Once upon a time, when I did what real men do, I was a Cobra (gunship) pilot. And I was driving back from an airfield where I was the safety officer in charge of some REAL cosmic stuff, and I noticed a pilot walking along, kicking a can, carrying an operator's manual.
Now, if you don't know about Army pilots, they all have a certain aire about them. I mean, generally speaking, they wear a fancy watch, speak with a "Chuck Yeager drawl" and they DON'T WALK. So I had a feeling that this kid was in deep, whatever his problem was, and I stopped to offer a ride.
He was a good looking kid, a young Warrant Officer and not one of mine as I had originally suspected. He was real polite, in an Opie Taylor sort of way, but didn't speak. Just smiled until I asked him if he wanted a ride, then got in and smiled until I spoke. What's your name? He told me. Why are you walking? Tired of waiting for the bus. It's a long way back to town… you can figure out the rest. Anyway, I got around to saying I had a mean wife, six kids and a three-legged dog. No reaction. Nothing. Usually I can break some serious ice with some of my family goings-on, but nothing came of this. I said it again, and asked if he were married.
"Well… yes… well no… well sort of. I'm a widower. That means that my wife is dead…" He had a big smile on his face. One of stress and pain and real suffering.
It was a hundred and ten outside, but I felt cold down to my socks.
“How old are you, Son?”
“Where did you come from?”
“Korea… I was there when she died.”
I was stunned. Well, I went on and asked what happened to her.
"Yeah. She was killed. Hit by a train."
I couldn't believe it and thought he might be kidding. How can you kid about something like this? He still had that big smile. You bet, I had to ask.
“How??” He didn't hear me.
"And my three sons ..." he went on. I was numb now, I couldn't swallow, and I listened more carefully. "With her sister. Yep, her sister was with her ... and HER two ..." He wasn't smiling now. I could barely hear him. There were tears stuck in him like a backward fish hook, and they just couldn't come out. Hell, I am not sure, but the tears in me felt that way…
"Her two children?"
"Yeah," he answered. "And an old man from town, we all knew him, he came out with the Rescue Squad. Tried to revive my son. Had a heart attack. Died on the scene."
He took a deep breath and the smile was back. He was in control again. I fired a bunch of questions… he was one of us, a soldier in anguish, and we damn well better do this right.
What are you here for? An advanced helicopter course. How are you doing? Not good. What's the problem? Can't concentrate. Why don't you come to dinner Sunday? Yeah, I'd like to come. We have a lot of kids, if they bug you, tell me. Oh, they'll be OK, but do you REALLY have a three-legged dog? Yep, and he's ugly, but we love him. I want to play with your dog. We can arrange it.
He didn't have a prayer. My children ran him over. The dog liked him too. I called some people who still believe in the Army taking care of its own, and they gave the kid a break. He came by to see me one time before he left, and thanked me for helping. And he was already better. I don't mean the pain, but he wasn't pulling the train alone anymore, and he knew it.
I don't think I can be quite as quick now to yell at my kids. My family is more special to me than ever. For whatever reason my family is here and his isn't here, I am eternally grateful to have them. And whatever I might have done for him, it is not as much as he has done for me.
About the author
You may have heard of Rhonda Cornum, Capt, USA... Flight Surgeon who was shot down and tortured in Iraq in the first Iraqi war.
She was the wonderful flight surgeon who rescued this kid.