Friday, November 30, 2007

A soldier I once knew...

This is an excerpt from something I wrote a long time ago. In retrospect, as kids we didn't understand ... I think. Being married to a veteran now, I do have more understanding.

He sat quietly most evenings in his small house. One might have called it a cottage for it was a poorly made clapboard building. It had two rooms, one was the kitchen, I mean it had a stove, a refrigerator, and a sink with a window over it. On one wall was an old black telephone a rotary phone. One bare bulb hung over the scarred linoleum and chrome table. The three chairs had torn seats with stuffing gaping from the holes. Later in life I was to wonder if he hadn’t furnished his place from pieces he scavenged out of the local dump.

I never saw the second room; I assume it was the place where he slept. All the windows were covered except the one over the sink. It looked out over the yard that my uncle owned with him. The view was of the large ancient oak tree with a kid’s rope hung to the lowest branch. The grass under the rope was worn to dirt from years of many bare feet scuffing it while swinging. Come to think of it, he must have had a bathroom, but then again perhaps he didn’t. My uncle, his brother was one of the first in the family to have a real toilet that flushed and a tub. The house had no basement; the siding was gray speckled tar paper with barn red paint on the eves and trim.

His name was Arnold. He was my Aunt’s brother in law. Lyle and Arnold had served in World War II. Of course I’d known about it, after all I’d seen Hogan’s Heroes and Combat on television. My cousins said that Arnold was weird, something had happened “over there” to make him very strange. He was deaf in one ear; they said and had lost his sense of smell. This caused great fun if someone was sitting near him at a meal and passed gas. We kids would watch his face for some sign and would giggle behind our hands while our folks would give us dirty stares.

My dad once chastised my sister and I when he caught us planning to play tricks on Crazy Arnold with our mischievous cousins. Dad explained that Arnold was Shell Shocked and not quite right. We just knew he was weird and weird meant he would be the brunt of kid’s pranks.

One night our parents were gone and we were left to our own devices. I don’t know how it came about, but one of us had to walk across the yard and borrow something from “odd” Arnold. Somehow I drew the short straw. I stood on the wooden step and knocked lightly, then louder. Slow steps came to the door, the curtains parted, then the outside light flicked on. I trembled in my bare feet which were wet and cold from the summer dew. I crossed my arms across my chest and squinted into the light. “Um, those guys sent me to get some sugar, we’re making, um…koolaid.” The curtain dropped back into place and I heard the lock click open. That in itself surprised me—no one locked their doors, after all it was 1968 and we were in the middle of nowhere.

Arnold stood before me, a short man with dark hair that was rapidly balding. He was dressed in work jeans that were still covered with concrete dust. His jean shirt was rolled up at the sleeves. His hands were clean but looked rough, I guess part of trade as a brick layer. His dark eyes flitted over me and then through me. finally, without speaking a word he backed up and motioned me inside. I stood in the small kitchen nervously clutching the cup I had in my hand. He motioned me towards one of the chairs.

“Sit”, he said. He pulled an enamel coffee pot off the stove and poured himself a cup. He glanced at me and smiled, “It’ll stunt your growth.” He sipped the strong smelling coffee and picked up a cigarette that was in the ashtray. He smoked it down to the butt staring at the smoke as it curled and eddied being pulled out the window by a faint breeze.

I waited not knowing whether I should just bolt out the door or wait. Even as young as I was I felt that he was waiting to tell me something. On the wall was a photo of him and my uncle Lyle in dress uniforms. Lyle had been cavalry that much I knew.

“You and my uncle were soldiers weren’t you.” It was a statement really. He squinted his eyes as he cupped his hands to light another smoke. “Yes,” he said quietly, “we were soldiers. We fought the Germans. It was…” he shook his head slowly and pulled deeply on the cigarette and followed it with a sip of coffee. “It was war... things happened.”

“Like worse than on T.V.?” I asked. He looked at me and then that far away look came to his eyes. “Worse,” he nearly whispered but not to me, to the room, “but in color.” I wiped my hands on my shorts.

“So like did you have to kill people and stuff?” I immediately regretted my words. No one I knew ever talked to Arnold about the War, no one. “I’m sorry,” I stuttered, “I shouldn’t have said that. Um maybe I should leave.”

He sighed and crushed the smoke out on the now over flowing glass ashtray. A faint breeze stirred some of the ashes onto the table top. He put his fingers in them and pushed it back and forth.

“That’s all right,” he sort of grinned around his moustache, “no one has asked me before, I guess they really don’t want to know.” He looked directly at me and straightened in his chair. “Very bad things happened. I’m sure I shot and killed the enemy."

He closed his eyes for a moment; even as a kid I could recognize the pains distorting his face. He lit another smoke and inhaled, I saw his hand trembling. He saw worse I suddenly knew, but nothing he would horrify a young girl with. He pushed himself away from the old table and with the cigarette dangling from his mouth his searched his cabinets. He squinted through the smoke and handed me the bag of sugar.

“Here you go,” he nodded, “watchya came for.” I took the sugar and thanked him. He mumbled something around the smoke and opened the door for me. “See yah.” I said. He nodded. Then closed and locked the door.

I never really talked to him again. Oh we nodded or waved to each other. But I stopped participating in the games the others played on him. Sometimes Arnold would disappear for weeks or days at a time. He’d return in the middle of the night and usually park right under the rope hanging from the oak tree. I guess it was his signal that he really didn’t care to be bothered.

When we played hide n’ seek at night his lights would be out but we knew he was watching from the glow of his cigarette behind the sheer curtains.

Call it Battle Fatigue-- call it PTSD. He never got over it, he never got help. You didn't do that in the 60's.

He lived like a hermit in that small house until he died. He died a bachelor, a loner, a mystery…perhaps too a man in pain. I look back and feel blessed that I was able to share a moment part of his life. At the time I was too young and didn’t understand PTSD, oh I really don’t understand it fully even now.

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