Son, 2014 First Place Adult Division
By Dan Strawn
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, … .” That’s the trick Dickens used to time-frame his work on the French Revolution. I didn’t know about Charles Dickens back when I was living with Mom and her widowed older sister on a quarter section of southeastern Idaho farmland. I knew about corn, pinto beans, potatoes, chickens, and milking shorthorns. And the irrigation ditch that ran across the front of the property next to the gravel road, and how Mom and Aunt Marge said that ditch was off limits. And the coyote-skin rug laying on the hearth—its soft fur, the head with yellow glass eyes and sharp, white teeth that gleamed from lit logs in the fireplace. And fairy tales and storybooks. And short, snowy winter days, when Mom, Aunt Marge and I parceled out dried corn and chicken mash to starving pheasants huddled in snow-bound harbors of dead corn and beans—the same pheasants that scant weeks earlier patrolled the fields during long twilight summer days.
These were the forties—the 1940’s. These were my best of times. The rest of the world? The rest of the world wept. They were in their worst of times.
I don’t remember living anywhere before Aunt Marge’s farm. I learned from Mom we came here to live when my dad, like most dads in these worst of times, went to war. I vaguely remembered him, but I think I connected more to the pictures in Mom’s bedroom—one on the night stand next to her bed, him in his army uniform, and the other on her dresser, him in a suit and Mom in a wedding dress.
Mom said we came here because we needed a place to stay while Dad was away, and Aunt Marge was lonely. I never knew my Uncle Henry. He died just a little while before we came to live with Aunt Marge. I remember thinking I knew him, but maybe not. Maybe it was all the mementos around the house—pictures of Uncle Henry, the Barnaby Briar pipe leaning up against the unopened tin of Sir Walter Raleigh tobacco on the mantle above the fireplace, and stories Aunt Marge told.
Mom missed Dad a lot. I could tell by the way she talked about him with Aunt Marge, and the way she hung onto his letters, all of them, after we shared them as soon as the mailman dropped them in the box out on the road. They came in tissue paper envelopes. Victory letters, Mom called them. There was no letter, just words written on the insides and backs of the envelopes.
In September, after my sixth birthday, I went to the first grade. I loved school—the kids my age, new stories in class and games at recess. And I loved after school—helping Aunt Marge feed the chickens or cows, or tossing rocks at crows out in the bean fields, and after dinner—story time with Mom or playing Go Fish or Chinese Checkers with Aunt Marge.
Then, in the week of carving Jack-O-Lanterns, we got the word about Dad.
When I came through the front door from school, Aunt Marge was sitting at the dining room table across from Mom. This time of day Aunt Marge was usually out in the barn getting ready to milk. Mom had her back to me, but I could tell by the look on Aunt Marge’s face, something wasn’t right.
Mom turned when I closed the door. I could see the wet on her cheeks and the sadness in her face, even though she smiled at me. “Come here, Ricky. We have some news.” I came into the dining room and set my lunch pail on the table. Mom opened her arms and pulled me into her. For long seconds, the room was quiet, the only sound: her heart thumping on my eardrum. In time, she sighed, lifted her head and pushed me back so we could see each others eyes..
“Your daddy’s been hurt. He’s been hurt but he’s going to be okay.”
She forced a smile. Tears pooled up and spilled down her cheeks.
“Don’t cry, Mama,” I remember saying between sobs of my own.
She wiped her eyes, pulled me back into her, kissed me on both cheeks, hugged me and rested her chin on my head.
“My tears are coming for your daddy. Sad tears because he’s hurt. Happy tears because he’s going to be okay and will be coming home to us soon.” She kissed the top of my head and held me closer.
I stood, wrapped in my mother’s arms, my head pillowed on her soft bosom, her beating heart once more echoing in my head. Aunt Marge slid her chair back and her booted footsteps moved across the carpet. I felt her nearness to Mom and me. Her finger tips brushed my shoulder.
The time came, after Mom read me yet another letter from Dad, that I asked her about how he was hurt. She laid the letter on the kitchen table. Her fingers tarried on the edge of the writing. She placed her hands in her lap and looked at me.
“Your daddy was hurt in several ways. He had cuts. An arm and a leg were broken. It takes time for those things to heal, especially the leg. He’s in a hospital, across the ocean in a place called Scotland.
When he’s healed, when he’s out of danger—“ she stopped talking, took in a deep breath and let it out.
“—when he’s healed, he will come home. I promise you, it’s only a little while longer.”
We looked at each other for a long moment. I knew there was more. Mom was like that, always taking her time. I waited, but about the time I felt too fidgety to remain quiet, she reached over and tousled the lock of hair that fell over my forehead.
“One injury …“ She stopped talking. Tears slid down her cheeks. “One of Daddy’s eyes was hurt. They can’t make that well. He’s coming home with only one eye.”
“What happened to his eye?”
“What happened to it? Well, it was injured when Daddy’s plane crashed.”
“Where’d it go? Is it still in the airplane?”
“ … I … don’t know. Why would you … why does that matter?”
“If it’s still in his head, then he’s coming home with two eyes. He just can’t see out of one of them.”
I’ve not forgotten the look on Mom’s face, nor will I ever. When she got over the shock and caught her breath, she laughed, reached over and pulled me into her. I felt her breath on my hair and a soft kiss.
“Oh, my silly boy.” Her words when they came blew strands of hair about, like when I faced the wind coming off the bean fields ahead of a summer storm.
