All Stories, General Fiction

From One War to Another without Choice by Tom Sheehan

I’d lost a brother and remember the headlines, newsreels, songs of bond-selling, gas-griping, and movies too true to hate, the settings of World War II. Those days found the whole Earth bent inwards, imploding bombs, bullets, blood, shrieking terrible bird cries in my ears only deepest sleep could lose if it ventured close.

Near sleep I remembered the nifty bellbottom blues he wore in pictures my mother cleaned and cleaned and cleaned on the altar of her bureau as if he were the Christ or the Buddha, because he was out there in the sun and the sand and the rain of shells and sounds I came to know years later moving up from Pusan, the new war my war.

I never really knew about him until he came home, jumped off a train in Saugus Center (where trains no longer tread) and I saw his sea bag locked on his shoulder. It was decorated with his wife Elise’s ink-sketch drawing capturing much of her beauty, and the ultimate map with the names Saipan, Iwo Jima, Kwajalein, the war.

I came awake suddenly, a new internal motor finding gear, revving up.

So I am commanded that this conversation be set with old red wine that brings me out of surging daylight to fill the doorway like a mailman with a bad letter or telegram, the old neighborhoods of the time struck wide with loss. Specters leaped out of that old mixture, the blood of grape, the fine chalk it paints teeth with, a whole day of sunlight collared in a tumbler, a red sunset too far away to tell where it’s going. Death at notice.

He went off to that sunset once, around the corner of the barn tipping toward its knees and Sam Parker’s garden paving the ripe earth all way to the Lovett house sitting white as a pepper-mint down the lane, the family about on the land, doorways framed with faces refusing to age in front of me.

When he waved at me he did it with both hands and only later, when it had gone down the mortal chute, was significance found as I remembered the leaning barn’s shade swallow him whole, taking one bite of the car. And he was gone with a two-handed wave like signaling Saturday’s lone touchdown.

So I have an old wine or two, a buzzed-vine beauty of taste sometimes more like apple cores or flesh from a peach nearer the pit, and hum the old sad songs, scribble crazy designs and whorls on a blank paper waiting a poem up to its knees in mud in my mind, and think about his waving at sunset because I never see it the same way twice.

Often it is pieces I see; his eyebrows thick and dark and sure as cordage; or gray-green  eyes wide as dial faces on test equipment measuring tasks I was at and how he appraised with a nod so slight I shivered before recognition; the little off-center tilt of his head in question the way a dog takes a first look at the new neighbor’s cat or fingers snapped behind the back; perhaps, deep in the sunset of the second glass, down past the red and purple and fiery collars, past all the striae a shining breaks out in wine, a shadow of him walking across Pacific waters, sea bag shouldered, stride long and unhurried, smiling, waving to us, coming home, gigantic fires fading behind him, awful nightmare blasts, bombs, aerial explosions, fractures of ships, swimming alone, fading too.

I find him in the glass, tall, lean, crowbar true, warm as rubbed pine, immovable as bottom rock, close, reaching, bending, lifting up, still building all our dreams he drafted in darkness in the bedroom the night before the end began.

Telling tales is a sweater too long hung on an iron spike near leather goods of an old horse. One glove, fractured at wrist and thumb, three gardens old, capped on a spade handle, carries its own clues. In the mix is a scythe handle, spine scattered to every degree, two blades dead, holding a hundred years of sweat waiting raccoon’s discovery of the slow night of a full moon and wheat fields curling wet. Size eleven khaki waders, hung to dry ten years ago, exhibit river remembrance in deep-scarred veins the way lake bottoms dry, and whisper of accident remnants.

A red and black lumber jacket, buoyant exclamation mark beside the cellar door, rigid as winter pond and still soft behind my eyes, holds the last day my brother knew at my side.

If I were to gather all these artifacts, the yield would be tender.

An infantry of stars swarms the slow sky wide as a Vicksburg field between artillery shots, off-shore cannons of another war tossing an island to pieces. Elsewhere, hard to measure distance, scattered guidon ripples the slow torment of deep passage just beyond Polaris. Near giant Orion’s eastward shoulder, a torchbearer pops an impetuous gleam. Small encampments, sometimes sevenfold, tighten their ranks in bright bivouacs, at rest from the sounds of war, the threats of incoming sounds shattering silence among those born for battle

Others, loners and post guards, circle wide circles like the dog star Procyon at hunting. This vast array does not appall me, though I diminish before its deployment. I have been told, in good faith, that many of these stars are dead, but we know their shining, like old soldiers,  long-gone, cement themselves into statues, dim ribbons and old medals whose scriptures fade at sun and slowly, gram by gram, inch toward minerals and memory. beneath my feet this veteran earth slips into the far side of another’s telescope.

