I only flinched slightly as each volley was fired, and barely narrowed my eyes when the cold November gale blew the sound of Taps across our faces and into the naked arms of the trees. I can’t even recall the bearers’ slow folding of the flag… or anything past the Marine who presented it to my mom saying, “On behalf of the President of the United States, a grateful nation, and a proud…“. That’s when I broke loose and ran through the small shivering crowd of support and honor, and headed away from the hearse, the flags, the uniforms… and the grief.
Thinking back on that moment, years later, I still feel a strange mixture of regret and thankfulness. If I knew then what I’ve learned since, I’m pretty sure I would do it all over again… but for a completely different reason.
I remember I stopped running as soon as I realized no one was trying to stop me. My slow plodding steps then carried me just over the edge of the high ground they were lowering Dad into. And in the lea of that hill, I stood… and trembled… and silently screamed at him. I was too hot with fury to even feel just how deep the fingers of that wind were reaching into my frame.
My mother, of course, was a proper military wife. She stayed for the full service, and the condolences that followed. She loved me, I knew that. But I had been on a tear ever since Dad re-up’d for this tour. So, this type of ‘outburst’ was far from ‘new’ by now. She did eventually come look for me, followed by a few stragglers. They looked like a brood of ducklings… wanting to be of use, but having no clue what to say to a 13 year old who’s just lost his father… just a few weeks before Christmas.
By the time she reached me, she had already packed her own terror and sorrows away (we had no money, to speak of, and the Bonneville was needing rings real bad). And even though my head was locked down tight, I knew what she was doing. I had seen her do it a thousand times… she was probing my face with those patient brown eyes, and a slight sad smile just turning the corner of her mouth upward.
“Honey, it’s alright.”
“We’ll be alright, Jonathan. You’ll see, everything will be just fine.”
The gathered ‘cloud of witnesses’ were all nodding their heads in hopeful agreement when I lifted mine to speak.
“I hate him. I HATE HIM! Do you hear me? I H A T E HIM!!”
I didn’t scream it. I said it slow, and I said it deliberate. And I said it with such conviction that everyone was utterly shocked… including me. One of the men tried to break through with “Oh no, Jonathan! Your daddy was a hero, a very special man!” Each head began that confounded nodding again.
I looked them all in the eye before settling the flames of my gaze upon the man who had said it.
“Well I don’t want a hero, do you hear me? And I don’t give a damn about “special”… all I’ve ever wanted in my life was “NORMAL“!!
…that last bit cut through the wind like a trumpet, and had the full effect I had hoped for. It froze the moment, solid. That is, until I heard the voice behind me.
“Normal’s gone, kid.”
I spun around to see who had dared to break the spell so calmly, so matter-of-factly. I found myself just inches away from the towering figure of our neighbor, Mr. Cooper. Mr. Cooper was all of 6′ 4″ and about 230 lbs of stoop-shouldered steel ~ and he was the meanest man to ever live on Campbell Street! Even in my grief and rage, the man scared me.
As I lifted my face towards the heavens to meet his gaze, he was starting to turn toward my mother. With a tip of his hat he said, “Condolences Mrs. Renfro, and anything you need… anytime.”
“Thank you, Mr. Cooper.”
And then he just started to walk away. But after a few steps, he stopped, and repeated that crazy truth “Remember kid, normal’s gone.” Then he turned slowly, lowered that great head as his dark eyes bore into mine, and then he winked as he added “But livin’ ain’t! I’ll be seein’ ya.”
That was on a Monday.
The Thursday coming up was Thanksgiving. But it could have been the fourth of March, for all I knew or cared. The fog that had settled over me ever since that knock on the door the previous Sunday was laying thick and heavy over every feeble attempt to think. But all that cleared, almost instantly, when I heard Mom at the front door say, “You sure you don’t want me to bring anything? 10:00 o’ clock… right. And thank you, Mr. Cooper!”
“What did he want?” I asked after I knew he was safely off the porch and on his way home.
“He’s invited us to share Thanksgiving with him tomorrow.” she said with a determined firmness that I knew better than to cross. But I had to do something!
“Well, why can’t we go to aunt Ann’s and uncle Charlie’s? They’re family.”
Mom smiled that quaint little smile and studied the top of my head, like she did when there was more going on inside her than I was going to hear. Then, as she walked past me, she tussled my hair and said “There’s 22 inches of snow on the ground, and more coming, young man. We’d never make it down the street.” And then she paused, as she added “Besides, I think Mr. Cooper needs us as much as we do him, about now.”
