From Back on Cheat
Bringing Home the Colors
Icy paused at the doorway to the living room and pressed her clenched fist tight against her forehead. In her left hand she carried Robbie’s French Horn.
“Icy?” Darrell was settled deep into his lounge chair when he looked up and saw her. “You all right?” He was running for the West Virginia state legislature and had been going over his speech to be delivered the next day at the Legion Hall.
“It’s about Robbie’s ashes.” Robbie, their son, had been lost to AIDS early that spring of 1988. “I’ve gotten so used to them being here. With us. And now they’ll be in the river.”
“That’s what he wanted.” Darrell sat up.
“I know that. But just having them here. In the house. Well, I’ll miss them.”
“He loved Cheat River. I taught him to swim at Stuart’s Park. Like my daddy taught me.” Darrell thought of the many Boy Scout hikes and all the camping he had done growing up during the Depression and World War II. There was a short cut to Cheat River and Stuart Park but a scary one. The railroad tunnel through Kelly Mountain was an early test for any boy in the area. It made the five mile hike a good mile and a half shorter. Darrell had conquered his fear and huddled into a shallow wall niche as the train roared by him when he was a Cub Scout.
He kept his adventure a secret from his parents, but friends spoke of his daring to their folks and word got back. Questioned by his dad as to the truth of the rumor, Darrell confessed. He had his butt booted good for being so foolhardy. Now, he smiled at the memory.
Darrell found out it was Bunny Atkinson who had tattled, and he challenged him to a fist fight. They each had a bloody nose by the time Mr. Holloway, the science teacher, discovered the fight back of the junior high school and separated them. Chores were assigned to each by the principal, and Darrell got his butt kicked again. Bunny and Darrell had become good friends and now, grown up and parents themselves, they golfed together.
“It’s so pretty there.” Icy spoke softly as she sat on the sofa, the horn beside her.
Darrell was taken out of his reverie by Icy’s simple statement breaking into his thoughts. “Where are you going with his horn?” The cool, gleaming metal reminded him so much of Robbie. In his last two years of high school Robbie had been first chair.
“I thought I’d polish it.”
“Today? We’ve got a lot going on.” Darrell gestured to the notes spread across his lap. He tried to block the thought of whether Robbie had disobeyed and braved the tunnel as he had done. If he did, Darrell hadn’t heard, and now he would never know.
Darrell wondered again, for maybe the umpteenth time, when did Robbie start thinking that he was attracted to other boys? Had Robbie experimented with his Boy Scout buddies? Darrell had never even dared the “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine,” when the other boys displayed themselves. The thoughts of his boyhood bothered him now as they hadn’t before Robbie died. And, too, for the first time in years, he had dreamed of the Sergeant’s drunken advances in Korea. The shocking, brutal attempt to seduce him had left a far deeper mark than he ever acknowledged. But Robbie’s death had roused that long buried, sleeping nightmare.
Icy’s voice rattled on. “It’s something of Robbie’s to be here with us after we scatter his ashes.”
“What?” His reverie had blocked whatever Icy said. Taking a deep breath he made a stab at the lost conversation. “You know, I’ll always think it was that Tom who got Robbie sick.”
“Darrell, it doesn’t matter. They’re both gone now.”
“Yeah.” Darrell felt it best to end this turn of the conversation. “Time to finish up my speech. Hank and Judy and the kids will be coming over, and I’ve got to get this ready. You know Bush will be riding Reagan’s coattails this fall.” Darrell shook his head in disbelief. “I have a tough fight on my hands.”
Icy continued her defense of Tom. “He was a nice boy. Good family and all.”
Resigned, Darrell finally addressed his true feelings. “I didn’t much care for him. I had to grit my teeth when he was here. He was just too, well, too, you know.”
