My Husbard, War Hero
My Husband, The War Hero
My son adored him and wanted to be just like him, maybe a little too much.
Rain cascaded down in sheets of cold fury as loud, noisy jets landed on the runway at Huntington airport. Howling wind swirled the torrents around, twisting them and finally dropping the water on the pavement outside and pounding it against the windows where it ran down the panes obstructing our view. Blotting out the chatter of people around me as I stood in the airport lobby looking out the windows with my son Todd, the jets reminded me of the day when I’d watched my husband, Jack Prather leave from this very same airport bound for a distant place called Afghanistan. That time seemed remote, faraway, and my memories were clouded with the misery, loneliness and horror that I’d suffered since he’d been gone. Todd and me stood anxiously awaiting the arrival of my husband Jack who had been in Afghanistan for over three years. Jack was coming home. For me, that was all that mattered. The pouring rain, the crowded airport, and the cool weather didn’t throw a damper on the happiness that I felt because I wasn’t going to let anything come between us, ever again. When they announced the arrival of his flight, we walked down to the Delta Airlines terminal where we would meet him. My heart fluttered, my eyes felt moist and my mind raced. Jack was home and he’d soon be in my arms.
You’re a very lucky woman, Melissa Prather, I told myself as we hastened toward the terminal. I tried to assure myself that everything was going to be all right. Jack was home and he hadn’t suffered any major injuries that I knew of.
We weren’t the only ones there to meet Jack that day. Being a nationally recognized hero because he’d saved the lives of three of his buddies when they’d been overwhelmed by enemy fire, his arrival had drawn the attention of the local papers, television, radio and some national news people. Saving the life of the son of one of the most prominent state senators in the country hadn’t hurt his situation any. As we walked down the long hall, I could hear my slippers clapping loudly on the shiny tiled floor and thought that my heart was keeping pace with the noise of my shoes contacting the shiny surface. That noise didn’t distract me for a moment from the fact that I was scared stiff of facing those cameras, the solemn faces of complete strangers, and the thought of answering their stupid questions paralyzed me. I was in for a rough time.
The worst of my fears were realized as we turned a corner and entered the lobby adjacent to the tarmac. Someone had set up a pedestal near the far wall and the mayor, members of the city council and several state senators—I recognized from pictures I’d seen on television—were standing with the television cameras pointed at them. I almost froze until I felt Todd squeezing my hand. Urging me forward, he said, “Mom, we have to do this for Daddy. Don’t you remember the invitation they sent us from City Hall?”
Oh, yes, how could I have forgotten that? The mayor’s office had sent me a letter a few days after Jack had written and told me he was coming home in two weeks. The letter had said—
“Mom, we have to do this so Dad can go home with us. Then, we’ll be a family again, just like in the good old days,” Todd interrupted my thoughts long enough for me to realize that it was all for Jack, so that we could be together. May as well get it out of the way, I told myself.
Family? That word had an odd sound to it and even a stranger meaning. I hadn’t thought of us as a family for a long time. Todd and me had been a family. Jack was a ghost that sent us letters once a month, if even then. That fact sent cold chills all through my body. We would be a family again. Memories of what it had been like before Jack went away suddenly found a special place in my heart.
The letter from the mayor had acknowledged the fact that the city was proud of its number one citizen and that the mayor would like for Todd and me to attend ceremonies to recognize Jack for his accomplishments when he returned home. They were planning everything to express their appreciation for what he had done for his country. They would even have a military band—courtesy of the United States Marines—on hand when he arrived. I’d read the letter several times before finally calling the number they’d put on the letter. I declined to make a speech, though. I’m a little shy around people, especially when they’re complete, total strangers.
Holding Todd’s hand like it was my lifeline and I was sinking into quicksand, we walked toward the throng of important people standing in front of the cameras. Making our way through the crowd was similar to walking through a brick wall. In some respects, that may have been partially true. Some of those people, onlookers, bystanders and curiosity seekers didn’t even know what was going on, but many of them wouldn’t even budge to let us through. Recognizing me, and the predicament we were in, the mayor walked toward us. Taking my arm, he asked the people surrounding us to let us through. With a little effort, I was able to follow the mayor as he led us upon the platform where the pedestal was located. Colorful banners were displayed over and below the American flag on the wall behind us. Impressed with the scenery and the collection of reporters, I soon forgot my qualms about being amongst strangers. The mayor and the others sensed my timid manner and did everything they could to make me feel at ease. Todd, on the other hand, seemed to be enjoying the publicity and Marilyn Canfield, his favorite news anchor. I deplored her because she was just too beautiful. The worst part was that she knew she was beautiful, and exploited it.
I don’t think that I’ll ever forget the first time I saw Jack since he’d gone to Afghanistan. As he walked through those doors in his perfectly sparkling uniform, my heart danced, my head felt like it was going up in a hot air balloon and my stomach felt as if it had been taken for a ride on the space shuttle. I wanted to run to him, put my arms around his neck and tell him how much I loved him. Jack saw me about the same time I saw him. Dropping his duffel bag, he walked toward us. Overjoyed that I’d finally be in his strong arms, I rushed toward him pulling Todd along with me. Each step seemed like it took forever as time stood still. Noticing that Jack had arrived, the band struck up a lively tune. It wasn’t the right kind of music for me. I felt romantic, exhilarated and I just wanted to hug him, and make him feel welcome. He was close, oh, so close—
Only twenty feet separated us before sixty nosey, anxious reporters and media people forced their way between us. Angry, I stood watching as Jack disappeared behind a wall of human flesh. The thought of anyone coming between us appalled me. The mayor delayed his hasty advance toward Jack long enough to stop and ask if I were all right. My face was probably as pallid as a ghost. He stared at me as if I were a ghost.
