As his men advanced in the rugged, barren terrain, the sound of spraying bullets suddenly appeared from nowhere. He froze and stood motionless as he watched the Taliban bullets mow down his men…or were they al-Qaida insurgents?
He had ordered his men into a killing zone and could do nothing but watch. He heard their cries and looked into their pain stricken faces as the bullets minced them into pieces. The demons of war did not let him rest; the trauma of Afghanistan blended now with the horrors of Iraq.
He heard a resounding blast tare open the entrance to the hospital; smoke billowed from the fiery remains of the massive explosion. The smell of tritonal and cordite from the TNT and gunpowder, hung in the air. Spattered body parts, arms, and legs were everywhere. Dear God in Heaven! Was that the decapitated head of Charlie Brown hurling through the air…or was it Marissa’s Charlie? Now he could see Sergeant Washington’s disfigured face sailing across, followed by the shattered remains of Sergeant Walsh…Sergeant Maskin…then Lieutenant Uthman…and Colonel Franklin. His agony was unbearable. But the worst came last. Helplessly, he screamed out in pain as the torn up body of Marissa catapulted through the air with her terror stricken eyes begging for help.
“Lieutenant! Lieutenant, wake up! Wake up son; it’s only a nightmare. Come on, wake up!” From the dark abyss, Sean opened his transparent blue eyes. The face of a colonel, with caduceus on his lapels, looked at him.
The worst was yet to come. The young lieutenant was escorting the remains of Sergeant Marissa Collier Linz, a beautiful, young, single mom, and his fiancé who he loved very much.
The first gun salute ripped him out of the nightmare as he sat in front of the open gravesite. The remaining two gun salutes felt as if they were ripping through his body. Tears ran down his cheeks as the bugler played the final taps, and the officer of the burial detail presented the flag to little Charlie, Marissa’s young son.
“Don’t put Mommy in that hole,” shouted little Charlie. “Pleeeaaase, don’t put Mommy in that hole. It’s cold and dark in there. Seaaan, please stop them. Please Sean don’t let them put Mommy in that hole.”
The cries of the little boy made Sean shiver. They followed him wherever he went.
The Price of Freedom!
Freedom, I gave you my mommy,
You gave me a neatly folded flag.
Oh, what a trade!
Freedom, you took my mommy’s courageous heart,
You gave me a few well-chosen words.
Oh, what a trade!
Freedom, you took the love of my life,
You paid me with a medal on a blue ribbon with thirteen white stars.
Oh, what a trade!
They played taps and lowered her body into a cold grave,
Oh, what a price to pay for freedom.
They called her a fallen hero,
They called me the fallen hero’s son,
Oh, what a price to pay for freedom!
Liesel Halston sat in a rocking chair and stroked the image of a handsome young man with her gnarled fingers. Eighty-four years had put heavy lines into the fine-featured face of Liesel Halston and arthritis had crippled her hands, but her stylish silver-gray hair and clear blue eyes still showed signs of a remarkably beautiful woman.
As she gently rocked, her eyes wandered from the picture in her hand, to the photos on the desk. A sad smile appeared on her face as her eyes roamed from the photo of a young Captain in Marine blues to a young Major in a World War II uniform. With his service cap cocked to one side, the young Major smiled back at her. The dark hair, the same facial features, and the disarming shy smile showed a strong family resemblance to the Marine. With tears in her eyes, she lovingly caressed the pictures on the desk.
When she turned her attention back to the photo in her lap, two tears trickled down her face. She kissed her fingertips and transferred the kiss to the young man in the picture. A Major dressed in desert fatigues. Love emanated from the picture. She prayed silently, “Please Lord keep him safe.”
The horror of Liesel’s past haunted her during her dreams. A cynically smiling SS officer in a black uniform hunted her. She saw him holding a door open to an inferno on the end of the road. He motioned her with his finger to come, but before the flames could devour her, she saw Oma Rachel and Opa Samuel walking into the flames. The devil in the black uniform laughed aloud and held a swastika flag high above his head. He gestured Liesel again with his crooked finger to follow him. However, her Papa swept her up and carried her to safety.
Liesel lived with her daughter-in-law Kate in Bryn Mawr, a suburb of Philadelphia. The picturesque two-story colonial house surrounded by a white picket fence boasted a wrap-around porch and faced an oak-lined street. Lovely flowerbeds burst with a rainbow of colors in the front yard, bright reds, deep blues, bright yellows, and vivid violets. Clusters of birch, honeysuckle, and a lilac bush filled the air with an intoxicating fragrance. The flowers and trees reached upward toward heaven soaking up a gently falling rain.
A large, wooden, rocking chair held a place of prominence on the porch, as did a white swing suspended from overhead by hooks and chains, the late-summer breeze causing them to sway gently back and forth. In the backyard were signs of a child evidenced by a swing set and slide that stood next to a playhouse. The open door begged a little girl to come and play.
Kate, a widow and a real-estate broker by trade, owned the house. She and her late husband Tom had one son, Bill, a Major in the 3rd Infantry Division. He was currently fighting somewhere in the desert of Iraq. Since Bill left for Iraq, Sandra, Kate’s daughter-in-law, and her four-year-old daughter Christy had moved in, as well.
Christy walked quietly up to her and put her little arms around her Grammy. Nestling her tiny face against Liesel’s shoulder, she looked up with her large brown eyes, and said, “Don’t cry, Grammy. Daddy will come home soon.”
In the adjacent room, Sandra and Kate had observed the gentle assurance the little girl gave her pain-stricken Grammy. Despite doing her best to be strong, Kate couldn’t stop her tears from flowing. She hugged Sandra and gently stroked her back kissing her forehead. They’d not heard from Billy in two weeks. Officially, the US troops had defeated the Iraqi army, but Saddam’s loyalists and insurgent-terrorists were still attacking.
The photos on the bureau took Liesel down memory lane. She remembered when her sheltered childhood turned upside down and when the losses she’d endured broke her heart.
His life flashed by in front of her when she looked at her grandson’s picture. She saw that cute baby in her arms. His parents were the happiest people on earth. Billy grew up so fast. Before she could blink an eye, he’d entered kindergarten. Then came his first day of school. She remembered the tall cornucopia Kate and her had made for him. They had filled it with treats just as Liesel’s mom had done for her. His first day of school was such a momentous occasion.
The years passed by so fast. Before she knew it, Billy graduated from high school and entered West Point. Dressed in his uniform, he was such a handsome lad. He looked just like his father and grandfather; tall, slim with dark hair, and his beret always cocked to one side. He had that same wicked captivating smile on his face. Handsome Billy and Sandra with her beautiful blond hair, blue eyes, slender body, and only an inch or two shorter than Billy. Together they made such a stunning couple. “Billy, we all miss you so much. If only your grandpa and dad could see that beautiful little munchkin of yours, my little sunshine,” whispered Liesel. “Lord, you cannot ignore this sweet little girl’s prayer. She is asking You to protect her daddy. Please God, bring Billy home.”
Looking at the young WWII Major, Liesel drifted off into the twilight of yesteryear. “Lord, why did You take Tom away from me? Half my heart died with him. Then You took Tom Jr., and the other half died. Why? I lived so long with a broken heart; please take me; do not hurt Kate, Sandra, and little Christy. Gone are so many of my loved ones, Mama, Papa, Opa Friedrich, Oma Anna, Opa Samuel and Oma Rachel. Oma Rachel’s ashes are somewhere; only You, Lord, know where they are; I miss them all so much. I do not know why You allowed Hitler, this barbaric monster, inflict so much pain on so many people. Why did You let him destroy my beautiful country and my carefree childhood? Why? Why? There are so many painful whys.”
