It Is The Veteran

Info silverhawk
17 May. '20

Foreword -

In today's world of 24/7 news and social media, it's very easy to become blinded by political rhetoric to the point we lose track of why we observe Memorial Day.   Memorial Day should not be a day to argue political points of view or to debate the justification for sending young men and women into combat.  It should not be just the day when we break out the grill for the first lawn party of the year.  

Memorial Day should never be "celebrated", for "celebrate" infers joy or the successful conclusion of some endeavor.  Rather, Memorial Day should be "observed", one day out of two in each year in which we engage in somber reflection.  It  is the day we give the highest of honors to the men and women who earned that honor regardless of their personal politics.  They should be honored because they served their country to the best of their ability and gave their lives in rendering that service.  

This has been true since the first shots were fired at Concord, Massachusetts in 1775 and it is true today.  Memorial Day should be a day when all people come together and remember the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and for their brothers and sisters in arms.  On other days, we can debate the justifications for and results of that sacrifice, but on Memorial Day there can be no debate about one simple truth about these men and women - their country called on them to serve and they gave everything they had to give.  Surely that alone is enough for us to put aside our differences and pay the tribute that sacrifice demands of us.

For those readers who do not reside in the US, I hope you also take time out from the constant rush life has become to reflect upon the men and women who gave you the ability to enjoy the life you lead, and in doing so gave their own lives.  In many countries, those men and women were part of a resistance movement instead of the formal military of the country, but gave their lives because of what they believed was right and just and to the betterment of the world and not just to themselves.  They're heroes and heroines just the same.  They deserve to be remembered and respected and revered.

 

The scene that unfolded that Wednesday afternoon was one that I'd experienced  once before, but it still caused tears to stream down my cheeks.  You'd think a man wouldn't do that - cry.  We're told almost from birth that guys don't show their emotions.  All men learn that, but there are times when it just happens, like it was happening to me then.  

I knew it was the same for Alice because this was her second time as well.  She had tears in her eyes too, but at least she wasn't sobbing like the first time.  That was because this time had been expected.  Her father was ninety-five and had been in poor health for the last year.  Just before he went, he held her hand and told her he was sorry he had to leave her, but she shouldn't grieve too long because he'd had a good life and it was time for him to go and join her mother.  Then he said he loved her, something I'd never heard him tell her before.  He'd already held my hand and asked me to promise I'd take good care of Alice.

A few minutes later, there wasn't any of the drama like you see on TV.  He just stopped breathing and his face went slack.  I'd seen that before too and sometimes I still did in my dreams, though my dreams took place in the sweltering heat and humidity of a jungle in Vietnam instead of beside a hospital bed.

Both Alice and I cried that night in the hospital.  I loved that old man like he was my father, because in a lot of ways, he was.  He'd steered me into something greater than I was, and though it was overpowering and at times worse than any nighmare I'd ever had, I'll never forget it or him.  

We were standing under an awning over the grave site and watching the Honor Guard in US Army dress uniforms slowly side-stepping the flag draped casket to the frame over the vault.  

To one side stood an array of men in police, EMT, and fireman's uniforms, and behind them were the police cars and motorcycles that had escorted the hearse from the Methodist Church to the grave site.  Almost all except the very youngest of them were veterans of service in some far-off land too, and they were standing at attention.

Around that awning were about  fifty men with American flags.  Some wore the caps of the American Legion or VFW.  A couple wore black vests with "MIA/POW emblazoned on the back.  Most, like me, were older and a little heavier than when they'd worn a uniform.  Most, also like me, didn't have as much hair either.  Still, they stood at attention through the entire ceremony because each and every one was a veteran who was there to honor a fellow veteran as he was laid to his eternal rest.

Once the Honor Guard was in position, the officer in charge of the detail quietly ordered, "Down", and the six men of the Honor Guard lowered the casket to the frame so slowly and in such a smooth, coordinated manner there was almost no sound when it touched.

After that, the six men picked up the American flag at the corners and center, pulled it taut over the casket with a snap and then held it over the casket while standing at attention.  I hadn't seen the officer standing off to one side until he began reading from a list of commendations Alice's father had earned in the US Army in World War II.  He'd told me he'd been wounded once, and he'd never said anything about any medals.  I was surprised that he'd been awarded the Purple Heart three times, the Bronze Star with "V" and one cluster, and the silver star.  He'd never even hinted about more than one Purple Heart and he seemed to be embarrassed about that one.

When the officer finished, I heard the command, "Present Arms" followed by three short commands of "Ready", "Aim", "Fire" followed by the shots of the three riflemen standing about fifty yards away, and then the command "Reset".   Three such volleys were fired after which the detail received the command, "Reset" followed by "Present Arms".

I was doing OK until the mournful, soft strains of "Taps" played by an unseen bugler in the distance was the only sound except the occasional sniff from some of those in attendance and the ruffling of the awning in the breeze.  I didn't try to wipe away the tears then.  It wouldn't have done any good.

The Honor Guard then carefully folded the American Flag into the regulation tri-corner shape.  The senior man flattened the folded flag against his chest and then held it up to make sure the flag was properly folded before presenting it to the officer in charge.  After slowly saluting the Honor Guard, the officer in charge took the folded flag between his palms and received the slow salute of the Honor Guard leader.  He then gave the order, "Honor Guard, Post", and after the Honor Guard marched to the side, he walked slowly up to Alice, knelt down on one knee and and spoke quietly as he handed her the flag.

"On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service."

He stood, slowly saluted Alice, then turned and walked from the awning.

The minister who delivered the grave side service kept my tears flowing.  

"We are here today to lay to rest Sergeant William Randolph Brooks.  Most of you know him as just Bill, but he was much more than just the man who built your house and who always had a smile on his face.  Bill was a hero of The Second World War.  He lied about his age and enlisted in the US Army when he was only seventeen.  Bill was in the first wave of Army troops that assaulted the beaches of Normandy.  He was wounded three times before the war was over and proved his courage too many times to count, but he didn't use that to his advantage.  

"Those of you who've served might have heard him talk about those days a little, but Bill preferred to just be a good husband, a good father, a good carpenter and a good neighbor.  I would imagine most of us had our lives changed because of something Bill did.  Bill was just that type of man, a good, quiet man who led a good life and passed a little of his goodness on to everyone he met.

"I spoke with Bill the day before he passed.  He knew his time was near and asked me to only say a prayer at his funeral service instead of a elegy.  He didn't want any mention of his medals either.  He told me the medals should have gone to the men to didn't come home because they'd helped him stay alive though it all.  

Bill didn't want to be given any special honor, but he deserves the honor he didn't want.  To give him that honor, I'll recite a poem by Charles M. Province that says more than my feeble attempts at praise could ever achieve."

He then lifted a paper from his bible and began to read.

