Minimizing to the Max

Minimizing to the Max

 

Being an adult is no fun, thought Grace Turpin. You have to do so many boring things. The current thing fogging her mind until eyelids drooped was a mandatory seminar.

Her training was titled Minimizing to the Max: How to Be Successful in Every Area of Life. At least this one is only four hours long, Grace thought. She shuddered when she recalled the weekend retreat the office had attended two months ago.

To appear she was paying attention, she flipped through a forty-two page manual. Its last two pages contained more acronyms than Grace remembered seeing in any manual, even the 241 pages of her desk manual at her office titled Policy, Procedures, and State, Federal, and International Regulations.

At least she put these acronyms down in alphabetical order, Grace thought as she began to read them:

 

AIM: Allocating your IM to others

BIM: Bearing IM fatigue

CIM: Cleansing you IM

 

A shadow spreading across her manual until overhead lighting no longer illuminated it slowly lifted Grace’s head until her eyes met the instructor’s. Glancing sideways in both directions told Grace she was the center of attention now. Her co-workers were shaking heads, smiling, or stifling laughter. The biggest jerk, Ian, covered his mouth with one hand and pointed with the other as his body convulsed with silent glee.

Until this point, the instructor had smiled and sometimes joked with her pupils. But now her bubbly demeanor soured. Champagne bubbles became molten lava flowing downward on top of Grace.

“Perhaps you feel accomplished enough about today’s subject matter to take my place?” she asked.

Beginning in second grade, Grace had learned to use deference when any adult scolded her. Above all else, let the offended ones save face by making them believe they were in total control. So Grace lied.

“No, ma’am,” Grace answered. “Honestly, I wouldn’t even know where to start on such a complicated subject.”

“Exactly, young lady.”

From a distance, Grace had thought the instructor old enough to be her mother. But at less than a foot away, she appeared ancient enough to be her grandmother. Not even my Grandma Jezebel has crow’s feet that huge, Grace thought as she focused on the lines radiating outward from the corners of the instructor’s eyes. They seemed to undulate as blood pulsed from heart to head.

When the instructor’s hand reached toward the table at which Grace and two others sat, Grace slouched down in her padded chair because the movement reminded her of hands from long ago grabbing her, shaking her, extending forefingers to wag in her face.

Instead, this hand landed on her manual and caressed it.

Now, the instructor’s voice went from a grizzly bear’s growl to a dove’s cooing. “We simply must save the best for last, dear,” she said as she flipped the manual’s pages backward to the subject matter she had been expounding before this rebel interrupted her train of thought. “You can’t have your dessert until first you have eaten all of your meat, potatoes, and veggies.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m terribly sorry.”

The instructor’s smile revealed teeth so white   surrounded by bright red lipstick that Grace pictured a Christmastime candy cane or barbershop’s revolving red and white stripes. She let out a shallow breath as the instructor walked back to her command post of podium and computerized overhead projector.

“That was close,” the one seated to Grace’s right whispered. “I’ve seen her take off people’s heads at other seminars. They don’t call her the Queen of Hearts for nothing. Welcome to Alice in Wonderland.”

By the time of a twenty-minute break, Grace shuffled zombie-like to the hotel’s bistro for her favorite comfort food, carbs washed down by caffeine. Ian plopped into the chair across from her.

“Better go easy on the coffee, Grace, or you’ll be disrupting our class-time by having to get up to use the bathroom,” he said. “You always did have a tiny bladder.”

“Why don’t you go pick your nose like you’re always doing at work?” Grace asked.

The office peacemaker walked to their small table to intervene and remained standing to focus their attention on her. “Isn’t this just wonderful?” she asked. “It’s so refreshing and relaxing to get away from our phones and computers for the whole afternoon.”

Ian glanced up from his smartphone. “Oh, that reminds me,” he said as he stood. “I need to be somewhere by 5:30. The only way I’ll make it through all of the rush hour traffic is if The Wicked Witch of the West lets us out of here early. If you behave, Grace, maybe she will.” He searched for new victims to at worst, irritate or at best, try and impress.

Grace sighed to try and remove the latest expectation dumped on her. Only Ricki the peacemaker made no such demands of Grace, so she pointed at the empty chair and asked, “Care to join me?”

“So, what do you think is really going on with our branch?’ Ricki asked. “Do you think that they’re going to shut us down? If they do, maybe they’ll let us transfer to openings in other states. I’m sort of tired of all the hurricanes and snow we get here, anyway.”

Grace shoved the plate holding the remaining half of her cream-filled croissant across the table to the one employee of their company she considered a friend. “Maybe they’ll do what they euphemistically call a reorg and lay a bunch of us off. If they do that, I hope Ian is at the top of their list.”

She nodded at a nearby table where Ian was doing his imitation of John Travolta. A gifted mimic, Ian could imitate any celebrity from movies, television, music, or politics. “Then he could go into show business instead of real estate. Wouldn’t it be great to change the channel every time his creepy face showed up on it?”

* * *

After the break ended, the instructor pasted a smile back on her face. Her re-applied, expensive makeup highlighted it. Perfectly brushed graying hair served as a crown.

Just two more years of this crap and I can finally retire, she thought as she fiddled with the control that flashed the visuals of her presentation onto the sixteen by twenty-foot screen behind her. At least the manager for this group said he will show me some properties this weekend. If I downsize enough then my retirement income just might turn out to be enough that…

Her train of thought fizzled when the last seat in the small auditorium was filled by Ian. “Thank you, class, for being so prompt.” She glanced at her watch. “If we all stay on task for the rest of this afternoon, perhaps we shall finish up a little early.”

As she turned to see if the correct image filled the screen, Ian pumped his fists high above his head. His swaying body became like a trained seal’s, his hands its flippers as he pretended to clap.

“Now, who remembers our definition of Internal Mechanism?” the instructor asked.

“The IM is like your soul,” answered a twenty-two year old real estate agent. “You know, the inner part of you that motivates you to do things, to see the world in a certain way.”

“Excellent. That was a very good paraphrase.” The instructor pressed the handheld control and her five sentence definition of Internal Mechanism reappeared on the screen.

For the next hour, she dissected what she claimed every human being came equipped with at birth. She peeled the IM’s layers as if peeling a plump onion, occasional tears flowing down her cheeks whenever she felt inspired by her own words. Example after example of those great and small who had accomplished fantastic things once they had tapped into their IMs. Finally, she introduced them to the list of acronyms Grace had discovered hours earlier.

After reciting the list slowly and then at a rapid fire pace, she ordered her apprentices to their feet.

“You will now receive your mantra,” she intoned the words as if she were a high priestess of a New Age Cult. “May it serve you well.”

She aimed a laser pointer at the first acronym and waved her free hand as if conducting her magnum opus. Her pupils responded as one:

 

AIM: Allocating your IM to others

BIM: Bearing IM fatigue

CIM: Cleansing your IM

DIM: Diminishing your IM’s enemies

EIM: Eliminating IM guilt

FIM: Feeling your IM

GIM: Grateful for your restored IMur trafficearly. afternon,eekend. If I downsize enough then my retirement just might…-foot screeen tire, she thought as she fiddled with the control that flashed the visuals

HIM: Healing others with your restored IM

IIM: Imaging your revived IM

JIM: Jump starting your comatose IM

KIM: Keeping your IM healthy

LIM: Liking your IM

MIM: Maintaining you IM

NIM: Notating your IM by keeping a daily journal

OIM: Occupying your IM 24/7

PIM: Peace with your IM

QIM: Quitting IM negativity

RIM: Reorganizing your IM

SIM: Stimulating your IM

TIM: Talking to your IM

UIM: Understanding your IM

VIM: Vitalizing your IM

WIM: Wondering about your IM’s growth

XIM: X-raying your IM

YIM: Yearning for the IM of your youth

ZZZIM: Resting your IM with lots of Z’s (sleep)

 

“Thank you for your attention today,” the instructor said. “I hope you will minimize to the max by no longer stressing out and worrying but instead cut away the negativity that surrounds all of us by tapping into your internal mechanisms daily.”

An hour later, Grace Turpin stumbled into her studio apartment. After feeding her cocker spaniel, huge Maine Coon and skinny Siamese cats, she collapsed onto her couch and used a well-worn remote control to turn on her sixty-inch TV.

She smiled when nothing appeared on the screen to remind her of work or work related seminars.

“At least Ian hasn’t quit his day job yet and become a full-time clown on TV instead yet,” she told her animals.

Exhausted, Grace ignored her twenty-four pound cat as he went to the plastic trash can and ate the French fries leftover from the fast food meal she had eaten during her drive home. Her smaller nine-pound cat jumped onto the kitchen table and knocked over the remaining cup of soda. Then she lapped up the pool of sugary, caffeinated liquid.

Within thirty seconds, Fran was ZZZing her IM with a two-hour nap.

