James Ross was sitting at his desk drinking his first cup of morning coffee. He was staring out his window instead of going through his inbox for the first time like he would normally have done. Normally by this time of morning he would have finished his perusal of the overnight deliveries and made some phone calls to subordinates but his heart just was not in it any longer. He knew he was letting his boss down and he knew he should; he had to get his shit together but he just could not seem to do so. He had already been to three weeks of grief counseling but nothing had improved. He still had trouble sleeping at night and he spent too much time during the work day feeling sorry for himself.
Jim had just sighed and pushed himself away from his desk to make his normal morning trip through the office complex when he heard a gruff voice speak, "As You Were." He quickly straightened to attention and turned to the voice. He made an attempt to smile and said, "Good Morning General."
Major General Stanley Foster smiled and returned the greeting. "Good Morning Sergeant Major." He looked into the eyes of his Division Sergeant Major and continued, "How are you holding up Jim?"
SGM Ross felt his heart lurch and his chest tighten. He took a moment to get himself under control before he replied, "I guess as well as can be expected General. I still miss her so damn much. I" His throat constricted and his eyes watered once more to the point he couldn't speak. He turned from the General so he wouldn't see his eyes and bit his lip. He continued in a broken voice, "Sometimes I don't know how I can make it through the day. I want to tell her something and then I realize I will never be able to do that ever again. Sometimes I'm not sure it's even worth going on."
The General walked up and put his hand on Jim's shoulder and said, "I know how you must hurt Sergeant Major but we all have to go on. You have your children still and you know we all are here for you too if you need help or just need to talk."
The General stood with his friend and remembered years past. Then Sergeant Ross had been one of his squad leaders when he got his first Platoon after being commissioned in the army. Over the intervening years they had been stationed on the same post, many times in the same unit as their careers progressed. Platoon Sergeant Ross had been one of the Platoon Sergeants when he had command of an Infantry Company. A few years later Ross had been a First Sergeant in the Battalion then Lt. Colonel Foster commanded.
As the years progressed their children grew up together and their wives became as near friends as it was possible for an enlisted and officer's wife to become. Neither of the families closely followed the customs of the Army religiously so they had more social interaction than would have normally been common. The men and their wives were kindred spirits and they liked each other's company enough that they ignored the difference in rank as much as possible.
When General Foster was given command of the Division he specially requested Sergeant Major Ross be appointed his Division Command Sergeant Major. By then the children had grown and left home but the men and their wives were happy working and socializing together as much as possible. Of course they followed convention and socialized with their peers more but they still made time for their friends.
The General and his wife were nearly as devastated as were the Ross children and Jim Ross when a drunken soldier ran a stop sign and T-Boned Della Ross's car on post. The autopsy showed she died of a broken neck instantly upon impact. Like happens many times the soldier, the guilty party in this case, was slightly injured and Sergeant Major Ross's wife, the innocent party paid the ultimate price for his stupidity.
Of course the soldier was court-martialed and sentenced to Leavenworth Federal Prison. That did not bring back Della Ross to her loved ones but hopefully the soldier would not kill anyone else. It had not been the soldier's first arrest for alcohol abuse. He had lost stripes for it before and there had been a bar on reenlistment for him because of it. Unfortunately for Della Ross the Army had not managed to get rid of him in time to save her life.
Ever since the accident, now almost three months in the past, SGM Ross had been in a funk. He and his fellow soldiers knew he wasn't performing up to his normal standards. In fact, if the truth was told, he was just managing to marginally perform his duties and he knew he had to do something to get himself together. He felt badly because he was letting his General and his unit down. He just could not seem to get over his loss.
General Foster let his hand slide off the SGM's shoulder and turned to his Aide. He said, "Well, come on into my office Captain and let's get started." The Captain followed, opening his Day planner as he did so. SGM Ross stood a moment longer looking out the window and getting himself under better control then turned to make his interrupted tour through the Division. He made it his practice to stroll throughout most of the division area at least once a day to supervise the senior Sergeants and keep his finger on the pulse of the unit. From time to time he would stop and visit with a young soldier so he could assess morale, training and the needs of his men. This day was no different.