Composed now, Kate and Sandra watched Liesel as she sat in her rocker holding the picture of her husband in her hands. Her face was pain-stricken and her thoughts were far away. They walked over and put their arms around the old woman’s shoulder. They stroked her cheeks and Christy laid her head in Grammy’s lap. A tender smile chased away the pain in Liesel’s face. She looked down on Christy and said, “Thank you Lord for surrounding me with the gift of love. Protect them from all grief and pain.”
“Mom, why have you never gone back to visit Germany?” asked Kate.
“There are too many painful memories.” She shook her head, and said, “So much pain.”
“However, there have to be some happy memories too. Maybe a visit would bring closure to your grief.”
“Yes, there are also happy memories; but…I…I am afraid to open up old wounds,” the old woman whispered.
“Why don’t we go together? I’d love to see where you grew up. And it would be such a wonderful experience for Christy.”
The little girl looked up at her with those large round eyes. Grammy Liesel swallowed hard and caressed Christy’s hair. She said quietly, “I don’t know. Maybe it would help. What happens if it rips open all the old wounds? If it weren’t for those painful memories, I would like to see ‘Meine Heimat’ once more.”
“Mom, if it becomes too difficult for you, we pack up and leave. But I think you should try.”
Liesel looked from one to the other and stroked Christy’s cheek. She had a difficult time deciding. Sandra said, “Grammy, I can make arrangements. You, Kate, and Christy can go, but I want to stay here, in case Billy calls. What do you say, Grammy?”
Christy begged, “Please Grammy; say yes, pleeeaaase.”
Liesel smiled and said, “Okay; let’s try it then. Sandra, Billy will call, and he will come home. We have to think positive.”
Ashley Fay stared at the old man in the wheelchair. He looked so lonely sitting all by himself in the corner of the terrace. He’d his eyes fixed on a cemetery across the valley. Deep lines marred the old man’s face. He paid no attention to the group of happy residents loudly enjoying their games. Nor did he seem to enjoy the beauty of the valley that stretched out beyond the terrace.
“Mr. James Paul Garner. Former mayor of Garners Corner, local plumber, investor, billionaire philanthropist, and once an energetic, kind man,” a voice behind Ashley announced.
She turned around and saw a, somewhat past middle age, woman in a nurse’s uniform holding out her hand in greeting. “Hi, I am Vicky. I am the administrator of the Garner Nursing Home.”
“Hi Vicky! I am Ashley. The old gentleman in the wheelchair looks so lost and lonely.”
“Yes! Mr. Garner harbors a lot of mental anguish hiding in that cocoon.”
They sat down at a table by the glass wall that faced the terrace and beyond. Vickie’s office had a panoramic view of the valley with all its splendor of vibrant colors. The deep gold, bright yellow and rust bathed in the early autumn sun, setting above the evergreens in the background. But, Ashley’s eyes wandered back to the old man in the wheelchair. Vickie duly noticed it.
“You are Dr. Kessler’s wife, right?”
“Yes, I am.”
“What can I do for you?”
“Well, as you know we just moved here. We have a sixteen year old daughter who wants to follow in her father’s footsteps. So, we thought it might be a good idea if she would spend some time as a candy striper. A nursing home would be a perfect fit. Would you have an opening by any chance?”
“We certainly do. Not many young people are interested in volunteering for that those days. Have her come in and see me after school tomorrow.”
“That would be great. Thank you so much.”
“Don’t mention it. You’re doing us a favor… How do you like country living?”
“I love the picturesque landscape. And the town has so much character.”
“Yes, it is pretty around here… I want you to know, I am a big fan of yours. I read every one of your books. But I never thought I would be chatting away with Ashley Fay Thornton, the famous author. How come you don’t write as Ashley Fay Kessler?”
“I had established my writing career before Gus and I got married. You don’t want to change your pen-name once you’re known. It becomes your brand.”
“That makes sense. Do you have another book coming out?”
“Yes! In the beginning of the year, THEY FOLLOWED THE CALL”
“I can’t wait to read it. What is it about?”
“It’s about a young single mom that gets called up to serve in Iraq. The story deals with the daily hardship and the pain of being separated from her little boy.”
“Oh, whoa, that sounds like a tear jerker.”
Ashley’s eyes kept wandering back to the old man. She couldn’t help thinking, what it is that that keeps him locked inside this cocoon.
“Ashley, you write great fiction. Have you ever thought of writing a nonfiction book?”
“Yes! I would love to write an interesting biography, a good memoir, or interesting narrative nonfictions. I just haven’t found the right story yet.”
“I can’t help noticing your interest in Mr. Garner. His life would make a great story, but a sad one. Are you interested?”
“Yes, I would be. He strikes me like a fascinating man that is painfully encapsulated in an impenetrable bubble.”
“You have that one right. I tell you what. I am going to be off the day after tomorrow. Why don’t you come to my place for breakfast? Let’s say, around nine. We’ll have some coffee or tea, and something to nibble on while we talk. It probably will take more than a day to tell you what I know about his story and that is not even half of it.”
“Great! I’ll be there.”
“And don’t forget, have your daughter come and see me after school tomorrow. What’s her name?”
“Brooks! She’ll be here.”
Vickie Lister went to Rose’s Chili Pepper Diner, the local restaurant, and picked up a Chicken dinner for her husband and herself. He walked in ten minutes after she got home. “Hi Babe!” He gave her a peck on the cheek while Vicky set the table.
“Hi Mike! Did you have a good day?”
“Well, no one got killed. I didn’t have to arrest anybody. I didn’t have to use my gun. And I wrote two-hundred-and-fifty dollars worse of citations. So, I guess this was a good day for Mike the sheriff. How about you? How was your day?”
“Great! Ashley Fay, Dr. Kessler’s wife came to see me. Her daughter wants to be a candy striper in the nursing home.”
“Oh well, that’s good. You have been looking for someone for some time. I guess that’s coming in handy. Ashley, eh…that sounds pretty chummy.”
“She is really nice. We hit it off right away.” Vicky held up a book, and said, “You know, she is a writer. She wrote this book.”
Mike looked up at the picture on the back of the book, and mumbled, “Uh-hu.”
“Mike, that picture doesn’t do her justice. She is absolutely beautiful. She is 5’7, slim, but nicely curved, and her auburn hair accentuates her milky white skin. She has beautiful, warm, big, brown eyes, high cheekbones, and nicely shaped, full, lips.”
“Oh, you are signing up to become a judge in the Miss America contest?”
“Oh come on know. She really is beautiful. And she is smart. She writes wonderful novels. I invited her over. She might write a book about Mr. Garner. She wants me to tell her what I know. Of course, there is a whole lot that I don’t know. But you do.”
Mike looked up from his plate and gave her a long look. “Is that so? Well, you know better than to think that I am going to talk about Mr. Garner’s affairs. That’ll never happen.”
“Oh Mike, she is going to…”
“That’s enough, Vicky! This conversation is over!”
Mike picked up the paper and retired into his armchair. Cool air engulfed the rest of the evening.
As his men advanced in the rugged, barren terrain, the sound of spraying bullets suddenly appeared from nowhere. Sean froze and stood motionless as he watched enemy fire mow down his men.
