By Larry Whiteley
When he came back from war over 55 years ago, he never wanted to touch another gun. He never wanted to smell gunsmoke in the air. He never wanted to see blood staining the ground again. Family and friends knew he had served in the military but never told anyone his stories. They all knew it was best not to ask. But, they were still there in his heart and mind. It was partly because of how they were treated when they came home, but mostly because he didn’t want to remember.
Sometimes though, he could still hear the sounds of bombs exploding, the whir of helicopter blades. He could still feel the ground rumble as tanks went by, and he would remember. He awoke some nights to the screaming of wounded buddies and lay there in the dark with his eyes open for hours as his wife slept peacefully beside him. He kept it all hidden from those he loved.
They had no idea he also felt really guilty because he got to come home, raise a family and have a good life. So many of his buddies did not get to go home. At times, it even bothered him that he escaped the nightmare of that place with no visible scars and no missing limbs. He was one of the lucky ones, but he didn’t see it that way. He had scars alright, but they were hidden.
No one said anything, but they probably wondered why he didn’t want to watch war movies or any movies or TV shows involving shooting and killing. He would even walk out of the room when the news came on. He didn’t want to see or hear anything about people being shot or killed.
When friends tried to get him to go deer hunting with them, he politely declined with some kind of excuse. One of his grown sons got into hunting with friends. He told his dad how much he enjoyed it and that it was not just about killing a deer. It was about all the special moments out in the woods with his kids or by himself, whether he got a deer or not. The grandkids also encouraged him to join them on a hunt.
He came up with an excuse each time they asked and declined as he had his friends. But, then one day, he saw the disappointment on his grandkid’s face and the pleading eyes of his son when they asked once again. “Okay,” he said, “Teach me what I need to know to hunt these deer.” He couldn’t believe he spoke those words, but then he saw the smiles of joy on his son and grandkids’ faces. He would do this for them.
His son loaned him one of his rifles, and they went out to sight it in. When he was handed the rifle, thoughts of all the times he held an M16 rifle crossed his mind. He took a deep breath before the first time he fired it and again had to wipe away memories going through his head. It got a little easier with each shot.
The morning of the hunt, he put on the camouflage hunting clothes his son had bought him. As his wife slept, he quietly poured a thermos full of coffee and waited for headlights to come up his driveway. He sat there and tried to concentrate on making good memories this day and not think about bad memories that for all these years had crowded his mind.
Lights shined through the window, and he went out the door into the dark. “Are you ready for this,” his son said. “You’re going to love it, papaw,” a grandchild told from the back seat. He took a deep breath, sighed and then smiled. “I will do my best,” he said. His son gave him lots of tips and told him stories of what to expect on the drive to the woods.
They pulled off the dirt road and parked. The grandkids were old enough to hunt on their own, so they wished everyone good luck and went off to their favorite treestands. The son took his dad to an enclosed blind that he felt would be safer than having him try to climb a tree with a gun and sit in a stand when he had never done that. The son didn’t know that dad had done that many times a long time ago in a place far away that he tried hard to forget.
The son wished his dad good luck and went off to his own treestand. As he sat there in the dark, the sun started peeking through the trees. The sky was a beautiful shade of orange. Birds started singing and fluttering around from limb to limb. A fox came walking through and had no idea he was there. Squirrels were digging in the dry leaves. His first thought was it sounded like the enemy advancing on his position. He dismissed that thought and enjoyed watching them.
The field he could see out the windows of the blind could have reminded him of battlefields, but it didn’t. The shots he heard in the distance could have put him on alert for advancing enemy soldiers. Instead, he hoped it was his grandkids, and they were successful.
In this particular moment, in this special place, he silently talked to God. He asked his forgiveness for not thanking him a long time ago for watching over him during the war and bringing him safely back home. He also thanked Him for creating all the beauty of nature that surrounded him that morning. He started thanking Him for his wife and family and was wiping a tear from his eye when he saw something in the field before him.
The buck had his nose down following the scent of a doe that had come through the field during the night. He remembered everything his son had told him. He raised the rifle, looked through the scope and put the deer in the cross-hairs. His heart raced as he clicked off the safety just as it had many years ago. He squeezed the trigger, gun smoke drifted through the air, and the buck dropped where it stood.
What his son hadn’t told him was that he could see Dad’s blind and the field from the treestand he sat in. The buck had walked right under the son’s stand, and he didn’t shoot. He knew Dad had been in the war even though he never talked about it. He knew that Dad needed this moment to hopefully help free him of his nightmares.
There was blood on the field that morning as the son joined his father where the buck lay. They hugged, and the tears flowed. The grandkids joined them and hugged their papaw too. They also knew their papaw had been through a war, but dad had told them not to ask him about it. They all dropped to their knees, put their hands on the buck and bowed their heads to honor it for giving its life to help a troubled man heal.
The war was over.