Chapter 1 January 1973
Low clouds parted briefly giving weak winter sunlight a chance to reach old Charlie, offering welcomed warmth. Perched on Charlie’s head was the old straw hat he wore any time he was outdoors, and he pushed it down to just above his ears before cautiously stepping off his front porch onto an ice covered walk. A tin Folgers coffee can tucked under his left arm.
Charlie’s front walk ran out ten feet before connecting with the town’s cement sidewalk, which eventually ended in the downtown section of small Howard, Nebraska. Charlie’s mailbox lived out here. He didn’t receive much mail but getting to it was risky business in winter.
The coffee tin under his arm held rock salt. This morning he was tossing the salt onto the sidewalk ahead of each step he took. The salt immediately melted away ice.
Charlie stopped his task when he spied Oscar Browning approaching. Young Oscar was trudging his way along the sidewalk shoving a bent, twisted bicycle.
Charlie could hear Oscar’s mumbling as he approached.
“Darn that Jimmy! I never shoulda’ took that dare.” Oscar angrily push/pulled the crippled bike. He hadn’t noticed the old man until Charlie spoke.
“Looks like you took quite a tumble, pardner.”
Most of Oscar was hidden under a snow-soaked jacket, hat and mittens. Melted snow on his knit cap refroze and crystalized solidly, polka dotting the hat with tiny ice pellets. Bitter moisture in the January air glued his iced-over mittens to the Huffy Stingray’s high-rise handlebars. Both the boy and the bike looked like they’d barely survived something epic. His male pride had also taken a major hit.
“Hey, Charlie. Jimmy dared me to take that big jump down at the rock pits. Bandit landed wrong on something really hard then kinda folded and I flew into a snowbank.”
Charlie smiled. He remembered feeling that same invincibility once. He grabbed a hand-rolled smoke from his hat band. Clutched between two yellowed fingers, he lit the cigarette, inhaled, released smoke, then spoke, “Gonna need money to fix that thing.”
The front wheel and left high rise were awkwardly tilted too far left. Several front spokes had popped, the shiny black banana seat was ripped and the left pedal smashed. With a heavy sigh Oscar admitted, “Yep; guess I will.”
“Your Dad got any chores for you down at the station?”
“Naw. He doesn’t put in much time there anymore since Esso bought it.”
Charlie exhaled another lung full of smoke then offered, “I got some odd jobs to do ever’ so often ‘round here, Oscar. Can’t pay you much but it should help put Bandit – is that what you called your bike? – back on the road.”
Oscar liked Charlie. He was fun to listen to and to look at. You’d never know it was 1973 looking at Charlie. He looked and sounded like a real cowboy; something leftover from Wild West days. Unruly gray hair escaping under a battered cowboy hat met another batch of wild gray hair on his face. Scuffed cowboy boots covered his feet year-round matching the abused straw hat covering his head.
It just took a few seconds for Oscar to free his mittened hand from the icy handlebar and reach for Charlie’s handshake. “It’s a deal. When do I start?”
“How ‘bout right now? I could use a warm cup a’ coffee if you wanna finish spreadin’ this salt. Never thought a’ walkin’ to be a problem till I parked myself in this ‘ere cabin with a concrete sidewalk out front. Dang thing turns into an ice-skating rink every winter!” Charlie scowled. “Shouldn’t be a problem for a young whipper-snapper like you, Oscar.”
Oscar leaned Bandit against Charlie’s front fence, reached for the Folgers can and smiled. Yep, I’m gonna like working for this ole cowboy.
Chapter 2 February 1973
Oscar was surprised at the number of odd jobs Charlie found for him: shoveling snow and keeping the front walk free of ice, chopping kindling, filling the wood box, and sometimes, just watching TV with him. It didn’t take long for Oscar to earn the three dollars Alvin Swift needed to start work on Bandit. Alvin worked as a grease monkey at Pete Browning’s Esso Service Station and had started the job before graduating high school the year David ran away.
The smell of grease and sounds of repair work in the garage section of the service station always brought back memories of David. David and Alvin tinkering under some old car with an A.M. radio tuned into KHOT and the disc jockey proclaiming "K.H.O.T…Nebraska’s hot spot for country music.” David and Alvin had gone to high school together and were good friends. Alvin was one grade ahead of David.
Oscar let out a sigh and headed Bandit in the direction of Charlie’s place. Bandit still needed a new pedal and banana seat but it was fixed enough for Oscar to ride again.
“Thanks, Alvin. Go ahead and order Bandit’s new seat. I got a steady job down at Charlie’s place now so I’ll have the money when it gets here. See ya.”
The teen had already put in three weeks doing Charlie’s chores but to him it didn’t feel like a job at all. It was the first week of a snow-packed February in Nebraska. Everything still solidly iced over when Oscar locked Bandit’s kickstand down near Charlie’s front porch. He scooped up a few wood chunks from the pile in the front yard that used to be a birch tree, jumped two stairs to the porch and opened the house door. Charlie’s wood stove was against the wall on his right. Two old wooden boxes sat on the floor, one on each side of the stove. Rusty was curled up in the left box. Oscar dropped an armload of firewood into the box on the right and reached into the other box to scratch Rusty’s head.
A local news station blared from the television. The boob-tube reporter was droning on about something happening in Washington D.C. called Watergate.
Next came a piece on returning POWs causing Oscar to stop and listen. What about the MIAs? Oscar remembered that final day, how David’s hand felt as he ruffled Oscar’s hair, telling him to “Keep your chin up, sport.” Oscar didn’t want to give up hope. Didn’t want to think those words might be the last he’d hear from his big brother. David never once complained when I asked him to take me with him and his buddies when they went over to the drive-in movie at Cap City. Most times I sat alone in the back seat of Bo’s old Ford while they talked to girls in the snack bar. At least they took me. Older brothers usually don’t. I miss him so much. Two years is such a long time.
Next a report on something much closer: a place in South Dakota called Wounded Knee. The American Indian Movement had seized the small town. Didn’t Alvin have relatives in South Dakota?
Oscar stopped listening to the news report and turned down the TV’s volume knob when he heard loud coughing in the kitchen and hollered out, “Brought your wood in for tonight Charlie.” The rasping cough continued so Oscar peeked around the doorway into a small kitchen. “Charlie?”
Bent over the sink, a mass of grey hair hanging in his face, the coughing fit prevented Charlie from hearing the teen’s approach. Spotting Oscar from the corner of his eye, he quickly drew a handkerchief across his mouth. “Howdy O. Brung the wood in, did ya?”
“Yes sir. You okay?”
“Just a chest cold I’m having an awful time gettin’ rid of. Winters ain’t so good for me anymore, Oscar. Too many of them behind me now.”
His breathing almost back to normal, Charlie recovered from the coughing fit and turned back to the stove to finish scrambling up eggs for his dinner. “Time was I could ride fence all winter long and not even sneeze.”
Oscar grabbed two pieces of browned bread the toaster had launched into the air and began to butter them for his friend. That’s how he thought of Charlie already, not his employer but his friend.
“Really Charlie? Tell me.”
Charlie kept working at the stove, mixing scrambled eggs in a cast iron skillet, but turned to face Oscar. “Well, lemme see.” He ran crooked yellowed fingers through his hair, pulling out a few loose strands along with memories.
“There was this one time, workin’ a ranch down in southern Wyoming, the boss man sent three of us out in a blizzard to find some missin’ cows. We searched all morning on horseback, wind blowing hard, pushing that snow sideways. Heck, Oscar, we looked pretty much like you did the day you and Bandit crashed. Anyways, we topped this middlin’ hill and just about started down the other side when I spied something I hadn’t never seed ‘afore. Steam coming up from the snow. We knew there was a pretty deep ravine between the hill we just topped and the matchin’ hill over yonder. Swallowed up in deep snow drifts, that ravine all but disappeared. If we’d a’taken the horses down any further, we’d a disappeared too. What we didn’t know was the reason for the steam. It seemed to be coming out a’ several holes in that drift. Andy got off his horse, walked closer to get a better look. Pretty soon Jim and I could hear him laughing. He shouted back to us that he’d found those five lost cows.” Charlie laughed as he recalled the day, then shaking his head, he continued. “The only thing we could figure was they were in the ravine when the snowstorm hit and being the dumb critters they are, they just stayed put. Their hot breath blew holes in the snow and that was the steam we seen. We spent the rest of the day digging and roping those four-legged beasts out of that gully.”
Still smiling, Charlie served up his eggs and bacon, collected the toast from Oscar and tried to sit. A small wooden table and two chairs were pressed up against an outside wall under the solitary four-paned window. The tiny kitchen, only big enough for a dish pan set into a single cabinet serving as a sink, the two-burner stove and that small table, grew even smaller when Rusty moseyed in. The old, mud-colored dog had ambled in alongside Oscar in search of his master.
“Move it, Rusty. Can’t even sit m’self down with you underfoot.”
After Charlie was seated with his meal and Rusty claimed a spot near Charlie’s feet, Oscar slid out the empty chair and sat. After a time, Oscar glanced at the white expanse on the other side of the window. Charlie’s small backyard was surrounded by a fence. Oscar knew the broken-down northwest corner of that fence wouldn’t be visible again until after spring snowmelt. I’ll bet Charlie will want me to help him fix that this spring.
