We don’t get much in the way of tornadoes here, but back in Montgomery County, Kansas, my hometown, they sprout like wild flowers. “Tornado Alley” they call that dreaded, Midwestern wasteland, and rightly so. We had to pick up and move way out here when the church blew down, with the preacher’s cat inside and all. He did good keeping the critters under control but I guess there ain’t much of a place for critters to go, not anymore anyway. So maybe it’s not so bad about the preacher’s cat, but I guess papa didn’t want the house falling down on Topaz, our mean old tabby, much less ourselves, so he told us, “We’re movin back East!” And we moved back East.
Sometimes, when it was real windy, but not enough to form a tornado, little dust cyclones would pop up in the fields. They’d twirl up really fast and suck the dust in and it looked like a tornado, but cyclones are too little and weak to do any real damage. When we would play baseball out in Jeffery Wilson’s grandfather’s dried up cow pasture, once or twice a little dust cyclone would sprout up from the dirt, causing each of us boys to run around and chase the thing like it was a loose pig from the Anderson hog farm. I liked to watch the cyclones mostly, but getting caught up inside one was always a thrill, and dangerous if you didn’t close your eyes.
One morning—I was heading to school—I saw one pop up on the baseball field down the hill from the school house. It was really something, like watching a butterfly, the way it swirled and floated here and there, without any sense of direction at all. It’s funny, when they start to twist up into the air it’s almost like you can see the wind and then you realize how powerful and persuasive something as sweet and peaceful as the wind can be.
“Did you see it?” Danny asked me from across the field. Danny was a nice kid, I suppose, although I never really talked to him. He was a little outside of left field and usually kept to himself. I didn’t ever see Danny in town and I wasn’t really sure what his ma and pa looked like. I don’t suspect anyone really knew that. When my papa told me that the old Mason farm had been sold to some new comers I didn’t expect to see a creature like Danny show up for class the next day. I’d see him sitting outside the school house flipping through some old, worn book that looked like it could have belonged to my great granny who passed on before I could speak; or he would saunter through the tall grass by the pond picking dandelions, plucking the buds off the ends of their stalks and tying the thin stems together in some long, useless chain, which he would then wear around his neck making him an easy target. I don’t know why. He was always cheerful and never really put too much thought into why some of the guys teased him; it had become the normal thing to do. I think it’s just the way he was. He always walked to school alone, and he carried his books in this bright, colorful bag that looked like it came from some far away country. His jet black hair was never straight and his arms and legs were a little too long for his clothes. I think one reason it was hard to talk to Danny was his bright blue eyes. When the guys would tease him, or flick his ears, he’d always kind of look at you with those big, glossy blue eyes of his, and I couldn’t ever help but feel a little guilty.
“Yeah, it was pretty neat,” I hollered back, “I’ve seen bigger, though.” I sat on the visitor’s bench and waited for the guys to show up for school.
“Did you see where it went?” he asked me, walking up to where I’d taken a seat. I couldn’t quite get at the meaning of his question, but I answered the best I knew how and told him no. “It went where the wind took it,” he said, like it was obvious, or he was playing some silly game. I squinted my eyes at Danny’s comment.
“I guess it did,” I said, and I picked up my bundle of books, considering finding a different bench. Danny then placed his bright bag down next to me and took a seat. “That sure is a fancy bag,” I told him. He looked down at his bag and rubbed his fingers across some of the stitching. The bag was loaded with bright shades of blue and green and yellow, and lines that made no real picture, just some fancy design that I thought looked like something off an Indian blanket. I ain’t never been interested in stuff so colorful. It looked like a sun stitched into the front of the bag, with maybe a tree or something stuck in the middle of it, but it was all so jagged and complicated that I couldn’t tell for sure.
“My Grandma gave it to me,” he said, still feeling the bag with his skinny fingers.
