Same man, but where had the mad gone?

A flag was there to welcome him home. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford.
A flag was there to welcome him home. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford.

HE WAS MAD when he left.

But then, Chester was usually mad.

He left on a train.

He didn’t look back.

The little town was home for many.

It had never been home for him.

It didn’t know he was gone.

The house was empty.

That’s all.

Chester grew up behind the bus station.

He lived in a shotgun house.

His mama worked two jobs.

She was a waitress.

She was a maid.

She was hardly ever in the house.

But she kept cold bologna sandwiches on the table.

Cold bologna.

And mayonnaise.

Chester was a child of Cross Plains.

He didn’t belong, and he knew it.

His friends wore boots.

He had tennis shoes.

His friends drove cars.

Chester walked.

His friends ate steak.

He did what he could with cold bologna.

One day he awoke, and it had happened.

He no longer had any friends.

They left town.

He was stuck behind the bus station.

They were in college.

He was changing tires at Fred’s service station.

He watched his mama take her last breath.

She was a good woman, the minister said.

Heart wore out, the doctor said.

The county buried her.

Chester stood beside her grave, Chester and the minister.

A psalm.

A prayer.

Amen.

Chester was alone.

Goodbye, he said to his mama.

Goodbye, he said to them all.

He walked to the depot and bought a one-way ticket.

Uncle Sam wanted him.

No one else did.

He was mad at the town.

He was mad at life.

If he had a gun, he would kill somebody.

The Army gave him a gun.

They shipped him to a place the newspaper called Southeast Asia.

They shipped him to a place his sergeant called Da Nang.

They shipped him to hell.

A year later they shipped him home.

He carried a bullet in his chest, limped from shrapnel in his leg, and wore a Silver Star on his chest.

The Medal of Honor came later.

He had survived the day he was supposed to die.

He had eleven men with him.

If necessary, he would die for them.

He went where no man should go.

The bullets hit him.

They didn’t stop him.

One man alone.

One man still mad.

One man with a gun.

When night fell, the fighting had stopped.

It was so quiet.

Chester listened.

He heard nothing.

He thought his was dead.

Eleven men carried him out of the valley.

A train carried him home.

The wounds hurt.

But they healed.

His leg was crooked.

But he could stand straight.

The whole town was waiting when Chester stepped from the train.

Cross Plains had a hero.

Cross Plains couldn’t wait to honor him.

The Mayor planned a parade.

Flags flew on every street corner.

The band played.

The crowd cheered.

The Mayor made a speech.

He looked around for Chester.

Where was Chester?

Chester was down at the corner café, eating a bologna sandwich.

He saw the parade pass by.

He ordered another Coke.

He smiled at the waitress.

She winked at him.

He remembered her from eighth-grade social studies.

She had been the third girl in the second row.

She had freckles then.

Chester smiled again.

He had left his anger in a valley with the shadow of death.

He left his anger in hell.

Chester wasn’t mad anymore.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    The world is filled with people I don’t know who have stories I’ll never tell. That’s the frustration of life.

    • I’m smiling. Chester came home – and knows what’s important. So many Chester stories end with MORE anger.

      • Caleb Pirtle

        Some leave their anger on the battlefield, Alicia, and some bring the battlefield home.

  • Roger Summers

    Maybe now and then we cross paths with Chester. Maybe out on the street. Maybe in another town. Maybe when it is sizzling hot. Maybe when it is freezing cold. Maybe he – or she – goes by another name. Maybe there are children with them, as seems to increasingly be the story these days of those who exist on the streets, or nearby, shyly hiding in the shadows. Should we give them anything? A few coins? Even a smile? Any sort of encouraging acknowledgement? Or just look past them, as if not to see?

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Like the homeless man in your gripping Christmas story, Roger. We never know why they walk through an abyss to become invisible, and we never know why they choose not to come back. If we no longer see them, they don’t exist even if we’re close enough to touch each other. That is and forever will be the American tragedy.

  • Christina Carson

    Ah yes, death as our most potent and accurate adviser and it never lies.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      And, Christina, we have no choice but to listen.

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