 

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Thanksgiving with a Veteran

Sgt. Les Applebee (retired) surveyed his troops: three generations of Applebees all present and accounted for, a few in-laws and a neighbor who sometimes acted like an outlaw thrown in for good measure and laughs. All fourteen of them were seated at the homemade table Les assembled every Thanksgiving: two four-foot by eight-foot sheets of unfinished plywood supported by four-inch by four-inch posts of scrap lumber from his workshop. A red and white checkered plastic table cloth covered the table. Les pulled his masterpiece, a twenty-seven pound Tom turkey, from the oven and whistled at it.
“Now that’s a bird custom made for today,” he announced as he set it in the middle of the table.
Dressing oozed from the cavities he had stuffed eight hours earlier. His secret recipe of bread cubes, celery, raisins, giblets, wild rice, parsley, walnuts, cranberries, and onion was locked away in his head, along with plans not to pass it on until he lay on his deathbed, which now was at least a few days sooner thanks to the ungrateful attitude he thought surrounded this feast. The youngest one seated at the table pointed at the turkey.
“Look, Mommy, the turkey’s going poo poo.”
Her mother blushed. “That’s called stuffing or dressing dear, not…” Her search for words was drowned out by laughter and hoots.
The laughing helped soothe feelings and calm nerves frayed by an earlier argument on who was to blame for the current mess in the Middle East. Everyone at the table forgot the angry words from ten minutes ago. As usual, Les had retreated when the other eight adults had squared off, with four blaming “you pointy-headed liberals” and the other four yelling about “you dumb Tea Party radicals” being the cause of the world’s ills.
I’m the only one of them here that’s a vet, Les had thought when he abandoned the argument. What do they know about the military and what it has to do just so they have the luxury of going at each other like they get to?
He turned to his wife. “Can you say the blessing, Jane?”
She bowed her head. “Thank you for all of our family and friends, Lord. Please bless this feast today. In Your name, amen.”
By his second helping of turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, and yams, Les’ rising blood sugar revived his mood enough to talk, even though his feet still ached from standing on them since four a.m. making and baking pies before preparing the bird and loading it into the oven. All the side dishes he delegated to his wife. He decided to ignore his wife’s annual plea of: “please keep your conversation nice this year, dear,” made as she had mashed boiled russet potatoes and simmered the gravy.
To try and prepare his guests, he raised his glass of cider and offered a toast. “Here’s to the brave men and women who are stuck in God only knows where today so we can be free to eat feasts like this one.”
The other adults raised their glasses. Two of them said, “Amen.” The five children took the toast as their notice that they could wander off to the den to watch TV or communicate via their phones. Only Les objected to their absence.
“Just when I was getting ready to give them a history lesson.” Les set his empty glass on the table so hard that it bounced with a “thud,” which he hoped would keep the rest of his audience captive to his tale. “I remember two or three Thanksgivings when we were keeping the damn Russians from pouring through the Fulda Gap. We were The Third Herd, Third Armored Division. I was infantry. When we weren’t doing that, we were on maneuvers down at Graf or Hohenfels. Once, we even went up to Wildflecken and it was so cold that the captain made us get up at midnight and run our engines in our vehicles for twenty minutes to keep the oil in them from freezing up.”
“Uhh, I think we heard you tell us this story already, Les,” his brother-in-law said. “Besides, you weren’t in any real war.”
“No, just in a place where I had to patch up guys who tried to kill each other over women, money, and drugs. Or kill themselves because they got a Dear John letter from their woman back home.” Smart aleck punk, Les thought. “There were over 200,000 U.S. troops in Europe when I was there. You know what that means?”
“No.”
“Just that from 1945 to 1990, which is how long the Cold War lasted, millions of Americans served over there. Do the math.”
When his brother-in-law shrugged, Les decided to up the ante. “Okay, wise guy. Let me tell you instead all about my father-in-law and after that my dad.”
Jane, who had begun to reach for her husband’s forearm in hopes of corralling his “war stories,” pulled her hand back. Hearing about her dad was okay, no matter how many times Les told it, as long as he did not embellish his retelling of her father’s stories too much. With her dad deceased and not at the last eight Thanksgivings, any remembrance was welcome.
“My father-in-law had it pretty good at first during the big one.”
“World War II?” asked his neighbor. Fifteen years older that Les, he often wanted clarifications.
“That’s right. He was a desk jockey with the Army Air Force there in England. Then after D-Day he had to drive some officer around who was surveying the bomb damage done by our B-17s. He said they once got lost behind enemy lines. Some of Hitler’s SS troops almost caught them and then–”
Jane coughed. “Dear, you know Dad said they got back to friendly troops without too much trouble.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll tell the short version then. But I know for a fact the part about your dad seeing German civilians shake their fists at any of our planes or the British planes flying overhead is true. He told me that part at least twenty times before he croaked.”
One of the children, an eleven year old, came running from the den. “Uncle Les, Uncle Les!” He grabbed Les’ arm. “Come quick. There’s a movie about you on TV.”
Les blinked. “Huh? Well, it’s about time. We would have never won the Cold War if it hadn’t been for us being stationed there in Europe. The Berlin Wall would still be standing if it weren’t for us.” He followed his nephew to the den.
Jane smiled as she and her sister and sister-in-law turned to a different conversation. The four men still at the table rose and followed Les.
“When did they make a movie about when Les was in the army in Germany?” asked his brother-in-law.
The other three shrugged. When they stepped into the den, Les was slapping his forehead with hand. “The Big Red One? That’s your great grandpa’s war, not mine.” He frowned at his nephew. “That’s World War II in that movie. I fought the Russians in the Cold War, boy.”
“But the movie has tanks just like you always tell us about.” His nephew pointed at the screen as a German Panzer rolled toward the American troops. “And the American soldiers said they’re going to Germany just like you did.”
Les sank into his easy chair but sprang back to his feet before his plump rump had settled on its cushion. “That does it.” He stomped over to the television and turned it off with a swat. “We’re going outside for some exercise. Grab your backpacks, kids.”
The three who had brought packs went in search of them. The two oldest, teenagers, stared at each other.
“Come on, come on. You’re not getting out of this. You have to set an example for the younger ones, you know.” Les led them to his workshop. He tossed gear from a large barrel. A sleeping bag, mess kit, duffel bag and canteen attached to a web belt lay on the sawdust covered floor before he found a field pack. He tossed it to the oldest teen.
“You’ll have to share this. Take turns carrying it, troops.”
Five minutes later, Sgt. Les Applebee felt thirty years younger as he stood in his faded fatigues in front of the children and their mothers on the sidewalk by his home. The other men had returned to the warm den to watch football games.
“All right, let’s get going. We’re going to force march all the way to the mall and then back here.”
“The mall?” Jane shook her head. “But it’s three miles away. They’ll all freeze to death before you get half way there.”
Les’ head bobbled. It always did when he was ready to answer any question he deemed unnecessary. “Then we’ll go double time to keep warm.” He growled when Jane shook her head. “Okay, okay. I’ll stop off at the donut shop on the way and warm them up with some hot chocolate. How’s that?”
“It’s too far.”
“What if we just walk, no double time?”
“Let’s drive there instead, Les.” His sister gently nudged him and pointed at her SUV.
Les turned and stared at the eight-seat vehicle. “You sure it’s big enough?”
“I’m sure,” she said as she herded the shivering children into it.
During the drive to the mall, Les grumbled about how “traveling in six-bys and tracks is a lot more fun than these dang cars they got nowadays. Nothing but smog equipment and computer parts waiting to go and break down on you. Sometimes just the parts cost hundreds of dollars.”
“What’s a six-by?” his sister asked.
“A five ton truck. Don’t you know anything?”
She smiled as she remembered similar scenes from their youth, big brother trying to educate his little sister in the ways of the big bad world. “What’s a track?”
“An APC, armored personnel carrier. Now, that’s even better than a truck. They can go just about anywhere that a tank can. Looks sort of like a tank without a gun barrel.”
***
Three hours later, the Thanksgiving Day shopping expedition returned. By then, the kids were ready for pieces of pumpkin, apple, and pecan pie. The men had started to watch their third football game as Jane packed up leftovers to send home with her guests. At least her husband had found another topic for conversation, she thought.
“Lord have mercy, you should have seen the crowds at the stores,” Les said. “First and last time I’ll ever go shop again on Thanksgiving Day or any other holiday. Never again.”
“You’re supposed to wait until Black Friday,” his brother-in-law said. “You know, tomorrow.”
“Black Friday? That reminds me of those terrorists at the 1972 Olympics. They called themselves Black September. They killed a bunch of Israeli athletes there in Munich. We were on alert and couldn’t go off post and…” His words trailed off as four pairs of eyes turned to watch football instead of listening to him.
What do they know? Les thought as he sighed. I was there and they weren’t.

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A Thanksgiving from Long Ago

