General Fiction posted July 2, 2016

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WWII memories

Foxhole Memories


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And some day we are going to catch on, that no matter where people are born, or how their eyes slant, or what their blood type, they are just people. I didn't always believe that. It seems like a lifetime ago when I was so full of self-righteousness.

In the height of the war, 1943, to be exact, I was convinced that evil came in two very distinct forms. One, blond haired, blue eyed, goose-stepping devils, and the other soulless, slanty-eyed Japs.

I signed up in 1941, the day after Christmas. Kissed my young bride, Nora, goodbye and hopped on a bus headed to Fort Benning, Georgia. I learned to curse, to play cards, to do one handed push ups, and to shoot a rifle.

I was good with the rifle. I'd hunted when I was younger, shooting squirrels out of the tops of trees and a dozen or so rabbits. But, as I got older, I never cottoned to killing things. My momma taught me life was precious. All life, from bugs to people, we're made by the hand of God. Who was I to snuff it out?

I spent most of 1942 in Brussels. It was quiet for the most part. My buddy, Nick Cussler, and I spent a lot of time talking about home. I told him about Nora and he told me about his girl, Penny Strickland. She was a showgirl. She danced in New York on stage with six other girls. They called themselves the Tennyson Sisters, though none of them were related by blood. Nick sure was proud of Penny. He'd pull her picture out of his wallet to show her off. He'd beam when the guys would whistle and slap him on the back.

My stories about Nora and I, our life together, were boring compared to the ones that Nick told. Still, Nick would listen to me while I recounted the time we got stuck out on the lake in a leaky little rowboat or how Nora cried when she burned the Turkey our last Thanksgiving together.

"You sure are a lucky fella," Nick said one night as we were lying on our bunks.

The night air filtered through the mesh screens over the window. The muffled sounds of artillery and distant bombings mixed in with the chirping of the crickets outside.

"How about you and Penny? Any plans for the future?"

In the darkness of the tent, the glowing end of Nick's cigarette, floated. "Soon as I get back, I'm gonna ask her to marry me."

"Well, does that mean you're going to have six sister-in-laws?" I joked.

Nick laughed softly in the darkness. "We're going to have five or six kids. Penny loves babies. I never gave it much thought, least not until I met her."

His words made me ache. Nora had miscarried the summer before I joined up. I remembered holding her as she cried sitting on the bathroom floor. I wiped her tear stained face with my fingers, telling her how we'd try again. "I'd like one or two." I didn't want God to think I was greedy.

The bombing picked up. Nick drew in one last drag on the cigarette then snubbed it out on the floor.

"Sounds closer," he said. The sky bloomed pale like summer lightning. "Germans are like a plague."

"It can't last forever," I said, shifting on the cot to settle in to sleep.

"Hope not. Got a life to get back to." He yawned and I heard his cot creak underneath him. "Night."

In the morning we found out the Germans had taken the next town over. We were sent out on reconnaissance.

Nick was bleary eyed and nervous. I tried to keep our conversation light. I asked about Penny and told him about the time Nora and I got chased by bees after we tried to raid a nest for some honeycomb. He did little more than smile.

"Why are you so nervous?" I asked, both impatient and a little unnerved by his uncharacteristic behavior.

"I don't want to die, not before I have what you have."

A whistle sounded behind him. A flash of light, dirt and smoke flew up around him. The deafening thunder spun me backward.

It was like being underwater, the pressure of relentless waves crashing down on me. And when I finally stopped roiling from the blast I lay there on the damp earth.

My vision was foggy, going from light to dark then back to light. Nick was staggering, clutching his head.

"Nick!" I screamed. I thought I was screaming. My mind played tricks on me as I watched German soldiers easing out of the surrounding landscape.

I heard the crack of a rifle and Nick was down.

Black boots, caked with mud, kicked at me, rolling me onto my back. A young man knelt down, shouted twisted foreign words directed at me. He jerked my side arm off of me and tossed my rifle several feet away.

He was very young. He looked about the same age as my kid brother. His hand came into view and I saw his pistol.

"Please," I whispered. "Please, in the name of God, please don't kill me."

He watched me, silent and curious before glancing over his shoulder. He re-holstered his pistol and drew in a breath as if to steady himself. He put his finger to my lips, shushing me the way my mother used to in church when I was small. He touched my eyelids, closing my eyes.

I laid there for an eternity, waiting for the bullet that would end my life. But it never came.

I lay there listening to the chirping of the crickets and the distant drumming of the bombs until a British patrol found me.

I made it home for Christmas that next year. Nora and I celebrated with a small tree and a roast chicken, slightly burned, but still tasty.

Nick made it back to the States the following March. He invited me to his wedding. He met a nurse while he convalesced and fell in love. I never did ask what happened between him and Penny and he never volunteered an explanation.

Nora and I went on to have three children, two girls and a boy. As they grew they rarely asked me about the war, but when they did it wasn't the battles I told them about. It was the knowledge that even in the midst of war, the enemy isn't evil. The notion of war is evil. Two sides of self proclaimed righteousness that bring out the worst in human beings, all for the sake of being right.

But I had learned one thing. In the midst of the chaos and destruction all it takes is one act of kindness.

I think often of the young German soldier who saw me for who I was and not the uniform I was wearing. He and I were just people in the midst of hell. His choice kept me from the flames.

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