All-American Men of War
This Old Man
For many soldiers who fought for our freedoms, the war never really ends. As the old man called Sarge well knows, there are other battles to be fought, even in old age.
The old man half-dozed, slowly rocking back and forth in his chair. A gentle, cool breeze floated across the porch of the retirement home, causing him to crack open an eye, pull his faded sweater a bit tighter, and settle a bit deeper in the chair. Stretching forth his arm, he rubbed his shoulder and rotated his arm a few times in the attempt to work out the stiffness that was the result of an old war wound. Taking a deep breath that ended in an unexpected snort, he chuckled to himself and pulled his wool cap down over his eyes. Within minutes, he had drifted off to sleep, happy in his own little corner of the world.
The old man opened his eyes and pushed his cap up. It was still light, so he knew his nap hadn’t lasted very long. He looked up at the equally old man who had roused him from his slumber.
“It’s almost dinner time,” the newcomer said. “Salisbury steak with mashed taters tonight; I knew you wouldn’t want to miss it.”
“And pudding cups?” Sarge asked.
“There had better be.”
Sarge lifted his cane from where it rested on the table beside him and climbed to his feet. “I wish you would have been five minutes later, Buck.”
Buck smiled. “You were dreamin’ about that gal in Seoul again, weren’t ya?”
Sarge smiled. “Just don’t tell Alice.”
Buck grinned, considering the trouble he could get his friend into with the septuagenarian he had taken up with. “We been through too much together for me to do that to ya.”
“But, you considered it,” Sarge said, chuckling. “I’ve known you too long.”
The two men shared a laugh, then walked arm in arm into the retirement home and headed to the dining room.
“Did you have a good nap?” one of the custodians asked Sarge as the two men passed.
“If it would have only been a little longer,” Sarge told him.
The man smiled. “Dreaming about her again, huh? Don’t worry, Alice will never hear it from me.”
“Appreciate it,” Sarge said.
The two men made their way into the dining room and were immediately waved to a table by a well-dressed woman in her mid-seventies. She smiled as Sarge and Buck approached.
“I see you found him, Buck,” she said.
“Out on the porch asleep,” the man said, “just like you figured.”
“Well, you are here now, and that is what matters,” Alice said, patting Sarge on the arm.
As the trio often did over dinner, they shared stories of their past lives — their families, their jobs, and their travels. The men learned that Alice had once had the opportunity to visit Italy, while Buck made mention of a grandfather and uncle who had dabbled in moonshining.
“What about you, Sarge?” Buck asked. “You got any deep, dark secrets you haven’t shared with us?”
The old man held up a finger as he finished chewing the bite of Salisbury steak in his mouth. He took a sip of ice water before speaking.
“It wasn’t long after I was shot, when I was lying in the recovery ward of that M.A.S.H. unit, waiting to be sent to the hospital in Seoul,” he said. “I had a visitor.”
Buck set his glass of tea on the table. As long as he had known Sarge, ever since Korea, he had never heard his friend talk about the time between being shot and his recovery in Seoul. “You’ve never mentioned a visitor.”
“Given the medication I was on for pain, I, for a long time, wasn’t even sure if what I was remembering was real or a dream,” Sarge replied. “It was later in the evening, not long after they had brought us something nearly inedible we were supposed to choke down, when a nurse approached my bed.”
“How are you feeling?” the nurse asked as she put a thermometer under his tongue, then looked at her watch as she checked his pulse.
Sarge mumbled something incoherent, then repeated it after the thermometer was removed. “We just ate, so, obviously, my stomach is bothering me.”
The nurse laughed. “Government-issue creamed corn can do that.” She lowered her watch. “Temperature and pulse look good. I’ll get you something for your stomach.”
“You will probably be leaving us tomorrow,” the nurse said. “Unless you do something silly like develop a high fever during the night.”
Sarge tried to smile. “I’ll do my best to stay cool.”
“Give me a few minutes, and I will get you the antacid as well as something for pain,” the nurse said. She wrote a couple of notes on his chart, then walked to the opposite end of the recovery ward. True to her word, she returned moments later with the promised medicines.
Sarge lay with his eyes closed for a few minutes, waiting for the pain medicine to kick in so he could get some sleep. His eyes were growing heavy when he heard someone speak to him. The voice was soft, and he knew the speaker was bent down close to his ear.
“I know you are tired, so I won’t keep you awake too long.”
Sarge opened his eyes slightly, but the medicine had already begun to blur his vision. He knew he was speaking to a man with light-colored hair, one much older than himself. It was someone whom he felt he should know; beyond that, he could remember nothing else about his visitor.
“I am proud of you…” The man said something else, but Sarge never heard a word.
“Sarge. Hey, Sarge. Wake up.”
The old man opened his eyes to a bright light shining in his face. He raised his hand up to shield his face. “Who… who is it?”
The old man nodded.
The officer knelt down and helped Sarge to his feet. “Let me ask you something, Sarge. Have you been taking your medication?”
Sarge nodded, then shook his head.
“Which is it?” Officer Mason asked. “Are you off your medication?”
The old man was silent for a few seconds before answering, “I think so.” He looked around. “Where am I?”
“You wandered off again.”
Sarge looked confused. “But… but, I was just talking to Buck and Alice.”
The officer put his hand on Sarge’s soldier shoulder. “We’ve talked about this before. Mr. Tolliver passed away four years ago.”
“There is no Alice,” Officer Mason said.
Sarge allowed the younger man to take him by the arm and guide him to his patrol car. As the officer helped him into the back seat, Sarge looked at him and gave him a sad smile. “I was a soldier, you know.”
“I am proud of you,” Officer Mason said.
Sarge looked at the officer. “You’ve told me that before? Yes, I think you have.” He looked at Officer Mason. “For some reason, I thought you were older.”
Officer Mason patted the old soldier on the shoulder. “You always do, Sarge. You always do.”
Their eyes met for a moment before the officer closed the patrol car’s door. “Come on. Let’s get you home.”
Author’s note: This Veteran’s Day, as we remember those who served in our armed forces and those who are still serving, let us not forget those who are fighting a different type of battle every day. When a veteran begins to lose himself or herself to the diseases of the mind, we lose a valuable piece of history. Thank you to all who have served.