[[[ First short story in about a week, whipped up and edited in about an hour or two. Read, review, whatever – I can only be happy I did something for once. If it's good or bad, I'd like to know about it. ]]]
My grandfather was a vet, and damn proud of it. Served in 'nam, took a killer hit, and walked away. Six-foot-three of humanized fortitude, a chain smoker since nineteen, able to lift me in the air with one arm when I was six – he was flesh, blood, and steel. He and I talked a lot while I was growing up, back when he was in his sixties, well and fit, and I was in my early teens, cocky and blunt. The thought that he was human never entered my mind. He seemed so strong!
"Buddy," he used to say, in that gravelly, hard-knock voice of his; "Buddy, you gotta stick to your guns. Don't let life crowd you down, and never let it knock you down. Long as you're on the right side of the dirt, it's a damn fine day -- so make the most of it!" I'd just smile and nod, pushing the words aside for the moment in favor of, say, the latest scores.
There was this one day when I was fourteen, got myself in a fight with Jack Smithson across the street. He'd called my sister some stupid, made-up name, and I bought the bait wholesale, then gave him an ass whupping he wasn't soon to forget (he still hasn't, actually, at twenty-two). My Dad berated me, my Mom mended my wounds and chided me, but it was Grandpa Bud that made the biggest impression on me then.
When he heard the news, he swept in, and it wasn't I bet ten seconds till his hand imprinted on my face. It was instantaneous -- bam! I fell back, my nose bloodier than my entire body when Jack had fought me. "Father!" my Mom had said; "Bud...!!" my Dad had growled, stepping between us. The words he said next silenced their cries such, that the blow drifted by the sands of time and faded to nothing.
"Buddy," he said, "has got to learn what it means when you pick a fight with a man. Back in 'nam, I lived, fought, and bled for those fellas in my platoon; and it's high time that Buddy learned the lessons I learned there. Buddy... Why'd you hit Jack?"
I replied, " 'Cause he went and said Molly was a snorkle!" I could tell right away that this wasn't the brightest thing to say, but I kept my ground regardless as Grandpa sighed a heavy sigh. Then he spoke, and no one interrupted. God, himself, stopped his breathing to listen to this man, who enunciated such a power as to make a sensible man turn and run, tail 'tween his legs.
"... Wanna know what I learned at Vietnam, Buddy? Do you really want to know what violence does to a man? You don't even WANT TO THINK about it. It'd probably kill your mother, if I told her have the crap I did there... Nearly killed me, but I'm here. Do you want to know why? Grit: I chose not to die in that goddamned hellhole, and that was 'cause I had my grit. Used to be a real hellraiser, always picking fights -- and winning. I got cocky, and that's how I ended up with THIS," he added, tapping his false leg.
"I lay there in that crater, bloody and half-dead, and I smelled my momma's homemade bread. Bread, in the biggest Hell-on-Earth there ever was. Bread, goddamn it -- bread! I could almost see her smile, and I knew I couldn't die there. I had to taste that bread just once more, and then I could die. That thought stayed with me through the evac, the surgery, the recovery, and through my entire tour. Y'know what? I DID taste that bread again, and by GOD did it send a chill down my spine just to smell it. She'd saved me, a coupla thousand miles and a memory away.
"I got there by fighting, I got out by fighting, but I only survived because I fought the right fight. Don't forget these words: Fighting will only get you so far when you do it the easy way. Next time you think about hurtin' someone, then 'magine your momma's bread fillin' up your nostrils. There ain't no way you can't be happy with that in your head."
I didn't really get it at the time, and I guess I still don't, but those words stuck with me. Five years down the road, he lay there in that hospital bed, dying, but he sure didn't show any of it. No, he looked just as proud as ever: His eyes were forward, his head up, his arms still large and loaded, even with tubes piping down his skin. I couldn't stand to see him like that -- not at all. But when he spotted that first tear rolling down my cheek and caught my cry, he turned to me and said, "Buddy, you ain't gonna have to cry. Don't cry... Fight it. You've got the right stuff. Now show it to me!"
... When we laid him in the ground two weeks later, I was asked to give the eulogy. God, what a feeling, stepping up to that almighty step, facing all the grieved, and I knew exactly what I wanted to say. I said it short, sweet, and out:
"Fighting only gets a man so far, 'fore he has to give in to the deepest foe of all. Well, Grandpa, you fought. You fought for seventy-three years, took a bomb to the gut, and stood back up. You never surrendered, not even when the enemy got the best of you... You... woke up on the wrong side of the dirt, and now... I can only pray you're tasting that bread now. Rest well... and be in our hearts. Amen."
I didn't cry. I didn't! Matter of fact, I think as I sat back down, I caught a whiff of bread, sweet and full as a lover's heart.
I'd like to think he was proud of me.