Need us… him? And us… need HIM?!
I had no clue what she meant about all that. But I’m forever thankful that… she did.
We made our way up the freshly cleared walkway (all the way from our house to his… ) and stepped up on the porch.
“Mom” I whined quietly.
She patted my shoulder and gave me a faint smile just as the door opened.
“Come in! Come on in you two!”
Mr. Cooper stepped aside and bade us in, with the smooth, practiced grace of the doorman at the Belmont. Mom bowed her head with equal grace as she pushed me forward and said, “Why, thank you Mr. Cooper, it’s an honor to be here.”
I wasn’t going to lie… so I said nothing.
I can still feel the warmth of the place, and smell the welcoming aroma of everything Thanksgiving that was beckoning from the kitchen. There was a huge double fireplace in the wall between the living room and dining room (first one I ever saw… loved that thing!) putting just the right amount of ‘toast’ in the air, and thaw in my still-frozen mind with its soft ‘crackle’ and ‘pop’.
I remember how the furniture seemed to fit the man ~ rugged, solid-built and no-nonsense. But there was something unique, and even elegant about it (Mission style, my mom called it). There was a large Tiffany lamp on a reading table, inlaid with a scene of dragonflies and orchids (Mom LOVED that thing), in the dark mahogany paneled ‘study’. And everywhere, there were books; from large, old leather-bound volumes to paperback westerns… there were books in every room, all neatly shelved and showing the buff of much handling.
I noticed a few titles that Dad held in high esteem, er’… had held in high esteem.
‘Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings: 1832-1865‘
‘In His Steps‘ ~ Charles Sheldon
Carl Sandburg’s ‘LINCOLN‘… Dad loved Lincoln.
‘God Is NO FOOL‘ ~ by some lady, name Cheney
‘Where The Red Fern Grows‘ and ‘Summer Of The Monkeys‘ by Wilson Rawls… seeing these brought a lump to my throat. Dad had read those to me, in the months before this last deployment. Mr. Cooper walked past me just then. He didn’t stop, or make a big deal of it, he just said, “When I found out that your dad liked my buddy Rawls’ work, I knew he was a good man.
I didn’t know he knew Dad.
As Mr. Cooper headed down the hall, he called out “You might get a kick out of these. Your dad sure did.” I followed the sound of his voice and steps into a large corner room. You actually stepped down into a sunken floor, which gave the room an even bigger, grander feel. The walls were filled with guns and knives and swords of every description, from all over the world. One whole wall was dedicated to sets of mil-surps from every major conflict of the last hundred years, representing all sides. I stood transfixed for a minute or two.
“Your dad and I spent the whole first afternoon we met in this room ~ smoking cigars, handling these bits of history… and the both of us, relaxing for the first time in a long time.”
The old man waited for the combination of that statement, and the room to sink in, then he tapped me on the shoulder as he headed back out “Come on kid, we got plenty of time to get to work before dinner’s done.”
I was talking to thin air.
As I reached the dining room I heard Mr. Cooper say “Yes Ma ‘am, all the fixin’s for pumpkin pie are in the ice box there, and the stuff for pistachio salad is next to it. Yes Ma ‘am, in that brown paper bag.” I made my way on into the spacious room where Mom was bustling around with an apron on. And I did notice, even in my confusion, that she seemed happy and content for the first time in over a week.
“Alright you two” she said, “head on out to the garage and do whatever it is that men do. I’ll call you when this bird is ready.” She let her eyes rest lovingly on me for a moment, then she bit her lip and turned quickly away.
I was to learn that emotions can, and do, change that fast in times like these. Even then, I understood it, a little bit.
“Come on kid, let’s get to work.”
He may have had a cool house, with lots of neat things… but I wasn’t liking this grumpy old man. No sir, not at all!
Mr. Cooper led the way, out the back door and along a covered path to his shop. I had always wondered what was inside this great tin Wonder. Me and Tommy Lang, the only other boy on the block, had imagined all sorts of treasures… and terrors. Like I said, to us, this old man was MEAN. In fact, betwixt ourselves, we called him “that MADGUY”.
Boy, wouldn’t Tommy give his Orange Crate for this moment! (well, probably not… but I could tell later that he was some jealous!).
As the bolt slid free of the keep and the grey metal door swung wide into the dark Beyond, I was hoping I could hear Mom calling from the kitchen… but as that great lanky Beast started flipping light switches, and the rows of fluorescents hummed and buzzed to life, the world that awakened before my young eyes… awakened the beast in me!
