The following is a short story for Memorial Day. I hope it serves as a reminder to thank a veteran this weekend for his or her service and to remember those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom. If you want to hear the stories of veterans in their own words, listen to the West Virginia Voices of War project.
The cicadas roared in the sky, giving out their once-every-17-years mating call. The sound was a distant memory for most people. It had been too long since the last one. But when it started back up, everyone knew exactly what it meant. A month or so of a droning, overpowering noise that would make life uncomfortable. And then things would go back to normal.
The old man sitting on the bench in the shade of the tree didn’t seem to notice the sound, however. He was lost in thought reflecting on different spring times in his life and other times the cicadas were there.
The first time he remembered the cicadas in the trees was the spring of 1965. He had volunteered for the Army, just like his dad and his uncle. They had served in World War II and he planned to follow in their footsteps. The three of them stood on the front steps of the house his father built with help from the GI Bill. The two older men told him how proud they were of him. Things were starting to heat up in southeast Asia and he was sure he was headed for Vietnam. He knew he was going to live up to the family legacy of being a warrior and a hero. It seemed like the noise never stopped the entire time he was gone.
Two years later, when he came home, things were strangely silent. The cicadas were gone and so were the handshakes and claps on the back. The streets were quiet, too. There were no parades or victory parties for a returning hero. He didn’t feel like much of a hero, anyway.
The next time he recalled the sound of the cicadas was a day like today, although it was a sadder occasion. It was 1982 and the only sound that cut through the oppressive insect drone was the bugler playing Taps and then the crack of the 21-gun salute from the US Army honor guard. The funeral ended and the men present made their way to the local bar to have a drink or four in Tom’s honor. Tom had done his best in Vietnam, but he wasn’t able to put it behind him once he got home. He struggled and lost sleep. He drank. Too much. Finally, Tom put the barrel of his gun to his temple and pulled the trigger. No one was surprised. They all knew he hadn’t really been living since he came home 10 years before.
The next time the man recalled the sound of the cicadas in the air was a Memorial Day. He had gone to the cemetery to visit the graves of buddies he lost during the war and afterward. That included Tom. His vision suddenly clouded up until he wiped the tears away. There were flags on the graves. Not just a few graves, placed there by family members, but on all of them. A small, plastic flag flapped in the gentle spring breeze from every headstone in the field, as far as he could see. He and his friends weren’t forgotten. People were proud of them, again. It took too long, but he felt the pride his dad and uncle must have felt coming home from their war.
“Grampa, are you all right?” the voice broke him out of his thoughts and brought him back to the present. It took him a moment to gather himself and see the strong young woman in front of him. She was wearing US Army fatigues like he had worn, only different. They had a different pattern on them, but they were still the uniform of a soldier.
“Yes, honey, I’m fine. Just thinking about the old days.”
The old man’s eyes focused past his granddaughter to the young girl running between the gravemarkers in the distance. She was laughing at the breeze and the sight of the flags showing their red, white and blue. His great-granddaughter. How things had changed.
“Thanks for coming out here with me,” he said.
“Of course, grampa. I know how much it means to you, but we need to get home. Grandma just sent me a text that dinner is ready and I need to finish getting my things together. I deploy back to Afghanistan tomorrow. You know the army never sleeps.”
“Have I told lately that I’m proud of you?”
“You’ve told me dozens of times, but I never get tired of hearing it. You know I’m proud of you, too, right?”
“Yes, I do, sweetheart. Okay, come on, we need to get home. The last thing I want to do is miss our Memorial Day cookout and make your grandmother mad.”
Still, the cicadas droned on.