Part Of Him Was Lost
© Copyright 2017 by Joni Bour
Honorable Mention--2017 Travel Nonfiction
William stood quietly on the planked walkway to the Gardner General Store, and rubbed his work-hardened hands through his wild, salt and pepper hair. This was a nervous habit, he’d performed when his first son had been born breech, and when there was a cougar hunting his calves. Usually, he would pace a little, or maybe let off a few curse words, then fix to getting busy. On that day however, the trouble was bigger than a cougar, or a crop failing, hell it was the biggest problem that would ever be in his lifetime. The short man, with his hair still wild, hadn’t made up his mind if he ought to make a run for home, or wait for even worse news than what’d just been said over the static of Avery’s Philco radio.
When decisiveness failed the usually resolute William, he took comfort in the corn cob pipe his eldest boy Albert, had carved for him from his supper leavins’. In his left hand, he cradled the coarse-surfaced pipe between his thumb and forefinger, and poked the tobacco down good with a finger from his right. Quickly dragging a wooden match down the rough-hewn pillar, he lit his pipe, took a few puffs then inhaled deep, mentally counting the miles to home.
William lost himself in days long ago, scared, shell shocked, and near starved in a trench he’d barely survived. Hadn’t that been the war that ended all wars? The tobacco cleared his head, and with his decision made, he tapped the tobacco out against the heel of his well-worn boot, hitched up his suspenders, and made to be on his way.
The short, hard-working farmer would say, it was that moment, when he climbed up on his buckboard and said G’ddup, that he realized he’d just lost a son to war, just as his mother had once lost him. The man pushed his horses as hard as a farmer ought, and still plan on having horses to depend on for another day. The man and his team pulled a wagon full of winter supplies, pressing on, crossing a creek that had risen a good two inches since last they passed, and on into the darkness of a dreary December day. The horses were not fast, but were sure-footed, and even in the darkness and rain, they sensed their way through the giants of the old growth forest.
The man and his team arrived in late afternoon, and breathed in the smells of cooking from the ramshackle house. He nearly stepped on his old coon dog’s head as he jumped down into the early wintery darkness. He heard coyotes howling a few miles back, and unconsciously glanced around to see the chickens were safe. He patted the old dog on the head, and spoke something in a foreign tongue to the horses, as he headed for the house. A young man stepped off the porch to tend the horses, but his father stopped him, saying quietly to go inside, the horses would keep a bit.
William, and his son Roy, stepped inside, with the boot heels on the plank floors announcing them. Sons, daughters, a few spouses and his wife, were on their way to greet him, but came along faster when he shouted to be hasty. Dixie hushed her family ranging in ages from near 17-30 years, and waited for William to speak. He lifted his eyes, with first a hint of sorrow followed by resolve, and said,” We been attacked by the Japs. We’re at war.” Dixie, whose love for William knew no bounds, began to weep, recalling the many sleepless nights, and brooding days William still suffered in the war he had been called to serve. She cleared her throat to protest what she was certain her husband would say, “William Henry, this family has…” But she stopped mid-sentence with the scraping sounds of heavy oak chairs being scooted across the smooth spruce floor. Twenty-nine-year-old Carl and twenty-eight- year-old Roy, the two youngest sons, rose from their chairs to stand before their father William, who stood to face them. “You boys go to do what’s right, but then you get on home.” Dixie turned to the give the metal sink an awfully good scrub, so that none in family could see her tears. William hitched up his suspenders, filled his pipe and was followed out the door by Albert and Loren to tend the horses and wagon.
Three days later, my granddad Carl and great uncle Roy, hitched a ride in the back of a freezing cold work truck, driven by a farmer, who had lost most of his right hand to a cultivator, and was a veteran himself. The man was proud to drive the young men the 45 miles down a rough and rocky road that would later become part of US Highway 101. The weather was foul, with gale force winds, and sideways rain, and the men were cold and miserable. When they finally arrived, the farmer who had little money and even less time, still sat with the men, bought each a meal, and choked back what he claimed was a tickle in his throat. He shook Carl and Roy’s hands firmly, and quickly walked away.
