Stolen Memories

Here’s a new piece of fiction I just sat down and wrote after work tonight. No idea where this came from. Just a story, I guess. 

DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. All characters are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual people, alive or dead, is purely coincidental.

The old man was sitting by himself, cradling an intricately carved walking stick between his knees. A small leather satchel lay at his feet. He looked as if his body had shrunk with time, as if withdrawing into itself, leaving behind a topographic landscape of brown and leathery skin. His hair, the parts that peeked out from under his VFW uniform hat, was white as snow, as were his bushy eyebrows. His face was smoothly shaven. The gold embroidery of the VFW hat announced him as the commander of Post 2744 of Lawton, Oklahoma. His features were distinctly Native American. I wondered what tribe he was from. 

I watched his eyelids droop and his head nod as he drifted in and out of sleep. I was bored. Our flight had already been delayed twice and it was now four hours past the scheduled departure time with no estimate of when it would take off. I had been writing in my journal to pass the time. Nothing coherent or articulate, just notes and observations about the time and place, the people around me. Airports are fertile ground for people watching, and all writers are people watchers by nature. But after a few hours I ran out of interesting observations. There had been a fat girl eating Milk Duds, which struck me as funny for some reason. And a mother who was trying to bargain with her unruly son, offering him candy bribes if he would stop his bad behavior. I jotted down a note about children being little terrorists, and how you don’t bargain with terrorists. Rewarding bad behavior with bribes would just encourage more bad behavior, couldn’t she see that? I watched the employees change shifts at the bookstore nearby. I jotted a note about the beautiful Somali lady working at the Caribou Coffee.

A barely audible announcement came over the PA system. The airline was sorry to announce that our flight had been cancelled. We were being asked to approach the counter for further instructions. There were only a few other passengers around, most had wandered off within the vast shopping mall of an airport to pass the time somewhere else. I was the first to reach the counter. The flight to Rapid City had been cancelled entirely. There wouldn’t be another flight tonight, but the airline was offering hotel and meal vouchers and a $100 discount on a future ticket. There was no point in arguing, the airline employees were tired and exhausted and I knew that nothing would be gained by being a jerk to them. It wasn’t their fault, after all. I accepted the vouchers and started to leave.

As I was walking away I noticed the old man still sitting there, his head down and his eyes closed. He hadn’t heard the announcement. Feeling suddenly sentimental about my own grandfather, who had been a veteran and a VFW member, I sat beside him and gently shook him by the shoulder.

“Sir, excuse me, sir.” I said to him.

“Hmm, what is it? What’s going on?” he asked, jerking suddenly awake.

“I’m sorry to startle you sir. But the airline has cancelled the flight to Rapid City. Is that where you were heading? They made an announcement, but I think you were sleeping. They are offering a hotel and meal voucher, but there isn’t another flight until tomorrow.”

“Oh damn,” he said. “This isn’t good.” His voice was thick with sleep and he talked slowly. I thought to myself that he sounded like Chief Dan George, the actor. Same inflection. “I gotta get to Rapid. My boy’s waiting for me there.”

“Your son lives in Rapid City?” I asked. “That’s where I live.”

“No, he lives on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He’s a teacher in the BIA school. But he came up to Rapid to pick me up at the airport. Now what am I gonna do?”

“Do you have a cell phone?” I asked.

“Hell no! I could never see those little buttons. I got no use for those damn things.”

“Well do you have his number? I would be happy to call him from my phone. But first you should get your vouchers from the ticket desk before they leave, and make sure they get you booked on the next flight. Then we can call your son and give him the new arrival time.”

“Thank you. That’s very helpful. You’re awfully kind to an old man.”

I helped him stand up. He was wobbly from sitting too long and his knees popped loudly as he stood. I carried his satchel and helped him walk up to the counter.

“Your name, sir?” asked the lady behind the counter. She was a young Asian woman. Her name badge read Lucy Hu-Cheung

“Black Eagle. Dallas Black Eagle.”

“I’m sorry, what?” asked the young lady, clearly confused. “Which one is your last name?”

“Black Eagle.”

“Is that two words or one? And could you spell that?”

“Two words. Black as in the color black, and Eagle as in the bird that is the national symbol of the United States.” He spoke slowly and patiently, and it was apparent that he was used to this. “And my first name is Dallas, like the TV show with J.R.”

This elicited nothing but a blank stare from the woman, but I couldn’t stop myself from chuckling. “I don’t think she was born yet when Dallas was on TV, Mr. Black Eagle,” I said.

