Book: Beyond The Call: The True Story of One World War II Pilot's Covert Mission to Rescue POWs on theEastern Front

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19.

THE LONG WAY HOME

It was Eastern Command’s last day. The war in Europe was well and truly over, and their job was done.

Four transport planes, warming up and idling, stood on the steel-mat taxiway, fluttering the grass with their propeller wash. Nearby a small group of officers stood ready to board. During the past week, daily flights of C-46 Commandos had been moving out supplies, equipment, and personnel, and now all that remained was this core group. The few dozen enlisted men had boarded the last two C-46s, and the officers were waiting to embark in the two C-47s.

Their leaders were conducting a final look-see around the base, and taking their time over it. Finally a jeep came speeding from the direction of the headquarters site and pulled up near the planes. In it were Captain Trimble and Brigadier General Ritchie, chief of staff from the Military Mission in Moscow, who had come down the day before to oversee the final checks.

The closing down had been stretched over more than a month, fraught with constant bureaucratic delays. The postal service had been shut down prematurely, nobody had had any mail for weeks, and everyone was on edge. Eastern Command’s vast stores—built up for a big command hosting huge numbers of shuttle bombing crews—had to be inventoried and shipped out. Thousands of tons of surplus supplies were handed over to the Soviets on Lend-Lease. They nitpicked every item, claiming things were in poor condition, so as to reduce the recorded value. Even machine guns that had never been removed from their sealed packaging were claimed to be “dirty.” Candy bars and packs of cigarettes were stolen in their thousands, and ended up being sold by urchins on the streets of Poltava.

It wasn’t a period that Robert Trimble would look back on with any fondness. The strain of keeping the place running and being diplomatic with the Soviets, constantly reining in his annoyance and impatience, added to the stresses that were slowly pulling him apart inside.

He’d made some good friends, and there were happy memories along with the bad and the sad. In April, at the height of the flying ban, when tensions were high, Bill Kaluta, a young Corps of Engineers lieutenant, had married his girlfriend, Lieutenant Clotilde Govoni, a nurse in the base hospital. Kaluta was a lively soul, a beautiful accordion player, and a Poltava veteran who’d been with Eastern Command since its early days. For a day, everyone’s spirits were lifted. As commanding officer, Robert acted as substitute father of the bride. The ceremony took place in the city hall, with a congregation of Russians and Americans. Outside, an audience of bemused Ukrainian citizens looked on as the happy swarm of uniforms filed in and out, laughing, joking, and distributing candy to the local children. When called on to kiss the bride, Robert gave Clotilde a quite unfatherly smackeroo on the lips that left her giggling. That one day of laughter and goodwill between Russians and Americans was a bright spot in those dark weeks.

Kaluta was waiting now, as the jeep pulled up beside the idling planes. Robert would be taking one C-47 to Moscow, en route to USSTAF headquarters in Paris, while Kaluta was going with the other C-47 via Cairo. He had charge of all Eastern Command’s records, which the Soviets would have given a lot to get their hands on. The packages of documents, which were to be destroyed if necessary, were leaving Russia by the shortest route, and avoiding Moscow. A story went around that the last item of American property to be taken care of had been a previously undiscovered cache of secret weapons and equipment belonging to the OSS, found by General Ritchie in a warehouse. It was apparently a relic of the aborted OSS/NKVD cooperation. To prevent it falling into Soviet hands, Ritchie had the gear loaded aboard a truck in the dead of night, then personally drove it to a nearby lake and dumped it all in.

The officers said their farewells and boarded their planes. After General Ritchie had gone aboard, Robert stepped up into the doorway of the C-47 and glanced back. A midsummer sun shone down on the ruined buildings and the barracks blocks and glittered on the steel-mat runways. It was all very different from the first view he’d had; the mellow warmth a world away from the lacerating cold that had hit him on that February day. Robert marveled at how little time had elapsed since he’d arrived, primed with false promises of an easy racket that would see him through the rest of the war. He’d never believed that he could accomplish the task that he’d been sent into Poland for, but he’d done his best. Hundreds of men and women had been brought from perdition to safety.

