Web Site: www.sjberes.com
There are many forms of battle but only one form of courage. God Bless our soldiers in harm's way.
The gray-white clouds crowded together, shoulder to shoulder as if the icy sky wasn’t big enough to hold them, until they lost their individuality and melded together into a leaden layer of gray. Squeezed from the mass were tiny, fluffy ice crystals that floated gently to earth, a few of them stopping on the hand of the woman sitting on her balcony.
She brought her face close, trying to see the intricate patterns in the flakes, no two the same, she had heard. But their beauty quickly faded in the heat of her hand, changed to mere water. The same elements, just changed from unique to commonplace. Life has a way of doing that, she observed.
Before a year ago today she had been like that frosty snowflake, beautiful and unfettered; cheerleader, Prom Queen, her phone ringing off the hook, and later, in college, the deference of men to her every whim. Life is good for the beautiful people.
Then came the day on the snowy slopes when the bump had thrown her off the path and into the trees, followed by the weeks of denial, anger, self-pity and finally, with the Lord’s help, acceptance. Now, she was water. Men still looked at her, but she could read their minds; What a beauty, such a pity!
She turned and wheeled her chair into her apartment. She put the kettle on the stove and got out the makings for hot chocolate. As she waited for the water to boil, she looked around her apartment and silently thanked God for this blessing in her life.
She had not been able to do that at first. There had been feelings of blame, recrimination and thoughts of suicide, but when she had been at her lowest, Jesus had come into her life and lifted her up. Sarah Miller had been reborn into a new person, and now she couldn’t wait to begin her new life.
Sarah had qualified for this special apartment with elevator, wide doors and grab bars and was every bit as independent as she had been before her accident. She had changed her college major to Physical Therapy and now worked with people like herself and she loved it. And those she helped loved her back. Her life now had meaning that it didn’t have before.
Monday dawned clear and cold and Sarah took the elevator down to start her three block roll to the clinic where she worked. She observed, as always, that the street crews had thrown the snow up on the curbs, narrowing the sidewalk and making the journey that much more difficult, especially for the ‘physically challenged’, as she was called. Sarah wryly believed that the ‘commonsense challenged’ people that plowed the roads should be given a turn in her chair for enlightenment, along with those who illegally (and immorally) parked in handicap spaces. However, she had fashioned tire chains out of dog leashes and was able to negotiate the ice and snow with little trouble.
At the clinic door Sarah was met by eleven-year-old Billy for their morning race to therapy. She undid the rubber straps and removed her tire chains while Billy balanced his chair on its big wheels, like a unicyclist riding in place.
“Go!” Billy shouted, leaving a squeak of rubber and racing off down the hall.
Sarah pushed hard to catch up, knowing she was going to lose, but wanting to give Billy a challenge anyway. Besides, this morning she had an ace in the hole.
The walking employees knew of this activity and were careful to stay out of the halls in the ten minutes before start of work. Sarah had arranged to have Joe and Marge open the doors to a significant shortcut along the race course and as she rolled up to the door, it opened and she was flying across the weight room to where Joe was holding the other door open. Re-entering the hall, Sarah was twenty feet in front of Billy with fifty feet to go to the finish line. Even with her longer, stronger arms, Billy almost made up the difference in the end.
“You cheated!” Billy shouted in mock anger.
“I did not,” she replied, “I adapted; I overcame, just like a Marine.” She knew that the boy idolized our soldiers overseas and though he might never become one, she thought it would get her off the hook.
“You’re right,” Billy said, looking back down the hall, probably figuring out how to create a shortcut of his own. He wheeled into the room and Sarah continued down the hall to her office.
She wheeled through the doorway and up to her desk. There had been a door once, one of the kinds that open with the push of a button, but Sarah had asked that it be removed. She preferred an ‘open door’ policy and wanted to seem available at all times.
Her secretary, Marge, came in with a file folder. “You beat the little speedster this morning,” she commented cheerfully.
“Thanks to you and Joe. I have a feeling that you will be approached this afternoon about doing the same for him.”
Marge handed the folder across the desk. “A special case, sent over from the VA hospital. The Major thinks you are a miracle worker.”
