by A. Elizabeth Herting
His hands were long. Knotted and thick, the fingers were like ancient trees, each joint and swollen knuckle bearing the brunt of time. Shaking with age, the old man held them forcibly down in his lap. The warmth of the autumn sun beat down, the cushion of his wheelchair doing little to ease his pain.
It was a great blessing and a curse to be this old. Richard sometimes lost entire swaths of days sitting out on the veranda, feeling the sun upon his wizened old face. It was one of the only pleasures still allowed him. God surely must have a sense of humor to leave an elderly man in such decrepitude, yet with his mind fairly intact.
“Richard, hon? Richie! Can you hear me?” she bellowed, “I’m just going to turn you a bit. Try to smile at the nice folks. Some came all the way up from Joliet!”
The nurse, chewing a huge wad of bright pink gum, popped a loud bubble directly into Richard’s ear as she spun his wheelchair around to face the crowd gathered in the courtyard below. A flash went off, making him jump. He would never get used to the infernal things, they tormented him daily.
I never had any use for photographers. Intrusive, cocksure creatures that simpered onto the battlefield with their bulky devices when the fighting was over, always when it was over, picking their way through mounds of the dead in search of immortality. Ghouls every single one of them. Cowards and crows.
“Scuse me, sir? Could I get a picture of you?
“Hey, fella, back off! A close-up photo of Private Conrad costs a quarter. All proceeds go to the Illinois Old Soldiers Home, of course, minus a couple of cents for…processing.”
“Wow, lady. Give me a break! I brought my boys all the way out here to see the old man!”
Richard gave his best toothless smile, he had dentures but didn’t bother with ’em most days. As the nurse and man went at each other, Richard fell into a light doze, visions of the great battle playing in his memory.
General Pickett was fatally proud like they all were. All them doomed Rebs, lined up like so many pins, as we knocked ‘em down from Cemetery Hill. A mile-and-a-half long in a bloody line. My hands itchin’ in the sweat of the Gettysburg heat as the cannons boomed all around us. July third, 1863, a new day of Independence as Pickett’s doomed charge ended the fighting on that final day. The back of the Confederacy broken and battered, never to rise again, thank the good Lord Almighty…
“Heya? You awake, gramps?”
Richard could vaguely feel something on his leg. He attempted to turn his head, managing only a weak nod as a boy climbed his way up onto Richard’s lap. The camera’s flash went off twice more before the nurse stepped in. A thin line of drool escaped Richard’s gaping mouth as he tried, once more, to smile at his admirers. Somewhere in the distance, an obnoxious car horn blared. Richard turned inward again, watching the Rebs scatter dejectedly from the field of battle.
Pickett and the South never recovered from the humiliation. We heard tell of Appomattox, but for us the war ended that day. All them brave, doomed boys! I run off at fifteen to join up. Ma never did forgive me, her only boy. I broke her heart. She needn’t have worried, I must be among the last of ‘em. Outliving any possible use or purpose…
Ancient battles continued to bounce around Richard’s tired old mind, but there was no way to express them, so he simply closed his eyes. A brief respite before a sudden breeze stirred him, a butterfly’s wing touching the paper-thin skin of his arm. Reluctantly opening one eye, he saw a little girl. She couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old, wearing a light blue summer’s dress in the stultifying Midwestern heat. Dark curls framed her tiny face, large luminous green-blue eyes blinking up at him. She held out a red poppy in one dimpled fist, a solemn offering.
“Happy Ve..der..ians Day, Mister.”
“It’s Veterans Day, Joannie, and please call him ‘sir,’ darling…”
“It’s nothing, ma’am. Thank ya kindly, Joannie.” His voice was raw, barely over a whisper from years of disuse. She moved in closer to hear him, her tiny nose crinkling in concentration. Richard gently plucked the flower out of her hand as the girl reached out and touched his own hand, her mother hovering nervously behind her.
“Are you very, very old, sir?”
“I am, Joannie. Older than the hills. How old are you?”
“Ma says I’m two hands now! Five fingers plus one, this many old!”
“Six? As old as all that? Whew!”
A figure in a gray trench coat broke away from the pack, the intense flash exploding as the crow captured the moment with his camera. The old man and young girl, generations intertwined, a long and bloody century stretching out between them.
“Come along now, Joannie. Let’s allow this man his rest.”
The little girl reached up and lightly kissed Richard on the cheek, causing unexpected tears to spring to his eyes. This little one actually sees me…
“Ain’t that sweet, Richie?” The nurse smacked her gum and released the brake on his chair. The show was over. He sure hoped they’d gotten their money’s worth.
Richard reached out to the little girl, but she was gone. As if she’d never been at all. His duty completed, Pvt. Richard Conrad was wheeled back inside, visions of the long gray line and whistling Minie balls dancing through his head.
And the kindness of one very special little girl.
January 23, 1951
Pvt. Richard Edward Conrad of Quincy, Illinois, died of natural causes on January 20 at the Old Soldiers Home on 12th St. Born in 1848, Pvt. Conrad was the oldest living Union veteran in the tri-state area. He joined the 8th Illinois under Brig. Gen John Buford and saw battle at Gettysburg. Pvt. Conrad leaves behind no known survivors. The last known photograph (see inset) of Pvt. Conrad and an unknown child was taken on November 11, 1950. There are no services scheduled.