It was all off the record, and the only recognition was indirect and muted. In May, in a letter to General Carl A. Spaatz, commander of USSTAF, General Hill had requested promotion for Captain Trimble to the rank of major, exempting him from the normal requirement of twelve months in current rank. Hill came as close as he could to acknowledging Robert’s extraordinary service in Poland: “I consider that the exceptional nature of Captain Trimble’s duties during the past three months warrant waiver of the current requirement.” Robert’s performance, both as a flight commander with the 493rd Bomb Group and as CO of Eastern Command, had been rated Superior, but his service as assistant operations officer—the cover for his secret work in Poland which could never be openly spoken about—was rated Excellent.

In all his endeavors he had done better than anyone could have expected, not least himself. “This has been one of the most difficult periods since the organization of the command,” wrote General Hill. “Captain Trimble has displayed outstanding diplomacy, energy and devotion to duty under the most trying conditions.”

Later that same month, General Deane joined his voice to General Hill’s, also calling for promotion and also referring obliquely to “the exceptional nature of Captain Trimble’s duties and performance.”

Captain Trimble himself was never told exactly what his generals had said about him. As far as he knew, he’d done all right, but no better. Oh well, it was all by and done with now. He ducked inside the plane and slammed the door.

The wheels of the last C-47 came unstuck from Poltava’s runway. The last contact was broken. America had been here, and now it was gone. The tiny, fragile island of Western liberty was inundated by the Red waters that had encircled it.

Captain Trimble paid a high price for what he’d achieved. He’d seen and experienced things that were beyond the ken of an air-combat veteran. The dead haunted him. But worse than that was the feeling of betrayal—the way, in his eyes, America had bowed the knee to Stalin and sold out Poland in a fool’s bargain.

With Poltava receding, Robert believed he was leaving it all behind—the fear, the frustration, the sickening truths about the conduct of war—but he wasn’t. He took it all with him, locked up inside. The war had exacted a price, and he wasn’t done paying yet.

The C-47 called at Moscow, where there was bureaucratic business to deal with and General Ritchie resumed his post at the embassy. Robert’s promotion to major had never materialized, and Ritchie—who’d become a friend during their brief acquaintance—promised to look into it and back him up. But nothing came of it. Robert, who was hardly thinking straight at all these days, was left to wonder if he’d made some kind of misstep during his time as CO. The memory of “Lydia” and that awful drunken night came back to him, turning his skin cold; but he wasn’t aware that anyone had ever known about it. He’d certainly not been reprimanded for it.

Most likely, the promotion never came simply because there was no longer any role for him. With the war ending, Eastern Command dissolved, and demobilization on the horizon, there was no call for dynamic new majors. There was another possible reason too, which suggested itself during another stopover on the way home.

From Moscow, the C-47 flew to Berlin and Frankfurt. For the first time, Robert stood within the homeland of the enemy, the soil upon which he’d dropped so many tons of bombs. The place was utterly devastated—as bad as anything he’d seen in Russia or Poland—and the proud, bellicose people of the Reich were reduced to beggary. It wasn’t something he wanted to contemplate, and he couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

He took the controls at Frankfurt and flew the next leg himself. In Paris, for the first time in months, it felt like he was reentering the free world. Here was a city barely touched by battle or bombs, where the West was in force. Having been part of a tiny minority in a semi-hostile country, he found it strange to see British and American GIs everywhere, lounging in sidewalk cafés, strolling openly arm in arm with local girls. At long last, home started to seem like a real thing—a place that had an actual, solid existence.

In Paris Robert received a surprise invitation. A farewell party was being held for General Carl A. Spaatz, who was stepping down as commander of USSTAF and heading off to the Pacific to take command of the air forces there. Robert took a ride out to the headquarters at St. Germain-en-Laye, a former royal retreat to the west of Paris. The place was dominated by the vast château, which until a year ago had been the headquarters of the German Army. Once more Robert found himself in elevated company; on this occasion he was the only captain in an exclusive party of generals. They were the commanding officers of the constituent arms of USSTAF, a club in which Captain Robert Trimble was still notionally a member. He was even more out of his depth than he had been at the Moscow party.

