The Thanksgiving That Was and The Silver Star
By J. Allen Wilson
The northwest wind whistled and moaned as it tore invisible paths down the dark, dank alley that Bob called home. The rusty tin secured between two dumpsters rattled with each oncoming gust. A light dusting of fresh powdery snow began to fall as Bob shivered beneath two worn out coats. He had tried a day earlier to find space at several of the local missions in the area but they were all full. The economy had taken its toll and many of the new homeless were families that took priority over the chronic street dwellers like him. He thought to himself that this was the right thing to do; after all he had been on the streets for years and knew how to survive whereas the new homeless had never been in that position and most had small children as well.
But tomorrow was Thanksgiving and even though he never cared too much for the traveling preachers and their prerequisite sermons before each meal he was going to miss the free turkey dinner with the dressing and hot dinner rolls. Bob quickly shook that thought as his stomach gnawed relentlessly at his backbone. Reaching into his coats pocket he pulled out the remaining portion of the cheap wine taking most of it down in on swift slug. He thought for a second about saving the rest of it for morning and then said to hell with it and gulped down the remaining portion. Starring at the empty bottle he pondered his purpose in life and concluded that this must be it…the whole enchilada, the whole bang of it all. He then tossed the empty bottle across the alley as it clanged and shattered to pieces on the opposing wall.
He slid himself back into the corner of his cubby as the wind and snow began to come at a greater pace. Closing his eyes he thought of better days as a young man living down south on his family’s farm. He remembered his moms’ fresh fried chicken and okra. He thought of his girlfriend Connie and how they used to giggle and laugh while skinny dipping down by the river, but that was before the war and the endless days and nights of jungle sweat and firefights that lasted not for hours, but for days. He had tried to start over after discharge. He had tried to return to what used to be, but the smell of burning flesh and rotting corpses stole away at his mind. His only relief… his only escape from the nightmares was the drugs and alcohol that coaxed him into slumber each night. About time for some shut-eye Bob thought…Gotta hit the street early tomorrow if I’m going eat.
He reached to the inside pocket of his coat to grab one of the cigarette butts he found on the street thinking one last smoke before bed. While fumbling for his smoke Bob’s fingers touched the cool edges of the medal that he had carried with him since being discharged almost forty years ago. He pulled out his stub of a smoke and lit it inhaling deeply. The rich tobacco burned his lungs as he was able to get three or four fast hits on the stump before it reached the filter. Thumping the glowing butt into the alley he reached back into his pocket and pulled out the medal. The colors of the ribbon had faded somewhat with time and the silver on the star was a little tarnished, but it was his. He had thought a thousand times over about hocking it, but just couldn’t bring himself to do it. He remembered how proud he was when the commander pinned it to his chest and how he had also at the same time wept for those who had died trying to take that hill. He remembered the sergeant ordering a double flank with a frontal assault with the sarge leading the way down the front. Within minutes of the charge the sergeant and twenty other men lay on the ground either dead or dying. Air strikes were called in, the coordinates given, yet the enemy kept firing. Bob flinched at the recollection and placed the medal back into his pocket and grabbed another butt.
Too damn cold to sleep he thought as he lit the already half smoked cigarette. He inhaled deeply again and thought back to that day on the hill once more. Without thinking he out of instinct began to crawl to where his comrades lay dead and dying. Machine-gun fire whizzed hot lead into the ground around him. The fire was coming from a small grove of trees just to the right. Bob the lobbed a grenade into the grove. The sound was deafening, yet he could hear the screams of agony coming from the grove after the explosion. He then looked around him, the bodies of his comrades torn into pieces. He saw two men alive but bleeding badly. Forgetting his own safety he stood up and somehow managed to carry the two wounded soldiers back down the hill until the med-evac choppers could arrive. This was why he carried the Silver Star, but it also why he carries the demons that haunt him to this day. He’s often wondered about those two men and if they even survived. Silently he wept and wished he had another drink. Often he wished that it had been him dead upon that hill forty years ago…dead…dead without dreams. Fitfully he drifted off into a light slumber as the wind howled and the pangs of hunger gnawed away inside.
Bob did not know how long he had been asleep, but the sudden banging on the tin of his cubby and dancing of light from a flashlight brought him to bolt up and become wide awake. A booming voice yelled out over the wind.
“Are you Bobby Joe Saxon?”
