The War Behind Use
Barlow and Ransom stood in the heat outside The Miami Banquet Hall, their arms laced together. Barlow pulled his new uniform jacket away from his body, forming a large cloth tent, and said, “There’s probably enough room in this coat for another person, at least another POW. I must look a sight?”
The contrast between man and wife was striking. Barlow was tall and rail thin, with sunken cheeks, hollow eyes, and milky white skin stretched tight over the sharp features of his face. Ransom’s light brown hair and round, tanned face was aglow with good health. Her plain green dress accented her curves. Her eyes were deep green, like the shadows of the mountain forest she'd live in all her life. She forced a laugh and said, “You’ll be the handsomest fella in the place.”
“The handsomest scarecrow, what an honor,” Barlow said, with a harsh, humorless laugh he hadn’t had before the war.
Ransom put her left hand on his arm. It felt thin and fragile, with a slight tremble, the wrist was stark white against the brown sleeve of his uniform jacket. “We don’t have to go in,” she said.
“No, we’ll go.”
They took a step and a young doorman in a red uniform pulled the door open for them. Ransom led the way, moving slowly, scooting her feet along the floor as though afraid that the impact of a full stride might shatter his arm, might shatter him, completely.
When they were past the doorman Barlow leaned toward her and whispered, “Should we give him a tip?”
“Lord no,” Ransom said. “I ain’t paying nobody just for opening a door.”
Once inside, a young man in uniform aimed a camera at them, but an officer at his side cleared his throat, then shook his head.
As the cameraman lowered his camera Barlow said, “What’s the matter, ain’t we pretty enough for you?”
The officer just looked beyond them to the next couple coming through the door.
When they were away from the two men, Barlow said, “You think we could walk a little faster? I promise I won't break.” He tried to whisper, to make it a joke, but it came out loud and raspy.
Earlier, in the hotel room, she’d been helping him into the new uniform he’d been issued the day before, a leftover from the war that didn’t come near fitting. She doubted the army made uniforms for six-foot tall men weighing less than a hundred pounds. She was tying his tie when he suddenly grabbed her hands and shouted, “I am not a child!” in that ruined voice. She stepped back and watched as his trembling hands fumbled with the tie. His left hand was swollen at the knuckles and the fingers went off at an odd angle. He used those fingers to hold the tie against his chest while trying to maneuver it with the other. Then he cursed and dropped his hands to his side.
“Now honey, you know I used to tie your tie every time you went to church,” Ransom said.
Then he had smiled that old, charming smile, seemingly the only thing that had come out of the war undamaged, and held his arms open. “I remember,” he said, as she stepped in close and began working on the tie. “Reckon this old hand of mine ain’t going to be much use for farming. Not for a while anyway.”
Ransom laughed and said, “Wasn’t much use before the war as I recall.”
“I’ve pulled a weed or two in my time.”
“Maybe even three.”
“Okay, it ain’t going to be much use for hopping freight trains.”
“Well then praise the Lord. Maybe from here on out it’ll be easier to keep you on the porch. How’d you hurt it, anyway?”
Barlow grew silent and still, his eyes fixed on some distant object. Ransom had heard about something called ‘the thousand mile stare’, and guessed that this was what it looked like.
“I was tossed down a hole for trying to escape,” Barlow said. “It was about ten feet deep and maybe four foot wide. Later on they caught another fella and threw him in on top of me. He landed on my hand.”
Ransom ran her fingers through his hair and made soothing sounds, not knowing what else to do.
“They left us there for six days. Every day or so one of the guards would toss down a chunk of bread for each of us.” He turned away from Ransom and walked to the window, then lit a cigarette and took a long drag. “The other fella died about the third day. Guess they didn’t know he’d been shot, or didn’t care.”
Ransom walked the short distant to him and put her arms carefully around his body. “Oh my poor baby,” she said.
“It’s kind of funny when you think about it,” Barlow said without a trace of amusement. “We were in the middle of Germany. Where the hell did we think we were going?”
“This is some place,” Barlow said.
“It surely is.” Ransom guessed there were about a hundred couples, most of them young like Barlow and Ransom, but some older. Most of the men were so shriveled by war that their new uniforms made them look like boys wearing their father’s clothes. Their jackets hung in drapes from their shoulders, their collars, starched into military discipline, stood without touching their necks. Ransom knew that under every jacket was a belt that, like Barlow’s, was wrapped almost double around a shrunken stomach.