Wood crackled and popped in the front-room wood stove wrapping Oscar in cozy saturating heat. He was beginning to feel that kind of warmth from the old cowboy too. He hadn’t felt this relaxed since the day David left for school and ended up in Marine boot camp instead. He wasn’t at all sure how Charlie would answer, being such an old man, but Oscar didn’t have his big brother to guide him, and his dad never seemed to have time for him anymore.
“Charlie, have you ever been in love?”
Fork full of eggs, halfway to his toast, Charlie asked, “Land sakes, boy. You’re just a fourteen-year-old nubbin. Why’d you ask?”
“I guess I’m wondering how you know. There’s this girl in my class, Penny. When she looks at me, my mouth goes dry. I can’t think. I’d sure like to ask her to the Valentine Dance but I think Jimmy likes her too. He’s always showing off around girls.”
“Jimmy, that’s your best friend, right?”
“Yeah. He’s in tenth grade. All the girls sorta dig the guys in higher grades. Penny gets all gooey-eyed when she looks at him.”
Toast and scrambled eggs finally in his mouth, Charlie sipped his coffee and asked, “Have you tried to talk to her?”
“Not really. Like I said, I get tongue-tied and my mouth goes dry.”
“How you gonna ask her to the dance if you can’t even talk to ‘er?”
Something Oscar couldn’t name crept across Charlie’s eyes as he spoke. He blinked, took another bite of toast and handed Rusty a piece of bacon. “Buy her a pretty Valentine card or a box of candy. Girls love that kind a’ stuff.”
Squeaking his Keds back and forth on the linoleum floor, Oscar replied, “Aw, I dunno, Charlie. Bandit still needs a seat.”
So far, this school year had been hard on Oscar. The near disaster with his bike was just one more thing piled on. The atmosphere inside the Browning household felt colder than winter outside. There had been no letter from David for so long. Oscar had marked his older brother’s twenty-first birthday by spending time with Alvin.
His grades had slipped badly in school; anxiety kept him in a constant state of turmoil. He wasn’t sure of anything and felt overwhelmed most of the time. Even his body had turned on him. Up until this year he’d always been shorter than his classmates. He was unprepared for the recent growth spurt which left him wearing blue jeans a good two inches too short. Classmates were calling out, “Hey O, where’s the flood?” or “Oscar’s got his high-waters on again.” Just when he could have made a good impression on Penny with his new-found height, his self-confidence shattered again. His mother walked around like some kind of robot; just doing, not talking. All that mixed together his father’s sullenness and long absences away from home made Charlie’s place his only safe zone.
“Anyway, what about Jimmy?” Oscar continued, “He told me he thinks she’s kinda cute.”
Charlie raked toast crumbs from the hairy gray mess on his face. “Don’t worry about Jimmy. All’s fair in love and war, O. Remember that.” He stood up and grabbed a Folgers can from the pantry shelf, offering Oscar two dollar bills. “Here ya go, sport. Ferget that new bike seat fer now. Buy Penny something pretty and when you give it to her, tell her she has a nice smile, and ask her to the dance before Jimmy gets a chance. Now is not the time to be shy, boy, not if you really like her.” It seemed as though this was very important to Oscar. And, who knows, Penny might just be the one.
Oscar reached for the offered bills and said, “Thanks a lot Charlie.”
A dismissing wave of his hand signaling he was done. “Eh, what are friends for? Now, go on. I gotta finish supper.”
He grinned at Charlie’s use of the word friends and turned, leaving the small kitchen. Just as he reached the front door and was about to open it, Charlie said, “Yes.”
Oscar turned back and asked, “Huh?”
Charlie was standing by the small table, his body framed in bright kitchen light, casting a shadow into the front room and Oscar watched that memory swim across Charlie’s old eyes once more. Kind, clear eyes hemmed in by deep wrinkles, peering out just below a hair mass. Oscar couldn’t tell where Charlie’s mustache ended and his hair began but always found it pleasant to look at him.
Charlie answered, “Yes, Oscar, I’ve been in love. It can hurt like hell, son, but when it’s good… Well, it’ll get good for you in time. Don’t rush it. You’re just getting started. I’ve made my share of mistakes. No need for this to be one of yours.” He turned back to his supper as one more thought occurred. “When it’s good and true, O, love can make a man feel kinda like he found something he didn’t even know was lost.” The old man smiled and turned back toward the kitchen speaking to himself more than Oscar. “Yeah, that’s ‘xactly what it’s like.”
Oscar strode out into a gray February evening mulling over the old man’s advice. He stood for a minute looking at Charlie’s cabin. The front room wood stove casting a soft glow in the window. Little more than a large brown shack, Charlie’s place sat on the west edge of Howard, Nebraska, sandwiched between town and an area where the Union Pacific RR tracks used to be. Charlie said his house was one of ten cheap temporary homes built in 1942 to shelter railroad workers while they stripped the rails from this section of track turning it into scrap for the WWII war effort. Charlie’s place is the only house of the original ten still standing. Kinda like the man. Something leftover from a different time. Yeah…..the Wild West days.
Oscar turned Bandit away from Charlie’s place feeling stronger. He’d ask Penny to the dance, work hard at getting his grades back up, try to forget Jimmy’s bullying and things at home. Charlie was becoming a pal, someone Oscar could talk to until David came home.
Chapter 3 March 1973
“Thanks Alvin. I’ll be right down.” Oscar hung up the kitchen wall phone, grabbed his coat from the wall hook beside the back door and yelled, “Mom, I gotta go to the garage. Alvin says Bandit’s new seat came in.” He didn’t expect a reply and got none.
His father owned the service station since before it was an Esso. He’d been the town’s only mechanic and built the station’s reputation on his ability to fix any car brought in. Pete could fix anything. Once Esso purchased the station, they kept Pete on as manager and Alvin Swift did the mechanic work. Oscar knew his Dad having more free time was not a good thing. Pete Browning drank more all the time, drowning himself in beer since his older son David quit high school in ’69 and enlisted in the Marines. A buddy drove David to Scottsbluff where he boarded a Greyhound bound for Camp Pendleton, California, leaving Nebraska before his parents had a chance to talk him out of it. Four weeks later his parents got a letter. David said he’d wanted to serve before the war ended. He felt it was his duty.
Skidding Bandit to a hasty stop outside his father’s service station, he noticed Pete’s car was not around. Dad’s probably at the tavern right now. Oscar heard metal banging inside the shop, keeping time with a song blaring from KHOT country radio station. A baritone voice crooning, “It don’t matter where or how I go,” Oscar recognized his favorite singer, Johnny Rodriguez as he sang the next line, “I’ll be ridin’ my thumb to Mexico.” Oscar especially liked the way Rodriguez drew out the O at the end of Mexico.
The double garage door was down, insulating the large workspace against bitter March winds. Oscar cupped his hands-on garage door glass, peeking in. He spied the sway of a hanging work light beneath a red Chevy. The garage hoist had the Chevy slightly raised allowing Alvin to stand as he worked under it in the grease pit. Oscar entered the garage work area through a small office on the left and called out, “Alvin?”
“Down here, O. Hang on a sec.” Alvin clambered up the few concrete steps, wiping his hands on a red mechanic’s rag stuffed in a rear pocket of his blue jeans. Alvin’s bronze skin color and high cheek bones spoke to his Native American heritage. His tribe had been in this part of Nebraska long before the town of Howard was built. The few remaining Lakotas in the area worked for white business owners in town.
Alvin had been one grade ahead of David Browning in high school, both of them on the football team. After a home game win, the whole team celebrated at Moon’s Pizzeria. Oscar made sure to be there before the team arrived. David and Alvin always included him in the fun. Oscar loved the attention he got as the little guy hangin’ around. Sometimes, if the varsity team had an especially good win, Alvin would pick me up, parade me around on his shoulders and call me the team mascot. But that was four years ago. A lot had changed over those four years. All you had to do was watch the nightly news.
“Alvin, how come your last name is Swift? What gives?”
“Well, young brave, just something I figured might help me fit into a white man’s world. Didn’t work. Can’t change the way I look. Swift is the English version of my Lakota name, Kohana.”
Oscar laughed at Alvin calling him “young brave.” Al always sounded like the television Indian, Tonto.
Alvin shoved the rag back in his rear pocket and turned the volume down on the radio then grabbed a box from the workbench and tossed it to Oscar. “Here ya go. Sorry it took so long to get here but …” dropping the rest of his sentence as a banging noise in the office made them both turn. Pete slammed into his office, crashing into shelves and knocking several cans of oil off. He recovered his balance enough to focus on Alvin and Oscar in the garage. “Was’ goin’ on out there?”
“Nothin’ boss, just giving O the new seat for his bike.” Alvin knew as well as Oscar what was coming. When Pete’s drunken rants were directed towards him, they were bitterly edged with prejudice.
