By John Thomas Tuft
The day began like any other day. And every other day. Put in his shift at the textile mill over in Mayodan, check on the tobacco drying in the barn, ask Momma if there’s going to be biscuits for dinner even though for all these years, she’s never disappointed once in their years of marriage. He trudges down to the shed to get a shovel because this is the day. Today he is going to plant some trees in front of the house. Pecan trees, pronounced PEE-can, for those unlucky enough to not be from the south. And as he sets his mind to the task, he tries not to think too much about that other day as the November sun keeps the chill at bay in the North Carolina foothills of the Blue Ridge.
The brick ranch style house behind him is new, built just a hand full of yards away from the four room frame home where he first brought his bride. With two boys sharing a bedroom and the baby girl sharing his and Momma’s room, a bathroom no bigger than a closet, the new house had not only been a necessity, but also a labor of love. The hundred acres of rolling fields stretching east of State Route 704 grow tobacco for cash money, because kids’ shoes don’t grow on trees and pantries don’t fill themselves. Sometimes he wishes he could give them more, but the Good Lord don’t always see fit to give us beyond our means. But maybe he could at least see his way clear to get to all our wants? Just for the day…maybe?
He digs the hole for the first tree, places it in and piles the loose dirt up around the trunk. As he measures up the placement for the next, with a stiff breeze coming up from the southwest, something from his past comes and stares into his soul, as the song says. He is nineteen again, far from this home and even farther from his homeland. Under his feet is the deck of a battleship rolling in the swells of the Pacific off the coast of Okinawa. Countless soldiers and marines have disembarked from the massive flotilla that stretches to the horizon and stormed ashore to take on the forces of the Japanese Army. Up until this moment, the worst action he had been in was the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. Constant crashing louder than any thunderstorm, smoke from constant explosions, flames, screams of men everywhere that seemed to just go on and on.
He did not have time to be scared then, just do what he was trained to do. Then on to Iwo Jima. Manning the 44mm AA guns to ward off swarming Zeros while wave after wave of young men waded toward hell. When would it end? Nobody seemed to know. One more island, thousands more lost, on to the next battle. Now steaming off Okinawa, the sky fills with the ominous black dots high up against the clouds. Check the breeches, pull the bolt, make sure there is more ammo ready to load. The planes dive, but instead of dropping bombs and strafing, they just keep on coming. Full speed, no pulling up. They are the dreaded kamikaze, the divine wind planes on missions to crash into the ships in a fiery blast of suicidal glory for the emperor.
The ships are bunched up to support the invasion expeditionary force. His face blackens with the gunpowder as every gun opens fire. Some planes level off above the water and weave in and out through the wakes of the ships looking for optimal targets. He lowers his guns and tries to track one coming in close. As he sights along its path he realizes that if he fires he will strike the next ship nearby. Sweat stings his eyes as he hesitates to pull the trigger. In a blink he sees the face of a young Japanese man, no older than himself, with a terrified stare intent on destruction flashing through his gunsight. He hesitates and a nearby explosion knocks him violently to the deck.
His buddy pulls him to his feet and wordlessly points to the bulkhead behind him. There, embedded in the structure is a large piece of shrapnel that surely would have killed him. Weeks later when they are anchored off the city of Nagasaki, he has no interest in taking a tour of its devastation and destruction. What would he learn that he does not already know about war? As he finishes telling me about all this, he points to the row of large pecan trees in front of his home. “I planted these on November 22, 1963.” He shakes his head, saddened. “The day the president was killed.” He stares off toward the Blue Ridge, still remembering the day with shock and sadness. “I’ve never pointed a gun at another human being since Okinawa,” he promises.
Take a moment for the day this November 11. A moment for Woodrow.
Words are magic and writers are wizards.