Bottles, Misfits and War Heroes
Tom Spader - 9/2015
Bottles, Misfits and War Heroes
Tom Spader - 9/2015
Bottles screamed a burst of obscenities as the rock hit him square in the back. The kids all laughed, but the old man in the dirty gray coat continued on his way, not even looking up. “Fucking kids,” he said half muttering to himself.
A scene like this played itself out nearly every day on their way home from school. The local elementary school would let out and a group of fourth graders, making their way home through the park, would see Bottles scouring the ground for who-knows-what. Then it would be a rock thrown or some on-going taunts or maybe the toss of a penny into the path of his search. Not a day went by that Bottles wouldn’t be there and every day the kids would be there tormenting him.
The penny-toss in front of him was their favorite because it would cause the rattled old man to bend over to retrieve it. Once, to their delight, his greasy old pants split up the back igniting enough laughter to carry the kids all the way home ... still laughing, long after they broke up and went their separate ways.
Bottles lived in a rooming house on Atlantic Avenue, about two blocks from the park. The house always sported an over-sized American flag hanging from the one of the columns on the front porch. It was a huge white house, red shuttered. Bottles lived there with many of the town’s other misfits like Shuffles and High-Steppin’ Red. Nobody in town knew their real names. No one cared enough to ask. The residents of this house simply earned their names cruelly, by appearance.
Bottles was thought to be drunk all the time. No matter what time of the day, you’d see him staggering and mumbling to himself. He was always wearing the same old dirty, stained gray coat, summer or winter.
Shuffles was a very small, older man that looked to be near ninety. He always wore a suit and tie and a white gangster style hat pulled low. When he walked he would take steps of no more than six inches ... shuffling. He was killed one night coming back from buying a newspaper at the local smoke shop and while he was trying to cross a two-lane highway he was hit by a car. The kids, and some of the adults, joked that he just didn’t shuffle quite fast enough.
High-Stepping Red’s name spoke for itself. He was a tall older man with wild, graying red hair and a stride that took one of his long legs in a very high exaggerated step, arms flailing for balance. Red was always waving and yelling, "Hello, how are you?" whether anyone was in sight or not.
The rooming house was quiet and never really a problem, although neighbors did tell their kids to stay far away and to keep clear of its tenants. It was this precaution that probably lit the cruel fire already burning in the minds of the fourth graders.
At Halloween it was a dare that no kid ever took - to go up to the door for trick or treat. There were always decorations and a carved pumpkin outside, but no one ever knocked.
One day, after one of their usual afternoon verbal assaults on Bottles, one of the kids got his bicycle’s front tire stuck in the gap between the pavement and one of the tracks of the railroad that bordered the park. The more he pulled the more wedged the tire became bending the metal rim under the lip of the track. The other kids tried to lend a hand, but they only made it worse.
A train’s whistle announced that this problem would be solved shortly. The train was stopped at the local station two long blocks away and once it got rolling it would be going too fast to try and stop for something as small as a kid’s bike.
Another whistle from the train had the kids one by one leaving the bicycle to its certain fate. The bike's owner looked on with tears streaming down his cheeks.
The train was within a half a block when out of the shadows of the park’s trees Bottles emerged, still looking down mumbling. He stepped out onto the tracks causing another blast from the train whistle. With one strong, dirty hand he freed the bike and stepped back into the trees as the train passed between the park and the kids gathered on the other side. The owner of the bike looked on in shock. There was a mix of cheers and one misguided accusation that the bike was being stolen.
As the train was passing the kids all tried to look under the cars between the passing wheels to see Bottles and the bike. They wondered what to say. The train disappeared down the tracks and Bottles vanished into the shadows. The bicycle was left leaning against a tree.
The next day the fourth graders went through the park as usual. They looked for Bottles, but he was nowhere to be found. There wasn’t going to be any taunting or teasing this day. The kids didn’t quite know what they were going to do, but it wasn’t going to be cruel... but, no Bottles.
A week later two of the school kids that had to pass the rooming house on their way home stopped and watched a military color guard carry a flag draped coffin slowly down the front steps. They stood frozen in their tracks having never seen a real coffin much less one covered in the flag they saluted every morning. They watched as the soldiers loaded it into a government hearse.
Later that year, at the annual Memorial Day ceremony at a small lakeside park the school kids gathered. The park had a tall flag pole and few small monuments remembering past wars and those that fought them. The kids had been through this park a hundred times yet they never really knew or cared what the park was about. Today they gathered near the rifle squad in hopes of retrieving the spent shells after the twenty-one gun salute. The brass casings would be still warm and smelling of eggs if the kids were fast enough. They were a prize possession to a kid and his junk drawer at home.
One of the kids brought a handful of these shells from last year's ceremony. As the crowd grew quiet, he rolled them in his hand causing a rather noticeable, metallic, tinkling sound.
During the ceremony a speech was given by a stern looking general with square jaw and a chest full of medals. This was unusual for this little town and the kids pushed closer, impressed.
The general kept referring to an Ed. This Ed was a hero from World War Two. The general said Ed had saved his life and the lives of his entire squad in the Pacific. He talked of heavy enemy fire and dragging injured comrades to safety. He said that Ed was the bravest man he had ever served with.
The kids scoured the crowd for Ed, looking for a giant of a man, rock solid and looking brave even while standing still, but they only saw the usual town faces; the pudgy mayor sweat dripping from his round face, his smiling wife, the guy from the hardware store, the little league coach...
The general said Ed was severely injured and shell-shocked during the battle, leaving him staggering for balance and mentally scared for the rest of his life. A stillness fell over the crowd as they listened. The general said, slowly scanning their faces, that Ed chose to live out his days here in their town. The crowd was completely silent as he thanked the them for welcoming Ed and treating him so well in his remaining, damaged days.
The General then turned to the local VFW squad who carried a covered easel up onto the podium. As the general lifted the cloth covering a framed over-sized photograph, the crowd gasped. There in a torn camouflage uniform carrying a machine gun, a cigarette dangling from his lips, looking every bit the Hollywood hero, was Bottles.
The only sound over the hushed crowd was the tink, tink, tink of brass shell casings hitting the ground one by one as a small hand slowly fell open.
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