There's a special gated community in heaven for all who died young in wars. That's what I think, anyway.You think what you want to.
This year the rules changed. A kid wandered in through the heavenly mists with a fire helmet under his arm.
"Am I in the right place?" he asked. "They sent me here, but you guys are all soldiers."
And they were. When the kid fireman looked around him he saw a fashion show of military uniforms. From cocked hats to Union blue to khaki to camouflage. The only constant was the faces. All 20-somethings. Nobody looked old enough to run for Congress. They were kids. So was he. But he was the new kid on the block.
They all stared at him for a while. Then one of the kids walked toward him. The kid was starched and all spit and polish. He was dressed like Vietnam and was immaculate but for the small hole above his heart.
"What's your story?" the Vietnam kid asked.
"Throw him out, Lenny," said a grizzled old navy chief. "He doesn't belong with us."
Lenny held up his hand for silence.
"Tell me about your last day," he said.
"It was a normal day," said the fireman. "I was working the day shift and my wife liked that. She made me eggs. She poured me coffee. My kids went to school and I went to work."
"We got a call to the World Trade Center," the fireman said. "When we got there we knew it was bad - worse than bad. We had to go up the stairwell. I was with my guys. We looked at each other and we thought maybe we were dead. But we went up. That's all I remember."
"No it isn't," said Lenny. "What did you think about on the way up, in your last minutes?"
"I thought about how good those eggs smelled," the fireman said. "I thought about the coffee and how good it tasted and how shiny the pot was. And I thought about my wife in her robe and how good she looked when she bent over to pour it. And then I thought, I don't know why I'm doing this. But the other guys are. I can't let them down.' "
"Yeah," said the Vietnam kid.
"I wanted to leave though," the fireman said. "I was scared and I wanted to run home and see Michelle. But I just kept climbing. I was scared as hell. So maybe I don't belong here."
The Vietnam kid turned to the chief. "OK, what do you think," he said. "Does he belong here?"
The chief spat out the end of his cigar and grinned.
"Two eggs, sunny-side up," he said. "And a nice cup of Joe. On the way."
From far away a bugle blew. They all stopped to listen.
"That's taps at Arlington," said the Vietnam kid. "I got here in '67, so this is the 35th time I heard it. They think they're blowing for us, but they're blowing for themselves. They're trying to say thanks because it makes them feel better. The worst part is the speeches, but we don't listen to those."
"Why not?" said the fireman.
"Buncha politicians," said the Vietnam kid. "They bow their heads and pretend we died for them. You died for a bunch of guys in a stairwell and I died because a buddy of mine was wounded. He was only 15 feet beyond the wire and I thought I could make it."
"Eggs is up," said the chief.
"It's a new kind of war," said the Vietnam kid. "You belong all right."
Before the fireman could answer, a new guy stumbled in through the mists.
He blinked at the group. "I'm not sure I'm in the right place," he said. "I was on a plane over Pennsylvania. The last thing I remember is saying, Let's roll!'"
© 2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.