Acknowledgements: My thanks to my wonderful betas, Ricochet and Doc II. Thank you for taking the time to help me when your time was short, and thank you for still talking to me, no matter how many times I said, “I’m taking all your advice, except…!” ;o>
Disclaimer: Combat! and its characters do not belong to me and I am not being compensated in any tangible way for this story.
It was quiet out here; that deep, velvet quiet that filled your ears, smoothed your brow and soothed your soul. He placed his forehead against a porch pillar and sighed, closing his eyes and inhaling deeply. The lingering storm breeze verged on the side of a stiff wind, blowing away the discord left by a pounding rain. He wished it could do the same for him, but knew that hope was unreasonable. Gradually, the muted sounds of clinking china and low laughter drifted its way into his subconscious, laying an underscore to his musings. Most of the family was still inside the house, helping with the after dinner clean-up. Even the little ones had chores, his wife had always firmly insisted on that. If you could walk, you could carry a spoon to the sink, she said. Nine times out of ten, it resulted in more work for her, when she had to clean up splatters trailed behind her little helper, but she never minded. It will teach them, she said, teach them to work hard and know the satisfaction of a job well done. What else would parents raised during the depression teach their children? And the kissed faces, glowing proudly in her loving praise, were a testament to her methods. He smiled briefly at the thought, then sobered again as his mind returned to the letter he held half-crumpled in his hand.
Another one gone. Given his age, it wasn’t all that unusual to receive such news, but this one hurt more than others. This time it was one of the guys, one of the men he had served with so long ago. It wasn’t the first, and obviously not the last, but he knew that each time one of them died, they took a little piece of him with them. They had shared so much together, it was inevitable. And, he had patched each one of them up so many times, that he felt a personal, wrenching failure in their deaths – whether it was his or theirs, he still didn’t know. What he did know was that hearing from, or about, any of these men, even after all this time, was guaranteed to send him off keel for days, awash in the drift of his emotions, drowning in the vast sea of memories. It always took him time to reset himself, thank God his wife understood. Understood and let him be, always welcoming him back with a kiss and a smile when he returned to their present day life. But now he was off again, thanks to news he had received earlier that day.
Leaving had been easy. The loyalties and tugging ties to his squad mates had been eclipsed by the anticipation of going home. Hot food, warm bed, Mom, Dad – all that and more had awaited him. He barely remembered how they had all parted. After all that time together, the personal and professional battles they had seen each other through, their break-up was anti-climactic. One left, then another, until finally it was his turn. Promises to write were made, and kept, albeit one or more were always out of touch at different points in time. Readjustment, demands of careers and fledgling families guaranteed that each member would fade in and out of the link. But, loose touch was better than none at all, and they all passed on what they knew of each other. Oddly enough, it was Kirby who was the best correspondent. He gradually became the common thread through which all news was disseminated. It was the first death, those many years ago, that had brought them all closer together again. Closer, for they knew that soon they would all be reaching that ultimate divider themselves.
When he first returned home from the war, Doc had felt that he should somehow continue in the medical field. He had been told often enough that he was good at what he did in the field, and it fit with his new identity. An identity that had been crafted and forged for him when he wasn’t looking, somewhere between his first and thousandth lost life. For Doc may have returned to Arkansas, but he wasn’t the same boy who had left. He was now a man, a man changed by profound experiences, shaped by things that he longed to forget. Things that called to him in the middle of the night, cries that pulled him outside to his parents’ backyard, to look for the wounded who had need of his care. Sometimes he would wake up before heading back to bed, and sometimes he wouldn’t, muddy feet and sheets the only testament to his midnight wanderings. The worst was when his mother or father would come out to guide him in, their own uneasy rest broken once again by their son’s stumblings. Gently they would take his arm and bring him back inside, quietly reassuring him that his services were no longer needed.
So, he had taken a job in a hospital, as an orderly, while awaiting word on his acceptance to college on the GI bill. He hated the thought of not paying his own way, and swore he’d give back more than he took. But the hospital job hadn’t lasted long, only through his first night working in the ER. A drag racing accident had sent two kids in, battered and broken. Doc had no conscious thought or memory of the event; when he came to, he was standing over one of the boys, a boy as young as so many others he had worked on. His hands and jacket were covered in blood, and the patient was bandaged and ‘ready for transport’ – or so Doc was calling. The other, younger, medical personnel were standing back, eyeing him oddly, but an older doctor, a surgeon who had seen some service also, pushed through them. With a pat on the back, and a muttered, “Nice work, medic,” he and the patient were on their way.
Doc left that night and never went back.