“Hold him still, Billy.”
As soon as the ax severed the turkey’s head Billy released its convulsing body. While not as lively or long lasting as the run displayed by chickens with their heads cut off, the post mortem activity of this tom was enough to entertain his executioner’s helper. He flapped his wings and strutted in a small circle as Billy tailed him.
“Gobble, gobble, gobble!” Billy supplied the call the bird had made to its dying breath. He ceased it when the turkey fell over and stopped twitching. “Ah, shucks. How come turkeys don’t run around as much as chickens do, Rod?”
“I guess because they’re not born in the woods to be scared by an owl, Billy. Bring it over to the porch so we can pluck it and dress it out so Patty can get it in the oven.”
“Okay.” He flopped the 28-pound bird over his shoulder and carried it to the porch. “How come our carryings on celebration times ain’t as fun anymore, Rod? You think maybe it’s ‘cause Grandma died?”
“Maybe.” Being the older brother of one who was “touched in the head” was proving tiring for Rod Lee. But he had seen worse little brothers than Billy. So what if Billy called Rod’s mother-in-law Grandma?
Mrs. Pierson’s passing last summer had relieved the Lees of the thirty-mile roundtrip by horse-drawn wagon to her boarding house for Thanksgiving dinner. Rod was thankful for that but weary of his wife’s depression since her mother’s death. Patty’s cold isolation had unraveled the once tight knit family.
“Don’t worry, Patty. She’s just left the boarding house for her cabin up in glory land.” Rod had joked a month after the funeral. That was a sufficient period to grieve, he thought.
“Let me be. You grieved for your dang newspaper for a long spell and it wasn’t even a person.” Patty had sobbed as she turned away.
When the Tri-State Herald’s last edition came out during the Panic of 1893, Rod had moped around the farm for months. The ensuing nationwide depression did not allow him to resurrect the paper he had edited and published.
More out of desperation than hope, he then turned to his unfinished novel. Within a year he had finished it. Five years of trying to sell it had followed. During that same period, one of his former correspondents for the Herald, Samantha Hillsdale, had graduated from having her short stories published in magazines to getting her first novel in print. Desperate to know her secret, Rod had visited her in Central City, Kentucky a month earlier.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with my book,” he had told her.
“I read through the first two chapters that you sent me. Your writing is strong but the plot isn’t what the publishers want nowadays.”
“I guess so. In the last five years, it’s been Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jekell and Mr. Hyde, or H.G. Wells’ time machines and invaders from Mars that people are buying. That and love stories like Ships That Pass in the Night or your book. But I don’t know how to write that way. I guess my story of a farm boy going off to the big city and then to Egypt to be a writer just isn’t exciting enough. That’s what the last editor wrote back and said, ‘I can’t get excited about your book.’ I don’t need her to get excited. I need her to get the publisher to buy it.”
“That’s you as the main character in your book?”
“It shows through that bad?”
“There’s nothing wrong with making your experiences into a novel. Mr. Clemens and Mr. Dickens both did it more than once. Maybe you need a second main character to play off the other one? Remember how Tom Sawyer had Huckleberry Finn?”
On the train ride home, Rod had thought of possible people on which to base his secondary main character, such as one of his other former correspondents. All of them were colorful characters in real life. But each seemed too similar to the main character of his novel, and Samantha had warned that any secondary main character must be very different or readers would get bored and word of mouth about his book would doom it to few sales. Just as the train had pulled into Evansville, Indiana, Private Benjamin Worthington appeared in Rod’s mind. He wondered if his friend had survived his initial enlistment and if he could serve as the basis for a suitable character.
He had had no contact with the English soldier since they had parted company in Egypt years ago. But Benjamin had given him an aunt’s address in London and message to deliver, “just in case you stop off there on your way back home. Stop in and tell her I’m doing well.”
So Rod decided to have Billy type a copy of his book to send to Benjamin in care of Aunt Bessie along with a request for Private Worthington’s story to be inserted into it. Billy hit the typewriter keys with his two index fingers. But at a nickel a page, he typed furiously.
“I’ll be finished typing it by Christmas. I’m going to get me a two-way radio from all the nickels you give me,” Billy told Rod to motivate himself. “Then you and me can talk to your soldier friend no matter where he gets sent off to.”
***
Since her mother’s death, Patty had communicated only as necessary with Rod, Billy, and her three children. This had caused Rod and Billy to become friends more than brothers as they turned to each other to make up for their missing relationship with Patty.
They joked about whether they should invite any of the local Shawnee to the feast to make it a true Thanksgiving.
“Maybe we best not.” Billy reflected. “Pop would probably pull his gun out and start shooting at them. He’s sometimes forgets that they are peaceful like nowadays.”
Once the turkey was a steaming golden brown, Patty removed it from the woodstove and wrapped blankets around the pot that held it and loaded it into the wagon where the others sat waiting, the children almost hidden underneath quilts. Rod pushed the horses so that they covered the five mile trip in an hour. His father William herded his guests to the table immediately.
“Put that turkey up on the table and get busy carving it up, Rod. Nothing worse than cold turkey for Thanksgiving. Makes decent sandwiches for later on, though. Think you could leave some of the leftovers here?”
“Maybe you could say the blessing first, Pop?”
“All right, all right.”
William hurried through the blessing and his meal. Rod was only half finished when William asked his son to join him by the fire in the parlor.
“Not many folks that live most of one century make it on into the next one.”
Not again, Rod thought. He’s told me that a dozen times already.
“Hard to believe 1900 will be here in just a month.”
“Yeah.”
“I’ve whipped my weight in wildcats, Rod. It’s time for me and your mother to hang up the plow. We’re fixing to sell out and move into Evansville. I wanted to give you the news first. Only other person that knows is Mr. Tomasci the real estate man. He’s going to list the farm starting tomorrow.”
“Thanks for letting me know. What you going to live in?”
“Oh, we’ll just get us one of those little houses, nothing fancy. So, did your book sell yet?”
“No. I’m still looking for an editor who thinks like I do and likes my writing.”
“Oh. Well, after listening to Billy recite most of it at dinner I got a little suggestion.”
“Yeah?”
“You need some more blood. Now that America whooped the Spanish down there in Cuba and the Philippines, people want to read all about it or something like it. Write about that English soldier that Billy talked about. Have him fight in some wars in your book.”
Rod pondered his father’s advice as he finished his turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, corn, and cranberry sauce. I wonder how willing Benjamin would be to write about what he went through. He recalled what they had seen in Egypt. He had met Private Benjamin Worthington in Alexandria in 1882 when the Egyptian Army had revolted and dozens of foreigners and hundreds of Egyptian Christians had been killed by Moslems who shouted, “Death to foreigners! Death to Christians!”
Private Worthington might even be sent to fight in England’s latest war against the Boers in South Africa. From what Rod had read in the papers, over 100,000 troops were being sent from Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand to South Africa. Rod was still daydreaming about how including his friend’s exploits could make his book a best seller while he ate his slices of pecan and pumpkin pie three hours later.

Adapted from The Prince of Alexandria. Hope this short tale helps this Thanksgiving be more memorable for you. Thank you for reading it.

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The War to End All Wars

The only thing great about The Great War was its dead. One million of its soldiers died in August 1914.
In America, those once regarded as neighbors became suspected collaborators of the Germans. As the war entered its second year, the Hilemans’ number of customers at their Kentucky restaurant dwindled. Mr. Hileman was surprised when Hank Richmond, armed with his shotgun, appeared at his door one evening.
“What is wrong, Hank?”
Hank stepped inside of the small home. “The rumor has it that there’s going to be trouble for you tonight.” Hank glanced through a parted curtain. “I’m just here to pull guard duty is all.”
Mrs. Hileman trembled. “But we have done nothing wrong.”
“Mr. Hileman, please take her to the back room. I’ll be out front.”
After the couple had obeyed, Hank moved a rocking chair out to the front porch. Shotgun resting on his lap, he rocked in time to the chirps of the crickets. Double aught buckshot shells lay in both of the gun’s barrels. Ten extra shells filled his pockets. At ten minutes after eight a noisy crowd turned the corner from the main street. The town’s mayor led the mob of fourteen. He appointed himself as spokesman for those behind him.
“Stand aside, Hank. We got no beef with you.”
Hank leveled the shotgun at angry faces, all of which he recognized. “Well, I got one with anyone who says or does anything to the Hilemans that they ought not to.”
“Why are you sticking up for them Krauts?” The town’s mayor asked.
“Yeah. You a Hun lover or what, Hank?” another yelled.
“You all go on home now and no one gets hurt.” Hank pointed the gun at his belly. “What’s in here will cut you in half.”
“All’s we want to do is run ‘em out of town, Hank. Your family’s about the only one eating at their place any more anyway.”
“Okay, folks. Break it up!” The sheriff’s voice caused every head to turn toward the one striding toward the mob. “Time to go home. Now!” His drawn .44 Colt Revolver made the crowd scatter. “I got a good look at all of you. If anything, and I mean anything, happens to the Hilemans, I’ll know who to arrest.”
Hank’s pounding heart slowed its pace. He retreated to the rocking chair and pulled out his handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his face as the sheriff rested on a rail of the porch.
“Thanks for warning me about this, Hank. Damn it all. It was bad enough dealing with the Klan. Now we got all this craziness because of some war thousands of miles away. Where’s it all going to end?”
***
In the spring of 1917 the French General Nivelle advanced his army along the Western Front. The German troops fell back from their front lines, which allowed the French to pour into the empty trenches. With the trap sprung, German artillery blew the French troops to pieces.
Unwilling to suffer under incompetence any longer, French soldiers everywhere mutinied. General Petain took Nivelle’s place and tried to restore order. News of America’s entry into the war did little to motivate the mutineers back into obedience to their superiors. “Why die for the glory of France when the Yanks can do it for you instead?” became the call to inaction.
But first the United States had to mobilize. Its army of 210,000 in 1898 had shrunk to 110,000 by 1916. In May 1917 Congress passed the Selective Service Act, which required twenty-four million men aged eighteen to forty-five to register. Three million were drafted, including Hank Richmond. He spoke the reaction shared by thousands of draftees, “Why can’t England, France, and Russia take care of it themselves?” Because draftees and volunteers alike had to be trained and shipped to Europe, most of the American troops did not see combat until 1918.
The French soldiers’ conditions were wretched compared to their American, British, or German counterparts. They did not earn enough to support a family. Most spent their leaves getting drunk. Only Russian soldiers suffered more, as one third of them had no guns. By June 1917, half of the French Army was refusing to fight. The French government used the loyal troops to restore order so that tens of thousands of the slackers could be court-martialed. About 25,000 were found guilty. Of those, fifty-five were shot by firing squad and 377 sent to penal colonies.
French troops held their lines but few any longer crossed into no man’s land in attacks whose only results were heavy casualties. So successful was the censorship of the press that the Germans never learned of the situation to take advantage of it. The smoldering revolt reduced the French Army to barely holding a defensive position. Even General Petain confided that his army must “hold out for the Americans.”
Meanwhile the British army led the offensive and gained ground at the cost of tens of thousands dead and wounded. Heavy rainfall in early August 1917 turned the front into muddy fields and trenches and shell holes full of water in which advancing British troops drowned. Morale sank until British troops were no longer allowed to take their rifles home to England on leave because some would shoot from their trains at houses. German civilians fared little better. The main course for the starving became cats and dogs, referred to as roof rabbits. Bread was made from chalk, sawdust, and potato peelings.
By January 1918, 100,000 partially trained U.S. troops were in France, by March, the number had grown to 325,000. They left home singing:
We’ll be over
We’re coming over
And we won’t come back
‘Til it’s over
Over there

