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October 15, 1945
"Hurrah for the flag of the free.
May it wave as our standard forever.
The gem of the land and the sea,
The banner of the right-"
The Rawlings high-school band, decked out in full uniform and lined up beside the platform at the depot, played with gusto John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." A crowd of a hundred or more had gathered to greet a group of the men who had fought to keep them free. When the huge WELCOME HOME banner that stretched across the front of the depot was loosened by the wind, willing hands hurried to hold it in place.
The gigantic engine, belching smoke, whistle blasting, wheels screaming against the rails, slowly passed the station and came to a jerking halt. There was a sudden expectant quiet. The conductor stepped down from the coach and stood with his hands clasped in front of him.
When the first of the weary war veterans, a surprised Marine, came through the door, the music from the band mingled with the cheers of the crowd and the horns of the cars parked along the street. The Marine stood hesitantly before he bounded down the steps, swung the heavy duffel bag from his shoulder to the platform, and was soon surrounded by laughing and crying relatives.
At the back of the crowd, Kathleen Dolan Henry watched six more veterans alight from the train. All were greeted by loved ones. She waited anxiously for her first glimpse of Johnny Henry in more than four years. When someone waved a flag in front of her face, she hurriedly brushed it away just as a tall sailor, his white hat perched low on his forehead, a duffel bag on his shoulder, stepped down and stood hesitantly on the platform. His eyes searched the crowd. There was a sudden hush, then the band began to play the Civil War song they had practiced for a month.
"When Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah, hurrah.
We'll give him a hearty welcome then, hurrah, hurrah,
The men will cheer, the boys will shout,
The ladies, they will all turn out,
And we'll all be gay, when Johnny comes marching home."
The band stopped playing and the crowd took up the chant: Johnny, Johnny, Johnny-"
The hero of the small Oklahoma town had come home from the war.
Johnny Henry was stunned. At one time the people of this town had blamed him for bringing disgrace and death to one of their own. Now they were cheering him.
Everyone had heard how Johnny Henry, on an island in the Pacific, had lifted the blade of the bulldozer he was operating and, amid a shower of gunfire from the Japanese entrenched on the beach, had driven it straight toward an enemy machine-gun nest that was preventing his platoon from building a landing site. The powerful dozer had buried the men and their guns inside the concrete structure, permitting the large-scale landing that had secured the island.
Johnny grinned at the young girl who dashed up to take his picture, waved to acknowledge the crowd, then walked slowly toward a small group at the end of the platform. His father, Barker Fleming, his black hair streaked with gray, stood with his arms folded across his chest, his Cherokee pride preventing him from showing emotion. The lone tear that rolled from the corner of his eye was seen only by his daughter, who stood by his side.
Kathleen watched as Johnny shook hands with Barker and his young half brother, Lucas. He said something that drew a laugh from his older half sister, and he patted the younger one on the head. As proud as she was of him and thankful that he had survived the war, Kathleen couldn't force her feet to carry her to the platform and greet him with all the town looking on. Feeling vulnerable, knowing that some in the crowd were watching her, she hurried off down the street to watch the parade from the window of the Gazette office.
Beneath the brim of a brown felt hat a pair of ice-blue eyes watched Kathleen with keen interest as she watched her husband step off the train. Noting with satisfaction that she didn't go to meet him, the man, his face darkened by a week's growth of whiskers, casually moved away from the cluster of people at the depot and slowly followed her down the street.
At the war's end, two months earlier, Kathleen had been working at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Oklahoma City. The front page of the August 15, 1945, Daily Oklahoman had screamed the news.
JAPS QUIT, WAR IS OVER
TRUMAN TELLS OF COMPLETE SURRENDER.
