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Shadow Of a Man
My Stepfather in 2006
Some History on How this Story Was Born
I was fourteen years old and thought I already knew all the important things in life. I remember being more than a little annoyed at the assignment my geography teacher, Mr. Ream, had given the class. We had to talk to someone we knew who had been in a war and write about their experiences.
What did that have to do with geography? I wanted to know. I still had an attitude about it as I plopped my notebook down on the table in front of my stepfather, DeVerl Anderson (also known as Stub for his "stubbornness"). I knew that he'd been in the Korean War, so I decided to make it easy on myself and not look any farther from home for my interview.
He asked me what I needed, and I said I had to interview him about his experiences in the Korean War for a class. I'm sure his body must've stiffened, but I was too blind to see it. He motioned for me to sit down and get started. I'll never forget his response to the first question I flippantly asked: "Have you ever killed anyone?"
His answer of "yes" was the shock I needed to knock me off my high horse. I remember his eyes as he told me the horror of what he'd witnessed, what he'd done. I never expected that kind of honesty from anyone, but I know that's exactly what he gave me.
The things he told me taught me a lot. It also showed me I had a lot left to learn in this life. I gained a new love and respect for this man who was now my father. And to show that, I decided years later to write a story for him.
I couldn't wait to share it with him when I was finished. I was now a grown woman with children and appreciated him even more for the things he'd taught me. I called him on the phone and read him what I'd written for him. When I finished I heard only silence on the line.
"Well, what do you think?" I remember asking.
His voice was gruff as he answered that he thought it was good. Then he rushed to get off the phone. I couldn't even understand the last words he said as he hung up. Minutes later my grandmother, who had been over at his house at the time, called me back.
"What did you say to Stub to make him cry?" She asked me. I was taken aback. I thought I'd done a good thing. I wanted to show him that he shouldn't be so hard on himself for the bad things that had happened in the past. I wanted to show him that I understood.
I found out later that I had done exactly that. Stub had been so overcome with emotion--something he wasn't used to sharing--that he hadn't been able to speak anymore. But he told me he appreciated the story I'd written for him and gave me his blessing in sharing it. So here it is for you to read and to hopefully take away something from it, as I have. If you share this, please link from here and give me credit :)
Shadow of a Man
This is a fictional story based on true events. All rights belong to the author.
"Al, is that you?"
This voice was the last one I expected to hear when I answered the phone. I recognized it immediately. It was as loud and gruff as ever.
"Devan! How long has it been?"
"Too long, my friend. Too long."
I mentally calculated just how long ago it was. We hadn’t seen each other since that last goodbye at the station almost six years ago. I'd returned to my young wife and child, while he’d said he was going home to no one.
I recalled he’d once mentioned a sweetheart, a girl he had talked of starting a family with. I guessed that perhaps she’d given up waiting for him. It wasn’t unheard of.
I still remembered the bleakness in his eyes that last day. Something had changed in him during our time in the service. But then, I figured we all were changed.
Still in our uniforms, we had shaken hands before parting ways. We had once been like brothers, but I remember noticing for the first time a wall built up between us. I never did figure out how to breach that wall. He never gave me the chance. But still, I thought of him now and then, wondering how he was doing.
"Meet me for a drink, Al. For old times sake," he said. I heard the gruffness of his voice and knew he expected me to say no. A note of desperation hung in the air, and I stuttered my agreement without a second thought.
* * *
Devan staggered into the lounge a few minutes late. He was barely recognizable as the man I used to know. I remembered him as being husky and full of life; the man who approached me now looked rail thin and weak.
I watched him as he came toward me, taking in some of the other changes. This couldn't be the same man I used to know. He walked with his shoulders slumped forward. Where was the confidence I remembered? He no longer drew the attention and respect that he once commanded when he came into the room.
The thick red hair I remembered was longer now and laced with gray. His jaw was covered with thick, red and gray stubble. I'd never seen him any way but clean-shaven. As he got closer I saw that his once bright, blue eyes were faded, sunken and bloodshot.
"Hey, Al! It’s good to see you again!" There smile didn't reach his eyes.
He held one hand out to me. I shook my head, trying to hide my shock. When I accepted his hand, he raised the other and gripped mine tightly in both of his. They were rough and callused.
"You still in construction, old man?" I asked him with a forced grin.
"You know me. Gotta work with my hands." Devan released my hand and sat on the stool beside mine. He ordered a whiskey from the bartender.
He ignored the drink when it came, and was silent for a long time as he stared blankly at the counter. I wondered if he’d forgotten that it was there. I said nothing, not knowing what to say to the stranger who'd once been my brother in arms. We'd counted on each other with our lives in those days. My eyes stung at that thought and I tried shake the heaviness that settled in my heart.
I watched his reflection in the mirror behind the bar. He moved suddenly, blinking hard before grabbing his shot glass and downing it in one swallow. He barked for another and threw that one down before the bartender had stepped away.
"Devan," I said while he toyed with the empty glass, "I hope you know you can still talk to me."
He looked at me in disbelief; "Can I? You know I’m a different man than I was."
