Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Unfinished Business

Unfininshed Business
by Tim Baker


The last thought to go through Bill Kilroy’s mind before he died was of the man who had saved his life.

To say that there was silence in the hospital room would be a half-truth. There was no noise that would disturb a person trying to read a book but there were a wealth of sounds that Kilroy was tired of hearing. He was tired of hearing the various beeps and hums and drips made by the assortment of machines connected to his frail body. Despite the advanced technologies making them barely audible, he heard them as if they were freight trains, much the same as the snowflakes that night in 1944.

To him the sounds of the machines did nothing but remind him that his life was in the hands of others.


The 83-year-old Kilroy looked at the faces surrounding his bed, tears in his eyes his only method of communication. Gathered in the small room were Sylvia, his wife of 59 years, their four children and nine grandchildren.

Sylvia held Bill’s left hand and stroked it lovingly while his oldest son, Carl held the right. Carl was approaching sixty now and served as a constant reminder to Kilroy of the last time his life was in somebody else’s hands.

Over the years Kilroy had gotten used to explaining the reason his oldest son’s name was Carl instead of William Jr., which was the name of son number two. Regardless of how many times he answered the question, the story never got any easier to tell.

There were six of them; Kilroy, Corporal Carl Benson and four PFCs, Al Kidd, Howard Archibald, Bruce Jordan and Wayne Palmer. They served with the 101st Airborne during the Second World War. They called themselves Kilroy’s Killers and they took advantage of every opportunity to leave the legendary graffiti “Kilroy Was Here” as a calling card, with one slight modification, they changed it to say “Kilroy’s Killers Were Here”. One time Archibald even used his bayonet to carve it into the chest of a dead German soldier. With the exception of Benson, whose wife was expecting their first child, all of the men were single. In the year they had been together they developed a camaraderie that rivaled that of the closest brothers. Having been together the longest, Kilroy and Benson were especially close.

On Christmas Eve, 1944 the Killers were on patrol in a forest near the Belgian border. Creeping silently through the thick trees, they spaced themselves far enough apart to minimize the chances of a slaughter should they be fired upon, yet close enough together to maintain visual contact with each other.

They moved slowly and deliberately, each man as taut as a bowstring ready to react to a hostile situation. The forest was deadly still. So much so that even the sound of snowflakes landing gingerly in the thick canopy of pine needles above was like a cacophony to their heightened sense of alert.

After two hours they stopped to check the map coordinates. Reaching into the cargo pocket of his pants, Kilroy produced the map and his compass. While the others formed a perimeter, Kilroy and Benson consulted the map and discussed their strategy in barely audible whispers. Nobody else made a sound.

As Kilroy pointed to a spot on the map and looked to Benson for confirmation, the stillness was broken by a small metallic click. Instinctively, Kilroy stuffed the map into his pocket while he and Benson spun around and brought their tommy guns to the ready.

All six men scanned the forest in front of them and all six men saw the same thing; trees covered with a blanket of fresh snow. The flakes that fell steadily restricted vision to less than one hundred yards. Kilroy squinted into the whiteness but saw nothing.

Using hand signals, he motioned for Kidd and Palmer to check the left flank and Archibald and Jordan to check the right flank. The men followed orders and began creeping off in search of the source of the sound.

For five agonizing minutes nothing happened. Despite the snow and the freezing temperatures, Kilroy felt sweat dampening his armpits.

Without warning the still air was shattered by the sound of machine gun fire. Kilroy heard Al Kidd scream that he was hit and Wayne Palmer returning fire from the left. Kilroy and Benson ran toward the skirmish. They came upon Kidd lying next to a tree wrapping a field dressing around his right leg. With a silent nod to let them know he was ok, Kidd resumed wrapping his leg while Kilroy and Benson continued past.

When they saw Palmer lying in the snow firing to the east, they took positions behind the biggest trees they could find and obtained a fix on the source of the gunfire.

“Kraut patrol sarge,” Palmer yelled. “They were as surprised as we were.”

For several minutes there was nothing but pure chaos until finally the German guns fell silent. Kilroy jammed a fresh clip into his tommy and looked over the forward site but all he saw was smoke drifting lazily off the tip. No movement and no sound, except for the falling snow. It was as if nothing had happened. After a few minutes he signaled to Benson and Palmer to advance on the Germans.

The two men crept silently towards the enemy. From their right, Archibald and Jordan came out of the trees and together, the four men closed in on the German patrol. Kilroy brought up the rear keeping a watchful eye out for any additional Germans who might sneak up on them from behind.

