By Colleen Sutherland
“A Valley soldier died in Iraq yesterday,” the television news anchor said in his promotional clip, “Tune in for a full report at 10:00.” Ben’s face grew red. He punched the remote and slammed it on his desk, silencing Scrooge’s encounter with the second ghost.
Another soldier dead and this one in the Valley. From his office window, he looked across to his neighbors’ house. Tim, Jake and Alice’s only child, was in Iraq, on his third tour. Their “Support the Troops” banner fluttered in the winter wind, the words almost indiscernible. The yellow ribbons had faded, frayed and finally blown away.
He let the screen saver take over the computer and went to the cold living room and checked on the electric candle at the window. Since the beginning of the war in 2003, it had been in his window, a notice to passersby to remember the casualties of war. Four replacement bulbs later, it was still lit. When Tim went to war, Ben moved it to a window facing Alice’s kitchen window, in hopes that she would find it reassuring. But it infuriated Jake so Ben put it back in the living room.
The night the war began, Ben went to an anti-war meeting, holding a candle and singing anti-war songs left over from his war, the one in Vietnam. He hadn’t thought much of those songs thirty-five years ago, but now, “God on Our Side,” and “Blowing in the Wind,” resonated. He wore his faded army fatigues, though they were snug after all that time. He had attended every anti-war meeting since, traveling to protests within a hundred mile radius of his home on Grant Street -- unless they conflicted with his weekly AA meeting.
In another era, if something was going on with Jake and Alice’s family, Ben would make a cup of coffee and go over to chat with Jake and Alice in their warm kitchen. Together, they rejoiced over birthdays, weddings, and graduations. No one expected Ben to cook anything. “Just bring yourself,” Alice told him. They felt sorry for him, Ben figured, and they were right. He was 60, but most days he was old. His shrapnel torn legs ached, Agent Orange tore at his innards, but he no longer went to doctors who could offer no help. He took his aspirin and a daily vitamin supplement.
Ben brought a cup of re-heated coffee back to the office. He clicked the mouse to draw up the opening screen, and went to the Department of Defense site to see if he could find anything out from casualty list. Yes, it was there, a Marine killed in Anbar Province, though the name of the soldier was not given, and would not be until the family was notified. Tim was in Anbar Province. Most of the deaths in Anbar were along the main road leading to Baghdad, he knew. Was Tim due for rotation soon? Would he have any reason to be along that road? But this soldier had been killed not in Fallujah or Ramadi but in western Anbar, patrolling along the Syrian border. That was where Tim was.
The neighborhood parties ended when Tim went off to war. Ben went to his protests and Alice and Jake went to meetings set up for military families. They came home from their meetings with their own takes on the value of the war. The meetings were often the same night and in the same city. In another time, the three would carpool, but not these days. It was not a good idea to travel together in one car.
One autumn day, Jake came to Ben’s yard to berate him as he raked leaves. At the military support meeting he heard that there were picketers at soldier’s funerals. He was furious until Ben pointed out those were not anti-war picketers, they were Topeka crazies demonstrating against homosexuality. He sent Jake and Alice an e-mail with web sites to check out. But Jake was not completely mollified. He had convinced himself that Ben’s anti-war activities would cause Tim’s death.
These days the neighbors simply said “Hello” as they passed each other. No matter the coolness between the two men, Ben kept that candle in his window, once for all the soldiers, now for Tim. He knew what war was about. It wrecked everything. Vietnam made him a different man than he should have been, unable to keep a wife, unable to relate to his own family. Dishes piled up in his sink. He dusted in the spring. He seldom showered. The monthly disability checks kept him going. His life was spent on the Internet. Jake and Alice and his AA friends were his only human contact. Iraq would change Tim, too. Perhaps when he came back, they could join forces to put their lives back together.
Valley soldier killed. Who was it? Ben stared out the window. As dusk arrived, Christmas lights flickered on. Here and there, a roar of SUVs and vans broke the silence, families leaving as festivities ended. Everything was quiet next door. There was a thump at his door. The newspaper had arrived, late. Perhaps there was real news this Christmas Day. He pulled the bulky paper out of the door, the chill wind blowing through the crack in the storm door.
He settled into the recliner to read the paper. Beside him, his three foot fiber optic tree, a long ago gift from Alice, glowed and changed colors. Tomorrow he would cover the tree with a plastic bag, and shove it in the corner closet and that would be Christmas for him. The Salvation Army box, his only present, was already unpacked and stowed away. He perused the headlines, but there was nothing about the dead soldier. The news had not yet reached the print media. The Christmas newspaper was meant to deliver advertisements for tomorrow’s sales, little more.
Ben heard a car door slam. He stood up and looked down the street. There was a dark car at the curb. Two Marines were striding to Jake and Alice’s front door. Ben stepped out onto his porch and listened, shivering. A long quiet pause lingered in the frigid air. Then Alice began to scream.
Ben turned briskly. He marched to the living room. He gave the candle a sharp military salute and unplugged it. Tomorrow, it would be in the closet with the tree. He started a fresh pot of coffee and waited as it brewed in the dark kitchen. In a few minutes, he would pick up his cup and go next door though he knew that Jake would almost certainly slam the door in his face.
A friendship would come to an end, another casualty of war.
(This story was previously published in Mobius: A Journal for Social Change at www.mobius.com )