The boys in Minnesota

My War Story

By Elizabeth Aslakson

The boys were sleeping, and the coolest hours of the day were before sunrise, so I sat outside. Waiting for the call, I watched auburn streaks bleed into the Infantry blue, causing the air to hang like massive swabs of gauze against an eddy of crimson hues. The rise in temperature made the wisps of water droplets stream away from the low-lying fog, like a reverse waterfall moving in slow motion. Below the mist, grass sparkled as rays shone through the dense droplets, magnifying cobwebs speckled across the lawn. Near the fence was the candy apple sandbox Eric built before he left for Iraq nine months ago. It was under the shade of the single tree gracing our back yard, a sycamore, suffering from the relentless heat, its thin trunk shed year-round. Despite stress, the tattered branches held firm, offering a constant shield. It was the quintessential family tree, sustaining the imagination of any living creature entering the yard. Danny loved swinging from it. The tree’s protection was also enough to keep the boys and neighbor girls cool while they dug in the sandbox beneath its branches. It was our husky’s favorite spot to doze, even serving as the designated piñata holder for birthday parties.

Like the crack of a bat against a sorry-eyed donkey piñata, the phone rang, silencing the mourning doves. As a child scrambles to get treats before the bigger and faster kids grab it all, I lunged for the phone knowing how precarious the connection could be coming from the desert more than 6,000 miles away. Eric was calling from Baghdad, telling me he received the official Red Cross notification. He was on his way home. His dad had served in the Navy and was an atomic vet. The nuclear bomb testing during his time on a destroyer escort years ago was killing him. The doctor gave him weeks to live. Synchronizing our flights to Minnesota, Eric’s from Iraq and ours from Ft. Bragg, I asked if he wanted his uniform in case of a funeral. He uttered, no. He believed his dad would live a few more months, maybe even a year or two. I did not argue. I wished him luck on the arduous process of getting back to the U.S. saying, “I’ll see you soon,” with reserved anticipation. Going inside to prepare for a lengthy stay, I filled our suitcases to the brim. And at the last second, I packed a simple sheath dress with matching attire for the boys, before zippering the bags shut.

A few days later I woke to the pounding of jackhammers and wailing sirens. Taking a moment to get my bearings, my eyes opened to the dark paneled ceiling of my husband’s childhood bedroom. Remembering the whirlwind trip, including the flight the night before, I stretched my cramped legs. Joey had sat on my lap, all the way from Fayetteville to Eric’s hometown of Shakopee. This made me think of our trip up here three years ago. It was Sam who was a baby then and we had flown up to surprise my sister-in-law who had just had just delivered her third child. It was late Tuesday morning when I had finally woken. Eric had come into the room telling me something was happening and to come downstairs. So, I did. I went into his dad’s study where everyone huddled around the TV. Peeking over my mothers-in-law’s shoulder I saw the second plane crash into the tower. I pushed the memory away as I threw back the thick quilts, shivering in the stiff breeze coming from the window someone left open. It was quiet- too quiet. I did not hear the boys playing, so I went check on them before getting ready to go shopping.

Walking through the pristine house, the trace of handmade soap lingered in the air. The rooms were dark with shades drawn to protect the wooden floors from the sun. Making my way down the staircase near the kitchen I overheard Eric talking to his dad, who was home under hospice care. They were discussing the Army in a matter-of-fact conversation. Not wanting to interrupt, I tried sidestepping the kitchen, but his dad saw me, calling, “Good morning Lizzy. Thanks for coming to see me.” He gave me a hug before I tiptoed past the boy watching cartoons in his office and joined my mother-in-law in the basement laundry room.

We were folding clothes when Sam marched down the basement steps, pronouncing, “Why isn’t grandpa dead yet?” His innocent question halted our chores. Realizing the kids were not grappling with the situation, Eric’s family decided it was best I took them to stay at my brother-in-law’s empty bachelor’s home in the country. But I thought to myself, it was the adults who were the ones struggling. Regardless, Eric would remain to help his mother along with his brother and sister. But first, I had time to get shopping done. It was a necessary errand and for the first time in months, I was leaving without toddlers in tow. I was enjoying the reprieve, escaping into the world of fashion at the local mall. But at the same time, it seemed frivolous. Something was missing. Was it because my arms felt empty without a child? Or, was it guilt? Guilt because as I stood in the dim corner of the mall, turning a rack of trendy jewelry, I was relieved that it is not my husband’s funeral I was shopping for. I reached for a pair of dangling earrings, with little black balls reminding me of the berries Sam ate last summer. They were twinkling but understated. My stomach was a hollow pit as I thought, perfect. I purchased them but was no longer in the mood to shop. I decided to go back to my mother-in-law’s.

