Saturday, September 10, 2011

Old Man and the Soldier

"You've got a lot to learn," the old man told me as he kicked off his muddy boots. We were sitting on the front porch of my momma's house. Me, a disgusted twenty year old boy with a newly issued army haircut. And, him, an eighty year old man, bald, sporting a gray beard that fell mid chest. I had arrived yesterday, fresh from the desert, to attend my momma's funeral. He had stopped by afterwards to pay his respects. I had known the old man all my life. He lived a short piece down the road.

"Yep," he continuing on. Stuffing tobacco in the left pocket of his mouth, he chuckled at a thought that occurred to him. "When I was your age, I was in the tobacco fields. You wanna talk about hard that right there will make or break a man."

"I'm doing hard work," I informed him defensively. "I'm out there defending my country. Your country."

"Yep. Yep. You are. I didn't mean to imply you weren't"

We sat in silence for a bit. Each man held captive by his own thoughts. Inside, I could hear the quiet chatter of the friends and family that had come to mourn with my dad and me. I'm an only child. When I decided to enter the military, straight out of high school, my dad had supported me whole heartily. Momma, not so much. The papers and news shows were filled nightly with the names of the dead soldiers coming home to be buried. Her biggest fear was to outlive me. To see my name in print. She told me she couldn't bare it. Little did we both know, that I would be the one saying goodbye to her in a brown casket.

"You're momma loved you, boy." The old man said. I nodded. I knew that. I always knew that. "She bragged about you from the moment you signed them papers. She was so proud of you for joining the fight. For getting out of this town and trying to live. She was scared for you. But, she was proud of you."

"I know that. Momma told me."

"Why you so angry then?" He asked me.

I didn't answer. Four days ago, my momma had gone grocery shopping. A routine she carried out weekly. Like any day, she made my dad breakfast. Saw him off to work. She made a grocery list, and as she did every week before this one, she double checked to make sure she had included daddy's favorite snacks. He loved ice cream. Did she include his vanilla wafers also? Of course she did. After 30 years of marriage, shopping for your spouse is like shopping for yourself.

The ride to the store was uneventful. Like every grocery day, she slowed down in front of Mrs. Cleary's house to honk and wave as the grandmother of four watered her azalea bushes. She paused at the corner of Elm to make sure no kids would run out in front of her. A ball always got loose from the playground there. A driver had to be careful of excited little ones running into the street to retrieve it.

She chatted up our neighbors at the Piggly Wiggly. She inquired as to the health of the unborn baby of the cashier. Missy is due to pop any day. She's hoping to work up until the day she goes into labor. We're all waiting to see when that will be.

So, momma completed her grocery shopping. Heading home, I am sure she was already planning on what to make daddy for dinner.

It was on the corner of Breaker St and Walnut Ave that her day turned tragic. Wyatt Renert is my age. We graduated school together. Unlike me, but like most of my other classmates, Wyatt wasn't sure what he wanted to do after school. He opted out of the military and college. Instead, he busied himself down at the garage. On the weekends he hung out with friends at the local bar. Not a bad fellow really. Never got into too much trouble. An occasional fight in high school landed him in the principle's office. But, other than that, he was an ok guy.

Until he killed my mother.

Momma was going the speed limit. Wyatt was not. It was a four way stop. The sheriff says momma came to a complete stop before continuing on her way. There were no skid marks from Wyatt's tires. He t-boned her car on the driver's side.  Snapping her neck and killing her instantly.

Wyatt walked away unharmed. 

No one knows why he was speeding. He can't even tell you for sure. But, Wyatt will never be the same. The town talks about how is he a crushed man. Broken over killing a woman that he's known all his life, Wyatt doesn't care if he ends up in jail for forever. He just wants to take back that horrible moment. 

But, I care. I see red when I walk down the road. My forehead pulsates with anger. Rage has replaced the blood in my veins. I want more than justice for my momma. I want revenge. I want Wyatt's head under my boot. 

