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  1. NaCl

    NaCl Contributing Member Contributor

    Apr 30, 2008
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    Rice Wine

    Discussion in '"Consequences" Short Story Contest' started by NaCl, May 28, 2008.

    by D S Sault (~7200 words)
    © Dean Sault, April 2008

    A middle-aged man limped down the front walk of his home, footing made tenuous by a growing layer of February snow. At the street, he opened his mailbox and rifled past bills and junk mail, hoping to find a special letter. His son’s commander had discovered the un-mailed correspondence while going through the soldier’s personal things and dropped it into the mail. That same day, the officer sent the obligatory “missing in action” telegraph notification to the family and, at the end of the mandatory military wording, he added a personal note warning them to keep an eye out for the letter.

    There it was!

    With fingertips calloused by years in his machine shop, the soldier’s father lightly brushed across the face of the rumpled envelope, feeling every crease. Each word on the outside of the letter was from his son’s own hand...the home address, the return military APO. He read it all, even the postmark of December 22, nineteen sixty-eight. The last thoughts his oldest child would ever share with him waited inside this scuffed envelope.

    A painful lump formed in the man’s throat. He relied more than usual on his cane as he cautiously walked back to the front porch. Sliding a small pocketknife blade under the envelope’s flap, he sliced it open, revealing the folded pages within. He hesitated to remove the contents. Somehow, the words in that letter meant the end of his oldest son’s life. There seemed no good reason to hasten the moment.

    The soldier’s father stood outside his front door, not able to bring himself to enter. His own father, many years before, taught him that men do not show feelings, a lesson he dutifully passed on to his own sons. He feared he might not live up to those childhood expectations when he finally chose to read these words from his son. No, he decided, at this moment he needed to be alone.

    A gentle breeze left a thin layer of snow on the porch bench, despite the short awning above. It did not matter. He sat on the cold wooden slats, hands trembling - though not from the cold. After carefully straightening the creases in the letter, the soldier’s father began reading. Each word spoke to him, as if read aloud by his son.

    “Hey Dad,

    I miss you and Mom. Hope you guys have a great Christmas.

    Maybe you could do me a favor. You remember that military allotment comin outta my pay? It’s goin into that savings account you set up for me when I joined the Army. I never did take your name off that account. I’d appreciate if you could take out twenty dollars for each of my brothers and give it to them for Christmas. Ain’t no way I can send nothing from here. Take twenty for you and Mom, too. Merry Christmas!

    Me and the guys set up a little Christmas tree in our hooch...that’s a tent. Well, it ain’t a real pine tree, just some kinda scrub bush we picked up on patrol last week. I used some a them candy canes, the ones Mom sent, for decorations. Some asshole’s been stealing em off our tree! I found the wrappers outside. If I catch that son of a bitch, he’ll get wunna them ‘you’ll-think-twice-next-time’ whoopins, you know, like the one you gave me when I broke into that church. You ‘member that? I was twelve and I saw all that money in the collection plate an’ figured nobody’d miss some. Bought me that new shotgun I wanted. When you figured out how I bought it, you made me take it back to the gun shop and give all the money back to that preacher. When we got home, wow! Those bruises hurt for a week, even after the strap marks went away! Sure wish I learned my lesson from you, back then.

    Dad, I gotta get something off my chest. Yeah, I know you always told me, men don’t get mushy, but I never did say thank you for what you done after the fire. Hell, I don’t even think I told you I was sorry. When we burned down Mr. Ketchen’s barn, it was me that lit that fire, not Jake. He said he’d take the fall cause he’s a minor. We knew he’d get off easy. And me, you got that prosecutor to let me join the Army instead’a doing time as a assory, accessor...I can’t spell the word, but you know what I mean. I know this don’t change nothing, now that Jake’s off probation, but I just wanted you to know the truth. I’m real sorry for turning out to be such a bad son. I know you did your best, and you done a good job! I just didn’t listen. Thanks for doing your best.

    Well, I guess you’re pissed at me now for getting all mushy. That’s too damn bad, old man! You’re tough...you’ll get over it. Besides, you can’t whoop me anymore! Ha-ha!

    We’re goin over the fence tomorrow...that means we’re sneaking into Cambodia on a deep recon mission. We’re not supposed to tell nobody about it. Last time when I was at the USO, the one down in Saigon, President Nixon was on television. He told all the reporters that we don’t have no US troops in Laos or Cambodia. What a crock! The NVA know we’re there! Guess they don’t watch no television! HaHa!

