Heroes Come Home
The sun was just breaking the hills east of the lake as Jack stretched his back with his arms extended as if reaching for something above his head. He poured himself a cup of strong coffee from the pot on the table. Winston had gotten up and made the coffee and started breakfast before waking the man. Jack could smell the aroma emanating from the kitchen as he sipped the hot coffee. Not exactly roughing it I guess. But what the hell, I've roughed it enough.
"Winston, when's chow?"
"About fifteen minutes, sir. Is the coffee all right?"
"It's great, even brought my tin cup, eh?"
"I know how the Captain likes to rough it."
"Yeah, you old fart, I'm going out on the porch."
"Better put on a coat, you're not a boy anymore."
"Okay mom, speaking of boys, have we heard from them?"
"No sir, I haven't been to town yet today."
"Of course not." You damned fool, of course he hasn't heard from them yet. It's six thirty.
"I'm going to town this morning for supplies, I'll check then."
Jack didn't answer him as he went out onto the flagstone porch of the cabin. The steam rose from his coffee. He rubbed the stubble on his face and thought about how good it would be not to shave for a couple of weeks. The deer didn't care if he was shaven or not. This would be good; to see his son again, spend some time in the hills, away, maybe this would make him happy again.
Hell, I haven't been happy in years. This will be good though. I would have preferred to leave Winston in the city, but he was rather insistent that I'm old and unable to take care of myself. Faithful Winston. Even after I abandoned him, always faithful.
The sun ascended the sky. It threw a beam across the lake like a bridge of light and Jack could hear the birds singing their praise for the sun. Jack looked out across the lake and imagined all the whitetails waiting for them. He hadn't hunted deer with his son in six years. Thank God he had been able to convince him that it wasn't prudent to come down to hunt from Cambridge. Although Jack had a sneaking suspicion that Jim had cut classes to bag more than one Massachusetts deer. Six years, one war, one more divorce, and a thousand nightmares.
The nightmares didn't come every night, but when they did, they always involved Jim and either an airplane or a trench. Maybe he could shake them now that he could see Jim and the war was over and he would be getting out soon. Thank God he got there too late.
Winston startled him when he announced through the screen door that breakfast was served.
"You're not getting sad are you sir?"
"No, Winston, I think I'm getting happy."
"That's a good chap, now come and eat so I can close this door. Those boys will be chopping wood from now till Christmas if you leave this door open all the time."
"I thought it was rather warm for this time of year, don't you."
"Much warmer than I thought, it's not as dreadful as I expected."
"Dreadful. What would you know of dreadful, you old sod."
"Right you are lad. Although, one time I was hitting tennis balls as a teenager and there was no one there to pick them up. Can you believe I had to pick them up and put them in the basket myself? Dreadful, I tell you. That's just dreadful."
Jack chuckled, then said, "Let's eat."
They had a hearty breakfast of eggs sunny side up, corned beef hash, fresh bacon, toast with raspberry jam and fresh squeezed orange juice and of course, coffee.
"Where did you get oranges in November, Winston?"
"I wonder what that cost me."
"You have enough, sir. This war was good to you. Better than the last one."
"You can say that again."
"Better . . .."
"Don't do it, smart guy."
"What's the plan for the day, master?"
"Don't call me that, Win." Jack demanded, pointing a piece of toast dripping with egg yolk for emphasis. "I think you can drive to town for our supplies. I am going to split some wood. Thompson cut all of that wood, but he didn't split one log. Damn fool. You can't burn that wood in big chunks."
"Do you wish for me not to pay him?"
"No, pay him, just convey my displeasure. It will do me good anyway. First I'm going to shoot the Springfield a little. Then split the wood. Then I will be ready for a cold beer. Speaking of cold beer. Did you order the beer from Pottsville?"
"Yes, sir, it should be in today and there should be ice there as well. Bob was going to cut those steaks this morning and he also loaded up the .30-06 ammunition as well."
"Those steaks should be good."
"Right you are lad, that was a fine looking steer. Fine looking steer. You didn't see him did you?"
"Yeah, I saw him yesterday before they whacked him."
It was a fine looking steer indeed. A well built Angus. Not a skinny western bag of bones, but a real beefer. Fine animal, and now we're going to eat him. I guess that's the way it goes. You die, and then they eat you. Well, they're not going to eat me by God.
"Are you sure you don't want me to come with you and help, Win?"
"No sir, you have things to do. If it will make you feel better, you can help me unload the supplies when I get back."
"Very good then. I will be back before lunch. You better go shoot before you start drinking today. You need the practice from what the Marines told me."
"What Marines said that?"
"All of them."
The Springfield shot well. More appropriately, Jack shot well. The rifle never shot bad just the louse behind it. He liked the Enfield as well, but he didn't like to hunt with the rifle that he killed his first man with. Hell of a thing. Forget it. You think like that and you'll start drinking whiskey and never get any wood split. Or you'll start drinking whiskey and chop you're damn fool leg off.
This rifle didn't look anything like the rifle he carried years ago, but rather like a fine European sporting piece. Not too fancy, but not the full stocked, worn out rifle he'd carried back then. The .30-06 was a great cartridge and he had killed everything in North America with it, and several species in east Africa on the hunt with Teddy.
