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Finally, the American trucks were coming. When the first was little more than two hundred meters away, I walked into the middle of the road, removed my shirt, and waited. I wanted the American soldiers to know that I did not wear bombs.
I held my palms together as the trucks came. People started shouting. Horns started blowing. Soldiers beat on the roof of their trucks. They waved their guns.
I wanted to cover my ears and run. I did not. I knew what to say. “Seventeen times one is seventeen. Seventeen times two is thirty-four. Seventeen times three … .”
By the time I was nearly finished, one of the soldiers had walked to me. He covered me in his shadow. He was a giant. When everyone was quiet, listening, he asked, “What are you saying?”
I had known he would say that. “I know times.”
“What in the hell are you talking about?”
“I know times,” I said it again. “Seventeen times fourteen is two hundred thirty-eight.”
He snorted, turned back to the trucks, said something I did not know, and turned to me again. “What is nineteen times twenty-three?”
I folded my hands, bowed to him, and said, “Nineteen times twenty-three is four hundred thirty-seven.”
The American soldier laughed. “How old are you, boy?”
“Old?” I had to remember. “Old. Seven and three-fourths.”
“Where is your daddy? Or, mama?”
“Daddy. Mama. Dead.”
“Where do you live?”
I knew he would say that and pointed to the rubble that had been my home.
He stood there for a while looking at me and the wrecked walls. Finally, he asked, “Do you want to come with us?”
He did not take my raised hand. Instead, he reached down and picked me up. “What is fourteen times six?”
I told him fourteen times six, and fourteen times sixteen.
He carried me to the American trucks.
Author’s Note: A forgotten memory was the basis for this story. After the World War II, we were going to move from Selma to Orrville in Alabama. The Orrville house was not finished in September, so we rode those first weeks to the Orrville School as dad went to work on what would be our new home.
For some reason, we were always late for school. In the fourth grade, I was called New Boy. And my classmates told me they already had friends.
One day, the room was very quiet as I walked in and took my seat between Dudley Reynolds and Margie Ann Bell. “James,” Mrs. Herndon said my name. “I’ve been told you know multiplication tables. Stand up and tell us the multiplication table for eighteen.”
Eighteen was not hard. “Eighteen times one is eighteen. Eighteen time two is thirty-six. Eighteen times three is fifty-four! Eighteen times four is …”
Everything seemed to change after that.