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His old, wrinkled hand held the pen firmly, ready to write a message in the card, but his mind slipped back to that day sixty-one years ago.
Twenty-three year old Private Asterman sat on an U.S. Army hospital bed in Brisbane, Australia. He had a tan, boyish, freckled face and a rather boyish mind. His Marine uniform was a bit different than the rest in that the left pant leg had to be trimmed to the knee, because under the knee there was nothing. Ledge spent his days staring at the stump, hotly resenting the Jap who fired that mortar, reading magazines, listening to the radio, cursing the Jap who fired the mortar and trying to keep his mind off the goddamn stump.
One day he caught sight of a nurse coming towards him, a young, dark-haired nurse with metal-gray eyes that sent a strange chill down his spine.
“Private Lyle Asterman?” she said, her voice quiet and gentle.
“Yes ma’am. You can call me Ledge, though.”
“The doctor says that you’ll be starting to walk again today.” She nodded towards the crutches leaning against the wall beside his bed.
He found her to be pretty, but sad-looking. Those gray eyes really put gloom in her face, and reminded him of an ominous Pacific storm. “What’s your name, Nurse?”
“Sunny!” he laughed.
Sunny shot him a frown. “What?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, blushing. “You just look—you just don’t look like a Sunny.”
She looked away.
Ledge suppressed the urge to slap himself. “So,” he said, clearing his throat. “Did the doc say anything else about my leg? Is he gonna give me a fake one?”
“Prosthetics are an option, yes.”
“Is it like the real thing? Will I be able to, you know, run and swim and do the things I used to?”
“I don’t know, Private,” she said quietly. “I’ve never lost a limb, so I don’t know.”
“Well, you’re not missing out on anything,” Ledge sighed as he used his arms to push himself to the edge of the bed. Sunny held the crutches with one hand, and with the other reached out to help Ledge balance himself as he stood up on one foot. He wobbled for a second. Sunny steadied him and placed the crutches under his arms.
“I got it. Thanks,” he said, blushing again.
It felt odd but easy to walk with crutches. He and Sunny walked out of the recovery ward and into the hospital garden.
Ledge took a short break when they arrived. The garden was lovely, and reminded him of home, of the familiar scene of his mother tending the flowers in the backyard.
For several moments the only sounds were the chirping of birds, some distant chatter, and Bing Cosby singing “Swinging on a Star” on the radio. Ledge didn’t know why, but suddenly he felt the rage coming back; there he was, standing in a garden of flowers with a leg gone while his fellow Marines were fighting their asses off out on Peleliu, going through hell, and he couldn’t even be there to back them up, to help them out.
“Goddamn Japs,” Ledge grumbled, his face growing hot as he thought about the mortar. “Those rats. Can’t believe it. They got me before I got them. Man. I was gonna really bust ‘em up for what they did to us. I didn’t even get a chance at ‘em!”
Sunny said nothing, and seemed slightly annoyed. “Did you make any friends in the Marines?”
“Barely. I was a replacement. They just shipped me in. I was barely in before I was back out again. Didn’t really know anyone.”
“Can you believe it? All that tough-as-hell training and I barely saw any combat! That’s nothing to be proud of! My brother’s over fighting in Europe. Airborne. He’ll be coming out with medals and hero stories and I’ll be coming out with this—this stump. God! Why? I was a baseball star, too – could’ve been in the Major League if I wanted, I was that great—”
“You know what, Private?!” Sunny snapped. “My brother could have been something great, too, if only he had the chance! I’m sure my brother would have given both his legs to be able to live, I’m sure of it! I’d give both my own legs to have him back, but I can’t, can I? Some things are just out of our control and we can sit here and wish and want and complain and think about what could have been, but we can’t change anything, can we!?”
A few birds flew away. A hospital worker poked her head out of the second floor window.
“I’m sorry,” Sunny whispered. “I didn’t mean to—”
“No, no, don’t apologize—”
“I just… I’m so…” Her eyes watered.
Ledge shifted uncomfortably. “Hey, I—”
Sunny’s face reddened as she tried holding her emotions inside, but it escaped anyway in the form of hiccups and salty tears.
“Please, please don’t cry! God, I—I’m sorry, it’s my fault—”
“No, it isn’t. It’s Hitler’s fault, that fascist pig!”
They stared at each other, and suddenly broke out laughing. Upon hearing Sunny’s laugh – twinkling and sweet – he felt a wonderful yet strange sense of relief.
“I’m a horrible nurse,” she said, sniffling. “I ought to be making you feel better.”
“No! No....” He took her hand and held it, and in his heart bloomed a desire to make her smile and laugh again.
