Special thanks to LJ Groundwater, whose wonderful story "It's My Life" got me thinking about the topic, and who encouraged me after reading a draft of this story. (If you haven't read that terrific story, you should!)
Rob slouched comfortably in his chair, tilting it back on its two hind legs against the yellow kitchen wall by the table as he watched his mother make a blackberry cobbler. She'd have scolded him for abusing the furniture that way at any time before the war, but he'd been discovering in the past week that he could get away with just about anything these days. Tilting his chair put him in the stream of air from the electric fan, and he was enjoying the breeze. He knew he could find cooler spots in the house, not to mention out in the yard, but giving his mother company while she was working in the kitchen was more important to him at the moment, even if the oven was further warming the room.
It had been a long time since he'd seen his folks, over five years, and he was treasuring his visit with them. The first few days home had been hectic, with his two older brothers and his younger sister and their families over at his parents' house, plus assorted aunts and uncles and cousins and their offspring. But things had calmed down, and he had basically had his parents to himself the last three days. His mother was certainly doing all she could think of to spoil him, and his father, though still going to his law office daily, had significantly cut his hours this past week to spend time at home with his visiting son. Rob was definitely enjoying his thirty-day leave, finally allowed after many weeks – months, really – of debriefing, first in England and then in Washington. It was good to wear plain civvies again instead of his uniform (or black camouflage or some kind of disguise), good to be just plain Rob for a while, really for the first time in years – not Colonel Hogan . . . or General. He shook his head slightly, still not used to the new rank.
Thirty days still sounds more like Klink sentencing me to the cooler than a vacation, he thought, vaguely amused, folding his hands behind his head as he leaned against the wall and glanced out the window at the bright sunshine on the grass of the yard. It needs cutting, he thought. I should do that tomorrow morning, so Dad won't have to this week. I can mow it at least twice while I'm here, maybe three times.
"I hope you don't mind the cobbler instead of pie," his mother sighed a little as she carefully measured the corn syrup and strewed it over the berries in the baking dish. "With rationing still on, it's just too hard to get enough decent lard to make the crust. But the cobbler doesn't take so much fat, just three tablespoons of margarine, and it's been so warm the blackberries are in season now – Michael Patrick (Stella's son, you know) came by selling them yesterday, the first ones I've seen this year – and the corn syrup does pretty well for sugar to sweeten the berries…." She trailed off, looking at her youngest son, who was staring aimlessly out the screen of the back door.
Hearing her stop, he looked back at her and smiled reassuringly. "It'll be a grand treat, Mom. I used to boast about your cobblers to the boys in the barracks. Nothing tastes more like summer than your blackberry cobbler." He thought it was the blackberry cobbler he'd told Kinch and LeBeau about, though maybe it had been blueberry pie. Well, it was close enough. He grinned again easily, and she smiled back, relieved.
"As soon as this is in the oven I want to start on supper. I got two chickens at the market this morning and Nancy is sure she can get one Saturday too, so we're saving those for a casserole for Sunday dinner, when she and Mike and your brothers and everyone will come over after church. I'm thinking for tonight I'll make a meat loaf – I'm afraid it'll be nearly half binder, but that'll stretch the meat points we have, and the leftovers will make good lunch sandwiches for tomorrow. Does that sound good?" she asked anxiously.
Rob nodded enthusiastically. Even if the meat loaf was less than half beef, he'd still be getting more meat in this one meal than in most weeks at Stalag 13, especially in the last few months before liberation when rations from the Germans had gotten tighter and tighter and Red Cross packages to supplement had gotten scarcer and scarcer. Maybe it wasn't the fancy French cuisine that LeBeau could make when the ingredients were available, but meat loaf sounded like home and heaven to him, and his mouth watered at the thought.
Smiling at his reaction, she went on, "I'll fry up some potatoes in the leftover bacon fat from Monday's breakfast, we'll use the fresh garden lettuce and spinach for salad, and I've still got some canned green beans from last summer. How about some cornbread too? Then we'll have coffee and the cobbler for dessert." She looked him over critically, then added, "We need to get some meat on your bones!"
