I woke up early next day and was ready to set out for the journey home. Sgt. Hayden was also ready waiting by his jeep. He was the last person on earth I would like to share a ride with but I couldn’t help it and had to succumb to his request. After spending three long hours of drive with Sgt. Hayden we stopped by a small town to re-fuel. I wanted to end my journey with Hayden right there but he mentioned something of my interest.
In few months time the US army would be sending troops to Okinawa Islands to install American base. Sgt. Hayden was incharge of selecting and sending troops from our sector. He had not started anything preparations about it yet since we had just got home from war. But soon he would be selecting and I know how these people pick men. Hayden said that the government wants to carry on with bringing the criminals of war to justice. Furthermore America wants to ensure that the enemies don’t comeback for vengeance. I kept listening to Hayden’s atrocities and sometimes added comments which was pleasing to his ears. For sure he did most of the talking and it was good for the long journey somehow.
Everytime he mentioned talk of Japan I felt getting closer to Aiko. I only wished for my name to be there in Hayden’s list. The day went by so quick and we didn’t realize the time we were making a turn past my hometown on the right. The dusty road through the cornfields appeared same as before. I could see the silhouette of the blue mountains in the dark and I guessed it must be around 9 pm. I gave Hayden instructions where to turn but it seemed like that he had been here before and was just confirming if he was right on the track. Maybe he had been here once sometimes I thought and I didn’t even asked him.
Soon I could see a faint light in the valley and knew it was farmer McGeigh’s house. I had spend all my life growing here at my grandparents place. My grandfather George Ashton immigrated from England after first World War and bought this tobacco farm from the Eastland Co. Ltd. First few years he grew tobacco but after clearing his debts he switched to maize. My parents never lived together since my father John Ashton never returned from New York. My mother ran away with one of my grandpa’s farm workers when I was just two years old.
My grandparents never made an attempt to go after my mother since they knew that my father was living with another woman in New York. I had only seen them in pictures. My father sent me some money on my 21st birthday but I did not take it. It was of no interest to me because it took 21 years for my father to realize that he had a son in San Joaquin. I had been living up with my grandparents and uncle Toms family. There were seven members altogether at my grandparents place.
We past farmer McGeigh’s house and the next turn on the left was ours. As Hayden was turning I thought that I should drop in the interest for joining the troops for Okinawa.
I said, “ Thank you very much Sir for your help today. I really appreciate your company and waiting this morning.”
He turned towards me and said, “Oh that’s nothing son! I am just helping my soldiers who served the country so well.”
Feeling the warmth of his words in my chest I replied, “I hope everymen of ranks to share the same thought like yours.”
“Well I don’t know about other officials but I am like this from the beginning! But people always take me for wrong and you were also one of them…..admit it!” he said laughingly.
I felt bit embarrassed because yes I did think like that of him.
I replied, “How do you know that Sir?”
“Well my boy one thing I have in me is that I have a bitter tongue and I can’t help it! Maybe we are trained like that and cannot show any signs of softness because softness does not reside with a man with lions heart.” He paused and continued.
“ I feel really bad after blasting young lads like you with my words but I can’t help it! You know it’s always hard in the beginning but later when you get used to it doesn’t matter. So now Ryan my boy am thick-skin and don’t consider what others think of me.” He said.
I thought for a moment and then said. “It must be really hard to live like that after knowing the fact. I suppose you really have a strong heart to bear that.”
He gave a big laugh and replied, “Am used to this now! Everyman in this world has to make a character of himself and alone he cannot make it. It’s the world who makes a man not the man making the world! So my character has it’s benchmark and I will die with it. Now it’s your time to make something out of it!”
He looked in between my eyes when he uttered those last words. I kept silence and bowed to him showing the respect that I understood him and stepped out of the vehicle. I took out my luggage from the back seat and then before moving towards the gate I stopped by the side where I got out from of the vehicle to thank him again.
I said, “Thank you once again Sir for your kindness!” “I really appreciate your help today and will keep that word in mind! Just before I leave…I don’t know when we will meet up again…unhhh…I was thinking…Maybe if you run short of men for that Okinawa re-deployment, I would like to give you my consideration….in advance!” I told him.
