Liz and the boys on North Carolina’s Outerbanks
My War Story
by Elizabeth Aslakson
The navy canvas overhead radiated a hazy glow as the grandkids placed quarters on their grandpa’s memorial. Eric’s dad had been a small business owner in the outskirts of the Twin Cities. He loved life, never meeting a stranger, so hundreds of people from the community came to give condolences. Gathered in my mother-in-law’s kitchen, we were deciding what to do with the food and flowers when someone asked Eric about the culture in Iraq. He said his duties kept him in Saddam’s palaces, though he was going to volunteer for a trip in Northern Iraq to learn more about the country. I stood on the far corner of the room near the sink full of dishes when I heard this. Surprised, I voiced my objections. He tried to hug me while giving reassurances, but I stepped backwards out of the kitchen and towards the stairway saying I had to pack. He let me, turning back into the kitchen full of guests and his mother.
Going upstairs into his old bedroom, I lined up the suitcases on the floor. Kneeling, I organized the boys’ clothes in folded stacks, arranging them in designated sections. I realized we were leaving with more than what we came with. After pushing the piles tightly together inside the bags, there still was not enough room. I stuffed small items inside shoes and jammed socks in the crevices. Exhaust wafted in from the open window along with the explosion of a jackhammer smacking the surface of the earth. The stench of asphalt churned between the vaulted ceiling while the squall whipped my bangs into my eyes. I stood, rubbing the lines in my knees before going to the window facing north. The draft blew the old pane down faster than planned. It slammed. I waited for someone to yell up to me but only heard steady talking coming from downstairs. Straining to listen, Eric sounded eager describing the Middle East culture to his relatives. “How could he choose to leave the Green Zone after all this?” I seethed. I shoved the remaining items into the luggage before closing them. In a heaving motion, I plopped my bottom on the lid of each bag, pulling the zippers tight and tying string around the clasped handles to make sure nothing would fall out.
It was Monday. Slivers of light pierced the opaque horizon as we made our way back to North Carolina. We needed two vehicles to get us to the airport. Huddled in Vikings sweatshirts, the kids were quiet through the drive and during the flight. Eric had to return to the desert at once. The flight attendant had offered breakfast, yet all I could stomach was black coffee. A gnawing sensation filled the void in my stomach. After landing from one flight, we prepared for him to take another. There was no time left. The air was oppressive in Fayetteville and the wind pulled my ponytail loose as I climbed out of the truck. Making no promises, he cupped my face with his hands, kissing the top of my forehead. My hair entangled his fingers and lashed his arms as he pulled away. I watched him throw his bags over his shoulder as he walked towards the tarmac. Tears welled. I took a moment, so the boys would not see my face. The lady who had pulled up behind me did see. She must have been a military spouse, because she was fighting back tears as well. Determined to get back to normalcy, I straightened my hair and skirt before pulling myself into the truck. The kids looked at me with wide eyes. No one said anything. I told them, “Let’s go see how Sasha is doing.”
Our favorite dog was waiting for us. Anna had taken diligent care of him. I opened the fridge to see she had also bought milk and butter. I grabbed a can of Diet Coke from a case on the bottom shelf. Danny piped, “Mom, you’re addicted to pop.” I laughed and agreed as I scanned the kitchen for the pile of mail. Fresh bread from the European bakery was on the table along with strawberries in my favorite Polish pottery—the one with blue and white polka-a-dots. The fragrance carried throughout the house. I heard pounding as the two youngest boys chased Danny into the backyard, along with Sasha. I followed, situating the pool under the sycamore.
Setting up lawn chairs and filling the pool, I heard little voices calling to us. Two towheaded girls struggled to open our garden gate, but their mother, Natalie, pushed it the rest of the way. With a big grin and her straight, bobbed hair swinging, she carried in a massive bowl of watermelon. Though she was from Utah and brand new to military life, we had hit it off. We shared hikes and mountain biking excursions together, always taking our kids along. She told me how she watered my garden every day, when we noticed commotion on the other side of the fence. There was laughing so I turned to see black curls bouncing against green scrubs. Sliding through my front gate, Sherry presented cupcakes heaped with chocolate and gummy worms on top. Her little boy charged into our yard as she placed the treats on the picnic table. She had just moved from Louisiana to work as a nurse and her infectious charm complemented our impromptu circle. And as I wound up the umbrella, Anna opened the back gate. Her daughter hid behind her as she carried a tray of cool drinks and delicate German treats for us moms. Placing the arrangement alongside the watermelon and decadent cupcakes, she peered from behind her wavy dark hair and greeted me with a melancholy hug.
