The box was nothing special. It was no more than a dilapidated piece of cardboard held together with a combination of old tape, new tape, and a nearly-spent rubber band, keeping the long-ago-stomped-flat lid in place. She could barely make out the faded words Midland Shoe Company on the surface, but only because she already knew they were there. The box was coated in dust, except for the very recent set of fingerprints on either side, where she had taken it down from its shelf in the closet.
She sat in an old rocking chair, staring at it, her feet barely moving the chair back and forth. She wanted to open it, but something made her afraid to.
"Come on, now," a man said behind her. "There's nothing that frightening in there." He chuckled, and she imagined him shaking his head while using his left hand to smooth down his hair, even though it didn't require smoothing, a gesture he made without realizing he did it.
She didn't bother to look at him. As usual, she tensed at his teasing, knowing that he was goading her into doing something she didn't want to do, and, as usual, she fell for it. With a sigh, she stood up and took two steps to the box on the table.
"That's better," he said, and she could hear the smile in his voice as she picked up the box and returned to her rocking chair. She pulled the rubber band off--not surprised that it finally snapped in her hands--and removed the lid.
The first thing she saw was an official Army photograph, black-and-white, turned sepia with age. The young man in the picture had the hint of a smile on his face, almost a smirk, and his cap looked to be too big for his head. Then again, it might have been his ears making it appear that way.
"Yeah, can't mistake those ears," he said with another chuckle. "Taxi drivin' down the road with the doors open."
"Nobody made fun of those ears more than you," she countered.
"Well, if I make fun of myself, nobody else gets a chance."
She took the picture out and gently caressed it with her arthritic hands. "What were you smirking at?" she asked.
"Oh, my buddy walked behind the photographer and made a rude gesture right before he snapped the dang picture," he explained.
She shook her head and chuckled, laying the picture aside.
The next item in the box was another old photograph. This time, it showed ten casually dressed men in two rows in front of the nose of a large plane.
"Ah, that's a good picture," he said, his voice more serious than before. "Good ol' Bedroom Eyes."
"I still can't believe you decided to paint that on the nose of your plane."
"It wasn't my idea!" he protested playfully.
"Sure, it wasn't." She studied the names printed on the bottom of the photograph: first initial and last name.
"Yeah, that's a handsome bunch right there," he said. She could hear the smile in his voice. "Especially that one in the front row."
She didn't need help finding him in the picture, though: front row, first on the left, the bill of his cap pushed up a little. It was a sobering thought, how many of those names had appeared in obituaries. "How many of you are left?" she asked quietly.
"None," he answered. There was nothing more to say.
She laid that photo over the first and continued. The next one was of Bedroom Eyes' nose art--a scantily-clad woman with a pair of cat-shaped, heavy-lidded eyes, giving whoever walked by the plane a "come hither" stare.
There were a few more small pictures of the nose art of other planes, and she barely glanced at those.
There was a patch in the stack, too, a round one with a dragon. The beast was yellow and green, and had its mouth open, probably to roar at its enemies. It was on a background of blue and red horizontal stripes, and was surrounded by eight white stars. She caressed it between her fingers, feeling the texture. This patch belonged on a fine bomber jacket, and not in this box.
"I remember that," he said. "B-29 crew one-three-one-two-eight." He let out a half-chuckle. "Damn, we were good."
"Yes. Almost as good as you thought you were," she joked, but she blinked away the tears that began to form in her eyes.
"Oh, that's hardly fair," he teased back.
No, it isn't, she thought. Because you really were. You were probably better than anyone ever thought you were, including yourselves.
She removed another photograph, and what she was actually looking for in the box finally came into view.
A palm-sized, blue, rectangular case appeared. Gently, almost reverently, as though it were made of thin glass and would shatter at the smallest touch, she picked it up.
He sighed. "I don't see why you don't just leave that where it is," he said quietly.
"You earned it," she countered. "It needs to be somewhere--anywhere--besides a box in the closet."
She brushed away a light coating of dust to reveal the gold lettering:
Distinguished Flying Cross.
Slowly, she opened the box and studied the medal inside. "You never liked to talk about it, I know," she admitted, "but this is a precious thing. It deserves better than this box."
He didn't answer this time.
Without taking her eyes off it, she said, "You should tell me about it."
"Why?" he asked. "I already told you the whole story. You know what happened."
"This memory isn't as good as it used to be," she said. "And I have to make sure no one forgets."
He was silent for a long time.
She didn't press him on the subject. One hand reached up to close the case.
"You know we got shot down," he said suddenly, like the words tasted bad and he had to get them out of his mouth before he changed his mind. Her hand froze, and her eyes were still locked on the medal.
"Of course," she said, more sharply than she intended. She remembered that day, receiving the telegram that told her that the crew of Bedroom Eyes was missing in action. "I spent days pacing the floor, praying."
"I know," he said. "I'm sorry."
"It's not for you to apologize," she said, trying to force the teasing tone back into her voice. It didn't work. "You didn't shoot yourself down, after all."
He sighed. "Yeah, they managed that just fine on their own." There was no anger there anymore, but she clearly remembered a time when that was not the case.
"We went down in the Philippines," he continued softly. "Pilot and copilot dead, but the rest were mostly okay." He swallowed. "I remember crawling out of the wreckage, hauling two guys after me."