"It is the Veteran, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the Veteran, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the Veteran, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Veteran, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.
It is the Veteran, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Veteran, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Veteran who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag."
 
The paper he was reading from was the funeral pamphlet Alice had had printed, and that poem was there because it was the same poem another preacher had read at her husband's funeral fifty years before.  It made me remember how Bill had changed my life too.

Fifty-one years before, when we were both seniors in high school, I dated Alice, and it was through her I met her father.  I thought he was an OK guy, though he seemed a little gruff sometimes.  

Alice was dating a couple other guys besides me, so we had somewhat of a competition for her going.  Wanting to improve my chances, I asked her dad what Alice was looking for in a man.  In retrospect, it seems like a stupid thing to do, but I was seventeen then and I was pretty stupid.

Her dad wouldn't answer me.  He just said I needed to grow up before I thought about what any woman wanted.  

Well, looking back, that was true.  My own dad had left me with mom after they divorced and he never came back.  Their's was one of those WWII marriages.  Every girl thought it was her patriotic duty to marry a soldier before he was shipped overseas.  Most of those marriages survived.  Mom's didn't.  She re-married and Jack was an OK guy, but he never treated me like a son.  As a result, I was pretty wild.  

I got into trouble frequently, not bad trouble, but a couple of times Jack had to come down to the police station to get me.  He'd just frown once we got in the car and ask me if I felt like a dumb shit for doing what I'd done.  That was it, no punishment, no threat about what would happen if I did it again, just did I feel like a dumb shit.

When I asked Alice's dad that day what he meant, he smiled.

"I was like you once, always into some type of trouble.  I thought I was a real bad-ass then.  I'd have probably ended up in jail if Japan hadn't bombed Pearl Harbor.  I was fourteen at the time and everybody who was old enough was enlisting.  I couldn't because I wasn't old enough, and it felt like I wasn't doing my part.  When I turned seventeen, I went down and enlisted too.  Had to lie and add a year to my real age, but they took me."

He chuckled then.

"They'd take anybody who was warm and had a pulse back then."

"I went through Basic Training and then trained to be an infantryman.  By the time they shipped my ass off to England, I figured I was a man and could take on anything and anybody.  I was wrong, but that's what I thought.  You need to get your head on straight.  The Army would do that for you."

As it turned out, I didn't have any choice in the matter.  The day I turned eighteen I registered for the draft, and a month later I got my draft notice in the mail.  After spending most of a day in my underwear while the Army doctors checked me out, I was sworn into the US Army and became Private Matthew James Ferguson.  That night, I got on a plane with about a hundred other draftees and flew to Fort Dix, New Jersey for Basic Training.

It wasn't a big surprise when the Army decided 11B - Combat Infantry - was going to be my MOS.  Vietnam was still going strong and the Army needed ground troops.  If you didn't have some education or special skill, that's where most draftees ended up.  I didn't have either.  After Advanced Infantry Training, I had a ten day leave before I shipped out to Vietnam.

Ricky Fansler, my best friend all through school, was four months younger than I, so he was home while I was in training.  When I came back for my leave before shipping out, I found out he and Alice were engaged.  I was happy for them both because Alice was a nice girl and she could have done a lot worse than Ricky.

I was in Vietnam and learning the instructors in AIT and been right when Ricky wrote me that he'd been drafted too.  Ricky had been sent to Infantry training, but he was smarter than I was, or so he thought.  He had to re-enlist for another four years to do it, but after Infantry training, he went to two different vehicle maintenance schools.  He thought he might go to Germany since the Army had a lot of tanks and trucks over there, but the Army often works in strange and mysterious ways.  He ended up in Vietnam and assigned to the motor pool that served my unit.

Ricky and Alice got married during his leave, and had two weeks together before he flew into Ton Son Nhut Air Base.  I knew he was coming, so I was waiting for him when he got to the replacement center.  He was happy to see me and I was happy to see him.  I was even happier when he was assigned to my unit's motor pool.

Because we were supposedly in support of the South Vietnamese Army by then, our primary role was defending our compound.  Apparently nobody had told the NVA we weren't there to fight.  They'd probe our defenses at least once a week and as a result, every man in my compound was an infantryman first and whatever else he did second except for the medics.  Medics were always medics, though more than one had some rifle time when we were attacked.  

It was because Ricky was a good friend that I tried to teach him everything I'd learned.  Most new guys didn't get that.  They had to learn on their own because nobody wanted to get close to a new guy until they were reasonably sure he wasn't going to get himself killed.  I understood that.  It was hard to see a man die, but you sort of got used to it.  If that man was a friend, it was a lot harder.

We had almost three months together before I got back on a plane at Ton Son Nhut and flew home.  It was hard to leave Ricky, but he'd learned how to keep his shit wired and I wasn't too worried about him.  We'd gone through a few firefights together, and he'd done as well as anybody.

By the time my tour was over, I realized the Army hadn't made a man out of me, but combat had.  Before I went to Vietnam, I was cocky and like Alice's dad had said, thought I could take on anything and anybody.  After the first fire-fight, I realized that even with the skills I'd been taught, about all I could do was keep my head down, learn how things really happen in combat, and hope I could kill the other guy before he killed me.  Realizing you're so small relative to what's going on, how little you really know, and being in a country so different from the US changes you in ways you wouldn't believe possible.  It made me pretty humble and also made me appreciate what I'd always taken for granted.

The other change was what I thought about the Army.  The term of service for a draftee was two years and by the time I left Vietnam, I'd only served about seventeen months.  Before I went to Vietnam, I'd been indoctrinated in and had to follow all the bullshit regulations of the Army.  I hadn't enjoyed all that, but it was good for me because it gave direction and structure to my life.

In Vietnam, most of those regulations were pretty much tossed out the window.  A sergeant or Lieutenant didn't care that he outranked  you.  What he cared about was making sure all of us, especially him, went home alive and in one piece.  The way to help that happen was to forget about rank unless the brass was around and concentrate on building a team of men who looked out for each other.     

I knew after a year in Vietnam I would never fit back into the spit and polish of the stateside Army.  Rank meant everything in the States.  Rank meant you were somehow better than the men you out-ranked.  It didn't mean anything in Vietnam, and it especially didn't mean what kind of man you were.  I'd seen captains turn tail and run while two privates stood their ground and kept us from being overrun.  

Thankfully, by the time I got to Fort Lewis,  the Army had more troops coming back from Vietnam than they slots to fill.  I was mustered out at Fort Lewis, and got on a plane for home as a civilian.  I was still in uniform because those were the only clothes I had, but I wasn't in the Army anymore.

I was home and trying to figure out what I was going to do next when I saw Alice at the grocery store.  She smiled and asked how I was doing.

"Hi Matt.  Ricky wrote and said you two had hooked up.  He was so happy you did.  He didn't know anybody over there and he said you helped him.  Now that you're back home, I don't think he feels as safe now."

