A story I wrote to honor the fallen
You could buy a bag of 48 toy soldiers for $3.99. Accessories, toy tanks and jets sold separately. If you saved up enough, you could assemble quite the battle on a tabletop or in the dirt. The soldiers came in different forms and positions, and carried different weapons. Some crawled, some stood, some ran, others shouted orders. The one thing that struck me most about my toy soldiers was that their faces always bore the angst and agony of battle…every single one of them.
A few of the boys in town always gathered down at Mr. Horn’s General Store to play with our toy soldiers. He had the best dirt out back in which to stage our epic battles. On a good day, or when it wasn’t busy, Mr. Horn would clear off a table inside and let us stage the toy soldier battle on top of the table. We felt bigger inside because that’s where the old men of the town hung around. Many of them had served in the Armed Forces and fought in the great war.
On the rare occasion, a few would even offer strategy to our make-believe scenarios and position the soldiers more fittingly to accomplish the mission. If we were really lucky, we may even get a story out of it. But the stories rarely had a conclusion. That’s because the former soldiers telling them usually quivered at the lip and buckled under the weight of the tears flowing from their eyes. The hand of a fellow veteran would quickly appear upon his shoulder, and he would excuse himself from the scene. The silence in those moments was deafening and awkward. It didn’t seem decent to keep on moving the toy soldiers about when the real-life soldiers in front of us were struggling with the legitimate horrors of the things we made up. So we would slowly and quietly pack up all our toy soldiers, tanks, and guns.
Each time we packed up the soldiers, without fail, Mr. Horn would always come over and say, “Now boys, get all those soldiers in the bag. You make sure you never leave any soldier behind. I don’t care how wounded or maimed they may be, you bring them home!” He always seemed to say it with such emotion and force, and sometimes a few tears. Then he would count my bag with scrutiny to make sure I had all 48 with me. “All of them go home!”, he said.
For a while, we didn’t understand, we thought we were just picking up toy soldiers. If we lost any, we could always go to the store and buy more. But Mr. Horn always made sure we left none behind or lost them. We had a few get chewed by the dogs or lose a limb due to getting stepped on. Mr. Horn took pleasure melting down the wounded parts and fusing them back together, or applying duct tape for a quick fix. He would say, “Every one of these soldiers has someone who loves them back home and is praying for them to come home. You make sure you fix them up and take care of them.” To us, they were just lifeless, plastic trinkets. But to Mr. Horn, they represented so much more.
My daddy grew up with Mr. Horn’s son Jimmy, and spent a lot of time in the Horn house as a child and teenager. So one day I asked him about Mr. Horn’s devotion to our toy soldiers. I had seen the picture of Jimmy Horn many times. It hung in the center of his father’s general store. He was dressed in his military uniform. Beside it was the photo of Mr. Horn with his arm around his son one day after they went fishing. I always figured Jimmy was off serving somewhere as a high-ranking officer in the military, and that’s why we never saw him. That would also explain why his father was so passionate about how we cared for our toy soldiers. That’s when my daddy told me, “Son, Jimmy Horn fell in a battle after getting shot in the head. He came home in a casket with a flag draped over it.” He was Mr. and Mrs. Horn’s only child. My daddy then shared the story.
Growing up, Jimmy wasn’t the greatest student in school. But he always said, “I’mma change the world daddy! Just you wait and see! I’m gonna enlist and head right off. And we’ll keep the world safe!” Sure enough, as soon as he turned 18, he went and signed up. He completed boot camp and was able to come home briefly before being shipped off to war. The small town had a picnic to send him and a few others off to duty. My daddy told me the last thing Jimmy said to his daddy before he got on the bus that day was, “I’mma change the world daddy! Just you wait and see!” Mr. Horn hugged him hard and said, “You do that son! Your mama and I will be on our knees praying ‘til you get back.” A tear fell from my daddy’s eye as he then said, “None of us could have ever known he’d never come back alive.”