Their wives were at their sides; all of them dressed in their finest dresses. Most of them were either holding their husband’s hand or had an arm wrapped carefully around his shoulders. Ransom wondered if they all pretended that this constant holding was merely a sign of affection, that it had nothing to do with the fear that their men, their once strong, independent men, might collapse without their support. Or maybe it was because they’d spent too many nights lying awake, aching for the men they loved, to believe that this was real, that the war was finally over. This might yet be a dream, and if they let go they might wake up to their restless, lonely lives.
A teenage girl in a white uniform smiled at Ransom and asked, “What’s the name?”
“Lacern,” Ransom replied.
The girl said, “Right this way,” and started off down the aisle.
They were led to a round table where one couple and a single man had already been seated. Barlow stopped suddenly, and Ransom could feel the muscles in his arm tighten. He said, “Lacross,” with such contempt it sent a shiver down Ransom’s spine.
One of the soldiers at the table smiled up at him and said, “Barlow, isn’t it?”
Barlow turned to the teenage girl and said, “Could you put us someplace else?”
The girl looked confused. She scanned the hall as though looking for someone of greater authority to deal with the problem.
“They go alphabetically,” the other soldier said. “I’m Mike Lacardo. This is—“
“I know who he is,” Barlow snapped, then looked at the waitress. “I’m sorry. This’ll do.”
Barlow pulled out a chair and waited for his wife to sit, then sat down next to her. There was a tense silence as the two men stared at each other while the third took a roll from the basket in the middle of the table. Trying to break the silence, Ransom asked Lacross, “How long were you in?”
Lacross gave her an odd smile and said, “I was captured the same time as your husband, why?”
Ransom shrugged and said, “Just trying to make conversation.”
“The reason she asked is that you don’t look like you’ve missed a lot of meals lately,” Barlow said.
Ransom blushed, confirming Barlow’s statement. It was true; Lacross was as robust and healthy as the other men were pale and thin.
“I took care of myself,” Lacross said, then added, “And my pals.”
“Too bad most of your pals were Nazis,” Barlow said.
Ransom kicked him under the table.
“My name’s Peggy,” the other woman said.
“Pleased to meet you. I’m Ransom Lacern and this is my husband, Barlow.”
“We’re from Michigan,” Peggy said.
“Really, I got a cousin in Michigan. Ulis Lott. He lives in Monroe.”
“There’s a lot of people in Michigan,” Barlow said.
“I know that.”
“You’re from the south. I can tell by the accent,” Peggy said.
“Cabin Ridge, Tennessee,” Ransom said. “It’s just over the border from Kentucky. Prettiest place you ever seen in your life.”
“Sounds nice,” Peggy said. “Where are you from, Mr. Lacross?”
Lacross shrugged and said, “Oh, here and there.”
“Is there a Mrs. Lacross?”
“Not at the moment,” Lacross replied, and reddened when Barlow let out a loud laugh.
“I don’t see what’s so funny,” Ransom said.
“Nothing, I’m just in a funny mood,” Barlow said.
“What did you do during the war?” Peggy asked Ransom.
“I worked in a foundry in Johnson City. Biggest thing I ever saw in my life. Made me feel like an ant.”
“I worked in a Jeep factory in Toledo, Ohio,” Peggy said with obvious pride. “Never thought I could do such work as that.”
“Reckon we all done things we never thought we could,” Ransom said.
Peggy smiled and said, “Guess I’ll go back to being a housewife now.” She must have realized the hint of regret in her voice because she turned immediately to her husband and said, “It’s so good to have you back.”
A whistle blew. The hall grew silent. At the front of the great room a two star general stood and said, “I would like to say a few words, then say the blessing.” A cameraman aimed his camera at the general, who threw his chest out, causing his medals to sparkle as they caught the light. He held his breath until the flash told him the picture had been taken.
“I just want you all to know that the army, the nation, and the world, see you all as heroes, no less than the men who fought at Palermo, Iwo Jima, or the beaches of Normandy. Just like those brave men, whose blood now enriches the sand and soil of far off lands, you too have paid the price of liberty. Though some may say that surrender is a disgrace, I am not one of them. It is understandable that a man, when faced with almost certain death, as I’m sure many of you were, would see the folly of needless sacrifice.” He stiffened, snapped his right hand to his forehead in a brisk salute, and said, “I salute you.” None of the men returned his salute.
The general cleared his throat and said, “Let us pray.”
“Oh Lord, we thank you this day for delivering these men back home.” A bread roll came flying from the sea of men and caught the general in the forehead.
