Preludes to War
My mother told me I was no good to go fight in this war. But she had no idea. I was the youngest of four. I had two brothers and one sister.
My mother was a very warm woman, just not to me. She loved my oldest brother and my sister, but it seemed like the younger we got, the less space she had in her heart. My father was a good man, just too close to the whiskey. When he had his nights of booze and craziness, he’d even apologize. He would take my sister to the city and buy her a new dress or shoes, even when the month’s been tight. After some time, she saw through it, of course. But he got her through childhood overlooking that. Took her not too long to cut him out of her life. That was when she got married, which was in her early twenties. My sister really started to hate Dad at that time.
I remember when she brought home her fiancé for us to meet. We were quick to realize she'd basically marry our Dad. That guy seemed O.K. at first. But he was a lazy drunk that knew how to talk. Kept talking about the novel he was writing. And how he would make it. And how he needed the liquor for inspiration. Oh well, old Bux never made it. The biggest honor he got in his life was to get beaten half to death by the three of us brothers. We did that after we found out what he was doing to our sister. Of course, he beat her up whenever he got the chance. It started right after they got married. She’d hide it, and they wouldn't come to family dinner no more.
One day my oldest brother Jimmy drove up to their place and saw her sitting out front. Jimmy told me she looked nothing like the Joylene we knew. Dark blue eye. Tears filled the wound, then were dripping out. She had become a broken being, our sister. We jumped in Dad's truck and waited up front. When we got to old Bux, he didn’t know what hit him. We gave it to him well, that I can tell. Broke a tooth out of his jaw for Joylene. I gave it to her in person. She couldn’t really appreciate it that day, but that was how she was, our Joylene. Always attached to the wrong kind of folk.
We didn’t see Joylene, and we didn’t see Bux for about one and a half years after that. It changed when Joylene fell pregnant, and that was when it started to move upward for our family for once. She’d start coming over for dinner again. Even started talking with Dad again. Of course, Bux wasn’t allowed to come over at first. But one evening, he showed up by himself and he brought a box of cigars and a bottle of rum, and he told us what a fool he had been and that we had all the right to never talk to him again and that he couldn’t look at himself in the mirror at night. But we ought to think not about him, but about their baby boy. We ought to think about family. And make peace if we saw so fit. I am not ashamed to say we let him come inside and even shook his hand. I remember that night it had been hot, and the air stood still so you could barely breathe. We shared that bottle of rum, had those cigars, and listened to the crickets sing all night. Sitting on the porch till the sun came up.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of it. I think back to that night quite a bit now. How peaceful it was to watch the sun come up with my brothers and old Bux.
Somebody would ask me why I went to war. Well, it was after Joylene lost the baby that it all went to shit. No matter what we said, we couldn’t help her. She was strong and all, but we thought too much of her. I remember her sleeping over at the house right after. She’d come to my room at night and she’d be telling me, “I miss it so much. I miss it so much! You don’t understand. This ain’t right.” I took her in my arms and kissed her hair. I don’t know why she’d come to me. She must have felt so misunderstood. And she knew I was the one who was always misunderstood. I wish she wouldn't have come to me. I wish she could have just chosen someone else. Maybe she’d still be alive. I couldn’t help her. There was nothing I could do. Because she was right. I didn’t understand.
Our mother broke down by herself after she died. Dad had been gone already, and no one knew where he was, and the war had begun three months ago. We didn’t know what to do. Tommy and I wanted to go to college. But we had no money. So all three of us talked about enlisting. Our mother kept telling us she wouldn’t let us go, that she needed us on the farm. It all had gone to shit so fast, none of us cared if we’d come back or not. We only knew we would kill. Kill somebody here and go to jail, or kill someone over there and get paid. We jumped in Dad's truck and went to enlist. All three of us did the same day. We thought we had already seen the worst humanity could produce.
We were so very wrong.
The day before the invasion they woke us up early. They told us it was time. They taught us again how to use morphine and gave out blue armbands to everyone. I asked to write my letter, but they told me there won’t be any letters until after the invasion. I looked around the room and realized some parents would never hear from their sons again.
Then I thought about Jimmy. They put him in the 31st. I was in the 22nd. At least my middle brother Tommy was with me. We stuck together and got through base camp. They were talking about the big invasion for months all over the news. We didn’t even know when it would happen until the night before. Tommy was a machine gunner. They made me a medic.
They told us the paratroopers would jump during early morning hours and we would drive inland to secure land.
It’s been nothing but training until then. The war barely seemed real either. Been nothing other than Iraq or Afghanistan. Some fighting on some Islands in Asia, some fighting in Africa. Far away. That wasn’t the big war everybody was afraid of. It wasn't direct confrontation. That wouldn’t happen, they said. So far it hasn’t been war. Paid boot camp, Tommy used to say. We got far away from home and we wouldn’t have to think about what had happened to Joylene or Dad or how we left Mom. But when they woke us up that morning, we were silent. It had become real. I mean we knew they would send us somewhere eventually. Just never expected them to send us there. Right there. Right into Russia.
We cleaned our guns, got our brieving and did some basic shooting training.
Then that day was over and we were laying in bed early. They said they would wake us up at 2 A.M. Tommy was on the bed below me. He started whispering so that only I would hear. But we both knew all the soldiers would hear.
“Jimmy’s gonna jump tonight.”
“Yeah he is.”, I said.
“He’s probably already boarding the chopper.”, Tommy said.
“Yeah. Probably.”, I said. It was silent for a moment and I felt the darkness of the room weigh over my eyelids, that felt heavy but didn’t want to close.
“You think.” Tommy started and stopped. “You think he’s gonna be O.K.?”, he whispered through the silent darkness.
“Of course he will be. He knows how to handle himself. He’s jumping with the 31st. That's special units. He should be worrying about us.”, I said.
“I am sure he is.”, Tommy said.
“We just gotta stick together tomorrow. No matter what, you hear? We stick together and stay in cover and don’t do nothing stupid. They got it all planned out, we just gotta follow the plan.”, I said.
“Yeah.”, Tommy said.
“Same with Jimmy.”, I whispered. “He’s just gotta follow the plan and it’ll be alright.”
“Yeah.”, Tommy said.
Then we were silent and didn’t say nothing. And there was nothing to say. But I knew Tommy was afraid. Because I was afraid. He was older than me, but without Jimmy with us, it felt like I was the older one. Tommy was different without Jimmy. I mean I was too.
I thought about Jimmy sitting in that chopper. Already up in the air. I remembered that feeling that night. That fear. It lamed me. And still, I’d take back that feeling for anything in the world. Because what happened next was so much worse.