I just grinned.

"Ricky can take care of himself.  He learned fast so don't worry.  He'll be home in another nine months, maybe sooner because they're pulling troops out pretty fast now."

As it turned out, Ricky came home three weeks after that...in an aluminum coffin.  I found that out because Alice called me the day after the officers from Fort Campbell came and notified her.  

"Matt, I don't know how to tell you this but yesterday some Army officers came to see me.  Ricky is..."

I heard Alice sob and then nothing for a couple of minutes except her crying.  She was still sniffing when she spoke again.

"Ricky was killed in action the day before yesterday.  You were his best friend so I know he'd want you to know so you'd be at his funeral.  Would you come with me?  I think Ricky would like that."

We buried Ricky in Shady Rest Cemetary.  It was a military funeral with an Honor Guard, Rifle Squad, and a bugler who came from Fort Campbell.  Alice only sobbed a couple of times during the service.  She thanked the Lieutenant for the flag and then sniffed a little while the preacher read the same poem I wrote about before.

When the service was over, she put one rose on Ricky's casket and then asked if I'd walk her to her car.

When we got to her car, she turned, looked at me, and then burst into tears.  I didn't know what to do when she sagged against my chest, so I put my arms around her and held her while she sobbed.  

When she finally stopped, my jacket was wet and her eyes were red.  She blew her nose in a tissue from her purse, and then looked up at me again.

"Matt, I'm sorry.  I didn't want to do that during the funeral, but I couldn't hold it in any longer.  Thanks for staying with me.  I'm sure Ricky would appreciate you taking care of me like this."

It felt weird to still have Alice in my arms, so I let her go and gently held her shoulders.

"Alice, Ricky was the best friend I ever had.  If you need anything, anything at all, you call me, OK?  I'll take care of it.  It's the least I can do for him."

Alice wiped her eyes again, and then gave me a half-smile.

"I might need you to do that.  I'm almost  four months pregnant with Ricky's baby.  I didn't tell Ricky yet because I didn't want him to worry about me."

I saw tears start streaming down her cheeks again and her voice cracked a little.

"I...I guess I don't have to worry about that anymore."

It seemed like Alice needed a hug, so I gave her one.

"Well, that just makes it more important that you call me if you need something.  You'll do that, won't you?"

Alice nodded, wiped her eyes, and blew her nose again.

"I'll remember that.  I need to be getting Ricky's mom and dad's house now.  They're having a wake for Ricky.  Would you come with me?  I'd feel better if you did and I know Dad would like to see you again."

I hadn't been to a wake before because my family didn't have wakes.  I wasn't really sure how to act.  There was a lot of food, and on a table were pictures of Ricky from the time he was born up to the picture of him in his dress uniform they always take in Basic Training.  There was also a picture of the wedding party from when he and Alice got married.

It was a lot different from the funeral.  At the funeral, everybody had been quiet or had talked in low tones.  At the wake, people walked around talking to each other in their normal voices.  There was a lot of talking about Ricky, what  people remembered him doing as a kid, and how he been a good man to serve his country.  Sometimes I even heard a few quiet chuckles.

I didn't know most of the people and they didn't know me, so I felt like a third foot until Alice's dad tapped me on the arm.

"Let's you and me go out on the porch and talk.  There's too damned many people in here and most of 'em don't know what the hell they're talking about."

Once we were outside, Alice's dad smiled.

"Looks like the Army made a man out of you.  That's good.  You needed to find out what being a man feels like."

I said I didn't think I'd changed that much, but he just chuckled.

"I saw you flinch when they fired the salutes.  You've changed, just like I did.  People will see that, but they won't know why unless they've been where we've been and done what we had to do.  They wouldn't believe us if we told 'em.  That's why I keep all that to myself...that and I don't want to remember.  It's good, sometimes, to talk about it with somebody who can understand though."

That's when I started to really like Alice's dad.  Jack hadn't been in the military, much less in combat, so he wasn't really interested in anything I had to say.  Alice's dad was.

"Alice said you were in the Army, but she never said you saw combat."

He looked down at the porch floor then.

"That's because I never told her much about that part.  She thinks I was a supply clerk, but I wasn't.  Got to Basic Training and they said we was all going to the infantry.  They were right.  After I finished what they called infantry training, they  sent me to England to train some more with the 1st Infantry Division.  It was late the night before D-Day they loaded us into ships with our rifles and other gear.

"When we got there, they loaded us into landing craft - I think it was about twenty of us in each boat- and then headed for Omaha Beach.   Only problem was the boat hit a sandbar almost a hundred yards off the beach and couldn't take us the rest of the way in.  When the ramp on that landing craft dropped the bullets started hitting and I was scared shitless.  The first three men didn't even make it down the ramp before the machine guns got 'em.  

"I decided there wasn't any way to go down that damned ramp without gettin' killed, so I jumped over the side.  Landed in water up to my neck.  Couldn't run in water that deep but it was also good because you weren't a very big target.  I kept staying as low as I could until the water was shallow enough I could get down on my belly without drowning.  Most of the men who made it to the beach got there that way.  The rest were dead and floating in the water.

"Once we got on the beach, it was flat as a pancake with no cover except for a seawall about four hundred yards away and a few little depressions left from some artillery shells from our ships that landed there.  Germans had the whole beach covered by overlapping fields of fire by machine guns and mortars.  What you had to do was run a little bit until you came to one of those little depressions or a dead body and then hit the dirt until the machine guns passed that place by.  Then, you'd get up and run like hell until you saw the bullets coming toward you and kicking up the sand and then dive for the dirt again.

"I was one of the lucky ones.  I made it.  Still don't know why.  Almost three fourths didn't.  I'd be running like hell and the guy on each side of me would go down - just a few feet from me and they went down.  Most of 'em didn't get up and we were under orders not to stop and try to help 'em.  Them medics were the only men who could do that.  They tried, but half of them got killed too.

"We got to that seawall and hunkered down.  Everything was fucked up like Hogan's goat.  Everybody had lost their units.  Most of the officers and platoon leaders were out there on the sand, so there was nobody in charge and we didn't move an inch.  It wasn't until about three the Navy sent some destroyers in close enough to start shelling all those machinegun bunkers and artillery positions.  Until then, you couldn't do anything except stay down.  You raised up, you'd get shot.

He looked up at me then.

"If what they say on the news is right, I figure you had your share over there too."

I nodded.

"Yeah.  It wasn't as bad as you had it because most of the time we were dug in in defensive positions, but the NVA hit us a lot, usually at night.  Didn't seem to matter how many we shot, they'd just keep coming.  Then, they'd just stop and fade back into the jungle.  We'd send a patrol out to look the next morning, but there was nothing, no bodies, no gear, no nothing.  A couple nights later, they'd be back and do the same thing."

He grinned at me then.

"You piss your pants?  I did on Omaha."

