a short fictional account

Pop was Pop to his granddaughter Anna, who even at three listened to his every word as a doctor would a heartbeat, but decades earlier Pop was Sargent Ledford leading soldiers through rice paddies and jungles in search of an invisible enemy. For Sargent Ledford, the mission was to keep his men alive. “Leddy,” as they called him with affection, was 24 years old when atop a levee in the Mekong Delta a bullet exploded through the atmosphere not inches from his ear. Three of his men were hit before Sargent Ledford could turn around. The platoon dove for cover under heavy fire, but Sargent Ledford readied his weapon and rushed back up the muddy bank to pull the three fallen soldiers down the hill. This he did without hesitation, and although his tour was full of many such acts, it was after this incident that his soldiers’ eyes glistened when they saluted him or shook his hands, which they did often.

Anna was born just as Pop retired, and with her parents crisscrossing the country for conferences and symposiums, Anna and Pop spent many years together. Anna’s laughter was Pop’s medicine, but when Anna’s silliness turned to curiosity and attentiveness, Pop came to see himself in Anna more so than he ever saw himself in his academic-minded son. And it was this that gave Pop comfort in bringing Anna with him during his home visits as a volunteer hospice worker in Durham, North Carolina. Through doors left ajar, Anna watched Pop at work. She noticed the words he used, his touch, his calm demeanor. Pop always emerged from these darkened rooms and picked Anna up and carried her to the car. It was during these many car rides that Anna listened to Pop talk about being a soldier, the war, his career in the army, and life and death. He told Anna his hospice work gave him a sense of purpose, like he had in the military.

Pop died when Anna was eight. She ran to his car, jumped inside, and refused to get out. But Anna’s young heart healed quickly and Pop faded from her memory. Anna finished school and then college, but with the vigor of an assembly line worker clocking in and clocking out, day after day—ever hounded by her parents to do more with her life. But Anna was content. After college she started work as a manager at a supermarket in Raleigh. She became the general manager after a few years and lived a comfortable life. She dreamed of little more than evenings at home in her apartment and holidays with her parents and extended family. Anna enjoyed the opportunity to talk to her family, now scattered around the country, but she had become adept at steering conversations away from her life.

Anna was 34 when she reached for a bottle of aspirin at work just as it exploded off the shelf. And then a bottle of Tylenol, and then a bottle of Advil, and then Anna hit the ground. Through half-closed eyes she saw others on the ground too, not moving, some moaning, some in growing pools of red. Her fear was secondary to her sense of helplessness. She had to wait. When the silence came, Anna crawled to each pool to do whatever she could do. Anna’s parents were concerned that she would feel guilty for surviving when so many had not. But Anna felt something totally different. Within two years, Anna became a nurse. Within weeks, she developed a reputation for facing the most challenging situations at the hospital.

When the 2020 pandemic hit, Anna volunteered to work double shifts. In April, Anna tuned out the clanging and clapping as she left the hospital for the night, determined to sleep well so she could return early in the morning. By December, her hospital was overwhelmed. In the ICU, Anna watched as Pop after Pop died with only the comfort of her touch. For the first time, Anna was overwhelmed. It was not just the long hours and the endless suffering, but the reemergence of her childhood side by side with Pop. On the curb by the hospital entrance, Anna put her wet face into her hands as Pop came back to her. Anna knew what she had to do. She got up, wiped her face, put her combat gear back on, and returned to the battlefield to tend to the living and the dying.

At home late that night Anna read about the Mekong Delta, words she had just remembered. She learned that it is a place of beauty and life like no other place in the world, a sanctuary for thousands of newly discovered species. She would visit Vietnam a year later and spend three weeks taking in its beauty and history.