She'd been harping on his weight ever since he got back, but he wasn't telling her that he'd already put on some pounds since liberation. That wouldn't do her peace of mind any good, though she probably suspected he looked better now than he had when he came out of the camp. She was, after all, a pretty smart lady. Plus, she knew him all too well.
She turned back to the cobbler, then asked over her shoulder, "Would you please go down in the basement and get the canned green beans for me? I'm pretty sure we still have several jars."
"Sure. I can't believe how much you've been growing in that victory garden of yours," he added as he lowered his chair legs to the floor and stood up.
"Well, it stretches the food the way the War Department wants. 'Our food is fighting!' as they say, and of course canning the vegetables in the summer means we can eat from the garden all year. We think that the home-canned vegetables taste so much better than store-bought anyway," his mother smiled. "Besides, your dad likes having less lawn to mow, though he's not sure the weeding is a fair trade-off. But at least he can weed in the early morning, when it's cooler, and he can't do that with mowing because of the dew." She scooped spoonfuls of dough over the berries as she spoke.
Rob peeked over her shoulder at the cobbler, then reached around her to snitch a syrup-covered blackberry from the baking pan. He popped it into his mouth, enjoying the enhanced sweetness from the syrup as the berry flavor exploded on his tongue.
Grinning, his mother mock-swatted at him.
"Just checking to make sure it's coming out right," he teased.
"Get along with you," she chuckled, shaking her head.
Rob kissed her cheek lightly, then slipped around past her and opened the door that led to the basement. He flipped the switch for the light, and clattered down the stairs. He heard his mother call, "And don't break your neck going down those steep stairs so fast!" and chuckled to himself. She'd said the same thing to him each time she'd heard him go down these steps ever since he could remember. He'd survived years of combat, not to mention innumerable trips slithering up and down the rough ladders of the tunnels under Stalag 13, and here she was still worrying about these stairs. Some things never changed.
Hmm . . . maybe that was okay, given the shocking amount that Bridgeport had changed during the war. It hardly seemed like the same city. His parents had changed too. They were both in their upper sixties now, spry and in good health, but they looked noticeably older to him. He supposed he did to them too: he'd caught his mother looking at the silver strands lightly flecked throughout his black hair and gathered especially at his temples. The gray was only natural, given all the strains of his command over the past few years – and he had now turned forty, after all. But he had the sense that when his mom looked at him she was always trying to reconcile her memories of him as a teenager years back, all lanky long arms and legs, with the middle-aged man who had returned from the war.
The cool air of the basement felt good after the oven-heated summer-day kitchen upstairs as the door swung closed softly behind him with a click. He hadn't really been down here since he got back home and he looked around curiously to see what changes the years away had wrought. It didn't look too different: the hot water tank and oil-fired furnace along one wall; paint cans, camping gear, skis, fishing poles, wicker baskets with odds and ends of who knew what in them, all stored neatly out of the way, back under the stairs and along the back wall.
The one big change was a new set of shelves that had been put up along the wall opposite the stairs, with mason jars of home-canned vegetables neatly arranged on them. There weren't very many compared to the size of the shelves, but most of them were probably the end of last summer's harvest. His mother would start putting up this year's crops soon, maybe even while he was home. He could help her with that too, could gather in from the garden whatever was coming ripe, help wash and cut up vegetables. Maybe also do some weeding, to spare his father that for a while.
He picked up a likely looking jar, reflecting that last summer while these vegetables had been growing peacefully here in the back yard garden he'd been in command at Stalag 13, trying to juggle all the missions from London that had grown increasingly demanding in the wake of the June Allied invasion of France. That still seemed to him both oddly recent and a long time ago, far removed from this peaceful turn-of-the century clapboard house in which he had grown up. Turning towards the opposite wall, to get better light, he checked the label with his mother's neat handwriting on it to see if he'd gotten the right jar, while breathing in the inevitable musty scent that seemed to haunt all basements, a mixture of vague mildew, mold, and dust that had somehow always reminded him of over-ripe apples.