None of those animals could hold the place in his heart that the whitetail did. Ever since his first, less than a mile from this cabin, he had been in love with these animals. None of the horns from Africa hung in his den with the Whitetail heads. They hung in the carriage house. They didn't deserve to hang next to gray ghosts. The only reason he kept them at all was because he had shot them with the President. They were neat, but not beautiful like whitetails.
Jack cleaned the Springfield on the stone porch and drank coffee and looked out at the lake. He was really tempted to say 'the hell with it, I'm on vacation' and have a whiskey but thought better of it. If he drank every morning he felt like it, he wouldn't even own this land anymore. He wouldn't even have a pot to piss in and Jim would be an enlisted Marine laying in his grave somewhere on a shithole of an island in the Pacific. Cut it out. You won, he finished college. The war is over. He's safe. Yeah, you always win you bastard.
Jack finished inspecting his rifle and replaced it in the leather lined mahogany case and stood up. I think I'm getting happy. If I could forget a hundred things in my life, I would be damn happy. Of course I wouldn't be me. The hell with it. I'll settle for forgetting Victoria. At least she is out of my life and back in Georgia at her fine southern plantation. Damned hot, humid, flatlands, I'd rather be in France.
Jack was splitting wood with a fury when Winston pulled up in the Suburban squat with groceries, beer, and ice. And ammunition, he hoped, because he had shot all but two rounds of the ammo he had for the Springfield. Jack was soaked with sweat. And it was cool outside.
"You're a mess captain."
"I feel great, Win."
"Well, I'll make you a bath and you can have a cold Yuengling."
"No, I'll just jump in the lake. But I will take the beer."
"You're as crazy as ever. You'll catch your death lad."
"I have been jumping in this lake forever."
"You're only close to half a century, but I guess that's close to forever."
"Ah, you are a funny butler. I thought I had a serious, mothering, nagging butler. But not a funny one. Do I have to pay you more now?"
"You don't pay me anything now!"
"The hell I don't."
"I don't want any more of you're money."
"Good, because I don't want to give you any more. Telegram?"
"Yes sir." Winston produced the document and held it out like an adjutant in a parade: 'we have arrived in the hinterland, having cheated death once again in our flying machines. We have the car and will be there tonight. Going to stop at Merieder's to buy Bill a rifle.'
"Well said for a Harvard man, Winston commented."
"Yeah, well said, he could have just said 'arrived, be there tonight'."
"Yes, but he's not a cheap bastard like his father."
"I suppose not."
They unloaded the car. Steaks from that fine steer, six cases of Yuengling Lager from Pottsville Pennsylvania, vegetables (presumably from California or some other outrageous locale), and ice. The latter they put in the small icehouse and covered with sawdust, placing the beer on top. Jack checked the new '06 ammunition while he drank a cold beer and Winston restocked the kitchen with the bounty from Merieder's store.
The first beer, best one of the day, even better after splitting all of that wood. Much better work out than at the club. Fresh air, the mountains, out here all alone. No stuffy rich people around talking business. Am I a stuffy rich guy? Never. I'm just a rich bastard. Oh well, better than being a poor bastard.
Winston emerged from the hallway into the open great room of the log cabin wearing an apron and drinking a lager from the bottle. Jack looked up from staring at the thirty-caliber cartridge and saw Winston take a pull from the green bottle.
Astonished by the sight, Jack came out of his trance.
"Hell has indeed frozen over. I have never seen my distinguished butler drink from any glass that wasn't clear and shaped like a glass!"
"It's a butler secret, we all drink from bottles like commoners and salesmen when we're in the great north country."
"Well, I'm glad that you are able to enjoy one good thing in life."
"Say chap, I saw four cock pheasants cross the road down by the spring meadow when I drove in. Want to go see if we can find them? I shall carry your gun if you like."
"Outstanding idea. I guess we can handle a scattergun with one beer in us."
"I heard you could handle an Enfield with a bottle of wine in you. So I guess this would be all right."
"What liar did you here that from?"
"A very distinguished liar."
"It was only half a bottle of wine."
They drove down to the woods above the spring meadow and parked the Suburban. They climbed out and retrieved the shotguns from the back seat. Jack made a cursory inspection of the Ithaca 16 gauge and loaded two cardboard shells into the side-by-side barrels. Winston produced his Holland & Holland 28 bore and wiped it down with a soft cloth. They turned into the edge of the field and stopped to survey the situation.
"I say good captain, why don't you hunt birds with a fine English fowling piece instead of that old American thing?"
"I am hunting with a fine English fouling piece and he talks too much. Why don't you show me where these birds are."
"Very good sir."
They walked around the edge of the field to all of the places they would expect the birds to be. There was a wind and they could feel a cold breeze coming out of the north and see the storm clouds forming up. It could get cold enough for snow tonight. Better snow than rain. It had been warm the last couple of days, in the fifties, but it could get cold enough for snow and this new breeze felt like it.
