“The Last Taps”

by Nancy Coombs

Who shall tempt with wand’ring feet
The dark unbottom’d infinite abyss
-John Milton, Paradise Lost

The quartz sand feels good to us, the war-injured. Sweet-looking fluffy snow nearly killed us back then – this powdered sugar beach is heaven now.

We remember when we’d first taken over his life. We’d been frozen for days when they found him wandering – we, his feet, were happy to be captured by the enemy, even if the boy wasn’t. Bruce had survived his plane going down, barely. He wandered without direction, waiting for death or someone, anyone. We were left intact but his fortitude punished us. Ignoring the painful pleas that we shot through these icicle toes, he continued his march through the snowstorm. Why are we – the feet, always the feet – the point of contact? We’re the heroes, we told ourselves, obeying his will. Aching as we did, we made him forget home, forget his lost crewmates, forget food. Bruce was thankful for our distraction. Our suffering had served some purpose then. With him, we followed his captors to Nuremburg, only stopping for a moment as he took in the dusk’s orange hues reflected on the Earth’s icy surface. As the sun set, he thought of his future. He couldn’t lose those dreams.

The taps he played in his head was his. Day is done, gone the sun.

Where could he find relief?  It didn’t exist. As a POW, Bruce endured their German taunts – kriegie, they’d call him – and revealed nothing of his pain, nothing of his thoughts. He showed no reaction, such a stoic guy, but we were killing him. His too tight, too hard leather boots made it worse for us. Only at night could he take off those instruments of torture, hurting us even more as the raw flesh adjusted to the air. He’d grimace to brace himself, then lift us up onto his cold, hard sleeping surface. The throbbing would stop after a while. As the sun set, Bruce listened to the night terrors of his fellow prisoners, crying for their sweethearts, for their lives. He thought of Mama: he couldn’t let her lose another son.                

The taps he played in his head was hers. Day is done, gone the sun.

We made it out of the war. We were the victors. We crossed the seas in soft fur-lined moccasins and marched with him through the parades, the homecoming; Mama had gotten to keep her second son. We walked with him too through the GI Bill, the wedding, the career, the children, the grandchildren. Never speaking of the war, he’d relive it all through us, through pain his constant companion, through the special shoes which helped a little but not a lot in his perfect house in his perfect neighbourhood.  As the sun set, his family watched from the dining table; he couldn’t lose that moment.

The taps he played in his head was theirs.  Day is done, gone the sun.

Our throbbing reminders would never let him break free. There was no tunnel to get away from us, his wartime souvenir.  We were his point of contact for remembering. Others shared his story, if not our pain, but he’d avoided the guys for too long; few were left.

Bruce retired, work being the only freedom he’d ever known. When he got the invitation to his air force reunion in Siesta Key – “America’s #1 Beach,” the brochure said – he knew this was his chance. He needed to go. We tried to warn him. Could we handle the hot sun? Would those heavy black shoes look crazy down south? He went anyway, defying our commands and ignoring our fears.

Everything came together for him there, at that beach, at that time. FDR’s letter. The flag. The Old Lie. The Promise. The Dream. The Family. The Drinks. The Pictures. The Gulls. The Dolphins. The Waves. The Greatest Generation. Generation Z. 

At dusk, Bruce sits down on a beach chair and pulls off those heavy shoes. We burrow in that cool, cool sand, tunneling to our escape. We are free! He feels nothing – just the here and now – and it is bliss. The other kriegies stand barefoot in the water. This is their liberation! He pulls out the old bugle from his leather satchel.

As the sun sets, the taps he plays is ours. Gone the sun, all is won.