Toward the end of the evening, General Spaatz approached Robert and shook his hand. Like many of the generals Robert had known, he was a surprisingly kindly-looking fellow in his mid-fifties, with the impression that there was steel underneath the soft features. Spaatz had heard good reports of the young captain’s work in Russia. In the course of small talk they discovered that they were both southeast Pennsylvania boys. Spaatz had grown up in Boyertown, a small burg about sixty miles from Camp Hill, son of a local newspaperman and politician who’d had a seat in the Pennsylvania Assembly at Harrisburg.

“We used to play ball against Boyertown in the American Legion,” Robert said, caught up in memories of boyhood and not thinking what he was saying. “We always beat the dickens out of ’em!”

The general spluttered indignantly: “What the hell are you talking about?”

Robert reddened and started to backtrack, but Spaatz laughed and brushed the insult to his hometown aside. “Join me for a cigar, Captain?” he suggested. “I’d like a quiet talk with you.”

They stepped out onto a balcony with a view over St. Germain in the summer evening twilight. Spaatz, done with small talk, got straight to business. “I’m heading out to the Pacific in a couple of days,” he said. “I just lost one of my aides, and I need a good man to replace him.” He looked at Robert through a wreath of cigar smoke. “That man could be you. I’ve heard good things about you.” It was a stunning offer. Robert didn’t know what to say or think. “If you accept,” Spaatz added, “you’ll certainly get that promotion your superiors have been pestering me for.”

The Pacific, as aide to a general—that could be quite a racket. On the other hand, Robert had learned the hard way to be wary of handsome-sounding offers. Going by past experience, he’d be tempted into accepting this appointment and in a month’s time find himself sneaking through a Burmese jungle with a money vest stuffed with yen and his guts churning.

Seeing Robert’s hesitation, Spaatz told him more. There was a covert operation on the table, but like nothing Robert could have imagined. They were planning a new phase in the air campaign against the Japanese, like nothing the world had ever seen. A top secret project was in training that would deliver a knockout blow. A special B-29 bombardment group had been formed, and there was a chance that Captain—sorry, Major Robert M. Trimble could be one of its pilots.

Robert had no idea what that meant, and no idea how to react. More air combat? Wasn’t that what he’d gone to Russia to avoid? And more secrecy, and being around generals, with all the politics that involved. And who knew where it could lead—maybe another act that would tarnish the image of the United States in his eyes. He’d had enough destruction, enough war, and was heartsick of politics.

General Spaatz gazed at him with his mournful eyes glittering—a sort of somnolent keenness. “What do you say?”

There was a tiny part of Robert—the remains of the urge that had made him want to go to war in the first place, the boy adventurer who still hadn’t been entirely erased—that was tempted. He thought it over for a good half minute before shaking his head.

“Thank you, sir, but no. I’ve got a wife back home I haven’t seen in over a year, and an eight-month-old baby girl I haven’t even met. I’ve given all the service I can, sir. I’ve had enough war. I just want to go home.”

Spaatz looked hard at him. “I see,” he said. “Well, Captain, I guess we’ll just have to find somebody else.” He gave Robert his hand and shook firmly. “Take care,” he said. And with that, he walked away. It would be some time before Robert learned that he’d turned down the chance of being one of the pilots that dropped the A-bomb on Japan.

For now, he was heading home, and nothing was going to get in his way.

Sitting forward in his seat, Robert stared with an eerie intensity at the Pennsylvania landscape flitting past the glass. The train’s bogies clattered under him in the old familiar way, every flickering tie, every bridge, every crossing bringing him closer to home.

Five days had passed since leaving Paris, five days that couldn’t go by quickly enough. London—the place where the strange adventure had begun—was his first familiar stopping point. Then another circuitous route—Northern Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, and eventually his own native soil. Washington. Baltimore. And now he was back in the land that had made him, the place he knew like no other. It had that disturbing alienness of a known place when you come back to it after years away. It was fitting that it was the Pennsylvania Railroad that was bringing him home. He’d worked and traveled these rails for three years before going into the Army, and every junction and landmark was an old acquaintance.

