(In honor of Memorial Day, I am sharing another of my veteran’s short stories. This story, like “The Day I Forgot To Hate,” is fictitious, as are the characters, but it is based loosely on some of my own experiences as a Marine during World War II.)
It should have been another ordinary day at the Cole farm, but the conventional pattern of activity was abruptly altered when the letter arrived. In effect, a new day was born and Cynthia was making the most of it with an explosive brand of excitement that seemed especially reserved for such an occasion.
Ben, her husband, suddenly found himself being recklessly danced around the simple but spacious kitchen. He did not resist.
“Just think,” Cynthia gleefully exclaimed. “Just think!” Isn’t it wonderful? It’s…it’s unbelievable!’
She released her encircling grasp around Ben’s waist, raised to tiptoe and kissed his tanned cheek. Any exhilaration he might have possessed was not outwardly conspicuous and his distant, empty gaze momentarily puzzled Cynthia.
“Honey, cheer up. Don’t you understand what this means? Our problems are over. The farm! … Imagine! … the farm! We can’t lose it now! We’ll have enough to pay it off. And you can buy the new tractor and put up the white fence, even round the whole front pasture. And I can have the new refrigerator, and the sewing machine, and…”
She stopped in mid-sentence; she was bewildered, for Ben seemed strangely unimpressed. Cautiously, as if afraid she had possibly made a mistake, Cynthia hurried to the kitchen table, retrieved the letter and began to read quietly, almost inaudibly: “I regret deeply that I must inform you of this tragedy, for I am sure Charles Romano was a special type of friend. As the court-appointed attorney to carry out the provisions of his will, it gives me a certain amount of pleasure, however, to advise that you have been named heir to all personal cash and securities in the estate. This will amount to approximately fifty-thousand dollars. I would like to set up an appointed with you to fill out the paperwork as soon as possible. I am suggesting that we meet March 22, at 10:00 a. m. here at my office in Chicago (see letterhead for street address and phone number). If those arrangements are convenient for you, please let me know as soon as possible, and we can close this matter with a minimum of delay. Respectfully, James P. Axtell, Attorney-at-law.”
She looked back at Ben, and her voice carried an accent of victory. “I was right; that’s what it says. That’s exactly what it says!”
He had been silent since reading the letter and there was no comment, even now. She moved closer. “Honey, what’s wrong? Is it a sin for a service buddy to will you some money? Why…why I think it’s fine, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. And he probably didn’t have anyone else. That’s it; he probably doesn’t have a family. Honey, you did know this Charles Romano, didn’t you?”
Ben seemed frustrated. He snapped his dusty, dilapidated hat from a chair and nervously fingered the brim. “Yeah, I knew him. That’s why I ain’t gonna take the money. Now I got work to do.” He moved toward the door but Cynthia was suddenly ahead of him and backed solidly against the latch.
“Now I don’t want to hear no more about it!” he said angrily. “I ain’t takin’ the money and I ain’t goin’ to Chicago! And don’t go askin’ me any questions because you won’t understand anyhow. Now lemme out.”
“Honey, listen to me. This is a gift from Heaven. It’s our only chance to have everything we’ve worked for. Nine years we’ve done nothin’ but dream — dream and work. What we gained, we lost during the bad season, and now they’re going to take the farm. Don’t you want to at least save that?’
Her argument seemed futile and she stepped aside. “You can go if you want to, I just thought if you insisted on throwing away our last chance to hold on, I ought to know why.”
Ben was clearly disarmed. He sauntered back to the table, a picture of defeat, replaced his hat on the back rung and dropped his long frame into the crackling wicker chair. He did not want to talk about it, but he realized now that he had made a seemingly foolish decision, and Cynthia was entitled to an explanation.
The few minutes following seemed endless.
“Do you know why this Romano fella is givin’ me this money? I’ll tell you why. Because once, back on Okinawa, I saved his life. Anyway, he thought I did. I wanted him to think that. I wanted all of ‘em to think it. But I didn’t save anybody. I lied. He ain’t givin’ me the money for nothin’ – just because I’m a friend. He thinks I saved his life. Savin’ a life is worth money, but a lie ain’t worth nothin’.
He paused, grappling with his own thoughts, and Cynthia waited.
“They made me do it!” His fists were clenched so tightly the knuckles grew pale. “They made me lie, because they wouldn’t leave me alone. I wasn’t very smart and I didn’t talk very good like most of the other fellas did. From the first day they teased me about it. I didn’t drink liquor, cuss or use dirty words like most of ‘em did, and they teased me about that too. Then they even commenced teasin’ me about readin’ my Bible every night; callin’ me ‘preacher’ and pokin’ fun like that.
