The Long Walk Home

By on Oct 20, 2013 in Fiction

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Medal of Honor and black horse

Lieutenant General David Hartley marched into his study to eye the Congressional Medal of Honor secured to its wall-mounted display case. He raised his service .45 to fill the room with a blast that shattered the case and smeared the medal beyond recognition.

The General lowered his revolver to step slowly toward his desk, feet crunching through the litter of glass. He sat, setting aside the still-hot weapon. Ten years ago this would have brought his wife, Suzanne, to the door, eyes wide with terror. But he’d long since lost her to breast cancer.

He’d endured it all in his long life as a professional soldier — years of molding young soldiers into fighting men, then leading them to kill or be killed through three wars, during which he’d won the highest awards and acclaim the Army could bestow. He’d stood — West Point straight — through it all. But since John’s funeral, his life had spiraled into a vortex.

He stared at the scar in the wall where the Medal had been a shrine to his honor for so many years. One day he’d entered his study to discover an empty case. John had been perched in the big leather chair behind the General’s desk, carefully laying out all of his father’s medals. The little guy, who couldn’t have been more than eight, had leaped up to stand rigidly at attention, face stricken with guilt and fear, like a soldier caught stealing a loaf of bread from the mess hall.

Stern-faced, the General had stepped around the desk to look over John’s shoulder at the many medals John had neatly spread in a pyramid on the desk top, pretty much in the correct order of their importance: Medal of Honor (Korea) at the apex, below it a row of two Silver Stars (one Korea, one Vietnam) and a Bronze (Vietnam), then the rows of lesser medals. The General’s austere lips had parted in a smile. 

“It’s all right for you to take out my medals and display them like this.” He’d laid a fatherly hand on the boy’s tensed shoulder. “Any time you want.”  The boy’s awestruck face had turned up to him. Eyes that had been filled with tears in anticipation of a horrible punishment turned to tears of joy. “But never forget,” the General had raised an admonishing finger, “that you must handle them with respect and always return them to their proper place.” Lessons of honor and respect learned at the knee of his WWI infantry colonel father, whose own march to a star had been cut short by the loss of a hand in the Battle of Amiens. 

“Yes, sir!” The boy had spoken up loud and true.

When the General was home from duty over the years, he’d often passed by the study to see his son sitting erect behind the desk, carefully rearranging the medals in their proper order. Sometimes he’d step in to say hello. The boy had always asked reverently, “Tell me again how you won the Medal of Honor.”

“It was a bitter, cold winter in a Godforsaken land,” he’d always begin. Notorious throughout the Army for his impatience, he’d always had time to indulge his son’s fascination with his father’s role in war. “General MacArthur’s orders had come down from Japan: drive north — all the way to the Chinese border — and be ready to cross at my command!”

He’d shared the elements of military strategy with his son, even when he was very young, sensing that a future commander of men had sprung from his loins to carry on the family tradition. He had been frank about the conflict between MacArthur, whom he considered the greatest of generals, and President Truman, whom he judged to be a small man whom history had thrust into a role hopelessly over his head. And as John had matured, the General had admired his son’s increasing grasp of the tactics of war. 

“I was determined my regiment would be the first to reach the Yalu, no matter what stood in our way. As soon as I received Mac’s command, I ordered my officers to get off their asses and get going!”

John’s eyes had opened with admiration, no matter how many times he’d heard the story.

“Marines were to my right and left. Before the action their commanding officers advised me to go slow, despite the orders from above. ‘Too many Chinese up the valley,’ they said. ‘Something’s up.’ But Army intelligence said they were just a bunch of rag tags that slipped over the border, despite what the Marines said.”

“And you had orders from MacArthur,” John had said each time.

“Lollygagging wouldn’t have gotten us to the Yalu, would it, son?”

“My father had his orders to attack!”

The General had nodded emphatically. “In two days we were twenty miles up the river ahead of the Marines.”

“But without them covering your flanks you couldn’t make it to the Yalu?” John always asked, as if he were hearing this story for the first time.

The General had invariably shaken his head with a sigh.

“I was out there alone when the Chinese hit us with a whole division.”

“You had to take them on all by yourself!”

“It felt like I was the only soldier MacArthur could rely on to get to the Yalu. My men fought courageously. But in the end we had no choice but to fall back — as much as I hated to. The American Army works best on the attack. But by that time the Chinese had gotten behind us, too, so we had to fight through them to get back to our lines, at the same time holding them off at our rear.”

“You lost a lot of men.” At this point the General had fallen silent to instill in his son the sting of death every commander feels at the loss of men. “But you made it!” The General would nod. “And you got the Medal of Honor for getting your regiment back.”

The General turned away from his memories to gaze out his study window at the rolling northern Virginia hunt country, dark-green trees covering the hills and knolls, light-green expanses in the fields, dotted here and there with the horses of neighboring estates along with the two splendid show geldings of his own. At his age, he no longer went over fences, but he could still pin in dressage at the best shows. By far his best horse ever was Blackie, nearly seventeen hands of powerful, gorgeous gelding. But the old guy was now too old and infirm to ride. One time a group of riders was standing by a fence, talking, when Blackie came up to push his nose into the group as if he wanted to be part of the conversation. Everyone chuckled. “Blackie’s half human,” one of them said.

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Ron Torrence has been writing for a long time. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in many publications. His work ranges from near mainstream to far-out, dreamlike pieces. He and his family live in Northern Virginia and spend summers on the shore of Lake Erie in Northwest Pennsylvania.