I don’t recall how what brought me to the Legion that day, but I do remember that subtle feeling of longing that had been wearing at the edges of my frayed soul. The contradiction of suffering and fondness, pain and pure, unadulterated love connected to the most devastating and momentous years of my life, have shaped who I am today. I missed those days; downtime spent in pursuit of the most inane and ridiculous attempts at entertainment.
Years of tedious boredom leading to sporadic and unimaginable moments of clarity, confusion, honor and sacrifice, love and suffering. I’ve needed to sit with my brothers and feel the security of being among the best of humanity’s offering. There is no greater love than a man should lay down his life for his friend, and each of these volunteered for just that. Sure, some were drafted, but they could have run. They knew the risks and the stepped to the line when their nation called.
I was just sitting down when Sgt Martin came by and asked me to move over to his table for a chat. I didn’t know him but I felt a connection almost immediately. He always had a pleasant countenance and a dignified air about him, so when he spoke to me, it felt as if I were the only man in the room. I was pleased to take a few minutes and share a drink with him.
“I’m Joe, Sgt, 17th Regiment, Army.” he said. I quickly returned with my name and rank as so many conversations over the years had begun.
“I’m Tom, PFC Tom Hayes, 3rd Battallion, 5th Marines. How you doing today?”
I’m good. I just wanted to talk and let you know that you’re not alone, Tom. I may be old, but I’ve got a truckload of stories and no one left to tell them to.” “You mind?”
“Not at all sir. Have at it.”
“Well, for me, I had just turned 15 when the war broke out. I was living with my grandparents and they weren’t exactly happy that I wanted to go fight. I told em I’d run away and do it without their permission if they didn’t give me their blessing, so they gave in and let me join up with the Guard. At least that way, I’d be local, they thought. Heh, they didn’t have a clue how it worked. I served local for a few months, took a couple months off and joined up with the Army as soon as I got the chance.”
“Man, I bet they weren’t happy when you gave em the news?” I said.
“Oh, by that time, they were seeing that the fight was coming, no matter how much everyone wanted to believe that it wouldn’t. So, after I joined the Army proper, the government sent me right off to fight and man did I get into some dirty mess. It seemed like every time I turned around, we were engaging the enemy. For 6 years, I walked damned near everywhere.”
“Ha.” he laughed. “Now I can barely make it to the bathroom, but for those 6 years, I walked in the company of gods, my friend.”
Some of the hardest men, the toughest, strongest sons of bitches you’d ever imagine and I had the pleasure of fighting at their side. We fought through the frozen wasteland winters and unbearable heat of summer. Our commanders all seemed to have a penchant for grooming standards so they didn’t ever cut us any slack.
I remember this one weekend, we were getting ready to move when the big boss asked for a group of Engineers & Sappers to help with a big battle that was coming up. My Commander voluntold me that I was exceptional and I’d be helping clear the way for victory for this big fight that none of really knew was coming. While we working to clear logs one day, we saw this enemy officer being walked by. He was clean and well-kempt and walked with sense of dignity that drew the attention of everyone nearby. This guy was something else. Turns out he was walking to his execution.
“It’s crazy the things you see. Know what I mean?” he said, almost to himself, his head shaking side-to-side.
“Yes, sir. I absolutely do.” I replied, quick as possible, so I didn’t interrupt his story.
“Well, when the war was over, I came back home and tried to just move on. I did alright for a while. I had a little savings so I bought a farm and tried to make a go of just minding my own business and working the land. Well, as it turns out, one of my former Commanders bought a bunch of land around me and end up, he laid claim to my farm, too. That son of a bitch started charging me rent for my own farm!”
“I couldn’t afford rent so I tried to get the pension the government promised me. They wrangled and delayed, refused and did everything they could to keep us from getting the money they promised us, the rat bastards.”
“Man that’s awful,” I said. “We’re having the same problem, but ours is getting treatment. It takes forever, if you get it at all. Did you end getting your war pension?”
“Yeah, they finally gave it to us, but by them, I’d already lost my farm and had to move away. I hopped around between jobs until I got work as a Town Clerk. That one suited me so I stayed there until I retired. I never had a whole lot of interaction with the men I served with after the war. Communication wasn’t something easy to come by in those days and most of us just wanted to forget what happened and get on with life, but I’d bet every one of em felt just like I did and how I’m guessing you feel, today.”
“Yeah, you got me. I just needed to talk to somebody but it’s hard to stay in touch. We have better comms these days, but life is just so busy. I had the day off, so I figured I come to Legion and swap lies with you old bastards.” I laughed.
“Well, you picked a good day, there’s a bunch of guys coming in, so you’re gonna hear some crazy stories today, son, I tell you what.You know, sometimes I feel like no one gives a damn about us or what we did. As soon as it’s over, they just forget about what happened and move on with life. Our brothers don’t do that though. Look at us. Through the generations and differences, we can sit and talk and share a kinship that those folks will never know of understand.”
“Yeah, that’s why I come here. We all fought different wars in different ways, but we’re all linked together in this daisy-chain of bullshit and discount beer.” I smiled.
“Me too, brother. You know the craziest thing happened to me, almost 40 years after the war. I was sitting at my house and Light Infantry platoon on convoy heard I lived in the town they were passing through. They stopped outside my house and fired a volley in honor of my service. Can you imagine that? 40 years and these men who took up the mantle I laid down, stopped to honor me? Amazing.”
“Yes sir. That’s pretty impressive. You must have been one tough soldier.”
“I’m glad I asked you to come over, Tom. Again, I’m Sgt Joseph Plumb Martin.”
To be continued.