“I didn’t want no part of their bad habits but they wouldn’t let me in on any of the good things either because they said I was an awkward farmer and would just mess up things. I used to lay awake nights tryin’ to think up something I could do to make ‘em treat me different, but they kept right on.”
The recollection was obviously painful, and Ben became so agitated he couldn’t sit still. Slowly he paced the width of the room, hands in pockets; then paused before the window and peered intently over the west pasture, now a sickening brown from the drought.
“What about the lie?” Cynthia inquired softly. “Tell me about it, Ben. Tell me everything. It’ll help.”
“It ain’t a good story,” he continued. “It ain’t good at all, but there ain’t no use tryin’ to hide it from you anymore.
“We were on Okinawa, just behind the front line. One day I was just sittin’ there readin’ my Bible. I read it an awful lot over there, more than I ever did before. Every spare minute I got, I read some out of that Bible. Then, all of a sudden, without sayin’ anything, someone grabs it out of my hands. It was Romano. He was a sergeant then and he always liked to bull around some, especially at me.
“He said I was readin’ that stuff too much and he believed that he would keep that Book awhile so I could keep my mind on the war we was tryin’ to win. And besides, right then he said I was supposed to take a ride with him to deliver an important message to the next division post down the line.
“It aggravated me but I didn’t say much except to tell him that I didn’t care, because if he kept the Bible long enough it might do him some good. I don’t reckon it ever did though; he wasn’t the type that the Bible could get to so easy. He tucked it inside his fatigue jacket and I never saw it again.
“We were about a mile or so from where we were goin’ when all of a sudden our jeep just flew out from under us. We hit a land mine. I was just scratched and bruised up a little, but the jeep was tore up bad and Romano was layin’ out to the side of the road, knocked out cold.
“Then’s when I got the idea. I was going to be a hero right then. I didn’t want to be the kind of hero that was wrote about in the papers and got medals, but just enough hero to make the fellas think different about me and treat me right.
“I wanted to make it look real good so I exploded all of my grenades and shot up most of my ammunition. I made an awful racket so they could hear me up the line.
“Then I carried Romano in to the post and reported how we were attacked by a Jap patrol, and how Romano was knocked out right off, and how I fought them off and got him back to safety. I didn’t figure Romano knew what happened anyway, so I wasn’t worried about that.
“It worked real good. The post sent a message back to my outfit and they were waitin’ for me … all of ‘em wantin’ to pat me on the back. They sure started treatin’ me different, and for the first time I began to feel real good. I knew I had sinned, but I never did feel too bad about it because all I wanted was to be treated right. Just the same, I asked the Lord to forgive me, and I thought He did, but now I don’t know.
He buried his face in his hands as if completely exhausted. Regaining his composure, he turned to Cynthia. She was silent, but her eyes were warm with pity and understanding, and he began to feel relieved.
In an instant her arms were tight around his neck and he knew she understood.
Foreclosure proceedings were to commence within a week, and Cynthia had finally resigned herself to that fact. She had been holding on for months to her usual, unfaltering faith that something would come along to save the farm. But nothing could happen now, she decided. The miracle had come and gone.
She began the arduous task of convincing Ben that losing the farm would not be so difficult after all, but inwardly she grew increasingly afraid. He was not the same man she had always known. He seemed to dwell in a form of solitary confinement, oblivious to the usual activities that had always drawn his daily attention. His every action became laboriously mechanical, without heart and clearly without hope. The unfinished extra chores on the day the letter arrived remained untouched. Nothing seemed to matter now — nothing but sheer existence alone.
More frightening was the sudden rebellion against his characteristic faith in God. Quietly, in his usual manner; but openly, as a gesture of defiance, he began to criticize the wisdom of his Creator.
“ ‘The Lord works in wondrous ways, His miracles to perform’, that’s Scripture,” he told Cynthia, “but I don’t hardly believe it anymore. “He gave me a miracle alright, but I also got a conscience that won’t let me use it. It ain’t a just miracle, that’s what. He ain’t got no reason to torture me like He’s doin.”
Three weeks later, a long black sedan had rolled up the drive and nearly reached the circular turn in the front yard before Ben or Cynthia realized a visitor was on the premises.
Ben eased open the screen door and walked onto the porch, Cynthia following. They noticed it simultaneously: they were “foreign” license plates, and out-of-state people were not usually seen around the farm – except a few years ago an occasional “city farmer” would drive up to deal for Ben’s prize Black Angus cattle. The promising cattle program had been terminated two years ago when the sale of all breeding stock became necessary to meet payments on the farm.