Prejudice was something Alvin Kohana knew all about. It had followed him all through school. Back then he kept his thick black hair cut short in an effort to fit in. But there was nothing he could do about inherited high cheek bones and dark olive-colored skin. Often passed in school hallways by someone with an uplifted hand, palm out and the words, “How, chief” sarcastically spoken, taunting him into a fight: “Heap big chief not so big… Him heap big chicken.” Or entering a classroom as a fellow student jumped from behind the door hopping foot to foot, large duck feather sticking up on his head, slapping his mouth while howling, “woo, woo, woo, woo.” During his high school years Alvin took his anger out on the football field.
He no longer had an outlet for that rage, so when that same narrow-mindedness spewed from his employer, Alvin swallowed. Hard.
Oscar waited as his father’s attention zeroed in on him. He knew he should be used to this by now but he was never prepared for it. Always felt ambushed; caught off guard. When David was listed Missing in Action, the father Oscar knew and loved had been replaced by this stranger he and his mother now lived with. Oscar found himself trying to please Pete less and less, avoid him more and more.
“You’ll screw it up. You always do.” Pete was still mumbling as he turned and staggered towards his office but Oscar caught his parting words, “Never understand why that old man pays you for anything.” Pete let the office door bang shut behind him.
Oscar stared at the closed door. He knew his father was thinking about David and the football scholarship that disappeared along with his older son that spring morning two years ago. He doesn’t get it….I’m not the football hero… I’m NOT David.
Alvin was certain he saw Oscar swallow. Hard. Finally, Oscar turned toward Alvin asking, “Al, can I borrow your toolbox?”
“Sure thing, O.” He handed Oscar an adjustable crescent wrench. “Use this to loosen the nuts and take off your old seat.”
Even if Pete wouldn’t see it, Alvin could. He saw Oscar’s young body bursting with energy, a real “can do” attitude starting to take hold of the boy.
Thirty minutes later with guidance from Alvin, Bandit had regained most of his former beauty. The new black Naugahyde seat gleamed.
Oscar was about to leave the garage when the hourly news report began on Alvin’s radio. There had been a shooting at Wounded Knee. A look of terror crossed Alvin’s face. He quickly tossed a key ring to the teen and cried, “Lock up for me, O. I have to go make a phone call.” Oscar knew Alvin’s relatives were part of the Oglala Lakota tribe occupying the settlement. There seemed to be no way of keeping world chaos from reaching into Howard, Nebraska.
Chapter 4 April 1973
Bitter cold continued throughout all of March. Churning wind swirled downtown sidewalk litter into mini tornadoes that would have been called dust devils on the plains outside of town. Radios and televisions continued reporting chaotic national events, as cold and hard as March winds. President Nixon was assuring the nation he knew nothing about Watergate, the last U.S. soldier left Vietnam and one US Marshall had been killed at the American Indian Movement occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
But here in small-town U.S.A. the first week of April ushered in a much-needed change in the weather. Warmth tumbled across Nebraska, whispering of spring. Brilliant sun in a cloudless sky warmed air and people alike. Everyone wore a smile and light jacket. Housewives opened doors and windows to encourage breezes to blow away stale indoor air. Kids were doing what came naturally and Oscar was at the rock pits with his pals. Jimmy among them. It was getting harder all the time to call Jimmy his best friend. Time spent with Jimmy now felt like a test, always in competition.
Oscar glanced at his wristwatch hollering out, “Catch you guys tomorrow. Gotta go see Charlie.” He looked forward to Saturday evenings. It was a favorite time to visit. All in the Family was on television.
Spring fever filling the air around him, adrenaline coursed through his young body as Oscar furiously pumped Bandit’s pedals. Oscar felt happy for the first time in a long time. He was looking forward to summer full of baseball, his fifteenth birthday and Penny. Starting high school in the fall meant Driver’s Ed class. A car would be the next thing with wheels he’d own. Finally, something to look forward to. Still happy and out of breath, he parked Bandit in front of Charlie’s place. The open front door allowed Edith Bunker’s musical shouts to gush from the TV; her fingernails-on-a-chalkboard voice searched weekly for that impossibly high note, “and you knew where you were then.” Oscar knew the words by heart so he sang along as Archie’s Brooklyn accent answered Edith with, “goils were goils and men were men.” Oscar knew he was just in time to watch their favorite program. Faint popping sounds along with a delightful smell from the kitchen told Oscar what Charlie was doing.
Charlie was giving the Jiffy Pop a last shake and hollered out to Oscar. “Howdy, pardner. Grab a seat. Show’s already started. I’ll be right in.” He removed the aluminum balloon from the stove and gingerly peeled back the bubble top, allowing steam to escape.
“Sure is nice today, Charlie. I kinda lost track of time.”
Charlie dumped the popcorn into a large Tupperware bowl, salted it and walked into the front room. “Yep. Buddies, fresh air and warm sun; nothing better, O.”
After the half-hour program ended, spring warmth hung around long enough for the two friends to drag kitchen chairs out onto the porch. Charlie pulled a smoke and a match to light it from his hatband, Oscar balanced his chair on two rear legs against the cabin wall and Rusty rolled in the grass searching for smells. All was right with the world.
“Any news about David?” Oscar felt the past moving further away all the time. And with it, hope.
“No word. Still nothing.” Hating the answer and the memories rehashed every time someone asked about David, Oscar quickly changed the subject. “Were you in the service, Charlie?”
“Yep, the First World War. They called it the Great War. Never figured out who ‘they’ were and just why they called it ‘Great.’ This one started in 1914, the year before I graduated high school. I did the same thing your brother David did. I volunteered in 1915, too young to know what I was doing. I spent three godawful years trudging around Europe. But I was lucky, Oscar. I came home in one piece.”
“Why’d you go if you didn’t have to?”
Charlie took his time and a drag off his cigarette before answering. “Probably the same reason as your brother; a need to serve; be part of something bigger than yourself. A man makes lots of choices in a lifetime, Oscar. Gotta look himself in the mirror every day. Once you make a choice, you better give it all you got. It’ll be a whole lot easier to look in that mirror if you like what you see.”
Oscar figured he had a choice to make right now, a more pressing one. “Baseball practice started, Charlie. When do you want to start fixing that mashed down fence of yours?”
A quick glance at his wristwatch told Charlie there was a good hour of daylight left in the day. “How ‘bout now?” He stood, ground out his cigarette on top of a year’s worth of butts in the coffee can doing duty as an ashtray asking, “Ready?” Oscar shook his head.
“Move it, Rusty, you lazy hound. We got work to do.”
Chapter 5 May 1973
Tom T. Hall was on the radio belting out praises for Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine as the pair untangled downed stock wire, releasing it from matted backyard grass and weeds that held it hostage for over a year. As they did, they also uncovered broken wooden corner posts. Teenager and old man looked at each other. Both thinking the same thing, both said the same thing at the same time, “We need Alvin.”
The next morning, as early spring warmth continued, an unlikely looking trio began digging out broken wooden posts. They planned to replace them with used metal T posts Alvin donated, saying it was the least he could do since he was the one who ran down the fence in the first place. Charlie supervised as the younger males labored. Driving those metal posts into the ground was not easy work in still icy soil but doable using the post driver Al also provided.
Cowboy hat fixed deeply on his head, smoke curling upward from the hand rolled in his mouth, Charlie leaned on the yard rake holding him up and yelled, “Okay, Tonto, pound in that post!” when another coughing fit started.
Alvin stopped driving the T post, looked at the old man with true concern. “You okay, Kimosabe?”
To his school pals, Oscar joked about hanging around with “cowboys and Indians” but he knew Charlie and Alvin loved mimicking the friendship between cowboy and sidekick on the 50s TV show, The Lone Ranger.
Oscar waited for the coughing to subside before offering, “Charlie, why don’t you take Rusty and go sit on the porch, have a beer. Al and I will finish up here.” Charlie didn’t resist. He felt strength draining away from him daily.
Oscar waited till Charlie and Rusty rounded the house corner before asking Alvin, “Ya think this is just a cold, Al? He’s had it a long time. I’m kinda worried about him.”
“Haven’t got a clue, sport. But I do know one thing.”
“That rough ole’ cowboy ain’t gonna like it one bit if you get all up in his face about this. He’s tough, Oscar. Charlie will tell you if something goes south.”
Al picked up another green T post signaling he was done with the conversation. “Here, O, hold this last one.” Heavy metal on metal noise resumed as the two young men drove the last T post into hard soil.
“The only thing we have left to do is secure this wire to the posts. Go ask Charlie for the wire stays and his fencing pliers.”
Oscar found his old pal resting happily in porch shade, beer in one hand and a smoke in the other, looking much better. “Alvin says to get the wire stays and your fencing pliers, Charlie. Point me in the right direction and I’ll fetch ‘em.”
“There’s a coffee can on the floor behind my chair in the front room. Pliers are in there too.”
Is everything in this house in a coffee can? But he found it just fine. He brought the tin can out to the porch, picked up the pliers and exclaimed, “Holy cow, Charlie! This thing looks wicked.”
“That there is one great all-purpose tool. Yes sir, you can’t be doin’ any kinda’ ranch work without one of these little babies. Greatest tool invented, makes short order of any fencing job.”
“I’ll take these to Al and we’ll be done in no time.” He started around the house but was stopped by Charlie’s voice.
“Oscar don’t you be worrying ‘bout this old man, son. Ain’t ready to go yet,” with a wink of his eye. “Still got things to teach a very special young man.”