“Your daddy’s eye is gone. So, when you see him, he will have a patch over the spot where his eye used to be. Your daddy’s going to be fine. He just has a patch on his eye.”
“Will it be black? Like a pirate’s? Is that why pirates have patches on their eye? ‘Cause their eye’s not there anymore?”
“Yes, that’s why. I don’t know what color it will be. What’s important is he can’t see out of one eye, but he can see out of the other one, and he’s anxious to see you.”
So, we waited for Dad to come home, Mom, Aunt Marge, and I, in the farmhouse outside of Rupert, along with grandparents in Boise and Pocatello and assorted aunts and uncles scattered across Idaho, Oregon and Nevada.
The big world news that came on Easter Sunday was the invasion of Okinawa by a half million American soldiers, marines and sailors. The big news for me was the Easter basket behind the magazine rack and Mom’s announcement that Dad was coming home! Mom received a telegram Friday afternoon, and held onto it until Sunday, so Easter of that year would always be special for us.
We met him at Mountain Home, where he’d been flown to the airbase there. We drove down from Rupert the day before and stayed in Boise at my grandparents’ house. When we got to the airbase, an army chaplain met us and a handful of other wives and parents. Snow clung to the ground under the north-side eaves of buildings, but the sun was up and shining—a blue-sky spring day. We waited in winter coats, stood on the tarmac and watched the Army transport taxi off the runway and come to a stop.
The big plane’s propellers ceased their whirring. Grandma, Grandpa and Aunt Marge moved behind Mom and me. Mom held onto my hand. Before long, my dad was standing at the door of the airplane. At first, I wasn’t sure it was him, but I heard Grandma’s gasp and felt Mom squeeze my hand. From a distance, he didn’t look like the pictures. His uniform seemed way too big.
The nurse who helped him down the steps let go of him, stepped back and saluted. He returned her salute, and proceeded to limp towards us, placing his crutches before him with each cautious step. His head was down until he stopped about halfway between the plane and us. When he looked up, I knew for sure it was him because of the patch over his eye.
“Oh, there’s my boy,” Grandma said.
Mom wiped her cheeks with the fingertips of one hand and squeezed my hand so hard with her other that I winced. She took a cautious step forward, and then another. She pulled me along for a few more quick steps, then let go of my hand and ran to Dad.
He stopped, dropped one crutch and stood. Only the toes of his shoe on the side held up by the crutch touched the ground. People passed by me. I was barely aware of them, like grasshoppers on a hot summer day, when their flights are announced by whirring sounds before you see them.
Mom stopped scant feet from Dad. I saw his smile and his lips form words. A second, two—Mom dropped her purse on the tarmac and stepped into the fold of his one-arm embrace. Pairs of people, women and their wounded warrior men, walked past me to their waiting families. Mom and Dad hadn’t moved. Her head was buried in his chest. His head lowered to kiss both her cheeks. Mom tipped her head and they kissed, embraced, and kissed again. She looked into Dad’s face. Another embrace … another kiss …I stood at that spot where Mom had left me, feeling the separation, somehow knowing her need to be alone with Dad these first moments on the tarmac at Mountain Home Army Airfield.
Dad looked at me. Even from afar, I could see his smile. Mom stooped and picked up his fallen crutch and handed it to him. Side by side, they made their way to where I stood. I could see that Mom wanted to touch Dad while they walked, but his crutches held her at bay. So they walked, and occasionally she risked a quick pat on his shoulders or the small of his back. Dad stopped and took a deep breath. His face was flushed and he struggled for breath. After a few seconds, he looked at me and smiled. His words came out as quick bursts between attempts to inhale and exhale.
“Hello, Son …” I can see you’re all grown up … “Your mom’s taken good care of you.”
The sun had barely begun its climb to midday. The sky was blue, except for the tiny clouds in the distance, lonely balls of cotton that hung in the air and sent spotted, oblique shadows to the snowpatched landscape. Behind my dad, I was vaguely aware of a big, four-engine bomber coming to ground on a distant runway. My mind honed in on that word my dad used for me: Son.
In all my life, I couldn’t remember being called son. Even Mom, who had every right to do so, never called me son. Mostly I was Ricky, or if I was in a little trouble it was Rick. Richard Gary Edwards was saved for when I was in big trouble. But here, this day, with that big bomber behind Dad, its flaps and wheels down but not quite touching the runway, I had a new name, one reserved just for me. Son.
“Come here, Son” he said. He handed a crutch to Mom. Leaning on the other, the toe of his shoe barely touching the ground, he smiled and waited.
I moved to him. He was taller than Mom. The top of my head barely reached above his stomach. Withhis one free arm, he held me next to him.
“Time,” he said. “We’ve got some time to make up.” He let me go, took the crutch from Mom and placed the wide, support end under his arm. “Let’s say hello to your grandparents—” he stood straight and inhaled “—After that, we’re going home.”
Mom took my hand and the three of us moved towards Aunt Marge, Grandpa and Grandma. Behind me I heard an engine roar. I looked over my shoulder. Yet another big bomber was roaring down a runway. I watched it rise into the air and launch itself towards the horizon where those scattered puffs of white floated in the sky. Mom’s hand pulled on mine. I turned and walked with her and Dad on his crutches to where Grandpa, Grandma, and Aunt Marge waited.
Before we reached them, I shot a backward glance towards that bomber, which was now a lumbering, airborne giant headed who knows where, but away from us.