He died. He wasn’t supposed to do that. I had counted on his being there, a living part of a painful past, a bookmark holding, marking, stopping time at the place where I stopped and everything else went on.
* * * * *
He had become a great man in his backwater town, a veteran, wounded, leg amputated below the knee, his hand mangled when an aircraft tractor’s wheel dipped into an open man-hole and slid off the carrier deck into a quiet harbor mooring. Other than a mighty splash, there were no military heroics involved. At 2AM an officer had wanted a bar of soap and ordered a PFC to go get it. Jim Taylor, the nearest swabbie available, shook off sleep, snapped a crisp salute, and took off across the carrier deck. He might have walked or even run since “the goddam SOB was so hot to hit the shower”, he groused, but the farm-boy in him sent him scrambling onto the nearest tractor, the quickest way to get him back to his bunk where he intended to finish a sexy dream that had been getting right juicy.
He reached for the tractor-light switch, but the moon was near full and mightily pretty, so he didn’t bother with illumination. He and the tractor headed out, taking a short cut to the supply bay. He might have seen and avoided the circular void, plainly outlined in the moonlight, had he been paying attention to the surface ahead, but the moon was full and had a ring around it. Must be gonna’ rain, he mused. The diesel engine was warming to the task and picked up rpms as he tweaked fuel feed.
Then all Hell broke loose. The machine flipped, and he was under it, sliding along the stippled decking. His leg was gone, but that didn’t register yet. Lady Luck hadn’t completely abandoned him though. As the big machine tipped, rolled, hesitated like Wiley Coyote, then hit the water, it left him behind, bleeding, screaming, and yes, howling into the moon-lit night. The watch, mercifully alert, sounded the alarm, and James Charles Taylor began the living of a whole new life.
Fifty-eight years later, the crowds that attended the funeral home viewing came for any number of reasons. Most assumed him to be a war hero, a wounded veteran. Veteran he was, but not actually a hero, more a victim of a soap shortage in naval officers’ quarters. If he could claim fame at all, it would be because of the wound to his hand. His pinky finger disappeared in the mishap, and the entire top of his left hand was scraped away, tendons and all. The surgeons at Portsmouth Naval Hospital saw him as an opportunity to attempt a procedure that was benefiting from much speculation but lacking demonstrated proof. Their theory postulated that specific tissue types could be induced to transmogriphy if placed in operation actually performing the newly assigned task. The doctors harvested strips of skin and connected them to the attachment points from the three remaining knuckle bones to their corresponding wrist bones.
The surgical team exchanged satisfied glances over white masks, breathed, rolled tight shoulders, and resumed. The arrangement looked promising but needed a living lid. So the bare newly created tendon array took up residence under a layer of belly fat and skin, where it was sewn in situ and remained for many months while the covered strips of skin were duped into becoming tendons. In Jim’s words: “It’s a god-damned fucking nuisance walkin’ around with your god-damned fuckin’ hand sewn into your god-damned son-of-a-bitchin’ stomach.” But finally fingers began to twitch, then wiggle. When the hand was at last cut free, taking reallocated fat and skin with it, the fingers slowly began to articulate purposefully. Jim had become a hero, a guinea pig to a select group of US Navy surgeons, and to many other people, military and civilian alike, who benefited from his painful experience.
Discharged from the Navy as officially disabled, he snapped up a plum position as clerk in his home town’s state liquor store, where as a life-long teetotaler, he was an ideal candidate and served capably until retirement. James had no scholarly ambitions, and didn’t inherit his dad’s idyllic dream of tilling the Taylor Family Farm.
Although officially disabled, he continued to be an able deer and squirrel hunter, scrambling up and down rough mountain terrain, his stump patched with moleskin, cushioned in a wool stocking, and seemingly wedded to his prosthesis. Even with the prosthetic leg standing in the bedroom corner, he could get around single-footed with equal agility as many a man with two. Seven live births indeed attest to multiple varieties of prowess.
Jim Taylor was definitely a man’s man. He was born a natural storyteller, but it was in the Navy that he learned to cuss. After his accident, with its ensuing physical and psychological trauma, he patently perfected the art of embellishing his dissemination of oral tradition to near Tourette’s level. His family and friends tried to get him to clean up his speech, but his colorful vocabulary didn’t trouble customers stopping by the liquor store for a pint. He had his faults, but people are forgiving, and he was a man who was easy to like, cut of sturdy simple cloth. Men of Jim Taylor’s ilk seldom ever die alone. He was loved.
Having sired seven children under wedlock, and contributed to rumors of others about whom legitimacy is not discussed, he enjoyed dandling a passel of grand-babies on whichever knee was working best on any given day. His long-suffering second wife, sons and daughters, along with assorted grown grandchildren, themselves working on the next generation of Taylors, showed up to keep the old man company during his last days. During the time before he gave it up, his nursing home room became a temporary happy hospice, while hundreds of family and town-folk meandered in and out, paying their respects and exchanging “dad stories”.
