Paul pulled the car over to the shoulder of the road and slowed to a stop. He turned off the ignition, leaned over the steering wheel, and let out a long, weary breath. Slowly, methodically, he opened the door, swung his legs out to the side, and then climbed out of the front seat. After twisting his back, grunting, and looking around, he slammed the door shut and walked around to the rear bumper. He'd noticed his boot lace had come untied, and after spending several moments considering the pros and cons of leaving it be, he decided that the consequences of tripping over the lace and twisting his ankle or breaking his hip were likely enough and ominous enough to warrant taking the trouble to lift his foot up onto the bumper and tie his laces up properly. After securing his boots, with a grunt he dropped his foot to the ground and turned to take in the sight which had made him stop the car in the first place.
A barn. A worn and weather-beaten red barn. There were more barns per square mile in his county than anywhere else in the state. If he stopped to look at every one he would never get home. But this wasn't just any barn. Considering how long it had been abandoned, it was in pretty good shape: the siding was faded and in need of a fresh coat of red paint; the hinges on the green shutters and the hinges of the large doors were rusted; here and there a piece of siding hung loose where it needed to be nailed up tight; and the ends of a few of the metal roof panels were curled up from the infamous storm of the summer of 2002; but all-in-all the old building was holding up reasonably well.
Every month, since that fateful Christmas of 2002, Paul passed by the barn on his way to the doctor for his monthly checkup. He often thought about stopping, but until that particular day, he didn't even slow down.
Paul walked around the barn several times before he stopped at the large door in front. He recalled Paul Jr., just five years old, trying to pull open the fifteen-foot-tall barn door by himself. Paul Sr. would grab the door to help him, but Paul Jr. would yell, “I can do it myself!' To which Paul Sr. would let go of the door and hold his hands up in the air. He'd stand back and wait for his son to tire out and give up. Then he'd grab hold of the door, never mocking his son, and pull it open. Paul Jr. would then, finding a second wind, run into the barn and chase the cats through the straw and up the wooden ladder.
Paul Jr. was fourteen years old the first time he got to drive the tractor by himself. He pulled the tractor out of the barn, tooled around the pasture, and backed it into the barn, all without incident - almost. The main six-by-six post in the center of the barn still bore the deep gash in its side from where Paul Jr. backed the tractor into it. Paul Sr. never did get the post or the back of the tractor fixed. He sold the tractor in the spring of 2003. When the buyer pulled out of the driveway, the last thing Paul Sr. saw was the six-year-old rusty dent in the rear of the tractor. He cried for two days.
The loft over the horse stalls, where hay was stored, was accessible only by a vertical ladder comprised of two-by-fours nailed to the side of two parallel studs which ran from the dirt floor of the barn to the rafters. As fresh in Paul Sr.’s mind as yesterday was the look on his son’s face when he caught Paul Jr. having a proverbial roll-in-the-hay with his high school sweetheart, Cindy. His mind chose to remember their faces only, blocking out the picture of their bodies, which were covered only by a few stray pieces of straw. After giving Cindy privacy to dress, and then seeing her off, Paul Sr. beat Paul Jr. on the rear with a hickory switch and sent him to his room, where he stayed for a month - minus meals, chores and bathroom visits.
The day he saw his son off for enlistment in the Army, Paul Sr. cried. He was proud of Paul Jr. Proud that he'd grown into a man. Proud of the kind of man he'd grown into. Proud that he had the courage to go off and stand on a wall so that others might live in peace and security. In the midst of all his fatherly pride, however, was a feeling he couldn't deny or ignore. He knew, the way a parent sometimes knows, that he was seeing his son for the last time. All parents share that fear when their child goes off to war, but for Paul Sr. it was more than a fear, it was a knowing. Paul Jr. knew it, too. He saw the pain in his dad's eyes, but rather than offer the standard platitude, “I'll see you again,” he stood silently staring into his father's eyes, his own eyes red and moist.
The day Paul Sr.’s life changed irrevocably was Christmas Day, 2002. It was late in the evening and Paul was lounging in his favorite chair, enjoying leftovers, watching an old movie when the doorbell rang. For a fleeting moment he fantasized that it was Paul Jr., in one of those corny moments they show in commercials, where the soldier surprises his wife, or kids, or parents, who were unaware that he was home on leave. Paul Sr. hadn't seen his son in six months, and hadn't heard from him in two weeks. When they last talked, Paul Jr. told his dad he wouldn't be able to come home for Christmas. Was he sandbagging, to secure the surprise? Was it Paul Jr. at the door?
Paul Sr. laid his plate on the side table and sprang to his feet. He quickly walked down the hall to the foyer. His eyes filled with tears as he imagined seeing his son in his uniform, hugging him and then sitting down to turkey and fixin's and a beer. Could there be a better way to celebrate Christmas?
Through the glass sidelights in the entry hall next to the door, he saw a man dressed in an Army uniform. Then he noticed a second figure, also dressed in military regalia. “Maybe Paul Jr. brought a friend home for a visit. Hey, the more the merrier,” he thought. But why were they in dress uniforms? Why not khakis, or fatigues? Perhaps they were required to dress up for travel?
It took a moment to register in Paul Sr.'s mind, but neither of the men standing outside his front door was his son. Not only were they strangers, in formal attire, but their faces bore serious, somber expressions. The sight brought Paul Sr. to his knees. He sobbed into his hands. As he lay in a heap on the floor, the doorbell rang a second time. If I don't answer the door, they'll go away. If I don't hear them say the words, then Paul Jr. is still alive, to me at least.
He mustered all of his strength and courage, and rose to his feet. When he opened the door the officers had already turned to leave and started down the steps, assuming no one was home. At the sound of the opening door they froze in their tracks and continued to look straight ahead for what seemed an eternity. Finally they turned and started back up the steps. Paul could see the pain in their postures at the realization that they would in fact have to deliver the most awful news a parent could ever hear.
Paul stood resolute and listened as the officers told him about the roadside bomb and the Humvee Paul Jr. was riding in and the fact that he died instantly, that he didn't suffer. They told him that his son's body would be delivered stateside soon and a liaison officer would be in touch with him about funeral arrangements. Paul hugged them both and thanked them for telling him in person. With a strength and sincerity belying his emotional state, he wished them a Merry Christmas. In a strange way, he was comforting the officers in their grief from the dreadful job they’d had to do.
He closed the door and returned to the living room, and as he sat down in his favorite chair, the credits of the old movie rolled and a classic Christmas song played over the names and job titles of those involved in the production of the movie.
“♫ ...I'll be home for Christmas... ♫”