Just before lunch he received a phone call from one of his past commanders, Colonel Paul Fielding, Retired. "SGM, we have been gone and I just heard about Della late last week. Jennifer and I are so sorry for your loss. She was a fine lady." The two friends visited for several minutes longer then as he was ending the call Paul said, "Jim, I've been talking to Stan and he told me you were still having a tough time...I've talked to Dad and we reserved a cabin for you for the next two weeks. Stan says you need to relax and get your head screwed on better and Jennifer and I want you to come down so we can see you."
SGM Ross began telling Col Fielding he could not go to the Resort. He heard a voice and turned from the window he had been looking out of while he talked. General Foster broke into the conversation and said, "Sergeant Major I have been talking to your counselor and to Paul. We are all in agreement you need to get away and wrap your head around this tragedy. I need you at 100% and right now you aren't there. You WILL take the time off. If there is some reason you feel you can't go to the Fielding Resort that's fine but you WILL take some leave."
SGM Ross said, "Yes Sir." He then watched the General walk back into his office before he resumed his interrupted conversation with Paul Fielding. "OK, Sir. I guess you heard or at least know the General has just ordered me to take the time. I'll be there Saturday morning."
That evening Jim packed enough gear to last the two weeks he expected to be at the Fielding Resort, drank his supper and crashed. At his normal rising time of 0530 the next morning instead of putting on the uniform he had worn for the last 27 years he got into some cut off shorts and an old pullover shirt. His head was throbbing and he grimaced thinking he knew better than to drink like he did when he was in his early twenties. He admitted to himself he had been doing way too much of that since Della died. He filled his thermos with coffee and walked out to his F250 super crew powerstroke. He fired up the powerful engine and when it had settled down into a chuckling idle he drove onto the quiet street on his way to what the Fieldings called their own little slice of paradise in the Ozarks.
Late that evening Jim pulled into Steelville. He stopped at the local café for supper then drove out to the resort. Jim Fielding and his son Paul were waiting on him when he arrived. They introduced him to Paul's sons Jeffrey, now a Major in the USAR and Charlie, also a Major in the USAR. After the introductions they all drove to the cabin assigned to Jim Ross and showed him around. After they got him settled they broke out the favorite drink of all five men—18 year old Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban scotch.
Before the evening was over the entire bottle and most of another was drained. None of the men was completely sober. Jim was assured he would see Jim & Paul's wives the next day at breakfast. Jeff and Charlie's new wives would be there also and he could meet them for the first time.
Once again the next morning Jim woke near his usual time. Once again his mouth felt like a dragon had upchucked in it before it died and rotted. His stomach rolled and his head was throbbing. His mouth was dry and he was thirstier than he had been at the worst of times in Iraq. In short, he had another hellacious hang over.
When Jim arrived at the Lodge he was met by glaring stares from four beautiful and tastefully dressed Officer's Ladies. There were hang dog expressions on the faces of four Officers, also hung over. He smiled to himself thinking they were not only in the dog house for coming home at three in the morning roaring drunk but were suffering a hangover at least as bad as was his.
After introductions were made to Abigail and Amanda Jim got hugs from Ann and Jennifer Fielding. They moved to the outside deck of the resort where coffee was served. After about thirty minutes of coffee on the deck overlooking the river waitresses brought out a huge country breakfast. Everyone visited quietly while they consumed the food. When the plates were cleared the visiting continued for some time.
Jim and Ann Fielding were the first to leave, then Jeffery and Abigail. Paul, Jennifer, Charlie and Amanda visited with Jim a short time longer then Charlie offered to show Jim where the best fishing was. Charlie said, "While we're out I'll give you a short tour of the resort and the surrounding countryside."
