Prologue

We Gathered These Stones

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A Family Memoir of War, Loss, and Love

 

We Gathered These Stones-The Brothers

The Brothers-Jonathan, Stuart, Nathan and Branson

 

My younger brother Stuart was seven when he climbed on top of the dryer, reached up behind a stack of folded towels, and pulled down Dad’s shotgun. None of us knew he had done this until the screen door banged shut and he rounded the corner of the house struggling to lift the gun and aim it at Branson, our oldest brother.

The moment Stuart came around the corner with the shotgun the day grew crisp and slow and forever. When Branson saw Stuart, he didn’t run. He raised both hands and froze, just like they do on TV. Jonathan, our youngest brother, sat cross-legged in the sandbox taking it all in while sand poured from his bucket into his yellow Tonka dump truck. Stuart stood red-faced and shaking with fury. He fought the weight of the shotgun to keep it level; his back arched against the pull of a gun as long as he was tall.

Branson was watching us while Mom had gone into town to get her hair cut. He had come down hard on Stuart about something and Stuart, apparently, didn’t like it. Whatever it was, it no longer mattered. Without lowering his hands Branson shot me a look and said, “Go get Mom!”

I ran to the garage and hopped on my bike. I stomped on the pedals so hard my back tire spun in the gravel driveway. I pedaled like mad, taking every shortcut I knew into town, standing up on the pedals the whole way, spokes roaring through the clipped-on baseball cards. I ran stop signs and the stoplight and hopped onto the sidewalk in town, swerving around old ladies with handbags dangling from their elbows. I slid my bike onto its side and clanged through the salon door. I had just enough sense to know not to go bursting into a beauty salon shouting that one of my brothers was in the backyard with a shotgun. Mom must have read my face because she grabbed her purse and rushed me back out onto the sidewalk where I let loose with what was happening. As soon as I got to shotgun she took off toward our station wagon, her hair pinned up and half cut, the salon gown flapping as she ran.

My bike’s front wheel was still spinning and rat-tatting away as I picked up my bike to chase after her. I yanked on the bars to jump off the curb and both handgrips plunk-plunked off the ends and I tumbled backward onto the sidewalk, tangling with my bike. Part of me wanted to just sit there and wait it all out. I knew all about waiting, we all did.

One of the shopping ladies stopped and asked if I was okay, but before she could say anything else I spit into my grips, jammed them back on, and jumped on my bike to race after Mom. 

Standing on the pedals again, my thighs burned and shook, telling me to stop, telling me I was too slow, I was too late. It felt like I was pedaling through deep, shifting sand and it was taking forever to get home and I might never get there. Not in time.

Mom had skid the station wagon into the driveway; gravel piled against the edges of the tires, the engine still running, the driver door left wide open. Through the narrow gap between the garage and house I could see Mom standing in her salon gown in the backyard. Jonathan clung to her skirt. She gripped the shotgun by the barrel, holding it away from her like it was the most disgusting thing she had ever touched.

There was shouting.

I finally made out that Branson and Stuart were yelling at each other, each one making his case to Mom. But this was okay because everyone was still there. And as far as I could tell, no one had been shot. 

Later that afternoon, Mom’s cousin Johnny drove down from his farm just north of town, put the shotgun in his trunk, and cleared out Dad’s other guns – two pistols, one with a pearl inlaid handle – and all the ammunition Dad had left behind when he went away to Vietnam. Dad was supposed to have been back by now, but things hadn’t gone as planned. Johnny’s wife, Peggy, watched us while Mom drove back to the salon to return the gown and finish getting the other half of her hair cut.

Dad never left his guns loaded, but Stuart, at seven, probably didn’t know this. To this day I don’t know if Stuart ever pulled the trigger.

I never asked him. I have never wanted to know. 

All my life there have been places I never had the courage to go. 

Dad’s story is one of those places. For decades I pretended his story was already in my rearview mirror. Pretended his story was over. But this was a lifelong lie. He was always there – and still is – just below the surface of our lives, always hauntingly with us.

This is my father’s story.  

 

Table of Contents for “We Gathered These Stones”