Lester Van Tassell, with a quick look over his shoulder, left the military base. He was never going back. He had seen too much and it had been horrible. He walked several miles and crossed a few fences until he stood in a stand of trees near a railroad track. The tracks curved sharply there and the train would have to slow down. It was a steep embankment but Lester felt confident he could jump on the train. He was in excellent shape.
As predicted, the train slowed. With a swift motion Lester grabbed onto a handle near the door and pulled himself forward. One leg didn’t quite make it before hitting the trees as the train passed by. Lester didn’t mind though. After he drank the bottle of gin he had in his knapsack he wouldn’t be feeling the throbbing in his leg anymore.
The train car was empty. Lester sat down, leaning back against a wall of the car. He opened the bottle and took a long drink while the rocking of the train lulled him.
“Good-bye!” Kate called from the front porch. Angus MacIntosh turned around and gave her a wave. He shaded his eyes from the early morning sun so he could get a good look at his pretty, red-haired wife and young son, Angus Junior, she had resting on her hip.
Angus, or Mac as all his friends called him, swung his lunch pail and whistled a little. He had finally found a job after a long search. Today was his first day working as a maintenance worker at the Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah.
Angus hoped maybe now, since he would have a regular paycheck, he would be able to buy nice things for Kate. Maybe now, they would all be happier and he wouldn’t have to turn to the numbing relief of the bottle quite as often.
“Mac,” someone called, “Over here.” Wayne Roberts, their neighbor who lived just a few houses down was just climbing into his car. “Would you like a ride?”
“Sure.” Mac jogged to Wayne’s car. “Thanks,” he said. Wayne had helped Mac get the job. His wife Betty was a good friend of Kate’s.
“Ready for your first day?” Wayne asked.
“Yep,” Mac said with a smile.
They were waved through the checkpoint at the entrance to the base and Wayne dropped Mac off at the maintenance station. “Have a good one!” he said as he drove away.
Mac waved and walked into the building. He’d always been good at fixing things and working with his hands. Once inside, he was issued a permanent ID card and a collection of tools and keys. “I won’t be able to keep my pants up if I hook all these keys to my belt,” he quipped. Everyone laughed. That was something about Mac. He could always make people laugh.
He was assigned to go with Mitch, a gray haired barrel chested man who wore no nonsense overalls. There was no question about his pants staying up. Walking across the base to attend to a hot water heater that wasn’t working in one of the barracks, Mac and Mitch didn’t talk. Mac could sense Mitch wasn’t one for idle chatter.
The sounds of the base filled Mac’s ears. There were orders being barked, followed by staccato “Sir, yes sir!” replies. Suddenly, there was the bugle call for the morning flag raising. That’s when Mac staggered. He nearly fell. Mitch just kept walking.
Mac put both hands to his head and tried to shake loose the crazy thoughts he was having. It was all so familiar! Had he been here before? He was Private Lester Van Tassell of the 84th Infantry. He had been at the Battle of the Bulge. He was on leave in California before their unit was reassigned to the Philippines. That was when he left. He couldn’t do it any more.
Mac looked around, trying to make sense of his surroundings. What had happened?
He looked around and saw Mitch getting further and further ahead of him. He had to keep up. He had to keep his job. Mac shook his head and pushed the sights and sounds of the base away and chased after Mitch. He'd think about this later. He couldn't afford to get into it right now.
He tried. He really tried.
They reached the barrack and Mitch was explaining the intricacies of the water heater and how to fix it. That's when Mac remembered his old bunk mate John Smith from Arkansas who could burp the national anthem. He had died in France at the Battle of the Bulge when the tail end of their aircraft had been shot. He pushed the thoughts away. He couldn't do this right now.
Mitch handed him a wrench and he started to twist a bolt.
"No, no, no," yelled Mitch. "Do you want to send us all to kingdom come. Aren't you listening?"
"I'm sorry. I'm not really feeling well today. My head hurts something awful," said Mac.
"Well pay attention 'cause I got kids and a wife to go home to," said Mitch.
"Me too," said Mac and he did too, a lovely wife and one very handsome, chubby son. He realized Private Van Tassell had no one, no wife, no children, no parents, no siblings. That was a bit of a relief.
Mitch broke into his thoughts, "Then pay attention boy because we don't want to make widows and orphans of them today."
Mac never wanted them to be that.
He turned as much of his attention to Mitch as he could but he couldn't help remembering.