Watching the sinking tangerine splash brilliant renderings of red across the western skyline, we had been talking for hours. Our conversation had gone from travel adventures with kids, to swapping stories about dogs and discussing life in a military town. We talked about the kids starting school in a few weeks as crickets and treefrogs began chirping. The girls clambered to the top of the swing set, singing and whispering to each other, while the boys laid flat in the mud, staring at bubbles that popped up between grasses. Realizing it was time to start dinner, we pulled ourselves out of our sweaty seats and peeled the fabric away from our legs to begin the clean-up process. Helping me empty the pool, everyone took pails of water to spread over the garden and the dry patches speckled across the lawn. Anna declared, “Let’s do this again tomorrow!” I nodded in agreement, saying we should enjoy the summer while it lasted. Anna and Sherry agreed and insisted on bringing a picnic. The boys cheered when Natalie promised a new game. The hollowness in my stomach receded in the moment as I watched the kids chase each other around the tree, reaching for the first fireflies of the night lighting up the yard in the waning summer hours.
Later that evening, I was scraping the leftover morsels from the kid’s mac and cheese while thinking of my mother-in-law in her kitchen the day before we left. The beach towels draped over the kitchen chairs emitted the day’s warmth, a combination of the crisp sun rays, cocoa butter, and watermelon. Reaching across the basin to shut the light, pastel suds from the dish soap rose in the light breeze caused by the motion of my arm. They followed me out of the room, bursting as I locked the back-porch door. Walking across the kitchen floor again, trails of sand crunched between my toes. Where was he now? I made my way to the front hall to double check the front door. Sasha blocked the bottom landing, curled in a fluffy black and white ball. I stepped over him to go upstairs, making sure the boys had stayed in their own beds.
I could tell they were sleeping before entering the room. Bending over to kiss the tops of their apple scented curls, I ran my fingers through their hair to feel the silky texture. Between the soft tufts, the sticky granules that had wedged between strands slid up under my nails. I let out a sigh. I had washed and rinsed their hair three times. Closing their bedroom door, I felt a twinge in the back of my throat. I tried to clear it while walking into the master bath. I opened the medicine cabinet to get a dose of a children’s cold medicine for myself. It seemed like I had a perpetual cold, but then I thought it could be allergies. Either way, I could never sleep. Before climbing into bed, I propped the oversized down pillows on the empty side. Fifteen weeks and five more days. That was the scheduled countdown for now. Lying on my back I watched flashes of heat lighting shoot through the windows, zigzagging across the dark bedroom for hours.
It was a Monday and the kids were back in school. I looked forward to hitting the trails on post with Sam’s preschool starting. I had only one kid at home, so running would now be easier. Tougher runs could help me sleep better at night, plus I wanted to be in better shape when Eric got home. There was only two months left. I woke the boys and went downstairs to make ham sandwiches with fresh brötchen from the bakery. It took the boys five minutes to get dressed before they pounded down the stairs in khaki shorts and green polo shirts. They poured their own breakfast of cold cereal while I made coffee and put two slices of German rye into the toaster. I was in a hurry making sure bookbags were ready when I smelled something burning. Somehow the setting on the toaster was set too high and was cooking the bread longer than I had meant. I popped it up. The crust was black. I buttered it anyway. Filling my mug to the brim, I grabbed the burnt toast in a paper towel and set them both inside the truck. I went back inside to get the boys and their gear loaded up and headed to St. Patrick’s.
The drive to school was about twenty minutes towards the direction of post. This was plenty of time to eat my charcoal breakfast at the traffic lights. It was a crunchy arid snack, but the smooth European butter made it edible. The strong coffee with steamed milk helped wash it down. Showing up at the school just in time, I stopped at the front doors to let Danny and Sam hop out. Grabbing their camouflaged backpacks, they each gave Joey a gentle nuggie while he remained strapped in the back seat. He did not object. Despite the groggy and rushed start to the day the older boys seemed happy as they walked up to a group of friends standing in the vestibule. Driving towards the All-American Freeway, I adjusted my rearview mirror to catch a final glance of the school and saw blushing cumulus drifting over the rolling hills in the distance.
I focused back to the rush-hour traffic on All-American. Driving onto base and through the check point, I went a short distance before turning left onto Gruber. The trail was southwest of Smoke Bomb Hill. After a couple blocks I turned left onto a dirt access road and parked at the entrance of the woods in front of a massive tree. The Mata Mile was a six-mile trail looping through a nature preserve on the installation. It was a fitness route set up for military training, however, no one seemed to notice me bumping a stroller up and down the hilly course. Except this one time a senior spouse had seen me on a section that passed by a neighborhood. She had later taken me aside at a coffee saying I should never run out there alone. After retying my shoes and spraying a little bug repellant on my ankles, I unloaded the jogger from the back of my truck and strapped Joey snug into the seat. I handed him goldfish and his favorite trains, Thomas and Percy, before pacing in time with the dense vapor tumbling from the tops of the Carolina Pines.
