I walk up and watch the parade pounding down the street. There are American flags flying from houses, being carried by marchers, and waved by people in the crowd. I stand there as if the world is on mute – not hearing the people cheering or strains of music coming from the high school marching band.
The fire trucks start rolling down the street, gleaming in the sunshine. Ahead of the trucks the firefighters proudly march in their stiff dress uniforms with shiny gold buttons. The pageantry weakens my knees a bit as I still recall 9-11, the motivation for my going over there to get payback for my brother Bobby dying in the South Tower.
Someone comes running up to me and grabs my arm. Suddenly sound turns on again, and I hear him saying, “Why aren’t you marching with the VFW, Mark?”
I stare at Billy Watkins, whom I have known forever. We were in Boy Scouts together and in the same class all the way through high school. We played on the same baseball and soccer teams, and then went separate ways in college. After 9-11 I went off to war and he came back home, unable to find a job in a terrible economy.
“I’m just not able to walk like that yet.”
He looks down at my legs as if searching for a prosthetic limb. No one realizes the wounds I suffered, though none were physical, but they are unrelentingly painful just the same. No one likes to talk about it with me, and Billy just may have even forgotten I had time away to get my head straight.
I struggle through the crowd and make my way to the park. I can hear distant strains of “Stars and Stripes.” The song makes no sense to me anymore. Neither do the Pledge of Allegiance, “The Star Spangled Banner,” or “God Bless America.” What is called patriotic seems obscene especially coming from people who have never been where I have been and seen what I have seen.
I sit there for a long time, thinking about the guys who never came home. They were my friends, allegiances that were forged in the heat of the desert and the fire of battle. I see their faces now, smiling and young and healthy. I recall them eating and laughing and listening to their music, their headphones white lines in the black of night.
Once I am certain the parade is over, I venture back through the streets to my house. It used to be my grandfather’s house. He served in Korea, and there were many stories told about that war that I heard as a kid. My Dad served in Vietnam, and he felt as if all the praise that his father experienced never came his way.
I walk in and see Mom staring at pictures of Dad, Bobby, grandpa, and her father, Papa Bill, who died in Korea. She is wearing a red, white, and blue dress with flat white shoes. I walk over and put my hand on her shoulder.
“How was the parade?”
I stare at Dad’s picture in his Navy uniform and say, “Oh, it was great, Mom.”
“Are you going up to the party?”
Every year after the parade there is a celebration held at the local VFW hall. Pitchers of beer will flow and hot dogs and hamburgers will be devoured. Many of the vets will wear their ill-fitting uniforms, sweaty from the long march. As a boy I spent every Memorial Day there, watching these men and my father and uncles and listening to them talk about war. It all seemed glorious then; it always seemed glorious, until I got over to a war of my own.
“Maybe later, Mom.”
She grabs my hand and squeezes it. “Your uncles will be there and Jenny and the baby.”
Jenny is my brother Jeff’s wife. He is stationed over in Korea now – a police action that really was a war that never ended. He’s just miles from a madman with nuclear weapons. No wonder he insisted Jenny and little Jeffie stay here.
“I’ll have to see how I feel.”
Mom stands and looks at me with watery blue eyes. She feared losing Dad in Vietnam and instead lost him in a different war against cancer. No matter what the battle, the losses are the hardest thing to fathom or accept.
“Remember all the years you went there with Daddy, and Papa, and Uncle Billy and Uncle Jeff? All the parades we watched and the music and the food?”
“Yeah, I do remember it all, Mom. Vividly.” I didn’t feel like seeing my father’s brothers, who still ask the same questions even though I have been home for almost two years. I don’t hold it against them; they are of a different generation and maybe talking it out helped them understand or even was a way to forget.
I go into the kitchen and grab a cold beer from the refrigerator. I turn and see Mom put on her large white hat and sunglasses. She picks up her small white pocketbook and turns to me, “I can bring some food back. I know you used to love those hot dogs.”
“Nothing for me, Mom.” She turns and goes out the door into the afternoon sunshine.
I sip the beer, walk over to the wall, and stare at my father’s picture. I wonder why he would survive the insanity of war only to come home and die from a disease that caused him such suffering. I touch Bobby’s picture and feel my hand shaking. I pull my hand away, finish the beer, and go get another one. This is how I want to spend this day – sitting alone in the quiet house, staring at pictures, remembering what I wish I could forget.
Photo credits: huffington post, yournaperville.com, the buscherproject.com[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B000P0J09C]