get us out. We’re the Bronx Bombers.” Then his head jerked around and he said, “Hey, kid, do you want to play?”
It took Jay a second or two to realize Gordy meant him. “I guess so,” he said.
“Head out to right field. That’ll give ’em four outfielders, but it won’t make no difference. Those guys are sorry excuses for ballplayers. You any good?”
“Not really. I—”
“Who are you anyway?”
By then he was walking around the backstop, which was nothing more than chicken wire nailed onto some pine poles. “My name’s Jay Thacker.”
“Where’d you come from?”
“Salt Lake City.”
“Uh-oh.” Gordy turned toward the field again. “Hey, we got us a big-city boy here. Maybe he can play. You better hope so. You sad sacks need all the help you can get.” He looked back at Jay and grinned.
Gordy was wearing a faded red baseball cap. Whitish hair, stiff as straw, was sticking out from under it. His face was sunburned and skin was peeling off his nose and ears. His top teeth were goofy, like they were too big for his mouth. At least he’d noticed Jay and asked him to play.
He trotted out to right field and waited to see what might happen, but he was glad when the first few batters didn’t hit the ball his way. He didn’t want to make an error right off and have to listen to Gordy say something about that.
One kid hit a grounder to first base and made an out. That meant Freddy, the guy who’d been pitching, finally made it up to bat. He struck out his first time up, though. He couldn’t hit any better than he could pitch. At least Jay knew he was better than that guy. Gordy and Lew both kept getting on base, but half the time it was because of errors. That didn’t stop Gordy from telling everyone how great he was.
Jay worked his way around to left field, and then he made a decent play on a grounder that bounced past the shortstop. He threw to second and his toss was a little off line, but he didn’t end up looking too bad. Gordy yelled at him, “Hey, Thacker, you’re the best one out there. You didn’t fall on your face—and I figured you might.”
Jay didn’t say anything. Some of the guys were yelling at Gordy, telling him he wasn’t as hot as he thought he was. But Jay had never been able to do anything like that.
After a while Lew hit a fly ball that was caught by a short kid out in center. The kid ran toward home plate and Lew ran out to center. That meant they were playing “flies go up.” Right after that another guy struck out, so Jay moved over to third base and Gordy was up for about the eighth or ninth time. “Look out, boys,” he yelled. “This time I’m going for the fence. You better move way back.”
The sun was getting low in the sky now, but the air was still hot. Sweat was running off Jay’s face. He used his shirt to wipe his eyes.
Gordy took a big swing at the first pitch and slammed a hard grounder straight at Jay. He was ready, but the ball skipped over his glove and hit him like a fist, right in the throat. He dropped to his knees and grabbed his neck. He was choking, but he didn’t want to look stupid, so he stood up as quick as he could. Tears were running down his cheeks, not from crying, but just from coughing and trying to swallow.
Gordy came running out. “Hey, you all right?”
“Sure,” he tried to say.
“Did it hit your chin or . . . oh man, it caught you right in the throat, didn’t it?”
“I’m okay.” Some of the other guys were coming over.
“Can you swallow all right?”
“Yeah.” And he could now. But it hurt.
“Hey, I gotta tell ya, man. You’re tough as nails. That was a blue darter I hit at you.” Gordy grinned, showing those funny teeth again. “That woulda put a lot of guys flat on their back.”
He was thinking he didn’t want to stick around and play anymore. He didn’t want to say that, though, not with Gordy talking that way about him.
“Are you a Indian?”
“You look like a Indian.”
He wasn’t sure what to say. He didn’t like to talk about that. “My dad’s half Navajo.” More guys were gathering around him now. Lew had come in from left field.
“No wonder you can take a blow and get back up,” Gordy said. “You got Indian blood in you.”
He didn’t mind that, but he knew all the bad things people said about Indians. He’d heard plenty of that in Salt Lake. Indians were dirty and lazy—stuff like that. He didn’t want these guys to think that’s what he was.
