Oct 18, 2013

One Last Time

By late 1951 Ralph knew that he'd soon be in Korea. And he began to take stock of himself and his short, sweet life. It had been fast cars and pool rooms; cheap beer and fist fights; it had been girls and hairpin turns; it had been fun. His daddy worked in the cotton mill, and like all mill workers, wanted something better for his son. So, Ralph grew up knowing his life's path wouldn't be strewn with cotton lint; and secure in the thought that he'd do big things - bigger things than his father did. But duty called and Korea loomed like a cold, distant planet, interrupting his plans and adding a cloud of uncertainty like he had never known. 

After he received his orders to report to Fort Jackson to begin his deployment, Ralph used his precious time to say goodbye. There were somber, heartfelt farewells and often his shoulder would be damp from the tears of past sweethearts as they said their goodbyes. He sought forgiveness as well and he searched his memory for anyone he thought he had wronged; with hopes of rectifying transgressions and soothing old hurts. He had his hand shaken by friends and and his back slapped by his numerous uncles and cousins. His dreams were vivid and the recall of long forgotten events flooded his mind in a continuous reel. With heightened senses, he walked through his families small home and, even when alone, he could he could hear the sweetness of his mother's voice echoing throughout the house - and his daddy's stern baritone bounce off the plaster walls. And the days passed quickly.

He decided that he would spend his last day in Poinsett with his family. His sisters hugged him often and spoke hopefully of a quick end to the war. His parents were quiet; but beneath their tranquility lay the fears and sorrow they hid from the family; from him. It was also decided that his Uncle Otis would drive him to the airport the next day; that the families goodbyes would be done privately. That night Ralph dreamed deeply; awaking only once to smile at the warmth of his bed, the smells of his room, and the hum of the nearby mill. And the night passed quickly.

That morning, the tears flowed and months of dread drenched Ralph's face. In the little kitchen, gentle sobs from his family hung in the dim morning light and enveloped them all in melancholy. Ralph saw the lights from his Uncle's Ford as it pulled into the driveway and felt relieved. He was ready to leave; he was ready to let go. His bags loaded in the trunk, Ralph sat back in the passengers seat and saw the Carolina sunrise as he had never seen it before: the reddish hue of the sun bouncing off the mill, the elongated shadow of the water tank on the houses across the street, the cooing pigeons; it was as if he was experiencing it all for the first time. As they turned to cross the bridge over the railroad tracks, Ralph turned to his uncle and said, "Uncle Otis, could you stop here for a second"? "Sure son". He stepped from the car and stood on the bridge that overlooked the village. His eyes followed the tracks below until they disappeared around a bend. He smiled at the hint of honeysuckle in the air. "Thanks Uncle Otis, I wanted to see Poinsett one last time".

A few weeks later Ralph's family learned of his death.