They talked about things that men always seem to talk about when they are hunting birds. It is nice to talk when one is hunting sometimes. Not like deer hunting which is nice in a solitary way. But really just walking and talking, about other birds they had shot or missed, and sports, and the price of steel, dogs they had hunted over, and the women that had broken their hearts.
Allison, she had broken my heart right in half. Wasn't her fault, wasn't my fault either. Just the way God wanted it I guess. The hell with it. Nothing I could do. It was good while it lasted. Damn, it was good. Where the hell are these birds?
Boom, boom. Shit, there they are. All together, that's odd. Two more still flying. I can't believe they all flew at once. You should probably shoot and think about this when they're not flying away . . . Boom, boom.
"Good shooting lad, I thought you weren't going to shoot old cock." Winston beamed holding two beautiful pheasants in one hand and his H&H in the other.
"I guess I had my head up it just then."
"Well you got one. Not too bad for a Yankee."
"Those are beautiful birds. We can tie some nice flies."
"Do you want to go after the other?"
"No, let him go. Now he's all-alone, like the rest of us."
"I do say, you're getting gloomy."
"Just thinking about Allie."
"Oh well lets collect up that other cock, I think he's the biggest."
"Oh, go on."
"Not to worry, I have always shot better than you. Nothing you can do about it."
"Are you getting gloomy again?"
"No, I'm shipshape. Look at this pheasant, he is huge."
They cleaned the birds over two more beers and hung them in the shed to cool. They washed up and Winston insisted that he draw a bath for his charge. Jack refused and came from the bedroom in a terry cloth robe and leather moccasins, carrying a bar of soap. He walked down to the dock amidst a series of protests from his butler. He shed the robe and his moccasins and, holding the soap, he plunged into the cold water. The shock from the cold water caused Jack to open his mouth by reflex and he gulped in a mouthful of lake water. Luckily, he managed to retain his grip on the soap and didn't take more than two minutes to decide he was clean enough.
He climbed aboard the dock and donned his robe and slippers. He looked out across the lake, shivering beneath the wind like he was shivering from the shockingly cold water. He drew in a deep breath and let it out. Smiled bigger than he had in recent history and turned around and walked back to the cabin. That was a damned fool thing to do. The boys will be out hunting and I'll be lying in bed. An old, sick, broken man. The hell I will.
Winston had the foresight to stoke the fire to a roaring blaze and had placed a glass of scotch along with some cold meats and cheeses on the end table in front of the massive fieldstone fireplace. Jack went to the bedroom and dressed, putting on flannel trousers, wool socks, and a heavy wool sweater.
He came back into the great room and sat down in the leather chair in front of the fireplace. He smiled at the thought that Winston knew him so well and knew that he knew he was a fool for jumping in the lake, in upstate New York, in November. But he was happy. And the boys should be here in a few hours. The men ate a late lunch of rare roast beef sandwiches, kosher pickles, and potato salad. Jack drank two more beers with lunch and was not feeling any adverse affects from the bath in the lake for the sake of tradition episode.
He carried his plate from in front of the fire and placed it in the cast iron sink under the admonishments of his butler. Then he declared that he would take an afternoon nap in preparation for the boys' arrival.
The boys: Naval Aviators. They had met in Pensacola and had done everything in their Marine careers together. Flight school, chasing the gentle sex, advanced training, drinking, smoking, and womanizing like fighter pilots, shipped to the Pacific together. Even got assigned to the same squadron as replacement pilots. At least he didn't join the infantry.
They both wanted so badly to fly in combat, much to the chagrin of Jim's father. You just can't tell a kid that he shouldn't want to go to war. Especially when you were a "hero" in the Great War. Guess they just want to go out and figure it out themselves. In a way Jack had hoped he had gotten his belly full of war without it hurting him too much. He thought that maybe not getting to do it could hurt him just as much. He had talked him out of enlisting when he turned eighteen, and had even talked him into going to college before he joined. Hoping that either the war would be over or he would forget about the silly notion of being a combat Marine. But that didn't work out and he didn't forget about his destiny as one of the men of their family.
Grandfather had fought in Cuba with President Theodore and father had fought in the First World War, twice even. It was his sacred duty to fight in this war for his country and his family and his honor. Damn romantic fool.
Jack, on the other hand, had gone to war to curtail his father's speeches about going to war like he did and make a name for himself like he did in the war with the dirty Spaniards. Never mind that America wasn't even in the Goddamned war.
Well that's enough of that. You can't change anything now. And you have a lot to be thankful for. You have been one lucky bastard.
As Jack was drifting off to sleep, Winston came in and insisted that he drink a large tumbler of water to counteract the booze before he took his nap. He complied, knowing that he would awake at the beckon of his bladder. Then he fell asleep. He did not dream. For that he was thankful.
When he awoke it was dark, or nearly so. He looked at his chronograph, an expensive, oversized watch that his son had bought him for his last birthday. An aviator watch. Damn fool, but a nice watch. It was four-thirty.
