Tea Bags at the Bulge
We learn a bit more about Mr. Henry's past.
Late December 2001
When I got home today, I had a message from Miss Yvonne down at the drugstore. She'd seen Mr. Henry ride by earlier today, and he had a bottle of liquor, and she thought I'd like to know.
Years ago, Mr. Henry used to have problems with the booze, and somebody would have to carry him over to the VA to get dried out from time to time. But nothin' like that had happened for a long time, so I was a bit concerned.
It's been real warm lately, so I figured he'd be stayin' out at his special place, and I set out to check on him. As I went out the door, I looked at the calendar in the kitchen and remembered that Mr. Henry often seems a little more strange than usual this time of year. I always just thought the holiday commotion irritated him a bit.
I saw Leroy's truck comin' down the road as I got to the end of the driveway, so I flagged him down and asked him to go with me. Leroy is not exactly the kind of guy who's a slave to a busy schedule, so he was happy to follow me out to the dump.
It gets dark real early this time of year, and we could see Mr. Henry had a little fire going as we walked down the trail to his clearing. He seemed glad to see us, and I thought that was a good sign. He played the gracious host, and arranged a couple more chairs around the fire, and brought out his best glasses for us.
Mr. Henry had a full set of Looney Tunes glasses from a Hardee's promotion long ago. He gave me a little poke in the belly and handed me Porky Pig, and gave Daffy Duck to Leroy. He kept Bugs Bunny for himself, and brought out his bottle. I was glad to see it was only used up down to the top of the square part so far.
As Mr. Henry poured a round, Leroy asked him "Mr. Henry, why are you out here tonight? You should be in town this time of year."
"Well", said Mr. Henry, "I'm sorta thinkin' about another night in the woods, fifty-seven years ago tonight."
"What was it, a hunting trip?" asked Leroy.
Mr. Henry paused a while, then said "I suppose you could say so, in a way."
"Hunting trips is fun!" said Leroy. "Let's drink to 'Good Times Long Ago'."
"It weren't exactly a good time." said Mr. Henry quietly, but he raised his glass with the other two.
I had done a little quick math and come up with 1944 for Mr. Henry's memories, but I don't think Leroy made the connection.
"At least you got good weather tonight!" said Leroy cheerfully. "Was it nice on that trip you remember?"
"No," said Mr. Henry, "I was never so cold in my life. It seemed the world would never be warm again. I shiver just thinking about it."
Mr. Henry had refreshed the glasses, and Leroy stood up again. "To Warm Nights and Pleasant Dreams!" he chirped. Daffy, Porky and Bugs clinked together again, but I could see Mr. Henry's mood was starting to go a bit sour.
Mr. Henry issued refills again, but I could see that Bugs got a mite stronger share this time. Trying to regain control of his own ceremony, Mr. Henry stood up, a bit shakily this time, and held up his glass. "To absent friends!"
We touched glasses again, but Leroy was still oblivious.
"Yeah, like my stupid roommate Andrew. He went home to his momma's house this week for the holidays. He probably thinks I'm gonna do the dishes while he's gone, but I'm gonna leave 'em all for him, if I use any. He ain't good for nothin'!"
Mr. Henry said steadily and icily "I was thinking of my friend Billy. He didn't come back after that night."
"Well that's just rude!", said Leroy. "I mean, if you go on a hunting trip with somebody, you shouldn't bail out on 'em! You gotta come back and help unpack and clean the guns and stuff."
I actually thought for a moment that Mr. Henry was gonna take a swing at Leroy, but instead he just sighed and sorta collapsed into his chair, and started starin' at the fire.
I told Leroy the party was over, and hustled him out of there as quick as I could. I had hoped his amiable idiocy would cheer up Mr. Henry, but the whole thing had backfired.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Henry.", I said. "Leroy didn't have any idea what you were talking about. He can't help it, but I know what you meant."
"You don't know nothin'!", said Mr. Henry, without lifting his head.
"Yes, I do!" I said. "You're talking about the Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge, and your friend Billy was lost in action."
"No, you don't know nothin'!
You sit in your nice house and read them books, and you watch them stupid shows on TV, and you play on your computer, but you don't know nothin'!"
I was feeling a bit of the effects of the bourbon by then, and I was a bit slow to respond, but Mr. Henry went on like he didn't care if I heard him or not. He just kept starin' at the fire and talking in a flat, even tone, like he was dictating a letter.
"It was horrible.
All day long stragglers retreated through our lines, but the Lieutenant told us we had to hold, no matter what.
We'd heard about Malmedy, and so we knew we couldn't surrender.
They hit us that night. They hit us bad. The Lieutenant got shot as he was goin' from foxhole to foxhole to tell us to stay put and fight. After that, we knew we was out of choices.
We was overrun. We was shootin' at anything that moved. I've never been so scared in all my life. I just kept loadin' and firin', and tried to keep the other boys goin'. I thought I was dead.
The next morning we was still there. But not all of us was alive. The sky was clear, and I could hear all the planes, and I knew we'd be OK. But not Billy."
Mr. Henry stopped, but he didn't raise his head, he kept up his stare at the fire.
I tried to defend myself. "Mr. Henry, I never claimed to understand combat, but I know a little about death and loss. You remember, I buried my mother last year, I know a little about what it's like."
Mr. Henry finally raised his head and looked at me for a few moments. His voice went to a whisper.
"No," he said, "You didn't shoot your mother. You don't have to deal with that.
You don't know nothin'."
He went back to watchin' the fire.
He didn't notice when I put his old blanket over him, and I don't think he noticed when I left.
When I got to the road I looked back and saw his little fire showin' through the woods. I thought about how easy my life had been.
And I went on home.
Author's note: When I found out what had happened to Mr. Henry, it was like a punch to the stomach. Suddenly things began to make a little more sense. Or, from a broader perspective, even less sense.