He paused smilingly and then said, “ There aren’t men running short in my sector! It’s actually who is worth to be re-deployed. Anyway son you just relax and spend sometime with your grandparents. Tell you what they almost had a heart-attack when I personally gave them the reports of your missing three years ago. I swear to god I tolerated that hand of your old man on face just because I am a military man and most importantly your father’s best friend. Otherwise I swear to God he would have spent the rest of his life on the hospital bed!” Hayden said.
After hearing that he was a family acquaintance I figured out why he was so pushy to me in Hokkaido and then getting close at the sector base.
I asked him, “So you came here before and gave the report about my missing.”
“Not only that son but also the first report of you being alive! Oh my oh my! You should have looked at your grandpa that day! Son of a b**ch slapped me again but with happiness this time and gave me a big hug almost knocking me over! Tell you the truth boy, your grandfather has strong hands!”
“Yeah he has!” I said softly.
“I promised your grandma to bring you all by myself over here! So here I am bringing you safe and sound and my job is done for now! Hayden said.
“Won’t you join us tonight for a short company?” I asked him.
“I would love to but I think I can’t bear another slap from your grandfather! As a matter of fact it is quite painful you know! You get going, I will hop in soon! Pass my regards to your Grandma though!”
He gestured that he should be leaving now. I didn’t insist him to stay. I shook his hand and went to open the gate. He stayed there till I was about to reach the doorstep of my house, and then left with a soft honk. The lights were on downstairs and I could hear Maggie and Peter arguing. Peter’s voice had changed now and crackled everytime he spoke. He must be sixteen now and Maggie should be around twenty. As I stepped on the wooden stairs Bruno my dog began barking.
I shouted “Bruno!…Bruno! easy boy ‘tis me boy!…’tis ok! Just relax buddy!”
Animals have a good sense of recalling old friends. He was able to recognize me and came closer to me cooing with few barks in between. Maybe he was complaining why am late and started licking my hands. As I touched him I could feel that am home now for the first time ever since I came to America. I cuddled him and played with him on the verandah for a while. Soon I could hear voices from inside mentioning my name that am here and the legs came out in haste. Maggie was the first one to dash out of the door and gave me a big hug screamingly.
She was very loud and everytime said “We missed you!….. Oh my god!”…etc.
Peter came and wrapped me from behind jumping like he always did when got excited. I didn’t realize aunt Shirley was there as well till looked at her. I rushed towards her and gave her a big hug. Tears just kept on coming and couldn’t stop now. I don’t know who my mother was but this woman was more than a mother. We held each other and cried deep. Soon grandma and grandpa came out and held me tight as if not letting me go again. The scene was very sentimental as I could not express whether they were happy or trying to express the pain of their loss which lay hidden in their hearts for long. My grandma kept on saying “I won’t let you go again!” a numerous times.
After that we went inside and I was escorted as if I was the most important person on earth for them. Everything looked the same as before apart from uncle Tom’s new contribution of deer horns on the wall. He was out in the mountains tonight guarding the cattle. Grandma sat beside me holding my hands in hers and kept staring at me. Aunt Shirley asked Maggie to join her in the kitchen to prepare for the supper. I suppose they were informed by Sgt. Hayden that am coming today or else they don’t stay this late for supper. Grandpa doesn’t like to wait for his meal and especially supper. But tonight he changed his attitude. He signaled Peter to get me a glass and asked me,
“What would you like to have tonight, Ryan?”
I looked at him and he was holding his favourite scotch. I used to make his drink every night before. I felt uncomfortable about it and asked grandpa,
“No grandpa, let me make it for you!” walking towards him.
He stopped me and said, “I became used to doing it by myself!” he said in a soft voice which pierced through my heart.
I know the old man loved me very much and what it would have done to him learning that am missing or dead. He didn’t look like the man he was. Tough, strong and short tempered with a loud mouth who doesn’t like people around him being lazy. Now he is standing in front of me like a slave awaiting his masters command.
