The following story is a short story written by me. Please let me know what you think with your comments. All well-intentioned criticisms are welcomed. For more stories lilke this visit amazon kindle books and purchase After Hours by Tim Keen
TO CATCH A TRAIN
What I know about Uncle Burnett, I can never tell. I hear the family speculate all the time about what may or may not have happened on that day, but the truth is none of them know. As of this writing, something over four decades has passed since that awful day. It has been four decades of endless talk and multiple theories. Still, there is only one person who knows for sure what happened to Burnett Graves on August Tenth, Nineteen forty-eight. There is only one person who was actually there. That person is me.
The reason no one knows now is that I promised to take the secret with me to the grave. When I promised it, I meant it. It is with great sadness that I now find out that I am not the man of honor I thought myself to be. At the same time, it is also with great relief. It is the burden of this promise, which I have carried so long, that has brought me to the decision I have made. I am so glad to be telling the truth about this secret, a secret that has caused me so much pain.
It had started out to be one of the best days of my life. Uncle Burnett called my mom early in the morning to see if I wanted to spend the day with him. He had to tow a tractor in to town to have it worked on. It was going to take most of the morning to get it to the mechanic. He couldn’t really do anything until the tractor was repaired. When he realized his work was pretty much on hold, his first thoughts were of me. Uncle Burnett was really good about doing that. He had a very busy schedule as a farmer, but he always had time for me. For someone who had never really known his dad, getting close to an uncle who had known him was very important to me.
My dad was shot down in the Pacific Ocean during a bombing run on Tokyo towards the end of the war. Uncle Burnett, having returned home safely, took it upon himself to be my stand in father. He did not try to take over the roll. He would not let me call him Dad and he never once overruled a judgment handed down by my mother. But he did all the other things. He took me to baseball games. To football games. He bought hot dogs and cokes for me. He did all the things my father would have done for me if those goddamned zeroes hadn’t gotten him.
The only thing he never did for me was tell me about the war. I begged him hard. I was a relentless nine year old who was filled full of the propaganda the government had been feeding me concerning the war. The war was fascinating to me because I had no idea what war was all about. It was glamour. It was glory. The idea of shooting the enemy seemed as natural to me as breathing. I wanted to hear about it. I wanted to know what he knew. But no matter how much I prodded him, no matter how much I begged, Uncle Burnett would not talk about the war.
On this particular day out with him, there was nothing to indicate that the day was going to be any different. We had been sitting at the Burger Blitz waiting for the food we had ordered to be delivered. So far, the day had been fantastic. We had been fishing. We had played basketball. We had talked about hunting, football, and cars. The whole day was nothing but light and jovial, the kind of day a nine year old dreams of having with his mentor.
Then, just like I always did when we were together, I asked him to tell me about the war. Usually when I made this request, he told me that I was not old enough to know about the war. Other times, he would tell me to worry about things a nine year old should worry about. Those were the kinds of answers I was expecting as we waited for out food at the Burger Blitz.
This time it was not the answer I got. The answer I did get was a total surprise to me, a surprise to me in more ways than one.
Without warning, the jovial mood had disappeared. His eyes clouded, his mood sobered, and he started talking about the one thing I had always wanted to know about. The war. The only problem was, when he finally started answering all those questions I had been asking over the years, the answers were not what I expected to hear.
Nor anything I wanted to hear.
“You want to know about the war, Timmy?” he asked of me.
“W-what?” I asked. I was so astonished at what he had just asked that I could barely even speak.
“Do you want to know about the war?” Uncle Burnett asked me again. His voice was irritable. “What is so hard to understand about the question? Do you want to know about the war?”
“Y-yeah, “ I said slowly. His anger stunned me. “I do want to know about the war.”
“No you don’t,” he said. “You think you do, but you don’t want to know.”
He stared hard into the dash, took a deep breath, and then nodded his head.
“Okay, I will tell you about the war under one condition,” he said. “You must never tell another soul what I am about to tell you.”
He turned and looked at me with a seriousness I had rarely seen from him.
“You swear it to me right now that you will never tell another person what I am going to tell you,” he demanded. “You swear it!”
There was a crazed look in his eye and a bitterness in his tone that scared me. But I didn’t care. I still thought I wanted to know about his part in the war.
