Hurrying for home in his beat-up olive drab van, Charlie Moore turned left off Route 31 in Spanish Fort, and then sped north on Route 225. Mobile was behind him now, and the June sun was high, padding the van’s compartment with a suffocating heat and Alabama humidity that, according to Charlie, “not even a creature from hell could deal with.” But he could most of the time. After all, he’d been born on the Eastern Shore of Mobile, and again, according to him, “My skin and brains have adjusted quite nicely to the heat over the years; but I’m still working on the humidity.”
Despite Charlie’s resolve this morning, pesky sweat beads continued to drip from his forehead, and he squinted to protect his eyes from their persistent sting. The air conditioning didn't work either, so he frequently leaned forward to yank the back of his soaked tee shirt away from the springy seat. The seat sounded like an overly used bedspring, creaking whenever he moved on it, usually making him smile with pleasant thoughts about mussed beds and such; but not today.
Now, thinking about the problem he had with certain members of congress, a new anger clutched Charlie’s chest. He twisted his head to spit out the window to clear the bad taste that festered in his mouth, and then stepped on the accelerator, crushing it into the floorboards.
Suddenly, he slammed the steering wheel with both hands. “Promises made, promises broken,” he shouted at the dusty windshield like it was the face of a bitter enemy he would very much like to have a serious “talk” with; but not today.
With sweat tormenting his eyes, Charlie didn’t notice the red clay embankments off to his left, topped with shrubs and pine, or the potholes and hills that tried to slow his journey home. His brain was full and Lucy waited, alone.
Teasing the accelerator, the engine roared as it gained speed on a downhill stretch that was filled with yellow signs that warned Charlie of the treacherous curves and soft shoulders up ahead. He ignored them like usual whenever he was in a hurry.
Now, sensing that something was wrong, or about to be, Charlie jerked the steering wheel to the left as the van roamed precariously over the safety strip. The frayed tires almost touched the soggy dirt at the edge of the road. Steady again, he kicked the accelerator to make it up another hill. The van vibrated violently and black smoke trailed behind. It covered the rear of the vehicle like a newly spread shroud.
Maybe it didn’t matter anymore, he thought. Maybe never had. Maybe life was a sham, after all. A can of worms, a bag of tricks, a trunk full of disappointments. It had not always been that way.
Once, when he'd been twenty-six years younger, in 1970, they'd called him a war hero. He'd been thirty-nine then. When his arm and leg wounds had healed, they'd flown him back to the states to receive some well-deserved medals. Later, on the White House lawn, he'd received the highest award his country could give: The Medal of Honor. He'd almost wept that day, remembering the ones who'd not come home. They were the real heroes, the ones who’d died, and he felt a little ashamed for being honored without them at his side.
He'd been proud in those days, proud of his army uniform, which he'd worn for over twenty years at the time; proud of his unit, proud of his country, proud to be an American, a soldier. From all indications, he was still proud of the same things. Although now, in retirement, he was beginning to have grave reservations about some recent government “non-actions,” which went totally against the grain.
He’d done his hard-time soldiering, maintaining the security of the United States and its dignity most of his life, so why didn’t they want to ante up, do their part like what was promised? In his mind, it was a debt of honor, a matter of principle, something they were obliged to do. But from the looks of things, they wouldn’t, maybe couldn’t based on the recent political mood that seemed to be unfairly chilled toward the plights of military retirees, and many others in need across the country.
Despite Charlie’s recent anger, though, he’d never dishonor his country or harm it, nor tolerate anyone else who tried; but arrogant politicians, as he liked to call them, were something else again. They had to be educated, had to learn what it meant to serve, to sacrifice, to die if need be to protect this great land. Charlie intended to “educate” them one day soon.
Cautiously, Charlie twisted his head when he heard something off to his right. It was like a vague whisper, a sound he had to strain to hear. He’d heard a similar sound that day in Vietnam, too. It was like a creepy kind of warning that sent slivers of fear up his spine. Something bad had happened in Nam that time. Was something bad about to happen now?
Taking a deep breath, Charlie remembered the fateful orders that day. The lieutenant cocked an arm over his head, and then motioned for the platoon to follow him up a nasty hill that had to be taken at any cost. And “at any cost” usually meant that there would be plenty of body bags filled before the day was through.
Just as the troops had begun to form, Charlie heard a faint whisper deep in his ear. It told him not to go up the hill behind the lieutenant; it would be suicide. In the excitement, he ignored the whisper. He had to obey his orders and do his duty. To him, the voice was probably little more than his brain trying to rationalize his fear. But what was it now? It had to be a clear warning of something bad. He shivered as he pulled his sweaty tee shirt away from the seat again.
Echoes from the past flooded Charlie’s mind. He heard the lieutenant’s voice loud and clear.
"Fix bayonets, boys!” the lieutenant commanded. “Jab 'em deep. Shout till your tongue swells blue. We’re going to take this hill, boys; we are going to take it. Follow me!”
Even after his chest had been splattered white and pink and sticky, the lieutenant scrambled up the jagged path, the troops close behind. “To the death, boys; it’s the only thing we got left to give,” he shouted one last time just before a mortar round removed his head.
But then, like now, the echo of his order hung tightly in the air. It prodded the platoon up the hill, into the killing zone that was splashed with blood and gore. Not many made it down the hill, but Charlie had. He still wondered how, but just as importantly to him, why, when so many others had not made it down alive or well.
Sweating profusely now, Sergeant Major Charles Dennis Moore, U.S. Army, Retired, clutched the steering wheel when he felt a familiar pressure squeezing at the center of his chest.
