We Could Be Heroes

by Bensiamin

Chapter 19

Graduation was held on June 10, which turned out to be a day with pleasant weather. Given the import in the lives of the participants, it was a modest event, much of that having to do with it being a public school in a farming town. Still, the commencement address was given by a professor from the University of Oregon law school, who was a good public speaker and talked about making the right decisions to assure a positive and successful future, and also emphasized the importance of civic engagement and involvement. He pointed to the amount of anger and division the country was still experiencing after the Viet Nam war, and challenged every graduate to rise to the occasion and be civically engaged for the betterment of their country.

JC and Frank were down, staying at the parsonage again, and we were all radiant as Jackson proudly strode across the stage to receive his diploma. We all went out for lunch afterwards. Gary's graduation from community college was the next Saturday, and we made it a joint celebration for both boys. Lois was with her family after graduation, but they were all coming to our house in the evening for a barbecue that included Susan and Ellen.

After we'd eaten and were back at the house, JC kind of called everyone to attention in the living room. I'd been through these things before and had a sense of where it was likely to go, but for the boys it was a first time.

JC started out methodically, and I could see the emotion in his eyes. "I've only known you two boys for six months, when I discovered I not only had a son, but that the son came with a cool brother too. That's beyond anything I ever expected. So, I count myself among the luckiest people on the planet. I can speak for Dad now that he's gotten to know you, that he feels the same way. Talking about building a family was something I meant when I said it back at Christmas, though it was kind of like a figure of speech. I'd only just met you both. At any rate, it's become more real than I could have dreamed. I was so proud to hear you sing two weeks ago, Jackson, and equally proud to see you receive your diploma today. And prouder still when I heard them call your name as Jackson Dean. Gary, I'm sorry we won't be here for your graduation, but know that I feel the same way about your graduation. You've both done magnificent things this year, made dramatic changes in the direction of your lives and your attitudes and the probabilities of a successful and happy life."

He paused there, saying, "I'm getting choked up, so I'm going to stop there and let Dad say what's on his mind, or I'll get way too emotional."

Frank had been silently listening, a soft smile on his angular face, that was sharpened by the bright light of the afternoon sun, even inside the house. His gray hair was combed back, and the light reflected off it like steel, and as he stood up it wasn't hard to imagine him in a dress uniform with silver eagles on his shoulder epaulettes.

"Like JC said, I've know you both far less time than he has, and even though I started out putting my foot in it with Jackson, asking him a personal question I had no business knowing about, he was a good sport. He turned it around and called my bluff, and I'm guessing he'll be kidding me for the rest of my life about quizzing him about his sex life the first time I met him."

Jackson was giggling at that, Gary had heard the story and was following along, and JC and I were smiling broadly at each other.

"Anyhow, boys, you know I retired as a Colonel in the Army, so I saw a lot of men come and go. I watched a lot of young men go through training, some making it, some not. Some dedicated and committed, some just going through the motions. In most cases by the time we got to the end of training, whatever training program it was, you had a damn good idea who the winners were. You not only knew who stood out in the class before you, you knew who had what it takes to succeed. Who had commitment and guts! Who had a head on their shoulders coupled with a heart in their chest! Who cared about the people in their charge and so were good leaders! Who were motivated and capable!"

Both boys were kind of wide-eyed at hearing this, and it was completely unexpected.

Frank looked at Gary and said, "Like JC I'm sorry I won't be here for your graduation, but JC has to work, and I can't do the drive by myself. But I want you both to know what I just described about the standout candidates, the winners, is what I see in both of you. I'd have been honored to have you on any parade ground I commanded with a graduating class before me, because you'd be among the standout candidates."

Both boys were getting pretty emotional at this point. Their eyes were getting red and a little teary.

"You haven't had an easy life the last few years, from what I understand, but you've done what the most commendable men have done. You've overcome the obstacles and turned your lives around, and you're headed in the right direction. You've got good life partners with you, and I'm betting it's nowhere but upwards from here."

