A Home I'll Never Know Ch. 01bbyDorren©
The summer of my tenth year was one for the books. It started when our family dog Harley ran away about the same time as my baby sister was born. When we finally found him he refused to come home. When he showed up several months later having changed from family pet to feral predator we had to chase him away. The summer ended when without warning my mother and baby sister went back East to live with grandma and grandpa. I was ready for harvest season and school to start; I was ready for the summer to be over.
Letters and phone calls, rare at first, stopped coming altogether by the end of the year. A late birthday card, a brief call from a payphone on Christmas Eve, then nothing. The next year I talked Pop into buying an immensely popular but unbelievably ugly doll for Kayla and we wrapped it up and placed it under the tree. It sat unopened that year and the next and the next. What little hope I had that Mom and Kayla would someday come home slowly dwindled. Finally we stopped putting the present under the tree. That little spark of hope continued to dim until one day it was gone.
"Was that Mom?" I gasped as Pop hung up the phone. Coming up the driveway after another mind-numbing day of school I heard Pop talking on the phone and hoped against hope that Mom finally called. Inevitably, it wasn't Mom that time or any of the other times I barged into his phone conversations. She wasn't coming back.
Although my brain knew it, my heart couldn't completely let go of the notion that someday they would come home. So instead of dreaming Mom and Kayla would someday return I started dreaming that one day I'd go find them. One day I woke up and that dream was gone too.
Life plowed along on the farm. By the time I reached high school my mother and little sister were pleasant but slowly fading memories. The old photographs around the house that I spent hours looking at the first year gradually disappeared into photo albums, drawers and shoe boxes. Sometimes I dragged them out and flipped through them. I wondered about Kayla, if she was happy, what she looked like. I wondered if Mom missed me.
Pop bought a computer that plugged into the television and after that it was rare that he got to watch the evening news without at least some grumbling on my part. The news in our part of the country wasn't great anyway, at least not for the farmers and farming communities. Jobs were getting scarce and farms and businesses were failing. The economic certainties we'd taken for granted no longer seemed certain. I knew I could stay on the farm with Pop after high school but now there was no guarantee we would still have the farm when that time came.
Pop did the all cooking and I did most of the cleaning. How a house was able to be both 'squared away' and 'ship shape' was never made clear to me but it was my job make sure it stayed that way.
Pop never dated let alone remarried and since he was an only child I had no aunts to fill the mother role in my life while growing up. By the time I was a teenager it was clear that Pop had a couple of lady friends in town; nothing serious, but the occasional casserole or homemade pie we enjoyed from time to time were edible evidence of small forays by the available female populace to win his heart. Nevertheless, Pop remained a bachelor.
My fortunes with the fairer sex were only slightly better. I tolerated high school but didn't get involved with anything if I could help it. That included girls. I showed up every day, got good enough grades not to flunk out, and went home to do chores before riding my dirt bike or playing on the computer.
I had several quasi-girlfriends; girls who invited me to a Sadie Hawkins or took a liking to me at a party but nothing serious. I never let anyone get close to me and most of those brief episodes lasted a week or two at most before fizzling out.
Of the few girls who tried to get close, Sandy got the closest. She was the pretty girl-next-door type and after taking her to see the movie Footloose we became movie and music buddies. We paired up to see other 'date movies' like Back to the Future, Top Gun and Dirty Dancing when they came to our little theatre.
We watched MTV together when we should have been doing our homework, copied her compact discs to cassette so I could listen to them in my truck or at home, and told each other secrets instead of lies. She made navigating the insecurities of being a teenager bearable. She was cool.
Then one morning in late January we watched in horror with a classroom full of other high school science geeks as Challenger exploded just over a minute after it's launch. I held her while we shared the pain of that day and after that she seemed different. As the months passed and most of us got on with the distractions and diversions of teenage life she took more to reading instead of watching television and to studying while we listened to music. My music and movie buddy was growing up.
