He had no idea when the picture was taken. Maybe before Guadalcanal-no, not with M-1s and carbines-maybe before Tarawa, maybe before Saipan, maybe before Iwo. There was one other too, Bob couldn’t remember, but he knew his dad was one of the few marines who had hit five separate islands and lived to tell about it, though the wound on Tarawa from the Jap sniper would have killed a lesser man.

The photo, old and curled, was one of a few that remained testifying to the war adventures of Earl L. Swagger of Blue Eye, Arkansas, who entered the war a corporal and got out a first sergeant even if wounded seven times. It was a real hell-and-back story. Audie Ryan didn’t have anything on Earl. He fought hard, he almost died; somehow, like little Audie, he came back. He never became a movie star, but instead became a police officer and he got ten more years of life out of the deal.

But that was all. Bob was alone in the attic and it hadn’t been easy digging through this stuff, which had been hastily moved from a house in Ajo, Arizona, never categorized, never examined, just lumped together as junk from the past and shoved up here. The cardboard box-“Buster Brown. Size C7, Dark Brown Oxfords,” inscribed in his mother’s script “Daddy’s Things”-contained little else. The medals, even the big one, were nested together, the ribbons faded, the metal tarnished. Bob thought maybe he should have them polished and mounted, a display to the man’s courage. But his father would have been embarrassed at such show. There were police marksmanship medals, and yellowing newspaper clippings from the month of his death in 1955.

Well, I tried, Bob thought.

He thought of Mr. Yano’s card in his wallet.

Dear Mr. Yano, he imagined the note he’d write, I went through what remained of my father’s effects and found nothing that would help you in your quest. Maybe if-

And then yet another possibility occurred to him.

This here was the stuff his mother had gathered, after the funeral, before she launched into the land of drunkenness. But there was another three years when her sister, Agnes Bowman, a schoolteacher and spinster who had not yet found a man good enough, had come and stayed with them, and Aunt Agnes had raised him, sternly, not with love or tenderness, but out of a grim sense of family duty while Erla June drank herself to death and died before reaching the age of forty. Aunt Agnes was not a giving woman, which was all right. Aunt Agnes did the things that had to be done and didn’t have a lot of time for nursing boys like Bob, who in any case retreated into someplace dark for a few years after his father’s death, and so never made contact with her. Perhaps she was in her own dark place. That was okay; Aunt Agnes provided and guided and paid the bills and fed him; compared to that a squeeze or a hug wasn’t much of anything.

But then Bob gravitated toward Sam Vincent and his big, rambling, loud, smart, funny, competitive, welcoming family and eventually, through high school, lived with Sam, almost as a Vincent. Aunt Agnes saw no purpose therefore and moved away, sending a Christmas card every year.

Bob had visited her after his first tour in Vietnam in 1966 and as an adult discovered a decent, quiet woman, finally married to a widowed schoolteacher, living in Oranda, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley. It had been a nice visit, though not much had been said and damned if he could remember-


Agnes Goodwin, her married name.

He didn’t know why, he hadn’t thought of it in years, but somehow it flew at him out of some lost file in his brain.

On Anywho.com he couldn’t even find an Oranda, nor on any map; he found an old map with the town located next to Strasburg, and identifying the town as Strasburg finally turned up a Goodwin. He made the blind call and located a cousin who knew other branches of the Goodwin family and guided him toward a Betty Frawley, of Roanoke, whose maiden name had been Goodwin and was that person’s uncle Mike Goodwin’s daughter.

“Ms. Frawley?”

“We don’t want none, if that’s what this is all about.”

“No, ma’am, it’s not. I am Bob Lee Swagger, a retired marine, calling from Crazy Horse, Idaho, on some family business. I am trying to locate my aunt, whose name was Agnes Bowman and who late in life married a Virginia man named Goodwin-”

“Aunt Agnes!”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Well, she was a good soul, bless her heart. She married Daddy after Mother died and although I would never be one to criticize Mother, I will tell you those may have been the best years of his life. And she nursed him through to the end.”

“She was good at that.”

“Her end followed shortly after, I’m sorry to say. You were a marine?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“In nineteen sixty-six, did you come and visit Agnes? I was eleven at the time and I have a very distinct memory of a tall, handsome young man who set all the hearts aflutter. He was just back from Vietnam, where he’d won some medals. He was Agnes’s nephew, I believe. Would that be you?”

“Yes, ma’am, though I’m far from handsome these days, if I ever was. I remember that day in Oranda well. It was the last time I saw her. She helped raise me after my father died and my mother-her sister-had some problems.”

“Families in those days pitched in. That’s the way it was. It’s not much like that anymore, but in those days, families helped out.”

“Ma’am, I’m just playing out a long shot here. My father died in nineteen fifty-five, and that’s when Aunt Agnes came and stayed with us, through ’fifty-eight or ’fifty-nine. As I say, it was then my mother’s decline began. Agnes ran the house for a time. I’m trying to gather up any mementos that might remain of my father. He was a marine too, and a law officer who died young. I thought that she might have had some effects, that you might have them, that something there might somehow relate to my father, something I missed or never knew about.”

“Sounds like a man trying to recover his father’s memory.”

“It may be that, ma’am.”

“Well, I think there’s a box somewhere. I’m not sure it made the move with me. It was all such old stuff, but I hated to just throw it out. It was somebody’s life, you just can’t throw it out.”

“Do you have it?”

“If I do, it’s in the basement and I’d have to look for it.”

“Ma’am, I’d be happy to come on out there and help you.”

“Well, I don’t have much to do these days, so I may as well go look for you. You leave me your address and we’ll see what we can find.”

And so, three weeks later, three weeks he’d spent alone on his property swinging that scythe every day, cutting down the brambles and thorns, a big envelope arrived from Roanoke, Virginia.

He opened it that night.

Oh, Christ.

First thing out was a picture of himself, his mother on a rare sober day, and stern Aunt Agnes, at a picnic table somewhere, ’57, ’58. He wore a Cardinals baseball cap, a T-shirt and jeans, and had scrawny arms and legs. “Bob Lee, Erla June, and Agnes, Little Rock, June 5, 1958,” the inscription read, in fading purple ink.

It brought back nothing, nothing at all.

Then came his mother’s death certificate, some yellowed insurance forms, her driver’s license, a bank book with NULL AND VOID stamped across it, a few Christmas cards from neighbors whose names meant nothing, Erla June’s obituary from the paper up in Fort Smith, a small gold crucifix with a pin that his mother had evidently worn, a few more photographs, mostly of strangers, a few more official forms and a few letters, most of them unopened.

There were eight in all. Evidently they’d arrived over the three years Agnes had lived with Bob and Erla June, some addressed to Mrs. Swagger, some to the Widow of Sgt. Swagger, some to Erla June by name.

He opened them, one by one. A former platoon member wanted to express his sadness and talk about the time Earl had saved his life on Guadalcanal. Then there was a schoolmate of Erla June’s, inquiring as to her health and welfare and expressing gratitude. There was a tax bill from Garland County and Bob realized he had finally paid it in 1984. The daughter of Col. William O. Darby, another Arkansas war hero, famous for having led “Darby’s Rangers” in Italy before he died in France, wrote to express her sorrow and offer moral and even financial support in case of

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