He got up and dressed and went into one of the other five bedrooms of the "little cabin in the hills" that Jim had described to Bill many times during the war. It really was a great cabin. Built by his father in 1900, it was two years younger than he was. He loved this cabin and his son loved it too. Set on a 35-acre natural lake in the Adirondacks, surrounded by 450 acres of beautiful timberland that his father had purchased in 1884 from a prominent New York businessman, who had no use for such wild land. It was a place that was cherished by his family, his father, himself, and his son and presumably his son if he should find a decent woman with whom to have one.
Town was about 15 miles down the mountain by dirt road and his nearest neighbors were six or seven miles as the crow flies. They were a farmer and his wife and their five boys and two girls. They kept an eye on the place and generally took care of it when he was away, which was most of the time. And he bought them farm implements, because they wouldn't take any money, and he shared the loot from successful hunting expeditions. They were good people. Simple people, the kind he liked best.
He lit the glass lamp in Jim's bedroom and went to the gun case on the bed. He opened it and admired the new Winchester Model 70 Super Grade it held. It was a fine rifle. One that Jim would like. He was glad that he was able to give such a nice gift to his son, just for coming home.
He was even happier that Jim would appreciate it, unlike many of his associate's children. He had worried that Jim would grow up a spoiled kid, because he had indeed spoiled him. But Jim had handled it well and worked hard and appreciated things even though he didn't have to. Jim was a good kid. He just wasn't sure how to present this gift to him. He felt kind of bad giving Jim a gift and not giving anything to Bill. The hell with it he thought. I'll give him my hospitality. And my gratitude for watching out for Jimmy.
As he was staring at the rifle, lost in memories of hunting with his son and the anticipation of this hunt, a commotion erupted at the front of the cabin. Actually the back, because technically the front faced the lake. The back was where the drive was. He closed the gun case and slid it under the bed, deciding that figuring out when to give it to Jim could wait till later.
He made his way through the cabin glowing from the gas lamps and the fireplace and went out through the kitchen to the back. Winston was watching the charcoal in the outdoor grill mature. There was a 1940 Chevrolet sedan in the drive, which was producing a loud honking noise. Jack's heart jumped as he saw Winston hugging 1st Lt. James B. Stockman in the drive. He looked splendid. Jack fought back the tears as he approached his son. He extended his hand and as it reached the other, he pulled his son to him and hugged him. Tears burned his cheeks in the damp evening air. They didn't speak for a few moments. Then Jack backed up extending his arms out, his hands on the boys' shoulders in front of him.
"Let me have a look at you boy. You look healthy, no malaria, or syphilis or broken bones. God, it's good to see you."
"You're looking okay yourself, old man," Jim said, beaming.
"He split four or five cords of wood today, Jimmy!" Winston interjected with a hint of humor.
"Four or five, you're getting slow in your old age, pop. Listen, this is Bill. 1st Lt. William R. Luftan, Marine Aviator extraordinaire."
"Pleased to meet you, Bill." Jack enthusiastically shook his hand. "This is my butler and good friend, Winston."
"It's an honor to meet an American hero and Jimmy's father, sir."
"Oh shit, have you boys been at the bottle?"
"No, dad, he knows all about you."
"Great, well we better go get at the bottle then, if we're going to lie like this."
Bill and Winston shook hands, and the men filed into the kitchen. Winston turned to tend his coals momentarily before entering the kitchen.
"Gentlemen, please exit my kitchen and I shall bring you refreshments at the fireplace. I am about to put the steaks on and we can eat in about a quarter of an hour."
"Okay, we can do that. We'll take beer all around. Is that okay boys?"
The boys replied in the affirmative as if they had been asked if they liked to breathe. Bill was amazed at the interior of the cabin. It was beautiful, not gaudy or even especially expensive looking. It was just a beautiful, rustic, well-appointed log cabin.
They all took seats in the Italian leather easy chairs forming an arc in front of the fireplace. Winston promptly entered carrying a silver bucket full of chipped ice with green long neck bottles protruding from the ice in odd angles.
"I assume these Teufelheunden don't require glasses to drink this weak American beer?"
Jack retorted, helping himself to a bottle "Winnie, I have been everywhere on this earth and there is no finer beer. There are different beers, but none better."
"I concur, sir," Jim added after taking a satisfying gulp of the cold brew.
"This is good. I like it," added Bill.
Winston returned carrying a large plate covered with oysters wrapped in bacon, sizzling like a timber rattler. The men sat around the fire enjoying their beer and snacks until Winston announced that dinner was served. They moved to the dining room, which was really just part of the great room. They dined on fresh filet mignon with baked potatoes and local acorn squash baked with butter and cracked pepper. They drank a bottle of French red wine 1922, in honor of Jim's birth.
It was an enjoyable meal and they talked of the war a little, of the flight up from Key West, and the daily life at Marine Corps Air Facility Key West. The boys explained how they were given a hero's welcome at Philly and again at Merieder's store, and how they were both ashamed that they hadn't fired one bullet at the Japs. Jack changed the subject to the much-anticipated hunt.
"I saw a nice eight point up by Leech Creek two days ago. Beautiful deer, very symmetrical rack and big bodied. There's another around like him but he's smaller and I think one eye guard is broken off. Probably fighting with the old man." Jack explained as Winston brought out coffee for the crew.
