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The Summer after my seventh grade year, I went to visit my grandparents for a couple of weeks. At first I protested, clearly stating that summer is a time to spend with your friends, not a time to visit relatives that I never saw in the first place. My parents would hear none of it however, and the second week in July I was taken (against my will) to my grandparents to spend the remaining weeks of my freedom.
A tearful goodbye preluded my leaving. We were at the train station, waiting. Men and women bustled around the San Francisco station, busy with their own lives, never knowing that this was my first instance traveling alone, and that I was a bit scared. Nor did they care that I did not even know what my grandfather looked like, save for and old picture of him with me on his knee from when I was little. I was worried that I may miss him and be whisked away, doomed to travel forever on a lonely piece of track. Such things are understandable when you are twelve. I was very anxious, and had read every advertisement that I could see from my spot on a wooden bench. Finally the noon train arrived. My mother made sure to find an attendant and tell her of my situation. The attendant assured that she would look out for me and that I would be fine. Thus, with a final flourish of kisses and goodbyes, I was on my way to Kansas.
The Hours began to pass by, and gradually the scenery changed, going from hilly to a flat open expanse, farm houses dotting the countryside. I passed the time by either reading from my vast collection of comics that I had lugged on board, or by sleeping; allowing the gentle rocking of the train to lull me to sleep. Three days past like this with no problems. On the morning of the third day the same attendant whom my mother talked to awoke me from my slumber. She told me that it was time to get off.
Ten minutes later I was stumbling out into the suffocating heat of the day, hauling out my suitcase and box full of comics. The first thing I noticed is that I was in the middle of nowhere. Besides the big two story wooden train station, there was no other building in sight. The second thing I noticed was the man. He had a worn, weather beaten face and eyes that glowed with vibrant life. His mouth was framed by smile lines, and wispy white hair covered his head. He looked like the older version of the picture I now held. He got up off of the wooden bench and looked at me.
“Daniel?” I nodded, “My, my son. You look jus’ like you’re momma.” He said, smiling. “Come on, let’s head on home. It’s too hot to be standin’ out here like this. Besides, Sarah’s got us a good home cooked meal goin’ and I’m willin’ to bet that you are ready for a good meal.”
A good meal sure sounded good to me, and I already had grown weary of the sun beating down. So I happily climbed into his truck and down the road we headed.
I remember that the fields of wheat seemed to stretch forever. There was no direct horizon line; everything seemed to just fade into a golden haze long in the distance. Dust kicked out from under the tires of my granddads beaten Model T. Weary lines strung on old telephone poles chased us, looking down on me every time I looked out of the window. Everything hung limp in the heat. It was all so unlike the rocky coastline of my home.
My grandparents lived in a spacious two story farmhouse, painted white, and had a big wrap around porch where they would have company in the evenings. The land they owned was mostly huge fields of wheat, with the occasional field of grass for the heads of cattle that they owned. Towards the back of the property towered a long but shallow set of hardwoods, massive oaks and sweet gum trees dominated, and many a clear morning you could see deer moving between the trunks.
As I learned in the next few days, my grandparents were a very likable people. They often had friends come over for dinner, and afterwards head off to the porch to discuss the latest gossip. They gave me free reign over all of the land and any of their books. The one thing they forbade me to do was to go into their room without their explicit permission.
So I spent the first week of my time there in utter happiness. I enjoyed getting away from the hustle and bustle of city life, and I had previously not known what it was like to roam and explore. I would visit the cows, and run though the fields, pausing to stop and stare at the grain as it moved like a vast ocean over the plain. I grew to love a glass of cold lemonade as I sat on the porch, watching the sun go down. Days such as those have been engrained in my mind.
After a while though, it began to get tiring. I had explored every part of the property. I even found the old stone chimney that my grandma swore was from the first pioneers. I had imagined every scenario, fought out every glorious battle. During this time, I began to wonder what was in my grandparents’ room that was so secretive. I devised ways to sneak in; I considered every possible plan of attack, every get-away route. I began to wait, looking for the perfect opportunity to get in and get out unnoticed. Finally opportunity knocked.