There were seven bodies lying in the snow, which was now turning dark red with the flowing blood.

The site of the dead men, or boys actually, made Kilroy pause and withdraw into his thoughts. Seven boys who were alive five minutes earlier now lay dead in the snow. Seven boys who were probably sharing thoughts about what they would do after the war, or perhaps what they would do that night when they returned to their unit. If it had been just a little different there may have been six American corpses instead of seven German ones. He thought about Sylvia and how close he had come to never seeing her again.

His reverie was broken by Benson screaming.

“Sarge, watch out!”

Kilroy looked up in time to see one of the German soldiers raising his rifle to fire at him. There was no time to react; in a milli-second his mind resigned itself to the fact that his life was over. Again he thought of Sylvia and in his mind he apologized to her for getting killed before they had a chance to marry. He wondered if he would be buried at home in Connecticut or if they would bury him here in Germany. He didn’t want to be buried in Germany, far from all those he loved.

The sudden blur in front of him shocked him out of his thoughts and he watched in silence as Carl Benson dove at the German just as the barrel of the enemy machine gun belched flames. There were several shots before the gun came up empty. Benson landed in the snow next to the German with a thud. Kilroy brought his tommy up and fired at the German until his clip was empty.

When the gun refused to fire anymore, Kilroy threw it to the ground and rushed to the side of his friend. Somewhere in the back of his mind he heard a commotion as the rest of the squad emptied their guns into the other German bodies.

He turned Carl over and looked into his eyes. They stared upward as if watching the falling snowflakes but Kilroy knew they saw nothing. There were five bullet holes in a line from Benson’s right ear across his throat and down to his chest.

He was dead.

Kneeling in the snow, he cradled his friend’s head and tried to will life back into him. For the second time in five minutes he was shown how easily the chasm between life and death could be crossed. He looked into the eyes of the man who had made the ultimate sacrifice and wondered what his last thought was.

Then he cried.

When his first son was born three years later, there was no deliberation about what to name him. Carl Benson Kilroy was a living memorial to the best friend Bill had ever known.

Lying in the hospital bed looking into his son’s eyes, Bill Kilroy thought about the man who had saved his life and he cried for the man who had died before meeting his only child. As tears rolled down his cheeks, Bill Kilroy died.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Last Resort

February 25, 1986
Providence, RI

The frigid wind could cut through steel.

Inside the small trailer that served as his office, Gerry Houle used a pair of pliers to turn the broken knob on the electric space heater in an attempt to coax more heat from it. The spring shaped elements hummed and glowed bright red but did precious little to warm the space. Cold air continued to creep in through the drafty window and around the poorly sealed door.

After rubbing his hands briskly in front of the heater he turned to face the desk.

The red light on his answering machine winked at him. When he pressed the play messages button the machine went through a series of clicks and whirs while the tape rewound. When it reached the beginning it slowly reversed direction and began playing the message. Gerry recognized the voice of Fred Love immediately.

“Hidey-ho Gerry, this is your favorite Architect, Fred Love. I hope you’re staying warm out there. Give me a call when you can, we’ve got to discuss that issue again.”

There was a barely audible click followed by several seconds of silence until the machine began to whir and click again as it reset the tape for more messages.

Pushing aside a pile of papers and a Styrofoam coffee cup, he picked up the phone and pressed the first speed-dial button.

While he listened to the ringing at the other end he inspected the inside of the coffee cup. Midway through the second ring the call was answered by a youthful, polite, female voice. The pleasant tone of her voice told Gerry she was not struggling to stay warm.

“Good morning, Thomlinson, Jones and Bergstrom, how may I help you?”

Gerry sat up straight and tossed the empty cup toward the trash can where it bounced off the rim and landed on the floor.

“Hi, this is Gerry Houle; can I speak to Fred Love, please?”

“Good morning, Gerry, one moment, please,” the polite voice replied, followed by a click and a horrible muzak rendition of The Beatles’ “A Hard Days Night”.

Gerry tried to ignore the blasphemous muzak by watching the activity outside his window.

The sound of a truck horn signaled coffee-break time as a white catering truck rolled through the gate onto the construction site. The words “Martin’s Catering” were painted on the stainless steel sides of the rear compartment of the truck. A steady stream of water dripped from the undercarriage and steam rose out of the top.

Gerry watched as a dozen men descended on the truck like cowhands responding to the dinner bell. The multiple layers of clothing they wore in defense against the savage wind made it impossible to recognize any of them with the exception of Rich Garcia, the assistant project manager, who was discussing something with the steel fabricator. Garcia had more fashion sense than common sense so his only protection from the biting cold was a maroon Members Only jacket.

