Wild Hands Toward the Sky

Book Summary

by Ray Elliott

Wild Hands Toward the SkyYoung John Walter McElligott has no memories of his father, who was killed on Guadalcanal during World War II when John Walter was only two years old. But even though John Walter never knew him, he misses him as he grows up, lonesome and longing, in a small, rural Southern Illinois farm community. He and his mother, Lorene, now live with his Aunt Helen and Uncle Bob, or "Big" as he affectionately calls him, and their two daughters.

In John Walter's search to understand why he has been denied his father, he is inescapably drawn to the other men of the area who served in the war and returned, especially his older cousin, Sam, who was injured during the D-Day invasion and fought on through Europe until the end of the war. Out of their own respect for their fallen comrade, they all treat John Walter with a calculated deference and bring him into their world. They seem compelled to teach him their hard-earned lessons about life, responsibility, duty and honor. He nearly idolizes them, wants to follow in their footsteps, despite hearing their words of caution and witnessing the problems they have in dealing with their own war experiences and the civilian life that follows. But amid their own pain and confusion, John Walter still admires them as they work, drink, fight and die while they try to get along in a world to which they weren't prepared to return.

John Walter tries to apply their lessons to his own life as he struggles to find his place and learn who he is destined to become amid the sheltered, quiet life of the rural Midwest that, too, is on the brink of change in the aftermath of the war.

"... a marvelous novel of remembrance and reflection. Having grown up in the nearby post-war Southern Indiana towns of Patoka and Princeton, the novel's wonderful characters and narrative has a ring of truthfulness I have never before experienced in a literary work."

- Alan K. Collins. Las Vegas, NV

The Author: Ray Elliott

Ray Elliott is an editor, a publisher and an author of numerous works of nonfiction. As a longtime English and journalism educator, he has encouraged and inspired young people to pursue their dreams. In 1999, he left the classroom to pursue his own dreams and began work on the book that had been running through his mind since the days following World War II. Since that time, he's also been a farmer, a Marine, an oil field roughneck, a construction laborer and a truck driver. He now lives in Urbana, Illinois, with his wife and two daughters. This is his first novel.

Read an Excerpt

He was quiet after that and looked out over the steering wheel at the lightning that had started flashing in the sky. We was headed for Indianapolis and had one more stop before we was loaded up. It had just started to rain a little when we pulled into Burlson Williams' barnyard. He had the gate open and pointed to the door at the corner of the barn.

"Let's get this calf loaded an' out of here before it really starts rainin', Burl," Sam said as he drove past. Then to me he said, "Don't let him get started on a story while I'm loadin' or we'll get our asses wet."

Burlson always had a story when you stopped there. He wasn't quite as old as my granddads, but he seemed pretty old to me. Every time I ever saw him, he had a pipe clenched between his teeth and wore faded old bib overalls and a blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up to just above the elbow unless it was Saturday and he was going to town. Then he wore a new pair of overalls and a new blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up to just above the elbows. I'd never seen him with a cap on, but his forehead was much lighter than the rest of his face.

His eyes would light up when he told a story. He'd take the pipe from his mouth and hold it in his hand, waving it like a wand as the story unfolded. One day, he'd got Big cornered and was telling him about the foxes getting into his chickens every night for a week and dragging off a chicken just before morning. Burlson said he had been "bound and determined" to catch that old fox before he ate up all of the hens that was laying eggs.

"Well, sir," he said, cackling a little as he got to the end of the story. "Long 'bout four in the morning, I woke up an' heard this commotion out in the hen house. The dogs hadn't raised no ruckus, but I figured it was that old fox up to his tricks again. I figured on puttin' an end to them tricks an' took my old double barrel an' headed out to the hen house. It was just startin' to get light in the east, but I couldn't see much. I walked out through the chicken lot with both barrels ready for that rascal.

"When I got to the hen house, I slipped the pin out of the door an' opened it quiet like so's not to make any noise. The ruckus had stopped, but I figured that old fox might still be in there. So I started creepin' in there with my old double barrel at the ready. I reckon I'd taken about three steps when I felt somethin' wet up against my behind, right through the openin' in my night shirt. I jumped forward, hollerin' out an' pulled the trigger on both barrels. Old hens flew everywhere. An' I turned an' headed out the door. I'd dropped the double barrel on the floor an' dang near tripped over Old Blue who'd been followin' me into the hen house, unbeknownst to me, an' run his nose right into my behind an' scared the bejesus out of me. Maude an' I cleaned old hens until noon."

Burlson had slapped his leg and nearly bent over double when he finished the story. I believed every word and could see every thing he'd been telling Big. It seemed like it happened right before my eyes. I wanted to know for sure.

"Did that really happen, Burlson?" I asked when he had settled down some. "Did you really shoot a bunch of hens?"

"It's true even if it's not, isn't it?" he said, laughing again. "Didn't you see it happenin'?"

That one stumped me. So I ask Big when we left if Burlson's story was true. Big allowed as how it might be. "But Burlson's a storyteller," he said. "He stretches things a little. An' he tells you lots of things that's true but didn't really happen. He just imagines whatever he has to to fit his story an' makes them to be whatever he wants them to be."

That sort of stumped me, too. But Burlson was a storyteller all right. The shock of white hair on his head blew in the wind as we passed him standing with the opened gate. By the time he had it closed, Sam had backed up to the barn door and had the loading chute pulled out from under the truck and ready for the sideboards. He'd left room for the door to swing open to load the calf without backing all the way to the door. Burlson got one sideboard off the side of the truck and put it in the chute while Sam got the other. Just as Sam started to open the door, a bolt of lightning flashed across the sky and a clap of thunder boomed and rolled across the countryside. I jumped. Sam turned real quick and dove under the loading chute and the back of the truck, grasping his hands over his head when he hit the ground. The rain started coming down harder, and Sam crawled out from under the truck. He never looked at us but opened the door and led the skittish calf from the barn and up the chute.

Burlson and I stood next to the barn to shield us from the rain a little while Sam loaded the veal calf. "He was in the war," Burlson said, a lot more solemn and quiet that I'd ever heard him. "Him and my boy was there at Normandy on Invasion Day. They're awful techy sometimes 'cause of what they went through. Don't say nothin' to him 'bout what you seen. He's embarrassed, I 'xpect."

Sam let the end gate down and put the loading chute back and side boards back on the truck without looking at us or saying a word. While he was writing out the bill of lading for the calf and handing it out the window looking straight ahead, I crawled in the truck on the other side and done what Burlson'd told me and never said a word after we pulled out of the barn lot. He waved to us as we pulled away. Sam waved, and I started talking about baseball like nothing ever happened.