Short Fiction Feature: One Small Step

Phil’s Electronics Shop was more than a place where one could buy a new radio, television, or record player. It also served as a meeting place where people on the street could gather and catch a news broadcast while on the move. Today, a small crowd had formed to watch a series of grainy flickering images on the dozen color and black white television sets that were stacked behind the large store front window.

Jake Patterson stood at the rear of the crowd and watched as a figure in a bulky white space suit climbed out of the bug shaped Lunar Module. His height allowed him a good view of the news video and his attention was riveted by the voice that came from speakers mounted to the floor of the window display.

“That’s one small step for Man. One giant leap for Mankind.” Neil Armstrong’s name was scrolled across the bottom of each screen.

Amazing, he thought as he watched Armstrong drop from the ladder and be the first man to step onto the Moon. I wonder if we’ll go any farther. Go any farther. His hand clenched on the receipt he held in his hand. He was a man now and the Law told him he had to sign up for the Draft. Vietnam needed our help, his dad used to say and if we didn’t lend a hand, the Communists would take over and we would be next. Dad was serving in Saigon with Westmoreland’s staff and if he could do it, Jake felt he could do it too. He loosened the collar of his white shirt and took in a deep breath. He didn’t feel any other but his brown haired crew cut and clean-shaven expression told a different story.

A shiny blue Studebaker pulled up to the curb and he smiled as the driver got out and joined him. Taran Martin was one of the few blacks on the football team and though he ran faster and threw farther than any of the other players, Jake ended up being tapped for the Quarterback position. It wasn’t fair or even very efficient but it was Coach Marley’s decision and what the Coach wanted, the Coach got.

Martin looked out of breath as he shut the car door and joined Patterson. “Did I miss it? Is he on the Moon?”

Patterson pointed. “He just stepped off the ladder and the other guy, Aldrin I think, is getting out now.”

“Would have been nice to see a brother up there.” Martin ignored a few stares from the crowd. He was tall like Jake only he had adopted the brightly colored shirt and bell bottomed jeans that most of their friends had taken on. The new fad was called The Hippy Look but this one was definitely hanging on longer than hulu hoops and granny spectacles. He was already as tall as Jake but the dark afro lended a few more inches to his lanky frame. “Only white dudes get to go into Space these days.”

“I’m sure it was more complicated that that.” Patterson said as he watched Aldrin follow Armstrong thousands of miles away in Space. “Even if it were true, you know that it would have to change one day.”

“For a white boy, you’re awfully optimistic.” Martin looked down at Jake’s hand. “Draft Board?”

Patterson nodded. “Yeah, Mom made me go sign up early this morning. She’s afraid that the cops might show up and arrest me if I didn’t get it done.”

“Any word from your Dad?”

Patterson nodded. “The censors did that blackout thing to parts of it but it sounded like he was doing okay. I’ll be glad when he comes home but I’ll probably see him before then.” He looked down at his brown dress shoes before taking another breath. “I’m going to talk with the Army recruiter later today about volunteering.”

Taran lowered his voice. “Are you crazy, Man? People are dying over there.”

“It’s a war.”

Taran pulled him over to the Studebaker. “Look, White Bread, you’re my friend and all but you can’t be serious about going to Vietnam. You know that’s all about the Establishment trying to make money off the blood of people like you and me. I thought you had more sense than that. You should be going with me to the next protest. People are running to Canada left and right to get away from that and your crazy ass wants to volunteer.”

“Hey, my Dad’s over there.”

“You know what I mean, Jake. I respect your Dad but he’s not us. We have a choice and I’m not letting them use me to die for them. They’re not going to draft you anyway. They only send poor black men over there.”

“Stop right here.” Patterson said. “The Draft is based on a number, not an income or a box on a form. If you had paid attention in Civics Class, you’d have known that. You aren’t even poor, Man, so where do you get off using that line of crap with me? We’ve been neighbors for years and we certainly aren’t poor.” He sniffed the air. “What’s that smell?”

“Nothing.” Martin said. “Someone was burning incense at my house earlier before I borrowed my Mom’s car.”

Patterson didn’t buy the explanation but allowed it to go by. There was no secret that reefer was making its way around town and that sweet, slightly sickly, odor was hard to forget once it first made its way into someone nostrils. He turned back to the windows as a commercial came on. The crowd began to break up as the great moment came to a less than great end.

“Does Stacey know?”

“She’s my steady.” Patterson said. “Of course she knows. She didn’t like hearing it though. She’s got this idea that we’re going to get married after Graduation and move to Philly or New York.”

“I think it’s a bad idea.” Martin said. “You’re a smart guy. You could go pro football or college or even carry on with that writing stuff you like doing. Why throw your life away for some old dudes who couldn’t care less about you? You’re being flimflammed, Sir.”

“You go from Doctor King to Malcom X at the drop of a hat, don’t you?” Patterson said. “Do you have any concept of duty or serving the greater good?”

“Dying for some stranger who wants to keep me down isn’t serving the greater good. As long as my people are being kept down by the Man, all bets are off.”

“Aren’t we all the same people?”

Taran stopped talking but his brown eyes narrowed. “You just don’t get it.” He opened the car door. “Look, me and some people I know are leaving tonight. You’re welcome to join us.”

“Where are you going?”

“Where else? Canada. We can leave the madness and make a new life up there.”

“What about Graduating?”

“They got schools up there. You can do what you want but I’m not supporting The Myth.”

“What myth?” Patterson shook his head. “Never mind. Aren’t you worried what people are going to think of you? Of your family?”

Martin shook his head. “It takes more effort to raise an opinion than to lower it. My family understands what I want to do. They support me. You’re my friend; what about you?”

Patterson looked at him and held back the sadness from his voice. “I’m sorry but I can’t. I have to do what I must. All I can say is good luck and no matter what, we’ll always be friends.”

“Okay then.” Martin got back in the Studebaker. “Catch you later, Man.”

Patterson watched him drive off and began walking toward home, feeling much older than the calendar would say.