by Tom Ray
Art got worried as soon the old guy said, “Knock yourself out.” The bluegrass festival crowd sat among trees on the side of a gently sloping hill overlooking a stage. Art had spied a good place, next to the old guy in a lounge chair between two trees. Only after he said “Mind if I sit here?” and heard the old guy’s answer did he recognize Harold, a regular at Patty’s.
Art went to Patty’s on Friday nights, when they had bluegrass music. He saw Harold there every Friday, and suspected he turned up there Saturdays and other nights of the week when they had country and rock bands. Harold usually sat quietly in the bar. The few times Art talked to him they always got on the subject of Vietnam, and when Art said he’d been there Harold always said, “What were you, Air Force?” and Art always said, “I’ve talked to you before, and you always ask me that, and I’m telling you again, no, I was Army.” Then Harold would ask where in Vietnam, and Art would say “Attached to MACV Headquarters in Saigon,” which Vietnam vets knew meant Military Assistance Command Vietnam. Harold would nod, understanding now how a white-collar guy like Art survived the war.
Harold said he served in infantry, and Art believed him. Old guys who lie about Vietnam would shut up and kind of drift off when they found out Art had been there. And Harold didn’t tell war stories that sounded like a movie script. He’d just make a few vague statements, always ending with, “I saw some bad shit over there, man.”
Sometimes he got emotional and grabbed Art’s arm with his thick hands to make some point. That’s why he made Art nervous at the festival. Harold never had gone off at Patty’s, but if he had, Art figured some of the other regulars would help hold him down. At a bluegrass festival, though, strangers might just stand back and watch, waiting for security to rescue Art from a beating.
Instead of the work clothes he wore at Patty’s, (blue trousers and shirt, a white patch with “Harold” in red letters over his left breast pocket), at the festival he had on a short-sleeved knit polo, shorts, and sandals. Clean shaven aside from his mustache, Harold lacked the three- or four-day stubble he sported at Patty’s. His voice still rough with phlegm from too many years of Pall Malls, Harold nevertheless spoke without the bourbon slur he had at the bar.
“I’ve never seen you outside of Patty’s.”
The comment surprised Art, who had doubted Harold recognized him. “Yeah, I don’t think I’ve seen you, either. You come to a lot of festivals?”
“No. My granddaughter’s in a band, and when she’s in a show I usually try to make it.”
“What’s the name of her band? Have they been on yet?” Harold’s having a granddaughter also surprised him.
“The Arlington Ramblers. They were on this morning.”
Art remembered seeing the name of the band on the festival’s flyer. It was a typical Washington, D.C., name, with the hint of a real estate listing (“3-bedroom rambler, North Arlington”). No doubt the group consisted of contractors, government workers, and military people.
“Shoot, I’m sorry I missed her. I just got here.”
“Yeah, most people, even the campers, don’t show up much for the local groups. Her band’s pretty good, though.”
“I’ll make it a point to see them one of these days.” He settled in to enjoy the music, feeling safer now, seeing Harold’s sobriety.
Sean breathed hard as he walked briskly across the parking area toward his ten year-old son Brandon and ninety-two year-old grandfather “Papaw.” He curbed his urge to run to them. Papaw was mentally alert, although frail, and Brandon had a good sense of responsibility. They were fine, he told himself.
Sean had tickets for only one day of the bluegrass festival, which entitled him to park in a field a quarter of a mile from the stage. Campers, who’d bought tickets for the entire three days, got the closest spots. He had dropped Brandon and Papaw off near the performance area, to avoid Papaw having to make the long walk.
As he drew near them he said, “Why didn’t you guys sit down?” He was disappointed that they hadn’t taken advantage of the folding chairs he’d set up for them when he dropped them off.
“Papaw didn’t want to sit.”
“I don’t need to sit. We’ll be sitting all day.”
“All right, let’s fold ‘em up and move on out.” They started down the wooded hillside leading from the campers’ parking area to the stage at the foot of the hill. Papaw jerked his arm away when Sean tried to hold it. The slope was moderate, but the dead leaves covering the ground could be slippery, and hid boulders breaking the ground in places. Papaw made it without sliding or tripping.
