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“Grounded”

Volume 8 | Spring 2018

by Marine Yanikian-Sutton

Henry left Vietnam in 1971, but the horrors of Vietnam never left him.  On humid days, being out and about brought it all back. Other times while flipping through the television stations, images of choppers plummeting or little Asian kids walking about took his breath away. He held onto the present like one does a life jacket, never quite sure when the past would gnaw him to pieces.

He’d done a lot out there that shamed him, a lot he’d much rather forget. But memory doesn’t work that way. Instead, he learned to get through his days wading through recollections that beaded on his forehead in the middle of the night. He walked through the monotony of life, seeking extremes – never quite content in the middle, unless he was with his grandson. Henry Junior, or Junior as he called him, offered him a pleasant distraction. Since he was knee-high, Junior would follow him about exclaiming, “You’re windy-grandpa, you’re windy,” a game he’d started with him when he was only months old.

He’d smack his lips together, twirl his index finger before the boy’s eyes, and plant strawberry kisses on his tummy. When Junior stopped giggling he’d say, “You’re windy Junior, you’re windy!”

The boy made everything right. He kept him grounded, in a good way.  His eyes lit up when he entered a room, and the darkness seemed to recede into the corners of his existence. Junior was just the medicine he needed. So, he replaced the past with fishing and camping expeditions, which only brought them closer together. Thus, he slipped through the embankment of life until Junior stood at the peak of thirteen.

His only boy, Kurt, had invited him over for dinner on his grandson’s birthday. How could he refuse? His existence depended on these minor joys, broken up weekly with a visit or two to the local shooting range.

“Did you know that Henry Beebee Carrington was my great-great grandfather?” He often repeated unknowingly, to his grandson. Sometimes the conversation deepened, other times it skimmed the surface, but it often sounded something like this:

His grandson would listen and nod, obedient like his father.

“He fought in the Civil War, he supported the abolitionists, yes he did,” Senior would say, repeating stories he’d heard when he was just a lad.

“Is that why you joined the Army?” Junior would ask.

“Yes-sir-ee, he lived under the flag, and fought under the flag. And so it was with me! My country, right to the end!” Senior would drift away momentarily after such prideful outbursts, lost in his visions of death. He would recollect all the friends he left behind, the blood that spilled on foreign land. He’d wonder if his great-great grandfather had walked the earth as haunted as he did after fighting for what he had believed in. Tears would well up in his eyes. His breath would catch. Often he’d clench his left fist and jam his fingers into his eyes to restrain from breaking down before his grandson.

“Did he die in the war?” Junior would ask, drawing him slowly to the surface once again.

“No, he was one of the lucky ones. He lived into his late eighties.”

“Am I named after him?”

“Nothing gets by you, does it?” Senior would tease.

Often they would laugh it off and return to the present day activity, be it a game of chess or a good old-fashioned afternoon of pizza and football watching.  Regardless of what they did, the boy helped him harness the present. He interwove reality with sorrow, shedding light in each present moment.

Once though, Junior’s words pierced so deeply that it felt like a gunshot wound. He asked, “Will I fight in a war some day?”

That’s when Senior clammed up. He was torn. He had seen too many deaths, had flown in with a slew of friends, but returned home alone. Then there was the crash.

He placed his wrinkled hand on his grandson’s shoulder that day and said, “Let’s pray to God that we never have to think about that!”

But he hadn’t been able to shake it off. He’d thought and thought on it until it had consumed his nights once more. He’d vanished for a while, trying to regain his grasp on reality, tipping the bottle one too many times, trying to stand straight without crumbling. The young lad learned quickly what to say and what not to; war, Vietnam, and death all being taboo topics. For Agent Orange and scorching fires tatted his grandpa’s soul with pain. Any mention of those topics would hurl him into an abyss once more, from which it took years to resurface.

And so time elapsed. The day of the birthday celebration approached, and Senior came about to reenter Junior’s life. He focused on the task at hand this morning, wrapping the boy’s gift. His aging fingers moved methodically. He set out the tape, scissors, shiny wrapping paper, and gift before he even started. He cut, sized, folded, creased, and taped as precisely as a soldier runs drills. He gripped the box, inhaling deeply, allowing it to lift him to the surface of life’s vast sea of sorrow. The box was light for the hefty price he’d paid, but it was cheaper than the amount he’d previously spent drowning out memories at the bottom of a bottle.

He hoisted it under one arm and headed out of his apartment, placing it gently in the passenger side seat of his yellow Jeep Wrangler. Scraped and dinged in various spots, the vehicle held its own type of charm. Walking towards the driver’s side of the car, he pulled himself in and started the wearing engine. It choked a couple of times before raging to life.

The drive to his son’s house took a while. He drove down unpaved rocky back roads, slower than a tank. He tried to avoid large rocks while hugging the side of the Sierra Nevada mountainside. He liked it here. He enjoyed the view, the air, and the trees. The cliff on the other hand made him squeamish. The washboard-like road jostled him to consciousness every time slumber threatened to lull him to sleep. Thirty minutes in, he found himself pulling onto the dirt driveway. He forced his own path towards the house, close to the deer-trodden ones, as his wheels spun out in the dusty road.

