TABLE OF CONTENT
There won’t be any trumpets blowing
Come the judgment day,
On the bloody morning after
One tin soldier rides away.
—FROM THE SONG “ONE TIN SOLDIER,”
BY DENNIS LAMBERT AND BRIAN POTTER
Lying was wrong. Webb knew that.
Still, he wanted to lie to the old woman in front of him. Her name was Ruby Gavin, and he’d knocked on her front door, with flowers in hand, and spent about half an hour making pleasant small talk in her front parlor. It was just the two of them, late in the morning almost a week past Christmas. Webb sipped on his third teacup of hot cider, pretending to be hungry as he nibbled at her homemade shortbread cookies.
Ruby sat in her rocking chair across the parlor from Webb, a contented smile shaping the delicate wrinkles of her cheeks. A few wisps of fine white hair escaped the tight bun that was tied in place by a ribbon.
Webb had first met Ruby a few months earlier, here in her small hometown of Eagleville, Tennessee, some forty miles south of Nashville. Then she had been wearing a long dress with pink flowers against a white cotton background. Now her dress was dark brown and of a thicker material, with yellow and white flowers. Ruby was also wearing a heart-shaped ceramic pendant that hung from her neck on a gold chain.
Ruby had made the pendant when she was a little girl. She’d used the end of a wire to draw her initials on one side of the clay while it was still soft and damp, and on the other side she scratched the phrase I love you forever, Daddy. She had painted it with colored glazes, and after the teacher baked it in a kiln, she had given it to her daddy. When he’d gone off to war, he’d strung it on a gold chain and kept it close to his heart.
Webb knew this because he’d been the one to find it near a desolate trail in the Northwest Territories, and he’d been the one to return it to Ruby decades after her daddy had not come back from the war.
“Jim, I’ve sure enjoyed your company,” Ruby said, “and you’re so polite, it might take you another hour of listening to an old woman like me before you get around to what you want to ask, so let me help you out. Go ahead and tell me what’s on your mind.”
What was on his mind was a reunion with four of his six cousins the day after Christmas at their grandfather’s cottage north of Toronto. The accidental discovery of a hidden compartment behind a log beside the fireplace. Fake passports, a mysterious notebook, cash in a dozen currencies and a Walther PPK pistol—James Bond’s weapon of choice, as Spencer, one of his cousins, had pointed out.
“I was hoping you would introduce me to one of the veterans who attended your father’s funeral,” Webb told Ruby. “Someone who fought in Vietnam.”
His answer wasn’t technically a lie, but rather a deflection. Still, he felt a degree of guilt about deceiving Ruby Gavin. Webb drew a breath, waiting for the question that would force him to decide how much more of a lie he’d need to tell the old woman.
“I can do that,” she said. “It’s as easy as a phone call. Care to tell me why you need the introduction?”
This was the question he’d feared. Because he didn’t want to explain. To her or to anyone else. Not until he’d found out what he needed to about those passports and military identification cards.
Webb was ready with a lie. He’d planned to tell Ruby he was taking an online course to upgrade for university, that he was doing research for a paper on the Vietnam War.
He hesitated. Lying was wrong.
“I’d like it,” he said, “if I didn’t have to answer that.”
“After all you’ve done for me, it’s not my business to ask why you want help. I’m going to call Lee Knox right this minute. He’s a stubborn man, but a good one, so try to look past his prickliness. Then I’m going to send you in his direction, but you’re not leaving until you take a tin of shortbread cookies. Understand?”
“Understood.” Food didn’t interest him much these days, but Webb wasn’t about to be rude.
“Tell me this though,” Ruby said. “Are you in some kind of trouble? ’Cause if you are, I’ll move heaven and earth to help you. It’s the least I can do for you after you lifted the burden from me.”
“No,” Webb said. “I’m not in trouble.”
That wasn’t quite a lie, but close.
“Whatever it is,” she said, “it’s weighing heavy on you, isn’t it?”
So heavy, Webb thought, it was almost enough to make him forget about the Nashville producer who had ripped him off a few months earlier. Who’d taken the songs Webb had recorded in his studio.
“I’ll be okay,” Webb said. And wondered if this was the real lie.
It took Webb five minutes to walk to the one traffic light in Eagleville, where the post office sat kitty-corner to the town hall. Five minutes of thinking about the two military identification cards and the fake Canadian passport in the back pockets of his jeans.
From there, guided by Ruby’s directions and the maps on his iPhone, Webb reached a turnoff for Cheatham Springs Road and kept walking. The road was a couple of miles of narrow pavement, up over the crest between two small valleys and partway down again, to where thickly wooded and winding gravel driveways led to houses screened by trees. That gave him plenty more time to think about the two laminated military ID cards and the two fake passports and why he was now looking for a mailbox with the name of a Vietnam veteran, Lee Knox, on it.
