The Red Butterfly, Part Nineteen – Time To Go Home
A few years later, after I joined the army and had gone to Vietnam a boy and then returned home a broken man, I made a trip to Lake Michigan.
Jim T. had been living on a twenty-foot houseboat in the middle of the lake for thirty years. When I arrived via motorboat, a gaunt, shirtless man with a long snow-white beard greeted me. He reached down and hauled me up to the deck. I was surprised by the strength of his knotty hands, which belied his withered appearance; I could see almost every rib of his torso under the stretched thin skin like some sort of old withered lizard.
“So how was Vietnam?” he said.
“Not good,” I said. We walked out of the watery-bright sun and into the dank coolness of the cabin. It took a few seconds for my vision to adjust to the dim light and I was slightly disoriented and the walls were bursting with color.
“Yeah, that’s a bad one, Vietnam. Kill any children?” The Question was casual, like asking about the weather or the state of the stock market. “You know it’s a bad one when you’re killing children. Coffee?” He started to pour me a cup before I could reply.
The cabin was covered with bright colored paintings. There were hundreds of them, all done on thick, rough and heavy textured paper. They depicted mountain scenes, olive groves, sunsets and nightscapes. I looked at each and every one, as best I could, some I stared at for a long time, others I passed over quickly, until I finally came to the one I was looking for. It was a small faded watercolor depicting a young man on the side of a mountain; backpack, sleeping bag, rifle, hollow eyes shadowed, and bits of blond hair peeking from under his helmet, a bridge in the valley.
“That one from memory,” said Jim T. handing me a cup of the black coffee, thick as mud.
“When did you paint it?”
“About ’53 maybe.”
“From memory, you say?”
“Who is it?” I asked.
“Now come here, do you think I’m stupid? You know exactly who that is,” he said. “Come over here, look at this one. He directed me to another painting depicting a broad open plane littered with small figures brandishing rifles, explosions and splayed bodies. “I call this one ‘The Theater of War,’ look at this,” He pointed to a tiny, highly detailed depiction of a wheeled canon. “See that? Know what that is?”
“A French 75”
“That’s right, we had just one, piece of shit, that thing was older then than I am now. How about these?” he said, pointing at the rifles.
I studied the painting, staring hard at the minuscule running soldiers. “They look like Lebels.”
“Yep, that’s right, can you believe it? We had Lebels and a French 75, built in the eighteen-eighties. They gave us single bolt rifles and an old cannon, probably used in the First World War for the most important battle up to that point. Half of the Lebels didn’t even work.”
“Oh, there was no Jesus that day, look at what the fascists are using,” He said
I began to see the difference between the figures on the page; the fascist soldiers had the newer German issued rifles and machine guns—MP18’s, Maschinegewehr, and French model Hotchkiss guns. Their uniforms were crisp, not torn and worn out, like those of the Lincoln Brigade. “We had no chance.”
“I see that.” I said.
“Still, I survived, I wouldn’t want to fight with what you kids are fighting with today.”
“No, you wouldn’t.”
“What are you using these days? Everybody’s got a machine gun, Napalm, agent orange, Jesus, agent orange.”
“I know it,” I said
‘Let me give you a bit of advice, don’t have any kids, that little fucker will come out with three eyes and a little sister conjoined at the head. They’ll be sharing a brain and a little tiny heart.”
“Jungle warfare’s pretty bad.”
“I prefer the open field, at least we can see each other and I know who’s shooting at me and from where.”
“I hear that.” I said.
“Lemme see that picture,” said Jim T
I reached for my wallet and took out the old photograph and handed it to him. I kept the picture with me everyday since my mother had given it to me in St. Louis. It came with me to Vietnam where I walked through chest high water and crawled in shit filled caves. Jim T. studied it closely.
“Yep, I got it just right, how about that.”
“Yes you did.”
“Pretty damn impressive.”
He studied the photograph for some time, then turned it over and read the inscription. “I took this photograph,” he said, “Right before he went to blow up that bridge. Man, what a clusterfuck that was.” He handed me the photograph. “It was doomed from the start, we couldn’t get weapons, he didn’t have enough dynamite, and then some idiot with those anarchist irregulars up in the mountains stole and threw away his charges the night before the attack was to take place. But it didn’t matter, he still had to go ahead with it.” I pulled up a chair and sat next to him. Jim T. reached toward a small table where he had a bottle of whiskey and offered it to me. I took it and took a long drink from it and handed it back to him. He did the same then poured a little into his coffee and recapped it and put it back on the table. “He got that bridge blowed up but not before he took a licking from the fascists, he was totally exposed on that bridge, blowed it up practically by hand, what with the charges being gone and whatnot. He was shot up. But he got it blowed up, so that no more fascists could cross that bridge and go to Jarama. They had tanks that was ready for us, but those tanks never made it, but it didn’t matter.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because they had planes.”
“That’s some bad luck,” I said.
“Sure was, tore us to shreds, planes don’t need no bridge. Your father helped your mother and the rest of the group that had survived get away. He knew she was already pregnant with you, he must have. You were practically in that war yourself. He saved the two of you. The fascists were chasing them down but your father held them back long enough for them to get away. I met up with your mother later, as planned, by me and your papa. I helped her get her papers and had her shipped over here. I haven’t seen her since, lovely woman, how is she?” he said.
“Damn, what from? Did the cancer get her?”
“Yeah, It did, I was in Vietnam, I got a letter when she died.”
“Ain’t that a bitch.”
Jim was silent. He took at sip of his coffee, stood up and went to the painting of my father. Took it off the wall and handed it to me. “Here, you can have this one, on me.” I took the painting and felt the rough edges of the thick paper. The painting was remarkably accurate.
“You should go home son,” said Jim T.
“No, I mean really go home, not to St. Louis, that ain’t home, I mean home for real, son,” he said. He leaned forward on his chair and pointed at the painting. “You need to go there.”