WASHINGTON, August 14. The Second World War, history's greatest flood of death and destruction, ended Tuesday night with Japan's unconditional surrender. From the moment President Truman announced at 6 a.m., Oklahoma time, that the enemy of the Pacific had agreed to Allied terms, the world put aside for a time woeful thoughts of cost in dead and dollars and celebrated in wild frenzy. Formalities meant nothing to people freed at last of war. Tears had filled Kathleen's eyes, overflowed, and rolled down her cheeks. Brushing them away, she hurriedly scanned headlines. DISCHARGE DUE FOR 5 MILLION IN 18 MONTHS. Another headline made her smile. OKLAHOMA CITY CALMLY GOING NUTS! Johnny would be among the first to come home because of the time he had spent in the combat zone. Kathleen thought of the ranch outside of Rawlings where, for a while, she had been happier than she had ever imagined she would be and where, later, she had sunk into the depths of despair. She had thought that she could never go back there, but she knew that she must . .. one last time. Kathleen folded the newspaper carefully. This edition she would keep to show to her children someday . . . if she ever had any more. The ache that dwelled in her heart intensified at the thought of the tiny daughter she had held in her arms that night five years ago, while the cold north wind rattled the windows in the clinic and she waited for death to take her child. The war was over. Soon she would be free to leave her defense job, go back to Rawlings, tie up some loose ends, and decide what to do with the rest of her life. She was still part-owner of the Gazette. Adelaide and Paul had kept it going during the war, but they'd had to cut it from an eight-page paper down to six pages once a week. On that wondrous day when the war's end was proclaimed, Kathleen had volunteered to work an extra shift in the payroll department of Douglas Aircraft. The pay was double overtime for the day. The money would come in handy when the plant closed. Tired after the twelve-hour shift and the long bus ride into town, she had stepped down onto the Oklahoma City street thronged with shouting and cheering people. Cowbells, horns, and sirens cut the air. Hundreds of uniformed airmen from Tinker Airforce Base and sailors from the Norman Naval Base mingled with the crowd. Total strangers hugged and kissed one another. "How 'bout a hug, Red?" A young sailor threw his arm across her shoulders and embraced her briefly. "You got a man comin' home, honey?" "Thousands of them." "Bet one of 'em can hardly wait to see ya." The sailor went on to put his arm around another girl, and Kathleen stood back against a building and watched the jubilant crowd. Her eyes filled with tears, and her heart flooded with thankfulness. This celebration was something she would remember for the rest of her life. Vaugh Monroe's voice came from the loudspeaker on the corner. "When the lights come on again, all over the world, And the boys come home again, all over the world-" Kathleen stood for a short while and listened to the music. When the next song was "Does Your Heart Beat For Me," she felt a pain so severe that a lump formed in her throat. The last time she had been with Johnny before he went overseas, they had sat in a strained silence in a restaurant. Someone had put a coin in the jukebox, and she had been forced to listen to that song. Kathleen walked hurriedly on down the street to get away from the music. As she waited on the corner to catch the bus that would take her to the rooming house where she had lived since coming to the city to do her bit for the war effort, she looked around cautiously. Several times during the past weeks she had seen a man standing in the shadows near the bus stop, and she had been sure he was a man from the plant, the one who had seized every opportunity to talk to her. He had not been persistent with his attentions but had offered several times to take her home. Not many people were leaving the downtown area, and the bus when it arrived was almost empty. After she was seated, Kathleen caught her reflection in the window and wondered if she had changed much during the war years. Her hair was still the same bright red. She had tried to tame the tight curls into the popular shoulder-length pageboy style but had given up and let it hang or wrapped it in a net snood. Johnny had teased her about the color of her hair, saying that since he could always spot her in a crowd, so could a bull, so she'd better carry a head scarf when she went to the pasture. Walking up the dark street to her rooming house, Kathleen felt . . . old. In a few months she would be thirty-three. It didn't seem possible that seven years had passed since Johnny had saved her from the hijackers on that lonely Oklahoma road outside Rawlings. For a few years she had been extremely happy, then her world had fallen apart. Their baby was born with no chance to live, and Johnny's stupid feeling that his "bad blood" was responsible had dug a chasm between them. After this length of time, she doubted it ever could be bridged. Kathleen had not filed for a divorce even though Johnny had asked her to during that last meeting. As his wife she had received family allotment money sent by the government. Every penny of the money had gone to Johnny's bank in Rawlings. He would have a small nest egg to help him get started again. When he came home, Johnny would be free to make a new life for himself and with whomever he chose to share it. As for herself, she was sure that