by Barry Gifford
It was in his eighth grade history class that Roy learned the word infantry had originated in ancient Rome to describe the youngest soldiers in the Roman legions. These were infanteria, children no older than Roy and his friends, who were put at the front of the invading army, almost certainly to be sacrificed so that the following troops, comprised of older, veteran soldiers, would be preserved for the most serious, decisive parts of the battles.
After school the day they’d learned about the infantry of ancient Rome, Roy said to the Viper, “I bet it was only the poorest families whose children were forced to fight. The rich people paid to keep their sons out of the army.”
“Probably,” the Viper said, “but at least the kid soldiers didn’t have to go to school.”
Roy thought a lot about the Romans’ use of young boys in their army, and after he read about Hadrian’s Wall he imagined a situation in which the boy infantry revolted and deserted and ran away to an isolated part of the empire and established their own encampment.
“What if the kids built a big wall like Emperor Hadrian did?” Roy said to the Viper and Jimmy Boyle.
The boys were standing together under the awning of Vincenzo’s Shoe Repair near the corner of Taylor and Desplaines early on a Saturday morning. They were waiting for a few other guys to meet up with them before walking over to the fieldhouse at St. Rose of Lima where they were going to play basketball. It was a cold, gray, drizzly December day and there weren’t many people on the streets yet.
“Emperor who?” asked Jimmy.
“In 122 A.D., the Roman emperor Hadrian began building these enormous walls, like one-sided forts, to establish boundaries,” Roy explained. “The longest one was about eighty miles and it was so tall and impenetrable that no enemy could get over or through it.”
“They could go around,” said the Viper.
“Yeah, but that would take a very long time and the far ends of the walls were built up against big, rugged rock formations or hills. The kid soldiers could protect themselves by constructing a smaller version of Hadrian’s Wall. They could stockpile weapons, mostly crossbows that they could fire from the parapet at anyone who came to get them.”
“What’s a parapet?” Jimmy asked.
“A narrow platform or walkway at the top that ran the length of the wall.”
“What about food?”
“They’d hunt,” said Roy, “and they could bring along goats and chickens for milk and eggs.”
“This didn’t happen, though,” the Viper said. “You’re just makin’ it up.”
“I’m sure some kids thought of doin’ it,” said Roy. “The infantry knew they were doomed. Why would they stick around once they saw how the legions used them?”
Magic Frank, Billy Kristelis and an older kid Roy knew only by sight and reputation named Bobby Dorp jaywalked across Desplaines and joined Roy, Jimmy and the Viper.
“Hey, fellas,” Frank said, “this is Bobby Dorp. He’s gonna play with us today.”
Dorp nodded at the other boys and they nodded back. Roy knew that Dorp had dropped out of high school after a girl named Mitzi Mink had accused him of molesting her in a hallway and that he now worked delivering groceries for the A & P on Minnetonka. The Viper had played basketball with him before, so he knew Dorp was good.
“Great,” said the Viper. “Bobby can shoot with either hand, guys.”
“He’s ambidestric,” said Billy Kristelis.
“Which hand are you better with?” asked Roy.
Dorp was at least two or three inches taller than the other boys but he was skinny. His coat was too small for him so his wrists stuck out. Roy noticed how long they were.
“I shoot about the same with either one,” said Dorp. “When I’m off, I miss with both.”
“Bobby’s gonna join the army,” said Magic Frank.
“When I’m seventeen,” Dorp said, “in three months. My brother Dominic’s in already.”
“What happened to him?” asked Jimmy Boyle. “Is he okay?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Dorp. “He’s in Germany now, but he’s gonna re-up so he can go to Indochina. Bein’ in the army’s the best way to see the world, Dom says. I’m goin’ in the infantry, like he did. They’re the ones who get to do the real fightin’.”