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The biggest problem I have around Memorial day is i have my own beloved dead to remember. The list is too long to recount, but my younger brother who died in '98 tops the list.
He didn't die in a war bravely. But he felt so guilty that he had been the one that loaded the missiles of USS Vincennes, that he let his mind go it's own way, and the never got back together.
In 2000, I heard some peacenik boasting about giving baby burners hell that this story came to mind. I post it on one site every memorial day. You see, fighting in a war isn't the crime...
The rain had been falling for several days, and even the farmers were growling. The Inn was quiet, except for the idle picking of the old bard in the corner. The old man had come to the town with the rain, and had spent the days dry, and well fed, thanks to his ready stories.
The door opened, and a young man came in. He leaned heavily on a crutch, his right leg twisted from an old injury. As he came into the light the Innkeeper saw him. "Get out of here, you bastard!" He shouted.
The young man looked up. His face showed that this wasn't the first time he had been so insulted. He stiffened, and turned to go.
"No." The bard said. He flashed a coin. "He is welcome here at my table."
"We don't allow soldiers in here." One of the men complained. "All they do is live off us when they fight." He pointed at the boy, "or live off us when they can't work."
The bard stood, and his bones could be heard popping. "If any are barred, I have no place here."
It was as if he'd threatened to take away all of the holidays and none of the labor. Everyone agreed that just this once, the boy would be allowed in the inn. It quieted down again, the young man eating of the communal stew, and drinking beer along with the old man.
After a while, pipes glowing in the murky light, someone called for a story. The bard looked to the young lad, then stood. "There is a story that has not been told in my life. Perhaps I never found an audience worthy of it." He looked at the expectant faces. "But today it will be told. It is a true story, and happened to me as a child."
When I was young, I dreamed. I was cursed with a good imagination, and almost no muscle. The one thing I wanted to be was a blacksmith. I enjoyed watching the magic of taking a lump of rock, and making tools from it.
The village I lived in was small. Only about a hundred people when you counted the farmers, the drovers, the shopkeepers innkeeper and his family.
And the Blacksmith. Shannon was his family name. He came as a man that was already old from life, and grew no older in my sight all the days I knew him. He let me watch as he forged a plow blade, or a horse shoe. I was too small to help with the bellows, but he made a metal piece that weighed a third of what I did at the time. When you think about it, you can lift a third of your weight with your legs easily. I would stand below the handle of the bellows, the handle on my shoulder, and merely squat and stand. If I
heard stories, or watched him work in return I was willing to do this for hours.
My father was a man of the soil, a farmer. He was set in his ways as firm as a foundation stone, and nothing could move him when he made up his mind. As a child, he told me there were three kinds of people in the world. Us, Them, and Those Damn Soldiers. He said it as if it were a country, or one word. It was always Thosedamnsoldiers. He could curse Them for hours on end, but it wasn't half of what he said about Those Damn Soldiers. "What do they do?" He would ask. "Do they break the ground and plant? Do they help with the weeding and watering? Do they even help with the harvest? No! But just be a bushel short when they come down from the Castle, and see what happens to you!"
One day. I was helping Shannon forge a new hoe blade. I was watching the street, when a man in fine clothes upon a fine horse rode in, and spoke for a time with the headman of our village. As he rode out, I did what any child might do. I repeated my father's words as if they were my own. "Just another Damn Soldier."
An instant later, I was hanging from that massive arm, and Shannon looked at me with fury. I had seen him angry only once before, when a nobleman had called him names because the metalwork for his saddle weren't done quick enough. At that moment, I wished I were anywhere else, instead of having all that anger focused on me,
"What did you call the Sheriff?" he asked in a dangerous tone.
I was terrified, and my explanation was stuttered, and stilted. But as I reached the end, the anger was gone, and he set me down with a sigh.
"As the twig is bent." He sighed. He pointed at the bellow handle, and I began pumping. He beat on the metal, then thrust it into the fire. "That was the Sheriff, a noble and honorable man. Gave me that sword there long ago, when he was but a lad, and his father was Justice of the Peace.” He waved toward the door, where a sheathed blade lay in years of dust and cobwebs.