“No, I don’t know. I liked him.” Icy stopped as she tried to shush the persistent conversations playing over and over in her mind. They had begun the day after Robbie’s death. Today, it was the voice of Tom’s mother, inviting Darrell and her to Oregon. “If you come west, you must stay with us. Robbie was such a gracious host when we visited in New York City last spring.” Icy pushed her fingers, hard, against her temples and murmured, “Oh, my.”
“Are you okay?” Darrell’s question revealed his concern.
Using her index finger Icy traced the big bell of the French Horn nestled in her arms. “I’m fine. Tom’s parents are both teachers. Like you. Out in Portland.”
“I know that. But why did Robbie have to bring him here?”
“They were together.”
“I could never figure out how that boy got through service.”
“Like all the other boys got through it. He was a soldier.” There was starch in her reply. After all, Icy had been defending Robbie to his dad as long as she could remember.
Darrell had used the word “neat” to describe Tom in a conversation with Robbie. “He’s a little too neat, don’t you think?”
“If you mean precise, yes, I guess he is. He’s a painter,” and Robbie had walked away before Darrell could comment further.
Darrell felt like he was walking on eggs the entire time the two of them were visiting. How could this happen to his only son. Queer? Darrell hated that word, but he also hated to even think the term homosexual. And when Robbie confided to him that he was gay, that word, too, became difficult.
“Daddy, it’s the way he was born. He’s still the same son, the little brother I’m so proud of.” Judy, backed up by Hank, tried to soften the obvious shock it had been to Darrell.
Again, Darrell’s train of thought was punctured by Icy as she rattled on. “Robbie never talked much about Vietnam. They both survived that awful mess and still died so young. Oh, Darrell.” Icy started to cry.
Darrell knew this would happen. Too often he had witnessed Icy’s habit of worrying a subject, shaking it like a dog would shake a stick. Pushing at the concern, picking at it until the only relief was in tears. It was not unexpected, and he was prepared. A bit anyway. “Hey, get over here. Come to Papa.” Darrell opened his arms to embrace Icy.
Icy carefully laid the horn on the sofa cushion. She crossed the room and snuggled into Darrell’s embrace. His touch always quieted her, even after all these years. “Oh, Darrell, why did it have to be him?”
“God’s will, honey.” It was a pat answer, and Darrell hated to use it. But what could he say? Cautiously, softly, he continued, “It’s over, Icy, done with. Okay?”
“Sometimes I think I hear him call out to me. ‘Mama, Mama,’ like when he was little.” Icy dried her eyes and stopped crying. She hadn’t told Darrell about the voices or the ghostly figures that appeared now and again to her. Last week when she stepped into his old room, bright with the afternoon sun, Robbie was sitting on the bed, a book spread across his lap. He had smiled at her, that broad, beaming smile that had been such a part of him and then, before she could say his name, he was gone. The quick vision had taken her breath away and she gasped, leaning against the door jamb for support. A book was open on the floor beside his bed and the counterpane rumpled as though someone had sat there. She remembered the sun, warm across her shoulders, as she stretched out her hand to call Robbie back into the room. Icy hadn’t told Darrell about that either.
“You got to stop thinking about what was. Life goes on, Icy.”
“Doctor Harrison said ‘Time heals everything,’ he reminded me of that. He’s such a caring man.”
“Are you gonna help me with my speech?”
“Of course. Let me hear what you’ve written. Now, imagine you’re the president delivering the State of the Union speech.”
Darrell laughed, “Icy, I’m running for State Legislature.”
“So? It’s still important. And don’t rush.”
“You gonna listen or preach?”
“Of course I’ll listen. But stand up. That gives you more energy and presence.”
“All right, all right.” Darrell stood and dropped his notebook onto the chair. “Okay, now, here goes. There were two thousand of us guys saluting that grand old lady as we sailed into New York harbor. The first division to come home from Korea, to bring back the flag, stack arms, and fold the colors until the next time. Bringing Home The Colors, that’s what’s its called.” Darrell paused, proud that he had gotten through the beginning of his speech. “So?”
