THE LONG ROAD HOME
It was June, 1940. Karl was eighteen years old and just graduated from high school.
His only ambition was to live and work on the family farm for the rest of his life. He had no interest in travel or fast cars but he loved the sound of that John Deer tractor.
The night after graduation Karl had went out with his friends to celebrate his graduation from High School.
It was a stormy night. They had planned a beach party down by the river but the rain had driven them back into town and they ended up at a club. They were all of legal age but they drank too much.
On the way home Karl was driving too fast on a long stretch of dirt road. One of his friends reached over from the back seat and jerked the steering wheel.
The car swerved out of control on the muddy surface, careened down an embankment, smashed into a tree and landed upside down.
There was not a lot of water in the ditch, only a couple of feet, but it was enough to drown both of the unconscious men in the rear seat.
As Karl stood before the Judge he knew the accident was not his fault but the guilt caused by the death of his two closest friends hung over him like a dark cloud. He could not even open his mouth in his own defense.
The Judge recognized that it had been an accident that was caused by a series of bad choices. The Judge also knew that if Karl was ever going to have a chance at a real life he had to get out of this small town.
Karl was ordered to join the armed services. As with so many choices the Judge prayed he was making the right one but only time would tell.
Karl joined the Marines July 10, 1940.
The dark cloud that settled over Karl’s personality had come to stay. During basic training, he kept to himself. He did not drink with the guys and he did not want any friends.
The fun loving kid was gone.
The man that remained was hard and unyielding; one look from his dark eyes could stop a conversation from across the room. He did not ask to be left alone, he did not need to. He was as unapproachable as a porcupine pushed into a corner.
Close friendship was not usually promoted by the Marines, but in 1940 the Marines asked everyone to find a buddy, someone to watch their back, a Fox Hole buddy.
No one wanted to buddy with Karl, so a buddy was assigned to him.
Years later, during an interview, Karl’s buddy Andrew said that it was like living with a pet rock.
One day Andrew was talking nonstop trying to get a response out of Karl. He did.
Karl reached in his pack, pulled out a bayonet, and shoved it under Andrew’s jawbone. Nothing else needed to be said.
Karl was in San Diego December 7, 1941, on leave at the time. He was setting in a bar by himself when he heard the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
He just sat there with a drink in his hands for hours. All he ever wanted was to live on the family farm, now he was going to war. He would go. He did not care if he came back.
His guilt never went away. In the five years that he was in the Corp he never went home or wrote a letter.
The training was endless. Just as soon as the training was finished he was moved to another camp and another training program started. It was a relief when he boarded a transport and shipped out.
His first stop was Pearl Harbor. Scars from the Japanese attack were still visible. The super structure of the Arizona was above the water line and still a few broken windows around the base. None of this seemed real to Karl, he just did not care.
Karl was an angry young man, angry at himself, angry because his friends died, angry because he could not help. Over the last few months he developed an intense hatred for the Japanese it seemed to help him bury his guilt.
As he set there alone in the harbor watching the boats bring soldiers into the harbor he made a pledge to himself to save the lives of as many Americans as he possibly could, whatever the cost.
The first US Marine Division landed on Red Beach on Guadalcanal August 7, 1942. The Japanese were caught completely off guard and the landing was unopposed. The landing was so easy that the beach became overcrowded with supplies.
During the next twenty four hours the Marines marched all of the way to the air field without seeing the enemy.
When the Japanese heard that the Americans had landed, they fled into the jungle.
The calm did not last long. On August 8 the Japanese came out of the jungle and tried to retake Henderson air field.
The Japanese were not prepared for the counter offensive; they did not have heavy artillery and only relied on the courage of their soldiers.
Just as the fighting got started the US Navy was forced to withdraw, allowing the Imperial Navy to shell the island at will.
In a coordinated attack the Japanese broke cover and charged the airfield. They were driven back by US mortar fire and well placed five inch guns.
August 21 the reinforced Imperial Army attacked the Marines at Henderson field again and was defeated with heavy losses.
It was during the second day of the attack that Karl assumed the status of hero. There was a banzai attack and the Japanese penetrated the American perimeter.
Everyone had started pulling back when Andrew was hit by a ricocheting bullet that hit Andrew’s helmet right above the right ear knocking him out cold.
