Home Safe

They were shocked that he didn’t tell them how glorious it was to fight for your country. They felt he was a coward.

Fiction by Henry G. Miller, Spring 2015


The “Welcome Home Jamie” banner covered the entire wall behind the band. Ed McLaughlin asked his son to wear his uniform since all the family would be there to celebrate. Jamie would have preferred to wear civvies, but he knew the uniform meant a lot to his dad. So he wore his full dress uniform with all his medals. His father rented Schwab Hall to accommodate the large party. His mother would have liked a smaller gathering at home, but Ed was adamant. “Jamie deserves a hero’s welcome. Some thought he couldn’t make it. Well, he showed them.”

Jamie’s father felt vindicated. He supported his son’s decision to join up after 9/11 and he supported the war in Iraq. Martha McLaughlin urged her son to keep his job at the magazine where he was making a name as a cartoonist “and stay in night school to get your degree in art. There’s no telling how far you can go.” Martha never said it out loud, but she felt her son had too much feeling to make a good marine and maybe have to kill people.

“Martha. He’ll be fine.”

“He’s not the same as you, Ed. All his life you’ve tried to make him what he’s not.”

“I always tried to encourage him to do the right thing. In World War II, my older brother went without waiting to be drafted. Korea, I did the same. And what about my brother’s boy, Little Mike, who lost an arm in Vietnam. He didn’t get any student deferment. He went and I never heard a word of complaint about his arm.”

Martha heard it all many times. She just replied, “We didn’t have Jamie to sacrifice for this Iraq nonsense.”

“You’re wrong, Martha. You’ve got to stop these people—if not over there, we’ll be doing it here.”

Martha knew she should feel relieved now that he was home safe and her deepest fears hadn’t come true. But yet, why did he have to go to a German hospital for two weeks? It couldn’t have been too bad for that short a time. But she couldn’t quite dispel a feeling of dread as to what the experience had done to him. Was he changed?

As soon as she saw him, she felt better. Tanned and fit, more handsome than ever.

Ed McLaughlin couldn’t resist. “Didn’t I tell you? He’s a McLaughlin.”

Ed knew the manager of Schwab Hall who gave him a good price. The manager used to work with Ed at Con Ed before he went into catering. And the location was perfect—the Ridgewood section where Brooklyn meets Queens so it would be easy for both sides of the family to be there.

When Martha saw the drawings Jamie did, her fears let up a bit. “Jamie, they’re beautiful. You always did good drawings of little children. Look at their sad faces. You got them good. Are the kids suffering a lot over there?”

“Sure, Mom. A lot of civilians have been killed. Some of the kids are orphaned now. I’d like to start some aid program for the kids over there. I think Americans would support it. Americans have a big heart. Pop is right about that.”

“Where’d you find the time to ever do them? I bet your magazine would publish these.”

Jamie didn’t tell his mother that many of them were done when he was in the hospital, and then after that while he was waiting for his discharge from active duty—good therapy.

“You never made it clear, Jamie, why exactly you were in the hospital.”

“You worry too much, Mom. Hurt my arm. Wasn’t even in much combat.” He didn’t want to worry her.

“I know I’ve always worried too much and that puts pressure on you. The burden of being an only child. I wanted more. But you’ve made up for it.”

“Don’t get sentimental, Mom. Like Pop says, we McLaughlins are indestructible.”

Jamie always felt the pressure of not worrying his mother. He couldn’t tell her he was under psychiatric care. They used to call it shell shocked. Then it was post-traumatic stress disorder. Whatever they call it, Jamie learned what all who have ever been in heavy combat knew. The scar on the mind can never be completely healed. Seeing a lot of killing changes a human being. He didn’t even tell the doctors that one thing, the bad thing, that cornered him every night, making sleep something to be avoided.

It seemed that everyone invited to the party came, and a few extra to boot. There were almost 200. Ed was all over the place, making sure everyone had all the drink and food they could consume and then some. There was plenty of dancing and Ed paid extra to keep the band late and the breaks short and few.

As expected, Ed asked his brother, Michael, and his son, the nephew with one arm, to sing their famous duet of Irish songs. The usual razzing took place. “Is that all they know? No more Irish songs, it’s a mixed crowd.”

Ed loved the triumph his son’s medals gave him. He remembered the time in high school when some boys mocked Jamie for going out for the art club and not the basketball team. After all, Jamie was one of the best, maybe the best, of the schoolyard half-court players. Ed felt it wasn’t manly to pick art over sports. He was particularly upset when he heard one of the players razz Jamie. “Go out for the team, we’re wearing pink uniforms this year.”

