They Who Serve

My father lives in a wonderful retirement community where the lawns are all neatly mowed, the roses pruned, and the trees trimmed every fall.  When I come by each week Dad usually has three or four requests from his friends lined up for me: move a couch, carry some heavy boxes upstairs, assemble some furniture, or set up a new TV or computer.

Em and Sparks, a happy but odd couple live in the building across the courtyard in a large condo. I have moved their TV, and re-arranged their living room furniture a couple of time over the past few years. I have also hung Sparks's models from the ceiling in his study. This week Dad asked that I would help Sparks with something heavy in his closet.

"Age is finally catching up with Sparks," My father told me. "He's almost ninety and has had a couple accidents getting around the house."

"Anything serious?"

"Em is thinking of moving Sparks to an extended care facility, if these problems continue. Accidents at his age are pretty damn serious. See what you think when you go over there."

I walked across the courtyard and asked myself the question I always asked before I rang their doorbell. Why does Em, who is very sprightly and spirited sixty- eight-year-old widow, shack up with man over twenty years her senior?

I rang the doorbell, while anticipating Sparks's normal greeting. I was not disappointed.

"Is that NMI's kid?" a gravelly voice asked. My Dad was in the service and had no middle initial in his name. Sparks heard this story once and I was thereafter known as NMI's kid, even with my own graying mustache and salt and pepper hair. Em answered the door, her usual cheerfulness clouded with serious dark eyes and a thin smile.

Em grabbed my arm and hurriedly whispered in that deep Southern lilt, "We must talk first, Cal. I'll tell Sparks he needs to finish up the ailerons on that ME 109, before you move anything." Em guided Sparks into his study, got him settled in at his work bench, and closed the door as she left the room. 

She's a very confident and attractive woman in her summer dress and sandals, I thought. Em sat down across the couch from me, tucked her dress under her legs and looked right into my eyes.

"What did your Dad say, before you came over?"

"Just that Sparks had a couple of accidents and you were thinking of moving him to that new residential care facility on Montego Drive. It's a very fine place from what I hear."

The silence grew between us. Decisions were being weighed, and finally a few tears flowed from the corner of her eyes. She dabbed at her cheeks and said in that sweet drawl, "Cal, I'm pretty sure I'll be asking a favor for Sparks.  He's been all wound up since he asked for you to come over." Em lowered her voice and leaned toward me, "After twenty- three years, even I don't know what's up there."

Em took a small couch pillow, wrapped both arms around it, and hugged it to her body. "You know, all these years, Sparks and I have only been.... friends."  Her eyes bored into mine.

"I never tell Sparks about my lovers, but I‘m sure he knows.  I met Sparks at an officer's club reception, six months after my husband was killed at Khe Sahn.  He was just about to retire from the Army after 27 years as a non- commissioned officer. He came over to my table and said some very kind words about Jeff, my late husband, and told me to get on with my life, as that's what most servicemen would want for their families.  I never forget that kindness. But, I didn't re-marry, so no children, and then I went on to a very successful career in commercial real estate."

"Twenty years later I ran into Sparks at a Las Vegas casino.  He was frankly, a mess. Broke, drinking, and washing dishes just to pay for a cheap room off the Strip. I bought him dinner and saw hope in his smile. He was still that Command Sergeant Major with a chest full of ribbons and medals." Em paused, and stared into the distance. "I realized at that moment my anger at Jeff's death had finally disappeared. And I saw that I had never really given anything back to my country or those vets like Sparks. I know that sounds a bit trite, but that's the truth."

"The next morning at breakfast I told Sparks that I just bought a new condo, with 4 bedrooms and he could have two of them, for a third of his monthly retirement pay, plus we'd split the grocery bill.  I would pay for everything else.  The only rule was there was to be no more drinking, and he would have to make me laugh once a day. So Cal, you know the whole story. Sparks and I have had a good home.  He had made hundreds of models that have been donated as Christmas gifts throughout the county, and I...uh," tears welled up in her eyes, "I really have given back to at least one vet. I'm going to have to put Sparks in the residential care facility next month, I just cannot take a chance with him any more." Em was quiet for a minute, then continued, "Those that come home, Cal, our protectors, our guardians, this countries finest, they all grow old and die. It just doesn't seem right."

We sat for while and I finally said, "Shall we find out what's inside door number two?"

Em laughed and led me to the hall closet. I opened the stepladder stored in the closet and climbed up. On the top shelf, underneath a gray army blanket was long mahogany box, the deep red wood still gleaming, beautifully preserved under an oil finish.  I carried the thirty -five pound box to the dining room table while Em got Sparks from his study.

The rich red box had a single long brass piano hinge in the back and two large brass fasteners in the front. Sparks slowly shuffled up to the box, his eyes glistening, and with his discolored and veined hands slightly trembling, he opened the fasteners. Inside was a mint M1 Garand, lying on its side. Beneath the barrel of the rifle, were two factory fresh Colt  M1911's , standing upright in a mahogany bracket.

Sparks reached out and touched the receiver. He smiled and them wiped his eyes with the white handkerchief that appeared from his pocket.

"So, kid, " Sparks said, " These are just like the ones we used against the Germans, but a whole lot cleaner."  I noticed a blue folder in the corner of the case. As I reached for it, Sparks grabbed it and haltingly said, "I don't want..Melissa to hear this."

"Sparks, you never call me Melissa!" Em held his free hand. "Did you ever consider that I might want to hear what happened? You don't talk about the war, yet it's always here with us. I know your war, any war, is not clean and tidy, not like the movies. Have Cal read it... please...we may not have too many more.... well, you know what I'm saying."

I opened the folder and there was single sheet of yellowing paper - a hand written letter.

July 17, 1945.

Staff Sergeant Robert "Sparky" McKenna,

During Third Army's operation to relieve Bastogne, my jeep skidded off the road in middle of a snowstorm. Your tank destroyer came upon my driver, my adjunct, and I. Your men set up a perimeter to protect us from patrolling German's.  The ensuing firefight was hard and lethal, finally ending in hand-to-hand combat in the dark freezing night. Your seven brave soldiers killed 13 Germans, while only losing two men. Our lives and the operational plans and maps I was carrying were saved. It was foolish of me to carry such vital information in such a cavalier manner. I remember vividly your fluent cursing at the loss of your personal weapons. I hope this personal gift from me will make up for their loss.

G. S. Patton

Em sat down on the couch with Sparks, whose eyes radiated a deep pride at the memories. "Cal," Em asked, "Would you be willing to take Sparks up to that shooting range near Mariposa, next week? That is if Sparks want to fire them, they are collectors items."

Sparks sat quietly for a minute, smiled and looked directly at me.  "Cal, I‘ve heard enough gunfire in my life, but when I move on, could you arrange to fire three eight- round clips of .30-06 Springfield from that lovely Garand before the bugler plays Taps?"

Memorial Day honors all serviceman, and the families and friends who remember them, for giving their "last full measure of devotion."
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