Charlie was appointed guide allegedly because in his job as a Veterinarian he was more familiar with the roads and countryside. Somehow though Jim got the impression it was a little more. Before they left Amanda gave Charlie a gentle kiss. She stared into his eyes while holding him gently around the waist and said, "Honey I know it still hurts and you need to talk to him but be careful. Call me if you need me. I'm going to worry about you. Be sure to let me know where you end up."
Charlie looked into her eyes and pulled her to him. They exchanged a sizzling kiss this time and Jim thought he saw tears in Charlie's eyes when he stepped back. Charlie looked at her for a moment then he looked at his parents before he said, "We'll just drive around an hour or so then I think we'll go back to his cabin. I have one of the Jon Boats tied up in the Swimming Hole for him to use the next two weeks. I'll be sure he knows how to run it then I think we'll spend the rest of the afternoon visiting unless Jim wants to do something else."
Charlie gave Amanda another loving look then turned to Jim Ross. He said, "Well Sergeant Major shall we hit the road or do you need to do anything beforehand?"
"No Sir. I'm good to go."
Charlie looked at SGM Ross as he leaped up to stand almost at attention. He smiled and said, "Sergeant Major...Jim, you need to loosen up. I know part of this is my fault. I called you by your rank. I meant it as an expression of respect as I hope you know. We are off duty here and in fact, since I am not on active duty right now I am not a Major per se. I would appreciate it if you would call me by my name. I'm Charlie. I would be grateful if I could call you by your given name also..."
Jim felt slightly uncomfortable. After all, for over 27 years he had called his superiors by their rank and here was an O-4, a Major, wanting him to call him by his first name. He looked at Charlie and smiled. "I'll try sir but I don't know. You know how hard it is for us old soldiers to break that kind of habit!"
Charlie smiled and said, "OK Jim. Come on. Let's get into my truck and I'll show you about anywhere you might need to go or want to go while you're here. They drove several miles that afternoon and Charlie showed Jim the best way to get to either of the larger towns in the area—Steelville and Prineville as well as the way to a much smaller town only about ten miles from the resort by road and about five miles by river. This town was called Wilsons Mill. Charlie explained that at one time there had really been a water powered grist mill located there and ran by a man named Wilson, hence the name given to the settlement that had grown up around it. Wilsons Mill was what would now be called a bedroom community. There were no businesses or jobs in the community and it was slowly withering away as older residents died and the younger ones moved away to find work.
They stopped for a while in the little town of about 350 souls. The old mill building was still there but had been closed for years. The old apparatus was still in the building. Charlie told Jim a couple had began refurbishing the mill about ten years ago but either lost interest or ran out of funds about three years ago. He had heard they had divorced shortly thereafter so that might have even been the reason for halting the refurbishment.
Charlie said, "Before they quit they had managed to get the mill wheels turning again. I have heard some of the metal supports were not sound enough for normal operation but I don't know for sure." The mill and five acres surrounding it was for sale. The mill pond dam was still in place but needed extensive repairs as did the millrace. There were numerous large trees on the property and the mill pond was full of steelhead trout because of the cool spring water that fed the stream there. The state stocked the stream every spring to keep the trout population up.
Jim and Charlie sat on the bank of the millpond and knocked back several beers from a cooler Charlie had brought from his truck. They talked for several minutes about many topics but always came back to the Army. Of course like many soldiers, even part time Citizen Soldiers as Charlie was, they played the "do you know so and so" game and told war stories. Of course you know the difference between a fairy tale and a war story is generally the way the story begins. A fairy tale begins "Once Upon a Time" and a war story begins, "No Shit, This Really Happened!"
The two men were feeling no pain when they decided they needed to return to the Resort. When they were getting into the truck Jim looked over at Charlie and asked, "Charlie are you sure you can drive this thing? We've both had way more to drink than we should. I wouldn't want us to do anything that would hurt someone else like Della..."
