“What the crap! I can’t keep my eyes open!”
Greg said to himself scanning the cold quiet lake. He was on guard duty stationed at a small navy base near Waukegan, Illinois.
“Verdammtes Drittes Reich!!”
It wasn’t his fault he spoke the enemy’s language so fluently. His grandfather had left Prussia during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm the second. With a hope to own land he came to America and settled on a farm near Green Bay Wisconsin. For Greg that place was home, not this watch tower looking out for Nazis at… Oh my… 3:42 am.
Lake Michigan looked like a dark silk blanket laid across the horizon. He struck a match and lit an Old Gold he had in his pocket, took a drag and started to feel better. His mind wandered back home to the barn, the kitchen and his mom.
His dad wasn’t reliable for anything, but his mom was a hard working woman. She sent him to school and he was almost finished with his senior year of high school before the Navy called him for service.
They needed young men to understand the code that the Germans were using. He was glad he was stationed near home but at the moment he was confined to this one tower and it looked like besides him the whole world was fast asleep.
He wondered about beautiful Edna from the neighbor’s farm. He saw her at church each Sunday. She was not the little girl she used to be. Greg made it a point to pass by Edna’s family farm on the way home from school.
It was just a mile out of his way but he didn’t mind the extra walk just to see her smile and wave. A month before going off to the Navy, Greg made a visit to Edna’s house. It was the most painstaking and yet exhilarating thing he ever did in his life. He knocked at the door and Edna’s father answered.
Greg spoke up in the strongest voice he could muster,
“I want to court your daughter.”
“Son, the Navy is going to own your hide,”
Edna’s father emplored.
Greg was so persistent that Edna’s father let him in the house. It was true that Greg loved Edna and Edna felt the same way for Greg. Those last couple of weeks before going to the Navy were like a dream. Edna and Greg walked through the corn fields together holding hands.
Edna’s mom was Irish and her father was German. Unlike his family they did not speak German at home. They spoke only English. Although Edna didn’t go to school, her family always seemed to have more class. She read books at home and her house was filled with classics her mom had brought from New York.
She loved to read the poetry of Wadsworth and she read again and again Walden’s Pond. In the afternoon Edna would spend hours playing the violin. Greg was enchanted to just listen to her play. It was not like the fiddle he heard at some barn yard dances. It was a light and steady but rich sound that lifted him up into another world.
That’s the way it always was with Edna. He dreamed that when he came back from the Navy he would marry Edna and then go to Bible College and then move to the city and have a big happy family. He would give her the true edification she deserved. Her face was so young and beautiful and he could feel her arm on his. Her hands were warm as he felt her press against his arm.
“Good morning Mr. Smith. It’s time to check your blood pressure.”
The nurses Aid at the Veterans’ Administration hospital was a young premed student named Andy. He volunteered there once a week and Mr. Smith was quite a challenge.
Greg looked up at Andy and grumbled,
(It wasn't 1945 anymore. It was 1985.)
“Why can’t I get one of those hotties to be my nurse?”
“You know the rules Mr. Smith. You are not allowed a female nurse. You are lucky that Cindy hasn’t sued you for harassment.”
Greg looked at him and remembered something.
“My daughter was here yesterday and left a small gift. There is a book in the top drawer, don’t open it. Just put the book under my wheel chair.”
Andy helped the old man get up out of bed. This man had suffered three strokes and two heart attacks. He was given two orders by the doctor. The first order was a little unusual: “no sex”. The second order was “practice walking”.
Andy helped him into the chair,
“Sure thing Mr. Smith.”
What a stupid name Greg thought to himself, “Gregory Smith”. Somehow they had lost their real family name somewhere on Ellis Island. He knew it couldn’t be Smith. Well that’s the name he had carried for 64 years now. It was a short and bitter life.
“Andy, wheel me down to the end of the corridor, will ya?”
The corridor at the VA hospital was an endless tunnel that connected the main hospital building to the nursing home and some rehabilitation centers. It was almost a mile long. Andy rolled him through the corridor to some doors at the end.
“Let’s go for a walk outside,”
“Sure thing Mr. Smith,”
“Wheel me over by those trees.”
They found a nice picnic bench covered by some trees. And then Greg said,
“Let’s take a look at that book now.”
Andy gave him the box and Greg opened it up exactly in the middle.
“Didn’t I tell you?
…My daughter is a homesteader in Alaska. This is part of this year’s harvest.”
Greg wet the rolling paper with his tongue and wrapped a perfect joint.
“You got a light?”
Andy was pretty startled but the old man was pretty insistent and Andy who had seen too much of organic chemistry lab needed a break from his studies. The old man took a drag and started to talk.
“After the war was over my first love Edna and I were married. It was like a dream those days and Edna was the apple of my eye. We did move to Chicago where her real talents could be recognized.
To support the family I worked for a shipping company and instead of navigating boats I was navigating trucks around the tristate area. I bought a huge Victorian house near the river that Edna loved but as a trucker I couldn’t be with her all the time like we used to.
