One day you dream of your first car, your first love, and your first home. The next you struggle to remember your last car and even the house where you once lived for most of your life.
I am an old man. Some of us would prefer to be called senior, or elderly, as these have more approving connotations, but I don't care either way. I fought at Juneau Beach and what followed was a military career. We lived in Kingston, Ontario, my wife and I. Did you know that Kingston was once this Nation's Capital? Well now it's mostly known for its military heritage, its architecture, and its student population. And of course, there is the Rideaufront Home for the aged, my current residence for the last many years.
I'm guessing none of this interests you. The elderly are everywhere and we are growing in numbers. And surely, we are a reminder that one day you will also become a mere caricature of yourself. Your muscles will shrink, your spine curve, your face crease. Your skin will sag, your belly bloat, and you will turn invisible to all, save those closest to you. But soon, even they will grow old and die then you will have no one to appreciate your memories. So if my words leave you indifferent, I do understand.
I could say that this whole story started at 0800, (and for you civvies I will clarify, that was 8:00 a.m. this morning) but in a way it started many years ago.
When I arrived at breakfast wearing my red beret, my platoon knew there was something on my mind. I only wear it on certain occasions, and today I was planning something special. I call them my platoon, but in reality they are the residents that I'm most familiar with, as we usually have our meals together. And this group was not created out of familiarity, but for efficiency. The orderlies prefer to know where each of us is at all times. Orderlies are obsessed with order, so they don't like for us to stray from our designated areas, nor interrupt their plans for our daily schedule. You see, they are outnumbered and it wouldn't take much to create disorder and chaos. And that's what my plan was based on.
It was during dessert that I demanded their attention by clinking a spoon against my jello glass. "Attention please, Privates." My tablemates stared at the spoon and then my beret. "I have a mission for us all."
"Why?" Odina sat across from me and struggled with a spoonful of jello as it doddered toward her mouth. "And what's with the hat, Captain?"
Most everyone calls me Captain, even though I've never attained that rank. Some do so endearingly, and others to ridicule, but I've learned to ignore the latter group.
"I want my life back. At least a semblance of what living should be. I'm guessing you all feel the same."
With spoon in hand, Odina chimed her jello glass in support.
"We still have what it takes to make a modicum of difference to someone. I say we sneak out of this monotonous home and get ourselves a job."
Before Odina could chime in, Laddie spoke. I call him Laddie because he is only 67 years old. "No offence, but, who would possibly hire a 94 year old Captain?" he said, "And we're not prisoners here, we are free to leave."
I may be a little older than most, but I can still walk, and think, and work at something or other. And I'm no fool, either. We are not prisoners, but Laddie obviously didn't see the symbolism and satisfaction implied in my suggestion of simply slipping away.
"Laddie, do you really think we'd get very far if they knew of our plan? They wouldn't let us come and go without a chaperon, and they don't have chaperons. This is their house, their rules."
I couldn't read his expression. He was always a mystery, that man. Some times he was distant, at other times overly eager to give a hand and encourage. Symptoms of someone who is depressed, no doubt.
"So, who is with me?"
It was unanimous. All six soldiers sitting around the table showed their allegiance when they tinkled their glass in unison.
Every morning at 1000 there are two events organized for the residents of Rideaufront Home. There is music appreciation, where song sheets are distributed and participants sing along with Mrs. Dushesne, an elderly woman who once taught music in her past life, as she enthusiastically plays the oldies on an upright piano. There is the exercise class, where residents sit in foldaway chairs and wave and stretch, and swing their torsos in sync with the young lady who sits up front directing the procession. I normally stay in my room, but not today.
The plan was for the platoon to meet in the great hall. It's only used on special occasions, like holiday parties, or Sunday mass, so we knew it would not be monitored. Moreover, and in keeping with regulations set forth by the local Fire Marshall, this room has a fire exit leading to a parking lot, right next to a city bus stop. The next shuttle heading for town would be at 1030.
Only three of us had made it to the rendezvous point. There was Laddie, Odina, and myself. We surmised that some of the group had forgotten about the mission. And some likely marched to their normally scheduled posts out of sheer habit. We decided to wait and see if anyone else would catch up.
No one else had shown up. Odina complained of indigestion, so Laddie and I brought her back to her room.
The next bus would pass at 1130. We decided to stay in our rooms and return to the hall at 1115. I slapped a movie in the VCR, and as the opening credits to A Bridge Too Far scrolled across the television screen, I dozed off.
I slept in and was awakened by an orderly directing me to the cafeteria for lunch. The platoon had already started their meal, except for Odina, who I imagined had excused herself on account of her indigestion.
When I asked who was still with me, no one responded except for Laddie. He nodded with tears swelling his eyes. It seems that Odina was not experiencing indigestion. She had died of a heart attack. Que sera. Laddie is certainly not military material. He's a real softie, that man. And less I come off as a callous old man, allow me to make myself perfectly clear. You see, as you age you go through certain stages that I will not bore you with now, except to say that the last and unavoidable stage, if one's mind is not too clouded by anti-depressants, is that of acceptance and boredom. This is where one realizes that they have exhausted their stay. This is when you know that death would be a welcome rest, like dropping onto a firm Posterpedic mattress after a long, tiring day. Well anyway, Odina certainly had her wish come true. Of this I am sure.