Scared and adrift, he had fled to the grocery store, to ask for his old clerking job back. But, unbeknownst to him, his mother had already called and begged them not to hire him. Rejected by the very place to which he had vowed to never return, his last bastion of life before, something shattered inside of Doc. Confused and angry, he had retreated to his room, refusing to come out for days. He raged at anyone who dared to enter his sanctum, and cursed the God who had brought him home. When his college acceptance came in the mail, he tore it up and threw it in the trash. His mother retrieved it, taped it together, filled out the forms and mailed it in for him, checking off ‘education’ as his field of study. He refused to speak to her for the rest of his time home, declaring to his father that he wouldn’t be going. When the time to go arrived, his father and two friends walked down the hallway to his room. Ignoring his surly looks, they positioned themselves around his bed, and grabbed him by his arms and legs. Outraged, Doc tried to resist, but silently, doggedly, they continued, surprising Doc with their strength and determination. Through the living room and out the door they carried him, ignoring his sputtered anger and vicious struggles. As he threw back his head one last time, he caught a glimpse of his mother in the doorway, tears streaming down her face. Then she was gone, as the three men bodily lifted Doc into the car. With his father driving, and the two friends hedging him in the back, they headed to the station. Again, Doc was lifted from the car, and the four of them stood in silence, awaiting the early morning train. As the engine grudgingly pulled into sight, Doc’s father turned to him, and Doc was shocked to see tears in his eyes.
“You go, son, get out of here. Take advantage of what Uncle Sam is offering to you, God knows you’ve earned it. Me and my friends, here, we didn’t get anything like this when we got out, just a lot of failed promises. But we know what goes through your mind at night. So does your mother, who do you think took care of me when I first came home? Get out of here for a while, help yourself. And after you settle in at school, and stop being so angry at your mom, drop her a line to let her know.”
With a bear hug, and an “I’m proud of you,” whispered in his ear, Doc felt himself pushed toward the train. Numbly, automatically, he responded to his father’s friend’s well wishes, accepted a satchel pressed into his hand. How could he have never made the connection? In a daze he mounted the steps and found a seat. Looking out the window, he spotted the three men, still on the platform. As they turned to leave, they nodded to one another, and briefly clapped each other on the back. That was it, the only sign of affection between them, the only clue to the horrors that they had been through together. And Doc understood, and strove to lift himself out of the downward facing hole into which he had sunk. His father was the kindest, bravest, most upstanding man he had ever known, and his friends were cut of the same cloth. If they could overcome such things to become the upright men that they were today, then Doc vowed that he would too. He knew it wouldn’t be easy, but he knew that he could do it. He had to, else his coming home was in vain; someone else’s wanted life had been squandered on him.
He was right, it wasn’t easy, and Doc’s newfound courage wavered in the beginning of his college career. Older and tireder than 99% of his new peers, Doc had no patience for their foolishness. He envied the freedom and naiveté of their youth, while at the same time bitterly resenting the fact that he himself would never feel that way again. He tried his best to be tolerant, but inwardly he winced each time rustles and whispers started in the back rows of his classes. He had no time to waste, he needed to get on with his life. Thus, he completed the work for his degree in two and a half years instead of four, by taking summer classes and overloading on credits. His advisor, rather than discouraging him, helped him plot his course, for Doc wasn’t the only veteran in a hurry. The university was faced with many men who wanted no part of the social aspects of their education, men who were focused on a far-off, indefinable goal. It was in its best interest to help expedite these driven few along their pathway to graduation.
Sure, Doc made some friends. Friends who would also sit quietly for hours at a time, with little idle chitchat. Friends who would also start at loud noises, and nervously feel for long-gone weapons. Friends whose mouths tightened and eyes closed when yet another young freshman spoke of having ‘done their part’ for the war effort by buying bonds and chairing a tin drive. Friends who left a class in disgust, when one professor began his lecture by stating that the entire war was a clever hoax, designed by Churchill, Stalin and FDR, to help spread communism around the globe. Friends who understood each other, and supported each other through their upper educational experience, and then, once graduated, went their separate ways.
Thus, Doc was surprised to realize, when he obtained his degree, that he wanted to return home. Home, where he had once vowed would only be a place to visit, was now his mecca. Its quiet country lanes, so like the ones he had followed into Germany, the small town center, where all passed with a greeting and friendly nod, were calling to him. The quaint rituals it followed each holiday, the long, lazy summer days which culminated in the hosting of the county fair, had imprinted themselves on his soul.
And so he came full circle. The young boy, so anxious to leave his small Arkansas town in the early 40s, was coming home. The youth who had wanted to learn to cook, so he could have a trade and see the world, was back. He would think, at times, of the brash statements the young recruit had made during basic, how seeing Camp Blanding made him think that he was now a wordly man. How his travels through Europe made him vow to never return to Small Town, USA. And now he couldn’t wait to get there.
