Ole’ Tin-tin – Chapter Nine

“I don’t know why it never occurred to me that I would be killed,” Grandpa said. “I think, sometimes you just know…you just have a sense…but if you do survive, you never really recover from what war does to you…and you never forget.”

“Time does heal those wounds a bit, but there will always be this emptiness…this hollowness…this void…this inner anguish that nothing will ever be able to assuage.”

“And as I said. The rage was almost all consuming. I had never been a particularly volatile or vengeful man, and I had never wanted to cause ripples, but I became almost blinded by my hatred for these people we were fighting against…and for.”

Grandpas’ voice became almost mournful as he continued.

“I can’t tell you everything that happened over there. It’s clear…now…that I had lost my mind, I think. I couldn’t find peace. There were no comfort zones anywhere. There was only death and destruction…and ripples. Ripples that I caused but they were anonymous. Firing a weapon at moving targets always leaves room for doubt.”

“But I remember this one soldier. We were just walking along a path and he was hiding in the bush. He stood up and smiled at me. He was just a young boy…probably around my age, but I didn’t care. I looked him right in the eye and remember thinking that he was no more than an animal…and then I killed him. I unloaded my weapon into his body and I kept firing, even after I had run out of ammunition. It was almost like I had stepped out of my own body. There was no noise…no shudder…just one minute this boy was alive, and the next, I was filling him full of holes. One of the other guys…I can’t even remember who…came over and said, ‘he’s dead and he’s not going to get any more dead’.”

Grandpa sighed and said, “he still haunts me to this day. I had a choice. I could have let this young man live, but I chose to end his life. I think about him and wonder…who was the real animal?”

“He was someone’s son. Maybe he was someone’s brother, or husband…or father. I caused a ripple that day. A ripple that wasn’t anonymous. A ripple that would forever be felt. A ripple with never ending waves. And that day was the day that somehow, my thirst for revenge was quenched. I don’t ever expect absolution for what I did over there, but I hope if there is a higher power, my actions will at least be understood.”

He continued. “Anyway, I was getting short. Just another month and I would be on my way back to the states…back to the before time and the before life I had left a year ago. I knew that I would be expected to act the same, but I wasn’t the same. I would never be the same.”

“We had one more mission before my papers came through. I didn’t want to go. I was sick of war. I was sick of fighting. I was sick of killing. I was sick of seeing death…but fate is fickle. The last conflict was another brutal, bloody battle. We managed to push back the enemy and hadn’t lost a single man in our platoon.”

“Defiling a corpse was no longer stomach churning, so we did the usual check to see if any of their men were still alive and could become prisoners. We searched for explosives and ammunition in their clothes, but didn’t find much. Sometimes, we’d find letters or pictures soaked with blood and we just tossed them away like trash. Occasionally, we’d find what looked like a Bible, but we couldn’t understand the language of course. If I found one, I would just place it on the soldiers’ chest. I still had a reverence for the Bible, no matter what language it was printed in.”

Grandpa put his hands together, almost like he was going to say a prayer, and said, “I found one soldier laying on his back with his eyes open. He was clearly dead but there was no expression of agony or surprise or sorrow on his face. I checked his pockets.”

I thought Grandpa was going to break down when he said, “the only thing he had in his pocket was…a rusted old harmonica.”

To be continued__________________

Ole’ Tin-tin – Chapter Eight

Grandpas’ voice trembled as he continued.

“I dropped to my knees,” he said. “I think I must have been screaming because one of the guys had his hand over my mouth.”

Again, Grandpa shook his head and took a deep breath. “We found George, hanging from a tree. They had peeled his skin off from his neck to his waist. I guess I was in shock, because I remember wondering why he was covered with flies. Someone started calling for a medic, and said ‘get him down’.”

“This may sound strange, but when we got him down, I remember almost desperately looking through his things for that damn harmonica. When I couldn’t find it, I was overcome with a sense of rage, regret, loss and an unquenchable thirst for vengeance. They not only took his skin and his life…they took ole tin-tin.”

Grandpas’ fists were clenched and his voice was deliberate when he said, “I wanted revenge. I wanted to go on a rage-filled killing spree. I wanted to cause goddamn annihilation. I wanted to make destructive ripples that would exterminate an entire country.”

His voice softened somewhat as he said “we were ordered to keep moving, and I left George laying there, mangled and mutilated. I glanced back as they were loading him onto a gurney, and I knew it would be the last time I ever saw him.”

“I felt empty,” he said. “Hell, we all did. I have never known anyone who was so universally liked by everyone. He was a rare find. A once in a lifetime find. A find that I would never again encounter. He left a hole in my heart and bruised my soul to the point that I thought I would never recover.”

“As I walked away with a look of retributive justice in my eyes and a burning hatred in my heart, out of nowhere, one of the guys walked up to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘you know, they say when seeking revenge…dig two graves’. He barely got the last word out when I said, tell them to start digging, because they’ll be the first one in the fucking ground.”

“We made camp that night and besides the distant crickets and the repetitive sounds of cigarette lighters, it was silent. There were no unbearable shrieks from ole tin-tin, and no laughter they had always elicited. There were no anecdotal stories about George. I think we were all too heartbroken.”