“Gimmie five, then send him in.” She opened the file and began reading.
Marine Gunny Sergeant Bradley James, twenty-five years old, she read. Following was a short history of his service ending with him stepping on a land mine and losing the lower half of his right leg. Prognosis good for a prosthesis, probable return to service in non-combat role. Psych exam: Severe depression, self-isolation. Refuses to make progress. She looked back over his history. Look at the medals, even the Medal of Honor! This guy is a genuine hero!
Sarah was considering her options when the Sergeant wheeled himself in. The first thing she saw when she looked up was a pair of smoldering brown eyes in a handsome, grim face. Upon seeing her, the brown eyes widened slightly, and then quickly resumed their stoic look. She knew what he was thinking; What a Babe! She’d never look at a cripple like me!
Her answer to that look was to roll out from behind her deck so that the soldier could see her chair. His eyes widened again, but now the look was pity.
“Good morning!” She said cheerfully.
“What’s good about it?” He asked sullenly.
“Well, you’re alive aren’t you?”
“You call this living?” He asked, shifting his weight with a grimace.
Sarah resisted the urge to get into his face, point out that he could walk again, get out of the chair and have a normal life, and he did not have the right to cry about it. That was probably the track that the military had taken. It hadn’t worked. Jesus, you’re going to have to help with this one.
“It’s still good, isn’t it?”
“Name one thing good about being a cripple.”
She smiled sweetly. “You get the best parking spaces.”
In spite of himself he almost smiled back. He turned his head so she couldn’t see.
“You get to get on the plane first, you don’t have to stand in lines at Disneyland, why the advantages are endless.”
He steadied himself. “So are the disadvantages.”
“Name something you won’t be able to do, that you used to, when you learn to walk on an artificial leg?”
“Go back into combat!” He said with a triumphant look.
“If you feel the need to be shot at, become a policeman. If you feel the need to shoot at, become a hit man.”
“You can’t be a cop with a wooden leg.”
“Sure you can. I saw one on TV; he even chased down a suspect who couldn’t believe that he’d been caught by a one-legged man.”
“I’ll bet you’re just full of uplifting stories.”
“Sure! You want to hear mine? The cheerleader/prom queen who couldn’t ski for squat?”
He turned away again. “That’s not fair,” he said bitterly.
“Life isn’t fair, soldier.” She said quietly. “But if you will put your anger aside and work with me, I promise you that in two months no one will know about your injury unless you tell them. I promise you that you will do everything as before, maybe even better. If you can’t, then I’ll let you go back to your self-pity. If you can, I expect to be taken to dinner. Agreed?”
The Sergeant looked at her long and hard. “Agreed,” he said softly.
“Okay. Call me Sarah. What will I call you?”
“Gunny, I guess.”
“Gunny, I’m sending you to our medical team to be evaluated. They are the best doctors, engineers and mechanics in the business. They’ll get started on your prosthesis, and it won’t be a sawed-off tree trunk, it will be state-of-the-art. Meanwhile, I want you to come tomorrow in your dress uniform, medals and all. I have someone who wants to meet you.”
“I don’t know . . .” Gunny stammered.
“I do, Marine! You made a bargain. Are you a quitter?”
He sat a little straighter. “No, Ma’am.” He said.
“I can’t hear you.”
“Good. And spit-shine your shoe!”
This time Sarah got a smile. “Aye, Aye!” He said, giving a mock salute.
Billy was waiting for her the next morning, as usual.
“No race this morning, Billy, I have someone I want you to meet,” Sarah announced, rolling through the door.
Billy wore a look of disappointment until the military ambulance pulled up in front of the door. He watched as the soldier in the wheel chair was lowered to the ground and wheeled inside.
Sarah made the introductions. “Billy, this is Gunny Sergeant James of the U.S. Marines. You may call him ‘Gunny’ if that’s all right?” She asked, looking quizzically at Gunny.
Gunny seemed almost embarrassed but nodded, “That’s fine.”
Billy’s eyes were locked on Gunny’s ribbons and medals. “The Medal of Honor!” He said in quiet awe.