    I got a bad feeling about this one, Dad. Supposed to be a big NVA force moving south, toward IV Corp. We gotta find em and call in the flyboys for a air strike. You should feel the ground shake when them bombers light up the gooks in a Arc Light saturation bombing! Can’t hear worth a damn for a couple days afterward! Sure glad it’s them, and not me! Anyway, our lerp team...that’s what they call us Long Range Recon Patrol guys...we’re headin out before first light in the morning - that’s so local spies don’t see us leavin and tell their VC buddies. I think we’ll be gone a couple weeks, maybe a month. I’ll write again when I get back.

    Dad, if anything happens to me in Cambodia, the government will tell ya I’m missing in action. Don’t believe em! If I’m alive, I’ll find a way to get back. You taught me to survive in the woods. I learned to hunt, and be tough, just like you. When the Army put me through survival school, I laughed at em...wasn’t near as bad as keeping up with you in the bush! One of the DIs asked me what was so funny, I told him he ain’t seen nothin tougher than my dad!

    Well, I gotta get some rest. Like I said, I got a bad feeling about this one. Think we’re gonna lose some guys on this mission. I promise I’ll do everything in my power to protect my buddies and get home, but you never know when your number’s up over here. Just in case things don’t work out, please don’t let my little brothers forget me. And, tell Mom how much I love her. I’m leavin a bunch of pictures of me and my buddies in my foot locker, you know, just in case. Hell, I shouldn’t be talkin this way. It’s bad juju. Nothing’s gonna happen to me! I’m tough as my Dad!

    Love ya,


    ps. Dad, don’t let my little brothers come over here. Something just ain’t right about this war.”

    The letter slipped out of the father’s hand, falling into the snow at his feet. Inside the house, people talked loudly as they celebrated the birthday of Pete’s youngest brother. The man on the porch stared into the past, a past he longed to change. His chest heaved beyond his ability to stop. Tears rolled silently down his rough cheeks. Every decision he made while raising his son now seemed wrong. What if...? This preceded thought after thought, as he chastised himself for his son’s death.

    What if I did not push him into the Army? He thought about his role when he fought for a more constructive punishment for his son’s arson. What if I let him suffer the consequences of his actions? He’d still be alive...if I did not get involved. Yeah, he’d be on probation now...but he’d be alive.

    The front door opened from inside.

    “What are you doing out here in the cold, honey?” Pete’s mom leaned out to see her husband sitting on the porch bench.

    “I’ll be in shortly, Cathy. I’m just enjoying the fresh snow on the lawn.”

    “Well, don’t stay out here much longer. You’ll catch your death of pneumonia. Besides, Johnny has something he wants to tell you.” She forced herself to feign happiness for the sake of her other children, but deep down, grief for the loss of her eldest son ate away at her.

    “What’s that by your foot?” She noticed the letter.

    “It’s just a parts list. I gotta pick em up for the shop in the morning. Now, get inside woman!” He spoke unnecessarily gruff, and looked away so she could not see his face. “I told you, I’ll be in real quick!”

    When the door closed, Pete’s dad picked up the letter, crumpled it into a wad and shoved it to the bottom of his pants pocket. Before he opened the door, a dark green sedan, driving much too fast, rushed down their slushy street. It slid to a stop directly in front of his house and a young man, dressed in formal military uniform, charged up the slippery walk. The last time someone like this visited was last month, when Pete’s family received the formal news about his disappearance in action.

    “Sir! Are you retired Gunny Sergeant, Bill Johnson?”

    “Yeah, whadda you want?” Sgt. Johnson spoke with a touch of anger in his voice. For a fleeting moment, he resented that the government would repeat their prior notification. Once was more than enough. Then it dawned on him, they found Pete’s body!

    Sgt. Johnson steeled himself for the worst.

    “Sergeant, I came over here the minute the phone call arrived in our office.” The lieutenant poured out the words, while struggling to catch his breath. “They found your son...he’s alive!”

    “What?” The retired sergeant did not dare to believe his ears.

    “It’s true, sir! He’s in bad shape, survived twenty-eight days with three bullets in his back and half his leg blown off. Medics say it’s a miracle. Can you come with me, Sarge? I’ve got a Pac-comm direct-line to his hospital at Cam Rahn Bay. You can get the details from his doctor.”

    Both men headed for the sedan idling in the street. Sergeant Johnson limped behind the younger man, his speed limited by an artificial leg. The officer held the car door open while Sgt. Johnson struggled to fit his rigid prosthesis through the opening. On the way to the local Army base, the young man tried to make friendly conversation.

