Harlan counted again: fifty-eight years!
The numbers were bright as they flashed in his head. In all those
years he had made every trip to Wiscasset Maine but one, the time
he was in the hospital in McKees Rocks Pennsylvania for his
coronary by-pass. Fifty-eight years to celebrate a death, a
heroic death, but a death forever cold, no matter how hard they
tried to warm it up. Harlan Yeats, sitting in the middle seat of
his van, looked again at the passing landscape and recognized at
least a dozen houses along the road, a huge red maple tree yet
blocking the whole front of another house, and the same florist
still in business; at least his sign said so. Then came the
plunge down toward the center of town, the flag flapping at the
veterans' memorial at the curve in the road, where all the names
were posted, the universal truth waving its hands.
Harlan Yeats, with his grandson Seth at the wheel, had come off
the U.S. Route 1, the Blue Star Memorial Highway, about 30 miles
back, after a long hard ride of 725 miles from Pennsylvania. Seth
moved the Plymouth van gingerly through traffic building up as
they neared the center of Wiscasset. How Harlan loved his
grandson Seth, a quarterback from the Valley of Quarterbacks. The
litany of quarterback's names ran through his mind: Namath,
Unitas, Marino, Mitchell, Fleming, the great, the near great, the
poor pretenders. Seth, he was sure, would make his mark, though
he was only seventeen. And after all, he had volunteered to make
this trip, to drive his grandfather to a lonely celebration in a
small town in Maine, where his grandfather might be the last man
standing, the last man from the incredible patrol, Bert
Scrubbins's Squad, Wiscasset's own Bert Scrubbins!
The man nobody in Wiscasset knew!
A center of tiredness expanded in Harlan's body, made itself
known, pulsed at extremities, weighted his senses. The long haul
of his years was on him; it clutched at him harsh as a pair of
vise grips, tenacious, always speaking their mind. Breakfast had
been by-passed trying to save time, and growls cursed their way
in his gut like tired or spent grenades. All the imagery around
him made mention of the old squad; sights, sounds and smells, the
whole lot of them. The late afternoon sun on the vehicle's chrome
crept its silver glare heatedly into his eyes as if it came off a
rifle sight, had done so for the last thirty or forty miles. On
the near corner a youngster beat at an old washtub with a broken
baseball bat; it was not musical but it was sonorous and
strangely warlike. And the air, crisp, moving furtively on the
unmistakable aroma of fried dough, made the day seem festive when
it was not festive. All of that was outside him. And all of it
There were, however, the endless paybacks or trade-offs: inside
him, at his backside, sat a pain he swore was over fifty years in
the making. "Old is as old does," he remembered his father
saying, almost sixty years ago. "The pains and bruises you get
now, you'll know again after you're fifty years old. Like instant
recall, they'll come back with age."
A bit gruff even to himself, Harlan said in the subdued voice he
used when driving alone, or now riding as a passenger by family
mandate, "Perhaps all of this began back there, the day we met
Bert Scrubbins in Basic."
He coughed and hacked a bit and knew a few other pains that fit
him like a sweater. Once again, as if in a daily chore, he was
locked into the memories. He wondered if any of the others would
come, were able to come, or, in all the odds at work against
their long devotion, would come no more, would never be seen
again. There had been two of them last year, he was pretty sure.
Sometimes he was not sure who the other one was. It was as if
they were saints or sinners, their not belonging together being
an unsaid guarantee, a silent dictate, keeping no contact in the
year long parting, but coming on this same March day for
fifty-eight years. A promise made is a promise kept.
"Hell," he said to himself in the gruff voice, as he remembered
his comrade's name, "Karl Waggoner looked stiff as death itself
last year, the way his eyes wore that deep-well look, the way he
knew again something we all had known once and had tried to
forget, though a promise said we couldn't let that happen ...
that we were dead men. It was Mung-dung-ni coming at us again,
coming through Karl's eyes. The freeze was upon us, our rations
gone, cut off from our company, chill deep in our bones. Tocci
and Burpee and even Old Man Remnitzer had that same look
on their last visits up here to Wiscasset, the way some men get
tagged with a look or an aura or a feeling they never quite
shake. The kind you might wear for your whole life. We weren't
cowards, though we had been scared to the bottom of our souls."
Harlan shivered. It was real all over again.
Seth, at the wheel for six solid hours this day, yet still
thoughtful, said, "Tell me what happened, Gramp. Tell me again."
His eyes were in the rearview mirror, and Harlan could almost
recount the times the story had been told in the kitchen at home,
in the front room of the house with company afoot, on the porch
of an August night, the moon on the treetops, fireflies on the
wind whistling on the pond. What it really said was separation.