The first thing my eyes landed on in this cavern of Wonder (the thing was 60 X 80, with a loft that covered a third of it) were the cars. There was a blue ’69 Chevelle SS “Baldwin Motion”, a pale yellow ’72 Monte Carlo “454″, and a ’69 MACH 1, in Rangoon Red… with the shaker hood and a 428 SCJ! Over in the back corner, I noticed an old truck. It was a beautiful thing, but I had no idea what kind it was. And of them all, it was the only one that wasn’t showroom ready.
Mr. Cooper noticed where my attention was directed and said, “Figure you to have the same good taste as your dad.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a ’61 Ford shortbed ‘Unibody’. So far, I’ve lowered the floor, frenched the tail lights a bit more, grafted the scoop from a ’72 Torino GT into the hood, set the whole thing on a shortened ‘Lightning’ frame, and put a fresh DOVE-headed 460 in her. But I’ve got a good bit to do yet.”
My head was bobbing up and down in slathered approval.
“Maybe you could help me with it, if you’d care about such things.” he said.
I just stood there and stared, first at him, then the truck… then him again. All I could manage was a feeble wag of the chin.
The old man was watching me with a warm smile (first one I had ever seen on his face). “Well, your dad said you were as into cars and horsepower as he was. He had mentioned that you might want to learn how to do more than just name ‘em all.”
“Yessir, I would”.
“Good. Well, now that that’s settled, let’s head on up to the loft and get some work done. What do you say?”
I didn’t know what to say. There was far more to this old man than just being ‘mean’ (I wasn’t too sure he was even that… but I was keeping the title on him, just to be safe), and he spoke of my dad as though they were friends, with much in common. But I had never heard Dad speak of Mr. Cooper in such tones… ‘course, my dad was quiet about a lot of things. He was a good man, and I remember, when he’d look at me sometimes, there was so much emotion (love, I guess) in the moment… we both had to look away. But damn it! Why did he have to go… AGAIN?!?! (see what I mean about the emotions changing fast?)
No sir, I didn’t know what to say at the moment. So I just shrugged my shoulders. It must have been good enough for him, because Mr. Cooper just gave a knowing nod, and then headed for the stairs to the loft.
NOTE: If you know of any man, but especially a SOLDIER, who might find value in this tale, by all means… share the link. I won’t go into detail for all the reasons I write these stories, or share ‘em “free of charge” with folks around the globe. But I will tell you that this year’s tale is being crafted upon a canvas woven from a mixture of some very dear mates in the military… personal experiences (performed over 100 funerals in my days as a ‘preacher’/missionary/teacher)… and the way a TINY MINORITY of folk (who just happen to own the airwaves, at the moment) have been, and are treating our Heroes… both at home, and abroad.
THIS AIN’T ABOUT ‘POLITICS’… it’s about standing in the gap, and shouting as loud as these little posts/stories can… “We’re PROUD OF YOU… and WE STAND WITH YOU!!!!!!!!!”
…now, back to it.
As I got to the top of the stairs I saw that the loft was actually an enclosed structure, a sort of “upstairs shop”. The leading eight feet was open, and served as a perfect porch from which to view the treasures below ~ complete with those old style metal rockers I remembered seeing on trips down south, an ‘outdoor’ fireplace, and a handrail. I could see things hanging from the walls through the large storefront windows, but had no clue what really awaited me inside.
Mr. Cooper opened one of the double doors, and I could feel the warmth of the room envelop me. As the lights came on and I stepped across the threshold, my jaw dropped. The entire back wall (all SIXTY FEET of it!) was covered with animal mounts of every description, interspersed with… bows and arrows!
There were deer with big horns, sheep with BIG horns… two huge moose, five equally impressive elk… caribou, a wolf and a big old mountain lion, looking like he was about to come off the wall at me!
There was a lion in one corner, leaping up and snagging an impala… in mid-air! And in the other corner was a Jeep… with an arrow in the radiator!
Mr. Cooper noticed my head fall forward as I gawked at that… “Oh, yeah. Well, you wait till you make your first trip to the Dark continent and face your first baboon charge. You’ll understand.”
After the first cleansing chuckle I’d had in a long time (since about three seconds before Dad informed us of his decision to go back “to take care of those kids they’re sending”) I took a deep breath and began to take in the rest of the room.
