A Fictional Story Honoring Our Fallen Heroes
(Author’s note – the following is a fictional story.)
by Frank Orlowski
Like many collectors of military items, I am a Civil War buff. There is something about that particular period of American history that attracts my interest. I love reading about the war, visiting the battlefields, and especially collecting items from that period. It is that interest in the war, which began in me as a child, that brings me to the story I am about to tell.
I knew Jack when I was just a kid growing up in Michigan. He was a nice old man, who lived by himself, down the street. Sometimes old Jack would invite us kids into his house for a soda. And every so often, he would take us to his basement and let us look at his collection of Civil War memorabilia.
Jack had some great stuff in his collection. There were uniforms, letters and diaries, pistols, swords, belt buckles, and munitions. But Jack never let us kids touch any of the items. The collection was displayed in a very dignified manner, in glass cases. Jack said it was good for us to learn about the war, and see the items he collected, but he always added that we were not yet old enough to respect these antiques, and what they represented.
One day, I was over at Jack’s house without the other kids. Jack went out to the garage to get us each a soda, and when he did, I slipped down to the basement to look at the Civil War items. Lying on top of one of the cases was an old Civil War pistol that Jack had been cleaning. Well, I did what almost any ten year old would; I picked up the pistol, and pretended I was battling the enemy.
“Pow, pow, pow,” I said as I ran around the basement, pretending to pick off the best of Lee’s troops.
“Bam, bam, I gotcha,” I yelled.
Just then, Jack walked in the house, and saw me in the basement, clutching his prized collectible.
“No!” he yelled. “Put that down right now!”
I knew I was in big trouble. My dad had taught me to never treat a gun like a toy, Jack had told me not to touch the items in his collection, and here I had gone and broken both rules in a mere few minutes.
Jack walked down the stairs. I figured he would give me a spanking right then and there, and then take me home to my dad, where another would surely follow. But I was wrong. Instead, Jack made me sit down, and he told me a story.
“Many years ago, when I first started to buy these things,” he began, “I really didn’t care much about them. Like you, I thought they were just fun things to buy, sell, and own. They had no meaning to me beyond that. I found out that other people liked to buy these Civil War items, too, so I started to buy everything I could, and then sell the items for more money to other people. It was a great way to make some extra money. Well, before long, anyone who had any Civil War things to sell would let me know, because they knew I would buy their items for a fair price. I didn’t care what it was, or who it came from, as long as I could make some money off the piece.
“One day, I got a message from an older lady who lived in my neighborhood. She had some things to sell, and wanted to know if I would come and look at the items. When I went to her house, she was sitting by herself in a nearly empty room.
“It turned out that she was quite ill, and that her husband died about a year earlier. She had to sell pretty much everything she owned to pay her bills. When I went to see her, she pulled out this box of items that belonged to her father. He had been in the Civil War, and had left these things to her after he died.
“In the box, I found some medals, some old pictures, his pistol, and a diary of his experiences in the war. I asked her what she wanted for the items, and she said she hoped I would give her ten dollars. I knew I could sell the things for thirty or forty dollars, which was a lot of money back then, so I gladly handed her the ten.
“As I was leaving, I saw that she was crying. As I walked out the door, I heard her say, ‘Please take good care of Father’s things.’ At first I felt bad that I planned to sell them, but I soon convinced myself that I had given her a fair price, and the things in the box were now mine to do with what I wanted.
“When I arrived home, I took out the diary to read. It seems her father, his name was Ned Crotty, fought in many battles. His diary was very interesting to read, as he went into great detail about the battles in which he fought. As I read the diary, I decided I probably could get more money for it than I first thought.
“After I’d read the diary for a few hours, I became very tired. I laid the diary on the nightstand, and soon fell asleep. Before long, I was dreaming about the things I had read in Ned’s diary. I dreamt I was back in time, watching one of those great battles in which he’d taken part. I saw the death, the bloodshed, and the horror of the war. I also saw the gallantry, the courage, and the honor those men displayed.
