It was an odd wish for Harrison High’s star running back to have, but, at 17, Kristofer Moss wanted a G.I. Joe. He didn’t want it for his birthday. He didn’t want it for Christmas. He just wanted a G.I. Joe. Not a Ken as in Barbie’s Ken. Not an Andy as in Raggedy Andy. Not even a superhero action figure. He wanted a G.I. Joe. But Kristofer understood that others might view his wish as a strange one, perhaps even a bit perverted, and, therefore, kept it secret. He was, in fact, a bit embarrassed by it.
Kristofer did not want the toy for his amusement or entertainment. He had a much deeper reason, a much more private reason for wanting it. Kristofer wanted a G.I. Joe because it represented his brother to him. A toy named Joe, Kristofer thought, might somehow make his brother seem nearer. And safer. His brother, an infantryman in the U.S. Army, had been serving in Iraq since the United States’ first intense attack on the Arab nation in Spring 2003. Kristofer’s brother was named Joe.
Not Joseph. Joe. Not Joey. Joe. Not Joel. Joe. Joe L. Moss. That was his name. The “L” was separate from the “Joe,” not part of it, and it stood for nothing specific. Yet it represented a number of names, each beginning with “L,” names suggested by Joe’s parents and grandparents with good intentions prior to his birth. But none met with unanimous acceptance.
When Joe and Kristofer’s parents noticed that every suggestion began with “L”, they came up with a compromise, an “L” of a compromise. “It’s just going to be an ‘L.’” they announced with decisiveness. “Just the way Harry S. Truman’s parent’s named him. His ‘S’ had no meaning. Or so the story goes. Joe’s ‘L’ isn’t going to have one either. Or it can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean.”
As he grew up, however, Joe often found his name recorded as Joel. When he began kindergarten, for instance, the secretary registered him as Joel in error. When he graduated from Harrison High, his name appeared as Joel Moss on the commencement program. When he joined the Army a year after graduation, the recruiter, scanning Joe’s papers in haste, referred to him as Joel throughout the interview. Joe attempted to correct him a number of times. But the recruiter continued to refer to Joe by the wrong name.
Joe reported for Boot Camp at Fort Benning, Georgia in mid-2002 as tensions between the United States and a number of Arab nations grew. He came home for a few days after graduating from Boot Camp, but then reported to New Jersey’s Fort Dix where he awaited certain orders sending him to Iraq or nearby. Joe did not come home for Christmas or New Year’s and in the first week of 2003 received his orders for Kuwait. In his parting phone conversation with his parents and brother, Joe said he suspected Kuwait was just a stop-over before certain duty in Iraq. On March 5, Joe contacted the Mosses to confirm his suspicions; his unit was heading to Iraq within the week.
The pride Kristofer had for Joe, his courage, and his sense of patriotism was enormous. But it was dwarfed by the fear, dread, and angst he had concerning his brother’s safety. From the first moments of the March 2003 “shock and awe” attack on Baghdad, Kristofer became obsessed with his brother’s safety. Worry became Kristofer’s constant companion through that spring and summer.
Kristofer became so possessed with Joe’s whereabouts and condition, in fact, he awoke on a hot August night, sweating, shaking, and gasping for air. He had been dreaming. In his dream Kristofer saw a young boy, perhaps four or five years of age, staging mock Iraqi war scenes with a G.I. Joe. The boy, of course, was a young Kristofer.
“Don’t worry,” the toy advised as they cowered in an imaginary sandy entrenchment. “We’re a unit. We’re in this together. I got your back.”
“And I got yours,” Kristofer returned the supportive confirmation as he peeked out of the bunker. “Nothing is going to happen to you. Not under my watch.”
But in an instant, the fantasy’s innocence was shattered. Without warning, a bomb detonated nearby, sending sand everywhere, obstructing young Kristofer’s vision, redirecting his dream. Kristofer whispered with urgency, “You OK, Joe?” There was no answer. As the burst of sand deposited around them, Kristofer turned to check on his companion. The G.I. Joe had disappeared.
Kristofer awoke with a start. “Joe!” he cried out.
He had had the same dream four more times during autumn. It was after the fourth incident that he began praying for a genuine G.I Joe for Christmas. “If I have one to take care of,” he theorized, “maybe the dreams might stop. If I protect that Joe, keep him safe, maybe my guarding it might transfer to Joe somehow. Oh, God! That is the craziest idea I have ever had,” he jabbered. Yet he prayed for a G.I. Joe every morning and night from that day on. Kristofer, however, never shared his bizarre idea or his wish with anyone. Not his parents. Not his friends. He knew they’d question his sanity.
On Christmas Eve, as was a Moss tradition, each person chose one present from under the tree teeming with a mish-mash of decorations and opened it. But this year there was an unexpected change. Instead of Kristofer picking a package, his mother reached under the tree and handed him a specific one. It was wrapped in shiny green and bound with a red ribbon. It was about the size of a shoebox.
“It’s from Joe,” Mrs. Moss said. “He sent it. And he gave me instructions. He said you were to open this one first on Christmas Eve.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know,” Mrs. Moss answered. “It’s a Christmas present. Just open it.”