“Billy, I want you to show Gunny around, and then bring him to my office at 0830 hrs sharp.”
She watched the two roll on down the hall. Self-esteem, the first step to recovery.
Promptly at the appointed time Gunny rolled into her office and then pulled his chair up into a wheelie, the expression on his face much like a little boy in triumph. “Billy showed me that,” he said proudly. He dropped the chair back on all fours and put on his serious face. “Tell me about Billy.”
Sarah laid her paperwork down and leaned forward on her elbows. “Billy was the best skateboarder in his neighborhood. He tried one of those maneuvers where you approach some steps leading down, jump up on the hand rail and ride it down. The board slipped out from under him and he fell crosswise across the rail on his back. His spine didn’t actually break but enough vertebrae were displaced to cripple him. But he’s young and supple and our doctors have hope that physical therapy and perhaps surgery may, in time, put him back on his feet.”
“Thank God!” Gunny breathed.
“You believe in God?”
“There are no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes, and I believe it. A man in combat gets scared enough, he will call out for someone, even his mommy.”
She picked up the papers again. “Here are the results of your tests yesterday. Everything looks great and our techs will have your prosthesis in a week. Until then, there are some exercises that will help you adjust. We won’t start today because you’re in Class A’s, but from now on, its sweats, because you’re going to.” She smiled across the desk. “Dismissed!”
And sweat he did. When his new leg was fitted the real pain began but Gunny was a poster boy for the Marine ad campaign, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” He gritted his teeth and didn’t complain although Sarah could see from his face and the sweat pouring down it that it must have been excruciating. On his first day, Gunny managed eight steps before collapsing into Joe’s arms. The techs removed the prosthesis for minor adjustments and Sarah took him to the cafeteria where the cooks had baked Gunny a special cake to commemorate his accomplishment. As it was being cut and served, Sarah saw a tense young woman enter the room and look nervously around. Before Sarah could offer help, the woman spotted Gunny and she rushed over, her face showing only tension, not happiness. Warning bells went off in Sarah’s head but there was nothing she could do but watch and pray.
“Brad,” the young woman said, “I couldn’t take it any longer, I had to know how you were.”
“Beth,” Gunny said, almost choking on the words. “We agreed to wait until I was better, until I came home.”
“But it’s been so long, what happened to you?” Beth’s voice was on the edge of hysteria.
Sarah had seen this type of reaction before and she prayed that Gunny would keep his chair under the table, hiding his legs. But he didn’t. He rolled out and turned his chair to face her.
Beth’s eyes were riveted on the missing leg. “Oh, my God!” she trembled. “Oh, my God!”
“It’s not as bad as it seems, Beth, they’ve made me a prosthesis and soon I’ll be up as good as new!” Gunny pleaded.
Beth burst out crying and brought her hands to her face. He reached for her but she backed away. “Oh, my God, I can’t take this!” She pulled a ring from her left hand and dropped it on the floor, backing away and crying, her eyes still riveted on his missing leg. “I can’t do this,” she cried and ran from the room.
“Beth!” Gunny yelled at her retreating back. “Beth!”
The room fell silent as a tomb and Sarah knew, in that instant, that Gunny had lost Beth, and that she had lost Gunny. She reached out to touch him but Gunny rolled away, his face a mask of anger and despair. She looked down at the engagement ring, a beautiful thing now hollow and alone. Just like Gunny.
Gunny missed the next two days and Sarah let it go, letting him have time to grieve. But on the third day she called his CO. If she didn’t get him back soon, he might wallow in his self pity for the rest of his life.
The next day Gunny was waiting in her office when she arrived after her race with Billy. He was silent and sullen, even worse than the first time they had met.
“Billy misses you,” she offered, hoping his interest in the boy would make a small difference.
Gunny stared at her. “I’ve been ordered to report to you, here I am.”
Sarah stared back into his unrelenting face. There was nothing she could say that would change his mind, no story she could tell that would reach into his heart and make him want to try again. She had no idea how to salvage this man, until a thought suddenly came to her mind. “Follow me,” she said tersely, and wheeled past him and down the hall.
