Hilda ran to the mailbox to see if the long-awaited letter had arrived. Five steps from the oblong metal container, she tripped. Her head landed on a large rounded rock whose roundness ensured that the impact only deprived her of consciousness and that it inflicted nothing in the way of wound or blood.
She lay stunned for a moment. Tiny stars danced about her eyes, welling with tears from the pain rendered by the blow. She closed them in a vain attempt to dispel the dizziness presently consuming her. All went black.
Those in her dream seemed real.
But what strange phantoms they were. Judging by their manner of dress she thought them to be from centuries past, perhaps the 1500s. One ruffian in particular dominated their conversation:
“Tomorrow we march again!”
Well, that explains the dreadful scar across his face, Hilda thought. He must be a soldier.
“Yah!” answered one seated nearby. “To our deaths no doubt.”
“What do we care if we die?” He pulled his shield from the ground and held it aloft. “I fight to protect us from the invaders!”
Hilda gasped at the design on the shield. It resembled the family crest that hung above her grandparents’ mantelpiece in every detail. This caused her to study the scarred warrior more closely. His eyes, nose, mouth, and hair did indeed bear a resemblance to a portrait of a distant forebear that also hung in her grandparents’ home.
“What am I doing in the land of my ancestors? Why am I among you?” She tried to draw their attention but all ignored her. No it was more than being shunned. They did not know of her presence. So it is I who am the ghost and not they.
Then, as so often happens in dreams, the scene changed. A large battle raged, one fought with bow, lance, spear, and sword. In its midst she spotted the shield of the man who had sworn himself to victory or death the day prior. She cheered him on as he carried her family crest, the shield protecting him from many a deathly blow.
At first it appeared his army would win the day. Then the enemy launched their cavalry. Knights protected by suits of armor urged their steeds into the enemy lines. Their lances impaled any in their way, including the warrior she knew must be her ancestor.
He died with only a short cry of pain as the lance penetrated his breast. As his blood stained the ground she cried and turned her head away. When she looked back she saw a different scene in a different land.
These soldiers did not seem from so long ago. Their red uniforms and the muskets that they carried bespoke of the previous century. When she noticed that all the officers wore white wigs she took them to be British. But just what battle were they marching off to? Against Napoleon perhaps? Her question was answered when she saw a sign posted at a fork in the road. It read: Philadelphia 27 miles.
But am I a witness to the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812, she wondered. She searched the ranks of marching soldiers for one who might bear a family resemblance. After all, had not the first dream shown her the family crest carried into battle? Surely another forebear must be somewhere in this one.
Not until the army stopped to rest did she focus on individual faces more clearly. She halted in midstep upon hearing one group speaking German. All the rest had spoken English with a distinct British accent.
These then, must be Hessians. She stepped among them. None paid her heed. Hessians! Perhaps the most hated of all the troops sent to end the American colonists’ revolt against England. They were Germans hired as mercenaries. Did not they know that the majority of American colonials came from Germany as well?
Once again she witnessed a battle. A group of Hessians were cut off from the main force. Out of ammunition, they surrendered. Hilda followed as the American troops marched them off to a place of confinement. At long last she spied him – one of them looked much like her own father. She moved closer to listen to him speak in German.
“I guess this is the end for us,” said he.
“Oh, stop your complaining. You are always one to worry, Frederick.”
At the sound of his name, she awoke. Her mother’s face smiled down on her. “Oh, Hilda. Thank the good Lord you have at last awoken. The doctor feared that perhaps you would not.”
“What…what happened, Mother?”
“In your haste to retrieve the mail, you fell and hit your head. You have slept for two days and nights. Lie still while I fetch you some broth. You must be famished.”
Another day passed before she was able to summon back enough strength to visit her grandparents. Both her mother and father had proven evasive when told of her strange dream. Perhaps her grandparents would prove more forthcoming. She brought along a large wooden pail of her father’s freshly made beer to loosen their tongues and waited until half of the beer had passed down their throats to begin her story.
“So, still no letter?”
“Not yet, Grandmother.”
“Patience, dear. It will arrive.”
“While I lay in a stupor, I had the strangest dream.” She related it. When she mentioned the shield bearing the family crest, her grandmother paled and made the sign of the cross.
“Poltergeist! You were beset by the devil!” She sought refuge in her kitchen.
