The Lesson of a Sword

He never forgave her, not really.

They discussed it almost every week for over 50 years. They only stopped talking about it when he died.

He could have worn his seatbelt on that day and he would have walked away from that accident. He could have gone back home to his wife, to their not-quite argument over the lost swords. They wouldn’t be listening to Over the Rainbow by the Hawaiian guy at his funeral, but he was stubborn.

Stubborn as only a child of the Depression could be. Stubborn as a man who raised himself, who fought in WWII and Korea. He left the wars with a ringing in his ears that only got worse over time; but he never complained.

He never truly complained about anything. He didn’t complain when a misdiagnosis kept him from the airborne in WWII or when that missed opportunity sent him to occupy Japan rather than fight in Europe. He didn’t complain about his later alcoholism or the awkward intervention from his wife and adult children, nor were there complaints about the Petit Mal Seizures that struck only once or twice a year with no warning. The randomness of the seizures made them impossible to predict, so he didn’t worry about them. He didn’t plan. It was what it was.

He had one of those seizures the day he died. He was driving, taking care of the little errands that filled his time during retirement, when the seizure struck. He was sent crashing into a planter outside a dry cleaner’s. No one else was hurt, thankfully, but with no seatbelt on, he was slammed against the steering wheel. The impact broke his back and crushed his sternum.

He didn’t complain when he awoke in the hospital on a respirator, unable to breathe on his own or speak. He simply gestured for a pen and pad so he could tell his family that he wanted them to terminate his life support. He saw his children, grandchildren and wife one by one. He died while his eldest son held him, watching the doctor turn off the machine.

He didn’t mention the swords to his wife while on his deathbed.

He had confiscated the swords from Japanese noblemen during the occupation. They were beautiful, ancient, bejeweled swords, still razor sharp but showing no marks of ever being honed. The noble families had handed them down from generation to generation through the centuries.

It was a different time in the Army then. The brass didn’t frown on soldiers sending home weapons and other plunder. This was especially true of the ruling class in Japan, as they had started this war, went the thinking. Regardless of their impracticality in modern war, these swords were considered arms. The order was to disarm Japan, even if the swords belonged in a museum rather than a scrap heap or in a GI’s collection.

The noblemen turned the swords over with a small bow, clinging to their honor and ceremony even in defeat. Their refusal to sacrifice their dignity even while they handed over their most sacred family heirlooms had impressed him then. He knew something about refusing to sacrifice dignity in the face of adversity.

He too was born into nobility of a sort. His family made its fortune in the turpentine forests of North Carolina, and by the time he was a boy, they had settled in a Florida estate. They had colored servants, fine china, a ballroom and all the other Southern Gilded Age trappings.

His father speculated in the stock market but when it crashed they lost everything. His father walked out on the family when he was 11, to be raised by a mother that could no longer afford a maid, a nanny, or a home education. They moved to Louisiana where she had a suitor that would take them in. All this time he made do, but he refused to sacrifice his dignity. Even though he hated his father, he always called his mother’s suitor uncle. He never complained about the Depression or his family’s misfortune.

Then came the wars, the swords, his wife and his children. He had not spoken to his father since the day the man walked out until one day he received a call. His father was dying and wanted to see him again before he passed. The years had not dimmed his resentment toward his father. He told that not-quite familiar voice on the other end of the line that he was going to die alone like he had left his family alone and hung up the phone.

He only mentioned that call once, to his eldest son. His son had complained about how cold their relationship was, but he had known worse.

Those swords were beautiful. With them he could start fresh, build a nest egg that would support a family. He tucked them away in his duffel bag and carried them home to Louisiana and college. He brought the swords to Philadelphia. From there he was sent to Korea and then Germany, where he met his wife. The swords were waiting for them there in an Army-issued storage locker when they came home.

He received a call a year later in Philadelphia from a war buddy who had somehow hunted him down. The buddy had an open job in Cleveland editing an engineering magazine; would he be interested?

He was.

