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Son of a Soldier
By Aiken A. Brown
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Aiken A. Brown
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA bright-eyed seven-year-old walked alongside his mother as they strolled the aisles of the crowded, outdoor market. He maintained a mischievous, snaggletooth grin as a stick of blue raspberry flavored rock candy hung from his mouth. He zigzagged between shoppers, dribbling his basketball with the precision of a future point guard.
It was a Saturday afternoon; the summertime weather was refreshingly cool, and a slight breeze, filled with the pleasant aroma of freshly cut flowers and various fresh fruits, blew through the busy streets. The market was bustling with people carrying baskets filled with colorful fruits and vegetables. A man strumming a guitar sat in front of the corner fruit stand; children passed by in the street kicking a soccer ball back and forth, laughing as they darted effortlessly through the crowd. Two elderly men, both distinguished, sharply dressed, retired, college professors, sat outside a nearby café playing chess and laughing heartily over coffee and conversation.
The moment the little boy spotted the two gentlemen, he turned to his mother and asked permission to cross the street. With only a slant of her eyes, his mother reminded him that when he addressed her, he was to do so in English. He smiled, realizing his error, and his mother smiled back at him with an amused nod. Again, he asked permission to cross the street to go to the café, and his mother sent him on his way. The little boy dribbled his basketball across the street as he bounded toward his two companions, eager to hear what new stories they had for him.
"Hurry back, Grant!" his mother called after him. "We have a lot of packing to do this afternoon!" She breathed in her own words as she practically danced down the row of fruit with a spring that had been absent from her steps for months if not years.
Grant Cohen was a quiet little boy, much more comfortable in the presence of adults than with children his own age. He had spent the past two years being home schooled by two German professors who found his inquisitive nature most remarkable. They taught him the language, culture and history of their country while taking him through daily lessons on arithmetic, philosophy and literature. Otto and Ludwig didn't believe in classrooms or textbooks, so, instead of boring their young student with lectures, they took him on frequent fieldtrips and allowed him to experience Europe firsthand. At seven years of age, Grant had an incredible command of the German language and a vast understanding of things beyond his years. He was an incredibly gifted child who genuinely enjoyed learning; he was a teacher's dream ... attentive, yet not without his own views, opinions and surprisingly well-thought-out theories. Otto and Ludwig's teaching methods were unconventional, but Grant thrived under their care, and they grew to love him. The inevitable news that Grant's father was taking him back home to the United States had hit them much harder than they had expected. In a matter of days, their young protégé would go back home to America and integrate into a classroom where Dresden is a dot on a map and studying its tragic history means looking at a picture in a history book, not going on an educational walking tour through the site of World War II's most controversial bombings. Otto and Ludwig worried that, while they had educated Grant in the most stimulating manner they knew how, they had done very little to prepare him for the classroom he would enter back home in North Carolina.
It was not at all uncommon to find Grant, after his lessons were done for the day, sitting in the vast library in Ludwig's office, mesmerized by the shelves of books that stretched from floor to ceiling. Grant loved literature, particularly, at that point in his life, the work of Ernest Hemingway. He was fascinated by stories of bull fights, boxing matches, fishing expeditions and warfare. One day, while on a train to Hannover, Grant found himself transported into the world of an American ambulance driver serving in the Italian Army during World War I. Ludwig was a tremendously talented storyteller, and he pulled no punches while discussing the fictional tales that Grant loved. While A Farewell to Arms was not necessarily intended for a seven-year-old boy, it was always Ludwig's belief that if Grant possessed enough discernment to ask certain questions about a books' content, it was his responsibility as an educator to answer them honestly. Grant was always full of questions; he wanted words defined, scenarios explained and themes analyzed. He sat on his knees there in his seat on the train listening carefully to every word that Ludwig said. Their conversation moved with ease from German back to English and back to German again. Fellow passengers found themselves intrigued by the astuteness demonstrated by the young, unassuming, fair-haired, little boy whose English was accented by a subtle, yet distinctive, German accent.
At night, Grant often sat outside at his father's feet, dribbling his basketball and listening to his father and his father's foul-mouthed comrades telling stories, which often included language that made his mother, who listened inconspicuously from the kitchen window, shudder angrily.
Nora Miller Cohen was a southern belle from a tiny Tennessee farm town, and, though she had traveled with her husband for the entirety of their twenty-six year marriage, she was unashamedly partial to the American Southland. When her husband's job had landed the newlywed couple at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, she had fallen in love with the state, and, for the simple reason that none of her five children had ever lived in her home state of Tennessee, she now proudly called North Carolina her home.