Mac and Mitch worked on fixing the water heater, fine tuning the thermostat and Mac remembered things. Things that hadn't been there that morning. His parents had died during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Mac reached for the shut off valve on the water heater and turned it off. He was in his first year of college in California when it had happened. He handed Mitch a screwdriver. He'd spent two more years at school before joining the air force. He'd always wanted to fly. Mac checked the heat-out pipe for Mitch to see if it was hot. He was fresh out of basic training when he was sent to France as an air force gunner. He told Mitch the pipe was hot.
"Good, then we can go. It means we fixed it," said Mitch and he walked away in his no nonsense overalls with his keys clanging against his side.
Mac wished he could fix his head and his life as easily.
Lester awoke with a jolt. The train was slowing down. It must be coming to one of the neighboring towns.
Anxiety made his heart race. He couldn’t be discovered. They would put him in jail, then they would eventually discover where he had come from. He would be sent right back to the regiment, where he would face court martial charges as a deserter.
He had to get rid of any sort of identification immediately. Why didn’t he think of ditching it on the way to the train tracks?
He hadn’t wanted even an indication of what direction he had run. That’s why.
Four years with the military had taught him to be cautious and patient. He had known that he wanted to escape the regiment and had decided that during his shore leave would present the perfect opportunity. Not only would he be in the states, but travel would be so much faster. Europe was a mess. The roads and infrastructure was a shambles after Germany’s siege through the landscape. Of course, he could remember all too clearly the damage that his own regiment had inflicted, all in the name of war. The sounds of trucks and tanks, riddled with men swearing and shouting, all crushing their way over the winding roads, then the volcanic explosion of detonation as they destroyed all the bridges after crossing them…it was a living nightmare.
There was no way around it. War was dirty, ugly, and soul-less.
Lester kept remembering the haunted eyes in those who stood by the road, watching the destructive procession as they passed by their property. After countless troops, from both sides of the struggle, had ransacked their homes, taking what meager morsels of food were stashed in their cupboards, and searching for fuel, there was now nothing left to take. Their animals were dead, horses were taken, and fields were trampled and mowed under. They would just stand there, clinging to each other with their skeleton arms, muttering words that Lester could not understand. More than anything else he witnessed during the war, those looks haunted him.
Lester shook himself. He had to figure out what to do with his uniform and identification tags before anyone saw him.
The train’s brakes were squealing loudly. The train was about to stop. Lester opened the door on the side of the train car a fraction, trying to determine his options. He was in luck. His car was toward the back of the train, which was not near the small platform of the station. He opened the door on the other side of the car and exited while the train was gradually rolling in to its stop. As soon as his feet hit the dirt, he was sprinting toward the brush line on the far side of the tracks.
“Honey, don’t you like your dinner?” Kate was asking Mac, as he stared blankly at his bowl of potato soup. More and more visions, which Mac had reluctantly determined were his own memories, had been flooding his mind all evening.
He brushed off his wife, trying to mentally shake himself. “It’s fine, Kate, really. I think that I’m just tired.”
He didn’t know why he hadn’t told Kate about what had happened to him on his first day at work the moment he walked in the door. He just couldn’t bring himself to divulge who he really was, and dissolve the romantic notions she had of his past.
He was a deserter. A fraud. A coward. He had run, when others would still die.
No, he wasn’t any of those anymore. He was no longer Lester Van Tassell, military run-away. He was Angus MacIntosh, husband to the sweet Kate, who had stood by him through all the long months in the hospital, when he had no idea who he was, and now father to little Angus.
Kate’s was the first face he saw when he woke up in the narrow white cot of the hospital. Her brilliant red curls peaked out from under her rectangular nurse’s cap, creating a vibrant haze around her face. She had two sweet dimples in her cheeks, which sprung to life as he opened his eyes groggily.
Mac thought he was having a vision. Was he dead? Who was this beautiful white creature hovering over him?
Her lips parted as though she was speaking, but he couldn’t make out the sounds. Finally it seemed that a gauzy plug was being released from his ears.
“Hello, sir!” she spoke brightly. “Nice of you to finally join us!” She was beaming down at him, her green eyes twinkling brightly. “Do you know your name, sir?”
Of course he knew his name. Who doesn’t know their name?
He faltered with his words. His voice was crackly with disuse, and his throat ached with the effort to speak. It was so dry.
“I…I don’t know…” he said. “I don’t remember my name…”
Mac had been found unconscious down a culvert just outside of town by a family out for a picnic. He had been brought to the hospital to be treated for exposure. There had been a rudimentary police investigation to discover his identity, but with no ID on him and no missing person reports in the area, there wasn’t much to go on. The police let him be and Mac was happy to be left alone, especially as things started to blossom with Kate.