I just said, “I will have the same as you are having!”
The old man made a double shot and passed it to me. He even asked Peter to make a drink for himself. Peter looked around for his mother and quickly made a drink hiding it behind the sofa. After taking few sips grandma asked me,
“ So, Ryan! Tell me you didn’t miss us?” I looked at her and answered, “Ofcourse grandma! Why?”
“Then why didn’t you write anything to us! Atleast you could have informed us!” she said in a sort of complaining tone.
I remained silent and then answered her question.
“I could have but the place where I was hiding had not been contacted by the Japanese soldiers. If I tried to contact they would have known and would have attacked the village inorder to retrieve me. They would have got me before the news reached you about me being alive.” I said.
Grandpa added. “Anyway, if he tried to contact they would have killed him!”
Grandma still looked unsatisfied with the answers and looked bit confused. I tried to divert her attention,
“I wasn’t able to walk for one year!” I had to lie a bit or else she would not understand.
“My Back was broken! Second year I started walking a bit but not much and by the time I was able to war was over!”
Grandpa laughed at that. He knew I was lying but didn’t intervene. Grandma looked at with attentive eyes and asked,
“So how did you move? I mean who look after you?”
I looked at her and smiled. “Grandma, this family who were Alaskan looked after me very well! They cleaned me, dressed me and fed me daily!” I told her.
“Really! They did that! Oh good lord provided help for my child! Bless be those hands and hearts which cared for you!” she said.
“Yeah, for sure they should be blessed!” I answered with painful heart of missing my love. I tried to hid it but grandpa noticed that. He didn’t say anything throughout my conversation with grandma. It was just like old times when we would sit in the living room every eve talking or yawning about days events. Soon Maggie interrupted our conversation saying suppers ready. We made our way to the dining table and I sat at my place which was just next to grandpa and grandma beside me.
I could recall those days when I didn’t want to eat the veggies and those strong hands of grandpa would force it in my mouth. But today he won’t do that because now am not choosy about food. Aunt Shirley had roasted farm goose for supper accompanied by mashed potatoes, corn salad, steamed veggies and apple pie. Before we began grandpa toasted for my safe return and asked me to say the grace for tonights meal. I said a short grace and thanked god for reuniting me with my family. After that we tucked in and I couldn’t wait because I was extremely hungry. During the meal I asked grandpa about Sgt. Hayden.
He said, “Oh! That Dickson’s boy! Yeah I know him since he was in his nappies! Your father and him were best friends! They used to hide in my farm to skip school and I used to take them back again. Why? He said something?” grandpa asked me in a conceding tone.
I replied “Nah! Was bit curious! Actually he gave me the shock of my life when he told me that he is a family acquaintance!”
“Yeah we know him very well and his family!” said grandma.
She wanted to say something when grandpa interrupted and said, “He had known enough for the day and I suppose he needs to rest!”
I could feel the old him in his voice. We said nothing after that and finished the meal. After the meal I went out for a smoke. Grandpa joined me.
“I have some good ones if you would share me yours!” he said.
I was shocked with that statement because I never smoked in front of him but with those words I believe he is okay with that.
“Sure! I got this one from the camps!” I said and passed it to him.
He took few puffs and said, “ Well it’s local but a medium grade I suppose! They don’t give army good ones ofcourse!”
“ I agree!” I replied.
“So tell me Ryan, you didn’t tell the whole truth to your grandma right!” grandpa asked me smilingly.
I looked at him and said, “Yeah!…if I tell her the truth she would make me more confused!”
“Did you get used to that lifestyle?” grandpa asked.
“I think so!” I replied.
Grandpa was an understanding person. Maybe he figured out that is normal part of life or I had followed my fathers footsteps. We chatted afterwards about farm, business and other issues. Grandpa did not touch on that thought again. Later I was called in for my shower. Grandma told me that bath is ready and my room was set. I thanked her and went straight to the bathroom. It was after three years am having a good shower in my bathroom. It seemed like that am having shower after three years though. Following my shower I hit my bed straight and slept like a dead man.