Every day he looked forward to the walks in the garden. He wanted to see her again. It was something different, being around a girl like Sunny, and he felt different when he was with her.
There were some days, though, when Sunny would come with red and puffy eyes. On such days Ledge would try, try all he could to cheer her up, and Sunny would try, try to smile. Ledge couldn’t understand her at times. Once he asked, “What regiment was your brother?” And she froze up and bit her lip and looked away with wet eyes, holding in some kind of powerful anger, keeping it from exploding.
One day in the garden she gently touched the petals of the red geraniums, and said softly, “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Geraniums? Yeah, my mother loves ‘em.”
She smiled. “Life is so beautiful, Ledge. Doesn’t it amaze you, how the flowers are alive? And you and I, the way our hearts beat… It’s such a miracle, isn’t it?”
On days like that, their walk in the garden would end in laughter and cheerful conversation about everything from John Wayne films to after-war fantasies.
On the days when the sky was gray, or when it rained, or when the hospital was dreary and not bustling, Ledge’s anger at the Japs would return, and he stared at his stump and daydreamed about being in the Major League.
Sunny saw his far-off look and said brightly, “You walk fast now! You’ll be running in no time.”
It was if she had read his mind. He looked up and grinned. “Running! I’ll be hopping for the rest of my life.” He sighed. “I keep thinking about how my parents are going to react. My poor mother… I wonder if she’ll faint.”
“You didn’t tell your parents?”
Ledge was quiet. “Why let them know early? Might as well keep the disappointment to a minimum.”
“Ledge! You can’t keep thinking that way about yourself! Your injury hasn’t made you incapable. It hasn’t ruined you. You have to have more faith in yourself.”
“I’m trying,” he said sadly.
“You know, I wanted to join the Marines after Pearl Harbor, but my father swore he’d disown me if I did it. Then I said I wanted to be a nurse, and he still wouldn’t allow me, but I fought him so hard. I was seventeen, so I needed his consent. Finally I turned eighteen, and the first chance I got, I ran away to join the Army Nurse Corps.” She looked a bit sad. “Both my mother and father were against me. They said Donnie’s being in the Marines was enough.”
“And you ran away anyway?”
“It sounds awful, I know, but… I wanted so badly to help with the war. It was a dream of mine. To do something for the cause. Nothing in the world would have stopped me.”
“Wow,” Ledge said, gazing at her with admiration. “You’re a tough gal.”
“Tough! Stubborn is more like it.”
“Determined,” he said. “That’s a better word for you.”
He often thought about what Sunny had told him, about her dream, her passion, and how nothing would have stopped her from pursuing her goal. He thought of her smile when she touched the geraniums and told him how life was a miracle. He felt different inside. The rage… the rage was still there somewhere, but it was weaker; slowly it was being replaced with something else.
After about a week of garden walks, Ledge decided to take Sunny out on a date in town. He hadn’t been in town yet, and he wanted a break from the routine hospital life. He was sure Sunny wanted a break, too.
She looked gorgeous in a navy blue, polka-dotted dress. He hadn’t seen her in anything except the white uniform. Hell, he thought, gazing at her as they sat in the café. She’d look beautiful in a potato sack.
There were other Marines, injured Marines, hanging out in the café as well. Some had casts and head wraps. None had a missing leg.
As they waited for the food to be ready, Ledge noticed her watching the Marines with a sad look in her eyes. He couldn’t stop himself from saying, “Your brother—Donnie, right?”
She stiffened and nodded.
“I’ve been praying for him.”
“Thank you.” She paused. “We all lose,” she said. “Even if America wins this war, we still lose… soldiers like you lose limbs, many lose their innocence. Mothers lose sons. Friends lose friends.” She closed her eyes for several moments, and then opened them again. “But in the end… In the end I suppose it all makes life more valuable, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Ledge, tilting his head. “I never thought of it that way.”
Later, after they ate, and the record played Bing Cosby’s “I’ll Get By,” Ledge nudged Sunny and said, “Hey, you think I can still dance?”
One of the Marines overheard this remark and laughed loudly, but not in a derogatory way.
Sunny grinned. “Sure you can!”
“Come on, let’s try.”
They stood up. At first it was clumsy, trying to dance with crutches, but there was no embarrassment; they goofed off, being silly, and some of the Marines cheered them on playfully.
Sunny laughed her twinkling laugh, and all of a sudden, in that moment and embrace, as his gaze bridged with hers, Ledge felt a heaven-like peace in his heart. He closed his eyes and kissed her, feeling safe and sound, feeling like he was standing on both feet. I’ll get by, he thought as the music played.
Sunny rested her head on his shoulder.
You’ll get by, too, he thought, pressing his lips in her hair.
