“People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” -attributed to George Orwell
His name is Derek Johnson and he’s a disabled, homeless drunk living in an alley that stinks of piss. He’s also a Marine and a Vietnam vet. The three punks thought it was funny, but I sure as hell didn’t. The old man was still passed out when they found him. Drunks most times get rolled for what little they’ve got, which isn’t much, or sometimes a truly sick bastard will pour gasoline on them, and think they’re doing the world a favor by torching a “warmonger” to death.
This time, they only took his prosthetic foot.
I can’t sleep. I can never sleep, well, almost never. When the insomnia monster is clawing at my brain, I walk. Who cares if it’s 2 a.m. or whenever. This time, it was just after dawn. I saw them running out of the alley, laughing like hyenas on coke and carrying something. On a hunch, I looked where they’d been and found him. He was barely conscious and cussing up a storm. I saw the stump where his foot used to be and I saw the words “Semper Fi” tattooed on his forearm. That’s all I needed to know.
“Stay here, brother. I’ll be back.” I touched his shoulder hoping he’d think it was reassuring.
“Stay here? You fuckin’ nuts? I ain’t got no foot. Where the hell would I go?”
I didn’t answer. I just turned away. If I were in his place, I’d probably have said the same thing or worse.
I found the bastards a block away in an alley that smelled a little nicer than the one where I left Derek. Six in the morning and they were already high out of their minds, still laughing like the bleeding assholes they were. They set up the foot on a street corner like it was a piece of art. The goons thought I was just one guy, and even though I’m built like a concrete bunker, they figured they could take me. They were wrong. Yeah, I’m just one guy, but I’m a Marine. I figured two tours of duty in the ‘Stan and twelve years practicing Krav Maga gave me the edge. I was right. I let them live, but they’ll be in rehab for months.
I took back Derek’s foot and said he could come over to my place to sleep it off. After that, I’d fix him some breakfast and he could clean up. Thrift stores are all closed today, but I could wash his clothes for him.
“Why you helping me?”
His two front teeth were missing, so he was kind of hard to understand, but the look on his face said it all.
“Marines have each other’s backs, brother.” I held out my hand and he took it. He probably had a better grip back in the day, but I was strong enough for both of us.
It was midafternoon by the time he got up, so breakfast was a late lunch. By then, I’d washed his clothes, what he’d been wearing plus what he had stashed in the back of the beaten up cardboard box. It used to hold a refrigerator. Now it was his home, or was. I wasn’t going to let him go back.
I hate crowds and I hate loud noises. Five years of therapy had dialed down my PTSD to a dull roar, but every Fourth of July, when the fireworks sail through the air like artillery, I still want to run and hide like a terrified beagle. I used to feel like a wolf.
In spite of all that, I pulled into a parking space at the ballpark an hour before sunset. Derek didn’t have any crutches, and I could tell the foot didn’t fit well, probably because he’d lost so much weight. It hurt him, so I let him lean on me. A twelve-year-old kid would have weighed more.
As the sun went down, they raised the flag. I swear to God if I see one son of a bitch take the knee instead of putting his hand over his heart or saluting, I’ll give him the worst beating of his worthless life.
No I won’t. That’s just how I feel, because when they disrespect the flag, they’re disrespecting men like Derek, who gave more to his country than he’d ever get back. I didn’t look around at the crowd. I don’t need that kind of temptation. Derek and I kept our eyes locked on the flag, saluting it, me a 35-year-old white Marine veteran from L.A., and him a 68-year-old African-American Marine vet from Detroit. We had more in common with each other than most people could possibly imagine. He was sort of like my Dad but older, except my Dad never made it back from the Gulf War.
There were tears streaming down his face as they played the Star Spangled Banner. I didn’t want to cry in front of everyone, but seeing Derek, I couldn’t help it. Then he leaned against me, and sitting together, he whispered, “I don’t have much time.”
“Cancer. Doc said I had maybe three or four months left.”
“What are you doing living on the street?” I almost asked him why the VA wasn’t helping, but that would probably have made him either laugh or cuss.
“No place to go. Everyone’s either dead or they won’t have me.”
“I swear to God you’re not going to die alone on the street. You’ve got a home with me for as long as you need.”
“Got no wife, kids?”
“You know how it is.”
“I do that, friend. I do know that.”
I gritted my teeth as they set off the first fireworks over our heads. Yeah, it’s pretty and all, but it still drives me nuts. I could feel Derek flinch against me, so I guess it never goes away, no matter how long it’s been.
I hate the fireworks, but it’s important for people like Derek and me to be here. I don’t know how many other vets are here with us, but I hope a lot. It’s important for folks to see that freedom isn’t just a light show in the sky, and that the price of freedom is a lot higher than where the skyrockets go.
Everybody went “ooh” and “aah” at all the neon colors and starbursts. The two of us sat together in silence, a generation apart, but warriors together. If you’re reading this, don’t forget about us. Don’t throw us away or call us killers and butchers. We’re men and women just like you, and you have the right to spit on us and spit on the flag only because we picked up a gun and fought for your freedom.
We’re teachers, cops, bus drivers, and mail carriers. Sometimes we’re homeless, drug addicts, disabled, and dying. We’re all around you. We look like you, but if you haven’t seen and done what we have, you are not like us and we are not like you. We are the warriors and the sons of warriors. All we want is a little peace, and a thank you for our sacrifice in the name of your freedom wouldn’t be so bad either.
Today is the American Independence Day, and as preachy as it may sound, I thought I should remind people that it’s about more than just a barbecue and fireworks. Both my Dad, who died over a year ago, and one of my sons are veterans, and especially after Dad’s death, this day and our flag mean more to me than perhaps it does to others.
I’m currently reading an anthology called To Be Men: Stories Celebrating Masculinity which I intend to review. So far, there’s a lot of anger at the progressive status quo being expressed in those digital pages, but I’ve only got two stories under my belt so far. In my way of thinking, this story would have made a good addition, but that’s just my opinion.