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October 16, 2013

Returning from the front

by Dave Malnes

It was a clear fall night when the train arrived at the Herington, Kansas depot. Boys were returning home from a hard fought war in a foreign land. They were men now. Hardened by scenes they will never forget. Saddened by the loss of good buddies. Relieved that their tour of duty was over.

(Continuation of previous post)

The Mills Brothers’ “Paper Doll” was dominating the airwaves and people were still flocking to see “For Whom the Bell Tolls” starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman.

But none of that mattered to Fred Russell as he hopped off the train that night. His large canvas duffle bag tucked over his shoulder, Fred took that last step on a familiar landing and stopped to look around. He wasn’t very good at reading schedules and misread the dates of his train ticket. Arriving two days earlier than what he wired to his family, Fred could only the imagine the looks of shock and surprise.

Being the only passenger to disembark, the conductor was confused by the empty railroad station. He was used to seeing reunions of family and friends when a war hero came home. But now the station was silent except for several red, white, and blue banners fluttering in the breeze and a few candy wrappers blowing across the boarded sidewalk.

“You sure this your stop, son?” the conductor inquired.

“Yes, sir,” Fred answered. “It is.”

He pulled at his duffel bag and began to exit the depot. Turning the corner down Main Street, Fred spotted a Greyhound bus pulling out for Kansas City. Surprised that it was heading his way, the bus slowed to a stop right in front of him.

The doors opened and the driver called out, “Where you headin’, son?”

“Home. Three miles west off 484,” answered Fred.

That’s too bad, the bus driver thought. His bus was would be taking a left soon and heading east onto Highway 56.

A man wearing a grey fedora hat and grey suit was seating three rows back from the driver. Overhearing the conversation, he noticed the young soldier’s uniform and the large duffel he was carrying.

greyhound bus

“I don’t know,” the man interrupted. “Doesn’t seem too far out of the way.”

“We’ll call it a shortcut,” the man’s wife sitting next to him interjected with a grin on her face.

“C’mon board, son,” the driver enthusiastically replied. “We’ll drop you off.”

A few short minutes later, the bus creaked to a stop by a gravel driveway out in the midst of large wheat fields. The young soldier bounded off the steps when the doors opened. He stopped and turned to nod his head at the driver and the couple three rows back. “Thank you. Appreciate that.”

“No, young man,” the bus driver said as he began to close the doors. “Thank you for your good and faithful service.”

The bus lumbered back on the country road and Fred watched the lights fade away, then turn east toward the highway.

Fred re-positioned his duffel bag on his right shoulder and began the 3/4 mile trek down a gravel road toward his home. Though it was pitch black under a moonless sky, Fred didn’t need any light. He knew every step by heart.

Off in the distance, Fred caught the first glimpse of a familiar light. A few moments later, he heard that familiar bark warning any trespassers who may dare enter his family’s property. Fred smiled. With great relief, he offered a prayer of thanks that his best friend was still around.

Growing up in these parts, a young man can be defined by his work ethic and family upbringing. But with Fred, it was different. A large black dog named Buck was his constant companion. Part wolf or part bear, the folks didn’t know. What they did know was that whenever they saw this massive black dog, they knew that Fred was nearby. Because of Buck, most every folk in Herington knew Fred.

The U.S. Army had selected Fred to fight in a war he could not understand and serve in a country he did not know. As he left that station to head to war, Buck couldn’t understand why he could not go to. So, he sat and waited.

And waited.

During basic training and throughout those treacherous months in battle, Fred understood the importance of relying on his buddies and obeying orders. He knew those would give him the best chance of survival.

The barking continued for the next hundred yards.

Fred gave a sharp whistle in the dark silent air which caused the warning bark to come to an immediate halt. Within seconds, the sounds of a slamming screen door and shouts revealed what Buck already knew.

old farmhouse

Fred stopped and settled his big duffle bag on the hard gravel road. He knew that in a matter of seconds a massive black dog would be exploding out of the darkness.

There were nights where he didn’t think this moment was going to happen.

Exploding shells, bullets whistling overhead, and good buddies going down before him, Fred wondered if he would ever make it home. But, he kept thinking of ma and pa, his little sisters and brothers, and of course, Buck. Despite his fears, he strung up enough courage to closely obeyed his orders and fight the good fight.

And on this hallowed ground from which Fred stood, he had come home.

What prompted Fred’s obedience?

Part Two of Two

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