Old Soldier’s Home
By John Deakins
George let the porch swing carry him. The porch might be old, but it wasn’t as old as his ancient bones. Let the swing do the work. He appreciated that his great-grandchildren had kept his place unchanged. He’d been in the Home himself for years now.
The street before him seemed unaltered since—well, maybe since 1900, when he and Adeline had moved there. The city hadn’t even widened it when they installed street lights. George remembered the first pavement, stinking of tar in the hot, Arkansas summer. That had been left to degenerate, too, with only a dab of asphalt slapped on. The cracks and crumbles had been more enduring than the pavement itself. George sometimes felt as if his own lengthy stay on the planet had left him much like the road.
He and the street had seen better times over the years, like the parade for the last of the Bugle Boys Brigade, ‘way back when America had entered the Great War in Europe. The old Bugle Boys had marched away, twice. In 1862, the heavy, gray uniforms had been worn by men ignoring the wool’s weight, focused on the honor of wearing it. George remembered the shiny, curved bugle tucked under his eleven-year-old arm as he’d tramped in time with the infantry company that called itself a brigade.
The Bugle Boys’ second march had been slower, and individual. One by one, the survivors, limping home from Shiloh Church, Murfreesboro, and Rock Island Prison, had slipped into the darkness as the twentieth century blossomed.
George—George Jefferson Franklin, homeowner—had hung on somehow. He’d been sitting on the same porch as the Great Depression crept up on the nation. The street lights had burned out, one by one. The town, which had given its best blood to a winless war, had invested too heavily in the ‘20’s failed boom to replace lights in the ‘30’s darkness. In the orbs unlighting themselves, George had seen the specter of his passing generation.
A sound from inside the house broke his reverie. It was tinny in his aged ears, but it had been so odd that he had to investigate. There were no nurses or grandchildren to send inside, to probe for him. Final traces of personal independence demanded that he do it himself. His joints’ grinding momentarily masked the mysterious call.
The living room was cool and dim, built by folk who’d never heard of air conditioning. The grandchildren had put back all the pictures that he and Adeline had collected over the years. Probably they’d dragged them from storage somewhere and dusted them off for his visit. George didn’t remember which of his descendants had actually brought him home. He was lucky, compared to many at the Home; his mind was almost the last part to fail him. It, too, was fading, like the gray photographs on his wall.
He stopped, lost in memories that the glassed portraits pulled from his mind’s shelves. There were their children, all together again. Each owned a separate storage in his heart. Two, Peter and Alan, followed the Bugle Boys’ ghosts. They’d never seen Arkansas again after the Great War. He hoped Belgian soil made easier sleeping than Tennessee’s cold clay. Yankee minie balls, typhoid, bad food, or gangrene—the thousand deaths that stalk a field army—had sewn their father’s generation across Southern soil like a carelessly planted garden.
The Bugle Boys hadn’t all fallen only at Murfreesboro: Timmy Sims had left his bugle for a rifle after Shiloh, and died in some small, nameless skirmish. His replacement, a whey-faced boy from Russellville, had died of pneumonia after marching all night with the measles. George hadn’t even had time to learn his name. Eleazer Villines, a boy with too big a name, had lived to sound one last charge beside Stone’s River before a spent ball took him in the head.
Time, however, had made no distinction between war and peace, male and female. Zechariah Smith, marching with the veterans in 1917, had lain mindless in a nursing home for twenty years. Life finally discarded him. Ivan Conner, the town’s best dancer before the Rebellion, had ended an agonized, twisted wreck. Old wounds ate away his muscles.
All of George’s children, even those who’d never seen a battlefield, were gone, too. Girls and boys alike had been taken, as he aged obscenely on. Here on this tired wall, his offspring still marched, from babyhood to gray hair, preserved behind glass.
Another wall was crowded with grandchildren in diapers, letter jackets, suits, and wedding dresses. Another war had come then, to eat away his young men. Another one was bound to come to those grandchildren’s children. The cascade of pictures ended before then. Adeline had no longer been there to put them up. Hers was the only picture that she’d never found room to hang. Her living room was itself a picture of Adeline, an album of the people she’d loved.