I was sitting on my bed reading one of my grandfather’s novels With Every Turn, when he knocked.
“Come in,” I said.
“Hey sport, Just wanted to tell ya’ that Sarah’s gone to town for a couple of hours, and I’m jus’ gonna be in the yard. Jus’ lettin’ ya know if ya need anything.”
“Yes sir,” I stated calmly even though inside I was about to fall to pieces. Here was my chance at last!
“Alright son,” He smiled closing the door behind him.
I sat trembling until I heard the front door close. Then I hurried downstairs to their bedroom. Then, as I was about to enter, I stopped myself. I felt guilty for betraying their trust, breaking the one boundary that they had set for me. In fact, if they hadn’t given me that rule, I probably would have never attempted to enter their bedroom. But being twelve, and with my brain racked with the glory of comics, I resigned myself to break the rules in the sake of adventure.
I opened the door, then turned and shut it again. I spun around and found, to my utter disappointment, that it was a very plain looking bedroom. A big, four poster bed positioned along the back wall took up most of the space. There was a closet along the right wall, and to my left were a set of drawers. An antique wardrobe stood on the wall right beside me. An old painting of antebellum countryside was hung above the drawers. Other than that, the room was bare. Having taken in my surroundings, I began my search. What I was looking for I did not know, but my way of looking at it was that there had to be a reason it was off limits.
I started my search by checking all of the usual places. I looked under the mattress, behind the painting, and in the wardrobe. Nothing, except in the wardrobe there were some dress shirts. Now I was thoroughly stumped. In all books I had read if there was something to be found it would be in a place such as that. I spied the closet, and made after it.
I rifled through the racks of shirts and dresses, seeing nothing of interest. I was about to give up when I saw the old chest on the top shelf. Obviously it had not been touched in a while, but one could still see the beautiful, intricate, oriental carvings along the top. Trembling, I took it down and set it on the floor. Here is what I had been searching for at last! I blew the dust off of the top. There was no lock, and I quietly lifted the latch, opened it and leaped backwards, fearing some alarm would sound in the house.
There was no treasure, no lasers nor alien life forms toppled out of the chest. But what I did see intrigued me further. The first thing that caught my eye was the medals. These were military, I told myself proudly, for I had seen ones like it presented to the boys on T.V. for their service in Khe Sanh. I recognized a couple, and what I saw astounded me. I pulled out two Purple Hearts, a Victory Medal, and a host of others I could not name. In my excitement I almost passed over the most important one. The Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award in the nation, was just thrown in there with all of the others; the owner giving no significance to it at all. I gasped as I fondled the cool metal, the beautiful simplicity that represented my Grandfather’s heroism.
What had he done? I wondered, and why had he never talked about it? As I pondered these things, I rifled through what was still in the chest. I pulled out old pictures of a much younger Grandfather, younger even than the picture I had. In all of his pictures, even in ones where he was smiling, one could see the fear and solemnness in the backs of his eyes. Most of the pictures were of him and some comrades standing in front of various tanks and other artillery. Some of the earlier pictures (they all had dates on the back) showed him standing alone, proudly defiant in a crisp, clean infantry uniform. Beneath the pictures were newspaper clippings, highlighted haphazardly. The stories were all about glorious battles of the Philippines, and stories of McArthur, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I remember one article in particular. Its focus was on an award to be presented to my Grandfather for heroic actions during the War. Although it went into great detail pertaining to the prestige of the award, it did not even mention why he was being awarded. This only fueled my curiosity. The only thing now left in the chest was an old uniform. It was standard issue infantry, with an old 6th infantry patch on the sleeve.
Presently I heard the door open. I swiftly looked up, and there to my upmost dread, stood my grandfather. He took one look at me, sitting in shame amongst the one thing he did not want me to find, glared, and walked out of the room. He hadn’t said a word. After he left, an overwhelming sense of guilt overtook me. I suddenly realized that this was no game. There would be no superhero ending, no mulligan I could call. Also I knew that there was no adventure, that life was not a comic book. I had taken a comely old man’s hospitality and hurled it back in his face. I had broken my grandfather’s one rule, betrayed his trust, and hurt him. I was devastated. Before I picked up the memories that the owner had so cleverly hidden from himself, I cried. I sat on the floor and wept, for my sake and my grandfather’s.