    “My C.O. told me about what you did in Korea, Sarge. I hear you saved your whole platoon in a firefight with nearly two hundred Chinese regulars. I’ve never met a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient before. It’s an honor to meet you, sir!”

    “Thanks.” Sgt. Johnson recovered from his initial shock enough to remember his manners. “I’m sorry, Lieutenant, I didn’t catch your name.”

    “Lieutenant Cole...Robert Cole, sir.” Even though the sergeant was not an officer, the younger man continued to call him “sir”, out of respect. “From what they tell me, your boy’s a hero. His unit got trapped and he stayed behind in the mouth of a narrow pass. He pinned down the NVA by himself so his men could escape.”

    Sgt. Johnson set his jaw in admiration for his son.

    Lt. Cole slowed at the base entrance, waiting for a permission to pass gesture and salute from the MP. Once they cleared the checkpoint, he continued.

    “When his recon team got to radio range, they called in the air strike, just like he ordered them to. It took his team two weeks after that to reach the extraction point. They all made it, thanks to your son! Sarge, you should know that every one of his team volunteered to go back and get him, but the bomb-damage assessment photos after Arc Light showed complete destruction of the area. Command said no one could have survived. Sir, he must be one hell of a chip off the old block!”

    The olive-green sedan stopped in front of the base Communications Center. Inside, a technician directed Sgt. Johnson to a blue telephone. It had no dials, only a single red light at its center. The red light lit up, and when instructed, the medically retired soldier took the phone off its cradle. The next thing he heard startled him to his core.

    “Dad? Dad, is that you?” Pete’s voice was weak.

    “Hey Petey, I’m right here. How’re you doing, son?”

    “Not so good, Dad. Doc says I lost my leg below the knee. They’re gonna take the bullets outta my back as soon as I get a little stronger. How’s, Mom? Did you tell her I made it?”

    "I came straight over to the base when I heard. I’ll tell Mom as soon as I get home, I promise.”

    “Dad, I’m sorry for letting you down...again.” Pete’s voice was quickly fading.

    “Knock that kinda talk off, damn it!” Sgt. Johnson chastised his son. Then, with deep pride in his voice, he tried to encourage the young man, “Pete, you get better real fast! And, don’t you worry about that leg. I know just the guy who can teach you to get around on one leg! You know, it’s really not too bad! You’ll do just fine son. And Pete...I’m proud of you!”

    The light on the blue phone went out.

    On the way home, Sgt. Johnson reached into his pocket. He contemplated the crumpled paper for several minutes before rolling down his window and throwing the letter into the slush along the roadside. Some things just don’t need to be said.

    Several months passed, while Pete healed and underwent a full course of physical therapy in a military hospital. Tears of joy poured from his mother when he hobbled into their living room for the first time since he left for Nam. His physical condition did not matter to her...her child was home.

    “I made your favorite chicken’n dumplings for dinner.” Pete’s mother straightened some wrinkles in his shirt collar as she talked. “I put fresh sheets on your bed and I made Dad charge the battery in your car, so it’s running. Oh Peter, I’m so happy to have you home!”

    She engulfed her oldest son in an awkward hug, trying to thread her arms under his crutches so she could feel his entire body within her grasp. Pete shook his head slightly, and looked at his father, acting as if her emotional display was a bit too much. Dad just winked back.

    Later that night, after everyone else went to bed, Pete and his father sat on the back patio listening to the crickets chirp. They didn’t say anything for the longest time, but Pete seemed antsy.

    “Dad, did you get a letter from me back in January?”

    “No, son. Why?”

    “You sure? My CO told me he mailed it.”

    “I think I’d remember if I got a letter from you, at that time.”

    Pete’s dad tried to let his son forget about the emotional things he said.

    “Why’r you lying to me, Dad? I know you got the letter.”

    “Now, how would you know a thing like that?” The sergeant acted surprised.

    “C’mon, Dad. Don’t screw with me. Bobby thanked me for the twenty bucks I give him for Christmas.”

    “I’m sorry, Pete. You said some things in that letter that I thought you might want to forget. I was just trying to let you off the hook. I’m the only one who read it.”

    “Thanks Dad, but I meant every word. One thing I learned in Nam is that sometimes you don’t get a second chance. One of my buddies, Marty Rich, he was a short timer. Had less than ten days left in country till he caught a freedom bird. Marty volunteered for perimeter duty. Shoulda been his last patrol. Damn VC got him, shot right through the head, never knew what hit him. CO asked me to pack his stuff up for his family. Dad, I got choked up when I saw pictures of his new baby. That little girl will never know her daddy.”