Now, Ed was vindicated. Jamie showed them. A decorated marine. Where was that basketball star now? Probably hiding out as some glorified clerk selling women’s lingerie.

“What do you mean, no more Irish songs? You want to hear some Brits like the Beatles?”

On this night, Ed even got along with Monsignor O’Gorman, the pastor at St. Brendan’s. “Well, Monsignor, now you have to admit we’re changing the ugly face of the world in Iraq.”

“It’s still a dumb war.”

“You’re just saying that because the Polish Pope was against the war.”

“Well, sometimes even a Pope is right.”

In the few weeks he’s been home, Jamie thought of talking to Monsignor O’Gorman. But no, talking about it doesn’t change what happened.

Jamie knew he should forgive himself. He didn’t mean to hurt anybody. Just the week before, two of his best friends from his squad hesitated. They let the car come through the checkpoint, thinking it was a guy from the neighborhood. They didn’t make sure. They paid for it. When the bomb went off, his two buddies blew apart in a hundred pieces. After that, everybody was trigger-happy.

Then the next week, it happened. Jamie signaled them to stop. He yelled. The man smiled. It was a trick. Jamie screamed, “Stop!” When the man didn’t, he opened fire. He killed them all. In the car there was no bomb, just a mother, a father, and a little child, all dead. She was no more than seven. Her eyes were still open. Accusingly open—asking why. Jamie tried to bring her back. He breathed into her mouth. But there was no bringing her back.

Ed was introducing his son. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of my son, Jamie. Not only a hero, but a talented artist and someday, he’ll start a family of his own and give Martha and me a grandchild. May I suggest Edward is a good name. Jamie, would you say a few words. Ladies and Gentlemen, let’s welcome Jamie home.”

Jamie knew he had to say something. He would have liked to have been alone tonight, but he couldn’t disappoint his father. “Thank you all for coming. I’m no hero, but I am so happy to be home. I wish I could just wave my hand and make the war go away. I can’t help but think of all those who aren’t coming home. Now all I want to do is get on with my life. I got the best mom and dad in the world and I thank them for this wonderful party.”

Jamie felt he disappointed the people at the party a little bit. They wanted something rousing—how we were saving the world and those that died didn’t die in vain. He felt like that character in the old movie he saw on TV who came home from World War One and told his old Professor and the students how awful killing was. They were shocked that he didn’t tell them how glorious it was to fight for your country. They felt he was a coward.

James had to admit he had joined up with his own illusions. He had seen movies like “Top Gun” before he joined and that sort of made it seem more glamorous than it turned out to be. Down deep he wanted to show those guys that didn’t believe an artist was tough enough, all those guys who couldn’t understand how he could pick the art club over a sports team.

Jamie did his best to start his life again. The magazine took him back—his drawings were better than ever. His mother approved of his seeing Susan, a daughter of a friend, even though they spent a lot of time in Staten Island where she lived. It looked serious. Martha still worried about his moods—but thought they were improving. Ed said, “Jamie is fine. Of course, he saw bad things. That can’t be helped in war.”

It happened one year later. At 2:00 a.m. on the Verazano Bridge. Jamie was alone— coming home to Brooklyn after seeing Susan. They had rented Saving Private Ryan and had pizza and beer. The movie did bother him, but they talked into the night about getting married and having children.

He tried to tell Susan, but couldn’t. After he left her, he walked alone on the beach near her house. He looked across the bay and the water soothed him as he thought how that bay had been there for thousands of years and still would be long after he was gone. He thought of that little girl who would never have a life and never have children and he about to start a life and maybe have children of his own and could he ever tell them what happened and how futile was all the killing and would these thoughts never end. After a while, he felt calm, his mind seeing the peaceful way.

Back in his car, he took out his wallet and looked at the pictures. His mother and father and him when he was a little boy. Him and Susan inscribed, “Forever together.” And the picture of Joey, his buddy in Iraq, who wasn’t ever coming home.

The car crashed through the railing on the bridge and fell to the water. Jamie and the car were retrieved the next day on the Brooklyn side near where it landed. He certainly didn’t suffer.

There was an investigation. The police concluded it was an accident, although it was suspicious that the car was apparently going so fast and seemed to be headed right through the railing. Susan was convinced it was an accident. He was in a wonderful mood as they talked about the future. When he left, he even told her, “I’ve got all the problems figured out now.” He seemed happier and calmer than she had ever seen him before.

He never hinted at suicide. Except that one time when he told Monsignor that he was having bad thoughts about all the killing he had seen.

Ed McLaughlin was a broken man that an accident would take his son. “He survived the war and then died in an accident. It’s heartbreaking.”

His mother, to this day, has never said a word about how he died. She looks at his drawings, particularly of the little children, and believes the answer is there.


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