It was a quiet Florida morning. We had been putting up bunting the day before and talking about the Dunedin Fourth of July Parade that was this morning and suddenly the letter came and there I was thinking about Dr. Rivers and Craiglockhart. It was like that when I got the telegram about my father. I was in England in 1915 and we had been working on improving the mount for the Lewis gun on the Coastal Motor Boat. It was a normal day when we were planning to go out to the pub later and then the private came with the telegram that said my father had died and my mother asking me to come home. That was seven years ago and I get things mixed up. Not the facts, but something like Rivers dying would come along and then I would think of my father, then of the salient, then I would wonder how long I had been sitting there. Much better now than it used to be when I would lose an hour before I knew I’d lost it and the feeling would stay for a day or two or three. Now it had to be something big, like Rivers dying and I know to ride it out. Still I was thinking about Dad and the soldiers at the salient and how Rivers had helped me to get hold of that.
I thought of it this morning as I rode in the open car wearing my Royal Naval Air Service uniform and the DSC and Croix de Guerre that Rivers convinced me to accept. Then some ass leaned towards the car and asked why I wasn’t wearing an American uniform & Sheriff Young pushed him back and I wished Dr. Rivers were there for me to talk to after, but he wouldn’t be there anymore.
I don’t think I would have done the damn parade if not for Sheriff Young asking. They had some soldiers from the Army (from St. Petersburg and Clearwater and all around) and behind them a few Telephone Girls in their uniforms holding a banner to say who they were. Somewhere further behind us, ten or fifteen Negro soldiers marched in the parade and the Negroes from Clearwater would cheer when they passed. The white soldiers wore their uniforms and marched on foot in front of us except for the young guy who sat next to me who’d lost half of his face at Belleau Wood or so they said. Seemed like every American soldier fought at Belleau Wood but mostly those were Marines but it didn’t matter where you got it or if you made it through without getting it. I tried to talk with him but he had to turn his head to see me and hear me and I would have just moved to his other side but they wanted his good side towards the parade people and the side with the fake face towards me. I should have walked but I knew I’d make maybe a mile and my hip and knee would hurt and I’d have to sit down or ask for help and this way I could ride and take care of the corporal who kept calling me Lieutenant Wilson, which sounded odd because all the Brits called me Leftenant and that’s how I got used to the word. I asked him about what they said about Belleau Wood and he said
“Hell, no. I got clobbered coming up to the line somewhere near Fontenoy . . . “
“—south of Arras, isn’t it?”
“I think so. South of Amiens, St. Quentin. Near Soissons. They took me to hospital in Amiens. We’d come through there earlier.”
“I flew mostly north of there in early seventeen,” I said.
“I was there in July eighteen. That’s where I got it.” He pointed to his face. If you didn’t look carefully at it, you couldn’t tell it was fake. “You?” he pointed to my cane.
“Oh, over Plouvain, best as I can figure it. We’d had a patrol behind the lines near Arras and a DIII jumped me.” He looked at me quizzically with his good eye and tilted his head. “An Albatros,” I said. “The DIII was new then and I didn’t expect him.”
“Ah,” he said.
“What did you do?”
“I was a machine gunner with a bunch of Italians from New York. It took me two months to understand what they were saying but they were nice enough fellows once you got used to how they ‘tawked.’” He was trying to scratch up and under the fake face.
“Yeah. Especially when I sweat.”
“Where’d you get it? I saw some of the Brits and the Poilu with stuff like that.” He looked at me with his good eye for a second, the glass eye staring at me from behind the glasses that held the whole contraption on.
“They had me in an American hospital over there but a French doctor and a woman came one day and fitted it. She came every day for a couple of weeks. She was the one who made sure it fit and then painted it to match my skin and chose the glass eye so the color matched my good one. See?” He faced me and pointed to each eye and they were a good match. Ahead, the high school band played a marching arrangement of “Over There.” The corporal and I looked at each other. He smiled with his half a face. I smiled because he was the only one there who had an idea what I had gone through. In spite of missing half his face, though, he seemed ready to smile, to joke. He seemed to have completely avoided the wind-up. To look at me, though, you’d think I had come through unscathed. I wore my cap, uniform with the pilot’s wings and my two medals. I had received two proposals from local girls during the times I had to wear the uniform. At 29, I seemed a good catch, or at least looked like something they wanted to believe about the world. The corporal was probably a much more balanced fellow and was only twenty or so. But they turned their faces from him when they saw us together. Wouldn’t even talk with him when he addressed them directly in his slightly slurred voice, but I heard them say once they’d got out of earshot “oh, that poor, poor boy. Can you imagine living with such a, a, . . . deformity!” And yet they talked to me as if I were the one who came home whole.
