Today, the people of the United States remember the men and women who died serving in our armed forces. I never had a family member I knew die in battle, but my grandpa and several great uncles fought in WWII, and they had friends who died.
I started writing a new kind of zombie novel on New Year’s Eve that started out just being about a guy, his family, and some weird zombie coyotes and a ‘denim stranger’ back in the woods behind their house, but the further along I got, the more of my uncles and grandpa creeped into this character who was dead before the book started. I never meant for that to happen. It just did.
Like one of my uncles, ‘Butch’ was part of Operation Overlord, and in the passage, below the main character, Marshall, is remembering one of his last visits with his dying uncle:
At age ten, Marshall had no appreciation for Butch’s participation in the Allied invasion of occupied France. He imagined it happening in black and white—written, acted, and shot in the same simple terms. The only color he could possibly imagine was the green of the army guys he kept in the bucket under his bed, and not the buckets of blood that must have stained the sand. It was something no one could ever really appreciate it unless they had lived it, but at ten, he got it less than most. But he had seen Butch, the man cut from granite, crying on Memorial Day, a day when you ate hot dogs and went to parades.
It took his own dad explaining it for him to have an inkling. Guys died that day. And some of them were friends of Uncle Butch’s. There was blood. Lots of blood, but they slipped away knowing they had done right by their country, watching their comrades take the ground. Except that it wasn’t like that—that wasn’t enough to make Butch shed actual tears. There was more to it. Plenty more. But he wouldn’t know it until years later, when Butch was sitting in a chair in the sun room with an afghan on his lap.
Butch’s skin was sallow—a thin, pale yellow—hinting at the corpse flesh it someday soon would be, the backs of his hands bruised from IVs and the crux of his elbow a solid purple from all the needles. He was listing in his chair, his face drooping like a stroke victim’s. With slow blinks, he fought against his sleepiness, the kind of sleepiness that a nap couldn’t dent, no matter how long and deep.
“Ungh, Marshall,” said Butch with a wave of his hand. Marshall wasn’t sure if it was a gesture of runoff from some sort of palsy. “We lost a lot of guys that day. Goddamn Eisenhower was a lunatic setting things up all half cocked. And it wasn’t like when Teddy Roosevelt charged Utah Beach—that was Teddy’s son, did you know that?—no sir, buddy. Eisenhower did it from an office. Phoned it in. He was miles away when guys, good guys, got their arms ripped off by mortar fire, or their feet blown to bits by land mines.”
Marshall didn’t quite know how to answer him, and wasn’t sure if it was even a good idea. He seemed to be inside the story. And Marshall had no point of reference. He hadn’t even seen someone die of old age, or illness. People just died off screen for most Americans. Baby boomers and Gen Xers and everybody who followed. He couldn’t imagine what that would be like, seeing your buddy disassembled by zinging Nazi ammunition. And while that might have been the best thing to say, he didn’t say a thing. Instead, he settled for pursing his lips in a way that he hope said, ‘I’m thinking about what you’re saying and I’m sorry it happened.’ That his uncle was mostly blind didn’t figure in to his decision.
“You know the worst one was Norv—now what was his name?” Butch nodded his head a few times to jar loose the memory. “Harv—no, the other college.” Butch would have snapped his fingers, if he could. “You know, Yale? Yep, Norvie Yale. A good kid. From Cairo, down at the tip of the state, by Kentucky. A real good baseball player. Second baseman, I think. He was playing in the minors when he got drafted. I haven’t thought about Norvie in, oh, probably fifty years.”
Marshall gulped a mouthful of hot spit that had been collecting under his tongue. That Butch had untended memories ten years older than Marshall was a little stupefying. It reminded him of his place next to Butch. A late comer. A real late comer, and it wasn’t time to start feeling sorry for Uncle Butch just yet.
“He was on the Higgins boat with me coming across the English Channel. I didn’t know him real well, but we’d talked a little. Played some cards—that kind of thing. He was eighteen or nineteen, just a young kid, you know? But he wasn’t afraid. Not him. He had real smooth skin, a baby’s skin. Had to shave maybe once a week, but his eyes … he knew what was coming as well as any of us, and he was set. If it was his time, well then, give ‘em hell on the way out. Like a lot of the guys, I guess.” He shut his eyes and nodded to the side, like he was counting sheep that were named after each of his friends.
Marshall watched him, snoring softly for a minute or so. At first, he wasn’t sure that Butch didn’t die. It would be like that, he thought. At least that’s what he always told himself. It would be peaceful, not like the awful story that he knew Butch had begun. And the ending was waiting for him, ready to spring on him like a jump scare, and settle into the long, slow horror of his memory. Maybe Butch has to do this. Maybe he has to pass on his demons. He watched the old man sleep, and wanted to catch the moment by the tail, but he was too slow.
If you know a veteran, hug him or her today. Thank them for their service. And remember the soldiers who have died protecting the lives and ideals of the American people.