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Fateful ironies in these watershed times

The day was quickly on its way to being absurd. The Gillybooms were at war with the Hooneys, and neither side, gratefully, was at all fierce or warlike in their aggression. It had something to do with the nature of water or the inability of the participants to think in terms of victory, defeat or a truce.

And too, everybody was soaked to the skin.

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The battlefield was a craggy acre north of the walnut grove and east of the back of Lackland's Auto Repair where, at Christmas time, Bertram Lackland gave away free wooden rulers inscripted with ''Lackland's, as a rule. . . .''

The Hooneys numbered at least six warriors, all sturdy lads who defended themselves with garbage can lids and laughter while they collectively defended a fort that did little to bolster morale. Made from scrap lumber and improvisation that had as much direction as a tumbleweed, the fort needed only three or more direct hits to gain status as a historical ruin.

Yelling and taunting, the Gillybooms created the illusion that they had more warriors on their side which included Buzzy's little sister, Cory, who had a runny nose and was free to roam the battlefield because everybody loved her and because of her ability to whistle ''Rock of Ages,'' a wonderful accomplishment for a four-year-old who had yet to show any interest in books or hitting.

The fort behind which the Gillybooms clustered and armed themselves was made from a leaning hunk of plywood braced by two by fours. It was undistinguished but serviceable like a chicken.

The weapons used were water-filled balloons that were hurled through the air in globular, ever changing, masses of bright red, blue, yellow and white. They were hurled underhand with a kind of gentle swooping motion that lifted the balloon in the air in a lazy floating arc. Overhand was too risky. The laws of unstable projectiles, plus the force needed to launch the balloon overhand, could lead to the thing bursting in your hand and ear as it was thrown.

So, picture a brisk autumn day, a Saturday on an empty field with the air charged with dozens of small, water filled balloons colorfully dropping from the sky. The sun is warm and kind. Picture the balloons hitting boys' heads and shoulders with wondrous splats of concussion and spray, the shattered balloon fragments slowly littering the field. Picture great joy at direct hits. The shouting and laughing is delicious.

Slowly a spirit of mild anarchy begins to take hold as Gillybooms and Hooneys become indistinguishable from one another. The number of balloons in the air at any one moment seems to increase to a veritable cascading rainbow and the battle is on the verge of becoming every boy for himself. Water has become the common illuminator.

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Then, unfortunately, one Sidney Louis Muller slowly drove his dark green 1969 Buick into Lackland's to have the battery checked. It isn't exactly fair to label S. L. Muller as the neighborhood grump, but he has never been known for his consummate sweetness when it came to understanding the ways and means of growing boys. Nor boys him. More than once has Halloween resulted in Muller's car being unforgivably draped in toilet paper.

Muller steps out of his impeccable Buick. Lackland says ''I'll be right with you in a minute Mr. Muller,'' and Muller, hands in his pockets, his felt hat tilted to one side, walks around the garage patiently while Lackland talks with Obus Mortenson on the phone.

Muller stands near the garage entrance, rocking on his toes, hands clasped behind him, beautifully pleated wool slacks, with hardly a wrinkle and a favorite gabardine jacket, diplomatically beige. A lean, brittle man with no visible laugh lines. He looks to his left. Yelling, small bright balloons filling the air. Muller is attracted, poor man. He strolls over, past the row of rusting cars, past the shed into full view of the boys where he stands at the edge of the field disapproving of them and of all adolescence for all time forever. It is too much, it is too inviting. His otherwise placid face is too scornful. Muller has been seen. A powder blue balloon slips out of the sky sideways like an insult hurled at pomposity. It strikes his left knee with a slovenly, explosive wetness. Muller is stunned. ''My wool pants,'' he murmurs, looking down at the assault on his power and stature.

In cruel counterpoint, many balloons descend on him. A yellow strikes his shoulder, a red thumps his rib cage, a white blooms water on his hat and sends it spinning. Red, blue, yellow, bang, bang, bang, until poor Muller is poor soaked Muller, rising in outrage, yelling, ''YOU BOYS!'' with one arm raised.

And the cowardly Gillybooms and Hooneys take off in full run, leaving Cory behind, a tiny figure standing alone and suddenly aware that Muller didn't want to play too. She faces him, puckers and whistles ''Rock of Ages'' as a peace offering.

Muller sputters, drips and seethes.

But now Lackland is next to him with two white towels trying to add long-range perspective for a man who can see only immediate red. ''Boys aren't too smart sometimes,'' says Lackland shaking his head in sympathy while Muller wipes water away from his face and grumbles wordlessly.

Then, like a warrior accepting responsibility for the indiscretion of a battalion, Buzzy steps out from behind a walnut tree and walks slowly across the balloon-littered battleground, his water soaked shoes squeaking in wetness while he imagines a drum rolling in the background. He makes his way over abandoned garbage can lids to Cory and takes her by the hand. Heroic. None but the brave. John Wayne in Red Riverm.

''I'm sorry,'' he says to Muller when he stands in front of the dreaded man. ''We just got carried away.'' Muller, to his credit, says nothing at first but hurls darts from his eyes at Buzzy. ''You'll pay for the cleaning,'' he orders. ''Yes, sir,'' says Buzzy. Lackland angrily motions Buzzy away, but winks.

They walk hand in hand across the field, Cory hurrying on little legs while Buzzy relives direct hits.

''Muller all wet,'' Cory whispers.

Together they whistle ''Rock of Ages.''

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