    “Yeah Pete, I did that a few times in Korea. Choked me up, too.”

    Pete’s bond with his father changed in that moment. Father and son became fellow soldiers - men who shared the insanity of war.

    “Dad, when I was trapped inside that NVA perimeter, I found an old bomb crater with a field of fire that let me hold off the NVA so my guys could get away. There was so many gooks, I went through all my clips and frags...and they just kept coming. One even got into my crater. He sprayed me on auto but I got him. I refused to let them win. I was down to half a clip and one frag left when Arc Light hit. Jesus Christ that was scary! I dropped to the bottom of the crater and covered my head till it stopped. When I looked back over the lip, they were all dead, every damn one of them. Half my leg was gone too. I don’t know how I made it. I laid in that hole for a week, eating bugs and worms after my C rations was gone. When my canteen ran out, I caught rainwater. I just laid there, in my own piss. You don’t know how many times I wanted to give up...but I made a promise to you, Dad! That’s what kept me going.”

    Pete’s dad knew this was an important moment for his son. Every soldier needs release for the pent up tensions of war. The older soldier opened a beer and handed it to his son without saying anything.

    “Thanks, Dad.” Pete took a sip, “Did they tell you how I got outta Cambodia?”


    “Bunch’a Hmongs saved me! They were picking through dead NVA, looking for valuables. When they got to me...they couldn’t believe I was alive. Half the village come out to carry me across the mud left by the bombs. Couple old women stripped me and washed my wounds. They put leeches on my back and leg...hurt like Hell and gave me the shakes so bad I couldn’t keep food down. That’s when they gimme me some kinda rice wine. Got me drunk, but at least I could eat!”

    “I’ve had homemade rice wine, in Korea.” Pete’s dad broke into a knowing smile. “Pretty good kick!”

    “Tell me about it! I spent almost a month in that village getting drunk every time they stuck leeches on me. You know, I kept having weird dreams, too...about that fire in Mr. Ketchen’s barn. Every night, same dream.”

    The beer took its toll on Sgt. Johnson’s bladder so he interrupted his son and went inside to take care of business. When he returned, Pete seemed anxious to finish his story.

    “Better now, old man?” Pete asked in jest.

    “Dad, you ever meet ROK Marines when you were in Korea?”

    “Yeah. Fought side by side with em on the Pusan peninsula. You were still in diapers. Some of the toughest sons-a-bitches I ever met! Why?”

    “I tried to communicate with the villagers so I could get a message back to our forces, but it was impossible. One night, the village chief and a couple Asian military guys woke me up. They were carrying M-16’s, so I knew they were on our side, but I didn’t understand them either, and they left. Turns out, these guys were a ROK recon team. Took a couple days for them to get word back to our side. I guess when our guys asked for my location, the ROKs refused to tell em. They said if American choppers land anywhere near that village, it would bring suspicion on the villagers and the NVA would wipe out the whole village. They tell me our guys were pretty pissed!”

    “So, how’d you get back?” Sgt. Johnson asked, angered by the complicated politics and logistics in Vietnam. It was not like that in his day. If a soldier went down, you moved Heaven and Earth to get him back.

    “A bunch of Korean marines showed up at the village with a stretcher and a US medic. Those ROKs took turns carrying me through mountain passes and a couple valleys full of elephant grass, till we got to an American LZ on the Nam side of the fence. Took a coupla days, and they never slept! Tough bastards!”

    Sgt. Johnson’s appreciation for the Korean Marines swelled.

    Pete took several big chugs from his beer.

    “That’s pretty much all, Dad. The rest is just medics, drugs, surgeries..." Pete pointed at his dad's artificial leg. "...you know the drill.”

    Both men leaned back in their green plastic porch chairs, grateful for the late night chill at the end of a hot summer day. Fireflies twinkled in the distance while father and son enjoyed silent comradeship. After several minutes, Sgt. Johnson brought up an old issue that needed attending.

    “Pete, you given any thought to Mr. Ketchen’s barn? You know, he still hasn’t rebuilt it.”

    “Funny you ask about that, Dad. When I was in that village, I promised myself, if I lived through this, I’d find a way to repay him. He’s gotta be what, seventy years old?”