The room was silent. I knew better than to say anything. This was between them.

Frank looked at them both again and said, "On a parade ground I'd have a medal to pin on your chest, but I don't have one of those for you today. But I do want to give you both a hug."

They were both on him in a shot. I doubt either one of them had ever had an older adult and authority figure, one who clearly understood the subject he was talking about, say something this substantive to them. In five minutes of talking to them he had undone years-worth of the damage Bud had inflicted.

They stood there, holding each other and shedding tears of joy for a couple of minutes. I went for some tissues that I slipped to them as they broke up, needing one myself.

JC had managed to hold it together pretty well so far, and he stood up and cleared his throat, getting their attention. "You know my Dad well enough by now to know he's a tough old bird, but when he says something it's because he means it, and I'll second everything he said. We discussed different things we could do for you as graduation gifts and decided that you've both got financial challenges ahead. Jackson, you with college expense even if you have a scholarship. Gary, you with wanting to grow the lawn mowing business into a landscaping business. Both take not just hard work and commitment, but money, so we're giving you both $500 to make those challenges easier to address."

It was another of those pin drop moments, and then they both stepped over to JC and hugged him. It was another round of emotion for all of us.

It was my turn, I reached for something on the bookshelf, and all eyes turned my way. "Thanks to your brother who did the work, you got a great new bike at Christmas, but come September your life takes a more academic turn. Academic and musical. So, since you're building out a more classical music collection with Pavarotti and Handel, I decided on the music side to give you something very different though considered a classic."

I handed him the album and he opened it carefully, realizing quickly that this was a whole new musical space. The album was Duets with the Spanish Guitar by Laurindo Almeida on guitar, Martin Ruderman on flute and Salli Terri singing soprano. "I don't own the album but was turned on to it by a friend in college, and given all the new music you're learning, you should find this at least interesting."

He gave me a quick hug. "And on the academic side, since you don't want to have to run to the library all the time, there's this. I handed him an envelope. He slowly slipped the flyer and certificate out of it. "Wow, a complete set of World Book Encyclopedias! That is too much! I mean, I'm sure it was expensive, but it's fabulous. But, wait, this doesn't mean you think I'm turning into a nerdy bookworm or something, does it?"

"No way on that! But you haven't observed your mind at work studying and the kinds of questions you ask about all kinds of subjects, like I have. I grew up with a set of encyclopedias in my Dad's study. I used them a lot. I mean, I had to get permission to go in there, but I used them a lot. Anyway, I'm betting you'll put them to good use."

We chatted about life and next steps for a while longer, then I said something about starting to think about getting organized for the barbecue that we were having that evening. I had purchased steaks the day before, and decided to do a light marinade this time, so I headed for the kitchen. I boiled potatoes, and Gary and Lois were making potato salad. Jackson had salad duty, his favorite, and Susan and Ellen were bringing dessert.

Jackson heard Susan and Ellen arrive, and was becoming the perfect host, greeting them and bringing them into the living room to join JC and Frank, then a quick trip to the kitchen to return with wine glasses and a bottle of red and one of white! I could picture us hosting parties in Portland!

He'd barely gotten Susan and Ellen settled when he saw Lois and her parents pull up out front. I heard him say "Whoa, what is that?"

That got us all to the bay window in the living room to watch Pat and his wife step out of a Mustang King Cobra. Lois followed, carefully extricating herself from the back seat. The standard American scene then followed: all the guys went out to look at the car and talk to Pat, and all the women ended up in the living room laughing at the guys outside.

It was a cool car, though, a limited-edition version of the Mustang that had deep air-dam stripes and a killer Cobra snake decal on the hood. It came with a small V8 engine, which was a major drawback since it was only a 302 cubic inch engine. If it had run a 350 from the muscle car days, it would have been something. Pat gave the standard explanation about it being a perk of owning a dealership, and it was the only one he could get since it was a limited production run and reminding us it could be sold out from under him the next day.