A huge German offensive toward Paris that spring panicked the French. They called on the newly arrived Americans, not yet trained in trench warfare and often without food and water because of logistical bottlenecks, to stop the advance. The American Expeditionary Forces’ Commander in Chief, General John Pershing, listened as the British and French commanders fought over which army would get how many American soldiers. While other issues such as who would be supreme commander over all Allied fleets in the Mediterranean Sea raged, the Germans continued to roll on toward Paris. The Italians protested mightily when they were not chosen because they wanted to continue to keep their ships safely hidden in ports and could only do so only if they were in charge.
Into this maelstrom stepped Sergeant Hank Richmond. A commanding officer early on informed Hank of the reason for his demotion.
“You’ve got to be realistic, Sergeant Richmond. Sure, you served as an officer over the Philippine Scouts in that war. But you’re only capable of being a sergeant over Americans. We need West Point men and college boys as officers in this war. That will be all.”
Hank had shrugged, saluted, and walked back to his drafty tent. Wiser than during his days in Cuba and the Philippines and old enough to be the father of many he led, he planned “not to make waves, keep my head down, and survive” his third thankless war.
Four-legged draftees fared worse than Hank as they helped the American troops to maneuver. Six to eight-horse teams pulled the artillery pieces. Donkeys delivered water wagons and mobile kitchens to the troops. When rain turned the roads to mud the horses and mules struggled with their loads, sometimes slipping and falling or sliding off into ditches.
Desperate to save Paris at all costs, the Allied commanders finally compromised. American forces were assigned alongside the French to counterattack the German advance from July 18 to August 6. The French Cavalry suffered the heaviest casualties. Some Allied troops went crazy and fired at friendly troops. Each night the dead were buried. The corpses that could not be retrieved bloated and decayed rapidly under the summer sun. At times a skull was left grinning from the top of a still uniformed skeleton.
By August 1918 more than 1.4 million American soldiers had landed in France. Both British and French leaders described their armies as “war weary,” perhaps to excuse instances when surrendering Germans were shot instead of taken as prisoners.
So far, Gen. Pershing had retained a unified command over his troops. Now the French wanted to split his forces to back up two French armies. Pershing held out for weeks but then was assigned to use his army to launch two separate attacks on battlefields sixty miles apart within twenty-four days. Led by officers such as Gen. Douglas McArthur and Col. George Patton during the St. Mihiel Offensive, a half million American troops pushed the front ten miles eastward in four days.
The offensive was a success for the Allies, with over 16,000 German troops and 443 artillery pieces captured. It demoralized Germany as a whole to the point that the Kaiser confided, “I’m gradually cracking up” and that he had lost “all confidence” in his troops because of their retreat.
Hank Richmond was part of the second American attack. First, 220,000 weary French soldiers had to be moved to the rear. In their place came over half a million U.S. troops. To move the supplies about 90,000 horses were used; thousands of them became exhausted and died on the muddy, waterlogged roads. The resulting traffic jam backed up men and material for miles.
Sgt. Richmond could not pronounce the Melise Argonne Offensive that began on September 26. But he could sense the false bravado and fear of those around him. When the French wanted to insert one of their armies into the battle to absorb part of the American divisions, Gen. Pershing ordered his troops to fight without regard of losses and without regard to the exposed condition of their flanks, a poor strategy in any battle. This resulted in much higher casualties than necessary, which first enraged and then saddened Hank.
“If the damn British, French, and American generals would just work together, we wouldn’t be getting our butts shot off near as much,” Hank told his men. They appreciated that their sergeant was honest and accurate in his analysis. His ability to make the best of a dangerous situation had kept them alive more than once.
At first, his platoon encountered little resistance. The bulk of the German troops they met were only boys who shouted out “Kameraden” as they raised their hands to surrender. Twice, Hank had to send one of his men with groups of such prisoners to the rear. When the men could not rejoin his platoon because of the enemy fire from along the flanks, Hank grew worried.
I knew this was going to happen, he thought as he studied the terrain to the front, left, and right. We’re surrounded on three sides, which means that any reinforcements coming from the rear are caught in crossfire. That means there probably aren’t going to be any. I wonder if this is what they teach the officers who ordered us to advance here at West Point. He called his men together.
“Well, boys, we’re surrounded on three sides, which means that any reinforcements coming from the rear aren’t going to make it as far as our position.”
“What’ll we do, Sarge?” The youngest trooper asked. “I ain’t never been this scared.”
“Don’t worry, Private. If we come up with a plan we’ll get out of this mess.” He patted the boy’s shoulder. “All of you notice how almost every prisoner we’ve taken are just boys younger than Maguire, here? That means the Kaiser has run out of his regular, well-trained soldiers for the most part.”
“That’s right.” A wave of hope spread among the band of stinking, famished men. It had been a week since the luxury of a bath. Only the scattered decaying corpses and improvised latrine smelled worse than they did.
“Here’s what we do. We dig in with six of us facing west, six to the south, and six to the north.”
“But what about the east?” a corporal asked as he pointed that direction. He always seemed to have at least one question.
“Take a look.” Hank handed him the binoculars that he had retrieved off of a dead officer. “See anything?”
The corporal scanned the cratered muddy fields totally devoid of vegetation to the east. “Yeah. There’s some Krauts about 2,500 feet from here over there.”
“Do they look dug in?”
“No.”
“That’s ‘cause they want to be ready to skedaddle all the way back to Germany just as soon as they can. Now there ain’t no way in hell I’m leading you across a half-mile of no man’s land just so’s they can shoot us down like fish in a barrel. They most likely feel the same way.”
“But why do you want us to be watching to the west?”
“Just in case the Heinies on our flanks get the bright idea of sneaking in and attacking us from the rear.”
“Oh.”
“Okay. We got any pigeons left?”
“Just one.”
“That’ll do. Corporal, you’re the best map reader here.” Hank handed a torn, mud splattered map to him. “Give me our coordinates so I can put them into our air mail letter.”
“Right.” The inquisitive soldier relished any duty that made use of his skills. He studied the map, then the surrounding terrain, and then the map again.
Hank scribbled a short message while he waited for the coordinates of their location:
Cut off. Have plane drop ammo, food, and water at …
A minute later he added the corporal’s estimated location to the message, folded it into a tiny metallic capsule attached to the pigeon’s leg, and tossed the bird into the air. It fluttered in a circle and then homed in on the headquarters seven miles to the west.
“Go birdie, go!” Private Maguire waved as he hollered out his encouragement.
Their morale gone and ammunition running low, the nearby German troops rarely shot at such tiny moving targets any longer. The reply to the message came just before dawn.
***
Pilot Jedadiah Trombley had enlisted over the protests of his mother. He finally calmed her fears by promising to keep “far away from the trenches” by learning to fly. In flight school he had trained in a Curtiss JN-4. One of his instructors told him: “You were born to fly.”
His first plane in France was a Nieuport 28, which was shot full of holes by the superior German Fokkers during his first three missions. His squadron next transitioned to French SPAD XIIIs. Faster than the Fokkers and British Sopwith Camels, Trombley’s SPAD bore four iron crosses on its fuselage to mark the number of Fokkers he had shot down. His commander deemed Trombley the perfect pilot to deliver the requested supplies to Hank’s platoon.
However, the plane did not maneuver well at low speeds. This meant he had to approach his drop zone at a high speed, which made sense to him on another count; enemy soldiers would be taking potshots at him from both his left and right. Trombley took off toward his target a half hour before the sun rose above the horizon because he did not want to battle its blinding rays. One mile before the drop he descended to 200 feet and pushed the throttle wide open for maximum speed as the enemy’s bullets began to whiz by and into his plane.
Two crates were balanced to his front. They contained ammunition for the M1917 American Springfield rifles and food and water for the men below. Though he did his best, one crate landed 200 yards to the west of the platoon; the other hit the earth fifty yards to its east. Sgt. Richmond decided to wait until dark before retrieving the crates.
Most of the ordinance fired at his plane appeared to have come from the pilot’s left as he flew the gauntlet. To repay the gunfire, Trombley put his SPAD into a sharp climb and banked to the left. Well known to friend and foe alike for its ability to handle rapid dives, the plane sent waves of panic among the Germans that it now targeted. After reaching 6,000 feet, Trombley sent his plane into a long tapering dive as he emptied his two .303 Vickers machine guns on the enemy below. Hank’s men cheered at the sight.
“Well maybe now we won’t have to worry as much about that flank,” Hank said. “Unless that pilot, God bless him, just pissed the Huns off a bit too much. They sure are a proud bunch.”
Dehydration escalated into heat exhaustion as the sun warmed the air, earth, and soldiers who had no shelter from its rays. Just before midday the Allied artillery to the west opened fire on the enemy positions that bordered the platoon on three sides. For every two shells that landed on or near the Germans, one fell dangerously close to Hank and his men. They crouched ever lower in their shallow foxholes. When one round exploded sixty-five feet from them the shrapnel tore into two of them. Their comrades applied the last of the dressings to stop the bleeding.
Angered by the errant friendly fire, Hank crawled to the nearest crate and dragged it back to their position. The artillery barrage provided him with enough cover that the enemy did not notice his venture into no man’s land. As he pried the top of the crate open the entire platoon crowded around him. It was filled with bundles of bread, tins of meat, and canteens of water. Hank uttered a prayer of thanksgiving:
Good food
Good meat
Good God
Let’s Eat!
The men clawed at the rations. As they swallowed barely chewed bread they opened the tins of meat with their bayonets.
“Where’s the ammo, Sarge? I’m all out.”
“Me, too.”
“Must be in the other one.” He listened as the sounds of the artillery barrage faded to a halt. “Too late now. That other one’s too far away to go out and get. We can stop by it on our way out of here tonight.” He swallowed a piece of bread without chewing it.
“We’re going back?”
“Yep. If we hang around here much longer our own guns will start blowing us to smithereens.”
They fell silent as they feasted on the first food and water they had tasted in two days. It revived them to the point that the faint hearted became more agreeable to their chances of making it back to the main lines under cover of darkness.
But the enemy on their flanks had other plans. Shortly after dark two platoons of Germans crawled toward them from the rear.
“Sarge, it looks like Krauts!” The sweating private pointed at the shadowy figures 200 feet away.
Hank gave the order for his men to run toward the crate with the ammunition and regroup there.
“Fix bayonets.”
They locked the long sharp blades into place.
“Okay, those of you with ammo left form the first line. The rest of you follow behind them. Let’s go.”
As always, Hank led the charge. The unexpected maneuver startled the enemy, most of who believed that American soldiers were crazy. The youngest of the Germans dropped their weapons and ran back toward their lines. One equipped with a flame thrower started shooting bursts of fire from the contraption strapped to his back but the Americans ran so quickly that only two were set aflame. They kept sprinting and rolled the remaining ten yards to the crate. The rolling motion extinguished the flames and left them with second and third degree burns instead of being burned alive. Three others from the platoon fell as bullets pierced them.
Hank had the crate open by the time the last of the survivors reached him. All reloaded and began a withering fire at the Germans who still pursued them. Pinned down, the enemy’s commander shouted the order to retreat to their trenches. Furious, he screamed a new order and shells began bursting around the isolated Americans.
“Gas! Get your gas masks on!” Hank yelled the order.
They clawed at the pouches attached to their belts and ripped them open. Unable to shout loud enough through his mask, Hank signaled with his arm to continue their escape. Two more men died before the others reached their own lines and answered with the correct password.
Once the survivors were in the safety of a well-lit tent, Hank ordered them to strip and inspect each other for signs or symptoms that the mustard gas had done its damage. Five of them had swollen eyes or shortness of breath or were pink colored in their armpits and groins. Hank displayed all three symptoms from having removed his gas mask to better see and guide his platoon to safety. When the doctor who had been summoned examined him, he shook his head.
“You’re red instead of just pink.” He pointed at the affected areas. “Get this man to the hospital.”
***
By October 15 the German front had been reduced to pockets of resistance. Back on the home front the will to continue had disintegrated. Strikes and revolts by civilians spread across Germany. Crews of six battleships at Kiel mutinied and refused to go to sea. After the war millions of German soldiers would blame those sailors for their defeat.
Now a fully trained orderly, German Sgt. Arnold Weiss had returned from a short leave at home to a hospital located a safe distance from the Western Front. As was his habit, he checked with the doctor on duty for the status of each patient.
“What about that corporal who was temporarily blinded by gas? How is he doing?”
“Adolph? He was okay until he heard the news of the Kaiser’s abdication. Then his blindness came back. He stayed in bed for days. Then he said he heard voices telling him to save Germany.”
“A little bit late for that now. It’s all over for Germany. We lost.”
The doctor closed the file. “I know. But he now swears he will become a politician and follow his calling to save the Fatherland once he returns to Munich. He said only national socialism will work for Germany.”
Thousands of miles to the west, American President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the world was at last safe for democracy.
***
Hank’s exposure to mustard gas dictated his transfer to a hospital in Paris. While he recovered he daily walked to a nearby park. One afternoon he made an acquaintance with a crusty British sergeant on crutches due to his missing left leg.
“At the end of the day it was you yanks that pulled the fat out of the fire for the bloody French.”
“Thank you. You’re the first one I’ve heard say that.” Hank extended his hand toward the one sharing his bench. “I’m Hank Richmond.”
The friendly Englishman grabbed it. “Ronald W. Jones, sergeant of his majesty’s royal army at your service, sir. Will you allow a somewhat shot up soldier such as myself the honor of buying you a drink so’s I can thank you right proper like?” He pointed a crutch at a sidewalk café across the street.
“Lead the way, Sergeant. Such hospitality is all too rare in this land we find ourselves stranded in.”
Once seated, Jones ordered two glasses of wine.
“Where’d you learn to talk in French?”
“Picked it up here and there. I’ve been here since 1915 you see, minus the leaves home they gave me.”
Hank shook his head. “This is the first sort of leave I’ve had. They’re shipping me home next week.”
“And I’ll be right behind you. But back to England for me. When I get there and take me uniform off I think I’ll tell the first politician I see that he can bugger off for all I care. Outrageous it was the way they ran the war. Bloody blighters can’t seem to see the forest for the trees. Their stiff upper lips got many an English lad killed before his time.”
Hank smiled and lifted his glass in a toast.
“You got someone back home waiting for you then?”
“Yeah. A wife and three kids.” Hank sipped his red wine. “How about you?”
Jones pulled a tattered, bloodstained photo from his breast pocket and handed it to Hank. “Her name’s Nancy. I’ve been writing her every week because she’s watching over my mum.” He finished his wine. “Nancy’s fiancé got killed at the Battle of the Somme a couple of years back. I’m going to propose to her first thing when I get on back home. Wish me luck.”