So he and his wife packed up their apartment and their newborn son and left for Cleveland. While he went ahead to start the new job, his wife stayed behind with their son to finish packing and shipping their things to Ohio.

She forgot to pack the swords.

When the absence was discovered, he called back to the apartment in Philadelphia asking the new tenant if he had found the swords. The new tenant said no; he found nothing when he moved in.

He didn’t get mad at his wife. He was just disappointed.

Every so often the swords would come into his thoughts with no provocation. He would be in his garage, working on a home repair or at his desk, finishing the magazine layout and there they were, the stolen swords and their lost potential.

In his mind he saw the pain of defeat on the faces of the Japanese noblemen as they surrendered their most precious totems, trying so hard not to betray any emotion that would dishonor their families. He took their swords but then he lost them.

He lost the swords like he lost his inheritance, his father, and his childhood.

He lost the swords like his family lost him, old, but with the potential there for many more years. Weathered, but still razor sharp, if only he hadn’t been so stubborn.

If he hadn’t been so stubborn, his family wouldn’t be sitting at his funeral, hearing Amazing Grace on live bagpipes. They wouldn’t have to cry this early over how great of a grandfather he was and over all of the things his children wanted to say to him but couldn’t. The man was hard to read and his children never got the knack; they were worse off for it. But something in him had opened up as a grandfather and his grandchildren adored him without qualification.

Years after the funeral, the swords still came up in conversation. The eldest son often teased his mother about leaving them in Philadelphia. He jokingly called his mother a flake and a ditz and mused about what it would be like if they had the swords. Were they really that precious?

Perhaps it was the meaning of the swords, the lost potential, rather than their retail value, which had meant so much to the man. The ability to replace something lost with the stolen honor of a defeated enemy, to bring back something beautiful and unique from a war that had offered nothing but disappointment and despair; perhaps that was the lesson.

The man’s absence left a hole in the family that was not filled. Regardless of his flaws, he had done what his father had not. He stayed, and he took the responsibility and raised his children. He was the patriarch of a new dynasty. But they moved on like all families do, eventually.

One day the eldest son was in his mother’s attic searching for a table to be used for the kid’s table at Thanksgiving. In the corner, in a long box he could not recall looking into before, he found a sword.

A Japanese sword was in this unfamiliar box. After all these years, could one of the swords so often discussed actually have made it here from the apartment in Philadelphia? The eldest son, now a father himself, carried the sword down to the garage beneath the attic.

The sword was not bejeweled. It did not look like it should be in a museum. The scabbard was sturdy but simple, the leather worn from being carried. The hilt and the handle came free from the tang of the blade. The son had to carefully remove it from the scabbard with only that thin piece of metal to steady it.

The blade gleamed in the light. It was still razor sharp after all these years. He saw fine markings where the blade had been honed. This was not an heirloom to be handed down from generation to generation of noblemen; this was a sword to be used. This was a Japanese officer’s sword that was carried into battle and swung against his enemies. It was beautiful like all finely crafted tools can be, but with a deadlier sense of purpose.

This was a sword shorn of all trappings and pretense and laid bare as a tool of precision, a sword that had no frivolous decorations or precious stones.

Its beauty came from its simplicity; it had been stripped of everything that did not directly contribute to the execution of its purpose. It had been used in battle. It had been cared for and admired for its humble competency.

Like the man who stole it from its owner, whose own battles had forged him into a simpler yet stronger person, albeit one who was unable to show much emotion or anything else excess to the base needs of the Depression and the Wars, the sword told more of a story by what was not there than what was.

It was a weapon fitting the man who brought it to America. Not because of the promise to return to some former glory, but because of its basic elegance and unapologetic sense of purpose. Unrealized potential was not the story of this sword; the story of this sword was its perfect utility in the face of a harrowing mission. It would get the job done, no more, no less, like the man who stole it. Let the future generations add jewels and decorations and the other trappings of success. He had given them a base to start from; now it was their turn to build.

That was the lesson of the sword.

By D.M.


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