Truckee, California, May 2021
*posted late

The California Zephyr runs from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay Area, cutting a path through two formidable mountain ranges and evoking the history of America’s westward migration. During its many decades of service, the Zephyr’s principal contribution to society has been the creation of several generations of complete liars. The Zephyr delivered two such liars, my father and stepmother, to Truckee this past weekend. They boarded the train in Omaha for a two-night, 1300-mile journey. When they disembarked at the Truckee station, helped off the side of the double-decker monstrosity onto a plastic stool by an Amtrak employee who was only vaguely interested in whether they fell face forward onto the pavement, I asked how they enjoyed the train ride. They said—immediately and in unison—“oh, it was great … a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” Well, then, why do you look like hikers just find you in the woods surviving on grubs and berries? They asked if I’d be willing to hear the truth in exchange for my silence. Sure, I promised, I won’t say a word.

Turns out taking the Zephyr is like getting stuck on the Tilt-A-Whirl and finding that the carnival operators have all gone home for the weekend. For the survivors, carrying on the myth of a glorious train ride across the American plains and over the mountains is all they have left.

Confined to the house most days due to the realities of age and the sedentary year gone by—not to mention the altitude—Hollywood provided much of our entertainment. Everything goes so well on television. The writers and directors make sure of it. The stories are compressed in time and punctuated with drama and laughter to keep us hooked. And every show has a satisfying ending. In the Big Sick, the couple stayed together after a tumultuous journey. In Bridesmaids, a character down on her luck ends up with the friendly cop. In The Jinx, the suspected murderer confesses to all of his crimes on a hot mic after the final interview.

Even the makers of nature documentaries, limited by the footage they could capture, portray the struggles of survival but still set us down gently. Take Charm for example, a lioness filmed struggling to keep her dwindling pride fed with the help of the great wildebeest migration across the Maasai Mara. We learn Charm is an expert hunter able to take down large animals with minimal effort. Through the animals’ interactions, we see the pride’s close family bonds and the respect they have for Charm. When the wildebeests disappear, the pride wanders farther and the lions end up poisoned by an illegal rancher protecting his cattle. All recover except for Charm’s son, who is too weak to follow the pride to new territory and food. The sickened lion watches between grass blades as the pride leaves him. But in a gripping scene, Charm returns the next day to see if her son is alive. We see him stand and lean on his mother before collapsing again to the ground. Charm has only one choice. We watch her leave her dying son. In the outtakes we learn that the filmmakers broke objectivity and intervened to try and save the young lion. Of course they would, because we poisoned him, we humans. But they delayed, choosing to first see if Charm would return. These undoubtedly heartbroken crew members must have done this for the next generation of lions by giving us a moment to reflect on our commonality. The episode concludes with scenes of Charm nursing her rambunctious new cubs.

After all of these shows, our own Charm, Tony, made sure we were all fed. A flurry of activity in the kitchen, not unlike the billowy takedown of a wildebeest, produced one fine meal after another. The most well-fed animal in the house, however, was Harvey. Harvey discovered my Dad’s willingness to buy his love by carrying treats in his pocket. Harvey began the week rewarding my Dad and Randi with love and attention, snubbing us to lounge on the couch next to them. By the end of the week, however, the relationship between Harvey and my Dad had devolved into one resembling that of an addict and his dealer.

The dramatic weather during the week turned us all into documentarians. Randi snapped photos through the windows as the dry hot weather turned rapidly to rain, snow, and sleet. Tony flew the drone into the sky to capture the drama of the May snowstorm. And at week’s end, we watched in the rain as the Zephyr lumbered into the Truckee station and everyone guessed which door would open and produce the plastic stool.

While the California Zephyr is not the Orient Express or the Trans-Siberian Express, it can claim its own magnificence. Traveling eastward through Utah, the Zephyr begins a great ascent, first to the meadows of the Colorado Plateau and then higher as it crosses one of the most stunning mountain ranges on Earth. In this Hollywood ending, its weary passengers are jolted awake in the early morning to discover an eerie glow illuminating their cramped quarters. Curiosity sends them stumbling to the window where they pull open the tattered curtains just as the side of the train catches fire. Blinded by the flames ricocheting along the metallic cars, they shield their eyes. As they adjust to the light, they realize they are witnessing the blazing sun as it rises through the crooked peaks of the Rocky Mountains.