Thursday, Feb. 28, was, for Cecil Carpenter and his ex-wife. Ruth Dillow, much more than the first day of the rest of their lives. Cecil, a sewage-plant operator in Humboldt. Kans. (pop. 2,178). was at work, when a phone call summoned him to City Hall. About the same time, in nearby Chanute (pop. 9.488). Ruth was called from her sewing machine at the National Garment Co. and ushered to the boss's office. A grim vision—two men in uniform—awaited them both. "They didn't have to say anything." says Ruth, her voice trembling still. "When you see this, you expect the worst."

The worst was what they got. The previous day. they were informed, just two hours before a cease-fire was declared in the Persian Gulf, their youngest son, Pfc. Clayton Carpenter, 20, a tank mechanic with the 1st Cavalry Division serving near the Kuwaiti front, had been killed by a cluster bomb. He had been killed, his parents were told.

Suddenly, for both Cecil and Ruth, the world went blank. "It was all a haze." says Cecil, 53. "I know they talked about their regrets." says Ruth. 46, "but I just fell apart. 'He was dead.' Those are the only words I remember them saying." Separately they felt the same desperate grief. Cecil spent a sleepless night, haunted by memories too painful to bear. The next day he sought solace with his and Ruth's older son, Shane, 24, as well as with family friends. Over tears and quiet laughter, they shared stories about Clayton, a light-hearted, affectionate boy with a mischievous wit. As the hours passed, a stream of friends and neighbors came by with flowers and cake, plates of meat loaf, casseroles and home-baked bread. Sympathy-cards filled the mailbox. Down the street, at Johnson's General Store, a wooden plaque—In Memory of Clayton—paid tribute with a red rose and black ribbons.

Eight miles away Ruth sat in her living room. Friends and relatives came and left. She got into bed. hoping to sleep. She got out of bed. restless. "I kept looking at that picture." she says, nodding toward a framed photo above the living room door. "I kept saying. "No. He can't be dead. This has got to be a mistake.' "

Still, when the phone rang late that evening. Ruth wasn't quite prepared for the far-off voice that announced. "Hi, Mom. This is Clayton."

Ruth froze. "Are you sure this is Clayton?" she blurted. "You've been declared dead." Her mind racing, she feared she was being tricked. "Come on, please believe me, this is me," Clayton pleaded. He was calling from a hospital in Saudi Arabia, he explained. He had been lightly wounded—in the foot and the hand—but he wasn't dead, he insisted. Still incredulous, Ruth asked. "What did I call you when you were little?" Clayton panicked. For a moment, he couldn't remember. Then it came to him. "Little Garbage Disposal," he said. He had always had a voracious appetite. That was all Ruth needed to hear. She started to shake. Her boy was alive.

Back in Humboldt, word of Clayton's survival—delivered that night by two red-faced Army officers—spread fast. "Within minutes the whole town seemed to know," says Cecil. Beer flowed and cars jammed the streets as streams of joyful visitors arrived to join in celebration. The next morning Cecil marched to Johnson's store and dismantled his son's memorial plaque. He then led an impromptu parade of hundreds to the town square, where he tossed the wood plaque, together with the black ribbons and one of the sympathy cards, into a festive trash-barrel fire. As the flames roared, the high school band played "The Star-Spangled Banner," and flag-waving locals let fly a handful of helium balloons.

"I don't know what I would have done without all these people," says Cecil, calm enough now to look back on his day of pain with laughter—and gratitude for the friends who shared his grief. Though the red spots still covering his face—hives that broke out when the ordeal began—are testament both to damage done and recovery yet to be completed, Cecil is back in good spirits. "Clayton told me to keep the death notification and the sympathy cards," he says, smiling. "He said, 'I'd like to know what it's like to be dead.' " Nor is Cecil, or Ruth, bitter about the Army's mistake. "They're bringing Clayton back home," she explains. For now, that's all a mother could ask.

—Karen S. Schneider, Nina Burleigh in Kansas

  • Contributors:
  • Nina Burleigh.