“Toeing the Line”, Lisa Dammeyer

Carl laid in his bed, just like every other night. Unlike every other night, however, Carl was bubbling with excitement. He didn’t feel the least bit tired as he stared up at the water-stained ceiling and thought about everything he had to do the next day. April 11th, 1942. It was the day he had been waiting for weeks, months, maybe even his whole life. First, he would have breakfast with his father at The White Coffee Pot as usual. Then he’d go to school, but during his lunch break he would have to leave for a doctor’s appointment. This was what Carl was really excited about. It was his last step to confirm his acceptance to West Point and he couldn’t wait. All he had to do was pass a basic physical exam and have a doctor sign off that he was healthy and ready to be a cadet. Then, Carl would finally be able to say that he would officially be attending West Point Military Academy in the fall. It’s what he had been waiting for since he was a seven-year-old boy. Carl’s father didn’t have much money, especially after they left his mother and Carl started private school, so a military academy was really Carl’s only option for college. His grandfather had also been in the army, and for that reason Carl had always set his sights on West Point. He couldn’t possibly be a midshipman—his grandfather simply wouldn’t allow it—and the Air Force Academy was too far from his home in Baltimore. Yes, West Point was the best, and only, option for Carl. Content with this thought, Carl finally drifted to sleep with the image of himself dressed in gray floating in his mind.

The next morning, Carl jumped out of bed ten minutes before his alarm even went off. He pulled on his too-short khaki pants—the ones without the holes—and tucked in his crispest white button down shirt. He ran into the bathroom and splashed some water on his face as well as his hair so that he could comb it back the way he wanted it. Walking out of the bathroom, Carl saw his father, Walt, stretching his arms as he awoke from his makeshift bed on the couch. His dad turned around and saw Carl standing there expectantly, already prepared for the day.

“Just give me a minute here, sport.” chuckled Carl’s father.

Carl grinned and headed back into his room to pack up his book bag for the day. He made sure all of his homework was neatly placed in the correct folders before slipping it into his bag. He threw on his backpack and slipped on his shoes before heading back into the main room where Walt was just putting the final touch on his outfit by smoothing back his hair. Carl was always impressed that his father managed to look well-dressed and put together, despite the fact that he worked at a steel factory and had a limited wardrobe. In fact, Walt was Carl’s role model in pretty much every aspect of life. It had just been the two of them for almost as long as Carl could remember. The boy and his father looked remarkably alike and Carl had many of Walt’s mannerisms as well. The two were as thick as thieves and that was exactly how they both liked it.

Without saying a word, Carl opened the door and marched down the stairs of the apartment building. Walt shut the door and followed. They walked down the street, chatting about the weather and the Orioles although Carl really only had one thing on his mind. They made a left and walked into the small, slightly run down diner, The White Coffee Pot. Carl and his dad had been coming here every morning for breakfast since Carl was seven. They knew every single person who walked through the front door by name. Denise, one of the owners, sometimes joked that even if the war was brought onto American soil, Walt and Carl would still show up every morning at seven o’clock sharp. They took their usual places at the counter and Denise promptly poured Walt his coffee and handed Carl his glass of milk.

“Good morning, boys! Happy Thursday!” she exclaimed. Denise always walked the line of too cheery, but today it didn’t quite bother Carl. As she walked away to put in their order, Carl turned to his father.

“It’s a big day, Dad. I just wish it was one o’clock already.”

“I know, son. Me too. You show that doctor that you’re more than ready to be a cadet. Tell him you’re healthy as a horse; I don’t think you’ve gotten sick since you were seven years old.” He grinned and playfully punched Carl’s shoulder.

Carl rolled his eyes, but couldn’t keep from smiling. His father was right. There was absolutely no way he could fail this. He seldom got sick, he walked everywhere in the city, usually ate healthy, and was on the track team. He was in perfect physical condition and all he needed was a letter saying so. Carl looked up at his father and saw, to his surprise, that he was on the verge of tears. Walt’s eyes welled with water behind the panes of his glasses. Carl opened his mouth to speak, but Walt started talking before he could say anything.