Karl stepped out from behind an embankment to help Andrew and came face to face with the enemy.
There was a small group of Japanese attacking, more or less in single file. Karl shot the first, stabbed the second and braced for the third. He caught him with his bayonet and flipped him clear over his head.
The fighting continued for the next two minutes. Karl stood there alone. He figured it was a good day to die, an attitude that probably saved his life. The ferocity of his actions intimidated his attackers.
When the fighting was over Karl bent, grabbed Andrew by the collar behind the neck and calmly walked forty feet back to a bunker.
No one said a thing, but they all remembered what they saw. An hour or so later when Andrew was fully recovered he headed over to thank Karl.
Karl saw him coming and removed his bayonet from his rifle. Andrew knew better than to say much. He just said thanks and sat quietly down.
The allies reinforced their defenses and waited on the Japanese. The Japanese attack on October 23 was known as the battle of Henderson Field. The fighting was brutal.
It is not known exactly how many men died fighting for that piece of airfield that day. Almost 3000 Imperial troops fought bravely and died, about 100 Americans died.
Marines battled with the elements as much as against the enemy. One third of the troops at any given time were unable to fight because of tropical diseases like malaria and dysentery.
Sick and exhausted, the First US Marine Division rotated out in November. Karl ended up state side with 30 days leave. He spent his leave setting in the barracks alone.
From the time he had entered the service, Sally had faithfully written him every month.
Before the accident he figured he would marry her someday. That did not seem likely now. She never mentioned herself in her letters. She just kept Karl current on family matters.
This was the only crack in Karl’s armor, but he never allowed anyone to see. The letters touched something soft inside; they pulled Karl back from the darkness that settled over him.
The guilt in Karl’s life convinced him that everyone thought he was guilty of killing his friends.
As time passed he developed a hair trigger temper. He could go from friendly to pulling a knife in two seconds flat. He was no longer welcome at any card games. Everyone was afraid of him.
Karl's true friend that stuck with him was his Fox Hole buddy, Andrew.
Early in 1944 the training began again. The scuttle butt was a push on mainland Japan. There was six months of training followed by more training.
The Marine Corp declared that the Marine First was the best trained military unit in the world.
In January 1945, Karl shipped out again. He had a five day stop in Pearl Harbor and then it was on to places unknown. They were part of a 400 ship convoy.
A few days later they were told that they were headed to a little volcanic island called Iwo Jima.
The Marines landed on Iwo, February 19, 1945. Karl’s squad landed at 8:59 a.m. one minute ahead of schedule. It did not take long after the landing until all hell broke loose. There were Marines dying everywhere.
Karl’s squad got pinned down while they were still on the beach. There was a pill box off to the right that a clear shot at the beach.
After sizing the situation up Karl stood up walked back to the beach, grabbed a flame thrower and attacked the pill box. When flames started coming out of every opening he headed for another pillbox. He took out two.
The fighting continued day and night for five days. On February 23 the Marines captured Mount Suribachi. With that end of the island under allied control the troops finally had a chance to rest. Karl was rotated out of the line for twenty four hours.
A few days later the Marines were trying to capture the second air field. That particular night the Japanese had planned a sneak attack. They crawled out of hiding and infiltrated the American lines.
It was at that moment that the US Navy started firing star shells. It became as bright as day. The Japanese soldiers were caught in the open.
Karl did what he did best.
He jumped into the middle of it. His squad formed a semicircle and took the Japanese on hand to hand. The fighting lasted a while. Two of Karl’s squad was wounded and Karl was shot in the knee.
In the last attack Karl used his bayonet to kill a young soldier. As the young man was dying he looked up and pleaded for his life.
There was no more fight in Karl. At that moment he could not defend himself. He just stood there and looked into the eyes of the young man. He wished he could trade places with him.
The hatred that he had nourished for so long died with the young man. As he stood there frozen in time and place a bullet struck his knee.
For Karl the war was over in every conceivable way. Karl was rushed to first aid station. After the preliminary examination the Doctor told Karl that they would need to amputate his leg just above the knee.
“Doc, where is your home town?” Karl asked.
“I come from a small town just north of Dallas Texas called Frisco Texas. Why do you ask?”