They had arrived early enough to claim a good spot, closer to the portable toilets than to the stage. Papaw would need to relieve himself several times during the day.
The first band had started by the time they settled in their seats, Sean and Brandon on either side of Papaw. “Do you remember them, Papaw? We saw them before, over in Maryland.”
The old man studied the stage for a moment. “Yeah, maybe. Never any big names this early on. Not bad, though, for young kids.”
“I remember them,” Brandon said. “They’re pretty good. I like them.”
“Yeah, they are good.” Sean liked this start to the day, with Papaw sounding positive about the first band.
The crowd grew. Shade would feel good as the sun climbed, but also forced spectators to select their seat locations with care. Sean felt smug, sitting in the shade but with an unobstructed view of the stage. A balding old man with glasses set up his chair below them. Thanks to the slope, he didn’t block their view. Maybe in his late sixties or early seventies, the man wore a knit polo shirt, shorts, and sandals. He glanced up at them and nodded without smiling.
Sean said, “Hello.”
“Hello,” the man said, in a voice neither friendly nor unfriendly, with no change in facial expression. Sean resolved to strike up a conversation with the man, feeling sorry for him sitting alone.
“Better to go to the outdoor shows, I guess,” Papaw said to Sean and Brandon, launching into the speech they heard at every festival. “I used to go see the music at the bars. Buzz Busby and the Bayou Boys, and the Country Gentlemen back before they got so famous. I enjoyed it, but Pauline didn’t like it.” Pauline was Mamaw, Papaw’s late wife.
“When I first got back after the war we’d go out to places on a weekend, but then when that boy came along we couldn’t take him with us, and she didn’t want to leave him with a sitter.” That’s how Papaw always referred to Sean’s father, “that boy.” He never said his name or called him “my son,” or, even when talking to Sean, never said “your dad.”
The old man sat quietly now. Sean couldn’t tell whether Papaw was engrossed in the show, or in his own thoughts.
The first band finished their set and a new one began setting up onstage. Sean said, “I don’t think we’ve seen this next band before, Papaw.”
When the old man said nothing, Brandon read the group’s name from the festival flyer, “Get off My Grass.” He giggled. “Like an old man yelling at kids, ‘Get off my grass.’ But they mean bluegrass music.”
Sean laughed. “Yeah, that’s a funny name,” he said.
A woman made her way up the hill. Sean recognized her from the first band, a tall, full- figured young woman with a pretty face. She headed for the old man wearing the polo shirt.
“You did good, honey, better than the last time. That new banjo picker is working out after all.” His voice was rough, phlegm clogging his throat.
“Yeah, he was having a rough day when you saw him the other time. He’s built his confidence up. Are you doing all right? Can I get you something?”
“No, you don’t need to babysit me. Go on back down there and socialize with your buddies. You need to make more contacts in the business.”
She said all right and patted his knee. After she started back down the hill, Brandon leaned across Papaw toward Sean and whispered, “She was in the first band. She played mandolin.”
Sean chuckled. “I think you’re right.”
“’Course she was. That was the mandolin picker.” Papaw sounded cross, which his grandson and great-grandson were used to.
As the morning wore on Brandon commented on the performances, and Papaw applauded and said things like “That’s the way,” or “Not bad.” Their pleasure at the event made Sean happy.
Another man came in front of them, carrying his folding chair. He had a full head of gray hair parted neatly on the side. His jeans were pressed into a crease like dress trousers, his Oxford blue shirt a button-down, and his shoes loafers. To the other man sitting in front of them he said, “Mind if I sit here?”
“Knock yourself out.”
Art paid little attention to the three people seated behind him and Harold. At the end of a set, as one act left the stage and the next one set up, he felt his chair get bumped from behind. Looking around, he saw the youngest of the trio, a kid about twelve, helping the oldest, a man probably in his nineties, stand and walk to the back of the seating area. The third person, a guy in his forties still seated said, “Sorry. Brandon’s just helping Papaw to the john.”
Art nodded. “No prob. I have a little trouble bumping into stuff myself.” Harold just glanced back without saying anything.