“Carl, I just want you to know how proud I am of you—following in your grandfather’s footsteps. Getting in to West Point is a huge accomplishment and you’re almost there. You know how much I value education and I think that I’ve done a decent job instilling that in you. I just can’t wait to come to your graduation and see you dressed in gray. It will be the proudest moment of my life.” He leaned over and put his hand at the back of Carl’s head, pulling him in to kiss his forehead.

“Thanks, Dad,” Carl mumbled, both embarrassed and touched. He knew that his enrollment at West Point would mean a lot to his father, but it was somewhat unusual for Walt to show emotion, especially in front of Carl. The legacy was very important to Walt, and he was unable to attend himself due to a back injury that he sustained playing football in high school. Between the legacy and the emphasis on education, Carl knew that this would be the proudest moment of Walt’s life. He wanted to make his father happy, and Carl understood that it was the best thing for his own future as well. “I’ll make you proud, Dad. I promise.”

Walt nodded and wiped his tears away. Just then, Denise brought out their breakfast. Carl had a bowl of oatmeal and a banana and Walt had two eggs, sunny side up. It was their usual. Carl finished most of his mushy oatmeal in silence before leaving the diner with his father. Once they were outside, Walt gave Carl one last good luck before they headed in their different directions, Walt to the bus stop and Carl to his high school.

The first half of the school day passed painfully slowly for Carl. A normally very attentive student, Carl could barely take notes in all of his classes. Even in his favorite class, American History, Carl’s mind wandered to the doctor’s office where he would receive his exam in just over an hour. The excitement and nervousness was deafening and distracted him from everything that he was supposed to be doing. Carl’s friend Henry sat next to him in class and leaned over as a tiny dribble of drool fell from his mouth.

“Don’t make it so obvious that you’re staring at the clock, man!”

Carl jumped up. Henry was right, he had to at least make it seem like he was paying attention in Mr. Lewis’s class. He tuned in just long enough to hear his teacher talk about the latest accomplishments taking place overseas in the war effort.

Finally, one o’clock rolled around and the lunch bell rang. Carl’s friends slapped him on the back and wished him good luck as he ran out the front door of the school.

“Go get ‘em, Carl!”

Carl sprinted down the streets as fast as he could until he reached the doctor’s office about three blocks away. He yanked open the front door and walked up to the front desk, trying to regain his composure.

“Hi, I have a one o’clock appointment with Dr. Kirkland. My name is Carl O’Neil.”

“Take a seat, Mr. O’Neil. Dr. Kirkland will be right with you.”

Carl’s face fell. He didn’t think he could wait another minute. He had been waiting for this forever. He turned around and sulked over to the waiting room chairs. He sat down dramatically with a big exhale and nervously picked up a magazine. His nervous fingers flipped through the thin pages quickly, stopping only to look at some of the interesting ads. One ad in particular caught his eye. It was Uncle Sam pointing directly at Carl’s face, saying ‘I want you for U.S. Army’.

“That’s where I’m trying to go,” thought Carl. Just a few minutes after he had flung himself into the chair in exasperation, Carl’s name was called. Feeling the knots in his stomach tighten, Carl gulped and made his way toward the doctor. He introduced himself and shook Dr. Kirkland’s hand before following him out of the waiting room.

A sterile, white exam room waited for Carl. It felt uninviting as he took in the silver instruments and bare walls. The smell of rubbing alcohol and rubber gloves filled his nostrils and made him queasy. Carl hopped up on the exam table eagerly while Dr. Kirkland got his clipboard in order and tried to make small talk.

“So, Carl, how’s school going?”

“It’s pretty good, thanks.”

“What’s your favorite subject?”

“History.”

“Ah, I was a math man myself! Looking forward to summer?”

“Yes, sir.” Carl was done with the small talk. He hoped his one word answers weren’t coming off as rude, but that Dr. Kirkland would get the message that he was in a rush.