Adapted from The Wolf Is Crying to Be Heard

Standard

Welcome Home

The Viet Cong welcomed Dan Rhinehardt’s plane to Tan Son Nhut Air Base, near Saigon, with a mortar attack. As the shells exploded near the perimeter of the base, Dan was more interested in the aircraft of every shape and size that were flying in every direction at various altitudes. After a week of processing, Dan reported to a fire base north of Saigon. Another medic met him at the base’s headquarters, a bunker surrounded by and buried beneath hundreds of sandbags.
“Rhinehardt?” He studied the new guy’s name patch. “I’m Roscoe. Let’s go.”
Dan flinched and crouched at the sounds of artillery shells flying overhead.
“That’s just the afternoon mail to the NVA and Cong out there.” Roscoe pointed at the thick jungle that bordered the 1,000 meter clearing that surrounded the base. “Have to let them know we know that they’re out there.”
“So the platoon I’m assigned to has two medics?”
“Not for long.” Roscoe fondled the necklace that hung about his neck. Most of its beads had been broken off; only about a dozen remained. “I’m short, eleven days and a wake up and I’m on a freedom bird back to the world. Well, here’s home.” He led Dan into a bunker filled with fourteen grunts, infantry who only counted one thing, the number of days left in Vietnam. Roscoe banged a greasy mess kit on a can of C-rations. “Listen up! This is your new medic, Dan Rhinehardt.”
One of five poker players looked up. “Hi ‘cruit.”
“Okay, the card sharks are Lewis, Ben, Ed, Pete, and Mike.” He turned toward another group, lost in a haze of whitish-gray pungent smoke and the sounds of Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow thumping out of a small cassette player. “And that’s Bernie, John, Chuck, Bill, Ken, Kevin, Al, and Junior.”
Two of them acknowledged the new arrival with nods. The others did not lift drooping heads or focus bloodshot eyes.
“I guess the other two guys are out somewhere.”
“Hey, I’m here.” A figure rolled out of a bunk. “I’m Hank.”
Dan shook the only hand that had been extended to him since leaving America. “Hi. Good to meet you.”
Roscoe was all business, even as they went through the chow line and then sat on a mound of sand bags to eat supper. “Guess I should run down the slang so you don’t get confused too bad. The word ‘cruit is short for recruit, which is what we call all the new guys like you. A dust off is when you call in a med-evac copter. A klick is a kilometer. Sappers are VC with explosives strapped to their bodies. They try to get through the fence and then run to the ammo dump to blow themselves and most of the base up. The mama san and papa san run joints that GIs go to for booze, dope, and girls. OJs are marijuana and opium joints that come in from Thailand. They grow the poppies over there. Do not, I repeat, do not smoke anything with opium or heroin in it unless you want to get strung out.” He stopped talking and shoved three forkfuls of beef stew into his mouth in rapid succession. “Ugh, tastes like dog meat again. The cooks must’ve run out of beef rations. Any questions?”
“How long are they going to call me ‘cruit?”
“Until you do a good enough job patching somebody up. We’re due to go out on patrol tomorrow so do your best work.”
“There a lot of drugs here? I could barely see in the hootch because of all the pot smoke.”
Roscoe choked on a string bean and then spit it at Dan’s boots. “I forgot. You’re from the Heartland. Not many drugs where you went to school?”
“No. Some kids took cross tops.”
“You ever go down into Mexico while you were at medic school on the weekends?”
“No.”
“Boy, you are green. Listen, there’s every drug and then some floating around here. Our platoon is lucky. Sergeant Felder is cool. He looks the other way if we get high back here in our hootch. But he gets bent out of shape real bad big time if anyone brings any drugs out on patrol. He’s tight with the C.O. and gets those ones shipped out of his platoon in a heartbeat. Believe me it is his platoon. I kid you not.”
***
Dan met Sgt. Felder at 0700 hours the next morning during formation.
“So this is our new medic?”
“Yes, sergeant.”
“Good. Specialist Fourth Class Drummer will show you the ropes on patrol, Private Rhinehardt. We leave at 1600 hours. All of you tear down and clean your weapons for my inspection at 0900. Dismissed.”
The nineteen-man platoon shuffled back to their hootch. They knew if even one part was not devoid of dirt, sand, or any other foreign object, Sgt. Felder would lecture them while he watched them tear down, clean, and reassemble their weapons. Roscoe ran after his NCO.
“Sarge, you can’t send me out on patrol. I only got ten days and a wake up left.”
Sgt. Felder spun around and leaned toward him until his body tilted at a 30-degree angle. “Troop, I am infantry. I have been since the Korean War and will either die or retire as infantry. I am not equipped to give the new man on the job training as a medic that he needs. Without it one or more of my men might die. Do I make myself clear, short timer?”
***
The platoon filed through the lone gate in the base’s concertina wire perimeter fence at 1602 hours. Hank walked point. The others believed he had a sixth sense of the enemy and obeyed whatever commands Hank issued, verbal or gestures.
“Either that or he smells them,” Roscoe explained to Dan.
Neither medic carried the M-16s that the others held, fingers on triggers. Lewis also toted a sawed off shotgun strapped over his shoulder and Bill a mortar. Armed with .45s, the medics lugged forty pounds of lifesaving equipment, including IVs. No one spoke until they stopped after penetrating five klicks into jungle that blotted out the sky.
Sgt. Felder ordered them to bed down twenty meters from where they had congregated for supper. Those who acted as sentries watched for enemy and waited for their shift to end. Dawn never appeared soon enough. The platoon had travelled for half an hour the next morning when Hank spotted a trip wire. His hand signals sent the long line behind him diving for trees, bushes, rocks, anything that might protect. The first rocket propelled grenade showered Dan with dirt and shredded foliage. Roscoe laughed at his baptism.
“Welcome to Congville, ‘cruit.” When the enemy’s fire came from all sides, Roscoe stopped laughing. “Oh Jesus, please don’t let me die. Not when I’m this short.”
As Sgt. Felder radioed the enemy’s position to the fire base, Bill lobbed mortars, their parabola flights calculated in his head and decimating the unseen enemy. The first screams for help convulsed Dan’s stomach.
“Medic!”
“Let’s go.” Roscoe crawled snakelike toward the cries, Dan copying every move. He thought he was watching himself star in a B-movie.
Although the firefight lasted only five minutes before the artillery shells from the firebase routed the enemy, the platoon suffered four wounded.
“This is your final exam, ‘cruit. Set up triage. Tell Sgt. Felder if you need a dust off.”
Dan froze. Triage. How he dreaded the word. His mind backpedalled to the air-conditioned classroom he had sat in nine months earlier.
“When you got wounded you have to set up triage,” the instructor had said. “That’s where you put them in three spots. One is for those who can treat each other’s wounds because they are not life threatening. The second is for those so severely wounded that they are dying no matter what you do. The third is for those who you can save.”
One trooper was bleeding from an arm and a second from a leg wound. Dan tossed them two field dressings. “Put these on the wounds. I’ll be back to check on you.”
A third soldier had a sucking chest wound. Dan recognized it by the air bubbles escaping with the blood flowing from the bullet hole in his chest. The fourth soldier had massive wounds to his abdomen, noodles and ham he had eaten swimming among bloody intestines. Choking back vomit, Dan yelled at Sgt. Felder, who was still on the radio.
“Sarge, we need a med evac for these two now!”
He dropped to his knees and tore open two large field dressings and covered the exposed internal organs. “Roscoe, give him morphine.”
His mentor injected two plastic ampules of the painkiller into the man’s left thigh. Dan took a piece of thin plastic paper and slapped in onto the other man’s chest wound. He wound the straps of the field dressing around his back and tied them tightly in a square knot. Bit by bit, movements and sounds returned to normal speed and volume for Dan by the time the two with severe wounds had been carried to a landing zone for the inbound copter, smoke from canisters marking it. Dan did not stop shaking until it lifted off with the ones he prayed would survive. An unseen hand squeezing his shoulder made him jump.
“Good job, Doc.” Roscoe patted him on the back. “You’re still a little bit jumpy but you pass.”
They returned to the battle scene with the two who had helped them to carry the wounded to the landing zone. Because Hank had found a tunnel Sgt. Felder ordered a barf grenade tossed into the hole and for his men to spread out in a 360-degree pattern from the tunnel’s entrance to watch for enemy using hidden exits. Four VC came up through a hole 75 meters from the entrance, all of them vomiting so hard that they crawled. When no more appeared, Sgt. Felder ordered a body count. The tally came in at twelve dead, four captured. Roscoe smiled for the first time since the platoon had left the safety of its base.
“Thank you, Jesus.”
“Why are you so happy all of a sudden?” Dan asked.
