The woman I had just spoken with, walked to the end of the long corridor and stopped an elderly man coming from a side door. She placed her arm around his shoulder leaned into his ear, and pointed toward the entrance where I was standing. He smiled and nodded in my direction, and I acknowledged with a wave, even though I later learned he could not have seen me through the one way glass.
But I didn't know, and so I kept smiling and waving like a nervous little boy. From where I stood, I could easily see a pantomime of conversation; I saw the moment Matt mouthed the question “Who?” to Carol’s motioning toward me.
And there it was, the face that I would draw and erase a hundred times before landing the perfect likeness, the one I lost long ago in my transient life. There he was, the same man I had seen speaking to Charles Karalt about President Jimmy Carter’s emotional reaction to giving him the Medal of Honor. There he was, Matt Urban.
I can still see Matt stuffing his shirt into his pants and straightening his narrow belt while making his way down the hall toward me. His hand dove into his back pocket and pulled out a small comb. He threaded the dark piece of plastic quickly through his long hair, tucking the locks behind his ears with one hand while patting the side of his head with the other; ensuring every aspect of his hair was in place and "presentable" he would later confess.
No one ever combed their hair for me. A habit from a time when men removed their hats inside a building, checked the fold of the back of the collar and brushed a hand across the mustache to make sure everything was in place. Feeling self-conscious I followed his role, and straightened up myself, running my hand over the top of my head; forgetting just for a moment I was bald.
"Mr. Urban, so nice to finally meet you. I've been a fan for a while and discovered we live in the same town."
"Nice to meet you too, you 're Ken?"
"Well Ken, come into my office. Carol tells me you’re an artist. She mentioned you were interested in doing my portrait.” I will never forget how he grabbed my sweaty palm with both hands, and treated me like an old pal he hadn't seen in years. And so begins the first of many hundreds of memories I will finally share about my beloved Matty.
I see the visage of my friend in one meaningful experience after another, and I am moved with gratitude for the decade I shared with him.
And now, this online sheet of paper begins to bring him back to life. Slowly and clearly the memories return. And there he is, my dear and precious friend. There he is, just as new and fresh as the first day I saw him coming down the hallway of the Holland Civic Center in 1985.
Matt began pulling out the drawers to his metal filing cabinet. They were filled with different sized photographs, which he removed by the handfuls and placed on his desk. We pored over each and every one, and on the back of each and every one, was a comment written in longhand from a noted celebrity or an anonymous friend. There were plenty of photographs for me to use as material for a good likeness, but I was overwhelmed by the casual appearance of famous people congratulating Matt.
In one photograph, he is with the President in the white House. In an older picture, a barbecue with General Westmorland. Layered in between the pictures were hand signed letters from Gerald Ford, Ted Turner, and the widow of Omar Bradley. I began to feel embarrassed for thinking I was important enough to even approach him.
Feeling a little ashamed, I confessed to Matt , the portrait idea was just a ruse. I confessed how really, I just wanted a way to get in the door; to meet Matt Urban because he was famous. For the first time, he laughed aloud, shook his head and said, “So, you just wanted to rub shoulders with the top brass?”
“Yeah, well, I wouldn't mind a promotion,” I said looking down at the floor. With a shared laugh, I realized this was the moment that kilned our friendship into something solid. Matt made a confession of his own, and said no one really asks about things anymore. He mentioned how he had been offered money a few years back to sell the rights to his story, but turned the offer down. He was concerned about being portrayed as someone more important than the men who fought beside him. Reaching into another cabinet drawer, Matty pulled out a manuscript, cleared a space , and set the thin document in the middle of his desk in front of me.
“I've been working on a book.” He said.
“In this book, I want to mention everyone who was there beside me. Sergeant Evans, Benny, Sebock, all my men. I especially want to talk about my parents who went to church every night and prayed for me; all the years in combat, each and every night-because they believed- I believed- I would survive.”
As our time together grew in length and texture, we maneuvered far away from the stacks of photographs and impressive correspondence on official government stationary. My newly found friend had taken these images, one by one, and pulled the threads from around the edges and allowed the very fabric of their presentation to drift through an open window out into the streets. I watched this man carefully unravel the celebration of his much deserved award. With a thorough pull on the tightest bind around an unimaginable remorse, he ascribed the true ownership of honor, “to every young man who died in my arms.”
“They should be wearing this medal Ken, not me.” As Matt Urban spoke in the softest of words I had ever heard, he held out a small slender box and opened the hinged lid. Inside was the very Medal of Honor he received from President Carter five years earlier. I didn't know whether to say something, or just keep quiet. I couldn't believe it. I did not ask to hold the sacred award.
Quietly, he leaned back in his chair and whispered the name of Billy Goodman. He turned to me and smiled, then pointed with his chin toward the window as if he had just seen someone looking back through the thin layer of glass. Matt Urban began telling me the story of his loss.
I held my breath.
November 8th, 1942, Operation Torch, was his first exposure to the horrors of combat. He remembered the first hour, of the first day, and seeing his beloved friend decapitated. He described being so overcome by an emotion he had never felt before; how he grabbed what was left of Lt. Goodman’s head and attempted to put it back on a still warm body. He tried to close off the escaping steam rising from the neck on either side of his friend’s face. Seemed a sensible thing in the midst of unquenchable fear- to bring him back to life, if there is yet life.
Long pauses appeared in between the flow of his conversation, like puddles forming beneath the seams of a broken eves trough. Each moment added weight and measure to the silence. They appeared to me, like drops of water, making those perfect circular ridges, radiating outward and forever until there is no where left to go. This was my cue to respect his hesitation; to fill this silence, with my own thoughts and wait for him to speak.
I no longer cared about the pictures and neither did Matt. We left his office of the Holland Civic center, and began running side by side, M-1 in hand and vested grenades toward the Kasbah fortress. Gunfire is heard in the distance, but the bullets strafe the ground near by, “Snipers.” He warns, and we keep going. “They’re Germans, right?” I ask.
“ No, French Legionnaires,” Matt whispers.
“But I thought…”
“I’ll explain later.” he cautions, putting his finger to his lips. We are sprinting now. Soon the bullets are just missing the ears. Matt is swatting at them like mosquitoes, and I am scared to death. Skimming pass the edge of my nose, a bullet finds its mark in the body of another man.
All these men died years before I was even born.
I am feeling guilty for some strange reason.
Matt glances over at me, removes his helmet. With worried eyes he says he needs to rest for just a minute. Without a word, he leaves me temporarily. He needs to help his men struggle through just one more hour, just one more minute. I turn away from him , to see Carol putting the vinyl cover over her typewriter, and getting ready to leave for the day. I look back to see the gentle soldier has fallen asleep in his chair.
I stare at him in wonder. He looks every bit the part of the legend I had heard he was. He is not really here; he is somewhere near Port Lyautey, getting the young men of the 9th division settled into their bivouac following a costly mission.
I waited beside him while he slept. I understood he was not taking anything away from me, but sweeping up the remnants of a long day and putting them away. Matty is leaning his head against the side of a canvas tent and listening to the quiet benediction of a summer rain.