Harlan sorted himself into small parcels for measurement, self
revelation. Always neat, a sworn recycler of waste products, wary
of the turn of Earth into some wildly cataclysmic eruption if
kept being handled this way, he tossed his day long cigar, unlit
for more than an hour, out the window, into the gutter. He marked
it as betrayal. Over his shoulder he looked for a police car to
start tailing him, shrugged off the idea, thought of Bert again,
coming down the hill in the valley at Mung-dung-ni, the banshee
wail leaping from his lungs, the Browning automatic pumping away
at his hip the way Lee Marvin or the gymnast Burt Lancaster might
have handled it. The twelve men of the patrol surrounded,
stripped of weapons, ready to face their Maker, the Chinese
itching in their way to get their boots off, take some of their
clothes, the wind fierce, the mix of snow and sand and gravel
grit from empty bunkers whirling in their faces. The vision never
left him, the war silent around them until Bert started yelling
like he was a crazy man, the man that nobody in Wiscasset knew.
Harlan continued with his tale. "From the beginning there had
been this thing with Bert Scrubbins: nothing ever
surprised him, or fazed him. He loved the Earth and about all
that was on it; the deep woods, the trout streams born of dreams,
the place where a man hears the ready voice of God in the
underbrush and in the white water. He really said that, like
he was reading from the lectern or the podium. From the outset we
had noticed all that, but decided that Bert was not placid or
immoveable. It was more like he was ready for whatever came
along, no matter what direction it came from, no matter what form
it took. Once he said to us, Back home, in the woods, it can
go bad in a flash, in a blind second. I been there, believe me.
Best be wary and be ready for whatever comes. You don't stand up
to it, it runs you over in a damn hurry. And he had made the
following pronouncement as if a sermon was being finished: I
ain't one for getting run over. It was almost like he had
bowed to that belief, had made an oath."
"Nothing else really stood out about him, not that man. He was
slim. Not very muscular at all. Could only breathe through one
nostril, which gave a twang to his voice you'd recognize in a
noisy crowd, or a noisy bar. Said his nose had been busted up by
a bear. You'd also notice his eyes if you were around him a lot,
especially if anything was going on. And when nothing was going
on, too, when all seemed quiet. You knew he was hearing things he
paid attention to, as though something was hanging on the next
edge, something primal, mythic."
Seth's eyes found his eyes wandering a bit. "Like what, Gramp?
Something spiritual? Other worldly?"
Harlan smiled easily. This quarterback of his was a reader. That
you knew as soon as he opened his mouth.
"Once, on night maneuvers, the peepers still, the frogs too, he
heard on the air a fox pup crying like he was caught in a trap.
He went off to look and when he brought the fox back to the
company area, the captain wanted to court martial him. He made
such noise to that end. Bert dropped the fox, which quickly
scampered through the captain's legs and raced into the mess
tent. The subsequent mess in the mess tent quelled any processing
of paper reports. A truce had somehow been established between
Bert and the captain."
"The old Browning Automatic Rifle above Mung-dung-ni," Harlan
recalled and said with a sudden tremor, "began its chattering
screams just after the banshee cries swept through the Chinese
ranks. The Chinese spun at the sound, then froze in place. To a
man the dozen of us on the patrol, near prostrate, ducked deeper
in the trench as the spray from Bert's Browning slammed into
cotton padding, into soft bodies, into the twenty or twenty-five
men who had crept upon us huddled in a bunker and a trench at the
bunker entrance. All of us couldn't get inside the bunker, and we
had changed places during the night several times, getting
momentary warmth once inside. Everybody forgot who had fallen
asleep at the switch. Nobody ever said whose turn it had been
when we were suddenly under rifle points, stuck at the point of
bayonets. Oh, we had heard all the stories, of finding GIs with
their boots gone or their parkas or their gloves, the Chinese
being re-outfitted. We knew we were going to get at least
partially stripped. We also knew that a long cold walk was in
front of us. That's the kind of contemplation makes a man shiver
to the bone. And we shivered."
He looked back over his shoulder again. No police car in sight.
"It was Bert Scrubbins who prevented that long walk into what was
going to be, for sure, at least four years of captivity. It was
Bert Scrubbins who had gone off in the night to relieve his
bowels. An unbelievable ache, he said, was tearing
up his insides. Later, minutes later it seemed, after the
threat, after the capture, after the thought of being
near-stripped in the freezing cold, after the laying down of arms
with rifles pointed right in our faces, it was Bert Scrubbins who
came screaming up the other side with the Browning at his hip,
the screams terrifying, ungodly to say the least, and the bullets
shearing through the night, the surprise hanging out on the air
like a million to one shot coming home the winner. He ran right
at the clustered Chinese, did Bert Scrubbins, ran at them like a
fullback coming right up to the line of scrimmage, all bone, all
beating, all power, all a frightening, awesome sight."
Harlan's voice had a new pitch to it, a matching tone, as if it
were in concert with his memories, had risen to the occasion.
"The noise was a match for the vision of Bert. The Chinese tried
to scatter. Some, in close quarters, dropped their rifles. Some
tripped over one another. Many of them fell with the pain of
bullets not really felt yet, as if waiting for morning to make
its call. One of them fired his weapon at Bert. It was the last
shot the man ever fired. The last shot the boy ever fired, for
that's what he was, just a boy, maybe fourteen. His face was
smashed by more than one bullet as Bert aimed a burst back at
him, and then sprayed the rest of the Chinese with another burst.
