“I was paralyzed,” grandpa said. “I just couldn’t believe I was holding ole tin-tin. I almost broke down as I clutched it to my chest. It was hard to breathe, but suddenly, I found myself laughing and wondering why.”
“As we moved out, I had ole tin-tin clutched so tightly in my hand that it almost went numb. Then, I stopped dead in my tracks. I had a sense of foreboding. I don’t know why. The fighting was over, but nothing was guaranteed in the bush. It didn’t care if you had just arrived or if it was your last day. There was always the possibility that a bullet had your name on it. I looked at a guy and said, ‘if I fall, I want you to promise me that you will get ole tin-tin and take it to Georges’ mom’.”
“I never will forget the day the helicopters came to pick us up,” he said. “We were out of our minds with excitement, but there was sadness for the ones we were leaving behind, and for the ones who went before us on a different journey.”
“I always thought,” he said, “that war was like a jet flying overhead, leaving a contrail of memories that in time, would slowly be forgotten or disappear and when they finally did, the flight was over. Simplistic, I know, and somewhat naïve.” Grandpa shook his head and mocked himself. “How could I have been so insouciant?”
“When we landed in the States. I couldn’t wait to see mom and dad. I felt like I had been gone for years, and I felt like I had aged a hundred years. I knew I looked worn and haggard, but the little boy in me was comforted by thinking, mom will take care of me.”
“When we got off the plane, we were stunned. There were no colorful, handmade Welcome Home banners. There were no ticker tape parades or kisses with pretty nurses in the middle of town square. There were only angry protesters, who spit at us and called us baby killers. They taunted us with cruel and violent hostility. They threw rotten vegetables at us. We didn’t understand what was going on at first, but apparently the war had become very unpopular while we were gone, and we were now targets for everyones’ hatred.”
“Did you say anything to them Grandpa?” I asked. “Did you tell them that you were over there fighting for someones’ freedom? The very freedom that we all enjoy and probably take for granted?”
“They didn’t care,” grandpa said, “and I was just happy to get home.” Grandpa smiled when he said, “it took me a few weeks to be able to sleep through the night without jolting upright when I heard a strange noise. And a car backfiring?” He laughed and said, “that would get me prone faster than tripping over a rock.”
I said, “it sounds like you had PTSD, Grandpa.” He said, “you’re probably right, but back then it was called ‘shell-shocked’. Most doctors would more or less say, ‘take two aspirin and call me in the morning’. I fared better than a lot of the boys who came home. Some of us kept in touch for a while, but over time, they just seemed to disappear.”
“What did you do with ole tin-tin?” I asked.
“I took it to his mom. His dad had died shortly after George was killed. His mom said she knew that he died from a broken heart. She took ole tin-tin and smiled as she thanked me. She gave me a hug and said she wondered why it hadn’t been with his other things when he came home. I didn’t tell her how I came to have it and she didn’t ask. Maybe she didn’t want to know, or maybe she didn’t care. All that mattered was that it was with her now. She asked if I would go to his grave with her. I hadn’t been yet and I wasn’t sure I could handle it, but I went.”
“George was resting beside his father in what was called The Garden of Remembrance, and I noticed that a marker had already been made for her. I tried to comfort her as she cried. I told her how much everyone liked George. After a few minutes, I wanted to lighten the moment when I talked about George playing that old harmonica and singing. ‘He had us in stitches’, I said. “He couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.” We both laughed. I think it was the first time I had laughed in quite a while.”
As she stood over his grave, she said, “you know. One of the greatest gifts anyone can receive, is to be remembered fondly with laughter and perhaps a few tears. If you cry for someone, someday when you’re gone, maybe someone will cry for you.”
“There was so much sadness in her voice as she asked, ‘who will cry for him after I’m gone’?”
“I put my arm around her and said, I will. I will cry for him as long as I live, and that’s a promise.” He looked at me and said, “I never faltered. I have kept my word all these years.”
“It’s funny,” he said. “When you go to the cemetery, you can’t see ripples but you know they’re there. You can feel them. They don’t make a noise but if you listen closely, you might hear the contented sighs of peace, or maybe the silent screams of a life cut too short. It doesn’t matter where those ripples were made, here or on the other side of the world, they carried consequences.”
“When Georges’ mom died, she left ole tin-tin to me and I will be leaving it to you. There are no incumbrances as far as its disposition. That is your choice. I just wanted you to know the story behind this old rusty piece of tin, which brought so much laughter into my life, and so much grief as well. I am at ease with things now and I can only hope that I haven’t caused too many destructive ripples.”
Grandpa turned and looked at me. He said, “There will come a time when we all must take stock of our lives.”
My grandfather died the next year, but he left me with such wonderful and sometimes, heartbreaking memories. That terrible war he endured…the remarkable friendship and death of a singing, harmonica playing best friend, and wishes that I carefully measure the ripples that I cause.
I keep Ole Tin-tin on my desk, and once a year I visit Georges’ grave. I do it for his mother, I do it for my grandfather and I do it for myself. Some day, I will tell the story behind that old rusty piece of tin, and I will ask the same question that my grandpa asked me that still echoes in my mind.
“Were the ripples I caused worth the price?”