“Whatcha need your granny’s bag for, midget?” Scott, a tall, lanky boy from our class surprised us both when he came up behind the bench and snatched up Danny’s bag from right under his palms. “Do you keep flowers in here?” he asked Danny with a huge belt of laughter. He opened the boy’s bag and dumped all his books out of it and then waved the bag around victoriously. Several of the boys in the class had begun to approach the visitor’s bench, like we always did before school, and they started to gather around Scott. Danny just watched the freckled boy toss the bag around from one of us to another, not moving from his seat, not looking embarrassed or upset in the slightest.
As the bag made its way around the circle, this chunky kid named Braxton tried to rip it out of another boy’s hand, causing one of the shoulder straps to pop right off at the seam. When he looked at Scott, expecting a negative reaction, Scott just grabbed the bag and tossed it in the dirt. One by one, the boys walked away from the visitor’s bench, making sure to stomp on the once colorful bag now lying on the ground, caked in dirt and dust.
“Come on, Jackson. Let’s leave this little runt here to read his precious books.” Scott motioned for me to follow him up to the school house, but I told him I was feeling a little sick and needed to catch some fresh air before school started. He Shrugged and left me sitting at the visitor’s bench. I looked at Danny, who had started to pick up the books that were dumped on the ground. I grabbed the dirty bag lying at my feet and beat some of the dust off with my hand.
“Here you go,” I said, handing the bag over to Danny.
“Thanks,” he said, and fumbled with his stack of books trying to get them back inside the bag. Danny tossed the tattered mess over one shoulder and looked at me with a big grin. “Say, I’ll see you inside.” He waved and started up the hill to the school house. He seemed to glide as he walked, like an angel, or a ghost. I wasn’t sure why they always picked on him, but his big blue eyes took a look into my soul that morning, and I still feel shivers thinking about it.
“Yeah, see you inside.” I said. I stayed behind on the visitor’s bench and thought for a little bit.
“Hey, what was you talkin to Danny for, anyway?” Scott asked me when I got to my seat in the old school house.
“Well he just started talking about that dust cyclone and I didn’t really say much back.”
“Yeah you did, I saw you talkin to him.”
“I just told him he better watch his self. You know, or we’ll knock him around a bit.”
“Yeah, he best steer clear or his face is what’s gonna get thown in the dirt next time.” Scott, pleased with himself, continued to mutter some hateful things under his breath and repeatedly punch his fist into his hand. I just sat and stared at the dusty blackboard.
At nine o’clock on the nose, Mrs. Smith, the old school teacher who had been there for years, made her grand entrance from the side door of the building. She walked with a cane and a right nasty limp, which I suspect was because of the arthritis in her joints. She kept her eyeglasses perched on the end of her nose and her streaky, silver hair tightly in a bun. Her collar was buttoned clear to her throat and not once did I ever see a bit of skin showing except her hands and head. Theodore Roosevelt said, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.” Mrs. Smith did not care to speak softly; our skulls are too thick, so she has to yell at us, she would say. But she did carry a big stick, a yard stick, and nobody’s skull was thick enough to willingly let her use it. Mrs. Smith was as mean as the Devil is red, and I can attest to that.
In the mornings we usually studied History. Sometimes I like to hear the stories about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and about the great Revolutionary and Civil Wars. But sometimes we talked about places across the world, like Egypt, and Germany, which I thought was just alright to learn about. There are some neat statues in Egypt, but I’m pretty sure we could take ‘em in a fight if it came down to it, and Germany sure as heck knows better.
That morning in particular, Mrs. Smith was talking about oriental people in Asia and the South Pacific Islands. I knew about them because my papa fought against the Japs in the South Pacific during the war, which we won, of course. He’s told me all kinds of stories, like when he got left by his friends in the middle of the jungle somewhere in the Philippines. He said he had to hike through all sorts of crazy things like crocodile infested rivers and swamps with quicksand and big snakes and jungle cats. He told me about watching his friends all get shot right next to him when he and his platoon were ambushed. He still has nightmares about the Japs, and momma gets upset cause she can’t sleep for papa waking up in such a furry all the time. I didn’t really like the lesson that day.