As I walked out to the car, it dawned on me that I had to take the initiative today. I needed to talk to my German girlfriend, Anna. Her husband, Jack, served with Eric a few years ago, the first time we were at Ft. Bragg. We had been friends since, choosing to live next door to each other after our assignment at Ft. Leavenworth. I gave her a key to our house, so she could take care of Sasha. I needed another favor though, so I took out my cell phone to call her. Suzana answered within the first ring. I explained how things were going, asking if Jack could get Eric’s Army Service Uniform assembled and send it to us Express. Eric always keeps his military gear at the ready, so I did not need to give instructions other than where it was hanging, including the location of his metals and accessories in shoe boxes on the floor beneath his uniform. It was a good thing our conversation was short because my flip top phone started to lose volume. I let the baby chew on it in a moment of desperation yesterday, distracting him while waiting in a line at the airport. I told Anna that I better go, ending, “I don’t know how I can thank you enough or ever repay you guys.”

I strained to hear her imperturbable voice state, “This is what we do for each other…Ja?” The phone’s sound was almost inaudible, so I hung up and drove back to Shakopee, stopping for a few bags of groceries in route. And after packing our suitcases again, I loaded the boys with the groceries to make the 45-minute trip to the old saw mill town of Henderson, known for its three-day festival, Sauerkraut Days. This is where my brother-in-law had built his new house.

Driving down Highway 19, I crossed the Minnesota River, turned left, and drove up a steep road reaching the top of the new neighborhood. The house was near the end of the cul-de-sac. I pulled into the short drive and got out, the boys followed close behind. We stepped inside, floor boards squeaking under our feet. I took our shoes off. Walking around to familiarize ourselves, the almost finished bachelor pad’s prominent features were a leather couch and a big screen TV. The first thing I brought in was a plastic bin full of matchbox cars my mother-in-law must have put in the back of the van at the last second. I warned the kids not to play crash on Uncle Teddy’s floor. Instead, they could play Hurricane Evacuation. This was one of their favorite games invented last summer after living close to the coast. Contrary to what it sounds like, this was a strategy game requiring time and slow movements. The boys spend hours steering cars side by side, four lanes wide, extended them in a snaking line and inching vehicles forward, one at a time away from an imaginary city with a brewing storm right off the coast.

With every passing day, I watched the boys like a hawk. There was little to do in the empty house perched on a steep bluff overlooking the Minnesota River Valley other than play Evacuation with their matchbox cars. The front yard consisted of crab grass and the back had a sharp drop. There was no mailbox either, but somehow, I received a note from one of my sisters who lived a couple hours away. I suspected she sent it to my mothers-in-law’s home with someone tracking me down and placing it on the front step. Years earlier, she had followed me to Minnesota from our hometown in Cleveland, attending the same university I did. After Eric and I married and left for our first duty station in Germany she also married a cadet, who was an Army Reservist. They were still reeling from his recent activation. The short, but traumatic tour in Bosnia had exasperated her emerging battle with depression.

The note started to read: “You should consider yourself lucky taxpayers have provided you a lavish lifestyle, commensurate with being married to a mercenary. No one would willingly continue to serve, if it wasn’t for the money.” I folded the paper, pressing the edges tight against each other and concealed it at the bottom of my suitcase filled with books. Our close relationship was faltering under the irreparable strain of deteriorating mental health. With this realization, a sinking sensation settled like a rock in the bottom of my gut. I pulled out a novel from the suitcase and escaped into a world of outlanders to the sound of sweet snoring that echoed across the sparse house.

The next day, Eric’s cousin was getting married. I made the drive back into Shakopee. The families decided it was important to celebrate life, particularly with Eric home. It was a country wedding, so the kids could come too. With large extended families on both sides of the wedding party, a group of last second arrivals were no big deal. Even with the hall overflowing with guests, we could sit as a family and eat as a family. Coincidently, it also happened to be our wedding anniversary. Eric surprised me with a little box. I opened it, finding jade stones segmented into small rectangles, linked within a silver bangle. He fastened the vintage clasp onto my wrist and after months without seeing each other, my soldier and I shared a dance. Looking out the porch ballroom windows and past Eric’s shoulder, the twilight mist hung over the grassy knolls as the cool night air forced its way through the surrounding evergreens. Closing my eyes, I put my head on Eric’s chest. Music and sugary wedding cake filled the dance room, while guilt crept back because as I opened my eyes, I saw his mom sitting near the dance floor watching us.

