I imagine each of us can be transported back in time to memories of our first love regardless of how many years has passed. For me, it’s been 50 years. I’m not talking about crushes or the people we “went with” for a class period, a day, a week, or a month. I’m referring to that person that truly took up residence in our hearts, and still maintains a sliver of space somewhere in the deepest corner.
I met my first love in a Sunday School class when my family was visiting my grandmother in Waurika, Oklahoma. It was spring, 1968. I was shy. He was shy. However, I thought he was mysterious because he wore dark glasses. He was cute and had sandy blonde hair. Following Sunday School I was invited to sit on the back pew with the other teenagers. Whispered conversations and the passing of notes during that hour led to our first date that evening. I think we went to a movie. I remember the drive from small town Waurika to the larger town of Duncan, there is a tall bridge and a dangerous curve that has to be navigated in Comanche. Below the bridge were a lot of boulders, trees, and a full creek. It frightened me. I was from the flat, desert-like prairie of New Mexico, tall bridges on S curves weren’t something I saw every day.
We talked comfortably without nervousness. That surprised me. We discussed our families, where we lived, music, and our dreams for the future. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after high school. I still dreamed of graduating and becoming a registered nurse.
JES and I saw each other every day until my family returned to Lovington. Daily letters passed in the mail for months. JES and a friend brought my grandmother for a visit during the summer. His kindness toward my grandmother raised him to hero status in my heart.
We dragged Main Street, listened to KOMO out of Oklahoma City, had Pancho burgers from Ole Jax, and just hung out. We talked for hours about nothing and everything. We took a day trip to Carlsbad Caverns. The underground wonders came to life and held a more profound meaning during that day. I had been to the Caverns before, they weren’t new to me.
When the day came that JES and my grandmother had to return to Oklahoma Grandma Jodie begged my parents to let me move in with her. I wanted to go, how I wanted to go. My parents said no. My heart broke when they left, but I knew we would be together again.
The letters and phone calls continued. But, alas, something happened in my life to make this remarkable first love die a painful death. It was my fault. Entirely. But, that is another story.
Authors ask “what if” all the time. If things had worked out the way my teenaged heart thought it should I would have been spared a great deal of heartbreak. But, then I wouldn’t have met Frank. Erick and Bill wouldn’t have been born. I wouldn’t have my granddaughters who own my whole heart.
The magic of Facebook has reintroduced my first love and me. He is happily married and is content with his life.
When I was 11 years old my mother dressed my brother and me up to go to town for the annual parade complete with the appearance of Santa, shopping, and cheeseburgers with fountain cokes at City Café. I wore a red and green plaid taffeta dress with a red bow on the left hip. Plus, several itchy petticoats. That dress made me feel like a million bucks and so very pretty.
Mama gave my brother, John, and me five dollars each to purchase gifts for our family. We lived in Levelland, Texas, a small, dusty, oil-field town that became a wonderland at Christmas. The old-fashioned court house square was hung with white lights, greenery, and bells. Each store had its own decorations and multiple strings of lights. The Main Street light posts had silver bells arching over them.
Mama made us go into the stinky, old department store first to help her choose a gift for Daddy. The floors were scuffed and they creaked with every step, merchandise was crowded together, and the musty odor made my nose itch. We finally found a blue shirt and socks for Daddy, then Mama marched us to the creepy shoe department in the back corner to have our feet measured. I drug my feet and whined knowing full well that the seemingly 300 foot tall grizzly bear with obsidian eyes, dusty fur worn off on its back paws and chest where people had touched it year after year, and yellow claws would tower over me. I was afraid it would topple over on me. Or, worse, come to life.
The clerk measured my feet first and with Mama’s permission I rushed away to wait at the front of the store. I stumbled onto a large and deep box covered in red paper sitting next to the door.
How had I not seen it before? It was full, really full, of stuffed animals. I dug through it as happy as I could be. A small, reclining tiger kept making its way to my hands and heart.
I begged Mama for it, but she said no and rushed us out to shop at Ben Franklin, the 5 and 10 store wonder. My five dollars started making my hand sweat. John and I were sent our separate ways to find gifts for Mama, Daddy, and each other.