“Are you like a Native American or something?” she asked.

“Yes I am,” he said, “from the Comanche Nation.”

“Oh cool!” she said. “My boyfriend drives a Jeep Comanche.”

I looked at the old man to see how he would react but his face was completely expressionless.

After a few minutes of loudly pecking away at a keyboard the young lady said “Okay Mr. Dallas, here is your hotel voucher and your meal voucher. You are booked on the 9am flight tomorrow for Rapid City, okay?”

“Excuse me,” I interjected, “do you know what time that flight is due to arrive in Rapid? We need to inform Mr. Black Eagle’s son so he can meet him at the airport.”

“Certainly,” she said, “just give me one moment.” More loud keyboard torture followed. “It should be in Rapid City at 9:35”

“Is that local time?” I asked. “Rapid is in the Mountain time zone, they’re an hour behind us.”

“Yes,” she said, “all flight times are in the local time zone.

“Thank you very much for your help Miss Lucy,” Dallas said.

As we were walking away from the desk Dallas looked at me and winked and said “I called her that on purpose because she called me Mr. Dallas.” He was smiling a wry smile. I laughed.

“If you give me your son’s number I will call him now and let you talk to him.”

We took a seat while he rummaged through his leather satchel until he found a small black notebook. He flipped through the pages until he found the one he was looking for.

“Here it is,” he said, pointing at the name Lee Black Eagle in an address book with a South Dakota number written on the page.

I dialed the number and waited while it rang. After several rings a voice answered, “Hello? Who is this?”

“Mr. Black Eagle?” I said.

“Yes, who’s asking?”

“My name is Dirk Manly. I’m at the Minneapolis airport with your father. The flight to Rapid has been cancelled and postponed until tomorrow. Here, I’ll let you speak to your father.”

I handed the elder Mr. Black Eagle the phone.

“Where do I talk into?” he asked me, holding the phone out in front of his face.

“Just hold it up to your ear and talk like a regular phone, he can hear you.”

“Lee? Hey Lee-Boy! Can you hear me?” He was shouting at the phone. “Yeah I can hear you too. Hey listen, this damn no-good airline cancelled my flight and I’m stuck here in Minnesota until tomorrow. You gotta come get me in the morning. Yeah, I know it’s a damn long drive back to the rez. I’m sorry about that, but there’s nothin I can do. They say there ain’t no other plane that can get me there until 9:35 tomorrow in the morning. You got that? Yeah, 9:35 in the morning. Okay then I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said, handing the phone back to me.

I could hear Lee still talking, he hadn’t hung up yet. So I said “Lee? Yeah, this is Dirk again. This is my cell phone. I’ll be on that same flight with your father. If anything happens we’ll call you again in the morning, okay? Alright then have a good night.”

He thanked me for calling him and asked me to keep an eye on his father. He said he gets confused sometimes and if it wouldn’t be too much trouble if I would mind showing him to his hotel room and making sure he got back to the airport the next morning. I obliged, of course. We would be staying in the same hotel anyway. It wouldn’t be any trouble.

I wasn’t sure why I was helping out a total stranger. I guess I just felt like it was the right thing to do. I helped Dallas carry his bag and we made our way out of the airport to the waiting area for the hotel shuttle. After a couple of minutes the shuttle arrived and took us to a Radisson nearby. It was close enough to the airport that you could smell the jet fuel in the air and hear the rumble of jets taking off every few minutes.

I managed to get both of us checked into rooms adjoining each other. By that time it was almost 8pm and I was starving. We had meal vouchers for the hotel restaurant, so I asked Dallas if he wanted to go downstairs and have some dinner.

“Yeah,” he said, “that would be good. I’m so hungry I could eat a horse. Just give me a few minutes to wash my face.”

After about twenty minutes I knocked on his door. I had to knock several times. I figured he had fallen asleep. It took him about half a minute to open the door. I could hear him fumbling with the locks.

“Who’s that?” he shouted through the door.

“Mr. Black Eagle, it’s Dirk,” I said.

“Okay, David, just gimme a minute to figure out how to open this damn door. I never seen so many knobs and locks in all my life. It’s like Fort Knox.”

“Just turn the big door handle,” I instructed. “The door will unlock automatically.”

“Well I’ll be damned,” he said as the door opened. “How do you like that? This place is real fancy.”

He had removed his VFW hat. I could see now that he still had a full head of thick white hair, which was combed neatly, parted on the side. He smelled of soap and lavender hand lotion.