Later that Saturday evening, Eric and I discussed the deployment and travel arrangements to coordinate our schedules. He maintained his dad would live longer than the doctors said, especially after sharing the past couple of weeks together. Exasperated, I said nothing. He also did not feel right being home while his unit was in a combat zone. Plus, the Army only gave three weeks of emergency leave. He will fly back Wednesday. I told him I understood, explaining I would stay with the boys till school started at the end of the month. I did not say it, but knew the end was near.

In between summer storms, I spent the next couple of days playground hopping with the boys. One crisp day I took them into Shakopee to the elementary school. While the boys chased each other, jackrabbits dashed across the meadow grasses blowing in the relentless wind, like waves along the coast. It dawned on me why they had called covered wagons prairie schooners. Living near the park, my husband’s extended family had invited me to visit them that afternoon. Deciding it was time for a rest, I rounded up the kids and headed to their house for a break. As we walked, I thought of the pioneers on the frontier, wondering how they survived the brutal conditions. Reflecting on the tight knit community of military spouses, I suspected pioneer women bonded in a similar spirit, working together as they farmed the new land. Trying to make a better life for their families alongside their husbands, they spent days in isolation on the plains. Their only solace was the support from each other, just like Eric’s ancestors settling in the Sioux territory that would soon become a state. Yet, they came, and they sacrificed. A few years later, leaving their families behind, several of Eric’s great uncles signed up for the Union Army in the struggle for emancipation. They fought at Bull Run and Antietam, one of them losing his life at Gettysburg for the cause of freedom.

Lost in thought I made my way through the neighborhood built in the 1960’s, showing up at the bungalow with dirty kids in tow. Without knocking I walked in and headed straight for the bathroom to wash plump hands and faces. No one locked doors in a community where everyone knew each other. The kids noticed the home was like a museum. Antiques and artwork ordained every cranny with a kitchen capable of producing a feast any ordinary day of the year. We went into the kitchen after cleaning up. They were expecting me for coffee, but not prepared for the boys to eat with us. But, I guaranteed the kids would be on their best behavior and had an appetite for gourmet bread with nuts in it. Not only were they starving, I knew they would insist on eating what the adults were having. I sat them in alignment. Danny, Sammy, and Joey. They nibbled in silence, looking at everyone with bright eyes while we talked.

First, they pitied me. Everybody hated the Republican President, and everyone agreed the war was a complete waste. The zucchini bread seemed dry to me, and nuts, hard to swallow. I have heard this sentiment before and I knew it was meant to show empathy and support. But, it was the last thing I wanted to hear. I hated the war and I hated deployments. And deep down, I even questioned being an Army wife at times. But then they told me to convince Eric to stay home longer, insisting it was not fair and that his mom needed him. How could the Army make him go back? Or was it because he did not want to look bad to his troops?

Placing my antique cup on the thin saucer, I replied, “But there is a war and he is a soldier. He doesn’t have a choice.” There was silence. There was nothing left to say. So, I thanked them and explained I needed to get the kids on schedule with school starting in a few weeks. I gathered the boys, picking up the mutilated crumbs from under the bench where they sat. We walked back to the school playground and after buckling the kids into the van, I made the winding journey back into the countryside. I thought about that exchange while I was driving. I knew why I did not want to hear it. It was because I feared they might be right. Perhaps it was a total waste and I did not want to believe the years of sacrifice were all for nothing. And though I believe they did not realize it, I felt enfolded in the condemnation of war was an ancillary criticism of soldiers, including my own, who do not fight for any given president, but for each other. By early Wednesday morning it did not matter. Eric would not be taking that evening flight as planned. Instead, we both would fly back to North Carolina on Monday.

It was Sunday and the August rays were a blinding white. Brown meadows rolled with the ebb and flow of the wind, carrying the scent of fresh soil past the grove of pines nearby. Wearing the sheath dress and dangling earrings, I shielded my eyes as I watched the boys in their ironed baby blue shirts and shorts that revealed stained knees. Most of the graves had flat markers, but the older ones, from the first pioneers, were upright. Despite maintenance, the antique headstones were crumbling, and my boys could not resist climbing on the darkened marble slabs. The funeral was going on, but we were far enough away, so I let them play. No one cared. From across the stones, the rifle volley echoed across the river valley. The 21-gun salute signified the dead were removed from the battlefield and for the fighting to resume. Gathering the boys, I had them stand at attention while taps played. They watched their dad standing rigid in his dress uniform, lower on bended knee and hand the flag to his mother. She hunched over, rocking, sobbing, cradling the folded stars.