Bert Wick was a war hero in the small town of Prineville, Oregon. When the other old veterans gathered at Vera’s Café, they would brag about Bert’s exploits to out-of-towners and easily impressed young people.
“If you want to hear about some real combat, just talk to Bert here.” Even Marla, the pretty, well-rounded waitress, gave him extra respect, “More coffee, Mr. Wick?” If Clifton Gadberry hadn’t shown up, Bert might have preserved his legendary status indefinitely.
In Bert’s favor, he looked the part. He was tall and spare. His sharp features gave him a commanding appearance. He wore jackets with epaulets that widened his shoulders. His voice rang out strong and authoritative.
The community was chock full of red-blooded American guys who crushed their baseball caps to the crass slogans on their T-shirts as the Memorial Day Parade marched by. They drove pick-ups with a hunting dog in back and a shotgun on the cab’s rack. Admiration of a person like Bert was a natural result of their patriotic upbringing.
The day admiration turned to contempt started out like any typical Saturday morning at Vera’s. Bert was regaling a vacationer on his way to the Ochoco Reservoir about his glory days. Bert slipped off his shoe and sock and pulled up his pant leg to show off his war wounds. The tourist gasped as he stared at the missing toes and long scar on Bert’s leg. Bert’s account included gestures and lots of vocal variety.
A short, balding man at a window table turned to watch the theatrics. He squinted his eyes and peered at Bert, trying to make a positive identification. He abruptly scraped back his chair and marched over to where Bert was sitting. He pointed an accusatory finger at Bert’s long nose.
“You … aren’t you Wick?”
“Ah, yes … do I know you?”
“You should.” The man leaned in even closer. Bert’s breathing became labored.
“I’m Cliff, Clifton Gadberry, the lowly private you chewed out in front of my squad when I lost that requisition paper. I’ve been listening to every phony falsehood you’ve uttered. You disgust me.”
The tourist who had been enraptured by Bert’s exploits stared in dismay. Marla, the waitress, stood fossilized holding a tray of specials on her open palm. Cliff turned and addressed the old soldiers. The Vets and other locals stopped shoveling in Vera’s famous corned beef hash and tuned into the confrontation.
Glancing around, Cliff’s finger became a loaded gun aimed at Bert’s chest. “This guy never saw one day of battle, not even a single skirmish. He was the supply sergeant in charge of personnel records, inventory, a glorified accountant really.”
The café was so quiet; you could hear coffee sluicing down into the new pot.
Bert hardly remembered how he got out of the restaurant. He had told his stories so many times they seemed as real as the chair he had occupied at Vera’s. His humiliation bowed his head and made his shoulders slump as he hurried home to hide in his shipshape apartment. His dog, Clarence, an old Basset Hound, greeted him at the door. Bert sank down in his recliner and Clarence moved alongside waiting to be petted. Clarence didn’t care if Bert was General Eisenhower, Patton or just a grunt.
When Bert had come to town from back east, he’d been warmly welcomed by the Army and Navy Veterans who frequented Vera’s. They all had harrowing escape stories, bailing out of planes, their ships shelled, and notches on their gun belts. Bert had drifted around the country from state to state after the war, working in offices, hospitals and schools as a paper pusher. He hadn’t made that many friends. Now he was retired and settled in one place, he wanted desperately to fit in. He felt he couldn’t compete by telling how he had risen from Junior Enlisted Clerk to Head Supply Sergeant or how he had improved his typing skill to 100 words per minute. The worst injury he had sustained was a paper cut. The pretend war wounds were actually the result of an unfortunate lawnmower accident. He had honed his storytelling skills by reading books from the library about successful missions. He changed the circumstances a bit and embellished anytime he saw interest lagging.
Bert watched TV the rest of the day, even the soap operas, which he normally thought were a bunch of drivel. This time though, his eyes filled with tears as Michelle, the actress, sobbed when her baby was taken away.
The next morning, instead of joining the camaraderie at Vera’s, Bert poured a bowl of cereal and discovered he had no milk to go with it. He pulled on his jacket and walked over to Price Slasher’s Market. A truck passed him with the windows rolled down. A hand shot out with the middle finger extended. As he walked down the aisle at the grocery store, two women whispered and looked away. The clerk at the check-out counter usually smiled at him and asked how he was doing. Today, she pressed her lips together. She slammed the milk carton into the bag so hard, Bert thought it might burst. She didn’t even add the superficial, “Have a nice day.” Clearly, she thought he didn’t deserve any more nice days. On the walk home, a lady he recognized from church hurled swear words his way. Bert knew gossip streaks across a small city’s horizon like lightening. From now on, he would be the person zapped.
The cereal tasted stale, but there was no way he was going back for a fresh box. Maybe he’d drive over to the library and get some new books. Miss Peters, the librarian who often helped him use the computer, never stirred from her post behind the main desk as he ambled in the front door. By now though, he knew what section held the books he enjoyed. When he brought his selections to Miss Peters to scan, she said, “Looking for new material since you’ve run out of tall tales?” Bert picked up his books without answering and slunk away to his car. Back home, Bert couldn’t concentrate on the book’s pictures of a sleek A-4 Skyhawk jet.
For two weeks, Bert walked Clarence round and round in his back yard because wherever Bert went, he was either ignored or abused. He was sick of TV and he had cleaned every surface in his house. He began to think his clock had gone haywire, the hands moved so slowly.
He missed his former life so much, his gut ached. He decided he had to do something to get his fantasy back. He worked feverishly all day and through the night. Clarence didn’t know what to make of all this activity.
Bert patted the front seat of his car as the morning sun rose. “Come here, old boy,” he said to Clarence. The trunk and back seat were crammed with boxes. Once they got out on the highway, Bert put his finger on a small dot on a North Carolina map.
“Here’s where we’re going, Clarence. Betcha’ what Benington Grove needs is a new hero.”