Pitcher turned his head as far to his right as it would go and then pressed on his jaw to stretch the muscles and ligaments in his neck. It had been nearly six months since the Blackhawk crash that broke his neck. Of course, there had been no X-rays to show the damage to his vertebrae, but the pain and temporary paralysis had been evidence enough.
That crash had taken quite a toll. Manny and Jerry had both died of head injuries sustained, in all likelihood, due to their lack of helmets. The chopper itself was almost a total loss. The only silver lining was that they had been able to salvage the M240’s and the remaining ammunition. It was a small consolation for the loss of two very good men and debilitating injuries for the remaining four who had gone on the mission.
All because Pappy wanted a whirlybird.
Pitcher shook his head. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Unfortunately, Manny and Jerry had no experience flying and, more importantly, landing a Blackhawk.
The bird was obviously powerful and touchy.
The result had been disastrous.
Pitcher had grown up under Pappy’s tutelage. They weren’t related by blood, but there were times when swamp water was thicker than blood. Pitcher’s maternal grandfather had died of complications from an alligator attack. He had lost a portion of his arm. Infection had set in and the tough old codger had been taken down by sepsis. Pitcher had never met his father or any of the members of the paternal side of his family. His mother had left the swamp for the city, met a man, gotten pregnant and watched that man simply walk out of her life.
Raised by Pappy and the rest of the swamp community, Pitcher had the utmost respect for the elder statesman of their group … right up until he sent them off on a wild goose chase for a helicopter. Pitcher had argued briefly with the older man, but had learned long ago that it didn’t pay to push Pappy too far.
Pappy was stern and loving but he also had a mean streak and every now and then he would get a wild hair, like his helicopter scheme, that didn’t seem to fit with the rest of his fairly stoic character. This time that wild hair had cost men lives and limbs. This time Pitcher couldn’t forgive Pappy.
The two men had not spoken since the fateful day of the crash months earlier. Pitcher had been focused on his recovery and Pappy had been focused on establishing their new living arrangements deep in the Chattahoochee Forest.
Today was different. Pitcher was ready … ready to tell Pappy what he thought of the botched mission and ready to tell Pappy that he was leaving. Pitcher inhaled through his nose and exhaled through his lips as he stretched his neck in the opposite direction. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine his conversation with Pappy.
It wasn’t going to be pretty.
There had been another, similar conversation years ago when Pitcher was thinking about getting out of the Army. He had been given a choice by his command – stay in and complete an elite school to get a promotion or get out. The Army was reducing its forces and there was little room for soldiers like Pitcher with a low-demand military specialty and average test scores. Pitcher had made the mistake of asking Pappy his opinion and telling Pappy that he was thinking about getting out and returning to the swamp. Pappy had lit into him as if Pitcher had insulted Pappy’s mother.
Of course, Pappy had been right … that time. Pitcher had re-upped, completed Ranger school and become one of America’s sharpest instruments in the fight against terrorism.
That was the last time. Things were different this time.
Pitcher summoned up the image of the wrecked helicopter in his mind to steel himself for the inevitable tirade when he told Pappy that he and six other Rangers planned to leave. As a part of his recovery, Pitcher had first walked, then jogged and finally run to the site of the crash. The chopper was still there – a crumpled mass of steel. Pitcher thought of Manny and his ever-present communications specialist, Jerry. The two were nearly inseparable. What a team they had made!
As his eyes welled briefly with tears, Pitcher stood and took the first step of the next phase of his life’s journey. Only the slightest hint of his injuries remained. There was a spot in the midst of his stride where he experienced a split second of numbness. His left leg would falter ever-so-slightly and then he would complete the step in a normal fashion. Each step required an exercise of willpower to push through the numbness.
With that same unyielding will, Pitcher was about to leave behind people he had known all of his life, including his mother. He had pleaded with her to come with them, but she was unwilling to even entertain the thought of leaving her swamp family. They had taken her in when her man had cast her out. She figured she owed them her life in exchange for that generosity.
It was April. Flowers bloomed. Their fragrance ebbed and flowed on the late spring breeze. The forest shimmered in luxuriant green.
Pitcher knocked on the door of Pappy’s cabin.