As Nora walked through the market on that Saturday afternoon that summer, she did so with a pep in her step because in less than twenty-four hours she was going to board a plane that would take her and her family back home to the Tar Heel State.
"All by yourself today, are you?" General Cohen chuckled as he snuck up behind his wife.
Nora turned quickly, smiling at the sight of her husband, now a much older, but equally intense, version of the West Point cadet she had fallen in love with so many years earlier. "Oh, Randy, you scared me," she scolded. "You know I hate it when you sneak up on me."
"Where's the knucklehead?" Randy asked as he draped his arm around his wife's shoulders.
"He's doing his morning rounds," Nora mused. She pointed. "He spotted Otto and Ludwig sitting outside the café."
From across the street, Randy watched his youngest son conversing with the two gentlemen. Grant sat on Otto's knee, and they seemed to be discussing their Chess game with passionate intensity. Randy had never particularly cared for Chess, but his son's introduction to the game had turned him into somewhat of a master strategist, and Randy reveled in thoughts of the possibilities that lie ahead of his brilliant mini-me.
"Grant really will miss this place, Randy," Nora sighed. "I'm afraid that his teachers back home might find that he speaks better German than English."
"Well, we both know that he speaks perfect English and has a rather exhaustive vocabulary to boot, but perhaps Grant would prefer to spend another year here with his tutors," Randy suggested.
"You let him speak German to you ... that's the problem, you know?" Nora said, intentionally ignoring Randy's announcement. "Do you have any idea how it makes me feel that my seven-year-old can carry on entire conversations during which I have no cotton-pickin' idea what he said? Sometimes I think you forget you were born in Massachusetts and not somewhere on this side of the world, Randy."
"But thanks to a twang like yours, we won't ever forget that you're a farm girl from Tennessee, will we little lady?" Randy replied with a roll of his eyes. During his days as a cadet, Randy had taken painstaking measures to eliminate what had once been a very thick Boston accent. For the sake of his job, in order to be taken seriously, he had acquired a sort of accent free, middle American dialect, but his wife was one hundred percent southern and proud as she could be about it.
"What is that supposed to mean?" Nora shot back. "You don't like the way I talk? Is that it? Is that why you'd rather have my son speaking some foreign language than back home picking up the twang of my people? You know, Randy, a nice southern drawl might just do that boy good."
"Oh, Lord, help me," Randy sighed as he massaged his temples. "Honey, he can park his car in Harvard Yard like my statesmen, drive his tractor down yonder to the general store like your folks, or find himself while backpacking through this foreign landscape with a cast of characters worthy of a Chaucer sequel for all I care."
"You should care about what your son is exposed to, bless his heart," Nora said angrily. "I don't approve of the vulgarity you allow to be used in front of him. I don't agree with the fact that he sees you drinking yourself into oblivion. You didn't used to drink, Randy ... not in front of me and certainly not in front of our children. You spent quality time with our other kids when they were growing up, but Grant spends way more time with those two old men than he does with his own father."
"Nora," Randy said irritably, "can we please discuss my parenting skills later? Right now I need to talk to you about a change of plans."
"I heard what you said about staying here, but I'm ignoring you," Nora nodded. "The plane leaves tomorrow, and we will be on it."
"Nora, I can't take you back to North Carolina right now," Randy shook his head, "and I think it would be best if you and Grant stayed here, so he'll have the benefit of spending time with his tutors."
Nora shook her head. "I don't believe this," she sighed, even though years as a military wife had taught her that nothing was definite until it happened. "You promised me that we could go home and spend some time together as a real family ... all of us ... together ... finally."
"Well, plans changed, Nora," Randy explained rather harshly. "Surely you can understand that is always a possibility in my line of work."
"I'm taking Grant home," Nora insisted.
"I think that Grant might do better if you stay here for now," Randy said in a tone that told Nora he had given the subject some thought. "It'll be hard enough on him if I have to leave, and that scenario is looking extremely likely. I think we should at least do him the courtesy of not ripping him out of school right now."
"He doesn't go to school here!" Nora practically yelled. "Going to school means learning to associate with other children ... picking teams on the playground ... finding a group of friends who will always save you a seat in the lunchroom ... passing notes and hoping the teacher doesn't catch you ... that's school, Randy! He spends all day long with two old men who sometimes seem to forget that he's an innocent child. And his best friend? Well, his best friend, his only friend, is that basketball he hauls around."