Job completed, the backyard fence was once again vertical. Indian and teenager joined their cowboy friend just as the setting sunshine was turning the horizon orange. Charlie had two ice colds ready, a Nehi for Oscar and a beer for Alvin. Rusty was wandering between men, looking for a pat on the nose or a treat.
“Did you ever have a horse, Charlie?”
“Always. Mostly owned by the ranchers though. Each hand broke their own string so’s we could rotate ‘case one needed shoes or foundered or got cut on barb wire. Anything can happen on a ranch and usually does.”
“You mean you trained them?”
“Sure, but mostly just broke them to cow work. Back then ranches would round up wild horses off the prairies. Pen ‘em in corrals and the hired help would start taming them down; rodeo started that way.” He pushed the battered Stetson back on his forehead, swigged at the Coors remembering more. “Fact is that’s how calf roping events started too. During spring branding if you were good workin’ a rope and your horse was good at holding it tight, well, you could win yourself a nice purse at any rodeo. I was pretty good with a lasso, had a partner that was good too. We entered team roping competitions and took home some money at the Denver Stock Show.”
“Where’d you live when you worked ranches? In bunk houses? That must’a been rough.”
“Not really. Living in the same room with four or five other fellas always seemed pretty normal to me, didn’t have anything else to compare it to. Never married, grew up on a farm, lost my parents early on, my brother and I were used to hard work, guess I just never thought about a different life. Seemed to me a cool breeze and a good horse was all a fellar needed to get on in life. After I lost my brother, the years just sorta slipped by.”
“How’d you end up in Nebraska, Charlie?”
“Well one year my team ropin’ partner and I entered the Burwell rodeo. The road from the Wyoming ranch we were working on to the Burwell Fairgrounds ran smack dab through Howard and this little ole’ cabin had a For Sale sign hangin’ on it. I says to Jim, ‘Jim, if we win this one and that there sign is still hangin’ on our way home, by God, I’m setting down some money. Least ways I’ll have a porch to set on in my twilight years.’ Jim laughed but here I sit, happy as a pig in mud.”
Both young men enjoyed listening to Charlie’s tales. Years of smoking had sandpapered Charlie’s voice into a deep coarse sound that lent texture to his accounts, making them come alive. Charlie looked as rough as he sounded and seemed to always be circled in a smoke cloud.
Oscar was pleasantly worn out by the day’s work, staring out at an orange setting sun as he listened and thought he knew what Charlie meant about being happy where you are. He was happy right here, right now. He could do nothing to bring David home from Vietnam and he could do nothing about his father’s drinking. He would have to build his future out of the turmoil somehow. With friends like Charlie and Alvin he figured he’d be okay.
Alvin stood and stretched. “Well, guys, Wanda’s probably got dinner ready. I’d better head on home. Really sorry I ran over your fence, Kimosabe. Glad we set ‘er back up today.”
“You had every right to celebrate when those twins were born but I’m just glad that was the only thing you ran down that night, Tonto!” All three laughed.
I better go too, Charlie, I got homework to do. My English teacher says I’m bringing my grades up.”
“Good night fellas. Thanks for all the help today. I couldn’t ask for better ranch hands.”
As twenty-three-year-old Alvin and fourteen-year-old Oscar waved goodnight to their seventy-five-year-old buddy, not one of them knew that was the last evening of easy companionship they would ever share.
Chapter 6 June 1973
The smell of fresh cut grass filled Oscar’s nose as he crossed Main St the first Saturday evening in June. The balmy week was coming to a pleasant conclusion as he strolled his way to Charlie’s place. It was too nice to ride Bandit. He wanted to stroll. He was content, a feeling he was becoming more familiar with, thanks to Charlie and Penny. Penny seemed to know just how to calm Oscar’s nerves. It was getting easier all the time to talk to her.
Floating down the street, his mind, at first, didn’t register the loud sounds he heard. Voices raised in anger were coming from his father’s Esso station. One of the voices belonged to his dad but he was surprised to realize the other voice was Alvin. Alvin rarely angered and was submissive to his boss, Pete. Something was very wrong. Still outside the building, Oscar hid in late evening shadows around the far side of the garage double doors.
“I’m not gonna stand for it anymore, Pete, all that cursin’ and hollerin’. How am I supposed to work for somebody like that? They say Indians can’t hold their liquor? Look at you! What a waste!”
“Just shut up you greasy redskin! You can’t talk to me like that. You’re fired. Get the hell out of here!”
“Don’t worry, I’m leaving but I got one more thing to say.” Alvin’s demeanor softened as he tried to get past the effects three hours drinking had on Pete, to reach him on some level. “Pete, you can’t change what happened to David. He might yet come home. But you keep treating Oscar like it was his fault and you’re gonna lose him too. That boy needs his daddy. Why do you think he spends so much time with Charlie? He feels safe there. Charlie listens to him.”
Face red with anger, teeth and fists clenched in fury, Pete spit, “Get out you stupid Indian. And don’t ever come back.”
Oscar drew himself deeper into the shadows hearing Alvin leave. He didn’t emerge until Pete turned off the lights, closed and locked the door and also left.
When Pete entered the garage the next morning and clicked on the overhead fluorescent, the first thing he saw was large lettering scrawled across the daily jobs chalkboard hanging above the work bench. Pete grabbed a rag and mumbled, “Good riddance you damn Indian!” and angrily erased the words. He figured Alvin had returned sometime in the night leaving nasty graffiti on the board.
Just before dawn the morning after his fight with Pete, Alvin did slip back into the garage to leave a parting message for his boss.
Pete could not know the words he found on the chalkboard that morning were the Lakota words meaning “May the Great Spirit bless you.”
Alvin, like everyone else, had been listening to the current news reporting. An Oglala Lakota and a Cherokee had been shot and killed at the confrontation in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Al could no longer just stand by. He was more than ready to join his Native American brothers. Not sure what he would do, but he knew he could accomplish nothing living in Nebraska. He’d tried hard to leave all the prejudice and bullying behind him, but he could still hear the taunting words from his childhood, “Heap big chief not so brave, him chicken little!” Alvin determined to stand with his people. The fight with Pete was the last straw. The only things he found hard to leave were his good buddies, Charlie and Oscar.
The morning after arguing with Pete, the Swift family of Howard, Nebraska, left for good to once again become the Kohana family. Alvin was at Wounded Knee just after the turbulent last days of unrest, witness to the hate, violence and continuing legacy of lies and broken promises his people endured. Bitterness and anger motivated him. He could see no future for his people, yet he hoped he’d be able to effect some small change.
AIM had accomplished nothing more than the destruction of a small community. The stand-off in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, lasted for seventy-one days and resulted in one F.B.I. agent shot and paralyzed, two Native Americans killed and one civil rights activist disappeared, believed murdered. Not the results anyone had hoped for. Starting in an effort to impeach a corrupt tribal president, protestors soon criticized the United States government’s failure to fulfill treaties, demanding to reopen treaty negotiations. Internal tribal battles continued as well, murder rates soared. Change was needed.
Alvin wasn’t alone in his quest. Everyone under the age of thirty was protesting. Civil rights, migrant workers, abortion issues, women’s rights, anti-war protests all while President Nixon still denied any knowledge or involvement in Watergate. Mistrust drove every action, generations stood against each other, voices raged as more and more of the silent majority found voice.
Chapter 7 July, August 1973
The world was in chaos, changing course, the young seeking answers, searching for reasons. Oscar’s personal world rumbled chaotically also. He never knew what would be up-ended next as he struggled to enjoy his teen years.
With the end of the school year, baseball practice began in earnest. He loved summer evenings on the diamond, hearing a solid whack when a batter connected with a pitched ball. The “hey batta batta” call as the opposing team tried to distract the hitter. Oscar was always picked for starting lineup so he was not prepared for tripping over his own feet as he rounded the bases at practice. He lay spread eagle spitting dirt as teammates razzed him, “Hey Browning, step in a hole?” “You’re not on the diving team, O!” he could only think, what the heck? How did that happen?
Charlie grinned watching Oscar unintentionally drive himself into a second-base slide.
Beating the dust from his jeans, Oscar was surprised to see Charlie waving his Stetson from where he stood at the backstop but sprinted over to his friend. “What ‘r you doing here, Charlie?”
“Came into town to buy Rusty’s dog food, figured I’d check out the ruckus here in the park. What happened out there, sport?”
“Wish I knew. It’s like my legs belong to somebody else.”
“Hang in there, sport. You haven’t gotten used to that growth spurt yet. Must’a growed a full two inches since January.”
Oscar’s team baseball cap sat sideways on his head. Charlie smiled and gave the cap a short twist returning it to forehead center then turned toward the parking lot. He called back as he strolled away. “Stop by on your way home. I picked up some grape Nehis and Sanford and Son is on tonight.”
“Right on! See ya later, Charlie.” Most of the hard work around Charlie’s place had ended along with the cold weather. Now it was mowing the yard and pulling weeds, burning trash in the burn barrel out back, easy stuff that kept Oscar going back earning money. He now had something big to save for, a car.