Within moments, Kristofer had ripped the green paper and red bow from the box. “Oh, my God,” he gasped with surprise as he stared at a brand new G.I. Joe.
A moment passed before his father spoke. “Now that is a strange present for him to give to you,” Mr. Moss interjected. Kristofer did not hear him. “Guys don’t exchange that sort of thing. It’s downright sissy.”
“But it is sort of,” Mrs. Moss paused, “…appropriate, I suppose,” Then, after a few seconds passed, she added with confusion in her voice, “It just is so not Joe. And not you.”
“It’s perfect,” Kristofer countered as he opened the box and tugged the toy from it. A piece of paper dropped from the box. Kristofer ignored it, assuming it was instructions or a warranty. Something stuffed into the box at the factory. “Perfect, he whispered with satisfied happiness.” He gazed skyward thanking God for the unexpected present. He grinned at it, as a proud father might do with a young son. Joy covered his face. “You’re here. You’re home. Safe,” he assured the toy. He brought the G.I. Joe to his chest, snatched the paper from the carpet, got up, and headed toward his room, unaware his parents had shifted their attention from him and were opening their Christmas Eve gifts.
As he reached his room, Kristofer noticed the paper that had dropped from the box was not a set of preprinted instructions or a guaranty. It was a handwritten note. It was handwritten by Joe. Kristofer turned the paper over, spun it right side up, and read. “You take care of me so I can take care of you” was its short message. Kristofer’s knees gave. He caved onto his bed. “Of course, Joe. Of course,” he murmured. “That’s been the point the entire time.”
Kristofer dozed through the night, his outstretched right arm across the mattress. His hand rested near the mattress edge, arched over the G.I. Joe, protecting it from whatever harm might come its way. Nightmares. Bombs. Whatever. Kristofer again dreamt of his past, happier dreams of two pre-teenage boys swimming in a fast-moving river, making sure the other reached shore. He dreamt of the same boys, a bit younger, ascending a steep rock formation. One boy was pushing the other up to the top from behind. Once the first boy reached the summit, he turned and tugged his companion up over the top. Satisfaction covered both boys’ faces as they enjoyed their success.
Kristofer had a contented, rested night that Christmas Eve.
When he awoke, Kristofer’s first thought was of his brother, as it had been every morning since Joe had departed. Then he remembered the G.I. Joe on the mattress, under his hand. He peeked at his hand to make certain the toy had remained there. It had.
“I knew you’d be OK. And I’m OK, too,” he thought. “We did our jobs. We took care of each other.”
Kristofer shut his eyes and tried to doze off again. But in an instant his eyes were wide open. “Hey, it’s Christmas! We gotta get up, Joe!” He checked his watch. “Dude, it’s 10:00!” He rose, grabbed the G.I. Joe, and scurried out of his room and through the house.
As Kristofer entered the front room, his companion secure in his hand, he studied the Moss Christmas tree a moment. I wish Joe was here to see this, he thought. He then became aware of the quiet. Where is everybody? Oh, that’s right. They’ve gone to church. The tradition. He took a deep breath. Thank you, God, for teaching them that I can honor God without attending church, that I don’t want to go anymore, not at seventeen, he thought. As he peered skyward in private prayer, he heard a soft noise from the kitchen. Oh, they made coffee, he thought, recognizing the sound of a prepped coffee maker. Awesome.
As he walked through the dining room toward the kitchen, Kristofer set down the G.I. Joe next to a manger scene on the mahogany credenza. But as he entered the kitchen, Kristofer heard a noise outside. It was the sharp report of a car door banging shut. They’re home so soon? he asked as he spun and stared out the window.
But it was not the Moss’ car he saw. Instead, he spotted a dark sedan. It had an insignia on the door, a U.S. Army insignia. The shadows of two uniformed men darted behind the hedge next to the front door, hiding them from view. Joe’s home! he screamed inside his head as he raced to the door. But a firm knock beat Kristofer there.
Kristofer’s momentary joy was erased the instant he swung open the door. Staring at him were two somber-faced Army officers. “Is this the home of Sergeant Joel Moss?” the shorter one asked with quiet directness.
“Oh, no!” Kristofer roared with dread. “Not on Christmas! Not today.”
“We have something for a Kris Moss. Are you Kris Moss?” the other officer asked with the same icy tone his partner had voiced.
“Yes,” Kristofer answered as confusion washed across his face. “But I don’t underst…”
“We think this might make you merry, Kris Moss,” the officer interrupted in a happier vein.
A third man in uniform jumped from behind the hedge. It was Joe.
Kristofer’s eyes widened in ecstatic surprise as his grinning brother stepped forward and drew him into a tight embrace. “Oh, my God,” the younger Moss gasped over and over as his fingers dug into Joe’s back. Then, as if he remembered something, an unstated duty, he stepped out of the embrace and turned toward the two officers.
“Hey, his name isn’t Joel,” he barked. “It’s Joe. There’s no ‘L.’”