nie vergessin! Never Forget! This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

November 12, 2010
The old hound dog eagerly leaned closer toward the hand that absently scratched his long, floppy ear. A low groan of pleasure hummed from his throat as he inched his way closer to the young man who sat solemnly in the old rocker on the porch. The old dog rested his head on the young man’s left thigh, above where the pant’s leg was pinned back under his knee. Hazel eyes stared blankly across the newly tilled garden marked off in a checkerboard pattern where Dad’s brother Uncle Henry Soldat and two of his young sons, Marlin and Smith, were planting corn. Heavily worn boots took one good step, as calloused hands carefully dropped two kernels into each freshly marked x of the checkerboard in the rich, black soil. Along with the kernels of corn, the farmer planted his hope for success. With plenty of rain and diligent weeding, most of the kernels would sprout into small, sturdy plants that would produce much needed food for both the family and the farm animals. Unfortunately some kernels would fail to answer the call that urged them to sprout and they would remain under the soil rotting in their own grave.
The distant sound of Grandma Bartha singing Amazing Grace as she kneaded dough on the wooden butcher block in the kitchen drifted through the screen door. The scent of fresh, minced garlic wafted through the air and was carried away by the summer breeze. Smoke billowed from the blacksmith forge by the faded red barn as Dad heated steel to repair a broken plow blade, and Mom dropped a wooden clothes pin in the grass as she draped the faded, patched overalls on the clothes line by the cellar. In the front yard five year old Wesson grunted as his chubby arms pushed the tire swing forward, and his twin sister laughed when he barely escaped the backward motion of the swing. Casey pumped her legs to keep the swing moving, as Wesson flopped down in the grass to catch his breath. Sunshine slipped through bright green leaves and warmed the old dog’s brown and white spotted fur as he turned his nose to the still hand and nudged it for more attention. When the hammer hit the steel blade, the wind carried the metallic clank across the yard, and the dog whimpered as the caress roughened into pain.
Suddenly the sounds of the children laughing turned into shrieks of terror and the acrid smell of the smoke from the forge twisted with the faint scent of garlic. The sounds of gunfire and the fear of mustard gas attacks pulled the young man from the safety of the rocking chair, and jerked him back into the midst of The Second battle of the Marne near Paris, France in mid July of 1918. Hazel eyes wild with fear watched as German machine gun fire cut down Tommys and Sammys on either side of him. His blood stained hand shook as he loaded five rounds in his 1903 Springfield, and he automatically fired at the enemy trenches hoping to kill a Kraut, maybe all the Krauts in the world. His boots were caked with mud from the wet earthen floor of the trenches, and his wool uniform viciously rubbed his neck like sandpaper. The sounds of war filled his ears and even when he closed his eyes, he could not escape the images of the dead and dying who lay mangled all around him. At first he did not even realize that the incoming shell from the howitzer had exploded near him. As the pain from the shrapnel tore through his left leg, his eyes closed in grateful oblivion.
The voice pulled at him from the darkness and something warm and wet licked his face as he struggled to sit up. His left arm shook as he reached for his leg, and the crutches made a loud thud as they hit the floor of the wooden porch. His face twisted in pain as his hand continued to grope for the missing leg, and the voice frantically urged him to open his eyes.
“Tod, Tod, wake up. What happened? Are you having a dream? Tod, answer me.” His mother’s voice pleaded from above him, and he pushed his way through the smoke and pain to answer her.
“Sorry mom, I guess I must have gone to sleep and fell out the chair. Not a very bright thing for a nineteen year old man to do.” He tried to cover the gruffness of his voice with humor and the muscles in his arms quivered as he struggled to right the crutches and push himself back into the rocking chair. “I’ll be alright, just give me a minute.”
By the time he had managed to get back in the chair, the entire family was hovering nearby, waiting, uncertain what to do or say. Tod could not force himself to look into their eyes and see the pity or the anger that he felt trying to smother him.
“Son, maybe it’s about time you tried to do some work around the farm. If you don’t work, then you don’t eat!” His father’s voice did not even try to conceal his anger as he turned swiftly and headed back to the forge.
“Tod, he didn’t mean it. Wage is a hard man, but he loves you son. He just worries about your future and the future of this family and the farm. It’s all we have, Tod. Your father just wants what’s best for you.” The last words were almost choked by the tears streaming down his mother’s face as she hesitatingly reached to touch his shoulder.
Uncle Henry slapped Tod on the other arm and mumbled under his breath as he headed back to the field, while Marlin and Smith kept their eyes averted as they followed behind him. Casey and Wesson hesitated by the porch steps as Grandma Bartha lips moved silently in prayer. Only Grandpa Leroy leaned in close enough to see the muscle twitching by Tod’s left eye.
“Son, none of us really even know what to say. We’re afraid to push too hard or to hurt your feelings, but we love you Tod. It’s been seven months since you’ve been home and it’s still like we’re living with a stranger. I’m sorry you lost your leg to the gangrene that set in after the shrapnel tore up your leg, but we’re all grateful that you escaped with your life. Maybe that’s just got to be enough, Tod. You can’t go around feeling sorry for yourself for the rest of your life. So many of our boys didn’t even make it home, son. Their mamas just got a letter, but our Abigail cried herself to sleep every night with tears of joy while you were laid up in that hospital. She didn’t stop until you made it back home to sleep in your own bed. We were blessed to get you back, son. At some point you’re going to have to get on with your life. The war’s over now. It’s time to move on.”
Tod leveled his gaze at his Grandpa and bit his lip to hold back his harsh reply. He gulped air and swallowed heavily as he tried to find the words to explain the torment that haunted him night and day. Losing his leg had been bad, but not nearly as bad as the nightmares that ripped him from sleep each night, or the memories that chased him during the day. He could not find the words to explain that what he had seen and had done during The Great War in France had changed him. It wasn’t just his leg. That wound had mostly healed. It was the wounds in his mind that seemed to scab over and then start oozing infection just when he thought he was going to be alright. It was an unspeakable wound that kept him silent and forced him to drop his head in shame. Tod stiffened as his grandpa gently patted his shoulder.
“Tod, you have got to get on with your life. You can’t go on like this forever. You’re a decorated solder, son. You earned a Purple Heart and the right to hold your head up high. It’s time, Tod. Its’ time.”
“I know Grandpa. I know. I just don’t know how to do it. But you’re right. I can’t go on like this forever.” Tod’s voice faded as his mind’s eye traveled to the foot locker hidden under his bed. In side was a little box that contained his Purple Heart. The medal he had been awarded by the United States Army National Guard for the injury he received while fighting with his 42nd Infantry Division during The Second Battle of Marne. The ribbon was pinned to his Private 1st Class dress uniform that bore the Rainbow patch signifying his division and was folded neatly inside the trunk, along with his trench knife, helmet, dog tags, boots, field uniform, hat, other personal effects and souvenirs from the war. The motto of the Rainbow division was “Never Forget!” or nie vergessen in German, and Tod grimaced as he wondered if the memories would ever start to fade. Somehow he doubted if they would. Sometimes he envied his buddies who had died in the trenches. It must be peaceful inside those graves; safe and protected from the nightmares of war. They were probably the only ones who were truly able to forget.
Tod awkwardly maneuvered his crutches to hoist himself out of the rocker and shuffle down the steps toward a cedar tree grove behind the barn. Buster trotted behind him as he slowly hobbled to his once favorite spot on the farm. Sweat was running down his face and his arms were aching by the time he finally made it to the grove. At times his left leg hurt so badly that it was hard to believe it was only ghost pain and that there was nothing but memories below his left knee. He used the crutches to lower himself to his favorite flat rock, but the crutch slipped on loose pebbles, and he tumbled face down on the rock. He tasted blood in his mouth and squeezed his eyes tight to try and hold back the tears of pain and anger. The old dog fretted over him, and when Tod had managed to turn over and crawl back up on the rock, Buster solemnly lay his head on Tod’s left thigh and whined for his master’s touch. Tod wiped the tears from his face with the back of his hand and then rested his hand on Buster’s head.