I never wasted time shopping. My gifts were never very creative, but John’s were. He spent time thinking and figuring out just what would be the best gift. I quickly found handkerchiefs for Daddy. Three sparkling white handkerchiefs in a small, long, flat box with a clear cover and a gold string tied in a bow to keep it closed. Mama almost always got a small cobalt blue bottle of Evening in Paris perfume. And, probably a car or truck for John.
The thing is, I had some change. I was supposed to save my change. But, I just had to have a quarter pound of hot, roasted redskin peanuts in the tiny paper bag. The best treat ever! I did get in trouble for not saving my change. Sort of. Mama started to get on to me, but stopped, saying “it’s Christmas.”
We hurried through the cold mist for a warm lunch. As we left to watch the parade it began sleeting. The gray sky didn’t dampen our spirits because the parade was set to begin any moment. The gloomy gray actually made the lights seem brighter and more colorful. We watched from the car and waved from lowered windows as veterans with flags, horses, marching bands, twirlers, cheerleaders, floats, and, finally, Santa on the fire truck passed by.
Then . . . Magic . . . The court house bells pealed out the melody of Silver Bells and a choir on the court house steps sang. “City sidewalks, busy sidewalks . . .”
And, that memorable day with my mother and brother made Silver Bells my favorite carol.
By the way, John and I got new shoes for Christmas and I got that little tiger.
Publisher/Distributor: The Open Rood Books, LLC 1942 W. Locust St. Durant, Ok 74701 USA
Cover Design: Pamela S Thibodeaux
Published in the United States of America
Publishing History: First edition, Nov. 11, 2017
Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by an electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized print and/or electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials.
Your support of the author’s rights is greatly appreciated.
With utmost respect and gratitude, I dedicate this story to all Veterans–past, present and future–and to their families who, in their own way, also serve. May God bless you and yours for generations to come.
Sam unlocked the door and held the screen to prevent the tell-tale squeak from waking his wife. He dropped into the paint-chipped porch glider to pull on his boots before going for a walk. Any other day the chill in the air, the sounds of birds, and the sweet scent of honeysuckle and roses would have energized him. The past week hadn’t been ordinary, life would never again be the same.
He trudged up the knoll along the same grassy path he had walked for more than fifty years. Each step required great effort and concentration. His body betrayed him, it felt as if each leg and arm was encased in cement. His breath seemed wasted. Lifting his head he saw the friendly remnants of the old barn. Tears sprang to his eyes but didn’t spill. He cleared his throat trying to rid himself of the stone lodged there. His arms tightened around a package he carried close to his chest and clutched it tighter as the barn became closer.
Standing in his favorite place he leaned against the massive trunk of a two hundred year old oak tree. The rough bark relieved some of the numbness surrounding him. This had been his playground when he was a boy. He had watched his father and grandfather work in the fields and the barn. Old and new memories collided and flashed like broken kaleidoscope glass in his mind. Favorite toys, games . . . the memories vanished when a familiar noise brought him back to the present. He lifted his head and smiled at two squirrels chattering warnings and flashing their fluffy tails at him. Funny how a simple and genuine smile could conjure up such guilt during a time of raw grief. Tearing off a chunk of bark he peeled at the layers and ground them into small bits with his bare hands.
Walking around the tree, his breath hitched, he clutched at the place on his chest where his heart filled with such intense grief it stole the beat. He fell to his knees in an outburst of sobs. The roots that snaked around the tree and on top of the ground cradled and comforted him just as they had since he had been a boy. The same place, the same tree had also comforted his father as a lad. And, his own son.
Sam reached down, picked up a stick, and drew meaningless designs in the dirt. Images of his favorite toys came alive. G.I. Joe, Tonka trucks, slingshots, and cap guns. There was never a time in his memory that three wooden blocks and a toy rocking horse didn’t hold court on the mantle of the three generation home his grandfather had built after immigrating from Scotland. The scars left by teething babies marked the toys in several places. Then, his son, Charles, had played with Legos, balls, and hand held games.
Thinking, thinking caused more pain but Sam couldn’t stop. His thoughts bounded from the changes the family home had seen to a single conversation with his son. He remembered every word and gesture. How is it that a person can forget so much but recall the most difficult of times in startling detail? Isn’t that always the way it is?
“Dad, I need to talk to you. Let’s sit under the tree.” Charles Stewart paled but held his chin high.
