The Old Soldier
By Eileen Wosnack
He stared ahead with unseeing eyes, now cloudy from years of life. His wheelchair was all he had known for many decades, but today, he was young and free, a soldier of Canada going off to war to do his patriotic duty for his beloved country.
Ah yes, sure, they were farm boys, not soldiers. Born and raised on a bare subsistence farm in the province of Alberta, he and his brothers and sisters rarely had enough to eat as children. Winters were terribly cold in the old wooden farmhouse, chinks patched with manure, straw and clay, and money was scarce. Those were the good days though, the days when Sunday afternoons were reserved for baseball and beer - when they could afford it. Most of the time as a young boy, bedtime found his stomach growling with hunger pangs, and his youthful body was fatigued after working hard on the farm all day, then working at the neighbour’s too, to bring home a little extra something to help feed the younger ones.
Sure, shoes were hand me downs and threadbare pants were too short, or too large and patched, but suspenders could hold them up. He was remembering baking bread in a huge wooden trough, because his mother was not well and the little ones had to be fed. He was remembering the bad spring thaw too, not sure why that popped into his mind, but he let the memories come as they would.
There was a lot of snow that winter and it was so very bitterly frozen over. Just thinking of those days sent an icy chill up his broken back. The Redwater River had swollen over its banks that spring, and the decrepit wooden plank bridge was submerged under freezing water. Large chunks of choppy ice flowed swiftly, crashing into one another as they chortled and burbled along the way. The river was not far from the farmhouse. Pete heard some desperate yelling while he was outside doing the morning chores and he ran down to the river. In those days he could run, and run faster than most boys his age of 14 or even 15. Pete could run, skinny as he was and always hungry, he was fast. He could swim, too. Living so close to the river gave the boys many opportunities to swim and dive and compete with one another as youthful males often do.
So, with a bit of snow still on the ground and icy patches here and there, Pete ran down to the river to see what was wrong. There was old man Bodnar trying to get his ancient, tired horses across the bridge. The team and the man were under the icy water and the man’s hat flew off in the wicked wind. Pete dove in the turbulent river, retrieved the hat, pulled the team to shore and shook the old man’s hand. He remembered that today, Pete did. Old man Bodnar offered him a dollar, but Pete refused, knowing full well that the man could not afford a whole dollar or even a few cents, and he turned and waved as he ran back to the farmhouse wood stove to get warm.
But today, he was in his wheelchair, legs long broken and withered away, tongue unable to form the words in his mind and his thoughts were dwelling on better days.
That day the troops were dispatched overseas was a sad day for all. There was fierce pride in Pete’s heart, but who would look after his family? Yet, like the other boys, he knew his duty was the most important at that time, and he was sorely proud to serve his country, so onto that train he jumped and as it chuffed away, he waved to those left behind. Only, Pete never served in the war.
On the way, just outside of New York harbor, the train was tragically derailed by sabotage. The wreck twisted, steel piercing the banks and taking bodies with it, crumpling trees and turning the steel rails as though they were pretzel dough. There were screams and yells, violent sobbing, and lights flashing, and then the pain came. His left leg was caught in some of the twisted metal of the steel rail car and he was horribly trapped. There was a sickening smell of diesel fuel and steam, mixed with the dying screams of the men and women bound to serve their Canada. Pete thought he should help them, but he was pinioned down and the weight of the car was on his leg. Suddenly the train car moved. Then all went black.
Pete woke up the next day, or maybe a few days later, he could not recall exactly, with a terrible agonizing pain in his leg. His entire body ached and was covered with cuts, abrasions and bruises. He was lying on his back on clean white sheets in a bed somewhere. A woman was approaching him.
She was dressed in white, a crisp, stark uniform with a little white cap on her head and it occurred to him that the cap was too small and he wondered what kept it in place. She spoke to him, but he did not understand her. She had been giving him morphine and then a man came in. He made sure Pete was awake and understood what he had to say.
“Young man, your leg is rotting with gangrene and we have to amputate it to save your life.”
Pete quickly had years of running races, swimming, ploughing the fields and walking down the aisle with his wife rush through his mind’s eye and he shook his head and muttered an emphatic, “NO!”.
“I hate to lose young men like you, but it is your choice,” quipped the doctor and with that he turned on his heel and left with the nurse wearing the cap that was too small following behind him, desperately trying to plead with him about something. Then Pete slept.
Pete fought his own war then, a raging battle for his life and also did mortal combat with feelings of guilt for disappointing his country and the folks at home who knew he left to protect his country. He repeatedly chastised himself for not being more aware, for not being faster, for not being able to heal this leg and yet he fought those internal battles, too. The gangrene was terribly excruciating and finally, he refused medicine and did the most remarkable thing. He healed himself.
Pete said he would walk out of the hospital on two legs. Six months later he did. There was no one there to cheer him on, no one to visit him while he was in the infirmary and to encourage him to recover. He had himself to rely on, only himself. The agony he suffered due to the wrenching of the steel and twisting of the metal through his leg was suffered alone, in silence, with stern determination that he would still run one day, that he would walk his bride down the aisle and that his children would know him as a normal father with two legs. The leg was one thing. The battle with his emotions for not having participated in the war and fulfilling his duty, in the real war, was another.
That seemed like yesterday. He couldn’t recall exactly when he arrived where he was or how long he had been there. Pete gazed down at his legs, both of them, and remembered that instead. He served his country, sure. He was ready to give his life, but somehow fate grabbed him and knocked him flat, yet gave him all the pain and discomfort that any veteran suffered. At least, he was thinking, that he did not have to face a man and kill him, because he was on the other side of a trench. He was the lucky one, really. Pete stepped cautiously and proudly onto the ramp at the train station at home on two legs, a soldier with an honourable discharge, six months after departing for the front.
And oh, that leg healed just fine, or so he told everyone. Admittedly, he did limp and at times, the terrible pain was there again, out of nowhere, until he steeled his mind and sent it away. One thing for certain though, because he grew up in hard times, he learned never to complain. There was always someone less fortunate than he was. He never did complain because of the leg injury or anything else. He was a true soldier, after all.
Pete, the old soldier died.
There were hardly any people at his funeral. No one knew of his train wreck in the war, except his family and even then, he chose not to share the details. He did give his daughter some photos of the sabotage. The incredible twisted accident and the months of recovery, well, those memories died with Pete, a great man who was one incredible battle soldier for Canada.