“Absent Friends” – a story for Memorial Day.

I wrote this story back in 2004, and it was published in a regional magazine, Kansas City Voices. One of the submission requirements at the time was that your story had to take place somewhere in the KC area, and I opted to set this piece in Union Station, my favorite building in the city. I’ve been fascinated with it since my first visit, and get back over there as often as I’m able. I actually wrote most of this story sitting at one of the tables of the cafe I describe.

A few years later, I wrote another story tying to this one, “See You When It’s Over,” that’s set in the past and fleshes out some of the things described by one of the original story’s characters. At the time, I had intended the two stories to act as “bookends” for a potential collection of tales all set in and around Union Station, and that’s still an idea which still might happen one of these days.

For now, though, here’s the original piece:

“Absent Friends”
Dayton Ward

Turning to his right, Mark Devlin adjusted the focus on his camera and the old man came into sharp relief at the precise instant he brought a flask to his lips.

“There’s something you don’t see everyday,” Mark muttered to himself, smiling as he snapped the picture and captured the other man’s illicit act for posterity.

In truth, the behavior was nowhere near the most bizarre Mark had seen, even in the time since he had taken to photographing locations and people around Kansas City. Still, it was decidedly out of place for the normally tranquil environs of Union Station, the city’s once-bustling railway hub. After enduring years of neglect as railway traffic dwindled almost to a standstill, the station had in recent years enjoyed a renaissance of sorts. A near-total restoration had turned the formerly condemned structure into an historical landmark and tourist attraction as well as a social gathering point for all manner of local residents.

Definitely not part of the corks and forks crowd, Mark mused as he continued to study his subject, thinking of the wine and food tasting festivals that occasionally took place in the station’s plaza area. The man, at least eighty years of age, sat alone at one of the outlying tables encircling the café at the center of the Grand Hall, though he seemed oblivious to the other patrons occupying tables around him.

Instead, his attention appeared to be riveted on the huge clock hanging high above the floor on the hall’s north side, which Mark knew had been one of the station’s most prominent features since its opening in 1914. Mark watched him drink from the flask without moving his eyes from the clock, but as he peered through his camera’s viewfinder this time, however, he also saw a single tear rolling down the man’s left cheek.

Was he remembering a lost love? Had he received troubling or tragic news? Could he be planning to do something drastic, perhaps even right here in the station? At once both intrigued and concerned, Mark failed to realize he had even moved from his own seat near the Station Master gift shop until he was standing just to the right of the man’s table.

The man’s deeply-lined features darkened into a scowl, and it was obvious that Mark’s approach had startled him.

“What?” he asked, making no effort to disguise his annoyance at the interruption. His voice was raspy and weak, another sign of his advancing years.

“Are you all right, sir?” Mark asked, holding up the camera. “I was taking pictures and couldn’t help noticing that you seemed upset.” Looking down at the table, he saw that the man’s left hand rested atop what appeared to be an old photograph.

The man’s expression softened a bit, though his eyes remained intense as he seemed to inspect Mark, his gaze scrutinizing him from head to foot. Finally, he lifted a weathered hand and pointed to the camera bag slung over Mark’s left shoulder. “Did you serve?”

Looking down, Mark realized the man had seen the luggage tag attached to one of his bag’s straps. A holdover from his military career, the plastic card bore a camouflage pattern and the word “Marines” in yellow block letters. He returned his attention to the older man and nodded in confirmation. “Yes, sir, though I’ve been out for a while now.”

The man seemed to weigh this for another moment before nodding more to himself than to Mark and indicating one of the empty chairs flanking his table. “Have a seat, if you like.”

Unsure why he was doing so, Mark accepted the offer and settled into the chair on the man’s left. Extending his right hand, he offered a more formal greeting. “Mark Devlin.”

“Donald Gibson,” the man replied as he shook the proffered hand. Pointing to Mark’s camera, he asked. “You a reporter or something?”

Mark shook his head. “No, sir. It’s a hobby I’ve picked up in the last few months. I’ve been taking pictures of various places around town, and I realized the other day I hadn’t been here since the reopening.”

“I’ve been coming here as long as I can remember,” Gibson said. “For a lot of years, this was the way to get anywhere, you know. Then everybody started flying.” Frowning, he added, “Not me, though. I just never seemed to be in as much of a damned hurry as everybody else. Besides, there’s just something elegant about traveling by train.”

Mark could not help the smile Gibson’s comment elicited. Though his own experiences were confined to the cattle car mentality of subway transit while living in Chicago, he saw no need to refute the older man’s fonder memories.

Bringing the flask to his lips once more, Gibson took another sip, and this time the distinctive odor of Tennessee whiskey teased Mark’s nostrils. As he swallowed the alcohol, Gibson held the flask before him. “If my doctor knew I was drinking this, he’d have my scalp.” Shrugging, he added, “But, I figure once a year won’t kill me, no matter what he says.”

“Special occasion?” Mark asked, regretting the words the instant they left his mouth. Remembering his first sight of the man, he was reluctant to say anything else.

Gibson seemed unperturbed by the question, however. “Depends on how you look at it, I guess.” Setting the flask down on the table, he reached for the faded photograph and handed it to Mark.