“Even our staid Sergeant Weston stopped by to offer his condolences and try to slow dance around what he had callously said about George having ‘been fragged’. I admit that I held that against him, warranted or not, but that wasn’t pressing. I was still bloodthirsty and my bitterness was so virulent, it was almost tactile. It was a dangerous place to be mentally.”

Grandpa turned his head and said, “In my crazed, almost psychotic state, I remember suddenly thinking…well, at least his mother will get a flag. That’s a fair trade, don’t you think? A flag for a son?”

“I hated the war. I hated everything it stood for, and to tell the truth, I wasn’t even sure what we were fighting for…and dying for. I just knew that it was taking a mighty toll, and all those deaths seemed to just be taken in stride. It was almost like the government of our country was saying, “oh well. What’s a few thousand lives in the grand scheme of things?”

I was surprised to hear my grandfather speak about the war and the country that way, because I knew that he was a patriot and loved our country. Maybe that’s why I never knew that he had served, or fought. Maybe that’s why no one ever talked about that war. I think, over the years, he had healed. At least I hoped he had.

“The fighting didn’t stop with Georges’ death, of course,” he said. “We still had a job to do. Blood would still be spilled. Soldiers would still be maimed and slaughtered. Death would still be fired from guns. It would still fall from the sky, and I would still carry the mantle of wrath for the friend I had lost…at least until I felt that I had avenged his murder.”

“The next few months, we saw the bloodiest fighting we had seen since we first set foot in country. You know, your mind does funny things when you find yourself teetering on the brink of life and death. While I was dodging bullets and shooting at everything I could see, I kept thinking about all the flags that would be sent to the mothers and fathers and wives of these men, but I never once thought about the one that would be sent to mine.”

To be continued_________________

Ole’ Tin-tin – Chapter Seven

I looked at Grandpa and I could see an agonal look…the kind of look when someone has suffered unimaginable trauma. He couldn’t speak for a few minutes. He just kept shaking his head. Finally, he sighed heavily and began.

“We were desperate to find out if one of the bodies might be George. I asked one of the docs if maybe he had treated an unusually tall man. That medic looked at me and again, I saw that thousand yard stare as he said, ‘I don’t measure those soldiers. I just do the best I can to try to keep them alive and most of the time…I can’t.”

“Staff Sargent Weston had just give us our orders, but I didn’t hear a word he said. I was worried sick about George. I never let the thought of him being killed enter my mind. I told myself that the had just gotten lost. We had been told not to call out if we were lost, and George was a good soldier. He would never have put us in danger.” Grandpa chuckled as he said, “other than subjecting us to that god-forsaken cacophony of howls from ole’ tin-tin.”

“I risked Sargent Westons’ wrath when I asked if we were going to look for George, and I think if looks could kill, I would have dropped dead. He said, ‘your mission is to do as you are told, not go out and try to find a soldier who doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground and can’t find his way back to his own platoon. He’s probably been fragged anyway’.”

“Sargent Weston could be harsh, and at that particular moment, I wanted to punch him in the face, but I sort of understood. That’s what war does to you. How many times can you see death and not become numb? To him, George was just another soldier. We were all…just another soldier.”

“We gathered up our gear and started humping through the bush. We didn’t know where we were headed or what we were going to encounter. We could have been walking straight into an ambush without warning, but we kept walking. We tried to make jokes about the mosquitoes the size of small cars, the crickets the size of bigger cars, all the while trying not to think of things that were inconceivable.”

“One of the guys yelled, ‘hey. What’s worse than listening to George playing ole’ tin-tin’? Another one yelled back, ‘nothing!’. We all laughed. Anything that could make us laugh was welcome. I think that’s why we were all so fond of George. Even when we were so tired we could hardly move, he could make us laugh.” Grandpa smiled and said, “George made ripples.”

“After we’d been walking a good two or three miles, our point man stopped dead in his tracks, and immediately took a defensive position. He gave us the hand sign that unfriendlies might be ahead. As we carefully walked toward him, ready to fire at anything that moved, we all stood in stunned silence.”

To be continued___________

Ole’ Tin-tin – Chapter Six

I had never seen my grandfather look so melancholy. I couldn’t imagine what he had seen and heard and done, as could no one, unless they had been there.

“Weeks went by,” he said, “and those weeks turned into months. We saw guys in our platoon get wounded or killed and it changed us all. I came to understand the way we were treated when we first arrived. These wide-eyed grunts were no different than we, and most of us didn’t want to give them a warm welcome. We had learned. We got to know and like a guy and the next thing we knew, we were covered with his blood and guts.”

“We all welcomed R&R. It was a chance to get a hot meal, sit around a campfire, not worry about getting killed, and just shoot the breeze. It was a chance for us to get a good nights’ sleep for the first time in what most of us couldn’t even remember how long.” Grandpa’s voice trailed off as he quietly said, “funny…none of us talked about our last mission. One night, I remember seeing this soldier walking back into camp. His face had that blank, unfocused look that I had heard so much about. It was called ‘the thousand yard stare’. That was the first time I saw it, but it wouldn’t be the last.”

