by Louise Norlie
part 1 of 2
I now regret burning the brittle paper that showed who was to blame. As I write, I realize I will have no actual proof of the events I have witnessed. As midnight nears on this bleak winter night, I smell that pungent tobacco, ever stronger. I cannot remain constantly vigilant. I can keep all the lights blazing but my eyes will close, and he will come whenever I am not looking. Yet I will persevere to record what has happened, in my last grasp at the definite and real.
Due to a mild medical condition, I was the only male in my family who never went to war. My father died in the swamps of Vietnam; my grandfather, in the air over Germany. My great-uncles, Bob and Will — two bachelors who raised me like fathers after my mother died — were in World War II, on the Pacific front. They had enlisted together, and by coincidence, even fought side by side for several months in 1944.
When my son decided to join the military, I was pleased that our family tradition was continuing, although it had skipped a generation.
History has been my passion since I was a boy. I have never been ashamed to say I live in the past. I believe history is the greatest story to learn, because it is true. Like many boys, I came to love war the most; I even became a professor of military history at a small college. Yet there is so much mystery, so much shrouded in unrecoverable time.
The touchable, tangible remnants of history have been of particular interest to me. Starting with a modest childhood collection of Civil War bullets, I came to make a substantial profit in trading uniforms, flags, guns, swords, and more on e-Bay. I could judge their value as well as anyone on Antiques Roadshow.
To possess any of these objects thrilled me. I have held a bullet that whizzed over the battlefield of Gettysburg; I have pointed a rifle that had aimed above the muddy trenches of France. Dealing in these items — buying and selling these murderous instruments from the past — fetched me a small fortune. I made thousands of dollars. That is how I so easily recognized the uniform of Sergeant George Malvern.
All my life I longed to pore over my uncles’ collection of genuine wartime memorabilia, which was kept in a rusted chest in the cellar. My uncles possessively controlled the key that opened it. They would occasionally agree to retrieve a few items in an attempt to appease my curiosity, but because of a faulty memory or for some other, unknown reason, they repeatedly presented me with the same mementos.
I was always under the impression that the chest held much more that I was never shown. As a boy, I contemplated stealing the key and conducting my own private examination of the collection. The opportunity did not arise, and I never looked inside the chest until this year.
For what I did not accomplish in real life I compensated in patriotism. I encouraged my great-uncles never to miss a parade. Each year, as I watched Uncle Bob and Uncle Will ride through the streets in an old Jeep on Memorial Day, I grew sentimental, fancying that this would be the very last time I would see them honored. I wanted to record their experiences in the military before they took these memories to their graves, but they ignored my frequent encouragement to discuss them with me. They were from a more reserved generation.
Now I feel they may have been right: some things are better left forgotten. The most I could ever persuade them to express about war were some general remarks about the popular attitude when they were young, ridiculing the cynical detachment of later generations.
“People didn’t think twice about going to war in our day,” Bob would say.
“There was no arguing, protesting, or other such nonsense. You just went!” Will would exclaim. After this proclamation, I always felt they were at the verge of opening their memories to me, but inevitably an impenetrable silence would affect them simultaneously, like the descent of a paralyzing fog. They would stare into the distance with a peculiar expression.
On our last Fourth of July together. I was in the yard, cleaning the grill after our typical American barbeque. Distant booms from evening fireworks echoed beyond the trees. The flashing sparks lit up a sky shadowed by smoke hanging limply in the air. Nearby, our neighbors detonated shrieking firecrackers in the streets. Despite the din, the covert mumblings of my two elderly uncles caught my attention.
“He’s waiting for me,” Will murmured in a deep tone, “I could swear to you, Bob, I saw him at Larry Miller’s wake. As we were leaving, I saw him in the back row staring at me!”
“You’re imagining things. I can’t believe you’re still thinking about that after all these years. There’s no reason to feel guilty. You have to remember, as I tell you every time you bring this up, it was not our fault! We had no choice. It was either him or us. Everyone agreed, and we made the decision together. All of us could not be wrong.”
“I’ve never felt right about myself since then, and nothing you can say will change that. We’re the last ones left, Bob, now that Larry is gone. I feel that we two are left to carry all the guilt.”
What hidden secret from the past was this? I was captivated and strained to listen, but they said no more. I never let them know what I had heard, although my attention to their every word was henceforth heightened. In September, Will passed away suddenly by a heart attack. I was the one who found him collapsed on the cellar stairs. And it was at his funeral that I first saw Sergeant Malvern.
I strode beside Uncle Bob in the somber procession behind the casket as we left the ceremony. Despite the distraction of my grief, I noticed a beefy, thick-set man standing in the back of the room. It was obvious that he was trained in the military: he had that distinct rigid posture and stiff bearing.
What was most remarkable was that he was wearing what appeared to be a genuine World War II Army uniform, or else a perfect replica of one. I was intrigued; I wished to ask this man about his clothing, which interested me from a collector’s standpoint.
I thought at the time that he might be an eccentric relative I had never met, or perhaps it was the strange whim of another history buff to attend veterans’ funerals in genuine military garb. Who was this man? I turned to Bob to question him, and my words were stopped in my mouth by his stunned appearance and chalky pallor. He was as pale as his coffined brother.
I should have probed Bob’s memory while I had the chance, for within a month, he perished from a stroke. His death was not as instantaneous as Will’s. He spent days in the hospital struggling to speak and move, his eyes filled with anguish. I tried in vain to communicate with him. That long week I saw mortality personified, not in its statuesque rest, but in its futile struggle for life, any life rather than the oblivion of the grave.
My two foster fathers left me in quick succession, and for me, it seemed that an entire generation had gone with them. Whether they like it or not, people represent their generation. Tempered by their personality and memory, the collective experience of their time exists within them. In spite of all we do to preserve history, we cannot sustain its living essence.
I vigilantly watched for the appearance of the stranger during Bob’s wake and funeral. At the time, I was curious, not afraid, but he was nowhere in sight at the public ceremonies.. I lingered long at the graveyard after Bob’s casket, covered with flowers and bows, was lowered into the earth. I stood in quiet contemplation until I noticed a shadow moving out of the corner of my eye. I raised my eyes, and spotted the military man in the distance on a rolling slope of the cemetery, still clad in the same uniform. He was just far enough away for the features of his face to be indiscernible.
I called out, and started toward him. My shoes crunched on the dead leaves. He turned in retreat, making no noise as he stepped. I was appalled by what I saw. The back of his uniform was punctured by several small dark stains that spread like spilt liquid as he ran. The man veered to the left, behind a tree. I followed, and rapidly darted my glance in every direction, but he had utterly vanished. In his wake was a peculiar odor of tobacco. I was left standing aimlessly in the chilly autumn mist.
It was then apparent to me that I had seen a ghost. I was personally delighted. I had for so long touched the material, physical remains of history. Now a spirit of the past had appeared before me in human form. I felt honored to have been chosen to see him. I assumed it must have been my deep appreciation of history which entitled me to this privilege.
This spirit knew that I would recognize his uniform. But why did he run from me? Do all ghosts tantalize us only to defy our capture and understanding? Why can we never reach them? Most of all, I wondered what he was trying to tell me by showing his back riddled with bullet wounds.
I was the only heir of the two bachelor brothers. Now at long last, I had the full legal right to explore their war relics. It took me days to find the key to the chest. Bob had taped the old skeleton key underneath a drawer. Was he trying to hide it as if I, an educated adult, were a destructively groping child?
Copyright © 2006 by Louise Norlie