Neighborhood Didn’t Welcome This Soldier’s Homecoming.

Story by Donna Gundle-Krieg

The neighborhood kids nicknamed the cranky old couple Crazy Jack and Ruby Rednose. Rumor was that they sat inside and drank whiskey all day. It was true that Jack and Ruby Jones preferred to keep to themselves. About the only words we ever heard from them were “Keep out of our rosebushes!”

The rosebushes were seventy beautiful floribunda shrubs that served as a fence between our house and theirs. The rose fence took quite a bit of abuse, since our house was the neighborhood hangout. I was eleven at the time and the oldest of six active girls. We should have played our softball games elsewhere to avoid hurting the roses, but we secretly enjoyed irritating Crazy Jack and Ruby Rednose.

Jack and Ruby had a son whom we nicknamed Crazy Jack Junior. He was due to come home from Vietnam. We heard he had been discharged because of a nervous breakdown. The neighborhood had thrown a big party for Jimmy Brown when he came home from the war, but no one offered to have a party for Crazy Jack Junior.

The day Crazy Jack Junior was scheduled to come home, we had a neighborhood softball game in our yard. Johnny McGrath was trying to catch a fly ball. He stumbled over one of Ruby Rednose’s thorny rosebushes and fell on top of several more. Boy, did he yell, but the roses were the ones that really suffered. From my vantage point at second base, it looked like about ten of them were damaged pretty badly. Johnny’s timing was terrible, because as he lay there swearing at the roses, the Joneses’ pickup rolled into the driveway. The truck screeched to a halt and Crazy Jack Junior sprang out. He ran full speed toward Johnny.

“You little punk!” he screamed. “Look what you’ve done to our family’s roses! You’ve always been trouble. I’m going to fetch my gun and shoot you!”

The next few minutes were a blur. The neighborhood kids ran for their lives. Ruby and Jack tried to restrain their son. He continued to yell threats and profanities. Ruby wasn’t my favorite person, but I felt sorry for her when I saw her tearfully pleading with Crazy Jack Junior. Finally, they coaxed him inside.

Meanwhile, my sisters and I tore into our house. Breathlessly, we told Mom what had happened. She put down her sewing and scolded, “Girls, I have told you not to play softball near those bushes. Come outside right now and help me fix them.”

“Mom, we thought you didn’t like the Joneses,” we protested. “They’re mean to us. Besides, Crazy Jack Junior might shoot us.”

Mom just glared at us. We followed her outside to help mend the rose fence. While Mom examined the damaged roses, my sisters and I hung back, plotting how to get out of the thorny job.

As we whispered back and forth, the Joneses’ garage door opened and Ruby slowly walked out. She looked sad. And it wasn’t her nose that was red, it was her eyes.

Ruby walked over to my mother. The two women stood looking at each other through the new gap in the rose fence. We girls held our breath, waiting to see who would shout first and what terrible things would be said. How much trouble would we be in when it was all over?

Suddenly my mother stepped forward and hugged Ruby. “I’m glad your son came back home,” she said gently. “It must have been a horrible experience in Vietnam. We’re sorry about the flowers. The girls will replace them if we can’t fix them. In return for all the bother, they’ll help you weed the roses this summer.”

My sisters and I looked at each other in horror, but Ruby smiled at my mother through her tears. “I know we’re particular about these roses,” she said, “but they’re very special to us. When my mother came from England, she brought one tiny part of her favorite rosebush. That was her reminder of home.”

She paused a minute, then said sadly, “My mother had a magic touch with flowers. Over the years that one plant multiplied into all these bushes. Since she died, I’ve tried to keep them up, but I just don’t have her magic touch.”

Her voice was all choked up. “Mom died while Jack Junior was in Vietnam. He just found out about her death today. When he saw her rosebushes damaged, it was the last straw.”

Ruby mopped at her tears. “Once we got him inside and calmed down, he admitted he’s out of control. Jack just drove him to Clinton Valley to be admitted to a treatment program.”

By now I felt really bad for the Jones family-what a sorrowful homecoming! I could tell my mother and sisters felt the same.

“We all enjoy the roses as much as you do. We’ll be happy to help you care for them,” my mother said. “You know, some people say I have a magic touch with flowers, too.”

Soon both women were down on their knees talking and examining the damaged bushes together. A few weeks later, the plants all returned with vigor.

My mother and Ruby worked together on the roses all summer long and many summers to follow. So did my sisters and I. A friendship formed between the families that would include countless birthdays, graduations and weddings-including Jack Junior’s.

Years later, when her son left home and her husband died, Ruby became part of our family, spending many happy hours at our house.

She wasn’t Ruby Rednose anymore; she was Aunt Ruby.

And the rose fence wasn’t a fence any longer. My mother had turned it into a bridge.

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