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We Gather Together
written by: David C Russell
Colonel Daniels adjusted the visor once he was comfortably seated in his car. The winter holiday was four days hence, and unlike the visor, he could not adjust his sour mood from the bitter taste of recent life events. As he drove on M-78 toward Lansing, he entertained holiday woes, accusing voices from the present and past and continued his holiday pity party. His wife wanted divorce after fourteen years of marriage. They had no children, and she often blamed the Colonel. The accusations were aided by her alcoholism. He had loved, and trusted, as well as invested time and money in now a failed marriage.
He thought of his deceased mom and her often stated comment on his past accomplishments.
"Well son, that's pretty good." These assessments, which referred to his first hit in little league, passing driver education, high score on the SAT Test, military service, choice of a wife, were all considered 'pretty good.'
He pulled into The High Wheeler, a saloon on the edge of Lansing and ordered two shots. He was going to shut the voices up and stop caring. Inside the warm saloon, minutes passed, as did a quarter of the televised college bowl game between Montana and another western college.
"Drinkin’ are troubles away?" asked an aged man who sat beside him.
"Hell yes. Why would anyone else be here at 1:30 in the afternoon?"
"Just asking. Don't mind me." The Colonel responded with an audible “hmm."
As time passed and another couple drinks later, the Colonel did start to mind. His neighbor was enjoying a beer while watching the televised football game with the bartender.
"Would you mind keeping it quiet? I'm trying to think," the Colonel said, now perturbed.
"Think, looks like drink to me," said his neighbor. “wife leave you or something?" he queried.
Colonel Daniels' face turned as red as the sun and he stood up removing his jacket and draped it over the bar stool.
"Get up asshole. Let's settle this - like here and now!"
"Easy dude, I didn't mean any harm." The Colonel threw him a right hook across the jaw. His sunglasses flew across the bar.
"Hey, leave him alone," ordered the bartender, who had simultaneously activated security notifying the police of a problem. The Colonel threw another hook but only grazed the side of the man's face. He sat back down.
Slamming his empty bottle on the bar, the Colonel said, "Damn it, give me another drink. Here's two twenties for your trouble."
"Better drink fast, Bub, police are on the way."
Officers Christopher and Carlson entered the bar and asked who was creating the problem.
Pointing at the offender, the bartender answered, "That man, Colonel somebody.”
The officers walked over to the Colonel, putting a hand on his arm. "Mind coming with us, sir? We have some questions."
Colonel Daniels accompanied the officers to their car and was driven to the police post. His misery compounded. Officer Carlson sat with the Colonel behind an oak desk, sipped his coffee while filling the report and said, "Colonel, you most certainly need some counsel. You will have a court hearing scheduled, but for now I would lay low if I were you."
"You're right, Officer."
"It may be none of my business, but is there something making your holiday season less than pleasant?”
“Yeah, my marriage sucks,” the Colonel said gesturing with his right hand.
“Have any family or friends you can contact or visit?” The Colonel nodded yes. A moment of silence passed before Officer Christopher added,
“Life is good when we can gather together with others and be happy about things."
"Officer, enough with the empathy. Do what you have to do!" The Colonel nodded, expression downcast. He reached for some tissues wiping his eyes.
"I lost my cool and my respectability back there. More painful though is the loss of my marriage." The Colonel wept for a few moments.
"Colonel, I'm holding you in custody for a few hours. Can you call someone to pick you up this evening?" The Colonel called one of his friends, a Chaplain by profession, and arrangements were made for his release that evening. Meanwhile, the Colonel rested on the cot, his mind adrift, his thoughts by and large miscellaneous. The Chaplain arrived early evening and transported the Colonel to the saloon and followed him home. He was happy that the charges, though serious enough, could be managed.
The Colonel drove to the Army post nearby the next morning. He had a meeting with his superior.
"It's slow, and I think you need a few days away from here. Plan something miscellaneous but not stupid."
"I think spending the holiday at a ski lodge would make sense," Colonel Daniels said.
"Knob Hill is just an hour from here. That too close for comfort?"
"No. Can you keep this plan just between us?"
"Under the circumstances, yes. Check in with me though so if there is any question to your whereabouts, I can be truthful." The men shook on this agreement. Colonel Daniels would return to duty after January 1.
Colonel Daniels settled into his room at Knob Hill two days before Christmas. He considered doing the evening ski tour on the cross-country trail. He hoped the messages inside his noggin would break and be dispelled by the company of others. He ate a light supper in the restaurant on premises and then rented skis for the evening guided tour.
