Man without a country is a man without a home.

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SO THIS WAS THE WAY LIFE BROKE DOWN for Kirby Truett, and it broke down more frequently that it once did, back when he was young, back two years ago when he drove away from the family farm in Northeast Arkansas and managed to reach the bend of the second mountain before he bothered to look back.  Good riddance, he thought. He didn’t need the farm. And the farm sure as hell didn’t need him.

It seemed as though he had crawled on a second-hand John Deere tractor by the time he was old enough to button his own shirt, and wore out ten year’s worth of Wrangler jeans following the furrows of crop rows that ran on forever with no end in sight. Corn. Peas. Cotton. He had picked it all. He dug the new potatoes from the same dirt row where he found his fish bait.

But the drought had almost ruined them all. The creek ran dry. The fishing worms withered up and lay like dust on the top of the ground. The cotton withered.

The corn stalks lay burnt, and the ears of corn were so puny Kirby felt bad about pulling them. But the cows would eat anything, especially when they were hungry, and they kept him awake at night bawling for fresh grain, and the grain had been scattered by the dry winds that condemned his daddy’s soul and blew away the topsoil that hadn’t felt the touch of rain since early December.

Kirby Truett didn’t want the farm. The farm had never wanted him.

The day after some fellow in a hundred-dollar suit handed him a high school diploma, Kirby raised his right hand, swore to defend his country, and he left to catch a bus to Fort Benning, Georgia.

His mama hugged his neck. His daddy shook his hand.

“I’m gonna miss you, son,” his daddy said.

His mama didn’t say a word. She simply stood beneath the shade of an old live oak in the front yard and cried. Behind her, she had had hung an American flag from a pole above the front porch. It blew gently in a warm wind but mostly hung limp as the heat of an early summer rained down around his shoulders.

His daddy was leaning against the John Deere tractor, and his mama was crying. That was the way he would always remember them.

“I’ll be back,” he had promised.

“I hope so,” his daddy said. “The farm ain’t much.”

Kirby nodded.

“But it’s yours.”

Kirby glanced around him at the hundred and fourteen acres of land that looked like the ashes at the bottom of wood burning stove. The greens had turned brown. Even the John Deere was out of gas.

“I won’t be gone long,” he said.

“Don’t get too close to the little commies,” his daddy said. “I heard their guns don’t shoot straight.”

Kirby grinned. He knew he had lied. He knew he would never be back.

Life might be hard. But surely it offered more than a hardscrabble farm where the seeds cost more than the ragged bolls of cotton on the stunted end of dying stalks. The year before, his daddy hadn’t picked enough cotton to make a good Sunday-go-to-meeting shirt with long sleeves.

4No SirUndergPressIt was hot when he left home. It was hot when the helicopter set him down in the delta, just on the wrong side of the Nine Dragon River. Mekong he thought he heard his sergeant say. Kirby lay flat on the ground, his face pressed against the rice paddies. And all he heard was silence.

He closed his eyes and he remembered.

His daddy was leaning against the John Deere tractor.

His mama was crying.

A flag was hanging limp in the early morning sun.

Silence. Even the sound of the helicopter had faded in the distance.

Kirby Truett had escaped home all right. He wanted to go back.

No one heard the rifle shot. But Kirby had just turned to look into the face of the soldier lying next to him when a ragged hole suddenly appeared where the infantryman’s left eye socket had been. Death had arrived less than three feet away.

Kirby had killed pigs, chickens, squirrels and deer for years. Never thought much about it.  He had never seen a grown man die.

The private wasn’t much more than a boy. He would never become a man.

Then all hell broke loose around them. Kirby leaped to his feet screaming, running low toward the trees, firing until the M-16 had grown warm in his hands, expecting to die with every step, wondering why he was still alive when the silence returned to the delta. Maybe it was simply because he had a home to go home to. He sat alone in the rice paddies. He missed the old John Deere and he missed the cotton.

“Does it get any worse than this?” he asked his sergeant.

“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” the grizzled old man of thirty-three said.

By year’s end, Kirby Truett had seen it all, the good and the bad, and he had lost far too many friends. After awhile didn’t make many friends with the new blood attached to his platoon. It didn’t hurt as bad to lose a stranger. It hurt. Just not as bad.

He had arrived in the delta a scared kid. He was going home a man – straight and strong and walking with a limp. He had been lying in a delta field hospital with shrapnel in his hip when word reached him that his mama had died. Bad heart was what the letter said. Broken heart was closer to the truth.  She had never been a strong woman.

The bus that carried Kirby away from Arkansas brought him back. His had been an odd and precarious journey home. He had been ridiculed at the airport. He was spat upon as he walked into a café. He saw the crude, homemade signs from the window of the bus, the ones calling him a killer or worse. A young man with long hair, unwashed beard, drug-glazed eyes, torn undershirt, and army boots without the laces tied had cursed him all the way down the sidewalk in Little Rock.

Home would be different, he knew. But home would be home.

Kirby walked first into the small community cemetery and stood at the grave of his mama. The dirt was still raw, and only a few brittle blades of grass were trying to grow upon the small mound. He closed his eyes and tried to remember his mama smiling. All he saw were the tears.

He sat with his daddy on the lawn of the old folks home beneath a tree with dying limbs. The doctor said his daddy’s health had gone down real quickly after Bertha died. It grew even worse when he lost the farm. Jacob Truett was a rock, but he hadn’t been himself for months. Then his memory started to go.

Kirby took his daddy’s hand. The old man looked away. There was no flicker of recognition in his eyes. Kirby pressed his Purple Heart and Bronze Star in his daddy’s hands. The old man reached over and placed them in his top drawer next to a pile of letters Kirby had written home. The letters had not been opened. Kirby tried to think of something to say. He smiled instead and walked out of the room.

A taxi carried him back to the old home place. At first glance, not much had changed. The crops were still burnt.  But a For Sale sign sat crookedly in the yard. He was not expecting to see the For Sale sign. The sight of it was a gut punch. The bank didn’t want the farm. Nobody did. The house was dark. A window had broken. The flag had fallen from its pole, the wind had blown it into the field, and it lay tattered in dust where only the weeds were growing.

So that was the way life broke down for Kirby Truett

A country?

A home?

He didn’t have either anymore. He spit and the saliva was dry by the time it hit the dirt.

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