With a sun so hot it bleached the blue from the sky, the heat lay on west Texas like an unwanted blanket. It was August, close to the end of a summer that would go down in the books. The hottest day, the longest dry spell, the highest temperature in downtown Odessa. On and on, a litany of heat that someone, sometime would pull out and say, “and on this day in 2018 …”
“Damn weathermen,” Casey spat and kicked the caliche with a boot. “Sum-bitch said it would maybe storm.” He kicked backward with the heel of his right boot, and again, and once more. There was nary a mark left on that hardened ground by that hard heel of his boot. This time of year the ground was like concrete.
“Even worse this year. All the storms go north or south. Some kind of current, ninja or ninny I think they call it,” he mumbled to himself.
He looked to the east, to the caprock shimmering and wavering in the heat on the distant horizon. To the north and south, all he saw was heat rising. To the west, nothing but a great roaring dust devil. “Damn weathermen.”
“Hey there, Mr. Bugs,” he said to the jackrabbit he could see hunkered down by the tumbleweed to his left. “Don’t think you need to worry ‘bout rattlers. No self-respecting snake would be out in this heat.”
Casey walked on, steel blue eyes shaded by his straw cowboy hat. His boots crunched and cracked on the hard-baked caliche. Eyes wrinkled from years spent squinting into a west Texas sky, he continued on his way, just an old man out for a stroll.
“Ain’t it wonderful, Mr. Bugs. In west Texas, you can be the tallest and the smallest, and both at the same time. Grandpa Leander used to tell me that and then that jolly old man laughed with that wonderful laugh he had. Lost him sixty years ago back in June. I miss that old man.”
A smile creased Casey’s face; a pleasant smile, full of life and laughter. “Hell, I am that old man,” and his grin broadened.
He removed his hat and revealed a pale forehead, with silver wisps of hair plastered to the temples from rapidly evaporating sweat. He yanked his kerchief from his hip pocket, wiped his brow, wiped the brim of his hat, bent down and wiped a spot on his left boot. He stood, wiped his forehead again leaving a smudge of dust from his boot, plopped his hat back on his head, wadded up the kerchief, and returned it to his hip pocket.
He squinted his eyes against the glare of that August sun and held a right hand up to block what the brim of his hat didn’t. Up ahead was what he sought. He passed the gnarled and bent mesquite tree, and the ground fell away for a spell. Casey walked down the slope, and to the old boundary of a cracked and dried-up pond. He stood silent, remembering friends, family, and fun times around this watering hole.
Ahead was the same mesquite log that had been there for, “nigh onto ta seventy years, I guess,” Casey said to Mr. Bugs. He stepped over it and sat.
Then he got an itch and a twitch and stood, walked back to the mesquite while unbuttoning his fly to do the mandatory business all the boys had to do. Watering the mesquite, they had called it. Today, it took a while. “Hell, I can remember when I could knock the bark off that damn tree.” He settled for a wee stream and a dribble. A shake, only one, and buttoned up. The mandatory business done, he walked back to the log and sat back down.
Shadows stretched, and the sun began its journey downward. A hawk took to the pale skies and screamed from on high. Mr. Bugs skittered away into other tumbleweeds. Casey sat, remembering a pond and blue water reflecting white puffy clouds. A dust devil interrupted his reverie. It dashed across the pond, whirled around Casey and lifted his hat from his head. Casey made a grab, grumbled, rose and chased his sombrero. Catching it near the mesquite, he plopped it back on his head and strode down the slope and into the middle of the dried up pond.
He turned to leave when a metallic glint caught his eye. The dust devil had cleared the middle of the pond of loose sand, and something bright and shiny winked at him. Casey walked over and scuffed the ground with his boots, and kicked up something gold and blue. He picked it up, knocked the dirt off and looked in wonder at a Medal of Honor.
“How,” he said, as he wandered back to the log. He sat, tilted his hat back, scratched his forehead, and pondered the enigma he held in his hand.
Clouds and shadows passed and the sun dropped towards the horizon. He heard boots crunching dry ground behind him. He noticed the shadows were far longer than he expected.
“Pop? You ok? It’s on to dark and we got worried.”
