Luke is coming home today, so I need to hurry and finish making this sign. This isn't exactly Luke's home and Luke isn't exactly my son, but for all practical purposes, he belongs here.
Milton and I met Luke in the summer of 1963, our first year running this bed and breakfast in Southern Wisconsin. Luke was on a bicycle tour with a group from Chicago, cycling on the old Illinois Central Railroad right-of-way that passes by our place -- an old farmhouse we purchased the year before when Milton retired from the Air Force.
Luke was a breathtakingly handsome lad of thirteen -- tousled brown hair, alert blue eyes, a smooth young face radiating enthusiasm and good will. It was a golden late afternoon in August when the cyclists -- about a dozen weary teenaged boys and two adult leaders -- rolled onto our dusty driveway and wheeled into the yard. Luke was the straggler. Flushed and out of breath, he puffed in last, peddling a clunky three-speed -- a humble contrast to the flashy ten-speeds ridden with ease by the others.
The group had dinner with us before bedding down for the night. Luke sat at Milton’s end of the table; the two of them clicked immediately.
“You’ve got guts, son. I can tell.” Milton spoke softly, almost conspiratorially, as he leaned toward Luke.
“Thank you, sir.” Luke shot Milton a timid glance, then focused intently on scooping every last bit of beef stew out of his bowl.
“No, I mean it. And don’t call me ‘sir.’ Dammit, I work for a living,” Milton grinned.
“Yes, sir-- I mean, yes, mister . . . mister . . .”
“Milton. Call me Milton. No reason why you can’t call me by my first name.”
Luke put down his spoon and looked directly at Milton as my husband buttered a slice of cornbread. The boy hesitated. He took a deep breath, started twice to say something, then finally plunged ahead with a question. “What do you mean I’ve got guts?”
Milton thought for a minute. “I mean you don’t give up.” He held the knife at an angle. “I seen you huffin’ and puffin’ on that clunker of yours. You may have been last, but you were tryin’ and that’s what counts.” As Milton spoke, he gently moved the knife back and forth, reminding me of a conductor waving a slightly buttered baton. It was the most animated I'd seen Milton in years. He and Luke talked late into the night, mostly about Milton's experiences during World War II as a bomber pilot. Luke, as it turned out, also had designs on a career in the Air Force.
For the next five years, Luke spent his summers with us, more like the son we never had than as a hired hand. Luke came from a broken home -- he knew very little about his real parents. He told us they divorced when he was an infant. By the time he was two, his mother had committed suicide and his father had been killed in a car wreck. Luke was being raised by an aloof uncle who was more than eager to let the boy come stay with us every June to September. I only spoke with “Uncle Rich” once on the phone. The one vivid memory I have of the conversation is the uncle used the phrase “like whatever” repeatedly. The mental image I have of him is long hair, Yasser Arafat beard, and a marijuana cigarette smoldering, neglected, in an ashtray at his elbow.
Yet, in spite of his troubled background, Luke never showed any bitterness -- only a steely resolve to soar above the clouds as a fighter pilot. In Milton, Luke found a surrogate father and mentor. I can still picture the two of them in their jeans and T-shirts, ambling toward the barn after breakfast, their heads together as Luke absorbed some bit of wisdom Milton was imparting.
Luke brought the best out of the otherwise maddeningly stoic Milton. Maddening because it was always so hard for me to interpret Milton’s long silences. My husband and I would be together for hours without speaking. I’d be doing the dishes; he’d be repairing a doorknob. I’d make a comment or ask a question and the most I’d get out of him would be a grunt -- if that.
I kept asking myself: Is something bothering him? Is he angry with me? Is it something I said – or didn’t say?
Whenever I’d bring it up, Milton would insist nothing was wrong. “I just don’t have anything to say,” he’d answer, as if I should have known not to expect the formality of a response.
“Well, you could say that,” I’d respond, exasperated. “Why do I always have to be a mind reader?”
Milton’s response: a shrug and a grunt.
Luke always seemed oblivious to how strikingly handsome he was. I’m not exaggerating when I say he had movie star looks. His eyes, a soothing blue, like a placid lake reflecting a cloudless sky; his face open, smiling, fresh. Young girls overnighting with us would melt when they'd first see him. Frequently, I watched in amused amazement at the clever ways they found to maneuver themselves into his presence. Yet Luke never gave Milton or me any trouble by trying to seduce the girls who were guests at The Andrews.
That's what our B&B is called -- Andrews is our last name, but initially Milton and I couldn't agree on where -- or whether -- to use an apostrophe. Should it be S-apostrophe, apostrophe-S, or simply S? Luke settled the question in the summer of '64. During a spirited discussion at the dinner table, Luke came down decisively on my side, insisting on S -- The Andrews. "More dignified," he'd stated. And that settled it.
Luke's plane is due to arrive a few miles from here at the Janesville airport a couple hours from now. His journey began in Hawaii more than twenty-four hours ago and includes plane changes in San Francisco and Chicago, so I need to keep busy on this sign. Though it's made out of cedar, I’ve tried to design it to look elegant, like chiseled stone. Achieving the right effect has required a lot of patience -- and several tries -- but I think I'm succeeding.
Vietnam has been in the paper a lot lately. President Clinton has decided to officially recognize the country where our nation fought a generation ago in a disgraceful and wasteful undeclared war. It was a source of much discussion during those summers when Luke was with us. Luke, of course, was anxious to get into the fight to contain Communism, and Milton was his source of encouragement and inspiration.
As the war dragged on and the body count of young American boys needlessly increased, I came to oppose the war with greater intensity. Milton, however, saw U.S. involvement through the lens of his World War II experience.
