We start our climb to the east. I inhale the scent of cypress trees; they smell fresh and clean enough to eat. It’s a sharp contrast to my mind, which has gone from diseased to rotten. Five days ago, we left Mr. Doyer along the side of the road. I was sure I’d see him again.
“Hey, you got me into this mess; otherwise, I’d still be on the road crew. You can’t walk out on me.” I hoisted him under my shoulder from the litter and hauled him over to a shady spot against a smooth tree trunk.
“I ain’t actually walking out on you, Harry. If you notice, I’m flat on my butt.” His fever was so high, he’d drained his own canteen and mine. It had to be mite typhus or malaria.
“I can’t just leave you here. I’ll wait a bit.” I sat down in the dirt, and we watched the leaf-cutter ants parade in front of us for what seemed like hours. The sun rose high in the sky.
Finally, Doyer complained. “Harry, you know the drill. You have no choice. A light plane will fly down from Myitkyina, and I’ll be back to Ledo by nightfall. They’ll probably shoot me up with some sugar water, then, in a couple of weeks, stick a gun in my hand and send me back out. Count on it.”
That’s not what happened. This evening, they radioed the bad news. I didn’t know I could sink any lower, but I did. Soon, those he loved will learn what we already know, and a telegram is no substitute for a son. I’ve pulled out my pen because I need to tell them what Joe meant to us, to me.
Do they know about his nine medals? Or how, in World War I, he was trapped in a cemetery with mortar shells shattering tombstones in all directions, and still led his men to safety? Then, in Lille, he fastened a telephone wire to himself, swam the Canal du Nord, and established the line on the far bank so that his comrades could pull themselves hand-over-hand to the other side. I bet they don’t know that, when he volunteered for the Marauders at age forty-seven, he was told the age limit was thirty-eight but didn’t take no for an answer. Then, at Myitkyina, he received an even dozen slugs of shrapnel in his legs, chest, and elbow. He was never one to brag, and he was always there to help.
Every soldier wants to be a hero, but it takes something exceptional to actually become one. Joseph Doyer was no ordinary man. I remember when I joined the Marauders, Joe immediately asked me how I felt and where I was from, and let me know what to expect. He didn’t snow me or belittle me. After one eighteen-mile hike that made us all glad to hit the ground, Joe built a fire, cooked up some three-day rations, and fed a young soldier sick with Typhus. This war was hard on him, but he died as he wanted to in war times.
He was in the saddle that shaped his entire life, moving forward to protect those he loved. Joe was a model GI and a father when some of us needed it most. I cannot put in words how much we’ll miss him.
As I reread the letter, I know something’s missing. The pen wrote the words, but my heart refuses to accept them. I want to just walk away. Isn’t that what I did five days ago, when I left him on the road? I pushed myself off the ground and said, “I best be going. Can’t be late for war.”
Doyer didn’t answer. He didn’t even call out a glib farewell, pretending all would fine.
And I wouldn’t let myself think it could be any other way. Damn him. Why didn’t I say goodbye?
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