As Jim’s ex-wife, I have plenty of “ex-stories”. I had never thought of Jim Taylor as a great man, veteran or not. To me he was the irascible spouse who seemed determined to spoil my dream of life in a peaceful green West Virginia mountain hollow. It featured a loving extended family, wholesome community, and freedom to create a romantically idealized life. I adored the farm, the people, the animals, the machines, and the march of the seasons. Always the writer, I waxed poetic about autumn color and sprouting crocus.
While we were still figuring out the mechanics of sex, things went as well as can be expected when neither party understood the concept of distaff orgasm. Indeed, I had borne three healthy babes before accidentally experiencing that ultimate mind/body experience, all by myself. Though remarkably well endowed, Jim had yet to figure out how to utilize his assets. In his defense, I was little help; I was painfully embarrassed about sex in general. I lied to my in-laws, insisting that nothing untoward had happened between Jim and me. It wasn’t until I was six months along that I finally admitted that a little something just might have indeed taken place.
Most problematical, Jim developed a mean streak. If I was winning at a card game, he would turn the table over. Though he never struck me, he routinely strapped Dale, our eldest, with his belt. The end he chose to use depended on the level of his rage. Too often the buckle end won out.
In the early spring he would turn the cattle in to graze in our yard creating a knee deep muddy mire. I bitched and moaned effectively enough that he strung up an electric fence around the house to keep cow tracks and green steamy pies off the porches and walkways to the barn lot. When the children went out to play, they faced electrified barbed wire. When I tried to warn Dale about the hot fence, Jim shut me up and waited for him to grab it. Then he enjoyed a great belly-laugh at the three-year-old’s expense, burned hand and humiliation aside.
Leaving was imperative. Eventually I realized that to leave I must arrange for work and income. The night before I was to go to Parkersburg and be tested for IQ and job aptitudes, Jim stayed awake the entire night. Every time I fell asleep, he kicked me out of bed. The floor was a long way down and hard. Too stubborn to let him win, I took the tests exactly on schedule. Sleepless, but grimly determined, I scored 155 on mechanical. Engineering had been the right place for me, to which forty years in manufacturing automation, aerospace equipment design, and medical device development later attested.
Surprisingly, I didn’t flee the hollow until I had to. Our third child, a son I named Lane Byron, was six weeks old when the casing on our water well gave out. Tap water was tainted with dirt, grass, and no doubt dung from the cattle grazing above the well head. I had our kitchen water tested, and the result came back as “not potable”. I showed Jim the test and begged for bottled water. at least for the baby. His response: “The God damned little fucking son of a bitch can drink it if I can.” The next day I took the children and left__finally. A local garment factory hired me to sew darts in women’s blouses. Lane was only two months old when I started work, and I ran home during lunch every day to nurse him. It’s a marvel that my milk didn’t curdle.
What surprised me, when I got the call that confirmed Jim’s passing, was that I felt no satisfaction in having out-lived him. What came back to me clear as sieved honey was the sweet quiet times we had shared before he was maimed and began his radical disintegration of personality. I had so appreciated his honest persona after a miserable year of putting up with arrogant Carnegie Tech engineering freshmen. Their idea of conversation was to compare the relative merits of each other’s slide rules. “Longest” won every time. I had discovered the advantage of using a round rule, a device that speeds calculation since each step need not be re-set before performing the next one, but they laughed at my silly round rule. It was a phallic issue; I lost. No wonder Jim, a handsome, sweet, down-to-earth farm boy, looked good to me that golden summer of 1955. On a high school vacation, I had been visiting a neighboring farm owned by my step-Aunt Winnie, and had made some nice memories with the farm-boy who lived across the river and through the woods. Halfway through my first year at Carnegie Tech, my father had gone bankrupt, and I completed the year by re-upping for the debt myself. My step-mother filed for divorce, and Daddy was staying in a serial progression of motel rooms, so I had no-where to go. I crawled to Aunt Winnie’s West Virginia farm, to clean house, cook, milk cows, and make commercial butter in the mornings; I learned to drive tractor, cut, tead, rake, bale hay, and work the garden in the afternoons. Evenings were for reading and writing letters to Jim. Ever since that memorable summer vacation, Jim and I had corresponded. When, months after his accident he proposed from Portsmouth Naval Hospital by air mail, I accepted. How could I say no?
We were a matched pair of walking wounded; he with his amputation rage; me with my disappointment at being forced out of engineering school for lack of funds. It’s amazing we put up with each other for as long as we did.
How could I actually grieve a divorced and adversarial husband after fifty-three bitter years apart? I don’t know the answer, but I did. I gave him my share of tears. As soon as I learned that my first love had passed from my world, all I could remember was how one summer I met a boy, and began to learn what love is all about. It was Jim who died, but I too, watched the images of our early gentle friendship flowing past, recollection of happiness long forgotten. After that last agonal breath, I picture Jim striding purposefully on two good legs toward his own tunnel of light, muttering, “Well, I’ll be god damned and go to hell__’er, make that heaven”!
__Dorothy Jeanette Martin 7/27/2013