He abruptly noticed the dank dampness of the air against the bare skin of his arms, chilling his chest and back under his light cotton shirt. He glanced up at the unshaded 25-watt bulb screwed into the ceiling, then over at the bare concrete wall in front of him, the bare concrete floor, shadowy in the dim light, a metal pail sitting in the corner. He was in a concrete box, underground, with no windows. . . . The hair on nape of his neck lifted up; a feeling of panic rose unexpectedly in his guts. He whirled swiftly and saw the steps behind him. Without thought he raced back up, taking the steps two at a time. At the top he grasped the doorknob, which turned surprisingly easily, and banged the door open to push into the bright sunlit kitchen.
His mother looked up, startled at his abrupt, violent entrance. "Rob?" she questioned, clearly alarmed. "What's wrong?"
He took a quick breath, then pasted on a smile, knowing even as he did that it had to look unconvincing and false to her. "Nothing. Everything's fine. Here's the green beans." He put the jar down on countertop. "I, uh, think I'll go out in the yard for a bit where it's cooler." He walked quickly across the kitchen and pushed out through the screen door, crossing the back porch and into the overlong grass of the yard.
His mother picked up the jar on the countertop and pursed her lips at her own handwriting on the label: watermelon pickle.
For a while Rob just stood in the middle of the big unfenced yard, arms wrapped around his chest, staring up at the open sky. The early July sunshine settled heavily on his shoulders and he baked freely in it, soaking the heat up into his body to banish the chill of the basement room, until finally small beads of sweat gathered on his brow. He kept inhaling the fresh air deeply through his nose as he finally wandered into the shade under the big maple tree with the old swing hanging from its branch swaying gently in the breeze. The scents of the small rose garden and fresh grass mixed freely, and gradually his breathing eased off as he shook off the clammy feeling from the basement. He stared up at the sky, at the wispy cirrus clouds, noting a few cumulus clouds floating near the horizon. Might signal rain if they grow, he thought. That'd make the yard hard to mow, but it'd save on watering the garden.
He tried to imagine himself flying through this sky, but what rose unbidden from memory instead was his first afternoon at Stalag 13, standing warm in the late summer sun, appreciating the spaciousness of the compound but aware that he was trapped inside it, simultaneously relishing the open view of the sky but missing flying through it, knowing it would probably be a long time before he got back in a plane, let alone had a chance to pilot one.
He pushed the memory back and tried instead to figure out what the hell had just happened down in the basement. He knew he wasn't claustrophobic: he'd been in many far tighter spots more times than he could count, and they had never disturbed him. Being underground in the tunnels at Stalag 13 had never bothered him either. He'd never panicked like that when actually shut into a cooler cell at Stalag 13, nor for that matter in any of the other cells he'd occasionally been locked up in during his years as a prisoner. Why should his parents' basement bother him now?
He didn't have an answer. And that itself was unsettling.
His mother said nothing to him about how he'd barged out of the house when he eventually went back in. Rob wondered if she would mention it to his father, but the evening passed without comment. Bringing up his own momentarily odd behavior was the last thing he wanted to do, so of course he couldn't ask her. He did notice the next day at lunch that his mother had fetched for herself the home-canned beets they were eating, rather than asking him to go get them from the basement. But since he'd been home for a week before going down there, that was hardly conclusive. He dismissed it from his mind: his sense of alarm must have been just a fleeting reaction and not that noticeable.
Late that afternoon Rob and his mother were sitting out under the maple tree, enjoying the cooling breeze in the shade, when his father stepped out of the back door, smiling. "I thought I might find you two out here."
Rob's mother smiled in return. "We decided the kitchen was too warm and the afternoon too pretty to waste indoors." She tipped her head back as her husband came over to take her hand and give her a light kiss. "It's nice to see you home from the office early."
"It's nice to be here early – and to see the lawn mowed. Thanks, Rob, that was good of you, but you didn't have to do that."
Rob grinned, looking up at his dad. "You never said that when I was a teenager."
His father chuckled. "That's when you were trying to slide out of work, and I was trying to teach you responsibility. That hardly seems necessary now." A slight shadow passed over his face; Rob looked off across the yard and nodded.