“Sorry, Bobbie. Got sidetracked. Recognize this?” He tossed the medal to his son. Bobbie fumbled it a bit but caught it, and examined it.
“Not engraved. Know whose it is?”
“Yeah. Used my phone to run the serial number through the database. It’s Chucks.”
“Chuck? Uncle Chuck?”
“How did his medal get in the pond?”
“That is what distracted me. When did this pond last have water in it?”
“I dunno. Five, mebbe six years. Old man Hawkins rerouted his irrigation and this pond wasn’t needed for runoff anymore.”
“Thought so. ‘Bout the time Chuck visited me that last time.” Casey looked around. “It’s late, Dottie’s going to be pissed at me.” He lurched as he leaned forward and winced. “Damn it. Gimme a hand, will ya, Bob.”
The younger man took his father’s hand and steadied him as the old man rose from the log. “Knee,” Bob asked.
“Yeah. Sat too long with my butt too low.” He walked a step or two, shook his right knee out a bit, then started up the slope from the log with a diminishing limp.
“There ain’t nothing you could do to get my wife mad at you.”
“Well, it’s rude …”
Bob interrupted. “I know. It’s rude to not be on time if someone took the time to make you a meal. You and Mom drilled that into me and my siblings.” The two of them walked into an evening not much cooler than the afternoon had been. The sun-soaked caliche radiated all that heat back into the evening.
Dinner was ready when they arrived. The conversation around dinner retold tales of horney toad hunting by Bobbie Jr. The trip to town with Momma was told by Susan.
“If you folks don’t mind, I’ll be on the patio.” As he walked from the table, Casey heard Bob explain things to Dottie. He sat in his comfortable lawn chair, rammed a hand down his Levi’s and pulled that medal out of the depths of the pocket. His fingers traced the surface.
“We were planning to churn up some ice cream,” he heard Dottie call from the door. “Too hot to be baking anything.”
“That sounds good. Bring it on out.”
Everyone scurried about getting the wooden bucket, dropping the bags of ice on the patio concrete, finding the salt, and then at last Dottie bringing out the canister and setting it down in the wooden bucket. He let Bob supervise the churning. A layer of ice. Liberal rock salt. More ice. More salt. Then the affixing of the crank and handle, plastic bags, newspaper, and a blanket on top, followed by a young butt to hold it all in place.
Bob turned the churn towards himself and began cranking, tickling his daughter a time or two to make her giggle. Then there was silence. Susan, the butt on the churn, started to speak but Bob hushed her, “Shush. Not right now baby. Pop, can you tell us about the medal?”
Casey sat silent, fingering the object in question. His grandson walked to him and climbed up on a knee, and just looked at the gold pentagon in his grandfather’s hand. “Sure,” Casey said and seemed to set straighter with a bit of resolve.
“I can’t say for sure how it got in the pond but the time fits. Remember the last time Chuck came to visit me?”
Heads nodded around the circle, Bob cranked the ice cream, and a coyote yipped from the fields.
“He and I made several trips down to the pond and mostly just did what we did as kids. Sit and spit, and skip rocks across the pond. And talked. We talked a lot about our military life, and Ted’s. Ted had been the first to die. Didn’t even know what hit him. Lost a lot of good men that day in that valley.” He looked at his grandson, and said, “his grave is one you set flags on.”
“Theodore P. Brookes, 1st Lieutenant, 2nd Troop, 1st of the Third Calvary,” Bobbie Jr recited.
“That’s right,” Casey said. “You want me to turn that a while?”
“Nope,” Bob replied, “your job is to tell us about Uncle Chuck.”
“Guess we never have talked much about it.”
“Pop, it’s the only thing you never have talked about. Think maybe it’s time?”
Silence lay on the patio for a bit. The rusty churn creaked, the canister rushed and swished through icy water, and another coyote yip-yip-yipped, followed by the squeal of a rabbit. Life, Casey thought. You live, and then you die. He continued his story.
“I remember the last time Chuck was here. He wandered off to the pond by himself. We hadn’t lost Martha yet, and she told me she had seen him wandering down that way. When I got there, he was on his knees, sobbing. I squatted down, put an arm around him. All I could hear him saying was, ‘I couldn’t save him, Casey. Half of him just wasn’t there.’”