"I’m different, too," I assured him. But I knew even as I said the words that the changes in me were of a far different kind than those I saw in him.
"No, you’re not different," he denied vehemently. "Look at you! Anyone can see that you’re a happy man. It didn’t change you at all."
"The changes aren’t always apparent on the surface, Devan."
"How do you do it, Al? How do you go on and live life, knowing you’ve taken someone else’s?" His tone was filled with an accusation.
"We did what we had to do. We didn’t do it for ourselves, we did it for our country." It was the only defense I knew.
"I don’t care who I did it for! I can’t live with this anymore!" Devan jerked his head away to look for the bartender. When he found him, he called for another whiskey. "Do you know what I did? Do you, Al?" His eyes wouldn't meet mine as he asked the question.
I shrugged and watched him in silence, not quite knowing what to say. It seemed more important to just listen.
He tipped his head back as he gulped down the third shot, before turning stark eyes on me. I realized it was the first time he really met my eyes.
"I can’t sleep at night, Al. I dream of all the people whose lives I took. I know it was nothing more than anyone else did…but the girl…I can’t stop seeing her. I can’t!"
His face contorted to a look of pure misery, as he put painful memories into words. My breath stopped and I didn't even blink. He was confessing to something I knew nothing about.
Devan stopped speaking for a moment, laid the empty glass on its side and twirled it. It spun off the counter and onto the slats behind the bar. He watched it go before turning to me, "I never told you the truth about why Jack never made it back."
Jack had been in Devan’s company, not mine. He was a quiet man known for the long walks he always took by himself, and for his intense hatred of the enemy using children in warfare. He’d had a soft spot for kids and couldn’t conceive of a mentality that forced them to die as soldiers.
I’d been away on another assignment when Jack was killed. "All I know is he was killed on one of his walks," I said, recalling the story I’d heard.
I waited for him to confirm it, but Devan shook his head violently. "No! I’m the reason he died," he yelled, the self-disgust apparent in his voice. "If it weren’t for me, he’d still be here!"
He let out a long, shuddering sigh. "That girl…she saw he had a soft spot for kids. She saw him fight a couple of guys who were hassling some little boys. She saw it and singled him out as a sucker. She gave him some sob story about being orphaned and having no place to go. When he brought her back to our tent, I blew my top."
The bartender brought a full whiskey bottle and left it in front of us. Devan filled his glass, and went to pour one for me. I covered my glass with my hand. "I have to drive," I said, careful to keep my tone light. "Will you be needing a ride?"
"No. I walked here, and I’ll walk home."
I understood. Walking was good enough for Jack, so it was good enough for him.
He was quiet for a moment, then said almost to himself, "I was so angry at him…
"I yelled at her to leave." He looked at me then, "Hell, Al, I even threatened her. She just cowered against Jack and cried. He got mad at me ‘cause she was only thirteen. He told me she didn’t have anyone, that she needed a family. He said we could be her family for a while. He even told me I would be assured a place in Heaven, if I took care of one of God’s children." His voice cracked as he said the last.
He turned skeptical eyes on me, "You think I’ll still get that spot in Heaven, Al? Do they allow murderers of children up there?" He jabbed himself in the chest with trembling fingers as he spoke, then raised thick brows at my shocked look.
He snorted out a vicious mockery of laughter. "You never heard that part, huh? Well, I can’t say I’m too surprised. The big brass thought it best to keep it hushed."
"What happened?" I half-whispered the question, not quite sure if I would ever be ready to hear the answer.
"Jack wasn’t killed on one of his walks. The girl got him. I let her stay, and she killed him. Can you believe that? He was the only one who would help her, and she slit his throat with his own knife while he slept. She would have killed me too, but the sound of Jack drowning in his own blood, woke me."
A sheen of tears made Devan’s eyes glimmer in the darkness of the bar. He tried to rub them away with his rough hands, but more replaced them.
"I tell myself, I had no choice. But that doesn’t stop me from hearing her beg for her life. She told me she had to do it, or her own people would kill her. I can still hear her crying when she realized I was really going to shoot her. I didn’t listen, I just pulled the trigger," he stared at me hard, looking for the revulsion he thought I should feel for his confession.
"Would you have done it, Al? Could you have killed a child like that?" He asked in anguish.
I thought about what he was asking me and the bile rose in my throat. I swallowed it back and shook my head to clear it. I rested my hand on his shoulder, sensing that he needed the contact; that reassurance from me. "I don’t know, Devan. I really don’t know."
He took up the bottle to pour himself another drink, but I took it from him with gentle hands. I stopped his protest by filling my own glass to the brim, then turned the bottle to fill his. He watched me in wonder as I motioned for him to raise his drink with me.
When both glasses were in the air, I looked him straight in the eyes and toasted, "to our places in Heaven with Jack. May God forgive us all."
He looked at me in momentary disbelief. I could almost see the wall between us crumbling as he accepted my toast, and swallowed back the whiskey.
Shortly after I published this hub, Stub passed on from this life. Once again he inspired me to write. I will greatly miss his presence in my life:
Products on War and Post Traumatic Stress
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