    “Actually, he’s over eighty. His wife died while you were in recon school. They say he hasn’t been the same since. How you gonna build him a new barn, when you don’t have any money and with only one good leg?”

    Pete thought for a moment, “I don’t know, but I’ll find a way.”

    That night, Sgt. Johnson struggled to sleep as his son relived Vietnam through terrifying dreams. “Incoming!” Pete half mumbled, half shouted in his sleep. All night long, a steady stream of nightmares, at irregular intervals, produced more call-outs...“Medic!”, “Oh no, they got Marty!”, “Gooks in the wire!”, “Sappers!”

    Each time the old soldier heard his son call out, he checked on the young man, but was careful not to wake him. As tough as this was, he knew his son had to follow the path of countless soldiers before him. Long after the surgeries healed, the emotional wounds of war would still be raw.

    The next morning, Pete rose before anyone else. His dad heard the front door close and looked out the upstairs bedroom window. Pete hobbled down the uneven pavement along the side of the road, with his grandfather’s shotgun tied to one of the crutches.
  2. NaCl

    NaCl Contributing Member Contributor

    Apr 30, 2008
    Likes Received:
    by D S Sault
    © Dean Sault, April 2008

    -continued -

    Sgt. Johnson pulled on his clothes, jumped in his car and quickly caught up to his son, pulling over a little farther down the road. He leaned against the trunk of the car and waited for Pete to reach him.

    “Where the Hell you going, so early? Your mom’s gonna be pissed! She made a fresh batch of your favorite blackberry pancake topping for your first morning home. Boy, you don’t want to piss off that woman!” Sgt. Johnson tried to joke.

    “Got business to take care of, Dad. Didn’t want to wake you up...” Then Pete gave the razzing right back. “...especially seeing as how bad you need the beauty sleep!”

    The dad smiled and pointed at the shotgun. “Possum or pheasant?”

    “Neither. This shotgun...it’s the one grandpa left me...it’s the only thing I got of any value. I know it ain’t a barn, but it’s a start. I’m gonna give it to Mr. Ketchen.” Pete lifted his right armpit up off the crutch arm pad and massaged sore tissue left by using crutches for any length of time. “Since you’re up, how ‘bout a ride the rest of the way? These crutches kill my pits!”

    “Sure. Hop in.” Sgt. Johnson held the door open while his son struggled with his crutches. “You’ll get the hang of those pretty soon.”

    Father and son pulled into a long driveway leading up to a weathered old farmhouse. It was still early in the morning, but like farmers everywhere, Mr. Ketchen’s day began at first light. When he heard crunching gravel in his driveway, he came around from the back of the house to see who it might be. He walked straight over to Pete’s side of the car and opened the door.

    “Hi there, Pete. How’re you doing? Sorry to hear about your injuries, son.” He leaned down to look at Pete’s dad. “Hi ya, Bill. How’s the family?”

    This was not the angry reception Pete expected.

    “We’re doin fine, Art. He’s got something to say to you,” he nudged Pete. “...don’t you, son?”

    “Yeah...well...ummm,” Pete stammered at first. “Mr. Ketchen, I’m real sorry about your barn. I come to put things right.”

    Pete worked his way out of the car and leaned against the front fender and one crutch while he untied the shotgun from the other one. Once he got started on his mission, the words flowed easily.

    “This Model-21 was my granddad’s pride and joy. He had it special made in the Winchester Custom Shop with that engraved stock. Left it to me in his will. I figure it’ll fetch quite a few dollars. Mr. Ketchen, I want you to have it...” Pete held out the shotgun. “...as a down payment on a new barn. I dunno where I’ll get the rest of the money, but I’m gonna build you a new one, if it takes the rest of my life.”

    Pete got choked up. He rehearsed this moment in his mind many times in that South East Asian village, but now that the payback actually started, it felt far different than he envisioned.

    “Thank you, Pete. About time you became a man. C’mon in, you two. I haven’t had much company since Ruthie died.” Mr. Ketchen looked up at the clouds. “Sure do miss you, old girl.”

    Sgt. Johnson and Pete followed the old man around to the back of his home. As they headed for the back door, Pete could not help but notice the large black scar on the ground where the barn used to be.

    Mr. Ketchen laid the shotgun on the kitchen table, and poured a cup of coffee for each of them. Then, he picked the shotgun up and admired its artisan ship.

    “That’s a mighty fine shotgun, Pete! Don’t ever recall seeing an engraved stock quite this detailed. I appreciate this,” he said, as his looked past the weapon at Pete, “but I still don’t understand why you burned down that barn in the first place. You care to tell me?”