“Because whenever there’s prisoners, Sarge always has us head back to base so they can get interrogated right away by an ARVN soldier. Otherwise he would’ve had us go after the Cong that got away.”
***
Having a headful of lifesaving techniques had been one thing; living in this surreal world of war where most of the enemies ever seen were dead was another. Dan thought their seeming invisibility to be their greatest asset and for his platoon, his sergeant. Back at base, Dan sought him out.
“Can I talk with you, Sarge?”
“Sure.” He put down the weapon he was cleaning, an M-16 that the troop with the massive abdominal wound might never hold again. His sweat made his black skin glisten as he shook some of it from his bare arms. “Water comes out of us here faster than we can drink it.” For the first time he smiled at his newest ‘cruit.
“How have you stayed alive all the way through Korea and now Vietnam?”
Felder smiled. “My momma says it’s her prayers. I say it’s my hero.”
“Hero?”
“Yeah, Willie Mays.”
“Why him?”
“Because in his prime he was drafted into the Army and missed two seasons of baseball. Because of that he’ll never break Babe Ruth’s lifetime homerun record. I figure he’ll end up only with about 650 homers.”
“I didn’t even know he was in the Army.”
“He didn’t make a big fuss; he just did his duty. So who’s your hero?”
Dan pursed his lips. “My dad, I guess. He died in the Korean War.”
“Army man?”
“Navy.”
“Did he die in the invasion at Inchon?”
Dan blinked. “No. He got appendicitis. The infection spread too fast.”
“I bet that’s what inspired you to be a medic. So you could keep others from dying like your dad died. You did a good job out on patrol. Roscoe said so.”
“Sarge, how long is this war going to last?”
“Forever, now that China’s blowing up A-bombs too.”
***
Dan only took one ride on a chopper. After a fierce fire fight on his twenty second patrol, he thought the dust off would be routine: load the one severely wounded who was bleeding from an artery onto it and wave goodbye. But the copter’s pilot had other priorities.
“Get on board, doc.” He yelled over the thump thump thump sounds of the spinning rotors.
“Huh? I can’t leave my platoon.”
“My medic is shot up bad. He and your wounded man might both die before I can get this bird back home. Get in now!”
Dan glanced at the crumpled figure behind the co-pilot’s seat as the helicopter’s gunner pulled him aboard. The wounded medic smiled weakly as Dan stretched him out on the cold steel of the bouncing copter.
“Thanks, man. I’m hit in my back. Can’t reach it to stop the bleeding myself. I…” He passed out.
The gunner fired his last belt of bullets from his .50-caliber as enemy bullets ripped new streams of daylight into the fuselage. Twenty minutes later the air ambulance touched down at a field hospital and the gunner jumped out and kissed the ground.
***
The following month Dan took a three-day R&R to Hong Kong. He bar-hopped with a Marine that had flown there on the same plane from Saigon.
“Man, I don’t know how much more I can take.” Dan’s fourth drink loosened the pent-up fear. The fifth bared his soul. “We got this new platoon sergeant. Sgt. Felder was cool. But this new guy…” He stared into the shot glass to conjure up more words.
“A by-the-book man more interested in body count than his own men?”
Dan looked up. “How’d you know?”
“Listen, kid, it’s SOS all over. It’s even worse in the Marines. Some of our sergeants and officers are so gung-ho that it’s scary. Say, I know what you need.” He handed Dan a cigarette.
“I don’t smoke.”
“This ain’t no ordinary smoke.”
“Opium joint? Man, that’s addictive.”
“Nah. I just put some heroin in with the tobacco. If you just smoke heroin, you can’t get hooked. Besides, they invented heroin to help morphine addicts out. Best of all, no one can smell it.”
“Really?”
***
Dan continued the habit of smoking heroin laced cigarettes once back at his fire base. He kept telling himself he would quit before going home. But then a VC mortar shell exploded ten feet from where he was patching up a wounded comrade. The shrapnel embedded in him earned him an early end to his tour.
He was still fading in and out of consciousness as they loaded him onto a C-118 Air Evac bound for Clark Air Base, Philippines. Its four engines’ drone drowned out most of the cries of pain from the patients lying on the tiers of litters, monitored continually by Air Force nurses.
“How you feeling?” The one assigned to Dan asked as he awoke from a morphine induced dream.
“Where am I?”
“On the way to Clark’s hospital for surgery. Hang in there.”
***
After ninety percent of the shrapnel had been cut out of him, Dan kept requesting more morphine for the residual pain. A doctor making his rounds shook his head as he read Dan’s chart.
“You use heroin in Vietnam, son? You’re getting enough morphine that you should be asleep or at least out of it right now. I think you already had a tolerance before you started getting morphine after your wounds.”
“What?”
“I think you want more morphine because you’re going through withdrawals from the heroin you used to use.”
“I just smoked it so I couldn’t get addicted.”
“It doesn’t matter if you inject it, eat it, snort it, or smoke it.”
Five minutes later, Dan was transferred to a ward set aside for addicts. Two of them helped him ride out his withdrawals, which lasted four days. He ached and sweated until he thought he was dying. Each afternoon a Red Cross volunteer checked on him.
“You’re looking a lot better.”
“Thanks.” Dan took the magazine she offered. “Why do you do this? Things that dead for teens here on Clark Air Base?”
“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Why’d you go to Vietnam?”
“Good question.”
They laughed. Two days later Sandra asked him to a dance at Wagner High School, which mystified Dan. “I thought you had a boyfriend.”
“He dumped me.”
***
Dan’s doctor agreed to a pass from the hospital “only because Sandra will be a good chaperone. No monkey business.” He wagged a finger in Dan’s face. “That includes alcohol.”
The occasion was informal with music by Filipinos who called their band d’Sparks. Still on crutches, Dan hobbled on his cane into the dark concrete gym and shuffled more than danced to covers of the day’s hits: the nonstop D-D-C-D bass line of Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love, madness of The Door’s When the Music’s Over, and Blue Cheer’s thunderous remake of Summertime Blues. He tried to thank Sandra for letting him relive his high school days as she drove him back to the hospital.
“You think we could do something together again?”
“I’d like to but I’m flying back to the States next week.”
“But you’ll miss your graduation with the class of ’68.”
A tear rolled from her eye. “I’m pregnant. That’s why my boyfriend dropped me. I’m going to live with my grandparents to have the baby.”
“You going to keep it?”
“I don’t know yet. Listen; before I leave I need to introduce you to my friend. She can show you around Luzon.”
***
After having endured weeks of physical therapy and drug tests to check if he had returned to heroin, Dan welcomed the introduction to Sandra’s friend, a dark-eyed, dark-haired Filipina whose skin seemed to glow. She acted as his tour guide and took him by bus to the history and nightlife of Manila, the mountains and rice terraces of Bagio, and the white sand beaches and crystal clear ocean waters next to Long Beach and San Miguel. By their third trip to Manila, they were in love.
At last, Dan did something he had neglected for months. He wrote home:

April 29, 1968
Dear Mom:
Sorry it’s been a while since I wrote. I guess I’ve been sort of busy. The last few months have been a blur ever since I almost got blown away and sent to the Philippines. Things are going well with my PT. The therapist says my leg is getting stronger.
These Pacific Islands are like paradise, especially compared to Vietnam.
I guess the other news is I’m getting married. Her name is Teresa. She’s moving to the States as soon as she gets her visa.
Love,
Dan
***
Dan’s freedom bird, a chartered airliner filled mostly with Air Force personnel and their dependents, landed at Travis AFB in northern California. Only an airman welcomed those returning from Vietnam and directed them to a waiting vehicle. Dan joined other grunts on a bus bound for Oakland Army Base and their discharge papers. They talked about “being back in the world” until the bus drove off the base through the main gate.
A group of protestors against the war launched the only welcome home most of the soldiers would receive until years later when a memorial to the war’s dead was built in Washington D.C. and a nation slowly began to heal. Dan flinched at the incoming missiles. The bags of crap and piss that pelted the bus silenced those inside of it.
They reminded Dan of the mortars that had welcomed him to Vietnam during what seemed like a lifetime ago.
The one sitting next to Dan did not speak until they were halfway to Oakland. “You know, I was going to get out and maybe use the G.I. Bill to go to college.” He pointed at the brown stain on the window. “But now I think I might re-up. Maybe I’ll even do another tour back in ‘Nam.”
“Why?” Dan asked.
“I don’t know. I feel like an alien now that I’m back here in the world. It seems like I don’t belong here anymore.”
Adapted from Day of the Bomb

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Out of the Wilderness

Adapted from Out of the Wilderness © 2013 by Steve Stroble. All rights reserved.