She told us that, for some reason, Orientals don’t believe in Jesus, which I didn’t understand one bit. If they don’t believe in God then who do they believe in? Why would they want to go to Hell? But that’s probably why they wanted to fight against us anyway. Mrs. Smith said that, a long time ago, Buddhism was a very popular religion in Asia, and it still is, but not as popular.
“The Buddhists worship their god, Buddha,” she cried. “They sit on the floor and cross their legs and moan together, sort of like prayer, I suppose.” She clicked her tongue in disapproval and shot ice-cold glances at half-dead faces around the room. Then Danny’s hand flew into the air so fast he was lifted off his seat.
“Buddhists don’t worship Buddha,” he said matter-of-factly. I got really confused then.
“Yeah they do, Danny,” Scott shouted at across the room, “she just said they do.”
“But I know they don’t. Mrs. Smith is wrong,” he fired back at Scott, with a thin rigid finger extended out gesturing towards Mrs. Smith, who was a right few shades of red darker by then. Danny had done it. I watched the shock slide down Mrs. Smith’s face as she stood silently at the front of the room, lost behind her own angry gaze. Suddenly, she came flying after Danny like he was a squirrel in the pantry, and boy did Danny flinch when he saw her coming. I know—that’s something no kid should see. He jumped up out of his seat and ran around the back of the classroom, Mrs. Smith hustling after him. With cane in hand, she wobbled around the room, weaving between desks, cursing as she clipped the corners with her bum hip. She was shouting things about how rude it is to correct an adult and that little boys with mischievous minds are unpleasant.
Eventually Danny ran around where Scott was sitting, so Scott stuck his foot out as he flew past catching Danny’s right shoe and sending him fumbling across the floor. A few people around me giggled and whispered little jokes to each other, but I was starting to feel bad for the kid. Of course, Mrs. Smith had been too distracted by the chase to notice Scott trip poor Danny.
“Daniel Foster, I’ll make sure you never walk again!” She was really mad. She had sweat running down her face and she was panting mighty furious. She wobbled slowly back to the front of the room and stood over Danny, who was massaging his right ankle. “If you ever tell me I’m wrong again, boy, you will rue the day.” She lifted him up off the floor by his ear. “Get over to the blackboard and grab that yard stick.” I was more nervous than a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Danny hurried over to the blackboard and put his hands on the stick, but turned around to face Mrs. Smith and the rest of us.
“Why do you have to hurt me?” he asked, calm as the day never was in Kansas. Mrs. Smith’s eyes shot wide open, her mouth dropped and her skin sizzled red. Danny watched her, not moving one bit. Mrs. Smith started breathing heavily and her arms and head began to tremble out of rage. I don’t guess she really knew how to answer that one. “Why do you think beating me will change anything?” Danny pressed.
“What’s wrong, boy, afraid of a little smack from the ruler?” She stood straight up and relaxed her face. She smoothed her dress and patted her hair. “What are you doing, boy? I told you to bring me that ruler.” She didn’t raise her voice but her tone was wicked. He took a hefty breath but didn’t move. And then he said something I didn’t ever expect to hear from a blue-eyed, red-nosed, farm boy from eastern Kansas.
“My grandmother is Buddhist.” He spoke softly, hoping what he said was not out of line. “She told me all about the things that Buddhists believe.” He looked down at his ragged shoes. “That’s how I know that Buddhists don’t worship The Buddha.”
At that, Mrs. Smith became all worked up. She gave a shrieking “HA!” and she placed her hands on her waist. “I don’t care who you think they worship. I don’t care if your grandma, grandpa, momma and daddy are Buddhists. I don’t care if your dog or your cat or all the chickens in your hen house are Buddhists. That doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t make you right for speaking out of turn like that, much less for correcting your teacher. Complete and utter disrespect is what it is, boy.” She spoke with a scratchy, tar worn voice that shook just a bit more than normal. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, for bringing in that filthy nonsense of yours, spreading it around to the other children. I don’t take kindly to false prophets, son.”