Things were never the same after that fateful day. Neither one of us spoke about it, in fact I can’t remember speaking much at all in those last weeks. To me my grandfather looked a thousand times older. He walked with a bit of a limp that I had not noticed before, and on his face he bore a look of infinite sadness. He had been defeated, both by the world and by me, for I had forced him to confront painful memories that he had held at bay for so many years. He never let me know it though, for around me he got a look of a proud but weak defiance, such as one might see on a great Cherokee Chief after the Trail of Tears. My grandmother never seemed to notice the silent feuds we had at the dinner table, or the amount of time I started spending in my room. The rest of my stay was miserable.
Finally the day came for me to head back to the city. It was a long drive back to the train station, and I was surprised when he offered to drive me there. The first fifteen minutes were ridden in uncomfortable silence, then he began to speak.
“I remember it was an awful rainy night. We were holed down outside Lao Sinh, a little village we knew was chock full of Japs. The orders had come from high up that we were to move in at midnight, and take it by storm. So about eleven everybody starts movin’ out, keeping our heads down on account of snipers. My squad was in charge of the southeast quarter. We had crept within feet of the first houses when the order came for the attack. We came on the houses with a great shout, kicking open doors and throwing flash grenades. The houses were empty, which puzzled us. Suddenly, shots began to erupt toward our north and mortars rained down from our flank. It was a trap! I screamed for my men to take cover in a house, while me and two men, Rio, a dead eye rifleman, and Tex, my radio guy, cleared the remaining two houses. In the first house there was nothing, but when Tex kicked over in the second door shots erupted from inside. Tex leaped out of the doorframe, but it was too late. Bullets had riddled his body and it was all I could do to keep from crying right there as I screamed for a medic, while knowing none would come. Tex died in my arms. Furiously, I grabbed a grenade and chunked it into the hut. The explosion rocked the ground underneath me, and Rio and I, sweeping the area, quickly ran into the hut. A boy, no older than you, was defiantly pointing a rifle at me even as the life ran out of his body. I really did start crying then. It was the most awful sight I ever beheld during my time in war. We dragged Tex’s body inside and waited. The waiting was awful, wondering if the next round would hit you, if the next breath you took would be your last. Pretty soon after the mortars stopped and they started coming at us in droves. We fought, killed, to survive. We fought for hours, killing one after another. Some of them weren’t even clothed. Naked and carrying spears, and still we had to kill. Rio and I decided that we had to get out of there. So we fell back, rejoining the rest of the squad. I was determined not to leave Tex. With my men behind me, we battled through the mud clogged streets back to that hut. Sometime or another I was hit in the leg, but I didn’t feel it. We grabbed Tex and fought our way back to the center of town. Only half of my squad made it back. Out of the 200 men that made our way in, only 43 got out. That kid’s eyes still haunt me. You are the only one I ever told about what really happened that night, and the only one to ever see the inside of that box.”
He was crying, big silent tears running away from his eyes. I did not know what to say, but at last the words did come. We talked and talked until the train arrived. When it did arrive, he shook my hand, looked me in the eye like a man, and said goodbye. We had a special bond now, all former transgressions forgiven and forgotten. I stepped on the train, turned and cast one last look at the old train station with the even older man standing in front of it. I never would travel back to Kansas.
Two more things are worth telling in this story. The first is that I never again picked up a comic book. I hated them for the false sense of adventure and heroism they portrayed. I felt much older than my peers in that respect, in fact many respects. I had lost a sense of innocence that boys my age usually had a firm grip on. I had witnessed true heroism, and listening to him talk so bitterly of war cast all feelings of gloriousness that I previously held in high regard. The second thing is that not long after my trip, my grandfather’s health began to fail. He never recovered. At his funeral they spoke of his valor in combat, and of his various awards. Never once did they tell a solitary story of a personal experience he had, only said he never talked about it. Some weeks after his funeral we went to the reading of his will. Only one thing was addressed to me, “the certain black chest of ornate carving shall go, unopened, to Daniel. I love you son.”