He’d ordered his men into a killing zone and could do nothing but watch. He heard their cries and looked into their pain stricken faces as bullets minced them into pieces. The demons of war didn’t let him rest. The trauma of Afghanistan now blended with the horrors of Iraq.
A resounding blast tore open the entrance to the hospital and smoke billowed from the fiery remains of the massive explosion, the smell of tritonal and cordite hanging in the air. Spattered arms, legs, and parts of bodies were everywhere. Dear God in Heaven! Was that the decapitated head of Charlie Brown hurling through the air…or was it Marissa’s Charlie? Now he could see Sergeant Washington’s disfigured face sailing across, followed by the shattered remains of Sergeant Walsh…Sergeant Maskin… Lieutenant Uthman… Colonel Franklin. His agony was unbearable. But the worst came last. Helplessly, he screamed out in pain as the torn up body of Marissa catapulted through the air with her teary eyes begging for help.
Marissa sat in her bedroom tightly embracing her five-year-old boy. With tears rolling down her face, she tried to calm Charlie down. But the pressure of his little arms tightened even more around her neck. He held onto her for dear life. Only his pleading little voice broke up his bitter sobbing. “Please Mommy! Please don’t go. Mommy…pleeeaaase stay here. I want you to stay with me.”
Charlie finally fell asleep. Marissa laid him gently next to her. With a heavy heart, she watched him sleeping and deeply engraved every feature of his beautiful little face onto her memory. His looks made her thoughts drift back to Jack. Remembering her husband only added to the pain.
It was Marissa’s last night with her son. She couldn’t block the thought from her mind that she might never hold him again. Charlie had only recently recovered from the loss of his father and now his mother had to leave him, as well.
She finally fell asleep in the early morning hours resting her head on the tear-soaked pillow.
Little Charlie was the spitting image of his father. He’d his father’s clear blue eyes and athletic build. A lock of blond hair fell down on his forehead, and just like his dad, he’d a cowlick that wouldn’t stay down.
Marissa remembered when she first fell in love with Jack. If only that wonderful, strong man, with those large blue eyes could be with her. She missed and needed him now more than ever.
Sergeant Marissa Collier Linz was one of the unlucky ones called-up for active duty, assigned to the First Cavalry Division as a medic. She’d a morning flight to Fort Hood TX. Her new unit was bound for Iraq. She knew the risks involved. Twenty-four year-old Marissa, a single mom whose husband had died in a car accident four years earlier, was in her third year of nursing school. As a member of the Reserves, the Army paid for her tuition. The additional paycheck from the Army, and working as a nurse’s aide, helped to make ends meet. She’d moved in with her parents after her husband’s death. Her parent’s financial support, and watching Charlie, was an immense help. Her father owned and operated an auto repair shop in Morristown, New Jersey with Marissa’s brother.
Fifty-five year-old Charles Collier was a decorated Vietnam Veteran. He knew the nightmares of battle and had a Purple Heart to prove it. Marissa remembered her mom’s stories about the painful uncertainty in waiting for news. Charles had been missing in action, and had been seriously wounded. He’d teetered on the brink of death when they rescued him.
After a few hours of sleep, a gentle knock on the door awakened Marissa. It was time to get up and head for the airport. She slipped quietly into her uniform. Not even the unflattering fit of the desert camouflage could hide her beauty. She was tall, slender, with shiny black hair that framed her fine-featured face. Her milky white skin accentuated her transparent green eyes.
She joined her parents for breakfast, but she’d no appetite. At her mom’s insistence, she forced down some toast and orange juice. It was a silent breakfast as they wrestled with their emotions. Her grief-stricken face didn’t go unnoticed by her parents. Her dad gently stroked her back. “It’s time sweetheart. We have to go.”
Nodding, Marissa went upstairs and said good-bye to her little boy. As she caressed his hair and gently kissed his cheek, a tear fell from her eye and rolled down his forehead. It broke her heart. Not wanting to wake him, she whispered, “I love you my darling. May Jesus bless and protect you.” She dried her eyes and walked away.
Now it was time to bid farewell to her mother. Marissa held on to her and cried in silence. Mom marked the sign of a cross on Marissa’s forehead, and said, “May the Lord bless and protect you and bring you safely home.” With a last squeeze, Marissa rushed out to the car.
Marissa’s dad parked the car in the long-term parking lot of the Liberty International Airport at Newark. He took the travel pack and walked her to the Continental ticket counter as specified in her orders. Five other reservists were already waiting there.
As young warriors drench the soil with their blood, they question why. Political realizations or philosophy does not matter to the soldiers trying to live through another night of gunfire as they wrestle with their feelings. They generate their own courage in defense of their friends or by the necessity of self-preservation. They are the prey so freely provided by the powers that be.
These feelings come alive in the stories depicting battlefields throughout the wars from 1770 until 2012. Read the book and see the war through the eyes of men and women in the trenches.
Johann Ferdinand the Hessian & Billy the Farmer
December 24, 1776
Billy, a soldier in Washington’s Continental Army, leaned against a tree tightly wrapped in his blanket. His body shivered from cold and his stomach grumbled from hunger. The wet wool, soaked from unending rain and sleet, gave little comfort. As the long hours of the night passed by, he tried to remember what it was like to be warm and cozy at home on a winter’s day.
Icicles had formed on the rim of his tri-cornered hat and the cold gnawed on his fingers and toes. Cradling a musket in his arm, he waited for his comrades to relieve him from guard duty. He didn’t know what time it was for he had no watch and wondered when his replacement would come.
He stomped his feet trying to regain feeling in his frostbitten toes. Blood from the ruptured blisters crusted the rabbit skins wrapped around his feet. Oh, how they hurt. The time passed ever so slowly as the fury of the storm changed from rain to sleet to snow and the blustery wind bit his skin.
Billy heard rough voices cursing and men sliding and falling on the trail. It was the guard detail coming to relieve him. As they came closer, a voice called out, “Billy where are you?”
He pushed himself away from the tree barely able to form words with his frozen lips. “Over here.”
A soldier approached and with an Irish brogue said, “What a dreadful night. You’re lucky your turn is over. Watch the trail. It’s icy and slippery. I fell and cut my face on a tree stump.”
“My watch might be over but the pain and the cold shivers are not. At least you have boots on your feet.”
“Aye, boots with holes and toes pushing through the leather.”
“Good night, Patrick. Try to stay warm.”
“Aye, right, warm and dry. You’re a joker, mate, but good night and thaw out.”
Billy walked away slipping and sliding on the wet, icy trail. The snow and wind turned into a blizzard. Shuddering in his wet clothes, he tried to stay on the trail but the pitch-black night made it hard. He collided with a tree, slipped on the ice, and was lucky he didn’t hurt himself on the bayonet mounted on his musket. But the pain from his shoulder brought tears to his eyes. He couldn’t tell anymore what hurt the most, his shoulder, his frostbitten toes and fingers, or the cracked skin of his face. Shuffling along in agony, he finally made it back to the encampment.
A fire burned in front of his tent, made by his newfound friend, Johnny. Johnny was a newcomer to the company and came from Virginia.
Billy cowered down in front of the fire shaking and shivering but eventually the heat penetrated his wet blanket and stopped his trembling. When he crawled into the tent and removed his clothes, his friend Johnny had kept the ground dry by covering it with dried branches. Johnny woke up hearing Billy shiver.
“Are you okay, Billy?”
With his teeth shattering he answered, “I am so cold and wet I can’t stop shaking.”