Sometimes the good Lord decides that parent’s lives overshadow those of their children, such as parents who went through the 1930’s Great Depression and World War II in the 1940s. Such a child was Sam Smaltz. His dad grew up in a steel mill town of Pennsylvania; his mother in one of the small towns that dot the vast Midwest. Dad overshadowed those to come by going through WW II and the Korean War; Mom by being the unsung, lonely military wife who stayed behind to raise the kids during Dad’s wars, TDYs (temporary duties) and training missions.

The life of a military family has few roots, so Sam moved from his Midwest birthplace to the East Coast to Europe to the Midwest to the West Coast to the Deep South to the Far East. Brothers and a sister showed up periodically. This helped him realize that one might resist change but such resistance only seemed to magnify the change’s effects.

School did not become interesting until first grade when he learned to read about Dick, Jane and their dog, Spot. Second grade included drills of ducking under the desk in case a big atomic bomb might bring the school down. Knowledge of the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – began with instruction at Saturday classes and continued full or part time off and on for the next 12 years. Inevitably, curious young minds, fortified after memorizing the Ten Commandments, asked questions that might have flustered a lesser teacher:

“Sister, what is adultery?”

Long pause. “Something that adults do.”

A cousin broadened Sam’s theology during a fierce thunderstorm. “Lightning comes out of God’s fingers!” the cousin explained as they hid under the bedcovers.

Another cousin expanded his vocabulary while rolling a ball of snow meant for a snowman that unexpectedly picked up what Sam knew as dog poop.

“Oh, no. Dog shit!”

Seeing Sam’s shocked face, the cousin demanded to know what Sam’s family called such frozen remnants of last fall.

“Uhhh…” Thus, Sam learned to dodge embarrassing questions, even if they were asked by someone older.

All in all, Sam’s knowledge of life came almost as much from family and friends as from educators and clergy. For instance, teachers emphasized civic duties, such as voting and paying taxes. Sam’s parents didn’t talk about voting, they just voted. Taxes, however, did bring a response from Dad: “There are only two things certain in life – death and taxes.” After hearing this truism enough times, Sam concluded that both experiences were unavoidable.

Death seemed scary, but talk of God being eternal and His accompanying promise of eternal life calmed those fears. Sam’s mind could grasp having a beginning and his soul living forever; when it tried to grasp a God with no beginning or end, Sam’s brain seemed to overload with that truth as his mind spun out of control.

The music of the day conveyed a strange world of cavemen named Alley Oop, girls wearing itsy bitsy, teeny weenie, yellow polka dot bikinis and girl groups who laid bare their souls about boys and love lost. Sam gravitated to TV. Cheyenne, Bronco, Sugarfoot, Maverick, the Cartwrights of Bonanza, Sky King, Soupy Sales, Howdy Doody, Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Tarzan and a multitude of animated mice, cats, dogs, ducks, birds, rabbits, a squirrel, moose, roadrunner, coyote, muskrat, gopher, and others named Mighty, Mickie, Minnie, Tom, Jerry, Felix, Sylvester, Top, Deputy, Pluto, Donald, Daffy, Huey, Dewey, Louie, Daisy, Tweety, Heckle, Jeckle, Bugs, Rocky, Bullwinkle, Wiley, Vince and the bumbling humans who appeared with them took turns being good and bad but mostly funny.

The shows with adults talking most of the time that came on in the afternoon were not to be watched by the children, though. Sam began to suspect they featured the adults doing what the Ten Commandments talked about. Another show also was off limits, being deemed too scary for children by Dad: “You are traveling through another dimension…” Sam wasn’t sure what a twilight zone was, but he wanted to find out. Once again cousins, this time female, broadened his horizons by dancing to something called American Bandstand and making sure to catch Ricky Nelson’s song at the end of each Ozzie and Harriet Show.

Dad’s career dictated change. It came like clockwork as he traded teaching ROTC cadets at a college for working with the aerospace industry in Southern California.

Hollywood had been at a low point as its golden age faded, but the 10 plus commercial television stations of Los Angeles broadcast movies from the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s by the dozens. Sam loved science fiction, horror, adventure, and westerns, but couldn’t quite grasp the dramas. “Must be that adultery thing Sister told us that adults do,” he concluded. On the radio, station KFWB played top 40 singles all the time; the songs now attracted Sam’s attention. He didn’t understand all the new emphasis on surfing, cars, girls, and being true to your school. But when Brian Wilson spoke of finding a refuge “in my room” a chord resonated in Sam’s soul. He wondered how someone so much older could write a song that appealed to even a 10-year-old such as himself.

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The Gift

The Gift

Christopher Applebaum finally had nodded off to that twilight zone state of being half awake and half asleep even though turbulence continued to bounce the Airbus 320, shaking its frame and passengers and crew. The movement made Chris dream he was on a boat at sea. Children in nearby seats chattering to one another or asking their moms, “Are we there yet?” made Chris’ dream include a band of youngsters carrying on identical conversations. A flight attendant’s admonition to “fasten your seat belts, fold down your trays and move your seats into the upright position. The temperature in Minneapolis/St. Paul is 12 degrees. On behalf of the captain and rest of the crew thank you for flying with…” did not rouse him.

The landing did.

Instead of the familiar thump thump of fat tires hitting Earth and accompanying screech of rubber melting into tarmac, there was a sensation of sliding like a hockey puck headed for net. Chris shook himself awake and watched the familiar buildings of MSP slide past faster than any of the other six times he had landed there.

But the pilot’s sooner than usual lowering and raising of the flaps and killing of the massive turbines’ forward thrust kept this flight from appearing as a story on the six o’clock news. The ten-year-old seated by Chris whined his disappointment.

“Not! We should’ve slid off the runway into the snow. That would’ve been really fun.”

Next came the disembarkation ritual, which never varied. Stand up. Move to aisle. Open overhead bins. Grab carryon bags, many of them larger than the precisely measured wooden example of allowed size back at the loading gate 1,627 miles ago. All of the carry-ons held gifts, with Chris’ the best one of all – a piece of his history that his wife had assembled for his relatives.  Stand shoulder to shoulder staring forward until first class and the lucky ones toward the front have filed out.

By the time Chris reached the terminal he was inwardly rotating between his two favorite Christmas characters – the Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge. He wore a face to match his mood because his stomach growled. But duty always trumps pleasure for such ones soured on life and its occasional joys and seasons of merrymaking.

“You there? Pick up, pick up!” He became one of hundreds dragging wheeled baggage with one hand and holding phones in the other. One attractive blonde mom somehow managed to also push a stroller with an elbow.

The familiar beep of the answering machine and cheerful recorded greeting let Chris know this would be another of many such one-way conversations.

“I just landed. Thought you’d at least be there…Okay, whatever. Say hi to the kids. Tell Angela I’m sorry I missed her and the grandkids and I’ll come by after I get back.” He started to say “Merry Christmas” but stopped at “Mer..” before substituting “Bye.”

It was still morning so he went to his usual haunt, Burger King, and ordered its biggest breakfast.

“Can I get the free senior coffee with that?”

The cashier studied his face. “I need to see your I.D., sir.”

He did not know whether to be pleased or offended. Pleased, because he looked so much younger than the required age or offended because she thought he was lying?

Four minutes and two free cups of java drunk later, he settled into a seat by the long narrow table bordering 100 plus feet of window that gave him at least a partial view of jets of every shape and size arriving and departing. Fortified after devouring the scrambled eggs, sausage, pancakes, and croissant, he headed to the regional airline’s terminal, carrying one last free refill of coffee.

The waiting area near the boarding gate for his flight aboard a small 19-seat Beechcraft seemed more crowded than the other times he had passed through. Must be because it’s Christmas Eve. The real reason soon came through the P.A.’s speakers.

“Ladies and gentlemen, because our earlier flight had to be cancelled due to the weather we are overbooked for Flight 83 to Watertown and Pierre, South Dakota. If anyone would like to volunteer to take a later flight, please come to the desk.”

The request brought forth no volunteers, only comments.

“I had to stay over last night in a hotel because my flight was cancelled yesterday.” A lady who looked to be 70 seated 50 feet from Chris complained. “There is no reason in heaven or on Earth that I should not be on the next flight.” Her announcement reached almost as many ears as the one made by the weary airline employee at the gate. Her loudness and emphasis on last night and yesterday amused Chris.

You tell ‘em, Granny.

She reminded him of those relatives he was to spend Christmas with: stoic, matter of fact, God-fearing, no-nonsense folk who only put their foot down or drew a line in the sand after being bamboozled, lied to, or otherwise angered beyond acceptable limits. It was Chris’ wife Paulette who had encouraged him to spend Christmas where most of his kin folk were. Her words echoed in his memory.

“Your Uncle George might not be alive by next Christmas and your cousins haven’t seen you in years.”

“Yeah, yeah. All right already. I’ll go.” Chris had agreed to end the argument.

Now he wondered if he might be bumped from his flight on the small puddle jumper. If that happened, he’d be sure to blame Paulette.

He watched a young woman as she trudged to the gate, a small boy holding one hand and a baby in the other arm. Hoping that she was volunteering the three of them to wait until a later flight, Chris stood, stretched, and walked to the plate glass windows and pretended to watch the runways as he eavesdropped. The gate’s keeper sounded apologetic enough.

“I’m sorry, ma’am but we still have one too many passengers. The only way all three of you can fly together is if at least one other passenger volunteers to give up their seat.”

“But my husband’s waiting for us at his parents’ home in Pierre.” Tears started to form.

“I’m sorry…”

The tears hit the tile floor as she retreated to a corner with her children. Chris thought of grabbing the microphone, now unattended because the gate keeper had moved from his desk, and making his own unofficial plea: “Come on, people. Can’t one of you volunteer so that lady over there and her two kids can get out of Dodge? Where’s your Christmas spirit?” He took a step toward the microphone but visions of security grabbing him and dragging him to a TSA interrogation room stopped his half-hearted attempt of kindness.

His next half hour consisted of running through the advantages and disadvantages of spending at least another nine hours stuck in one of his least liked places – a terminal. If the weather did not hold then he could be stuck overnight. As he shuffled to the desk, its attendant knew from experience and Chris’ expression that at last someone had relented.

“Uh, you still need someone to give up their seat?”

“Yes, sir.”