In turn I remember Lake Hwachon. There was nothing to do on this side, that’s for sure. We boated over. There  was nothing to do on the other side either, but die, or stand in line, or check out our gear. No rentals. no two-piece bathing suits catching up the sun. No hot dogs in short buns. No sand-oil grit spread. Dale Morgan, a subsequent short-timer, lost a calf muscle to a Bouncing Betty. Oh, there were lots of them, locally-flavored, territorial. They made stupid noises that said, “It’s too late, pal.” Those were the only kind of umbrellas at this lake, you can bet.

Tony Morocco was luckier at calves, losing both, and everything  you can name in between. Waterville west of the Mississippi,  perhaps Iowa, used to be his hometown. He didn’t like lakes, including this one.

When we crossed on pontoons and rafts and dories with out-board motors, I watched him undo his booted laces, unstring his weapon, set his small pack under his butt. He smiled at me, telling me about water, rivers he must have grown up worrying about. How to hold your breath. We already knew about mortars’ wet impacts. Water does them up funny.

I talked to old Ski in Chicago just the other night. He’s buried his Japanese wife in Arlington. His daughter is dying. He’s sad. He’s had so much junk then, and now, it piles up again. He didn’t like lakes, not that one, or the one that’s sifting its swim of cancer around Chi-Town. Breda, living near Mattoon, says the Old Polack’s just not the same, got this old-time look in his eyes, like when we beached, and he asked what date it was and counted there, right in the open, his damned points earned for rotation homeward.

He’s been a history lesson on his own. He’d been through Frozen Chosen, Hungnam and all the stops between. Oh, he had a before and an after: the Philippines, Kwajalein, Saipan, not necessarily in that First Cavalry order, and then Chi-ROTC for short years, and death still hanging around him like a turd on the bottom of his boot. And tears on the phone he can’t hide, tough old bastard he is, two-wars dying at that.

He didn’t like the lake shore either. I bet he still doesn’t. I can see him, even all these years later, stepping ashore, rifle down-range, ears picked up, more a cougar than a deer, intent, a Polack with a piece of Apache in him trying to find its way out of his eyes. Maybe a New World Comanche in tow. Perhaps, I often thought, he carries an old Prussian bloodline left over from ancient guard duty.

But lakes have a way of undermining you, make you sit too easy on the fat duff, make dreams and nightmares quick-wedded, stick it to you where and when you least expect it, make it happen. Ski happened. He exploded! I shut that mastery of his out of mind. The known quantities and qualities fail too often, in measurement, in contrast.

But still he’s sad and hates lakeside, shore, waters of the giving and taking lake, time. Old General Mac was right; Ski’s just floating away on the invisible waters, drifting off, leaving me, finally, way down the line here, like the others had promised, numbers mounting, this strange way of saying goodbye, comrades I met in a hole, the 76-er mm weapons in alien hands, screaming over our heads all that ungodly night, well over half century ago still here.

It stretches all the way home:

Eddie Smiledge was the houseman at The Rathole, racked the balls, collected coin, was a judge with a hundred-dollar bill in the side pocket. He smoked cigars thick as cue sticks, ate Baby Ruths until his teeth stuck, sent us home abruptly when our eyes became hazy or midnight slipped like a footpad over the green felt on table No. 4. He did not lend us money, but let the clock work in our favor; at a nickel a game he didn’t see the eight ball eight times in the side pocket, and forgot to lock away all the nickel bags of potato chips.

One night we played One-Ball-in-the-Side- pocket past closing and Eddie sat in a corner waving off the game costs. We walked off under a September moon all the way to Korea.

The night I came back, chevrons up and down, deep new wrinkles struck across my face, measureless but valid, reaching for my yesteryear, a skinny bald-headed man was racking the balls. He didn’t know my name, who was home from Korea, who wasn’t, who wasn’t going to make it, why Eddie Smiledge had drifted off someplace the day after we left … never to be seen again.


Tom Sheehan

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6 thoughts on “From One War to Another without Choice by Tom Sheehan”

  1. “I have been told, in good faith, that many of these stars are dead, but we know their shining, like old soldiers, long-gone, cement themselves into statues, dim ribbons and old medals whose scriptures fade at sun and slowly, gram by gram, inch toward minerals and memory. beneath my feet this veteran earth slips into the far side of another’s telescope.”

    One of the most beautiful bookendings of mortality, Tom. You show even the beauty larger than our infinitely small human lives, dies.


  2. Hi Tom,

    You are a class act my friend and this piece of work showcases your skill. knowledge, understanding and perception.

    All the very best my friend.


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