“I swear it,” I said. “I won’t tell a soul.”
He looked at me for the longest time as if he were uncertain of my conviction. After what seemed like an eternity, he nodded his acceptance. He reached into his glove box and pulled out a bottle of whiskey. He popped the top on it and took a long swig.
“Okay,” he said after catching his breath. “Let’s tell Timmy about the war.”
He looked through the glass of the truck, staring across its hood at the brick wall dead ahead. As he started to recount the story of his life in Europe, his eyes started to glaze over. He became distant. He was telling me about the war, but I am not sure to this day that I was the one he was talking to. Once he started telling it, I am not sure he even knew I was in the truck.
“I guess you know by now that I did not just come home from the war,” Uncle Burnett told me. “I came home a hero. I came home to a town that had already been told by the local media what I had done to the Nazis in the war-ravaged European landscape. I came home to a town that had already been brainwashed into thinking I was a hero. They gave me the hero’s welcome, too.”
He paused for what was to be just one of many times to reflect. He took a drink from his bottle and pulled a draw from his cigarette. When he was done, he shook his head and continued to speak.
“I got a parade in my honor, for starters,” he told me. “And believe you me, when I say for starters, that is just what I mean. A parade was just for starters. I also got a lifetime membership at the country club and was honored by nearly every public service organization in the county. You were only a child when I came home, Timmy, so you missed a lot of it. I don’t think you realize just how much of a hero I was in this town. It has died down some since then, but three years ago I was a star.”
He had exhausted his cigarette. He lit another. I was on the edge of my seat. He had not yet told me what I wanted to hear, but he was starting to talk about the war. He had my undivided attention.
“I have to admit, it was kind of nice in the beginning,” Uncle Burnett said. “I can’t deny that. I had been away from home for nearly two years. It had been two years of crawling in the snow, running through the mud, marching through the heat, and sleeping in the pounding rain. I had eaten, slept, and breathed in every imaginable hardship known to man. After all that, it was acceptable to merely come home. To come home to a place where a place where everyone adored me was too good to be true. Daddy always told me that anything that sounded too good to be true usually was. If I had kept that in mind, I would have been all right.
“But I didn’t keep it. For a short time, I did. But over time, I did not. I lost sight of what I had really done to get to be so famous. Do you know what I did to get to be such a hero, Timmy?”
“I heard you knocked out a machine gun nest and saved a whole bunch of men,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s true,” he told me. “I did just exactly that. But telling what happened does not begin to explain what I did. I read the newspaper reports of how I knocked out that nest and saved all my men. They make it sound so clean. They write about me killing all those men the same way they write about me catching the game winning touchdown in the forty-one championship game. Clean. But it wasn’t that way. It wasn’t that way at all.
“We were pinned down in a little valley by this machine gun nest. The whole area had been bombed to hell by an artillery unit. The men took cover behind the logs of fallen trees and huge dirt mounds that had been created as a result of the blasting the forest had taken. Some of the trees were twice the width of a man’s body, but it didn’t make any difference. A fifty caliber round can go through damn near anything. We were hunkered down behind anything we could find, trying to return fire, but we were screwed. The fifty cal kept hammering away at us while the platoon of German’s surrounding it pounded us with M1 fire. We fought back as best we could, but the men were being picked off by the fifty cal and the Germans were closing in on us.
“Most of the time, a hero is a man who feels like he has nothing to lose. I remember looking over at my buddy, Casey Long, and our eyes connecting. We understood each other’s thoughts. If someone didn’t do something, every damned one of us was going to die. We had nothing to lose. Without saying a word, each of us understood that it was up to us to make that something happen.
“All I know of the next few minutes is what the official report said. Me and Casey charged the nest. A third of the way up, Casey was damn near ripped in half by machine gun fire. I was not. After charging, the next conscious thought I had was of diving behind this huge bolder which was not ten yards from the nest. By this time, I was taking fire from all sides. Men from the platoon of Germans were hammering me, lobbing grenades at me, and coming at me. Inside the nest, I could hear excited shouts as rifle fire was now directed at me. I lay on the ground, pulled the pin on my grenade and let go with it.”
Uncle Burnett broke down. He cried and cried hard, but it was just for a second. The hard tears had left him years ago. He continued.