she would never be completely happy again, but she could, if she tried hard enough, find a measure of contentment in her work. She had stayed in contact with her editor at the pulp magazine where her stories were published. Now that he had moved on to work for a book publisher, he had suggested that she write a book. It was something she planned to do when her emotions were not so raw. Johnny had not expected the welcoming party and was embarrassed by it. He wished, in hindsight, that he had stayed on the train until it reached Red Rock to have avoided all this. In the back of his mind had been the hope that Kathleen would be at the station. It was stupid of him. She had probably met and fallen in love with a 4-F'er or a draft dodger while working in that defense plant in Oklahoma City. He wondered if divorce papers were waiting for him. During the ceremony at the depot, the mayor welcomed the veterans home, gave each an envelope containing gift certificates to be used at various businesses in town, then escorted them to the hayrack that had been decorated with flags and welcome-home signs. Johnny sat with the other returning veterans and waited patiently for the ordeal of being paraded through town to be over. He searched the crowd that lined the street for a head of bright red hair and chided himself for hoping that she cared enough to be here when he came home. Two months ago Johnny, with the rest of his battalion, had watched the Japanese plane with the huge green cross painted on its bottom fly over Okinawa on the way to meet with General MacArthur and surrender on the battleship Missouri; he realized then that a phase of his life had ended. The siren that in the past signaled an air raid blew triumphantly that day, announcing that the war was over. The racket was enough to raise the dead! The celebration had begun. Lying on his cot, trying to read, Johnny grimaced at the thought because there were plenty of dead on the island to raise. "Damn fools are going to shoot themselves," he muttered. The other man in the tent couldn't hear his words over the racket going on in the camp. "The war's over, Geronimo! We're goin' home!" His exuberant shout reached Johnny above the sound of the gunfire. As the only Native American in the construction battalion of Seabees attached to the 3rd Marine division, Johnny had been dubbed Geronimo. "Yeah, we're going home." Four years was a long time to have been away from home, yet he could clearly visualize the clear blue sky and the broad sweep of rolling prairies of southwestern Oklahoma. He longed to get on his horse and ride to a place where there was not another human being within miles and miles. He had discovered firsthand that war was hell. Would he ever forget the bombings on Guadalcanal while they were trying to build an airstrip for Allied planes to land? Would he forget the steaming Solomon Islands with their coconut plantations and hut villages of ebony-skinned natives, bearded, short, stocky, and superstitious? He knew that he would never forget the stench of burning flesh as flamethrowers drove the enemy out of the caves of Okinawa. "Ya know what I'm goin' to do when I get home, Geronimo?" The excited voice of Johnny's completely bald tentmate interrupted his thoughts. "I'm going to take my woman and my kid in the house, lock the door, and not come out till spring. Do you think my kid will remember me? Hell, she was only two years old when I left. It's hard to believe that she'll be startin' school." "Sure, she'll remember you, Curly," Johnny assured him. Then, "Goddammit!" he exclaimed, as a bullet tore through the top of the tent. The celebration was out of control. What a relief it was when finally a voice came over the loudspeaker. "Cease fire! Cease fire!" "It's about time," Johnny growled. "Damn officers sitting up there with their heads up their butts while the idiots shoot up the place!" He had come through the war with five battle stars for major engagements and had only a few minor shrapnel wounds to show for it. He was grateful for that. But, hell, he had no wife to go home to. If Kathleen hadn't divorced him yet, she would as soon as he reached the States. His sister, Henry Ann, had written every week and would be glad to see him, but even she didn't need him anymore. Her life was with Tom and their kids. Barker, working hard at playing the father, had sent him a package once a month. One package had contained a camera and film. He'd used it. Adelaide had sent him the Gazette each week. Sometimes the issues were a month old, but he had read every line, looking for news of Kathleen. Johnny clasped his hands under his head, stared absently at the bullet hole in the tent, and thought of what he'd do when he got home. He still had the land that he'd bought before he and Kathleen were married. As his needs had been few, every month his pay, except for five dollars, had gone back to pay on the mortgage. Keith McCabe had paid to run some cattle on his land. That money, too, had gone toward the mortgage. Considering that he had given almost five years of his life to Uncle Sam, he wasn't in too bad shape financially. After the first six months he had stopped looking for mail other than V-mails from Henry Ann and occasional letters from Adelaide and his half sister, Maria. The first Christmas he was in the Pacific Theater, he had hoped for a card from the only woman he had ever loved. He had made her a bracelet out of aluminum from a downed Japanese aircraft. Many hours of painstaking work had gone into