My father built a shadow box for me and filled it with memories. I often picture what he must have looked like while constructing it. Hunched over his work desk in the early morning hours, round glasses positioned tightly over a sternly drawn face. His burnt blonde hair tinged with gray, likely wild and unrestrained, as was his way from time to time. He has always been a very loving father. Always there to talk to and, more importantly, there to listen. I grew up just by watching him. When I look at this box, it reminds me of all the things he tried to teach to me. It reminds me of those beautiful moments, along with all the horrific stories it also keeps inside.
I never considered how I would answer if he asked me about the items inside the box. I guess I just assumed that he would let it go. He has always been a wonderful father throughout everything, after all. Why would he ever want to impose? Then, the day he finished constructing the box, it happened:
“How did you get these?” He asked softly with a calm look on his face, one of his long index fingers outstretched, awkwardly pointing at the ribbon rack that he had carefully mounted center-mass of that damned box.
“What do they mean?” He pressed, eager to learn about that time in my life, but still addressing me with the same loving tone he did when I was a boy.
I tried to speak, but my mind went fully racing, my subconscious skipping through thoughts and images like a picture-flip book for a child—save for, in my picture book, the pages ripped themselves out, rearranged each other, and became filled with all the painful thoughts that war creates.
I thought about how my friends would want me to answer. I think good ol’ Marky Maierson would have wanted me to be honest. That was what he always wanted to hear from people, honesty. I remember the night he told me why he decided to become a Green Beret. We were sitting atop a mud hut in a town called Jani-Kheyl, enjoying the smell of dust mixing with diesel and loaded for bear. He said:
“You know, I have just always tried to live right by people. I felt lost before the Army. Now we are out here, handing out food and helping people. Feels good.”
Marky was always the first to help. A consummate professional with a heart bigger than anyone I have ever met. Of course, Marky is dead now.
I thought about the times in between wars, sitting around the states for six to seven months, just waiting to be sent back to the big show. I remembered the first time (I hate the fact I must clarify it was the first time) someone called me a “baby-killer.” I was at a bar, and completely unaware that this sort of derogatory comment was still in use. Spoken at a veteran’s expense nonetheless, so I beat the brakes off that cat. I had no personal experience with that sort of business, killing a kid that is. My friend James Castle knows about it though.
James was real loaded the night he told me about accidentally blowing up a house that had two little girls in it. His team had been receiving heavy fire from the house, so James called in an airstrike and eliminated the threat. He was only trying to protect the lives of his teammates. He did not know that those little girls were inside, nobody did. Worst part was, James had two little girls back home.
“I went to do the battle damage assessment after the strike hit, man,” he spoke slowly, partially slurred words with tears swelling in his eyes, “and then I saw them two little girls, all burned up and in pieces … I just wanted to put them back together and tell them everything was going to be all right.”
My mind accelerated through thousands of different thoughts and memories from those four years. Not all of which were unpleasant of course, but it seems more often than not in life, it is the most painful memories we remember most thoroughly.
In an instant, I was back to reality. I looked at my father, unsure of how much time had elapsed since he last spoke. I was desperately hoping the small tear I felt forming in my left eye would simply go unnoticed. After what must have seemed like an extraordinarily long pause, I finally spoke to my father, plainly:
“Well Dad, I guess they just gave them to me for doing my job.”
He looked back at me with the kindly, knowing eyes that only someone who truly cares can offer. He slung one of his burly arms around my shoulder and patted me on the back while we sat there together in silence. Staring down at that big shadowy box, filled with all of the memories of those four years I served, splayed out on the rack.
Bradford Hill is a Tulsa native and a former Joint Terminal Attack Controller for Special Operation Forces. After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, he moved to Savannah, Georgia, where he is currently a scholarship student for creative writing at the Savannah College of Art and Design.