He roused, still standing. The strange noise pulled him toward the kitchen. He lost it again. Someone had turned on the old, tube radio. He was surprised that it still played. It was a memento of their old age. They’d sat at the kitchen table and listened to the great world outside Arkansas. He paused, his legs unsteady, thinking of the century of news that had poured through him. That river of wars, bank failures, and dead celebrities washed out the radio announcer’s words.
“ … — an of Arkansas, died today: details in a moment. In world news, the flare-up in the Middle East continues as — ”
George clicked off the sound with the big, shiny knob. “Middle East”—indeed! Nations smaller than Arkansas were fighting over who-knows-what. Who’d ever heard of them, until lately? On the other hand, who’d ever heard of little Murfreesboro by the shallow Stone’s River, where Yankee boys had dropped like scythed wheat on that final day of 1862? On the second day, New Year’s Day, the Bugle Boys and Mississippi and Tennessee men had been harvested in the cold cornfields by the desperate Federal artillery: a red and gray crop for the angel of death.
George shook himself. Ranks of corpses, from whatever war, had no place in this kitchen. They’d been allowed in only through the brown radio box, for Adeline and him together, comforting one another when dark news came; able to turn off the worst with a twist of the knob. Warmth, not ill tidings, had been what had penetrated the kitchen walls. Though the kitchen range was long cold, the room still harbored security’s glow.
Adeline’s ghost was strongest here. How he had loved her! She’d been a beauty, barely twenty as the Gay Nineties had come galloping in. He’d been a limping, old bachelor, already past forty. No one could believe that she’d chosen him instead of one of the town’s polished youngsters. There’d been jealous mutterings about collecting an old man’s pension. The six children they’d conceived had silenced such gossip. It had been her, not the wood range, that had warmed the kitchen. The smell of her cooking still haunted its space. To be here, hurt him all the way to the bones, as if the heat of younger blood or of a thousand hot breakfasts had settled in them.
He welcomed the mysterious noise’s return, coming from somewhere up the back stairs. The climb would be a strain, the kind he’d avoided for a long time. There were no nosy nurses in the haunted kitchen to watch, in pity, his feeble struggle with the steps. He could take all the time he needed.
Having no schedule to meet turned out to be a blessing. He needed both hands and maximum effort, from the withered muscles of his once-wounded leg, to lift it above the first riser. The other steps were, thankfully, easier. In fact, the top step took the least effort, though he was trembling from effort by the time he reached the upper hall.
He glanced at the four bedroom doors. Three smaller ones had housed his boys and girls. Giggles and shouts trapped in the ancient boards echoed in the stuffy space. He didn’t investigate; those weren’t the enigmatic sound that drew him on. He paused by the largest room’s door, the bedroom that had belonged to Adeline and him, and to six squirming infants. Too many pieces of his heart lay beyond that door to open it.
Adeline had made him have the attic stairs installed, when her knees grew too disabled for a ladder. Though he still felt discomfort, the steps made it easier. The sound’s distant magnetism pulled hard enough to take the strain off old legs. He had one last mystery to solve before … What lay after this last encounter didn’t bear thinking about. He knew that he’d already invested so many of his dwindling reserves that only a few spoonfuls remained, to be eked out in his remaining time at the Home. So much the better! The mockery of the life that he had there called for no extensions.
Little was left in the attic. He’d cleaned it out, with the help of various grandchildren, after Adeline had died. Her things were gone, dispersed to descendants. One trunk of his own mementos was left by the window at the stair-head; someone had been into that.
His dented, curved bugle lay atop the trunk. The mid-morning light streamed through the gable window, making the metal shine, despite the dust that must have accumulated. The brassy noise was coming from the trunk, plainer now. He stepped closer.
The bugle’s surface wasn’t dusty. Probably some great-great-grandchild had been fooling with it, as George’s family prepared for his visit. As he picked up the horn, he could imagine some mother yanking her youngster away, leaving the bugle perched on the trunk. The noise that he’d followed to the height of his former home was coming from the bugle. Impossible!
He glanced at the window, making sure that no stray breeze was blowing across the trumpet’s mouthpiece. The glass was tightly closed. His old eyes and ears must be fooling him about the sound’s source. Perhaps it originated inside the trunk. He lifted the dulled, brown lid.