Karl grabbed the doctor by the front of his shirt, pulled him close and said slowly: “I want to remember your face. If you cut off my leg I will hunt you down and kill you like the miserable rat you are.”
“Well, maybe I was a little bit hasty,” The Doctor said quickly. “There is one thing that we can try. If it works you will walk with a limp but it will save your leg. Know this for certain. If you develop an infection we will cut off the leg.”
“All I am asking is that you try. Don’t write me off because it is the convenient thing to do.”
“I will do my best,” The Doctor said.
“We are good,” Karl said. He released the shirt and settled back on the stretcher.
After three operations his knee was as good as it was going to get. He did walk with a limp.
Six months later Karl was discharged. Now he had another battle to fight.
The guilt of that long ago night was gone but fear of going home had replaced it. He stood tall in some of the bloodiest fighting in World War II but he was afraid to go home.
Letters from Sally were in his pack and he was so sick that he could not eat. It had been five years since he had walked the streets of this little town. He had a full beard. He looked nothing like the kid of five years ago.
When he got off the bus no one seemed to notice him. He was just another solider returning home.
As he walked away from the bus station his limp caused his duffel bag to swing back and forth like a pendulum on a clock.
He had walked a mile out of town when a farmer stopped and offered him a ride. He knew the farmer but did not introduce himself. He thanked the farmer for the ride and started walking up the lane.
Five years ago he had a Blue Tick hound that took every step he did. He began looking for the dog hoping he was still alive.
The old dog was under the porch. Somehow the dog recognized him from a quarter mile away. Without a moment’s hesitation the old hound ran down the hill and tackled Karl.
Karl dropped his bag and rolled down the middle of the road with his dog. He was home.
His mom and dad were setting in the swing on the front porch. They just sat there and waited on him. When he reached the house his mom said, “We knew you would be home today.”
The fear of starting his life over again was blown away by this statement. He was dumbfounded. After a moment he managed to ask, “How?”
His mom, beaming from ear to ear said, “Sally told me.”
It was like waking up from a deep sleep. He heard the words but it did not make sense. How would Sally know? He had never returned even a note.
After a puzzled moment he said, “What—a—Sally?"
“She came over today and brought you an apple pie.” He was a half a bubble off level and did not know which end was up.
“How did she know?”
The haze was clearing from his brain but it had been short circuited. It was going to take a while.
“You saved a man’s life on Guadalcanal. His name was Andrew. He found a letter from Sally in your bag. Andrew wrote Sally to tell her about what you had done.
She wrote him back and they have been writing ever since. She comes over once a month and reads his letters. His letters always said how brave you were and how thankful he was that you considered him a friend.
We have a map in the living room of every place you have been during the last three years.’’
“I am going to kill Andrew.”
He did not mean it but he sure would like to kick him a few times. He remembered the time he put the bayonet under Andrew’s jawbone and wished he had pushed just a little harder.
In a spot hidden deep inside Karl there had been a glimmer of hope that somehow he could find his way home and somehow it would all be right with Sally.
He had tried to hide from his past but his life had been an open book for everyone to read.
The fear of coming home was gone. He was embarrassed. He felt like a little kid getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
The afternoon passed quickly. Karl was shocked beyond belief when he heard himself laugh. He had not let his guard down like that for a long time.
It was about five o’clock in the afternoon when Karl asked his dad if there was any gas in the old John Deer tractor. His dad said that it was hooked up to the plow and was full of gas.
Karl turned on the magneto, primed the cylinder and spun the flywheel by hand. The old tractor fired once spun over a couple of times and fired again and started pounding out a rhythm that only a John Deer tractor could make.
While his mom and dad sat happily in the porch swing Karl dropped the plow and started the fall plowing.
The old John Deer was running against the governor. It was a sound that Karl had dreamed of hearing for five years. For the first time he let himself consider that he might be accepted at home.
As darkness came Karl turned on the lights and let the old tractor run. In the darkness he could see the exhaust pipe glow red. It was a beautiful thing to see. Plowing that field was the happiest thing Karl had done in years.
At sunrise his dad waved him in for breakfast. He was ready to eat and for the first time in a long time he wanted to go to sleep.
After breakfast he lay down in the front room. Thirty six hours later he got up, drank a glass of milk and went back to sleep for another twelve hours.
