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The Burden of The Gift
They rolled him towards the gym while muttering amongst themselves. He had been wondering what was going on since that morning when he was being watched intently by all of his students. Today was his seventy-third birthday and he knew that they had planned some elaborate prank or party to thank him for his many years of educational services. The three teenagers gripped the handles of his wheelchair and told him exactly where they were going as if he were some ignorant toddler who was incapable of knowledge. He hated being treated this way. He may be feebler than when he was a major in Korea, but he had a strong will for independence at heart that he could never tame.
As they neared the large double door s of the physical education room he remembered the many years he had taught students of all ages, abilities, and characters. He loved every day he worked with them. They served as his troop until they moved on to the high school. He taught them strength and perseverance and in return they gave him their respect and fear, a feeling that made him happier than when he was in command of four platoons and over two hundred soldiers. His beloved pupils rolled him past the doors and into the gym where all of the children whose lives he played a part in stood before him and shouted, “Happy Birthday, Mr. Carson!”
The room was decorated with various colored streamers strung about clumsily as if put up five minutes before the present moment. Balloons with sayings such as Happy B-Day floated around the large ceiling, out of the reach of people, but still blown about by the huge air-conditioning unit. Everything was bright and there was an air of joy in every guest at the celebration. He rolled around the wide area and mingled with his many companions, while they sang praises of a nostalgic tune and stood in awe of the lively old man who stood before them, now seventy-three years old.
He was still circling the crowds when they broke out into a chorus of “Happy Birthday To You!” At the end of which they pulled out their noisemakers and the commotion grew louder still as he wheeled into the center of the room where his enormous cake lay waiting to be extinguished. He felt the heat of the seventy-three small striped candles flicker about his face while he stared down on the candy sprinkles and icing letters. He filled his lungs and exhaled, extinguishing all seventy-three tiny fires in one breath. They divided it into more slices then he had ever seen before in his life and passed them into the hungry group.
After ten minutes of cake and soda, they decided it was time for presents. On the far side of the gym lay the gigantic tower of bows and wrapping paper. They reached for a decorated box from the bottom with which they handed to their old teacher and major. He could hardly wait to open the box, but controlling himself, he first read the thin blue card tied to the red trimmed bow. It read:
I hope you remember me and our times together. We made it through thick, thin, and everything in between. I believe you’ll enjoy this piece of memory I found after you left the force. Wear it and remember what we fought for.
Your Old Friend, John
Tom’s eyes began to tear up and his hands shook as he tore apart the wrapping paper to reveal the cardboard box underneath it. He pried it open with a bit of hardship, for his feeble hands were weak. When he had opened it, he reached inside, past the Styrofoam packing peanuts, and produced from the large container a deep green army helmet.
He ran his fingers over the durable material and felt every dent he knew. Each one a different story behind it, each one a reason to appreciate freedom. Instantly the smiling faces before him became a sea of enemies and terrified American soldiers. The scene before him transformed into a battleground; the streamers were the barbed wire of no man’s land and the balloons were grenades soaring through the hazy air. Tables became barriers and the party became war.
The air was no longer filled with joy, but with blood and dust. Tremors danced in his body, but he could not let his men see the fear on his face. They were young, and if they knew how scared their major was, they would lose the little hope they desperately needed to hold on to. He trudged cautiously through the mud toward his men. Each was only about twenty years old and fresh to the field. They huddled against the edge of the barrier in a group that could easily be bombed. He screamed at the top of his lungs to them, telling them move, and they did without a second’s hesitation.
Now, he had to figure out how they would make it through the night. His men were fragile, but they had spirit and a strong will to live. He guided them past the racing bullets and into the bunker where further instruction would be given. He sat them down in the cold metallic room and they discussed what course of action to pursue. These men did not try to conceal their emotions, but instead, began to allow them to swell inside them until fear oozed from every pore on their faces. He saw their innocence, and he would not let their lives be taken from them when they had so far to go.
He took their weapons and walked out of the safe area after giving them the instruction to remain there till he returned, and if he didn’t within thirty minutes, they were to load up and give them hell. He left them with the deepest and utmost respect for their leader, this brave man, and this true hero. He returned within the correct increment of time and when they left the bunker they had no fear and no regrets. He had given them hope and the courage to continue. He trailed them after three seconds of recuperation, but he had rested too long, his edge was gone, his sensory was weakening, and his confidence too high. He wasn’t quite as careful and with one wrong step past the barricade he put his foot down…on a land mine.
He began to move uncontrollably. Back at the party he was having a heart attack. His veins were swelling and he clutched his chest. The people watched as their inspiration crashed before their eyes. It was as if they finally saw him for the fragile man he was past his strong attitude and lion heart. They watched him scream out in pain and try to stand on breaking legs. He collapsed on the floor where he began to yell at them as if they were under attack and being defeated. Mortified, the crowd raced out and called an ambulance, which arrived as quickly as it could, though, medicine and help was futile.
They all rushed into their cars and raced after the ambulance, which had its siren on full blast. They found themselves waiting for him as he was taken into the E.R. with the taste of cake still in their mouths. It was hard enough to comprehend that this had happened in a matter of minutes, but it was even harder to think that this man, this great man, could be broken by the mere remembrance of war. War, something they all knew was terrible, but had just accepted as a fact of life. This fact of life had haunted someone they held dearest to their hearts and had brought him to this point. Now, they were enlightened. They realized the pain and the sacrifice of soldiers. They would never fully comprehend the blood chilling images, the memories that brought such pain, or the life threatening hunger for vengeance that could never be quenched, but if they had gained even a slightly more heightened sense of the sacrifices for freedom was, Mr. Carson would be proud.
However, Mr. Carson never knew of their lust for unity and peace, for that was the last time he set weary eyes on his beloved colleagues. They did not mourn his death as much as they would have liked to because they knew he would have wanted them to continue and persevere as he had always taught them to. They held a small memorial at the veteran’s museum where he was buried where he belonged, alongside his men. Each of the people who attended his birthday went to the service and each left a single rose tied with a yellow ribbon, except for one. On his grave, his friend John left a different token of respect. It was the humble hat that gave him hope and strength to make it through the darkest days and the coldest nights. he shed but a single tear as he left, one tear for the one and only person he knew, who was a true hero. They each lit a candle when they returned home, and each thanked God for life, liberty, and above all else, the freedom they had been given.