That was Smith, whom many called a butcher or a meat-grinder, but who breached the empire on Marine bodies because there was no other way to do it.
"Thank you, sir," said Earl. "This here thing, it's for all the boys who didn't make it back."
"Wear it proudly, First Sergeant," said Old Man Schmidt. "For their sakes."
Then Earl was magically whisked away again and, like a package at the end of a conveyor belt, he was simply dumped into nothingness. He looked around, saw Junie standing by herself.
She was radiantly pretty, even if a little fearful. She had been a junior at Southeast Missouri State Teachers College, in Cape Girardeau, he the heavily decorated Marine master sergeant back on a bond drive before the big push for the Jap home islands. She was a beautiful girl and he was a beautiful man. They met in Fort Smith, at a USO dance, and got married that weekend. They had four days of delirious love, and then he went back to the war, killed another hundred or so Japs, got hit twice more, lost more men, and came home.
"How're you doing?" he said.
"Oh, I'm fine," she said. "I don't want anybody paying me any attention at all. This is the day for the hero, not the hero's wife."
"I told you, Junie, I ain't no hero. I'm just the lucky sonofabitch who walked away from the shell that killed the ten other guys. They're giving me the medal of luck today, that's all."
"Earl, you are a hero. You should be so proud."
"See, most people, let me tell you. They don't know nothing. They don't know how it was. What they think it was, what they're giving me this thing for, see, it had nothing to do with nothing."
"Don't get yourself upset again."
Earl had a problem with what the world thought as opposed to what he knew to be true. It was always getting him into trouble. It seemed few of the combat men had made it back, but because he was a big hero people were always stopping him to tell him what a great man he was and then to lecture him on their ideas about the war.
So he would listen politely but a little bolt of anger would begin to build until he'd be off and some ugliness had happened.
"You can't be so mad all the time," she said.
"I know, I know. Listen to me. You'd think the Japs had won the way I carry on. When is this mess going to be over?"
He slipped around behind Junie and used her as cover, reaching inside his tunic to his belt line and there, where Daddy had carried his sap for putting down the unruly nigger or trashy white boy, he carried a flask of Boone County bourbon, for putting down unruly thoughts.
He got it out smoothly, unscrewed its lid, and in seconds, with the same easy physical grace that let him hit running targets offhand at two hundred yards with a PFC's Garand, had it up to his lips.
The bourbon hit like bricks falling from the roof. That effect he enjoyed, the impact, the blurred vision, the immediate softening of all things that rubbed at him.
"Earl," she said. "You could get in trouble."
Who would care? he thought.
A young Marine captain without a hair on his chin slid next to them.
"First Sergeant," he muttered, "in about five minutes the car will take you back to the hotel. You'll have a couple hours to pack and eat. The Rock Island leaves at 2000 hours from Union Station. Your stateroom is all reserved, but you should be at the train by 1945 hours. The car will pick you and your luggage up at 1900 hours. Squared away?"
"Yes sir," said Earl to the earnest child.
The boy sped away.
"You'd think they could supply you with a combat fellow," said Junie. "I mean, after what you did for them."
"He's all right. He's just a kid. He don't mean no harm."
Hot Springs, A Novel by Stephen Hunter. © June, 2000 , Stephen Hunter. Used by permission.
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