“I’m fine,” I lied. “I just thought that I’d be the first to speak to my husband before all these news people got to him.” The mayor probably knew that I was angry by the tone of my voice. I didn’t care. After all, Jack was my husband and he didn’t rightfully belong to everyone else, did he? Under a wide, long, white banner that said:
WELCOME HOME JACK PRATHER - OUR WAR HERO
I almost cried.
I didn’t cry though because I was determined that these unruly, rude monsters weren’t going to take my husband away from me. My country had had him long enough and now he was going to be mine even if I had to smash every television camera in the place.
I thought for sure that Jack, my handsome, charming and brave hero would come crashing through that crowd at any moment like Sir Galahad to rescue me from my embarrassment, my total feeling of seclusion and loneliness. Maybe none of those words completely describe how I felt at that moment. Perhaps the words, abandonment, discarded like an old pair of socks and deserted would do a better job of describing how I really felt. With some reluctance, I finally realized that Jack wasn’t coming, that he’d yielded to the attention he was getting and that I was something that he could give his attention to, when he got the time.
Sensing my distress, the mayor, Steven Hillman, took hold of my arm and attempted to console me. “He’ll only be a few minutes,” he promised with one of those smiles on his face that politicians seem to have a warehouse full of, “and then we’ll get you two together for a press conference. I sent you an itinerary didn’t I?”
Not knowing exactly what an itinerary was, I faked it as best as I could. “I think that you did, Mayor Hillman. I guess I forgot the details, though. What did I miss besides my husband?”
“Uh, well, Melissa, I’m supposed to introduce Jack to the people here and to the home audience. We’ll introduce you and Todd as well. Everyone will want to know about Jack’s family and how you feel about having him home. You’ll have an opportunity to say a few words after Jack responds to some of the questions the press is likely to have. Of course, I’ll present Jack with the key to the city. After a brief ceremony here, Jack will answer questions and say what he wants to say to the press. Following the ceremony, you and your family are invited to a dinner in Jack’s honor over at the Community Center.”
“Great,” I said, adamant. “Actually, Mayor, I don’t know how I feel about having him home because I haven’t seen him, yet.”
I watched gleefully as his sleazy grin drained from his weather-beaten face like an avalanche sliding down the side of a mountain. Quickly regaining his composure, he smiled at Todd and replied, “Well, let’s take care of that. We’ll go see your husband right now. The news people will love it. The meeting between a husband and wife that haven’t seen each other in three long years.”
Todd glared at the mayor without batting an eye. Somehow, I sensed that Todd, even if he was only twelve years old, knew what I was feeling. “C’mon, Mom,” he declared in a manly, dynamic, take-charge manner, “Let’s go see, Dad. He belongs to us, not to those guys.”
I couldn’t have agreed with him more. Feeling like General Custer, surrounded by ten-thousand Indians, I charged through the mass of bodies elbowing anyone that got in my way, determined that my marriage wasn’t going to be another Little Big Horn. Attempting to protect their precious cameras, photographers and news crews scrambled to get out of my way. I was the general and Todd followed me knowing that when I wanted to do something, that nobody could stop me. Glancing back over my shoulder, I saw the mayor walking behind me with that silly grin on his face. I never did like that mayor for just one reason. He had taken charge and driven a wedge of deceit between my husband and me. No wife would forgive him for that.
Inundated with questions, hardly having time to answer the first one before someone else asked him another one, Jack was fervently, patiently trying to calm the media people, perhaps hoping to deter their vicious intentions so that he could get to the stage where others could take control. Resisting his efforts, the maddening group only surged onward, crowding him, pushing him back toward he door. As I pressed through the crowd, several county deputies stepped into the melee and attempted to restore order. Only the appearance of the mayor seemed to instill enough interest in the mob for them to back off. As the mayor pleaded for them to remain quiet, to adhere to some resemblance of order, they quieted down and listened. Urging them to move to the podium area, the mayor grabbed Jack by his arm and led him away from them. Following Jack and the mayor, Todd and me patiently waited for an opportunity so we could speak with my husband.
The mayor spoke for a very long time introducing Jack, telling how he was a credit not only to his country, but also to the city where he was born and things like that. I stood behind the podium where the mayor was giving his speech. Jack was just a little to my right between two state senators and some other people that I thought were on the city council. Jack looked back at me and grinned that sheepish grin he wore when we were dating. My heart sunk so deep in my chest that I thought it might drop into my stomach and give me a bellyache. Before I could whisper anything to him, one of the senators tugged at his arm and said something to him. They both exchanged a few more words and Jack seemed to forget that his wife and son were standing right behind him.
I clapped and cheered along with the rest of them when Jack stepped up to the microphone to say a few words. He looked so handsome and cute in his uniform. I had always thought the same thing about him when he wore civilian clothes. It was good to have him home.
As the applause and prattle subsided, he spoke, “Folks, I’m Jack Prather and I’d like to thank all you nice people for showing up here on this messy, rainy day to welcome me home. I’m not sure that I deserve such attention since all I did was my duty. It’s every American’s job to do his or her job, and I did mine. Now that I’m home, I plan on spending a few weeks with my wife and son just relaxing before going back to work in the civilian world, the world of normal people where death, flying bullets and suffering aren’t a everyday occurrence. With that in mind, I’d like to thank you for your time and I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of each other as the days pass.”