Kurt stood out front grilling hotdogs, and the smell made his mouth water. His grandson was not around. He turned the engine off, grabbed the box, and walked up the wood chip path that led to the house.

“Good Afternoon, son!” He called.

Kurt grinned, clinking the long metal tongs he held in his right hand. They hugged as his son said, “How’re you doing, dad? Want something to drink?”

He chuckled and replied, “I never thought I’d hear you offer me a drink ever again.”

Kurt didn’t take the bait. He simply said, “Amy’s made some iced tea. It’s in the fridge. Help yourself. Junior’s inside somewhere too.”

He entered the house then, greeted his daughter-in-law with a warm hug and found his grandson sitting in the living room, watching a football game.

“Seahawks are ahead, grandpa. The score is fourteen to seven. The third quarter is about to start. Do you want to watch?”

“Nope, I want to see you open your present, that’s what I want!”

“Now?”

“No better time than the present, if you ask me.” He handed the boy the package as Junior stood and raced towards him.

“Thanks grandpa,” he said as he took the shiny box.

“Don’t thank me till you see what it is!” He flexed his shoulders, cracked his fingers, and beamed the largest of grins as Junior rattled the box.

He stood where he could see both Amy’s reaction as well as Junior’s, waiting as Junior tore into the package. He came up for air only after revealing the flying drone image to his mother.

“Whoa, grandpa? How did you know? It has a camera embedded into it too. I’ve wanted my own Huey for years!”

He grinned and exclaimed, “Well, pull it out of the box already. I want to see you fly the thing!”

“Dad, you shouldn’t have,” Amy said. “It’s too much!”

He hushed her away with a playful pat and turned to watch Junior’s beaming eyes as he removed the battery pack and plugged it into a socket to charge. He held the drone like a ring boy does a pillow and started reading the instructions when his son walked in holding a plate of mouthwatering hotdogs.

“Let’s eat before anyone takes off into the air,” Kurt said as he placed the food on the center of the pre-set table.

He didn’t need a formal invitation. He loaded his plate with Amy’s homemade potato salad, grilled veggies, and corn-on-the cob. He then set about making his hot dog with the works; relish, mustard, ketchup, and onions. After two hot dogs and three servings of every side, he leaned back in his seat and placed his hands on his bulging belly, sighing, “I’ve eaten enough for two breakfasts, two lunches and one dinner. I’m good till tomorrow night.”

Junior laughed and exclaimed, “Then let’s go outside and fly this thing.”

“Did I ever tell you about my great-great grandfather, Henry Beebee Carrington?”

“I bet he wasn’t anything compared to you Grandpa. He didn’t have a chopper to fly in the Civil War.”

“Nope, no choppers then.”

“But you soared through the air like a bird,” Junior said outstretching his arms and pretending to do the same.

Grandpa chuckled.

“You were in your own Huey and now I have one too, right?”

“Right!” he choked out. He pressed his trembling lips together, pushing back the raw emotion.  When he glanced up, an uncomfortable silence had settled over the family.

He shook it off and stood up. With more confidence than he wielded, he exclaimed, “Alright then lad, let’s do this before the sun sets and we can’t see pine from cedar.”

Junior was out the door, drone in hand, before grandpa finished his sentence. He walked out front to where the clearing enabled him to avoid the tree limbs and started slow and low. Gripping the remote in two hands, he maneuvered the drone off the ground a foot, then two, and then three. Then he practiced setting it safely down. By the fifth attempt, the drone hovered six feet above the ground. Junior had to glance upwards to see it, wielding the sincerest of smiles.

“Grandpa, this is amazing!” He called out as the six feet turned into ten.

“Can I try?” Senior asked.

Junior could deny him nothing. He loved his grandpa like a bird loved the sky. Yet he also feared his grandpa like a bird does propellers. So, obediently, he handed the remote control over to him.

As he grasped it, his fingers touched a lever or two and the hovering drone shot straight up, over thirty feet into the air. Caught up by a gust of wind, it flew over the two-story cabin and disappeared into the forest behind the house.

Junior gasped.

Grandpa cursed.

Both ran towards the forest, floundered.

“Oh, no!” Junior stammered.

“Oh, my!” Grandpa muttered.

“What happened now?” Kurt asked rounding the side of the house and eying them warily.

“The drone flew into the forest,” Junior said, refraining from placing blame.

“It’s alright, it’s alright. I can buy a new one. I have enough in my savings, I can…”

“We’ll find it, grandpa. You don’t have to buy a new one. Don’t worry. It’ll be like a birthday adventure. We’ll be like pirates looking for a treasure and we’ll find it,” said Junior.

And look they did. They walked into the forest and sought high and low. They ambled over downed logs, around massive Manzanita, and avoided poison oak. But spotting the drone in a massive coniferous forest felt like finding the Viet Cong in the high bushes of the swampland.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he stammered, beginning to gasp for air after some time.