His mother rose. "Sit down for a bit, John; you must be tired after your walk home. I'll get us all some iced tea."
Rob protested, "I can do that for you, Mom," and started to get up, but she shook her head and patted his shoulder.
"I've had you all day. Spend some time with your father. I'll be right back."
The two men sat quietly for a moment. Rob was the first to break the comfortable silence. "That's a long walk for you every day. Three miles or more?"
His father agreed, "Yep, that'd be about right. Takes not quite an hour. But it saves gas and your mother and the doctor are happy with me getting the exercise, especially in the spring and summer. Plus it gives me a chance to think through things on the way there and back. I hadn't been doing it too long when I realized I was really enjoying it at the beginning and end of the day. And if the weather is bad I can take a bus a good bit of the way."
Rob stretched his legs out. "The British call walking 'using shank's mare.'"
His father laughed. "Well, I wouldn't want to use any other kind of mare in Bridgeport these days. Even with the war on, the traffic's a lot worse than the old days." He glanced over at his son. "We're having great weather and it should hold for a while. I was thinking of taking the day off tomorrow. How would you feel about getting up early tomorrow morning to go fishing at Squantz Pond?"
Rob cocked an eyebrow at his father. "That's a ways to go – gotta be . . . what, 35, 40 miles? You have the gas rations for that?"
His dad smiled at him fondly. "Ned offered to trade me his ration for the week if I needed it when he heard you were coming home."
Rob chuckled. "Trade what? You sure he's not giving you black market gas?"
His father frowned in mock offense. "Your Uncle Ned? How could you think such a thing?"
"Easily," Rob teased back.
"No, we just agreed on a swap," his father explained more seriously. "I'll get his ration this week. He can have mine later this month." Noticing how Rob looked a bit askance at this arrangement, his father clarified, "Neither of us usually uses the whole ration since we started walking to work. I've got a good bit saved in the tank already. It'll be okay." His father lowered his voice. "Ned knows I wanted us to be able to do this, and he's the one who suggested the swap." He paused, then said even more quietly, "It's been years since we've had a chance to go fishing together, son."
Rob cast his memory back to his younger days, hours spent at his father's side learning to be still and quiet, to wait for the fish. That ability to sit and wait had proved useful in the long run. . . . "Yeah," he said, his voice roughening slightly, "it has been a long time. It'll be good to do that." He glanced quickly at his father, then away.
His father cleared his throat. "Squantz Pond has the best bass, bluegill, and crappie in this part of Connecticut. I know a sweet spot on the eastern side. We'll catch a mess of fish to provide dinner for tomorrow night and maybe Saturday too, stretch our food ration points, eh? So, you willing to get up early enough that the fish will still be biting when we get there? It'll be before military reveille."
Rob laughed. "I'll manage. I'm not really used to sleeping in anyway."
"Let's go take a look at the rods down in the basement. It's been a while since I've had a chance to use any of them. See what kind of condition they're in, bring them out here. We can sit here in the shade, get them ready to go."
Rob nodded. The basement. Well, fine. No problem. Wouldn't take long to get the fishing rods from under the stairs and bring them back out here. He knew right where they were under the stairs, had seen them yesterday.
They headed into the house, just in time to intercept Rob's mother with the glasses of tea. "We'll get those when we get back up here. Gonna check out the fishing rods, bring them upstairs," his father told her.
His mother raised her eyebrows just a little bit. "All right. You'll be wanting the fishing line, then, and that's upstairs. I'll get that."
"Thanks honey," his dad smiled, pulling open the door. Rob followed his father down the steps, hearing his mother's voice echo after them, "And don't break your neck going down those steep stairs so fast!" His father joined in, sing-songing the line in tandem with her.
Rob couldn't help laughing. "She always says that to me."
"And to me too," his father grinned. "But I've never once fallen."
"And she figures it's because she's always told you to be careful, huh?"
"Yep. Can't argue with her on that because she'd say the proof's on her side."