The general’s eyes snapped open and he shouted, “Where’s the son of a bitch—“
An aide, standing at his side, whispered in his ear. The general’s anger subsided and he continued his prayer. “May they enjoy this bountiful meal with the sure and certain knowledge that their sacrifice will not go unrewarded.”
Someone shouted, “In coming,” and the general opened his eyes just in time to see another roll coming at him. He ducked, almost knocking over the aide. “You’re all still in the Army! I can have you shot for this!” The aide tugged at his arm and whispered frantically in his ear, but the general kept on shouting. “Lazy bastards. First you sit out the war, then—“
“Sir!” the aide shouted.
The general glared at him, then bowed his head and said, as fast as he could, “For it is their courage and devotion to duty that has assured their children, and their children’s children, a life of peace, a life of prosperity, a life free of the shackles of tyranny.” He opened his eyes and looked around. Men in uniform were walking among the diners, hoping to intimidate whoever was throwing the rolls. “So now, Lord, with the war behind us, bless this food, let it nourish our bodies and renew our spirits, in the name of the Lord, Amen.” The last line came out as one long word, and as it ended, rolls rained down on him from all over the room. He started to shout something, but the aide, assisted by another soldier, managed to get him back into his seat.
Barlow roared with laughter as he let his roll fly, then coughed and sat down, the exercise taking all of his energy.
“Barlow, behave yourself,” Ransom scolded. “The man was just trying to make a speech.”
“He was trying to make us feel like we’re all lower than dog turds,” Barlow said, and Ransom could hear the anger and resentment through the laughter.
A waitress placed platters of food in front of Ransom and Barlow. “My Lord, don’t this look good,” Ransom said. There were mashed potatoes, green beans, two slices of bread, turkey, roast beef, and a small slice of chocolate cake. She saw Barlow staring at the food in front of him and said, “Well, dig in.”
Barlow smiled and said, “Don’t know where to start.”
“You always loved turkey, start with that,” Ransom said.
Barlow looked at her and smiled. “I used to dream about turkey,” he said. “It was always Thanksgiving and always at your Momma’s house. Her table would be loaded down with food, but all I ever ate was turkey.”
“Well, this ain’t a dream, so go ahead,” Ransom urged. She looked around the room and saw the other wives urging their men to eat.
Barlow picked up his knife and fork. “Ain’t used to one of these,” he said, holding up the knife. Slowly, awkwardly, he sliced off a thin piece of turkey and put it in his mouth, chewing carefully, like his teeth were made of glass. After swallowing the bite of food, he laid his knife and fork on the plate and leaned back, as though he’d just accomplished a difficult chore. “That was good,” he said.
“Have another bite,” Ransom said. She wanted to grab the knife and fork and cut it up herself, but knew it would be too much of a blow to his pride. Then his dark, shrunken eyes turn a subtle shade of green and the muscles in his throat went into spasms. One hand went under the table to his shrunken belly while the other formed a fist and pressed hard against his lips.
Ransom held up a glass of water and said, “Drink this.”
Barlow took a small drink and seemed to relax. The crisis had past. “Guess I grew a little too fond of turnip soup while I was over there,” he said.
Mike Lacardo had taken a bite of turkey, but had immediately spit it back onto his place. Peggy looked as though she wanted to rebuke him, but thought better of it. Instead she patted him on the back and whispered softly into his ear.
The scene was repeated all around them. Some men pushed their plates away, unable to eat a single bite, while others tried and lost control, spitting the food out and burying their faces in their hands.
The women all murmured softly to their men. Ransom didn’t know if this comforted them, or did even great damage to their pride, but it’s what women do. ‘IT'S WHAT MOTHERS DO.’ She banished that thought from her mind. “Do you want to go back to the room?” She asked.
Barlow shook his head. “Just because I’m not hungry, don’t mean you have to miss out on a fine meal like this,” he said.
“I’m not hungry,” Ransom replied. It was the truth. How could anyone be hungry after seeing these poor, broken men? No, not broken. Men like this could never be broken. They were damaged. War damaged everything.
“Well, if you want to go it’s all right with me,” Barlow said.
Ransom stood up and helped Barlow to his feet. He felt so light she thought she could easily carry him back to the room.
Lacross had finished his meal and was going to work on the cake. “Stick around. Maybe the general will give another speech,” he said.
“I’ve had enough speeches. And enough of you.”
“Hey, it’s like the general said. The war’s behind us.”
Barlow just let out a bitter laugh and let Ransom lead him out of the room.
THE ENDType your paragraph here.