He gulped for air while he tried to steady the speeding van. Then, he felt the pressure worsen. A sledgehammer blow followed, making him bite his tongue. He almost lost control when he tasted blood, and then the vomit. He turned his head to spit out the window. Everything turned hazy, and he felt the pressure at his chest turn to pain as it moved swiftly out to both arms. Sweat drenched his face and neck and chest. Dizzy with the excruciating pain at his breastbone, he vomited again, and then gagged, while he struggled to regain control of his breath and the vehicle to prevent a deadly crash.
Suddenly, something off to the right caught Charlie’s eye. It was the lieutenant, motioning for him to charge up over the red clay embankment into the pines, the mist, to another place where he sensed he’d been before. He twisted the wheel hard over, trying to comply, determined to do his duty.
He didn't hear the tires squealing, or see the black rubber sticking to the surface of the road behind him, polluting the air with stench. He was too busy guiding the van along the guardrail, using one hand, clutching his chest with a fist.
Shortly, the vehicle careened off into the void almost like in slow motion. Charlie screamed with it as it tumbled head-over-end into a nearby ditch filled with memories, and the quietness there that he'd heard before, here and in the war zone years ago.
Now, only the darkness remained and an upside-down van with out-of-control wheels spinning grotesquely in the air. Soon, a thick cloak of red-clay dust settled over the landscape as the wail of an emergency vehicle’s siren ruptured the quiet air.
* * *
"Will he live?" a young male doctor named Ted Smith asked his pretty middle-aged colleague at the Infirmary Medical Center in Mobile.
"He was lucky,” Doctor Ann Howard replied. “There wasn’t any fire at the accident scene, but he has plenty of abrasions and contusions. Fortunately, there aren’t any fractures. But it’s his heart I’m worrying about.” She pressed a stethoscope to Charlie’s chest.
Soon, Doctor Howard sat straight on the edge of the bed. “At least he’s stable,” she said. “By this afternoon, we may even be able to do the bypass I’ve talked to him about. Maybe he will understand why he needs the procedure now.”
“Is he against a bypass?” Doctor Smith asked.
“No, not really, but he hates hospitals. He told me once that he had important business with congress too, meaning, I guess, that he doesn’t have time to waste in hospitals.”
"What’s his important business?” Doctor Smith asked.
"I’m not sure, other than it has something to do with health benefits.”
"A lot of people have that kind of problem these days.”
"But Charlie has been trying to do something about it. He formed a small militia group to take the problem to congress.”
"You mean an armed militia?”
"No,” she said, smiling. “Most of them are in their sixties, all six or seven of them. According to Charlie, they intend to attack the politicians with words, not with guns.”
"Well, he won’t be joining them anytime soon from the look of things."
"I wouldn’t bet on that,” Doctor Howard said, tugging on the stethoscope hanging from her neck.
"Looks like a tough guy at that,” Doctor Smith said, “but he is going to have to watch that heart of his.”
"I’m sure his wife will make him slow down after what happened today,” she said.
"Is she on her way?" Smith asked.
"Yes, a neighbor's bringing her. Lucy, that’s his wife, should be here anytime, and then I’ll talk to her about the procedure, too.”
* * *
Lucy brushed gray hair away from her forehead, and then leaned toward the bed. She placed her hand on Charlie's face. His eyes heavy, he gently touched her arm.
"You okay?" Charlie asked, trying to sit.
"Good as can be expected," Lucy said, nudging him back into the pillow. "You just lay still, Charlie. I don't want to hear anymore about your nonsense. This time, you're going to let them operate, or I'll do it for them."
"You wouldn't." He tried to smile, but the tube in his nose slowed it down. He glanced at the IV at his wrist and sighed.
"You just try me," she said, standing. She pulled the covers close under his arms, careful of the tubes. "I'll slice you apart quicker than the wink of an eye."
"Go on," Charlie said, squeezing her hand.
More seriously, she said, "We've got to let them do it, Charlie. I won't let you leave me again; once last year was enough."
"I came back, didn't I?" Charlie said, trying to smile.
"What do you mean, barely? I'm as fit as a mule."
"And as bullheaded, too."
"Okay, okay. Tell them to break out the knives. I'm ready. We just won't be able to eat for a year or two to pay for it, unless I hit the Florida lottery."
"It isn't that bad. Maybe when you get to go to Washington in a couple of months, you'll be able to work things out."
"Like last time when they did absolutely zilch for us?"
"Easy, Charlie." She patted his hand. "You have to be more patient; government takes time."
"We don't have much of that left, Lucy; none of us do. Maybe some of them don't either, the way I look at it."
"Don't talk so crazy. Relax. It'll work out."
"We'll see. But I'm not coming back next time with nothing to show for it. They'll listen or I’ll make them, one at a time or all together.”
Closing his eyes, Charlie felt her hand warm on his, and then the darkness took him away to another place where he could dream about what had to be done up north where the politicians gathered for plenty of talk, but not much action.
His favorite politicians would not have much longer to wait for his unwelcome visit, though, Charlie thought, assuming he lived through the open-heart surgery, and if none of the more aggressive, hard-line X groups, as he called them, didn’t blow up something or someone in D.C. first. That certainly would complicate things for everybody. He might have to look into that scary problem, too, once he was better.
Charlie almost smiled when he thought about how Lucy would react to his new plan of action. She would not like any part of it. But what could he do except continue to march like always, her yelling after him to slow it down and take it easy, reminding him that life was short, and that they still had away to go, assuming he would quit acting so bullheaded all the time.
Poor Lucy, he thought, I wouldn’t trade her for a mule.
Suddenly, he saw a headless lieutenant motioning for him to complete the charge. Terrified at the image, Charlie bolted upright into a sitting position, grabbed tightly to the sides of the mattress, and then screamed loudly, bringing the nurses running.
Extracted from "Taken by Force." Copyrighted Jan 28, 2003 by Robert A. Gallinger