Jack turned and walked away from the pedestal, the microphone and the applauding audience. Cameras focused on us as Jack reached for me, pulled me into his strong arms and kissed me fully on my mouth. I clung to him for as long as I could. I didn’t want to let go and I didn’t think that Jack did either. Somehow, Todd managed to get a hug from his father before the mayor took Jack by his arm and pulled him back to the podium to face the crowd again.
By then, I was beginning to see a pattern and it disturbed me. Jack didn’t belong to me. He belonged to them until I could get him home and make things right again. Once there, we could lock the doors, close the blinds and lock out the outside world. In a few weeks, those people would forget all about him and the things he’d done. He’d be a silent hero, my hero and Todd’s hero.
Before Jack could do anything about it, the mayor announced that they would have a question and answer session where the reporters would ask Jack a few questions. Walking up to the podium, pulling Todd along with me, I stood beside Jack. I thought the mayor might object. He stood on the other side of Jack smiling his devious, crowd-pleasing smile. Jack answered the questions as best as he could. Many of those questions involved what he’d done when he was in Afghanistan.
“Mr. Prather,” Don Santos, a television news reporter for a local station asked loud enough to be heard above the noise of the crowd who were pushing and shoving in an attempt to get closer to the podium. “Tell us about the incident that you were involved in that made you a national hero. Can you describe, briefly, what happened?”
Jack glared at him for a moment and then answered him, choosing his words carefully. Even he was aware of how the news media could misinterpret what someone said. “Sure,” he replied, clearing his throat before continuing. “We ... me and three other marines were on a routine patrol in the mountains when we came under hostile fire. One of my fellow marines was wounded seriously. I dragged him to safety just as we came under heavy mortar fire. We were pinned down for several minutes. Our situation looked dire, even hopeless. Leaving the others to cover me, I made my way up a gully and found where the mortars were coming from. Charging the enemy position, I killed four of them and drove the rest away. When I returned to my men, we called our position in and other marines came to our aid. That was about it, nothing extraordinary or brave about it. I just had a job to do and I did it.”
“You saved lives,” the mayor said stepping up to the microphone. “That is why we’re so happy to honor you here today.”
I don’t remember all the other questions because there were so many of them. After what seemed like hours, they finally grew tired of asking questions and the mayor informed us that a limousine would transport us to the City Recreation Center where a dinner was to be held in Jacks honor. Pulling the mayor aside, away from the others, I told him exactly how it was going to be. If he wanted Jack to attend his dinner, then he was going to have to give us some privacy. I wanted to spend some time with my husband. The mayor agreed that we’d be alone in the limo. He also agreed, with a little prompting from me, to foot the bill for a hotel room where we would stay until it was time for the dinner celebration. It was only twelve-thirty then and the dinner wasn’t planned until six.
Alone in the back of the long, silver limo, we embraced like we’d never done for a very long time. Todd had ridden in one of the other cars. I left my own Saturn at the airport. I’d pick it up later. The only thing I cared about was being with Jack. We were alone, except for the driver. A thick pane of glass separated us from him. He was busy watching the midday traffic anyway.
Jacks lips touched mine just long enough to make me want him that much more. Pulling him to me, I placed my lips on his and wouldn’t come up for air until Jack gently shoved me away from him.
“I think I was safer over there,” he said kissing me gently on my cheek. “It’s been too long, babe. I’m glad to be home. Everything is going to be different now. Just you wait and see. I have my old job back at the insurance company. It’ll be great getting back into a regular routine again.”
“And, just think, you won’t get shot at anymore,” I added hoping to make him feel at ease.
“Yeah, that’s a relief,” he said. “But, you know something, I sort of miss all that action, the excitement and the danger. It sort of does something to a man.”
“Maybe,” I said, “but you don’t have to worry about that ever again. You did your part, now put it behind you, forget about it and let’s move on to better things.”
Jack growled like a big old tiger and charged at me again. We were on the seat, in the floor and almost to the hotel room before he finally let me sit up in the seat again. Of course, we didn’t actually do anything there in the limo with the chauffeur watching. We managed to save that part of it until we were alone in the hotel room. I thought about how smart I’d been requesting that Todd have his own room. The mayor had balked at the expense. He’d only agreed after I told him that he would be dining alone if he didn’t arrange everything that I requested. I guess he believed me.
After we’d made love that afternoon, we lay side by side in bed listening to the wind swatting the hotel windows with an unrelenting downpour of water. In all the gloom of a rainy day, I felt safe in his arms, secure and comfortable. I made him promise that no matter what happened, he wouldn’t leave me again. Even though he promised, I caught a slight glimmer of doubt in his voice and saw something in his eyes that made me wonder. Casting the thoughts aside, I figured that he was just tired and needed rest. He’d had a long flight from Afghanistan. Jack would be fine after he rested and things would be like they used to be between him, Todd and me.
After the lovemaking, we took a shower together and got ready for dinner. The mayor had even provided us with new clothes to wear to dinner. I wondered why the mayor was being so kind until Jack told me that he was good publicity for the city. Huntington was the home of a national hero. The mayor was pushing to get all the free publicity he could acquire. I wondered if that was a good thing, for us.