"I want to be a teacher Kyle," she announced one day out of the blue. We were hanging out together waiting to see another movie when she just said it. I took it in stride because she'd talked about being half a dozen other things before but I sensed a deeper sense of commitment this time. She said it without a hint of frivolity; just stated it and went back to what she was doing. During the next couple of years I saw Sandy get serious about school. Her seriousness made me start thinking about the future and what I wanted to do with my life.
"Army recruiter came to school today," I mentioned during dinner with Pop. He briefly stopped cutting up his spaghetti and squinted at me over his fork full of noodles. We always talked about our day during dinner but in all those years he never talked about his time in the service. All I knew was that it was toward the end of Vietnam when he volunteered because he said 'jumping in is usually better than getting pushed in.' Pop had what might be called an eccentric philosophy.
"You thinking about enlisting?" he asked me directly.
"I wanted to talk to you about it first," I replied.
"I'd miss your help around here," he groused, "but I think it'd do you some good." Pop knew I'd never even been out of the county other than one or two school field trips. He believed part of becoming a man meant going out and seeing some of the world and there was no better way to do that than join the military. "Good time to do it too son, no wars going on." Little did we know the first Gulf War was just around the corner.
It seems like every small town has a lookout point or lover's lane where kids park and explore the mysteries of youth. Our town was no different. I'd been driving our old pickup since I was old enough to reach the pedals and by high school it was practically my truck. The combination of a three-on-the-tree transmission and big bench seat made it a decent truck in which to make out. Despite those advantages and conveniences the old pickup hadn't seen all that much action.
"I got accepted at State. It's close enough that I can drive home once or twice a month," Sandy announced, "so we can still see each other, right?" High school romances rarely survived someone going off to college and what Sandy and I had was a lot more friendship than romance.
I think she was trying to convince herself as much as me that the relationship we had, tenuous though it was, could survive her leaving. What I said next destroyed what little hope she had of that working out.
"I joined the Army," I said. We sat in silence for several minutes before she slid across the seat and put herself under my arm. Everything we wanted to say, and everything we couldn't, we said with our bodies. She was my first, and my second and third by the time we drove back to her parent's house and kissed goodbye. We wanted to share one last secret before we traded the familiarity of adolescence for the unknown of impending adulthood.
The next morning when she was about to leave for college and a new chapter in her life I drove into town and parked down the street from her parent's house. I sat in the trusty old pickup and watched as she hugged her mom and dad before climbing into her new Ford Probe and driving away. With a little wave to her disappearing taillights I started the truck, turned around drove home.
She promised to call and write but in my mind I figured we would probably never see each other again. That seemed strangely okay with me. I cared about Sandy, loved her in my own way, but I expected everyone to someday leave. In my mind people left; they left and didn't call; they left and didn't write.
They left and didn't come back.
The day before graduation I'd enlisted under the Delayed Entry Program. Although it would be months before I actually went to boot camp I still had to take the ASVAB and pass a physical. Pop offered to drive me into the city to the Military Entrance Processing Station but my recruiter already offered to cart me there and back. More than offered really, more like insisted. I think he felt more secure that I wouldn't get cold feet if he held my hand during every step of the process.
It was a grueling day of being probed, prodded and tested and I was happy to finally get back to the motel that night. Lying alone in a strange bed in a strange city I wondered about Sandy. She'd called the house once while I was out and talked to Pop but so far there'd been no letters. I began to wonder about Mom and Kayla. I figured Mom would be almost 40 by now and Kayla close to 10 years old.
Wow. She was about the same age now as I had been the last time I'd seen her.
The sounds of the city, so unlike the softer sounds of the farm I'd grown used to, kept me awake despite my exhaustion long into the night. When sleep came, I dreamed that we were all together again as a family. It was Christmas Eve and I couldn't find my present for Kayla. I looked everywhere and finally saw that hideous doll sitting up on the roof. I was circling the house looking for a way to climb on when I woke up.
