Chapter 1 of "Untitled"

Chapter 1 of "Untitled"

A Chapter by GenXer

October 1912, Los Angeles, California

 

Frank Ainsworth, special examiner for the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Pensions, drove west on Wilshire Boulevard, his Model T Runabout rolling at a respectable 25 miles per hour. His teeth clamped down on the stem of his pipe as the Runabout clipped a large stone in the road, bouncing Frank in his seat. His hat shaded his eyes but offered little additional relief on such an unusually warm day for October, even in Los Angeles.

 

If nothing else, the assignment he was on today might be interesting enough to break up the monotony, at least temporarily, that was Frank’s career. He was on his way to the Sawtelle Veterans Home to interview a Civil War veteran who was filing for his pension, and even though Frank had interviewed dozens of veterans in his fifteen years with the federal government, today’s veteran had a reputation.

 

The Civil War veterans were a dying breed. The ones that were left were mostly grizzled old men, haggard and worn, not so much haunted by the horrors of a country at war with itself, but from too many years of fraying lives spent on the edges of society. Many of them were forgotten alcoholic vagabonds with barely a dim memory of happy family days.

 

The Pacific Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, where Frank was headed now, served as the most popular local receptacle for these aged soldiers. Well over one thousand veterans called Sawtelle home. It was worse than an orphanage, in Frank’s opinion. Every resident got three squares a day and a place to sleep at night, but rumors flew of constant maltreatment of inmates by various staff and questionable misdoings of an assumed corrupt management. The combination of unscrupulous staff and disillusioned, rough men produced an uneasy, dark atmosphere, hardly ideal conditions for a golden retirement.

 

Frank arrived at the veteran complex’s main building, stopping in the shade of a palm tree and halting the small cloud of dust that had followed him from the road. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, removed his hat, and dried his forehead. The shade of the tree was a welcome relief from the sun, which seemed to pierce the soldiers’ home with silver metal daggers.

 

The man at the reception desk recognized Frank from past visits. He nodded a greeting and picked up the telephone to summon the veteran in question. Frank waited, holding his briefcase in one hand, his hat in the other, and was thankful for the high ceiling, the cool tile floor and the several buzzing fans that sent a draft over his damp hair.

 

A few moments later, the old soldier appeared. His name was Willard Lemon, or William Leonard, depending on what, at that point Frank did not know. He was not exceptionally tall, maybe just under six feet, but had imposing broad shoulders, a thick neck, and very large hands, the right of which was missing most of its thumb. He regarded Frank with piercing strange eyes hooded by thick glowering eyebrows, and Frank no longer had a doubt that this man had earned his reputation as a protector, not the protected.

 

“Mr. Lemon?” Frank asked as he shook the hand that no longer claimed a thumb. The hand held Frank’s in an iron grip.

 

“I’m Frank Ainsworth, from the Bureau of Pensions. Please, let’s have a seat and discuss your claim.”

 

“Yes, sir,” grunted Willard, following Frank’s lead into a nearby office.

 

Willard sat heavily in a chair that complained loudly while Frank opened his briefcase and removed a stack of papers and a pen.

 

“How are you today, Mr. Lemon?” Frank asked as he pulled himself up to the desk between them.

 

“Just fine, thank you sir.” Willard’s mouth smiled but his eyes didn’t betray him.

 

“Ok…” Frank pursed his lips and released a long exhale. “You, Mr. Lemon, have filed for your Civil War pension. Have you received a letter from our office explaining why this interview is necessary?”

 

“I have.” Willard sat back in his chair, which registered a second vociferous complaint. “I have indeed, sir.” He folded his arms across his chest. “I figured it was time for me to get what’s rightfully mine.”

 

“Well our first order of business…” Frank paused as he flipped through a series of forms, and then found the page he was looking for. He perched his glasses on the tip of his nose and peered at the document he was holding. “Our first order of business is to confirm your true name, of course, and this would be ‘Willard Reuben Lemon,’ correct?”

 

“Yes, that was my name, originally.”

 

“And your ‘other’ name, Mr. Lemon?”

 

“After I left the Regular Army, sir, I went by the name ‘William Lewis Leonard.’”

 

“I assume this is because you, in fact, defected?”

 

“That is correct, sir.” Much to the chair’s dread, Willard leaned forward. “But it is common knowledge around here that the soldiers like myself will not be denied our pensions because of this. We have been pardoned by our United States government.”

 

Frank nodded. “Correct. No need to worry about that, though, Mr. Lemon--"Leonard?”

 

“Lemon is fine.”

 

“Mr. Lemon, the Pension Bureau has grown beyond everyone’s expectations. It has become a massive draw on our country’s funds, and it has fallen victim to many individuals who are not who they say they are. We simply need to be sure that we are giving those dollars to those who have rightfully earned them.”

 

“I understand, Mr. Ainsworth, but you can rest assured that I am who I say I am.”

 

“Well, we can never be too cautious in times like these, can we, Mr. Lemon?” Frank said, peering at Willard over the top of his glasses. “Moving along, you were christened ‘Willard Reuben Lemon,’ and…” he squinted at the pension application. “You were born on March 25, 1845, in Ballsville, Ohio, correct?”