At the end of the parade, we were escorted out of the car and into the church event room. They served coffee and lemonade. When the Negro soldiers tried to come in, someone escorted them around to the back where a table was set for them. The mayor and the old men came around and shook our hands. Two of them were from the War Between the States. One wore a grey kepi and a grey uniform shirt.
“Love’s 4th Cav.,” he said from behind a broad grey mustache. “We were at Little Round Top. Welcome home, young man.”
“Thank you, Sir.” The corporal saluted him and the old man saluted back.
“No need for that, young man. I’m a soldier like you,” he said and I knew he was hinting at my wings and my rank. I nodded at him and the other old man and they walked off, the Confederate soldier leaning on his cane to support a stiff right leg. His friend stared at the flag for a moment until the Confederate pulled his sleeve and they moved on. We must have been at that reception for another four hours. I hoped that the Telephone Girls would come in but they must have gone on after the parade. We ate lemon bars and drank iced tea. We had barbeque. The newspaper boy took pictures of us in front of the flag with the old men. The mayor shook our hands. The two girls we saw in the parade came around again. One was a tall blonde in a floating sundress and pretty blue eyes. The other, a brunette, was shorter and brown-eyed and wore a floral dress.
“So,” said the blonde, running her hand up and down my lapel, “how many Germans did you shoot down, Lieutenant Wilson?” She was looking at the name tag on my chest. I’ll bet you’re a hero—what do they call it, Alice?—an ace?”
“You know, I don’t remember,” I said. “Corporal, the young lady wants to know how many Huns I’ve killed.” The corporal just smiled with half his face. “I’ll bet you have some stories to tell, corporal.” He half-smiled again.
“I can tell you about seeing the Champs-Elysees and the Eiffel Tower, and how it is to be strolling through Paris as the sun goes down over the Seine and the cafes come alive with couples drinking wine and people playing music.” He was half-slurring many of his words, but the man was a poet, a romantic, and the women began to shift their gazes to him. “I spent hours with the Cezannes and Monets. One night, on leave, I danced with three different French girls. I was a sight in my American uniform!”
“This uniform right here?” the brunette said and rested her hand on his sleeve.
“No, they had to replace it after I was wounded. Anyway—the four of us spent the rest of the night in the clubs and cafes, me not speaking any French and them speaking barely any English! We greeted the morning with a bottle of wine on the banks of the Seine. Later that day, I got shipped to the front.”
“Oh, to be in Paris!” the blonde said. “Clubs and cafes and dancing all night!”
“And the Eiffel Tower and all the lights!” the brunette said. “What did you say you did in the war, honey?”
“I was a machine gunner,” the corporal said.
“Not in the cavalry on horses?”
“We didn’t do that sort of thing much. A Hotchkiss will make a mess of a cavalryman!” He said that mostly to me. I gave a small grin. I thought of what my Vickers had done to German infantry. The French soldiers I saved likely had a Hotchkiss. The brunette, Alice, said under her breath, “kiss!” and nudged the blonde, who giggled. Someone on the piano began to play “Pretty Baby” and the blonde took my cane and leaned it against the wall and pulled me to the area they’d cleared for dancing.
“I have a bad leg, you know.”
“You leave that to me, honey,” she said. “I took a class in high school so I could be a nurse assistant. You just lean on me.” We swayed gently on the floor. Alice stood awkwardly next to the corporal until he led her to the floor. They danced close, his good cheek next to hers, then he began to move her gracefully, his feet light, his hands holding hers up.
“You’re quite the dancer, corporal!” I called as they came near.
“When I get the chance!” he called as he spun by me and the blonde. She leaned in close to my ear.
“We should go to a place I know. Up in Sutherland. You game?”
I nodded and soon the four of us were knocking on the door of a big house in Sutherland and the blonde told the person at the door “hummingbird” and they let us in. Inside, a big radio was playing and people were drinking beer and whiskey.