Cracked and wrinkled, the photo’s once white border had long ago yellowed with age. The picture itself depicted six young men, each sporting muscular physiques that Mark supposed would be a common sight for the rural, farm-based communities that would have formed much of Kansas City’s surrounding areas decades ago.

“From left to right,” Gibson said after a moment, “that’s Jimmy and Jake Rosemont, Stan Crossfield, Marty Douglas, Lee Ashton, and me. We grew up together, played football together, and eventually joined up for the war together. Summer of ’42, right after graduating high school.”

It was a familiar story, Mark realized, variations of which he had read about in numerous history books. In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, thousands of young men were drafted or volunteered for service as the United States finally entered the massive war already raging in Europe while at the same time turning its sights on the equally vast conflict building in the Pacific.

Pointing to something over Mark’s shoulder, Gibson said, “The last time all of us were together was over there, under the clock. That’s where we said our goodbyes before heading off to boot camp. We even made one of those silly pacts for after the war was over, promising to meet back here every year on the anniversary of our heading out. Swore on it and everything.” His eyes seemed to brighten and a smile creased his wizened face. “Jake snuck a bottle of his daddy’s whiskey, and we all shared it. I remember being drunk as a skunk when I got on my train, and pretty much slept all the way to San Diego.”

Mark laughed at the image that evoked. He had done something similar on the eve of his own departure to recruit training. The resulting hangover had caused him no small amount of pain, especially upon his arrival at Parris Island and his introduction to Marine Corps life at the hands of loud and irate drill instructors intent on making his life miserable for the ensuing eleven weeks.

“Me, Jimmy, Stan and Lee joined the Army,” Gibson continued, “while Jake and Marty went into the Marines. Jimmy, Stan and me ended up in the First Infantry Division, and were at Omaha Beach on D-Day. Lee was always the crazy idiot, so it was no surprise when he volunteered for the paratroopers. Only me and Lee made it home, and it wasn’t until the first year after the war was over, when we met Jake here, that we found out Marty died on Okinawa.”

Pausing to clear his throat, he added, “We hadn’t thought about a promise to drink a toast to those who didn’t make it back. It just sort of happened that first time.” As he spoke, Gibson’s attention seemed to drift so that he was no longer facing Mark, but instead seemed to be studying with longing something that only he could see. Unwilling to disturb the man’s ruminations, Mark instead remained silent, allowing Gibson to proceed at his own pace.

“And that’s the way it went for a few years,” the man said after a moment. “Just the three of us, drinking whiskey and toasting our friends once a year. Only Lee stayed in the service after the war, and he was killed in Korea in ‘52.” Shaking his head, he added, “It was just Jake and me after that, and we kept it up. It didn’t matter where a job might take us or how many kids and grandkids we had. Every year, we found a way to meet here.”

Now thoroughly engrossed by the older man’s tale, Mark asked, “What about the years the station was condemned?”

Smiling mischievously, Gibson replied, “We found a way in.” He pointed toward the station’s ornate, arched ceiling, ninety-five feet above the floor. “Damn near got ourselves killed one time, when some of the plaster fell from the ceiling.”

Unable to stifle a chuckle, Mark shook his head at the other man’s gentle humor. It was not enough, however, to keep him from pondering the one question that had yet to be answered.

As if reading his mind, Gibson said, “Jake died in ’94. Heart attack.” Indicating the vast chamber around them, he added, “Good thing they got around to fixing this place up. It was getting to be a tricky thing, sneaking in here by myself. Now I just walk in like the good old days, pay my respects, and go home.” He shook his head, and a wistful expression seemed to grace his features. “In all those years, you’re the first person to ever walk up and ask what the hell was going on.”

“Then it’s my good fortune, I think,” Mark said, his voice heavy with genuine admiration. “And their loss.” He had spoken to many veterans over the years, including a few from the Second World War. Of course, nothing Mark had gleaned from those conversations would ever provide him with the kind of visceral memories harbored by men like Donald Gibson. He at least was one of the survivors of that war, unlike the staggering numbers who had died before truly having the chance to live.

Smiling, Gibson said, “Well, thanks for indulging an old man. I don’t get to talk to someone your age all that often, you know.”

“The pleasure was all mine, sir,” Mark replied, sensing that the appropriate time for him to take his leave had arrived. Rising from his seat, he extended his hand once more. “Thanks for your time.”

Ignoring the gesture, the man waved him back to his chair, adopting a thoughtful, mentoring manner which Mark suddenly realized reminded him so much of his late grandfather. “Tell me, son,” Gibson said, “did you ever see battle?”

“No, sir,” Mark replied. “I was in combat services support during the Gulf War, but they didn’t send me to Saudi Arabia.”

“But you had friends who did, right?” the other man asked. “Buddies who died over there, or even for some other reason?”

His own expression sobering, Mark nodded in confirmation.  It was something he had not thought about in a long time, after all. “Yes, I certainly did.”

Retrieving the flask from the table, Gibson offered it to Mark. “Here, then. Let’s drink to them.”

Mark smiled as he took the flask. “Only if you promise to meet me here next year.”

Copyright © 2004 by Dayton Ward. All Rights Reserved.

3 thoughts on ““Absent Friends” – a story for Memorial Day.

Lay it on me.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s