engraving it with her name. From a Guadalcanal native he had stupidly bought her a comb made out of trochus shells, from which pearl buttons are made. Weeks dragged into months and he began to dread mail call, fully expecting one of the Dear John letters that a few of his fellow Seabees had received from wives who had found new lovers. He had packed away the bracelet and comb and concentrated strictly on trying to stay alive while he raced out of a flatboat onto an enemy-held island and while he drove the big bulldozer to clear the land or the packer that rolled the coral to make the landing strips. But, dammit to hell! No matter how hard he'd tried to forget, there was still a vacant place in his heart. Preoccupied with his thoughts and waving automatically to the crowd that lined the street, Johnny was suddenly jolted back to reality when he saw Paul and Adelaide frantically returning his wave. Behind them he could discern a slender figure standing in the window of the Gazette office. Was it Kathleen? Hell, no. If she'd been in town, she'd have been at the depot to take a few pictures and get a story for the paper. Now he wished he'd asked Barker if he had heard from her. His father and Kathleen had always been thick as thieves, and at one time he had feared that she was in love with the guy. When the truck pulling the hayrack stopped in front of the courthouse, Johnny jumped down and hoisted his duffel bag to his shoulder. Barker was waiting there. "Your sisters and I would like you to come out to the ranch for dinner. Lucas thinks that you won the war all by yourself." "Thanks, but I think I'll go on out to the Circle H. It's been a long time since I've seen it." "It's up to you. You know that you're always welcome. The car is just down the street. The kids are down at Claude's." "That old coot still fryin' hamburgers?" "He's still at it." Barker slid under the wheel of his '41 Dodge, one of the last cars made before the automobile plants shut down and converted to making war materials. "When Elena graduated from college she got a teaching job in Boston." Barker reported the news of Johnny's half sisters casually as they drove out of town. "Carla and her husband are in New York." Johnny grunted a reply, looked out the window, and watched the fence posts fly by. Barker had always driven like a bunch of wild Apaches were after him. He did that now, dust trailing behind them like a bushy red tail. Johnny considered asking about Kathleen, then thought better of it. Instead he brought up the town's main industry, a tannery that Barker owned. "How's the business doing?" "Good. We're getting summer and fall hides and keeping more of the good stuff for our own factory. The government cut down their orders when the European War ended and then almost stopped completely a few months ago. We're looking for another market." "I'm sure you'll find one." Johnny's hungry eyes roamed the flat Oklahoma plains and then lifted to the eagle that soared effortlessly in the clear blue sky. It was good to be home. He noticed along the road things that he had once taken for granted, like the occasional oak or hawthorn tree that was heavy with mistletoe. The white berry parasite was the state flower of Oklahoma. The first Christmas after he and Kathleen married, he had put a clump of mistletoe in each doorway of the house as an excuse to kiss her. Thank goodness Barker knew when to be quiet. Johnny glanced at his father's stoic profile and the hair that was broadly streaked with gray. That had been a surprise. He'd had only a little gray at the temples four years earlier. Johnny's mind stumbled back to the present. In a few days he'd buy some kind of car and go over to Red Rock and see Henry Ann and Tom. He wondered if his cousins Pete and Jude Perry had come through the war. The last he'd heard Pete was in the navy. Jude had gone to medical school, then had been thrust into the army. Grant Gifford had written that he was in the 45th Infantry out of Fort Sill. The Thunderbirds had seen heavy action at Anzio and had taken heavy casualties. God, he hoped Jude had come through. He was the best of the Perrys. Barker stopped the car in front of the small unpainted frame house but kept the motor running. After Johnny got out of the car he lifted his duffel bag from the backseat, bent over, and peered through the window. "Thanks." "Don't mention it." Johnny straightened, and the car moved away. The first thing he noticed after distance had eaten up the sound of the motor, was the quiet it left in its wake. During the years he had been away, there had always been a racket in the background, even on the boat going and coming across the Pacific. He stood still, not wanting to break the silence even with his footsteps. The small four-room house looked lonely and unloved. Grass stood a foot high in the places where Kathleen had long ago planted flowers. The old washtub he had nailed to a stump to serve as a planter was still there, but dried weeds had replaced the colorful moss rose that once filled it. He eased his duffel bag down onto the porch and walked slowly around the house. The stock pen was empty. The windmill towered like a still, silent skeleton against the blue sky. Johnny sat down on the back steps, rested his forearms on his thighs, and clasped his hands tightly together. Coming back was not as he had imagined it would be. In the jungles of Guadalcanal, New Guinea, and Bougainville he had dreamed of this place. After that first Christmas when he had not heard from Kathleen and