Late that summer, she often sat for hours by the sitting room window, lost in thought. Seemingly unaware of what her fingers were doing, she would trace the smooth curves of the two hearts on the top of the bracelet that banded her wrist. The bracelet he’d made for her. “Souvenir Okinawa” inscribed on one side of the hearts, and “1945 Helen” on the other. Inside, against her skin, “From John.”
John. A casualty of war. But not in the conventional sense.
She’d read somewhere, that behind the tally of those killed and wounded lay another number, the tally of those whose lives were shattered by brutalities experienced in such far away places as Normandy, Sicily, and Okinawa.
Okinawa. Typhoon of Steel. Where the battle, with its kamikaze attacks and fierce fighting, had lasted 82 days, from early April until mid June, 1945. The cost, in the end, for the bloodiest U.S. conflict in the Pacific? 62,000 American boys killed or wounded, and another 48% percent casualties of combat stress reaction-the highest ever rate for the entire war. Additionally, 14,000 soldiers would go on to suffer nervous breakdowns.
John, hit by shrapnel on day 71, had been sent back to the States. His war was over, or so he’d been told.
A week after he arrived home, he had visited her, bringing the bracelet. For his sake, she pretended not to notice the scar that ran from his chin to the curve of his neck, or the tremble in his hands as he tried carefully to put the bracelet on her wrist. She sensed he was afraid to touch her for fear of hurting her, the bitterness and hardness of who he had become in the war making it next to impossible for him to believe there was any gentleness left in him. Clumsily, he scratched her, and a welt rose up. Recoiling in horror, and choking back his own tears, he murmured an apology and fled. He had inflicted pain yet again, and he simply could not bear it.
A month had passed since that day, and nothing more from John.
During the war, the distance between them was one of geography. Letters, cookies-even a knitted scarf (he’d used it for his pillow) had helped to span the miles. Now, a new distance had come between them. A distance she did not know how to bridge. The blue star she had displayed in her window during the 2 years he had been away had now turned into a gold star, at least in her heart. He seemed to be as lost to her as if he were dead.
In the fall, not knowing what else to do with her sorrow, she carved two hearts in the craggy bark of the old Maple tree that stood in her front yard. “Menominee MI ,1945” “ John From Helen” “Please Come Back To Me”
That December, a violent winter storm swept through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and knocked the Maple over. Helen wept, as her fallen tree, reduced to nothing more than firewood, was cut into pieces and stacked along side the garage.
Up in her bedroom, Helen took off her bracelet, and put it away in her jewelry box.
♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
In the summer of 1946, nearly a year after John came home from the war, Helen was once again rooted by the sitting room window. This time, there was no trace of absent mindedness in her gaze, but instead a look of eager anticipation she found herself unable to suppress, try as she might.
She was watching for John. He had telephoned and asked to see her.
Helen never was very good at acting. She could not carry off the look of indifference she sternly counseled herself to present when she came face to face with him. Casting that mask aside, her expression became one of complete joy, and impulsively, as he came through her front door, she threw her arms around his neck. Her reward? His barely audible, “I’m back.”
He told her then, that for a time after he returned home, he had considered himself to be a lost cause-the war seeming to have extinguished any spark of hope he had ever held for the future. But at his parents suggestion, he started writing in an attempt to silence the demons that tortured him. They were right, too. The several hours a day spent sitting at his typewriter, converting the nightmares inside his mind into concrete sentences on pieces of paper, had brought about the healing he had sought.
Because of his new found love for writing, he’d made the decision to attend Michigan State Normal College and pursue a degree in English. Would she write to him while he was away, just as she had during the war?
Helen excused herself, and left the room.
Up in her bedroom, Helen flipped open the clasp on her jewelry box, retrieved her bracelet, and returned downstairs.
This time as John put it on her wrist, his hands did not shake.