Autumn 1991, Appalachian Mountains
Caje Cole bent over the knife blade, honing it to perfection. He loved the warm, buttery feel of the steel under his fingertips as he coaxed it into shape. This piece of metal had come from an old farm implement on an abandoned property he had found while roaming the mountains. Cole had knocked off the dust with a grinder, then hammered it flat to reveal the perfect, gleaming metal underneath. He liked metal with character and a story, not to mention making something old useful again.
As he bent over the knife, the cheaters he wore to see the close were one of his few concessions to age. That, and some gray hair, though his hair was still thick. He wore it long now like some old mountain man, the hair in back touching his shirt collar.
The process of transforming a cold, rectangular bar of metal into a useful object never ceased to enthrall him. Cole had spent much of his earlier life destroying things so that it gave him pleasure to do the opposite now.
Each knife was a journey. When he thought about it, his whole life had been much the same, a journey and a transformation, just as any good life was when you looked back on it.
That fall morning, Cole reckoned that his own journey was winding down. He was becoming an old man. Seventy was on the horizon. Age often made him introspective these days. Back in WWII or Korea, there were times when he hadn’t expected to live until the next minute, let alone for several more decades. Many good men on both sides had not been nearly so fortunate. He had tried to live a good life for them.
Cole hoped now that when the end did come that it would be in his own bed, or better yet, hunched over his workbench or hunting in the woods.
Then came the knock on the workshop door.
“Gran sent me up here,” announced his grandson, Danny, sticking his head cautiously through the door. He had learned the hard way that it was best not to startle his grandfather. Best to knock first. “She said a letter came special for you.”
“Put it over there,” Cole said, nodding toward the table.
“Aren’t you going to read it?” Danny asked. At sixteen, looking startlingly like Cole had at that age, all arms and legs and sinew. But that was where the similarity ended. Danny had soft brown eyes and was popular with the local girls. Where Cole possessed a natural-born mean streak, his grandfather recognized kindness in the boy. Cole considered that to be a good trait, but it surely hadn’t come from his side of the family.
Danny wouldn’t even go hunting with his grandfather because he didn’t like killing animals. Then again, Danny wouldn’t starve if he didn’t fill the stewpot as had been Cole’s case at the same age. Times had changed for the better.
The boy could be nervous as a cat around the old man when Cole was in one of his moods, causing Danny to act a little scared of him. Cole did his best to handle Danny gently. Cole’s own daddy had whipped hell out of him, so he had promised himself that he would never raise a hand against any child. One glance from his cold, gray eyes was all the correction that was ever needed.
Cole took those eyes off the knife long enough to give the envelope a glance. It was in a square envelope made of fine, ivory paper, with his name written on it in script. Looked like a damn fancy wedding announcement. Some relative expecting him to put on a department store suit and give them a gift.
“Unless it’s the electric bill, I ain’t interested.”
“Gran said you ought to open it right away because it’s from Germany. C’mon, Pa Cole. See what it is.”
“You open it, boy. Can’t you see I’m busy?”
Danny gave a dramatic teenaged sigh. “All right.”
“Here, use this.”
Cole shed his eyeglasses, then handed his grandson the knife blade he was working on, which he used to slit open the envelope. Cole frowned when he saw that the knife had struggled a bit against the thick paper, so he took it back and returned it to the grindstone.
“It’s an invitation,” his grandson announced.
“I don’t know nobody in Germany,” Cole said.
“Maybe not, but they know you, evidently.” The boy was always talking like a teacher, which secretly pleased Cole. “They’re opening a WWII museum in Germany, and there’s an exhibit about you and they want you to be there. You’re famous, Pa Cole.”
Cole grunted. He didn’t hold with any of that Pee-paw or Mee-maw silliness, or God forbid, PopPop. Danny called him Pa Cole and the boy’s grandmother was Gran. As for the invitation, he could not imagine what sort of fool would put him in a museum.
He nodded toward the potbelly wood stove in the corner. “Throw it in the fire,” he said. In Cole’s mountain accent, the word sounded like far.
“No way! Aren’t you even going to look at it?”
“There’s a note in here from somebody named Colonel Mulholland. It says you ought to come.” The boy’s voice rose an octave with excitement. “All expenses paid!”
Mulholland. Now there was a name from the past. As a young man, Mulholland had been Cole’s sniper squad leader in Normandy and beyond. What the hell did Mulholland want after all these years?
Curiosity finally got the better of Cole. Reluctantly, he put down the knife and held out his gnarled hand. “Give it here.”
Danny hesitated, as if he worried that Cole still planned to toss the thing in the fire. Instead, Cole read the note from Mulholland. Years before, that would have been impossible because Cole had been illiterate. Growing up in the mountains during the Depression era had been about survival, not learning his letters. When he had finally returned from Korea, Cole had set about learning to read and write with a great deal of help from Norma Jean Elwood, who had become Norman Jean Cole in short order.