“Wrap my cloak around you and come under the blanket. They are both dry.”
Billy draped the cloak tightly around him and slipped under the blanket warming himself against his friend’s body.
“Johnny, what are we doing here? I could be home tucked away nice and cozy in my bed. You know, our farm is beautiful this time of year. Snow-covered fields and pine trees surround the house and whitetail deer roam around for food and a drink of water. The silver light of the moon reflects of the frozen little creek and the snow-covered ground glitters throwing off ever-changing shadows. My sister Lizzie and little brother Joey are looking out of the window marveling at the falling snowflakes or they are sitting around the Christmas tree admiring the flickering candles as they sing carols.”
“You’re lucky, Billy. I don’t have memories like that. I bunked in the hayloft on top of the blacksmith shop where I worked as an apprentice. Food and lodging were my pay for working hard from morning until late at night.”
“What about your parents? Where do they live?”
“I’m an orphan. I have no parents and no siblings. At the age of fourteen, the orphanage sent me packing. From then on, I had to fend for myself. I begged and stole food and pulled torn clothes from the trash until the blacksmith took me on. I guess you could say the blacksmith was kind to me. He gave me a dry roof over my head and daily meals but I paid dearly for it with hard labor.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Here I am babbling about my nice home and you have only bad memories to share. I’ll not speak of it again.”
“No, please tell me more, so I can dream of good times.”
“All right. Mom, Dad, Lizzie and Joey are sitting by the fire waiting to go to church. Lizzie is trying to stay awake hoping to see Father Christmas placing presents under the tree. The snow is silently falling and the animals are all bedded down for the night and everything is quiet. Here and there, you hear a pig grunt, a neigh of a horse, a cackle of a chicken, or the moo of a cow. Christmas Eve is a sacred time. It’s time to start celebrating peace on earth.”
“I wouldn’t know. I’m not much for churchgoing. My Christmases were not full of peace. When I was younger, I tried to steal food when everyone was in church and later I had to tend the animals while the blacksmith and his family celebrated. Occasionally I snuck a peak through the window. One of the kids would bring me my dinner. It was usually a little fancier than on regular days. How nice it must be to sit with your family around a festive table.”
“Yes, indeed it was wonderful but now, Mom is probably worrying whether I am warm and dry and Dad worries whether the next bullet will find me. I know he’s proud I am fighting for our freedom. And if Joey and Lizzie are not too busy waiting for Father Christmas, they’ll be thinking of me too. I am sure they are all praying for me.”
“It must be nice to have a family that cares. You must be on their minds and in their hearts all the time. Will you ask them to pray for me, too?”
“I would but I can’t write.”
“Maybe Sergeant Riley will write a letter for you. He knows how to write. He was a court-clerk before he joined the Army. He learned how to read and write in Ireland.”
“I know he can, but he would want something for his service. I have nothing to barter with.”
“We’ll think of something. Billy, are you warming up a bit?”
“Yes. Thank you for being a friend.”
“Isn’t that what friends do?”
“Johnny, I am so tired. I want to go to sleep now.”
“Good night, Billy.”
“Good night, Johnny.”
Johann Ferdinand Wetzel, a Hessian Grenadier, bedded down in a hayloft on Queens Street in Trenton. He pulled the blanket up to his chin and was ready to go to sleep. He listened to the ghastly weather outside and was happy he had no guard duty like his poor friend Wilhelm who was standing watch in the dark night exposed to the grisly elements while he was warm and dry with a full stomach. He thought the poor bastard must be drenched to the bone from the endless rain and sleet. Now that the sleet had turned into a fierce Northern blizzard, he envisioned his friend wet and shivering in the cold.
Before nodding off, Johann collected all the horse-blankets from below and spread them out on the hay for his friend. That would take the chill out of his bones. When he heard the barn door open, he called out, “Wilhelm, is that you?”
“I have blankets up here. Come on up and get out of those wet clothes.”
“I’ll be right up.”
He sounded very chipper for someone who had been out in a blizzard. He heard Wilhelm coming up the ladder to the hayloft. He was surprised when he saw him.
“You are hardly wet. How did you manage to stay out of this beastly weather? Where did you find shelter from the rain and sleet?”
With a sly grin Wilhelm replied, “My friend, it did not rain onto the wench’s bed.”
“Did you not have guard duty?”
With an artistic pose followed by an obeisant gesture he recited mockingly, “Ah, like Romeo said, How silver sweet sound lover’s tongues by night. Like softest music to attending ears.”
“Wilhelm, are you saying that you seduced a wench and warmed her bed while you were on guard duty?”
“Aye, my friend.”
In disbelief Johann answered, “I can’t believe you did this! You are a Hessian Grenadier, the pride of our country.”
With his eyes turned to the ceiling and his hand over his heart, Wilhelm, in a theatrical stance quoted Schiller and bowed to his audience, “Ein Mench in seinem dunklen Drange ist sich des rechten Weges wohl bewust.”
“Wilhelm, have you no shame? You swore an oath.”
With an aloof gesture he mockingly retorted, “My dear Johann Ferdinand, you mean the oath of the allegiance to the flag, to protect and defend the Kaiser and the Fatherland? Ah yes, that one. Do you not know it is a far greater joy to rest in the bosom of a young maiden than to fall victim to a musket’s bullet?”
“Wilhelm, you are an unremitting scoundrel. You aren’t thinking of deserting, are you?”
Again mocking his words, Wilhelm replied, “Oh, heavens no. I would bring no such dishonor to my good name. But then, should I have the good fortune to be captured by the visionary colonists, I could well find refuge in the arms of this country’s young maidens.”
Bowing sarcastically he continued, “Oh von ihren Brüsten möcht ich trinken. That is from Wilhelm Baumholz, yours truly.”
Johann shook his head in disbelief and asked, “Have you never experienced true love?”
Looking again skyward with a raised finger, Wilhelm replied, “Ach, die treue Liebe. My dear friend, how can you know which fruit is the sweetest if you have not tried them all? Like the birds and the bees, a man must taste the nectar of many flowers and reward them with his pollen so they can flourish. Have you not yet tasted the forbidden fruit of a maiden?”
“I would not besmirch the beauty of my true love.”
“Ah yes, yes, true love.”
“I do not understand. You are educated, you can read and write, you can recite poems and you move around with flair. How did you end up among a pack of jackals in this godforsaken country?”
“You see my friend; I was born with true blue blood running through my veins as Friederich Wilhelm von Hassel. I am the only son and heir to Baron von Hassel. You might say I am an aristocrat and was a student at the Heidelberg University loving Wein Weib und Gesang.”
“So why then are you not an officer in the Hessian Grenadiers?”
“Excellent deduction, my friend. Angetan hat mirs der süße Wein und die süßen Weiber. You see, the gentle curves of the Countess von Eisenfeld bewitched me as I fell prey to her sweet embrace. However, for a favor from the count, the Countess’ handmaiden betrayed her mistress. The old fool threw down the gauntlet. The rest is history.”
“You killed the Count in a duel?”
“Aye, my young friend. So I did.”
“What then? You fled?”
“Yes, I fled and joined the famous Hessian Grenadiers.”
“When did you change your name and why did you pick Baumholz?”
“The wind whispered it to me. And how did you arrive in this peculiar predicament?”