“Well, Mr. Darrell Benson, I think I’m going to vote for you. That’s a lovely start, and you do it good.”
“That’s to remind folks that I’m a veteran.”
“You didn’t tell them that Life magazine put it on their cover. I pasted it in my scrapbook. I was so proud of you. We all were. The Army was trying to get all you returning soldiers home by Easter, and everyone in the country had their fingers crossed.”
“No time for all of that.”
“You flew in that Sunday morning from Washington and when you stepped off the plane I handed you Judy. She was only six weeks old.” Icy laughed, “You were so afraid you would drop her. Oh, such memories.” Icy stopped, gave a little laugh again, and leaned to kiss Darrell on the cheek. “I do go on, don’t I? I have a feeling you’re going to win. I just know it.”
“Anyway, then I have to get into the issues. The landfill and the new water plant and about the schools. A whole bunch of stuff I have on note cards. And about my volunteering instead of waiting to be drafted. Just like I’m stepping up now to represent folks in Charleston.”
Icy laid out the cards on a small table in front of Darrell. They studied them, briefly, and Icy switched two of them. “I think talking about your years as a teacher works better at the closing. Don’t you?”
“Maybe, let me see.” Darrell perused the cards, touching them one at a time as he silently pondered her suggestion. Then, remembering, he blurted, “Oh, did I tell you they’ve gotten three Veterans to be on the stand with me? One each from the Army, Navy and Marines. How about that?”
“You should get all the veterans’ votes.”
“I’ll wear my Army cap, but they’ll be in full dress uniform.”
“I don’t think your friend, your opponent, Mr. Miles Callison, served, did he?” Icy had emphasized “opponent.”
“He had a medical exemption. But Miles has the money and the coal interest on his side.”
“You got lots of teachers. And veterans. They all know you from the Legion Hall.”
Darrell pictured the Legion Hall and thought of the many meetings and social gatherings over the years. In some ways, the Legion Hall was the center of life for the town, certainly for the men and woman who were veterans. When he joined after his discharge in 1954, the oldest members had served in World War I.
One of them, John Barton, an older friend of his father, had been an early hero to him when he was growing up. John was an old man when Darrell was a boy, and many times he had listened to the stories of the trench warfare of World War I. John was a teller at the bank and vacationed every year with Mason Whitehead, the county clerk. John lived down the road and Darrell would see him limp off to the liquor store every Friday afternoon after the bank closed. With his little wicker basket hanging from his arm, he would pick up two bottles of wine. Always two, never more. Once, Darrell heard his dad remark to his mother, “That’s the joy kick for the boy’s weekend.” When Darrell had asked what that meant, he was scolded by his father who said, “His wine and who he shares it with is his business. You pay him respect. He was wounded in France.” Of course, Darrell had heard the whispers about the two old bachelors and their vacation together every summer at Ocean City, Maryland. John lived with his mother until she passed on and Mason lived in the old family farmhouse at the edge of town. But it was an open secret that John was often seen early mornings making his way from Mason’s house into the bank for the day’s work.
In response to neighbors questioning his early morning walk into town, John would say “We gardened late last night so I stayed over.” A simple, direct statement which never changed over the years.
Now, Darrell realized that their relationship probably had been just what folks speculated. Yet no one bothered them, and they were both deacons in the Presbyterian Church.
Darrell wondered if Robbie and Tom would have been like the two old bachelors if they had lived? He was jolted back to the present by the sudden appearance of their daughter, Judy.
Judy burst into the house, shouting, her voice shrill, “Daddy, Daddy, someone painted the garage. Red paint all over the side.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Paint, Daddy. Big letters in red on the garage.”
Hank, Judy’s husband, angrily stepped into the living room. “I guess you haven’t been outside this morning. It must have been done last night.”
“Paint? On the garage?” Darrell dropped his notes and hurried out the door with Hank close behind.
Icy, confused, asked, “What? Someone painted our garage?”