Managing to avoid his father most days, it was a good summer for Oscar. He and Penny were an item and spent a lot of time making out at the rock-pit swimming hole. He’d turned fifteen in June and by the end of July mastered his new height and weight gain like Charlie predicted, and was taking great joy in baseball prowess.
1973 was the year he was voted MVP of the Wolves and was finally able to put an end to Jimmy’s bullying. Jimmy was the team’s catcher and looked on his friend with new respect. His MVP status did little to impress his father though.
He’d even gotten a congratulations postcard from Alvin. Deeply involved with AIM, Al wrote that he felt like he’d found his place, fighting for rights that his people should never have lost. He was at home on the Lakota reservation.
Just one part of life still held him down, squeezing away any confidence he’d built up. Pete’s drunken bitterness against his son escalated into physical violence. One sweltering July afternoon a welt in the shape of a palm showed on the left side of Oscar’s face.
Charlie spotted it right off. “What happened there, Oscar?”
He was going to try to lie about it but shrugged his shoulders and went on with the truth. “I had the hose runnin’, washin’ Bandit in the driveway. Dad almost ran over my bike when he pulled in. He got out of his car and walloped me, told me to ‘get that damn bike out of my driveway,’ guess I was lucky he didn’t hit me with his fist.”
After taking a long drag from his cig then slowly blowing smoke into the air, Charlie said, “First off, Oscar, you need to know your dad is wrong to hit you.” Another drag, another smoke cloud released. “Second thing you need to know is he’s hurting.”
“What? He’s hurting? You can see who’s hurting, Charlie, it’s me. I didn’t slap him.”
“O, you can’t possibly understand what it’s like for a parent to lose a child. I hope you never have to find out but I think your father is drowning himself in booze, lashing out at everyone around him because of David. He might even blame himself for not stopping David from enlisting.”
“I try really hard to stay out of his way Charlie.”
“He might even see that and hate himself for pushing you away. Look, I’m sure not saying his behavior is right; I’m just trying to help you sort through the reasons he may have. One of these days, he’s gonna regret all this. I just hope it’s not too late.”
Oscar’s posture stiffened. “It might already be too late.”
Charlie stood and stretched his old bones then changed the subject. “C’mon Rusty, let’s show Oscar what we got for him around back.” Rusty rose and stretched as his master had and followed. Curious, Oscar followed along.
The trio rounded the side of Charlie’s cabin and Oscar saw Charlie’s old ’53 GMC truck but nothing else. It was a washed-out green color, fading into the weeds and grass behind it.
“There ya go sport.”
“What? There’s nothing here.”
“My truck, Oscar, here’s the keys.” He gave them a toss and tried to muffle a cough. “Now listen, I’m gonna keep it here until you get your license and maybe you might want to keep it here even after that if your dad isn’t any better, but she’s yours. I want you to drive me into town from now on to get practice. By the time you start drivers ed in the fall, you’ll be an old pro.” Charlie stopped talking and looked at an open-mouthed Oscar. “Close your mouth before you start catchin’ flies, O.”
Oscar could only stammer, “…Charlie…I…”
“Listen here, this old beater ain’t gonna last much longer, I’m not givin’ you a pot of gold or something. ‘Sides, there is no one else I’d rather see driving her around. You’re a good kid, O. No reason you shouldn’t have ‘er.”
Charlie finished talking and headed back to front porch shade leaving Oscar still standing with an open mouth and keys in his hand. The truck was twenty years old and pretty beat up but Oscar thought next to Penny, it was the prettiest thing he’d ever seen. He squatted down at the dirty front tire on the driver’s side, spit on his shirt sleeve and rubbed. “Yep, white walls.” He walked to the back of the truck, released the tailgate chains and saw that the wood floor in the truck bed only needed one plank replaced. He lifted the tailgate back into position and walked back to the truck cab opening the driver’s side door. The 3-speed column shift was what he expected to see and the bench seat had a few thin spots but nothing he or Penny would mind as they drove to the drive-in movie over in Cap City. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. “Bitchen!” Oscar was in love again.
In August, Nixon at long last stopped bombing Cambodia. There was still no news, good or bad, for the Browning family regarding David, and Charlie saw a doctor for the first time.
Charlie wanted to keep his medical concerns from Oscar as long as he could but he knew it was more than a cold. He’d been losing weight all summer and the coughing now racked him with pain. He had less energy all the time. He wanted to watch Oscar grow into a man. He felt strongly that Oscar would be his legacy.
The drive to the Scotts Bluff hospital took forty minutes, and Oscar chauffeured his old friend in the ’53 Jimmy that was now his. He had a learner’s permit and Charlie was still a licensed driver so it was legal for him to drive.
The doctor prescribed an inhaler for Charlie and told him it would also be a good idea for him to quit smoking. “Read the pack, Charlie. That warning isn’t there for decoration.” Charlie assured Doctor Carter he “was gonna die from something anyway and besides, I don’t smoke cigarettes from a pack, never read a label.”
The bond between Oscar and Charlie never wavered; Oscar was always looking for ways to brighten the old man’s days. The week before he was to begin high school, Oscar hit Charlie’s front screen door with a holler, “Hey Charlie! Got a letter from Alvin, come out to the porch, let’s read it.”
Charlie pulled on that battered old Stetson which was beginning to look too big for his head and tottered out to the front porch. His body tumbled into the rocking chair Oscar gave Charlie for father’s day. Oscar purchased the rocker at a secondhand store with money he’d earned working around Charlie’s place.
The Lord knows I’m drinking and drinking ain’t right; but me and the good Lord gonna have us a good talk, later tonight, Cal Smith’s deep voice sang out of the radio beside Charlie’s rocker. Oscar reached down to turn it off.
“What’s that wild Indian got to say, Oscar?” A grin moved across the hairy gray face. Unconsciously Charlie reached up to his hatband for a rolled smoke and brought down his empty hand. “Where’r my hand-rolleds, O?”
“Doc says you shouldn’t smoke, so I put ‘em back in your Top tobacco can.”
Charlie shook his head and reached for the inhaler instead.
Oscar pulled the letter from its envelope. “He addressed it to both of us and right off says he misses your wild yarns about the old days. Then he asks, ‘How is the old coot anyway?’ He says he is doing important work, making some progress but it’s slow. He and three others are petitioning the tribal council to start a reservation police force. Says life is tough on the res but he’s sure it’s where he belongs. ‘How’s things with your dad, Oscar? Any news about David? Wanda is pregnant again. This will be baby number three.’ He ends telling me to give Rusty a pat for him.” O did as the letter instructed, reaching out to Rusty with a head pat and a scratch under the chin.
“That young man’s gonna be just fine. He found his purpose,” Charlie said as he rocked back and forth, barely missing Rusty’s tail with each forward motion. “What you gonna tell him, Oscar? I know you still got troubles with your dad.”
Oscar was sitting on the top porch step with Rusty’s head in his lap, stroking the mutt’s head and back. “Not sure, Charlie. I just wish we’d get some word about David. That might go a long way to fixing Dad. I have this game I play at home when he’s drunk. I try to think myself small so’s he won’t notice me. It works sometimes, when he’s very drunk. Other times, I still get smacked but I’m used to it. It doesn’t hurt much anymore.” Sadness showed in his young face as he turned to question his old friend. “Whaddya think my purpose is, Charlie?”
The lump in his throat made it difficult for Charlie to speak. “Don’t you worry, O, you’ll find it.” He sucked on the inhaler once more. “You’re stronger than you know.”
Chapter 8 September 1973
The oppressive summer heat continued. Three weeks into September Oscar’s high school classrooms were simmering pressure cookers, with no ceiling fans to move hot air around and no breeze coming in off parched Nebraska plains. Everything and everyone sizzled.
Charlie felt as if he were wearing the heavy air. It crushed his chest with a weight he could not ease. His inhaler gave only minimal relief. He was ready for a return visit with Doctor Carter and had decided to place a call, when the doctor’s office called him saying test results were in and an appointment had already been made. Charlie was scheduled for a consultation the next day. He needed to call Oscar.
“It’s Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, Charlie, COPD. Blood tests and X-rays confirm the reason for your emphysema. You will need to remain on the inhaler but ultimately you can expect to be using an oxygen tank.”
Charlie was thankful Oscar was in the waiting room. “Wadda ya mean oxygen tank? How’s that gonna work?”
“It’s a portable unit with wheels and a handle. You can take it with you anywhere. A tube runs from the tank to a cannula inserted in your nostrils. The cannula is secured over your ears. I think it will work okay with that mustache, but you might have to get a haircut.” Carter gazed at the shoulder-length gray mess topping Charlie. “Might be more comfortable for you.”
The old man considered the info Doc Carter had just delivered. “So are you telling me this can’t be fixed?”
“If you stop smoking, eat better….” He let the sentence drop along with a shoulder shrug.
Timing was bad but his one regret would be leaving Oscar too soon. He knew Rusty would have a home with the boy.
Doctor Carter stood and offered Charlie a hand. “See Nancy on your way out. We’ll get you set up with monthly appointments for now.” He shook Charlie’s hand. “Take care old-timer” and left his office. Charlie was glad for the time alone, time to wrap his head around this forecast. Somewhere in his mind he’d known all along but never actually put it in a time frame. Maybe everyone felt this way; like it always comes too soon.