 

“Ballville. Sandusky County.”

 

“Parents Edward and Ann Lemon… and do you have siblings?”

 

“Yes,I had several.”

 

“If you could give me their names, please.”

 

“I was the first born. My sister Clara was the oldest girl. I had another sister, Mary. Brothers George, Leroy, Beebe, Franklin, and two more boys. I don’t remember their names. They were just little tots when I left.”

 

“And when did you leave? You never saw them again?”

 

“1868, just before my mother and father died of typhoid fever. I never did go back, although I gave my share of the estate to my sister Clara to help care for the younger children.”

 

Willard’s memory took him back to another place; another time: some 40 years before in Sandusky. He had a clear memory of the last time he saw his parents because they both died soon after. It was Christmastime in 1868 and Willard went to see home one last time before heading back out west.

 

“Where are you going this time, son?” his father, Edward, had asked on a frigid Ohio winter evening as Willard helped him put the farm animals to bed. He had given up trying to influence Willard’s choices. His firstborn was headstrong and restless.

 

Willard could see his breath in the dim barn lamplight. He could see the animals’ breaths as well. “I want to go west again. I’ve heard stories from the fellows. It’s all big and open out there. Everything a man could ever want, everything free for the taking.”

 

“I hear stories too,” Edward said. “Indians, rough men, loose women. Just promise me you will be careful, son. And make sure you write to your mother and me. You may be our oldest but you are still our child. Don’t forget us.”

 

Willard added some extra straw to the heifers’ pen. It was going to be a cold night. “Of course, father. I don’t plan to be gone long. I just want to see what is out there.” He patted a heifer’s rump. “I just want to see.”

 

“I worry about you, Willard. But your mind is made up. Just like it was with the war.”

 

“But I came out of the war just fine, see?”

 

“Too young, Willard, you were too young. I wouldn’t have let you do it if your cousin Richard hadn’t been there to keep an eye on you.”

 

“I must pay a visit to Richard tomorrow. We had some really good days together, we did. And now he has a wife with a little one on the way. That won’t be me, at least not yet. I have things to see first.”

 

“Just keep your eyes open, son. That’s all I ask.”

 

They fastened the barn door for the night, the animals safe and warm inside, then headed back to the house where the rich smell of coffee beckoned.

 

“Mr. Lemon?” Frank spoke again and plucked Willard out of 1868. “Do your siblings still reside in Sandusky County, Ohio? We will need to contact them.”

 

“As far as I know, but it has been a long time.”

 

“Are you or have you been married, Mr. Lemon?”

 

“I have never been married.”

 

Frank stopped writing and looked up at Willard. “Ok. As far as your military service, what regiment did you serve in in the Civil War?”

 

“Fourth… uh, yes, fourth Ohio Cavalry, Company D. I enrolled with my cousin Richard Lemon in 1864. We were chums then, never apart. We enrolled at Toledo.”

 

Frank wrote down the information and put down the pen. “How did you come to defect?”

 

“I didn’t, well, not the first time. After the war ended, I went home for a brief time and then joined the regular army as a lot of men were doing at that time. I was sent out to Fort Riley in Kansas.

 

“I stuck it out for awhile. It was rough out there. We spent weeks on the plains with a government guide, rounding up Indians. I lost everything I had in a campfire; lost the shirt right off my back. The discipline of the Regular Army officers was so much more severe than we had been used to in the Volunteers that we could not stand it. A lot of men hightailed it out of there, and, well, I went one night with several of the other fellows.”

 

“You just… went?”

 

“Yes sir, we had reached the South Platte country by then; we each took our horses and left during the night, then split our separate ways a few days later, and that was that. Have you always lived in the city, Mr. Ainsworth?”

 

“Born and raised here in Los Angeles. Now who is interviewing who?” Frank smiled and sat up straight in his chair, which didn’t make a sound. “I think I have what we need for now. I will verify this information with the Department and contact your family in Ohio. We may have to conduct a second interview if we find it necessary,” Frank said as he gathered his papers. “Do you have any questions?”

 

“I don’t think so, sir. I just hope I can start receiving my pension soon.”

 

Frank snapped his briefcase shut and stood up. “I’ll file your paperwork right away, Mr. Lemon.”

 

The two men shook hands again and Frank left, walking back through the breezy lobby and out into the yellowing Southern California afternoon sunshine.



© 2011 GenXer


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GenXer
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Good story line. I can't wait to find out what happens. Willard seems alittle scary.

Posted 10 Years Ago



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Added on November 8, 2010
Last Updated on November 27, 2011
Tags: Los Angeles, California, 1910s, Civil War, veteran, hospital, government, investigation


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GenXer
GenXer

Denver, CO



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I'm a proofreader by trade, but I don't harass people about their grammar, spelling, or typos. It *really* doesn't matter unless it's something official or something that is about to be printed or pub.. more..

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A Book by GenXer


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A Chapter by GenXer





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