But there were new memories overlying it all now. He’d looked at the tracks leading out of Baltimore and seen those boxcars pulling sluggishly out of Lwów, filled with haggard, hopeful men and women; heard the hurrying footsteps in the station halls and remembered the NKVD officer and his men waiting for Isabelle and her friends to arrive; and always in his mind he saw the rails running in under the archway at Birkenau, and the mutilated bodies laid like cordwood by the tracks northwest of Lublin.

He’d left something of himself in all those places, something he would never get back. Where were all those people now, the ones who’d survived the horrors? Had they found their way home? Did they carry the same baggage with them as he did? The same damage sealed up inside? And if they had come home, did the landscape look as strange to them as his home country did to him?

Robert leaned forward as the train pulled out of York; tapped his fingernails on the window ledge as it sped up the Susquehanna Valley. His breathing became short and his heart started to thump as the locomotive slowed into the outskirts of his hometown. It was hard to believe that that was Lemoyne going by the window this moment; if he stood up he ought to be able to see Hummel Avenue. By the time the train thundered out onto the Susquehanna Bridge, he was on his feet and his hands were trembling. Before he knew it, he was glimpsing the red brick and the barn roof of Harrisburg Station, and the train was sliding in under the arch and jolting to a halt.

Hauling his kit bag, he squeezed out the door, joining the exodus of GIs, sailors, and civilians crowding onto the platform. Scanning the sea of people, he saw a familiar face, and walked that way. It was her. He hurried his steps; his feet seemed to vanish from under him, as if he were floating through the crowd; then his kit bag fell to the floor and she was in his arms. “Robert! Oh, Robert!” Eleanor squealed. “Robert!” He felt her tears soaking his face, and inhaled the scent of her—the scent he’d all but forgotten, that carried him back to that evening beside the lake at Fort Worth, the homes they’d shared along the way, and to the times before that, when they were both just innocent kids, before there was a war.

He clung to Eleanor, for how long he didn’t know, like a drowning man holding on to a lifeboat. Then he held her at arm’s length and looked into her face, the beautiful features pinched and pink with tears, but smiling, telling him breathlessly over and over how much she had missed him. (Only later, looking back, did he realize that his own eyes had remained dry.)

There was another presence there, sitting patiently on a bench beside them, watching curiously as her mommy embraced the strange man.

“Carol Ann,” Eleanor said, lifting her up, “this is your daddy.”

Robert stared dumbly at the tiny face. Another infant face swam up in his memory—pallid, chilled in the forest snow. He shook away the image and reached out toward his daughter. She reared back, lashing out with her tiny hand, and bopped him on the nose, then screwed up her face and screamed. “Sweetheart!” said Eleanor, mortified. “This is your daddy! Daddy’s come home!”

Robert smiled, but his heart ached, wounded by the rebuff. Coming home wasn’t going to be as easy as he’d hoped.

He was on home soil, but Robert wasn’t out of the Army yet. He might still be hauled back into the machine, and there was even the remote possibility that he could be thrown into the fight again. The war in the Pacific looked like it might be dragging on a long while yet. He could end up flying a combat tour against Japan after all, with or without General Spaatz’s special mission.

And it now occurred to him that he wouldn’t mind that at all.

He hadn’t left the war behind—he’d brought it all with him, every last piece of it, and it infested his home. He’d been back a couple of weeks, and he just couldn’t settle. He was nervous, agitated, and under the surface, like a land mine, was a latent anger that could be triggered by the lightest touch.

Home wasn’t home at all. It was as much an alien place as the Ukraine had been. Carol Ann no longer screamed at the sight of him, but she reached for Eleanor, not for him. And ashamed as he was to think it, Eleanor herself irritated him. He didn’t like to be around her. She didn’t understand; she didn’t know what he’d seen, never could know or even imagine, and he couldn’t communicate it to her. Robert spent as much time as he could alone, fishing in the timeless peace of the Susquehanna.