"It's a calling card," Pop informed me after handing me a thinnish credit card. Standing in front of our old pickup in the bus station parking lot we tried to figure out a way to say goodbye without actually saying it. I had a small pack with some clothes and a toothbrush and a shaving kit slung over my shoulder and a paperwork-filled folder held tightly in my left hand.
"Use it to call home when you get the chance," he advised. I nodded and leaned forward to give him a hug. He stiffened momentarily before clasping me solidly and squeezing my shoulders. He broke the hug and stepped around me, opened the driver side door and climbed in the old pickup. Rolling down the window he started the engine then leaned out and extended his hand. I stepped up and shook it firmly.
"I'm damn proud of you son," he praised before pulling slowly out of the parking lot. Opening my hand I saw the small stack of bills he placed in my palm. Although it was only $300 it was the most money I'd had at one time in my entire life. I boarded the bus and rode off toward six years of active duty that would take me far from home: but not as far as I thought.
The Gulf War came and went before I'd finished all my training. Like millions of other Americans I watched it on CNN. However, those four months of Basic Training turned a small town farm kid into a squared away infantryman and I was already looking forward to transferring to my permanent duty station overseas. Soldiering seemed to suit me pretty well and I was anxious to see the world. But as they say, the best laid plans of mice men often go astray.
"Where did you learn to shoot like that soldier?"
"Sir, in the Army sir!" I answered at attention. I was qualifying with my M16 on the range for the third time in as many days. The rest of my platoon was doing a field exercise and for some reason I'd been ordered back to the rifle range.
I had no idea why I was on the range again since my scores had been perfect the first two times.
"You never fired a rifle before joining the Army?" thundered the gray haired officer. I'd never seen him before but based on the decorations and commendations on his uniform I guessed he was a 20 star general.
"Sir, I fired my Pop's rifle back on our farm!" I proclaimed, hoping to avoid court-martial for answering him incorrectly the first time. Obviously disgusted by my existence he stomped off to speak to my CO. I exhaled deeply and wondered if they would pay my way back home or if I'd be forced to hitchhike.
It turned out I would be staying on this base a bit longer after all. Sniper School, although demanding, was the most fun I'd had in the Army up until that point. Sure, the instructors still yelled at you and rode you hard but after a lifetime of working with Pop back on the farm I was up to the task. The only downside was that I would probably spend most of my enlistment on this base.
As the next years flew by I settled into life on base. I called Pop every week and kept him updated on my life and every week he sent a care package full of junk mail and stuff he thought I wanted or needed from home. By the time I finished Sniper School some interesting and delicious extras began to find their way into some of those packages.
Pop would end every telephone conversation with some veiled inquiry about my love life. After telling me that Sandy still hadn't called or sent a letter for the umpteenth time I think it was his subtle way of encouraging me to move on with my love life. One day I decided to throw him a curve.
"How about your love life Pop?" I asked out of the blue, "You're always asking about mine, are you seeing anyone these days?" I could almost see the gears turning in his head as he formulated his answer. As the seconds of silence dragged on I began to wonder if he was going to even respond to the question. I waited him out.
"I have been seeing a bit of Lorna Burgess," he finally admitted. Lorna Burgess knew just about everyone in town and just about everyone in town knew Lorna Burgess. She'd been the clerk in our little post office for twenty years. Her husband took his own life when their farm, like so many others in the mid-eighties, went under. Although more than a few men tipped their hats her way so far none had managed to get so much as a date.
Apparently that held true until Pop decided to tip his her way.
It also explained the interesting and delicious extras that managed to find their way into my care packages.
Lorna started including some homemade cookies or brownies in those care packages Pop sent out and the guys in my unit were more than grateful. I was a popular guy on base after mail call. After getting hopped up on homemade cookies and fudge some of us would head out to the bars off base.