I guess Grandpa needed to momentarily get out of that dark place. He laughed and said, “while we were enjoying, or trying to enjoy those few peaceful minutes of the only civility we would know for a while, George would start playing ole tin-tin. I guess we figured it was a little less hellacious than the unspeakable horrors of the past days…and weeks…and months, and it gave us the chance to laugh and forget for a while.”

“While we were sitting around, one question we all asked each other was, ‘how many days’?” He looked at me and said, “that was important. From day one, we were counting the days that we would be in country. When someone was getting short, they were running on a sort of high. We’d give them some crap of course, but we were always glad for them…and would be doing our own countdown.”

“After our three days of R&R, we were headed for the worst conflict we had yet seen. We were locked and loaded and waited until almost midnight to start moving.”

He gestured with his hands as he said, “they had these giant crickets and we’d listen to them while were were walking. It was so dark, we couldn’t see our own hand in front of our faces, but that didn’t stop us. We just muddled on. Then…the crickets stopped chirping and we got worried. We got really worried.”

“All of a sudden, bullets started flying, grenades were being thrown at us… and by us. There were bloodcurdling screams of desperation…or maybe they were the agonizing final screams of acceptance. I don’t know. It was just so chaotic and at times, I wasn’t sure if I was shooting at one of them or one of us.”

“The next thing I remember was seeing a blinding flash of light and then…nothing.”

“Did you get shot?” I asked. Grandpa looked at me and said, “no, I got what they call a sub concussive blow. It just knocked my lights out for a few minutes and left me not hearing so well for a while. We lost almost half of our platoon that night, but amidst the shock and turmoil, the next morning, we were able to collect the dead and wounded. The wounded got medivaced out, and the dead were put on a litter and carried away.”

“Death,” he said, “is indiscriminate. There’s no rhyme or reason. It doesn’t care who you are. It doesn’t care if you’re a short timer or just hopped off the chopper. It doesn’t care if you’re a good person or a bad person. When it comes for you, there is no apology. It’s just your time.”

Grandpa once again took a deep breath. He looked down and said, “when we got back to camp, we noticed that something wasn’t right.”

“Nobody had seen George.”

To be continued____________________

Ole’ Tin-tin – Chapter Five

“For the first few days,” grandpa said, “we mostly just sat around, talking, wondering, waiting, and listening to George playing his harmonica. I swear, he’d have us rolling on the ground, laughing. We still didn’t have any idea what we were in for.”

“Then we were given orders to do a ‘seek and destroy’ mission.”

“We headed out, tromping through brush so thick, we had to cut it with machetes, and there were the times we had to walk knee-deep in water, hacking our way as we went. We’d get scraped, scratched, cut and soaked, and we’d be fussing, cussing and asking each other what the hell we’d gotten ourselves into.”

Grandpa stopped and I could see the tears in his eyes as he continued. I asked him what happened. He looked away and said, “there are things that are truly difficult to speak about. I’ll just say that what we left was a piece of countryside blistered and scarred with gaping wounds that still wept bloody tears and smelled of death and decay…but we did our job. We caused ripples.”

He said, “you know, war is sort of glorified in movies and books. There’s always the triumphant end when the heroes defeat the villains. There’s always a back story where the handsome soldier meets the pretty nurse and they get married and live happily ever after. But when you’ve seen war and the bloodshed and the desolation, there’s nothing romantic about it.”

“You may have heard stories about ‘Dear John’ letters. They were true. These men would get letters from their fianc├ęs or wives, telling them that they were tired of waiting and had met someone else. Those men would be beyond devastated. Two men in our platoon got those letters. Tyler Hawkins was one of them and he put on a brave face and acted like it didn’t bother him. The other man, Pete Crawley was completely defeated. Nothing we said could assuage his grief.”

Grandpa took a deep breath, sighed and then said, “when we were under fire one night, Pete clenched the letter in his hand and just stood up. He was immediately shot in the head. I guess he thought he no longer had a reason to live.”

“He was one of those guys who were brave talkers…you know the type. He was always saying, ‘boys…we’re going to kick some’. He’d start howling like a wild dog or something and pretend to start shooting.”

“We all liked him and he was particularly fond of George. He loved to tease him, as we all did. He would chuckle and say, ‘we don’t have to shoot any of them guys…George will kill them with ole’ tin-tin. I mean, they’ll hear that ear-splitting squawking and they’ll walk right up to us and yell ‘just go ahead and fucking kill us…please’!”

It was interesting to hear my grandfather curse. That was something I had never heard from him but I had also never heard his story.

Grandpa leaned back in his chair and said, “one night when the moon was full, we watched them walk a guy what would be almost the entire length of a football field.”

At first I wasn’t sure what he meant. I admit, I was thinking he was seeing a soldier being captured, but I soon realized what he was saying. He witnessed that atrocity and it had stayed with him all these years.

Once again, he took a deep breath and said, “there are things I saw and did over there that I can’t talk about.”

“Those ripples. Those horrible ripples.”

To be continued_____