While he waited for the military to decide what to do with him, he gave thought to civilian life. Eleanor wanted him to settle back to work on the railroad, but he longed to keep flying. He began secretly scanning the ads for civilian piloting jobs. In his idle moments he developed an obsessive bond with his Army Colt; the same one he’d used to fend off the Russian colonel at Staszów. He kept it in a dresser drawer in the bedroom, but was constantly taking it out and cleaning it.

Every day he strove to keep the memories at bay. But they came back to him in his nightmares, and even in his waking life. The sudden burst of a flak shell close by, the zip of splinters through metal, the stomach-knotting tension of riding through a storm of explosions, steadily bearing down on the target, Forts either side falling apart and dropping to earth. The stacked bodies, frozen rigid, bursting out of the shed and lying in the slushy snow. The infant, starved and chilled to death, huddled inside his coat. The gunshot in the street below his window, and the woman’s struggle suddenly ceasing. And then there were the things that made the anger begin to boil. The cold, bland smugness of the Soviet officers, and the humbled compliance of the American generals and diplomats, sipping champagne and playing tennis while Poland was turned into Stalin’s front yard, infested with secret police and murderers.

Eleanor was frightened and confused. She could see the change in Robert, but couldn’t understand it. He was detached and moody all the time. The prospect of his homecoming had been a light in the darkness, sustaining her through all those lonely months while she struggled to keep a home together for him to come back to. But all he had brought was disillusion and fear. There was no rekindling of their romance—just sullen silence, irritability, and long absences. He shut her out, turned away from her, and she didn’t know why. And he kept handling that awful pistol.

One Friday evening he returned home after a week away on a military exercise. Eleanor gathered her courage to confront him. Looking at his face, she hardly dared speak. She asked him what was the matter. He denied that anything was the matter. In that case, she asked, why was he behaving like this all the time?

It was like sticking a finger in a raw wound. He exploded with anger, and swore at her. “You wouldn’t understand it, not any damn part of it. Or anybody that stayed home and never saw the things we saw over there. How can you expect me to come home and pretend none of it ever happened?”

His eyes blazed, and she quailed; but she kept her courage. “That’s just it,” she said. “I don’t understand. I don’t know. So how can you blame me for it? Pretend what never happened?”

“You really want to know? All right, I’ll tell you. Nobody here has any idea what war is like. It’s bloody and senseless and inhuman. They tell you it’s the Germans, but it’s everyone—the Russians, and even us. People starve to death and nobody does a damn thing; they torture, they murder, they rape. I’ve seen people put to death, cut in half, I . . . I held a—a little baby in my arms and she—she died.” His voice started breaking up. “And those damned politicians in Moscow, they sold everyone out—the Poles, even their own people. They crawled to Stalin, that murdering, lying son of a bitch—they fired good officers just because they . . . just for trying to help our men . . . for telling the truth about . . . about . . .”

Speechless with emotion, he put his hands over his face and sobbed. Eleanor, horrified, her heart breaking, reached out to comfort him, but he threw her off.

“We haven’t got the right!” he yelled at her. “We haven’t got the right to be all happy and loving and pretend the world’s all wonderful.”

He pushed past her, and before she could call his name he had slammed out the door, run down the steps and out to the street. She heard the car start and pull away.

Eleanor sat down, stunned and shaking, and burst into tears, crying her heart out. It felt like everything was falling to pieces around her, and she didn’t know what to do. She was absolutely bewildered. She’d known that war must be awful, but . . . but how could Robert have seen those things he described? He’d been in Russia as a pilot, hadn’t he?

What he’d said made her go cold inside. No wonder he was so broken up. But how could it be her fault? She gave up what hope she had retained that the gentle, loving husband she had waved off to war would ever come home to her.

Eleanor was in the house alone with Carol Ann the day the telegram arrived from Washington. Even now it gave her a start, so conditioned had she become over the past year to fear the arrival of a War Department telegram. It was addressed to Robert. He was away on military business, so she opened it. It was a short, simple message commanding Captain Trimble to report to Army Air Forces headquarters.