I chuckled.

"Yeah...a couple times."

He smiled at me.

"You get hit?"  

I shook my head.

"No, not really.  The closest I came was when a chunk of hot shrapnel landed in the bunker I was in.  I'd been taking a shower when the attack started so I didn't have time to put on any clothes.  A mortar round landed in front of the bunker and a piece of shrapnel flew into the bunker and landed under my ass.  Burned the shit out of my ass, but that was all.  The Army gave me a purple heart, but I'm kind of ashamed to admit that.  Too many guys got purple hearts who really deserved them."

He laughed.

"Reminds me of me.  The 1st got sent to the Ardennes at Christmas after the Germans broke through our lines.  Ground was froze solid but you could get low enough to not get hit by a bullet if you worked at it.  Them damned Germans was firing artillery into the trees though so it didn't matter how low you were.  Piece of a branch came down and stuck me in the ass.  Just a big splinter really.  Hurt like a bitch, but the medic pulled it out, slapped a field dressing on it and told me he had other guys to take care of.  Two months later, I was pushing the Germans back across the Ruhr.  Got a Purple Heart for gettin' a splinter in my ass.  The guys in my platoon never let me live that one down."

He frowned then and shook his head.

"Lost Michael in the Ardennes - guy from New York City I'd been with since Basic.  Still remember him sometimes.  Sniper got him.  I saw the sniper in the tree and got him with one round from my M1.  First time I knew for sure it was my bullet that got one of the bastards.  Found a picture of him and his wife and daughter in his pocket.  Makes you think, you know.  You just killed somebody's husband and dad."

Alice's dad didn't say anything for a while, and I knew why because I knew how he'd felt.  My first one was a guy who'd gotten through the wire and was running toward my bunker.  He was ready to toss a grenade in when I shot him.  The grenade went off after he fell on it so there wasn't much left to search, but it bothered me for a long time.  What I remembered most was his face in the light of the flares overhead.  He was close enough I could see his face and he looked like he was all of fourteen.  I'd killed a little kid.

It's the same when a guy you buddied up with gets it.  You never forget how he looked and what he said and did before he died.  The memory stays with you forever even though you try to keep it buried deep in the recesses of your mind.

After a while, he cleared his throat.

"So, what're you going to do now?"

I said I was working at the Ford dealership washing cars, but I hadn't thought about much beyond that.  He smiled.

"Ever thought about bein' a carpenter?  Work's hard but the money's good and you get a day off when it rains.  The kid who was helping me quit and went to work at K-mart.  Said building houses was too hard and the hours were too long.  You think about it and let me know, OK?"

Working for Alice's dad was kind of like being in the Army again.  I was learning how to do things I'd never even thought about before.  I did most of the carrying at first, but once Bill let me put on a nail apron and pick up a hammer, I found out I liked the work.  It was hard work like he'd said, but at the end of the day, I could look at a framed-out house and know I'd done a good job.  That was pretty satisfying

Having Bill teach me was great.  He wouldn't stand for any work that wasn't up to his standards and didn't have any reservations about telling me to "rip out that mess and do it like I showed you".  He also had no problems telling me when I'd done something right.

That was kind of like Infantry Training had been.  The instructors had all served at least one tour in Vietnam and were trying to teach us how to stay alive in combat instead of making us into men who looked good on a parade ground.  They were rough on us if we screwed up, but that was because they knew what we'd be up against and in combat there are no second chances if you fuck up the first time.

The other thing that was pretty nice was when Alice came to the job site and brought us lunch.  She was still working even though she was pregnant, and used her lunch hour to bring us a couple of burgers each or some fried chicken.  She'd sit there and eat with us before she had to go back to work, and that gave me a chance to ask how she was doing and if she needed anything.

Alice was eight months along when she asked me if I'd walk her to her car after lunch one day.  When we got to her car, she looked up and frowned.

"Matt, you told me if I ever needed anything, I could call you.  Well, I need something."

I smiled.

"I remember.  What do you need?"

Alice looked at the ground and her voice got softer.

"When I go to the hospital to have the baby, I need somebody to go with me.  Dad says he's too old and Mom says she'd be worried and that would make it harder on me.  I know it's a lot to ask, but would you go with me?"

Well, that set me back on my heels.  I'd heard about what happens from a couple of guys in the Army who'd done it, and it seemed pretty intimate to me, more intimate than I thought was probably right since Alice and I weren't married.

"What does that mean - go with you?"

Alice put her hand on my arm.

"It means you'll take me to the hospital when the time comes and stay with me until the baby is born."

"You mean I'd just stay in the waiting room, don't you?"

Alice looked up and shook her head.

"No.  I want you be with me in the labor room, and my doctor says I can have somebody with me in the delivery room too.  Mom said I'd want somebody to be with me because it'll hurt a lot.  I want you to be there to hold my hand."

"Alice, I don't know.  I mean, you'll be...well, I don't know if you really want me to see you like that."

She smiled then.

"I can't think of anybody else Ricky would trust to help me besides you.  I've thought about it a lot, and it's what I want."

When I went back to work, Alice's dad grinned.

"She asked you, didn't she?"

"Yeah."

"What'd you tell her?"

"I said I'd do it.  I still don't know if I should, but I said I'd do it."

He smiled.

"That'll make her feel better.  She's startin' to get a little scared as the time gets closer.  She needs somebody she trusts to be with her."

Two weeks later, Alice and I went to an orientation of the maternity ward at the hospital.  I learned where I had to wash my hands and put on a gown to go into the delivery room, and the nurse said if I feinted, they'd leave me laying on the floor until they made sure Alice and the baby were OK.  It was two weeks and a day later when I got a call from Alice about ten at night.

"Matt, I've been having contractions all day.  Now, they're a little over four minutes apart and they last almost a minute.  My doctor said that's when I should go to the hospital.  I have everything I'll need packed and ready to go."

I picked her up and drove to the hospital.  They put Alice in a wheel chair and took her away while I gave them all her insurance information and explained why I wasn't the father but I was going to be there with her.  They finally stopped filling out forms and then told me which room she was in.

When I got to the room, Alice was lying on the bed in one of those paper gowns you see on TV hospital scenes.  She smiled.

"The nurse who checked me said it'll be a while yet, so if you want to go get some coffee or something, I'll be alright."

I shook my head.

"No, I told you I'd stay with you, so here's where I'll stay."

I was doing pretty good for a while.  Alice and I would talk until another contraction hit her.  At first, she'd just grimace and not say anything for a while, then grin and say, "Well, that one's finally over."

A nurse would come in about once an hour and tell me to leave so she could check Alice.  After about five minutes, the nurse would come back out and tell me I could go in again.  That went on until about four-thirty in the morning when Alice was starting to feel some real pain.  I knew that because she started groaning when a contraction hit.  About a quarter to five, Alice cried out, "Oh God, I think my water just broke."  I went to the nurse's station and told the nurse she needed to check on Alice.