Even though the forecast had called for rain that day, I did not think it would. Despite having a drought for months, it was only a few minutes into my run when heavy drops started pelting my head. I pushed the hood over the stroller to protect Joey just as an explosion of globules plastered my shirt. The wet granules were hitting everywhere like ballistic missiles hitting the desert floor. I rounded a bend in the trail and looked up to see the murky sky between the branches of a sassafras. In the lowest branch hanging over the path was a ferret with a dark mask and tail that made him appear to be over a foot long. He was the biggest one I had even seen, and he was looking right at me. His round yellow eyes following me as I slowed my pace and crept by. As soon as I passed, I sprinted. Reaching the bottom of the hill I looked over my shoulder to see what he would do. He was still watching me, head titled to the side. The path intersected with a small creek at that point. There was a short bridge made of wooden planks, so I took it. As I crossed it, the surge of rain water emitted a fetid steam from below, releasing the spirit of some forest creature which must have passed days ago. I kept running, hoping the threat would pass. It did, but with sporadic explosions that created a soggy layer of sand that stuck to the bottom of my shoes and the wheels of the jogger. The clumps of sludge slowed me when I came to the next hill. I continued by taking chopping steps, slicing a grip into the bluff with one layer of sand replacing the next on the bottoms of my shoes. I was about to quit when I heard shouting from a distance.
I came to a stop and looked to the bottom of the trail. Three men in civilian clothing with long hair and beards were at the crossroads. They were Special Forces soldiers heading towards the longer loop. Were they yelling at me? I strained to comprehend what they were shouting. They started clapping. I realized they were cheering me on, telling me not to give up and to keep pushing. I did keep pushing. But, I did not want to. Didn’t they know how hard this was? Didn’t they realize how tough it was to push this stroller alone on this hill? I picked up the pace as they cheered and continued their run in the opposite direction below.
By the time I reached the parking lot the blistering sun had fought off the threat of another downpour. The swamp air and sand plastered everything. When I closed my mouth, my teeth crunched on musty grit, and something else tasting like goldfish. I loaded Joey into the truck, kicking sand off the stroller tires. After putting everything else in the trunk, I slide off my shoes, smacking them repeatedly against the vast tree I parked in front. I did not recognize what type it was, but chunks of bark flew off as the soles of my sneakers nicked its trunk. Driving back, I saw Joey out of the corner of my eye making his miniature trains summersault while singing the theme to Thomas the Tank Engine. Although the pangs in my sides had come back, I joined him in the nursery song, just like my mother used to when me and my sisters were little. Brushing more sand off my knees as I left post, I thought of that sea star again, washed up on the shore and waiting for the tide to carry it into the ocean so that it could survive.
Those last few weeks felt like being stuck in the doldrums, but Eric was finally home. His Airborne unit redeployed at Thanksgiving, close to Danny’s birthday. It was late Sunday morning when I had finally woken. I laid there, enjoying not having the responsibility to get up when I started thinking about the night he got back. The unit’s scheduled arrival time had shifted several times over a couple days. The day they arrived the flight was supposed to land in the early evening. However, at the last second, it was pushed till midnight because of an unexpected delay. We had been ready and almost out the door. Not knowing what else to do I changed the boys into pajamas and laid them down for a nap before having to get them up past their bedtime.
I woke them up at about 22:00, dressed them in fresh jeans and shirts, and sent them downstairs to watch Nickelodeon while I got ready. Going back into my bedroom I put on a pair of slim black pants, a new white t-shirt, and a leopard print cardigan. The temperature could not make up its mind. First it was chilly, and then warm and muggy. Everything felt tight. My makeup would not go on right, and my hair kept frizzing up. I put on rose-colored lipstick, but it seemed to slide off. I could not fight it any longer, so I grabbed a tissue to dab my lips, putting on my favorite gloss instead. There was no hope for my hair, deciding to put faith in the fact that if I emphasized my best feature, the shape of my mouth, it would be enough. I took a deep breath. I know he would laugh hearing me say this and remind me of the colorful language he had heard coming out of it. I chuckled thinking about it as I put on my black boots and got the kids in the truck. I got on All-American and drove towards Pope Airforce Base.
The air base was on the far end of Ft. Bragg and I was uncertain of the location of the hanger they were arriving at. I also did not trust my sense of direction in the dark, so I inched my way through the quiet streets, past motor pools and the empty barracks. My hands were sweating on the steering wheel. I had to wipe them in my pants multiple times. Once I got there it was obvious we were at the right location. All the lights in the immediate area were on and the 82nd Airborne band was playing. We got out of the truck and went inside the hanger to join the other families. It took another couple of hours. No one could sit still on the weathered metal chairs and bleachers. Kids climbed everywhere, and moms stood around talking in small groups. Once the troops arrived, nervous anticipation made it even harder to wait as they remained in formation for the band to play and the commander’s speech. The troops were finally dismissed. Children swarmed everywhere trying to find their parent. I held onto Sam and Joey and climbed to the top of the bleachers while Danny went through the crowds searching for his dad. He found him and brought him to us. Even though we had seen him that past summer, it may as well have been over a year ago. It was like meeting someone new for the first time. But later that night the awkwardness did not matter, because my once empty mattress of oversized pillows had become the family bed again.