“Damn,” Casey stopped and looked at his daughter-in-law. “Dottie, you want the kids to hear this?”
“Casey, these kids watch the news with Bobbie and me. They ask questions, we answer. We don’t hide the world from them. I think they will be alright.”
Looking at the brown eyes of his grandson, he hugged Bobbie Jr close and gently stroked the head of his granddaughter.
“I think before I got there, he had skipped this across the pond,” Casey whispered, holding up the medal. “We did not do anymore rock skippin’ till he left, and he didn’t throw it any other time.”
“But why …” Dottie started to say.
“He never wanted it. Not because he didn’t think he earned it. Hell, anybody in that valley on that day earned and deserved that medal.”
“You were there,” Bob said.
“Yup, and I wrote citations for many medals for several men in my platoon. Chuck did not want it because of who he left in that valley, not who he brought out.”
“Dottie,” Bob said, helping Susan down and removing the newspaper and blankets from the ice cream churn. “I think the cream is set. We ready to uncork this?”
Bright eager young eyes focused on the contents of the wooden bucket and churn. Bowls were passed out, and everyone received heaping helpings of cold deliciousness. Silence reigned for a few minutes as the sweetness of a summer treat was savored, enjoyed, and shared. Seconds for Bob, Bobbie, and Susan. Dottie got the paddle. Casey sat back and enjoyed his family more than the ice cream. At last, it was all hands chipping in to clean up. Bowls and churn took to the kitchen, dishwasher loaded and started.
At last, everyone returned to the patio, Casey again with his grandson on his lap. Susan sat next to her father on one side, and Dottie next to her husband on the other. Casey and Bobbie Jr sat in the comfortable chair to the left of everyone.
“You want to continue, Pop? You don’t have to, ya know,” Bob said.
“I know.” Casey pulled his kerchief out, blew his nose, and dabbed his eyes. “Sorry about that, Grandson.”
“Nope, folks I think I need to. For me, yes, and also for Chuck. He didn’t want that blasted medal,” and Casey fell silent again, finding it difficult to swallow.
“Pop, why didn’t you get that medal,” Dorothy asked. Bob squeezed her hand, not in a deprecating manner, but in a manner that said thank you for asking the question I wanted to ask.
“I told them no. I lost too many men in that valley. Went in with 45. Came back with 12.” Silence, again.
“God, I lost so many.” The kerchief again. “I didn’t think, and I still don’t, that a platoon leader that lost over half of his men deserved it. I heard battalion was putting me in for it and I flatly told them, ‘Hell, no!’ Chuck would have done the same, but he was hospitalized and out of it for nearly a month. By the time he knew what was going on, he had the award. As I told him, you can’t un-award that medal, not with honor.”
“But why didn’t he want it?” Bob said. “From what I read in his citation, more than anyone, he deserved it. He saved that pilot and many of the men in his platoon just by his leadership. One sidebar I read said his platoon went to Battalion with the nomination.”
“He didn’t want it for the one person he could not save.” Casey paused, torn about what he was about to tell them. “A lot of things have changed since those days. It was decades before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I knew in high school that Chuck and Ted had something going on.”
Dottie gulped, started to usher the kids out when she caught Bob’s eye. He was telling her no. She thought about it, sat back, and agreed with her husband. She saw Casey looking at her. “Go on Casey. Please.”
Big eyes and big ears caught the exchange going on between the adults, turned it over in their young minds as they looked at each other, and Susan said what Bob Jr was wondering. “Unca Chuck was gay.”
There, it’s out. They know Chuck, maybe knew all along, Casey thought.
“Yes, Susan, Uncle Chuck was gay.” To Bob and Dottie, he said, “Ted was the co-pilot in that chopper. The RPG that took out the chopper, cut him in half. Chuck had to leave him behind.”
Now Dottie gasped. Eyes welled with tears as she said, “Oh no.”
Casey paused for a moment as the sun dipped below the horizon and lit the western sky in ochre and gold.
“The one man he wanted to save, over all those that he did save, was the one man he could not save.”