Archie sat in silence the family milling around with the eager look of grave robbers poised to begin rifling through his grandfather’s belongings. Lewis, the black sheep of the family, leaned against the doorway focusing all his attention on a piece of lint stuck in the carpet. Susan—Lewis’s half-sister—was sprawled out on the couch shuffling through an unorganized stack of papers. Susan’s twin sons, Carl and Charles, had positioned themselves near the hoard of weaponry collected over the last fifty years and had begun examining each one in more detail. Her daughter Becky kept glancing at her watch and tapping her foot impatiently. Susan’s youngest son David had a look about him that suggested he was about to open Christmas presents. His eyes were nearly popping out of his skull as he bobbed up and down on the couch waiting for someone to say “GO!” None of them seemed to care the old man had died. Colonel Archibald Spencer Wilson, United States Marine Corps. A hero of World War II with a long and distinguished military record. That’s who he used to be. Now he was just some dead guy with a lot of cool shit.
Aunt Susan wanted the chair with the arm rests carved into the shape of a lion’s head and the bathroom vanity. Carl and Charles called dibs on his gun collection and got all of them except the confiscated one. Becky, who had just gotten married and was still in the process of filling up her new house with furniture, demanded the eight-person dining room table and the matching sideboard. David, a budding photographer, grabbed all the negatives he could get his hands on. Most of them were taken during World War II. The list went on.
Archie’s mom had died giving birth to him. His father, who along with being strung out on coke most of the time, wasn’t allowed back in the states till after President Carter had declared amnesty for draft dodgers. Susan intervened on Archie’s behalf and he came to live with his aunt and her family in southern California. For the most part, Archie never liked his family or his life. His father was a bum and his aunt wasn’t blood. There was even a family rumor that Alma, his aunt’s mother, used to be a whore. Susan’s kids treated him like crap for as long as he could remember, and Susan never did anything to stop them. She only took him in because he had no place to live and she thought Lewis would dry out eventually. Susan had her own kids to raise and Archie quickly became an afterthought. Becky was responsible for waking him in the morning. Most of the time she slapped him across the face but wasn’t against kicking him in the gut. The twins soaked his underwear in a bucket of water once a week and if it got below freezing, he wouldn’t be able to wear any. All of them, even David when he was old enough, would spit into his food when no one was looking. But he never said anything to anybody about it. The Colonel always told him that was part of becoming a man. “Take what they give you and keep smiling. Remember that.” Archie slept in a tiny room above the garage that had no running water or heat. All his clothes and toys were hand-me-downs from the twins. Archie never had anything that was his own. He decided early on in life to practice medicine. He thought it was the quickest way to make money. He wanted to be wealthy and buy things for himself that had never been used. And he wanted to move far away from the people who raised him. The only thing he’d miss was the time he spent as a child with his namesake. The Colonel regaled him with old war stories and taught him about honor, pride, and integrity. “That’s what makes a man a man,” he used to say. “You’re nothing without honor and integrity. Remember that.”
The Colonel’s funeral was the first time Lewis and Archie had been in the same room in almost twenty years, yet they both found it just as easy to ignore each other as they had in the past. Lewis found the medals and immediately pocketed them. Only Archie saw his father’s virtually inconspicuous act. Ever since Lewis got himself kicked out of West Point and eventually fled to Canada to avoid Vietnam, he and his father hadn’t spoken. Perhaps that was why he named his first-born son after his father—an attempt that ultimately failed to bridge the gap between them. It didn’t make much sense to Archie that his father should take the Colonel’s medals. He hadn’t done anything to deserve them. He said he was clean and hadn’t used drugs of any kind in years, but Archie had no reason to trust him. Lewis ran away when his number was called and all but abandoned his own son. But Archie didn’t say anything. No one would listen anyway. They were too busy scavenging for artifacts.
When Archie was younger, nobody paid too much attention to the Colonel’s drinking. A swig of vodka after lunch was nothing anyone worried about. He got exercise walking up and down the endless rows of his citrus trees inspecting each and every orange in the grove. He spent a couple hours each night talking to old war buddies on the CB. In those days, most people called him by his CB handle “Shotgun.” Only Archie got away with calling him “Colonel.” As the years passed, the Colonel’s noontime nip turned into a full glass. Then multiple glasses. He stopped going over to his daughter’s house for dinner on Sunday nights where Archie and his grandfather used to spend hours playing checkers. And it wasn’t more than a few weeks later that he quit leaving the house altogether. The Colonel would sit in his study and stare out the window at the faces in the trees. When Archie was in junior high, his grandfather would send him to the convenience store for a carton of cigarettes and a couple bottles of booze once a week. The cashier didn’t bother to ID Archie—he knew who it was for. Once when his daughter and wife Alma were grocery shopping, he invited Archie to have a drink with him. At fifteen years old, he had his first taste of alcohol; vodka with a splash of water, no ice. They sat in silence drinking rotgut vodka and smoking cheap cigarettes.