“Forgive her, Hilda. She still clings to the old ways. Look at us. She and I speak only German at home and at church. In your home, some English is spoken. By the time of your children, they will speak only English.” He used the ladle to fill his stein. “So his shield bore our crest?” He pointed at his most prized possession that hung above the roaring fire.
He tugged at his long gray beard. “I seem to remember my father speaking of an ancestor who died in battle during the 100-Years War.”
“He looked so much like him. Grandfather, why is so little spoken of your father?”
He gagged and spit some of the beer back into his stein. “Some things are best left unsaid, child.”
Hilda then related her dream of the Hessians and their capture. “His name was Frederick and he looked like father,” said she. “That is your father’s name. Was he a Hessian?”
Grandfather made the sign of the cross. Grandmother worked the heads of cabbage faster up and down on the oblong wooden box with blades at the bottom. Her furious motions produced shreds of cabbage to be drowned in a vat of salt brine until it fermented and then canned in jars to be enjoyed throughout the long winter months.
Hilda sat staring at the fire, trying to conjure up the phantoms of her dreams so that Grandpa would not dismiss her as silly or insane. Not one emanated. Waiting for an eternity, she started as Grandpa cleared his throat.
“Yes, my father Frederick was a Hessian. I only tell you this because I believe it is God in heaven and not some poltergeist that gave you your dreams.” Once again he made the sign of the cross and bowed his head. “You must understand the times in Germany back then. It was very tempting for a young man to fight for the British, save his pay as a soldier, and then return home with enough money to buy a farm or start a business. Those were my father’s plans.”
“Did he never go back to Germany?”
“No. Once the war ended he was freed and decided to stay here. A kindly German couple hired him to work on their farm. He met my mother and…”
His explanation inadequate, she interrupted him. “But what does it mean?”
He reached over and patted her hand. “It’s quite clear. The dream told you that the fate of your husband to be is that of either my father or that of the more ancient ancestor of ours who carried a shield into battle.”
Tears coursed down her cheeks, as she at last knew the fate of her beloved. They were tears of relief and not grief. Grandfather smiled.
“Go home, little treasure. Maybe the letter awaits you.”
All the battles had ended – Shiloh, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Cold Harbor, Sherman’s march across Georgia. Lee had surrendered to Grant. The only detail that remained for Hilda was the whereabouts of her dear Samuel and whether he yet breathed. She strove not to run the distance back home. No more accidents and dreams, she resolved. When she reached the mailbox, two letters awaited her. One looked official and bore on the return address: Department of the Army.
She tore it open and read that Samuel was not one of those who had died at Andersonville or some other Southern prisoner of war camp. Nor was he one of those buried in one of the graves where other Union casualties lay near Richmond, where he went missing. No, dear Samuel was coming home! She fainted at the news but this time did not strike her head on the rounded rock or any other
Yes, dear Samuel was at last coming home, in a coffin.
(Adapted from The Prince of Alexandria, copyright Steve Stroble)
A Prayer, 36 Points and You Can Go Home
Sergeant Jason Dalrumple disliked his promotion because now he was responsible for a squad of soldiers instead of only ensuring his own survival. Its number varied from five to ten, depending on members killed or wounded and available replacements. Three raw recruits had reported to him for duty during a lull in combat.
“Welcome to Korea, boys,” Sgt. Dalrumple said. “My job is to keep you alive. Your job is to keep yourselves alive. Your number one question is probably ‘when do I go home?’ I bet.”
Two of them nodded as the third fiddled with his M-1 carbine.
“I thought so. You’re lucky. They just dropped the number of points you need from forty-three to thirty-six. You get four points for each month of close combat, two points for duty in the rear echelon, and one point for duty in the Far East, such as Japan, Taiwan, or the Philippines. Once you hit your thirty-six points you are eligible to rotate back to the States. But sometimes some guys end up waiting longer for rotation. Any questions?”
“Is it always this cold?”
“Only in the winter. When you wake up at night shake your hands and stomp your feet to keep the blood flowing so you don’t get frostbite. If you get frostbite you might get gangrene and the docs will have to chop it off.”
The three settled into a defensive line, a series of hills and trenches facing two brigades of Chinese and one of North Korean troops, which waited until dark to attack. Soldiers of the first wave fell about one hundred yards from the line, from the second wave about thirty yards away. By the fourth wave of the seemingly infinite enemy a few were reaching their trenches. One of the new men panicked when his weapon jammed and he rose from his kneeling position. A bullet ripped into his shoulder and knocked him to the icy ground. When daylight came, Sgt. Dalrumple examined the wound as a medic removed the blood-soaked bandage and applied a fresh one.