“Alright, let’s head back to the house and maybe we can try again later?” Junior asked.

And as they retraced their steps back towards the house, they spotted it. The rays of the setting sun glimmered off of its silver propellers, catching both their eyes at once. Stuck on a twig in a massive oak tree hung the drone.

Junior grinned and ran towards it while grandpa limped after him. When he finally caught up with his grandson, he found him hurling rocks straight up into the air.

“Junior, what are you doing?” He asked.

“Trying to get it down!”

“By cracking your head open?” said Senior. Junior stopped and stared at him with an uncomprehending stare.  “You do know that whatever you throw straight up will come straight down, right?”

“Then how do we get it down?” Junior stammered.

He stood back and eyed it while Junior ran into the house. He returned with Amy and Kurt.  Amy scowled, while Kurt wielded a ten-foot heavy-duty rope.

“Are you planning on climbing the tree?” he asked.

“Sit somewhere and give your legs a break, while we get this down,” his son said as he and Junior began whispering about how to do so.

Climb onto your tree house and see if you can throw this high enough to break a part of the branch. Then, maybe it’ll fall down.”

Junior tried. He tried for more than an hour before he sat down, resigned, and said, “I think that bird’s found a new home.”

Grandpa sat in the shade wringing out his hands. The sunlight blinded him, pummeling him between present and past. The life vest that kept him afloat in the present seemed to slip slightly as images of the past flashed before his eyes. He knew what that bird felt like, stuck up in the air, alone with the pressure of the wind for solace.

He had been a gunner, who should have died when every other member of his crew did. But even falling hundreds of feet to the ground didn’t spare him the pain he carried with him years later. He remembered their last words, their last jokes, and their last night. Each memory was etched in his psyche.

The exclamations between his son and grandson mirrored the growing chaos in his mind, but a door slamming back at the cabin snapped him back to reality. His muscles tensed as he cast his eyes down towards the lad who looked crestfallen. He drew strength from Junior and stood on two trembling legs. Chokingly, he declared, “Not on my watch!”

His clan stopped in mid argument and turned towards him. He staggered towards them and continued: “Now you listen here. If you won’t let me go out and buy another one, then the least you can do is let me shoot it down.”

The words scorched him, brandishing him with pain. Shooting down the drone would be a surreal reenactment of the worst of the awful memories. He forced himself to keep his eyes on the lad, to simplify the moment, to convince himself that it was just a bird and he was just at a shooting range.

“D-a-a-a-a-d,” Kurt drawled.

“All I have to do is get my rifle out of my car and shoot the branch down. I can do this, I shoot a the range every week, and I’m telling you that I still got it!”

“I know you do, dad, but…”

Junior looked from his dad to his grandpa, hopeful and yet unsure of how to respond.

“Well, make up your mind before the moon comes out.”

“Alright dad, get the rifle.”  As Senior removed the rifle from the back of his car, Kurt turned towards Junior and exclaimed, “Inside, now!”

“Careful grandpa,” Junior called out, “You know what they say, right? Whatever goes up must come down!”

Grandpa snickered as he watched his family scurry indoors. He waited patiently, confident in what would come to pass. He stayed focused on the task at hand, refusing to let his mind wander. He knew he could put this all to rest soon enough. He held three bullets in his hand, running his fingers over them as he waited. Once he heard the door slam, he lifted his hunting rifle, opened the bolt, pulled it back, and loaded the bullets into the internal magazine. He held the rifle firmly, locking it into his shoulder as he aimed at the branch. He took three shots. The action came naturally, as does eating and sleeping. After the third shot, the drone floated down to the ground.

Junior ran outside, mesmerized. “You did it, you did it!”

“Now see if it works,” Kurt called out from behind him.

Amy stood at the kitchen window, eying them all, removed from the moment and yet drawn to it like an overprotective hen. Junior replaced the battery with an unused one, positioned the drone on the flat ground, away from the trees and started maneuvering the drone slowly upwards. First it hovered one foot above the ground, then two, still functioning with a scratch here and there and a hole in one propeller.

“Thanks Grandpa,” he called out after wearing out the second battery pack. He gave him the tightest of hugs. As he wrapped his arms around the thin boy he couldn’t help but wonder what he’d done right in the world to deserve the love of this youth, when he’d done so much that he wished he could forget.

“You ground me, boy, you truly ground me!”

“I don’t know what life was like when you were a kid, but when you’re grounded in this house, it isn’t a good thing,” Junior shot back.

He chuckled and tousled the kid’s hair. He knew then that of all the things he had done wrong in the world, he had done well by this grandkid of his.  And one day, when he no longer stood on this earth, he knew that this boy would grow into the name he’d been given, Henry Beebee Carrington, and he would do justice by it.

The lad grinned.

Grandpa said, “Come lad, let’s go inside and make it official. Thirteen is a big year, no? Can’t mark it without candles and a cake.” And so they turned towards the house, two Henry’s reveling in the simple joys of life.