Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Salute

The card slid smoothly into the slot as a click and green light indicated the door unlocked.  He pushed it open depositing his small black bag by the door.  When he originally planned the trip years ago, he wanted to stay in the Grand Hotel of his childhood days.  Instead, he chose the newer hotel and booked the suite with a fireplace.  The open space dwarfed the tiny living room he grew up in thirty-five years prior. 

After pouring himself a drink, he slid the balcony door open and stepped onto the patio.  Off in the distance, the full moon peaked over the mountain range freshly capped with snow.  Before his father left for war, the two of them spent many days in those mountains hunting, fishing, and hiking.  The past twenty odd years, he missed the feel of them watching over him.  The whiskey burnt going down his throat.  Loosening his black tie, he turned back to the room to get some sleep and stop the memories from overwhelming him.

          Throughout the night, the plaid comforter tugged and pulled as he fought his dreams.  Visions of kids twice his size taunting him filled his sight.  Harsh words of baby killer exploded in his head.  A bloody nose turned into a fire leaping up to consume him.  He jerked awake relieved at the sunlight streaming through the panes of glass.  The scars on his hands throbbed.  Stifling the urge to grab the bottle, he stumbled to the coffee pot instead.  He opened the laptop drowning himself in work until afternoon.

          An hour before the service, he slid onto the grey leather seat of his rental car.  His fingers turned the key in the ignition and the engine roared to life.  Maneuvering through traffic, the side street beckoned him.  He pulled into the empty parking lot.  Stepping out of the vehicle, he placed his beret on his head straightening it just right above the bridge of his nose.

He sighed at the look of the old building.  Bricks lay on the ground leaving holes in the wall.  The windows in his old science classroom long shattered from either old age or vandals.  Even a small tree grew from the cracks in the foundation.  Peaking through the window frame, he shook his head at the burnt tile on the floor where he tried to grab the plain green ball cap his dad gave him before he left for war, the cause of his scarred hands.  The rank and unit crest of the unit his dad worked with in the war was displayed on the front.  He remembered wearing the cap with pride until that fateful day.

The local bully called his father a baby killer and grabbed the hat off his head.  With a Bunsen Burner, the creep lit the cap on fire dropping it on the floor.  Not thinking clearly, he grabbed the flaming mass with his hands to beat out the fire.  The taunts only grew worse with each new report that came from the war zone.  Some teachers tried to shield him, but other teachers allowed debates disparaging the soldiers.  With the ball cap destroyed, he saved the unit crest and wore it on his jacket.

His father returned from the fighting with what they now call PTSD.  They only spent one day in the mountains.  The bullies and liberals accused his father further when he committed suicide a year after his return.  With a heavy sigh, he turned from the window and the memories.  He needed to finish his drive to his appointment.

          Cars lined both sides of the road.  Parking, he straightened his tie once more and beret.  Standing tall, he walked down the lane passing those grieving.  Discomforted, he avoided the looks people gave him.  A man in dress blues rarely appeared in this area of the country.  He stood near the back of the crowd.  The minister spoke standing next to the six foot hole the casket shaded.  As the service drew to a close, the military man waited until the last person spoke to the widow. 

          “Mrs. Blake, may I walk you to your car.”  He offered his arm to her.

          Once at the black limousine she asked him to wait a moment.  Reaching into the car, she grabbed a small book from the seat.

          “Richard kept track of your career over the years.  He was very proud of you.”  Wrinkled hands held out the weathered black book to him.

          Taking the gift, he flipped through looking at all the scrapbooked pictures and news articles to the last page with an article of his being pinned General.  Tears streamed down his face.  “Mr. Blake sat me down after the fire.  He told me I held the key to my future.  I could listen to the naysayers or I could overcome them.  My dad left us in dire straits, but with Mr. Blake watching over me and guiding me, I prevailed.” 

          They exchanged a few more pleasantries.  He helped her into the vehicle and watched it leave the cemetery grounds.  Executing an about face, he marched back to the casket saluting his high school principal.    He continued on to the poor side of the grounds to stand in front of a pauper's grave.

          “Dad, not a day goes by that I don’t think of you.  I do all my work with veterans and their families in your honor.  I miss you.”  Snapping his heals together, he saluted as a soft snow fell to the ground.

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