She could see it in her mind as he spoke, playing like a film--only more real, more immediate. Three bloody and bruised airmen appeared before her eyes, struggling to get away from a fiery wreck of what used to be a B-29 Superfortress.
"It was all jungle around us, but we knew where we were--some nameless Jap-occupied island."
Even though she'd always known about these circumstances, she couldn't help it. A sharp intake of breath interrupted his story as she contemplated the fear, the outright horror, of the prospect of being captured by the Japanese.
"Yeah," he agreed. "That's pretty much what we said, only with more expletives." After a moment, he went on. "We were there for six weeks, hiding from their patrols, eating whatever we could find. Garbage, mostly."
She could see that, too. The eight men--no, the eight impossibly young men, almost boys, strangely eager to serve their country in another war of someone else's making--stranded, alone, hunted, so far away from home and safety.
"There were a few times those patrols passed within spitting distance of us," he went on. "I don't know how many times I thought for sure we were busted, but they never found us."
She remembered the days she spent praying, and knew for sure and certain that her prayers had been heard and answered.
"Yeah," he agreed. "Your praying--and maybe that of other wives or mothers or girlfriends--was probably the only reason they didn't find us."
They were silent for a long moment. Her fingers gently caressed the medal as a few silent tears fell down her cheeks.
"After that, you know what happened. The Navy landed, took the island, and found us. Well," he corrected himself, "at least they found four of us." He was silent for a tense moment, then forced himself to laugh. "I've never in my life been so happy to see swabbies."
She chuckled through her tears, and gently closed the case, putting the medal on the table with the other photographs.
The box held a lot more photographs, but few of them were related to his stint in the United States Army Air Corps. She looked through them absently, remembering some, straining to recall others. But her attention always drifted back to the medal and the Army pictures.
"You should put that stuff away," he told her, mildly annoyed. "You have somewhere to be."
She nodded, but didn't. "Only a few more minutes." There was so much of a life in this pathetic cardboard box, and she was deeply ashamed that she let it sit and gather dust for so long. That would end today. She'd make sure that everything there--the patches, the pictures, the medal--would be preserved. "It's my responsibility," she said stubbornly. "I can't let anyone forget."
"I suppose," he agreed reluctantly.
A gentle knock sounded on the door, and only a few seconds later, it opened.
"Grandma?" the young lady said, sticking her head in. "Who are you talking to?"
She looked over her shoulder at him, but saw nothing but the empty room. She surreptitiously wiped the tears from her eyes and said, "Just myself."
She leaned on her granddaughter's arm for support as the two of them walked out of the house, and tried not to think as she climbed into the car with her granddaughter, her granddaughter's husband, and their three-year-old son. The child smiled at her, completely oblivious to what was going on today. He waved at her and babbled something, and she listened to him as they drove.
He had a cap on his blond head, and his little ears stuck out, just like a taxi driving down the street with the doors open.
It didn't take long for them to reach the cemetery.
She listened, and heard every word, but it was like watching something happen to someone else. The sergeant folded the flag and handed it to her "on behalf of a grateful Nation." The local congressman shook her hand. She jumped at the sound of the three-volley salute, and allowed the tears to flow freely down her face as the bugle played Taps.
The casket was surrounded by her family--her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchild. Her son was there, putting on a brave face, but not hiding the tears in his eyes. Her grandson was there in his Air Force dress uniform, his ears sticking out from under his cap in a comforting, familiar way. He stood next to his sister and her husband, and their son, who had the same ears. Even the boy knew that something important had happened, and he was silent, watching and listening carefully.
The honor guard saluted the casket, and her grandson in uniform did the same. The members of the local VFW--still-proud warriors--saluted their brother. Her great-grandson watched them, and then raised his own small hand in a salute.
She was not sure how long she stood there, staring at the casket. It was quiet; the voices were gone, and even the birds seemed to respect the burial of such a good man, and were silent.
"There's no need for all that," he said.
She thought she felt the brush of his hand on her shoulder, but she didn't dare turn to look. "I'll see you soon enough," she said with a smile.
"I'll be waitin'. Don't be too long," he teased.
She looked up from the casket, and saw a young man in his USAAC uniform, a cap on his head, walking across the green grass of the cemetery to join nine others, in two rows. They welcomed him, shook his hand, and he stepped into his place beside them: front row, first on the left. He waved once at her, and his friends nodded.
She looked away from her husband, and down at her great-grandson.
"Who's that?" he asked, pointing across the cemetery at the group of men who were beginning to fade away.
They may fade from this life, she thought, but not from memory.
With a smile on her face, she took the picture out of her pocket and showed it to the boy. "That's your great-grandfather," she told him, the tears still in her eyes and in her voice.
He grinned. "Lookit, his ears stick out like mine!"
She couldn't help but laugh.
"Was he a soldier, too?" he asked after a moment.
"Yes, he was."
The boy thought long and hard about that. "Was he a hero?"
"Yes." She gave the boy the picture, and took his hand to lead him back to the car. "And don't ever forget that."
T/Sgt. Lewis Forbes Smith, United States Army Air Corps, DFC AM-3 OLC
and the crew of Bedroom Eyes.
Check out the next honorable mention of our Memorial Day contest!