Carl was good spirited, sandy haired, and ready to experience the world. He joined the US Army, assigned to Fort Hood, Texas, where he served as an airplane mechanic. He would see no armed action, but worked hard building engines, and rebuilding parts twelve hours a day every day, in the Texas heat, a lifetime away from anything familiar. When he wasn’t on duty, he found time to court, and later marry my grandma Sealy Votaw. Carl missed the home place and his family, but he was an adaptable young man, and his letters home were usually happy enough, containing photos of him posing next to a plane, or maybe dancing with his bride Sealy. Sometimes he tucked a little money between the pages, and once mentioned little Jack, the boy he would adopt after the war, and who grew up to be my father.
Roy was different than William and Dixie’s other nine children. Growing up, he was well-liked, but shy, prone to bust the chops of a bully, just as quick as he would nurse an injured duck. He could barely read, or write, yet he was smart, not in the way of books, or memorized knowledge, but in the way of his thinking. He could fix things, make things, and solve things. He was kind, but stoic, gentle but tough; a different sort of man.
When Roy climbed off the green Army bus with 30 other wide-eyed young sons, he was overwhelmed by everything, having never before left the county where he’d been born, never sipped hard liquor, except for a few dips from the still, never kissed a girl, or seen a moving picture, and had only known how to drive a tractor or a team of horses. He was just a young man off the farm, sharp as a whip about crops, and cows, and fences, and hunting, but lost in a world full of devastation and war. Roy was trained as a medic mostly because he could carry a full-grown man on his shoulders and run straight up a hill, but also proved to be gifted in the art of dressing a wound while someone else tried to end his life.
Roy rarely wrote letters, but when he did, he never let on about the things he experienced; marching across Africa, the invasion of Italy, or his landing on Normandy. In his four years of service, he never once took leave to return to the Smith home place and tried never to worry his parents, who worried every day of his service. He was awarded medals for his bravery, but not until his passing many years later, was the depth of his service completely discovered, in the form of a detailed military citation, folded and tucked away neatly in a shoebox beneath his bed.
For hours on end, Roy had crawled on his belly across a sandy beach to reach the severely wounded. He would for years, recall the shame of having to crawl across the fallen dead, to reach the fallen, living, crying for his help. He had spent many sleepless, hungry nights, with his bones and nerves being rattled by distant shelling. He followed his first general order to the letter, and if in his duty, Roy had ever taken a life, it was an experience he never shared with another living soul. He was the sort of man whose pride involved crops well-tended, a fence built strong, or a story told right, nothing in the taking of life would have prided him.
At the end of the war, Carl returned to the home place and William and Dixie. Carl was a proud new husband and father, ready to begin a new family with a new home on the property. He smiled a lot, talked a lot; his life had barely skipped a beat. Roy returned soon after and Dixie tossed her apron aside, rushing to the porch to greet her youngest son. She stopped in her tracks seeing someone, who seemed to be Roy, with the shape of him, but the eyes of him were different. She had laid her cheek against his lapel, and cried the salty tears of a mother, who’d lost her son to war. William had also come running from the fields, as fast as a stoic man would run. When he caught sight of the man in the uniform, he’d slowed, for this man, whose back was turned, was too thin, and seemed shorter, and much older. The soldier turned when he’d heard the familiar footsteps of his father but even then, William was not sure it was his youngest son. When Roy took a limpy walk towards his father, William took his handkerchief from his back pocket and quickly wiped the dust from his face reached out for his son. The bones of you are different boy was all that William said, and he found no common thought between the knowing his son was gone, and seeing that he wasn’t.
By 1956, Dixie passed away, with William soon to follow, both having believed that while their son had lived, some of him was gone. Roy lived at the home place his entire life, until his death in 1985. He never married, never owned a driver’s license, or a television. He went long periods without speaking to any persons, but would answer letters from me, because I tucked extra postage in each letter I sent. He had a radio when he wasn’t busy tending cows, or the land. He chased poachers and planted two gardens, one for himself, another for the deer. During my childhood, we camped on the land, and he’d visit by the fire and listen to us chatter. Occasionally, he would tell us stories about the woods, or a very smart owl, or the secret to standing between the rain drops. I believed everything he ever said, even when his eyes twinkled.
Something in my great-uncle Roy, was broken, or lost somewhere in the sands of Normandy, or on battlefields he refused to speak of. For the rest of his life, he resisted all suggestions to move to town, even when the treatment for his cancer might have eased his pain. He had no use he said, for the noise of the angry world, and its fighting and wanting and taking. Roy spent most of his life alone. He lived so quietly, and walked so softly on the earth, few in the noisy world that he had once been sworn to defend, even bothered to notice he existed.
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