All hell broke loose when the nurse came out that time.  The nurse told me to go wash my hands and put on a hospital gown.  While I was doing that, she and another nurse put Alice on a gurnery and wheeled her into the delivery room.  By the time I got there, Alice was lying on the table with her legs in the stirrups and the nurse was telling her to push.

Alice looked at me when I picked up her hand, started to say something, and then squeezed my hand until it hurt when she doubled up in pain and the nurse told her to push again.  After several more contractions like that, the nurse said in a quiet voice, "Try not to push now, Honey", and picked up a pair of scissors.  Alice lay there panting and squeezing my hand until the nurse put the scissors on the tray beside her and then said, "OK, Honey, give me a good strong push."

Alice gritted her teeth, squeezed my hand tighter, and pushed hard.  The nurse did something between Alice's legs and then said, "Alice, give me one more and it'll all be over."

I'd never seen a new-born before and I didn't know what to think when the nurse said, "He's a little boy, Alice, and he's fine", and then lifted this tiny, red, gunky baby up and laid him on Alice's tummy.  She clamped and cut the umbilical cord and then the second nurse took him away. I saw her cleaning him up and wrapping him in a blanket.  When she brought him back to Alice, she smiled.

"Here he is Alice.  You can hold him until your doctor checks you out, but then we'll take him back when you go to get cleaned up.  We'll bring him back to you as soon as you're back in your room."

It was about then that Alice's doctor walked into the delivery room with a sheepish look on his face.

"Sorry I didn't make it, but I didn't think it would happen so fast since it's your first.  You were in good hands though.  Marge and Janey have delivered as many babies as I have."

He did whatever it was he did, and then I followed when the nurse wheeled Alice into another room.  When they started taking off her gown, I didn't think it would be right to look, so I turned away.  They cleaned her up and gave her a new gown, then took her to a different room.  I followed along again.

When the nurses had Alice back in bed and covered up, they brought her baby to her.  He looked a little more like a baby now.  He was still pretty red and his head looked a little funny, but he wasn't wet and covered in gunk anymore.  Alice kissed him on the forehead and then looked up at me.

"Matt, this is Little Ricky.  Little Ricky, this is Matt."

The nurse looked at me then and smiled.

"You look like you're beat.  Why don't you go home and get some rest?  We'll take good care of your wife until you come back."

I must have been tired, because I was all the way to my car before it dawned on me that the nurse thought Alice was my wife.  That felt really odd.  I didn't think I'd treated her like she was, but I must have.  I planned to set that nurse straight the next time I saw her.  Alice was her own person and all I was doing was helping her though a time when she didn't have anybody else.

That made me think some more.  Alice did have somebody else.  She had a lot of somebody else's to help her.  She had her mother and her father and a handful of aunts and uncles.  Instead of any of them, she'd picked me and I couldn't understand why.

I went home, went to bed and slept until almost four.  After a shower and a change of clothes, I went back to the hospital.

When I walked into the room, Alice was nursing Ricky.  I took one look and turned around to leave. Instead of a paper gown, Alice was wearing a robe that was open to her waist and her right breast was out of the nursing bra she was wearing.  Alice called softly for me to stay and patted the side of the bed.

"Matt, come sit with me while I nurse Little Ricky."

When I sat down, she smiled.

"Isn't he beautiful?"

I chuckled.

"I thought girls were beautiful.  I didn't know boys were.  Uh...shouldn't you cover up a little?"

Alice smiled again.

"I don't care if you look.  I'm just nursing Little Ricky.  There's nothing weird about that, is there?"

Well, there wasn't but there was.  Little Ricky's head covered up most of her breast, but it was still her bare breast and I'd never even seen her in just a bra before.

"No, I guess not.  It's just the first time I've seen anything like this."

She giggled.

"You're embarrassed, aren't  you?"

"Yeah, a little I suppose."

"Well, you'll just have to get used to seeing it.  I'm not going to hide from you when I nurse Little Ricky."

She stroked his pumping cheek, then looked up at me again.

"Matt, thank you for being with me.  It meant a lot to me.  I want you to keep coming to see me, and I want you to be the one who takes Little Ricky and me home.  The doctor says that will probably be in two more days.  Would you do that for me?"

I promised I would.  We talked until the nurse came to get Little Ricky.  She smiled at me and said I looked like a very proud papa, and then left before I could say anything.  When I looked back at Alice, she just grinned.

The nurses all think you're Little Ricky's father.  I didn't want to tell them you weren't."

 I was pretty uncomfortable that Alice didn't tell the nurses the truth.  I couldn't understand why she didn't want to but I couldn't ask her, not then.  I decided to leave so I could think some more.

"Well, Alice, you still look tired, so I better leave now so  you can rest.  I'll have to work with your dad tomorrow, but I'll be back about seven."

The next day at work was really weird.  Alice's dad kept looking at me and smiling.  Since Alice couldn't bring our lunch, we went to a burger joint, and he kept smiling at me there and for the rest of the afternoon.  By the end of the day, I was fed up with him and after we picked up our tools, I stopped him before he could get in the truck.

"Bill, you've been smiling at me all day.  What the hell's going on?"

He just smiled again.

"Oh, I've just been thinking it's a damned shame my grandson doesn't have a dad to raise him up to be a man."

"That made you smile?"

He shook his head.

"No, not that.  It was wondering if you'd be interested in the job.  I can't think of anybody else who'd do it better.   You and Alice used to date and you asked me once what she was looking for, remember?  I wouldn't tell you then because you weren't ready and you'd have done something stupid.  I can tell you now.  What Alice wants is a man who'll take care of her when she needs it, let her be on her own when she doesn't, and will be right beside her all the way.  You seem to like taking care of her.  That's a pretty good start."

I shook my head.

"I'm just helping out the wife of a friend because he can't."

"Yeah, I know that's what  you're telling yourself.  The way you always look at her tells me that's not all it is.  I'm not trying to push you into anything, Matt, but a man should be honest with himself."

I thought about that a lot on my way home and on my way to the hospital.  I was just helping Alice out because Ricky couldn't.  I knew that for sure.  Feeling anything else for her would have been like I was trying to take her away from Ricky, and I couldn't do that even if I did feel something for her.  She'd named her baby Ricky after her husband, so I knew she still loved him.  Besides, Alice was a pretty woman.  She'd had her choice of any guy in high school.  She'd never pick me.

It was when I walked in the hospital room and saw Alice that something clicked in my mind.  I don't know how to describe it except it hit me that what I'd been doing was looking at Alice as Ricky's wife and I couldn't see anything else.  Over the last six months, she'd been giving me little hints, like the way she put her hand on my arm when she wanted to say some important, and the way she seemed to look really nice even on Saturday when she wasn't at work.  I hadn't noticed, not consciously anyway.  Was Alice trying to tell me something?  I wasn't sure, but when she smiled at me that night, I thought she might be.

