by Wayne Scheer
"My unit may be called up to Iraq," Owen told his father as the two men sipped beers on the back porch. They had been talking baseball and enjoying a cool breeze.
The breeze suddenly turned cold. John, who had been leaning back on his chair, almost tipped over.
Owen laughed. "It's not definite, Dad. May be just another rumor." He drained the beer and crushed the can. "Remember when word had it we were going to Germany?"
John stroked his short white beard and ran his hand through his thinning hair. What he really wanted to do was grab his son by the collar and shout, "I told you joining the National Guard was a fucking dumb idea!" Instead, he recalled the conversations they had had about the war. His son was as opposed to it as he was. It was one of the few things they agreed on.
"What are you going to do?" he finally asked.
"What can I do?"
John wanted to say something encouraging, offer the wisdom that was supposed to derive from being a professor of philosophy. But he couldn't think of a damn thing to say. He knew what his father, a World War II veteran who had died a year earlier, would have said. "You made your decision to serve your country in the National Guard. A man accepts the consequences of his actions."
If only right and wrong were that easy to discern, he thought.
John considered the alternatives. If Owen refused to accept the order, he'd be court-martialed, probably spend time in jail. He could move to Canada, but with an arrest warrant for desertion hanging over his head, life would be difficult. An image of his son lying dead in a desert bunker flashed across his mind, and he shivered.
This would be the time for a father to use his connections to save his son's ass, if only he had connections.
Owen had joined the National Guard on a patriotic wave soon after 9/11. John never approved of his son's decision and he wondered now if his disapproval might have been the real catalyst for Owen to sign up. Had he supported his son, instead of scoffing at the idea of the military, would Owen have gone through with it?
"I know you'll find a way to make the best of it," he finally said. He could almost hear a hollow echo as he spoke.
"Yeah." Owen puffed his cheeks and rolled his eyes just as he did when he was a boy. Instead of continuing the conversation, he returned to who he thought the Yankees would buy to get themselves into another post-season. John said they needed to build their minor league system.
Later that day, as John pondered his students' essays in Introduction to Philosophy, his mind wandered to when Owen was about eight and he had to discipline him for taking a book from the school library without checking it out. It was Owen's favorite book and he wanted to keep reading it. He thought checking it out every two weeks a nuisance. So he took the book and planned on returning it when he felt ready.
John lectured him about needing to follow rules. "They're there for everybody's good."
Owen rolled his eyes. "It's a dumb rule."
"It's not up to you to decide," John said, wondering how he, a former anti-war activist during Vietnam, had gotten himself into such a logical conundrum with his eight-year-old son. Owen had always been that way. Born long after John and his wife thought they'd ever have children, Owen lived in a constant state of quiet rebellion, challenging his father's every move. John loved his son's independent mind, but he also found it frustrating. It reminded him of how difficult he had made life for his own father.
Owen refused to admit taking the library book was wrong. "You drive faster than the speed limit and you say it's up to you to decide. Right?"
John recalled their conversation about speed limits. "It's all right to drive a little over the speed limit," he had told Owen when the boy caught him doing sixty-seven in a fifty-five. "It's okay to go ten or even fifteen miles over the limit. If I were driving over seventy, that would be speeding. It's something you just have to judge for yourself."
"So why can't I keep the book until I'm tired of it, and then return it?"
"You're not old enough to decide these things for yourself," John finally said.
He knew this was not the highlight of his parenting career.
He remembered his own father, a quiet man who had worked as a clerk at the post office, and proudly saw himself as a law-abiding citizen. He worked hard, voted in every election, paid his taxes, and served jury duty when called.
One evening after serving on a jury, John remembered his father saying, "You should see how many people at the courthouse thought they were too good to serve. Like their time was more valuable than mine. If they don't have the time to do what's right, what good are they?"
This adherence to such a strict code of ethics might have impressed John had it not been for a discussion his parents had later that same evening.
"Honey," his mother had said. "When you go to work tomorrow, bring home some pens, will you? And some paper."
"Sure thing," his father replied. "You need anything else? Staples or something?"
John challenged his father in a pique of adolescent self-righteousness. "Isn't that stealing? Those pens don't belong to you,"
"No, it's not stealing. It's different. When you get older, you'll understand." His father didn't get mad, as John suspected he would. He seemed distracted, as if there were more he wanted to say, but his father refused to discuss it further.
When John turned twenty, he received his draft notice. He had dropped out of college in his sophomore year to work with a construction crew. He wanted real life experience before going back to school, he told his parents. He also needed money for dope.
However, when Selective Service discovered he was no longer a student, he received a notice to take a physical. John applied as a conscientious objector. His application was denied. He complained about everything, including flat feet. But this was Vietnam, and warm bodies were needed, fallen arches and all.
"I don't believe in the war," he told his father. "I don't want to risk my life for something I don't believe in."
"It's not up to you to decide," his father said. "Your country needs you. You have to go. It's the right thing to do."
"What's right about this war?"
John finally accepted his fate, but he knew it had nothing to do with what was right. He lacked the courage to go to jail.
He managed to survive by becoming a company clerk at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, aiding the anti-war effort by misplacing files and screwing up paper work.
More than thirty years later, his son joined the National Guard out of high school. The more John had pleaded with him to reconsider and go to college, the more Owen argued. "I could go to college later, like you did. In the meantime, I could learn a practical skill in the Guard, like automobile mechanics." John knew this was a slap at his own inability to even change the oil in his car. Now Owen's unit might be called up to Iraq.
John had long given up on reading his students' papers. He went to the kitchen to pour himself a cup of coffee. The thought of his son dead or returning home in a wheelchair returned. His hands shook and coffee splashed onto the counter.
Again, he thought of his own father who hated his job at the post office, dragging himself out of bed each morning and shuffling home at night, exhausted and bored.
"Why do you stay at a job you hate so much?" he asked his father just before leaving for basic training.
"You do what you got to do. The job puts food on the table, don't it?" Recalling the stories his father told about The Depression, John thought he understood. Then his father added something unusual, an explanation he had obviously thought about and waited to share with his son. "That's why I take pens and crap from work. My supervisor is a petty son of a bitch. It's how I manage."
John finally got back to Owen. "I don't know if this will help, but Grandpa stole pens from work. That's how he held onto his self-respect. I screwed up files during Vietnam. That's how I got by." He looked at Owen. "Not much of an inheritance, I know. We're not heroes. But we find ways to survive."
"That's what it all comes down to, huh? Survival?" Owen looked into his father's eyes. "What about right and wrong?"
John put his arm around his son. "You'll have to figure that out for yourself. But for the time being, concentrate on survival."
Wayne Scheer has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net. His work has appeared in print and online in a variety of publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Notre Dame Magazine, The Pedestal, Eclectica, flashquake, and Pindeldyboz. Revealing Moments, a collection of twenty-four flash stories, is available at Thumbscrew Press. Wayne lives in Atlanta with his wife and can be contacted at email@example.com.