After he’d turned back to watch the stage Art felt somebody grasping the back of his chair to lean forward. “That’s my grandad. We call him Papaw. He was in World War II, part of the greatest generation.”
Art laughed. “Yeah. You mean as opposed to those shitheads from Vietnam.”
The guy’s face took on a hurt expression that shifted to anger. “You shouldn’t say that about veterans, any veterans, including Vietnam veterans. Especially Vietnam veterans.”
Before he could answer Harold cut loose with that mucous-laden laugh of his. “Don’t worry about it, dude. He’s a Vietnam vet.”
Now the guy looked hurt. “Gee, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any disrespect to you. And you shouldn’t disrespect yourself and other guys who went to Vietnam.”
“Don’t worry about it. I was just messing with you.”
“My name’s Sean, by the way.” He looked relieved. “I’d like you to meet my Papaw, and my son Brandon when they get back. They’d both be honored.”
“I’m Art, Sean. Yeah, I’d be honored to meet your Papaw.” He turned his attention back to the stage, hoping Sean would leave him alone when Papaw and Brandon returned.
Sean did leave him alone until the next break, when Art heard him say, “Papaw, this man in front of you is a Vietnam veteran. He’d like to meet you, being a World War II vet.”
Art didn’t move, trying to figure out how to avoid engaging with Sean and Papaw. He finally gave up, shifting in his seat so he could see the old man. “How you do, sir? My name is Art.”
The old man nodded. “My name’s Earl.” He took Art’s extended hand and shook it.
“My friend Harold here’s a Vietnam vet also.” He could see Harold trying to ignore the whole thing, but like Art, finally giving in. “Afternoon, sir. How you doing?”
Now the old man offered his hand. He couldn’t reach all the way to Harold, who had to stand to reach the ancient paw.
“I’m doing fine. Who were you all with in the service?”
Art was the one who broke the embarrassed silence that followed. “I was assigned to USARV, but attached to MACV Headquarters.”
Earl stared at him as if trying to make sense of his answer. “Who?”
“The U.S. Army Vietnam, attached to the Military Assistance Command Vietnam Headquarters at Tan Son Nhat. In Saigon.”
The old man stared some more before turning his attention to Harold. “How about you? Who were you with?”
Harold kept looking at the stage without saying anything. Sean leaned over and tapped him on the shoulder. “My papaw asked what unit you were with in Vietnam.”
With the next band still setting up, Harold had a hard time pretending he was engrossed in the show. “First Cav at Phuoc Vinh.”
Art doubted Earl understood their answers, judging from the way he kept staring at them.
He finally stopped staring and said, “I was with the 101st Airborne. D-Day, Battle of the Bulge, all of that.”
“Pretty rough, I’ll bet.” Art wanted to shut the old man up, but he felt like he should show some respect. From what he’d read, the 101st did have a hard time.
“It was plenty rough, buddy.”
He could tell Earl was just getting started, but when the announcer started introducing the next band it gave Art an excuse to interrupt. “Hey, the show’s starting.” He turned back to face the stage. When the music began he forgot about the three behind him and even old Harold next to him.
As the afternoon wore on he started feeling hungry, having eaten a late breakfast and skipping lunch. At the next break he said, “I’m going to get some of that barbecue, Harold. You want anything?”
“No, man, I’m good.”
As he returned from the concession stand, a plate of barbecue in one hand and a Coke in the other, he saw a woman sitting in his chair. She sat on the side of one hip, turning her body toward Harold. Probably in her late twenties, long brown hair tied into a ponytail, and glasses.
Tending toward the heavy side, but attractive.
The next band up had started on their first song. He didn’t want to have to yell over the band, but also didn’t want to touch her to get her attention. Harold looked up and noticed him.
The woman turned to follow Harold’s gaze.
“Oh. I guess you want your chair back.” She laughed as she stood up.
“Yeah. I’d leave it to you,” he chuckled, “but my hands are full, so I can’t eat standing up,” which got another chortle from the woman.
After Art sat down Harold said, “This is my granddaughter. Amy, this is one of the regulars at Patty’s.”
Art noticed a shadow of disapproval pass over her face at the mention of the bar, but she smiled and nodded. “Hi. Nice to meet you.”