Many of Huntington’s most prominent people were at that dinner. Rain came down so hard that you could hear it beating against the windows in the party room at the recreation center. The town hadn’t spared expenses in decorating the place and the food was wonderful. Sitting next to Jack and Todd, I enjoyed myself more than I thought I would. By twelve o’clock, everyone had gone and only a few of the townspeople remained including the mayor. I’d really enjoyed myself and felt just a little guilty about being so hard on Mayor Hillman. Relinquishing control of what was left of the party and the dinner, we said goodnight and went home. I was as tired as Jack and Todd looked.
Jack had arrived on a Friday. We spent the weekend together making love at every opportunity. His kisses were as sweet as they had ever been and having his soft, warm, silky skin next to mine was heaven. Sometimes we just sat in the living room and watched television. Todd seemed to enjoy Jack’s company as much as I did. Asking him questions about the war and about what he’d really done over there all that time, he became engrossed in Jacks tales of war. I worried a little that Todd was spending too much time on the subject, however, since Jack seemed to be telling him the truth, I didn’t see a lot of harm in it. Todd needed to learn about reality and that evil existed in this world as well as goodness. Reluctant at first to talk about his experiences, Jack soon warmed up to Todd and began telling him one war story after another.
I left them alone that Saturday afternoon and went into the kitchen to prepare dinner. When I came back to tell them that dinner was ready, Jack was teaching Todd some of the defensive techniques that he’d learned in the Middle East. “Dinner is served,” I announced. Jack seemed to be so engrossed with what he was doing that he simply ignored me. “Dinner is ready and—“
“Can’t you see that I’m busy teaching Todd a few maneuvers,” Jack yelled and I almost sunk into the floor. It was the first time he’d ever yelled at me. The attack had been unexpected. I was hurt.
“Sorry,” I apologized. “I was just going to tell you that dinner is ready.”
Jacks eyes had a bizarre madness in them, a blank stare that allowed me to look into infinity. It was as if he was looking out into space, right through me. I was frantic.
“I’m sorry, honey,” he said. “I was just showing Todd something and old memories—no, nightmares—came back to me. Well, no harm done, huh? What say we have dinner, Todd?” He laughed as if he’d said something funny. The laugh was right out of a nightmare that you didn’t tell anyone about. His madness made me shiver as if a cold wind had blown right through me and froze the marrow in my bones.
Todd looked at him perplexed, maybe just a little confused, too. Jack acted as if nothing had happened. I knew that something had occurred because I felt my heart race, my mind go blank for a second and my lips quiver. He’d dented my pride and cast a shadow of doubt into my mind. Brushing past me, Jack walked to the table and sat down as if nothing had happened at all. Todd lingered near me waiting for me to make the first move. “Come on, honey, let’s go eat.”
We sat silently for a while until Jack finally began talking about his plans for the next few weeks. “Did you hear what the mayor said, Honey? He actually told me that I was the biggest thing that had ever happened to this town. He has a lot of activities; social meetings with various women’s groups, a few television appearances on talk shows, a few days speaking at public libraries and things like that planned for me. I’m going to be one famous hunk. In fact, I’ll probably be as famous as Clint Eastwood or Stephen King. Oh, I don’t know, I might even write a book about my experiences. Wouldn’t that be great?”
“Yes, Jack. It would be marvelous,” I admitted thinking that we could use a little extra money. I’d been working a part-time job down at the laundry five days a week since the military had taken him away from me. Now, I’d hoped that he’d get his job back and we could get on with our lives. The money he’d sent me didn’t even make the house payment. Jack wasn’t talking about going back to work, though, not right away. He was talking about his dreams of fame and fortune. I couldn’t see any place in those dreams for Todd and me. “When do you plan on spending time with us?”
“Oh, there’ll be plenty of time for us to do things later,” Jack said pushing another spoonful of food into his mouth. “Right now, it’s important that I make as many appearances as possible. Telling my story to many people will give me more of an advantage when I attempt to get a book contract. The more people that know about me, the better off I’ll be.”
“Splendid,” I remarked staring at him. His beautiful blue eyes locked on mine for an instant and then they were gone. Jack was only interested in filling his stomach and planning his future. “I hope you make a lot of money, and soon.”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, Jack, I’ve been the bread winner around here since you’ve been gone. It’s been rough. We don’t have any money in the bank and the car payment is way overdue.”
“Hogwash,” Jack said. “What did you do with all the money I sent you?”
“Money? That didn’t even pay the monthly house payment, Jack. I’ve been working ten-hour days down at the laundry just to make ends meet. Todd was even talking about getting a job. Of course, I wouldn’t let him. He’s too young anyway.”
“We’ll have plenty of money when I sign that book contact,” Jack said. Jack got up from the table and walked like a zombie into the living room. I felt alone even though Todd sat next to me staring at his food. He sensed that something was awry, too.
I washed the dishes while Todd finished his meal. When his plate had been washed and put away, I took Todd by his hand and led him into the living room. “Let’s watch a little television and go to bed,” I suggested. He agreed. It had been a long day.
Jack seemed distant for the rest of the weekend. He would talk to us for a while and then he’d clam up and remain silent barely answering our questions. We made love just as we had before he went to war, however, Jack didn’t seem like the same man that had left me three years ago. I kept telling myself I was just imagining things. My mind and my heart kept telling me that I was wrong.