"Really, that's great, I can't wait until tomorrow,"Jim replied.
"Yeah, there's a lot of nice deer around this year. So did you get a rifle for Bill? If not, we have plenty around here he could use."
"Yes sir, got him a brand new Winchester 94. I suggested he buy something fancier, but he thought it would be a good starter rifle. And he shot well with it. He put a box of ammo through it back of Merieder's" Jim explained.
"It's a fine starter rifle. I have killed plenty of deer with a Model 94. Why don't you go get it and let me look at it?"
The boys got up and decided they might as well unload their bags as well. Winston cleared the table and made up a tray with glasses, 12-year-old scotch, an ice bucket and soda water. Before Jim and Bill made it back inside with their gear, Jack was able to retrieve the new rifle from the bedroom and was sitting in one of the easy chairs at the fire. Jim and Bill strolled into the great room with Bill's new rifle. Jim saw the new rifle his father was holding with its beautifully checkered walnut stock, German silver grip cap, and the Redfield telescopic sight. The polished blue metal gleamed in the lamplight.
"Wow dad, did you get a new rifle too? That is beautiful."
"No, you did. Welcome home son." Jim was caught by surprise and nearly choked up as his father handed him the Model 70. Turning the rifle over in his hands and putting it to his shoulder, aiming at the deer mount above the fireplace, Jim said,
"Thanks dad, this is great. You shouldn't have done this, it's beautiful."
"Well, now, I'm showing up Bill and his new rifle. Let me see that rifle, Bill. Oh yes, this is a fine rifle, too." Snapping it to his shoulder several times and working the lever. "I love these guns. You'll appreciate the light weight about 4:30 tomorrow afternoon!"
Bill was proud of his new rifle even though it lacked the flair of Jim's new piece. They talked more about hunting while they sipped their scotch. Jim was very excited about the upcoming hunt and Bill had also clearly caught the fever. They laid a topographic map out on the coffee table and Jack and Jim gave Bill a virtual tour of the estate. Everyone was very excited about the hunt and the men were like children on Christmas Eve.
"Well, tomorrow morning you should use your '06. I brought it up. You can shoot at lunch time and take the new one out in the afternoon."
"It'll be all right dad. I can shoot better than you, even."
"Oh you can, huh? You still can't hunt with a rifle you haven't fired."
"Well, maybe not under pressure, like in France, but well."
"Let's not start on that."
"Please dad, tell us about the war. I told Bill all I know and we are determined to get something out of you on this trip."
"You better not be too determined. You may have to stay here a while."
"Okay, I joined the Marines, somehow ended up being an officer, got shipped to France and got lots of good men killed. They gave me the Medal of Honor, probably with influence from grandfather. That's it. That's the story. It was the worst experience of my life, except losing your mother."
Jim let it go at that, knowing his father's tone. Bill looked uncomfortable and was thankful when Winston came in and announced that it was getting late, everyone was tired after a long day, and that they should all get some sleep for tomorrow.
Everyone agreed, picked up their glasses, said goodnight, and retired to their rooms. Everyone was excited about the hunt the next day and had a difficult time falling to sleep.
Winston awoke early and dressed quickly. The cabin was cold and he lit fires in both fireplaces, at either end of the cabin. Then he put coffee on before waking the great white hunters.
Soon everyone was huddled around the fire, leaning over their coffee cups held in both hands. They breathed in the steaming aroma and tried to shake the beer and whiskey fog from their heads. Fortunately, they had gone to bed at Winston's suggestion, and were now thankful for his prudence.
As the coffee took effect there seemed to be a new energy building, and the aroma of breakfast cooking wafted in from the kitchen. The darkness outside the cabin seemed to have a new shine, and when Jim looked out the dining room window he saw a blanket of fresh snow covering the ground. His heart jumped and he almost spilled his coffee as he proclaimed that it would be a great day.
Snow had fallen about three o'clock that morning and left a three-inch layer of powder on the ground. Perfect. This revelation added to the excitement in the room that now seemed to bustle with activity as breakfast was finished and the hunters began to prepare their gear for the hunt.
It was decided over coffee, with the map open on the table between the men, that Jim would take Bill up to the oaks and put him on Grandpa's stand. Then Jim would move about a hundred meters up the ridge from Bill, staying within sight. Once Bill got a feel for the lay of the land, they would send him out on his own.
Jack would take up his stand by the stone ridges, which were only about 50 feet high and ran for about 150 yards near the top of the ridge. But the stand had a commanding view of a plateau of hardwoods that were bounded on one side by a stand of old growth hemlocks and the other a stream, beyond which lay a five-year-old clear-cut.
Around ten o'clock Jack would leave his stand and wander through the hemlocks, across an overgrown meadow, and up to the oaks. This would serve two purposes: Jack would pick the boys up on the way to the cabin for lunch, and it would most likely push any deer in that area toward Bill and Jim.
Winston looked on as he filled a steel thermos for each of the hunters and smiled at the military efficiency with which the plan was conceived and then disseminated to the eager lieutenants. It would be a good day, even if they didn't see any deer. Winston could tell Jack was happy. Perhaps happier than he had been in years.
