Sunday, July 20, 2014

So Long, Son

There was no band, no flags, no ceremonial. It wasn't even dramatic. A car honked outside and he said, "Well, I guess that's for me." He picked up his little bag, and his mother said, "You haven't forgotten your gloves?"
He kissed his mother, and held out his hand to me. "Well, so long," he said. I took his hand but all I could say was "Good luck!"
The door slammed and that was that - another boy gone to war.
I had advised waiting for the draft-waiting at least until he was required to register. I had pointed out that he was not yet of age. He had smiled at that, and assured me that his mind was made up. He wanted peace, he said without peace, what good was living?
There was finality in the way he said this - a finality at once grim and gentle. I said no more about waiting. After the door closed behind him I went upstairs. I went to what had been his room. It was in worse chaos than usual. His bureau was littered-an incredible collection, of things, letters, keys, invitations to parties he would not attend.
Clothing was scattered about - dancing pumps, a tennis racket, his collection of phonograph records, his trumpet gleaming in its case.
I went then to my room. On the wall was a picture of a little boy, his toothless grin framed in tawny curls-the same boy who had just taken my hand and said, "Well, so long."
Not much time, I thought, between the making of that picture and the slamming of the front door. Not much more than a decade.
Suddenly a queer thing happened. Objects came alive, whispered to me. The house was full of soft voices. They led me up to the attic-to a box of toy soldiers, a broken music rack, a football helmet, a homemade guitar, schoolbooks, class pictures, a stamp album, a penny bank with the lid pried off . . . ancient history, long hidden under dust.
The voices led me on to a filing case and a folder stuffed with pages and report cards, letters, among them the wail of an exasperated teacher: "Though he looks like an angel. . ." telegrams, passports, a, baptismal certificate, a ribbon won in a track meet, faded photographs (one taken on the memorable first day of long pants), a bit of golden hair.
I sat down and thought how time had flown. Why, it was only yesterday when I held him on my arms! That, somehow, made me remember all the scoldings I had given him, the preachments, the exhortations to virtue and wisdom I did not myself possess. . . .
I thought, too, of that last inarticulate "good luck," that last perfunctory handclasp; and I wished that I had somehow been able to tell him how much I really loved him. Had he perhaps penetrated my brusque reserve? Had he perhaps guessed what was in my heart?
And then I thought, what fools we are with our children-always plotting what we shall make of them, always planning for a future that never comes, always intent on what they may be, never accepting what they are! Well, curlyhead, you're a man now, bearing your bright new shield and spear. I hated to see you go out of my house and close the door behind you, but I think I would not have halted you if I could.
 I salute you, sir. I cannot pretend that I am not sad; but I am proud, too. So long.

(Some months later the son of the author of the above was killed in combat)

Howard Vincent O'Brien
January 8, 1942.

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