John Wayne's Niece

The theater reeked of stale sugar and butter. Monument Valley, blue skies, and John Wayne filled the screen. Hank Crowley sat in the audience, wrestling with the question the movie had raised and promised to resolve—Would the Duke kill his niece? He’d been a fan of the Duke since seeing Stagecoach on base, a few nights before they shipped him to Germany to finish off the Nazis. He reached into a paper bucket between his legs and grabbed a handful of popcorn.

The bottom corner of the screen faded as the door to the lobby opened. Why the hell couldn’t people show up on time? Imagine being late at Nagasaki or Normandy. His focus on the story had been derailed. A flashlight beam brushed across the aisles. So this Johnny-come-late didn’t have the sense to find a seat on his own? The light stopped at Hank. “This him?” said an usher .

“Dad?” It was his ten year-old daughter, Joyce.

“What in the world are you doing here?” he said. He shooed the usher away. “And kill that torch, boy.”

The usher said, “Cool it, Pops.” Then he shut off the flashlight.

Joyce said, “Dad?”

“What?” He refused to look at her. That would encourage a conversation about things he had no interest in.

“Mom’s gone to the hospital to have the baby.”

“Good news,” he said. “You’ll have a little brother or sister real soon.”

“She sent me for you,” she said.

He patted the seat next to him. “After the show.”

She didn’t move.

Hank cleared his throat. This didn’t seem to impress his daughter. He considered swatting her on the butt a few times. Giving her an excuse not to sit. The other patrons might have complained. The girl had already caused enough of a ruckus. “Fine,” he said. He offered her some popcorn.

“We need to go,” she said.

“Young lady.” That should have been enough.

She folded her arms across her chest. “Dad,” she said, as though it were a command. Stubborn, like her mother, Barbara. Soft as a flower on the outside, steel on the inside. Hank’s father disapproved of their marriage as soon as he learned she was a Jew. Hank would have never even asked her out had he known. Too much trouble, cross-mixing and the like. By the time Barbara revealed her family’s heritage to him, he had fallen in love with her. When he volunteered for the war, his father said he’d never speak to him again. And he hadn’t.

“Your great-grandfather came here from Germany,” the old man had said, “and you want to go back and kill your own people?”

Hank never saw it that way. He’d been born in America, considered himself an American. He was John Wayne’s biggest fan, for Pete’s sake. He thought of his family’s German roots only at Christmas, when his mother made dobos torte and curry wurst. During the war, he found out that curry wurst had been invented for American tourists. He had friends who called themselves Irish, despite having been in the United States for generations. Irish soldiers he met in Buchenwald laughed when he told them. “You’re Yanks, the lot of you,” they said.

Barbara’s parents were not happy with the marriage, either. Hank hated them as much as he hated his own father. He watched Barbara’s father smack her mother around at Thanksgiving. God bless her mother, she ran her yapper until her husband busted open his knuckles. Hank’s father punched his mother in the arm, once. She threw a dinner plate on the floor, smashed it to pieces. Said she’d cut his favorite limb off while he slept if he ever did it again.

Hank couldn’t stand seeing people hurt each other. Not in real life. He’d seen too many of his peers torn apart by bullets. At Buchenwald, he carried razor-thin men and women who were too weak to walk. No one deserved what the Nazis had put them through. When he returned to the states, his wife looked more beautiful than he’d remembered. She picked him up at Fort Harrison, driving a brand new station wagon she’d bought with money she earned working at Allisons.

They spent the next three weeks in bed, building their own family. An American family. Their mission was to establish a culture free of European prejudices and squabbles. Barbara gave birth to Joyce nine months later.

On the screen, the Duke and his half-breed nephew sat in a tee-pee playing mind checkers with Scar, a Comanche war chief portrayed by some Hollywood pretty boy. Until his daughter had shown up, Hank hadn’t even noticed that the actor was white.

“Mom’s in the hospital,” Joyce said, stomping a foot on the carpet. “She’s going to have a baby.”

“She knows what she’s doing,” said Hank.

“She’s scared,” said his daughter. She wore the same face she wore when she beat him at chess.

“She’s fine,” he said.

The Duke and his nephew retreated from the Comanche camp. Natalie Wood ran down a sand bank, told them to leave. First in Comanche, then in English. Her big, brown eyes reminded Hank of Barbara. Her hair had been braided like a typical Hollywood squaw. How the Duke could have seen her as anything but gorgeous was baffling. The woman wanted to live with the Comanche. What could possibly be wrong with that?

“Dad,” his daughter said.