On Monday morning, I got Todd out of bed so he would be ready for breakfast. He usually ate a good meal before going to school. While I prepared breakfast, I was thinking about going shopping with Jack and maybe spending a couple of hours in the park. We desperately needed some time together. We were virtually strangers. Sure, on the surface, he appeared to be the same man I’d married even though I had some misconception about him. Nevertheless, a few things had changed about him and it was those things that really bothered me. I guess I should have just been happy that Jack was home and that he wasn’t in worse condition. After all, he had been in a deadly, bloody war that had taken hundreds of lives. Feeling guilty, I told myself that I was indeed lucky to have him home in one piece. Nothing was wrong with our lovemaking except that it was too methodical, too much like a routine and I was worried about that because I couldn’t really explain what I was thinking. It was like making love to a robot that had been taught everything that he had to do to make me happy. After the sex was gone, the robot just became that, a robot with a preprogrammed mentality that couldn’t be deterred by anyone, not even me. Jack was a man with a mission and I knew it. He wouldn’t stop until he was the most famous man on the planet, even if he had to destroy our relationship in order to do it.
Todd seemed preoccupied with something when he stumbled down the stairs from his bedroom. He’d already bathed and dressed in one of two bathrooms upstairs. I knew that by now, Jack was probably on his way down to breakfast.
As Todd rubbed his eyes and sat down at the table, I asked, “How’s it going this morning, Tiger?”
“Tired,” Todd replied as I sat a plate of scrambled eggs, toast and couple of slices of bacon in front of him. “I guess I didn’t sleep very well last night.”
“Why not? Did the wind blow that limb against your window again? I’m going to have to get someone to trim that tree before it falls on the house.”
“Not a limb,” Todd assured me. “I kept having these bad dreams.”
“Want to talk about them, Honey?”
“I thought I was all grown up and I was fighting these space aliens on some faraway planet. It was horrible. It was survival, though, just like Dad said and I knew that if I wanted to live that I—“
“Good Morning, one and all,” Jack said in his loud, boisterous voice as he walked into the kitchen already attired in his flawless uniform. “A new day and it smells like you’re getting us off to a good start with a great breakfast. I’ll have what Todd’s having,” he added. I wanted to tell him to fix his own breakfast, except I didn’t.
“Great, have a seat,” I instructed. “Your breakfast is coming right up.”
Jack sat down and his demeanor didn’t change as I expected it to. Maybe whatever was bothering him would fade away like a cold or the flu if given enough time, I thought to myself. Feeling a little better, encouraged by his sudden change in attitude, I fixed his breakfast and put it in front of him. Jack ate as if he were famished.
We’d had an unsteady relationship over the weekend and I still wasn’t quite sure how to deal with Jack. We’d argued a little about bills and about when he was going back to work. Jack managed to either ignore my concerns or give me an answer that didn’t mean anything. No matter how angry I became, he always seemed to alleviate my fears when we were in bed. Quite often, I felt deceived by his love. I thought he was using his influence over me to control me and keep me from reminding him of his responsibilities.
Fixing my own breakfast, I put the plate on the table and sat down to enjoy my meal with my family. “What are your plans for the day, Jack. I thought maybe that you could drop Todd off at school and then we’d go shopping, maybe take a walk in the park, or something like that.”
I saw it coming. Appearing as if my suggestions were interfering with his plans, as if I was a threat to his future, Jack glared at me with those darling blue eyes. “I have plans,” he said. “Todd will have to ride the bus. The mayor is sending a limo to pick me up in a few minutes. I’ll have to hurry.”
“What? Jack, you just got home. Can’t you spend a few days with us?”
“That’ll happen,” he said, sarcastically. “I have some other important business to take care of first.”
Dropping his spoon onto his plate, he stood. “Well, I have a busy day. I’ll see you guys later.”
Straightening his tie, he put on his gray jacket and walked toward the door before I could even get up from the table. “What time will you be home? Will you be home in time for dinner?”
“I don’t rightly know,” he mumbled. “The mayor has appointed a manager to help me plan my career. He has some talk shows and things lined up for me today. Hey, watch the news. You might see me on television. How about that, Todd? Would you like to see your old man on television?”
Todd nodded his head and continued eating. He would have to catch the bus to school. Todd didn’t like to ride the bus because the other kids harassed him. Normally, I took him to school on my way to work. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do today. I’d hoped that Jack would offer to drop him off the way he used to do. Of course, that was before the war had turned him into a big war hero. Now, all Jack thought about was Jack and how he was going to increase his popularity and his marketability.
“So, you’re telling me that you’ll be gone all day and you don’t know when I should expect you home? Is that what you’re saying, Jack?”
“Something like that,” he replied as he buttoned his jacket and put his cap on. Outside a car horn honked. “That’s my ride,” he said. “Got to go. See you all later.” Pulling the door shut behind him, he disappeared into the early morning light.
My heart beat faster, I could feel it pounding against my chest, beating in my throat and my breathing became fast, painful almost as if I was having a heart attack. Maybe in a way, I was. My love for him succumbed to the anger that I felt. Confused, feeling deserted, I vowed that he wasn’t going to get away with the way he was treating us.
“Get ready to go to school, Todd,” I said firmly with my teeth almost chattering. “I’ll take you to school.”
Before we left the house, I’d made up my mind that I was going to call off from work that day. I didn’t know exactly what I had in mind, but I wasn’t going to be able to function at work feeling the way I did. I hadn’t missed a day at the laundry in three years so calling in sick wouldn’t arouse any suspicions or cause me any hardship. After I called in sick, I took Todd to school, stopped at a convenience store, bought a few things and then returned home. I felt strange and abandoned in the big house. Washing dishes, cleaning and washing clothes didn’t damper the dark emotions that hounded me. I wanted to be with Jack, to share his life and to be a part of what was happening to him. I felt as if it was my ordained right to share in his experiences.