“Come on, David, let’s go hit the town,” he laughed. “The ladies better watch out with us two young fellers out on the prowl.”

I laughed and made sure he had his electronic door key before he shut the door behind him.

“Put that in your pocket and don’t lose it,” I said, “or you won’t be able to get back in your room. And my name’s Dirk, not David.”

“That’s okay, if I get locked outta my room I’ll just have to bed down with some little chickadee.”

“You’re sure a lively old feller,” I said.

“Nah, I just talk good is all. I don’t mean nothin by it. I ain’t never had but one woman in my heart and that was my Lydia, but she died two years ago.”

“I”m awfully sorry to hear that,” I said. “How long were you married?”

“Sixty-two years,” he replied. “Got married just before I shipped off to the war. We had our honeymoon in Oklahoma City and then it was three years later until I seen her again.”

“Where were you in the war?” I asked. “My grandfather fought in the Pacific. Army combat engineer.”

“I was in the European theater. North Africa and then Italy and then Normandy on D-Day.”

“You were in Normandy on D-Day? That’s amazing. It must have been awful.”

“It was the awfullest place I ever been in my whole life and I don’t never wanna think about it again. Seen my best friend David McHenry get his brains blown right of his head by a German sniper. I will never forget that.”

“Were you Army?”

“Yep, 4th Infantry. I was a Comanche Code Talker. You ever heard of the Code Talkers?”

“Yeah, I saw that movie last year about the Navajo Code Talkers. That one with Nicholas Cage.”

“Well did you know there was Comanche Code Talkers too? And I was one of them. We gave them Nazis hell trying to figure out what we was sayin. David was a Code Talker, too. Only he was a Seminole, so we didn’t talk the same code.”

By this time we had reached the restaurant and taken a seat. I ordered a beer and asked if I could by the old man a drink.

“I don’t drink alcohol no more, haven’t touched the stuff since 1946,” he said.

“Why not, health problems or what?” I asked, being uncharacteristically nosy.

“Nah, ain’t nothin wrong with my health,” he said. “But that stuff ain’t no damn good. I seen too many lives ruined because of it.”

I guess Mr. Black Eagle was feeling chatty that night, because he once he started talking he didn’t stop.

“Let me give you some advice, young man. You been awfully nice to an old man, and I can tell you’re a good man. Are you married?”

“No, I’m not. My girlfriend and I just broke up.”

“Was she a good girl?”

“The best. I’m a fool for losing her.”

“Then here’s my advice, David. Get her back. Do whatever it takes. Don’t ever let a good woman get away. My Lydia was the best woman that ever lived. She was full-blooded Kiowa, her folks was from up to Anadarko. You never seen a woman had such a temper as that gal, I tell you what. She was fiery. But she had a damn good heart. She gave me hell, boy I tell you. We was married right before I shipped out, remember? Well that whole time I was over there fightin them Nazis she was waitin for me. And everyone back home said her eyes never strayed on another feller, not even once. No sir. She went up to the Douglas airplane factory in Oklahoma City and built C-47’s during the war.  She was a damn hard worker. Saved every penny she made and put it toward buyin things for our house for when I came back from the war. Never would spend a dime on herself. Always said she was saving for a better day.

Well, I came back home in 1945 after the war was over and I wasn’t in too good a shape. Took to runnin around with some of the other fellers that had been over there in the war, drinkin and raising hell. I got a job making shoes in a shoe factory but I got fired after a few months for showing up drunk. Right about that time Lydia told me she was pregnant. We didn’t have hardly no money left, and I didn’t have a job. Spent all my nights out getting drunk, trying to erase my memories, I guess. I seen some bad things in that war, boy, I tell you what. Some damn bad things. Seen my best friend David McHenry get blowed up by a Japanese land mine at Iwo Jima, blowed his legs clean off. He was a Navajo Code Talker, like in that movie. I guess I thought that getting drunk would help somehow, but it didn’t help nothin at all.

Well, when she was about six months along, Lydia lost the baby. Miscarriage. The doctors said it was stress most likely. It was a little girl. We named her Margaret after my mother and buried her in the cemetery in Anadarko. The night after the funeral I got good and drunk. Came home and couldn’t even stand up. Fell down in the living room and just laid there. Crying like a fool. Bawling my eyes out. Thinking about all my buddies that never made it back. Like David McHenry, an Apache boy from Lawton, got himself drowned at Normandy on D-Day when he fell off the landing craft and sank like a rock, straight to the bottom of the ocean.