Grumbling, he shoved his cheaters into place and read:
It’s been a long time. Hope you are well. Like me, you are probably feeling the years pile up, but we are a lot luckier than many good men we knew, who never had the chance to live their lives. Recently, an opportunity presented itself to honor their memory with the construction of a large new war museum in Munich. As it turns out, I was asked to be on the advisory committee for this museum. I can’t take any credit for it, but one of the museum exhibits is focused on sniper warfare and you figure prominently.
When the museum board heard that we had served together, they were very excited about the possibility of you coming to Germany for the dedication of this museum. Of course, all of your expenses for you and a guest would be paid. If you are the same old Caje Cole, I know that your first instinct will be to say no. However, let me tell you that the time has come for us to put some things aside so that we can all heal from this war, and more importantly, help future generations remember and understand so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. Besides, I’ve got to say, I wouldn’t mind seeing you one last time. You and I are just about out of ammo, my friend!
Colonel James Mulholland, US Army (retired)
“Don’t that beat all,” Cole said. It was just like Mulholland to touch upon duty and a heartstring at the same time. He always had been a smart SOB. Cole hadn’t known that Mulholland had made a career of the military, but he wasn’t all that surprised.
“Are you gonna go?” the boy asked.
“Hell no,” Cole said, but he shoved the letter and invitation into a pocket instead of tossing them into the wood stove.
# # #
“You and Danny are going,” Norman Jean announced at suppertime, once she heard the news. Of course, it was Danny rather than Cole who had spilled the beans.
Cole stopped chewing. “What?”
“It will be good for you. Hillbilly, you ain’t hardly been out of these mountains in ten years.” It was just like Norma Jean to call him by his old nickname. “Besides, it will get you out of my hair for a spell. My sister might come down from Baltimore to visit.”
Norma Jean’s uppity sister had moved north and married a steelworker, and Cole got along with her about as well as magpies got along with hawks. Which was to say, not at all.
Cole felt like his wife and grandson were ganging up on him, so he found an excuse after supper to head back out to the workshop, where everyone would leave him the hell alone. If it hadn’t been dark, he would have taken his shotgun and headed into the woods.
But Norma Jean wouldn’t let him be. No more than half an hour passed before she came through the door. Unlike Danny, she never bothered to knock first.
“Can’t you leave a man alone?” Through an unspoken rule, they had long-ago reached an understanding that the house was her domain and the workshop was Cole’s. Both treaded lightly in the other’s territory, which made for a long and happy marriage.
“We ain’t done talking about this trip,” Norma Jean said.
“All right. Say your piece, but I ain’t going.”
“You’re only thinking of yourself,” she said. “It will be good for the boy. He’s never been anywhere. It would be good to have some experience before he goes off to college.”
“College?” Cole almost choked on the word. He shook his head. His wife had been pushing for the boy to get a real education, but Cole wasn’t nearly as convinced that it was important.
“Times are changing, Caje. Danny can’t stay on this mountain forever. The world’s a big place and it’s about time he started seeing some of it for himself.”
“The army took care of that for me.”
Norma Jean put her hands on her hips. “The army? You mean those folks who sent you halfway around the world to get shot at? Is that what you would wish on Danny?”
“No,” Cole agreed. Besides, it was all too clear that Danny wasn’t like him.
“You write back and tell them you’re going, and that you are bringing your sixteen-year-old grandson.”
Norma Jean went out and shut the door.
Cole grumped and muttered during the next several days, but Norma Jean ignored him. Gran had spoken, and that was that. Cole knew that he had gotten his marching orders. Sometimes, he thought that General Eisenhower or even MacArthur himself could have learned a thing or two from Norma Jean.
He wrote back to accept the invitation and sure enough, two plane tickets soon arrived in the mail.
# # #
The way that Danny had come to live with them was a story in itself, and not an altogether happy one. Shortly after returning from Korea, he and Norma Jean had gotten married. They lived for a time in the small cabin that Cole had built, but when it was clear that a child was coming along, Mrs. Bailey had announced that she was moving into town with a maiden aunt and that the house near the knife workshop was the young couple’s if they wanted it.
“A cabin ain’t no place to raise a baby,” Mrs. Bailey had announced.
Cole liked his cabin just fine, but in the mysterious ways that women often operate, between Norman Jean and Mrs Bailey, he found himself moved into the modest two-story clapboard farmhouse. One of the two upstairs bedrooms had been done over into a baby’s room—a nursery, as Mrs. Bailey proudly called it.
The house was very modest, with two rooms downstairs, two rooms upstairs, and a one-story kitchen off the back. Hollis Bailey’s father had built the place, using fieldstone for the foundation and logs for the floor joists. The house didn’t have a lick of insulation, but worn braided rugs across the painted floorboards kept the worst of the cold at bay.
