by Robin Hamblin-Fuller
They had spent the afternoon sitting on the porch in the sun, the old man telling his grandson, James, stories of "when I was a lad your age"... something the lad himself enjoyed listening to every time he visited.
It let him know he wasn't the only one in the family that got into trouble and mischief at his tender age of ten years old. In fact, from the accounts of his grandpa's childhood, it seemed he was almost an angel by comparison, and it was no wonder grandpa's mother was always punishing him a lot.
They remained there, sharing the sunset together, another treat for the youngster, as his grandpa always played "shapes and colours" with him at that point, challenging him to see the imaginary things the old man could see.
Eventually, the twilight took over, and the chill of a late fall evening began, and the old man rose painfully from his seat, saying they should get indoors by the fire, before his old joints seized up, and that James would have to carry him in.
James always laughed at this idea. Despite the fact grandpa was in his eighties, and made a big play about being old and feeble, James knew full well the old man was as tough as nails, and too independant to have anyone do anything like that for him, but it made him feel good that the old man would entrust such a task to him.
Once inside the house, James spoke up. "Grandpa... it's almost Hallowe'en. Do you have any really scary stories you can tell me?"
The old man looked down at the expectant face, and smiled gently. "Yes Lad, I do. One I haven't told anyone for years, and guess you're old enough now to hear it. Sit yourself down in the chair, whilst I get something from the bureau."
James felt a thrill run through him. Whenever grandpa took something from the treasure chest in the drawer of that old antique, there was always a special story attached to it. Photos, knicknacks and such, the old man had collected over the years of his life, each had its own meaning to him, and he willingly shared them with James from time to time.
The old man returned with a dark velvet case, something that looked like a glasses case, only fancier, and he handed it to James, saying quietly "Open it up lad, take a peek inside."
James did so, and there it lay on red silk, the medal his mother had told him about. He read the inscription "For Bravery and Valour," and looked up towards his grandpa's smiling face with even more admiration on his own.
He knew grandpa had been in the war, and his mother had always warned him not to speak of it to his grandpa, as it disturbed him. He also knew grandpa was a hero, but he could never imagine the old man as someone like Superman, or any of the superheroes he saw on TV. Now he was about to hear the old man's story, and he wriggled closer to the edge of the chair in anticipation.
The old man settled back in his chair, and began his tale, with James hanging on his every word.
"I didn't really earn that medal," he began. "It really belongs to someone else, but as they gave it to me, I keep it for him, in case he ever comes to claim it."
James was puzzled, and was about to ask what the old man meant, but the old man continued on before he could phrase the question.
"We were on patrol in the Atlantic ocean, guarding the convoys that were trying to get food and supplies to England from America, and our losses were high. The German U-boats were picking off ships like sitting ducks, and for a while, it began to look like we were going to lose the war by being starved of everything we needed to survive.
"I was a ship's engineer by then, and this was to be my first trip as a First class engineer, as I'd just been promoted... one of the youngest ever according to the records, and I was as proud as Punch of the position. I had responsibility, extra pay... not that it meant that much in war time... it was the rank that counted. Now I wasn't a 'grease monkey' any more, I was somebody in the ward room...
"The night was blacker than the inside of a coal hole, the weather was the worst we'd met for weeks, and most of us were already dead tired from lack of sleep, when it happened. Some lousy U-boat managed to get a torpedo off at us, and it hit us fair and square near the engine room. As luck would have it, we were low in the water when it hit, so the hole it made was in and out of the water at each pitch of the boat in the waves, otherwise we might have gone down in no time, there and then.
"I was on duty at the time, and saw the damage it had done, and I admit, honestly, for a moment, I panicked. I had visions of all of us below decks being trapped there, and drowned as the ship went down, when all of a sudden, I heard this roaring voice behind me... 'Come on lad, look lively, get the bleedin' thing bunged up!!' I turned around and there stood Charlie, my best mate, and the man who had taught me everything to help me get my rank. I shook off my fears, and got to work with him and the other lads to get a patch up and in before we shipped too much to save us."
Here, the old man went into a long and vivid description of what was done and how they did it. James barely understood much of what he heard, but he knew better than interrupt to ask what words meant, as it would mean his grandpa would lose the thread of the story, and he might never hear the conclusion of it.
At a point near the end of the story, the old man reached over and took the medal from the boy's enthralled grasp, saying, "So you see James... I didn't really earn this medal... Charlie did." And he fell silent.
James waited for a while, then finally broke the silence, "That's a pretty scary story Grandpa, and I thank you for telling me it... but Hallowe'en stories are really about scary ghosts and such."
The old man was still staring at the medal as James spoke, and as he turned towards the boy, and James noticed a strange light in the old man's eyes as he spoke. "I was coming to that part James"... the voice was emotionless.
"You see, because Charlie and I were both First class engineers, we had started off the convoy on different ships, and the one he was on had been torpedoed early in the patrol, and had gone down with all hands.
"So not only was Charlie not on my ship, he'd been dead in the water for over two weeks."
design ©2001 by Cindy Rosenthal
James' Halloween ©2001 by Robin Hamblin-Fuller
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