    Pete searched for an answer to a question he, himself, often pondered. His memory was clear, but from his perspective now, the motivation for arson seemed ridiculous.

    “Mr. Ketchen, we didn’t mean for the barn to catch fire. We wanted to piss you off by burning those old hay bales, you know, the old ones stacked out back. They been there for a long time and we figured they weren’t good no more.”

    “Why on Earth, would you want to burn that old hay?” The picture still did not make sense to the old farmer.

    “It seems pretty stupid to me, now,” Pete fiddled with his hands as he talked. “...but it was a big deal to me and Jake, back then. You remember chasing us outta your field that morning?”

    “Yeah. You boys were bird hunting, if I recall.”

    “Yes, sir. The harvest was over and a lot of pheasant and quail moved into your field for the seed spillage. We didn’t think you’d care if we hunted, so long as we kept a safe distance from your house. Then you come out, and chased us off. We thought you were being a jerk. That’s when we got to talking about ways to get you back.”

    Mr. Ketchen folded his arms across his chest and assumed the rest of the story.

    “So, you boys decided to show your anger with a little fire behind my barn.”

    “Yes, sir...but we didn’t mean to burn the barn! Honest! Some of that burnin hay took into the air and landed on the barn. It was stupid. I can’t believe we did that. I’m gonna build you a new barn, Mr. Ketchen. I promise.”

    “Come with me, Pete.” Mr. Ketchen headed through a doorway leading deeper into his home. “You too, Bill. You might find this interesting.”

    Pictures adorned every wall as the three men walked down a hallway toward the living room.

    Sgt. Johnson stopped at one of the pictures.

    “Hey Art! Is this picture my dad?”

    “Yep. Mighty fine man, your dad. That’s what I want to show you fellas. Your dad kept to himself and there might be a few things you never knew about him.”

    Mr. Ketchen opened a ragged old picture album. Several loose photos fell onto the coffee table, all in black and white, and faded by time. The old farmer picked up one picture of a young man and woman standing in front of a new farmhouse.

    “That’s me and the misses, back when we bought this farm.” He sighed as memories took his attention for a minute. “Coupla kids with big dreams. We were so poor, all the mice left the farm cause there was nothing to eat!” The old man chuckled at his own joke.

    Page after page turned, until Mr. Ketchen found his objective. It was a picture of his barn during construction. Several workers performed mixed tasks in the photo. One man strained against a rope and pulley system, hoisting a load of lumber up to the barn’s loft door. The farmer pointed to one man in particular. This person differed from the rest. He wore a business suit of the times and held an overseers note pad.

    “Bill, that’s your daddy. He helped me build that barn. Came over every day at noon to make sure we had enough lumber and workers. One time when we were short three men, your father went back to his mill and sent his three strongest workers over to take their place. I never could have built that barn without his help.”

    “Dad never told me you two were friends.” Sgt. Johnson expressed surprise. “Wasn’t this during the Depression?”

    “Yep. Tough times back then. Ruth and I were barely scratching out a living when she come down with rheumatic fever. She was pregnant...lost the baby...nearly broke her heart. Even later in life, when we never could have another child, she cried about losing that one baby. She would’a made a great mother.” Mr. Ketchen sighed and then continued, “Anyway, Ruthie was in the hospital for two weeks. The bill was more than we earned in three years, so I did the only thing I could. I put the farm up for sale. It was the only way I could pay our debts.”

    “But that was still during the Depression, wasn’t it?” Sgt. Johnson understood how difficult it would have been to sell a farm at that time.

    “Oh yeah...worst of the Depression. Wasn’t nobody buying farms back then. I called the hospital and told em, they’d just have to take the farm as payment. They told me, ‘Mr. Ketchen, your bill is paid in full. Didn’t anyone tell you?’ Course, I thought they made a mistake, but they insisted.”

    Mr. Ketchen turned another page. A very old piece of lined paper, now cracked and barely readable, showed through the cellophane page-cover.

    “This here’s a promissory note. It was for the entire cost of my wife’s hospital stay. No interest. No payment schedule. Look who signed it.”

    Both Sgt. Johnson and Pete could read the grantor’s signature. Bill’s dad...Pete’s grandpa...saved the farm for Mr. and Mrs. Ketchen.

