“Duty is the sublimest word in the English language.”
Robert E. Lee. (1807-1870)
The dining room at Kinkeads Brasserie was nearly empty during the lull hours between lunch and dinner. Andrew stood alone near the entrance to the kitchen. He was within eyesight of J.P. Kilroy in the event his sole remaining lunch customer required additional service.
A few waiters were rearranging tables for the dinner reservations under the faint, soft room lighting. The gentle chink of silverware and the brush of busy feet were the only background sounds to the muted voices of J.P. and Frank.
Frank was dipping a biscotti into his black espresso coffee. He had long ago emptied the snifter of black Sambuca into his cup. The brew tasted warm and sweet. The coffee was getting cold so he warmed it up from the steaming pot Andrew left on the table. Frank chomped on the softened biscotti as he spoke.
“D-Day was an ungodly mess. Our guys were dropped all over France. Some planes went down in the channel. Some troopers landed in the swamps and were swallowed up. Landing craft were sunk in the English Channel. Bodies were blown to bits.” Frank paused. “All this on a huge scale. Remains unidentifiable. People missing. It was impossible to know exactly what happened to everybody that day and the days that followed.”
J.P. nodded and Frank continued. “Your father and his buddy Jake were separated on D-Day. Jake wound up in Sainte-Mere-Eglise with the All-Americans. He didn’t rejoin us until Carentan a few days later. Your father landed on Pointe-du-Hoc and fought with the Second Rangers. He never rejoined our outfit in Normandy. He was wounded and evacuated. There was tremendous confusion. Many telegrams were sent out to next of kin by the War Department that were flat out mistakes.”
“He obviously didn’t die,” J.P. smiled. “He raised me.”
“No, of course he didn’t die in Normandy. But he was severely wounded and evacuated to the First Army Hospital in St. Albans just outside of London.”
“Funny, Dad never mentioned or spoke about his wounds,” J.P. answered.
Frank smiled. “He was shot in the ass. One bullet, four holes. Two on the outside, two in the crack. Missed the spine by an inch or so. Not exactly the kind of war wound one would talk about or show off.”
J.P. smiled. “It’s just that he never spoke about that or much of anything else.”
Frank took a sip of his coffee. “When we got home, nobody wanted to talk. It was over, we won and that was good enough. The most rehab I got was a smile from the Red Cross doughnut honey and a hug from my wife. That was the drill for everyone else, too. We didn’t have the time for therapy back in the day. We had a country to rebuild.”
J.P. nodded. “I guess today’s society seems pretty soft to you guys. You had it much tougher back then.”
Frank stared hard at J.P. “I’m not judging this generation. All I know is when it counted, we had the grit to deal with the Depression and a World War one after the other. Not just the guys who fought, but the whole damn country.” Frank waved an unconscious finger at J.P. “We played the cards we were dealt without whining, took our lumps, mourned our dead, came home, went to school and went back to work.” Frank paused. “And we didn’t want to talk about it.”
“I get that part. Dad was a prime example.”
“But then we got older. A lot of us started to die off, their memories and stories lost forever. So we started talking. People began putting tape recorders in our faces and we talked some more. More and more of us attended reunions and there was always some local reporter or aspiring author to tell our story to.” Frank wiped his mouth with his napkin. “Most of us who survived came back with a heavy dose of survivor’s guilt. And, as I got older, I realized I was not so much afraid of dying as I was of not being remembered. So, we owed it to those guys who never came back to tell their stories and make sure they were never forgotten.”
J.P. reached slowly for the coffee pot. Frank reached across the table and grabbed his hand. “Please understand. We can never break faith with those who didn’t come back. Never!”
J.P. didn’t understand the point. Before he could pursue it, Andrew came over to the table. “Is there anything else, Mister Kilroy?”
They had overstayed the lunch hour by a considerable amount of time. “Check, please.”
Frank drained the last drops from his demitasse cup. “A history professor from the University of New Orleans wrote a book in ninety-three about Easy Company called Easy Does It. It recounts the history of the company from training to the end of the War. You should read it.”
“Anything in there about my dad?” J.P. asked.
“No,” Frank answered quickly. “There were about a hundred and fifty men in the company and many of them are not mentioned. Your dad and Jake joined that company later, just before the Bulge at the same time I got transferred to Easy.”
“What’s the point in reading it?”
“Well, for one thing, it may help you understand your father better. More importantly, it will help you understand the strong bonds of loyalty that tie all of us together and the solidarity we share about this secret.” Frank nervously clinked his empty cup on its saucer. “There. I said it!”
J.P. nodded. What Frank was telling him was J.P. would never learn the secret from any of his father’s friends. No matter how hard he cajoled or pleaded, no one would willingly tell him. J.P. had already come to that conclusion. If he were going to find out, it would have to be by trickery or deception.
Andrew brought the check and J.P. began to sign it.
“Thank you for lunch, Mister Kilroy. I’m sorry it was not very productive for you.”
“It was my pleasure, Frank. And be assured that I have not given up my quest.” J.P. handed the leather check-holder back to Andrew who thanked him and slipped quietly away.
“I suggest you read some books, especially the one I recommended. Also, attend the reunions and meet the men who knew your father best. Get to know them, to understand them. Listen to their stories and let them introduce you to the ghosts that haunt them and the memories of those friends they left behind. Maybe then you’ll come to understand.”
J.P. was about to rise from the table but the gravity of what Frank was saying along with how he was saying it froze him in his seat. It was as if Frank was trying to tell him, without actually telling him.
Frank continued. “You may not ever learn the specific secret you seek, Mister Kilroy, but you might come to understand the greater meaning of the special connection between warriors …which is stronger than steel or family. It’s all about the binding promises and sacred oaths that supercede everything else in life.”
J.P. Kilroy gave Frank a quizzical look.
“And that, my son, may be as close as you will ever get to unraveling the secret.”