Sunday, January 12, 2014

From the Archives: A Soldier’s Tale

I finished my first novel on May 20, 1998. I was in the eighth grade. 

That may seem impressive, but it was a real struggle for me to finish any short story or longform exercise. Aside from the autobiography that I had to complete for school that year, everything in my archives was half-baked and incomplete. I didn’t necessarily give up on things; I just couldn’t keep up with my overactive imagination. I had so many plots and characters running through my head that no pen or notebook would have been able to capture them all.

That all changed when my grandfather died in March 1996. He was a man I loved and admired completely and losing him left a void that only words would fill. Writing about him made me forget how much I missed him admonishing me for not giving him a kiss hello right after walking in his door, or telling me everything that was happening in my life was “beautiful.” He was right there with me as I fictionalized his life one page at a time, starting with the story of him cutting school to visit the Statue of Liberty as a youth.

The finished product lives in a black, weathered-looking spiral notebook at my parent’s house. The entire work is nearly 300 pages and is written entirely in cursive. I haven’t seen it in a few years, but I’m sure most of it is totally illegible.

In high school, I decided my writing skills had improved enough to rewrite the tale. I was still without a computer at that point, so I once again hand-wrote it in its entirety. I completed it on Dec. 11, 1999. The story I developed of Stephen Sanford at that time is much darker than I remember it. It’s uplifting at its core, but the hero’s journey has an angsty edge to it that certifies someone in high school wrote it. For not seeing any of the world up to that point, I sure felt I had a firm mental grasp on it. I want to tell the young Daniel Ford to hold on tight to the innocence that was going to shatter in his grasp after graduation (also to put down the thesaurus). Between the summer of my junior and senior years of college, I wrote 60 pages of a revamped edition of A Soldier’s Tale.

Snapshot of the physical archive.
A busy schedule and the birth of Sid Sanford forced my mind away from the project. However, 2014 is the year I’m going to write my grandfather’s story for the last time. It will be set in the same world as Sid Sanford and tie in my mother’s father’s life as well. The tale will explain life before Sid and why there was a good man hiding in him all along.

While you wait for excerpts from that project, please enjoy the acknowledgements and the final two chapters of A Soldier’s Tale. Check back later in the week for the interlude section where an embryonic Sid tells his story. Feel free to leave your thoughts and criticisms in the comment section or tweet me @danielfford.

Grandma and Grandpa Ford
A Soldier’s Tale—Acknowledgements
Ideas come from very different places. The idea for this story was spawned after visiting my grandfather’s grave one year. Since that time, I’ve been dedicated to keeping his spirit alive. That would have been impossible without the help of certain people. My grandmother and father who put up with my assorted questions, my mother for keeping me sane, and my cousin Judy for inspiring to pick up my pen again and again. I owe all of them big time. Thank you Grandpa Ford for the life you lived that allowed me to create this fictional tale. I miss you and will love you always.” 

Dec. 19, 1999 

My grandfather in his uniform.
A Soldier’s Tale—Final Chapters

The final thoughts of Stephen Sanford:

“Life. In my eyes, the human existence is just one obstacle after another. These obstacles have no other intention than to bring you down to their loveless realm. To overcome these wicked hindrances, one must stand mightily and meet them face-to-face. Every obstacle has the appearance of being impregnable and unconquerable. However, through my experiences, I’ve learned not to cowardly fade into the shadows until the anguish and sorrow vanquish my spirit. Without these colossal impediments, our lives would be meaningless. We require them to set our goals, attain out power, and ascertain our riches. Not a solitary human can explain why.

“However, a person does not deserve to be unaided in their strife against the closing walls of society. For us to mend injustices, we must empower each being with equal regard. I veraciously conceive that the members of this world’s lower class are the mightiest of us all. They are the ones that face the most feared barriers of life with barely anything but the sweat on their brows. They face death, disease, famine, and loneliness. When the people bathed in affluence and power on their perches on top of high society look down upon “the downfall of the human race,” they are really turning up their noses at the saviors of the human race. The time will come when our monarchical hierarchy of society will topple and those looked down upon will inherit those exalted heights.

“In my life, despite all the heartaches and misfortunes, I have no regrets. If I had the power to live it all over again, there is not a single thing I would alter. Life isn’t here for us to gaze back and contemplate on how we could have done things differently. Life is here to live. This wondrous mystery has to be survived joyously each day so that you can attain the graces of heaven and add hope to the world you live in now. To live life, one must strive for the future, while learning lessons from the past.

“Although my experience on this grand planet which has sheltered me these 78 years, is coming to an end, I believe I have fulfilled all I could with what I was given. Even if I left a couple of stones unturned or a few dreams left undreamed, I can depart this existence knowing I leave it in capable hands. I part with my fondest farewell and God bless.”

My grandparents with my father, Uncle Stephen, and Aunt Kathy.
My faculties, saturated with a multitude of cogitations, were set at ease with my grandfather’s poetic words. Never in my 17 years had I heard words so moving or uplifting.

“See if any of that is worth publishing. I want to make sure the world can hear the last thoughts of this bucket of bones. Please, bring in the rest of the family,” my grandfather said, weakening more and more. He was trying violently to hang on just a few minutes longer.

I quickly rushed into the living room and gathered my family. Walking back toward my grandfather’s room, I gazed out the window at the luminous balls of fire from above. To this day, I can’t decipher if I had imagined this, or if it actually occurred. I swear a voice whispered to me,

“You’ll always be connected to your grandfather. Just look to the stars whenever you need him.” 

I tried convincing myself that all the angels of my grandfather’s past were now with him at the end and they were sending me a message.

I joined my family around his bed. We were standing in a semi-circle. I had a feeling my grandfather had something extraordinary in store.

“Please join hands,” He said. “Look around the circle. Each of us has to do our part to keep it connected, no matter how big or small. One member of the circle is leaving you tonight, but that certainly doesn’t mean that the connection between us weakens. The family must function as before. Please make me proud that I was once a living member of this family, and know I’ll always be with you from above. I love each and every one of you very much.”

This was the end. I leaned over and whispered in his ear a final time.

“I love you grandfather.”

He smiled his trademark smile and let out his final breath, putting an end to the soldier’s tale.

My grandfather was never happier than when his whole family was together. Here is during on of his last Christmases with us wearing a trademark hat.

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