The Last Soldier

Tune in next week for the concluding chapter of Diane Hughes’ The Post Office Truck. In the meantime, in honor of Veteran’s Day, I offer this short creative essay by Doug Elwell, who holds the honor of being the most frequent guest writer for True Stories Well Told. 

In his recent autobiographical writing, Doug has been experimenting with the line between creative nonfiction and fiction. “Harry” is his alter ego in this endeavor. Of ‘The Last Soldier’ he writes,  “this piece looks back via the old man’s memory–my future self–to his soldiering days. It is creative nonfiction in that there was a squad and several have passed on. There was also a case of rum…”

By Doug Elwell

Blue winter sunlight streamed in through the bedroom window. The storm had passed. The electricity and heat returned sometime in the night and Harry was wet with sweat. Snow plows scraped by on the street. He heard shovels on sidewalks. He had no need to go out so he spent most of the day sorting papers and magazines that teetered precariously on the small table next to his chair on the far side of the bedroom. Late in the afternoon, as was his custom on this day, he went to the hall closet and stood on a stool to reach a high shelf. He steadied himself with one hand, and reached in, probing until he hit upon a shoebox buried in the back under a frayed old lap blanket. Clasping it in both hands he stepped hesitantly onto the floor. At the kitchen table, he pushed a candle aside and put the unopened box in its place. He drew up a chair, sat and stared at the box—remembering.

He thought this day deserved a measure of respect so he went into the bathroom and shaved. When he looked in the mirror he noted the loss of tone of the skin on his neck. According to widow Fansler across the hall he was still an attractive man, but he doubted her judgment, given her advanced age and circumstances.

Thin afternoon sunlight beat uncertain through the window onto the kitchen table and the shoebox where his hands rested. He curled his fingers around the lid and lifted it gently—set it aside. He pulled out a cylindrical object wrapped in wrinkled, yellowed tissue paper. He opened it. There, in the last thin light of day, the last unopened bottle of Mount Gay rum stood at attention on the table—the last soldier. It was a true day to toast his old comrades. They had all passed now. He was the last. The slanted shaft of sunlight passed through the bottle and cast an unsteady, molasses colored shadow on the wall. It caught his eye, he stared, remembered. He wiped his cheeks on his shirtsleeves.

The Vietnam Memorial. Panama City Beach spring breakers spit on Vietnam veterans. (Flickr/Creative Commons)

The Vietnam Memorial. Panama City Beach spring breakers spit on Vietnam veterans. (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Forty five years. So far away that time was now. When he thought of those days it was as if they happened in another life. Maybe they did. Maybe it was a story he read that was peopled with characters created by some author he did not know. He closed his eyes and shook his head. No—they were real enough, though he hardly remembered DB, Matt, Jimmy and Alvin but they were there—that he didn’t make them up—that they all shared those moments of terror and triumph. Those days in the paddies and the elephant grass and the heat. Everything was big and important then. They were all larger in those days and believed that everything they did was large and important. They flashed large across the sky like shooting stars then one-by-one over the years left to another dimension behind the black dome of the heavens. They all moved on. He removed the cap, breathed in the richness of dark molasses and toasted another Veteran’s Day.


© 2015 Doug Elwell. Doug Elwell writes short stories and memoir that feature characters, lore and culture of the rural Midwest. His work has occasionally appeared in his home town newspaper, The Oakland Independent, two editions of Ignite Your Passion: Kindle Your Inner Spark, True Stories Well Told, Every Writer’s Resource and Midwestern Gothic. He can be contacted via email at:

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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