Beyond the Western
61 years! Harlan counted again: 61 years!
The numbers were bright as they flashed in his head. In all those years he had made every trip to Wiscasset, Maine but one, the time he was in the hospital in McKees Rocks, PA for his coronary by-pass. 61 years to celebrate a death, a heroic death, but a death forever cold, no matter how hard they tried to warm it up. Harlan Yeats, sitting in the middle seat of his van, looked again at the passing landscape and recognized at least a dozen houses along the road, a huge red maple tree yet blocking the whole front of another house, and the same florist still in business; at least his sign said so. Then came the plunge down toward the center of town, the flag flapping at the veterans’ memorial at the curve in the road, where all the names were posted, the universal truth waving its hands.
Harlan Yeats, with his grandson Seth at the wheel, had come off the U.S. Route 1, the Blue Star Memorial Highway, about 30 miles back, after a long hard ride of 725 miles from Pennsylvania. Seth moved the Plymouth van gingerly through traffic building up as they neared the center of Wiscasset. How Harlan loved his grandson Seth, a quarterback from the Valley of Quarterbacks. The litany of quarterback’s names ran through his mind: Namath, Unitas, Marino, Mitchell, Fleming, the great, the near great, the poor pretenders. Seth, he was sure, would make his mark, though he was only 17. And after all, he had volunteered to make this trip, to drive his grandfather to a lonely celebration in a small town in Maine, where his grandfather might be the last man standing, the last man from the incredible patrol, Bert Scrubbins’s Squad, Wiscasset’s own Bert Scrubbins!
The man nobody in Wiscasset knew!
A center of tiredness expanded in Harlan’s body, made itself known, pulsed at extremities, weighted his senses. The long haul of his years was on him; it clutched at him harsh as a pair of vise grips, tenacious, always speaking their mind. Breakfast had been by-passed trying to save time, and growls cursed their way in his gut like tired or spent grenades. All the imagery around him made mention of the old squad; sights, sounds and smells, the whole lot of them. The late afternoon sun on the vehicle’s chrome crept its silver glare heatedly into his eyes as if it came off a rifle sight, had done so for the last 30 or 40 miles. On the near corner a youngster beat at an old washtub with a broken baseball bat; it was not musical but it was sonorous and strangely warlike. And the air, crisp, moving furtively on the unmistakable aroma of fried dough, made the day seem festive when it was not festive. All of that was outside him. And all of it was measurable.
There were, however, the endless paybacks or trade-offs: inside him, at his backside, sat a pain he swore was over fifty years in the making. “Old is as old does,” he remembered his father saying so many years ago. “The pains and bruises you get now, you’ll know again after you’re 50 years old. Like instant recall, they’ll come back with age.”
A bit gruff even to himself, Harlan said in the subdued voice he used when driving alone, or now riding as a passenger by family mandate, “Perhaps all of this began back there, the day we met Bert Scrubbins in Basic.”
He coughed and hacked a bit and knew a few other pains that fit him like a sweater. Once again, as if in a daily chore, he was locked into the memories. He wondered if any of the others would come, were able to come, or, in all the odds at work against their long devotion, would come no more, would never be seen again. There had been two of them last year, he was pretty sure. Sometimes he was not sure who the other one was. It was as if they were saints or sinners, their not belonging together being an unsaid guarantee, a silent dictate, keeping no contact in the year long parting, but coming on this same March day for 61 years. A promise made is a promise kept.
“Hell,” he said to himself in the gruff voice, as he remembered his comrade’s name, “Karl Waggoner looked stiff as death itself last year, the way his eyes wore that deep-well look, the way he knew again something we all had known once and had tried to forget, though a promise said we couldn’t let that happen… that we were dead men. It was Mung-dung-ni coming at us again, coming through Karl’s eyes. The freeze was upon us, our rations gone, cut off from our company, chill deep in our bones. Tocci and Burpee and even Old Man Remnitzer had that same look on their last visits up here to Wiscasset, the way some men get tagged with a look or an aura or a feeling they never quite shake. The kind you might wear for your whole life. We weren’t cowards, though we had been scared to the bottom of our souls.”
Harlan shivered. It was real all over again.
Seth, at the wheel for six solid hours this day, yet still thoughtful, said, “Tell me what happened, Gramp. Tell me again.” His eyes were in the rearview mirror, and Harlan could almost recount the times the story had been told in the kitchen at home, in the front room of the house with company afoot, on the porch of an August night, the moon on the treetops, fireflies on the wind whistling on the pond. What it really said was separation.