Rob shook his head, entertained. They reached the bottom and went round to look under the stairs. The rods were ranged in a vertical pile along the back wall, nearly a dozen of them.
"I keep meaning to tell your brothers to take some of these," his father mused. "I don't need this many with all of you out of the house. Even with the grandkids. Of course, I haven't been doing much fishing the last three years, since I usually can't drive far and there aren't too many good spots that are real close to the house. But when the war ends, I aim to do a lot more." He was taking his time, pulling one bamboo rod out for a look, then putting it back.
As the cool air settled on his shoulders, Rob felt antsy. "Let's just take them all upstairs and out back," he suggested.
"Well, we don't need them all," his father said. "I know this one has a busted reel. I keep meaning to see if I can fix it, but I'm not going to try to get that done before tomorrow morning." He set it aside. "Which ones look good to you?"
Rob took a breath, then stepped closer to try to make a reasonable choice, wishing the light was better. He glanced up at the bare bulb.
His father bent down. "And here's the tackle box. Mmm, needs wiping off."
The old apple smell of mildew and mold rose into his nostrils. Rob felt the same internal panic that had seized him the day before. "This one's fine for me," he said quickly, grabbing the nearest pole. "I'll go look it over outside where the light's better." He was halfway up the stair before it registered that his amazed father had just said, "Rob, that's a fly fishing rod!" He hesitated only a breath, but that was enough to send him on up into the kitchen and through the back door into the yard.
He left the fishing rod leaning on the wall by the door and moved to the center of the yard in the sun. He'd stood there for only a moment, arms folded tightly around himself, staring up at the sky and wishing that the clouds obscuring the sun would pass, when he heard footsteps behind him. He sighed internally. He really didn't need this.
"Are you okay?" His father's question was framed in a very gentle tone.
"I'm fine," he answered curtly. Any of his men at Stalag 13 would have recognized the danger signals in his voice and backed off.
His father wasn't one of his men.
"Rob, look at me." It was an order, the tone still kind, but the steel beneath it had been familiar to him since early childhood and still demanded obedience from him, just as it had when he was eight. He might be a general now, but he was still his father's son.
So Rob took a deep breath and then turned to face his father, his face as composed as he could make it, though he was sure his father could read the remains of his panic in his eyes.
"The basement causes problems for you." It was a statement, not a question, but still expected a response from him.
He nodded, dropping his eyes. Then, knowing that the reply was inadequate, he added, "It reminds me of . . . some things that aren't so good to remember." He looked away as he finished the sentence and swallowed, unable to find words for more. He hoped that would be enough, though he knew that an answer that vague was unlikely to satisfy his lawyer father.
His dad regarded him thoughtfully. "I think that's the first honest thing you've said since you've been home – about the war, I mean."
Rob looked at him in consternation. "I don't know what you mean."
His father sighed. "Rob, you usually act as though the whole thing was a lark, like the war wasn't at all difficult for you, that you were completely fine the whole way through, even had a good time. But your mother and I aren't fools. We've read the papers, heard the news, talked with wounded men who've returned home. This is the bloodiest war in history, and it's not over yet." He folded his arms, then lightly rubbed his mouth before going on. "You were a high-ranking prisoner of the Nazis for over three years, and a bomb squadron leader before that, plus you were right in the middle of the Battle of Britain before the U.S. even got into the war. You had to have seen and experienced terrible things, feared for your life lots of times, shouldered enormous responsibilities." He paused for a second, then added gently, "You don't have to protect us from reality by pretending you didn't, son. You came home with so many medals they hardly fit on your chest. We know you didn't get them – or that general's star – by sitting quietly behind a desk."
Rob stared at the ground, unable to refute his father's observations, weighing all of his own obligations. Finally he said, "I can't talk about a lot of it, Dad. It's classified."
His father nodded. "Okay, I can understand that. And when that's the case, just say that you can't talk about it. Your mother and I will understand. But that can't be true for all of it." He paused and looked over at the victory garden. "You remember that your uncle Jim went to France in the Great War." It was half statement, half question.
Rob nodded, recalling his father's younger brother who had survived the trenches of the last war only to die in an accident in the early 1920s.