“What are you doing in Delta?”
He was getting his breath back now, and his throat didn’t feel all stopped up. He wanted the game to get going again. “Me and my mom came down here to live for a while. My dad’s in the war.” But talking made him cough again.
Gordy gave him a couple of slaps on the back, like that was going to help out somehow. “Where’s he fighting?”
“Out in the Pacific. He’s in the navy.” He didn’t want to tell the rest.
He rubbed his hand over his throat, and then he flicked away some tears from one cheek. “We don’t know exactly.”
“Yeah. It’s prob’ly secret. I know what you’re talking about. What’s he on? A battleship?”
Jay tried to think of something else to say, but he couldn’t think of anything. So he said it. “His ship went down. He’s missing in action.”
Jay saw Gordy’s reaction, the way his head jerked back. All the boys had been holding their gloves under their arms, kind of waiting, like they wished Gordy wouldn’t carry this on so long. Now they were changed. They were staring at Jay, and he knew what they were thinking.
Gordy said it out loud. “My dad says ‘missing in action’ just about always turns into ‘killed in action.’”
“My dad’s not dead, though,” he said, louder than he meant to say it. “He’s a good swimmer. He probably made it to an island or something like that. Or he could’ve been picked up by the Japs and made into a prisoner of war.”
“Hey, that’s worse than death,” Gordy said. “The Japs starve people and torture ’em. They pull out their fingernails with pliers—all that kind of stuff.”
“Come on, Gordy,” one of the boys said. “He probably made it to an island. You don’t need to—”
“Hey look, Eldred, I’m not saying he’s dead. Or that the Japs are working him over. I’m just saying that’s how it is when they get hold of you. Everybody knows that.”
“My dad’s alive,” Jay said. “When the war’s over, he’ll come home.”
“I think he’ll probably get home,” Gordy said. “I’ll bet he’s as tough as you—maybe tougher. He’s half Indian, not just a quarter.”
At least he hadn’t said Jay’s dad was lazy or dirty.
“Lay off, Gordy,” Eldred said. “You don’t need to get into all that.” Eldred was the short kid who had caught the ball out in center. He wore wire eyeglasses that made his eyes look big.
“How long’s he been missing?” asked Gordy.
“I can’t remember exactly.”
But he did remember. His dad had joined the navy right after the war broke out, and his ship had been sunk early in the year—February 1943—out by the Solomon Islands. He’d looked at a map; he knew where they were, clear down by Australia. That had been four months ago—a little more than that. If Jay told Gordy, though, he would say that was a long time not to hear.
Gordy only nodded—like maybe he knew Jay didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He even said, “So do you guys want to keep trying to get me out, or have you had enough for one night?”
The sun was glowing, turning orange, and Jay knew it had to be pretty late. In June, here in the desert, the sun never seemed to go down, especially on “war time”—with all the clocks set forward.
“I gotta go,” a little kid said—a guy who had made more errors than anyone.
“You’re no big loss, Will,” Gordy told him.
But some of the other guys said they had to get home too, and the game broke up. Jay took a step away, but Gordy said, “Where you living, Chief?”
He stopped and looked back, surprised by the name.
“His name’s not Chief,” Eldred said.
“It is now. That’s what I’m going to call him. You don’t care, do you, Chief?”
“My name’s Jay.”
“I know. But I like that name. Chief. It fits you. ’Cause you’re tough and everything.”
He didn’t want to be called that, but he didn’t say so.
“So where you living?”
“With my Grandpa Reid.”
“Kimball Reid? From the drugstore?”
“He’s your grandpa?” Gordy looked surprised. “I didn’t know one of his kids married a Indian.”
Lew had stepped over next to Gordy. “No kidding. Brother Reid’s your grandpa?”
“He gave me my patriarchal blessing.”
Jay knew his grandpa was the patriarch in Delta. That was something in the church—the Mormon church—but he wasn’t exactly sure what it meant.