Then Bert fell to his knees, that boy's single round lodged in
his chest. He managed to send one more spray into the pile of
Chinese. Their moans went out on the air. Their lives over, at an
end. The last moan was yet a cry of surprise. And that was
completed in a moment. Tanbury, as timid usually as a baby,
leaped for a weapon, jabbed a bayonet into the last sense of
"On his knees, never-surprised Bert Scrubbins made the only
docile sound any of us had ever heard from him. Don't forget
me. In the middle of death, in the middle of war, he simply
said, Don't forget me. I don't want to be forgotten. Nobody
at home knows me. Nobody in the whole town ever knew me. I spent
my whole life in the woods. He coughed. He gagged, and spit
out the last words he ever said, So, please, don't forget
me. He died before any of us could treat him, or stop the
blood. He died there on the side of a mountain ten-thousand miles
from home. He died in front of all of us he had saved."
Seth tried for a change of pace. "Who was here last year with
you, Gramp, when Grandma came?"
It didn't work. "I think there were only the two of us. Me and
Waggoner. Tocci and Burpee and Remnitzer might have passed on the
year before, I'm pretty sure. Somebody called one day, I can't
remember when, maybe the summer before, and said some of them
were gone. Now, I don't know what to expect. Who to expect, if
anybody at all. Waggoner didn't look too good last year, but he
never has looked any too good, even way back. Skinny as a rail,
he was, and no hair on his head, hell nothing even around his
pecker that you could see." The pause, the silence from the
middle seat of the van, was as big as a block of ice. It filled
the van, expanded, and touched Seth at the back of the neck. His
grandfather, he assessed, could talk without speaking.
Seth, in turn, did not want to turn around. Nor did he look in
the rear view mirror, but said, in his most confident voice, the
way he called plays in the huddle, "Well, my gramp will be the
last man standing and Bert Scrubbins probably knew that all
The van had started down hill into the center of town. Harlan
Yeats, in a series of sudden sounds, heard at the back of his
head Bert Scrubbins's banshee screams again. Then he heard the
Browning sounding like a jet engine. Then, not quite musical, but
in a demanding tone, he heard the young boy beating the old metal
tub with the broken baseball bat. The boy was all of 50 yards
behind them. But the sound was louder now than before, beating
like a martial tattoo.
Then, as quickly as Bert Scrubbins had come from out of the
Korean night darkness more than half a century ago, Wiscasset,
the little river town in Maine, the quiet town, the town that
didn't know Bert Scrubbins, came alive.
It was miraculous and noisy and bump and run! People poured out
of driveways, from between buildings, out of alleys and the two
side roads, out of parked cars and vans and trucks all along the
main road. Boys and girls and men and ladies, like the total
population. They waved their hats and their hands. Gayety filled
the air. Faces wore grins and huge smiles. Lots of kids were on
bikes. A band broke into music from a hidden place, off behind
some building. A trumpet sounded above all of it. Then another.
Clarion calls. Ahead of Harlan and his grandson, three or four
peddlers pushed their little four-wheeled carriages into sight;
balloons fluttered, little flags waved in a slight breeze, Old
Glory jacking out in a dozen sizes. The band music was also
louder, and its drums began a distinct rolling sound, the way
Assembly might sound. Harlan Yeats wanted to salute
someone. Anyone. The blood pounded in his veins.
Seth Yeats, Quarterback from the Valley of Quarterbacks all the
way back in the state of Pennsylvania, thoughtful letter writer,
thoroughly pleased that his letter to one reporter in Wiscasset
some months earlier had found a true vein, smiled inwardly. When
he looked into the rear view mirror, the old man who told stories
on the porch in the summer twilight, who shared time with
fireflies, peepers, and the frogs in the nearby swamp, who had
never forgotten his comrade, was looking him straight in the eye.
Acknowledgment, unsaid, was direct as an arrow.
Harlan Yeats was no longer the only man, the last man, who would
remember Bert Scrubbins. The dying plea of a hero would not rest
upon the shoulders of an old man. A sign began to flutter on the
front of a building down the street. Harlan Yeats could just
about make out Bert Scrubbins's name written across a large
flapping map of Wiscasset, Maine.
Part of the newspaper story that day, said, in great black
headlines, "He was one of yours. Now he's one of ours!"
by Tom Sheehan
... who is a Korean War veteran and the author of numerous
freelance stories and poems; including two mystery works,
Vigilantes East and For the Phantom Receiver;
This Rare Earth and Other Flights, a 2003 book of poems;
and An Accountable Death, serialized by
3amMagazine.com. He has also written Epic
Cures, a 2005 short story collection that was presented the
IPPY Award from Independent Publishers; and A Collection of
Friends, a 2004 memoir nominated for the PEN American Albrend
Memoir Award. His other distinctions include eight Pushcart
nominations, and a Silver Rose Award from ART
for short story excellence. His story "Brief Cases, Short Spans"
is pending publication.