After opening the flip-up doors on the back of the catering truck Martin stood by the rear corner with one hand in the pocket of his tattered gray sweatshirt and the other, covered with a fingerless black glove, poised on his change dispenser. The stub of an unlit cigar was clenched between his teeth.

Just as “A Hard Days Night” came to an end, Gerry heard a click and the muzak was replaced by the cheerful voice of Fred Love.

“Fred Love speaking.”

Without seeing the man, Gerry knew there was a broad smile on his face and a bow tie around his neck.

“Hi, Fred, Gerry Houle here.”

“Howdy-do, Gerry, thanks for getting back to me this quickly.”

“No problem, Fred, what can I do for you?” Gerry asked, even though he already knew the answer.

“Gerry, I’m not at my desk, let me put you on hold for one minute.”

Gerry heard another click followed by the muzak version of “Mack the Knife”.

The temperature inside the trailer was inching its way toward 60 degrees, which was balmy compared to the 35 degree outside temperature. The trailer also protected Gerry from the 25 mile-per-hour winds, which produced a wind-chill temp of 23.

Twenty-five years in the New England construction industry meant that Gerry had worked in cold weather more than he cared to think about. Having worked his way up to superintendent at least afforded him the quasi-luxury of a heated (a term to be used loosely) trailer to work in.

Gerry continued to watch through his window as the workers outside, mostly masons, huddled behind a twenty-foot high concrete block wall seeking protection against the wind as they drank coffee and ate donuts or muffins. Garcia and the steel fabricator stood in the shelter of the wall discussing something over a set of folded blueprints.

Memories of days spent walking the iron ten stories up in similar weather made Gerry shiver involuntarily. Thank Christ he didn’t have to do that anymore.

“Poor bastards,” Gerry muttered to himself as a huge wind gust rocked the trailer.

A click in his ear piece and Fred was back on the line.

“Okee-dokee, Gerry, sorry about that.”

“No problem, Fred.”

“Gerry, I’ll cut right to the chase-er-ino,” Fred said. “Our engineer is getting very upset about those unbraced block walls. We’ve made several calls to your office, written two letters to your boss; the second one was hand delivered yesterday, and nothing’s being done.”

Gerry cringed when Fred referred to Glenn Worden as “his boss”, even though it was technically true, Gerry had never worked for a person that he despised as much. In Gerry’s opinion, Worden would sell his mother into slavery if there was enough profit in it.

“I understand Fred, but there isn’t much I can do about it.”

“I know that, Gerry, I just wanted to warn you that our next step is to issue a stop work order on him.”

The men outside continued their efforts to avoid the cold wind and enjoy a hot cup of coffee before it became a cold cup of coffee.

Gerry watched as the wind caused the top of the wall to sway several inches. Fred and the Engineer were rightfully concerned. With no roof framing to secure the top of the wall wind like this could easily topple it.

Fred’s voice interrupted his thoughts.

“Are you there, Gerry?”

What Gerry witnessed next was so surreal that it failed to register with him right away. It didn’t happen in slow motion the way it does in the movies, it happened in a matter of about three seconds.

As the wind continued its relentless assault on the wall, the men huddled behind it. Twenty feet above them, the force of the gusts moved the wall. Gerry expected it to move six inches or so and then return to its former position but it didn’t.

It continued to move, a foot, two feet, five feet.

On the ground, the construction workers continued eating and drinking, unaware of what was happening above them.

Gerry watched in mute horror as four tons of concrete block wall hurdled toward the ground and the unsuspecting men.

“Gerry? Did I lose you?” Fred asked.

“Holy shit,” Gerry muttered as he dropped the phone.

As the phone landed on the floor, the 20-foot high, 60-foot long concrete block wall landed on the ground with a massive thud, like the muffled bass drum of the gods. Gerry felt the concussion in his feet. Pieces of concrete block flew off in every direction. Despite the frozen ground, dust rose in a giant plume.

Gerry was transfixed in his spot.

A second earlier there had been men sitting there, eating donuts, talking about the Super Bowl, commiserating about the cold or discussing what they would do when they inevitably won the lottery. Now there was a pile of broken and silent concrete blocks with pieces of twisted steel reinforcing pointing uselessly in all directions.

There was no movement.

Other than the tinny sound of Fred’s voice coming through the phone, the only sound Gerry heard was the wind roaring outside the trailer.