“I saw men on both sides giving up their lives for their comrades. I saw brave men pulling the wounded off the field of battle, while bullets filled the air. I saw men whisper their loved ones’ names as they drew their last breath. I saw doctors working valiantly to save the lives of men while working under inhuman conditions.
“During all the time I had spent buying and selling the symbols and relics of this great, horrific war, I had never thought of these things. But in my dream, in the midst of that terrible battle, I began to realize what those artifacts represented. Those things that I only saw as potential profit were belongings, tools used by brave, honorable men facing the greatest test we, as humans, can ever face.
“Then, as I watched the events during the height of the battle, I noticed a man carrying a wounded comrade up the hill to where I stood. They were headed straight for me. When they came close enough, I saw that the man carrying the wounded soldier was Ned Crotty. I recognized his face from an old picture that was in the box with the diary. He looked at me through tired, sad eyes, and said, ‘I did not leave those belongings to my daughter so they would be sold to people who do not care about what we experienced here. I left them so my future generations would remember me, and my comrades, and what we went through for the good of this Republic.’
“He looked at me for a long time, then began to carry his wounded friend toward the hospital tent. Before he got too far away, he turned back toward me, and said, ‘This is hallowed ground, son. Brave men gave their lives for you here. Always remember that.’
“At that moment, I woke up, and did not fall back to sleep again that night. Early the next morning, I returned to the old lady’s house. I carried the box of Civil War items in to her, and set it on her lap. I told her she should keep her father’s mementos, and pass them on to her relatives when she died. I also told her to keep the ten dollars I had paid for them. In the box, I left her fifty more dollars that I earned from selling Civil War items earlier that month.
“As I was leaving, she said something I will never forget. ‘Father visited me in a dream last night,’ she said. ‘He told me you were bringing his things back to me today.’ I smiled as I left the house.
“About a year later, I received a note from the old lady’s niece. She told me that her aunt died recently, and the aunt wanted me to have an old tintype photo of her father, Ned Crotty, in his Civil War uniform. The niece said all the other war relics from Ned went to family members.
“From the day I returned Ned’s belongings to his daughter, I never sold another Civil War relic. Whenever I bought an item, I first checked to see if there was a name associated with it. When I could, I returned the item to the family of the man who originally owned the piece. This did not happen often, but when it did, the family was always happy to have the cherished piece of history. Mostly, though, everything I buy goes into this collection here in my basement. Sometimes, I take the collection over to the high school, to teach the kids there about the war. Sometimes I take it to the local history museum, and they put it on display for a time. And sometimes I invite other people interested in the war over to see my collection, and we talk about the war, and the men who fought in it.
“I know there are many people today who do what I once did; buy Civil War items, and then sell them to others. That’s okay with me. It is not my place to tell others what to do with their property. I just hope that every once in awhile, those people remember the war, the men on both sides who fought it, and the sacrifice they made for all of us. That’s all I ask.”
I went home after hearing Jack’s story with a lot to think about. Though I was only ten, his story made a big impression on me. Over the next several years, I spent many hours at Jack’s house. He taught me about the Civil War, and showed me how each piece in his collection was used in the war. Jack taught me that even though some men on each side were cruel and evil, most of the men who fought were honorable, and courageous, and were fighting for their families, and their country. He taught me that sometimes, good people had to go to war to keep tyrants for controlling others. He taught me that sometimes, evil people start wars, and it is up to good people to step in and end those wars. Mostly, though, he taught me to honor and respect those who gave their lives so future generations could live in freedom, and that it is up to us to remain ever vigilant to protect that freedom for the generations to come.
One day while I was away at college, my dad called me to tell me that Jack had died. Before we finished talking about old Jack, I asked dad what was going to happen to the Civil War collection.
“Jack arranged for that well before he died,” said dad. “It’s going to be sent down to the battlefield at Gettysburg, where it will remain a permanent part of their museum. He did set aside one piece from the collection, though, that will not go to Gettysburg. It is an old tintype photo of a soldier named Ned Crotty. He left it in a safe deposit box. He wanted you to have it, son.”
I smiled through my tears. I bet old Jack and Ned were together, smiling right along with me.