Some things that you learn in life, you don’t soon forget. Some are things you carry with you for decades, memories that are like an accumulating set of weights, stuff you’d rather forget but can’t. Some stuff is a blessing, some stuff is a curse. Some of it is both.
To name an obvious example, combat is one of those things. I have my own combat recollections, and I’ll never forget them.
But combat, and war, spread beyond the combatants themselves and leave lasting impressions upon friends, relatives, society at large, and curious boys in the woods.
Yes, curious boys at play, forty years after the last shots were fired.
It was a pretty summer day, and one of my best friends came over to hang out in the late eighties. We talked about girls, listened to music, and generally enjoyed our summer break. We really didn’t have anything better to do, so we decided to go back in the forest behind my house and walk around some. A great deal of the forest had once been a massive open-pit coal mine, so there were a number of places to swim and rusty junk to explore. Dangerous? Probably. But you couldn’t keep us away from the woods.
My parents were pretty old-school in the regard that kids should be allowed to play- as long as we did our chores and were home by dinner time. “Helicopter parents” hadn’t been invented yet, and roughhousing, fights, and the occasional dangerous pastime, such as swimming in the old strip-pits were seen as part of growing up.
So into the woods we went, my friend and I. We walked for a while, smoked illicit cigarettes, and eventually came upon an abandoned house whose occupant had died a while back. We knew of the house, of course. It had been the run-down home of a hermit, he had died and no-one had claimed the house, the property, or its contents. We could see from a distance that few windows remained intact, and thieves and vandals had obviously been to work.
For the hell of it, we decided to take a look around. Yeah, it was technically trespassing, but we were on the coal company’s land anyway, so what would it hurt? Egging each other on, we approached the spooky old house. There was trash strewn about, and lots of broken glass as we got closer to the house. The doors had been kicked in long before we got there, we took care not to fall through the rotten boards on the porch as we went through the side, into the kitchen.
It’s hard to describe what a mess the place was. It was bad, stuff was scattered all about in a rotting layer a few feet thick. Doubtless the first thieves had been looking for the hermit’s “stash,” and who knows, maybe they had found it. As we walked through the place we noticed the inordinate amount of old liquor bottles, the hermit had been fond of his cups.
I had seen the guy around a few times before he died, all I knew of him was his nickname and reputation. And now I knew he had drank enough to kill a normal man. And who knew, maybe it had killed him, too. The place was dark, stinky, and spooky. Neither my friend or I talked. We were about to leave when we spotted an old Army trunk in the corner.
That drew my attention. I knew what an Army trunk looked like, of course. There were more veterans in my family then you could shake a stick at, and I was an avid collector of military stuff at the time. I made a beeline towards the trunk, with visions of Lugers and potato-mashers in my head.
(As an aside, such things could still be found at garage sales when I was a boy- they hadn’t really became valuable collectibles yet. Of course, you couldn’t get the grenades legally, but they were out there. When my Grandpa died, he had a whole case. My uncle gave them to the Sheriff for disposal.)
So I was pretty disappointed when I got to the trunk and I saw that it had been ransacked, too. Of course. An estate thief would want those Lugers.
There was paperwork, the remains of an Ike jacket, and some other junk. And then I saw a flash of color amongst all the junk. I reached down in the filth and picked it up.
It was a genuine Bronze Star.
A curious feeling came over me as I looked at the medal, then at my friend. I felt ashamed, and I felt bad for a no-bullshit hero who had died alone amongst the squalor and liquor bottles. No one cared enough about him to have claimed his stuff, or even to show up to sell the property. I left the medal on the trunk and we turned and got out of there.
It felt great to be back in the sunlight, and I never went back to that place again.
I didn’t forget his name, though. Later on, when the internet became a thing, I Google’d him and his story popped right up. Turns out that almost all awards for valor can be found on the internet, there are tons of people who track those things.
With interest, I read his story.
He had led a combat patrol on D-Day, and he bagged a German machine-gun nest. Talking with people who knew him later, I learned that he had fought on until the end of the war, and he was deep in Germany when the war ended. His unit liberated a small concentration camp. He had drank the bitter cup to its dregs. Returning home, he worked in the mine until the bottle got the better of him, and eventually he died, unmourned.
I may be the only person who thinks of him from time to time.
I can’t say for a hundred percent that his combat experiences led to his decline, but I can say from experience that they probably didn’t help.
Decades later, I had medals of my own. And yeah, I had some problems. Drinking seemed to be a pretty good option. It started to get out of control. After awhile, I thought of him and that sunny day in that dreadful house.
And I put away the bottle.