A Cigar Box of Tea Bags
New Year's was bright but cold outside. My house was bright and warm inside, but also full of football and in-laws. Once I had my fill of both, I made my excuses, packed up some ham sandwiches and a jug of tea, and went looking for Mr. Henry. I was in a pretty good mood, and I wanted to share it with him.
I drove by his special place down at the dump, but didn't really expect to see him there with the temperature this low. When I got to his house in town, I could hear him fussin' at Leroy in the room over the garage.
"Dammit, Leroy, there ain't a self-respecting pig in the county that would live in here!"
"That's just 'cause they don't like to climb stairs!" said Leroy. "And anyways, I'm movin' out to my new trailer, so don't get your panties in a bunch!"
I left the sandwiches in the truck, but took the tea up to the room. Leroy did seem to be making some attempt at packing up, and Mr. Henry seemed glad to see me. I managed to find three glasses amidst the rubble, and poured out some tea.
This seemed to calm Mr. Henry down a bit. He found a place to sit down, and looked me over. "So why do you have that silly grin on your face? You must have got another phone call!"
"Yep", I said, "He made it to Kuwait on a mission, and his cell phone works there. We had a nice talk."
Mr. Henry thought about this a while. "We had to get by with letters. V-mail we called it. 'Course, the War Department had Telegrams, but they kinda got a bad reputation. Nobody wanted to get one."
Well, that comment sent me off in the wrong direction, but Leroy provided a distraction. "What's this stuff in the cigar box, Mr. Henry? It sorta looks like what my sister got from the band in High School."
I flinched. Leroy had found the cigar box. Danny had told me about it long ago, but I had never seen it myself. I tried to bypass the situation.
"Leroy, that's Mr. Henry's stuff, not yours. Just put it down and keep packing up your own stuff!"
"But this looks cool! I want to hear about it. What's this one for?" He held up a green and brown striped medal, with some other colors added in.
Mr. Henry seemed OK with show and tell. "That's for service in the European Theater of Operations."
Leroy, as usual, missed the point. "I never knew you was an actor! What about this red, yellow and blue one?"
"That's the World War Two Victory Medal," said Mr. Henry. "That's the last Victory Medal they made. Definin' 'Victory' has got a lot tougher since 1945!"
He turned to me. "Speakin' of victories, when's your boy comin' home?"
"Not for a couple more months," I said. "The rules this week say he has to put in a whole year in country. 365 days, no more, no less."
Leroy interrupted again. "Hey, here's a blue pin with an old rifle on it. It'd look cool on my huntin' hat!"
"It would, but it won't! Quit messin' with my stuff!"
Mr. Henry was starting to get irritated, and I was starting to get a little nervous.
Mr. Henry has mellowed out a lot as he got older, but back in the old days he used to act really crazy sometimes, particularly when he was drinkin'. Little things would set him off, and he could be pretty fierce. In a bigger town he probably would have been in jail a lot.
But he seemed to be handling things OK for now, and he turned back to me.
"365 days? My whole Army career didn't last that long!" He seemed to think that was funny, and I was glad to laugh with him. But his statement sounded a little odd, although I had never thought about it before.
I didn't get to think about it this time either, as Leroy piped up again. "There's a box with two yellow pins in it. They look brand new, but they're pretty plain. Want me to toss 'em?"
Mr. Henry stood up, and I could tell he was getting mad again.
"They ain't never been worn! But the only thing that's gonna get tossed out of here is you, Leroy! Now put my things down!"
When I was growing up, a lot of my friends were afraid of Mr. Henry. 'Course, some of 'em used to play tricks on him and call him names, but I never did. I liked to talk to him, at least during his good times. Even as a kid, I knew enough to stay away from him when the bad times came around.
Leroy, an acknowledged master at ignoring reality, had not realized just how much he was stirring the pot. He went on rustling through the cigar box.
"Hey, this purple thing has a picture of a guy in a pony tail. Where'd you get it, a Willie Nelson concert?"