At first it was awkward, back in his parents’ house. But they were quietly happy to see him, and let him work through his own readjustment. At times, his father would entice him out, asking Doc to join him in meeting some friends. Since his father wasn’t an overly social man by nature, Doc knew this was done in order to get him out of the house. But he went, and sometimes he enjoyed himself. Eventually, he found a small circle of friends of his own, some of whom he had known before the war, and some he hadn’t. The circle was mindful of the ones who hadn’t returned, and quietly fueled by the tamped down sorrow in each man’s soul. Years later, before they realized it, these men became the core of their small town, helping to maintain the place which had shaped them.
Doc’s first job was as a substitute teacher in the local high school, which served three small communities. He went wherever they asked, and taught whatever subject they threw at him. He quickly became a popular addition to the staff, and when the guidance counselor retired, Doc, despite not having the extra education required for the job, was offered the slot. It was just to get him in the door, they explained. Once he was a full-time employee, things would happen. Several teachers would be retiring in the next few years, and he could pick and choose whom he would replace. Then a new, qualified, guidance counselor would be hired.
It never happened. Doc had found his niche. It quickly became apparent, by the long list of students making appointments to discuss their futures, that Doc was where he should be. When teachers began to retire, the subject of Doc taking one of their places never came up. The office formed to him, as if it had been waiting all these years. Word quickly spread that you could talk with ‘the Doc’ about anything – grades, college, girlfriends, boyfriends, mom, dad – nothing was off limits.
In the years that followed, they all came to Doc for advice. To his face, they were always polite and formal, but behind his back, he knew that peers and students alike called him ‘the Doc.’ The first generation knew it had something to do with his military background, the rest just used the phrase, its meaning becoming lost with passing years. Those of his former students who returned from Korea and did know of its origin, would come to see him, casually stopping by to say hi, and then not leaving for hours. He thought of them often, a few decades later when he faced another, more troubled generation, returning from Vietnam.
It wasn’t just the students who came to see him either, it was common course for teachers to come see Doc for advice on how to deal with difficult students, among many other things. They, too, sought answers and guidance, and always left with much more than they had sought. Knowing that Doc wouldn’t stand in judgment on them made him easily approachable. His attentive listening, careful questions and willingness and ability to tackle the hard issues, without backing down from any unwanted truths, gave peace and solace to many.
And so it was he met his wife, a quiet young teacher, who sought his advice on dealing with a student’s minor transgression. Years later he found out that she had no need of his advice, she merely sought a means to start a conversation with the sober, determined guidance counselor. Their courtship was swift, neither had any doubts, and they were married before the end of the school year. Quietly one night, they went to the judge, and the following week they found an apartment together. She had no family, and Doc’s parents, when they found out, hosted a small gathering, welcoming her with open arms. The students thought it was dramatically romantic, and everyone noticed a gradual relaxing in Doc. More smiles, a few jokes, a certain contentment. Doc and his wife settled in together and never looked back.
It wasn’t until years later, as Doc watched his own son struggle to adjust to life after Vietnam, that he truly understood what he had put his parents through. He had thanked them often, sincerely, he thought, for the love, support and silent guidance they had given him when he returned home. Thanked them with all the love in his heart, but he had never really understood what it had cost them to stand by and watch him slip away those first few months when he returned home. Never understood, that is, until he stood beside his own son, who refused to speak to him except for muttered curses, and signed him in for an extended stay at a breezy, tree-shaded hospital. It was then that he wanted to tell them, “I understand.” He couldn’t, at least not in regards to his father. But the next day, when his mother received an extravagant bouquet of calla lilies, her favorite flower, along with a card reading simply, “I understand,” she did. And she sat down and cried.
So much time had passed, so many life-altering events. But of them all, Doc knew that the strongest, most influential ones, had happened long ago, while traipsing across Europe, with the greatest men he had even known. Nothing could ever replace that. Wherever his friends were going now, he hoped that they received their due.
Doc sighed, and lifted his head. He loved the fact that his lawn sloped away out of sight, in unseen promise of what might lie in wait. He could barely make out the tops of his tomato plants in the garden at the bottom of the hill. Restlessly, he moved to the front of his porch and leaned on the rail. His other garden, further to the right, contained his fall yields, pumpkins, squash and the like. He smiled to himself, thinking of the multitude of helpers he had had through the years, some taking to the earth immediately, others barely able to keep from trampling the life back into the ground.
“Grandpa?” A small hand slid into his, displacing the paper he still held. “Grandpa, are you coming in for dessert? Grandma says we can’t start without you.”
Doc looked down, into the most guileless pair of big blue eyes that he had ever seen, like meeting like. He bent over and picked her up, and as he straightened, a large hand encircled his shoulders.
“Yeah, Dad, you don’t want to leave us all hanging, do ya?”
Doc returned the half-hug, half-squeeze with a genuine smile as he looked into the clear eyes of the son he once feared lost.
“Well, now, we’d better not keep everyone waiting, right?”
And three generations turned and walked in the door.