When we all went back inside, still talking about the car, Lois caught our attention as we came in. "Yeah, it's a cool car if you're up front. You guys should spend a little time getting in and out of the back seat though!" That was food for thought.

Dinner came together well, and we ate inside as it was still a little cool in the back yard in the evening. Eventually the conversation turned to graduation gifts, and Jackson and Gary told them what JC and Frank had said and that they'd given them a monetary git. That raised eyebrows of amazement and appreciation.

When we got around to my gift, Susan and Ellen both sighed appreciatively about the encyclopedias, but Susan enthused about the album. "It is an older recording, but certainly is a classic. It's a wonderful combination of Spanish classical guitar, classical flute and the voice of a wonderful mezzo soprano who has a haunting voice. Then there's compositions by Chopin, Ravel and Tchaikovsky interpreted on the guitar. If you spend time listening to it, I'm pretty sure you'll not just become a real fan but discover new sounds and approaches to performing that you didn't know existed before."

The boys and I cleared the table, making our guests stay seated, and when we came back, before desert, I got everyone's attention and then said, "The three of us used to kid around and call ourselves the Three Musketeers, and then over time we realized that there weren't just three of us, there were four, and eventually we talked about and decided that Lois was part of the team and we re-named ourselves the Fellowship of the Four. It may sound a little corny, but its meaningful, at least to us. Anyway, we three, the former Three Musketeers have been racking our brains about what to do for Lois for graduation."

I looked at her, "You know, it's hard because we're just dumb guys and do stuff like have food fights at breakfast." Everyone knew and everyone laughed.

"Anyway, the important thing is that we're not going to embarrass Lois, we've done enough of that already, but apart from the common sense and humor and love she's brought into the equation, she's also brought a steadying hand. That's always something to be valued, but she also has an artistic flair, which some of you may have seen at work last fall in the Dunking Booth at the Harvest Festival. At any rate, deciding what to get Lois was hard, but we finally all settled on something we think, we hope, that she'll appreciate. It turns out there's a Japanese lady in Sherwood who teaches classic Japanese flower arrangement. She teaches at the Japanese Garden in Portland, but she also does small classes at her home, so we've got for Lois a certificate for a flower arranging class with this lady."

Lois was almost at a loss for words as Gary and Jackson handed her the folder, and getting that lady to a state of speechlessness was a hard task.

Susan and Ellen gave Jackson, Gary and Lois each a $50 gift certificate telling them they then had the option to purchase what they wanted or needed. They had brought a lovely cake and an apple pie. "The pie is special," Ellen said, "it's made with the last of our apples from last year. They've been stored in the cellar and have a very full flavor. Now we have to wait till September again."

We all smiled appreciatively and dove into dessert.

Monday morning, I called a local realtor in Sellwood and explained what I was after in an older house. He had a whole bunch of listings he was trying to interest me in, but after fifteen minutes I finally had him understanding that if he wanted me to use his real estate agent services he had to work with my criterion. I wasn't going to drive from Newberg to look at houses in Sellwood that didn't fit what we were looking for. He said he understood and would call me back the next day with a prospect list.

He did, and the fact that he had five was encouraging, and we agreed on Thursday. I wondered what he'd think when I showed up with a teenager. I decided to tell him Jackson was my brother, that our parents had recently died, Jackson was about to start college and he could take it or leave it after that.

Thursday actually turned out to be an exciting day. The first two of the five we were able to dismiss pretty quickly. One was too large and expensive, the second had been partially remodeled and just felt wrong. The next three, though, more or less fit the bill as I'd described it to the realtor, and we spent some real time looking at details like cellar or basement, type of heating system, condition of the double glazed windows, whether or not there was insulation in the attic…all those things that make house hunting a bore, but become much more important once you buy a house and move in.

We talked about the details all the way home, and by Friday morning had settled on one as our preferred home, with a second that could certainly fill in if the first fell through, but didn't have quite the character or location we liked so much about the first. I called the realtor and we agreed to offer a little under the asking price.

