There he is, Manny Keefer, scrappy point guard for the freshman University School team, playing in the most important game of that season. The scoreboard flashes University School 42, Brownville Central 44. Manny inbounds the ball to his best friend and guard Felix Cann. Wally Baldwin, his second best friend and team center, is making his way down the court. Felix dribbles the ball, instinctively looking to see if Wally is open under the basket. He is not.
Felix moves to his right, stops, lets the ball fly. The ball hits the front of the rim. Wally taps it in. University School 44, Brownville 44. The Brownville coach jumps up, calls time.
Coach Ellis is waiting as Manny and his teammates walk to their bench. “Okay, Blue Jays,” Coach Ellis says. “Hang tough. Play strong defense. Be ready for a rebound in case they miss their shot.” And then eyeing each player, he adds, “Whatever you do, don’t foul.”
Manny, Wally, Felix, and the rest of the team and coaches lock hands and shout in unison, “Go.”
The Brownville captain throws the ball inbounds to their star player. He dribbles the ball, heading straight for Manny. Manny is the only object between his opponent and the basket. As the player pushes forward, Manny plants his feet. They collide. Manny falls to the hardwood floor.
The referee blows his whistle. He motions to the score keeper. “Foul. Charging.”
Both teams walk to the opposite end of the court. Manny takes his position at the free-throw lane. He can feel his heart beating. He looks at the clock. Only two seconds remain. If he makes the first and then second free-throw, his team wins or goes into overtime should the opposition make a final Hail Mary basket.
Wally and Felix give words of encouragement. “You can do it. Take your time.”
Manny thinks of all the hours he practiced at the basketball hoop his father put up for him on the garage for just this situation…winning the game for University School. He takes a deep breath. Shoots. Swish. The ball goes through the net without touching the rim. He bounces the ball several times. He takes another deep breath, and then lets the ball fly. This time it rolls around the rim, and then falls through the net. University School 46; Brownville 44.
Quickly, the Brownville guard throws the ball inbounds. Their star player bounces the ball, takes a couple of dribbles, then heaves the ball hard as he can. The ball arches but falls well short of the goal. The buzzer sounds. University School wins.
The band plays, the crowd cheers. Wally and Felix rush up to Manny. Much to his surprise, they lift him up and carry him off the court.
“Manny will you be home Wednesday evening? Manny, did you hear me? Did you hear one thing I’ve said?”
His father’s sharp, loud voice jarred Manny back to reality, back to his family’s kitchen table.
“Ahh, mmm,” he muttered looking first to his father, then his mother, his sister Nora and finally Aunt Etta , who bailed him out by repeating his father’s question.
“Your father wants to know if you will be here Wednesday evening for the neighborhood meeting.”
“Wednesday, gosh, I don’t know. Basketball season starts this week. The coach could call a practice.”
Everyone at the table was surprised to hear him mention basketball practice. His mother asked the question. “Manny did the coach change his mind? You weren’t the last one cut? Are you back on the team?”
“Sort of,” Manny said. “Didn’t I tell you, I volunteered to be team manager?”
The look on his father’s face told Manny that he wasn’t the least bit impressed that his son was the team manager. “I’m sure the team will not miss you for one night,” his father said. “This is important. I’ve volunteered to be the air raid warden for the district and I want everyone in the neighborhood to know what they must do, particularly my son.”
“Does President Roosevelt really think the Japanese would bomb America?” his mother asked.
“These are difficult times,” his father said.
“And scary times, too” Aunt Etta added. “You just don’t know who the enemy is. A sign on the wall at work says, ‘loose lips, sink ships.’ I shake every time I see it.”
“What does that mean?” Nora asked.
Before anyone could answer, his father stood up, looking at his watch. “We have five minutes to get to the trolley stop.”
Manny was surprised and hurt that his father dismissed him so easily. But then these were not ordinary times. In fact, nothing was the same for anybody anywhere since that day a year ago.
Manny remembered exactly what everyone in his family was doing on December 7, 1941, when the news of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was announced on the radio.
He had been sitting on the living room rug reading his favorite newspaper comic strip. His dog, Duncan, who looked just like President Roosevelt's Scottish terrier, Fala, was snuggled up close to him, chewing on a bone Manny had slipped him under the dining room table.
"I'm next for the sports section," he had reminded his brother, Howard, who was sitting in the overstuffed chair, his face hidden behind the paper.
Nora was standing stiff as a mannequin on a small stool in the center of the room as his mother quickly pinned the hem of her new dress.
His father, Aunt Loretta, who everybody called Aunt Etta, and Uncle Hubert were sitting at the card table in front of the fireplace playing pinochle.
The radio in the corner of the room was tuned into the Metropolitan Opera. Everyone was only half listening until the excited, high-pitched voice of a newscaster had cut through the soothing music like a serrated knife. The next day president Franklin D. Roosevelt announced the United States was at war.
Manny didn't know then exactly what being at war meant. As the days and months wore on, he learned.
Nothing was the same.
Howard was one of the first in line to enlist in the Marine Corps.
Manny tried to write to Howard every week, but he couldn't begin to tell him about all the changes or how he felt scared inside all the time.
Aunt Etta moved into Howard's bedroom after Uncle Hubert was drafted and sent to Germany. She went to work at Ulson's Dry Goods Store. She sat at a sewing machine forty hours a week making uniforms for the soldiers.
Mom volunteered as a nurse's aide at Good Samaritan Hospital. The aides filled in for the registered nurses who were sent overseas. "Heaven forbid that Howard is injured, but if he is I hope some good nurse will care for him over there," she said again and again to reassure her and the family that Howard would be safe.
Now the only time the family was sure to be together during the week was in the early morning before they left for work and school.
Manny promised he would be at the Wednesday meeting as his father, mother and aunt hurried out of the kitchen on the way to the trolley stop. Manny’s father hadn't taken the car out of the garage more than a half-dozen times since they all had taken Howard to the train station last year. Gasoline was rationed just like flour, sugar, meat, and cigarettes.
When the cuckoo clock on the wall outside the pantry struck half past seven, the house was as quiet as a church, except for the sound of Nora's spoon hitting against the cereal bowl.
Manny sat down at the table across from her, encouraging her to eat a little faster because he wanted to get to school early and shoot baskets with Felix and Wally before class.
Manny's life with his friends had changed more drastically than his life at home.
But he couldn't blame the war for those changes.