Then one by one the kids came. I don’t know how she managed. In her spare time she took care of a vegetable garden and canned vegetables for us. It was a little bit of paradise.
I would come home around 7pm and eat and sleep and that was about all. Edna was the star. She would read to the kids and put them to sleep. She would take care of all the problems the kids had at school and we always had the best fresh vegetables in the neighborhood. On the weekends Edna would play violin and on Sundays she would take us to church and in the afternoon she would read.
Life was beautiful until one day I came home and Edna’s face was flushed pale. The kids were real worried. Edna said that she couldn’t see well and had a terrible headache. We rushed her to the hospital and when we got there they had to put her on a stretcher. My oldest son was only ten years old and he had to see his mother wheeled away on a stretcher. I remember looking at his face in front of St. Luke’s Presbyterian hospital. He was so little then screaming, 'No. Don’t hurt my mother!'
Edna was wheeled away into the hospital. The next thing I know the doctor is trying to explain to me how some kind of thrombosis is stuck in her head, as if I even knew what a thrombosis was.
All I knew was that Edna was gone. What reason do I have to live except for our four kids? But I don’t know how to take care of kids. Edna wasn’t around to fix meals. All I ever knew how to fix was a beer. Kids can’t eat beer for breakfast.
My oldest son was never the same. He had been the bright student all the teachers loved, but after his mother passing away he became dark and sarcastic. I should have been there for him and helped him but I just called him a spoiled brat. If there was any trouble in the house I took my belt out and gave him what for.
He was gone when he was sixteen. I never saw him again. His sister said he was doing time in the penitentiary. He was not only my oldest son. He was my only son. That’s why I gave him the name “Greg Jr.”
He had three sisters. The oldest moved to Alaska to begin this farming homestead. You tasted what she grows. And the other two are useless ho’s.”
Andy had just stood by listening for a long time.
Finally he took a deep breath,
“I can’t believe you’d call Edna’s daughters useless ho's.”
Greg didn't expect that interruption
“Now don’t you go bringing Edna into this! I married three times after Edna. They were all Ho’s!
When my second wife died I packed up everything I owned all ready to move my ass to Florida. Then right outside of Atlanta it happened. I had my first heart attack. I just thought I was tired from the drive and went to get more coffee when the guy at the rest stop said I was messed up bad. It was true. I felt terrible.
He called an ambulance just in time and I was taken to Piedmont Hospital. From there I was taken to the VA hospital in Decatur Georgia. I stayed there for a few weeks until I got better and then they transferred me to the VA in Illinois.
You’d think I’d just stay put but I got married twice since I came back to Chicago. They were both ho’s. My last wife I literally met on the side of the street on Cicero Avenue.
She said she was homeless and needed help. I took her into my home. I bought her everything she ever wanted. She invited friends to the house. They were all junkies. I really didn’t have anything else to live for.
My health went to pieces and I ended up in the VA hospital again. Stroke after stroke. Every time my social security check would come in my wife was visiting me in the hospital. She would give me some favor and I would write her a check.
This went on for years. Even if it gave me a heart attack I would be with her in the flip of a dime. But the VA found out about it and they won’t let that woman near me. Only my daughter is allowed to visit me now. At least she brings me a dime every once and a while.
It makes me forget about the years of bitterness. You know I was ready to go to Bible College! I really wanted to do the right thing. I wanted my son to go to the best schools and my daughters to be happy. I got everything screwed up. I got life screwed up.
Why did God give me Edna if he was just going to take her away so soon? I’m such a screw up… but believe me Andy, my intentions were good. I really wanted to be a good person.”
Andy looked at this old man slouched in his wheel chair crying. This man was hysterical. His brain was effected by too many strokes. He was a screw up. But who’s to judge…? …anyway his daughter surely had Alaska’s finest.
The roll back into the hall and down the one mile corridor did some good for both of them. It did not seem so long or annoying on the way back. Andy felt happy and peaceful. Even Mr. Smith seemed to look a lot more at ease.
It seems that getting that story out of his system and crying a bit had some medicinal value. He had never seen Mr. Smith so at ease. This man was usually complaining and bickering or hitting on the nurses.
When Andy looked down Mr. Smith was actually smiling. Perhaps his little confession set his heart at ease. Perhaps this man had a moment of penitence to make right what was wrong.
Andy felt inside that by listening to this man’s story he had done his good deed for the day.
Andy had a grueling week with exams in anatomy and organic chemistry. By the end of the week he was looking forward to his volunteer work at the VA hospital.
At 7am he came into the nurses’ station ready for his assignment. He looked at the list of patients and Mr. Gregory Smith was no longer on the list. Andy was confused.
Mr. Smith was in no condition to recover so quickly. He wondered if maybe there were miracles and Mr. Smith was given another chance.
He asked the head nurse…
“Where is Mr. Smith?”
He has gone home.”
All pictures were taken with my cell phone. The names and characters in this story are meant to be purely fictional. If they resemble somebody you know then it is merely a coincidence.