A shadow befell Johan’s face. “I am the son of a cobbler born to loving parents. I have a little brother Willy, who is thirteen. When I was twelve, my father started to teach me the trade and turned me into a skilled artisan. Then I fell in love with our neighbor’s daughter, Liselotte. Oh, she is so beautiful. However, she likes to flirt with men in uniforms. Therefore, I joined the Hessian Grenadiers against my father’s will. Lottie loved the way I looked in my well-tailored uniform. That is when my father and I had a falling out. We spoke terrible words to each other and my mother cried as I left without looking back. I never got a chance to tell them how sorry I was. Oh, how I wish I could take back those horrible words.”
“Why not tell them in a letter?”
“I cannot read or write nor can they.”
“I shall write it for you. They must know someone that can read.”
“Yes, the schoolteacher is a friend of my father’s. He looks after his billings and books.”
“Then so be it. Tell me what it is you mean to say. I will get paper, ink and a quill.”
“Let’s do it tomorrow. I am too tired now. What time is it?”
Wilhelm pulled a gold watch from his vest pocket and opened it. “It is precisely twelve o’clock or seven o’clock in the morning in Hessian.”
“Oh, it is already Christmas Day in Waldeck. They already celebrated Christmas Eve.”
“Oh yes, time to drink and be merry.”
“Wilhelm, can you ever be serious? This is a sacred time.”
“Sorry, my friend. I meant no disrespect. Please continue.”
“I wonder whether it is snowing at home. When the town is covered in a blanket of snow, it looks so beautiful. Across from the old Gothic Church is my father’s cobbler shop. A shingle over the front door reads, Wetzel & Söhne Schumacher. My father was so proud when he could add his sons to his name.
Tonight, the townsfolk will walk to church through the snow glistening in the gaslights, past the small stores of the quaint streets. Willy will sit by the window in the Parlor trying to get a glimpse of the Christkindel.
I can see the colorful stained-glass windows of the church glowing from the many candles inside and I hear the walls resounding with the wonderful hymns.
During full moon, I always thought the Waldeck Castle on the mountain looked like the shadow of Dracula’s castle. On Christmas, Fürst von Waldeck’s sleigh was always tied up in front of the church. His coachmen would walk around in greatcoats trying to stay warm. Oh, how I yearn for home.”
Wilhelm, in his usual mocking voice cut in. “Oh, yes. Fürst von Waldeck, quite a swordsman.”
“Do you know him? I did not know he could fence. I know him only as a Jäger.”
“I was not referring to the steel of his blade but rather to a different weapon.”
Wilhelm saw Johan’s puzzled face and remarked, “Do not mind me, my friend. I meant no disrespect. I envy you for your memories.”
“Do you not have precious childhood memories of Christmases past?”
Unlike his usual flamboyant cynical orations, Wilhelm said in a quiet subdued voice, “My memories are of glamorous parties where the golden wine stirred the lust of the elegant gents and ladies, who then discreetly disappeared with a maid or coachman. Ah, the curse of opulence.”
Johan, not quiet comprehending the essence of Wilhelm’s meaning, shrugged. “I am tired, Wilhelm. Good night to you and a Merry Christmas.”
“And a good night to you, my friend, and a Merry Christmas. May you dream of the sweet memories of Christmases past.”
The Politicians Did Not Give Us Freedom
THE BLOOD OF THE BRAVE DID
The Politicians Did Not Preserve Our Freedom
THE BLOOD OF THE HEROES DID
The Politicians Did Not Sacrifice And Suffer On The Battlefield
IT WAS OUR VETERANS THAT DID
The Price of Freedom!
Freedom, I gave you my husband,
You gave me a neatly folded flag.
Oh, what a trade!
Freedom, I gave you a courageous heart,
You gave me a few well-chosen words.
Oh, what a trade!
Freedom, I gave you the love of my life,
You gave me a medal on a blue ribbon with thirteen white stars.
Oh, what a trade!
They played taps and lowered his body into a cold grave,
Oh, what a price to pay for freedom.
They called him a fallen hero,
They called me the fallen hero’s widow.
They called his child the fallen hero’s son,
Oh, what a price to pay for freedom!
The Officer of the honor guard went down on one knee and handed Marissa’s mom the folded flag to keep for Charlie.
“Noooo, don’t put Mommy in that hole. Pleeaase, don’t put Mommy in that hole. Nana, PoPop stop them. Don’t let them put Mommy in that hole! Pleeaase…!”
The screaming little boy scrambled over to Sean and threw his arms around him. “Please… Sean…please stop them…don’t let them put Mommy in that hole…please.”
Shaking with pain, and weeping along with the little boy, Sean held him tightly in his arms.
THE BEGGAR BOY
BY AL LOHN
In the monsoon soaked mud of Beggar’s Row, laid a body. His clothes were torn and blood drenched mixed with mud from. It was Dhaka’s slum section. Shacks lined the dirt road made from cardboard, discarded shreds of blankets and carpets, and anything usable from the trash. Children, whose parents had broken their limbs so they could arouse greater pity, crawled around on all fours like animals.
Two nuns from the order of the Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa stumbled through the ankle deep mud looking for needy children to feed and care for.
The Beggar King and three of his bodyguards stood in front of a larger shack built from discarded wood and corrugated metal. It was more elaborate than the rest. After all, it was the Beggar King’s domain. The King and his bodyguards laughed and joked about the man in the mud and ridiculed the two nuns that knelt down trying to help him.
“Oh, the holy sisters found a victim to bestow their corporeal mercy on. Do you think they can fetch him out of the devil’s claws?” Loud laughter followed. One of the nuns looked up and when she saw it was the Beggar King, she said, “Was this your handy work Amar?” She gave him a look cold enough to freeze him into ice. But he just laughed and waved a handful of bills in the air. After all, it was beggar’s row where people don’t count, the law of the fittest ruled there.
A young woman, holding a crying baby in her arms while a scrawny six-year-old boy clutched her leg, stood on a busy street corner in Dhaka. She and her children were barefooted, malnourished, and dressed in rags. Hidden behind the dirt and street grime was a beautiful young woman barely past her teenage years. The tears of her cute little baby left trails down the muddy cheeks, and her runny nose besmirched her mouth and chin.
Pulling his mother’s skirt, the little boy cried out, “Maa, Maa, I am hungry.” With her hand held out, and her big begging eyes saying, Please help me, the threesome were a sorry example of the city’s gazillion beggars. The busy street corner was a prime location to invoke the pity of the passer-bys. Tourists, having a moment of pity worth a coin or two, occupied the endless lines of rickshaws waiting for the traffic cop to wave them on. Here and there, a pedestrian hurrying to work, would hesitate in his or her stride to part with a coin. However, most of them ignored the young woman. They had become indifferent to a common sight.
When dusk sat in, and the traffic thinned out, the young woman took her children and returned home. Her legs and back hurt from hours of standing in one place. Her empty stomach growled from hunger, and her parched lips cried out for some water. Her children’s crying had turned to a mere whimper. They had lived through another day without food. Their empty tummies were hurting.
She shuffled down the dusty path of beggar’s row past the shacks made from discarded trash. She was the lucky one chosen by the Beggar King to be his woman. Her shack, made from salvaged wood and corrugated metal, gave better shelter against the inclement weather than the ones made of cardboard and discarded rags.
When she reached her home, the smell of alcohol came through the frayed out blanket covering the entranceway. Her man, the Beggar King, greeted her as she pushed aside the blanket. He lay on a shredded piece of cloth covering the hay and held up a bottle of Indian Moonshine.
