Flashfiction: “He Had A Hard War”

In general, the flashfiction pieces I post on this blog are conceived and written based on something that struck me at that particular moment in time.  Whether that “call” to write comes from an image or a song or a written line, my flashfiction is generally a pretty immediate response.

The piece below is a bit different.  It is different because the line that gave me the “call” to write is one I read many years ago.  That line has stuck in the back of my mind because the pathos it evokes comes entirely from events that are “offscreen.”  The feelings it brings are those of memory, of things hidden and things forgotten.  It touches, also, on that feeling of uncertainty you get when you realize just how little you truly know about those around you.

As ever, I gave myself one hour to conceive, write and post the piece. I also gave myself a “limit” of 400 words, and managed to squeak in just under that with 397:

He Had A Hard War”

My uncle never talked much about the war.  His only stories had been about basic training, and the trouble he and his friends would get into.  Just how a man so given to practical jokes and petty rebellions could actually have gone on to serve, I never quite understood.

We weren’t close, my uncle and I.  But with no children of his own, and my pwn parents gone, I was all the family he had left.  It fell to me, then, to handle his affairs.

The accounts and minutiae of life had been the easiest, to be honest.  A few calls and forms and the changes were made.  The care home had been harder, a mess of bureaucracy and dead-ends until a helpful worker had cut through the bullshit and pushed the right buttons.

When I asked how, and why, she had gone to such lengths, her answer had been simple and heartfelt, “Semper fi.”

The hardest of all had been the storage unit.  Only after the housing and money and legal affairs had been handled did I work up the energy to deal with the all-but forgotten remnants of his life.  Most of it was sold or donated, until only a few boxes remained.

A photo album, then, buried behind the mementos of my uncle and father as kids.  The first picture was of my uncle in a dark blue uniform, starched and pressed and trying to look as impressive as he could.  Gone was the paunch and the tired face, and in their place…a man impossibly young, bursting with energy.  There were more pictures, of course.  Pictures of him with others, all as young and vibrant and alive as was he in those pictures.

The pictures stopped, however, about halfway through that album.  Page after page, all empty of pictures.  Why?  My uncle had lived a good life before age had caught up with him.  Where were the memories of that part of his life?  I had found other photos, from more recent days, but none of those albums had been as worn and well-thumbed as the one in my hand.

I paged back, then, to study the final photo.  A small armored vehicle in the foreground, about ten yards away — presumably his — and in the background…

In the background an eruption of black smoke, pouring from vehicles twisted and wrecked.

{Note 1 — A real world example of the line I talked about above: I met a man, once, in my old coffee shop.  He was an old man, stooped and slow.  We had never really interacted beyond the normal smiles and morning greetings of those who regularly haunt the same place.  Our acquaintance would never have gone beyond that, except that I happen to be a history nerd.  The man’s car had a license plate that struck me one morning, when I saw him climb out.  That plate bore not a random collection of numbers and letters, but a US Navy hull number.

It was a hull number that I knew*, by the way.  The number of a ship involved in one of the biggest battles in US Navy history.  A ship that, along with her partners in a little escort group, sacrificed herself to shield the big, lumbering, vulnerable assets she had been assigned to protect.  I finally worked up the courage to sit and talk with this quiet, little man…to ask him, with all the fear and hesitation in the world, about his ship.  And he told me.  He told me about the ship, and about his friends.  Over the course of the anecdotes and funny stories, he told me also about that fateful day…

*I knew the ship because I have a picture of her above my desk.  Take a moment, if you will, and click the link to check out DD-533, USS Hoel.}

{Note 2 — Oh, the line in question, the one that spawned this post?  It’s the freaking title.  Believe it or not, that line comes from “Goblet of Fire,” the fourth book in the Harry Potter series.  Now, that book is to my mind the best of the series because it marks the first time you have real depth of emotion and loss in those books.  It is when the series moves beyond the pointless silliness of kids’ books and starts to introduce “grown-up” elements that resonate in ways beyond the grinning nostalgia of “Sorceror’s Stone.”  Although the line itself is something of a “throwaway” from the book’s prologue, I have always found it a fantastically effective bit of characterization crammed into just five words.}

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