Major Dunham erased Jerry’s name from the board with a drawn motion, as some of the departed man’s comrades watched over, grave expressions written all over their worn-out faces.
Another one bites the dust.
Crocker stood by the door, observing the spectacle with detached irritation. Who was gonna be next? Him? Or perhaps, one of the new recruits, one of the many starry-eyed kids with their heart on their sleeve and the bravado that only the foolishness coming with youth could afford.
Later that night, when he sat in the dark to write Jerry’s family, a flickering candle his only companion, he found himself at a loss for words. He never had to write such a letter before. How could you tell a mother that her only son, her own flesh and blood, was no more?
To be fair, the major did offer to write the letter himself, but Crocker felt it was his duty to do so, as Jerry’s co-pilot and bunk mate, not to mention the fact that he was the only person to know the truth behind his friend’s demise.
If Jerry had been there, he would’ve laughed at him, shaking his head in that funny manner of his, the one that made you question if he was endeared or simply pitying you, or both.
“That’s just like you, Crocker. Stubborn to the bone.” he would’ve said, before lighting up a cigarette to ease the tension as he often did.
But nobody was there to put him in his place. Not anymore . Jerry was gone, and that’s why Crocker was there, after all, wasn’t it?
So, he finally put ink to paper and began scribbling.
Dear Mrs Young,
This morning, June 14th 1918, your son immolated his life to his country during aerial battle. Rest assured that his heroic effort will not be in vain. The Major has it in good authority that he will be awarded a medal for his bravery. Deepest sympathies,
Lt. Henry Crocker.
Crocker stared at the paper, re-reading the letter over and over, until the words began losing their meaning and were just hollow empty symbols. Then, a sudden fit of rage overtook him as if possessed, and he crumpled the piece of paper in his hands, discarding it on the ground.
He ran his hands through his hair, his elbows resting on the table. What a load of bull! He felt nauseous just thinking about it. All those big, shiny words. Heroism. Sacrifice. Nobleness. Bravery. Immolation. Patriotism. What did they mean, really?
Jerry died like a rat, a caged animal unable to escape a prison of his own making. Plagued by nightmares that could only be soothed by being cradled like a child. Mother, mother help me. Crocker could still hear Jerry’s soft cries, stifled by the fabric of his nightshirt, his friend’s tears wetting his chest. The first few times, he’d tried to remind him where they were, but then he gave up, indulging his visions and letting him believe he really was his mother, and that everything would turn out alright.
They never talked about it, just as they never talked about the sporadic hallucinations during the day. Sometimes, he could see Jerry’s dark eyes unfocus, fixing somewhere far in the distance, as if lost in something inscrutable – a memory, or something else altogether, something that never was perhaps. He would murmur unintelligible words to himself, until Crocker would shake him out if it, gently but firmly, with a nudge.
Jerry had given his life for his country alright … he had given, and given, and given, until every drop of life had been sucked out of him, until he had turned into a shell of a person, a murder machine. Kill or be killed. That was the motto, and what bargain that turned out to be. For every man they shot down, every so called “enemy”, there was another man in his same position, sitting at a desk, writing the same letter, only in a different language .
Angry tears fell down Crocker’s cheeks , and pool ed down the army stationary notepad in front of him. He ripped the slip of paper just as he had done a minute before, and picked out his pen again. After wiping down the moisture in his eyes, he wrote once more.
Dear Mrs. Young,
This morning, June 14 th 1918, your son immolated his life to his country during aerial battle. Or so is what the armed forces at large believe. As the only keeper to the truth behind jerry ’s demise, I feel like I owe you an explanation, and that you, more than anyone else will understand, and forgive his actions. I know I did. That’s why I lied to everybody, putting him on the plane after I found him with a bullet in his head and his gun in his hands. I didn’t want anyone to think of him as a coward, because by all accounts, he wasn’t one. If anything, he was a braver man that I will ever be, but they will never understand the true meaning of the word. They think being brave is shooting down somebody else just because they happened to have the misfortune to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time, to put remorse aside in the name of your Country. I used to be one of those people too, fresh-faced and eager to lay down my life in the name of some bigger ideal. But not anymore. The greatest gift your son gave me, was making me realize none of this is really worth it. Day after day, I watched the bodies pile up - enemies, comrades, they all looked the same once they were dead. But not to him. Every single minute that passed, a piece of his soul was lost on the battleground. I watched after him as he slowly lost his mind, covered up for him lest anybody find out. I did everything in my power to ensure that he would make it out of here unscathed, but alas, I think I failed him on some level. He was caught up in something bigger than any of us could understand, and he did what he thought was right – he took his own life because he couldn’t bear taking out anyone else’s anymore. It’s insanity, but there’s bravery in it. A bravery I will never fully understand or possess myself, but I’ll never fault him for that. He was made of a different cloth than any of us, and you should be proud, not because he will be given a medal, but because I can truly and honestly say that he was the best person I ever knew.
I hope this cleared things up for you and that I didn't hold you up too long. My best,
Lt. Henry Crocker.