His father went on, "I spent a lot of time talking with him those first few months after he got back. He was reluctant to talk about his experiences in the war at first – said someone who hadn't been there couldn't understand. And he had a lot of trouble trying to describe what he'd been through when he did try. But whenever he did manage to, even just a small piece of it, he seemed to feel better. I think it might help you too, son, if you'd get some of it off your chest. I haven't been in a war myself, but I can listen, and I might understand better than you think." He paused, then added diffidently, "Being a lawyer gives some good insight into how badly people can treat each other."
Rob swallowed, then managed to nod.
"Tell me about the basement," his father said softly. "Why does it get to you?"
Rob forced out the words. "I think . . . it smells like the cooler, back at Stalag 13. Solitary confinement. Punishment . . . for disobedience or acting up or whatever. You went down the steps when you went in, to the cells below ground." He swallowed again. "It was always cool, even pretty chilly in winter, and the walls would sometimes sweat. It smelled a little like mildew . . . mold, kinda like the basement here. And not well lit either, just a bare low-watt bulb in each cell."
"You spend a lot of time there?" his father probed gently.
Rob shook his head. "Some. Not a lot. Klink – the camp Kommandant – would more often just confine me to the barracks or revoke privileges if he wanted to punish me, because it was more convenient to have me available as senior officer for the prisoners. But a few times, when he was really mad at me, he gave me short stretches in the cooler, just an occasional couple days or a week. I'd also visit my men there, when I could talk the Klink into letting me see them. But I had one longer sentence, thirty days." He gave a short bark of laughter that held no mirth. "Same length as this leave. Though it was nothing like. . . ." His voice faded.
"Like?" his father prompted softly.
"Like when I got shot down," he finished in a near whisper, closing his eyes for a moment. "That was . . . a lot longer. Around three months in that little concrete box and I couldn't get out, except when they'd pull me out for interrogation. . . ." His voice trailed off and he blinked twice, then swallowed hard. "I can't talk about that," he said unsteadily, unable to reconcile that world with this one, to bring that horror into this bright, peaceful yard. "Not yet. Maybe not ever."
"That's okay," his father said softly. Carefully he put his right hand on Rob's left shoulder, feeling the tight muscles beneath it. "But if or when you need to, you can. We're your family, son. Just . . . don't pretend to us that it never happened to you. Okay?"
Rob met his father's eyes briefly and nodded, then he looked down, his throat too tight to speak, grateful his father wasn't pushing further.
His father squeezed his shoulder lightly, then let his arm drop, though he stayed close, moving to stand shoulder to shoulder next to his son. They stood for a few more moments in silence, contemplating the yard. "I worried about that when we heard you'd been taken prisoner," his father said eventually, staring off into the sky.
"Worried about what?" Rob looked over at his father.
"Worried that you'd get yourself in trouble. . . . We were so grateful when we heard that you were alive, even if a prisoner, but no longer missing in action . . . maybe dead. But then imagining you in prison. . . ." He sighed and shook his head. "I just knew that you'd try the patience of whatever Nazi commanded the camp, not to mention the guards. That smart-aleck mouth and attitude of yours certainly got you in enough trouble when you were a kid. I kept telling myself, he's been in the Army for years – he has to have learned by now when to keep his mouth shut. But I'd also remember that usually only worked with authority you respected, and I was pretty sure that wouldn't be the case in that prison camp."
Rob smiled ruefully. "Well, I wouldn't say that my mouth never caused me problems while I was in camp," he admitted. "But Klink was no monster, Dad. Pompous and arrogant at times, yeah. But he didn't mistreat me, and when he did send me to the cooler I'd generally said or done something to genuinely deserve it, by his lights at least."
"Because you were defending your men? – Or you couldn't resist smarting off?"
Rob shrugged. "Either. Or both. Often they were pretty much the same thing." He paused to look up at the sky, rocking back on his heels a little. Then he added quietly, "It was basically psychological warfare a lot of the time. Words were about the only weapon I had. And occasionally that meant paying a price for them. But saying nothing, offering no defiance when he was crowing over us . . . that would be worse. I couldn't let the men see Klink win day after day. So that meant undermining him whenever and however I could." He grinned a little, the somber mood lifting some. "And really, I got away with far more than you'd expect."
