The fairest of them all

        We knew the Nazis were close; we could hear the storm trooper boots and the clatter of rifles close behind us. We lay silently against the musty hay, praying they would pass us by if we remained still and silent enough in the rotting hayloft of the dilapidated barn we were hiding in. As I huddled against the damp mattress of straw, I heard two adolescent voices converse in German:
        "I know they came this way," said the first.
        "Probably in the loft," replied the second. They had us. And so it would finally end. I felt relief sweep over me like a fresh spring wind. The futile running was finally at an end. I heard the voices again as the jackboot footsteps grew nearer.
        "Wait a minute..." said the first voice.
        "I smell something..." said the second.
        "I do too..." said the first, "...and I think... It's Rice Krispie Bars!"
        There were no Rice Krispie Bars in wartime Nazi Germany. Plenty of strudel, but no gooey marshmallow cookies named for the breakfast cereal they were made of. My suspension of disbelief sagged like a deflated parade balloon.
        "Hey! Come back here!" I called after Cousin A and Sister B as they broke into a trot towards our grandmother's house.
        "Aren't you going to take us prisoners?" I pleaded. "We'll play right this time, I promise!" This was one of my favorite games and Cousin A and Sister B were clearly spoiling it for everybody.
        "Those quitters!" I said as I climbed down from the hayloft like a sulking howler monkey. "Just when stuff gets good they have to go and quit."
        "I think they're right," said Cousin B. "I smell Rice Krispie bars, too." Cousin B galloped off like the prize mare she dreamed she was. The rest of us tried to keep up but could not match her enviable stride. We trailed in her dust like the broken opponents of Secretariat.
        Besides our more traditional games, like Sardines and Statues, we also enjoyed some of our own invention, which ranged from creative to downright bizarre. Besides the "Chased by Nazis" game (I think one of us probably had to do a book report on Anne Frank) we had a popular favorite called "Chicken Heart." This premise was inspired by a Bill Cosby record Sister A left at our Grandmother's house. On the record, Mr. Cosby describes a giant chicken heart that runs amok and devours New Jersey, one city block at a time. This concept amused and terrified us and we wasted no time integrating it into our playtime activities. We ran screaming with maudlin horror as the designated "Chicken Heart" portrayer chased the rest of us back and forth across Aunt A's farm, sometimes a little beyond. This game may seem less than inspired, but it drove away many the case of summertime ennui.
        That particular afternoon we took a brief respite from our predictable pursuit games in the form of Rice Krispie bars and our favorite Homer and Jethro record. As the last strains of Poor Old Elijah faded, the familiar and inevitable indecision set in. "What should we do now? I'm sick of that game. You always want to play that; let's not and say we did."
        We ended up on the porch of Aunt A's house, posing these and similar questions at length and with considerable volume. Aunt A finally intervened -- mercifully -- and dragged a large box of forgotten dresses (mostly prom formals from the fifties and sixties) out onto the porch. It would prove to be the proverbial Pandora's box of discord, indeed.
        You have heard many times, no doubt, that tripe about the "dreamy, slow motion" quality that reality takes on when something dreadful is happening. I'm sure that is exactly what I was feeling when one of my sisters or cousins suggested that we have a beauty contest. A far away bell was probably tolling.
        Before I could really grasp what was happening, Sister C and Cousin A were locked in mortal combat against the side of the house like Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr up against the boards, a baby blue prom formal straining between them.
        "I saw it first!" shrieked Cousin A.
        "You only want it because I want it!" insisted Sister C. Cousin C blew past me like an inscrutable breeze.
        "This is a stupid game," she observed, wisely. "I'm going to record the radio with the tape recorder." I fell into line behind her.
        "Where do you think you're going?" Cousin A shouted at me. I shrugged.
        "Oh, no you don't! We need a judge and an Emcee and you're the man. Get back here and find yourself a microphone."
        The next thing I knew I was speaking into a defunct electric razor and trying to referee what had all the earmarks of a good soccer riot. Cousin B was already bored with our new game and was taunting Sister B in a shrill and silly voice. Sister B was pleading in earnest with Cousin B to take the proceedings more seriously. Cousin A and Sister C had negotiated a tenuous truce concerning the baby blue prom formal, but we all knew that the issue would come up again. Cousin C was wisely hiding away in her bedroom, taping bubblegum pop songs off of KDWB 63. I longed to join her, but I was bound to my role in our new game with invisible chains.
        Our pageant was completely improvised, yielding some very creative results. Sister C sang I Never Promised you a Rose Garden with verve and poignancy, leaving the rest of us dewy-eyed and silent. Sister B wrapped up the poise category with her unmatched and soon to be imitated catwalk stride. Cousin A unleashed an endless barrage of "knock-knock" jokes that left us all rolling in the aisles. It was clear that choosing a winner would be a difficult and potentially dangerous task. I began to plan my escape.
        "Now let's do the evening gown competition. I get to wear the blue dress now," said Cousin A. This suggestion fell out like an off-color joke at a funeral reception. Sister C stormed off and began to brood like a North Atlantic ice storm.
        After what seemed like the Entebbe hostage negotiations, the infamous baby blue prom dress was barred from the proceedings, officially. Our competition resumed and the moment I was dreading most inevitably arrived.
        "So..." said Cousin A, "Who's the winner, Dougie?" I felt like Voltaire awaiting sentencing. I shrugged.
        "C'mon," said Sister C, "Out with the results. You're the judge." All eyes fell on me. Dread and panic swelled inside me like unbaked cookie dough.
        We all know that in times of extreme crisis sometimes our body supersedes the mind and stages a kind of mutiny. This physiological coup de grace leaves the body in complete charge while the mind stands by as helpless as Captain Bligh. I broke into a full run and cleared the trees before any of the contestants knew what happened. I arrived at Aunt A's house winded, but elated.
        "The girls said they would like YOU to judge the contest," I lied to my aunt. She seemed amused by the idea and followed me out to the broken grove of trees where our pageant was being staged. I heaved an enormous sigh of relief and followed closely behind her.
        Aunt A did the wise and prudent thing, of course, and called the whole contest a draw. This ruling was the obvious way out of the dilemma, but it was also a controversial decision; one that I'm not sure would have been accepted if it had been proposed by me. I was certain that I had done the right thing and had once again escaped bodily harm through quick thinking and intuitive ingenuity, the way I would be called upon to do many times before my tour of duty was up on the farm.
        "Let's never play that again," I suggested to Cousin B, who was taunting a colony of ants with a stick and ignoring every word I said.


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