“Dad, you know my friend Buster?” James Ray Mayhew baits a hook and grunts in the affirmative. “Yeah, I know him. He joined the Army and went off to war, didn’t he?” James the younger sits on a five-gallon bucket and looks out over the Pearl River. “Yes sir. He’s home now.” James Sr. watches his bobber for a sign of a bite and thinks over what his son has told him. “He just left. What happened? The war end before he got there to help out?”
“No sir. He caught that thing them veterans get from fighting all the time.” Still watching the cork, James shakes his head. “You mean shell shock? PTSD? Battle fatigue?” Jr. looks at his dad and nods. “Yes sir. He said he caught it in basic training.” James Sr. almost falls off his bucket with laughter. “Son, PTSD is like hemorrhoids. You can’t catch it because it ain’t contagious!” Jr. shrugs, “I don’t know dad. He’s home telling everyone he’s a hero for serving this magnificent country.”
“You know that PT-whatever ain’t no joke dad. People have a hard time with it.” The river gently flows by, and Sr’s cork dips under and pops right back up. “Come on you rascal! Commit to that bait!” Shortly after, the cork dips under and races off. Lifting his rod, James Sr. sets the hook and reels in a nice catfish. “Yeah son, I know it ain’t a joke. Your pawpaw had it, I got it, and your uncle has it. All three of us done time in places we never should have went.”
“Then, how can you make fun of Buster?” Sr. stands and throws his line back into the river. Glancing at his son, James shakes his head. “He tell you how he got this PTSD? Gunfire, explosions, saw his friends injured?” Jr. sits quietly and looks at the river. “They always yelled at him. Picked on him and made him feel bad about his self-worth.”
“Oh, dear God in heaven. He got his feelings hurt and he cried until they put him out.” Jr. stands to his feet, and glares at his father. “He tried, dad. That’s more than most folk ever get around to doing!” Sr. reels in his line and lays his pole on the ground. Facing Jr, he gets in his son’s face. “Let me tell you something, boy. Men don’t make excuses. They get the job done, no matter what. You sign your name on a legal document, swearing to God that you will defend this country come hell or high water, you do it.” Jr. backs up but his dad closes the gap. “Your grandfather fought during WWII, I went to ‘Nam and your uncle has been in conflicts from Grenada to Desert Storm. Don’t come here telling me nothing about sacrifice or trying. Buster failed to cut the mustard and that’s the long and short of it.” Sr. takes a breath and picks up his rod.
“Pack up your junk and let’s go home. I’m tired of fishing.”
Awkwardness fills the cab of the old Dodge truck, as father and son make their way back to the house. “Dad, I didn’t mean anything by it. I didn’t realize how much it meant to you.” Sr. looks out the window and the silence builds between the two men. Finally. Sr. nods as if giving himself permission to let Jr. in on a secret. “None of us ever talk about what war is like. We don’t have the words to define what an honor it is to serve our country. Too many people have forgotten what this great land represents and what the price of freedom is.” Sr. turns his head from his son to hide the tears in his eyes. Composing himself, he continues. “My dad and brother, along with myself, have watched friends die protecting us from harm. I know you think I am being hard on your friend by saying he’s a disgrace. I’m sorry to offend you, son. Your friend sickens me to my stomach. General McArthur once said we should hold three things hallowed: Duty, Honor and Country. Those three things should be the core of who a man is.”
Jr. nods and both men ride in silence. The miles pass as they make their way home. As the sun goes down, Jr. looks out the window. The sky is blood red with dark clouds building behind the house. No one needs to tell him about the warrior spirit and the cost of freedom. He’s seen it in first hand in his dad.