The doctor finally started the exam by looking at Carl’s eyes, ears, and nose. He checked off things on his clipboard throughout the exam and with each check, Carl could feel his heart swelling more and more. Eyes. Check. Ears. Check. Heart. Check. Reflexes. Check. Each check was one step closer to West Point. At last, the doctor began to examine Carl’s feet, which he knew to be the final part of the exam. After poking and prodding each individual toe, Dr. Kirkland looked quizzically at the pinky toe on Carl’s right foot. Uneasiness took over Carl’s mind as the doctor prodded the toe over and over and minutes passed with no check mark in sight. After what felt like an eternity, Dr. Kirkland finally straightened up and spoke.

“Carl, you’re in excellent health.” Carl breathed a mini sigh of relief. “However, your pinky toe seems to overlap the toe next to it. Unfortunately, this is going to be an issue for the Army. One of the things I have to check off is that you have no physical deformities or abnormalities in any extremities. They have very strict regulations due to the required physical activity and uniform standards. It’s a rather minor technicality but unfortunately it does violate West Point’s standards. I’m sorry, but I can’t pass you.”

As the doctor’s words hit him, Carl’s body appeared to go numb. A million words and memories bounced around in Carl’s head. The first thing he remembered was his father that morning, welling up with tears as he proclaimed his pride in his son. How many times had his father emphasized the importance of an education? And now he wouldn’t be able to get one. There was no way his father would be able to pay for him to go to college. This was all Carl had wanted since he was seven years old. He imagined what his father’s face would look like once he told him that he failed the physical exam. Carl had never had a near-death experience, but he thought to himself that this must be what it is like. Anxiety and dread filled his chest until he felt like he couldn’t breathe.

“Carl. Carl? Carl!” Dr. Kirkland tried to snap Carl out of his trance.

Carl shook his head and straightened up. He swallowed hard and ran his hand through his hair in worry. “Dr. Kirkland, please. Is there anything I can do? This is my only way into college.”

Dr. Kirkland looked down at his chart and sighed. “Unfortunately, there is currently no treatment nor operation that can correct the alignment of your toes. I’m sorry, Carl.”

Carl’s face fell and he felt his face turn red with frustration and anger. Dr. Kirkland watched as Carl rubbed his neck until it turned red too, and felt a sudden surge of pity for the boy.

“Ok,” Dr. Kirkland conceded, “there is one solution, but it’s extreme. You’ll want to spend some serious time considering the consequences”

Carl’s head snapped up. “What is it? I’ll do anything!”

“We can’t fix the alignment of your toes, but we could remove one.” Dr. Kirkland let that sink in. “We’d have to cut off your toe, Carl. Your pinky toe doesn’t serve that great of a purpose, and the operation to remove it isn’t terribly complicated. The Army would rather you have one less toe than a toe in the wrong place that could get in the way or cause other complications. The recovery time would be about a month and then you would be able to run, walk, and do any other physical activity normally. The Army will pay for the operation if you commit to West Point, and you’re otherwise healthy, so I could pass you right after the recovery period.”

Carl gulped as he looked down at his smallest toe resting comfortably on the toe next to it. It seemed like such a tiny thing—not even worthy of being called a problem. He thought about calling his father at the factory or waiting until he got home to go over his options with him, but he realized that he wanted to make this decision himself. Just a month ago Carl had turned eighteen, so it was up to him. Besides, he knew what his father would say. Or at least, he thought he did. Carl looked back at Dr. Kirkland.

“How soon can we do it?”

The doctor’s chin dropped to his chest as he stared at Carl with a mixture of pity and awe.

“I-I could do it as early as Saturday. I had another patient cancel earlier so the operating room will be available then. But Carl, don’t you want to think about this some more? Maybe discuss it with your father?”

“No, I’m ready. And I’d like to take the spot for Saturday. I need to be recovered as soon as possible.”

“Alright, well I’d like you to put some more thought into this decision. I’ll put you down for Saturday, but if you change your mind at any point, just let me know.”