Our preference was a three-bedroom English cottage style home with two baths and a little under 2,800 square feet. It had two floors, and a moderate size yard, but some cool attributes like leaded windows, and a far-out fireplace, wood floors upstairs and downstairs, and a formal dining room for entertaining. The living room window faced the street under a wrap-over style roof, that Jackson said made it look like a Hobbit House! The asking price was $45,000, so it was well within out budget. And to top it off, it was only a few blocks north of Tacoma Street, the main street running east off the bridge, and a few blocks east of the river.

Saturday morning, as I was cleaning up from breakfast and beginning to think about getting organized and dressed to drive to Chemeketa for Gary's graduation ceremony, the phone rang. It was the real estate agent, and our offer had been accepted. We were going to be homeowners! We arranged to meet on Monday, and I stressed that this was a cash purchase, and we could close right away with no need of waiting for bank loans or credit checks. I'd bring a cashier's check.

Since both Gary and I drove vehicles that wouldn't carry four passengers, it was on days like today we lamented not having access to the Buick Electra. He was incredibly happy with the International pickup, and I was equally happy with the El Camino, so we made the requisite joke and then both drove to his graduation in our own vehicles with the loves of our lives sitting next to us.

The community college graduation was an understated affair, compared say, to an Ivy League university, but it was appropriate to the mission of the school, and I was pleased to see it focused more on substance than on pomp and circumstance. Gary was fully proud as he walked up to receive his diploma, and afterwards we all got to spend some time chatting with Prof. McFall. He and I hadn't spoken for months, and he was pleased to meet Jackson after all he'd heard about him.

After we said our goodbyes, and watched Gary thank him effusively and then leave with Lois, I turned to him and said, "I just want you to know how important a male figure you have been in his life for the last year. You know something of his background, but to have you in his life not just as an instructor, but as a solid and caring male figure was incredibly important."

He smiled sincerely, blushing just a bit. "I told you that we were serious about our mission, did I not?

"You did. And, I need to tell you, I've applied for a campus ministry and counseling position at Lewis and Clark College, and should I get the job, my observation of how you incarnate your mission will be a serious model for me."

He smiled broadly on hearing that. "Then we shall have to make a point of staying in touch. You know how to reach me." We shook hands and he was off to greet more parents. We all stopped for lunch on the way home, then after we'd gotten in, we headed upstairs to change into more comfortable clothes. Meaning Lois was left downstairs in her dress while we guys put on jeans and casual shirts.

I was the first one down, and we chatted a bit. I asked her if she was as thrilled with Gary's graduation as I was. She winked and said, "Nine months ago I was worried if it was really going to happen, but he proved himself to us and to himself. He's really serious, and it's pretty impressive."

"You do know how good you both are for each other, right?"

She grinned. "Yes, I'm in love and so's he. He's just slower to make the big moves. He's more cautious. I was lucky, I grew up in a family that had assets and shared affection. He didn't. That means he's much more cautious about making moves and decisions."

"You really understand him, don't' you?"

"Yeah, and that's why I know I don't need to rush him or push him. He'll get where we both want to be, it'll just be in his time. You know how big a deal this building a new family thing has become to him don't you?"

It was my turn to smile. "I do, because it's just about as big a deal for me. You do know you're dealing with damaged goods, don't you? In me and Jackson and Gary."

She corrected me. "Oh no. They may have been damaged once, but they're not anymore. They're all healing. That's what makes being a part of this new family so great. And, you let me be a part of it. I'm honored."

"So, what's next?"

She smiled enticingly. "Well, I'm sure you know what I want. I also know I can't push him, and I don't want to. We'll get married when the time is right. We've got as solid a relationship as you and Jackson, so I don't need to push."

"You're almost as lucky as I am," I said back to her. That's when we heard Jackson and Gary coming down the stairs.

When they walked into the kitchen I said to Gary, "Jackson and I have something for you out in the garage."