Sally was in the kitchen talking with his mom and dad. When Karl wandered into the kitchen, Sally offered him a piece of apple pie and a hot cup of coffee. He did not say much. He just listened.
It astounded him that people could talk about nothing. They were chatting away just like they had good sense.
After a while he stood up said he was going to finish plowing and walked out the door. Sally did not ask, she just went with him. When he fired up the tractor, she climbed on and sat on the fender.
For three hours they just rode that tractor around and around until the plowing was done. By the time they finished and returned to the house his folks had gone into town.
Karl did not know how to talk to Sally. He did not know where to start. He sat down in the swing with Sally and his dog and started talking.
Slowly at first, until he got the hang of it. He would pet the dog for a while and talk a little then he would pet the dog for a while.
Every man has a certain amount of things he needs to say in his life time. Karl had not been using his share of things for the last five years. He had a lot stored up.
Years of guilt and hatred had been bottled up inside him and it all came pouring out in a torrent.
He talked until midnight. During that eight hours Sally just sat there and listened. She never said a word. She held his hand and rocked back and forth in the swing.
If Karl talked about something that was painful to tell she would squeeze his hand and smile. Karl did not sugar coat anything. He laid it all out for her to see. He figured that if she knew the truth and could still set there maybe there was hope.
When he finished, Sally stood up, kissed him on the top of the head and said "I will see you in the morning,” and walked to her car.
Karl had spent five years being told when to wake up. He never slept past six o’clock. Today it was almost lunch time when his dog licked his face.
When he stumbled into the kitchen there was Sally chatting away about nothing. It just did not make sense to waste so much time.
As he entered the room she stood up and handed him a little box. It was the Silver Star for Valor. “Andrew said you received this for saving his life. He said that you must have forgotten where you placed it. He thought I might want it.”
His squad had been with him when he received it but he had not misplaced it. He had tossed it in the trash. Andrew must have seen where he threw it and dug it out.
“Just how much did Andrew tell you?”
“I am going to find that guy and I am going to kill him.”
“Did you know that he lives only one hundred and ten miles from here and that he will be home next week?”
“He said you had never asked. We have been invited to his wedding in two weeks. You can kill him then.”
“I'll pack a knife.”
“There is a dance tonight. Do you want to go?”
“Do you want me to go with someone else?”
“Then you are going?”
He shaved his beard and his mom gave him a haircut. He did not know what all of the fuss was about. He would go to the dance but he was staying out of sight.
As he pulled up to the town hall he noticed that a few people started walking toward his car.
By the time he had opened the door for Sally there was a small group behind him. As he turned around they started slapping him on the back and shouting
"Congratulations, glad you are home!"
When he entered the town hall there was a large banner that said “Our Home Town Hero.”
Around the room there were pictures of him on Guadalcanal and newspaper articles telling how he had won the Silver Star for Valor. There were ten articles in all, the last one about his last days on Iwo Jima, a certified war hero.
He read one of the articles. He thought it was much ado about nothing.
Yep, he was going to find Andrew and kill him slowly.
Sally was by his side, holding his hand like she was afraid he was going to run. When a complete stranger congratulated Sally he had to ask what was going on.
“We're getting married in a couple of weeks. It will be a double ceremony with Andrew and his lovely bride. After the ceremony you can kill Andrew. He said you would.”
“That's fine. He's dead right after the ceremony.”
Then he smiled. Something he had not done on purpose for a long time. He was home. He felt at home. It was a place, but more than that it was a place in his heart, a place to stay forever.
A DOG NAMED BART
Adam stood on the front porch looking at the beautiful fall colors. He had built his house near a small stream as far back in the woods as he could.
He had grown up in these hills and it had been a lifelong dream to live in them again. He worked hard, saved his money and then moved into the hills and built this house.
Every man needs a companion, so Adam bought a dog. In his way of thinking he figured he would never need to go looking for dog. Bart was six weeks old when they became best friends.
From day one Bart slept at the foot of the bed, ate under the table and walked every step that he could to be with Adam. When Adam was not at home, Bart would guard the front door protecting the home and waiting for Adam’s return.
It was a beautiful autumn afternoon. Pecan leaves were bright yellow, the Maple leaves were red, and the Oak leaves were just beginning to turn. The wind was blowing softy and there was a chill in the air.