When Mac and Kate had started courting, they had made a mutual decision to look toward the future and not the past. They couldn’t figure out a way to jump start his memory and so they chose to ignore everything that came before the two of them meeting. Deep down, Kate may have harbored some idealized notion of whom he might have been, but they never hypothesized or joked about his prior life. Maybe they were both a little scared of what they might find if they delved too deep. Upon his discharge from the hospital, Mac had serendipitously taken the name Angus MacIntosh. The names had been written on two different tags on the lost and found clothes that the nurses had gifted to him.
But now Mac was forced to examine his prior life when he had deliberately avoided going there for years. There was definitely a big blank in his memory in between leaving the train and waking up in the hospital. Had something traumatic happened to him? He didn’t have any head injuries or anything when he showed up at the hospital. Or maybe his mind had decided to totally disassociate itself from his prior self. Mac realized now that he had spent enough time in war to know about shellshock. And why did his mind have to decide to suddenly remember everything today? When he finally had a solid job and was taking care of Kate and baby Angus?
No, there was no way he was going to reveal his old identity to Kate. He had managed as Angus this long. Just because he remembered who he was didn’t mean he had to come out of hiding.
“Thanks for dinner, Honey. I think I’m going to head to bed. I’ve got another big day ahead of me tomorrow.” Mac kissed his wife and son on his way upstairs, hoping that today’s visions of Lester’s life wouldn’t invade his dreams.
For weeks, Mac was able to maintain his composure on base. His personality led him to be easily accepted and even the reticent Mitch was really warming up. The work wasn’t too hard; Mac realized he had a knack for fixing things. He still wasn’t sure where he had earned all his knowledge. There were some holes in Lester’s memories. Every day on base though, brought back more and more disturbing memories of the war. Mac tried to shut them out and just do his routine. He was having an internal struggle though over feeling satisfied with where his current life as Mac was headed and the guilt of knowing he was also Lester Van Tassell who had deserted.
Mac had just finished some routine maintenance on an air conditioning unit in one of the hangars and was headed to his next job when he looked up and his heart nearly stopped. Coming toward him in uniform was Clifton Davis, one of his former comrades. Mac dipped his head and pulled his cap in a deep peak over his forehead. His mind raced. He remembered that Davis had been injured. He’d been sent home before the unit was called up to the Philippines. Would Davis know he had deserted? As the two men passed, Mac could see Davis do a double take at his face, but continued on. Mac thought he was in the clear and let out the breath he had been holding.
“Lester, hey Les!” Davis had turned and was making a beeline for Mac. Mac could feel his heart start to race. He wanted to make a run for it, but forced himself to keep walking. “Van Tassel? Les? Remember me?” The man had caught up to Mac and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Sorry, it took me a few seconds to place you.” Mac kept walking as Davis trotted alongside. Davis looked Mac square in the face. Davis’s face held a huge grin. Mac let his eyes slide off Davis’s face, hoping there was no recognition in his own eyes.
Mac shrugged him off. “Sorry, must be a look alike, Buddy. Don’t know any Tassells.” He never even broke step. Davis stopped as Mac hurried on. He chose not to turn around to see what he knew would be Davis’s bewildered face. Mac changed trajectory and headed to the break room where he mercifully found himself alone. He put his back against the wall and slid down to the floor, his grimy hands wiping the sweat off his forehead. What now?
Clifton Davis had been a good friend. The ugliness of the war seemed to have no effect on him. Despite being dirty, exhausted from the constant firing of both sides, and going without sleep for days, his familiar line “We're gonna get through this, buddy.” got no less cheerful. Lester, as he used to be called, thought sometimes that Davis had gone mad already and was just along for the ride, but as a Squad Leader, Davis showed that he cared about his men. He'd bind their wounds, stop Billy Saunders from grumbling and bullying, and tell them hilarious stories that were ridiculous and probably completely false.
It didn't seem real when Davis got wounded. A man like that wouldn't get shot. He was too good at taking cover. He was a marksman. There was no way he would get shot, unless he was going out of his way to save a fellow soldier. But that couldn't happen. There was no way they could do it without him.
That fellow soldier was Lester Van Tassell.
Lester had been too close to a grenade when it went off. He'd been blown nearly twenty feet and landed out in the open, right in the enemy's sights. He landed on his back, and lay there gasping: unhurt but winded and ears ringing. Lester knew that he had to get up-- fast, but the grass and trees swam around him eerily instead of staying steady.
