The sun glared from the gold medallion on his service cap. I knew he was in the Army because of his Class A uniform. I had one of those for my GI Joe dolls. I had most of the service uniforms: Navy, Marine, flight suit and even a frogman suit. But here was a real soldier, right there in my very own neighborhood. The day was turning out to be not so bad after all!
My brother Mike and I had been sent to our room for some reason. It seems like there were a hundred days like that and they all bleed together in my mind. I’ll never remember what the particular reason was for why we had been sent there on that day. But I’ll guess it was a good reason and that Mike and I had done something pretty damned stupid to earn that punishment. That’s one thing I can say for our generation: we own our own mistakes. We always knew what the rules were and it was our choice to break them. Kids today refuse to own their own stupidity. It’s not their fault they broke the rules, it’s the rules fault. It’s the parents fault for being so controlling. Humbug.
We had one of those old crank-windows with the chain that would push the widow out to open it in our bedroom. And I had it wide open that day, with at least half my little 6 year old body hanging out of it to look around the neighborhood. I was bored.
Then I saw the light green Army car going slowly down the street on the other side of the field. I recognized the light green color because I had seen them in parades. I was so excited to see a real hero driving through our neighborhood. He drove real slow past the maroon house. But he kept going, around the corner and then up the block where he parked in the street. I watched him get out of his car and walk back to the corner where he had just driven through. He continued on back to the maroon house, where he walked up the path to the door and knocked. I saw the door open, the storm door moving slightly in the vacuum of it all. I saw the storm door open and the soldier walked into the house.
I turned to my brother and shouted “Mike! Mike! There’s a soldier out there!” But he didn’t seem interested, still playing with his baseball cards which smelled like the bubble gum that came in each pack. “So what?,” he said with no enthusiasm. “So I’m going to go talk to him,” I said back defiantly. “How you goin’ to do that? Do you think dad won’t see you walk out the door? We’re not allowed out of the room John,” Mike said back with a look that said I am verifiably insane. “No, I’m going out the window” I retorted with all the authority of a grounded 6 year old. “Yeah right,” he said and that was the only push I needed. I was out the window and across that 2 acre field in about 20 seconds flat. And I sat there and waited for that soldier as low as I could in fear that dad might see me out the back kitchen window. And I sat and sat.
Then I saw that soldier come out of that house and start walking back toward his car. I took off running again. I caught up with him just about the time he was turning that corner. I know he saw me but he didn’t stop, he just kept going. So I shouted, “Hey mister, mister? Wait a minute.” Then he stopped to look at me with one of the meanest looks I had yet seen in my 6 little years. “What do you want?” he said gruffly. I promptly saluted him and said “I just want to talk. I love the Army.”
Now this was 1966. If you didn’t live in that era then you will never have witnessed the nightly news pouring into living rooms across the country. There were the soldiers who with their desperate eyes and weary selves would would wave into the camera and shout hello to mom or dad, or wife and children. And then there were the soldiers in body bags who were probably sitting somewhere else wishing they still had the opportunity to do that. The nightly news showed it all. That has never happened before or since on TV.
Now that soldier on the street just looked down on me for about thirty seconds. It seemed like an eternity. For a few seconds I thought I had seen something resembling compassion and love in his eyes, but it must have been the sun because it went away as quick as it came. Then he finally leaned over a little and said “If you don’t get your ass out of here I’m going to kick it all the way down this street. Do you hear me boy? Now git!”
Now when a hero bends over to talk to you I guess it’s just normal that you don’t expect to hear those kind of words. And it took a few seconds for that to soak in because I just stood there kind of dumbfounded. But when he leaned in a little closer and I got a real good look at those eyes I was convinced he meant it so I skidaddled all the way back to my window as quick as I could.
I got up back in that window and dad was never the wiser. There was brother Mike still playing with those baseball cards. “Mike, Mike, do you know what that soldier said to me?”
“Never mind brother.” Why should my brother’s dreams and hopes be crushed just because now mine were? I envied him playing in that box of baseball cards, oblivious to the world of crushed spirit. But I would have always, every moment of our lives, spend any thing I have or any amount of energy I could muster to keep him right there. I’ll take this hit alone and just store it away in the darker places, somewhere in the wayback where I won’t see it often.
A week or two later I overheard my mother and neighbor gossiping over the clothes line: “Oh the poor thing. That couple in the maroon house lost their son in Viet Nam.”
It took me many years to understand that the young soldier I had seen was there to tell this couple that their young son was dead. Even more years to understand why he parked his car so far out of sight, so as not to add to the distress this couple would have for the rest of their lives. But it wasn’t until I had kids of my own that I truly understoood why he said what he did to me. He didn’t care if some kid bugged him on the street. He just didn’t want to end up at my parents house some day, telling them that a son was dead.
I suppose it’s highly possible that this soldier on that very fair day back in 1966 was not nearly as compassionate as I give him credit for. But it doesn’t matter because that’s the kind of world I want to live in and even the illusion of it is better than nothing. He’s a hero in my eyes regardless.
Today is my youngest daughter’s 20th birthday. She stopped by earlier to tell me that my controlling nature in her earlier years destroyed all of her birthdays, past and present, and that she could not possibly enjoy any of her birthdays again. Apparently pushing your kids to get good grades, plan for a trade of some sort, and to simply not fill their faces with metal or style their hair in rainbow mohawks is considered evil parenting. So I am now done. Not from selfish reasons, but because I am the unsung hero. It is the menacing look from that soldier, that very strong impetus to change. My last act as a parent is to teach her that you lose people you don’t respect. I was not born to be your friend Chelsea. I am your father. My job was to guide you into a self sufficient, happy and loving life. So it doesn’t matter what cogs and wheels were spinning or missing that caused it, we could argue about those ad infinitem. The simple fact is that you are correct: I failed miserably. And I would do it again. And I’ll take this hit alone, just store it back in my wayback places where I will seldomly see it again.