The summer before Archie started his freshmen year at USC, along with his usual drinking routine, the Colonel began throwing back a glass of vodka before going to bed at four in the afternoon. When he came back during Christmas vacation a year and a half later, it was one at bedtime and another six or eight hours later when he woke up to use the bathroom. By the end of his junior year, the Colonel was up to three glasses.
Buried at the bottom of a large box of papers were the original citations awarded to the Colonel. He hadn’t bothered to frame them or even try to protect them from deteriorating. They were wrinkled, creased, torn, and yellowed, but still legible. He earned his first Navy Cross in the fall of ’42. The family stopped bickering over his possessions long enough to hear Lewis read them aloud:
For extraordinary heroism as Commanding Officer of the 1st Marine Raider Battalion, during action against enemy Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands on the night of 11 September 1942. Major Wilson, with a force of 200 men, was assigned to the occupation and defense of a ridge dominating the jungle on either side of the Guadalcanal airfield. Facing a formidable Japanese attack which had crashed through our front lines, he, by skillful handling of his troops, successfully withdrew his forward units to a reserve line with minimum casualties. Major Wilson personally directed defense of the reserve position against a fanatical foe of greatly superior numbers. By his astute leadership he enabled his men to cling to their position on the vital ridge, thereby retaining command of the 1st Division’s entire offensive installations of the surrounding areas.
Lewis was halfway through the last sentence when the looters resumed their pillage. Susan quickly shut them up and told her half-brother to keep reading. Archie thought about gallantry and bravery and the Colonel and wondered where it all went.
Archie found himself back home during the spring break of his last semester. He was ripped from a deep and comfortable sleep by his aunt.
“Archie, get up. I need your help.”
“Aunt Susie, it’s six in the fucking morning. I’m hung over. I’m on vacation.” Archie pulled the blankets over his head and continued talking into his pillow.
“Besides, I thought you weren’t talking to me because I got that tattoo. What did you call me? A snake-charmer? Just let me sleep.”
“I need your help. Now. And watch your language.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Your grandfather fell again.”
“Where’s Carl or Charles? Don’t they usually help?”
“They’re running errands. Get up. I made coffee. This shouldn’t take more than an hour.”
“Watch your goddamn language.”
His second Navy Cross was awarded in the fall of 1944 on the Palau Islands when he was a Lieutenant Colonel:
For extraordinary heroism as Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, 5th Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on the Palau Islands from 14 to September 23, 1944. Although wounded during the first hour of landing Lt. Col. Wilson refused evacuation to remain with his Battalion’s assault elements in many hazardous missions. On one occasion, when large gaps occurred in our front lines as the result of heavy casualties, he rallied and personally led combined troops into these gaps to establish contact and maintain hasty defensive positions for the remainder of the night. His outstanding courage, devotion to duty and leadership were in keeping with the highest tradition of the United States Naval Service.
Archie thought about duty and courage and the Colonel and wondered where it all went.
“So, what exactly are we doing?”
“Yeah, I heard you the first time. I’m not deaf. It doesn’t take two of us to lift him up.”
“Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.”
“What the fuck, is this a national secret or something? What are we doing?”
“Your grandfather was getting up to use the bathroom and he fell. We have to pick him up, take him to the bathroom, let him do what he has to do and put him back in bed.”
“Yeah, all right. I’m coming.”
“You still smoking Archie? I would think that someone who’s going to be a doctor would know enough not to smoke.”
Susan opened the backdoor to her parents’ house and followed Archie inside. Her mother came shuffling toward them with a rolling oxygen tank in one hand and an unlit cigarette in the other. “Your father’s upstairs Susan. I see you brought some help. Hey Archie.”
“Hey grandma. You know it’s like seventy degrees outside right? Why does it feel like it’s ninety in here?”
Alma shrugged, unhooked herself from the tank, and hobbled outside to smoke. As soon as the screen door slammed shut, she hollered out, “Susan, do you or Archie want anything to drink or eat?”
“No thanks mom. We’ll take care of dad. You rest.”
The two climbed the L-shaped staircase leading to the Colonel’s room. Archie looked down and noticed the same white shag carpet with nicotine colored hues that had been there when he was a child. The blue floral wallpaper Susan and Alma put up twenty years ago was the same too. It was all the same.
