The Captain would do it. He’d leave two notes — to his parents and to his wife. He had even thought about the wording but dismissed it. When the time came so would the words. He had tried before but backed out. But this time felt different. Unless something happened he would really do it.
His .45 Colt was in the leather holster on his web belt. He thumbed every round out of the clip except one; put the other seven into the ammo pouch on the belt, and the clip back into the pistol.
For months his options had seemed bleak: continue an Army career or try to salvage a marriage. Twice he’d considered dumping the Army for a civilian job. Maybe a change like that would change her, too. But he knew it really wouldn’t. There were men everywhere and Lena would always find one. Nothing would change her, so he’d stayed put. A Captain’s pay was still pretty good. And it was paying the bills.
He found a clean plastic cup by the coffee pot and poured the first drink — half and half. He didn’t drink often but thought it might help, so he had brought a bottle of bourbon and a Coke when he signed in as Duty Officer at midnight. He adjusted the chair and finished the drink. At the knock on the door, he set the cup down and covered it with his field cap.
“Come in!” He always called out with authority, from habit. The three soldiers reporting would stand their posts until 0600. After sending them off, he opened his briefcase and began the hard part.
To Lena he wrote “Goodbye” on a single sheet of paper, stared at it a full minute trying to think of something to add, and decided to leave it that way.
And what do you say to your parents? Just tell them you love them. Some chaplain in Kansas — maybe from his home base at Ft. Riley, would try to explain. They were going to be sad, and sentimental words wouldn’t help.
He didn’t mention Lena in the letter to them. He placed it in an envelope with their names on the outside and slid it into his briefcase. Hers, with the wedding band she had given him, was put into a separate envelope, with her name on it and placed inside the same briefcase. His Last Will and Testament was on file in the Orderly Room safe, with everybody else’s. The Army would release it to his parents. His instructions were to send all his personal property to their home address near Topeka. They could forward the wife’s letter to her.
He had smoked two cigarettes and sipped four bourbons during the hour. Now the feeling of urgency that he had first sensed only a few minutes ago started creeping over him again. He emptied the ashtray and wiped it clean with a tissue. He poured another bourbon, mixed in the Coke, set it aside, and put the cap on the bottle. He put the bottle inside the top right-hand drawer and closed it snugly. Now the feeling was more noticeable. It wasn’t like before. It was different. But it was making him anxious and driving him to up the pace.
Finally, nervously, he arranged everything on the desk the way it should be: clip board, roster, daily log; Special Orders, and the authentication tables and codes he’d signed for when he came on duty. Quickly, he nudged it all toward the back edge, away from the chair. The soiled tissue and anything else loose was dropped into the wastebasket. He didn’t want to leave a mess for someone else to clean up.
He knew he had to hurry or he might back out again, sure as hell. And he didn’t want to go through it anymore. But he adjusted his breathing and used a few intentional minutes for calming down – making sure the door was left unlocked, turning the lights off except the desk lamp, and tuning the radio to the soft music of Radio Luxemburg. Then he sat very still a few more minutes — partly in contemplation and partly to be sure he wasn’t forgetting anything. He had made a check list before the earlier attempts, but abandoned it. Besides, he had it memorized.
Now that it was happening for real, he was surprised at how easily it was going. And he noticed how the other feeling, just as fast as it had appeared a few minutes before, was easing away — maybe even faster than it had grown when the first noticed it. A sense of relief was sweeping over him. Like a soothing peace. Or a warm blanket. Maybe it was the whiskey. Anyway, he was glad.
With his left foot he pushed himself and the chair back from the desk, swallowed the last drink and dropped the cup into the same wastebasket. Then he jacked the last round into the chamber and took one more look around the room, as if confirming that everything was okay. And his expression was changing. More relaxed. He felt like smiling.
In a small churchyard near Topeka nine days later, with a soft breeze playing among the needles of the tall firs and short cedars, a funeral with full military honors was held for Captain Jackson T. Foster, US Army. A twenty-one-gun salute by seven steady soldiers, each firing three rounds apiece from polished rifles, riveted the solemn ceremony – the first crashing volley causing everyone to flinch; a small girl grabbed her mother’s arm and whimpered. Three rows across, an anonymous beagle hiding behind an onyx-hued obelisk started yelping and running hell-bent for a nearby maple thicket as the last two volleys sounded. A few smiled, but no one laughed.
After a brief eulogy from the chaplain, a skilled bugler sounded Taps, and a folded American flag was presented to the parents of a decorated veteran. Some cried, some stared straight ahead and some looked into the faces and into the eyes of those near them. In the crowd of more than forty polite mourners, many searched for the face of his widow, but she wasn’t there.