His gray uniform lay there, unstained, breathing a faint odor of mothballs. The red piping that his mother had sewn down the trouser legs and coat sleeves looked new. There should have been splotches and holes, from three years on Southern roads. Adeline had done her best, but after the damage during his Rock Island imprisonment, not much could be done. The stain on the calf was missing. A Federal ball at Chattanooga had taken him out of the war.
A replica! It was a worthless replica: grandchildren fooling an old man whose mind was going. He started to drop it back into the trunk; doubt assailed him. There was something about the cloth … He studied the seams: hand sewn. His vision seemed to have become unusually sharp, picking out individual threads. The buttons were polished mussel shell, not the plastic that the younger generations strewed everywhere. He could find no synthetics anywhere. Well … his offspring’s offspring must have gone to a lot of trouble. The least he could do was to try it on.
Without witnesses to pity his battle with clothes, he donned the gray wool. His joints and muscles cooperated for a change. The uniform fit perfectly, though the adolescent for whom it had been modeled had been aging for a century. He stood straight, straighter than he had in a long time. The flat cap fit his head like the original.
Then, the bugle called again, from under his discarded civilian coat. He fished it out, noticing that his fingers didn’t tremble as they usually did. There was no doubt; the brass horn really was the call’s source. He listened at its mouthpiece, but heard nothing. When he turned the flared bell to his ear, however, the music rang out. The bugle gave one tiny trumpet call after another.
He sat down on the upper stair step and listened, not noticing that his knees bent without creaking and that the bugle calls were being picked up undistorted by his ears. The notes’ cadence tantalized him: a “charge;” an “assembly;” a “retreat;” a “pay call;” an “all quiet,” the bedding song of his company.
Then one particular “retreat and reform” rang out, wavering and strident. He recognized it at once. He’d played that particular call himself, beckoning the Bugle Boys’ remnants back from the bloody grove beside Stone’s River. The Federal artillery had held out; too many of the Arkansas boys hadn’t answered that call. They’d been sleeping a forever sleep among the dead cornstalks. The “retreat” had wavered because he’d been crying.
A clear drop fell on the shiny bugle. Repeatedly, he’d asked the same question: “Why couldn’t we have won?” All the men in gray had asked it, one time or another. Too many from the South had been taken without learning the answer. Perhaps he’d needed his unnatural century, to squeeze the answer from life.
He could see General Bragg at Murfreesboro. This time he hadn’t squandered his men’s lives on repeated gory frontal attacks. He’d starved the last Federals into submission. Confederate forces had plowed north through Tennessee and Kentucky. They’d raided Ohio and burned Illinois and Indiana towns. The Midwesterners had screamed to send their men home. Lincoln’s unpopular slave emancipation brought unrest. McClellan won the presidency in 1864. The North sued for peace; the Union would remain divided.
As the century turned, North America degenerated into a squabbling sprawl of independent states. The British owned Canada and Hawaii; the French, Mexico; the Russians, Alaska; Spain, the Caribbean. Texas and Florida left the Confederacy. Missouri refused to remain with either side. The mis-named United States government had slunk out of Washington to Philadelphia. California, Oregon, and Washington, without a railroad to link them to the east, re-established the Bear Republic, with close ties to Britain.
The Germans Empire had smashed through at the Second Battle of the Marne. They’d swallowed the French Pacific and African colonies after the Allies capitulation. They’d wrenched Puerto Rico and the Philippines from the weak Spanish. Japan crushed China unopposed, and supported guerrilla war against French Indochina. They coveted Australia and Malaya, but the healthy British Empire prevented that.
The planet poised on the brink of another world war among any number of sides, relieving pressures through bloody clashes in disputed colonies. American ideals of freedom were dead everywhere, crushed with either intent or regret by the tense imperialists, but crushed nevertheless. Americans became the preferred mercenaries in everyone else’s wars.
Californians fought in Vietnam. Texas cavalry and Georgians fought in North Africa and Afghanistan. Common men, squeezed out of employment by the South’s aristocratic slave-society, fought Missouri infantry and the Red Army. The American spirit was as dead as a prematurely plucked flower.
