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My father came home from the war last April. Mother and I drove into town to meet him at the Kansas City train station, the warm day humming around our new Model T as we passed the newly green wheat fields and then the river and then the edges of the city. As we walked to the station, I heard the chug of a train from the tracks hidden below us. What if Father had arrived and we weren't there? After all this time.
I walked, half-running, to the brass doors of the station, pulled them open and stepped into the shadows. Standing a moment to let my eyes adjust, I pulled off my sailor hat and fanned my hot face. Hot for April.
"Annie!" Mother behind me. "You go so fast! I can't keep up with you anymore."
"We've got to be there. I want to be there when . . ."
"I know. I'm anxious to see him too. But we're early." She straightened her wide-brimmed hat and slipped her arm through mine. "Come on. Let's go find him."
We were the first ones at the platform where the troop train was to arrive, except for some men who lounged around two trucks painted with huge red crosses. The men laughed as they leaned across the hoods of the ambulances to exchange cigarettes.
Mother glanced at them and then moved to the very edge of the platform, her hands clenched, the feather on her hat trembling.
A year and a half earlier, my father had left from this same station. He had explained a little about the war to me, how it had started in 1914 and that Americans were now going to France to fight. I had known all this from school and from the talk around the dinner table for the past three years. And because Uncle Paul had already gone.
"But I'll bestationed in a hospital in New York, Annie. I won't be in any fighting. Not even near. Can you see me with a gun?" He chuckled. "So don't worry." He hugged me to him. "Everything will be all right."
I had already seen pen drawings in the newspapers of soldiers with bandaged eyes standing in aid stations, of soldiers lying on hospital beds in France. These were the men my father was now going to help. But even though I knew how much he was needed, I clung to him beside the train the day he left and begged him not to go. I was much younger then.
But now my father was coming home, I was thirteen, and I knew much more about the Great War.
By the time the train was due to arrive, we were surrounded by other wives and children, other families. Mother stood on her tiptoes to see over the crowd, gripping my shoulders for support, looking down the length of the tracks.
I looked at the people around us-women in their bright dresses and big hats, children hiding behind skirts, boys and girls my age in knickers and in middy blouses. Did any of them feel as I did, half elated, half frightened?
I looked down at my hat and tried to smooth out the brim I had crumpled into a mass of wrinkles. Frightened? Not of my father. Life hadn't been the same without him. I had missed him terribly and wanted him home with us. But . . . two years. I had changed.
A cheer. Steam rose above the heads of the crowd as the train huffed in under the high vault of the station and sighed to a stop.
The healthy men got off first, jumping off the train, running along the platform, searching faces and tumbling into embraces. Handsome, strong men who had gone off like Uncle Paul to fight in the battles we had followed on the maps, to fight because of the kings, the Russian czar and the German kaiser, all the names I had learned in the last two years.
But Uncle Paul would not be coming home, not on this train or any other. One year after he left home for France, he died. As I stood beside my mother on the train platform and watched the men coming home, I thought of the day the telegram came. It was a day in June and I was helping Grandmother make raspberry jam, so I was there to answer the door and to take the telegram from the young boy who stood on the porch and looked sorry. I thanked him and then put the envelope on the hall table.
It had come here. So it wasn't Father. Anyway, he wasn't fighting. He was a doctor. I reached out to the envelope that looked so white against the dark wood, but I didn't touch it.
"You know," I told myself. "You know. It has to be him.
As long as I just looked at the envelope, as long as I didn't open it, Uncle Paul was still alive.
"Annie, these berries won't keep. Who's at the door?" Grandmother's voice from the kitchen.
"If I throw away the telegram," I thought, "nothing would change. We could go on, happy. . ."
I reached out to the table, picked up the envelope and turned. Grandfather stood in the door.
I looked at him a moment and then said, "This came," and I handed him the envelope. And then he knew too, because in 1918 a telegram meant only one thing. Paul was dead.
Now as the soldiers came off the train and ran by me, I looked into each man's face. Maybe it had been a mistake. Maybe Uncle Paul hadn't died after all and was coming home on this train with Father.
The crowd thinned. I took a deep breath and looked at Mother. She put her arm around my shoulder. My hat wouldn't uncurl. Neither would my stomach. I hated waiting.