“Hello, my sweet Scootli. What is our take today?” She emptied her pockets. She had had a good day and poured five dollars worth of Taka on the blanket. He let the coins run through his fingers grinning from ear to ear, and slurred. “Wonderful my beautiful Scootli, now come and lay down here so Kapitsa can properly thank you.”
“Please not now Chador. I need to feed the children they are hungry. They had nothing to eat all day.”
“Hungry children make good beggars. Or would you prefer I break some bones? Crawling kids would make even better beggars.”
“No, please, I’ll come to you.”
He yelled, “Tutu!” A fifteen-year-old boy came rushing into the shack. “Yes, Õimo Chador, what may I do for you?”
“Tutu, take the Brats out until I call you.”
“Yes, Õimo Chador!” Tutu took the baby and the crying little boy outside. “Shush, Baapun, are you hungry?” With tears streaming down his face, the little boy nodded. Tutu had some leftover food that he had stolen for himself and fed it to Baapun. The little boy slung down the food without chewing as his tears started to dry up.
He mashed up some cooked veggies for the baby and tried to feed her. She was so weak that she kept fallen asleep. Nevertheless, Tutu kept wakening her up, “Tumpa, you have to eat. Please eat something.” By feeding her a little bit at a time, he was able to get some food into her.
Inside the shack, the Beggar King threw his Scootli onto the blanket. He took the bottle of moonshine and forced her to drink. Laughing he said, “Here, have some of this. It makes you a better lover.” Then he forced his way on her calling it making love. After he had his way with her, he fell asleep. Scootli went looking for Tutu and her children. She found them lying under their favorite jackfruit tree. Baapun was asleep in Tutu’s arm, and the baby lay on top of him seeking a nipple to suckle on. Scootli took the baby and nursed her with the little bit of milk her malnourished body could produce.
“I have given Baapun my left over food. He has eaten. And to Tumpa, I gave some mashed veggies and fruit.”
“Thank you so much, you are an angel.”
“Are you hungry?” She nodded and swallowed hard. “I’ll find something to eat for you. Here, I have some Mango juice. Drink this. Your lips are all dry and cracked.”
“Thank you Tutu.” He ran off, and a half hour later, he came back with a stolen plate of rice and lentil-daal. He took the baby from her mother, and said, “Scootli, eat.”
“Thank you,” as she greedily scooped up the food with her fingers and devoured it. It was the first meal she had in twenty-four hours.
Four years later, Scootli was begging at the same street corner with her now ten-year-old son, five-year-old daughter, and a one-year-old baby boy. During the four years, she had aged more than ten years. Gray streaks had changed her beautiful shiny black hair to a dirty gray. Blood had seeped through the bandages on her hand, a present from the King. Scars in her face bore witness to the abuse from her man. She was still malnourished and so were her children. She begged for something to eat. Her five-year-old daughter, Tumpa, walked with a heavy limp. Her father, the Beggar King, had broken both of her legs so she would arouse more sympathy from the tourists.
“Maa, I am hungry. I’ll go find some food,” said Baapun.
“Please be careful. Do not get caught. You know what happened the last time you stole food.”
“Maa I’m smarter now.” With that comment, he ran off. Not far from their corner was a market. The vender at a fruit and vegetable stand heckled with a woman for the price of his mangos. It was the perfect time for Baapun to snatch a couple of jackfruits. He stuffed them into his pockets. Then he eyed a stack of onion naan. While the baker wrapped a customer’s order, Baapun dropped a couple of onion naan into an empty vegetable can. So far so good, but he wanted to get a hold of some fishcakes and khichur. For that, he needed to find a way to distract the vendor. Just then, a big dog came snooping around for something to eat. It was the perfect tool for a distraction. He grabbed a bone off the butcher’s table and teased the dog with it. The dog came running trying to snatch the bone out of his hand. While the butcher’s eyes were busy admiring a young woman walking by, he threw the bone between the vendor’s legs. Eager to get to the bone, the dog almost toppled the vender to the ground. As he tried to fight off the dog, Baapun swiped a couple of fishcakes and a tin can full of khishur. He ran away leaving the cursing vendor behind. On the way out of the market, he grabbed a sweet pitha from another vendor’s table who laughed watching his colleague fighting off the dog. Baapun went back to his mother. They sat under a tree and divided his unlawfully obtained food. Each one’s portions were very small but at least it took the edge off their hunger.
The sun began to set on the horizon and the streets started to empty out. However, Sootli was afraid to go home. It had not been a good day. The coins were few; it was barely a dollar’s worth for a whole day of roasting in the sun. She knew her man would be angry and beat her for not bringing enough money home for his moonshine. She waited until it was dark to go home hoping that he was in a deep liquor induced sleep. But when they got back to Beggar’s Row, Tutu stood in front of the King’s shack. He stopped Scootli and said, “Please, do not go in. I have prepared a place for you under my tree. It will not rain tonight. Come!”
Passing by her shack, she heard her man’s slurred voice. “Heeere drink!” and a girl’s sobbing. “Please Chador, nooo Chador, please don’t. It hurts.” Nevertheless, he laughed and said, “I wash you down with moonshine.”
Scootli followed Tutu with her children to the place he had prepared for her. She knew better than to disturb her man while he tried to satisfy his lust.
Early the next morning Scootli took her children to a nearby run-off-ditch. She cleaned them, and herself, as best as she could in the sewer-laden water and went to her street corner to beg. It was too early for the rickshaws with tourists, and the people rushing to their workplace had no time to dig out a coin. It started out to be another miserly day for begging.
It was the day of the week when the beggar king held court. He sat on his improvised bed with a bottle of moonshine beside him. Choton, his enforcer thug, stood to his right with his arms crossed in front of his chest. His mean looking scar face did homage to his violent nature.
Outside, Tutu lined up the king’s subjects. They were dressed in rags and covered in week’s old street grime. Some had neglected open sores, some had scars and wounds in their faces from street fights, and others crawled on all fours like animals. “Let’s start! Bring in the first one, Choton,” said the beggar king whilst taking a swig from his bottle.
“Yes, Chawdury,” he pushed aside the blanket at the entrance, saying, “You, in!”
A beggar crawled in and bowed his head to the floor in front of the King of Beggars. Holding out a handful of coins, he knew the king would not be happy. He was short of the weekly tribute he was required to pay. “Forgive me Lord Chawdury, it was a bad week.”
The King grunted and nodded to Choton. He took the coins and put them into a pouch. The King growled at the beggar in front of him. “What would you like me to do? You worthless dog!”
“Have mercy on me, Lord Chawdury.” The King looked down at the cowering beggar and again nodded to Choton. Choton pulled the beggar’s head back by his hair, kicked him in the face, and yanked him up. The one-eyed beggar held up his hands to protect his face while the blood gushed from his nose. But the next kick got him in the ribs. Choton grabbed him by one arm, dragged him out yelling, “Next!”
Another beggar came crawling in. He also bowed down to the floor and held out his dues. He had more. The King nodded and Choton put the coins into the same pouch. Then the King said, “A little encouragement, Choton.” Choton backhanded the beggar across the face and threw him out. One by one, they came before the great Chawdury. Very few received praises. Some got away with a grunt, but most received more or less of an encouragement. When the last beggar in line came in, he fell to the ground bowing and held up a bowl with food. Chawdury grunted, took the bowl, and started to eat. With his mouth full of food, he snarled, “What is this? No coins?”
The beggar cried out, “Have mercy Lord Chawdury. I was ill and could not work.” The King waved his hand for Choton to start his punishment. He started to work the beggar over with his brass knuckles. He cried out in pain. “Please don’t hurt me anymore. I have something that I can give you in payment.”