There would be a hard frost tonight.
Adam walked out in the yard, sat down in a swing and started kicking dry leaves with his toe. Bart curled up on the swing and laid his head on Adam’s lap.
As Adam gently swung back and forth, he scratched Bart’s ears while watching the clouds roll toward him.
The cold front that was approaching from the west moved a lot faster than he had expected and planned for. A storm was coming, but not the one for which he was prepared.
His solitude was disturbed by a car horn. Someone was coming up the lane towards his house and they wanted his attention. He wandered over toward the driveway in time to see his mother getting out of her car.
She was a small woman with beautiful white hair. In spite of her age she bounced out of the car and came running toward Adam. Surprised; Adam stopped and watched her come.
There was a smile on her face and laughter in her eyes.
“What are you doing here?”
“I came all the way out here to invite you to come in for dinner tonight. I made your favorite apple pie and besides it's my birthday.”
“It is not your birthday. Your birthday is in July.”
“Are you going to argue with your mother? I want you in town at six o’clock and would you please wash your face.
And, oh, there is a woman coming over to sell us some insurance. I could use your help.”
Without another word she kissed him on the cheek, spun around and headed for her car.
Adam stood there kicking himself for being snared into doing something that he did not want to do. His mother had not even stayed long enough to hear why he did not want to come.
She had attacked him on his blind side, suckered him with her smile and left him speechless like a small boy in the principal’s office.
The thought of fresh apple pie was seducing him and he was getting tired of cold hotdogs and canned beans.
By mid-afternoon the temperature was dropping fast. The Indian summer had lasted longer than expected. Now there was an arctic chill in the air. The wind was blowing steadily and the dark clouds were rolling over the hills like a heavy blanket.
Adam climbed into his 64 Ford pickup and Bart hopped in and lay down on the seat. The ride into town was uneventful. The wind had picked up and the temperature was dropping fast.
The temperature had fallen fifty degrees in the last eight hours.
As the truck turned down Maple Street, the rain began slowly at first but by the time he reached the end of the street it had become a full blown winter storm.
There was another car in the driveway. Adam figured that it must belong to the insurance salesman. He parked beside the other car and ran to the front door.
His mother was waiting for him. The door opened as his feet landed on the first step. He burst through the door on the run with Bart one step behind him.
There she was. He could not believe his eyes. She was beautiful. She had brown eyes and short curly hair. She was not smiling but her eyes were speaking volumes. Her eyes said that she knew something that he did not.
He was expecting an older woman. Boy was he wrong. As he stood there, unable to say a word, watching the water drip off the rim of his hat onto the hardwood floor all he could think of was “wet dogs don’t make a good first impression.”
His mother was saying something and tugging on his coat and all he could do was stand there with his mouth open.
“Adam this is Kris.”
So her name was Kris. He was about ready to speak when Kris bent down and grabbed both of Bart’s ears, rubbed them gently and then walked into the kitchen. Bart followed her.
“Well doesn’t that beat all?”
The meal was awkward for Adam. His hands were putting food on his plate that he knew he did not like. He was conversant but everything that he said sounded adolescent.
It was like his brain, his mouth, and his hands were all on strike against each other.
And another thing; Bart, always his constant companion at meal time, was setting beside Kris. He called Bart a couple of times but Bart just lay down and put his head on his feet.
The rain outside was heavy. The temperature had dropped to twenty six degrees and ice was building up on everything. By the time the meal was over there was a half inch of ice on his windshield and all of the trees were bending over like a republican under a heavy tax burden.
He was not going home tonight, neither was anyone else.
They cleaned off the table and settled down with a cup of hot chocolate. Adam said, “Let’s look at the insurance policy you're selling.”
Kris said, “What insurance policy?”
“Mom said that you were an insurance salesman.”
“No, I am not a salesman yet. It is my hope to be one someday, but it is not in my near future.”
He had been ambushed by his dear mother. He turned to look at his mother. His eyes were throwing darts but his mother just smiled and winked at him.
He had been a Marine for six years. He knew how to set an ambush but he had been out flanked, out maneuvered and his position had been overrun.
Everyone gathered around the fireplace to soak up a little extra heat. His mother and dad made an excuse and headed for the kitchen leaving Adam and Kris alone.