“Went in and out.” He patted the shaking soldier’s helmet. “Worth a Purple Heart though. You’ll be back in a couple weeks.”
Aerial recon of the enemy’s new position discovered reinforcements snaking toward their forward lines. Unable to respond in kind, the American commanders ordered their troops to regroup 1,000 yards to the south. By dusk Sgt. Dalrumple’s squad had joined the rest of their company in a hilltop bunker abandoned by their battalion’s commanding officer and his staff.
“Just like the Ritz. At least we got a view,” the company’s commanding officer, a lieutenant six months out of West Point said. “The enemy’s going to have to climb this hill to get to us now.”
“They got so many guys it doesn’t matter, sir.” Sgt. Dalrumple said what the other noncoms were thinking.
“I just got off the radio with Battalion headquarters. Enemy artillery blew up part of our ammo dump. The soonest they can bring us any ammo is tomorrow.”
“My men are down to only about four clips each, sir.”
The lieutenant turned toward the other sergeants.”
“Maybe five each.”
“Six at most.”
“How many BARs do we have?”
“Put one on each end of the bunker. Tell the BAR gunners that no matter what happens they can’t let the enemy outflank us.”
“Is the trip wire set up?”
“How much fuel does the flame thrower have left?”
“Half a tank.”
“Put him in the middle.” He took off his helmet and pounded it on a wooden plank until some of the dried mud dropped from it. “I have three flares left. When I fire off the last one order your men to fall back down the hill toward the rear lines. Our orders are to hold this hill as long as possible. Dismissed.”
The four sergeants went to their squads to pass along the orders as their commanding officer hunkered down next to the three mortars set up twenty feet from the bunker. He offered their crews gum and cigarettes.
“Fix your coordinates on the trip wire. Wait for my order to fire.”
The two-man teams set the short metal cylinders for a pattern that would saturate the area on both sides of the 100-foot wire with the thirty-one remaining shells, not enough to stop the thousands of troops waiting to climb the hill, only slow their ascent. Then they waited.
Hoping the imperialists would be numbed by cold and darkness into slumber or drowsiness, the Chinese commander of the battalions assigned to take the hill waited until 2300 hours to whisper the order to attack. A young North Korean rifleman’s boot clipped the trip wire, which rang the bells attached to it. The clangs jolted the American commander from his half sleep.
“Fire at will!”
The first rounds from the mortars hit the bottom of the hill thirty seconds later. After two more minutes the last one sailed upward.
“That’s our last shell, sir.”
He fired the first flare. It drifted slowly downward, its tiny parachute granting maximum illumination. Sgt. Dalrumple groaned as the sweating private next to him stated the obvious.
“Good God, Sarge. They look like ants.” He jabbed the barrel of his M-1 toward the shadowy figures.
“They’re going to be crawling all over us if you don’t start firing, troop!”
The bullets from the eighty-four carbines dropped the first fifty enemies to the ground but their lifeless bodies served as traction for the comrades who followed. As they sank into the mud the corpses proved less slippery than the gooey earth that half buried them. The BARs raked the flanks of the hill until their belts of ammunition were spent. By then the second flare had drifted to within twenty feet of the ground.
“Report!” The lieutenant ran from sergeant to sergeant.
“Down to our last clips.”
He pounded the helmet of the one with the flame thrower. Its forty foot burps of flame ignited the enemy closest to the bunker. Those with burning skin and uniforms rolled down the hill, taking down fellow soldiers like bowling pins. The lieutenant fired the last flare through the two-foot gap between frozen earth and the hundreds of sand bags that formed the roof. One by one, the sergeants ordered their men to retreat down the back side of the hill. Some of them slid. Others tumbled as they tripped.
Sgt. Dalrumple clutched the ankles of a bleeding man as a medic supported his shoulders. Halfway down the hill, Jason turned to watch the first shells from an artillery battalion two miles away hit the bunker, showering mud, sand, wood, and body parts on the fleeing Americans.
At last the bullets stopped whizzing by him. Thirty points and counting.
He studied the piece of still warm shrapnel that was embedded in his helmet. An order from the lieutenant sent him stumbling over the dead and living to take inventory of his squad.
Its newest member was crying over one of those killed. “It ain’t fair, Sarge!”
“He said he had 35 points…”