An airman visited Jean Stober’s sixth-grade class during Indian summer. He was thin, red-headed, and wore a blue uniform with medals. He blushed when Sister introduced him as “Eli LaDuke, one of the truly blessed,” promising students that they’d hear about a fabulous experience.
“I was stationed in Greenland,” he began, explaining that he was piloting a jet when things went haywire, and he had to bail out.
He looked at the window, and so did Jean, seeing the playground, the flagpole, and a dog peeing on the boulder with a plaque listing all the local servicemen killed in World War I, II, and Korea. Her father’s name was there, with all the dead people, but he was missing in action.
“I woke up covered with snow,” Eli LaDuke continued. “I despaired of making it out alive. I was lost for three days on the tundra.” He glanced at Sister. “Do they know what tundra means?”
“A frigid place. Think of glaciers and polar bears, children,” Sister explained.
“I started to see things, like a mirage.”
Agnes Shumway shouted, “Mirage. Make-believe stuff.”
“Outstanding,” Eli said. “I saw a green Pontiac and my parents’ house. They were eating pancakes. I felt real sleepy, and then I woke up in a hospital.”
“Here comes the best part, kids. God sent me a sign that everything was going to be A-Okay, but I thought it was a dream. It was snowing, my fingers stopped hurting, and I felt peaceful.”
Jean remembered magazine pictures of dead soldiers in the snow, the toes of their boots showing, and sometimes a hand sticking up like the soldier wanted someone to thaw him out.
“Something told me I wasn’t alone. I opened my eyes, and saw a big, shaggy thing leaning over me,” Eli continued.
“The Holy Ghost!” Agnes shouted.
“A hunter,” Eli said. “An Eskimo.”
“A miracle,” said Sister. “You each get one question, children.”
They asked if he lost any toes. “No.” What food did he miss most of all? “Pancakes.”
“Did it change your whole life?” Agnes asked.
“I was saved for something.”
Jean wondered what happened to the Eskimo, but when she was called on, she asked Eli if he was sad that it was all over.
“Such a gloomy question,” Sister said, and called on another student.
Jean meant hard. Would things be harder now that something big had happened to him? Time would pass, he’d be regular, and people wouldn’t care about his remarkable experience, like what happened when she got lost in the woods two years ago.
She’d trudged through the snow, looking back at her disappearing boot prints, and seeing a fat, unshaven man, watching her from behind a tree.
“Hey, kiddo, are you lost? You better come with me.”
She was scared but believed her father was watching her, telling her to stay calm.
The man’s jeep smelled sweet from pipe tobacco and doughnuts. He handed her a stale doughnut and then started crying. She worried that he had a mental condition, and his crying reminded her of her mother, but the man just wanted to tell a story.
“I’ve been shacking up in the woods since the missus dumped me. What’s your name, anyhow?”
“Patricia,” she’d said. “Important people are expecting me.”
“You got money?”
“You gotta call your folks. It’s getting dark, and I’m skinny on time.” He handed her a dime.
“My father’s overseas. Korea. A decorated war hero.”
He stopped driving. “I myself am a veteran.” He reached in his pocket and showed her a compass. “The genuine article from Uncle Sam. See, the government wanted to safety soldiers, to make sure they had their bearings. I use the majestic Adirondacks as my guide now.” He handed her the compass. “It’s yours now, honey. Our secret.”
He dropped her off outside a cabin, then took off. She pretended her father was advising her to use her wits and his compass to find her way home, but told her mother and classmates later that she’d met up with the Adirondack Hermit, famous for rejecting society by living in the woods. A tiny man with a bushy beard, bearskin coat, and a helmet. She’d told the story so many times, it seemed real, especially the helmet and the taps sleet made on it.
Sister thanked Eli LaDuke for his edifying visit. Jean saw him looking at his shiny black shoes. Then he saluted the class and left.
“Eli was lost in the woods, just like me. I’ll never forget him,” Jean said outside.
“The tundra,” Agnes corrected. “He’s totally different.”
Jean looked up tundra in the dictionary at home, shocked that it was treeless. Did they call it Greenland to trick people into believing it was an inviting place?
She recalled her mother’s story about meeting Dad in wintertime. “A wickedly cold night, but nice and toasty in the dancehall. I was having a fine time with my girlfriends when this gangly soldier walks in. I prayed he wouldn’t pick me, but he did.”
Jean liked picturing a young man, slim, and scenic-looking in his decorated uniform, gliding in, selecting her mother, but sometimes it got mixed up with her mother’s story about the day servicemen delivered the news that Jean’s father was missing in action.
The airman’s parents probably got a similar visit, but they never gave up hope. They believed in miracles.
“Malarkey. Fake,” Jean’s mother had said, when Jean showed her the compass.
“It’s real.” Jean insisted that it was a gift from the Adirondack Hermit.
“I can’t believe you’d do this to me. Taking off. Why?”
“Exploring,” she’d answered, knowing that the truth would hurt. She’d felt subtracted, like her father, and wanted to see who’d care that she was missing.
Tonight, in her bedroom, she pictured her father in a frosty landscape, praying for a thaw like the ones back home during Indian Summer, when it turned warm after a killing frost.
Leslee Becker grew up in the Adirondacks. She has published a story collection, The Sincere Cafe, and individual stories in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, New England Review, Kenyon Review, Iowa Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford, she now lives in Fort Collins, and teaches at Colorado State University.
The Airman is a Fiction War Magazine Open Call submission.
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