The morning was beautiful. And Jack was happy, truly happy. He sat on his stand and watched his breath smoke. The forest was virginal white, with the new snow. No wind and the temperature had warmed to about 38 degrees. The snow wouldn't last long the way the days had been warming. Jack felt great as he sat there, not caring if he saw a deer but hoping that Jim and Bill would have some luck. He wanted Bill to get a good taste of deer hunting since this was his introduction to something that had brought Jack so much solace and pleasure.
It was about 8:30 AM and Jack was pouring some black coffee out of his thermos when he heard the crack of Bill's Winchester up in the oaks. He spilled the coffee and then dropped the tin cup as he grabbed the Springfield and tried to make himself smaller on his wooden stool. Even after all these years, a rifle shot in the woods made him react like this.
He relaxed and smiled at himself, letting out a breath. He reached down to retrieve his cup when a movement over towards the creek, the opposite direction from the shot, caught his eye. He froze. He could feel his heart begin to speed-up and tried to control his breathing. He gently caressed the Springfield.
A deer emerged from the thicket by the creek with his head down, cautiously surveying the hardwoods for an enemy. He's probably been lying there all morning and just got startled, Jack thought. He recognized him as the smaller eight point he had told Jim about. He debated whether he should shoot him. Of course, the boys could hunt for two weeks and never see this buck again.
Jack was in position for a shot. The deer was milling about by the creek and Jack thought that it wouldn't be long before he would be gone. It was a beautiful deer. Obviously a mature whitetail with probably a 16-inch spread. A deer any hunter worth his salt would want to take. By this time his cheek was resting on the stock of the Springfield and he was taking the slack out of the two-stage trigger.
The rifle bucked and roared, seemingly of its own accord and the deer turned and crashed into the thicket. He was gone before the echo faded. Jack worked the bolt as he brought the gun down, and smiled. Now, if only I could hear Jim's rifle. This day would be perfect. Jack drank some coffee as he lounged at his stand. He was happy. Happy as the day he married Allison. Happy as the day Allison gave him a son. Happy as the day they pulled into New York harbor in 1919. Just happy with no strings attached.
He gathered his things and walked leisurely down to the thicket where the deer had been standing. There was blood on the new snow among the tracks, and hair two feet beyond the tracks. He started walking slowly, with the muzzle of his rifle at the ready. He followed the blood trail easily for about 50 yards and then saw the brown patch in the snow and the antler glistening in the morning sun. Jack smiled and observed the wound on the animal. Low, just behind the shoulder. The deer was dead on his feet for the fifty yards he had traveled. He just didn't know it. That's the way to go out. He felt the normal remorse for having killed such a wonderful creature. But that didn't last long and Jack was just plain happy. He stood over the deer and looked up to the clearing sky. "Thank you, God," he thought, "for everything."
Jack field dressed the deer and remembered how it had been when he was a kid. How he used to get so excited when he would shoot and the deer would bolt, and he couldn't understand how he'd missed. But, as the years went by and he gained experience, he knew when he had hit a deer. He didn't worry about not finding promising sign when he went to look for his deer.
Even though as an adult he rarely missed, Jack still felt the adrenaline flow and the excitement mount when he spotted a deer in the woods during hunting season. He cleaned his hands in the snow and drank some more coffee. He decided he should walk up towards the boys. He left the deer where it lay, knowing he could find this spot with his eyes closed.
He was slowly working his way through the hemlocks when a shot split the cool air. He fell to the ground and brought up his rifle. "Christ . . .."
He laughed out loud as he picked himself up and brushed off his clothes. What a silly bastard I am. That was Jim's rifle. And he had heard a 'thunk' a split second after the shot. Jim had hit something. This could turn out to be a one-day hunt.
He continued slowly through the hemlocks and worked his way up toward the oaks. He froze when he saw a deer lying in the snow, then realized that it was dead. It was the old buck. A near copy of the one he had killed almost two hours ago. Only bigger and somehow more beautiful. Maybe more beautiful because someone else had gotten him. Who the hell cares?
He looked up the hill and could see Jim cautiously working his way toward him, following blood. He looked up, as Jack had taught him to do when trailing a deer, and saw his father. He waved and Jack returned in kind.
"I see you found my deer, dad," Jim said as he approached. He was beaming with pride. "Is this the old man?"
"Yep, you did good son. You did good."
"How did you do pop?"
"I got his younger brother, the one with the broken tine."
"That's great dad. I guess we're going have lots of time for war stories this week. Bill got a five point. He is just busting to talk about it. He's like a little kid. It's wonderful."
"It's truly wonderful, son. I'd say this is one of the best days we've had."
"Even better than . . . when was it? Thirty-eight, I guess, I was in the tenth grade."
"That was good, this is the best. Thanks for coming home, son." His voice cracked.
"Thank you, dad."
The photographs were all taken and the deer were hung on the meat pole. The men celebrated their victorious hunt as they fried slices of deer heart in a cast iron skillet and drank Yuengling from the bottle. It was a great day.
