This story is by Terry Hamilton and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
From the outside, Gulliver’s Tavern looked exactly the way I remembered it. I’m not sure how long I gazed at the brick and mortar before I raised my hand to touch the beat up mahogany door.
At one time, it had been my favorite watering hole. Now, I felt nothing. Not even the wood beneath my palm.
When a large man with bushy hair and a herringbone jacket slipped by me, I didn’t feel that either. As he opened the door, cheers and laughter flooded out from the barroom. Tears stung my eyes and blurred my vision. I didn’t know why.
I stood back and stared at the man holding the door. There was something familiar about him. The hair? The jacket? Something. Then, it hit me.
I was back in Iraq, March 18th, 2004. I remember the date because it was Mike’s 23rd birthday. We had been best friends since we were 12 years old when he rescued me from the schoolyard bully. Nobody would mess with Mike. Until that day in the trenches in Iraq.
It was overcast. Rain drizzled down on us for the third consecutive day. Six of us were in the jeep including Mike and me. Sniper fire swept the dirt road in front of us kicking up dust and gravel.
The ping, ping, ping of bullets against metal sent us scrambling out of the jeep. We dove into the ditch on our right. Seconds later, the jeep was blown to pieces.
Bullets whistled overhead. They pounded the earth all around us. Another crack right next to me. Mud splattered. Then another. And another. And another. I heard a stifled moan. I turned my head to see Billy looking at me through the eyes of a frightened child. His face contorted. His body arched. Then, he went limp. His eyes were vacant. Just like that, Billy was gone.
With less than a minute to mourn for Billy, for his family, a searing pain tore into my left thigh. Blood bubbled from the wound. I pressed the heel of my hand into it to control the bleeding. Pain exploded through my body. The blood kept flowing.
In the very next moment, a grenade dropped to the mud between Mike and me. All of the men stared at it wide-eyed and silent. In all the years I knew Mike, it was the first time I ever saw fear on his face. His ruddy complexion turned the color of cigarette ashes. He fisted a wad of dirt. Crabgrass poked through the spaces between the white of his knuckles.
I looked into Mike’s blank, staring eyes, pulled back to see the men; the boys. Byron, Dale and Graham. And, of course, poor, dead Billy. I looked at my leg. I prayed that Alice, my wife of six months, would forgive me for what I was about to do. My mother. My father. I breathed in the damp cold air. I rolled onto the grenade, chest first.
Yeah. I knew who was inside that herringbone jacket. I followed him into a jam-packed barroom. Cheers filled the room. From the back wall, I watched Mike’s jacket weave its way through the crowd.
He climbed onto the bar. With a somberness that didn’t befit him, he raised a beer mug in the air. “To Johnny.”
Throughout the barroom, at least a hundred beer mugs raised in harmony with Mike’s. A cheer rang out in unison. “To Johnny.”
Mug in hand, Mike stretched his arm to his right, indicating a picture on the wall. It was me in uniform, smiling against a backdrop of the American flag.
To the left of the picture hung a much smaller frame. Within it was a medal consisting of a five pointed star adhered to a gold bar at the foot of an eagle.
Mike cleared his throat. “I wouldn’t be standing before you today without Johnny’s quick thinking and willingness to sacrifice his life for his friends and comrades.”
He rubbed his fingers beneath his eyes. “I saw that grenade. I froze. We all did. Except for Johnny.”
Mike nodded to someone at the foot of the bar. My mother turned her face to the group. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She didn’t wipe them away. She didn’t speak. I ached to hug her. But, by now, I knew that wouldn’t be possible.
Alice stood between my mother and father followed by Byron, Dale, and Graham. Then, Alice turned to reach her hand toward Mike. He took it and pulled her up beside him. With one arm around her, he looked to the crowd. “Does everyone know Alice?”
The group cheered for her. I did too. Mike gave her a squeeze. “Let’s thank Johnny’s beautiful wife, Alice, and his parents for so graciously allowing us to display Johnny’s Medal of Honor here so we can share it with everyone who loves him.”
Everyone clapped. Mike asked Alice if she wanted to say anything. She shook her head and mouthed the words, “I love you, Johnny,” into the air. I spoke the words out loud even though I knew she couldn’t hear me. “I love you too, Alice.”
It might have been the surge of emotion that caused the light above me to flicker. I’ll never know for sure. After that, Mike looked straight at me for several seconds. Then, he smiled. He knew I was there.
Even as he returned his attention to the gathering, and spoke his heart, the smile never left his face. “Johnny told me on countless occasions that for our lives to be truly valuable, we must leave the world a better place than it would have been without us. Johnny did that in many ways.
“Most of us will never have to make the ultimate sacrifice that Johnny made but we all have the opportunity to change lives. Every single day, let’s do our best to remember Ronald Reagan words, “Nobody can help everyone but everybody can help someone.”