Thinking it must be urgent, she called Robert up. Their dialogs with each other had become strained to the snapping point, so she simply read the telegram to him.

Robert didn’t know what to make of it. He’d never heard of the senior officer who’d sent it, and there was no hint of what it was about. He arrived home that night and went straight upstairs to start packing. He’d need to stay overnight in Washington so he’d be fresh for a morning meeting.

He seemed brighter than usual when he left the house, and he parted from Eleanor with a semblance of affection. It had occurred to him that he might be about to get some recognition at last for what he’d done. Maybe somebody—Spaatz, Deane, Ritchie—had made a case on his behalf. Of course they could never openly refer to his secret work, but all those powerful men could pull something out of the bag to acknowledge that his efforts were recognized and appreciated by the people at the top. It wouldn’t heal anything, but it might help.

Walking out of the hotel into the bright sunshine the next morning, he felt like smiling for the first time in weeks. He took a cab out to the Pentagon. The building was still almost brand-new, and its scale was breathtaking. He found his way to the AAF Department and reported to the front desk. A clerk collected him and escorted him to the office of the general who had sent the telegram.

As soon as he entered the office, he got the feeling that the meeting might not be what he’d hoped for. The general, who had the air of a bureaucrat who’d never been within a hundred miles of a combat zone, was frigidly unfriendly.

The general picked a file up off his desk. “I have a document here. A report on various incidents that occurred in the USSR during the tenure of Eastern Command. I understand you were commanding officer there for a time.” He said it in a manner implying that they must have been desperately short of better candidates.

Robert set his jaw. “Yes, sir, I was.”

“It seems that you were responsible for several actions which antagonized the Soviet authorities. Refusing to authorize flights for a certain Russian pilot, and demanding that he be suspended from duty; declining to allow your personnel to participate in the Russians’ VE Day parade; repeatedly objecting to Soviet flight restrictions which had been enacted to prevent unauthorized activities by US personnel in Soviet-controlled forward areas—”

“Sir, that isn’t so,” Robert interrupted. “Eastern Command took part fully in all the VE Day celebrations.” (As none knew better than he, cringing at the memory of that drunken night.) “And the Russian pilot was a dangerous incompetent.”

The general glared at him and went on as if he hadn’t spoken: “. . . activities in which you, Captain Trimble, had been one of the perpetrators. Activities which included smuggling British and American prisoners of war to Poltava disguised as AAF aircrew. And, as if that weren’t enough, drawing your sidearm and threatening a senior Soviet officer with it. Do you deny that?”

Robert said nothing.

“And what do you have to say about this . . . ?” The general pulled a document out of the file and handed it to him.

Robert recognized it immediately, and felt sick. It was one of the dozens of routine situation reports he’d written or signed off on as commanding officer. It dated from the time when he was feeling at his lowest about being forced to bow to Soviet demands—the time of the court-martial of King and the delivery of Shenderoff to Moscow for execution. He’d written in large letters in the margin, Shame on America.

“What is the meaning of this, Captain? I’m astonished at such a lack of patriotism in an American officer in a position of command. It’s disgraceful.”

That did it. “Were you over there, sir? Were you ever actually in the war?”

The general glared at him. “What does that have to do with it?”

“It has everything to do with it. How dare you question my patriotism? Or anybody’s who was there. You saw nothing of what we went through. You have no idea what we gave. We all served our country, and we had to watch politicians like you trade away its honor to a dictator.”

“Watch your tone, Captain.”

“I’ll watch my tone when I’m ready to! Now, you can tell whoever gave you those documents—”

“I said watch it, Captain. Show some decorum, or your days in the Army Air Forces are numbered.”

“They already are. I already put in for my discharge.”

The general fumed silently for a few moments, then hissed: “Captain, you’re dismissed. Get out of my office.”

Mustering all the dignity he could, Robert saluted, turned about, and walked out the door.