"Hey Kyle, you need a ride down to the Canoe tonight?" The watering hole most of the guys in my unit frequented was called the Blue Canoe. The reference isn't very flattering but a lot of us spent a significant portion of our paychecks in that dive. The Canoe was strictly a military bar; quite a few of the bartenders and bouncers were enlisted guys that mustered out over the years then stayed in town. Townies that came into the Canoe were usually girls looking for a guy in uniform. I'd hooked up with a few of those girls but even the interested ones eventually gave up after discovering the extent of my emotional unavailability.
"No thanks Chilley," I yelled as I grabbed my helmet and headed out, "I'm riding the Fat Boy." Chilley just nodded and said he would meet me down there. He'd been on base almost as long as I had and we knew all the places and people to know in this town.
My first major purchase was a motorcycle, a Harley Davidson Fat Boy. I was still billeted on base and as my rank increased and I had more disposable income I wanted to start building my credit history.
Using that logic it made sense to purchase a vehicle. At least that is what I told Pop. In truth, I just wanted that motorcycle.
Pop and I worked on a few Harley Davidsons during my last years in high school and I fell in love with them. Pop rode one for a short time in the late sixties after seeing Easy Rider and had regaled me since infancy with tales of hardtails and panheads.
As the first few yuppies began trickling into town we discovered a couple of them owned either new or classic Harleys and there wasn't a dealer within a half days ride. Pop decided to put the skills we learned indulging our pastime to work.
The old arc welder and some metal we had sitting around made a decent ramp and tie-downs for the old pickup and pretty soon we were fixing motorcycles, small tractors and just about anything else with wheels and an engine.
Pop welded old school; it wasn't unusual to see him in the middle of summer out in the front yard stick-welding a broken mower. When I asked him if he was worried about the grass catching fire he said the grass burning up would be better than the barn burning up. I pretty much let the subject drop after that. Pop had a philosophy only he could understand.
The Canoe was dead that night and Chilley was restless. I was hoping to make it an early night since I had to take care of a traffic ticket the next day but Chilley had other ideas.
"Why don't we try out a few townie bars tonight?" he suggested. I gave him a look that said 'don't include me in your dumb ideas.' A preponderance of evidence existed indicating that he was the designated 'bad idea guy' in our platoon and I felt it would be redundant to verbally remind him of that fact.
"I swear Kyle, you got short-timer's disease or something," he laughed, "learn to live a little bro." After more arm-twisting and cajoling we were off to the other side of the bar district.
I usually didn't drink in townie bars. Even in civvies I stood out in those places. The first two or three seemed just as dead as the Canoe but finally we found where all the girls were hanging out. The soft sounds of Boyz II Men apparently drew them all to the same club. Chilley paid our cover and we scoped out the best vantage point to admire the ladies.
"I told you this was a good idea bro," Chilley boasted, "look at all the honeys in this place. All you have to do now is play it cool." I had to admit he was right about this place, it was a good idea. Right up until the fight started.
Playing it cool was not my strongest suit. I felt more glib after several beers so chatting with the fairer sex seemed a lot easier after the first few rounds. With that in mind I made my way to the bar area and ordered a couple Budweisers and that is when I saw her.
She carried herself with more confidence than any woman not wearing a uniform I'd ever seen. Her understated clothing said fashionable but not pretentious. As I gazed at her and slowly fell under her spell I observed that she was likely on a double date and not too happy with her half of the double.
Her flannel-wearing escorts both looked like rich boy slackers pretending to hail from the Pacific Northwest and they were doing a terrible job of trying to pull it off. It was clear she didn't find them interesting and during one of her surveys of the room she met my stare.
It was only for a second because a gaggle of bouncers crossed the floor between us in a rush toward some kind of altercation going on near the back door. Looking over I spotted Chilley with one hand holding the collar of a Hawaiian shirt and his other hand holding someone's painfully-bent wrist.
By the time I caught up and joined the melee several more townies had become involved. In the confusion I dragged Chilley out the back door and up the alley with several yahoos still in pursuit. Hailing a cab we managed to escape and we shared the story and a good laugh with the guys back at the Canoe.