The last thing Burt Shantell said to me was, “I’m not going to make it, Tom, but take this photo of my wife, Myrna, and tell her the last words I said were about her, and she’s in Stockard, Montana.”
I tried to quiet him; “Take it easy, Burt, you’ll be okay. The Medics are in the next bunker,” which was a lie, of course, a soft sponge of a lie.
Because I was talking to a dead man, a dead comrade, in Korea in 1951. The next thing was seeing him in a body rack as we moved along the trail on the other side of Lake Hwachon, already having seen a pal from my hometown, and another high school opponent from Lynn, Massachusetts, the town abutting one side of my home town, Saugus.
I had a chance to look at the photo every now and then, with all information on the backside if I ever needed it, far be it for me to carry news about the dead a whole year later, and right through to a lovely women, who loaded me with promised weight of her husband’s last words, a message from the dead which rides the soul mercilessly, no weight being heavier, or more ominous for those who make the return trip, living long enough for duty’s call, such last words reaching century marks in many cases, I’m willing to wager.
I was 500 miles down the road on a trip of 2352 miles before I found some suitable words she could carry in her heart, or in her pocketbook. I finally figured pride often makes such decisions, if the approach is not casual.
But there I was, rotated homeward on a ship out of Japan, embarked in San Francisco, in a train headed east to separation from the army at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, then tooling around in a car my wealthy and gracious uncle Gregory gave me from his lot of cars on Route One northbound, my choice, of course, a smooth-yellow slick chick conveyance worth a hundred waves on the ride.
Before I knew it, I was on my way to Stockard, Montana, and the widow of widows, Myrna Shantell, knockout beauty, alone in the world most likely, and whose photo I must have looked at a thousand times to one, gambling not my sport, from the word go, but an attraction loaded to the hilt, and a promise made to the battle dead, to the last word, so help me, Hannah. That’s the way some wars never end, like all of them, for that matter, to those who know them too well, and can remember somber specifics, like dying and passing on the last words. Double-barreled to say the least, the Korean campaign having no truce even as yet.
This latter element, barren but bounteous, kept asking what kind of pronunciation do I carry, dispense: hold her hand, hug her, kiss her with the kiss of death? It was an ominous errand I was on, but there was no letting it float off into nothing, just Burt Shantell’s final words for his wife, like they were hands-clasped in my duffel bag, an echo arising whenever I looked at it hanging on my sea bunk, other lucky comrades wondering what else I carried in it other than normal gear to be toted home; some attraction for a kid brother, a silky present for a kid sister scooped from the world’s end, her piece of just about everywhere or anywhere worn and decorated with her boast, “My big brother brought it home from the war just for me.”.
The stunning photo of Myrna Shantell said Burt knew more than how to pick out beauty in women, but to pick the queen of them all, and for his own, Myrna Shantell, now lonely in Stockard, Montana, about as far away as she could be from frightful condemnation, a lonely good-looker but no pity from the masses.
I drove for hours and hours, dreamer consumed, each moment making the count near intolerable, the froth of dreams full of neat expectations, warmth and thanks in smiles, a clasp at introduction remembered forever, saying hello in silence of welcome to the future of a messenger boy, her emptiness on display in spite of her beauty, Burt Shantell looking on as though at a commission, a watchguard protecting his choice of delivery.
She hugged me with a thunderous grasp, my lone phone call having announced my arrival more than a week earlier, her warmth wrapping me for good, as though I was delivering myself as a present and not as a messenger captured by her photo.
“Burt will be proud of you, Tom, from wherever, but certainly up there,” she said, pointing overhead to more than a physical destination, more than a wishful look at possibility, but assurance, a believer standing her sad ground. Her softness was the warmest touch encountered in all the days of the trip, as though she had thrust herself into my wheel-worried arms for the taking. That she was alone, waiting on me, was evident, not another soul in sight, the moment one for privacy and thanks.
She stood at the doorway of a farmhouse, as if she had heard the sound of my engine from miles away, in a pale blue skirt matching her eyes, her announcement carried with immediacy, a sudden impatience or hunger on quick display, almost invitational, declared, human to say the least, downright and hungry, as if that elevation of beauty never had to announce the truth of inner feelings.
I was awed by her special beauty more than her loneliness. Not one animal was visible on the entire ranch, all locked away from a special moment, not an ounce to be shared by man and animal.
“I have known that Burt wasn’t coming home for a few months. The local sheriff has that job. Burt is not the only one from Stockard, even though it’s practically a one-horse town these days. Nobody else wants the job saying, ‘Your son is not coming back until he is delivered home, Ma’am. He has been killed in action against the enemy.'”
We, the living, melted into each other as time passed, Burt taking care of the odd ends from the very beginning, death a mere interlude, for comrade, for lover.
4 thoughts on “The Lady’s Photo by Tom Sheehan”
Deeply moving and elegant. The events of seventy years gone by remain fresh.
Poignant, engaging and well-written. The last sentence is poetic. Make that beautifully poetic. (It deserves the adverb.)
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In my opinion you are at your very best when writing this type of story and very few can come close to matching you.
All the very best my fine friend.
I agree with what others have said. The lyricism in your writing is masterful. I’ve said before how great you are at transporting the reader to a sense of place amidst such well drawn characters, but I’d like to commend you on your paragraph and sentence structure. To me, that 4th paragraph, starting with ‘I had a chance to look at the photo…’ is an absolute masterclass in balancing sentence clauses and description – in short, it’s bloody beautiful and I continue to aspire to be that good.
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