“Enough!” She said and she walked over and grabbed him by the wrist and took him outside. We didn’t hear anything but I know it was bad. Danny never came back to class that day and we went on like nothing ever happened, but I couldn’t keep my mind on school. Danny was brave, I could tell, but he was also stupid. No one ever talks back to the teacher, especially not to Mrs. Smith. But he must have had a good reason for it, or he was just stupid.
After school, Scott said he had to get home to help with his dad’s cows. I was sure glad papa didn’t have any cows. We said our good-byes and I started down the road back towards home. Not far from the school house was a little pond out in a field. There was tall grass blowing around in the wind and a few shrubs protecting the bank from this side of the road. I could see the pond really well from the top of the hill a few yards back, but up next to it the tall honeysuckle bushes blocked the water from view. When I walked by I thought I heard someone humming a tune softly to himself. I decided that it felt like a nice day to sit by the pond before heading home, so I went around the bushes. Sure enough, I saw Danny stuck on the bank with his feet in the water. He looked up and gave a quick wave.
“Hey Jackson,” he said. I waved back and asked what he was doing.
“Oh, I’m just sitting here thinking about what happens next.”
I took a moment to think about what he said. “What…” I started, “what do you mean, ‘what happens next’?” I was a little confused.
“Mrs. Smith kicked me out of school today.” He wiggled his toes in the water and let his announcement soak into my brain for a moment.
“Kicked you out?” I managed to stutter.
“Expelled,” he said. “She told me that no one is to challenge the teacher. I tried to explain to her that I wasn’t trying to challenge her. I just wanted to help her and the rest of the class to understand.”
“Well, maybe she doesn’t want your help,” I suggested. He just shook his head and watched the ripples his feet made in the water. “What are you gonna do next, anyway?”
“I’m still thinking about it.”
He kept watching the ripples in the water. I guess he was really thinking because he didn’t talk much. I didn’t really know what to say. Danny and me never really spoke in school, until that day anyway. “Do you see those ripples?” he finally asked, pointing to his feet in the water.
“Yeah, what about ‘em?”
“Where do they go?” he asked.
I wasn’t expecting such an odd question, so I probably looked shocked. “What do you mean?”
He said, “They don’t stop. They go on forever, even when you can’t tell they are ripples anymore. They stretch way out even farther than we can probably tell and then they just become part of the waves in the pond.” Danny tossed a rock across the pond. It skipped twice on the water and ducked under on the third impact, leaving little circles on the surface that began to expand outward. “You see?” He pointed, “The pond is so big, the ripples from just one of my feet barely affect it; they just get absorbed into the rest of the pond until I stick my foot in again.”
I sat on the bank next to Danny and stared at the water. He was right; the ripples just become part of the waves, part of the pond. “Gosh, that’s pretty neat,” I said. He just took a deep breath and watched the pond slosh around. I searched for something to say. “Did you say that your Grandma was a Buddhist?” He jumped at my question.
“Yeah, she is, but my family is Methodist.”
“Oh, ok,” I said, and I asked him if he could explain it to me.
“I don’t know a lot, only the basics,” He said. I didn’t mind. I wasn’t prepared for a history lesson, not after what happened that morning. “Buddha was just a man with a lot of nice things to say,” he explained. “Some Buddhists do believe in a god but not all of them. It isn’t necessary; it just depends mostly on family heritage and traditions than on Buddhist teachings. It’s a way of life more than a religion, I think.” I didn’t really get it, but I let him keep telling me all he knew. “But when they cross their legs on the floor,” he said, “that’s when they are meditating.” I didn’t know what meditating was and he said that it’s how they find enlightenment or wake up, or something.
