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The Watchers

By Billy Smith

I could feel them both staring at me from behind—that creepy sensation you get when someone’s gaze points squarely in your direction. You feel it, but you can’t quite decipher who it is or why you’ve become the target of their disdain. But in this case, I could also feel their crossed arms and hardened scowls.

“We’ll take care of him,” an unobtrusive voice said. “Don’t you understand that?”

Though it’s been more than 30 years since I last heard that voice, I instantly recognized the delivery. It was my mother’s father—my grandfather. He was a farmer and cotton ginner who had spent his early years cowboying on the legendary Waggoner Ranch; he would be both proud and mortified to know it recently sold for somewhere near $750 million. A Depression baby and Dust Bowl kid, he bought his first farm for a few bucks an acre. He was a calm, cool soul who laughed a lot and listened to Texas Ranger broadcasts on radio rather than television.

“I can see it better on the radio,” he’d say.

He rarely spoke in disgusted terms. But this time, however, I felt the full wrath of his irritation. Behind him was a silent interloper, a shadowy figure with muscular and folded arms. I leaned forward, squinted and finally saw the outline of my other grandfather—my father’s father. He was annoyed, too. He only scowled, never spoke, leaving only a cold spasm shivering down my back. Clearly, they were annoyed with me, and these were men with whom you never wanted to find yourself in that position.

Now wasn’t the time to deal with the disapproval of others, particularly my long-deceased grandfathers. After all, my son was about to head to the ugliest part of the world to do battle with some of Earth’s most vile men, those for whom killing infidels is a religious calling. For my son, being an infidel is an equally compelling calling, which is why he traded in his boots, spurs and horse to enter the depravities of military services and the dangers of chasing the worst of the worst in the darkest corners of the globe. He’s not the first cowboy to enter combat; there are tales in Western lore of ranches that memorialized their cowboy war fighters in various ways during World War II. This time, though, the cowboy is my cowboy. And just like fathers throughout the millennia, I would sooner fight a battle myself than send my own flesh to do battle on my behalf. My son, however, is the war fighter, not me.

As Washington Times Journalist Richard Grenier once wrote, “People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” My son, like so many before him, is one of the rough men. Despite the general honor of military service, only a fraction see the enemy eyeball-to-eyeball. My son is one of those equipped to engage those who are intent on destroying America and its way of life in the most intimate of ways. Where he goes is secret. His face is blurred in deployment pictures and despite my constant probing, I always get the same response: “If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.”

So when he’s in the world’s darkest places, I think of him. I scour the constellations at night, wondering if he looks at the same ones. I spend most of my evenings probing the north sky, looking for Hercules. The son of Zeus, Hercules was strong and stricken with wanderlust, like my own son. On this night, after gazing in the northern sky and then retiring to bed, I reacquainted myself with my two grandfathers who scolded me for my worry.

Dreams normally keep me awake at night. This one has kept me awake for the better part of a year. “We’ll take care of him,” he said. “Don’t you understand that?”

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This story appeared in the Fall 2016 Chrome magazine, which is free to all current APHA members at apha.com/login. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.

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