Sam wiped his face with a faded blue bandana and released the shiny bay gelding he had been shoeing.
“Sure, son. What’s on your mind? A girl? School?” Sam sat between the old roots and patted the ground beside him.
Charles chose to stand. He paced in front of his father. “Dad. I wanted to tell you that I enlisted in the Army today.”
“You did what? What do you mean you joined the Army? Why? You’re making good grades in school. There is no draft anymore. I don’t understand.” Sam’s chin dropped to his chest and he started to stand.
Charles leaned down and put his hands on his father’s shoulders before he could get up. “Dad, our country is at war. Our family has fought for this country and our freedoms since they came over from Scotland. Grandpa was in World War II, you fought in Vietnam. There’s a Purple Heart and Silver Star hanging over the mantle to prove it. I have to do this, Dad.”
“Oh, Charles . . . look at the family cemetery over there. Some of those graves belong to men killed in war. I do not want to bury you.” Sam’s voice escalated then fell before he felt the onslaught of tears building from his core, from his soul. They choked him. Words, no more words would come. He was helpless and knew there was nothing he could do. It was done.
“I’ll come home, Dad. Don’t worry.” Charles pulled his father to him in a close hug.
Sam saw his reflection in his son’s eyes. He was shocked at how much he had aged and shrank in a matter of minutes. He felt fragile for the first time in his life. “Son, I’ve fought and I’ve killed. I know about war. There’s nothing glorious about it. Is this official?” Sam shook his head trying to rid himself of the flashbacks of his own horror.
“Yeah, it’s done.”
“Does your mother know?”
“No, sir. I want you to be with me when I tell her.” Charles allowed his shoulders to droop. He stared at the ground, then sank to the ground.
Sam realized Charles’s thoughts had turned to his mother when he sat beneath the comforting oak. “Why didn’t you talk to us first?”
“You would have said no and tried to talk me out of it. I’m a Stewart. I love this country, I can’t stay away from what I feel is my duty, just because I make good grades.”
Both men were silent. They sat, shoulders touching, staring at the ground.
“You’re right, son. You’re right. Promise to stay safe. Don’t be a hero.” Sam broke the silence.
“Dad, I’m not going to be G.I. Joe.”
Sam smiled and stretched. “All right, let’s go tell your mother. She’ll cry, then she’ll cook. Decide what you want for a special meal.”
“That’s easy. Chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, milk gravy, green beans, salad, biscuits, and banana pudding with sweet tea.”
Sam snapped back to reality. He was crying. The ominous awareness of the uniformed and somber officer walking to the door flashed before his eyes. He and his wife were having morning coffee. He saw again the look of disbelief, the flash of hope in his wife’s eyes, the beginning of the tears and her animal like scream when the officer spoke with a crack in his voice, “We regret to inform you…”
Shaking the memory away he wiped his face and slowly stood. Looking to the east, he began the short journey to the family cemetery. Sam knelt before a mound of red Oklahoma dirt covered with a variety of flowers and ribbons. The cloying scent of funeral flowers and colorful tangled ribbons made him weak. His knees buckled when the sun bounced the gold words ‘beloved son’ from a white ribbon.
A temporary Veteran’s Administration marker identified Charles’s grave. It read PFC Charles Josiah Stewart, U. S. Army, Desert Storm, Iraq. Sam removed the cloth from the package he carried. Saying a prayer he placed the tri-fold flag he had accepted just the day before on his son’s grave. “You did good, Son. Your buddy, Lemonhead, the one with yellow blonde hair and a sour attitude showed up. Even with a chest laden with medals he couldn’t stay at attention. Told me you took the bullet for him.”
Sam gathered flowers from the fresh grave and placed them on the resting places of other fallen Stewart heroes and family members.
He returned to the grave and offered his son a sharp, crisp salute. Bending down he retrieved the irreplaceable flag and began his journey back to the warm house.
His beloved wife and two young daughters walked toward him. An amber glass of iced tea glistened in his wife’s hand. When their eyes met Sam felt the strength of family surge through him. He realized in that moment that everything would be fine, his family would live on. Strong and resilient. Iced tea, something so common, held a promise he couldn’t deny. Grieving would continue, memories would linger, but love would be as fresh as ever.
~ The End ~
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