    “Took me and Ruth nearly eight years to pay your dad back. I offered him the farm a couple times, but he wouldn’t take it. He told me, just worry about my Ruthie, and pay him back whenever I could. Even during bad crops, when I couldn’t pay him nothing, your dad never came by...not even one time...asking for a payment. He only put one condition on that loan. Asked me never to tell a sole about it. He was a very private man.”

    Pete only knew his grandfather through family stories. Most portrayed him as a stern disciplinarian - a man who demanded obedience and never showed emotion. When he died, most of his wealth went to the local church to help the less fortunate. He left a small sum to each of his children with the admonition, that anyone could get rich in America, but it only meant something, if it came through hard work, not by inheritance.

    Mr. Ketchen leaned back on his sofa and pointed at Pete. “Your grandfather...he was a truly great man, and a good friend. Before I join Ruthie, God willing, I wanted you to know the whole truth about him. When you went missin in Vietnam, I was afraid I’d never get the chance to share this with you.”

    Pete’s emotions swung violently between great pride and deep shame; pride for his grandfather, and shame for his role in the despicable arson. More than ever, he needed to make things right.

    “Now, I have a confession of my own to make." Mr. Ketchen turned to face Pete's dad. "Bill, when you asked that DA to go easy on Pete, he come to me and asked me what I wanted. Said he’d put your boy in jail, or let him join the service...it was up to me. I was the one who sent Pete into the Army. It wasn’t you. I didn’t mean for things to work out this way, but it did, and I feel awful bad about it.”

    “It’s not your fault, Art.” Sgt. Johnson shifted responsibility back to his son, where he felt it rightfully belonged. “Pete was always hardheaded. If it wasn’t the Army, he probably would have gotten into some other kind of trouble.”

    Mr. Ketchen turned back to Pete.

    “Boy, when your granddaddy was dying from cancer, he asked me to keep an eye on your family. I promised I would. I didn’t care about you and your brother shootin birds in my field that day. Hell, I was hoping you’d offer me a few for dinner! What I was really trying to do, was teach you a lesson about respecting other people’s property. I figured that’s what your grandpa would want me to do.”

    Pete responded, “And, you were completely right, sir. We shoulda listened.” Pete rubbed his pants over the stump of his leg, as he thought about the price he paid to grow up.

    “Tell you what Pete, I’m gonna keep your granddad’s shotgun, for now. You can have it back when I die. But, don’t you worry about that old barn. Okay? We’re square.”

    “No, sir! I burned down the barn that you and my grandpa built. I’m gonna build you a new one. That’s only fair.”

    “Really Pete, it’s not necessary.” The old farmer thought for a moment. “Tell you what. There is something else you can do for me, something mighty important.”

    “Anything, Mr. Ketchen! You name it!”

    “I want you to run my farm. The harvest has to be complete before the first heavy rain and I can’t manage the reaper any more. Think you can handle it with that missing leg?”

    Pete bristled at the challenge. “You bet! I’ll figure out a way, no matter what it takes!”

    The next day, Pete and his dad studied the controls of the harvester. He would need a hand device to take the place of one of the foot controls. His dad crafted exactly what he needed at the machine shop, and together, father and son designed entirely new prosthetic appliances, each tailored to Pete’s specific needs for running the farm.

    The seasonal rains hit right after Pete got the crop to market. By hard work and long days, he beat the other local farmers and got top dollar for his new boss. Pete rushed back to the farm from the county granary to tell Mr. Ketchen the good news, but the old farmer was nowhere to be found. In the distance, Pete heard two quick shotgun blasts. Kids were hunting Mr. Ketchen's fields!

    Pete jumped into the farm work truck and rushed across the bumpy field in the direction of the blasts. As he approached, a single hunter stood several rows deep in the harvest stubble, holding up two fat cock pheasants. It didn’t bother Pete that someone was hunting, but why didn’t the guy ask permission?

    The truck skidded to a stop and the hunter turned around, not the least bit alarmed by the intrusion on his hunting.

    “Hey, Pete! Look what I got us for dinner! You up for some fresh game?” Mr. Ketchen wore a complete hunting outfit, as if he was going on a big game safari.

    “Hi, Mr. Ketchen. So...ahhh...when did YOU take up hunting?” Pete laughed at the ridiculous sight.

    “Well boy, I recently traded a barn for this here great shotgun! Thought I’d see if it hunted as good as it looks. You ought to try it some time!” The farmer teased back.

    “Hop in, old man. I’ll give you a ride. I got great news about the crop!”