Charlie was sure he was over the legal limit of BAC from all the beer he had consumed but he knew the back roads home and elected to drive anyway. Most of the roads he was going to use were so sparsely travelled you didn't see a vehicle on them. He said, "Jim I'm probably legally drunk but I am also sure I can do this safely. I promise to drive slowly and stay on the dirt roads all the way back to the resort. If I see a car coming I will stop. I don't want an accident any more than you do." They then buckled themselves into the truck and Charlie drove carefully off. As he promised he drove on the smaller dusty dirt roads back to the Resort. He drove slowly and they continued their conversation.
When Charlie and Jim got back to Jim's cabin they walked happily through it and onto the deck overlooking the river. On the way through the house Charlie thoughtfully picked up the bottle of Glenlivet some ice and two glasses he saw sitting on the wet bar.
The two men watched the sun slide down behind the trees to the west of the cabin as they talked and drank their scotch. About 630 p.m. one of the waitresses from the lodge brought some chips and Sub Sandwiches down for their supper. By then Charlie and Jim were to the happy, laughing stage of their drinking. For some reason they thought it was uproariously funny when she threatened to call Amanda and tell her Charlie was drunk as a skunk.
After the waitress left to return to the lodge Jim looked toward Charlie. Charlie was sitting staring across the river. Jim said, "You are very lucky to have Amanda. I can tell from last night and our talk today that you love her very much and she loves you the same. Very few men can find a love as intense and fulfilling as I think you two have." Jim choked and his voice got rough as he continued. "I had a love like I see between you and Amanda but some drunk little punk killed her. Sometimes I want nothing more than to get my hands on that little asshole and make him hurt like he hurt my Della. The little shit was driving a brand new Mustang Shelby when he T-Boned her. They estimated he was doing over sixty in a twenty five zone when he ran a stop sign and hit her little Civic on the driver's door. He pushed her car almost seventy five feet before they came to a stop. I had tried to talk her into driving the F250 that day because she was planning on doing a lot of shopping. If she had she might still be alive."
Charlie looked over at Jim and his voice, too, was rough and breaking. He said, "I know how you are hurting Jim but you have to let it go. It took me months to break out of the funk you're in but you have to let it go and move on with your life. I"
"What the hell are you talking about you asshole? How the hell can YOU know how I feel, how empty I feel and how it hurts every time I think about telling Della something?"
Charlie felt his temper rising then forced himself to relax. He had thought Jim knew about Charlene but maybe he didn't. Charlie began to talk. He said, "I don't know how you personally feel about the soldier that killed your wife but I know all too well about the hole in your heart, in your soul from her loss. My first wife Charlene was an Army Aviator. She was commanding an Aviation Company in Afghanistan when she was shot down supporting an operation against the Taliban. She is buried in the family plot at the cemetery in Steelville. I spent many an evening trying to forget her and looking for my happiness at the bottom of a bottle like you are doing. I used to sit along the river bank with my booze and my sorrow wishing I had the guts to just end it all, to make the hurt go away for good."
"One morning after I had slept in my chair beside the river all night Mother came down to find me. She slapped me and gave me another one of her lectures. That time she said something that hit home. She asked me if I really thought Charlene would want me to sit and crawl into a bottle or die before my time. She asked if I really thought I was honoring her memory by turning into a drunken asshole."
"I didn't quit drinking immediately and it still took me a few weeks to get almost back to the way I was before Charlene died but I clawed my way back. Each day was a little easier but they were all hell on earth. I would catch myself wanting to tell Charlene something and then realize I could never talk to her or touch her or smell her ever again. I cried as I am sure you do and I hurt but I finally moved on."
"I sold my practice in Seattle and decided to move back here. It was almost a year after Charlene's death before I got all the loose ends tied up in Seattle. On my way home I took my time and played the tourist. I met many wonderful people, many of whom are now very good friends of mine and who stop by here from time to time." Charlie smiled a little and continued, "I met Amanda at the Testicle Festival in Rock Springs Wyoming and we spent several days together there. I travelled with her from there back to her family ranch in western Colorado where I spent several more days getting to know her better. We started our first child while I was there. Of course I didn't know that until after I got my head out of my ass and asked her to marry me several weeks later."