“To be enlightened is to understand, to be aware,” he explained. “Don’t trust me though because I don’t know what any of that is like.”
“Well you know a heck of a lot more than I do,” I admitted. “Say, if your grandma is a Buddhist then why ain’t you one?” He laughed at my question like it was silly.
“Well my grandmother is Japanese; that’s my Mother’s mother.” My heart stopped. He was Japanese?! I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t look like a Jap, not the way papa explained how they looked.
“Does that mean you’re Japanese?” I stuttered.
“Oh, I’m just half Japanese and half white. My Mother is Japanese, though.” Danny just watched the wind in the tall grass as if what he had said meant nothing. I tried to think. Why was I talking to one of the Japs? I was sure if papa caught me he would wear me out.
“Danny, I gotta tell you something.” He looked up at me with those cartoon eyes. “My papa fought in the war, you know, the one in the Pacific. Danny, he said that the Japanese are some of the most heartless people he’s ever seen. They killed everyone, he said, and they cut off the skin on their heads, just for fun! He’s told me terrible things that your people did and if he sees me here with one of them, well I’ll be dead for sure.” Danny sat with his head tilted to the side like something I said didn’t quite add up.
“But Jackson, my people don’t do any of those things. We live in Montgomery County, Kansas, and we shop and go to school and eat dinner just like you and Mrs. Smith and everybody else. Why would your papa kill you for being around me? That’s a little silly, don’t you think?” I didn’t know. I just sat back and took a deep breath. Danny was right, he didn’t do any of the things that my papa talks about, but that didn’t matter. Papa still would have flipped his pancakes had he seen me that day.
“I guess it doesn’t matter to him that you’re just like us,” I said, “To him, you’re not, but he doesn’t know any better.” He nodded his head a few times.
“Maybe your papa needs to let go,” he said. “Sometimes we do and see stuff that we really don’t want to. Sometimes bad stuff happens, but hey, sometimes good stuff happens too.” Danny kept his eyes on the tall grass beyond the far banks of the pond. I wished I could see what he saw. I just sat in silence.
“I think I should be headed home now. My papa will be looking for me to cut the grass, I’m sure.” I stood up and brushed the sand from my pants. “You’ll let me know what you decide to do next, won’t you?” Danny looked up at me and smiled.
“Sure, Jackson,” he said and he crossed his legs. “I think I’ll sit here and think for a little while, but I’ll see you around.” I said goodbye and headed for the road. I regretted not speaking to Danny before then; he really was a nice kid. The things he said managed to get into my head and make me think. Nothing anyone else ever said did that, not even Mrs. Smith; she usually made me want to sleep.
I walked a good three-hundred feet down the road and out of nothing a strong gust of wind gushed past and I got sick to my stomach. I hoped it was just a gust of wind and not a tornado. I didn’t want to see a tornado. I turned around to see if Danny was still sitting on the bank. Instead, he was standing on the hill just up past the pond towards the school house in the middle of the dirt road. He watched me and waved his hands. “Hey, Jackson! Look!” He pointed out in the prairie across the road from the pond. The tall grass in the field was waving back and forth, and little bits of leaves and grass began to swirl around in the air. “A dust cyclone!” he shouted and he just stood there watching the funnel meander towards him. It quickly began to gather momentum and debris started pouring through the billowing cyclone.
“Danny, get out of the way,” I shouted, “It’s too big!” Danny didn’t move. The graceful cyclone danced through the field and up the hill to where he was standing. Dust from the road shot through the funnel and the size of the thing became frighteningly evident. Twenty yards across, it had to have been. Still, Danny watched and soon he was lost inside the powerful vortex. It hovered around and managed to make a path over the pond, but almost immediately the funnel slowed to nothing. The wind was eerily absent. Danny was gone, disappeared. I didn’t think he’d actually let the tornado suck him up but he never moved an inch. No one ever saw him again, not even his parents. Most folks think he’s dead but they never found a body. I just figure he went where the wind took him.