By Sarah Levesque (Rated PG for themes of war)
“C’mere son. I’m gonna tell you a story.” the old man said as he sat down in the rocking chair next to the boy. The boy looked up hopefully.
“Now,” the old man continued, “this isn’t a story like yer gramma would tell, or yer ma. This story is the one I promised to tell you when you were old enough, the same one I told yer father an’ uncles, an’ their father an’ uncles, when I jedged them old enough. They were a mite older’n you then, but I think you’re ready fer it now. Would you like t’hear it?”
The boy leaned forward expectantly. “Dad n’ Grampa always told me you’d tell me someday,” he said. “Is this the day, Great-Gramp?”
The old man chuckled at the boy’s enthusiasm. “You bet,” he said.
Settling more comfortably into his rocking chair, the old man began.
The day I enlisted in the army was the day I graduated from high school. My ma didn’t like it, but she knew that’s what I’d do – that’s the only thin’ I ever wanted to do. I figured I’d git to see some fightin’ an’ come back a general in a few years.
Well, they didn’t send me to the front lines right off. No, first they sent me to recruit trainin’ camp. Some people call it boot camp. We called it “Hell on Earth”. Slavin’ away from before dawn till long after dark. We had to learn everythin’ all over agin – their goal was to teach us “how to keep ourselves an’ our gear clean an’ at peak capacity”, they said. Well, I thought I already knew how to keep myself decent an’ how to keep stuff clean, an’ I thought myself strong – buff, you’d say. Well, I found out fast that I was wrong on all those counts, an’ I could do nuthin’ right. I’d git my boots nice an’ shiny an’ turn out fer roll call.
“Yer boots got no shine,” the sergeant would say. “Drop an’ give me twenty, then shine ‘em till you could give ‘em to the president as mirrors!”
So I’d have to drop an’ give ‘im twenty pushups, then shine my boots until I could see myself in ‘em.
I got assigned to help the cook. You might think that’s how I learned to cook – by watchin’ old Macreedy. That might be so, but the biggest achievement I got from that duty was gittin’ so’s I was able to peel a fist-sized potato in about twelve seconds, providin’ the knife was sharp. No fancy potato peelers fer us! An’ I kept that knife sharp, so’s I could go through a mound of potatoes fer a hull troop in a half-hour, more or less.
An’ I haven’t even mentioned the trainin’! Drill trainin’, where you’d have to march in step round an’ round the camp. That was pretty easy, even at a run, compared to the other stuff. Gun trainin’, where you’d take apart yer gun an’ put it back together until you could do it blindfolded an’ sleepin’ an’ stan’in’ on yer head, in three seconds flat. Then it was loadin’ practice, an’ target practice. We got so’s we could put the gun together, load it an’ fire it a few times in a minute. An’ it had to hit the target, too, or you’d git bawled at by the officer in charge.
Runnin’. They trained us to run fer hours, on empty or full stomach, uphill or down. You know what the army crawl is, right? You mighta even done it a few times. Murder on the abs when you’re as flabby as I was, which wasn’t much compared to others. We had to do that army crawl fer hours, in the woods, in the grass, in the mud, dirt, gravel, an’ anythin’ else you can think of. When we’d git back to camp, we’d have to clean every last speck of grime from our gear till it shined enough to blind a man with sunglasses.
That was only a bit of what we did there. At first it was pure torture, but we got used to it, me an’ my buddies. Finally there came the day where they decided we were good enough an’ they shipped us overseas to git some up close an’ personal, honest to goodness fightin’ experience. I called my ma when we got the news – they let us call our close family that day, though I know some jest called their sweethearts. I don’t think I’ve told you this yet, but this was our only communication with the outside world – one phone call every two weeks. They didn’t let you talk very long, either. Oh, an’ we were allowed to git letters, too.
Anyway, we got our orders an’ we were shipped out. Many hours on an airplane later, we landed at an airport where we were met by a disapprovin’ lieutenant, who loaded us into trucks. We were driven to the military base, some miles away. My first impression of the country was that it was pretty, in its own way. It did take a while to git used to, though, because it was nuthin’ like the area where I grew up.
The base was in a combat zone, so it was just us soldiers, no families or nuthin. It was set up much like the boot camp, which made it seem familiar. We were all grateful fer this, as it made the transition easier. Jest as soon as we got our kits settled, an orderly ordered us to a drill area where we proudly showed off our new fightin’ skills to General Abner Stone, the base commander. He looked grim at our display, but we quickly decided that he always looked this way.
After that, we were subjected to what you might call “on the spot trainin’”. More simply, we obeyed strict instructions an’ orders durin’ actual skirmishes. They were all pretty similar – enterin’ a town under our protection an’ endeavorin’ to push the hostiles back out of the area. I won’t go into too much detail, but I will say that many people were wounded an’ even killed – some of ours, some of theirs, an’ some civilians. In those days it wasn’t like it is now – jest push a button fer a long-range assassination of the enemy. No, you actually had to go in yerself, an’ often take ‘em by force. It was not the glorified battle scene of the Greeks or the Crusaders that I had imagined. No, it was a horribly bloody thing where we ducked hails of bullets, runnin’ from one shelterin’ wall or obstruction to another, leavin’ fit comrades behind to help the injured or bring the dead back to camp, then facin’ down the enemy if he wouldn’t run before you surrounded ‘im, or surrender afterwards. Yes, it was a horribly bloody time – there were sights I hope you never have to see, as they haunt you forever.