At this time of day I would normally be lying in bed watching one of my war flicks. Odina would be participating in the craft-du-jour with the arts and crafts group. Maybe gluing macaroni spackled with silver sparkles onto coloured cardboard to form brilliant yet unrecognizable portraits. Laddie would be in the lounge awaiting that day's class of grade schoolers who had been shanghaied into visiting the home and mingling with teary-eyed residents, anxious to ramble on and spill their precious meanderings onto frightened children. But instead, Odina was dead, and Laddie and I rode the bus heading for center town.
"You don't seem too put off by Odina's passing," he said.
"Exactly," I said. "No more than I should. It was her time." I did not want to explain my way of thinking nor partake in some meaningless philosophical debate. It would all be clear to him, soon enough.
I watched him comb white hair with his hand, up over his forehead, as he stared out at Lake Ontario. He is a proud man, I thought, and a little young to be cast aside like the rest of us. But we all have our stories, and I didn't need to know his.
"Laddie, what kind of job are you hoping for?"
"Captain, I won't be looking for a job today. And what about you?"
Again with the mysteries. I wondered why the hell he had bothered coming along. "It doesn't matter," I said, "volunteer work would be fine. Anything to pull me out of bed in the morning. I thought I'd start at the Legion Hall."
Our stop was at The Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 50. Laddie helped me down off the bus and up into the building, but on flat terrain I did just fine with my cane. The Legion has branches throughout the country. They are a non-profit organization formed to support war veterans and their families. They cater to a slew of services, and I figured they could surely use my help, somewhere.
Laddie pointed to an office down the hall then double-timed it ahead of me. What the hell was his hurry?
When I entered the office he and the clerk were wearing god-awful smiles. Those same idiotic, patronizing smiles I get from the orderlies here at the home. The ones where they nod a whole lot, flash their teeth and stare with glazed eyes as if to say, 'Now now, Captain, you'll be fine. You're just a little unsettled.'
We must have talked for half an hour. Actually, the clerk did the talking, and I wasn't listening. I knew from the get-go that my mission had been botched. There would be no job for me here. And that's when I was reminded of the movie, Stalag 17. The one where American POVs are betrayed by an informer who slips messages inside a chess piece, which in turn falls into their German captor's hands. Laddie was an informer. A traitor.
What followed is a little foggy. We sat in the Legion's bar. The pub looks the same in all of their halls. They are small, dark and depressing. Some veterans come to play darts, or cards, but mostly it's a great excuse to drink away their sorrows at cut-rate, subsidized prices.
I don't drink any longer, yet Laddie ordered me a beer. He sat across from me still sporting his petty-minded grin. And somehow he had me talking. A bunch of gibberish, no doubt. Before long I saw that we had emptied a pitcher of beer. Very clever on his part. My constitution is not what it once was. I was seeing double, and like a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome, he had me wrapped around his little finger actually caring about his tall tales. And his methods were so obvious, now that I'm sober looking back. He actually called me Dad on several occasions. He even displayed a blurry picture of himself as a child, and said that the man standing behind him was myself. And this part I'm not sure of at all, but I believe he said that the woman standing next to me was Odina. I don't know what his game is, but I'm onto him, that Laddie.
I slept through supper and awoke in my bed. I never understood those condemned men on death row who nitpicked over their last meal. What the hell would it matter if you died on an empty stomach? Over the last few weeks the doctor here had insisted that I was depressed and prescribed anti-depressants. I had saved them all for a rainy day. I opened each capsule and poured their contents into a glass of water. I drank the glass and inserted The Green Berets into my VCR.
I was awakened by Laddie, who shook my arm and offered a bowl of soup. I was groggy at first but then asked him point blank, "Did you tamper with my pills, Laddie?"
His smirk disappeared and gave way to pinched lips and foggy eyes. I had caught the son-of-a-bitch.
"Yes. I filled them with glycerine. You're only supposed to take one at the time. Besides, Odina's funeral is in a couple of days. You wouldn't want to miss it, would you?"
"Ah. Of course not." Oh, he was clever, that one. I needed to buy time. Distract him, a little. "You are often teary-eyed," I said. "You are depressed, aren't you?"
"No doubt." His act didn't go over so well when I wasn't impaired.
I grabbed my red beret from the nightstand and plopped it onto his head.
"What's this for?"
"Our next mission is to cheer you up."
"Thanks. And just how will we do that?"
"You're still young, Laddie. Have you had a good look at our Mrs. Dushesne? She can still boogie."
His condescending smile returned to his lips. "Oh, I'm sure she has false hips. Likely plastic."
"And who the hell cares!"
We both laughed.
"Captain, why don't you call me Robert, from now on?"
"All right," I said. He was so transparent. "And you can call me, Captain."
When he left I ate my soup and prepared for bed. I decided I would no longer divulge future missions, and that I needed to plan my next one. I inserted the movie, Stalag 17, into my video player. I wanted a closer look at the enemy. I dozed off during the opening credits.