They turned the corner and there on the floor leaning against the side of his bed sat the Colonel. His hair was matted down, and he smelled like he hadn’t bathed in a week. He wore a sweat soaked wife-beater and shit stained boxers. Both were threadbare and full of holes. His black socks were pulled up almost to his knees. The big toe on his right foot was poking through a hole made by his long, yellow, unclipped toenail. He didn’t say a word or even notice they were standing there. “Grab him by his right arm and lift him up Archie. Bathroom first.” They dragged the Colonel to the bathroom fifteen feet away. “Archie, I’ll hold him up, you lift the lid of the toilet and then we’ll set him down.” The Colonel remained silent and kept staring straight ahead. When Susan pulled down his boxers, she sighed and breathed “Aaaaaw, dad,” as liquid shit dribbled down his legs toward the hardened shit sitting in a pile at the bottom of his boxers. “Archie, I’ll clean this up, you go into his room and find another pair and a different shirt.”
The Colonel’s room was as empty as it always was. A wooden framed bed, a dresser, an end table, a bedside lamp, and the lion’s head chair. No pictures on the wall. In fact, the only other item in the room that was not furniture was a twenty-two-gauge rifle leaning against the window that overlooked the backyard. The Colonel had sawed a couple of inches off the butt and a few more from the barrel and used it to shoot squirrels and birds that gnawed on his orange trees. Archie searched the dresser looking for clean garments and came across the Colonel’s Bronze Star.
“Archie, did you find them?”
“Yeah. I’m coming.” He returned to the bathroom, clothes in hand for the scarred, lifeless, lump sitting naked on the john. “Honor,” Archie mumbled, “yeah—right.”
He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in the spring of 1945 at Iwo Jima. This commendation earned him the rank of Colonel. Lewis continued to read:
For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty as Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division, Volcano Island Fort, 17 March 1945. In a terrain studded with caves and ravines Lt. Col. Wilson was standing point forward of our lines when he spotted Japanese troops attempting to infiltrate the island under the cover of darkness. He immediately waged a fierce battle during which a grenade gravely wounded his left hand and fractured his thigh. Near exhaustion from profuse bleeding he continued to defend his forward position engaging in hand-to-hand combat when he was out of ammunition. At dawn Lt. Col. Wilson was found amid the bodies of 33 Japanese soldiers he had killed in self- sacrificing defense of his forward position.
Archie thought about fortitude and heroism and the Colonel and wondered where it all went.
“Good. Listen, I have to hold him steady while you wipe his ass.”
“What? No. I don’t think so!”
“Please. He can’t do it himself. Aren’t you going to be sticking your hands inside people when you’re a doctor?”
“It ain’t quite the same goddamn thing, and you fucking know it!”
Archie wrapped a third of a roll of toilet paper around his hand and gently scraped the Colonel’s ass. It took ten minutes and four rolls of paper. After he scrubbed his hands raw in hot water, he began to help Susan get the Colonel back to bed when she screamed out, “Shit! I gotta change the sheets first. All right, you keep him company here and I’ll fix his bed. I’ll be right back.” A few minutes turned into twenty. Alma, who could be heard limping across the house with her oxygen tank in tow, wheezed from the bottom of the staircase, “Susan, what the hell are you doing up there?”
“I’m looking for clean sheets. Where are they?’
“I don’t think we have any that will fit his bed. Just use the ones that are already on there.”
“Mom, they’re covered in piss and crap and they smell like vodka. He needs new ones.” Archie listened to his aunt and grandmother argue about sheets while he tried to keep the Colonel from sliding off the toilet seat. He still hadn’t said a word or moved his eyes or made any acknowledgement that his family was talking about him as if he didn’t exist. In the end, Susan laid out two unzipped sleeping bags side-by-side and told her mother to throw out all his old undergarments and she would buy new sheets, boxers, and undershirts the following day. After they laid him back down on the bed, Susan kissed his forehead. Archie stared down at him.
The Colonel was admitted to Annapolis in 1927 through the nomination of Senator James McAvoy II, whose son had been the Colonel’s closest high school friend. He graduated in 1931 near the top of class and was commissioned as a lieutenant into the Marines. That same year he married his high school sweetheart, Emily Raines, and three years later Lewis was born. Because of his excellent marks in college the Colonel moved up the military ranks quickly and easily. He was a major by the time he was thirty years old and when war came to the United States in 1941, he was assured by his superiors, that if he proved himself, he would be at minimum a three-star general before he reached forty-five. The Colonel did prove himself, time and time again. By the time World War II was over, he had amassed two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star, two Navy Crosses, and the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The Colonel was shipped home in May of 1945 and wanting to surprise his wife and son, he didn’t tell them he was coming back earlier than expected. He came home to find his eleven-year-old son listening to the radio and in the next room, his wife in bed with Brigadier General James McAvoy III. Instead of beating the man to death or throwing him out of his house, the Colonel turned around and walked outside. Before opening the door to leave, he turned to Lewis and said, “You’re nothing without honor and integrity. Remember that. That’s what makes a man a man.” When he confronted his ex-friend a few days later, the Colonel was given two choices. He could either keep his mouth shut about the affair and McAvoy would personally see to it that the Colonel had four stars on his shoulder before he turned forty, or the Colonel could inform McAvoy’s superiors and the Brigadier General would personally see to it that the Colonel would never be promoted again. Within a week the Colonel had finalized his divorce and by the time he had retired some twenty years, he had never earned those gold stars. Even during peace time, valor and honor were most important.