His eyebrows went up. "What? I tuned up both of your bikes last month."

Jackson cracked up. "No, idiot! It's not something for you to do for us. We've got something for you. Did you forget already that you just graduated? Come on, follow me."

We all marched into the garage where there were two pieces of equipment on the floor covered by a small tarp.

I said, "Okay, Gary, these are our graduation presents for you. You need to know something first. It starts with a question. Do you know who invented the chain saw?"

His forehead furrowed. "It wasn't some guy named Homelite, was it?"

I laughed, "No, it was a German guy named Andreas Stilh, pronounced 'steel,' in 1926. I only know all this stuff because Spencer drives a BMW and is into German engineering, so he educated me. Anyway, Stihl is the number one chain saw manufacturer in the world, and years ago they opened a plant here in the US to make chain saws and trimmers and blowers…you know, all that landscaping equipment."

I looked at Jackson, who got the same pitch from Spencer as I did.

He grinned broadly as he looked at Gary, "Any way, here's the important part. It's all made here in the USA and it's all professional grade, as in rock solid stuff. So, here's what we got you for your graduation present."

With that he whisked off the tarp to show a Stihl chainsaw and string trimmer glowing on the garage floor.

"Wow! Are you guys shitting me. You did this for me? Too much. I thought it's be years before I could move up to Stihl equipment." He was hopping around like a kid at Christmas, hugging Jackson and then me, then Lois.

"Thanks, you guys. You don't know what this means to me."

Jackson held him by the arms, looked him straight in the eyes and said, "Bro, yes I do. And we're going to have a discussion about the mowing business soon, because I'm leaving for college in a couple of months. Okay? I love you. You're the best brother there is, and we're going to do the details right on this deal. Don't say anything now. Just think about what I said, Okay?"

I could see Gary gulp, then get emotional, then he hugged his little brother in a bear hug that might have killed lesser people.

We closed on the house on Monday. I went to the bank when it opened, got the cashier's check and then we drove straight to the real estate office. I signed the paperwork, turned over the check, and was told as soon as the title cleared in a week or so, I'd be the proud owner of a new home in the Sellwood neighborhood of Portland. That happened the next week, meaning that by the end of June I owned the house and we would take possession in mid-July. We were elated and started the kinds of typical planning that goes on. What kind of remodeling? Changing any paint colors? Move in as is and see how it goes?

Michael called that week and I filled him in and told him about the new house he and Jane could visit us in if they came out in August or September. It was fun to talk about. On Thursday of that week I received a letter from the Campus Ministry office offering me the job. I called immediately and accepted it. I had to drive to campus the next day to sign the paperwork and had a start date of September 1, since Labor Day was on the 4 th and classes didn't start until the 5 th . I was back home by mid-afternoon to greet Jackson and Gary return from their day's mowing. They were hot and tired, but we sat in the shade in the back yard and talked.

After a while Jackson turned to Gary and said, "Do you remember what I said to you on the day you graduated, when we gave you the Stihl equipment?"

He nodded, suddenly getting serious. "Gary, relax. Smile, Okay? This is not the third degree or anything. Here's the deal, and I'm serious and I want you to hear what I'm saying and think about it. I'm not asking for an answer now. I don't want one. David has talked to Spencer, so we understand the legal part of this. First, you did more work in the mowing business than I did last summer and especially when school started, and it was the same this year. Plus, you worked during the winter to pay off the mower loan. You know I'm going to college in Portland come September, so I won't be part of the business for the last two months of the season."

He paused. Gary was silent, waiting. Finally, Jackson went on, "So, in my mind you've done more work, you've made most of the payments, I'm leaving early so it's way more your business than mine, so I'm going to sell you my share."

He paused for effect. I'd seen him do it before. Gary was trying to keep a still face and not react, but I saw his eyes widen. He didn't say anything,

Jackson said, "I'm going to sell you my share for one dollar. Do you think you can afford that?"

He was grinning, and suddenly Gary understood what was happening and the defenses came down. "You're serious, aren't you?"