Differently motivated tears and a smile were what Chris saw on the young mother’s face after the new announcement as he left the terminal in search of a USO lounge. He was not active duty, just a veteran, but that should be sufficient to entitle him to free coffee and donuts and a place to stretch out for a nap. He fell asleep while studying faces from another lifetime.

Two hours later he stopped snoring after sensing a presence invading the personal space he so prized. A janitor had knelt beside him and was eying the photo album that had fallen from his hands.

“Need me to move?” He sat up and yawned.

“No. You’re okay.” She continued to gaze at the blue album.

“That’s something my wife put together for my nephews and nieces. She said they need to know my history, good and bad.”

“That patch…” She pointed at the piece of cloth adorned with four green ivy leaves attached to a green circle.

“It’s my old 4th Infantry Division patch.”

“It’s the same one my brother Billy wore when he came home. Bill Rowlingwood. Did you know him? He was in Vietnam.” She bent down and caressed the patch, protected by the cover’s clear plastic.

“Don’t remember his name. You want to look at it maybe?”

She nodded and he handed it to her. She slowly flipped through pages and focused on each face memorialized in the dozens of photos. On the eighth page she dropped the album.

“It’s him. It’s Billy.”

Chris picked up the album and clutched it, wondering how this stranger could be so thoughtless. She touched a face surrounded by a group of 16 soldiers.

“That’s Delta Company guys. I was in Alpha Company but I hung out with some guys from Delta. Still don’t remember your brother. Sorry.” He closed the album.

The janitor told of a brother who had never said a word about his time in ‘Nam, who died at age 47 from war’s aftereffects. She kept touching the album, as if it connected her to him.

“I miss him so much. He was never the same after he came back home. Mom always says she wished he hadn’t gotten rid of his uniform and all his pictures so she could have something to remember him by. She always wondered what the other soldiers looked like because Billy wrote home about them a lot.”

“Well, that would include most of us from my company. We went on patrol with your brother’s company quite a bit.” Chris leaned back and stared at the ceiling. Twice in one day, God? His grip loosened enough from the album so that his knuckles went from white to their normal pink. He sighed and handed it to her.

“Merry Christmas. To you and your mom. From my wife.”

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Tales From Two Forgotten Wars

The Return

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.”

“Two days?”

“Yes.”

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.

“Yes, Grandfather.”

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.”

“About three.”

“Maybe five each.”

“Six at most.”

“How many BARs do we have?”

“Two.”

“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.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is the trip wire set up?”

“Yes, sir.”

“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.”

“Yes, sir.”

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.

“Ammo gone.”

“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!”

“What?”

“He said he had 35 points…”

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Remember Veterans Tomorrow

Too many veterans are neglected, forgotten, or taken for granted. Just telling them thank you means something.

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The Devil, Leroy, and Stanley

After supper, Stanley stared at the ceiling from his bed and pondered his father’s oft-repeated saying to “either fish or cut bait.” An hour later, Stanley decided it was time to fish. As soon as he heard his father’s snores, he dressed and crawled through his bedroom window. Because Pastor Trueblood often preached on “saving souls from the clutches of the devil” maybe his parents would understand his stealth after he rescued the most bound soul he knew.

It took ten minutes to walk to the last house along the two-lane highway where fields and woods replaced civilization. The small home was 200 feet from the road, its long dirt driveway overgrown with weeds. Stanley wondered why the owner had extended the highway’s drainage ditch through the driveway.

Must be to make it harder for people in cars to turn off and help the devil’s prisoner.

Stanley had met the chained-up boy only once. About his age, the boy had screamed whenever he saw someone walking by along the road’s shoulder. Out scavenging for soda bottles with his wagon a week before, Stanley had heard the faint screams and investigated. He had promised to return with help.

That help was a file borrowed from Jason’s toolbox. Stanley thought it would be of little use if the devil appeared. He had caught a glimpse of the huge cursing figure as he had crept from the property after his first visit. The devil had carried a pitchfork in one hand and blood red eyes in his head. When one of his hell hounds started yapping, the devil had hurled the pitchfork toward the direction the dog pointed. It had landed two feet from Stanley, who wet his pants. If not for the ten-gallon hat on the devil’s head, Stanley was certain he would have spied his two horns. But those blood red eyes and pitchfork were proof enough; he was the devil and the boy was his captive waiting to be set free by the servant of the Lord, Stanley Dalrumple, who had returned per the boy’s pleas.

He waited until he was under the windowsill before calling the prisoner’s name. “Hey Leroy. It’s me.”

“I knew you all would come on back and fetch me. Hurry on up before my pappy comes back.”

His pappy? Wow! The devil must’ve put a spell on him. Stanley climbed through the window and landed on the wooden floor with his hands and head.

“Oh, thank the Lord you came on back. How you gonna get me free like you promised you would?” He rattled his chain.

“With this.” Stanley pulled the twelve-inch file from his pocket and started to etch a groove on a link of chain fastened to the leg of a rusty woodstove. He filed nonstop until a blister formed on each hand. “I got to go before the devil comes back and chains me up too. You’re going to have to finish cutting through where I started. Once you get free go out to the road and go left. Run on over to my house. It’s the green one. My mom will figure out what to do next. She’s real smart.” He covered up the partially cut link with a log. “Just don’t let him see where you’re cutting. I figure it’s gonna take you a while to finish cutting it all the way through.”

“Okay. You be the onliest friend I gots in this whole big world. I be obliged to you forever and ever. I been praying you all would come along for years.”

“I’m going to skedaddle before the devil gets back and puts his pitchfork in me. He almost did the last time I was here. Don’t forget. The green house.”

“Good bye.” He went to work on the partially cut link.

A day later, Stanley walked the road again in search of soda bottles. In front of the devil’s house, he parked his wagon and jumped down into the drainage ditch. He tarried as he retrieved three bottles. Distracted by the playing of his role of passerby, he did not notice an approaching figure until it was thirty feet from him.

“What you doing on my property?” Gone was the pitchfork, replaced by a shotgun filled with rock salt.

“Just picking up pop bottles.” Stanley held two of them above his head.

The devil jabbed his gun at the intruder. “You better git right now. And don’t come back no more.”

Stanley scrambled out of the ditch and grabbed his red wagon’s handle. Several bottles bounced out of it but he did not stop running until he was home.

***

Five nights later, Jason heard someone pounding on the front door. He switched on the porch light and peered through a window at the small boy who kept glancing over his shoulder. Jason lowered his head to the brass mail slot. “What do you want this time of night?”

“Help me, mister. Stanley said to come over here.”

Jason opened the unlocked the door and stepped back from the ten-foot length of rusty chain that dragged after the boy into his living room. “What the heck?”

It took a police officer fifteen minutes to arrive and almost that long to piece together the story told by Leroy and Stanley.

“What happens now?” Jason handed the cop another cup of coffee.

“I’m calling for backup. Then we’ll go pay his father a visit. You think you can watch Leroy until we get the social worker over here first thing in the morning?”

“Sure.”

***

The devil, alias Monroe O. Lithington, was certain that the police had arrived to shut down the still that he operated in the woods on the backside of his property. He sighed when the two lawmen explained their visit at 2:34 a.m.

Leastways they ain’t here after my moonshine. He spent the night in jail and said little until he appeared before a judge the next afternoon. The Dalrumples and a reporter from the Madisin News were the only spectators. Leroy sat at a table with a social worker fifteen feet from his father. Judge Bellow read from the court docket.

“This is a preliminary hearing of Monroe O. Lithington on the charge of child neglect. In the interest of time, I would like the defendant to give his side of the story. Then we’ll listen to his son. Any objections?”

The public defender turned to the social worker, who shook her head.

“No objections, your honor.” She spoke for both.

“Good. Mr. Lithington, is it true that you chained your son to a woodstove and if so, why?”

The accused coughed and his voice quavered. “Your honor, I had no choice. I was fearing that Leroy’s mama would come on back home and take him away once and for all.”

“Where is his mother?”

“I don’t rightly know. About six years back she runs off with some piano player. From what I be told he plays down around the Chtilin’ Circuit.”

“The what?”

“Chitlin’ Circuit. That be all the dance halls and juke joints that be spread out all over everywhere in the South.”

“Did she take the boy with her when she left?”

“At first. Then one day about five years back, she dropped him off. She said she’d be back for him but I ain’t seen her no more since.” He turned and pointed at Leroy. “I didn’t mean him no harm. I just wanted to keep her from snatching him when I wasn’t at home is all.”

“I see.” The judge turned toward Leroy. “Now it’s Leroy’s turn. Do you remember your mother at all?”

“Yes, sir. But just a little bit. Mostly I just remember one day she hugged me and told me to be good and she would be back to get me. I figured I must not have been good enough because she never came back for me.”

“How long has your father chained you up?”

“He only does it when he be gone a spell. Like when he goes on off to town or out to work on the fields. He takes the chain back off when he be in the house.”

“I meant how many years has he been chaining you up?”

Leroy shrugged. “Long as I remember for.”

The judge sighed and stared at the gavel he had wielded thousands of times to maintain his sense of order. “Will you two please approach the bench?” When the social worker and attorney were two feet from him he lowered his voice. “Any deal you two can work out between you?”

“I’d like to keep Leroy at the children’s home until we can investigate his home and their stories further, your honor.” She tapped her crimson nails on the oak top of the bench, reminders of the blood she had drawn in other court battles.

“Meantime I request the accused be released on his own recognizance, your honor.” The lawyer placed both his hands by the gavel.

“Very well.” He waited until the two had returned to their clients. “Leroy Lithington is hereby remanded to the children’s home. Monroe Lithington is released pending investigation of the living conditions at his home and verification can made of the mother’s whereabouts so that custody can be granted to the appropriate parent. Court adjourned.”

***

The lone detective from the Madisin Police Department stared at the teletype message from Mobile, Alabama. He tore off the sheet and walked across the street to the public defender’s cramped office. The balding attorney stared at him over stacks of dusty folders. “What’s up, Vic?”

“Remember the guy who kept his kid chained up?”

“Monroe Lithington?”

“Turns out his wife died in a car wreck about four and a half years back. The only ID on her listed a Georgia address so they never found out about her husband and kid.”

copyright 2013 Steve Stroble.

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