Harlan sorted himself into small parcels for measurement, self revelation. Always neat, a sworn recycler of waste products, wary of the turn of Earth into some wildly cataclysmic eruption if kept being handled this way, he tossed his day long cigar, unlit for more than an hour, out the window, into the gutter. He marked it as betrayal. Over his shoulder he looked for a police car to start tailing him, shrugged off the idea, thought of Bert again, coming down the hill in the valley at Mung-dung-ni, the banshee wail leaping from his lungs, the Browning automatic pumping away at his hip the way Lee Marvin or the gymnast Burt Lancaster might have handled it. The twelve men of the patrol surrounded, stripped of weapons, ready to face their Maker, the Chinese itching in their way to get their boots off, take some of their clothes, the wind fierce, the mix of snow and sand and gravel grit from empty bunkers whirling in their faces. The vision never left him, the war silent around them until Bert started yelling like he was a crazy man, the man that nobody in Wiscasset knew.
Harlan continued with his tale. “From the beginning there had been this thing with Bert Scrubbins: nothing ever surprised him, or fazed him. He loved the Earth and about all that was on it; the deep woods, the trout streams born of dreams, the place ‘where a man hears the ready voice of God in the underbrush and in the white water.’ He really said that, like he was reading from the lectern or the podium. From the outset we had noticed all that, but decided that Bert was not placid or immoveable. It was more like he was ready for whatever came along, no matter what direction it came from, no matter what form it took. Once he said to us, ‘Back home, in the woods, it can go bad in a flash, in a blind second. I been there, believe me. Best be wary and be ready for whatever comes. You don’t stand up to it, it runs you over in a damn hurry.’ And he had made the following pronouncement as if a sermon was being finished: ‘I ain’t one for getting run over.’ It was almost like he had bowed to that belief, had made an oath.”
“Nothing else really stood out about him, not that man. He was slim. Not very muscular at all. Could only breathe through one nostril, which gave a twang to his voice you’d recognize in a noisy crowd, or a noisy bar. Said his nose had been busted up by a bear. You’d also notice his eyes if you were around him a lot, especially if anything was going on. And when nothing was going on, too, when all seemed quiet. You knew he was hearing things he paid attention to, as though something was hanging on the next edge, something primal, mythic.”
Seth’s eyes found his eyes wandering a bit. “Like what, Gramp? Something spiritual?
Harlan smiled easily. This quarterback of his was a reader. That you knew as soon as he opened his mouth.
“Once, on night maneuvers, the peepers still, the frogs too, he heard on the air a fox pup crying like he was caught in a trap. He went off to look and when he brought the fox back to the company area, the captain wanted to court martial him. He made such noise to that end. Bert dropped the fox, which quickly scampered through the captain’s legs and raced into the mess tent. The subsequent mess in the mess tent quelled any processing of paper reports. A truce had somehow been established between Bert and the captain.”
“The old Browning automatic rifle above Mung-dung-ni,” Harlan recalled and said with a sudden tremor, “began its chattering screams just after the banshee cries swept through the Chinese ranks. The Chinese spun at the sound, then froze in place. To a man the dozen of us on the patrol, near prostrate, ducked deeper in the trench as the spray from Bert’s Browning slammed into cotton padding, into soft bodies, into the 20 or 25 men who had crept upon us huddled in a bunker and a trench at the bunker entrance. All of us couldn’t get inside the bunker, and we had changed places during the night several times, getting momentary warmth once inside. Everybody forgot who had fallen asleep at the switch. Nobody ever said whose turn it had been when we were suddenly under rifle points, stuck at the point of bayonets. Oh, we had heard all the stories, of finding GIs with their boots gone or their parkas or their gloves, the Chinese being re-outfitted. We knew we were going to get at least partially stripped. We also knew that a long cold walk was in front of us. That’s the kind of contemplation makes a man shiver to the bone. And we shivered.”
He looked back over his shoulder again. No police car in sight.
“It was Bert Scrubbins who prevented that long walk into what was going to be, for sure, at least four years of captivity. It was Bert Scrubbins who had gone off in the night to relieve his bowels. An unbelievable ache, he said, was tearing up his insides. Later, minutes later it seemed, after the threat, after the capture, after the thought of being near-stripped in the freezing cold, after the laying down of arms with rifles pointed right in our faces, it was Bert Scrubbins who came screaming up the other side with the Browning at his hip, the screams terrifying, ungodly to say the least, and the bullets shearing through the night, the surprise hanging out on the air like a million to one shot coming home the winner. He ran right at the clustered Chinese, did Bert Scrubbins, ran at them like a fullback coming right up to the line of scrimmage, all bone, all beating, all power, all a frightening, awesome sight.”