    On the way back to the farmhouse, Pete told how he was offered too low a price and he told the brokers he’d let the grain rot, before he’d sell it for that amount. That’s when they started taking him seriously and began negotiating in good faith. He handed Mr. Ketchen the largest check ever received for the grain from Ketchen Farm.

    “There’s enough money for all of next year’s operational budget and some extra to rebuild that barn!” For some reason, Pete’s excitement about the barn did not register with the old farmer.

    “Pete, we made it through just fine with the sheds we already have. Maybe we should skip the barn.”

    Pete insisted. “You and my grandpa built that barn. I gotta make it up to you.”

    Mr. Ketchen climbed out of the truck and headed for his house, talking to Pete over his shoulder as he went.

    “Pete, did you ever wonder why I didn’t rebuild it already?”

    “Well yeah, but dad said he thought you didn’t have enough money.”

    Mr. Ketchen laughed. “Lord no. Ruthie and I lived a frugal life...that woman could squeeze two dimes out of a single nickel. I coulda built a new barn any time, if I needed one. Besides, that old barn you burned down...the county condemned it over a year before. Fined me twice, they did, for not tearing the damn thing down! In a way, you did me a favor!”

    The old farmer threw the pheasants into an outdoor sink for cleaning later that evening. Pete followed him into the kitchen, a bit frustrated by the news, that all this time, he had been brooding about burning down a...a condemned barn!

    “Pete, sit down. I have something for you.”

    Mr. Ketchen left the room. When he returned, he carried a black felt case, about the size of a thick loose-leaf binder. He handed it to Pete, without comment.

    The lid of the case resisted. Pete could tell it remained closed for many years and he sensed there was something of great value inside. When it finally yielded to steady pressure, a magnificent medallion lay before him, attached to a blue velvet ribbon. Beneath the medallion and ribbon, there was a neatly folded newspaper account of heroism with a picture of a man shaking the hand of a president Pete did not recognize. The man was his grandfather...receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor!

    “Like I said, Pete, your grandpa was a private man. He give this to me for safekeeping. Didn’t even want his family or the local town to know about it. I sent away for the Washington newspaper so I could cut out the story and add it to the case. I was gonna leave it to your father when I die, but I changed my mind. I want you to give it to your dad for me, now. Would you do that?”

    Pete could not answer. He wondered if his dad would choke up, too.

    Thirty years passed since Pete lost his leg in the Vietnam War. His company, founded on the farmland he inherited from Mr. Ketchen, prepared for its big "Year-2000 Celebration". The president of the company spoke at their annual press conference, following a carefully scripted speech.

    “...and our company remains dedicated to the finest prosthetics and innovative research, as we seek to improve the lives of our customers. Any questions?”

    A reported near the front asked, “When is Mr. Johnson going to speak to us?”

    “As you know, Mr. Johnson created this company with his father many years ago. He prefers to work privately, and as has always been his custom, he will not be speaking in public today.”

    Another, more aggressive, reporter piped up, “Can’t you ask him to make an exception? His company makes a lot of money. Doesn’t he owe the public an appearance?”

    The company president shot back. “Mr. Johnson’s public support is legendary. His charitable donations are well-documented in our annual statement. He chooses to be a very private man, but I’m certain thousands of people who have benefited from his generosity deeply appreciate his assistance. Besides, he’s not even in the country right now.”

    Thousands of miles away, two men descended from a government helicopter. It balanced precariously on two sheets of old plywood, placed over thick mud. One man, quite old, needed assistance until he gained footing on solid ground. Both men limped up to the entrance of a crude hut, followed by a swarm of excited, half-dressed children. An old village chief greeted them with traditional offers of food and shelter, primitive though they were. Once inside, the interpreter extended an offer of custom made prosthetic devices for every person in the village who had lost a limb to land-mines, disease or congenital defects. When the leader of the village asked why such an honor fell upon his people, the Hmong interpreter told the story of the rescue and care, provided so long ago. The only payment asked from the village chief was a single gourd of homemade rice wine.

    When Pete’s grandfather took care of a desperate farmer during the Great Depression, little did he know, that one day, his compassion would extend to millions of people all the way around the world. Pete and his dad slept well that night, having imbibed a bit too much rice wine.
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  3. pip

    pip Member

    May 17, 2008
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    Wow! Terrific.

    I truly loved this.

    Salty, you certainly have captured, harnessed, tethered and tamed the essence of 'consequences'.
  4. garza33

    garza33 Active Member

    May 26, 2008
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    San Ignacio Town, Belize
    I've been there. The pictures painted in this story are real right down to the last period. Beautiful work.
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