Past Tense

Maybe it’s like this for all old people. Maybe not. It doesn’t really matter, I suppose, since it’s what eating me up right now. Was it worth it? You be the judge.

No. On further reflection, I don’t want you to judge. Just shut up and listen.

Once upon a time, there was a little boy. First-born, silver spoon, yadda yadda. You know the scoop. Everything going for him. No hitches. No mountains to climb. No rivers to ford. No valleys to raise up . . . wait.

Hold that. I’m confusing my story with someone else’s. Sorry. Back to me.

The little boy wanted more. Much more. Not more wealth. Or privilege. He wanted to be a real man, in the tradition of the frontier men, pushing westward, testing his mettle against long odds. At the very least, he wanted a coonskin cap and a rifle.

When he was just knee-high, his parents thought it amusing.

When he was ten and still building forts in the backyard and shooting imaginary enemies, escaping from the drudgery of private tutors and his daily round of lessons, the heavy thunderheads of their disapproval filled the sky around his home.

His mother had set her sights on raising the perfect little gentleman. His father was intent on training the heir to his carefully amassed fortune. The little boy was their vision of the future. Or supposed to be.

You awake, boy? There’s a lesson in this story. Pay attention. Show some respect. Hmphhh. Youth these days. I’ll never understand.

What’s that?

Dinner? I’m not hungry. I’m dying.

Oh! you’re hungry? Of course, you are — you’re a growing boy.

I don’t care –eat up. Won’t bother me any. Can’t smell. Can’t taste. Not enough teeth left in my head to chew anything worth eating anyhow.

You settled? Got a plateful? Good. Shut up and eat. I’m talking.

The boy tried. He tried to fit in, by god. He wanted to please his parents. But, somehow he always fell short of the mark.  And the harder he tried, the harder he’d fall. And the more he’d fail, the more his parents would throw up their hands in despair, exclaiming:

“You’ll never guess what he did now!”

“What’s to be done? He’s uncontrollable. He won’t obey.”

“Why can’t he just . . .

Well, you get the picture. Nothing I did was right, ever. Disapproval sticks, y’know. Other people pick up on it. If your parents don’t like you much, no one else will, either.

What’s that? You like me?

Well, that’s fine, boy. I like you, too. You ‘mind me of myself at your age.

Eat up. You’ll need your strength. It’s a long story.

The boy finally had enough of carrying the heavy weight of his parent’s disapproval, of being scoffed at by the neighbor’s, the neighbor’s kids and his classmates.  And so the boy’s moment came. His country called and he answered. Told a whopper of a lie to do it, too. But, join the cause he would and leave his family behind.

Bit of a shock for the lad, that was. Stuck out like a sore thumb. Didn’t even know how to make his own bed, let alone peel a potato or scrub a toilet. But, he could outshoot, outpack and outmarch all the others. So, the Army wasn’t so different from home after all — he was scorned by some for a lack of skills and resented by others for having too many.

But, he gritted his teeth and got through the long days and longer nights. In his more pleasant moments, he dreamed his parents would understand and forgive him for running away.

What’s your question, boy? Don’t talk with your mouth full!  

Did they understand? Forgive me? Hah!

The day before I shipped out overseas, I was called to the Commander’s office. My father was sitting there. He told me I had shamed the family by enlisting in the Army.

He reminded me I was the only son. Second and third sons went to West Point for officer training or into the priesthood — they didn’t enlist and slog about in the mud.

I had exactly one chance to come home. To refuse meant my inheritance would go to a cousin I barely knew. I could never go home again.

So, boy — here we sit, and now it’s on you.

Are you going to take up the mantle and carry on the family name? 

Or, run away, like I did?


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