Charlie’d been very quiet during the trip home from Scotts Bluff, not once offering driving instructions. Oscar knew his old friend was in bad health. Now, more than ever, Oscar meant to stay close to this dear old pal. The cloud of anxiety and depression Oscar had been living with was being swept away by Charlie’s friendship. Because of Charlie, Oscar felt stronger, more able to take on what the world around was throwing at him, more able to take care of things. And now it seemed, that meant taking care of Charlie too.
Once at home, Oscar made sure his pal was comfortable in his ragged La-Z-Boy with a beer and a TV dinner before leaving.
“Hey bud, wanna do me a favor Saturday?”
“Sure thing, Charlie. Wadda ya need?”
Oscar smiled and replied, “Can do, Tex.” Charlie wasn’t going anywhere. Oscar wouldn’t believe otherwise.
Chapter 9 October 1973
“Stand still, O. I don’t want to poke you with this straight pin.” Charlie’s stiff old hands were finding it hard to pin the boutonnière onto Oscar’s rented tuxedo lapel. And he still hadn’t mastered dragging around the oxygen canister and all the tubing that came with it.
The boutonnière was a single pink carnation and Oscar clutched a clear plastic container with the matching corsage.
Oscar glanced at the clear plastic container he held. “She told me her gown is lavender so I thought maybe pink would look okay. Gosh, I’m nervous. Wadda you think, Charlie?” Charlie was still working on the boutonnière.
“I think I’m too damn old and you’re too damn nervous. Stop fidgeting or we’ll never get this done.”
This would be his first homecoming dance. Penny was on the decorating committee and had been telling Oscar all week how good the gymnasium looked. All decked out to look like an under-the-sea garden. They were both looking forward to the dance, but Penny didn’t know Oscar intended to ask her to go steady. Tonight was a very big deal. Oscar had Charlie’s old GMC (he still had trouble calling it his truck) washed, polished and vacuumed. It looked as good as it could.
“Mom even took a picture of me in this monkey suit. Then she gave me a kiss on the cheek. Told me to have a good time. I think she’s getting better, Charlie.”
“Sounds like she’s trying to get on with life.” Charlie shook his much shorter shaggy head. “Wish your Dad could get out’a that bottle and move on with things.”
“Mom and I see him at the dinner table and then he’s gone again. Mostly over to Rosie’s Tavern. Most nights I’m in my room doing homework or in bed by the time he gets back in.”
Charlie backed away from Oscar to get a better look. “There. That flower ought to stay put now.”
“Thanks Charlie. Got everything you’ll need for the night?” Oscar had made sure Charlie’s television was turned to his favorite channel and there were two beers on the TV tray alongside his bowl of chili. “You go right on and have some fun with that pretty little gal. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
Oscar flew out the front door and into the old green truck.
“She said yes, Charlie!” Oscar was so excited to tell Charlie all about the dance that he burst into the cabin before 8:00 the next morning. It was Sunday and the old man was still at the kitchen table, barely into his second cup of coffee.
“Well, get in here and tell me all about it before ya split wide open for holdin’ it all in.”
“Man, Charlie, if I hadn’t been there I wouldn’t believe the gym could ever look so different. Most of the lights were off, they had some spotlights on the band playing on the stage but the rest of the place looked just like Penny said, like we were under the sea! They had balloon bubbles floating, starfish and seahorses hanging around, blue crepe paper curled all over the place and in the middle, they hung a great big-mirrored ball! And it turned. Light bounced from it as it spun…pretty far out.”
“Well, you said she said yes….”
“Oh, right! Well the last song the band played was a slow one, and I hadn’t stepped on her toes the whole night so I figured this is it and I asked her. Charlie, she said yes right away! It was like she was waiting for me to ask her. Had the ring I bought at Woolworths in my pocket and when I gave it to her and she tried it on, it was too big for her finger so she asked me to unlock her necklace and slip it on the chain.” Color tinted Oscar’s cheeks.
“Well? Did you?”
“She was so close. She smelled so good. I get lost in her eyes, Charlie.”
“Oh! Right. Yes, I did and when I locked her necklace back on and she turned around, well… just had to kiss her. Right there in the middle of the dance. Just couldn’t resist. But, ya know what? She kissed me back, Charlie! It’s official, we’re goin’ steady.”
For the next week Oscar floated around school in a cloud. He felt like nothing could ever change the new way he saw things. Everything glowed. Everyone smiled. He loved all his schoolmates. So walking home from school the next Tuesday, he didn’t notice the three uniformed men at the front door of his home. Until he heard a woman scream. Oscar’s mother was crying, held up by two of the three men.
There were actually four Marines at his house that day, a notifying officer, a chaplain, a medic and a high-ranking officer who remained in the government car. David’s remains had been identified and were being sent home on the next transport flight.
Oscar felt gutted. Cold, robotic officers, dead eyes and stiff body language.
“We’re sorry, ma’am.”
“Our condolences, ma’am.” Shallow words holding no real grief.
Those brief final words ripped away what little hope the Browning family had held on to these past two years. There was nothing left to hope for. David’s death was now a fact to be dealt with. How?
Pete Browning slammed through the door screaming threats to the uniformed men. “Get the hell out of my house. Get out!”
“Mr. Browning, we’ve informed your wife, sir. I’m very sorry to tell you of David’s death.”
“You don’t know that. How can you know that? It’s some other kid.” Mike, the next-door neighbor, had found Pete at Rosie’s, bringing him home when the government car pulled up in front of the Browning house. “It’s a fucking lie. You got no proof.”
That was when the higher-ranking officer pulled David’s dog tags from his pocket. Pete grabbed them from the Marine and with a gut-wrenching moan, began to cry. There was nothing more Pete could say. After assuring Mr. and Mrs. Browning their boy had died honorably in service to his country and his remains were being transported, they quietly slipped away.
Oscar crumbled onto his bed. The soldiers were gone as quickly as they’d arrived leaving a crumbled family in their wake. Katy remained on the couch sobbing. Pete stood silent, David’s dog tags in his hand watching the men clamor back into the military car.
Memories of his older brother brought David’s smiling face back into view. David always ready with a joke—David ruffling my hair—David taking me to the drive-in—David winking at me as he introduced me to his pals—David making touchdowns on the football field. All gone because David Browning was gone. Eventually Oscar cried himself to sleep in a house as silent as a tomb.
Chapter 10 November 1973
“I miss him even more now, Charlie.”
“It don’t get easier, Oscar, but time passes. You’ll remember David and the good times you guys shared. Then you’ll smile.
“Fact is, somebody told me once there’s five stages of grief.” Charlie stopped short. Shallow breathing had begun to make talking more difficult. He hated dragging around the oxygen tank, so he was still using an inhaler and sucked deeply from it before continuing. “Can’t remember them all but I think you already hit the first two, denial and anger. You have a couple more to go before you accept things as they are but you don’t have to go alone. I’m here, O. Pals forever, right?”
Oscar couldn’t say just how thankful he was for Charlie’s friendship. He felt lucky to have this bond with someone Charlie’s age at a time when his generation no longer trusted anyone over the age of thirty. It felt like Charlie was his only link to sanity. Neither of his parents could help. Each was facing David’s death privately. His father’s drinking had not slowed and the small steps his mother had taken towards normalcy were erased with the return of David’s dog tags.
“Something’s happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear… Battle lines being drawn. Nobody’s right if everybody’s.” Oscar knew the lyrics to the Buffalo Springfield song well. Heard it played on car radios in drive-in parking lots. Could those words, that battle cry, be creeping into tiny Howard, Nebraska? Seeping into his town, his home, his heart with their message of unrest? Is this the world his generation stood to inherit? Along with all the hate and anger? Alvin continues to fight for his people on the Lakota reservation. David fought and died for a belief. In three years I’ll be part of it all. Will I be ready?
Oscar was beginning to feel much older than his fifteen years but turned his head to answer his old friend.
“Right, Charlie, pals forever.” Rusty’s snout nosed around Oscar’s hand trying to get a loving pat. Oscar smiled, giving him the attention he was seeking. “And you too, you old mutt. Pals forever.”
After David’s burial, friends noticed a change in Oscar. He no longer had time for usual high school hijinks or Jimmy. If he wasn’t with Charlie or Penny, he was in his room writing. His grades began to improve. Mrs. Evans, Oscar’s English teacher had gifted him a journal saying he showed promise with creative writing projects.
Oscar began slowly replacing thoughts of hurt and loss with counting blessings. Charlie had been right about those five steps. He couldn’t change things for his parents, but he knew this wouldn’t be his life forever. He began to see a future with college in it. He discovered he enjoyed writing in that journal. Putting words on a blank sheet of paper took them out of his head, leaving room to learn again.
Standing by her kitchen sink three weeks after the Marines officially declared David dead, Katy Browning broke as quickly and sharply as the coffee cup she dropped from her grasp. She and the cup both shattered into pieces. There was no one to hear her moans or see the tears gushing from the grieving mother. Two years’ worth of worry and pain she’d kept pushed down deep was escaping. She wasn’t aware of time passing as she knelt crumpled and depleted on the floor. The pain of sharp ceramic pieces pressing into her knees and down-turned palms eventually returned Katy to consciousness. She was worn out, exhausted after held-in emotions finally spilled. Slowly Katy’s head began to clear as her tears dried. She realized she had to come to terms with the loss of her older son. It was the only way her younger son would have a chance. It had been so long since she’d been able to see that truth.