“Do you know what a machine gun nest is, Timmy. No, of course you don’t. You don’t know because you have never seen one and neither have those damned idiots who write the newspaper articles. A machine gun nest is not like a squirrel’s nest. It is not make of twigs and leaves. It is made of people. It is made of people who feel horrendous pain when they die. It is made of people who scream.”
Uncle Burnett downed some more whiskey. His hands were shaking as he tossed his cigarette out the window and lit another. As he was talking to me, he wiped a tear from his cheek.
“You have no idea how much they scream when shrapnel tears through their bodies at many times the speed of sound. They are just boys. Eighteen, nineteen-year-old boys. When they realize they have been hit, they beg for mercy. First they beg God to keep them alive. When they realize they are going to die, they beg God to save them from hell. Then, when the pain become too unbearable, they don’t give a damn whether they are going to hell or not. They beg God to end it for them.”
Uncle Burnett broke down into a heavy sob. It took several seconds before he was able to recover and tell me the rest of it. It was a time that seemed to take forever. I would not have cared if it had. It was horrible what he was telling me, but he had me hooked. I had to hear more.
“It is the most horrendous sound you could possibly imagine. Hearing the sound of men dying is worse than dying yourself. For most of my first year back, I was walking around town, believing myself to be this hero the town was making me out to be, and I forgot about those screams. It took a hunting trip to bring it all back to me.
“It was a couple of years back. It was just me and your cousin Edgar down around the spring late one afternoon. We were hunting squirrels. At least that’s what we said we were doing. What we were mostly doing was sipping whiskey, chewing tobacco, and jawing at one another. We didn’t expect to kill anything. Hell, I am not even sure we wanted to kill anything. It was a total surprise when the squirrel came out of his hole and hopped his stupid ass up on a limb.
“Everybody got really quiet and just stared at this squirrel. It was the most amazing thing to us. We had been drinking. We had been talking. At times, we had been yelling. It was like this squirrel had a death wish. Here was this son of a bitching squirrel, sitting on this limb, practically begging us to shoot it. So I figured what the hell. The bastard wanted to be shot, I’d shoot him.
“I raised the shot gun, took aim on the squirrel, and fired. I had been a good shot a couple of years before, but time had rusted my ability. I hit the squirrel, but my shot was not good enough. I only winged the poor bastard. He let me know about it, too. The minute he hit the ground, he was screaming at the top of his lungs.
“I had not shot a gun nor had I killed anything since I had been home. I hadn’t so much as stepped on a bug. When the squirrel hit the ground, he immediately started twisting and jerking. The sounds that escaped him were the sounds of an animal that was losing its life. While the squirrel flopped about the ground in agony, he was speaking no language I had ever heard. I understood what he was saying nonetheless.
“The Germans had done the same thing right after I dropped the grenade over into them. They flopped and they screamed. So did the squirrel. He was in so much pain and so were they. So I shot the squirrel just like I shot the Germans. I told myself I shot them to put them out of their misery. After that hunting trip is when I started to fall apart.”
“Why did you do that?” I asked. This whole thing was making me sick and I didn’t even know why. “That’s what you are supposed to do. You don’t let them suffer. Isn’t that right? You don’t let them suffer?”
“I know that is what you are supposed to do,” he whispered. “But you see, that is not really what happened. I did not shoot the squirrel to put it out of its misery any more than I had shot the Germans to put them out of their misery. I shot them all for one reason only. The screams! Don’t you understand? It was those damned screams! I killed the squirrel and those men to stop them from screaming.”
Uncle Burnett was crying like a two-year-old baby by now. He was drinking from the whiskey bottle like it was water. I really didn’t know what was going on by this time. I just knew the war story I had waited so long to hear had not turned out the way I thought it would.
“The two men I killed after the grenade went off were not hurt bad enough that they would have died,” he told me. “Those men would have lived if I had not shot them again. The minute I shot them, I knew it was wrong. Do you know what adults do when they do something wrong, Timmy?”
I nodded my head no. I doubt if he even saw it.
“I will tell you what they do,” he went on. “They start trying to justify it. Justification is nothing more than a great big word which means to make excuses for something you know you have done wrong. Boy did I do it.