The house was silent. Nobody was home. Robert paused a moment in the hallway, listening, but didn’t call out. All he heard was the pounding inside his head.

The journey back from Washington had been a blur. He’d gone straight from the Pentagon back to his hotel and then caught the first train to Harrisburg. Walking into Union Station, he’d got the same weird, dislocating sensation as when he’d first seen it on his return to the States last month—the building looked so much like the rail stations in Lwów and Kraków, he could almost feel the ice under his boots again and the air of tension. It was bizarre to see swarms of GIs and sailors in place of the knots of refugees and Red Army guards.

All the way home, his head had pounded with indignant anger, confusion, and despair. How could it have come to this? After everything he’d been through, all he’d given of himself, to be scorned like that, told he was unpatriotic; to have longed so deeply to come home, only to find that the war tormented him more here than it had when he was in the thick of it. He seemed to have no home, and soon he would have no marriage.

Robert went up the stairs two at a time and strode into the bedroom. He went straight to the dresser and yanked open the drawer where he kept the Colt. He dug through the stacks of underwear, but the pistol wasn’t there. Blind with anger, he pulled the drawer right out and upturned it over the bed; then the second drawer. Still there was no pistol.

“Is this what you’re looking for?”

He spun round. Eleanor stood in the doorway. The Colt was in her hand.

Robert froze. She held the pistol reluctantly, as if it were a venomous animal, but her finger was on the trigger, and even from here he could see that the safety was off. “You were looking for this?” she repeated, gesturing awkwardly at him with the heavy pistol, and his heart lurched. “Well, you can go ahead and use it—right after I’m done with it. I’m following you to the end.”

He stood motionless, going cold with fear as she railed at him. “I don’t know what happened to you in the war, of course I don’t, but I know it had to be awful. You suffered, but so did I, Robert. I suffered too. My heart almost broke when you went away, and every time the mailman called, I was scared half to death. I was so proud of you. I saved every clipping from the paper, about your medals. You were my hero.” She waved the pistol dangerously. “You were so unhappy when you were young, when your father left. But you know I understand that—my father and my mother let me down, and they’re gone now, and Howard too.” Eleanor fought against her tears, struggling to get her feelings out before it was all over. “I so longed for you to come home, but now it’s like I don’t know you at all. And now it looks like you’re getting ready to leave me.” She gestured wildly with the pistol. “But if you’re going, I’m going first . . .” Eleanor raised the Colt, and her knuckles whitened.

Robert found his voice. “No! Eleanor . . . put the gun down. I’m begging you. Put it down. Please, Eleanor, I love you . . .”

Eleanor just stared at him, her eyes red with tears. The pistol barrel was shaking, but she didn’t lower it. He took a step toward her. Something was breaking down inside him, a barrier of thorns that had grown around his insides, and the truth about what really, ultimately mattered in his life dawned on him. “Eleanor, you’re scaring me. Don’t do this. . . . I can’t live without you. I love you.”

They stared at each other. Slowly, the barrel of the Colt lowered, and slipped out of Eleanor’s fingers, falling with a thud on the carpet. Robert dropped to his knees and threw his arms around her, and sobbed. The tears that had refused to come when he embraced her at the station flooded out of him, the emotion that had seemed dead during the weeks that followed shook him to his core. He cried, and her arms went around him, pressing his head against her belly. “Don’t ever leave me,” he said. “You’re more important than anything to me.”

Eleanor stroked his hair, her heart close to bursting. The words she said stayed with them both as long as they lived. “I’ll never leave you, Robert, as long as you never leave me.”

Slowly, Robert’s breathing subsided, and a peace began to settle on him. He felt a gentle tug on his sleeve, and opened his eyes, focusing through the tears. Carol Ann had crawled into the room, drawn by the noise, and was looking up at him uncertainly, her mouth open. Robert reached out toward her tentatively, smiling. She hesitated, then grasped his finger and smiled back.

He had come home at last.

Previous: 18. SPARE THE CONQUERED, CONFRONT THE PROUD
Next: EPILOGUE: NOT WITHOUT HONOR