Later, around ten in the morning, while I had clothes in the drier, I sat down on the couch in the living room with a cup of coffee to rest. Turning on the television with the remote, I was astounded to see Jack on one of the early morning talk shows. It was a local show that I didn’t watch much—I don’t watch much television because its stupidity burns my mind and is an insult to my intelligence—and three beautiful women hosted the show that was designed for mostly women. Jack was having a good time judging by the way he laughed, joked and talked to the women. Turning up the sound just a little so I could hear, I listened as Jack talked about his war experiences, about how great he was and about everything but his family life. I sat there listening and watching wondering when they’d ask him about his wife and kid. Finally toward the end of the program, which lasted for three hours, the shows main anchor, a woman with wrinkles on her forehead, deep gray eyes and graying blonde hair asked Jack how his family was doing. Jack responded that they were doing just great and then they cut to a commercial about baby food. I was appalled and angry. Jack had a lot of explaining to do.
I sat around all day mulling over my predicament. The more I thought about the isolation, the rejection and the lack of consideration on Jacks part, the angrier I became. Finally, Todd came home. He’d had to take the bus because I’d forgotten to pick him up. Apologizing only made matters worse. Todd went to his room to study and I had another disgruntled man on my hands. With a bowl of cookies, a glass of fresh, cold milk and a kiss on his cheek, I won my son’s respect again. If only it could have been that easy with Jack. Todd required a brief explanation about why I was acting the way I was. I told him I wasn’t feeling well and hadn’t gone to work that day. He knew better. He knew that Jack was the root of both of our problems.
Todd and me finally settled down in front of the television to watch a DVD movie based on one of Stephen King’s short stories. For some reason, I just couldn’t get into, RIDING THE BULLET, but I acted like I was really enjoying myself. Keeping Todd happy was one of my main goals in life.
Halfway through the movie, Jack came home, drunk.
“I need to use ... bathroom,” he bellowed, slamming the door shut behind him. I’d never seen Jack intoxicated. As far as I know, Jack had never drunk more than a couple of beers at one time in his life and that was usually when we grilled out or had a few friends over. That wasn’t the case now, though. He was pulverized. Taking him by his arm, I helped him to the bathroom, helped him get his pants down, and all the rest.
“Jack, how can you do this to me, your own wife?”
Jack tumbled to the floor almost hitting his head on the bathtub.
“Damn,” I said to nobody in particular. “Why did this happen to me?”
Todd and me managed to get his clothes back on. Dragging him by his legs, we maneuvered him between pieces of furniture until we had him in front of the couch. Discovering that he was too heavy for us to lift, we put a pillow under his head, a blanket over him and left him there in the living room to sober. Considering his present condition, I figured that would probably be sometime next summer. Snoring loudly, occasionally grunting as if having a horrible nightmare, Jack lay there impervious to the rest of the world. Todd seemed distant, disgusted and disappointed with his father. Understanding his feelings, I took him by the hand and led him upstairs. After I made sure he was in bed, I went to my own room and tried to sleep. It was a long time before I finally dozed. I kept thinking about Jack down there as alone as I was.
Loud voices awakened me next morning. Turning over, yawning, stretching my arms and attempting to rub the sleep from my eyes, I stared at the window wondering where the voices were coming from. It was daylight, the sun was shining and the clock radio said that it was ten o’clock. I’d forgotten to set the clock the night before. The laundry would be calling any minute wanting to know what happened to me. I grabbed the phone, called them and told them that I had the flu and that I’d need another day off. After apologizing for not calling in earlier, I managed to convince the personnel office that I really was sick. In a way, I wasn’t lying. Just as I was struggling to put on my bathrobe, I heard another loud exchange of obscenity coming from downstairs. I recognized Jack’s voice right away.
Walking into the living room that morning took more courage than I ever thought I had. Before I even got there, I could hear Jack yelling at Todd. That was something that he’d never done before in his entire life.
“What’s going on here, Jack? Why isn’t Todd in school?”
“He called in sick just like you did yesterday,” Jack said, smirking, insulting me.
“What do you mean, he called in sick. Is he really sick?”
“No, I just wanted to spend some time with our son. He’s learning military tactics, military protocol and things that will make a man out of him. This is a man thing, Melissa. I suggest you go on to work and leave us men to ourselves. We can take care of ourselves, can’t we Todd?”
“I want to hear more war stories, Daddy,” Todd said, beaming.
“You have to learn how to be a soldier first,” Jack said saluting him and almost falling backwards as she stumbled around knocking a lamp off an end table. “You have to be just like your old man. If you stick with me, Todd, I’ll teach you how to be a survivor, just like me.”
“I’d like that, Dad,” Todd said and then turning to me, he asked, “Mom, do I really have to go to school today?”
Ignoring Todd, I turned to Jack. I was furious. I was ready to kick his butt back to Afghanistan or wherever he’d been. “Jack, what’s wrong with you? Just what do you think you’re doing? Todd needs to be in school. Thanks to your stupidity, I missed work today. I forgot to set my alarm clock.”
“Tough,” Jack said. “You need to learn some military protocol, too. Once you’re like me, you don’t forget to set your clock.”
“Jack, you were so damn drunk that you couldn’t even get to the bathroom. Now, what is all this yelling and cussing about? I’m not going to have that in my house, especially in front of my son.”
“Your son? I thought he was our son, Melissa.”
“You sure don’t act like it, Jack. You spend more time with your friends than you do with us.”
Jack ignored me. I have a funny feeling that he was still too drunk to know where he was much less know about anything else. “Now, I want to know why you were yelling at him.”