"As serious as I'm sitting here. You're most of this business, not me, and I'm leaving. So, do you have a dollar?"

Gary looked at me. "Is this for real? Can he do this."

"Yes, and yes. He's trying to make it easy for you. There's really only one question. Do you have a dollar?"

He was quiet, like he momentarily pulled inside of himself. Then a smile broke on his face and his eyes lit up and he said, "Fuck yes, I've got a dollar. And I've also got the best brother in the world. Do I have to pay you today?"

Jackson was grinning. "That would be nice. Then I'd know you were serious and not trying to take advantage of me or something like that."

"You drive a hard bargain." He reached in his pocket and pulled out his wallet and handed Jackson a dollar bill. "David, you're my witness."

"No worry. We'll have Spencer write it up next week.

They went to put away their mowing equipment and then showered while I cooked dinner. After we'd eaten and were sitting talking, Jackson looked at Gary. "There's something else."

I saw a momentary flash across Gary's eyes, as if he didn't know whether to flinch or be happy. To his credit, he smiled. "And that would be?"

"Not only am I leaving to go to college in Portland, but David got the job at Lewis and Clark. He's going to resign from the church and we'll both be moving to Portland. That leaves you here with Lois and this house."

Gary looked at me, asking with his eyes, "Is this true?" I nodded. "Yes, I found out yesterday and signed the employment papers today."

He said nothing.

Jackson drove on. "So, that leaves you here in this house and in love with Lois, and we're wondering when you're going to spring the question and then get married. Don't even answer me, I said we were wondering, Okay. Here's the deal. I'm leaving and you're staying. I don't need my half of this house and you do if you're going to live here and get married. We've talked to Spencer about this too. I'm going to sell you my half of the house on what's called an open purchase contract. That means you can buy it, but you don't have to pay me for it till you can afford it. No monthly payments, no pressure, no timetables, no financial pressure. You buy it from me. It's yours. Then you and Lois make is yours, and turn it into the house you two want to live in. It'll kind of be like what David and I are going to do with the house he's buying in Sellwood. We'll make it into the house we want to live in. What do you think?"

He was still silent. I could see him blinking and could imagine the calculations going on in his head.

Finally, he smiled, and the smiled widened and turned into a grin and then he said, "You two are fucking unbelievable. I said once you were thicker than thieves, and it's true. But it's all good, not like crooks or anything."

He looked at Jackson now, staring directly at this little brother. "I know why you want to do this, and I can't tell you how much it means to me. I know you don't have to do this, but it's just the kind of person you are. I'm not going to argue. There's no point. I'll owe you big time for a while now, but I'm figuring out that that's the way relationships go. Sometimes I owe you, other times you owe me. Thanks, man."

He stood up and walked over to Jackson and hugged him. I just sat there and smiled, comparing it in my mind to how these same two people acted toward each other almost a year ago.

The next day was a beautiful Saturday, with blue skies and a high temperature under eighty degrees. Jackson arranged with Gary to take the afternoon off so we could go for a bike ride. He was home a little after 1:00 PM and I had the bikes ready to go. We decided to ride from the house and pedal down to Rogers Landing because we could hang out there by the river, splash around, then ride the long way home around the west side of town. While not a major bike ride, it would be a fun first real ride of the year.

The ride down to Rogers Landing was mainly downhill, so easy. It was warm and there was nobody else at the little beach. We found out why when we took off our shoes and socks. It was still early enough that a lot of the river water had its source from snow melt in the mountains and the water was cold!

Still, we hung out enjoying the sun on our skin, talking about the various projects the new house in Sellwood would entail, how we'd furnish it, and what we could possibly do in the yard. Then we rode back up to the main east/west road on the south side of town and headed west to continue our bike ride. Eventually we were approaching Highway 99 and I knew we'd have to be careful crossing the highway. Jackson was ahead of me and I was about to call out to him to hold up.

The last thing I saw was a flash of light off the chrome.

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