Carl nodded, but knew he wouldn’t be changing his mind.

On the walk home, Carl tried to keep calm and optimistic. He reassured himself that it was okay, that his unfortunate toe alignment was just a small bump in the road, and that he was doing the right thing in having it removed. He also decided that he wouldn’t tell his father; this was the first secret that Carl had kept from Walt in a long time. The last lie he told was when he was six years old. Walt had come home to find Carl alone in their house.

“Carl? Carl! Are you okay?! Where is your mother?”

“Hi Dad!” Carl jumped up and ran over to hug his father’s legs. “I think she ran to the grocery store!” This was the lie. Carl’s mother had told him to say that and in an attempt to be a good son, he had obeyed. This memory washed over Carl accompanied by a wave of guilt as he climbed up the last of the steps leading to the apartment. He had to make his father proud.

“Hey there, Sport! How’d it go?” Walt clapped Carl on the back as he walked in the front door.

“Oh, it was, uh, great! No problems at all!”

“I knew it! I knew it!” Walt pulled his son in for a tight bear hug and wiped away a tear that escaped his eyelids. “This calls for a celebration!”

Carl felt hot and queasy. “Thanks, Dad. Um, actually would you mind if I just went to bed a little early tonight? It’s been a long day. I feel a little drained.”

Walt’s face fell just a little. “Oh sure, of course. You must be exhausted. Get some sleep tonight, but I’ll tell you what, this weekend, we’re going to go out to dinner anywhere you want! We’ll just have to tell Denise not to contact the authorities if we don’t show up to The White Coffee Pot.” Walt chuckled at his joke.

“Alright, great. Thanks, Dad.” Carl did his best to put on a sincere smile and then went to his room. As he laid in bed and stared up at the brown ceiling again, he wondered if he was making the right choice. He put the thought out of his head and drifted to sleep, knowing that come Saturday night, he would be able to enjoy a few burgers with his father and talk about all of the exciting things he would be learning at West Point.

When Saturday rolled around, Carl got out of bed and got dressed as quietly as he could manage. He had told Walt the night before that he was going to play baseball with Henry in the morning and wouldn’t be back until late. He shut the door and felt his second wave of guilt hit him full in the face. Another lie to his father. Another pang of doubt. Carl mustered up his courage on the walk over and reminded himself that this was his only way into West Point. He was determined to make his father proud and represent his country.

Dr. Kirkland greeted Carl as soon as he walked into the office. After a few more unsuccessful attempts of trying to convince Carl to think about the decision some more, he realized that the boy was serious and extremely determined. He brought in the consent forms, which Carl quickly signed. Before he knew it, Carl was being hooked up to an IV and wheeled into an operating room. Thoughts of his father floated through his head before everything went dark.

Carl woke up two hours later in a recovery room just as bland and sterile as the exam room he had sat in two days before. His head was spinning and his stomach turned in a way that made him feel sick. Once he gathered himself and got his bearings, Carl pulled away the sheet covering his legs and looked down at his right foot. Where his pinky toe once laid, now there was nothing but a bloody, gauze covering. His foot seemed off balance, like it was missing some vital part of itself. He somehow felt empty and lost, as though his toe was an essential piece of his body that he never knew he needed. Carl’s stomach churned more and he quickly turned his head towards the ceiling so that he wouldn’t have to look at the empty space on his foot anymore. The blood, the empty spot on his foot, the dizziness—it was all too much. Carl fought against the urge to get sick and passed out as the anesthesia took over again.

*

Carl was a seven-year-old boy, sleeping in his comfy bed in his suburban home. He was awoken by someone softly shaking his shoulder. He sleepily forced his eyelids open and saw his father’s kind eyes staring back at him.

“Carl,” Frank whispered. “I’ve had enough. I’m leaving. Do you want to come with me or stay here?”

