The Winter War

Story by Natalie Mills · Estimated Reading Time: 9 Minutes

The worst part of the Winter War was watching the old people fight it. No young people wanted to join. Instead, they let the old men with long white eyebrows and women with hair going from silvery-brown to white pick up the guns and planes and bombs and drive into each other all winter long. No one was happy about it. The old people thought the young people were neglecting their duties; the young people thought the old people were wasting their time. They were both right.

Salem Pree, a man who had white eyebrows (shaved short once a month by his barber) wasn’t happy about it, either. He would rather be fishing at his cottage up north, but he was roped into this ridiculous war. It started in early fall. The leaves were thinking about changing colors but hadn’t yet, and the last taste of July heat was still in the air like the smell of a bonfire the morning after it burns out.

The first shot was fired by a woman—a big victory for feminism—as she aimed over the hill and hit her own husband square on the jaw with a shot that shattered his jawbone and several teeth. Their joint health insurance covered everything except the new set of dentures, so they paid $2,500 out of pocket for a better pair of teeth than he had before. After the war, when they ate out with friends, he would order the chewiest food to prove what she did to him didn’t hurt. When he told the story to his own friends, he would pat his beard and say, “Still squeaks like a drowning kitten when I eat steak,” with all the pride of an outlaw in a movie.

Salem didn’t know the woman or her husband, but a week and a half after she shot him, Salem was recruited by his golfing buddies to join the war. Salem had a truck and they needed it, his friends said, to bring the Weapon to the battlefield. Salem hated having a truck in moments like these—when friends needed help moving, when his grandchildren wanted to go off-roading, and when war broke out between his neighbors. Just once, he said, he would drive his truck for them, but that was it. After that, he was out—going back to his cabin to fish and shoot at real animals and not just old men in dentures.

Salem and his friends drove out to the field on a Wednesday afternoon: Scott, a retiree who restored old cars; Dennis, who still worked long hours but read seven newspapers a day (picked up off the ground, he would remind them); and Priscilla, a semi-retired lawyer who worked half-days on Tuesdays and Thursdays, fought for the cause on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and golfed on Saturdays and Sundays.

Scott sat with Salem in his truck with the Weapon in the back, and Priscilla drove behind them with Dennis in the passenger seat flicking the latest headlines at her as they drove. They unloaded the Weapon, and Dennis shouted instructions mixed with praise for the beauty of the thing.

“Lower it steady; it’s going to take a real fighter to beat this. Don’t let that end drop first. I can’t wait to see what they’ll say to this.”

They lowered it onto the ground and started rolling it up the clipped grass of the hill. The battles took place on the other side, land reserved for them three times a week through the County Park District.

Salem spun his keys around his index finger and waved goodbye. “Have fun, and stay safe,” he called, getting back into the truck. Scott stopped him.

How would they get the Weapon home if he didn’t stay? Salem thought about it—he could drive to the nearby gas station and get a coffee as they fought, get a car wash, and then return at the end of the battle. Scott wasn’t having it.

Didn’t Salem know the stakes? Salem didn’t.

Hadn’t Salem read the seven newspapers? He hadn’t.

Couldn’t Salem see that leaving was as good as letting the other side win? He couldn’t.

But he compromised, promising to stay at the park but in his truck far away from the battle. He was the fourth in their golf group, and he didn’t want to lose that. The three faces, weathered and excited, counted his staying as their first victory and charged over the hill to collect another on the grassy battlefield of a well-kept county park that doubled as a soccer field after school let out at 3pm.

Other soldiers paraded in on the asphalt road, filling up the parking lot and marching, like his friends, up and over the hill. Salem drove the truck to a lone maple tree at the far end of the lot and parked underneath, watching in the rearview mirror as the soldiers mounted the hill, hoisting makeshift weapons, ready to go to war.

Salem crossed his arms over his chest and stared out at the sky. A while later, he awoke, told himself he was just resting his eyes, and saw smoke hazing over the hill. He wondered what it looked like over there, all his friends fighting tooth and nail, people who could barely take their right of way at a stop sign taking down their neighbors and enemies over a war like this.

The battle was only halfway done, so he climbed the hill to see for himself what he was declining to participate in.

The weapons and footsteps had made a warpath of matted down the grass with Queen Anne’s lace and daisies crushed on either side. On the other side of the hill, the grass rolled down softly into a field, messy with cargo shorts and golf caps, windbreakers and polo shirts, his peers tearing into one another with soft white rolls of hair and bald heads bouncing around among the Weapons that had been abandoned early on.

For every Weapon that stood on the side of Salem’s friends, the enemy had an equal one pointing back. Vindictive quotes, historical examples, chart, graphs, and tedious infographics were strewn across the field. Inaccurate videos had been left on the sidelines early on, and easily debunked claims sat in piles next to them with misplaced commas and misspelled words spilling off the sides and covering the grass below with a sludgy tar.

Scott’s Weapon, the Weapon worth wrangling Salem’s truck out to this field for, was abandoned at the center of the fray, a George Orwell quote on three wheels aimed squarely at a lesser-known quote from Adam Smith, both equally mired in the soft mud and grass, unable to defeat each other or anyone else.