Alice patted the bed again, and touched my hand after I sat down on the edge.

"I filled out Little Ricky's birth certificate today.  I named him Richard Matthew Fansler, but I'm going to call him Little Ricky.  I hope that's alright with you."

I was flattered, but I wasn't sure that was a wise choice.

"I understand why you named him Ricky, but you should have picked a different middle name for him, like your dad's name or your grandpa's name."

Alice smiled.

"No, Matt.  I wanted to use your name.  I thought it was right to do that since you've been so much help over these months.  I think Ricky would think it was right too."

"I guess I don't mind if that's what you want.  It's a pretty big name for such a little guy.  Think he'll grow into it?"

Alice stroked my hand.

"I think he can if the right man teaches him how."

That was the answer to my question, but I still tried to not understand what Alice was really saying.

"Well, your dad is as much of a man as I've ever known.  He'll do a great job."

Alice grinned at me.

"That's what Dad said about you when he called me this afternoon."

Well, now I couldn't tell myself it wasn't me that Alice wanted.  It felt weird, but I was also sort of happy.

"What else did he tell you?"

Alice squeezed my hand.

"That he thought you wouldn't tell me if you were interested because you think I'm still tied to Ricky."

I chuckled.

"Your dad actually told you that?  I can't believe a crusty old guy like him would ever see something like that."

"Well, you don't know my dad very well.  He's just an old softy at heart.  The way he acts around other people is just for show.  He really likes you."

"So, if I was interested in you, what would we do next?"

Alice stroked my arm.

"Well, after you take Ricky and me to Mom's, I thought we might go out sometime."

"You sure you're over Ricky enough to do that?"

Alice stroked my arm again.

"Matt, I was married to Ricky for only two weeks before the Army sent him to Vietnam.  We didn't get to do much together except make Little Ricky, so I don't really know what married feels like.  It sounds cold, but he's gone and I can't bring him back.  I need to look out for myself and Little Ricky now.  I know Ricky would agree because before he left, he told me I should do that if something happened to him over there."

When I got to the hospital to bring Alice and Little Ricky home, she was getting dressed in the bathroom.  When she came out, I couldn't stop myself from smiling.  For the last five months, I'd watched Alice get bigger and bigger, and now, she was almost like I remembered her from before.  

She grinned when I said she looked skinny now.

"I'm going to have to buy some new pants.  I had a hard time getting my butt into these.  I'm going to need bigger tops too.  This one used to fit fine, but now it's way too tight because my boobs have grown so much."

I didn't know what I could say that wouldn't sound like I was either trying to make her feel better or trying to flirt, so I didn't reply.  It was only a couple of minutes before one of the nurses brought little Ricky into the room.  The other was pushing a wheel chair.  Alice said she'd be fine walking but the nurse just laughed.

"All our new mom's leave in a wheel chair.  Be happy about that, Honey.  It's the last time you're gonna get to rest for about the next four or five months."

I did fine at the hospital.  Alice got into my front seat and then the nurse handed her Little Ricky.  It was different when I pulled into her parent's drive way.  I got out, walked around the car and opened Alice's door.  She looked up at me and smiled.

"Can you hold Little Ricky for me while I get out?"

She didn't wait for me to answer.  She just held out Little Ricky so I could take him.  

I tried to say I didn't know how to hold a baby, but Alice just smiled.

"Just make sure you hold his head up.  You'll do fine."

I got one of those "third foot" feelings once we were inside the house.  Alice's mother had to hold little Ricky so Alice's dad could take her picture.  Then Alice insisted that her dad hold him.  Her dad shook his head, but he didn't resist when Alice's mother put little Ricky in his arms and then took his picture.  He even looked happy, something I hadn't seen much.

I wasn't ready when Alice picked up Little Ricky and then walked over to me.

"Matt, I want a picture of you holding Little Ricky too.  That way, I can show him the man who helped his mama when she needed help."

I felt really weird, but I held Little Ricky until Alice snapped the shutter.  

It was about then that Little Ricky woke up.  He looked at me, wrinkled up his little face, and started to cry.

"I don't think he likes me", I chuckled.  "I think you better take him back."

Alice grinned.  

"Nah.  He can't see your face clearly yet.  He's just hungry.  I need to let him nurse for a while.  Can you stay until he goes to sleep again?"

Alice hadn't been embarrassed to nurse Little Ricky in front of me at the hospital, but evidently she didn't feel the same way about her dad.  She and her mother left me and her dad sitting there while they went into Alice's bedfoom.  He looked at me and smiled.

"You look like I did when we brought Alice home from the hospital - scared to death and kinda happy at the same time."

"I never held a baby before, that's all.  I wasn't really scared."

He chuckled.

"That what I told myself too.  They'll be in there for at least half an hour.  Let's go in the kitchen and have a beer.  I know you ain't old enough yet, but you deserve a beer."

He pulled the tab on his beer, took a sip and then smiled.

"I was scared too, so don't worry about it.  Funny how you can go through a war and after that be afraid to pick up a baby, but I was.  It ain't that bad once you get used to it, holding a baby, I mean.  It gets better once they get older too.  Think you'd get used to it?"

He was doing it again, and it was aggravating.

"Bill, I don't know if that's something Alice really wants or not.  She acts like it is, but I don't have much to offer her.  I don't know why you keep bringing it up."

He just smiled.

"I know she does want that.  If she didn't, she wouldn't have asked you to be with her at the hospital.  The only way you're gonna know for sure is to find out for yourself.  As for what you can offer her, I already told you what she wants.  You can give her that right now.  What it all depends on is do you want to give her that."

On my way home that night, I asked myself it I could give Alice what she wanted.  I thought of about a hundred reasons why I couldn't.  I wasn't making all that much money.  I was working six days a week and trying to rest up on Sunday so I wouldn't have time to do anything with her and Little Ricky.  I didn't know the first thing about being married, much less taking care of a baby.  I liked Alice, but I didn't know if I liked her enough to ask her to marry me.

There were a lot of other reasons that weren't as logical and I finally realized I was trying to talk myself out of taking on any responsibilities other than me.  The only question that still remained was did I like Alice that much and did she like me that much.  Like her dad had said, the only way I was going to find the answer to those questions was to find out for myself.  

Alice took the next three weeks off work and she called me every night to ask me if I could come over and sit with her for a while.  It was a little strange to sit there in her bedroom while she nursed Ricky, but I sort of got used ot it.

After that three weeks, Alice went back to work and her mother took care of little Ricky while she was gone.  I figured if Alice could go back to work, maybe she could go out with me too.  When I asked her, she smiled.

"I'd like that.  Where are we going?"