Cole and Norma Jean’s daughter, Janey, never had much liked the mountain life. No sooner had she graduated high school than she took up with a group of friends, traveling around to rock concerts and smoking dope. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, this was what a lot of young people were doing. Their daughter had gone hippie on them. It didn’t seem to bother Norma Jean much, who saw Janey as a strong young woman following her own path, but truth be told, it just about broke Cole’s heart when Janey left the mountain. He missed the young girl he had once known who liked to run barefoot through the grass, catching June fireflies. But Janey had gone and grown up.
Then the news came that she’d had a child by some young man she wasn’t married to. Cole had to be talked out of arranging a good ol’ shotgun wedding. Even Norma Jean was not pleased by that information. Janey promised to come by soon for them to meet their grandson, but the months passed. Whenever she called or wrote, she always seemed to be living in a different place.
It fell to the local sheriff to knock on their door one winter’s night with the news that the car Janey had been riding in was in a terrible accident, sliding off the road during a snowstorm. Janey and her man both died in the crash, but by some miracle, the baby had been spared.
There was no question that Cole and Norma Jean would raise the child as their own. Janey had named him Danny. As for the last name, well, Janey had never married the boy’s father, so as far as his grandparents were concerned, the boy’s name was Danny Cole.
# # #
He and Norma Jean had done the best they could for the boy, hoping that someday, things would turn out better than they had with Janey. Of course, Cole was always taking the boy into the woods, showing him all that he knew, from the names of the trees, to the shapes of the tracks beside a mountain stream, to the constellations in the winter sky. Cole had reached an age where he felt it was important to pass things along. It was something he had not done with Janey, her being a girl and all, but Cole could see the error of his ways.
When the boy was ten, Cole gave him an old single-shot .22 rifle, expecting that he would cut his teeth on the local squirrels and rabbits. While the boy was responsible with the rifle and learned to be a crack shot, he never brought home any game.
“I don’t like killing,” he had explained to his puzzled grandfather. Danny made a joke of it. “If I could shoot a Snickers bar out in the woods, I’d be the best hunter ever!”
Just once, when the boy was twelve, Cole had taken him deer hunting. It had been nothing short of disastrous, and by an unspoken mutual agreement, they had never discussed it since.
For Cole, his fondest memories of childhood—and those were few and far between—had been of waking early to go with his old man into the woods to go hunting. He had thought to share something equally as special with Danny.
Sure enough, Danny had been excited to head out into the woods before dawn. The late fall morning felt crisp as the sun slowly crept above the hills. Cole had already found a likely spot where a buck he had been scouting all summer liked to pass through on his way to forage for hickory nuts. They set up behind a fallen log and waited.
“There he is,” Cole said quietly. “Aim just behind his shoulder, just like we talked about.”
Danny put the rifle to his shoulder. The lever-action .30/.30 kicked like a mule, but the boy could handle it for one shot.
Across the clearing, the buck seemed to sense them, lifting his majestic head. The first rays of the morning sun caught the antlers, reflecting off the ivory tips. It was a sight that damn near took Cole’s breath away. The buck was a ten-pointer and weighed more than two hunred pounds. Any boy ought to be proud for an animal like that to be his first deer.
Beside his grandson, Cole waited tensely. Seconds dragged by. Any moment now and the buck would be gone.
“Go on,” Cole whispered.
But Danny refused to shoot. Slowly, he lowered the rifle.
“What’s wrong? You’ve got a clear shot.”
“I can’t do it. I can’t kill him.”
The buck had not moved. Cole put his own rifle to his shoulder, lined up the sights, and started to squeeze the trigger. He was about to kill again, just as he had done so many times before. He breathed out, breathed in, held it.
That’s when he sensed Danny at his elbow, the boy holding his own breath. He glanced at the boy and saw a stricken white face, the soft brown eyes filled with tears.
Cole lowered the rifle. The buck seemed to look directly at them, maybe catching their scent at last, then leaped away. The sun-dappled clearing stood empty. The buck that Cole had watched and waited for all summer was gone, likely spooked for good.
“You let him go?” Danny asked.
“I reckon we’ll let him live another season and get even fatter,” Cole said.
“I’m sorry, Pa Cole,” Danny said, looking as if he might cry. “I know I let you down.”
Cole worked through several emotions in the space of a few seconds, from anger, to disappointment, then resignation. For better or for worse, Danny was never going to be like him. He reached down and squeezed the boy’s shoulder, then managed to force a smile.
“Ain’t nothin’ to be sorry about,” Cole said. “Let me tell you, there are a lot of ways to disappoint someone, and letting that buck go ain’t on my list. Besides, that buck ain’t none too sorry!”
“But we came all the way out here this morning and we’re going back empty-handed.”
“There’s no such thing as a bad morning in the woods,” Cole said, taking a deep breath of the fall air that smelled of fallen leaves and frost. On mornings like this, he often thought of the dead. He hoped that heaven was like the mountains on a fall morning. “Coming out here with you this morning is enough for me.”
“What will Gran say?”
“What, about not shooting a deer?” Cole snorted. “She don’t care about that. What Gran is goin’ to say is, do we want buckwheat pancakes and bacon for breakfast, that’s what. Now, let’s head on back.”