[The chapter that follows is number two from my historical novel, Devil’s Gut. Set in North Carolina just after the Second World War, the book traces the struggles, challenges, and dilemmas of two young men trying to escape their personal histories following WWII. Looking to recapture something lost, they find a very different world emerging from within their experiences. Observations are welcome.]
My first encounter with Dak was mostly awkward, humorous in some respects, and offered no clue to just how connected Dak and I would become. I am now married to the love of his life. There are no apologies, and I suspect he expected none to be forthcoming. We make choices, and live by those choices.
I boarded a crowded train in Raleigh in ’45, heading south for Pineland. There were only a few seats remaining, and I selected the nearest vacant seat next to an engaging fellow with reddish blond hair. The fellow attempted to write as we rode, his elbow frequently bumped my arm – he was left-handed – and the seats were not all that wide. He apologized repeatedly, and explained that he had to get this letter finished to his girlfriend, and he always found riding on the train to be conducive to his best writing.
“So you take a train ride when you need to write?”
It struck me as odd, but as I learned, Dak was perpetually on the move. I never quite determined if this state of unrest were because he had so much to do, or simply because he was afraid to stop – owing to his state of unrest. I think he felt safer as a moving target.
I looked at him as hard as he looked at me, both of us assuming a narrative for the other that would prove both accurate and inaccurate. I still wore my dress uniform from the mustering out. Dak frequently looked at my stubbed right arm, and at the medals on my chest. The cut of his clothes, bearing, and the unmistakable soft hands told me he was probably one of those college boys, reading and partying while I slogged through severe weather, and carnage. I doubted he ever broke a sweat over anything, excepting for frat-boy promiscuity. The distinctive fraternity boy appearance oozed from his body: unworried, entitled, and completely comfortable.
“Douglas Alan Kean. My friends call me Dak.” A toothy grin spread across his face as he offered his right hand in friendship. I saw his eyes glance down at my missing right hand, causing him to pause.
I reached across with my left and grabbed his before he could succumb to the embarrassing lack of a hand, and pull back.
“Francis Cummings, sir. No middle handle, just Francis Cummings. How do you do?”
“Pleasure to meet you Francis. I’m sorry- I a, -“ and he waved his right hand to cover his loss for words – not something I would come to expect from Douglas Alan Kean.
“Don’t be. Look at all the hardware decorating my chest, and it’s a good excuse for not tying my shoes.”
I laughed, and he did too. The naivete was endearing. We continued to talk and discovered we both had the same terminus: Pineland. Dak began to launch into his family history when the train stopped to take on a few passengers. One passenger, of Japanese heritage, came through the foreword door of our car, hauling a large duffle, and ambled back to the one remaining seat.
A loud husky voice barked from the front of the car.
“Keep moving! No Japs allowed in this car.”
The older Japanese man paused, his duffle in mid air, resting on the overhead rack. His eyes blinked in uncertainty.
“Did you hear me, Nip? We blasted the Japs clean off the map-“
Another voice stopped the Burley Voiced passenger in mid phrase.
“The war’s over, mister; don’t show your ignorance!”
The air in the car was immediately sucked out of the cabin. Small beads of sweat broke out on the older man’s forehead as he attempted to balance the duffle on the rack.
The burley voice stood up in the aisle, just as the conductor came through the rear door. The conductor grabbed the duffle and pushed it into the rack.
“Take your seats, please. We’re about to roll.”
“The hell we are! There will be no nasty Japs on this God-Fearing Christian car -“
I looked to Dak. He had been the one who spoke and piped up yet again.
“Let it go, mister. Sit down; and shut up!”
“Who the heck said that?”
The burley voice began walking down the aisle searching out the author of what sounded to him like a hateful response.
“Afraid to stand up and face me? Where are you; you miserable coward?”
Apparently Dak’s bravado had run its course; he sank further into his seat and starred straight ahead.
The Burley Man continued down the aisle searching for his adversary, despite the protests of the Conductor. I looked at Dak, but he never returned my gaze, and just before Burley Man reached our seats, I stood up.
“I said it, mister. Do you have a problem with that?”
“You said that? Naw, I don’t think so, pal. Unless-“
The man stopped and gave me a curious look, and then looked to Dak who did not return his gaze. The rest of the car held its collective breath. Burley reached past me to Dak as I planted my stump in his chest. He stared at the medals and my stumped right arm.
“I don’t expect this crap from a soldier – Airborne at that! Jesus, pal, you of all people should understand what I mean. What gives you the right-“
Impulse can be lightening quick and my left arm did not disappoint.
Without warning, Burley Man wobbled under the effect of my clenched fist and fell over backwards into the aisle.
“What gives me the right?” I bellowed.
I thrust the stub of my right arm in his face.
I turned around to face the older gentleman, telling him he should sit down now. He put his hands together and bowed his head before sitting.
The clicking of the train wheels on tracks, tracked the silence in the car, and Dak’s gaze never crossed the space between our seats. Discomfort in the train car was palpable. More than an hour later he turned to me.
“I never fought in the war. The Army rejected me, twice; so, I’ve been in school.”
“You were right to challenge him, pardner. Honestly, I might not have become involved if you didn’t object.”
I’m not sure what I saw in his eyes: relief, or surprise. My war-tested instincts failed me. That was more than two years ago.
Connections to other humans, even strangers, can be surprising. Dak was a total stranger to me; still, some spark of chemistry assured me immediately this man was likable, honest, and moral. Such projections are both remarkable, and dangerous, if inaccurate. Dak challenged the boorish bullying behavior of a thug, motivated by a higher impulse to defend, or protect. Lacking the physical confidence to backup that impulse, he retreated, backed off. I understood that feeling too. I knew all too well where such feelings begin. It is in this contradiction of honest emotion that my bond was forged.
Funny how those things happen.