It took half an hour to get Alice out of her mom and dad's house.  Her mother kept saying, "Alice, I know what I'm doing.  I take care of him every day and I raised you, didn't I?", and Alice kept reminding her of when little Ricky needed to be fed again and that she had two bottles of breast milk in the refrigerator and that there were clean diapers by the table in her bedroom.  

Little Ricky survived that first date without suffering at all.  I wasn't so lucky.   

I survived the date just fine.  I'd forgotten how it felt to take a woman out for dinner and then just talk about things.  That part was great.  What made it tough was saying good night to Alice.  I'd been nervous when we'd left her mom and dad's house, but I'd gotten really comfortable with her over dinner.  I found myself wishing we could have done something to stay together for a while longer.  That's why I asked Alice if we could do the same thing the next Saturday night.

That turned into every Saturday night for the next two months.  We didn't go out for an actual dinner except for about once every two weeks.  We'd just grab a burger at Burger King and then take a walk in the park or walk through the mall.  We did take in a couple of movies, but I found I liked walking with Alice and talking more than sitting with her in a movie theater.  It was on one of those walks in the park that Alice said she missed being married.  I asked her why, and her answer surprised me.

"It was only two weeks, but it was nice having somebody my own age to be alone with.  I love Mom and Dad, but that's who they are - Mom and Dad.  I can't talk to them about some things because they think I'm still their little girl.  I could talk to Ricky about those things."

Before I knew what she was doing, Alice caught my arm and then stepped in front of me.

"Matt, I can talk to you about those things too.  You told me once you'd do anything for me that I needed.  What I need is to feel like how I felt then, and I want to feel that way with you."

I didn't catch on at first, I suppose because I didn't think we'd been together long enough yet.

"I thought we were doing pretty good with the trusting and talking thing."

Alice stroked her index finger down my chest then.

"We are, Matt, but I need more than just talking."

Well, it wasn't like I hadn't thought about it, but it still hit me like a ton of bricks.  

"I don't know, Alice.  Ricky -."

Alice put her finger on my lips, then put her arms around my neck and smiled.

"Matt, Ricky isn't here and he's never going to be here again.  You are.  Kiss me so you'll know I'm serious about this."

It took all of a second for me to know how serious Alice was because I had something to compare to.  I'd kissed her a couple times when we were dating in high school, but this Alice was a completely different woman.  She didn't just kiss me back.  She made love to my lips with hers and after a couple of seconds of doing that, she pulled her breasts into my chest.  I'd have reacted to that even if I didn't like her.   The reaction I did have told me the feelings I was having were a lot more than just liking her.

She didn't say much when I drove us to my apartment.  She just put her hand on my arm and stroked it.  She didn't say anything until I closed and locked the door behind us.  Then, she put her arms around my neck, kissed me again, and then nestled her cheek against mine and whispered, "Make love with me, Matt".

That night was a long time ago so I've forgotten a lot of what happened.  I don't really remember what she looked like after I undressed her, and I don't really remember how she felt against me when we got into bed together.  One of the few things I do remember is how she responded to what I was doing.  

I didn't have a lot of experience with women, but that didn't seem to matter.  I cupped her breast and squeezed gently and she caught her breath, then giggled a little.

"I'm going to leak all over the place if you do that.  I don't want you to stop though.  I like how it feels."

I already knew what she was talking about because I felt milk dribbling down her breast.  I thought about kissing her nipples, but I didn't think that would be right.  Instead, I just stroked her nipple beds and nipples gently while I kissed her.  Alice moaned a little and then pushed my face down to her breasts and whispered, "Kiss me here too."

Well, I won't forget that either.  As soon as my lips touched her nipple, milk oozed out of the tip and onto my lips.  I remember it being very sweet.  I also remember that Alice moaned, put her hand on the back of my head then and pulled my face tighter into her breast.  Her nipple slipped between my lips and I felt a fine spray of milk against my tongue.  Alice's tummy rolled with I licked her nipple then and I think she pushed my head against her breast even tighter.

I loved the feeling of her thick, stiff nipple in my mouth.  The milk thing wasn't exactly erotic.  It was more like...well...like Alice trusted me enough she wanted to give me that too.  I think she did, because after a while, she whispered, "Matt, do the other one too."

I don't remember feeling the hair between her thighs and I don't remember how it felt to slip a finger between her hair-fringed lips though I'm sure I did that.  All I remember is that Alice responded like she couldn't get enough of what I was doing.  I do remember her finding my cock, stoking it a little, and then pulling on it after she spread her thighs wide.

When I knelt between her thighs, Alice bent her legs at the knees, pulled me down on top of her, and whispered, "I need you, Matt, I need you now".

I remember thinking she wouldn't be very tight since she'd had a baby.  I remember being a little amazed that I was wrong about that.  Alice was really snug.

She was also way more into helping than any other woman I'd been with.  She kept rocking her body up to meet my strokes and raking her nails from my back down to my ass.  All that coupled with the way she started to pant was making it hard for me to not just start pumping away until I came.  

In a way,that's what happened anyway.  I was trying to go slow when Alice jerked hard, moaned, "Now, Matt", and then raised up into that stroke.  She gasped, fell back down, then dug her heels into the mattress and held her breath while she lifted us both up again.  It was when her thighs started to quiver against my sides that I couldn't hold back anymore.

When Alice sighed and eased back down on the mattress, she hugged me so tight I mashed her breasts out flat and felt my chest getting wet with milk.  She kissed me, then nestled her face against my shoulder.  We just laid there together until our hearts stopped pounding and we could breathe without gasping again.  

I started to get up, but Alice wouldn't let me go.

"Matt, just stay like this for a while.  I haven't felt like this in a long, long time and I don't want it to end yet."

It was pretty late when I took Alice home, and I saw a light in the living room window.  We were going to pretend we'd just taken a walk, so I just walked her to the door.  Alice did kiss me on the cheek, but that was it.  

The next day, I was laying subfloor panels over the floor joists of the house we were building while Alice's dad nailed them down.  He nailed the last one in place, then stood up and stretched to unkink his back.  

He looked at me and grinned.

"You know, I'm gettin' old, but I ain't so old I've forgotten what makes a woman look like Alice did when she walked in the door last night."

I said I didn't know what he was talking about.  He just laughed.

"Matt, she was smiling just like her mother smiles after we've..well after I've scratched her itch, so to speak.  I understand why you'd do that with her.  All I want to know is if you're gonna stay with her or if you're not.  If you are, I won't say anything more because Alice is old enough to make her own decisions.  If you aren't, you need to tell her.  She was walking on air this morning."

I already knew the answer to his question because I'd asked myself that  before I turned in.

"I'd like to marry her.  I just don't know how I can.  I can't begin to match what you have to give her."

Her dad sat back down and motioned me to sit down beside him.  When I did, he smiled.

