Today’s post is fiction. But it’s so close to my heart that I’m a bit broken by it all. But first, Hand Salute. Ready, To. Thank you to all who gave their lives that I might sit here and write in freedom. I miss you all. Every day.
The Juicy Lucy was good. Most of the time you get carbonized beef and lava for cheese, or a bunch of red goo and unmelted Velveeta wrapped in a cheap bun. Today it was done through and through and the cheese was gooey and warm. The pickle was slightly sharp and just right with the dry, peppery cole slaw. I finished the Coke while my wife worked on her chimichanga. The bar had pretty good food and the televisions didn’t annoy me as much as usual – until my tablet ran low on battery and I had to close out my copy of James Rubart’s latest, Spirit Bridge. That’s when I spotted the two dudes on the far side of the bar, playing pool in flight suits.
I’ve lived down the block from Tav on The Ave, or it’s other incarnations, for twenty years. Got a VA loan for the house just a few doors away, and not once had I seen anyone in there in a military uniform, especially not a green flight suit. Kind of strange, not really within regs during my day, but things have changed in the last few decades. I gazed at the television, Twins game in progress, and drifted out of focus a bit while I sipped my coffee and gawked around. Until I heard “Ya, Ibn Kelb!” from the pool table followed by the second flight suit’s response, “Sukin Sin.” I knew those voices – I’d gone to school with them thirty years before. But both had died in the crash of Ranger 12, January 25th, 1987. It couldn’t be Pat and Craig – but there they stood laughing and shooting pool.
My wife was engrossed in her book, never noticing me get up from the table. I walked over to the pool table and waited until Patrick had made his shot. “Hey, Joe. Good to see you again.” Not a word came to mind. Standing in front of me were two young men in their flight suits, looking like the last time I’d seen them. Craig laid down his cue and walked over to where I stood. He picked up a stool from the chalk rail area and gently guided me to a seat.
“It’s Memorial Day, Joe. We get to come back once a year and have a beer with old shipmates, kind of a heavenly liberty call. It’s a 72 hour pass. We hit the town on Friday and have to be back on duty Monday at 2100. This year we picked your bar.”
I just stared. Two old friends who’d died while I was on my own mission. I’d missed their funerals and never even got to say goodbye to Pat’s wife. I’ve never felt guilty, but I have felt that wound was never going to close. “Craig, why me? This is kind of an out of the way place, and while we were friends I didn’t think I was as close as some of the guys in the flight shop to you two. I’m honored, but – why tonight? Why here? Why …?”
Pat spoke up, “We’re the lead element. Just like back in the day we went ahead of the fleet to make certain the situation wasn’t hostile. This seems like a nice place and if it’s okay with you, we’d like to bring the rest of the boys on down.”
I found myself with a throat full of phleghm. “Sure. I’d be honored. Put it on my tab. How many are coming?”
Craig laughed. He had a nice smile – I’d forgotten that over the years. “Quite a few are at the brow. Let me answer your questions first before we give you a “souls on board” count for the record. We picked your bar and we picked tonight because you’re a prayer warrior for the guys that are still around. He hears you when you pray, and we know you remember us all the time. We wanted to be here for your ceremony on Monday. Pat tells me that you’re a fine speaker. Kind of figures, you always were racking up the gum miles. We won’t need your credit card. Nobody but you can see us, and we brought our own bartender. Name’s Michael. He’s the guy by the stage bar.”
I looked toward the stage and was aware of a magnificent radiance behind the bar. There was Saint Michael, flaming sword in its sheath. He was cleaning glasses and filling up a pitcher. He sketched a salute and went back to work.
Craig handed me a cola and the door of the bar opened up. First man through the door was a sailor in a WWI uniform. He had a row of hashmarks on his sleeve and a bosun’s insignia on his sleeve. Craig introduced me to him: “Otto, this is Joe. Joe, Otto was one of the first linguists to intercept and translate the enemy. His destroyer went down in 1918 when the German’s shelled his ship. We count him as a brother of the TAMORI. Otto, the bar’s open and Michael is running a tab for us.