“Hi, Amy. I’m Art. Nice to meet you, too.”
She looked at Harold. “Anyway, Grandpa, if you’re sure you’re OK I’ll just hang out backstage a while longer. I can go any time you’re ready.”
“I told you, I can stay out here all night. We’ll leave when you’re ready.”
As she turned to go she glanced at the trio sitting behind Art and Harold. That gave Sean an opening.
“Hi, Amy. We just met your grandpa. My name’s Sean, this is my son Brandon, and this is my grandfather, Earl. He’s a veteran of World War II, one of the greatest generation.”
She stopped and looked back at Earl. “Really? That’s great. Thank you for your service.”
Art heard the old man say, “I was with the 101st Airborne. D-Day and all that.”
“That’s wonderful. Do you mind if I tell Ray?” referring to the emcee of the show. “He’d like to know we have a World War II vet here. He might want to recognize you.”
“Whatever you want.”
“Great. I’ll tell him.”
Art said, “If you’re going to recognize veterans, how about your grandfather? He was with the 1st Cav in Vietnam.”
She looked surprised, maybe from the hint of hostility in Art’s voice, but also maybe at the thought that her own grandfather deserved recognition.
“Oh. Yeah. Good idea.” And she headed back toward the stage.
Harold said, “You didn’t need to say that.” Art ignored him.
Halfway through the set he saw Amy making her way back up the hill. When she reached Harold and Art she stood between them, leaning toward Sean, Brandon, and Earl.
“Ray would love to recognize Earl. He wonders if he could come up on stage and let Ray introduce him. Would you like that Earl? To come up on stage and let Ray tell everybody about you?”
“I could do that.”
Then back to Sean. “Do you think he’d be all right?”
“Sure. He may need some help, though. Brandon, do you want to help Papaw go down to the stage?
Art felt more bumping of his chair as Brandon and Amy helped Earl up and started him down the hill, each of them holding one of his arms. He didn’t mind the bumping, but Earl getting the attention while Harold sat back in the audience without so much as a nod made Art mad.
Sean worried as he watched Brandon and Papaw, aided by Amy, moving down the hill. They made it OK, though, and soon disappeared behind the stage.
When the act onstage finished, Ray came to the microphone with his usual patter, thanking the band and making some administrative announcements. Then he said, “Folks before the Squires come on, I want to introduce a very special guest. He bought a ticket and came to the show like all of you. Amy from the Arlington Ramblers just informed me that he was in the audience. He’s one of the greatest generation, a combat veteran of World War II, and I would like you to make him welcome. From Dumfries, Virginia, Mr. Earl Grubb. Give him a big hand.”
Now Sean feared the old man would trip on the steps leading to the platform. With Brandon’s help, though, he made it all the way to the microphone at center stage without a slip.
“And I believe this young man with you is your grandson, is that right?”
“Great-grandson.” Papaw sounded impatient.
“What’s your name, son?”
“Are you proud of you great-granddad, Brandon?”
“I bet you are. Mr. Grubb, I understand you were in D-Day.”
“Yes, sir, I was in the 101 st Airborne. I was drafted when I turned 18 In 1943, and I was there for D-Day and for the Battle of the Bulge. It was rough, but I made it through all that.”
The audience interrupted with spontaneous applause, which Ray joined.
After the applause died down Ray said, “That’s amazing. So you must be about, what, 91 or 92 years old?”
“I turned 92 in January.” Gasps from the audience, and scattered applause.
“Well you’re in great shape, and we’re really honored to have you with us. Let’s hear—”
“You ought to mention the fellows sitting with me. There’s a couple of Vietnam War veterans sitting with me.”
“Where are they? Can the people sitting with Mr. Grubb stand up?”
Harold and Art kept sitting.
“I can’t see them, but we certainly thank them for their service.”
Earl said, “Sean, stand up and wave so he can see those boys.”
Sean stood up and moved between Harold and Art, pointing down at each of their heads. Ray said, “There they are. Too modest to stand up. That’s OK. How about all the Vietnam veterans in the audience raise your hands or stand up so we can see you.” A few hands went up.
“How about a big round of applause for the Vietnam vets. And for all veterans, of the Gulf War, and Afghanistan, Iraq, wherever you served.”
