Blinding flashes, a thunderous blast, then a few seconds of blessed weightlessness much like a monarch flittering amongst the dewy pink and white tulips in that long-ago garden on that enchanted spring morning, in that moment only eight years old, then the feeling of being torn apart, a crunching impact, the buzzing of a bee fading to some lingering silence then pierced by a constant high pitch needling which could not be shaken. From his back Julius Freeman raised his concussed head just enough to see over the standard issue collar of his fatigues. He verified why he could not move his right hand to wipe the hot wetness from his face. He rolled his head to his left and found more shreds of mangled flesh and fabric, this time where his feet once were. He laid his head back and wondered why there wasn’t any pain. Cataracts of white became spreading flowers of black; he welcomed the warmth of enveloping darkness.
“Julius, now don’t you go dirtying up those clothes. They’re your dress clothes. If you want to be messing around with that ball and such you’d better change into some of your play clothes.” Through the closed screened door comes an ever maternal voice, one full of Easter celebration and the promise of warm embraces, seemingly always present. Inside, Georgianne Freeman heats water for tea on a crackling wood burning stove, it’s iron door ajar
Still early Spring, the world is hesitant to discard the blankets donned before Winter’s long slumber. A chill hangs crisp in the air; rain threatens from somewhere high above the Blue Ridges in the western morning. There is the sweetest hint of baked apples and cured hams, of blossoming flowers and grasses mown, of earth welcoming the hoe, and from somewhere near father’s pipe smoke colors the damp air.
A wooden cracking follows the whooshing of a steel maul. Abraham Freeman, still dressed in his church slacks, sleeves rolled up just below his elbows, necktie loosened, balances another small log upon his much larger splitting round. He straightens his spine, the hickory handle resting upon his shoulder. Abraham eyes his son as he sucks generously on the stem of his pipe. There is a twinkle in his eye, something akin to envy but different, something respectful and appreciative. He’s a family man of forty years, a respected member of the community, and a man who is deeply in love with his son. He pauses only a moment longer before bringing the implement to bear upon the next log.
Julius has already kicked his Sunday school leathers aside, his socks balled and arrantly cast into damp green blades of timothy. He wiggles his toes in the damp black soil which delineates mother’s flower garden. The feeling of cool earth slipping between his naked toes brings a smile which is broaden even more by the site of an earthworm partially exposed within the wet mulch. He reaches and grasps the worm then pulls. Julius can hardly believe the length of this critter as it is stretched from the safety of its hole. The kettle whistles inside.
“Julius, Abraham, sandwiches are ready.”
Julius tucks the worm back into the earth, patting the mulch over top. “Sleep tight little wiggler.”
“Come on son.” Abraham has an arm full of split wood and as he carries them inside the screen door slams behind him.
“Come on Freeman. Dammit. Don’t you quit. Breathe. Dammit. Breathe!”
A fist slammed down onto Julius’ breast bone, cracking two ribs while suddenly compressing his thoracic cavity, like an old rusted companion his heart suddenly sputtered to life. Julius sucked an involuntary breath, then there was a cough followed by a wail as the splinters from the green stick fractures of his rib cage jabbed at sensitive nerve endings.
“Damn Freeman. You one lucky S.O.B.,” exclaimed Mitchell Sanford, the squad medic.
Julius grimaced. As he inhaled a gurgling-wheezing sound came from beneath a red soaked tear in his blouse. His chest wall was punctured. With each breath his lung was shrinking as clotting fluid filled his chest cavity. Sheer white lights danced before his eyes. Sanford ripped open his blouse and placed a dressing over the hole in his chest wall, something that worked like a one-way valve. With each breath the pressure within his chest cavity improved. Julius’ lung began to reinflate.
“We need to get him back to the Mobile.”
“That’s quite a ways back over steep terrain. We’re better off stabilizing him right here and making a stand against those fucks over the ridge.”
“Air support inbound, Sergeant.”
A roar from above, screaming engines from streaking ASMs, concussion, light and heat, then more darkness edging in. From somewhere in the distance there was a metallic cranking sound, like the sound of loading a spring within a metronome, followed by a steady rhythmic ticking.
“Pour me some more of that wicked tea, Abe. Does me good on my knee.” Uncle Kenneth sits before the stove rocking as best he can and chews his roasted ham on multi-grain with spicy mustard. He prefers a few slices of hard boiled egg, pickled if available, but there are none to be had so Uncle Kenneth settles for less ice in his late morning tea, accentuated by Abraham’s private spirits.
Abe tops Kenneth’s jar and adds some mint leaves and another slice of lemon. The chill begins to abate. The fire is just about ready for cooking up today’s Sunday meal. Georgianne has rolled out some dough upon a well flowered board and begins to cut rounds using an upturned glass, her secret for cutting the perfect dumplings.
“Abe, you gonna do it for me?”
“What’s that love?” His pipe still hot as it dangles from the corner of his mouth.
“Why, play me some cooking music.”
“Sure.” Abe turns on the power knob on the old Zenith transistor turntable then begins to dial past some static toward WQMR, Washington’s quality music radio, 1050 on the AM dial. “You want some Everly Brothers, or some Chubby Checker? How about Elvis? I’m sure this old thing could tune it in.”
“Abe, no. I want you to play me some music.” She looks toward the sagging Wurkitzer and nods.
“Ok, my dumpling.” He raises from his fireside chair and slides back the piano bench seat, brushes off Miss Jenkin’s the calico cat, and tucks in behind the black and whites. He smiles back at his love as he entwines his fingers, almost like praying to the good Lord, then reverses his hands and extends his arms making several cracking noises. Julius cringes at the apparent snapping of bones. “I got one for ya, Kenneth. Tell me if you remember this.”
Abe shakes out his fingers and begins. Kenneth takes a full sip then pushes way back on his left leg. He rests his hands above his right knee where his trouser leg ends and is stitched closed and rubs the fleshy stub concealed beneath the fabric. His eyes are closed as he absorbs the melody.
“Yes, Abe. ‘The Alley Cat’. Dammit if that don’t bring it all back home.”
Vision smeared with dirt and blood, stinging with sweat and spits of diesel fuel, Julius attempted to focuses his vision. For a moment there is only a spiraling disorientation, a cycling of light and dark. There are cables extending upward, a monstrous mechanical engine, a repetitive chopping, and blowing wind, so much wind.