“What do you have that will be a proper payment to your king?”
“I have a pretty daughter!” The beggar whined knowing Chawdury’s lust for young women.
“Mmmm,” grunted the King and motioned Choton to go with the beggar and get his daughter. A little while later, Choton entered the shack dragging a crying fourteen-year-old girl behind him. The beggar followed them inside and fell to the floor, begging, “Please be gentle with her Chawdury.”
Choton grabbed the beggar and threw him out. He commanded, “Go home and don’t come back until you can pay your dues.”
Street grime and rags covered up the young girl’s beauty. The King looked at her with lecherous eyes, and said. “She’ll do. Go wash her and bring her back.” Choton took the young girl to the run-off-ditch, ripped her clothes off, and washed her down lusting for her himself. Then he brought her back naked. The King motioned Choton to disappear. Knowing that the king would be busy for several hours, he went in search to satisfy his own lust.
Dusk had sat in again. Scootli was happy; she had a good day. Her take had gotten her more coins than she had in a long time. The children and she left the street corner for home. Beside the coins Scootli had earned that day, Baapun had been able to steal enough food to feed the entire family. She took Baapun aside, gave him a few of the coins, and whispered, “Hide these in your shorts. Save them for when we don’t make our quota.” Baapun nodded and hid the coins.
When they arrived at the King’s lair, Scootli heard the unmistakable slapping noise and a girl crying out in pain. She told Baapun to take his sister and baby brother, and find Tutu. When she entered the shack, she saw the king slapping around a naked fourteen-year-old girl. For the gazillions time he tried to force himself onto her. Scootli, furious, threw her coins at his naked body and yelled, “You animal! She is only a child! Leave her alone.” He got up and attacked her like a raging bull. He beat her up until she collapsed. Then he grabbed her by her arm and a leg and threw her into the dusty street like discarded trash.
Baapun set out with his siblings to find Tutu. He found him under his favorite jackfruit tree. “Tutu, Tutu! You must come. Chappel Kapitsa is beating up my Maa.” Tutu and the children rushed to the King’s shack. They saw Maa laying face down in the dusty street. Tutu picked her gently up and carried her to his jackfruit tree. “Baapun, take the rag to the ditch and make it wet.”
When he came back with the wet rag, Tutu carefully wiped the blood from her face. She had a swollen mouth, a broken and bleeding nose, one eye started to swell up, and black and blue blotches began to appear on her body. The cold, wet rag revived Scootli. Tutu helped her to sit up against the tree. “Children, why don’t you eat, you too Tutu, Baapun brought good food.”
Her baby boy started to cry. He was hungry; he needed to eat. She winced as she tried to nurse her baby. Her breasts were black and blue from the beating.
When Scootli woke up in the morning, she hurt all over. The beating had left its mark. Discoloration and welts covered her body. She fought the nausea that overcame her, took her children, and went to her street corner to beg. Standing there, with two of her kids clasping her legs, a one year old crying in her arms and her tortured and beaten looks was a sorry sight. However, it had its benefits. The tourists parted easily with their coins. Even the locals paused for a moment to pull out a coin or two. In the evening, she had collected more than at any other time. She skimmed of coins to reduce her take to the minimum she thought the King would accept. The rest she gave to Baapun for safekeeping.
When they arrived at the King’s shack, the young girl lay in the corner whimpering in pain. “All right, let’s see what you have!” growled he. She gave him her take. He barked, “Is this all? The way you look you should have taken in a lot more. Are you holding out on me?” He started to slap her around again. Baapun, afraid that he would beat his Maa senseless again, grabbed a led pipe, and with all the strength he could muster, smashed it into his father’s head. With a bleeding gash on his scalp, the King fell to the ground unconscious. “Oh my God, Baapun, what have you done? You have to get out of here. Run away as fast as you can. When he wakes up, he or Choton will kill you.”
Baapun hit him twice more with the pipe. “He will no longer beat you up, Maa!” He ran away and kept running until he came to the harbor. It was a dimly lit place. Along the pier hung a few bare bulbs on poles, and oil lamps dangled from the bows of the sampans. Baapun found a boat grounded on a dark stretch of the harbor. He climb in the boat, made himself comfortable, and went to sleep.
In the morning, a hand grabbed Baapun by the belt of his shorts and lifted him out of the boat. When he looked up, he saw a big man holding him up in the air. The man, built like a house, was a giant. His looks scared the living daylight out of the little boy, and his drowning voice made him sound like a bear. “What were you doing in my boat, Pashu?”
“I…I…needed a place to sleep. I only slept in there. Honest!”
“All right, now take your stinking caucus out of here Pashu. Go…go…go…”
“Yes…Sahib.” Baapun ran away as fast as his scrawny legs could take him to the other side of the harbor. He was hungry; he had not eaten since the previous day’s breakfast. He remembered seeing a market the night before. The pier buzzed with long-shore men and sailors. He thought, perhaps I can make a few coins begging. He went around holding out his hand, saying, “Can you spare a coin, Bahadur? I am hungry.”
However, most of them told him to go away. Two sailors toyed with him, and said, “We’ll throw a coin in the air. If you catch it, it is yours. Ready?” One of the sailors threw a coin in the air. Baapun jumped up to catch it, but before he could get to the coin, the other sailor snatched it out of the air. They kept teasing him while they laughed. They had fun at the little boy’s expense. When the sailors finally got bored, they said. “Sorry boy, but you didn’t catch anything. Now beat it.”
With tears in his eyes, he watched them leave. But Baapun was a tough little bugger. He did not like being had. He got angry and snuck up behind them. While they laughed about their nasty deed, Baapun tripped them by kicking them both in the shins. They hit the ground scraping their faces bloody while Baapun disappeared into the crowd. He had the last laugh.
After begging for two hours, all he had managed to collect were two little coins. His stomach growled; he needed something to eat and drink. The only way he knew how to feed his growling stomach was to steal some food.
After he had walked for fifteen minutes, he saw the market that he had passed the night before. It was a big market with all kinds of vegetables, fish, bread, and assortments of cooked meals. He watched the venders to find an easy target. He looked for someone that did not pay too much attention to kids. A stack of onion naan held his eyes captive. His mouth watered. While a woman vendor gossiped with another woman, he slowly snuck up to the stack of naan, grabbed a few slices, and turned to run off but ran right into her husband. He was dressed in a bloody apron. The butcher grabbed him by the neck, and bellowed. “You dirty little thief! I am going to beat the payment for that naan right out of your hide…” As he lifted his hand to whack the boy’s behind, a voice behind him said. “Sir, do not touch that young man. He is not stealing. He was getting some naan for me while I was busy checking out your fruits. But since you insulted my boy here, we will take our business elsewhere. Good day sir.” With that, he took the naan from Baapun and threw it on the vendor’s table.
“A thousand pardon sir. I…I…did not know he belonged to you.” Continuously bowing, and with his hands clutched together, he walked after the stranger apologizing and offered to make amends. But the stranger put his hands around Baapun’s shoulder and walked away with him. “What is your name young man?”
“Ba…Ba…Baapun, sir,” he stumbled looking in awe at this stranger that had saved him from the police, or at least from a hefty beating.
“Well, Baapun, my name is Kulvir. Are you hungry?”
“Yes, Bahadur Kulvir.”