“I told my commanding officer I shot them to keep them from alerting the enemy. I told myself they would have died anyway. For three years, I have tried to make myself believe either story. It has been three years spent in futility. The truth is the truth and you can’t get around the truth. I shot those men because their screams made me feel every bit as much like the heathens I had been trained to believe they were. I shot them because they wouldn’t stop screaming. No other reason.”
He drained the last of the whiskey bottle and tossed the empty in the floorboard of the truck. He lit another cigarette and looked over at me.
“Then, I came home and acted like a damned hero over it.”
“Uncle Burnett, please don’t tell me no more.”
I was crying so hard at this point that I could hardly see. Uncle Burnett saw how hard I was taking and he put his arm around me and kissed me on top of the head.
“I know there is a lot you don’t understand right now,” he told me. “As you get older, you will probably ask yourself a hundred times why I told you all of this. Long after you are grown, you will wonder whether I was trying to ruin your life. But the reason I am telling all of this to you now is not to ruin you. It is to enlighten you. You are a young boy, but you are a strong young boy. You can handle what I am telling you and you can make things better for your kids.
“What I want you to understand is this. There is nothing glorious in war. All too often, war is necessary like it was with us against the Nazis. World domination and self-preservation were at stake. Don’t get confused about what I am telling you. Hitler was insane. He had to be stopped and we stopped him. We stopped him for all the right reasons. But there was nothing glorious about it. Millions died. As for those of us who survived, we survived at a cost. We all lost a piece of ourselves that we never got back. If a man can kill and be as alive as they were before the killing, they were never alive to begin with. I was alive before I tossed the grenades into the machine gun nest. I haven’t been since. For that much of it, I don’t want you to ever know what I am talking about.”
Just as he finished talking, the lady showed up with the food.
“That will be eighty cents, sir,” she said.
“Hey, you know what?” he said smiling up at her. “I have to go kind of unexpectedly. Would you just take that food over there and set it on the picnic table? My nephew will eat it and then he will call his Mom to come and get him. Here’s a dollar. You can keep the change for your trouble.”
“Why, thank you,” she said with a smile. She took the food to the nearest table and then ran back inside; no doubt anxious to tell her friends about the tip she had received.
The whistle of the afternoon train moaned in the background.
“I have to go now, Timmy,” he told me. “I have a train to catch.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he told me. “I used to know. A long time ago, when Amazing Grace was the sweetest song I had ever heard, I knew where I was going. At least I thought I knew. Now, I am just not sure. But you can bet on one thing, Timmy. No matter where I go, I will love you the most. Your daddy was real proud of you and so am I.”
“I don’t want you to go,” I cried as I buried myself into his chest. I was sobbing so hard I could barely breath. “I want you to stay with me forever.”
“I will stay with you forever,” he promised me. “Just look in your heart and I will be there. Always.”
The train let go again of its painful whistle. Upon hearing it, Uncle Burnett stiffened, and pushed me away. His mood, which had been everything from emotional to reflective, suddenly became very somber. He looked me dead in the eyes.
“You promised me you would not tell anyone what I have told you,” he said to me. “You remember that.”
“I remember that,” I said.
Uncle Burnett let me out of his truck, started it, and drove it off towards the square. He took a left up Ellis hill, which went passed the sixth grade center to the train tracks. Just as the truck disappeared over the hill out of my sight, it dawned on me that I couldn’t let Uncle Burnett go. It was a matter of principal. He always gave me a hug when he said goodbye to me. He wasn’t going to get away without doing so this time, especially if this was going to be the last time I saw him for a while.
I left my food behind and tore after him, running up the grassy hill behind the Burger Blitz at breakneck speed. The bank was steep and the grass had not been mowed in some time, but I made good time. The peppermint striped guard arms would be in place, preventing anyone from crossing, so I knew I had some time. I could still catch Uncle Burnett.
As I topped the hill I was breathless and sweaty, but I had not been wrong. The wooden arms were down and Uncle Burnett’s old Ford pickup was sitting at the crossing. The train was less than three hundred yards away at this point. I could see it stretching out as far as I could see behind the locomotive. The train was moving slow, so I slowed down. There was no need to hurry. I had plenty of time.
The train was close, but far enough away that he could probably even hear me.
“Uncle Burnett!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. “Uncle Burnett, wait a minute! You forgot to….”
I never got the chance to finish that sentence.