Both ID cards were on faded white stock with light blue borders, the words ARMED FORCES OF THE UNITED STATES printed in bold blue ink across the top. Some information on the cards, including a nine-digit military identification number, was typed. No computers back then. Hard to imagine a time when the Internet didn’t exist.
The first card showed Private Jesse Lockewood’s black-and-white photo, centered between two circular Army emblems, also in light blue ink. The photo showed a crew-cut soldier barely older than Webb. Even though it didn’t list a birth date, the card had a typed expiry date: 23 March 1976. Lockewood would be in his mid-to-late-fifties now, about four decades older than Webb.
What was strange was that the photo on Private Jesse Lockewood’s military card matched the photo on the other military card in Webb’s back pocket. Except the other card had a different identification number and declared the same crew-cut soldier to be Corporal Benjamin Moody.
Both ID cards looked genuine, but obviously, unless the pictures were of twins, one man could not be two soldiers in the same army at the same time.
Something strange or even illegal had happened at the end of the Vietnam War that involved Jesse Lockewood and Benjamin Moody. Since Webb had found the cards with his grandfather’s fake passports, it probably meant his grandfather had been been involved in the same illegal activity.
He didn’t expect to find out everything from Lee Knox, but he had to start somewhere.
Lee Knox was a widower with grown kids who lived in a clapboard house on the other side of the hill on Cheatham Springs Road. That’s what Ruby Gavin had told Webb. When he admitted he didn’t know what clapboard was, she told him it was the thin slats of wood that made up the siding. Any clapboard house these days was probably thirty or forty years old, because vinyl siding been around for years and didn’t ever need painting. She said you could tell a lot about a person by how their clapboard looked.
As Webb walked up the long oak-lined driveway to Lee’s house, a mockingbird—the size of a robin, gray with flashes of white in its tail—hopped along in front of him. The mockingbird finally got tired of Webb and flew away, and Webb reached a wide clearing from which he could see Knox’s white clapboard house. It was on a hillside, overlooking the valley to the south. Beside the house was a double garage with its doors up, revealing a large motorcycle with gleaming chrome and an older, bright red Camaro. The two-story house was large, with two rocking chairs on a wide front porch and an American flag waving in the breeze. The clapboard was freshly painted, matching the clapboard on the exterior of the garage. If Ruby was right about clapboard houses revealing things about their owners, Lee Knox was a person who took good care of things and cared about details.
The flower beds in front of the house confirmed Webb’s impression. He stepped onto the porch and was about to knock when the door opened, and the large man in the doorway studied Webb through round, frameless glasses. He had a few wrinkles, and the beginning of jowls under his close-cropped beard. The man’s hair was shaved so short that the coal-black skin of his head contrasted sharply with the gray stubble.
He was wearing sweatpants and an orange jersey that said UT. University of Tennessee. Now there was some major branding. Webb saw those letters everywhere in Nashville, on everything from bumper stickers to coffee cups.
The man in front of Webb held a magazine, as if Webb had interrupted his reading.
“Hello,” Webb said. “My name is Jim Webb.”
“Why are you here?”
“Because Ruby Gavin—”
“I know Ruby Gavin sent you here. She called, asked me if I would mind somebody coming by to ask me a few questions about the army and Vietnam. What I want to know is what questions you have. More to the point, I want to know why you put garbage down at my mailbox as you walked up.”
“Garbage?” Webb asked.
“Garbage. I’ve got a surveillance camera on my driveway. It showed you clear as day putting something down and walking away. Makes me wonder, too, why you’d park your car somewhere on the road and walk in like some long-haired punk trying to sneak up on me.”
Long-haired punk? Webb wanted to punch the guy. Normally, he could handle insults, but for the last while, he’d been getting angry at little things that usually didn’t bother him. “I don’t have a car,” Webb said, forcing a flatness into his voice as he swallowed the anger. “And what I put down by the mailbox is the same thing I’m going to pick up on my way back. A tin of cookies that Ruby baked for me. I set it down because I thought it might look strange knocking on your door with cookies, and I didn’t want to have to explain them.”
The answer softened Lee’s face a bit. “An old gal like Ruby bakes you cookies, that tells me something else, doesn’t it?”
So does freshly painted clapboard, Webb thought, and a perfect flower garden even though the flowers and bushes won’t be in bloom until spring. It tells a person something. So when could you believe what it told you and when couldn’t you?
Lee pointed at a rocking chair. “We might as well sit. You want tea?”
Webb had been in the south long enough to know that Lee meant iced tea. Down here, if you wanted it hot, you had to ask for hot tea. In Canada, when you ordered tea, unless you said iced tea, it came hot and steeped. More than once, he’d wished Tim Hortons would set up in Nashville.
“Yes, please,” Webb said. “Unsweetened.”