“How about if we go into a restaurant and have some breakfast? Would you like that?” With a smile on his face, Baapun replied, “Yes, Bahadur Kulvir.”
“Okay! But let’s stop by the tailor and get you some decent clothes to wear.”
“Yes, Bahadur Kulvir.”
Baapun looked in amazement at the handsome stranger dressed in a khaki military shirt, bloused khaki cargo pants, laced black shiny boots, and a khaki turban expertly wrapped with a Ruby decorating the front. His black beard, tightly pulled into the turban, and his fiery green eyes, surrounded by his stunning tanned face, were a most amazing sight.
When they got to the tailor, Bahadur Kulvir said. “Good morning Bhattacharji.” The tailor jumped of the stool in front of his sewing machine, clutched his hands together, and bowed. “Good morning Bahadur Kulvir! What can I do for you this morning?”
“We need some clothes for this young man Mr. Bhattacharji. Let’s start with a half a dozen khaki shirts like mine, six khaki shorts with cargo pockets, six pair of khaki knee socks, two pair of black hiking boots, and a dozen sets of underwear.”
“Yes Bahadur Kulvir! I have his size.” The tailor held a shirt against Baapun’s back, and said. “Perfect!”
Baapun pulled at the Bahadur’s sleeve. “Yes Baapun?” Baapun shyly looked at the Bahadur’s turban and pointed. “Oh, would you like a turban?” He nodded! He was afraid to say yes. The Bahadur rubbed the boy’s hair and laughed. “Let’s add three turbans with a ruby, Mr. Bhattacharji. We will take one set now. Khoka will come by later and pick up the rest.”
“Yes, Bahadur Kulvir. I will pack it up for you.”
The Bahadur Kulvir took Baapun to the Janani restaurant. It was his favorite watering hole. The restaurant lay right by the water and close to the pier. The Bahadur’s crew was already there. They got up, bowed, clutched their hands together, and greeted him, “Namaskar, Bahadur!”
“Sat-Siree-Akaal, please sit down! Meet my new friend Baapun.”
“Welcome Baapun,” said the crew in unison.
“Baapun let me introduce your new friends…” He introduced his crew starting with Commodore Bullwinkle, Commander Binder, and finished with a fifteen-year-old boy named Khoka. “Khoka, would you take Baapun to the restroom and help him to clean up and get dressed in his new clothe?”
“Yes, Bahadur Kulvir. Come Baapun!”
When Khoka came back with Baapun, he got a round of applause. Baapun looked like a young Sikh prince. “Come, sit next to me Baapun.” He sat to the Bahadur’s left and Khoka sat to his right. Baapun looked in awe at the food and drink on the table. It was an elaborate breakfast. The kind he didn’t know existed. There were pancakes, different breads, lentils and rice paste, a variety of vegetables and tea. Baapun watched carefully how his host ate. He was hungry and wanted to devour the food as quickly as he could get it into his mouth. He shyly looked around at the fine table manners his friends displayed. It intimidated him. The Bahadur saw his shyness and smiled. “Baapun, go ahead and eat. You are hungry. In time, you too will learn fine table manners. But for now, eat the way you like to eat.”
“Thank you Bahadur Kulvir.” Baapun needed no other encouragement. He slang down the food as fast as he could. When the crew was finished eating, the Bahadur said to Commander Binder. “You have the list of supplies we need, correct?”
“Aye, aye Bahadur.”
“Good! Take the crew and load them onto the boat. Tell the vendors I will come by later and pay.
“Khoka, please go to Mr. Bhattacharji and pick up a package. I already paid him. Then come back here. We will be sitting on the portico. Come Baapun, let’s chat for while.”
They went to the portico and watched the sampans go by on the river. The Bahadur lit a cigarillo, ordered a Bombay Sapphire and Tonic, and a Mango Juice for Baapun.
“Okay Baapun! Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself?”
“I’m a beggar, Bahadur. I beg, and I steal.”
“Do you have a family?” Baapun nodded and said, “I have a sister. Her name is Tumpa, and a brother. His name is Mumai.”
“Do you have parents?”
“Yeah, my Maa is Scootli. Me, Maa, Tumpa, and Mumai beg at street corner.”
“What about your father?”
“Kupita is the Chawdury of the beggars. He is bad, he is a Chappel.”
“Your father is the King of the beggars? And he is a Devil? Why is he a Devil?”
“He beats my Maa if she does not bring enough coins home. And he beats up other beggars when they do not bring him enough tribute. He always gets drunk and then does bad things to Maa and other girls.”
“Why were you at the Harbor Market this morning? Isn’t your Maa begging today?”
“I don’t know. I ran away last night.”
“Why did you run away?”
“I beat Kupita with a steel rod. Maybe I killed him. Maa said run, Baapun. Kupita will kill you when he wakes up. So I run. He is a bad Chappel.”
“What did he do last night? Did he beat your Maa?” Baapun nodded, and said. “He beat Maa very bad. And he broke Tumpa’s legs so people would be sorry for her and give Maa more coins. He is a bad Chappel.” Bahadur Kulvir got the message. This twelve-year-old boy had seen enough misery for a lifetime. “Baapun, would you like to join my crew?”
“Yes…yes…yes…”He said jumping for joy.“ I would like to become a Bahadur like you.” Bahadur Kulvir smiled, and said. “In good time you will. Now you have to start as my cabin boy. Is that all right?”
“Yes Bahadur! I will be a good cabin boy. But I don’t know how to be a cabin boy.”
“That’s okay! Khoka will teach you that, and more. He has been my cabin boy for seven years. He is getting too old. He will become a regular crew member now.” Khoka came with a package. It was the rest of Baapun’s new clothe. “Hello Khoka! Sit down and have some Mango Juice. Khoka, you are getting to old to be my cabin boy.” Khoka’s face went ashen and his eyes showed fear. “Oh Khoka, don’t worry. You will graduate to be a sailor. You will learn how to handle ships. First, you must teach Baapun how to be a cabin boy, and teach him to read and write. Is that okay Khoka?”
Smiling from ear to ear, Khoka answered, “Yes Bahadur, I will be a good teacher.”
“Will you be my friend too?” Baapun asked.
“Yes Baapun, I will be your best friend.”
“Okay boys! Let’s go and get the supplies loaded.”
Al Lohn Biography.
Al Lohn was born in 1934 on the outskirts of Cologne Germany and educated in the art of apparel manufacturing. He worked until 1956 in his fathers business. In November 1956, he immigrated to the USA with his parents and younger brother. Drafted thirteen months later, he served in the US Army for two years stationed in Germany where he met his wife.
After his discharge from the Army, he became the manager of Brooks-Van Horn’s manufacturing department in Philadelphia, a Theatrical costume company serving the entertainment industry. During his ten year-tenure, he worked on many challenging projects such as ‘Holiday on Ice’, ‘Hello Dolly’, the Philadelphia Mummers, historical reproductions for the Marine Corps, the Smithsonian Institute and wax museums.
During his fifty-year career, he served as Corporate Senior Vice President for Liz Claiborne Inc and retired as Corporate Vice President from the Spiegel Group in 1998.
His extensive travel during his 50 year career took him around the world to all five continents. His travels gained him a deep understanding of the world’s cultures as well as their trials and tribulations. This, combined with his experience growing up in a war-torn country during World War II, and his military service, compelled him to turn to writing after his retirement.
He resides in New Jersey with his wife of fifty-three years were they enjoy their children and three grandchildren. He now writes and is the author of three books and a fourth one coming out this year.