The train was no more than twenty-five yards away. Suddenly, I heard the old Ford’s engine rev up. The first thing that crossed my mind was that he was going to try to make it across. I yelled out to him, but he didn’t hear me. With the engine revved up, he popped the clutch. The truck broke its way through one candy-striped arm and then just stopped. Right on the tracks, right in the way of the train, it just stopped.
Oh my God! The truck has stalled. Oh dear God, the truck has stalled! Uncle Burnett! Get out!
I was hysterical thinking how he was going to die. He had been trying to get across and his truck had stalled.
If the train had taken him right then and there and that’s all I had ever known, I wouldn’t be writing this today. But there’s more – so much more.
As I was running toward the train, screaming at the top of my lungs and the train was bearing down on Uncle Burnett, he did the strangest thing. Knowing the train was getting ready to plow right through him, he turned and looked at me as calm as if it were nothing but a summer breeze getting ready to blow through his truck.
And he winked at me.
And he mouthed the simplest words of all to me.
I love you, Timmy.
Then the train took him.
I was nine years old when Uncle Burnett took his life. I spent almost all my life trying to understand whey he did what he did. Why did a man who had so much to live for feel like he had to kill himself? I mean, he told me about the screams and how they haunted him at night. He told me about the squirrel and the revelation it brought to him. He told me all about the incident that drove him over the edge, but I still couldn’t understand why he couldn’t take it. I couldn’t understand how any man could become so depressed that he felt it was necessary to take his own life.
I didn’t understand it until I was in deep jungle, fighting an Asian war that should have never been fought, and stumbled upon a machine gun nest of my own. It wasn’t until then that I made the critical decisions and indecisions that brought me to where I am today.
What I stumbled upon could not be technically classified as a machine gun nest. Oh it had all the makings of one. It had the sandbags. It had the sticks and leaves of camouflage plus the big fifty-caliber machine gun. For all intensive purposes, it was a machine gun nest.
Except it wasn’t really. It was three or four men who had been able to get them a bottle of something good to drink and busy getting smashed on it. By the time, I found them, they were laughing and carrying on with one another. They had no idea that there was still an ongoing war outside that little cubbyhole of sand they hid behind.
I am looking back now I guess with the one question that has haunted me now for a long time. Why did I toss the grenade in on them? I didn’t have to. I could have captured them. It wasn’t like they were in any position to fight back. Two of them were all but passed out. The other two were gabbing loudly at one another. There wasn’t a one of them within two moves of his rifle. I could have had them in my control probably without firing a shot.
Or I could have simply left them alone. I had been separated from my outfit a half a day before. I had been moving in a wide, circular pattern around the fighting to meet up with them at their destination. These guys were not part of anything that was a threat to me or anything my company was doing at the time. I could have ignored them and then went on my way.
But I didn’t. I tossed the grenades over into the sandbag. I did it, not because it was my duty to do so. I did it because I wanted to understand why Uncle Burnett had had to kill himself. I killed four men because I wanted to get closer to the man I loved as my father.
It worked, too. The instant the grenades hit, I gained a connection with him that I had never had before nor would I ever lose. There were two deafening explosions and a bloody hand came flying out, smacking me hard against the face. Even as I was wiping the blood off, the screams started. It has been twenty-five years to the day since it happened. The screams have not stopped. Thanks to my curiosity and love for him, I know exactly what was going through Uncle Burnett’s mind when he drove across the train tracks.
I know you will never understand this last, selfish act of mine, but I hope this letter has helped you some. I love you and goodbye.
With tears in his eyes, Timmy Graves sealed the envelope, checked the address, and dropped it in the mailbox. He looked over his left shoulder. A car lot now sat where the Burger Blitz had once been. In fact there was Camaro with a for sale sign on it in about the same place Uncle Burnett’s Ford pickup had been parked that fateful day. He gave it one last nostalgic look. He couldn’t help but think how things might have been so different for if he hadn’t been so persistent in hearing the story of the war from his hero, Uncle Burnett Graves.
The wailing sound of a distant train whistle broke up Timmy’s wistful gaze. It reminded him of the present and no matter how much he wanted everything to be just like it was when he was nine, it just wasn’t going to be. Part of him had died the day his Uncle died. The rest of him died the day he tossed the grenades into the sandbags.
The sound whistle reminded him of something else.
It reminded him that he had a train to catch.