That was the other thing. You had to make sure you said unsweetened, or it would be so thick with sugar it was hard to drink. Webb had already filled up on cider, but tea wouldn’t hurt. He’d just have to make sure he used the bathroom before getting on a bus back to Nashville.
“Then set yourself down,” Lee said. “I’ll be back.”
Lee took a half step and paused, looking at Webb’s shirt, and said, “Saskatchewan Roughriders. College team?”
“CFL,” Webb said. In Nashville, if he wasn’t wearing his usual black T-shirt, Webb liked to wear different CFL shirts. He liked being reminded of Canada when he looked in the mirror. Today it was green and white—Go Riders. The T-shirt had been a real find, only five dollars from a surly ten-year-old at a garage sale in Toronto.
“Canadian Football League.”
“They play on skates?” Lee asked, chuckling.
Webb sat in one of the rocking chairs and leaned back, thinking about what Lee had called him. Long-haired punk. Yes, he was mad at Lee for judging him because he had long hair, but if Webb was being honest with himself, it had not occurred to him that Lee Knox might be black. Maybe there was a good song in this somewhere, about making snap judgments. If Webb felt like writing a song. He was in Nashville for that reason, but the well had been dry for weeks. He didn’t seem to have the energy for it anymore, not since getting ripped off.
Lee came onto the porch with two tall glasses of tea, ice cubes clinking as he walked.
“Warm for December,” Lee said. “This is the first time since Christmas I’ve been able to enjoy sitting on the porch.”
Webb was used to snowy Christmases, so any day in December in Nashville seemed warm.
“How did you get here?” Lee asked. Get sounded like git. The entire sentence sounded like howdjew git heah.
“I’m from the Toronto area,” Webb explained. “I flew down to Nashville. I would have skated, but the ice ran out south of Buffalo.”
Gotcha, Webb thought.
“What I meant,” Lee said, “was how did you get here today? Ruby told me you were living in Nashville. It’s a long ways to walk.”
“Bus,” Webb said.
“That wouldn’t have been easy.”
“With connections, about four hours,” Webb said.
“Four hours’ travel to come and ask some questions,” Lee said. “Must be important.”
More important than he was going to reveal to Lee. So Webb’s answer was to reach into his back pocket and pull out the pieces of military ID. One face. Two different names.
“Hang on,” Lee said, putting up a hand to stop Webb from passing the cards to him. “Ruby said you wanted to talk to me about Vietnam, ask some questions about a soldier there.”
Webb nodded. “I was at her father’s funeral—played a couple of songs in his honor. She said some local Vietnam vets attended out of respect, because he’d been in the military too. She said you were one of them.”
“Yes, I was at the funeral,” Lee said. “I remember thinking that kids these days hadn’t earned the right to wear their hair long like you do.”
Earned the right to wear long hair? What kind of stupid thing was that to say? Webb thought. Maybe adults these days hadn’t earned the right to criticize kids they didn’t know. Especially since Lee Knox had no idea why Webb refused to cut his hair. Webb fought an irrational impulse to stand and fight.
“I remember thinking that even though I didn’t like the way you looked,” Lee continued, “you sounded good on that guitar. Okay. Better than good.”
And maybe I don’t care about your opinion and maybe I don’t like orange jerseys with UT in big letters, Webb thought. What business was it of Lee’s how Webb dressed and looked? But Webb needed information, and again he reminded himself there was no sense starting an argument.
“I told Ruby I’d hear you out as a favor to her,” Lee said. “But I might be the wrong person for you to ask about the conflict.”
Yeah, Webb thought, if you don’t like kids because of how they look, you might be the wrong person for anybody. But he kept that to himself as well.
Instead, he said, “You fought in Vietnam, right?”
“I served in Vietnam, son. I served my country and I served the people of my country. And since it’s apparent you don’t understand the difference between fighting and serving, I think you are proving my point. Which is this: I might be the wrong person for you to ask for help.”
“Help me understand the difference then. You were a solider. You had to fight, right?”
“That war was only forty or so years ago. I flew home in my uniform, and as I walked through the airport, people spat on me and called me a baby killer. Do you know why?”
“No,” Webb said. “I don’t.”
“Do you know why the war was started?”
“No,” Webb said. “I don’t.”
“Do you know why the war was lost?”
“No,” Webb said. “I don’t.”
“When did it start? When did it end? Who was president at the start? Who was president at the end? What happened at Kent State? Who shot Martin Luther King Jr. and why?”
Webb didn’t answer any of the questions. He didn’t even speak. He suspected it would be a weak excuse to say he didn’t know because he wasn’t American.
“See”—Lee drew a deep breath—“we’ve got a generation of kids who know nothing about what shaped my generation. In Vietnam, I held friends as they died in my arms. I’ve got other friends came back with me, missing an arm or a leg, who didn’t want to fight but were willing to serve. These are lessons we paid for in blood, son. I deeply resent the fact that these lessons are already forgotten, and that’s why I may not be the person you want to speak to about Vietnam. Because when it comes to Vietnam, I’m an angry person.” Lee paused and evaluated Webb. “You still want to ask your questions? Like you’re working on some report for school?”