It stayed cold and began to snow again. It was cozy inside the cabin and the atmosphere was glowing with the recounts of the morning's hunt. Bill was so excited that he gave the play-by-play account of his first deer several times, like an excited baseball announcer on the radio. There was much backslapping and Winston had to get another case of beer from the icehouse. There wasn't much point in keeping it in the icehouse, so he moved it to the shed while he was there.
Jim and Bill brought in a healthy stack of firewood for the evening. And Jack began cleaning the rifles. Everyone decided they could wait a little while for dinner, and Winston began to roast the pheasants from the previous day. After a round of scotch the rifles were cleaned and put away.
Bill was convinced he had made the right choice about the Winchester 94 and Jim was a bit disappointed that he didn't get to shoot the big buck with his new rifle. Jack was just happy. He assured his son that tomorrow they could go out and Jim could shoot a doe with the new rifle.
Some people were religiously against shooting does, but Jack was convinced that it didn't hurt the herd. Certainly not any more than unregulated hunting and poaching had years ago. Jack felt weary from the day's activities and decided to take a nap before dinner. The boys elected to sit by the fire and recount, once again, their day's fortune.
"Dad, when you get up, you'll have to tell us a good story."
"We'll see. Thanks for coming up boys. I'm happier today than I have been in a long time." What the hell maybe I will tell them.
"Thanks for inviting me, sir." Bill said with true gratitude.
"I wouldn't have missed this for the world, pop."
Jack smiled and disappeared down the hall.
Winston came into the great room carrying a new bucket of beer and placed it on the coffee table for the boys. They were relaxing and enjoying the effects of the alcohol and the general state of bliss. Winston turned to leave with the empty bucket when Jim stopped him.
"Winston, did dad ever tell you about the war?"
"No, but I know what happened."
"Oh, Win, tell us something about Belleau Wood. Please."
"Well, what I know about the Wood is just what I heard from a chap in New York. But I know about the Somme." Winston sat down in one of the leather chairs and drew a bottle from the bucket, opened it, and took a long pull.
"Who did you here it from?"
"I didn't hear it from anyone. I was there with the poor bastard."
"You were there?" Exclaimed both young men, almost in unison.
"I was there. You know your father was in the British Army before the Marines, right?"
"I had heard that he was, but no one ever mentioned any details." The boys were now sitting on the edge of their seats, intrigued by this new information.
"He joined in 1915, under the prodding of his father, and ended up in the 2nd Infantry Company of Her Majesty's 1st Infantry Brigade, which is where I met him.
We became rather good chaps and we pretty much stuck together. Kind of like you two lads. I come from a line of distinguished gentlemen butlers, but the Queen needed every sodding one of us." He took another drink.
"Well, we fought on the front all spring of 1916 and we were having a hell of a time with it. Bloody Krauts would cut us down by the hundreds. I don't know how you're father made it, the chances he took. If you fell down during an advance, it was awfully hard to get yourself back up with the fire. He always got back up, and just seeing him made me get back up, too, even when everything in my body was telling me to just stay down."
"You boys may have seen some of the stuff in the Pacific. The ground was torn up, muddy, pieces of shrapnel everywhere. Bodies, terrible bloated bodies with flies and maggots and worms. Sometimes you would fall down and land on one of these bodies and you could here it deflate. It was bloated from the sun. Then you would throw up on yourself and get up and keep running. Just running blindly, tears coming down your cheeks, scared. Scared out of your mind but mad, too. Mad at these bastards who were cutting you down. They wouldn't give you a chance."
Winston drained his beer and put the bottle on the table. Bill decapped another one and handed it to him. Staring intently, as if to say 'go on.'
"Well, your dad would get so damned mad about how our officers were just flinging us into the jaws of death with out so much as a thought for us. I mean personally. Anyway, we were at a place called Somme. And we knew that this was going to be a hell of an attack because my lads had been shelling the Germans for days. Of course the officers had the silly notion that we would just walk up and stand in their trenches and the fight would be over. Well, unfortunately, they didn't inform the bloody Krauts of this because after the shelling stopped and as the whistles blew and we went over the top, the Krauts just came out of their bunkers, brushed themselves off and manned their Maxims." He took another drink.
"Right then, well, before the attack, your father had procured a nice bottle of wine. He was a rather resourceful man, as he is today. And we had filled up our canteens and sat in the trench smoking French cigarettes and making toasts. One toast was to you're mother. Yes, I remember it was, 'to Allison, my future wife. If the devil doesn't get me first'."
"We had been at the front about seven or eight months by this time, and were pretty much resigned to the fact that we were going to die. Being dead seemed like a rather good lot, given the circumstances. So we decided that we would at least enjoy some wine before the attack. Well, of course, we finished the last of the wine just as the whistle blew, so we started the attack with dry canteens and feeling rather loose. It would be okay to go without water, because we would be retreating soon enough. Or dead." He finished the beer and Jim handed him a fresh one.
Winston was almost trembling and his voice was picking up speed. "So we went over the top, and I hear your father cursing up a storm. He could curse a streak back then. He would get so mad and mean and dark it was scary, but it was comforting at the same time. We're running and running. The machine guns opened up; there was one in front of us shooting at an angle to us down the barbed wire."