There were big machines to the right, with these big “hoses” going from them, up through the roof. Behind them, and spanning a goodly portion of that side wall, was a beautiful green marble counter top and dark oak cabinets, just like in a fancy kitchen or something. The other side wall, except for one section in the middle, was absolutely covered with bows, stacked 3 and 4 deep on horizontal pegs that were padded with sheepskin. That middle section was actually framed with bows… and filled with pictures and trophies.
“Those are of my children. And all those trophies are from their accomplishments.”
I had to turn and make sure it was him speaking. It was that soft, that different a tone.
He continued to speak, even as he guided me toward them.
“The boys were 11, twins in every way” and then with a lift of his head and a rich ‘HAH!’, he added, “except for which classic car they wanted. And Sarah was nine years of sunshine.”
He looked at me then, his wandering eyes mapping my face… or searching for something beyond the moment; I didn’t know which. After a few seconds he turned back to the wall and said “Jonathan” (it was the first time he’d ever called me anything but ‘kid’…), “Some might say that you’re too young to hear, let alone understand what I’m about to say.” Then he looked at me again, with that same warm smile I’d noticed below. “And I know that you won’t fully comprehend all of this for several years. But I made your dad a promise” He lowered his head close to mine. “a promise, Jonathan ~ that you would not walk this ground as alone and unilluminated as he and I did.”
I honestly had no idea what he was talking about. So, I just said, “Yes sir.”
He chuckled lightly at my response. And then, as he reached for the wall and lovingly touched the Polaroid past before us, he said “Sometimes, they… and every memory’d moment with them feels like it was a dream, a rich, wonder-filled dream. And there are just as many times that I would honestly swear the phone call came only five minutes ago.”
His voice grew husky in those last words, but he steeled himself and turned, full-stature, to me.
“But, enough of that for now. We came out here to work, and work we shall.”
I looked around me for something to do. The man’s presence was so… not commanding, but… compelling, that you just naturally started forward when he said “Git”. Only thing is, I couldn’t see or think of a single thing fit for a thirteen year old boy to do. The place was spotless. The equipment foreign to me.
…it was a mite uncomfortable work, looking for work around this man.
He let me stew on it just a bit, then he patted me on the back as he pointed to the collection on the wall “You like archery, kid?”
“I, I don’t know Mr. Cooper, I’ve never done it” (Dad did raise me honest…).
“Fair enough. Well, can’t expect a man to be too excited about working on something if he has no clue what a thrill the finished product can bring.”
I was still clueless.
“Well then” he continued, “Looks like the best place to start today is with… yeah, this one.” He reached across me and picked up a beautiful little recurve, slim and trim and light. “Yes sir, she oughta light a fire in you.”
“They’re alive kid, as alive as you make ‘em.” he said with a gleam in his eyes. Then, as though he were sharing the secret combination to the bank safe… in the bank, he leaned over close and whispered “And you’ll learn, they can remind you more of a woman than almost anything else on God’s green earth… in several ways!”
He handed it to me then, with a reverent lift of his chin and a slow, solemn move of his arms. And I actually found myself a little excited AND nervous. Perfect practice for being around the fairer sex… but I digress.
Mr. Cooper started for the door of the shop “Well, come’on kid. You ain’t putting an arrow in the air up here.”
As I followed him down the steps, I didn’t even hardly notice the cars (and that’s saying something!). He turned right, but I automatically headed to our left, and the door to the outside.
“Where you going kid?”
“Well, you can go freeze your tukkis off and loose your arrow in that snow if you want… but it’d be more fun over here.” And with another click of a switch, a nod of his head and a sweep of his arm, he opened up another facet of this jeweled new world.
There, under the loft, were animals! I knew they weren’t real, but they sure looked it! There was a doe and a big buck, standing real close to each other. Next to them were two turkeys. One was in full strut and the other was just peeking out from behind a fake bush. There was a fox, a beaver on a real, chewed on log… and a bobcat! And standing between three Christmas trees was a big old elk, with a cow laying in front of him!
Behind them, the wall was painted with a grand mountain scene. It was incredible!
Mr. Cooper chuckled “We can’t control the weather kid, but we can improve our surroundings. Remember that.” And then he added “One of these days, I’m going to add a Jeep.”
We both laughed out loud.
From that moment on, the dungeon doors were thrown open… and the keys placed firmly in my pocket. That’s exactly how Mr. Cooper put it to me on the Saturday before Christmas, that year. We were working on the Bonneville (it got the new rings alright ~ and the brakes Mom didn’t want to mention… and shocks… and the radio upgraded. And I got to help!). As Mr. Cooper was finishing up with buffing the paint (oh yeah, we detailed it too!), I was inside, working on the interior. As I reached under the front seat to make sure there wasn’t any loose change or pens-n-such before I vacuumed, my fingers reached an instantly familiar shape. I slowly pulled it out, and my eyes confirmed what my heart already knew… it was a pack of Dad’s cigars.