Mr. Henry didn't say anything. He just stood there, and I saw a wild look in his eyes. The last time I saw that look, he was storming around in front of the Mayflower Cafe, loudly offering to take on the world, all at once or one at a time.
That was pretty scary to a kid on a bicycle.
I asked my Dad once why Mr.
Henry acted like he did.
He just said quietly, "Sometimes, Mr. Henry hears the guns again…."
Leroy, still oblivious, kept on plundering. "Look here! This one's pretty! How'd you get this red, white and blue thing with the gold star hanging on it?"
"I … don't … remember." said Mr. Henry, the words rumbling ominously across the room like a line of thunderstorms on a June afternoon.
I knew I should be doing something, but I was frozen in my tracks.
"Well, what's the matter, Mr. Henry?" laughed Leroy "You getting' senile on us. Old Man? Why can't you remember?"
There was a bit of a pause, while Mr. Henry fought his internal battle, and an explosion when he lost it.
"I REMEMBER ENOUGH TO KICK YOUR GODDAM ASS!"
Now, Leroy is not known as a man of quick wit and action, but this last bit of rather loud advice finally penetrated his thick skull. Without a word, he gently put the medal down and started backing slowly toward the stairs.
Mr. Henry matched him step for step for about three paces, then hurled the glass of tea. Leroy hit the head of the stairs just as the glass crashed into the wall next to his head, and committed himself to the tender mercies of gravity. I don't think he hit more than two steps all the way down.
Mr. Henry stopped in the middle of the room and just stood there, shaking. I tiptoed around the shards of glass and went down the stairs myself. I made sure Leroy was gone and got the sandwiches out of my truck. I waited a few more minutes, took a few deep breaths, and went back upstairs.
Mr. Henry had recovered himself, and was happy to see the sandwiches. We sat down and worked on them for a while. Then, as I knew he would, Mr. Henry began to talk.
"I really don't remember.
"I got to Europe six months out of high school, in December of '44. I already told you what happened that first night of the Bulge. The next few weeks were almost as bad. We kept losing boys and not getting replacements, and one day the Captain told me I was a Sergeant. Then after a while longer, I got called to a meeting one night. Some brass was there, and they said there was a big push set for the next day.
"Somebody also told me I was now a Lieutenant, which was a bit of a shock. I didn't feel right about it, but things was pretty hectic. The Major told me the paperwork would be a little late.
"The next day we set out. Things was OK for a couple of hours. Then I remember hearing a funny sound, and signaling the boys to get down. And I think I remember a loud explosion. But I don't really know what happened.
"I do remember waking up in the hospital. My head was all wrapped up, and I couldn't hardly see nothin'. I also couldn't move anything or talk. I sorta drifted in and out for a few days.
"One day a clerk came by and said he had my promotion papers. I still couldn't talk, but he said he needed my signature. He put a pen in my hand and moved it over the papers. He left the bars by the bed.
"Another day another G.I. came by on crutches. He mumbled some stuff about how he wanted to thank me, but didn't know how. He seemed kinda glad I couldn't talk.
"Finally, a Colonel came by
and read a story to me. It sounded like something out of a comic book. I
didn't know who the hell he was talking about, but he pinned that on my pillow
before he left."
Mr. Henry nodded over at the medal.
"So I guess I musta' did somethin'. I just wish I knew what it was, and if it was worth this hole in my head." He reached up to take off his hat, but then he saw the look on my face and lowered his hand.
"'Course, I did get better after while. My war was over, though, and they sent me home. The town hadn't changed much in ten months, but I guess I'd changed a bit. I had some troubles back then."
I couldn't think of anything to say, but silence seemed to fit the situation just fine.
After a while, Mr. Henry put everything back in the cigar box and put it away. He sat back down and asked me, "So, what else does your boy say?"
"He says he's not going back again," I replied.
Mr. Henry thought about that a while.
"Well," he said, "I hope he has better luck than me.
"I go back most every day."
Bob McKellar - Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2003 Bob McKellar