“No, Mama. Just big letters on the side facing the road.”
“Let me see.” Icy pushed past Judy and followed the men out of the house.
Icy, supported by Judy, came back into the house first. They were soon followed by Darrell and Hank.
Quietly, Icy asked, “Why would someone do that? Those big letters smeared all over the side of our garage.”
Darrell cursed, “Damn, damn damn. You can see where they got out of the car ‘cause there’s paint dribbled all across the grass.”
Hank’s anger matched Darrell’s as he blurted, “It’s the damn Republicans. Mike Callison’s men. A sneaky, cheap trick! I’ve never seen anything like this before. Ever!”
“Why AIDS do you think?” Darrell looked around helplessly, truly baffled.
“Oh, Daddy. It’s about Robbie.”
“We said pneumonia in the newspaper. That’s what took him. The doctor even wrote that on the death certificate.”
“Yes, Daddy,” Judy explained. “Pneumonia brought about by AIDS.”
“People know about Robbie? I mean, no one’s said anything like that to me.”
“Oh, Daddy, of course they haven’t. And no one would. But everyone knew about Robbie. Have known for years.”
Carefully, Hank said, “I guess everyone knew Robbie was gay and that he died far too young. And, Darrell, you’re running for State Legislature. Dirty tricks are dirty tricks. As they say, ‘all’s fair in love and war and politics’.”
The words “love and war” hit Darrell like he’d been punched in the stomach. He got a little sick every time he remembered his one sexual encounter with a man. It was his first week on the front line in Korea, and he had been standing guard duty when the First Sergeant of the company suddenly appeared out of the darkness. O’Reilly was a World War II hero who had been decorated by Eisenhower for parachuting into France before D-Day. O’Reilly was tough, middle aged, ruggedly handsome, and ran the Headquarters Company with a tight, iron fist. Darrell was totally unprepared when the sergeant slammed him against the sandbagged bunker with such force Darrell’s helmet fell off. The sergeant had slapped him across the face, grabbed his throat with both hands and hissed, “One word and you’re court-martialed. My word against yours.” The sergeant whispered, his whiskey breath overpowering as his mouth pressed close to Darrell’s ear, “Say one word and you better head for North Korea ‘cause I’ll testify you’re a fag.” Darrell felt his fly roughly pulled open and the hot mouth of the sergeant quickly slobbering over him. He had been so surprised, so frightened at the sergeant’s assault, that sex was beyond him.
The sergeant had avoided Darrell after that night and rotated back to the states the week after the war ended in July. Troops in the Company compared notes and found that several of them had been raped by the sergeant. Not one of the young men reported their encounter to the company commander, and it was known that some had welcomed the sexual release the sergeant offered. He remembered guys talking of several regulars from the motor pool. This had been a shocking revelation to Darrell, and he never spoke of it other than to buddies in his company. Once he found out about Robbie’s sexuality, the sergeant had twice appeared in Darrell’s dreams. What haunted him was the mental picture now and again of Robbie with some young man. Finally, Darrell had talked with Doctor Harrison who had suggested therapy. That helped but Darrell never told Icy. Since Robbie’s death, the dream had happened once again. He had awakened, sweaty and aroused, and the arousal was even more alarming now for in his dream the sergeant looked like Robbie’s friend, Tom.
“Folks burned those little boys’ house down in Florida.” Hank’s voice broke Darrell’s reverie.
“What?” Darrell brushed his hand across his brow, in an effort to erase the Sergeant’s image.
Hank, always patient, explained. “Darrell, down in Florida, neighbors burned the house of those three brothers who have AIDS. The little boys got it through transfusions.”
“How do you know that?” Darrell’s words tumbled out as he tried to blank the sergeant from his thoughts.
“Susan, my cousin, lives in Sarasota about forty miles away. The brothers are hemophiliacs. The school board said they could attend school and folks burned the house. It’s been in the news.”