“I’m quite a mess, aren’t I old boy?” Tod’s voice broke with anguish as he hung his head to nuzzle the old dog’s ears. “At least you still love me, even the way I am now. That’s more than I can say for Dad. Everyone else is afraid to be near me, and Dad is just too angry most of the time to even try and speak. I know he’s right. I need to get on with my life, but no one understands what happens in my mind. I can’t explain it. It’s like I left France but I brought the war back with me in my mind. I can’t escape the images or the memories. I can still smell the mustard gas and hear the explosions and see all those dead bodies. There were blood and body parts everywhere and if you were still alive then you had to keep reloading and firing your gun. It never ended. It’s still not ended for me and I’m thousands of miles away from it all. I’m home, but I feel like a stranger. Buster, how can I be lonely at the supper table surrounded by my family? I feel like I don’t belong here anymore. Like I don’t belong anywhere anymore.” Tod’s voice drifted into silence as he gently rubbed the old dog’s ears.
Later that evening the conversation around the supper table was stilted and everyone seemed in a hurry to finish the apple pie Casey had helped Mom make earlier that afternoon. Tod listened to his family’s conversation but remained silent, lost in thoughts that were only his own. He barely tasted the apple pie as he gulped it down along with a cup of hot coffee and he excused himself before anyone else was finished. No one saw him take the pistol from his foot locker and load it with a single round. No one but Buster saw him stumble down the back steps and use the crutches to hobble back to the grove of cedar trees. No one but Buster saw Tod ease himself down on his favorite rock and cradle the pistol in his hands. The old dog whined as he nuzzled his wet nose on Tod’s hand begging for attention. Tod gently rubbed Buster’s ears as tears slowly trickled down his face.
“I’ve kept the 42nd Division’s motto, old boy. I’ve not forgotten. I won’t ever be able to forget. Not as long as I’m alive. I’m sorry Buster, but I want to forget. I don’t want to remember anymore. I want to know peace. I want the memories to go away, but I don’t know how to make that happen any other way. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
The old hound dog eagerly leaned closer toward the hand that lay still on the rock. A low groan of sadness hummed from his throat as he inched his way toward the young man who lay silent in the night. Hazel eyes stared blankly at the stars and the old dog rested his head on the young man’s left thigh, above where the pant’s leg was pinned back under his knee.

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