"Hi skiers, my name is Beth, one of your tour guides. I'll explain the route we'll be traveling. It's a beginner trail about one mile long." The tour guide continued her spiel, explaining the route and what to expect. Glancing around the group, the Colonel counted seven in all. Then, he noticed a gentleman in the group who wore a military service medallion on his jacket. As it happened, it was a familiar face that wore that jacket. The Colonel would be skiing alongside this familiar face, whom he could not place, but knew he’d interacted with before. Shrugging it off, he continued with the tour. The group traveled through a wooded area on the trail once beyond Knob Hill. Birch, sycamore, and cedar trees were alongside the trail. The scent of firewood could be detected in the distance, adding variety to the clear night. The guide would give a short fireside chat in the lodge at the tour's end.
The next morning, Colonel Daniels noticed two ski companions from the tour group while enjoying his breakfast. He walked over to meet them.
"Excuse me, we were on the ski tour together last night. I noticed your service medallion on your jacket. I'm Colonel Jeff Daniels."
"Hi Colonel. I'm Devin and this is my girlfriend, Angela."
"Is this your first ski trip, Colonel?" Angela asked.
"No, but it has been a while. Yours?"
"It's my first since the accident," Devin answered. The words, the accident further jogged the Colonel’s memory. He wanted to make sure of his guess so pressed on.
"Mine. I broke my leg when a military plane I was in went down during practice maneuvers. That was last November, 13 months ago," Devin said.
"Where were you stationed?"
"At a small post in rural Georgia. I was discharged after the accident and a week in the hospital. My leg was amputated. I returned home and had three months of intense rehab."
"He has done wonderfully since then. I'm very proud of him," Angela said as she leaned over and kissed Devin's cheek.
“I am proud of you, too. You may or may not remember, but I was the Officer who drove you home that early December, one year ago.” The three were silent for a moment exchanging knowing, caring expressions.
“I remember you now, Colonel Daniels,” Devin said, reaching over to shake hands with the Officer.
"Hey, you have any holiday or Thanksgiving memories that rival your accident?" The Colonel asked.
"A couple. Want to hear about them, and then you share one," Devin offered. The Colonel filled his coffee cup and sat back down across from the couple.
Devin began his story: “I was in third grade. Music class was going on. Thanksgiving recess was just hours ahead. Excitement amongst the students felt contagious.
‘Students, let's stand,’ Mrs. Hooper directed, and the movement of chairs scraping on the tiled floor competed with her orders. ‘We'll end class by singing The Turkey Sat On The Back Yard Fence.’ I blurted out, asking if our teacher was having turkey the next day. Another girl chimed in, ‘Not me; I'm having pancakes.’” Devin shared how that memory often came back to him on Thanksgiving days since. Some people chose not to have a traditional dinner while others couldn't afford a meal.
"Angela, you have a memory?" the Colonel asked. She waved him off.
"I remember my first Thanksgiving in the service. I was in Basic Training. A group of us went out for breakfast to a waffle house, and then drank while watching football on TV. Not the best I suppose, but we were young."
Devin added, "I remember that Thanksgiving Day after music class. I got up early and decided to watch The Weather Channel on TV. The forecaster spoke of sun in the south, clear weather in the Ohio Valley, and snowfall in states near Colorado. I enjoyed the visuals from all over the country: mountains, valleys, snowy areas, paved streets. Later, we went to my aunt and uncle's house for the afternoon and dinner."
"Do you remember anything from the visit?" Angela asked.
"My uncle offered the adults a glass of wine. My cousins, sister and I played together. After dinner we all settled in the living room to watch Bambi on the TV screen. It was a pleasant gathering of people thankful for one another and their own goodies and health in life."
"I can see how that remains an outstanding memory." They talked a while longer and then agreed to meet later for supper.
Colonel Daniels thought about his new-found friends, Devin and Angela, over the next few days. He had his life, his limbs, a good mind, military career, showed care and interest in others including his wife. Though it hurt him, he would give her the divorce. There might be others that he would gather together with in his future. If not, he would have this trip to recall along with other experiences. On the final day at the lodge, he had lunch with Devin and Angela.
"Colonel Daniels. I asked Angela to become my wife last night."
"Congratulations you two!"
"Thanks, but Devin has a question for you, sir," Angela said smiling wide.
"Would you be my best man?"
"Tell me when, where, and I'll plan on it," the Colonel said.
"Let's exchange contact info and Angela will let you know," Devin said. Angela punched his arm in response.
Colonel Daniels' spirit was revived. He smiled at Devin, and replied, his response genuine, "I will always remember this trip and you. Being best man at your wedding means I finally surpassed being valued as 'pretty good.'"