Priscilla ran towards him with a whoop. Everywhere on the battleground, Salem saw his peers scraped at the knees and arms, exposed skin scratched with fingernails and car keys. A man nearby tossed his thin white hair back and forth as he bit into another man’s arm. But there did seem to be some sort of gentleman’s code—no glasses were knocked off, no hearing aids pulled out, and everyone seemed to be evenly matched with an enemy of equal size, agility, and years.

A long whistle came across the field. A twenty-something man—younger than everyone else by four decades—walked through them. His outfit stood out among the others—flip flops and a blue Park District t-shirt, jeans and long brown hair. He called for the break and the fighters found their own sides, trickling off the field.

The war that had started off with talk of guns and bombs and planes had been tamed into this—scratching and biting on a park district lot for 120 minutes three times a week. They could abide these rules, they decided; war shouldn’t interrupt the weekends. The young man waited a few minutes, scrolling through his phone while the warriors wrapped wounds and rehydrated, then blew the whistle again, rolling his eyes at the holler and charge of both sides as they were released.

For the next hour, Salem watched the throng grapple, inadequate weapons tossed aside, everything coming down to hands and legs, kicks and fists.

At one point, an old man with browning teeth and a slender cane in his left hand charged the hill to attack Salem, but Salem staved him off with a good-natured wave, just like he refused the dessert menu at a restaurant. He wasn’t involved in this ridiculous war. He didn’t want to sweat under his armpits while clenching another man’s leather belt, as Scott was doing. Or to have his shirt pulled up over his stomach as Dennis’s was, leaving sagging, hairy skin exposed across his torso. Or to writhe with rage as Priscilla did in her stiff visor and golf shorts, shouting and screaming at a long-haired woman in a floor-length patterned skirt.

At the end of the last whistle, the sea of soldiers parted, and Dennis took one final swing at his opponent, hitting his forehead with a dull thud as they turned away from each other. They trekked back up the hill. “See,” said Dennis, approaching Salem, “If we didn’t do this, who would?”

Salem didn’t have an answer. He wasn’t sure who would do it or why they should, but he also knew better than to say anything, especially as Dennis proudly nursed a black eye with an ice pack. The only two people walking away unscathed from the battle were himself and the referee, who was now sitting in the golf cart with his feet up, scrolling through his phone.

Even though Scott’s prized Weapon was no good in this battle, he insisted on bringing it with them, lugging it back up the hill through its earlier tracks to the truck. Scott thought it might be helpful in some future battle. Most of the Weapons were left on the field, stray reminders for the soldiers of what hadn’t worked.

Like all good wars, the name was a misnomer. The Winter War started in fall and ended in Spring, although poetic historians years later would attribute the name to the age of the participants, not the season they fought. Though it made a better explanation, it wasn’t true. Perhaps the true reason for the name, the Winter War, was for the day that it changed directions, a winter day when the soldiers began losing steam, like a pool toy left to deflate in a garage on its own time. By spring, the war was winding down, a dozen battles or so in the wet and rainy March. An awful April scuffle with allergies disqualifying most of the best fighters. A final punch in May that was mostly the two sides shouting insults between the weekend plans they were making.

Salem, though, was there for the winter battle that did seem to change the pace of the war. He drove his truck again, helping with the recruits as he now did. Why not? He thought. He could offer something without joining the fray. It was a twilight winter afternoon that should have been spent lazily shoveling a dusting of snow from the front sidewalk of his house, but instead he watched the brown-haired referee, now in black snow boots instead of flip flops, blow his whistle from the sidelines.

In a moment of silence that only snow can bring, with lungs heaving and toes rippling with cold, Scott threw a smack at his opponent, a younger man from a nearby town whose children had just moved out. “I’m getting too old for this,” Scott murmured. The man, seeming older now, laughed, “Aren’t we all?” In the snowy silence, the whole field laughed, except the referee in black boots. Two rounds later, a misplaced punch landed on the referee’s face instead of a soldier’s. The whole field laughed again.

And it just wasn’t as interesting after that. The couple that started it had their stories to tell. Scott had his Weapon, which fared better anecdotally than on the field, and Salem had a thousand extra miles on his truck, driving the troops to and from the field. The Winter War was never officially over, but by June, it was relegated to war stories and hero tales—both sides convinced they were heroes and never villains.

His golf foursome got back into the swing of playing together, especially enjoying their Wednesday outings, where the worst injuries they encountered were calloused hands and sore shoulders. One day, they tried a new course, one that sidled up next a forest owned by the county.

Out among the trees, they spotted young people running between makeshift barricades, toting weapons of their own through the forest as they shot at their friends. Near to the fence, a brown-haired man in a black tank top and gym shorts rallied some troops. It was the referee for their Winter War. For once, his phone was away, but instead he held his own Weapon, an anecdote about a battle gone wrong and getting punched in the face. But when he charged into the fray, his Weapon was useless against the weapon of his opponent, a savvy one-liner that struck hard but disappeared as soon as you looked at it too closely.

Salem, Scott, Priscilla, and Dennis continued their golf game. They finished with lunch on the patio, and Dennis wondered aloud over drinks, “Who on earth would waste such a beautiful summer day fighting over something so useless like that?”

Salem had a few guesses, but he sipped his drink and stayed silent.

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