( This story of mine was first published in the October 2014 issue of The Warrior Heart magazine)
Although he was in excellent shape, thirty five year old Mike Donavan had to stop to catch his breath. It was hot, even for July, and the blinding sun light shimmered off of the waves like tiny mortars exploding across the surf. Mike used his sleeve to wipe the perspiration from his forehead before it ran into his eyes. There was no easy path to this section of the beach; nothing but rocks and driftwood to climb over and navigate around, and the pack on his back containing his metal detector actually seemed to gain weight with each obstacle that he overcame. Mike hoped that he would have at least a couple more hours before the sun went down.
The war had been over for seven years now, but standing on the rocks overlooking this secluded section of Omaha Beach, he could see it as it looked on that day in June, 1944 when he saw it for the first time. He had been Lieutenant Michael Donavan then, responsible for twenty men about to hit the beaches of Normandy as part of the largest seaborne invasion in history. One of those twenty men had been his younger brother, Tim.
Mike had come back many times since that day, but never to this particular part of the beach. He had been combing different sections every weekend since being assigned as an attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Paris three years ago.
It was low tide, so he started at the water line and began sweeping the detector back and forth. Almost immediately the instrument started beeping, indicating the presence of some metal object buried beneath the sand. He took a small garden spade out of his pack and started digging. Only a few inches down he discovered what had triggered the metal detector - a .30 caliber shell casing from an M1 rifle. He tossed it into a cigar box that he carried in his pack and continued his search. Subsequent passes with the instrument turned up more shell casings and bits of shrapnel. He tossed them all into the cigar box. Over the past three years he had dug up a bushel basket full of such items. He only saved them now so that he wouldn’t dig them up again on future weekends. He usually tossed them out when he got home.
On his fifth pass, the detector gave a strong beep. Probably some more junk, he thought, as he started digging. It only took a minute to unearth the treasure. His hands were trembling as he brushed away the sand and took a closer look. Tears welled up in his eyes as he knelt there in the moist sand, and as the sun sank low over the English Channel, Mike Donavan wept…
Mary Donavan stood at her kitchen sink finishing her breakfast dishes. She loved the view from the window over the sink. She could look out and watch the cows chewing their cud in the barn yard, or watch the progress of the corn in the field across the road. It was late July and the corn was already over six feet tall. They knew how to grow corn in Iowa, and the Donavan farm was one of the best in the county.
She heard the car coming down the county’s gravel road, and looked out in time to see Paul Bellows slow down and pull into the road leading up to the house. Paul was the mail carrier. He usually stopped at the big mail box at the end of their road. The fact that he was pulling up to the farmhouse meant only one thing; he was delivering a letter from Mike. He always liked to deliver these in person. She hurriedly wiped her hands on her apron and opened the front door as Paul reached the steps leading up to the wide porch that went around all four sides of the old farmhouse.
“Mourning Mary,” he said. “Got a letter for you. All the way from France.” He knew it was from Mike, but feigned ignorance. He handed her the envelope.
“Thanks Paul,” she replied.
He hung around making small talk for a few minutes, obviously curious as to what Mike had to say. The whole county knew he was in Paris and was eager for news, but when it became clear that Mary wanted to read it in private, he wished her well and left to continue his deliveries.
She sat down on the porch swing and tore open the end of the envelope. Inside was a letter and a smaller envelope. She read the letter first.
“Dear Mom, Remember what you said to me when Timmy left for basic training? You said, ‘He’s your little brother, Mike. You watch out for him. You take care of him. You bring him home.’ I know that I failed you, Mom. Maybe this will help in some way.”
She opened the smaller envelope and emptied the contents into the palm of her hand. She fought to hold back the tears as her eyes moistened over. Rising from the porch swing, she walked down the steps into the yard and started up a low hill where a white picket fence enclosed a small plot beneath a massive old oak.
She looked at the two markers resting in the cool grass in the shade of the ancient tree. The first was a stone marker that belonged to her husband. He had suffered a heart attack while plowing two years ago. The older marker was a simple white cross with the words, “Timothy Donavan - Born September 4, 1925 - Died June 6, 1944.” His body wasn’t there of course. They never found his body. Officially, he was missing in action. But Mary knew he had been killed. She knew the very moment that it happened. She felt it in a way that only a mother feels.
Kneeling down in front of the cross, Mary gently and reverently draped something over one of the cross-arms. She knelt in silence for a few minutes, pulling some weeds that had grown up over the graves.
A few puffs of cloud floated lazily overhead. It was going to be a beautiful, warm, sunny day, but right now it was cool beneath the shade of the old oak. Mary looked up through the gnarled and twisted limbs. The old tree had been a favorite of her boys when they were growing up. She could still see where they had nailed boards to the trunk to make a ladder up the side. They had spent many boyhood hours climbing through its branches. One day the tree would be a mountain to scale. The next day it would become a wilderness outpost to defend against Indian attacks. It seemed fitting to Mary that the tree, that had entertained and nurtured the boys as they were growing up, would now spread its arms over Timmy’s empty grave as though it was calling him home.
I should get back to the dishes, she thought. Wiping a tear from her eye with her apron, she closed the gate behind her and started back down the hill to the house. Looking back, she saw how the sun reflected off of the dog-tags she had draped over the cross. Tags that read “Donavan, Timothy…”