"There are other children he could play with, Nora," Randy argued. "There's a school he could go to, but our son's just not like other kids; I think that if you take him away from Otto and Ludwig right now, he's going to resent you. He's not used to being confined to a classroom, and that new environment, coupled with the deployment of his father, could cause him to act out. You know how stubborn that boy can be."
"I spent plenty of time taking care of our other kids while you were away, and I can take care of Grant too," Nora sighed, wishing that she could make her protest sound more believable. It wasn't that Grant was a bad child by any stretch of the imagination; it was just becoming increasingly difficult for Nora to create boundaries for a child whose age said little about his abilities. In fact, there were times like that morning when Nora found the stained, blue lips of a carefree child unimaginably refreshing. Those were indeed the moments she treasured most ... moments when she felt like she could relate to a child whom she feared was rapidly slipping away from her.
Randy said nothing as he stared across the street.
"What about Emily? What about what is best for her?" Nora shrugged. "I promised Rachel that I was coming back home to help her take care of Emily. Our granddaughter needs us."
"It's about time that Rachel learns to take on full-time responsibility for Emily," Randy fired back. "You raised the baby for the first four years of her life. We offered to sign the papers ... raise Emily as ours ... but Rachel insisted that she wanted to be her daughter's mother. She chose to keep Emily in North Carolina, and, ever since then, it has been one problem after another ... unnecessary stress put on you ... money out of my pocket that I'm not always certain is going toward Emily's needs."
"Need I remind you how our daughter got pregnant?" Nora said, almost hatefully.
"That was seven years ago, Nora!" Randy snapped. "She's not a fifteen- year-old girl anymore! Rachel is a grown-up now, and it is about time she started acting like it."
"She's only twenty-two years old, Randy," Nora sighed. "She should be finishing college, starting her life ... she didn't ask to have a six-year-old daughter!"
Randy shook his head insistently. "Ever since she had the baby, Rachel has done nothing but squander her life away. I reached out to her in every way that I knew how, and nothing seemed to motivate her to pick up the pieces and move on with her life. Now she needs to grow up; it's about time that she gets focused on what's best for her and her daughter," Randy said, his voice booming, despite the fact that Nora was trying to shush him. He shook his head angrily and lowered his voice. "And NO ... I certainly don't need any reminders of what happened to my little girl, but there has to come a time when she moves on. She's not in college; she's not trying to make anything out of her life, so the least she can do is step up and take care of Emily."
"She's never been the same since that night, Randy; you know that," Nora said tearfully. "She needs me, and, I don't care how old she is, I'll always be there for her and for Emily. I know you're disappointed in Rachel's lack of motivation, but what about Joanna? Jo graduated from law school this year, Randy, and you had to miss her graduation! Well, I'm tired of missing out on things! I raised two sons and two daughters traveling from base to base, but at least they had each other. Grant doesn't have that. He's a loner, and I worry about him."
"Nora, I have a job to do," Randy said sternly. "Grant will understand that; why can't you?"
"Your job," Nora challenged, "is to be a father to our five children."
Randy swallowed hard, taken aback by the number his wife had used. "We don't have five children anymore," he snarled, "and I think that fact alone testifies to my failures as a father. So are you happy now ... do you rest your case?"
The coldness in Randy's voice made Nora turn away, though she made no attempt to hide her tears.
Randy grimaced as he put his hand on Nora's shoulder. "Honey, I'm sorry," he sighed after a moment. "I shouldn't have said that. I know you didn't mean it that way."
Grant skipped across the street with his basketball tucked under his arm as he called out to his father. General Cohen ruffled the little boy's hair affectionately. "Speak English," he demanded. "You'll upset your mother!"
Grant handed his basketball to his mother, raised his arms, and his dad tossed him effortlessly into the air, catching him with one arm. His arm around his father's neck, Grant continued rattling off his thoughts in a quick string of German.
"Grant," Randy said too harshly, "did you hear me? Speak English when your mother is around!" His voice softened. "And, every now and then, mention sweet tea, turnip greens and cow tipping, so she'll feel at home."
"Stop it, Randy," Nora mumbled.
"How would you like to spend another year here, Soldier?" Randy inquired as he walked along the street with Grant in his arms.
Grant shrugged. "If we're not going to North Carolina, does that mean I can go on vacation with Otto and Ludwig?"
"We'll see," Randy nodded.
Excerpted from Son of a Soldier by Aiken A. Brown Copyright © 2011 by Aiken A. Brown. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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