Monday, May 16, 2011

Furlough Bridge and Forrest Barton

Seeing those service banners, that's what made me vulnerable. A blue star banner hanging in the window means somebody from that household is serving overseas in the armed forces. A gold star means somebody gave their life while serving. Either way, it is not possible to look at one of those banners without feeling something.

Back in December of 1944 what I felt was frustration. I couldn't hang one of those blue star banners in my window to honor my Ernie. Never mind that he was somewhere in Europe with the U.S. Third Army. Never mind that one week prior the Germans had launched their offensive in Belgium, known to history as the Battle of the Bulge, and that Ernie soon would be, or for all I knew could have already been, in the middle of that fight -- I could not display a banner to honor him. Jane Doe could hang one for her husband John or son Jim, but Forrest Barton could not do the same for Ernest Surbaugh.

Technically, I suppose I could have, but just think of the questions. "You're a widower with no children, so who's the banner for?"

For the man I love, that's who.

Now, there's a 1944-vintage proclamation made to raise a few eyebrows.

No, all I could do was listen on the radio and read the newspapers for the latest reports. I could fret. I could be proud, and I could honor him in my own way, nice and private.

The first stage was planned. My Christmas tradition, I laid a wreath at the base of the memorial honoring my war, The Great War, or if you wish, World War I. My prayer was for men who served with me -- those who came home; those who didn't -- and because the ongoing German offensive in Belgium so effectively surprised those of us on the homefront as well as Allies on the battlefield, I asked the men who served with me to send their strength to the men currently under siege.

Prayers offered, I strolled to the chest-high wall fronting the memorial. Down below less than half a mile away, the Union Station train depot was a buzz of activity. It was the night before Christmas Eve and trains waiting to depart or having just arrived filled every terminal. From that moment forward, nothing that happened to me was planned.

My bladder needed relief. Union Station was the nearest building with facilities open and available. A soldier in green Army coat standing next to the wall at the last urinal in a row resembled, in profile, Ernest Surbaugh. My Ernie.

Sure, there was no way in hell Ernie could have been in Kansas City that night, but this was one of those "seeing what I wanted to see" things -- one of those "hope against hope" deals, and I had to know for sure. That's why I struck up a conversation with the soldier who turned out to be Vernon Gower. That's why I believed his story that he'd missed his connecting train home. That's why I drove him in my automobile the one hundred miles to get him there. That's why I kept driving even as his story, little by little, fell apart, and despite my faltering faith in him, I continued driving all the way until we were parked in front of his little matchbox house in Lexington, Missouri.

I did it because he looked like Ernie. I was vulnerable. The service banners made me so, but for good purpose.

Pvt. Vernon Gower made it home for Christmas. His corpse was lying frozen in a Belgian field, but his wife and children got his gifts nonetheless, courtesy of me. I bought them. I delivered them, and then I plucked his family from the squalor in which they were living and drove them to Kansas City so they could start their lives anew.

Maybe you don't believe in ghosts. I'm okay with that, and you can call me crazy if you like, but I attest to having seen two spirits in my lifetime. One living under a river bridge in 1938 at the WPA camp where I first met Ernest Surbaugh. The other a victim of the Malmedy Massacre who needed a man of this world to give his family some sort of Christmas.

And what was my reward for my good deed on Pvt. Gower's behalf? Just before leaving for his wherever destination, just after midnight on Christmas Eve, 1944, Vernon Gower assured me that my Ernie was all right. Ernest marched with Patton's Third Army in a dash toward Belgium to break the German lines and relieve the Allied soldiers under seige.

Pvt. Gower's gift to me far outweighed anything I could and did do for his wife and children. Vernon Gower gave me peace. I clinged to what he told me. Believed every word, and around the time Soviet soldiers entered Berlin, May of 1945, I received my first letter from Ernie since Vernon Gower had said what he'd said. All was confirmed, and soon afterward, Ernie came home for good.

My next Christmas, and all those which followed, were spent with a man of this world. One I could touch, hold, breathe in and taste. A man I could keep as mine until the end of my days. My soldier. Ernest Surbaugh.

Jardonn Smith
Read excerpt HERE.

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