Mama Tried




His mama never tired of telling the story of his birth.

“I was so scared,” she would begin. “Seventeen years old, alone in a shot gun house, your daddy already shipped out overseas.”

She would pause for a minute as she thought back on that night.

“Right after midnight, I went into labor.  I went to the screen door, opened it and yelled for Mrs. Jones. ‘It’s time.’ In less than three minutes, Mrs. Jones was there to help.  No doctor, no pain medicine like they have today.  By five o’clock that morning, I had a new baby boy, you Jacob.”

When his mama finished the story, Jacob would put his arm around her shoulders and kiss her gently on the forehead.

Then she would tell him what happened a few hours later.

“From what I’ve pieced together over the years, I know your dad was already in a boat headed for the beach when you took your first breath. By the time you were three hours old, thanks to a German machine placement on a hill overlooking a beach near Normandy, France, you were a fatherless child.”

Whenever Jacob heard the story of his birth, he felt something boil in his stomach, a sense not of loss, but of anger. He felt somehow responsible for his father’s death, a death born of duty to the young pregnant wife he had left at home.

Out of respect to his mama, for what she sacrificed to raise him, feed him, clothe him, he finished a lackluster high school career in May 1962.  Two weeks later, on his eighteenth birthday, June 6, 1962, his buddies feted him with a day of heavy drinking.  As part of that rite of passage, they took a joyride in a borrowed car that landed Jacob in jail for the first time.

Grand theft auto.

He considered his two options: serve his time in prison or in the Army.

He completed his two-year hitch after a tour of duty in Germany, where he spent as much of his time in the brig as he did in the free world.

The rest of his history has been much reported. He came back to the States to place flowers on the grave of his mama, taken by cancer while he languished in the Army lockup in Germany.

Then he drifted from place to place, staying just long enough to befriend a hapless soul and convince her to let down her guard, leaving behind him a trail of shallow graves.

The officer who made the final arrest said that Jacob had a look of relief on his face when he cuffed him and put him in the patrol car.  

His appointed lawyers worked with a deck Jacob had stacked against them.

His appeals exhausted, Jacob sat in solitary confinement at the Walls, the death unit of the Texas Department of Corrections in Huntsville. A guard brought him a letter.

“They’ve set the date,” he said as he handed it to him.

Jacob looked at the death warrant and smiled.

June 6, 2006.

“It’s my birthday,” he said to the guard who had already turned his back.

On June 5th, the warden visited Jacob.  He asked him if he had a final request.

“Warden, can you arrange for them to play that song while I take my last walk?”

The next morning, Jacob woke at three o’clock.  He said a prayer for his mama.

At eight o’clock, they walked him down the hall to the death gurney as Merle Haggard’s song played in the background.  When they strapped him down, the warden asked if he had any last words.

“I guess this is how daddy felt the day I was born,” he said.


(Written for The Writers Collection to the prompt “A Birthday.”)

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    The perfect short story, filled with both hope and pathos. Brilliantly written. It’s the story Merle Haggard tried to tell, and you told it better.

    • Thanks, Caleb. The night before I wrote this, I watched a documentary about D-Day and another about the death unit at The Walls. Somehow those things percolated into this story.

  • Once upon a time Americans could go to the courthouse to hear a good story told well. They could hear the same brand of entertainment from preachers and politicians. And, of course, they could always depend on grandparents sitting in their rockers on front porches on a summer’s evening to reminisce in stories. Today, the art is all but lost except in country music. That is why I’m a big fan. Yes, every aspiring writer should be a fan of country music to inspire them in the art of good, old fashioned story telling.

    • Jack, the funny thing about my story was that I never really thought about Merle’s song until I was through writing it. It just goes to show that songs like that leave an indelible impression on a person’s soul.

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  • So poignant and so real that it could have been nonfiction. And maybe it was. I’m sure it describes the lives of many troubled young men who were cast away by the war and ran the wrong side of the wrong streets.

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