"Sometimes it is as your father might say. Gold can buy you men, but it cannot buy you honor. You see, there are other types in the world, even of soldiers. There are the money soldiers, a number of which would run as long as they have their pay in their pockets. There's the kind you don't want at your back, because if the enemy doesn't kill you, they will. You have the ones that think a blade makes them a man. You have those that have to do it, for whatever reason, itching to get back to their homes. You even have those that fight so that others will look up at him with awe, or because they like to kill. But among all of this slag and dross, you also have the warrior." He pulled the metal out, and began beating on it. Then he thrust it back into the coals
"A warrior is a soldier, aye. But he's a lion among the cats, the diamond among the stones on the ground. He is as rare as pearls, and to be prized among all men, because he fights not for money, or for glory, or even because he likes it. He doesn't disdain glory, or money. But he fights even without those things when it is necessary." He began beating the metal. I was watching, and for a moment, I wondered if he had been commissioned to make a fighting knife for one of the Nobles, because the metal lengthened beneath his hammer.
"When necessary, a Warrior will fight for those that need protecting, for those that cannot fight for themselves. A true warrior will give up his life, his happiness, even his hopes of redemption to save others. It is a hard life, and usually a short one. You can see many brave men that have retired from fighting, but few were Warriors in truth. All you have to do is not be in the front of a battle, where a Warrior knows he must be." He looked at the metal, smiled slightly, then folded it and began to beat it back into a hoe.
"One day you might understand what I am saying. But I cannot explain it better."
One day I did understand. The harvest had been brought in, and I was back at the smithy as five men rode into town. Shannon looked up, and for a moment, he had a look of loss in his eyes.
"Lad, run to your father. Tell him bandits are here. Send someone to the castle as quick as they can run." He tore off his apron.
He pointed. "That is the Sheriff's horse the man in the lead is riding. He could not have stolen it if the Sheriff was still alive. Now go!"
I ran as if the demons of hell were after me, and when I told my father, he sent me to warn everyone I could. If I had been faster, if I had been lucky, well, let us just say I wasn't. I was outside Widow Murray's house when one of the Bandits caught me by the scruff of my neck. He carried me into the street, and threw me down in front of that fine horse.
"I caught me a little barking dog," the bandit chortled.
The man on the horse looked at me. "Search the town. If you can't find anyone, we will take what we can, and leave this one as a reminder of what happens to those that speak out of turn."
They searched the town, but thanks to my warning, they had escaped. There was little to steal, unless you have a need for grain, and they took a couple of mealy bags
One of the men caught my hair, and brought a knife to my throat. I was more afraid than I have ever been before or since.
Then a soft voice broke the silence. "If you hurt him you will all die."
No one was more surprised than I. Shannon stood in the door of the smithy. The old sword that hung over his door in his hands.
The man on the horse said. "Well, Captain. It has been a long time."
Shannon looked at him. "Not long enough."
The man snorted. "Kill him." The four men on foot drew their weapons and came toward Shannon.
I know now what he did, but to my child's eyes it was as if a magical spell had been cast. Shannon drew, and as the blade swung wide, one of the men fell. It came back, and the second joined him. Shannon stepped over the bodies, and in as long as it takes to say it, the other two were also dead.
The man on the horse climbed down. "You haven't lost your touch, old man." Then he drew and they fought.
I wish I had been less afraid. The only witness to the battle was my ears, for I cowered with my eyes closed. I heard the screech of steel striking steel, the grunt of men fighting for their lives. Then there was a pained gasp. I opened my eyes.
The bandit leader was falling to his knees, clutching at Shannon. Then he fell, revealing that Shannon himself had taken a wound in his chest, the sword still in him.
The old man drew the blade out of his own chest with a hiss, then staggered to the horse. It knew he was a friend, for it stood still as a stone as Shannon mounted.
He looked at me with pain and loss in his eyes, then he turned it, and rode toward the castle.
I knew he was hurt badly, and I ran after him, calling for him to stop so we could help him. But as I passed a house, my father suddenly caught me by the neck.
"What are you chasing him for, you young fool! He's only another damn soldier!"
The fire crackled, and the old man looked at the room in silence. Then he turned to the wounded boy. "I know it's raining, and cold. But I am sure there is a better place we can both be." The boy stood, and together they went to the door.
"Bard, please." One of the farmers called. "What happened to the smith?"
The old man turned, and his look was also full of anger, and loss. “Does it matter? Why do you care? After all, he was only a damn soldier." The door closed silently.
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