And the old man asks me why I'm so angry.

"You know," the old man says as he spits out a wade of tobacco, "they killed his son."

"What are you talking about?"

"They killed his son. Jesus was hung up on a cross."

"Sir," I say calmly, "I don't mean any disrespect, but I don't need to hear any religion right now. That's not gonna help me. Don't sit there and tell me everything happens for a reason. That makes no sense."

"What's on your mind, boy?"

I sighed. The breeze had picked up and the day was a beautiful one. The birds chirped noisely in the background. Occasionally, you could see a kid run in the front yard as they made their way to the back. It was the kind of day my momma lived for. Family and friends gathered around. The smell of food in the air. Laughter carried on the wind, drifting down to those that were silent, causing a smile to play on their lips as well. But, momma wasn't here to enjoy all this. Momma was six feet under. Momma died without knowing what it was like to kiss the top of her grand baby's head. She would never see me say "I do". I'd never have the opportunity to introduce her to the love of my life simply because I had not met her yet. Mamma's life taken by a kid my age. A decent kid who was just nothing more than careless at the wrong time. On the wrong day.

"I didn't just go into the service because I didn't know what else to do." I told the attentive old man. "I went in because it was something I had to do. Momma always told me to follow that little voice that spoke to me in my heart. So, I did. And, up to this point, I was glad I did. We'll always need people to defend our country. People who can set aside politics. Who can look past protesters and see the bigger picture."

"What's the bigger picture?"

"That, no matter what people think, our country is not invincible. Even in the 21st century, we can be invaded and destroyed. That's why I joined. Because I don't want the people that I love, the ones that I grew up with, to go to work one day and have someone nose dive a plan into their building. I don't want my future wife to board a plane, only to have some extremist hijack it and send it to hell. I want to do everything in my power to prevent that from happening again."

"That's noble idea, son."

"What I am having a hard time with, is putting my life on the line for all the others. For the Wyatts out there who decide to pay no heed to the safety of others. Why am I putting myself in danger for the druggies and the murderers? They don't deserve my sacrifice. Wyatt doesn't deserve my sacrifice. If he had just looked where he was going. If he had obeyed the speed limit, even a little bit, momma would still be here today. I would be overseas, defending my country, and being honored to do it. But, no. It didn't work out that way. Wyatt killed momma. And for the first time since I enlisted two years ago, I am questioning why I did it. That's what's going through my mind."

The tears finally fell. I was able to hold them back at the service. When my commander came and said "Son, there's been an accident", I didn't cry. I was focused on getting home. Now I was on my porch. My momma's porch, in her chair, thinking about her. Tears, hot with anger and sorrow, fell down my cheeks. I let them fall.

"Jesus knew He was going to die. God sent Him here knowing that. We didn't deserve it. But, it was Jesus's duty. It was God's plan for Him. Just like it's God's plan for you to serve a country. Yeah, you got your bad ones out there. You got the ones strung out on drugs. Hell, that Eli has been on crack for the better part of ten years now. Marcy robbed the liquor store for her boyfriend and ended up doing 10 to 20 for shooting the cashier. And then you have Wyatt. That poor boy decided to speed home one day. No thought to it. Nothing behind it. He's not mean. He just made a terrible choice. But, God called you to fight and defend him; along with the preacher of the baptist church. God spoke to you and said to lay your life on the line for the lady about to give birth and is working two jobs to support her husband as he finishes school. Son, she's no different than the Wyatts and the Marcys of this country. Just like my sin of chewing tobacco is no different than the sin of adultery. We are all the same in God's eyes. Jesus died for you, a good boy, just like He died for the man on death row. No sin is greater than the other. No countryman is less than any other."

I looked at this old man, with his weathered face, and his tobacco stained overalls. I looked at his hands. Hands that were dried and cracked from years on the farm. I looked at him and saw him first the time. I saw what he really was. And I thanked God for him.

A week later I packed my bags and headed back to the desert.

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