The door to the room had a tag that simply read, “Therapy”. Sarah pushed it open and rolled inside beckoning Gunny to follow her into the darkness. In front of them was a wall of glass. This was an observation room. On the other side of the glass Billy was lying on a table. They rolled up to the window.
The boy had straps around his head and under his chin at one end and a harness around his legs at the other. It looked like what it was; a modern version of a medieval torture device.
“We call it ‘The Rack,’” Sarah said softly. “The object is to stretch Billy’s spine in the hope that we can reposition it like it was. Billy was given the choice when he got here of surgery, with two weeks recuperation, or this for maybe months. He asked only one question: could he be a Marine with the surgery? No, because his spine would be partially fused and the military wouldn’t accept that. Neither would Billy.”
“Is it painful?” Gunny asked in a choked voice.
“We can’t block any pain because we’re working to regenerate Billy’s nervous system.” Sarah paused. “He’s never cried out.”
Racking sobs tore from Gunny, and Sarah backed out of the room and closed the door. It’s in Your hands now, Lord.
Two hours passed and Gunny didn’t return. Sarah went looking for him and found him in another therapy room, the one with the parallel bars to practice walking. A set of bars had been adjusted to Billy’s armpits like a pair of crutches and he hung there, his feet touching the floor. Joe stood behind him to catch the boy should he collapse.
Gunny sat leaning forward in his chair beside Billy. “Alright, soldier!” Gunny growled in his best Drill Sergeant voice. “You’re going to learn to march! Left foot first. Forward, March! Left, right, left, right, pick up that foot, troop, left . . .” Gunny continued his gruff litany and Billy concentrated all of his being on his left sneaker. Sweat broke out on his forehead as he focused on the rhythm of Gunny’s cadence. All eyes were on that scuffed sneaker. “Left, right . . .”
Billy’s left knee appeared to bend slightly and Sarah held her breath, but not her tears. There, as plain as day, the left sneaker moved an inch! No one said a word; there was just Gunny’s voice, “Left, right . . .” Another inch.
“Alright, troop, right foot!” Gunny broke into an old marching song. “Around her neck she wore a yellow ribbon; she wore it in the springtime and in the month of May . . .”
Billy’s right leg trembled as he shifted his weight to his left. A smile as big as all outdoors broke through his sweat. The right sneaker moved.
In all, Billy took ten ‘steps’ of maybe a foot in distance before he collapsed in Joe’s arms. Gunny raised his arms and Billy was placed on his lap. The two hugged each other and cried, two soldiers who had gone through hell together.
Billy sat up and grinned. “Now, it’s my turn.”
“Yes, sir!” Two salutes.
Now it was Gunny’s turn on the bars. Billy sat next to him and said, in the lowest voice he could muster, “Alright, soldier, now you’re going to march! Left, right . . .”
And march Gunny did. Oh, he held his weight on his arms, but he did make it to the end of the bars.
Sarah sat aside and cried for her two soldiers.
There was no turning back. As the days passed, Gunny and Billy graduated to crutches and then they competed to see who would throw away the crutches first. As it turned out it was Billy, although Sarah believed Gunny held to one crutch just to give the boy the victory. At the end of the agreed upon two months, Gunny stood straight and tall before her desk. She could only tell he wore a prosthesis because of the slightly unnatural way it swung. No one else would be apt to notice.
“I’ve been given two weeks leave, starting immediately,” He advised. “But I couldn’t leave without thanking you from the bottom of my heart for all of your work, even though I thought you were the lowest form of life on earth for using Billy to get to me. Looking back, I can see that you were right, and I’ll never be able to repay you for what you did for me.”
Sarah rolled around her desk and offered her hand. To her surprise, instead of shaking it, Gunny kissed it.
“I’ll keep in touch,” he winked, then turned and was gone.
Sarah sat quietly, unsure of her feelings. The Lord had worked a great victory and she should have been ecstatic, but there was an emptiness somehow. There had never been anything between them; at least she hadn’t thought so. Nothing had ever been said or intimated. But there had been the promise of dinner that Gunny had obviously forgotten. It was no big deal, just a therapy goal, and he probably had his thoughts on getting home and settling things with Beth.