Katy carried no false hope for Pete. Her husband’s drinking was an addiction Katy was not yet strong enough to fight. He used to be the strong one, so solid. Took the boys fishing on weekends. Showed up at football games. Taught David to fix car motors. He was there for both his sons.
As Oscar returned home from school that afternoon, he felt something different immediately. And smelled it. Following his nose into the kitchen, he almost cried at the scene. “Ma?” was all he could utter. The sight of Katy, clean apron tied around her small waist, stirring a pot of spaghetti sauce, caught Oscar by surprise and he thought he’d never seen anything so pretty. Even though the last few years were etched on her face, making her look older than her thirty-nine years. “Ma?” he repeated.
Katy motioned for Oscar to come closer. She was holding the spoon she’d been stirring sauce with. “Taste this. What do you think?” Oscar wrapped his arms around his mother. It had been so long. Katy put the spoon down returning Oscar’s hug. She noticed right away how tall he’d gotten. To her it had happened overnight.
“I’m so sorry, Oscar. You and I—we’ll have to make things better, ok? See if we can help each other while we try to help your dad, ok? I do love you, Oscar.”
While spaghetti noodles boiled, O told his mother about his school day. Katy surprised herself and Oscar by asking questions and enjoying the shared moment. She surprised Oscar further when the noodles were done and she asked him if she could take dinner to Charlie.
“I’ll bet he’d love it, Ma. All he eats are TV dinners and the few things I can muster up from cans.” The pair wrapped the lidded bowl of spaghetti in a hand towel, grabbed two pieces of garlic toast from the oven, donned their coats and set out together.
“Mrs. Browning! Nice to see you, ma’am.”
“There is no need for the Mrs. Browning or the ma’am, Charlie. Katy will do just fine.”
“Mom brought you some spaghetti, Charlie,” Oscar said as he handed the bowl to his buddy. “Her homemade sauce is on it.”
“It smells delicious, Mrs….err, Katy. Thanks a heap.”
An awkward moment followed as the trio stood in Charlie’s front room with Rusty circling the group looking for the location of that mouth-watering new smell. It was Katy who broke the spell.
“Well, Charlie, let’s get you and this spaghetti sat down at the kitchen table, then Oscar can walk me home. I’m sure he’ll come right back. Don’t you two have a favorite television show that you watch?”
“Sure, Ma, tonight it’s Bonanza. That one’s special to Charlie, kinda takes him back.”
By the time Oscar returned to Charlie’s place the television was on the nightly news channel. President Nixon was telling a Florida reporter, “I am not a crook.” Are they still talking about that Watergate thing? He found Charlie soaking up every last speck of Katy’s spaghetti sauce with a piece of bread.
“Aren’t you done yet, Charlie? Bonanza’s comin’ on shortly.”
Charlie let out a satisfying belch and said, “Man, your ma can cook! I’m ready to go dancin’, O.” He pushed away from the table. “But I’ll settle for some TV watchin’ with my little buddy.” Oscar helped his buddy, along with the oxygen tank Oscar now insisted go with him, into Charlie’s La-Z-Boy. He and Rusty plopped into the only other stuffed chair together just as Hoss was saving Little Joe from this weeks’ bad guy.
After Oscar walked her home and had gone back to Charlie’s place, Katy wondered if maybe she would be strong enough to pull together a Thanksgiving meal next Thursday. A crash outside the kitchen door erased her thoughts and she knew Pete was home. A full trash can had been knocked over as he pulled the car into the driveway.
Pete stumbled into the house cursing at something. Katy wasn’t yet ready to confront him about his drinking. Pete dropped onto the living room sofa like a rock. His snoring began almost immediately. Katy turned off the lights then headed into her bedroom with a magazine.
The next morning Pete cautiously tested his balance and, finding his feet, shuffled to the bathroom. After getting rid of what felt like gallons of used beer in the toilet, he stood before the mirror. He didn’t recognize the lined, colorless face staring back at him, eyes gaunt and sunken in, a dark half-moon under each. How could he be just forty-two? Images from the last few years washed over him. David leaving for school but joining the Marines instead. Growing up in boot camp, becoming a man. For what? Just to die in a foreign country halfway around the world. Alone. Two years of limbo; every day new hope, new defeat. Those final words. The death of our son. They gave us a medal but not our boy.
Hell, the only support Oscar got was from a broken-down old cowboy. He got none from me.
Katy. Closing herself off, avoiding the pain then struggling alone to break back into life. She got nothing from me except drunkenness. What a pathetic bastard I am to let my whole family down. This ain’t no kind of life.
Pete showered and shaved, heading towards the kitchen. Something was different. To Pete it felt like dark fabric covering his family had torn slightly, just enough to let in light. Katy was at the stove cooking and her back was turned as Pete approached. For the first time in a long time Pete reached out to his wife wrapping his arms around her waist, nestling his face in her neck as he did. “Morning, Katy, something sure smells good.” Pete was unsure of himself or how his advances would be received. As she felt Pete’s solid frame behind her and his arms reaching around, Katy put down the spatula and covered Pete’s hands with hers letting her body melt into Pete’s. She didn’t want to break the tenderness of this long overdue moment, break the sensation of before. The before love, when all was right and good in their world and their marriage.
The aroma coming from Katy’s kitchen the next Thursday smelled like any other Thanksgiving meal in America and tasted equally as good. Dining conversation, however, ranged from stiff to non-existent. Pete avoided eye contact with those around the table while trying to hide shaking hands. Most of the easy banter ran between Oscar and Charlie, even though Charlie’s contributions were accompanied by air collecting pauses and hissing noises from his portable oxygen tank.
“This is wonderful, Katy. Haven’t had a home-cooked meal this good in years.”
“Hey!” Oscar mimicked hurt feelings.
“Well, O, you’ve never served me a turkey at home. Maybe a charred chicken from the back-yard grill but it don’t come close to this.”
As he pushed away from the table, chair scraping linoleum noise alerted everyone of Pete’s departure. “Ah, sorry folks, I should go check the station, not sure I locked it up when I left last night.”
Everyone knew where he was going to end up but only Katy spoke.
“Pete, you promised.”
“Just need some air, Katy. I promise I’ll be right back.”
And to everyone’s surprise (even his own), he was.
Chapter 11 December 1973
The second Saturday in December came in cold and snowy and continued all day. Oscar was spending time at the small desk in his bedroom writing in the journal he now considered his most prized possession. When the phone rang, he sprinted into the kitchen hollering down the hall to his mother, “I’ll get it.”
“Hey Oscar, can you stop by this afternoon?” Oscar recognized the gritty voice immediately.
“Sure, Charlie. Anything wrong? You ok?” Lately, Oscar had noticed the increased effort it was taking Charlie to maintain enough air in his lungs.
“Nothing wrong, just get your butt over here, pronto.”
“Ok, it’ll take me about ten minutes. Snow’s pretty deep out there. See you soon.”
Oscar pulled on calf-high snow boots and a thick down-filled winter coat. Every now and again a goose pin feather poked through the coat and he’d have to yank it all the way out, but it was Oscar’s favorite coat and very warm. Again he hollered down the hallway towards his mother, “Mom, I’m gonna go see Charlie. Be back soon.”
“Be careful, Oscar. It’s stormy out today and it’s already 4:00. It’ll be dark soon.”
As he stepped into the yard from the back door, he knew his mother was right. Man, this is nasty! Bitter wind howled with nothing on Nebraska plains to stop it, swirling snow all around him. The blowing snow and diminishing sunlight made it almost impossible to see landmarks he passed every day of his young life. Oscar trudged blindly in what he assumed was the right direction to get to Charlie’s place. An eerie high-pitched whistle ran through churning snow; snow, coming from all directions, covering up boot tracks within seconds.
Finally, Oscar saw a remnant of the old RR track and knew Charlie’s place was just a quarter mile farther down. Biting cold made his coat feel like a summer windbreaker. Snow and ice had plastered his shaggy blonde hair into a straight up, sideways slant. As he rubbed the toe of his boot over the railway remnant, he was startled to see it was not the track, just some old partially covered timber. What the heck? Where am I? Having lived all of his fifteen years in Howard, Nebraska, he felt sure he knew every inch of it. Yet today, in all directions, he saw only snow. Even turning in the direction he thought his house was in, he saw nothing but snow. A white-out. He stood motionless trying to get his bearings and locate anything familiar. Suddenly a hand pushed him and he lurched forward. What the heck? Irrational fear began building inside him. I’m so cold, I imagined that. Just then, another jab to his shoulder. Now frantic, Oscar ran. He covered only a few yards when he tripped, landing hard in an iced over snowdrift. A snowdrift? What’s it piled up against? Oscar raised his ice-covered head to get a look above the snowdrift and thought he caught sight of faint light blinking through swirling snow. The blizzard only allowed the briefest sighting but O smiled realizing he was looking at dim lights of a much-loved cabin. He’d stumbled into Charlie’s backyard fence. Seconds later he reached the cabin.