“Wouldn’t you heroes prefer a drink while we dance?”
I gave the bartender some money and the corporal and I had a beer. The girls were already drinking gin like they had done this a dozen times before. We danced, we drank. Sometime after midnight, the four of us ventured out onto a patio behind the house under a full moon. The blonde snuggled herself under my arm. She kissed me and I kissed her back, drew her to me by putting my hand on the narrow part of her waist. Over her shoulder, I could see the corporal slow dancing with the brunette to a Paul Whiteman tune. “Stairway to Paradise,” I think. The song was bouncing along and they were moving half as fast, as if they were hearing a different song.
Then, everything went bad. He leaned in to kiss her. She closed her eyes and her hand went up to his face, only to find the fake side of his face. The prosthesis came off, hanging by the glasses that held it on. Beneath was the collapsed eye socket, the scarred place that used to be a cheekbone before the shell had struck him. At first, four glasses of gin and tonic gone, the brunette seemed to recoil more from embarrassment than anything, but then she saw the scars and the hollowed-out crater of his face and her own face twisted into disgust.
“Oh!” she cried out.
“It’s okay,” the corporal said, trying to calm her.
“Oh, you’re—“ she struggled to put what she was seeing into words, “you’re a, a—“ he put the prosthesis back and she reached out to touch it, then recoiled as if she’d touched a poisonous snake. “Just monstrous!” she said, and staggered back. She put her hands over her face and cried and pointed—“Monster!” Perhaps she wouldn’t have said that if she were sober. Maybe I wouldn’t have said anything if I had been sober, but I disentangled myself from the blonde and was between them before I knew what I was doing. I pushed her down into a wicker chaise lounge.
“Heartless fucking bitch!” I said. Then the blonde was pulling at me and hitting me on the back and brunette was crying and soon the corporal and I were escorted out the back door of the house by two large men wearing automatics and an older man told them “we don’t want to be seen roughing up veterans on the 4th of July, but make sure they don’t come back.” One of the big men handed me my cane and I thought for a moment of hitting him with it. But I was just feeling tired.
The corporal and I walked south towards Dunedin.
“You can stay with me tonight and head back to St. Petersburg in the morning. Fucking bitches.” The guy gets his face blown off, then dances like Arthur Murray crossed with Bojangles Robinson and this bitch calls him a monster. Fuck them. “Fuck them,” I said. “Fuck them.”
“Your leg okay?” the corporal asked. I was limping.
“Yeah. I’m just tired. We’ll rest in a little while. I’m sorry about those bitches. Sorry about all of that. We shouldn’t have gone out. We shouldn’t have expected anyone to understand anything.” Poor guy all busted up and they have to treat him like a freak. Like they treated me when they found out what Craiglockhart was. Fuckers. Patriotic assholes.
“You can’t let it bother you,” the corporal said.
“You can’t, Rusty. They don’t know shit and they’re scared. Not of my face or your leg, but of what they get a hint of from seeing missing legs and arms and minds. They want to believe in the heroes and aces and uniforms and medals, but they don’t want to believe there’s a world that can do this.” He pointed to his face, now without the prosthetic.
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess you’re right. But it’s hard to live around them every day when they act like Fanny Bryce is the only thing that means anything.”
“Me,” the corporal said, “I feel sorry for them.” He scratched the face that had been blown away. “For them, they worry about ‘what if the world was to be evil? What if people could really be that bad?’ But we know how things are so we can enjoy a drink, a fine moon, a walk home with a friend.”
“You’re pretty goddamned smart for a corporal,” I said. He laughed a little. We sat on a big stone that overlooked St. Joseph Sound. I stretched out my bad leg.
A Fulbright fellow (Albania, 2011) and Pushcart nominee, Gregory Byrd’s poetry and prose have appeared widely, recently in Baltimore Review, Apalachee Review, and Puerto del Sol. “Independence Day, 1921” is from the World War I novel manuscript Where Shadow Meets Water, about a pilot from Florida. A second novel from the same period, Long Train Home to Scarborough, concerns a young woman reporter. Greg’s recent poetry chapbook, The Name of the God Who Speaks, won the Robert Phillips Prize from Texas Review Press. Greg teaches writing and humanities at St. Petersburg College in Clearwater. Visit Gregory online at http://www.gregorybyrd.org.