I’d been doing so well, ever since that wondrous Thanksgiving day. Sad sometimes, oh yeah. But my new-found friendship with that crusty old man, and all the exciting new things he introduced me to and encouraged me to learn; all that had kept the Dragon away. But sitting in that car, holding even such a small part of the man I loved, needed ~ and missed too much to face… I bawled like a newborn. I actually curled up in the passenger side and shook-sobbed.
The buffer stopped, and the door opened… but not a sound was mixed with my cries. And I couldn’t stop.
After a moment or two, a strong, lanky hand enveloped my shoulder, and the car leaned to my side as a giant of a man sat on the door sill, silent ~ solid ~ and thanked for.
The tremors finally settled and the sobs gave way to deep, measured breathing. It was then that I heard him clear his throat (and realized he had been silently sharing some tears of his own).
“Your father was a rare man, kid (coming from him, that word ‘kid’ became as dear to me as any ‘sweet nothin” from my future wife). And he is worthy of all these cries you’re gonna have. Do you hear me?”
He stood up then and made room for me to stand with him. He looked around the shop for a second, seemed to make up his mind about something and nod to himself, and motioned for me to follow. He went to his tool box (a grand old MAC roll around, with tons of drawers and filled with wonderful tools and gadgets), looked at me again, and then took out his keys and unlocked the center-top little drawer. I had always wondered what he kept in there… it was the only locked thing in his entire home.
As he opened it, he motioned for me to come take a look.
Inside were two HOT WHEELS cars, a tiny skillet (from an EASY-BAKE OVEN set)… three locks of toeyy blonde hair, each in their own beveled glass case… and an old fashioned skeleton key with a red satin ribbon tied on it.
He reached in and lovingly touched each item before taking the key in his great paw and turning to me… not as a 6’4″ giant, but as a bended knee fellow warrior, scarred from the battles ~ but grinning from the Victory.
“I think it’s time to pass this on to you, Jonathan.” he said as he handed it to me.
“Your brave father needed no key. He plowed through any wall that stood between him and his duty… or his Joy at loving you and your mamma with all his heart and soul and strength. He was that rare a man.” He patted my head as he spoke those last words, and then turned, and shut that Treasure’d drawer without locking it (never did again…) before he went on.
“My little Sarah found that key in the dirt as we were clearing ground for our first, and last home together as a family.”
I immediately started to hand it back to him.
“No, no. You keep it kid. I put it in that drawer with the things my children had prized most highly, along with the only thing of themselves that I could hold… most dearly. And I put it there, with that sash from my wife’s favorite party dress, as a reminder.”
He was looking at me now with clear, burning eyes. Not spooky… but intense. And he let the silence build between us until I could stand it no longer.
“Of what, Mr. Cooper?”
Instantly, his eyes took on a different glow, just as alive… but different.
“As a reminder, Jonathan, that after a time, Sorrow stops being a cleansing gift ~ and becomes a prison, a prison hand-built by the grieved. I put myself in a grand, dark dungeon for years kid. Built it uncommonly strong, with seamless-fit stone and deep set doors of anchor steel. That key had always been a part of my secret Treasure, in that drawer. But it was your father that saw it for what it really was… and set me free.”
I was mesmerized already, but when he said this about my father, my chin quivered, just a bit… and then lifted in great pride.
“The day I showed it to him, your dad said ‘Wow, you are one lucky man!’, and Marine or not, if he hadn’t said it with such honest wonder… I would’a decked him.”
…it would have been a helluva fight, was all I was thinking.
That old man knew exactly what was running through my young mind. “Yes, it would have been.” he said with a faint smile. Then he continued.
“Your father was the only other person to ever touch that key. I remember he reached in reverently, picked it up by the sash, and said… ‘Don’t you see, Mr. Cooper, your little girl, and God, gave you the key to get out.’. And I swear kid, in that instant, every door in my prison flew open, and I walked out for the first time in years… A FREE MAN.”
Then he bent down to eye level with me as he said “Now it’s yours. You may have enough of your daddy in you to never need it. But it’s there for you, nonetheless.” And then as he turned to open the overhead door, he added with a smile “And so am I.”
…and so he was.
CM Sackett (copyright 2011)