Sam unlocked the door and held the screen to prevent the tell-tale squeak
from waking his wife. He dropped into the paint-chipped porch glider to pull on his
boots before going for a walk. Any other day the chill in the air, the sounds of
birds, and the sweet scent of honeysuckle and roses would have energized him.
The past week hadn’t been ordinary, life would never again be the same.
He trudged up the knoll along the same grassy path he had walked for more
than fifty years. Each step required great effort and concentration. His body
betrayed him, it felt as if each leg and arm was encased in cement. His breath
seemed wasted. Lifting his head he saw the friendly remnants of the old barn.
Tears sprang to his eyes but didn’t spill. He cleared his throat trying to rid himself
of the stone lodged there. His arms tightened around a package he carried close to
his chest and clutched it tighter as the barn became closer.
Standing in his favorite place he leaned against the massive trunk of a two
hundred-year-old oak tree. The rough bark relieved some of the numbness
surrounding him. This had been his playground when he was a boy. He had
watched his father and grandfather work in the fields and the barn. Old and new
memories collided and flashed like broken kaleidoscope glass in his mind. Favorite
toys, games . . . the memories vanished when a familiar noise brought him back to
the present. He lifted his head and smiled at two squirrels chattering warnings and
flashing their fluffy tails at him. Funny how a simple and genuine smile could
conjure up such guilt during a time of raw grief. Tearing off a chunk of bark he
peeled at the layers and ground them into small bits with his bare hands.
Walking around the tree, his breath hitched, he clutched at the place on his
chest where his heart filled with such intense grief it stole the beat. He fell to his
knees in an outburst of sobs. The roots that snaked around the tree and on top of
the ground cradled and comforted him just as they had since he had been a boy.
The same place, the same tree had also comforted his father as a lad. And, his own
Sam reached down, picked up a stick, and drew meaningless designs in the
dirt. Images of his favorite toys came alive. G.I. Joe, Tonka trucks, slingshots, and cap guns. There was never a time in his memory that three wooden blocks and a
toy rocking horse didn’t hold court on the mantle of the three-generation home his
grandfather had built after immigrating from Scotland. The scars left by teething
babies marked the toys in several places. Then, his son, Charles, had played with
Legos, balls, and handheld games.
Thinking, thinking caused more pain but Sam couldn’t stop. His thoughts
bounded from the changes the family home had seen to a single conversation with
his son. He remembered every word and gesture. How is it that a person can forget
so much but recall the most difficult of times in startling detail? Isn’t that always
the way it is?
“Dad, I need to talk to you. Let’s sit under the tree.” Charles Stewart paled
but held his chin high.
Sam wiped his face with a faded blue bandana and released the shiny bay
gelding he had been shoeing. “Sure, son. What’s on your mind? A girl? School?”
Sam sat between the old roots and patted the ground beside him.
Charles chose to stand. He paced in front of his father. “Dad. I wanted to
tell you that I enlisted in the Army today.”
“You did what? What do you mean you joined the Army? Why? You’re
making good grades in school. There is no draft anymore. I don’t understand.”
Sam’s chin dropped to his chest and he started to stand.
Charles leaned down and put his hands on his father’s shoulders before he
could get up. “Dad, our country is at war. Our family has fought for this country
and our freedoms since they came over from Scotland. Grandpa was in World War
II, you fought in Vietnam. There’s a Purple Heart and Silver Star hanging over the
mantle to prove it. I have to do this, Dad.”
“Oh, Charles . . . look at the family cemetery over there. Some of those
graves belong to men killed in war. I do not want to bury you.” Sam’s voice
escalated then fell before he felt the onslaught of tears building from his core, from
his soul. They choked him. Words, no more words would come. He was helpless
and knew there was nothing he could do. It was done.
“I’ll come home, Dad. Don’t worry.” Charles pulled his father to him in a
Sam saw his reflection in his son’s eyes. He was shocked at how much he
had aged and shrank in a matter of minutes. He felt fragile for the first time in his
life. “Son, I’ve fought and I’ve killed. I know about war. There’s nothing glorious
about it. Is this official?” Sam shook his head trying to rid himself of the
flashbacks of his own horror.
“Yeah, it’s done.”
“Does your mother know?”
“No, sir. I want you to be with me when I tell her.” Charles allowed his
shoulders to droop. He stared at the ground, then sank to the ground.
Sam realized Charles’s thoughts had turned to his mother when he sat
beneath the comforting oak. “Why didn’t you talk to us first?”
“You would have said no and tried to talk me out of it. I’m a Stewart. I love
this country, I can’t stay away from what I feel is my duty, just because I make
Both men were silent. They sat, shoulders touching, staring at the ground.
“You’re right, son. You’re right. Promise to stay safe. Don’t be a hero.”
Sam broke the silence.
“Dad, I’m not going to be G.I. Joe.”
Sam smiled and stretched. “All right, let’s go tell your mother. She’ll cry,
then she’ll cook. Decide what you want for a special meal.”
“That’s easy. Chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, milk gravy, green
beans, salad, biscuits, and banana pudding with sweet tea.”
Sam snapped back to reality. He was crying. The ominous awareness of the
uniformed and somber officer walking to the door flashed before his eyes. He and
his wife were having morning coffee. He saw again the look of disbelief, the flash
of hope in his wife’s eyes, the beginning of the tears and her animal like scream
when the officer spoke with a crack in his voice, “We regret to inform you…”
Shaking the memory away he wiped his face and slowly stood. Looking to
the east, he began the short journey to the family cemetery. Sam knelt before a
mound of red Oklahoma dirt covered with a variety of flowers and ribbons. The
cloying scent of funeral flowers and colorful tangled ribbons made him weak. His
knees buckled when the sun bounced the gold words ‘beloved son’ from a white
A temporary Veteran’s Administration marker identified Charles’s grave. It
read PFC Charles Josiah Stewart, U. S. Army, Desert Storm, Iraq. Sam removed
the cloth from the package he carried. Saying a prayer he placed the tri-fold flag he
had accepted just the day before on his son’s grave. “You did good, Son. Your
buddy, Lemonhead, the one with yellow blonde hair and a sour attitude showed up.
Even with a chest laden with medals he couldn’t stay at attention. Told me you
took the bullet for him.”
Sam gathered flowers from the fresh grave and placed them on the resting
places of other fallen Stewart heroes and family members.
He returned to the grave and offered his son a sharp, crisp salute. Bending
down he retrieved the irreplaceable flag and began his journey back to the warm
His beloved wife and two young daughters walked toward him. An amber
glass of iced tea glistened in his wife’s hand. When their eyes met Sam felt the
strength of family surge through him. He realized in that moment that everything
would be fine, his family would live on. Strong and resilient. Iced tea, something
so common, held a promise he couldn’t deny. Grieving would continue, memories
would linger, but love would be as fresh as ever.