“Miles Callison wouldn’t sign off on something like this. He’s a politician but he’s a good man. Of course, there are folks with vested interests, and their money is riding with whoever wins. But burn a house, that wouldn’t happen here.”
“Daddy, Annie came home from a sleepover last week crying about AIDS. She said the girls asked her if she had it because of her Uncle Robbie. I tired to reassure her and explained that the illness wasn’t passed by touching or drinking after someone.”
“When I came home that evening, I told her the same thing. Obviously, folks are talking. Even little kids like Annie.”
Darrell looked at Icy and Judy and finally back at Hank. “Annie’s only a little girl. She shouldn’t have to think about things like AIDS.”
“Amen to that.” Hank quickly added, “Dealing with her Uncle Robbie’s death is more than enough for a ten year old.”
“You know, Hank, I tried to persuade Robbie to wait and go to Morgantown, but he enlisted right after graduating high school. He said, ‘No, Dad. I want to help. You volunteered against your dad’s wishes.’ Robbie had laughed. ‘Why don’t we make volunteering a family tradition?’”
“I didn’t know that, Darrell. I do know I’m damn proud of my brother-in-law. Here he was, sick as all hell, but still helping others and still protesting.”
Icy took Judy’s hand. “We taught him and Judy to help others when they could.”
Judy turned to Hank, “Are you going to tell them or shall I?”
“Go ahead. You tell them. He gave them to you.”
“Tell us what?” Darrell, still lost in the unwelcome recall of the incident in Korea, heard Judy’s voice as though coming from far away.
“Hank, make sure I get it right. Mom, Daddy, you know we were in New York for Hank’s business meeting this past February. We didn’t realize how sick Robbie was until we saw him in the hospital.” Judy hesitated, then, softly, she went on. “He reached under his pillow and pulled out a small linen bag. He asked me to open it. There was a picture of Tom and him at the campfire. And there were his dog tags, two sets. He asked me to give them to you.”
Hank interrupted, “You forgot to tell them Tom died Christmas Eve. Tom’s parents had flown in to take both Tom and Robbie back to Oregon to recover. But, it wasn’t meant to be.”
Judy opened her purse and pulled out the dog tags. “Someday, not now, but someday, Daddy, I hope you’ll give these to Annie and Peter. They adored their Uncle Robbie.”
“Oh, my. Darrell, let me see.” Icy took a chain of the tags and carefully slipped it over her head. “I’ll wear these this afternoon. For his memorial.”
Judy started to cry, unable to continue.
Hank picked up the story. “He told us The Gay Veterans Group in New York City had been granted permission to place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Robbie said when folks saw the gay banner, some of them turned their backs. The group placed the wreath the morning of the Gay March on Washington last October. We caught a bit of it on TV watching it to see if we could spot Robbie.”
“Folks turned their back on them?” Darrell stared at Hank in disbelief.
“What gets me is that every single one of those veterans had to lie about their sexuality in order to serve.” Hank’s voice was harsh as he continued. “It’s a damn good thing I wasn’t there.”
“I don’t know what to say. Thank you, certainly, for telling me.” Darrell remembered the picture of Robbie and Tom. It had been taken on one of their hiking trips. The two of them, dressed for the woods, smiling at each other, their faces lit by a brightly burning camp fire. He had made Icy put it away, out of sight. Now, that picture flooded his vision.
“Daddy, Robbie held my hand, real tight, so tight it left a bruise.” Judy stopped, took a deep breath, and continued. “Oh, Daddy, I am so proud of him. He was helping guys write their Wills from his hospital bed.” She started to cry again.
“Shh, shh.” Hank looked at Darrell and then Icy. “I want to paint over those letters before we go. There’s paint and brushes in the garage, right?”
“Wait, Hank. Give me a minute or two.” Darrell stood slowly, a pair of the dog tags dangling in his hand. “Excuse me, I’ll be right back.” He strode to the hallway and his heavy footsteps marked his ascent of the stairs.
