A Veteran's DAy

Copyright © 1991, 2011 William Mego

He was ninety miles from El Alamein in 1942; they were waiting for the British troops, so there wasn't much to do, The banter of the fresh recruits did little to conceal that North Africa, and the threat of death, had just become quite real. The remnants of the Axis force were moving west in flight, but those left behind were seasoned men who might decide to fight.

He walked beside the transport, in the swirling sticking sand, and thought of all the wars that had been fought to rule this land. He listed them from memory, and for a moment mused that the bones of ancient warriors might be clinging to his shoes. Perhaps he'd carry them along to triumph or defeat; then join them on another's shoes, when the cycle was complete.

He never saw a flash, nor did he hear a rifle's crack. He only felt a tugging in the middle of his back. He walked another step or two, then sat down in the mud. His leg was getting very numb; his mouth was full of blood. He pulled at his companion's sleeve, as the man began to pass, for the world was getting distant, as seen through a pane of glass. They pulled him to the roadside, to a more protected place; then the bones of ancient warriors started clinging to his face.

There were no other wounded, so they placed him on a cot. And the nurses, not yet tired, not yet bitter, smiled a lot. They were so young, and very nice, that he tried not to complain, but nothing in his own young life had prepared him for this pain. The pain would be his marriage, and the pain would be his son. The pain would be his life's career, with all the work undone. For his war was early over, but his battle just begun, a battle to a stalemate, which could not in fact be won.

He had a natural courage, and a fullness in his heart. So he worked to leave the bed, regain his life, and do his part. But like a fish pulled out to sea with the rhythm of the tide, the bed reclaimed his body each and every time he tried. Then his Dad would come to see him, and would sit there by his side. They would make their plans and talk for hours of duty, hope, and pride. The night the old man passed away was the final time he cried.

The days, no longer measured like the verses in a song, in a mindless repetition, simply carried him along. It was, they said, a miracle that he had lived so long, a testament to courage, the result of being strong. A large machine sustained his life; it had bellows and a fan. It had motors made in Germany and tubing from Japan. It measured when a heartbeat stopped, and when a breath began. At times he'd lie awake at night and watch it as it ran.

His birthday was the only day that bothered him a lot. The nurses did not know it was the day that he'd been shot. They'd sing a little song, and sit beside his bed awhile. He'd thank them for their thoughtfulness, and do his best to smile. They'd always brought a tiny cake, and put it in his lap. Then afterwards he'd settle back and try to take a nap.

He was dreaming of a birthday card, addressed in childish hand, when his gentle sleep was broken by Our Lord the Savior's Marching Band. In the cemetery, just outside, they'd built a speaker's stand and fitted it with flags and chairs for the program that they planned.

The grand parade had ceased now, on that cold November morn. And Taps was being played upon a single clear sweet horn. The honor guard, the veterans of a dozen long campaigns, braced stiffly at attention for the length of the refrain.

The grass outside his window had turned grey and white with frost, as he watched them talk of men returned, and of men who had been lost. He saw a schoolboy fidget, and a widow wipe a tear, as gunshots marked the passing of his seventy-second year.