"Hmph," his father snorted. "I suspect your Kommandant Klink and I might have a fair amount in common to discuss."
Rob's grin grew broader. "Yep, 'fraid so."
His father ran his hand back through his thick silver hair, brushing back the forelock that had fallen across his forehead. "You were always the hardest of you three boys to discipline. What had worked with your brothers just didn't with you."
Rob looked down at the ground. "I'm sorry – I know I was a lot of trouble back then. . . ."
His father shook his head. "That's not what I meant." He smiled slightly and said, "To paraphrase what our not-so-distant neighbor Mark Twain said of his mother: we may have had a great deal of trouble with you, but we did enjoy it. And your mother and I couldn't be prouder of how you turned out."
Rob looked gratefully up at his father, his face heated.
"But. . . " his father added, then paused, as if unsure how or whether to proceed.
"But?" Rob asked inquiringly, curious about where his father was going.
His father paused a moment longer, then went on slowly, "I just . . . well, once we knew you were a prisoner, I kept worrying . . . wondering – if that stubborn defiance of yours would keep you alive or get you killed." He looked directly at Rob, then away, swallowing hard.
Silence fell for a moment, then Rob broke it. "Well, I'm here, so I guess it kept me alive." He crooked the edge of his mouth and cocked his head slightly as he looked at his father.
His dad drew a shuddering breath and nodded, trying to smile in return. "I guess it wasn't the first time you proved you could curb that impudent tongue of yours when you had to. You remember how much I laughed when you said you wanted to go into the army? I couldn't believe you'd last three days under military discipline."
Rob laughed quietly. He vividly remembered the night he had told his parents that he had decided on a military career, convinced that it would be the best way to realize the heartfelt desire – no, need – that he had to fly. It had possessed him ever since he'd gotten a ride on a barnstorming plane at a county fair while visiting his grandparents in his early teens. His father, however, had found the idea of his youngest son in the Army hilarious, laughing uproariously for about ten minutes at the mere thought of Rob obeying orders without question, then had spent a good hour interrogating his son to make sure he had thought through all the implications of the decision before finally giving his blessing – with the added amused offer of serving as counsel if Rob got himself court martialed before the first week was over. Rob remembered how annoyed he had been with his father's initial reaction – though in hindsight he had to admit his father had certainly had justification for his concern at that point in Rob's life. But the discussion had hardened his determination to show his father and prove to himself that he could make a good career in the military – and he had done so.
"You know you helped me with that," he told his father.
His dad's eyebrows rose. "Oh? How?"
"You took me fishing."
"Fishing?" His dad crossed his arms in front of him. "Mmm, well, yes, you did learn – eventually – to be quiet, sit still, and wait out the fish. Even though the process seemed to go completely against that restless nature of yours." He shook his head slightly. "Fly fishing seemed to suit you best, kept you moving."
"Yep. I think that once you said it was hard to outsmart the fish that I decided I was going to do that – though I'm not sure whether I was trying to show you or the fish that I could." They both chuckled, then Rob added more seriously, "I couldn't have made it through as a cadet without that, Dad. Or through the war either, I think."
His father cleared his throat briefly. "Well, I'm honored if I had a small part in that star of yours, then."
"More than a small part, Dad." Rob scoffed the grass with his foot.
His father waited a moment, then asked, "So you still want to go fishing tomorrow?"
Rob nodded. "Absolutely."
"Then I'll go get the poles and we can pick through which ones we want to take."
Rob shook his head. "No, we'll both go get them."
His father gave him a long look. "Are you sure? You don't have to go down there."
"I can't avoid basements for the rest of my life. Maybe . . . maybe having talked about it, like you said, will help."
"Maybe." His father eyed him. "You don't have to do it to prove anything to me, son."
"It's more to prove it to myself." He took a deep breath. "The cooler didn't bother me during the war, when it was a real threat. It shouldn't bother me now that it isn't."