“YEAH, who wants to know” retorted Bob.
“Chicago PD, now crawl your skanky self out of there, you’re coming with me”.
Bob started to argue, but knew there was no use after years of being run off by the police. Crawling now out of his makeshift home Bob rose stiffly and scratched at the scruff of his beard and adjusted his coat. The cop then blurted out that he was coming downtown to the station with him that the captain wanted to see him. Not arguing Bob complied and walked with the officer to the squad car. Upon getting in the car Bob could feel the sudden soothing warmth. Ten minutes later they pulled up in front of the station and the officer led Bob into a small brightly lit office and left. A few minutes later the police captain and a well-dressed man walked into the office and sat in two large opposing chairs. The man in the fancy suit then repeated what the cop had asked…
“Are you Bobby Joe Saxon”?
“In the flesh," Bob replied.
The well dressed, soft spoken man then reached into his briefcase and pulled out an almost faded black and white photograph depicting a group of young men in battle fatigues. Bob remembered the photograph at once. It was the one taken of his platoon just before they shipped out to Vietnam.
Reaching out the photo towards Bob, the well-dressed man pointed his finger at a tall skinny kid and said “this is me, this is my baby brother and you are standing right here. Do you know,’ the man continued, ‘that I have been looking for you for the last twenty years”?
“Nope,’ Bob replied, ‘why should you”?
“I’ll tell you why,’ the man said with a quiver in his voice and tears in his eyes. ‘Thirty nine years ago you put your own life at risk on hill 19 to save mine and another man’s life. That other man was my brother and sadly to say, he didn’t survive, but I did and I owe it all to you”.
Bob lowered his head trying to shield the tears in his eyes remembering that day very well; a day that he had tried to forget. Bob fumbled for words and tried to say that it was nothing that any other man would not do given the chance.
The well-dressed man then introduced himself and said. “Bobby, My name is Tim McFadden and I own the largest petro-chemical company in the world…I am worth a lot of money, billions in fact and I just simply want to repay you for saving my life so many years ago. That is why I have searched for you for all these years…anything you want just name it and it is yours.”
"Well sir," Bob replied after thinking for a moment, “There are a couple of things that I would truly like. One is with it being Thanksgiving; I sure would like a nice Thanksgiving meal. I sure am hungry and the mission is full this year.”
“You got it replied Tim, but what is the other request”?
“Well you see sir, there’s these two missions that I go to every Thanksgiving and Christmas for my meal and they are always a little short on cash, but I think the best thing that I could want would be this…you see, there a whole bunch of families staying at the mission who have lost their homes through no fault of their own. I on the other hand chose to run away from those things that chased my sleep. I would like for you to help those families if you mean what you say, because after all, this is Thanksgiving is it not.”
“I do,’ replied Tim with tears streaming down his face, ‘I do and I will…anything that they need, it’s the least I can do… why we don’t go down there now.”
‘There is one other thing’ Bob suddenly blurted out as he reached into his coat pocket. When his hand emerged it was holding the tarnished Silver Star that he had carried for years. 'I want you to have this sir' as he extended his hand out to Tim. Still speaking, Bob said 'this is what the Army gave me for that day on ‘Hill 19’…
Tim unable now to control his emotions openly wept and uttered ‘I…I can’t…you, you earned that.”
Bob smiled and said ‘I don’t need it anymore and I want you to have it. For you see sir, today is Thanksgiving Day and the things that have chased my sleep for all these years were settled when you walked into that door and told who you were.’
Tim took the medal in his hand starring at it for a moment before placing it in his pocket. Reaching out with both arms Tim held Bob in a tight embrace and they both wept together. Bob pulled back after a few moments of the embrace and blurted out…
“Hey' Bob said with a crooked little smile, 'you know that I am still hungry.”
Tim laughed out and said ‘sure, let’s go get that Thanksgiving dinner, but would you like to clean up a little first?”
"Nah…I’m just ready to eat and go back home."
‘Where’s home’ Tim said…'you mean that tin shed in that alley?”
‘Nope replied Bob…'nope. Home, South Carolina and my daddy’s farm, Yep, I’m ready to go home.”
Both men walked out of the station that day changed men. One dressed in a handmade Italian suit, the other in last year’s rags… changed by events in time, changed by separate miracles on a day born of thanks.
J. Allen Wilson © 11/24/2011