The crowd clapped louder than before.
“Thank you all for your service, and, Mr. Grubb”—
Earl cut him off again. “My own boy didn’t go to Vietnam. He went to Canada. A damn draft dodger.”
Both gasps and subdued laughter came from the audience, followed by silence. Brandon looked up toward Sean, giving their secret “Here goes Papaw again” look, but Sean didn’t return it. Of course he’d heard the draft dodger comment before, but it wasn’t funny now in front of all these people.
“Well, we thank you for your service Mr. Grubb. Let’s hear it one more time for this World War II veteran.” Ray nodded at Brandon, who offered his arm to Papaw. The audience applauded, although a little less enthusiastically than before, as Papaw and Brandon left the stage.
Art turned to Sean. “Who was he talking about? Your uncle went to Canada?”
Sean felt himself blushing, and he felt sick to his stomach. Things had been going so well, and now Art and Harold would hate him. He finally overcame his shame.
“No. My dad went to Canada.”
“Where is he now?”
“He’s dead. My mom was Canadian. She died from cancer when I was six. Then Dad died in a car wreck a couple of years after that. When Dad died Papaw and Mamaw came up to Canada and brought me back home here.”
“Your papaw shouldn’t have said that about your dad like he did just now.” Art spoke in a low voice, with his teeth clenched.
“He says stuff like that all the time. I mean, he’s right. Why should you guys have gone to Vietnam and he ran away to Canada? Papaw had to go to war when he was just a kid. He has a right to say what he does about Dad.”
Harold’s voice came roaring in. “No, he’s got no right. I wish somebody had told me to go to Canada. The shit I’ve seen, I’d rather have been in Canada any day of the week.”
“I respect you,” Sean said. “But I think Papaw’s right.”
Art said, “Well….,” then turned back around to face the stage, as did Harold.
Brandon and Papaw came back up the hill, Brandon saving the old vet from injury after several stumbles.
As Brandon helped Papaw to his seat Art said, “Hey, Brandon, good job taking care of your Papaw.”
The boy just grinned and grunted, maybe too embarrassed to say a proper thank you.
“He’s a good boy,” Sean said. “I’m proud of him.”
Harold said, “You should be,” looking at Brandon, then at Sean. “I bet his granddad would be proud of him, too.”
Brandon said, “He’s my great-granddad, not my granddad.”
“I’m not talking about Earl, Brandon, I’m talking about your granddad, in Canada. He’d be proud of you if he were alive today.”
Art said, “That’s right, Brandon. Your granddad in Canada would be proud of you, and you should be proud of him.”
The boy looked confused as he glanced from Harold to his dad. Sean struggled to think of something to say. Papaw scowled but said nothing.
Amy came back up the hill again.
“Grandpa, why didn’t you stand up when Mr. Grubb did a shout out to the Vietnam vets?”
She smiled as she spoke, but sounded irritated.
“Why should I stand up, when he didn’t?” Harold jerked his head toward Art.
“That’s right,” she said, “I forgot. He said you’re a vet, too. Why didn’t you stand up?”
Art said, “I don’t know.”
“Oh, you guys,” she said, in a mock exasperated tone. “All right, Grandpa, I’ll go on back down there. You let me know if you get tired.” Turning toward Art, “If he starts getting tired, you make him come backstage and get me.” She headed back down the hill.
They all sat quiet after that, Sean, Papaw, and Brandon, and the two men in front of them.
After a couple of more acts Art said, “Well, Harold, you win. I’m heading for home.”
Harold laughed. “You always wimp out at Patty’s, too.”
Folding chair in hand, Art paused as he passed Papaw. “It was an honor to meet you, Mr. Grubb.” Papaw grunted, never looking up.
Sean stood up quietly and walked around behind Papaw and Brandon. Following the Vietnam vet up the hill he said, “Sir? Art?”
Art stopped. When Sean caught up they walked on together. “I just wanted to thank you again for your service. And I appreciate what you said about Dad.” Speaking in a low voice, so Papaw couldn’t hear him, he almost choked up.
Art said, “Don’t mention it.” They were in the parking area now, and Art stopped again.