realized that he had lost her, the desire to get back to his ranch was the force that had kept him sane during the long months of bombings and shelling. Now that he was here, what was it but one small lonely speck in all the vast universe? Johnny watched the sun sink slowly beneath the horizon before he made a move to go into the house. The craving for a drink of cold well water stirred him to his feet. He removed the key from a small pouch in his bag, unlocked and pushed open the door. Oh, Lord! It was so dearly familiar that it brought moisture to his eyes. The green overstuffed chair and couch he and Kathleen had bought a week after they married were just as he had left them. The table where the battery-powered radio had sat now held a kerosene lamp with a shiny chimney. Electricity still hadn't made its way to the Circle H. A large framed picture of a covered wagon on the trail west hung on the wall over the couch. On the opposite wall was a picture of an Indian on a tired horse. Kathleen said it was called Trail's End and, because she liked it so much, had named one of the stories she wrote for the Western Story Magazine after the painting. Johnny eased his duffel bag down to the floor and took off his sailor hat. From the peg on the wall he lifted the battered Stetson and rolled it around in his hands for a long moment before he set it on his head. It felt strange and . . . big. He returned it to the peg. In the doorway leading into the kitchen, he stood for a long while, letting his eyes take in every familiar detail. The room was spotlessly clean. The windows shiny. The blue-and-white checkered curtains were freshly ironed. On the table was a square cloth with flowers embroidered in the corners. A mason jar with a ribbon tied around the neck was filled with yellow tiger lilies and brown-eyed daisies. A note was propped against it. Johnny's fingers trembled when he picked it up. Welcome home, Johnny. I am truly thankful that you came home safe and sound. We will need to meet soon and tie up the loose ends of our lives so we can get on with whatever is ahead. I have an apartment above the Stuart Drugstore. Your dinner is on the stove. Adelaide made your favorite chocolate cake. Kathleen Johnny replaced the note carefully against the jar as if he hadn't touched it. She was in Rawlings and hadn't come to the depot to meet him, nor had she showed her face in the crowd that lined the street. You are a stupid fool, John Henry. Get her out of your mind. It is over. He went through the kitchen to stand in the doorway of the tiny room she had fixed up as a place where she could write her stories. It, too, was spotlessly clean. What caught his eye first was the table he had given her for her typewriter when she first came to Rawlings. The typewriter was gone, as was every other trace of her. He went back through the kitchen to the bedroom. The fluffy white curtains Kathleen had bought were freshly washed. The white chenille spread with a spray of blue and pink flowers in the middle covered the bed without a wrinkle. The multicolor rag rug was still at his side of the bed. Kathleen had put it there after he had complained about putting his bare feet on the cold floor. Nothing of Kathleen's remained in the room, not even their wedding picture, which had stood on the bureau. But she had been here, cleaned the house, and taken her things. Had she taken the picture? He went to the bureau and opened the top drawer. There it was, facedown, on the folded flannel shirts. She hadn't wanted it. He gazed at the smiling faces for a long while. He was wearing a dark suit, the first one he had ever owned. Kathleen's dress was blue with short puffed sleeves and a V-neckline. His wedding present, a locket in the form of a book, hung from a chain around her neck. Inside the locket, he remembered, were their faces. Kathleen had cut them out of a photo taken at a rodeo. Her hair, fluffed on top, hung to her shoulders in soft curls. Her eyes were laughing, her lips parted and smiling. He remembered how proud he was that day on a street in Vernon when they met a cowpuncher he knew who worked the rodeos, and he introduced her as his wife. The man couldn't take his eyes off her. Johnny looked at himself in the photo that had been taken the day after they married; the second happiest day of his life. He had lived two lifetimes since that day. Had he ever been that young and happy and so crazy in love that he foolishly believed he, with his trashy background, would be a fit mate for a woman like Kathleen? He looked up at his image in the mirror above the bureau. Crinkly lines fanned out from the corners of his eyes. The skin on his face stretched over his high cheekbones. He had never looked more like his ancestors who roamed the plains hundreds of years ago than he did now. His hair was still thick but shorter than when he left for the service. Some of the men in his battalion had lost their hair in the hot, humid jungle. Suddenly feeling the pressure of his lonely homecoming bearing down on him, he set the photo on the bureau and took one more glance around. His eyes were drawn to the bed where he and Kathleen had spent endless, wonderful nights making love. Did she miss the cuddling, the whispers, the slow loving kisses, and the passion they had shared? Did she have it now with someone else? The thought sent shards of pain knifing through him. Shaking his head to rid his mind of the thought, he went quickly to the back door and out of the house. Copyright (c) 2000 by Dorothy Garlock"