The Old Marine on 9/11

Digressions of J. Charles

My Writing Mentor

By J. Charles Cheek[1]

© June 2004

He was a buddy I never met. We were e-mail friends. After reading his novel, In the Shadow of Glory, I wrote him and told him that I enjoyed his book. It brought back a lot of memories. I told him I had written some notes many years ago in anticipation of writing a book, as he had done, based on my experiences during the Korean War. He became my mentor as I embarked on my novel. Periodically, I e-mailed my progress to him and he always sent back words of encouragement. Regrettably, he died unexpectedly on November 27, 2002 just a few days after I finished the first draft of my novel. The story below is one he posted on the Internet for all to read. I am proud to reproduce it here in his honor.


By Robert B. Campbell

The old Marine lay motionless on the narrow bed in a veteran’s hospital. Despite the oxygen flowing into his lungs from the plastic tubes inserted in his nostrils, his breathing was labored and painful to watch. His sunken eyes were open, fixed on the softly murmuring television set mounted high on the wall at the foot of his bed. He didn’t need to hear the sound; the captions scrolling across the bottom of the screen were more than adequate to explain the ghastly pictures flashing on the screen.

As he watched the horrifying scene playing over and over, tears slowly formed in his eyes then coursed down his hollow cheeks. His mind was in turmoil. This can’t be happening, he moaned to himself. No! Not here in America! He winced as the big jet flew into the second trade tower; this time the footage was shot from a different angle, showing a rearview of the plane as it plowed headlong into the majestic structure. His heart lurched violently in his chest, just as it did each time the grisly, mind-boggling scene was repeated on the screen. Now the station shifted back to live coverage. Both towers were burning fiercely, sending huge gouts of greasy black smoke into the blue September sky.

The minutes passed in agonizing slowness. Each scene on the television was like a hammer-blow to the old man’s soul, but he couldn’t tear his eyes from the screen, no matter how deep and painful the hurt. His almost hypnotic attention to the newscast was snapped when the young nurse quietly slipped into the room. Her normally sunny face was a pale and grim mask now, her eyes reddened from crying.

“I’ll just turn the television off now,” she said softly, reaching for the remote lying on his bedside table.

“Leave it alone,” he rasped. His voice, though weak, still had a tone of command that stopped her from turning off the set.

“I- I’m sorry. I thought it might be… uhh… too disturbing,” she murmured.

“I ain’t no baby,” he growled. “Now leave me alone.” With that, he turned his attention to the disaster playing out on the screen. He was no longer aware of the nurse who stood watching the television a moment before leaving the room as silently as she had entered.

Just then one of the burning towers gave up the ghost and began to collapse onto itself, blanketing the entire area in a boiling shroud of dust and smoke. To the old man, it almost seemed to be happening in slow motion. When the second tower collapsed not long after, he moaned and gasped for air. It took several long minutes before he could suck enough oxygen into his tortured lungs. Omigod! All those people. Dead… all dead! his voice shrieked in his mind.

Now he could no longer bear to watch the mesmerizing scene of chaos coming from the television. He moaned again and slowly rolled his head on the pillow until he was staring at the stained wall a scant few feet from his bedside. Though open, his eyes were painting nothing on the canvas of his mind. Ohh, God, he groaned inwardly. If only I could do something… anything.

The tragedy he had spent the morning watching had saddened him deeply, but it had also angered him as nothing had angered him before. The worst part was knowing that he was totally helpless to do anything about it. This was almost as unbearable for him as watching the terrorist attack unfold before his eyes.

“Jesus. Oh Jesus,” he muttered. “I’d give anything to be there now.” He didn’t know what he could do, but just being there ready and able to pitch in and lend a needed hand was something. It wasn’t as though he’d never been in the thick of things before, by God.

He became aware of the wall in front of him. It was bare except for the glassed shadowbox frame containing medals, ribbons, dogtags and other small bits of military memorabilia– mementos from his hitch in the Marine Corps a half century ago. He was so proud of them and of what they stood for. His wife had brought in the framed collection and hung it by his bedside, hoping the sight of it would cheer him a little.

The old man squinted his eyes, focusing them on the gaudy display of cloth and metal. Though his sight was a little dimmed by age and infirmity, he saw the ribbons and medals as bright and shiny as the day he was awarded them for his service in the Korean War. Yeah… he’d done his duty for his country back then, and by God he’d willingly do it again today if only he wasn’t bound to this damned bed.

The image of the two magnificent towers crashing to the ground played in his mind again. He felt his heart constrict as though some giant hand were squeezing it. Pain… piercing, agonizing pain shot through his entire body. He couldn’t breathe. Frantically, he tried to suck air into his starving lungs but to no avail. Just when he thought he couldn’t take it any longer, the pain suddenly lifted, and he could breathe easily now. He became aware that he was standing at the foot of the bed… looking at the old man lying there. He glanced up at the television set mindlessly playing away high on the wall, then returned his gaze to the man in the bed. There was a rictus of a smile on the wasted face, but life had mercifully departed from the old Marine.

The young Marine heaved a sigh of relief, then drew himself stiffly erect and saluted the old Marine in the bed. With a look of grim resolution on his lean face and with a firm step, he marched out the door. The old warrior was on his way to New York City to report for duty one last time.

E – N – D


[1] Mr. Cheek has written dozens of short stories under the general heading of Digressions of J. Charles. He is also the author of the novel Stay Safe, Buddy – A Story of Humor and Horror during the Korean War,300 pages, Publish America ISBN # 159286631X

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