George now knew why the Bugle Boys had had to lie down in eternal sleep in Tennessee cornfields. Another question had come to replace the first. Why had the South lost everything? It had had a purity, a bravery, an honor, even in defeat. A permanent Confederate victory’s price would have been too high for both America and the world. On the other hand, there’d been an intangible nobility in red pipings on gray wool; in a wavering bugle call, when you’d resisted the enemy to your last blood; in the willingness, even in 1865, to stand one final time against the invaders of your home soil, knowing that doing so meant your death. If only the good Lord had made provision to preserve those intangibles, somewhere, to let the Southern boys keep their heart, even as they lost their cause.
A bugle called, this time from outside the window, not loud enough to be the Last Trumpet. George knew that that would be coming soon for him. He stood up, startled.
Half hidden by the shade tree that he’d planted in 1927, a body of men in gray had assembled in the street behind his home. That assembly must be the reason, then, that his grandchildren had brought him here: another parade, like the one in 1917. Those were probably some of this century’s foolish young men, re-enacting a war long lost, playing at Blue and Gray. It was another well-intentioned trick on an old man. He’d go along with it, but–
How had they done it? That marcher looked like that dead boy from Russellville, the one whose name George had never learned. That one was the very image of Timmy Sims! And the one over there could be a twin to Eleazer Villines. George rubbed his eyes, regretting that his vision had failed him again so soon. He hurried down the stairs.
On the second floor, it struck him like a blow in the face. It had crept up the back stairs and waited like a warm python in the air between the bedrooms. The smells of Adeline’s cooking had come out of the walls and become tangible, another ghost to haunt him while he watched the marchers. But … it seemed so real, as real as the smell of that dog that he and the other starving prisoners had roasted at Rock Island. He’d dented his bugle when knocking the poor thing in the head. There couldn’t have been time to fire up the old range while he’d been in the attic; yet, the house enclosed an unmistakable wood cooking stove tang.
He squared his shoulders. He’d faced enough phantoms for one day. Surely, he had the strength for one more meeting. He marched down the steps.
She stood beside the stove, wearing the frilly apron that she’d always saved of Sundays. She was twenty again, holding a warm pan of biscuits in one hand, as the morning sunlight streamed through the open back door. From somewhere outside came the sounds of children playing.
He was across the kitchen and in Adeline’s arms in a single move, not questioning that he wasn’t limping anymore. Her dress rustled as he hugged her, but there was no creaking of joints from either of them.
A shadow fell from the doorway. George looked up into the face of Zechariah Smith, at least the face he would have had at twenty-five, without the scar from an infected splinter thrown by Federal cannonball. Zack stood as straight as George did, not bent or senile, as George had last seen him.
“C’mon,” he said, “the Boys are waitin’.”
George walked to the back door, his arm still around Adeline’s waist. The column in gray stood in the sunlight, a sunlight that would last until that Last Trumpet was indeed blown. There were no stains on the crisp uniforms and all the metal gleamed. Only the guns were missing, replaced by staffs of shining white.
Every man of them would someday have to answer for the deeds done in his body, but for now, the spirit of the South had been judged, and some of it had been found worthy to preserve in Abraham’s bosom until all of Earth was erased. Guns had no place in that preservation. Beyond the hills, there’d be other towns, where Maine and Michigan farm-boys marched in blue coats, from the Northern ranks, from a time early in the war when the purity of preserving that Union hadn’t been devoured by hate and revenge.
Behind George, the announcer from the old brown radio spoke. “George Jefferson Franklin, the last surviving Confederate war veteran from Arkansas, died today, August 10th, 1956, at the Home for Arkansas Veterans. He was one hundred six.”
George stepped onto his back porch and raised the bugle to his lips. He blew “assembly,” but not for the last time.
Seventy-one-year-old John Deakins is a retired science teacher, having spent 40 years in the classroom. He’s the author of five fantasy novels, a dozen book-length religious commentaries and 50 short stories. Over the decades of school’s-out summers, he’s been everything from a chemical tester in a post-treating plant to a swimming pool manager to a cook to a groundskeeper. This story originated as an idea from a civil-war historian three decades ago. It won a local writing contest and placed second in a national contest. It also sold to a magazine (which never saw print). Old writers never retire, and a good story never dies.