Finding Billy Rudd (part 3)

March 14, 2016

My Pal Ray

When I thought too long about it I almost forgot where I was. Standing in the bottom of the narrow gorge, I tapped the old yellowed letter, which was safely tucked in my plaid shirt pocket. I kept it when I came home from the hospital. I had tried to toss it away several times; each time it found its way back into my pocket. A part of me wanted to remember this letter, memorize it, consider, what I could have done differently. Throwing the letter away didn’t feel right, somehow; I guess it was my only connection to someone I loved and someone I thought loved me.

Ray told me to throw it away; it wasn’t important anymore, the past and over. He meant well but didn’t understand how my life became empty when the letter came. She was the letter and it held me to a real world while the war was my ongoing nightmare. The war ended but the nightmare didn’t end with the quieting of battle. It raged in me, as real as chain lightening or the rumble of thunder; the noise and flash scared me after returning home, too close to the sound of bombs and shells landing around me. I wanted to feel alive, though fear and numbness became my companions during that time.

They never did bother me when I was a child, the display a form of magic to me. An old woman, who lived in my neighborhood, told me thunder and lightening was God clapping his hands together to give us something to watch and listen to. It was a demonstration of His almighty power over man, a power men couldn’t control. She was a funny old woman, always telling stories often linked with some biblical reference. Pearl read the bible but also read many other books about God.

“God lives in a lot of books, Billy,” she would say. “You got to pay attention or you’ll miss Him.”

Pearl never went to church. She claimed her church was all around her, like the air in the sky and the water of rivers and lakes. As for myself, I wasn’t sure about God, whether he existed or not; I saw too many church people doing bad things and decided they must believe in a different god than Pearl. I told Ray about her many years later. He smiled and said she was probably right about God, though he wasn’t an expert in theology. He did add something that made total sense.

“A church is just a building with a lot of people in it,” he said. “Some of them are good people; some just go there because they think God will be pleased and save them when the time comes. But God’s church is everywhere. He hears your prayers and loves you regardless of where you are. If there is a heaven, I’m sure Pearl will be there to greet all of us, maybe even have a few good stories to tell.”

Ray Harper was my best friend before and after the war; that was, of course, before I fell in love with Liz. He was a few years older than I; and became friends, while we were fishing a small stream in northern Michigan. I was only a teen then, young and impressionable, eager to be a man, though I had not quite finished with being a boy. In awe, I watched Ray cast his line with grace and precision; I had to know how it was done, a skill I soon learned and love. Fishing had never been an art to me; beating the water with my line brought out an occasional fish but nothing close to what the pros were catching. Still, I enjoyed the moments besides the silent ponds and gurgling streams, taking in all that nature had to give.

Meeting Ray was not a chance thing; things happen for a reason or so Ray used to say. His open heart welcomed me to his world, instructing me and accepting me the way I was. Boy or man, it didn’t matter to him; he treated me as an equal, in spite of the raw edges I had. He shared a lot of his passions with me; there was music, art and the things most guys my age never knew existed; Ray was the big brother I never had.

My dad had taught me a little about fishing, tying a hook and what size line to use; that was when he was still feeling okay. It took awhile before I could cast with any degree of accuracy, my style akin to a man with a whip than fishing rod. My line tangled a lot of time in trees and bushes before it ever found the water. Once I made a perfect cast only to discover the line had snapped, my fly and leader headed for the middle of the lake. My dad would laugh about all of these, good-natured chuckle; then he’d help me untangle the mess, making suggestions as I readied myself for another go at it. My dad was the kind of man who was slow to anger, never uttering a bad word or becoming impatient with me. He never measured success with the number of fish I caught; my enthusiasm was all he cared about. I idolized my father; he was the man I wanted to grow up to be. That was one of the best times in my life.

During the winter of my tenth birthday, my dad came down with pneumonia, dying three weeks later, the doctors helpless to save him. Ray was never a replacement for my dad, more like an older brother. Our friendship grew over years, fishing trips and guy stuff. Though Ray was a medical student, he enjoyed the snatched moments of fishing with me. I was never as smart as Ray, not smart enough to be a doctor; that’s for sure. I wanted to be a cop or something like that. Those jobs were more suited for guy like me with a high school diploma and no skills; the police trained you. I didn’t get much chance to find out; a world war was breaking out and I was a prime candidate for the army.

I always wondered what it would have been like if I’d been a cop, protecting people and arresting the bad guys. But after the war the idea of carrying a gun flushed that idea from my head. I had killed plenty people, ones I didn’t even know and didn’t want to be responsible for any more; I didn’t want to fight anyone.


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