Now, Ben and Cynthia stood there, surveying the stranger as he approached the porch, lugging a briefcase that seemed far out of proportion to his size. He was a small elderly man, dignified in appearance, yet his face reflected a friendly glow.
“Hi folks,” he greeted. “Just had the most wonderful drive of my life. My, what country! Beautiful I call it, beautiful!”
“Not bad,” Ben retorted, “we always liked it.”
The stranger squinted up at the softly swaying trees overhead, then scanned the valley sprawling below to his left.
“Beautiful country,” he repeated, “beautiful.”
“I’m wonderin’ if I could help you,” Ben interrupted.
“If you are Mr. Ben Cole, you certainly may. I was assuming you were since a fellow down the road told me this was the house.”
“I am Ben Cole, but if you’re lookin’ for Black Angus I ain’t had any for two years, and …”
“Whatever Black Angus is,” the stranger chuckled, “I’m sure I would enjoy it, but I’m interested in you particularly. My name is Axtell, by the way, John Axtell. I’m a lawyer.”
He spread the opened briefcase on the edge of the porch and withdrew a bulging manila folder.
“I have something here that I believe might be of interest. I mailed a letter to you about three weeks ago but I don’t suppose you received it, so I decided that I had better handle the matter personally.”
Ben moved closer.
“What did you say your name was?”
“John Axtell, A-X-T-E-L-L”
“Well, you might as well go, Mr. Axtell, I ain’t takin’ the money.”
The lawyer was stunned, but he cleverly withheld any expression of surprise.
“So you did receive the letter?” he asked simply.
“I got it.”
“Why didn’t you at least answer?”
“Because I didn’t aim to take the money three weeks ago, just like I ain’t aimin’ to take it now.”
“May I ask, why not?”
“That ain’t none of your business mister, but mainly on account of I didn’t earn it.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. Here is a service buddy grateful to you because you once were responsible for saving his life. I know of quite a few people who have been willed fortunes that did a lot less to earn them. I would say giving a man his life is quite an accomplishment.”
“I didn’t save nobody’s life, but that ain’t none of your business either. If you don’t mind, go and leave me alone.”
Cynthia tugged at his arm.
“Honey don’t be rude,” she pleaded. “You don’t have to do nothin’ you don’t want to do, but talk to him nice.”
Axtell thumbed through the folder then removed the check.
“Here is a Cashier’s Check for fifty thousand dollars, made to your order, Mr. Cole. It’s yours without strings.”
“I ain’t takin’ it,” Ben repeated vigorously, “I don’t want it.”
“Alright, if you insist, let’s get technical. You didn’t save the man’s life. So let’s say that it just happened the Bible was inside the jacket, and it just happened the Bible belonged to you.”
“The one you were always reading. Mr. Romano told me all about you and your
Bible the day I drew up his will. Now let’s get on with the technicalities and you correct me if I happen to go astray.
“According to Mr. Romano, one day on Okinawa you and he were scheduled to make a dispatch run, and when he finally located you, there you were reading the Bible again. Jokingly, he snapped the Book from you and placed it inside his jacket. Is that right?”
Ben grew apprehensive with the fear that his hoax was not the secret he had thought it to be.
He nodded. “That’s right – so far.”
“Well, just before you reached your destination, your jeep ran over a land mine. Romano didn’t remember anything after that until he regained consciousness aboard a hospital ship where he had been rushed because of a concussion. That’s where a doctor brought in the Bible. It wasn’t in a very readable condition then, a huge, jagged chunk of shrapnel had … well, damaged it. The shrapnel was from the land mine; it had cut through the entire width of the Book and was lodged tight.
“It was the doctor’s opinion that Romano would have died instantly if the Book had not been inside his jacket. I guess you could say it was one case where a Bible literally saved a man’s life.
“Now, Mr. Cole, let’s put two and two together and try to imagine how that jeep ride would have turned out if you and that Bible hadn’t been around.”
Ben stood transfixed, hardly believing what he had heard. Tears were streaming down his cheeks unabated. Although somewhat confused by the strange behavior, Axtell suddenly realized that Ben had reached a new decision.
“Just sign this receipt,” he said, offering a pen.
Ben was barely conscious of Axtell shaking his hand as he departed.
He was barely conscious of standing arm in arm with Cynthia, watching the sedan disappear behind a distant hill.
“He sure does,” Ben finally mumbled, letting out a quiet sigh.
“What?” Cynthia asked in a whisper.
“Work in wondrous ways, His miracles to perform. … He sure does.”