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The Visitor--an inspirational short story series

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"...Choose only entertainment and media that uplift you. Good entertainment will help you to have good thoughts and make righteous choices...Do not participate in entertainment that in any way presents immorality or violent behavior as acceptable."
For The Strength of Youth

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Submitted by Steven ODell on 12 January 2009 - 3:53pm.

The War
Steven G. O'Dell © 2008

It was the same thing everyday. It had been for years. Milt Thompson would go to the park, where he sat on the bench and fed to the pigeons the bread crumbs he had brought. Only when the bag was empty did the slightest trace of a smile fade from his lips and he would then stare into space as if he had removed himself from the world. Where he went when he retreated like this no one knew. You couldn't reach him for long before he would again withdraw. When the sun began to fade and the air began to chill, Milt would return from wherever he had disappeared to and would then stand and shuffle slowly to his home for the night, where he sat alone in the dark until he got hungry or sleepy and responded to whichever came first.

It hadn't always been this way. Milt Thompson was a genuinely kind and good man. He was loved by all the neighborhood children, who had often wished aloud that he were their grandfather. He was admired by all the young men who had the occasion to hear his wisdom and he was sought out inconspicuously by all the young women that he had complimented regarding their beauty and grace--and that was all of them that he met. In short, everyone loved Milt Thompson. He always had a ready smile for everyone he met, even when they didn't return the favor. The world had never gotten him down. It had been his mission to lift up the world and Milt had done his best to accomplish the task.

The war had changed all that. He was not the same man when he came home as he had been when he left. Milt now sat or stood withdrawn from the rest of the world, even when in a crowd. The world may as well have not existed for him at times.

It seemed a day like any other. Milt was sitting on the bench he always chose as his post, doing the same thing he always did there. The bag of bread crumbs was empty and Milt was in his far off land, running from or solving who-knew-what problem. His empty stare was interrupted when a large man came to stand directly in front of him, not a pace away.

Milt looked slowly up from his reverie and focused on the man's face. There was a sad smile apparent as the man looked downward into Milt's eyes. His hands were in his pockets to protect from the chill late afternoon air.

"May I sit with you, Milt?"

Milt screwed up his brow, attempting to remember this man, although not really caring if he did at this moment. But it was his way to be kind, so he consented. In a few moments he would be going home anyway. It was starting to darken.

"I don't think I know you, do I?"

"No, Milt. We've never met. My name is Mathoni." He pulled a hand from his pocket and offered it to Milt, who responded automatically from years of conditioning and choice.

"Mathoni, did you say? What an unusual name." A spark of interest showed in his eye.

"I hear that a lot", he laughed. "I just tell them I am an unusual man, so it seems appropriate that I should have an unusual name to go with it."

Milt smiled --truly smiled--for the first time in ages. It felt foreign, but it also felt good.

"Milt, I want to talk to you about what's been bothering you, if you don't mind. I want to help." The sincerity could easily be read. It was genuine.

Milt squirmed uncomfortably. "So,...you've been talking to my neighbors. Listen,...I don't want you to bother with an old man's problems. You have better things to do, I am sure."

"No, Milt, I don't. I want to help you. I know you have been under a lot of weight since you came home from the war. It's about time that you drop that weight and get back to being happy, isn't it?"

A tear formed in Milt's eye almost immediately and ran down his cheek. He wiped it away quickly, looking about with apparent embarrassment. "I'm not sure I can talk about it."

"Alright, Milt. Then just listen for a moment. What you were called to do over there was something that your very soul rebelled against. It violated everything you stood for. It was unconscionable, but you had a duty to perform and you did it."

Milt was sobbing softly now and hung his head, slumping slightly forward. Mathoni went on, gently removing the patched and re-patched feelings that had remained tender and festering over the years.

"Milt, you did your duty. For that you can be pleased. What you had to do is not so easy to dismiss, is it?"

Through the tears and sobbing, Milt tried to convey his hurt. "I killed young boys that barely had facial hair. Some didn't. They may never have even had a girlfriend. Now they never will."

"Is that why you never married? You felt guilty that these men would never have families of their own."

"Yes..., wouldn't you?"

"They would have killed you if they had been given the chance, Milt."

"But they didn't. I killed them. If it hadn't been for that stupid war, we might have even been friends, chatting over a meal or an activity. And who knows what they would have contributed to the world, if they had lived."

"Yes, you are right. I know a thing or two about war and human nature. A lot of good men have died because a few bad men couldn't control their own nature. Many have died because of miscommunication." Mathoni stared off into space himself for a moment. Milt studied him carefully.

"But I also know the good in men's hearts. The best men always come out on top, Milt. They carry on through the worst of times, hanging on until they get back to the best of times. By doing this, they give hope and courage to others who might have given up without their examples." He turned to look Milt directly in the eye.

"Milt, you aren't a quitter. You never were. You did what you had to do. You are a good man and there are those that need your example. Think of it--the real reason you feel guilty is because you were the one to survive. You feel unworthy to live. You wanted to die because it just hurt too bad to live at times. You aren't the only one who felt less than human after what he was called on to do. You aren't the only one who regretted it to the point of wishing he could offer himself just to bring them back. Answer me this, Milt--what's worse--to feel like you do for your actions under duress or to be like those who grew to hate so much that they enjoyed the killing? Tell me, which would you rather be? Your war is now with yourself--you can lose or win. The choice is yours alone."

Genuine surprise registered on Milt's face. This was a perspective he had never considered. The answer was obvious. It had been there all along. He just hadn't seen it.

"Milt, you are going to be alright. I want to offer an idea that you need to bear in mind. The men you killed in war have all died in vain if you just give up and stop living after the war--at a time when you should be enjoying the fruits of your freedom and sharing the hope and joy with others--the next generation. You need to open up again and teach the young ones that war is never the answer. You need to live for those men who have died. What kind of man becomes defeated after the war, because he chose to give up?" Mathoni looked into Milt's eyes with an intensity that burned deeply into a soul. Milt felt that stare could see the bottoms of his feet.

Mathoni was right. A man who chooses to give up is worse than a man who is driven to it. A man who abandons the rising generation is a man who has abandoned hope and life itself. There is no use for men like this. Milt couldn't stomach being a useless man, but that was what he had become--useless to all but the pigeons he fed daily in the park. Useless to himself and mankind in general. It had to stop and it would stop here--today--right now.

Without warning, Milt grabbed Mathoni and hugged him so tightly that even the muscular Mathoni was impressed with the strength of the seemingly frail man who held him. Mathoni returned the embrace until Milt chose to break it, wiping away the tears that had finally healed his spirit.

"Thank you for helping me see clearly again. I was blind to what I was doing to myself. No one defeated me but me. You were right to chastise me for it. Thank you for being so gentle in the way you did it."

"What kind of man would I be if I wasn't? There is enough pain and more to go around, wouldn't you agree?"

"Yes. Now, please, would you let me buy you a hot cocoa and a sandwich? I want to show you my gratitude. I know a great place to eat, if they are still there after all this time."

"I think that would be the start of a great friendship, Milt. And a wonderful way to celebrate the start of your new life." Mathoni stood quickly, took Milt firmly by the hand and lifted him to his feet, waiting for the path to the hot cocoa to be pointed out. There were still a lot of plans to talk over.

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