Charlie opened the back door to an Oscar Popsicle. “Get in here, son! Take off that coat and go stand in front of the wood stove.”
Oscar obeyed and was thawing at the wood stove. “Why’d you make me come out in this mess anyway?”
Charlie handed Oscar a towel to dry his head and pointed towards the rocking chair tucked into a dark corner of the small front room. Oscar recognized another good friend.
“What’s new, young brave?”
The three good friends spent the evening laughing and catching up, Alvin enthusiastically sharing his new life on the Lakota reservation in South Dakota. He and three others had been able to start the RPF, Reservation Police Force. The Kohana family had come back to Howard to spend Christmas with Wanda’s parents.
As interested as he was to hear about Alvin’s new life, Oscar found himself losing track of the conversation. Every so often his thoughts took him outside to what had just happened in the storm. He didn’t hear Alvin ask him a question.
“Earth to Oscar, hello.”
“Huh? Oh, sorry, Alvin. Whaddya say?”
“I just asked how things were going with your family. I was so sorry to hear about David’s passing.”
“Thanks. Mom is getting better every day. Dad, well, he’s trying. He doesn’t spend near as much time at Rosie’s anymore.”
Oscar gazed out the front window. “Funny thing, though; I got turned around out there today, lost my bearings. It felt like something pushed me, nudging me in the right direction. I stumbled smack into that fence section we fixed last spring, remember, Alvin? Could’a sworn David was close to me.”
All three fell silent. Finally Alvin spoke.
“Death is but a door into the next life, Oscar. You felt David’s energy. It is my belief your older brother is now your spirit guide. He’ll let no harm come to you.”
A deep, phlegmy cough racked Charlie abruptly ending the conversation. Both younger males tried to comfort Charlie. Oscar grabbed the inhaler, looking around for Charlie’s portable oxygen tank. As the coughing fit died down, Oscar asked, “Charlie, where’s your tank?”
“Can’t use it out here O, too close to the wood stove. Dr. Carter says I can only use it in the bedroom and that’s stretching things. He recommended that I don’t even burn wood anymore. Can’t live without heat in this kinda weather.”
Alvin offered, “Seems like you need a better plan, Kimosabe.”
David’s room is empty. Charlie could come live with us. He wasn’t at all sure Charlie would go for it but he would talk to his mother as soon as he got home, in the morning. Tonight he was staying with Charlie.
“Gotta call Mom, Charlie. I’m gonna sleep on your sofa.”
“Fine by me, O.” In between words, Charlie’s breath came in starts and stops.
Oscar went into the kitchen to use the wall phone.
Alvin was enjoying the evening and hadn’t noticed time passing but a quick check of his wristwatch told him it was late. He hollered into the kitchen, “Hey, Oscar, I gotta get back to the fam.”
Oscar returned the receiver to the wall phone and started back into the front room.
Alvin waved good-by to Oscar as he headed out the cabin door. “See you tomorrow, O. You take good care of that old man tonight.”
Oscar returned Al’s wave assuring him he wasn’t going anywhere.
Rusty was snuggled in his usual place beside the wood stove and Charlie was in his chair in front of the television.
“Have you had dinner yet, Charlie?”
A puzzled look on his face, Charlie replied, “Dinner? Umm, not sure, Oscar, but I’ve got a doozy of a headache and I’m pretty sleepy.” Oscar noticed how the left side of Charlie’s mustache drooped but really didn’t give it much thought. Oscar figured Charlie was tired.
“How ‘bout we get you to bed? Rusty will keep me company till I get sleepy.”
The next morning Oscar woke to a cold wet nose prodding him instead of the usual rich aroma of percolating coffee. He knew right away something was wrong.
Oscar’s Journal, December 29th, 1973:
It was a small service. Some of my school buddies came, Penny and Mom and Dad. The whole Kohana family showed up.
In the end, it wasn’t the COPD that took Charlie. They said it was a massive stroke.
Reverend Scott gave Charlie’s eulogy. Yesterday he asked me if there was anything I’d like people to remember about my best friend. I told him how Charlie was great at telling stories. How Charlie always said its okay folks don’t always see eye to eye, it’s just a thing that makes people unique and if we try, we can all get along. He said I should always let the people I care about know that I love them. Charlie was always ready to sit on the porch and listen to me.
We had just buried David’s remains in October. Now we were heading to Fairview Cemetery again.
I couldn’t stop tears from falling. I thought Dad was holding me around the shoulders, supporting my quivering body, but after Reverend Scott finished speaking and Charlie was lowered and covered, it was Alvin’s hand that turned me around.
“Be brave, young warrior. Know that you are well loved and protected. You now have two spirit guides to help you move through this world. Listen to them in times of darkness. They will speak to you.”
Oscar’s Journal, December 31st, 1973:
Dad came with me and Rusty to Charlie’s cabin. Dad was in the kitchen and Rusty and I went to the bedroom. Rusty quickly hopped onto his old master’s bed, snuggling deeply into Charlie’s smell. I was folding clothes from the closet and noticed another Folger’s coffee can on the shelf above his few shirts. Coffee cans all over the house; one full of money, one filled with tools, one with cigarette butts. Some actually had coffee in them. This one was full of pictures. A white envelope sat on top of the pictures. The envelope was addressed to Oscar Browning. My knees turned to Jell-O so I sat on the bed. I upended the coffee can, scattering pictures over the mattress. Thumbing through the treasure, I skimmed over much younger versions of my friend then took a deep breath and tore open the envelope addressed to me. Tears started as I began reading Charlie’s letter.
“Oscar, if you’re reading this, I’m gone. I should have told you I loved you. Guess I never really had the right words. All my life I kept moving, hiding, any farm or ranch that would hire me. The work suited me but sometimes I was very lonely. Never admitted it. I always thought pain was the final outcome of loving someone. I was wrong, Oscar. Don’t hide. Take charge, make changes. Find your purpose.”
“When you and that bike of yours rolled up the sidewalk last January, you put purpose back into this old man’s life. Thank you for brightening an old cowboy’s world.”
Charlie’s whole life came into view. The images stuffed into a coffee can, pictures of ranches, sunburnt cowboy faces, Charlie as a young World War I soldier standing stiffly at attention, team roping with his partner, Charlie with his arm around a young girl, both grinning. One recent Polaroid stood out. I immediately recognized two happy, sweaty fellows sitting in the porch shade. On the back Charlie had written “Alvin and Oscar, the best ranch hands ever.”
I refolded the letter, returned it to the can along with snapshots of my hero’s life.
I promise to find my purpose, Charlie, to remember lessons I learned at a place that for me was, at least for a little while, a sanctuary; the little cabin everyone knew as Charlie’s Place.
For so long now, this was the day Oscar had dreamed of. The newlyweds would make one stop before putting Nebraska firmly in the rearview mirror, Fairview Cemetery.
A massive old cottonwood stood sentry over the gated cemetery entrance. Oscar thought the ornate iron fence surrounding Fairview looked like it had been there forever, simply springing from parched soil. The entrance gate stood open. Weeds growing through the gate suggested a permanent open position. Oscar spun the steering wheel through the gate.
As Oscar drove over the cemetery’s gravel road, car tires crunched underneath disrupting windless prairie silence. Only mid-morning, heat waves already shimmered across the surface of rural Route 14.
Oscar knew where to drive in this field of headstones he always thought of as the dead zone. He aimed his Chevy onto a patch of sparse brown grass off the main gravel path. The two inscribed stones he sought came into view framed in his windshield. He remained in his car letting his eyes travel across familiar names, his father, Peter W. Browning and his brother, Marine Lance Corporal, David M. Browning.
His mind flooded with memories. I always felt like I was clawing my way out of a sinkhole, fighting for a way back to normal. I was fourteen the winter Bandit and I had that nasty spill. Same year we found out about David’s death, a year of rupture in our country, races and generations were divided, the year a seventy-five-year-old cowboy helped me through my own personal upheavals, clearing a path for me, sharing lessons to live by. Charlie gave me courage, taught me how to see things more clearly. There were lots of times I didn’t think I’d make it through college, that’s for sure, working my way through by taking any old part-time job to pay for classes. Six years. It was all worth it. Now I’m heading for my dream job on the staff of The Seattle Times. Oscar and Penny were leaving Nebraska for good. Oscar knew he’d found his purpose, knew he’d use words to inform and inspire.
Oscar smiled at his wife, gave her knee a quick squeeze as she asked, “Now?”
Oscar replied, “Now,” and pulled the gear shift into drive sending his Chevy in search of one last headstone, the hardest good-bye of all, Charles L. Barrett.
Once there and parked, Penny gave her husband the gift they’d brought along. Oscar carried it to Charlie’s resting place and bent to place it near the simple granite headstone.
“Thanks for everything, Charlie. Happy trails, cowboy.”
As Oscar turned to leave, to drive into his future, the bright Nebraska summer sun glinted off a Folgers coffee can. A can containing a stiff, old hand-rolled cigarette, of Rusty’s dog collar, a bottle of orange Nehi, a Lakota dreamcatcher and the picture of two happy young men sitting on the front porch of Charlie’s place.