Jack stumbled forward toward me and I was afraid that he would fall and knock me down on the floor. “I was just teaching ... showing him what it’s like in the ... military,” he stuttered. I could smell liquor on his breath and wondered where he’d found it. Then I remembered the two bottles of apricot brandy that someone had given us for Christmas. They’d been in the cabinets over the sink for years. I would have bet my last penny that they weren’t there now.
Unable to believe what I was hearing, I grabbed Todd by his hand and led him into the kitchen. “Get your lunch packed,” I ordered. “You’re going to school today.”
“Oh, Mom, do I really have to? It’s almost ten o’clock. The kids will laugh at me and poke fun at me.”
“Well, if you’re going to be like your old man, you’d better learn to take a little criticism,” I said. “He’s setting you up for a lot of pain and suffering.”
“That’s not true,” Jack yelled stumbling into the kitchen with a bottle of brandy in his shaking hand. “He is going to make a fine marine. I’ll see to that. Just you wait and see.”
“I’m taking Todd to school,” I informed him, “and when I return, we’re going to have a long talk. You better drink that pot of coffee over there and be sober when I get back. Do you understand? Damn you, Jack. How can anyone be so stupid? Nobody is going to turn my son into a killer and a drunk.”
“Is that what you think of me?” Jack put the bottle on the counter and turned on me. Before I could duck, his fist contacted my chin. If I hadn’t moved my head when I saw it coming, I have no doubt about losing all my teeth in one bloody mess. “You bitch,” he yelled loud enough for the neighborhood to hear him. “You have no right to tell me how to raise my own son. He’s going to be like me, a hero. People respect heroes and a hero can go a long way in this world.”
My jaw hurt so bad I could hardly talk, except I wasn’t going to let my son see me cry. Ignoring the numbness and the pain, I steeled myself and faced Jack like a mad bull pacing a matador. “Yeah, to jail and to the local bar,” I yelled back. I was sorry that Todd had to hear us fussing, quarrelling, but I couldn’t do anything about it. Persuading Todd to put on his coat, I urged him out the front door. “Remember what I said, Jack. We’re going to have a long talk.”
I took Todd to school and explained to the teacher that he’d been a little sick earlier, but that he was fine now. I needed time to talk to Jack. I had to somehow salvage my marriage. Jack wasn’t a person that normally was difficult to get along with. We’d been married for ten years before he went away. As I drove home, I had plenty of time to think about how it used to be. We’d gotten married a couple of months after graduating from high school. Jack had gotten a good job with a local insurance company and was going to college at night to get his degree. Todd was born about a year after our marriage. Our future looked promising. Needing more money, Jack joined the National Guard. I didn’t mind because he was only away from home a couple of weekends out of the month. Then we had the war in Afghanistan. Jack used the support of our local political representatives to get into the marines. With a young son to raise I went to work in a local laundry where they did all the bedclothes and other items for local hospitals, nursing homes and hotels.
Now, Jack was back. For three long years, I’d dreamed of how it would be when he returned. I loved and longed for him so much that he was constantly on my mind. I fantasized about how he’d take me into his strong arms and make love to me. I never thought about all the talk about war, the cussing, drunkenness, and his obsession with turning my son into someone like him.
I walked into the front door ready to let him have it with all the strength I could muster. Jack was gone. The two empty brandy bottles stood side by side on the kitchen counter like two sentinels guarding the doorway to the kitchen. Paralyzed, I went to the couch, dropped down on it, covered my face with my hands and bawled like a motherless baby calf.
The events of the next several weeks didn’t change things much. Jack accepted one invitation after another portraying the big hero that had just come home from the war. Everyone wanted to hear his stories, experience his charm and stand beside the man who had single handedly won the war all by himself. He attended women’s social clubs, spoke at libraries, went on television and radio talk shows and all the time maintained the aura of a man who is completely sober, intelligent and brave.
I guess Jack tried to change during the next few days. He was generally sober when he came home. We talked a little, made love in our room and tried to keep Todd entertained. Slowly, carefully, Jack pulled Todd into his sphere of influence. Todd became obsessed with the tales of war. Todd soon became a fan of old black and white war movies. John Wayne was a favorite of his. I didn’t see anything wrong with that except Todd was becoming just like Jack. When I told him to do something, he’d insolently salute me and go do what I told him to do. Todd had become so engrossed with history, he was failing his other subjects. I mentioned it to Jack and he commented that history was the only subject that he needed to know. Right then, I knew that things weren’t as they should be. I had been right in the first place. Jack hadn’t changed at all. He was simply pulling the wool over my eyes.
Jack seemed to know military tactics quite well and I felt as if I was engaged in a battle for my very survival. Todd spent more time with Jack than he did with me. At night, after dinner, they’d go to the study where they’d watch old movies. Jack bought stacks of movies on DVD. Of course, they were all war movies. Staying up late against my wishes, Todd read, talked with Jack and rarely went to bed until after twelve o’clock. He hardly ever studied and I could see his grades plummeting. That did it for me. I’d had enough. I was serious about talking to the police, a lawyer or someone that could tell me what to do. I had no control over my son. Jack had stolen him from me and was turning him into a military brat.
As the weeks flew by, the community interest in Jack diminished. He received fewer invitations to speak at social functions and he received fewer telephone calls. I think that he knew right then that he’d had his heyday. With more time on his hands, he began hanging out with a group of misfits he’d met at the local bar. They were some kind of militia group that was dedicated to destroying the terrorists. Jack didn’t say much about them. Many of my friends kept me informed about what they were doing out there in those woods outside of town. They had weapons and were going on battle exercises, planning assaults on government installations and silly things like that.