Otto headed for the bar as another group of sailors came in the door. This bunch were dressed in jungle attire. Pat spoke this time, “These are the guys from CAST. A gaggle them got captured when the Phillipines fell. The Japanese weren’t very easy on them, all of them died in prison camps.”
Over the next hour group after group came through the door. One group of Marines stood out – Code Talkers. They got no mercy from the Japanese either and more than a couple had died in combat.
The largest group to come in the bar were the boys from “Turbulent Turtle.” Pat motioned them over to the pool table. “We weren’t the first to go down in the cold war, this bunch got shot down by a MIG over Latvia. They’re kind of the mentors to the rest of us during the Cold War. Nobody talked much about them until many years later.”
I sat with a stupid look on my face as hero after hero was introduced. Linguists, morse code operators, ELINT guys, and a few women. The bar was packed with people in the uniforms of many eras. Each and every one of them a brother or sister spook. There were a few there that surprised me and I asked about them when Craig had finished his game of pinball. “Oh. Yeah, well, we consider them casualties as well. Not all of the folks here got shot down or shot up. Some of them took their own lives. They were casualties as surely as if they’d stepped in front of a missile. We don’t differentiate upstairs. All of them are welcome in this liberty party.”
I got off of my stool and worked the room. I heard sea stories that I’d never even known about. I met some of the guys who were in Beirut in 83 when the barracks got blown down. I met up with old friends whom I knew had died by their own hand. I was awash in emotion with the rekindled friendships. After a time I went back to the pool table and sat down again.
Pat put his hand on my shoulder and said, “We have a surprise for you. Somebody that normally wouldn’t be here wanted to see you.”
I trembled a little and asked, “Is it my Dad?”
Pat shook his head. “No, your pops wasn’t a spook. This guy was one of us and he wanted to introduce himself. Look over toward the bar.”
There, next to Saint Michael, was another angel. He was wearing Marine Corps dress blues and a pair of headphones were slung around his neck. As he walked toward me I knew who it was – Callen Courtemanche, my cousin.
When Cal had crossed the bar he extended a hand. “I’m Cal. Nice to finally get a chance to talk to you.”
Pat looked at me with a smile on his face. “Normally you get a guardian angel when you’re born. You got one as well, Joe, but when you decided to enlist Cal asked to take his spot. Over all the years he’s been your watcher.”
Cal smiled at me. “I got the job the day you told my Dad that you were going to language school. He prayed for your safety that night and I got the job that next morning. I’ve been with you on every mission, every trip to sea, every moment since before you entered basic training.”
I remembered that night. My cousin Pete was floored when I told him I was going to be a linguist. His son, my cousin, Callen had died in Vietnam. He was the first Navy/Marine Corps linguist in our family. Until that night I never knew what Cal had been doing when he died. Pete’s prayer was answered and I’d made it through without a scratch.
A bell rang, and a Chief standing near the door announced the last launch was leaving, time to line up for departure. Cal waved goodbye as he faded from sight. One by one the Marines and Sailors set down their glasses and winked out from the bar. I said a tearful goodbye to Pat and Craig, emotion running away with me.
Pat pointed to the door and said, “Go out there, Joe, and represent us to the world. We’re only dead and gone when nobody remembers our names anymore. Let them know the sacrifice. Let them know the honor. Take your time until the next reunion, we can wait.”
With that, my two old friends faded from the bar. I got up from my stool and went back to the table where my wife was just closing her book. “Ready to go?”
Yes. I was ready to go. Ready to tell the world about the brave men and women who served our country and gave it all. And I’ll keep telling that tale until the launch comes for me as well.
Please attend a memorial service on Monday. Find a cemetery near you that honors our fallen and render a salute to those who make our liberty possible. If you’d like to join me, I’ll be with the Arch Diocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis at Resurrection Cemetery at 10 am on Monday. Semper Fidelis, cousin Callen.