Arms fastened around his waist and pulled him back, dragging him behind the trees again. Lester couldn't hear anything, but felt the impact of the bullets that slammed into Davis' gut and leg. Davis stumbled, and they both fell to the ground. Lester looked around and saw Davis wince, as well as the blood that started coming out of his wounds. He followed Davis on the stretcher, trying to thank him, and praying that he wouldn't die all at once. Lester didn't see how he would survive the gut shot.
Davis was gone, whisked off to the nearest medic and hospital available. Their division moved on. Billy Saunders became the new Squad Leader. It became a much deeper level of hell, and boy, did Saunders love his part as the devil.
Slander after hideous insult spattered against them everyday. If Lester had a dime for every time Saunders called him a useless, millstone-of-an-idiot, he would have retired to Paris after the war. When left alone, the men decided to refer to their new leader as “Slaunders.” It was funny until he knocked the teeth out of the first man he heard it from. Saunders may not have been too sharp, but he was a large man that knew how to fight, and it was safe to say that he was hated by both the Axis and Allies. Lester blamed himself for Davis being gone more than anyone else. That he was partly responsible for Slaunders being in charge only made it worse.
But Davis was alive after all! He'd made it out! Lester-- well, Mac wished that he had known before he left the army. Not that it would have made much of a difference. Even if Davis was alive, he wouldn't have been there to stop what happened. One wounded man couldn't have gone against Billy Saunders and the whole squad.
“You look awful upset for only being mistaken for another man,” Davis' voice said right above him.
Mac jumped. Davis had entered the break room without his noticing, and was standing next to where he was sitting, leaning a hand against the wall.
“I'm not him,” Mac said.
“Oh, can it,” said Davis. “I'd know that pale, peaky look anywhere. You're Lester Van Tassell, alright, and scared stiff. What happened to you, buddy?”
“I'm not the man you knew.” He felt sick. “I'm called Mac, not Van Tassell.”
“Don't tell me you got amnesia and a new name?!”
Mac put his face in his hands and laughed. He couldn't stop. Hoots and guffaws came right out of him as if he had no control. When the storm of convulsions stopped, Davis handed him a glass of water, while grinning.
“You say you're not the same man. Okay. But you know me. I know you know me. You're still not a very good liar. Tell me what happened to you, Mac,” Davis said.
Mac almost told Davis. He looked at him a long while. Then he changed his mind. What could he say? He didn’t know what had happened exactly. He knew that he’d left. He knew that he’d spent time in a haze of alcohol. He still returned to that haze from time to time although he tried not to. Beyond that, he didn’t know what to say. He was Angus MacIntosh, Mac. He was married to Kate. He was Angus junior’s father. These were the only truths he wanted.
“I don’t know,” was all he said. Davis gave him a look. It was somewhere between disgust and disbelief and pity. Davis stalked off.
Mac felt distinctly uncomfortable but he made it through the rest of his shift somehow. He was quiet again that night at home. He complained he didn’t feel well when Kate tried to persuade him to tell her what was wrong. More than anything, he wanted a drink. He fought the urge and instead watched Angus play on the floor. He was laying on his stomach, running a toy car along the stripes on the rug. He was making a little “pbbbbbb” sound. Mac watched him until Kate took the toddler off to bed. Mac’s hands had finally stopped shaking.
Later, lying in bed next to Kate, Mac stared at the ceiling. He couldn’t remember. He remembered bits and snatches of Lester. He remembered the war like it was a disjointed nightmare. He didn’t remember how he had become Angus MacIntosh. His mind was racing and it seemed like the more he tried to think about it, the more confused he became.
He slipped out of bed and got dressed. He walked down the street towards the bar two streets away. He usually tried to avoid even walking on that street. He didn’t need the temptation. Tonight he was drawn there like a moth to a flame though.
Mac sat on a stool and ordered a drink.
The next thing he knew, he woke up in what seemed to be a hospital room. A pretty woman with red hair exclaimed something and rose from the chair where she was sitting. He didn’t know who she was but she seemed to know him. She kept calling him by a different name. Nothing made sense. He closed his eyes again.
It was dim in the room when Les opened his eyes again. The red haired woman was still there. “Welcome back,” she said with a smile. She was pretty.
“Are you a nurse?” he asked. Was this a military hospital?
The woman’s face clouded. He didn’t understand her expression. “It’s Kate,” she said, “Kate. Your wife.”
“What? I don’t know you,” Les said.