"That might be just why it does. You couldn't afford to let it get to you back then, so you pushed all those feelings aside. You can deal with them now. But that doesn't mean you have to court them, if you're not ready to."
"I think," Rob said slowly, "that it'll be easier to try it with you."
His father nodded and slung his arm affectionately around Rob's neck. "Then let's get those fishing poles. We won't need to spend too long down there. And we can always come up for better light."
Rob nodded appreciatively and clapped his father on the shoulder. Together, the two men moved out of the shade and into the sunlight, off toward the house.
Rob cast his rod out again, then lay back on the bank, appreciating the shade of the tree as he looked across to the mountain on the opposite side of the lake. He took another bite out of the sandwich his mom had sent with them, and sighed appreciatively. His father had landed a fish about fifteen minutes ago, bigger than either of the two Rob had caught before him, provoking an amiable debate over whether number or size mattered more. Chances were good they'd get a few more. It was so good to be here again, to fish with his father, hearing the whir of the fishing rods, the hushed lap of the slight waves against the rocky shore, the lively chirp of birds and humming of insects, as the sun danced dazzling on the lake surface.
He frowned slightly as memory floated up. This was just the kind of day, just the kind of place that he'd imagined to himself so often after he'd been captured: his private retreat, never mentioned to anyone, where the happiness of the past could sustain him in that horrendous present. He looked across the lake again, sniffing the fresh morning air of the woods – so different from the dank air of the cells he'd been imprisoned in, back when remembering the bright beauty of this place had helped him to hold on, to hold out, in those terrible dark places.
But now here in this peaceful present, would he – could he – ever look at it again without thinking of that shadowed awful past?
1. Squantz Pond is a real lake, about the same distance from Bridgeport as I've used, according to Google Maps. You can find nice pictures on its website. It's been a state park since 1926, so it's period accurate as best I could determine.
2. The original quotation from Mark Twain that Rob's father refers to and adapts: "My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it." It seemed to fit how I conceive the younger Rob. Twain lived in Hartford, Connecticut from 1871 to 1891; he died in Redding, Connecticut in 1910. Hartford is less than 50 miles from Bridgeport; Redding only about 15 miles. So Rob's father takes some pride in the local celebrity; I'm not, however, intending to imply a personal acquaintance.
3. The cooler: the series has (surprise!) inconsistent cooler sets. Sigh. There's episodes where the cells are more public, and others where they're aren't. I've found five basic designs:
a) the cell is mostly just bars with 1 or 2 solid walls ("The Kommandant Dies at Dawn," "The Big Gamble," plus another – can't remember the title, but the one where LeBeau teaches Hochstetter to dance),
b) the cell has 3 solid walls and a wall of bars ("The Gestapo Takeover" – Hogan's actually the one in the cooler in that episode),
c) the cell has 4 solid walls with a barred door ("The General Swap," "Hogan Go Home" – Hogan's in that cell too),
d) the cell has 4 solid walls and a solid metal door, but a sink and window ("The Great Brinksmeyer Robbery" – though it beats me how Hogan, Newkirk, and LeBeau getting out the window and presumably into the cooler compound (which has a tree?) is supposed to help...)
e) the windowless cell has 4 solid walls with a metal door ("The Dropouts," "The Most Escape-Proof Camp I've Ever Escaped From," maybe "The Defector" – hard to tell on that one because we don't see much of the cell, but they're hiding a guy so they wouldn't want any guard casually passing by to be able to see him).
I'm sure there are other episodes that show the cooler too: those are just the ones I've tracked down so far. I remember one fan fiction story (though unfortunately not which one – sorry!) that solved the problem by having a kind of hierarchy of cells, best to worst, which is a good way to do to resolve the inconsistency. But the set-up of the entrance to the cooler from the inside changes radically in a bunch of the sets too, so there's no canonical constant. So I guess I can pick and choose . . . and the last type serves my story best, of course. Though even if there were different kinds of cells available, Hogan might still be most bothered in memory by the ones that have four solid walls and a solid metal door.