He would not let her win.

On screen, the Duke had drawn his six-shooter, aimed it at his niece. His half-breed nephew stood between them, crying, “No you don’t!”

“This is it,” Hank said to his daughter. “We’re going to find out what kind of man the Duke really is.”

“You should be in the hospital,” said his daughter, “with Mom.”

“What do you know?” he said. “You’re ten-years-old. Do some living before you tell an adult how to act.”

“If I were a dad,” she said, “I’d be with my wife right now. It seems important.”

“Shows how much you know,” he said. He worried others in the theater might get annoyed and toss a “shush!” their way.

“When I have babies,” said his daughter, “my husband is going to stand next to me, holding my hand.”

“Are you crazy?” He laughed. “They don’t let daddies in the room while mommies are doing that.” There. A fact. Couldn’t possibly be thwarted by a child, no matter how clever.

“I don’t believe it.” She sounded like her mother when Hank told her he would be taking her position at Allisons. He’d explained that the war was over, the men were home, and the women could go back to the work they normally did.

“Wait until we can afford a television,” he’d said. “You’ll forget all about the assembly line.”

She never quite did. Thank God for Joyce. Once Barbara gave birth to her, she seemed to settle into the role of mother with little protest. Any time the old argument came up, instead of getting violent, the way their parents would have, Hank simply opened a bottle of wine and nagged her to drink.

The Duke and his half-breed nephew retreated to the homestead. They had neither rescued nor killed the Duke’s niece. They interrupted a wedding and discovered they were wanted for murder. This seemed like filler. The only matter of importance was John Wayne’s acceptance or rejection of his niece. Hank’s thoughts moved farther away from the film. His daughter had spoiled it for him. He would deduct the money he paid for the ticket from her allowance.

“The movie’s almost over,” he said to her. “Sit down and keep quiet.”

“Mom was crying when the ambulance came,” she said.

Hank rubbed his eyes. Children were not supposed to be this clever. “So she’s at the hospital?” he said.

“I told you so already.”

“Is there any place safer than a hospital?” His daughter said she didn’t know.

“Then I’m sure she’s stopped crying.”

“She’s having a baby.”

“You said that!” His bucket of popcorn spilled. “You owe me a dime,” he said.

A chorus of shushes rose from the back. He turned around, picked one of the patrons randomly, and said, “Stick it in your ear! I’m arguing with my daughter.”

The other men in the theater chuckled.

“I’m going to the hospital,” said Joyce. She uncrossed her arms. “I’m going to do your job for you.”

“That’s not a real job,” he said. He flashed her the same arrogant smirk she gave him when she beat him at chess. But she had already turned. He watched her march up the aisle and through the exit. Fine. He sat back and immersed himself in the movie.

The Cavalry arrived. Of course. They raided the Comanche camp. The Duke scalped the white guy playing the war chief. Then he chased Natalie Wood into a cave. This is it. Hank scraped the bottom of the bucket for some popcorn. He wished he could have afforded a drink. His throat went dry as the Duke stepped up to his niece, fists clenched, ready to wring her neck. And then he hoisted her into his arms and said, “Let’s go home.”

The show ended. Hank couldn’t move. He’d been crying since the moment John Wayne refused to kill his niece. He wanted to stop, but the film concluded with the Duke being shut out of the homestead, left in the wilderness. As if his decision to accept his niece hadn’t been enough. All that work finding her, overcoming his bigotry, and the new society still wouldn’t embrace him. Hank hadn’t spilled tears since the day he carried Jewish women who might as well have been skeletons out of Buchenwald. That night, most of the soldiers blubbered in their bunks. No one said anything the next morning. No ribbing, no taunting. Just looks, passed at the mess hall during breakfast. Looks and nods. Like they’d seen a crime they knew, deep down, anyone could have committed. Like they knew the way they lived their lives would have to change so that nobody suffered so much ever again.

When the usher strolled down the aisle and asked if Hank intended to stay for the evening show, Hank quickly wiped his eyes.

“I’m headed out,” he said. He considered the war as he walked down Capitol Avenue to the hospital. Ten years had passed and he still couldn’t convince himself he could make better decisions than the soldiers who’d tortured and killed his wife’s people. He felt ashamed for crying at the theater. It was just a movie, for Pete’s sake. The more he thought about it, the sillier it seemed. The Duke’s character was no different in the end than he was in the beginning. His spontaneous change of heart, his decision to take his niece home, made no sense at all. Not for one, single moment.

Afromosia Wakizashi

Virgil Fly Away