He shifted on his feet, and licked his lips as if going to speak, but then said nothing for a few seconds. Finally he moved his folding chair to his left hand and offered his right hand to Sean.
“You all take care,” he said, smiling as they shook hands. “Maybe I’ll see you at the next festival.”
“Yeah, I hope so.”
They left the festival at 7:00. Papaw had started talking again shortly after Art left, commenting on the bands. He growled again when Sean said good-bye to Harold and shook his hand.
“Come on, if we’re leaving. I don’t want to stand here all night while you shake hands with every stranger in the place.”
A little after 9:30 they pulled into the garage of their home in the Northern Virginia suburbs. Papaw had been awake throughout the show, but fell asleep on the road home.
Sean’s wife Erin came out of the kitchen into the garage. “You need any help, Papaw?”
The old man took a while to answer, but eventually she coaxed him out of the front passenger’s seat and helped him into the house. “Are you hungry? Do you want some supper?”
“No, we got some of that barbecue. I’m full.”
Erin looked at Sean over Papaw’s head. “I thought I packed you enough for supper. Why did you get barbecue? That’s given him trouble before.”
Sean shrugged. “He insisted, said he was tired of the food we brought. The barbecue smelled so good, I guess he couldn’t resist.”
She made sure the old man got to bed, then joined father and son in the family room.
“How’d it go, guys?” she said.
“Me and Papaw went up onstage. They introduced Papaw for being in the greatest generation. I had to go up with him so he wouldn’t fall. They introduced me, too.” Brandon talked fast, his eyes shining.
“Really? Wow. How’d that happen?” Erin looked at Sean.
“We were sitting near the grandfather of one of the musicians. When she came up to check on him, I told her about Papaw. She told the show MC, who asked her to bring him on down.”
Erin laughed. “I bet Papaw ate that up.”
“You know it.” Sean laughed, too, but worried Brandon might say something about Papaw’s Vietnam remarks onstage. Brandon turned his attention to the TV, though, without saying anything more about the festival. Probably blocked it out of his mind, Sean thought, the way a kid does when something unpleasant comes up.
Later that night as they lay in bed, Erin said, “Is everything all right? You’re acting like something’s bothering you.”
“No, everything’s fine now. Something did come up at the festival. What Brandon didn’t mention was that when Papaw was onstage he talked about Dad.”
“You’re kidding. God. Well, that didn’t faze Brandon, I’m sure. He’s heard all that before.”
“Yeah, it wasn’t Brandon that worried me. We were sitting next to a couple of Vietnam veterans.”
“Oh, no. Did they give you shit about your dad?”
“No, that’s what threw me off. I expected them to criticize me, but they said Papaw was wrong and that it was all right for Dad to go to Canada.”
“Really? That shouldn’t have bothered you.”
“It didn’t. It’s just that it reminded me of something I hadn’t thought about in years. When I first moved in with Mamaw and Papaw, it would make me feel bad when Papaw would bad-mouth Dad. Whenever his buddies came to visit he’d explain why I was living with them, then start calling Dad a draft dodger.
“One night after some friends had visited, and Papaw had torn into Dad, Mamaw came into my room at bedtime. She told me not to say anything to Papaw, but that Dad was a good man, that he’d just done what he thought was right. Papaw just said those things about Dad, she said, because Dad hurt him. He was ashamed his son didn’t go to war. Papaw didn’t used to talk about what he did in the war, but after Dad went to Canada, he felt like he had to show he did his part, to make up for his son not going.”
“I liked Mamaw,” Erin said. “I wish I could have known her longer.”
“Yeah, she had a way of smoothing things over. After she told me that, what Papaw said about Dad didn’t bother me anymore. After a while, without realizing it, I guess I just started agreeing with him.” Erin hugged him.
As they fell asleep they heard Papaw snoring and mumbling. They had recently taken the baby monitor out of the attic and installed it in Papaw’s room.
Tom Ray has been previously published at New Pop Lit, including an essay on Dickens in a print journal, Literary Fan Magazine (available at our Pop Shop), and stories, including “Benjamin Franklin and the Witch of Endor.” Read more about Tom and his work here.