The woman quickly left the room and returned with a man that looked like a doctor. “Hello,” the doctor said, “I’m Dr. Wilson.” He opened Les’s eyes and shone a light into them. He checked his blood pressure.
“Can you tell me your name?” the doctor asked.
“Private Lester Van Tassell.”
The woman looked really alarmed. She and the doctor exchanged looks Les didn’t understand.
“Can you tell me the year?”
“1945,” Les said confidently. Then he asked, “Doc, where am I? Am I still on the base?”
“Hill Air Force Base?”
Les was confused. He’d never heard of Hill Air Force Base.
“Fort Ord,” he said.
“In California?” the doctor asked.
Les looked again at the pretty young woman. She looked stricken and he had the feeling that whatever was bothering her was his fault.
“Was I wounded in battle? Is that why I’m in a hospital?” Les asked, “I thought we were on leave.”
“The war’s over,” the doctor said gently. “It’s 1949. You’re in a hospital in Ogden, Utah. You were found face down on a street behind a bar. You look like you’ve been in a fight? You really don’t remember any of this?”
“I’m in the army,” Les said stubbornly. “I’m in the 84th infantry. I need to see my commanding officer.” Les tried to sit up but the pounding in his head forced him to lay back against the pillow.
“You’re Angus MacIntosh,” the woman said, she was crying. “You’re my husband. We have a son.”
“I’m sorry,” Les said to the woman. He didn’t know what she was talking about but he was sorry she was sad. Sorry she was so confused.
The next few days were a parade of doctors and military men in Les’ room. There was talk of him being court martialed because he had deserted. He didn’t remember deserting. There were psychological evaluations. There were many visits from the woman who was named Kate. She showed him pictures of a little boy she claimed was their son. More than anything, Les wanted a drink.
Gradually he came to understand that the war had ended. He was missing several years of his memory. Somehow he’d been on leave in California and now he was in Utah and years had passed. Kate brought his picture ID from work. It showed his picture and underneath had the name Angus MacIntosh. She showed him a marriage certificate and birth certificate for Angus junior.
He could see that Kate thought she was married to him and even had evidence to support her claim. On the other hand, he didn’t believe her. He didn’t remember any of it and wondered how such an elaborate ruse had been orchestrated and why anyone would go to so much trouble.
They tried to find his family. His parents had been killed, he explained. He had no brothers or sisters. Kate seemed to be the only family he had. The psychologists determined he really did have amnesia and based on mental disability and his contributions during battle, would be given an honorable discharge from the army. No charges would be pressed for his desertion because it was deemed he had left the base under mental duress. He was released from the hospital into Kate’s care. She drove him to a little house on a shabby street he didn’t recognize. A neighbor was there, holding a baby and looking at him curiously. Kate thanked the neighbor and held the baby in front of Les. “It’s our son,” she said.
Les looked at this boy. He had no recognition of ever seeing him before. The baby seemed to recognize him though. The boy broke into a grin and dimples creased his face. Tears filled Les’s eyes. They were dimples identical to his own and his mother’s.
Could this be his son?
“I think I need to go lay down,” Les said. Kate nodded. Les contemplated the narrow hall with three closed doors. “Which room?” Les asked.
“The second door,” Kate said, “is our bedroom.”
Our bedroom. Les shook his head in dismay. He walked into the room that he didn’t remember in the least. There was a double bed, neatly covered with a pale yellow blanket. There was a chipped vase on what appeared to be a second hand dresser. Les lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling. He decided the only thing he could do was leave. He didn’t want to stay here with this strange woman and her baby that looked alarmingly like him. He couldn’t just take up some life that he didn’t belong in. Les hoisted himself up off the bed and walked toward the closet. He opened the door and a familiar scent wafted over him. Hung neatly on hangers were a few shirts and a few dresses. They were a man and woman’s clothes, hung side by side. Les ran his hand across the fabrics. He felt the rough cotton of work shirts and the smooth flowing material of the dresses.
They seemed a little familiar.
There was a small cardboard box on the top shelf of the closet. He pulled it down and set it on the bed. He opened the box and again, found a familiar scent. It was baby powder and something else he couldn’t name but was familiar. Inside was a tiny blue knit sweater, some tiny booties, a baby bonnet. A rattle. These were Angus’s things. Angus, his son. There was a picture of Kate and him, holding a baby, it was Angus.
“Kate!” he called, “Kate!”
She ran into the room and he met her at the bedroom door. He wrapped his arms around her and she fit perfectly into his embrace.
“Kate,” he whispered into her hair.
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