Carl just nodded and groggily got out of bed. Even at seven years old, he had known this was coming eventually. Frank threw Carl’s belongings in a bag as Carl collected his jacket and slipped on his shoes. The two made their way towards the front door, passing the bedroom where Carl’s mother was asleep. Carl stopped and gazed at her for a moment. He noticed her long, brown hair and the way her chest rose and fell as she breathed. He thought for a moment she looked beautiful, until he noticed the empty bottle lying next to her. Carl walked out the door behind his father without looking back.

When he reached the sidewalk, his father was gone but his friends from school were there to greet him. They walked down the street together, talking about their favorite sports teams and how mean their history teacher was. Carl got a few laughs as he told them about how he was going to be the star of the boxing team at West Point and threw a few punches into the air. Then, suddenly Mrs. White, the grumpy, old woman who lived in the apartment above Carl’s, appeared. She looked like a toad and she had her hands on her hips. Carl turned to run, but noticed that his friends has disappeared.

“Carl, did your father tell you that I nearly tripped again coming down the stairs because you left your gun laying in the hallway again?”

Carl was confused. What gun? When he turned away from Mrs. White, his friends were back. He tried to take a step towards them, but he immediately fell to the ground from a searing pain at the top of his foot. Carl heard a scream. His friends began to shout as he heard gunfire in the distance.

“Why can’t you walk, Carl?”

“Ew, are you missing a toe?!”

Boom, boom.

“Where’s your mom?”

“How are you going to go to West Point now?”

“Carl, your gun!”

Boom, boom, boom.

Carl looked down at his foot, bloody and grotesque. He closed his eyes. He felt sick. He wanted the questions to stop. And then suddenly they did. Carl opened his eyes and everyone was gone. Mrs. White was gone. His friends were gone. The only person standing before him was his father. Carl looked up at him and saw a tear roll down his dad’s face. Then, Walt picked up his suitcase, turned around, and walked away down the street. Carl tried his hardest to stand up, but he couldn’t. His feet wouldn’t allow him. He just flailed around on the ground, calling after his father. Walt never turned around; he simply continued walking until he disappeared into the darkness.

*

Carl woke up in a sweat. He was still in the recovery room, but now Dr. Kirkland was with him. He checked his toe and took Carl’s blood pressure before speaking.

“Well, everything looks good, Carl. Your foot will just be a little sensitive for the next few days, so I suggest you use these crutches to walk for about two weeks. Then you can lose the crutches, but still be careful. You should be fully healed in a month’s time.”

Carl thanked the doctor and slowly got out of bed. His head was finally clear, despite being shaken by his dream. He used his crutches to stumble home, and he was surprised that they were challenging to use. Carl usually loved his city, but that day, the walk home felt unbearable. The towering buildings felt like they were pressing in on him and the bustling sidewalks seemed like an obstacle course with the sole purpose of making Carl feel defeated. The short, four-block walk from the doctor’s office seemed more like a five mile trek through a war torn city.

When he reached his apartment, he hobbled up the stairs and opened the door. Exhausted from the day, he went directly to the bedroom and laid down. He stared up at the ceiling and thought about how just a few days ago, he was laying in the same spot, bubbling with excitement. Something had changed since then. He no longer felt carefree and excited for his future. He imagined himself in gray once again. But this time, he wasn’t holding a diploma and a boxing trophy. He was holding a gun. Reality hit Carl hard. He had just had part of his body removed. The weight of that sunk in. He would get his education at West Point, but then what? Would he be sent off to war? How many other parts of himself would he lose? An arm? A leg? His mind?

Carl heard his father come home as he laid in bed. As he listened to his father’s footsteps, he experienced an overwhelming feeling that he couldn’t quite place. He felt sickened, guilty, and scared. He pretended to be asleep as Walt poked his head into Carl’s room. Walt turned off the light and quietly shut the door. Carl laid awake for a while longer before drifting off to sleep. He tossed and turned in his bed that night, constantly being woken up by the pain in his toe or the sounds of gunfire in his head.


Lisa Dammeyer is a sophomore English major at the University of Maryland. She is also an Associate in the CIVICUS Living and Learning Program.

 

Advertisements