By Chris Ingram
Walter was one of the first men in his New Hampshire town to join up for World War II. He was 30, and despite a strong chin and broad shoulders, had yet to find himself a bride. His job in a tannery may have had much to do with that. It was the source of most of his sorrows, as it paid very little and left him stained and smelly (the lime paste fumes having long ago left him oblivious to the latter state). Invisible, he sometimes wondered whether his presence on earth had any point at all. His only possession was a vocabulary, gleaned from grandfather’s collection of classic literature, that he believed set him above the uneducated flotsam of his dreary world (we may surmise that he chose to ignore the likelihood that such conceit might have contributed to his social isolation). A jaunt overseas for a righteous cause was just the ticket for a new life, he reasoned, a chance to matter—to finally exist.
He soon joined all the other Yanks preparing for the invasion in some leafy English village. Soon, he was accepted as one of the few Americans genuinely welcome in the local pub, mostly because he wasn’t constantly hounding the local girls for a bang beside the hedgerow. Of course, his disinclination towards chasing the local flowers also engendered suspicion. When asked if his reserve grew from an unkind appraisal of the local gals, Walter disarmed an explosive situation by replying that he found them quite the opposite. He said he found the English girls lovely, with an earnest, comforting beauty that he attributed to an honest heart. American gals, he said, seemed a bit too calculating; always on the make. Over a low chorus of approving murmurs, he was asked why he, a handsome, strapping well-spoken Yank, didn’t then try to win one for himself.
“You don’t understand,” he told a knot of pint-bearing locals. “I am a dead man. I must believe so, or I could never do what’s been asked of me. As a dead man, I know I’ll never return to the life and the loves of the living. And as a corpse, I have no interest in kneeling at some last-minute temple of the flesh. Mine, remember, is already moldering.” The assembled men nodded thoughtfully.
“What a memorable young man you are,” an elder of the assembled exclaimed between draws from a chipped maple Askwith. “You will undoubtedly go very far.”
His words pleased Walter greatly, for though resigned to death, he was warmed by the prospect of being remembered after what had been heretofore a life of disconsolate anonymity. He imagined these men (and the strawberry blonde barmaid he allowed himself to believe was eavesdropping reverently) raising a glass to his memory many years hence. Surely, he mused, this constituted a sort of immortality; a small victory over his untimely death.
And when he was impaled eight months later by a two-foot shard of Bastogne evergreen, Walter had long been forgotten by every one among them. But not by me, his son, born in a Nashua whorehouse months before his death. I remember a man I never met. The only touch we’ve ever shared has come second-hand through the moldy pages of his father’s books. His story is my invention; crafted from the wisps of half-memories uttered by Walter’s wholly uninterested “hostesses.” If it’s less than heroic, so be it; every man needs a tale to tell his children about their grandfather.