I saw some of my buddies go down, an’ while most were only wounded a bit, there were a few who never got back up. Once I managed to push one of my buddies out of the way of a grenade an’, lucky fer us, neither one of us got hurt. Later that day I was called to General Stone’s office. “Old Stoney”, as we called ‘im, was a tall, imposin’, white-haired man of average build. Somehow, he could make you feel like a giant or an ant with a few words. He was grim, as we had quickly learned, but he was fair an’ levelheaded. I didn’t know why I had been summoned, but the old man simply commended my action an’ dismissed me. I walked on air fer the rest of the day.
A few weeks went by, durin’ which we skirmished about once a week. Then one day, it was announced that General Stone an’ Colonel John Pearson, Old Stoney’s second-in-command, were goin’ someplace far from the base – I don’t remember where – an’ some of us soldiers were goin’ with ‘em. It was to be a small convoy, only a few trucks. I was picked to be part of the convoy, an’ I felt honored an’ above my fellow soldiers. Little did I know that goin’ on that convoy would change my life.
We started out on a sunny day in August. Old Stoney was in the third truck. I was in the second. In the afternoon, when we were tired an’ the sun was in our eyes, we were attacked. They attacked from the south, an’ we scrambled to git out of the trucks, takin’ refuge on the right side of the trucks. They had some heavy artillery, an’ they hit the fourth an’ last truck in the convoy. Many of us ran to help our comrades from the overturned an’ flamin’ truck, while the others covered our backs. I helped another soldier to move the injured men to behind another truck. It was not till all the men were away from the flipped truck that I realized I’d been helpin’ Old Stoney himself.
Some things happen in slow motion; others happen so fast you don’t know till it’s over, an’ it’s hard to piece it together agin afterwards. I saw the enemy soldier stan’ up, sight his gun at me. I watched ‘im pull the trigger, an’ saw the flash of the gun. The next thing I knew was that I was on the ground next to the general. But Old Stoney was the one that was bleedin’, not me. Dazed, I realized that he had taken my bullet. I didn’t know why, so kneelin’ next to ‘im numbly, I asked ‘im.
“Why’ja do it, sir?” I said.
An’ he jest looked at me an’ said quietly, “Son,” he said. “Son, I did it because another gave his life fer me. This is the only repayment I can offer ‘im.”
An’ I said to ‘im, “But how’m I supposed to repay you?”
An’ he said to me, “Go,” he said, “go an’ live yer life. Live it to the fullest. Live it like I was watchin’ over yer shoulder. Don’t do anythin’ to shame me. Go, son, an’ live yer life fer me.”
Then he jest closed his eyes an’ smiled, like he was seein’ somethin’ real beautiful. An’ then he was gone.
We put ‘im in the truck with the wounded an’ returned to base. They put me in the infirmary fer shock, though I hadn’t been wounded. I asked to be allowed to go with the general, an’ bring ‘im home, speak at his funeral, an’ deliver his personal effects to his family. My request was granted, an’ I accompanied Old Stoney back to his home, an’ I spoke at his funeral. It was a full military funeral, o’ course. I spoke of his last action an’ words, an’ my extreme gratefulness an’ debt to ‘im. Then I read aloud a letter from Colonel Pearson, Old Stoney’s second-in-command. Fer some reason I can still remember that letter word fer word.
Pearson had written, “General Abner Stone was a good man. A hard, stern man, but one fer whom justice an’ kindness were much more’n empty terms. He knew a man when he saw ‘im, an’ I am very grateful to ‘im fer speakin’ to me as an equal. The day our newest recruits arrived, fresh from boot camp an’ proud as peacocks, the general said to me, ‘John, these boys are all green, too green fer my likin’. But we’ll make men of ‘em yet.’ He looked at me an’ added, ‘I would take a bullet fer any one of ‘em, John, if it meant that you could make a man of ‘im, because I know that if I took a bullet tonight, not just the recruits but the whole base would be in good hands.’ I never got to thank the general fer the great confidence he had in me. But he did as he said – he took a bullet to make these boys men, to give another the chance to live. I am sure all those who have served with an’ under ‘im are thankful fer General Stone – thankful fer his confidence in others, his fairness, his generosity, his hard school that made us men. He died as he lived – with dauntless courage. General, we salute you.
Respectfully, Colonel John Pearson.”
After the funeral I visited my family an’ friends briefly, then returned to my regiment. Old Stoney was greatly missed, but Colonel Pearson made us into men, jest as the general believed he would. I did as the general asked – I lived my life the best I could, an’ acted like he was lookin’ over my shoulder every minute.
Well, eventually on one of my leaves I met yer great-granma. Not too long after that I married her an’ we started our family. I was given an honorable discharge from the army when I got two fingers blown off my right hand – I couldn’t pull the trigger anymore. I continued to act like Old Stoney was watchen’ me, which I do believe he did, from wherever he was. I got a good job, an’ kept it. I kept my family together, an’ strong too. People would ask me how I was doin’ so well, an’ I’d tell ‘em about the general, same as I told my kids an’ theirs when they were ready.
“And now it’s your turn, son,” the old man said to the spellbound boy. “I want you to stay sober, an’ stay strong. I want you to live well, like someone was lookin’ over yer shoulder every minute. Jest because I haven’t taken a bullet fer you don’t mean anythin’. Someone has died fer you, an’ He wants you to live yer life to the fullest, an’ make decisions as if He was lookin’ over yer shoulder. You ought to live fer Him, though He didn’t take a bullet fer you, either. Nosir, He took three nails, instead.”