Smiling at the memory of that evening, I rolled over wanting to stay in bed longer. The aroma of butter frying teased me out of bed and down the stairs though. I went into the living room first. The three boys were building something with Danny’s birthday Legos. It was a pirate ship. Eric had promised to take them back to the Outer Banks, so we could visit the Blackbeard’s replica ship. I had told them that we would go in the spring and invite grandma to come with us. The kids were ready, decked out with appropriate attire and handmade wooden swords at their sides. I did not disturb them, going into the kitchen instead. Remnants of a blueberry pancake tower sat near the stove. I grabbed a small one to nibble on and went to see where he was.
There was a surge and then a steady hum coming from the garage connected to the kitchen. I walked through the mudroom and peeked inside his makeshift workroom. Eric was making us a table with benches large enough to also fit a few friends. He looked up and gave me a quick grin through his auburn stubble while still sanding a board. I used to always sit on the steps and watch him work but did not feel like it then. Instead, I decided to go on a quick run. I closed the door and tossed the rest of the blueberry treat in the trash before going upstairs to throw on a pair of sweats. I put my hair in a ponytail as I stepped out on the front porch. The damp air insulated the neighborhood. There were no sounds or movements, not even from the chickadees that had made their home in the maple located in the front yard, nor a breeze through its branches. The crickets and frogs that lived in the Crepe Myrtles lining the driveway had gone into hibernation too. The singing ceased weeks ago. The street we lived on was normally quiet but there were no signs of life. No people, no cars. I looked up and noticed heavy clouds threatening, so I called to Danny that I would stay in the neighborhood. I closed the door, the moisture muffling the sound of it shutting and began to run at a brisk pace.
I was at the far end of the neighborhood complex when the deluge began. There was no outlet in the series of cul-de-sacs, so I could not take a short cut back. Within seconds, rain drenched the parched lawns, rolling off them like burnt boiling water. The ground was not able to absorb the flood as it poured into the main road, creating foaming puddles over the storm drains. I pushed strands of matted hair from my eyes. I could no longer run. It had not rained like this since the September before Eric deployed. His parents had come to visit one last time before he left. We had spent it at the Outer Banks but had to evacuate early because of Hurricane Francis. Driving home in the pouring rain, we could barely see out of the windows. The kids had started to get grumpy. Strapped inside their car seats, Sam and Joey began arguing with each other with Danny in between them. Their faces had become red as they flailed their arms and legs trying to hit one another. Danny tucked his head, covering it with his arms.
They reminded me of the hermit crabs on the marshy shores, snapping their claws with mad faces. It made me laugh, and I told them so. I reached inside the beach bag at my feet and grabbed a clean Zoo Pal plate depicting a lobster. I poked holes where the eyes were and put it up to my face, mimicking an angry sea creature. No one thought it was funny. Except Eric’s dad who then turned on the radio. Sarah Evans, “Suds in the Bucket,” came on. He started tapping his hand in time with the lyrics, “When her prince pulled up, a white pick-up truck,” and started singing with the refrain, “Plenty old enough, and you can’t stop love…” The kids stopped fighting. We were in bumper to bumper traffic for hours before making it back to Fayetteville. But for the rest of the drive the boys discovered how they could line up matchbox cars on top of the books I had brought, propped on their laps—if they sat still enough. That had been our last vacation together as a family.
I looked down at my shoes sloshing through what had become a stream. The rain had come too late. The lawns were dead, so the dark Carolina clay ran red as the pounding storm churned the surface of the neighborhood yards. The crimson tributaries poured into the road that teamed with the mad swirling sand and water. It reminded me of the beaches of Normandy from the movie, Saving Private Ryan. I looked up to see where I was going, brushing the rain from my face again. I was surprised to see the bright glow from the lights on my Suburban driving slowly in my direction. My husband inched the large utility vehicle gently along side of me. Suddenly I realized it was never him that I was angry with. He stopped. Reaching over, he nudged the door open for me. The boys’ old beach towers were covering the passenger seat of our truck. I tried to get in, but my foot slipped on the wet step and I fell back out. He extended his arm, holding onto my hand and pulling me up alongside him as the heavens opened up.
*A short version of “Mutilated Crumbs and Gummy Worms” was first published in Augusta University’s literary journal April 2019.