When I learned that Jack was taking Todd to these militia meetings, I told Jack that he’d had it. I asked for a divorce and told him that he wasn’t to take Todd anywhere else with him unless I was with them. Jack laughed in my face.
The next morning, a Friday, I went downtown and talked to a lawyer. Much to my relief, the lawyer convinced a judge that Todd’s life was in danger. The judge issued a restraining order that forbade Jack from having any close contact with Todd until the divorce was final. Then a judge would decide who got custody of Todd.
For the next several days, Jack spent more time at the bars and came home drunk. Whenever I mentioned the divorce or asked him what he was going to do, he exploded and called me bad names before finally collapsing on the couch, or on the floor. During all that time, I hoped and prayed that a miracle would happen to save my marriage. As each day passed, I felt more miserable because I couldn’t see anything good coming of a marriage like the one I had. Jack was unresponsive, uncooperative and I knew that he was going to cause me a lot of trouble. He’d never agree to a divorce. Jack was a military man and military men never retreated, unless they had to, especially if they could figure out a way to attack from the rear.
That’s precisely what Jack did. Telling everyone that I wasn’t fit to raise a son, slandering my name every way that he could, he hired a crooked lawyer to fight the divorce and gain custody of our son. As his confidence in his own abilities grew like a rosebush in a hot summer sun, he became even bolder. Drinking more now, he spent most of his time away from home. Rumors from close friends disclosed that he was spending more time in the woods with his military friends.
As Todd grew less involved with his father, his grades gradually improved. Jack only stumbled in the front door long enough to feed his face, take a shower and get a few hours sleep. Todd seemed to have less respect for him every time he saw him. I rarely said anything to Jack other than give him a quick greeting and a fast smile. I’d given up all hope that our marriage could be salvaged. Despondent because I knew that I didn’t have the money to fight him in court for a lengthy custody battle, I had hoped that we could work things out. Jack went back to his old drinking habits again. Some friends told Todd at school that the gang Jack hung out with were involved in selling drugs, stealing and just about everything else they could do that was illegal. I worried about Jack and wondered how anyone with so much promise could fall so low. I also heard that Jack was a heavy drug user and that worried me considerably.
A few nights later, I was washing dishes and Todd was watching television. My thoughts were interrupted when Todd yelled for me to come into the living room quickly. A local channel was broadcasting a news event as it was happening. I’ll never forget standing in front of the silver screen watching as the reporters told how a gang of survivalists had attacked the National Guard Armory outside Huntington. Some speculated that they had intended to steal weapons that would be used to commit robberies and other crimes. The only thing they knew for sure was that thirty armed men had stormed the armory. Apparently, they hadn’t known that two hundred armed, National Guard personnel were conducting training exercises on that particular day. The FBI was also there. Unknown to the survivalists, as they’d been named, the FBI and several other government agencies had infiltrated their organization. They were waiting for them when they attacked the armory. Refusing to surrender, the invaders had been killed in a matter of minutes. Police and other law enforcement personnel had been stationed nearby and responded quickly.
Horrified, I sat down on the couch and held Todd in my arms. I needed support. I knew what was coming as the story slowly unfolded, as more details were revealed and so did Todd. Jack Prather’s name was eventually mentioned because he was well known in the community. Few people knew the others that were involved. Jack was the only one that caught the attention of the media. Bracing myself, I knew that we’d hear the sound of car doors slamming in front of our house as reporters and news people came to hear about how we felt about losing a husband, father, and friend. As we sat there in the gloom of the darkened room lighted only by the luminance from the television, we both knew that our lives wasn’t going to be easy.
Just as I had been there to see Jack go away to war, and just as I had been there to see him home again, I was there to see him off to a better place when we buried him on a rainy, dreary day. I loved Jack and I always will. The fact that he treated us the way he did couldn’t even kill the love that I had for him. Something else was disclosed about his military history in the last few days before we buried him. A Colonel Patterson had said that Jack had spent several months in captivity. The terrorists had done all kinds of things to him, tortured him, injected various chemicals into his body and subjected him to mental torture, but Jack hadn’t broken. All of that couldn’t break him. Coming home and being treated like a hero was perhaps too much for the type of person that Jack really was. The sudden pressures, the stress and the confusion had cracked him. Of course, nobody knows what the terrorists might have done to him to cause him to act the way he did.
The fact that Jack Prather was dead didn’t end the discussion that was held in countless barbershops and other public places. Rumors persisted that Jack was really an FBI agent and that he’d joined the military organization to help the FBI. I’d already known for some time that Jack was involved in clandestine operations in the Middle East and that made me wonder about him. Were the rumors true? Had Jack actually been involved in the survivalist organization to collect evidence against them? Had he somehow been mistaken for one of them and was killed? To this day, I still don’t know. However, he was given a full military funeral with full honors. That didn’t seem like something that would happen to someone who’d betrayed his country. I guess we’ll never really know the truth. You know how the government is. We’re still waiting to hear who killed John F. Kennedy.
All I know is that Jack will always be with us. His memories will never leave us. I want my son to be like him, only I want Todd to grow up and be like Jack was before he joined the marines, before he went to Afghanistan and before he became what we didn’t like. If I can have that, then I’ll be happy. Jack will live on in the hearts of people that loved and respected him. Jack was one of those who served, fought, survived and eventually died in his own country.
Dallas G. Releford