Webb didn’t shy from the man’s hard gaze. He’d faced worse. Way worse. “So you’re telling me I need to know the history, but I shouldn’t ask any questions about it. From a person who was there.”
Lee looked at Webb for about thirty seconds, then snorted. “You put it like that, it makes me feel somewhat foolish.” He continued, “I’m aware that you did something wonderful for Ruby by bringing word to her about her father’s disappearance. I understand you faced down a bear in the process.”
“Yes,” Webb said, not adding any details. It had been part of Webb’s time in the wilderness of the North. A mission for his grandfather that had helped him uncover something for Ruby Gavin. Webb’s business wasn’t anyone else’s business, especially not the business of a guy who thought it was funny to suggest that Canadians played football on skates.
When Lee realized Webb wasn’t going to say anything more, he held out his hand for the ID cards. “Everyone around here is glad you helped her. She’s a good woman. What is it you want to know?”
Webb handed him the card with the name Jesse Lockewood.
Lee studied it. “Seeing a card like this brings back memories. I still have my card, somewhere.”
Webb handed him the second card, with the same photo that identified the man as Benjamin Moody.
“Interesting,” Lee said. “A little bit of fraud going on here.”
Then he snorted, as if Webb were an idiot. “You think maybe somehow, out of 100,000 grunts serving at the time, I know this guy?”
The guy expected attitude, Webb could give him attitude. “I’m from Canada. I meet people here and tell them I’m from Toronto, and they tell me they know someone in Vancouver and ask if I know that person too. It’s a forty-hour drive across the country to Vancouver. So no, I’m not thinking you know this guy. I was hoping you might know someone who might know someone who might know how to track him down.”
“Did you wake up in a bad mood?” Lee asked. “Or are you like this all the time?”
“Nope,” Webb said. He’d let Lee figure out the implications. Although it did seem that Webb was always waking up in a bad mood these days.
“As a favor to Ruby,” Lee said, “I can find the right government office for you to start asking questions. You can take your bad mood there.”
Webb had no intention of doing that. If his search went through official channels, maybe it would lead to the wrong person asking the wrong questions about his grandpa, and it might turn out that the man he had loved was a spy. If that information went public, it could hurt a lot of people. No way was Webb going to say any of this out loud. He could barely say it to himself.
Webb stood. “Mr. Knox, I sure appreciate your time. And I think you are right. You are the wrong person to ask about this.”
“Sit down,” Lee said. “Somehow we got started off on the wrong foot. If it’s my fault, I apologize. I’m not averse to asking around. And I’m not averse to minding my own business about it. As I said, Ruby Gavin is a good woman, and I know what you did for her was a big help.”
Webb remained standing. Despite my long hair? he wanted to say. Webb wasn’t sure he liked Lee Knox. But it didn’t matter. Webb would be down the driveway in a minute or two.
“My insurance business doesn’t take much of my time these days,” Lee said. “My wife, bless her soul, has passed away. My children are grown, and except for golf and tending to my flower bed, there’s not a lot happening in my life. You’ve got me curious enough that I don’t mind asking around, but I’d rather make you a deal than do this for nothing.”
Webb sat again. If he didn’t start here, where else could he start? He didn’t know anybody in the military.
“I need some parts from Montgomery for my Camaro,” Lee said. “That’s about two hundred and fifty miles south of here, straight down the interstate. How about you pick up those parts for me, and when you get back, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned. Because yes, I have a few friends who might be able to help us track down this soldier, and while you’re gone, I’ll make those calls.”
“I don’t have a car, so it might take me awhile,” Webb said, calculating how he’d do it. Probably by Greyhound. It was going to cost him the bus fare, but he could pack sandwiches in case he got hungry, and that would make it as inexpensive as possible. It was money he couldn’t afford to spend, but if there was a chance it would help clear his grandfather, he’d spend it.
“You’re thinking bus, right?” Lee said. “I’ll cover the cost of the ticket and meals and even a night’s stay, if you need it. Plus I’ll pay you for your time. We’ll trade cell numbers. You’ll be looking for Jimmie Lee Jackson, and after you find him, send me a text.”
Webb wondered if he needed to be suspicious about the offer.
“Cash up front,” Lee said. “Hundred bucks for your time, and all expenses covered. I know someone who can tell me if either of those cards is fake, so leave them with me and I’ll check with my contacts and ask some questions. With luck, when you get back, I’ll have some answers for you.”
It might not lead anywhere, Webb thought, but it beat sitting alone in his apartment and trying to find the energy to write a song that he doubted would get cut anywhere anyhow.