Who Cut the Cheese
World War and Hiccups
IT WAS NIGHTTIME in Oslo, Norway, and it was snowing. Big, seemingly innocent snowflakes wafted down from the sky to land on the city’s roofs, streets, and parks. A weatherperson would surely have explained to you that the snowflakes were just frozen rain, which came from the clouds, but the fact is that
no one really knows for sure. Snowflakes could, for example, come from the moon, which was visible through gaps in the cloud cover and cast a magical light down over the sleeping city. The snow crystals that hit the asphalt in front of Town Hall melted immediately and ran off as water into the nearest manhole cover, dripping through its openings down into a pipe that led directly into the sewer network that crisscrossed back and forth down there, deep below Oslo.
No one was really sure what was actually down there in that sewer world, but if you were so dumb and brave as to climb down there on this December night, remain completely still, and hold your breath, you would hear a few strange things. Water dripping, sewage gurgling, rats rustling, a frog croaking. And—if you were really unlucky—the sound of a couple of massive jaws that creaked open into a mouth the size of an inflatable swim ring, the sound of anaconda saliva dripping, and then an ear-splitting snap as the orifice
slammed shut. After that, it was guaranteed to be complete silence for you, my unlucky friend. But seeing as you weren’t so unlucky, you would have heard other sounds on this night, sounds that would amaze you. The sound of a waffle iron closing, of butter sizzling, voices murmuring softly, a waffle iron opening. And then: quiet chewing.
EVENTUALLY THE SNOW stopped falling, the chewing ceased, and the people of Oslo started waking up to a new day, heading off through the winter darkness and slush to work and school. And just as Mrs. Strobe started telling her students about World War II, a pale winter sun that had overslept once again cautiously peeped over the hilltop.
Lisa was sitting at her desk, looking at the board. Mrs. Strobe had written the words WORLD WAR TOO
up there. She had misspelled “two.” And this was bothering Lisa—who liked things to be spelled correctly—so
much that she wasn’t quite able to concentrate on Mrs. Strobe, who was talking about how the Germans had attacked Norway in 1940 and how a handful of heroes had squared things away with those Germans, so that the Norwegians had won the war and could sing, “Victory is ours, we won the war, victory is ours.”
“Well, what was everyone else doing, then, huh?”
“We raise our hands when we want to ask a question, Nilly!” Mrs. Strobe said sternly.
“Yes, I bet you do,” Nilly said. “But I don’t see how that would result in answers that were any better. My method, Mrs. Strobe, is just to plunge right in and . . . ” The tiny little red-haired and very freckled boy named Nilly raised a tiny little hand up in the air as if he were picking invisible apples. “Boom! Grab hold of the conversation, hang on to it, keep it under my control, give wings to my words and let them fly toward you . . . ”
Mrs. Strobe bent her head and stared, her eyes
bulging over the tops of her glasses, which slipped yet another inch farther down her long nose. And to her alarm, Lisa saw that Mrs. Strobe had raised her hand in preparation for one of her infamous desk slaps. The sound of the flesh on Mrs. Strobe’s hand striking wood was terrifying. It was said that it had been known to make grown men sob and mothers cry for their mommies. Although, now that Lisa thought about it, Nilly was the one who had told her that; so she wasn’t a hundred percent sure that it was a hundred percent true.
“What were the people who weren’t heroes doing?” Nilly repeated. “Answer, my dear teacher, whose beauty is exceeded only by your wisdom. Answer and let us drink from the font of your knowledge.”
Mrs. Strobe lowered her hand and sighed. And Lisa thought she could see the corners of the woman’s mouth twitching despite all her strictness. Mrs. Strobe was not a lady given to overdoing smiling or any of the other sunnier facial expressions.
“The Norwegians who weren’t heroes during the war,” Mrs. Strobe began. “They . . . uh, rooted.”
“Rooted?” Nilly asked.
“They rooted for the heroes. And for the king, who had escaped to London.”
“So, they did nothing,” Nilly said.
“It’s not that simple,” Mrs. Strobe replied. “Not everyone can be a hero.”
“Why not?” Nilly asked.
“Why not what?” Mrs. Strobe asked.
“Why can’t everyone be a hero?” Nilly asked, flipping his red bangs, which because of his stature were only just slightly visible above the edge of his desk.
In the silence that followed, Lisa could hear yelling and hiccuping from the classroom next door to theirs. And she knew it was the new crafts teacher, whose name was Gregory Galvanius but whom they just called Mr. Hiccup because he started hiccuping whenever he was feeling stressed out.
“Truls!” Gregory Galvanius screeched in a desperate falsetto. “Hiccup! Trym! Hiccup!”
Lisa heard the mean laugh of Truls and the almost equally mean laugh of his twin brother Trym, then footsteps running, and a door being flung open.
“Not everyone has it in them to be heroes,” Mrs. Strobe continued. “Most people just want peace and quiet so they can go on about their business without being bothered too much by other people.”
By now most of the class had stopped paying attention and were staring out the windows instead. Because they could see Truls and Trym Thrane running around out there on the snow-covered playground. It was not a pretty sight, because Truls and Trym were two very fat children, and the thighs of their pants rubbed together as they ran. But the person chasing them wasn’t any more elegant. Mr. Hiccup was struggling along in the morning sunlight in a bent-over, knock-kneed trot, like a clumsy moose in fuzzy slippers. The
reason he was struggling and bent over was that his desk chair appeared to have become stuck to the seat of Mr. Hiccup’s pants, and he was awkwardly lugging it around with him.
Mrs. Strobe looked out the window and sighed heavily. “Nilly, I’m afraid some people quite simply are just very normal people without a speck of anything heroic in them.”
“What’s with that chair?” Nilly asked softly.
“Looks like someone sewed it onto his pants,” Lisa said with a yawn. “And uh-oh, he’s almost to the icy parts. . . . ”
The fuzzy slippers that belonged to Gregory Galvanius, a.k.a. Mr. Hiccup, started spinning underneath him. And then he lost his balance and tipped backward. Right onto his butt. And since his rear end was sewn to the chair, and the chair had wheels, and the wheels were nicely lubricated, and the schoolyard sloped gently downward toward Cannon Creek,
Mr. Hiccup suddenly found himself an unwilling passenger on a desk chair that was rolling downhill with ever increasing speed.
“Good God!” Mrs. Strobe exclaimed in alarm as she discovered her colleague’s rapid journey toward the end of the world—or at least the end of school grounds.
For several seconds, it was so quiet that the only thing that could be heard was the rumbling of the chair wheels over the ice, the brushing sound of slippery slippers desperately trying to brake, plus a frenetic hiccuping. Then the chair and the crafts teacher hit the snowdrift at the edge of the schoolyard. And the drift sort of exploded with a poof, and the next instant the air was filled with powdery snow. The chair and Gregory Galvanius had disappeared without a trace!