“Ya gotta confront evil and stamp it out,” he’d say. “Otherwise, it has too much of a chance to fester. That’s the mistake they made with Hitler -- tried to appeeeeze him ‘til it was almost too late.”
“He’s right, you know,” Luke would chime in.
The two men outnumbered me, so I rarely wasted my time making futile arguments. As the war got worse, however, I spoke out against it more frequently and with a forcefulness that, for the first time, brought real friction to our marriage. During that time, Luke proved to be the person who helped keep things from spinning out of control.
It was 1968, the summer of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Luke, Milton, and I were sitting in the parlor watching the convention on television. The live pictures showed the police over-reacting to the huge crowd of anti-war protestors on Michigan Avenue. Of course, “over-reacting” is my word; Milton heaped his scorn on the seething crowd.
"Look at those dirty Commie hippies! Lookit how they’re provoking the police!" He was sitting on the edge of his La-Z-Boy, newspaper crumpled in his fist. His voice -- usually soft, gentle – was nearly a shout.
I was astonished to hear Milton cheer when the riot police waded into the crowd, swinging their batons at youngsters Luke’s age.
“Go, baby! Club one of those heads for me!”
I left the room in a sputtering rage. Had I stayed, there's no telling what I would have said to him -- or how he would have responded.
I retreated onto the back porch where I sat on the concrete steps crying. Soon I felt an arm, gentle around my shoulder.
"How could you say such vile things?" I hissed through my clenched teeth.
"Um . . . I don't think I'm who you think I am," Luke said sheepishly.
"Oh!" Startled, I sat up quickly, taking furtive swipes at the tears flowing down my cheeks. "I'm sorry, Luke. I-I thought you were Milton."
"It's okay. I knew you were upset and I just . . . well, came out here to see if you were alright."
We sat there a long time. He listened as I poured out my frustrations about the war and about the difficulty Milton and I were having dealing with our differences over it.
"Maybe I should just leave him," I said at one point in exasperation. Putting the idea into words must have shocked Luke, but if it did, he didn't show it; Lord knows, it shocked me because I wasn't conscious my feelings were that intense.
Instead of commenting directly on my exclamation, Luke asked me to tell him about how Milton and I met and got married. I was halfway into telling the story of our blind date, followed two weeks later by Milton's stammering proposal, before I realized that -- whether Luke intended it or not -- he had helped me see something critically important: the attributes which had initially attracted me to Milton -- his honesty, his sense of justice, his strong work ethic, his shyness, his handsomeness, his kindness, his gentleness -- I could go on and on -- were still in evidence. Luke, simply by getting me to think about what had first attracted me to Milton, helped me to see that it would be foolish to throw away my marriage simply because we'd hit a snag in our ability to communicate.
That back porch talk with Luke was the first of many conversations Luke and I had that summer. Maybe “conversation” isn't really the right word because I did most of the talking and he did all the listening! But the visits were valuable, nonetheless. Luke wasn't one to offer advice, but he had a knack for asking questions that would help me focus my thoughts. I told him once that he'd make a great psychologist some day -- or maybe a minister.
"Aw, I dunno," he blushed. "I guess I just know what it's like when someone feels sad."
Milton and I were able to settle our differences, but I credit Luke and his patient way of listening with getting the healing process started. I guess the evidence of that healing was the autumn Milton and I went on a vacation to Washington D.C. We were at the Vietnam War Memorial watching people hold pieces of paper over the names of loved ones killed or missing in the war.
"The country nearly came apart over this war," Milton had said to me as he stroked my back in a rare and uncharacteristic show of affection. "I’m glad it didn’t rip us apart, too."
As we watched, a white-haired woman wearing a bulky rust-colored sweater and jeans, crouched in front of the wall. She held a piece of paper against it. Bent next to her was a man, neatly dressed in a dark blue sport coat and twill slacks – her husband, I assumed. He held a pencil in his right hand. His hand was a blur as he rapidly moved it across the white paper. It only took a moment of rubbing before the name on the wall transferred to the sheet. When he finished, the couple simultaneously caressed the granite name with their fingers, and wept.
It was the only time I ever saw Milton cry.
The summer of 1968 was the last one Luke spent with us before joining the Air Force. He had become a rugged young man of eighteen -- not brawny, but solidly built for his relatively short five-foot-nine inch frame. Luke and Milton spent hours together working, walking, and talking that summer. I cried when Luke left us in September because I knew it would be a long time before we'd be together again, but Milton remained impassive, betraying no inner sadness at Luke's transition to manhood.
Luke was faithful to his promise to write letters to us. He wrote regularly from basic training, he wrote us from Officer Candidate School in Southern California and he wrote us nearly every day from his base in Vietnam.
Then his letters stopped coming.
A few weeks later we got a message from the Pentagon: "We regret to inform you that your loved one is missing in action."
For years, Milton held out hope that somehow Luke survived the crash of his plane, had been taken prisoner, and would eventually return. Milton died suddenly last summer of a heart attack, still hoping; but I always knew in my heart Luke was no more.
Then, last week, I received word from the Department of Defense: Luke's remains -- taken from the site of his crashed plane -- had been positively identified at the military's forensic lab in Hawaii.
So, I need to hurry and finish this sign before I have to leave to meet Luke's plane. I've patterned the sign after the rubbing Milton and I made of Luke's name carved into the granite wall of the Vietnam War Memorial. You see, today I'm changing the "dignified" name Luke gave to The Andrews. I'm changing it to something not just dignified, but elegant. I'm naming the inn after Luke -- Luke Wren.
John DeDakis the author of the mystery/suspense novel "Fast Track" (ArcheBooks). He is a Senior CNN Copy Editor in Washington, D.C. where he edits and writes on "The Situation Room" anchored by Wolf Blitzer