He was stationed at Camp Pendleton in San Diego in late 1946 and spent his off hours in a bar in Tijuana where he met the woman he would eventually marry. Alma Jane Ryan grew up in a two- room shack just outside of Big Creek, Texas, penniless and destitute. At sixteen she had met a cowboy who was on the verge of striking oil in west Texas and told her father he had gotten her pregnant. A month after they had married, he lost the deed to his property in a poker game and Alma’s fantasy of high society living quickly disappeared. She fled to Mexico for a quickie divorce. She worked as a prostitute to pay for her abortion and wound up living there for the next five years. During one of the Colonel’s three-day drinking binges, Alma convinced him to marry her to get out of the life she had made for herself. She assumed she would live the rest of her life as a general’s wife and enjoy all the benefits that came with it. They were married in June of 1947 and six months later, Susan was born. There had always been an unanswered question between the two as to whether or not Susan was the Colonel’s daughter. Whenever the Colonel would mention leaving Alma or divorcing her, she would conveniently become pregnant. Alma had a string of miscarriages throughout the 50’s and early 60’s. In the end, he gave up on the subject. After retiring, the Colonel bought a hundred-acre citrus orchard outside of Santa Barbara where he hoped to spend most of his time tending to oranges instead of his wife and children.
After the Colonel’s furniture and personal effects had been divvied up, Archie pulled a manila envelope out of a box and emptied the contents into his hand. It contained only one of his dog tags.
Archibald S. Wilson
20745949 T41 44 0
Archie searched in vain to find the other one but grew tired of hunting through the leftovers and gave up. This tiny piece of tin was the last remnant of a man who at one time was worthy of admiration. He shoved it in his coat pocket. Valor, gallantry, courage, bravery, fortitude, heroism. These words no longer held any value.
Archie had decided to return home for a short vacation before continuing his medical education. Susan, the twins, and David had gone to visit Becky and her husband in Arizona so naturally he was designated to look after the Colonel. Alma had died of a heart attack six weeks before Archie had graduated and to make it easier for everyone who had to baby sit, the Colonel had been moved to one of the downstairs bedrooms. In the afternoons, Archie would help him get into bed and in the mornings he would help him get out. There was always a glass or two of vodka by his bed to help him sleep. Every time Archie awoke, he prayed he wouldn’t have to pick him off the floor and wipe his ass again.
The Colonel’s breakfast consisted of a banana and black coffee, lunch was vanilla ice cream, and dinner was a cup of chicken broth and a few saltines. Archie spent most days sitting with him in the study drinking and smoking. Neither one ever spoke. Archie couldn’t even remember the last time he heard the Colonel speak and was understandably shocked when he came out of his trance, turned his head slightly toward Archie and opened his mouth. “Lewis, take some money from my wallet. I’m out of rations. I’ll be all right till you get back. We’ll play some checkers.”
“Uuuhhh, all right Colonel. If you’re sure. I’ll be back in a jiffy.” Archie didn’t bother to correct the Colonel’s mistake when he called him by his father’s name.
Fifteen minutes later, Archie yanked open the front door with a grocery sack in his arms and hollered, “Colonel, to celebrate your recent breakthrough in the art of communication, I covered the difference and bought Marlboro’s and Smirnoff. I’m even gonna get real glasses, not those yogurt cups you normally drink out of. Colonel? Colonel?” Archie’s voice trailed off.
Apparently the Colonel had made it to his bed alone. Laid across his body was his sawed-off twenty-two. Archie couldn’t see a hole in his chest, but when he carefully lifted up the Colonel’s body, he saw a blood pool had formed on the mattress below. He pushed the gun aside and noticed a wet spot on the crotch of the Colonel’s pants. He looked down and there on the ground was a shell casing. Archie kicked at it and he heard a tink as it bounced off an empty pint of whiskey lying on the floor. He shook his head. The Colonel didn’t have the balls to do it sober and was too scared to do it without pissing himself. He poured himself a glass of vodka and lit a cigarette before finding a phone and dialing 911. The police immediately seized the Colonel’s illegally converted rifle and as Archie gave his statement and watched the paramedics wheel his grandfather away, he thought to himself, “Honor, pride, integrity—they can only take you so far. Remember that.”