As soon as I saw it, it all came back and I was awash in shame.
I grew up in small town Iowa, and Bob’s Coffee Shop was there when I left some thirty years ago, so it was a shock to discover that not only was it still there and in business, Bob was still behind the counter!
But it wasn’t Bob of course. He would have been well over a hundred, and the man behind the counter was younger than me. Then I remembered Bob’s son, old-what’s-his-name. By the look on his face, he remembered me too, so I sat at the counter.
“I think I may know you.”
I nodded. “You’re Bob’s son, right?”
He grinned and offered his hand. “Dave Candless.”
I took it. He had a firm grip. “Bill Grayson. I lived here years ago.”
I pointed at the old cane mounted on hooks over the door. “I recognize that. It belonged to old George Pranger, right?”
He nodded. “He passed on in 1988 from his wounds.”
His wounds? My god, what had I done?
As kids, we used to make fun of the shambling figure who once used the simple cane now hanging in a place of honor. His legs barely held him up, and his face had been ruined by some event we knew nothing about. But how he came to be that way didn’t matter to a pack of unmerciful boys, reveling in another human’s misfortune. We yelled insults, and then looked at each other for approval. In return, old man Pranger simply smiled and gave us a weak wave of his hand.
“His wounds? I guess I never knew about any wounds.”
Dave Candless regarded me silently, and I was beginning to feel uncomfortable when he finally leaned over and put his forearms on the counter. He spoke quietly and confidentially to me.
“He fought in World War Two as a sergeant with the 101st Airborne. He was one of the guys who parachuted into France just hours before the D-Day invasion began. He sprained his ankle on landing, but he just wrapped it tightly and kept going. Later, he charged a machine gun because it was firing on his men, and wiped it out with grenades, but he himself was wounded by the shrapnel.”
He stopped and topped off my cup. The coffee was the same as I remembered, rich and strong. He watched as I added cream and sugar. Then he began again.
“He bandaged his own wounds and refused treatment from a medic. Then three days later, he stepped on a mine. It was one of those anti-personnel mines that GI’s called a ‘bouncing Betty’. When tripped, it came up a couple feet and went off. The purpose of that was to destroy a soldier’s manhood, and terrorize the enemy if you get my meaning.”
He looked at me and I nodded.
“George suffered that and severe wounds to his legs and arms. His face was heavily scarred by shrapnel and also badly burned. He came back home, and released his fiancé from her promise. He tried to find work, but no one would hire him, so he moved here and started writing for a living, mostly just pulp stuff, but enough to get by. More coffee?”
I shook my head, and started to say something, but the words wouldn’t come. I felt the hot tears forming in my eyes, and to my embarrassment, Dave slid a box of tissues across the counter. I wiped my eyes, and watched him open a drawer and take out an envelope. He placed it in front of me, and to my astonishment, it had my name on it in shaky printing.
“There are five other letters, but four are dead. Two of accidents, one suicide, and Jerry Brown was killed in Vietnam around 1970. That leaves just you and Frank Jackson, and Frank is doing life in prison.”
I opened it, and it was a short letter written in the same shaky script:
By the time you read this, I’ll probably be with God, and all healed up again. But I think it’s my duty to let you know that I never resented you boys, because you didn’t know any better. Hell, I might have done the same when I was a boy. Boys can be mean like that you know.
I don’t want you to feel bad about those days. You were just being boys, so I want you to forgive yourself because I forgave you instantly.
Oh, and if any of you want that old cane as a keepsake, just ask Bob or his son Dave.
For a long time, I could not speak for the lump in my throat, and Dave mercifully went about the business of running a café, occasionally glancing my way. At last, he walked back and placed his forearms on the counter in front of me again. I handed him the note and waved at him to read it. He did and then looked at me with a question in his eyes.
“I would like to have that cane, Dave, if it’s agreeable. I too am a writer, so I’d like to dig into the archives and give George Pranger the recognition he deserves.”
I placed the carefully wrapped cane in the trunk of my car and took a long last look at the run down main-street of the small town I once called home. I started to walk around the car when my bad knee gave out, and for a moment, I was unable to move for the pain. Then I hobbled around to the driver’s door and was easing myself in when I heard a boy’s voice and laughter.
“Hey guys! Look at that old cripple! Stand up and walk right old man!” There were six of them. They laughed again and slapped each other on the back.
I smiled and waved at them. Hell, they were just boys.
Dedicated to George Pranskunas, 1888 – 1974.