Farewell, my Soldier, and although you cannot do what you love, may you love what you do.
Two weeks later Sarah was at her desk when a man entered and delivered a dozen roses. The card, written in a firm, masculine hand, read “I’ll call on you at 1000 hrs. Gunny”
Her heart raced as she opened the box and inhaled the delicate fragrance. Be careful, heart, he’s just being nice, there’s still Beth. He can walk now, what would he want with me?
Promptly at 10am Gunny marched into her office and presented himself in front of her desk.
“Ma’am, Gunny Sergeant James requests your presence at dinner Friday night at 1900 hrs.”
“You remembered,” Sarah smiled.
Gunny relaxed. “I never forgot. There were just some things I had to take care of first.”
“How’s Beth?” Let’s get it over with.
“Beth? Alright, I guess. She got married as soon as she left me here.”
“I’m sorry,” Sarah lied.
“I’m not. It was good to find out before I married her.”
“So, what are your plans now?”
“We can discuss that over dinner. How’s Billy doing? Can I see him?”
“Billy’s fine, back to normal, asks for you all the time. I’ll make arrangements for you to see him at the home.
“I never told you, did I? Billy’s parents were killed by a drunk driver when he was five. He’s been living at the Livingston Boy’s Ranch out in the county.”
Gunny’s face darkened. “Can you make it for this afternoon?”
“Sure. Let me draw you a map.”
When she was through he took the piece of paper. “Friday, then?”
“Aye, aye, sir” She said with a smile and a mock salute.
Sarah left work early to go shopping. Always busy with her work, she rarely socialized so she really had nothing for a dinner date and she didn’t want to embarrass Gunny beyond being in a wheelchair. She agonized over three outfits for two hours before making her pick, and then made an appointment at the hairdressers. For the rest of the week she was giddy and unable to concentrate on her work. She repeatedly cautioned herself that it was only a date, payback for her work, but she couldn’t help herself.
On the appointed night at the appointed time Sarah was sitting by the door waiting for the bell to ring. She had a sudden thought and returned to her bedroom to add one final accessory. She had just made it back when the doorbell rang.
She opened her door to a resplendently dressed Marine Gunny Sergeant who looked like a recruiting poster.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he stammered. “This dress uniform is all I have.” Her hand went to the place Gunny was staring, the yellow ribbon around her neck. “You are absolutely gorgeous,” he whispered, not trusting his voice.
“So are you.” He just stared at her. “Shouldn’t we be going?”
“Oh, right. Here.” He handed her a corsage of baby roses, which she pinned on her dress as he pushed her to his truck.
The restaurant was a good one at the top of a tall office building. They had a romantic, secluded table near the glass wall that looked out over the city lights.
Sarah noticed him looking around at the other tables. “Are you looking for someone?”
“Just counting the number of men who are eating their hearts out. You do make a man look good.”
She blushed and changed the subject. “So, tell me of your plans.”
“Well,” he said, leaning back, “I petitioned to remain in the Marine Corps and it was granted, non-combatant, of course. Next, I petitioned to go to Walter Reed Hospital and be trained as a physical therapist, and it was granted. After training, I’ll return here to work at the VA Hospital.”
“Are you sure that’s what you want to do? It’s a tough job.”
“I’m sure. Working with Billy was the finest thing I’ve ever done. I saw him that afternoon, you know, and we had a long talk.” Gunny looked out at the lights. “I talked to the administrators about adopting Billy. They said I would have a better chance if I were married.” He turned back and looked into her eyes. “Do you know of a woman with enough heart to take on a rambunctious eleven-year-old and a man with a peg leg?”
Sarah couldn’t draw a breath. “I do,” she whispered.
“Be careful how you say that,” he grinned. “You once told me about the advantages of being in a wheel chair. I’ve thought of another one.”
She could only look in askance.
He took her hand and slipped a ring on her finger. “She can’t run away.”
© 2005 S.J. Beres
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|Reviewed by William Woods
|oo-rah, thank you i loved the story.
~Lance Corporal William A. Woods USMC