“Before he was patriarch, he was my bishop,” Eldred said. “He’s about the best man in this whole valley. I’ve heard my dad say that.”
He could see that all three of the boys were looking at him in a new way. Eldred’s big eyes were staring hard at him. Jay said, “I’ll tell you what else. My dad’s a war hero. Before his ship got sunk, he won some medals. Quite a few.”
“Which ones?” asked Gordy.
“I can’t remember what they’re called.”
“A silver star or a bronze? Anything like that?”
“Yeah. I think so.”
“Hey, then, he is tough. He can stand up to the Japs, all right. He’s not a drunk, is he?”
“A lot of Navajos are drunks. And they’ll steal anything that ain’t tied down. My dad don’t trust any of ’em.”
“My dad doesn’t steal,” he said, loud again.
“I didn’t say he did. That’s just my dad talking. I know some other stuff. Indians can run fast—a lot of ’em. And they know everything about hunting and tracking down animals, all those things. Is that how you are?”
He didn’t think so. But he didn’t say that. He said, “I can run pretty fast.”
“You can take a hard grounder in the throat, too, and get back up.”
Eldred shook his head. “Don’t start that again, Gordy.” Eldred’s overalls were all faded out and too small for him. He had his hat off now, and Jay could see that his hair was cut straight around, like maybe his mom had cut it, not a barber.
“So are you going to live here for the rest of the war?” Lew asked. He was taller than any of the kids. He had a nose that looked flattened out a little, like it had gotten broken sometime. He looked mean, a little, but he didn’t sound that way. He’d gotten a lot of hits, the same as Gordy, and he hadn’t yelled about it.
“I don’t know how long we’ll stay,” he said. He touched his hand to his Adam’s apple. He could feel that the skin had been roughed up, but the pain was deeper in, like a bruise.
“We play ball pretty much every night once the sun drops down a little,” said Lew. “It gets too hot in the day—and most of us have to work around our own places in the mornings. But you can come over any night you want to and just about always get in a game.”
“How old are you, Jay?” Eldred asked.
“Is that right? I figured you for fourteen. Most of us will be in eighth grade next year, some in seventh. The high school boys play on the good diamond—the one the town team plays on—so we come over here. That way, nobody bothers us.”
“Do you have any arrowheads, Chief?” Gordy asked, like that was what everyone had been talking about. His hands were stuck into the front pockets of his jeans—old ones that had been patched in the knees a couple of times. He had a grass stain across the shoulder of the old undershirt he was wearing. He was still grinning. Jay didn’t know why.
“Grandpa has some arrowheads, but I don’t,” he said.
“You ain’t much of a Indian, are you?” Gordy laughed, making a scratchy sound, like the way he talked. “Around here, we collect arrowheads. I’ve got about two dozen, I guess, if you count broke pieces. We go out in the desert and look for ’em, or we go over by Topaz Mountain and look for chunks of topaz, and we shoot BB guns. You ever done stuff like that?”
“Do you want to?”
“We’ll have to teach you the stuff a Indian is supposed to know.”
“I’m not an Indian. I’m just—”
“I know all that. But we’ll teach you about the desert—and how to find stuff out there. When we can get ammo for our .22 rifles, we shoot rabbits. Or we just shoot what we can with our BB guns. We’ll show you all that stuff.”
Jay was nodding again, but he wasn’t sure about any of this. Everything was different here. Maybe he and his mom should have stayed in Salt Lake. He didn’t want everyone, right off, thinking he was an Indian.
Dean Hughes is the author of more than eighty books for young readers, including the popular sports series Angel Park All-Stars, the Scrappers series, the Nutty series, the widely acclaimed companion novels Family Pose and Team Picture, Search and Destroy, and Four-Four-Two. His novel Soldier Boys was selected for the 2001 New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age list. Dean Hughes and his wife, Kathleen, have three children and nine grandchildren. They live in Midway, Utah.