Lydia came out of the bedroom and found my laying there. Didn’t say nothin. Went in the kitchen and made a pot of coffee. Came back and got me propped up into a chair and started pouring hot coffee down me until I sobered up enough to talk. When I was together enough to make sense she came up to me, stuck her finger under my nose and says ‘Listen up you no good so and so. I don’t know what you been through, but I know it must have been hell. But you’re a man, goddammit. A Comanche man. You’re a Black Eagle. And you are better than this. Your grandfather and my grandfather fought together against Kit Carson at Adobe Walls. Do you think your grandfather would be proud to see you like this? Your grandfather that got himself killed by Kit Carson at Adobe Walls? Here you are drunk and covered in your own puke. You think our grandfathers cried after they fought the Army soldiers? After they seen their women and children killed like dogs? They didn’t drink themselves stupid. They were men. And so you are. And this is the end of it. No more. You hear me? No more.’

Well that was the last drink I ever took. Went out and got a job in the gas fields and worked every day for the next forty years. When Lydia got pregnant with Lee I took care of her. Made sure she didn’t have no stress. Made sure she stayed off her feet. And when he was born healthy and happy I was the happiest man that ever lived. Named him Lee David after my best friend David McHenry who was killed in the war.

So this is my advice to you. When you find that good girl, you don’t ever let her go, no matter what. You do whatever it takes to make her happy. Because a man’s life ain’t worth nothing if he ain’t got a good woman. You hear me? My Lydia was a damn fine woman. The best there ever was.”

We had finished dinner by this time and it was getting late. The restaurant was empty and it looked like they were ready to close. We went back upstairs and I told Mr. Black Eagle good night and thanked him for sharing his advice.

The next morning we were back at the airport in plenty of time. Our flight was on time and I helped him get on the plane and into his seat. They let us board first because he needed help and I was helping him. They just figured we were together. It was a short flight and he dozed off right after the plane took off and didn’t wake up again until we were descending into Rapid City.

“Where are we?” he said as he jerked awake, looking out the window of the plane.

“Just coming into Rapid City,” I said. You’ve been asleep since we left Minneapolis.

“My name is Dallas,” he said, reaching over to shake my hand.

“I know, you told me last night,” I said.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I just came from Oklahoma City this morning.”

“You don’t remember spending the night in Minneapolis?” I asked? I was wondering if he was just playing a joke on me.

“No, I ain’t never been to Minneapolis,” he said. His face was completely expressionless.

“Will Lee be meeting you at the airport?” I asked.

“Who’s Lee?” he said.

“Your son,” I replied. I was worried now. “We spoke to him on the phone last night. Told him to meet you at the airport this morning. Lee Black Eagle.”

“I knew a Lee Black Eagle once. He was killed in the war. But I don’t have a son. My name’s Dallas,” he said.

“Pleased to meet you, Dallas,” I said, and shook his hand.

When we had taxied up to the ramp and they opened the doors I let everyone else get off first before helping him up. I got his carved walking stick down from the overhead bin and carried his leather satchel for him.

“Say, David, you’re pretty nice for a young feller. Most young fellers these days ain’t got no damn manners at all. No respect for their elders.”

“My name’s Dirk,” I said. “And my grandfather was a veteran, he taught me to respect my elders.”

“That’s right,” he said, “Fought in the Pacific, right? Army combat engineer?”

“Yeah, I said, that’s exactly right.”

When we walked into the airport I saw a big middle-aged Native American man waiting for us. I knew it must be Lee.

“Hi Pop,” he said, “did you have a good flight?”

“Lee Boy!” he said, “This is my friend David McHenry. He helped me get off the plane just now.”

“Dirk Manly,” I said, extending my hand. “We spoke on the phone last night.”

“Don’t mind my pop,” Lee said. “He gets a little confused sometimes. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you looking out for him in Minneapolis and getting him here.”

“Oh it was no trouble at all,” I said. “We had a good time last night. He was telling me all about D-Day and the war and your mother, Lydia. She sounded like a wonderful lady. I’m sorry to hear about your loss.”

“What? Who’s Lydia? My mother is Margaret and she’s perfectly fine. She’s in a nursing home in Oklahoma City. Pop must have been really confused last night. He wasn’t at D-Day either. He was in the Korean War, he was too young for D-Day.”

“Oh,” I said. “I guess so. Anyway, you fellers take care, alright? It was great meeting you. And thanks for the advice, Mr. Black Eagle.”

“What was your advice, Pop?” asked Lee.

“I don’t know, son. I don’t know. Where’s David going?”

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