Men were tied up in the wire by then, and we're trying to pick our way through and the fire is moving up the wire toward us." Winston's eyes had a far away look, as if he were looking out the window. The boys were staring at him, literally on the edge of their seats.
"So I'm tangled up in the wire and I see your father on his belly behind the wire, looking around. He looks at the machine gun, then at me, then down the wire and the men screaming, being cut to ribbons, and explosions all around. I'm ripping at the wire and it's cutting into me and shredding my hands. Your father, he comes scrambling down the wire on his hands and knees. Screaming 'get out, get out, they're shifting, they're shifting, God damn it, get out.' He's crying and screaming at me. Finally he grabs me and pulls me free of the wire and is screaming 'Come on, I found a break in the wire; come on, we gotta get outta here.' So we scrambled down the wire away from all the lads getting torn up by the Kraut machine guns."
"There was a little hill, so the trench on the left of the machine gun couldn't shoot at us very well. Well, we got to this break and we slithered through on our hands and knees. We were bleeding from the wire, and your father had vomit down the front of his uniform, mixed with the mud."
"I got through the wire and, still on my hands and knees, I looked up and saw your father on his feet and running up the berm toward the machine gun. He's got the long blade on the Enfield and he's running, crouched down a little. He stopped, knelt, and fired, and the assistant gunner's helmet flew off when his head exploded. I'm laying in the mud, frozen in panic. I didn't know where to go, we had never made it this far. But your Dad jumped back up and ran right up the berm, and gave that Kraut gunner the cold steel. Right through the heart six, seven times. Hell, I don't know how many times. He's screaming at him and stabbing him in the heart. Now I'm up and running towards the machine gun. Then wham, one of those bloody bastards on the right took me through both thighs with a Mauser. I fell down and then I saw Jack turning the machine gun and firing it down at the German lines. Beautiful sight. I thought I was dying. But I was crying and screaming to him to get them all. The bloody bastards. I heard my comrades blowing the retreat, I saw a potato masher come from the left and your dad disappeared in the explosion. I thought, 'Well, that's it.' Then I passed out."
By this time Winston was wringing his hands and gently rocking back and forth in the chair, his forearms on his knees, his eyes glassy, and visibly trembling. "The next thing I know it's almost dark, and your father's pulling me down into our trench. I came to and I say 'Jack, I thought you were dead.' And he looks down at me, surprised like, and says 'I thought you were too.' He'd drug me probably 1000 meters across the open, torn up from that grenade and wire, and he was shot through the calf as well. All the way back to our trench and he thought I was dead. That's a hell of a man. Hell of a man." Winston straightened up and pulled another beer from the bucket.
There was a long silence. Then Jim spoke "But as terrible as that is, how could he not be proud of that? I mean, the drill instructors preached about men like him."
"Well, lad, that's not the end of the story. You see, we were lying in the hospital tent. I still don't know why I didn't bleed to death before that. Anyway, we had a few days to talk while we were recovering. Your father was about to be released back to the lines and I mentioned it. He told me he had no intention of going back to the slaughter. I couldn't believe him, not that I blamed him."
"I knew they were going to pin a medal on him before they sent him back. They came the next morning with the procession of officers, and I could see the medal boxes. They asked me where he was and I said I thought he had died in the night. They kind of shrugged and walked out. Just another number. They sent the medals to your grandfather. The medals got to New York before he did."
"So what happened?"
"He deserted, lad. He made his way back to New York; he's a very resourceful man. When he got back he was so guilt stricken, your dear mother told me, that he went down and enlisted in the Marine Corps. They made him an officer when his lieutenant was killed. Incidentally, the first week he was in France he got promoted on the field of battle to Captain."
"Nothing more was said about the Somme. He felt very guilty. He thought that I had been sent back to the lines and presumably killed. He wrote my father and found out that I had never gone back to the lines because of my wounds, and I came to America and started working for him. The rest, as they say, is history.
You would have to ask him about when he went back, but it was 1918 and they didn't hand out the Medal just for showing up. He's one hell of a warrior."
"Wow" The boys were somber faced. "That's amazing, have you ever talked to him about it since?"
"Only in private, a few times. He still carries that guilt to this day. Your father has had a lot of sadness and regret in his life. I thought he wasn't going to make it when your mother was killed. He is happy today, though, happier than I have seen him in years. He seems to have dispatched a lot of the guilt and regret. It means a lot to have you boys up here. He was so worried about you in the war."
"I guess I realize why he tried to keep me from it. I guess we were fools to want to fight."
"No, it's not your fault. All young men are fools. You'll only wish for it once."
"I guess." The boys were quiet.
"I'll go wake your father for dinner. Please don't let him know I told you this."
"We won't, Winston, thanks for telling us."
Winston stood up and went to the bedroom. He could here the boys' excited murmur behind him.
"Jim" Winston was leaning on the back of the couch, he looked ill. "Your father . . .."
"What is it Win?"
"You're father: He's dead."
Copyright 2003 by T.W Batzel, Jr. All rights reserved.