Afterwards, they walked through town, admiring the sights and the harbor*.
Neither of them wanted to return to the hospital. There were too many stars in the sky and in their eyes, so instead they went to a hotel and spent the night together. In his heart Ledge laughed at himself for thinking that no girl would ever love a cripple. What did love have to do with a missing leg? Dreams, hope, happiness… No injury could take those things away.
Life is a miracle, he thought.
When he finally fell asleep, Ledge had a pleasant dream. He was in a church, getting married to Sunny Roe. Nothing in the world could ruin this beautiful moment. There she stood, beautiful in white, angel-like, with her gray eyes that sent a chill down his spine…
But then he church walls and its stained glass all crumbled away, and he was back in the hell of Peleliu. Running hard. The earth trembled. It rained rocks, bullets, mortars. He felt a scorching hot blast; he felt it tear off his leg; he heard himself retching out screams for the medic; he felt the hot stickiness of the blood, the pain ripping through his body, the nonstop brain-rattling machine gun fire.
The medic appeared. He didn’t know the medic personally, only by the Red Cross on his sleeve. He had dragged Ledge out of the enemy fire. Ledge saw his face clearly.
It’s alright, we’ll getcha out, buddy. We’ll getcha out—
That face was all he saw. As the world spun out of control and the blood gushed out of him, he locked his eyes with the Doc’s metal-gray ones.
In that hellish blur, one thing was clear.
Then, just like it happened in reality, the strong arms that were dragging him to safety suddenly dropped. The face disappeared, blown away to bits…
Ledge awoke with a sharp gasp. His eyelids flew open, and staring right back at him was a pair of metal-gray eyes, wide and worried.
“Ledge!” She touched his face. “It’s alright; you’re safe, it was only a nightmare.”
Ledge stared at the ceiling, still panting heavily. Thoughts raced through his mind. It couldn’t be true. It couldn’t. It wasn’t. His traumatized mind was playing with him.
But those eyes… he remembered… it happened…
When his breathing calmed, he mustered up the courage to look back at her, back at those eyes. He swallowed. “Tell me about Donnie.”
Sunny was silent. “I suppose…” She took a deep breath. “I suppose it would be better to talk about it… about him… rather than keep silent…”
Ledge held her hand.
“Donnie,” she began with hesitance, “enlisted in the Marines the day after Pearl Harbor. I remember the day he announced it to us. My mother didn’t want him to go, and neither did my father… but he wanted to be part of it all. He was smart, so very smart. He loved science – biology, especially…” She pinched at the bed sheets. “He wanted to be a doctor one day.”
Ledge held his breath.
“So he trained to become a medic.” She closed her eyes. “He was… an extraordinary young man. I’m sure he saved many lives.”
“Yeah,” Ledge whispered shakily. “I’m sure he did.”
He left her a note. He did not tell her when he’d been discharged.
Dear Sunny, he’d written, the tears wetting the paper. I’m so sorry.
He died saving me.
All the way to the train station, he felt weak; he felt a desire to turn back, but he forced himself to go. At the train station he saw other discharged soldiers, clean and in uniform, ready to leave for home. They were happy. Ledge didn’t want to leave, but he couldn’t face her. He couldn’t bear the idea of going back, of Sunny looking at his face and thinking of her brother’s and wondering to herself, Why did my brother die for this guy? It was too much; too much for her heart, too much for his. He watched people board the train.
“You getting on, Marine?” a man asked. But Ledge didn’t hear him.
I’m not worthy.
“You alright there, son?”
Ledge looked up.
“You getting on? Train’s about to leave.”
He did not feel ready to go. He felt as if he were standing at the edge of a cliff, at the door of a C-47 without a parachute. He shook his head slowly. The train departed and went its way, but Ledge remained still with his luggage and crutch, alone beside the tracks, head hanging low.
A gentle hand rested on his shoulder. Just by the touch, he knew, and he turned.
Those gray eyes.
He shook his head, and with trembling lips, he asked her, “Will I ever be worth it?”
Sunny reached out and held his face in her gentle hands. “That’s why he saved you, Ledge,” she said. “He believed you were worth it.” She smiled. “You should believe it, too.”
Sixty-one years later, Ledge Asterman placed a bouquet of red geraniums and a birthday card against the gray stone that read: “In Loving Memory of Sunny Roe Asterman.” He laid his wrinkled hand in the soft grass. She was gone, happily reunited with her brother, Medic Donnie Roe. Two gray-eyed angels – angels who had touched him in profound ways. One day Ledge would see them again.
Now, looking back at his life and all of the joys and accomplishments that nourished it and made it bloom, like a beautiful garden, he smiled.
Dear Sunny, he’d written.
I do believe it.