“He’s upset. I should go help him.” Icy started to get up.
“No, Mama.” Judy reached to stop her mother. “Give him a little time. I know this has hit him hard.”
“But, Hank, what about the kids? I have our picnic lunch all ready.”
“They’re with my mom. We’ll pick them up on the way.”
“How is Ethel? What’s her doctor say?” Icy asked.
“Her doctor told her to lay off the gin before noon, and she’d be fine.”
“What?” Shocked, Icy continued. “Ethel’s drinking with her medication? Why, she knows better than to do that.”
“Hank. Stop that.” Judy wiped her eyes with a handkerchief, pulled out a hand mirror, and began to touch up her makeup. “Mom, he’s kidding. She’s doing just fine.” Judy turned to Hank and playfully punched his nose with her powder puff. “You know, Mom worships you and believes your word is gospel.”
“Oh, Hank, you cutup. I’m happy Ethel isn’t drinking. Well, sometimes we do have a glass of wine. You know, when we meet for our needlepoint.” Icy laughed, the most relaxed she had been all morning.
Darrell slowly walked back into the living room. He wore his Army cap, the other set of Robbie’s dog tags about his neck, and carried the picture of Robbie and Tom. “I knew right where this was. I made Icy put it away. But we should have it here, with us, in the living room. You know?” He paused and sat beside Icy on the sofa. He gestured to the French Horn. “Icy, we’ll polish this up later.”
“Oh, can we? Judy, you remember, Robbie played first chair down at Morgantown.”
“I knew that, too.” Hank, grousing, went on. “Too bad the football team doesn’t play football the way that band plays music.”
Icy carefully traced the big bell of the horn. “We’ll show this to the kids this evening. Remind them about the band.”
“Maybe we can change Annie’s mind about wanting a set of drums,” Hank laughed.
“Hank, Judy,” Darrell raised his voice to gain their attention. “Thank you for giving us Robbie’s dog tags. And thank you for telling us about Arlington. It wasn’t right for folks to turn their backs. Veterans are veterans. You know, we have to explain to Annie so she’s not afraid. So she knows that her Uncle Robbie helped others, that he was a hero. That she won’t get sick.”
“Oh, Daddy, I know this is a lot to hit you with all at once. And today, of all days, when we’re going to scatter Robbie’s ashes.”
“No, it’s fine. I’m proud of him.” Darrell hesitated, then continued. “Proud of Tom, too. They both served and were honorably discharged. You know, I’ve been so worried about my speech tomorrow. But what you told me about the wreath and all, well now I know what I need to say. About all of us working together. We don’t have time to quarrel among ourselves. I want to tell them about Robbie volunteering, too. He lost the battle against AIDS, but he was helping other folks right to the end.” Darrell stopped, unable to go on.
Hank stood. “Before we leave, I’ve got to do something about that paint on the garage.”
“Oh, dear, the paint. I forgot about that.” Icy looked at Darrell for an answer.
“Wait. Wait a minute.” Darrell paused for a moment. “I’ve been thinking, folks ought to see the paint. Maybe this senseless vandalism will help people to be more understanding. You know? So, if you all say okay, let’s leave it.”
“Leave it?” Icy looked at Darrell, then at Judy. “What do you think?”
Judy nodded to Darrell, “Yes, Daddy.”
Hank knelt beside Judy and quietly whispered, “Yes. Fine with me, too.”
Darrell coughed, cleared his throat and placed his hand over Icy’s on the French Horn. After a moment, his voice firm, he said, “Then we’ll just leave it.”
Garrison Phillips is a Korean War Veteran, a graduate of WVU, and a retired actor. He has had articles and letters published in the quarterly journal of the Allegheny Regional Family History Society, The New York Native, The SAGE Newsletter, monologues in By Actors, For Actors, and short stories in Apalachee Review and Chelsea Station. He recently published Back on Cheat, Stories of West Virginia, set in the mountainous region of the Cheat River.