Harlan’s voice had a new pitch to it, a matching tone, as if it were in concert with his memories, had risen to the occasion. “The noise was a match for the vision of Bert. The Chinese tried to scatter. Some, in close quarters, dropped their rifles. Some tripped over one another. Many of them fell with the pain of bullets not really felt yet, as if waiting for morning to make its call. One of them fired his weapon at Bert. It was the last shot the man ever fired. The last shot the boy ever fired, for that’s what he was, just a boy, maybe fourteen. His face was smashed by more than one bullet as Bert aimed a burst back at him, and then sprayed the rest of the Chinese with another burst. Then Bert fell to his knees, that boy’s single round lodged in his chest. He managed to send one more spray into the pile of Chinese. Their moans went out on the air. Their lives over, at an end. The last moan was yet a cry of surprise. And that was completed in a moment. Tanbury, as timid usually as a baby, leaped for a weapon, jabbed a bayonet into the last sense of movement.”
“On his knees, never-surprised Bert Scrubbins made the only docile sound any of us had ever heard from him. ‘Don’t forget me.’ In the middle of death, in the middle of war, he simply said, ‘Don’t forget me. I don’t want to be forgotten. Nobody at home knows me. Nobody in the whole town ever knew me. I spent my whole life in the woods.’ He coughed. He gagged, and spit out the last words he ever said, ‘So, please, don’t forget me.’ He died before any of us could treat him, or stop the blood. He died there on the side of a mountain 10,000 miles from home. He died in front of all of us he had saved.”
Seth tried for a change of pace. “Who was here last year with you, Gramp, when Grandma came?”
It didn’t work. “I think there were only a two of us. Me and Waggoner. Tocci and Burpee and Remnitzer might have passed on the year before, I’m pretty sure. Somebody called one day, I can’t remember when, maybe the summer before, and said some of them were gone. Now, I don’t know what to expect. Who to expect, if anybody at all. Waggoner didn’t look too good last year, but he never has looked any too good, even way back. Skinny as a rail, he was, and no hair on his head, hell nothing even around his pecker that you could see.” The pause, the silence from the middle seat of the van, was as big as a block of ice. It filled the van, expanded, and touched Seth at the back of the neck. His grandfather, he assessed, could talk without speaking.
Seth, in turn, did not want to turn around. Nor did he look in the rear view mirror, but said, in his most confident voice, the way he called plays in the huddle, “Well, my gramp will be the last man standing and Bert Scrubbins probably knew that all along.”
The van had started down hill into the center of town. Harlan Yeats, in a series of sudden sounds, heard at the back of his head Bert Scrubbins’s banshee screams again. Then he heard the Browning sounding like a jet engine. Then, not quite musical, but in a demanding tone, he heard the young boy beating the old metal tub with the broken baseball bat. The boy was all of 50 yards behind them. But the sound was louder now than before, beating like a martial tattoo.
Then, as quickly as Bert Scrubbins had come from out of the Korean night darkness more than half a century ago, Wiscasset, the little river town in Maine, the quiet town, the town that didn’t know Bert Scrubbins, came alive.
It was miraculous and noisy and bump and run! People poured out of driveways, from between buildings, out of alleys and the two side roads, out of parked cars and vans and trucks all along the main road. Boys and girls and men and ladies, like the total population. They waved their hats and their hands. Gayety filled the air. Faces wore grins and huge smiles. Lots of kids were on bikes. A band broke into music from a hidden place, off behind some building. A trumpet sounded above all of it. Then another. Clarion calls. Ahead of Harlan and his grandson, three or four peddlers pushed their little four-wheeled carriages into sight; balloons fluttered, little flags waved in a slight breeze, Old Glory jacking out in a dozen sizes. The band music was also louder, and its drums began a distinct rolling sound, the way Assembly might sound. Harlan Yeats wanted to salute someone. Anyone. The blood pounded in his veins.
Seth Yeats, Quarterback from the Valley of Quarterbacks all the way back in the state of Pennsylvania, thoughtful letter writer, thoroughly pleased that his letter to one reporter in Wiscasset some months earlier had found a true vein, smiled inwardly. When he looked into the rear view mirror, the old man who told stories on the porch in the summer twilight, who shared time with fireflies, peepers, and the frogs in the nearby swamp, who had never forgotten his comrade, was looking him straight in the eye.
Acknowledgment, unsaid, was direct as an arrow.
Harlan Yeats was no longer the only man, the last man, who would remember Bert Scrubbins. The dying plea of a hero would not rest upon the shoulders of an old man. A sign began to flutter on the front of a building down the street. Harlan Yeats could just about make out Bert Scrubbins’s name written across a large flapping map of Wiscasset, Maine.
Part of the newspaper story that day, said, in great black headlines, “He was one of yours. Now he’s one of ours!”