He had been outflanked again. Adam made small talk for a couple of hours until the fire burned down. Kris said she was tired so he gave her a few blankets and made her a bed on the couch. He made a bed in the recliner.
Bart slept on the couch.
After a long night in an uncomfortable recliner, Adam decided to slip out before breakfast. It took an hour to get the ice off the windshield.
Breakfast was served, hot and ready by the time he could see to drive. As the conversation drifted from one topic to another, Adam was shocked to hear himself asking Kris out to a movie.
She said, "Yes."
Now what was he going to do?
It was soon settled. She would swing by his house and they would ride into town together. He turned and looked at his mother.
She was smiling an “I told you so” smile.
They had got him again. It made him mad. He stomped out of the house without another word.
Adam opened the pickup door for Bart but the dog was nowhere to be found. He stormed back into the house. Bart was setting beside Kris’s chair. Adam grabbed the dog collar and headed for the door. The dog did not get up.
As Bart slid along the floor he growled at Adam. For crying out loud, his dog was on their side!
Adam spent all day cleaning his house. He would have made better progress if he had not kicked so many things over. He tried to figure out why he was so mad. He really did not have a reason.
He liked Kris. He was looking forward to spending time with her this evening. He felt like he had been taken advantage of, but Kris had done nothing.
Kris pulled into the drive right on time. Of all things, she was driving a Smart Car. “Sorry I am late. I had to return my sister’s car and pick up my own.”
She was just full of surprises.
“We'll take my truck, if you don’t mind,” Adam said as he opened the door of his truck.
Kris climbed in and Adam closed the door.
Adam hurried around the truck, got in, turned the key and the motor would not turn over.
Adam wanted to kick something. Kris laughed and said, “We can take my car.”
He did not open her door. He just stood beside the little car wondering just how in the world he was going to get into that cracker box.
He folded himself up and squeezed into the passenger seat. His knees rubbed his nose. He felt like a shrink-wrapped chicken. He couldn't even wear his hat.
The top of his head rubbed the roof of the car and every time she turned a corner his head hit the side window.
On the long drive into town, Kris chatted away about all the advantages of owning a Smart car. All he could think of was; “If I have to wear this thing it should come with a bow tie”.
They had agreed on the movie that they were going to see. It turned out to be a dud. They walked out about halfway through the movie.
It was too cold to do anything else so they headed back to his place for a cup of coffee.
Kris was charming and fun to be with. She was almost addictive. It was three in the morning before either of them noticed.
Kris made a dash for the car with Adam right behind her. She paused after opening the door to say "Good night." When she sat down Bart was in the passenger’s seat.
Embarrassed, Adam went around to the other side of the car and pulled Bart out. Bart showed his teeth and growled like Adam was a stranger.
That was the first night that Bart did not sleep on Adam’s bed. Bart laid by the door all night.
Early the next morning Adam went out to work on his pickup.
During the ten years he had owned that truck, it had never failed to start. He slid under the steering wheel, turned the key and the truck fired right up.
“Doesn’t that beat all?”
Over the next couple of weeks Adam and Kris played phone tag but never got together. Adam was not in the mood to make a fool out of himself again.
On the phone one night, Adam mentioned to Kris that Tuesday night was poker night at his place. Kris offered to drop by and bring some snacks. What could be the harm in that?
The game started at six with the usual loud and rude talk. Adam told his poker buddies that they would need to watch their language because a girl that he was interested in was dropping by later.
Over the years, each of the guys had earned a nickname for doing something stupid.
They called Joe, "Dim Wit," because he forgot to keep oil in his truck. Don earned the name, "Retard" because he made a mess of mechanical things. Mike was "Reject" because his last girlfriend dumped him. Adam was "Crack Shot" because he had hit a coyote with a pistol at forty yards.
Derogatory nicknames changed from time to time, as circumstances warranted. It would have embarrassed any of the group to be called by their proper names, however, nicknames, if not used by friends, were fighting words.
It was Reject that jumped and ran to the door when that little red car came up the drive. He was going to do something to embarrass Crack Shot but when he saw Kris he did not say a word.
When Kris entered the room, it was like the lights were turned on. The game stopped.
After the introduction, Retard asked her to join the game. Kris declined but said she would like to watch. Retard would not let up until she was in the game.