“But how?”, I asked. Daddy went on to complete the story. Jimmy’s company was called out to defuse strategic enemy strongholds one night. Upon entering a house and clearing the house, Jimmy and all the soldiers with him heard a whistling sound that began to shake the ground and the house. The boys who survived said it wasn’t like anything you hear in the war movies. Then came the cry, “Get down! Get down!” Jimmy hit the deck with his hands over his helmet. The missile hit the house with a force that blew the walls apart. The next thing he saw was a leg fly across the room. It was the leg of the fellow soldier that Jimmy had followed into the house. All Jimmy could hear was the ringing in his ears. He could only taste the dust that filled his lungs. He checked his own legs and arms. Everything was intact. Somehow, he had survived the blast. Instinct and training kicked in and he picked up the now one-legged soldier who was screaming mercifully. Those who survived, recount hearing Jimmy say, “Bring them home! No soldier left behind! Let’s go soldier!”
Jimmy heroically carried his friend out the door into the waiting vehicle. Bullets were flying all around him. They were under attack. Jimmy quickly assessed the situation. He turned to go back to pull other soldiers out. The surviving driver of the vehicle explained it this way, “He had already saved one life. He was going to get more. The moment he exited the vehicle, he dropped to the ground like a ton of bricks. I saw the blood flowing from his jaw. I knew he was dead…hit by sniper fire.”
That year, Providence Street in town was not the street anyone wanted to be on at any time. There were several of the boys like Jimmy whose families lived on that street. They had all gone off to war also. Many of the moms stayed locked inside their houses for fear the black car would be making its dreaded run down the street to notify another set of parents they had lost their child to battle. “We had already seen it on that street twice,” daddy said. As the men stood on the front porch conveying the unthinkable, the parents dropped to their knees, and all the neighbors came running or stayed on their porch hoping the car would leave town and that they weren’t next.
Then came the day they went to Jimmy’s house. Daddy said that the town folk recall Jimmy’s mom running out into the front yard and falling face first on the grass while weeping uncontrollably. They say Mr. Horn sat on the front porch stairs for days with the folded flag in one hand and Jimmy’s helmet in the other. “I’mma change the world daddy! Just you wait and see!” He did. The war was won and we’re still free today.
When the story was over, daddy took me across town to Jimmy’s grave. Sure enough, right there on the tombstone were the words, “I’mma change the world daddy! Just you wait and see!” Daddy said Mr. Horn’s wife couldn’t cope and had to be admitted to the psych ward and rehab facility. Mr. Horn had to carry on with the general store. Nothing was ever the same.
Now I knew why all the toy soldiers’ faces had such angst and agony. Behind every face is a story. Some of the stories are rough. Some are pure. But for most all of them, there’s somebody, somewhere that loves them or loved them at one time. For many, there’s somebody praying and hoping for their safe return home. Behind every face of those who survive, there are the scars of battle. Now I knew why the old men tapered off their stories in tears those days as they tried to recall them to us young boys. I knew why the other men gathered around them and put a hand on their shoulder.
Weeks later, once again we were playing with toy soldiers at Mr. Horn’s General Store. As always, when I packed up my soldiers and put them in the bag, Mr. Horn recounted them to make sure all the soldiers were going make it home. Carefully scrutinizing the bag, he said, “There’s only 47 here. You’ve left one behind. They all have to make it home!” I took Mr. Horn by the hand and we walked through town that day. It was the day after Memorial Day and all the flags were still waving in the warm breezes. We walked up the grassy hill that led up to Jimmy’s grave. As we approached, I pointed out to him the 48th toy soldier standing guard at the base of Jimmy’s grave. I had placed it there the day before. I turned to Mr. Horn and said, “They all made it home sir, torn and tattered, but they all made it home because of the sacrifice of the one. And because Jimmy was a God-fearing man, I suspect he’s home now too.” Mr. Horn knelt down and shed a few tears. Now it was my hand on his shoulder.
“I’mma change the world daddy. Just you wait and see!” I never knew Jimmy personally. But he finished his mission. He changed my world and a lot of other people’s world as well. That’s why to this day as an adult, we make the trip down to Jimmy’s grave, lay a toy soldier at the base, and thank the Lord for sacrifice and freedom. We follow that with a salute to Mr. Horn and his wife, who are buried beside Jimmy. I suspect they’re all home with Jimmy now too.