"You need to understand some things about Alice.  Alice doesn't want a fancy house or fancy clothes because she's never had those things.  What she wants is what I told you before, a man to help her when she needs help, a man who'll let her be on her own when she doesn't need help, and most of all, a man who'll stay with her.  She found that man in Ricky, but then she lost him.  She thinks you're that man now, and I think you are too.  All her mother and I had when we started out was my overseas pay and one claw hammer.  We made it.  So can you and Alice if you really want to make that happen.  I know she does."

I was remembering how things had worked out when Alice touched me on the arm.

"Matt, it's over and we need to get to our house so I can get the food set out for Daddy's wake."

Like Ricky's wake, this one had a lot of food and way too many people for our house.  Like Ricky's wake, I heard people talking about  Alice's dad, about how he'd built their house or how he'd done something for them nobody else would do.  There was a cluster of people around the presentation case Alice had bought a week before he died, and in that case were pictures of him in uniform and all his medals pinned on black velvet.  When I'd asked her why she bought the case, she smiled.

"It's for Dad's pictures and for his medals."

"He told me you didn't know anything about those.  Neither did your mother."

Alice smiled again.

"He didn't tell me about them.  I found them when I was a little girl getting into drawers I wasn't suppose to get into.  They were there in a box with his citations and pictures of him in France and Germany.  Mom caught me and she said we shouldn't tell Dad we'd found them.  I used to go back and read the citations sometimes though.  I think people should know what he was back then, so I'm going to show them now."

I was trying to find something useful to do when somebody tapped me on the shoulder.  I turned and saw Rick standing there in his Army dress uniform.

"Is a wake always like this?  I don't have a clue about what I should be doing."

"Yeah, the ones I've been to have been.  I never know what to do either. Wanna go out on the porch like we used to when your mom and sisters got too bitchy?"

Alice and I got married about the time Little Ricky started crawling.  I adopted him a month after that.  I didn't realize how much a little boy can change a man.  Ricky wasn't really my son, but I'd been around him since he was born, so it felt like he was.  I watched him crawl, then stand up only to fall back down on his butt, and finally walk the three steps between Alice and me.  

I was the guy he still called Dad, though he knew I wasn't his real dad because when he was old enough to understand, I told him the story.  As he got older he wanted to know more about his dad, but I didn't tell him much except what his dad and I did together in high school.  He wouldn't have understood then.

Along the way, Alice's dad made me his business partner, and Alice gave me two daughters, Emily and Susan.  I love them like life itself, but it was Alice who taught them how to be women.  I concentrated on teaching Little Ricky how to be a man.

I knew I was succeeding when he wanted to be called Rick instead of Little Ricky, and I knew that even more when he told me of his plans after high school.

"I want to go to college, Dad.  I want to be a civil engineer and build things like you and grandpa do."
 
I said that was great.  Rick smiled and said that wasn't all he wanted to do.

"Remember that time I got into trouble at school?  You grounded me for a month and told me I needed to grow up and start acting like a man.  You said the Army would make me do that but I was too young so you were going to have to do it.  

"I went down to the Army recruiter's office on Saturday.  He said if I signed up for ROTC at college, when I graduate I'll go into the Army as an officer.  That's what I'm going to do.  I figure if the Army was good for you and Grandpa, it'll be good for me too."

I'd remembered Ricky then, and had a short panic attack.

"Rick, I understand why you want to do this, but did the recruiter tell you that Combat Engineers get shot at as much or more than the infantry and they're out in the open on machines instead of in a hole or a bunker?"

He grinned.

"No, but I already knew that.  I figure if you and Grandpa survived I can too."

I knew there was no changing his mind.  He was just as hard headed as his dad.  I was proud of him though.

He was wearing Captain's bars now, and had decided to make the Army a career.  After we sat down on the porch he smiled.

"I didn't know grandpa had earned all those medals until today.  Why didn't you tell me?"

"I didn't tell you because I didn't know either.  Your grandpa didn't tell anybody about what he did in the war except me, and he didn't even tell me much about what he did.  He didn't want any special treatment or sympathy.  He just wanted what the preacher said today, to be the best person he could be."

Rick frowned.

"You never talk about Vietnam either."

"No, I don't.  Before you went to Iraq, you wouldn't have listened, and afterward...well, I think you must understand why now.  I've never heard you say much about Iraq or Afghanistan either."

Rick nodded.

"No, because of what happened the first time I was in actual combat.  We were working on repairing the road to our base on my first tour.  The day before, a truck had hit an IED.  The charge blew the hell out of the truck, killed everybody inside, and made one hell of a hole in the roadbed.  We were just starting to fill in the hole when a couple of guys popped out from behind a house and started shooting at us.  I was standing behind an endloader when I heard the AK fire.  

"It only took me a couple of seconds to get where I could see them and I got them both before they could shoot anybody else, but Dave and Mitch were already down.  I remember wondering afterwards if those two men had wives and kids or not.  There wasn't any way to tell because they had no identification on them but I still wonder.  

"I also wonder why I'd moved to the side of the endloader when I did.   A few seconds before that, I'd been standing in front of it with Dave and Mitch and talking about how we were going to repair the hole.   I'd just walked around to the side where my transit was when the shooting started.  If those guys had been a little sooner...

Rick was silent for a while after that and I had to smile.  He sounded a lot like his grandpa and I suppose a lot like me.  I realized then it was almost the same conversation I'd had with Alice's dad that day at Ricky's wake, except I was now the old combat veteran talking to the young combat veteran.  

We'd have talked some more if Alice hadn't opened the door and said, "Hey, you two.  I need my two men back inside with me."  

We'll talk again...sometime when we both think we need to talk.  It won't be reminising about the good old days in the Army like some people think.  That's because that's what they hear combat vets talk about in front of other people.  In private, the conversation might start out that way, but it will end with faltering words, maybe a tear or two, and then silence while they remember what can't ever be forgotten.  

Epilogue

Combat veterans don't expect other people to understand why they don't talk about their days in combat or why they have tears in their eyes when they hear the pimple-faced high school trumpet player play "Taps" at the annual Memorial Day Service in every city and town across the US.

There's a reason they don't talk about combat.  They've been where people should never have to go, seen what people should never have to see, and done things people should never have to do.  Those who were lucky came back and they don't talk about it because they're trying hard to forget.  None of them will ever be able to forget.  A lot of them haven't yet come to grips with why they came back and others didn't.  

There's another reason that brings tears to their eyes and causes them to stand at attention while the mournful notes of "Taps" render everything silent except the tweeting of the birds and the sigh of the breeze.  They're remembering the men and women who didn't get to come home.  In all wars they're young - still just boys and girls, really - too young to buy a drink in a bar and too young to vote, but not too young to die for their country.  

They made the ultimate sacrifice, and the ones who did come back can't forget those who made that sacrifice.  We can't afford to forget them either.  We should be ashamed of ourselves if we ever do.

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