I’m jolted awake by turbulence, at least I pray that it’s turbulence. It could always be flack. My unit and I were informed that the Germans haven’t been able to set up AA guns this far north, but that doesn’t mean our bird isn’t in the sights of a twitchy fingered gunner right now. I shift in my seat uneasily, I’ve never enjoyed the sensation of flight. While some of the boys whooped and hollered in pure joy when we first flew, six months ago, I had hunkered down in my seat and resisted the urge to kindly ask the pilot to bring us back down. Six months, that’s how long it’s been since I’ve left basic training to become a defender of Uncle Sam and the American way. At times it feels as if it has only been last week, other times it feels like I was born into the service.
I look up at the figure sitting across the bay from me, he’s bathed in red light from the no-go bulb on the ceiling of the plane. He’s happily munching on a Hershey’s bar, the wrapper pulled half way down like a banana peel to protect his fingers from the easily melting candy. He’s dwarfed by the pack strapped behind him, if he were to stand he would just barely grace 5’4”. His standard issue helmet is pulled down low, so you can’t properly see his eyes. He resembles some kind of cartoon character. I shout across the deafening thrum of the dual engines,
“How’s it shakin’ Monty?”
He looks up from his sugary snack, his eyes briefly peek out from under the metal pot, or as the manual calls it, “cranial protection implement.” He swallows, raises a thumb in the air and gives me a toothy grin, his eyes still concealed.
“Could use a Coke to wash this down, but I think I’ll make it,” he says, his heavy Boston accent obvious even over the din of the propellers.
I laugh at this comment. “If we make it out of this, I’ll buy drinks for the whole unit,” I say, still chuckling.
“Whatever’s left of it, I guess,” Monty says, “Won’t hurt ya checkbook so bad that way,” he continues, in a slightly grimmer tone.
I sit back in my seat, shrugging this comment off, best not to focus on that sort of thing. No use arguing with a midget. I turn away from Monty and stare out the small, circular window; we skim over the clouds, the moon visible, giving the world a cold, almost dead hue.
I wake with a start, I realize that I had drifted to sleep again. The metal container that is transporting me and the rest of the men is shaking and bouncing, like an enraged animal that won’t take orders from its human overlords anymore. It takes me several seconds to register the infernal thumping coming from outside. I look out the window. Heaven has been transformed to hell. Artillery shells erupt around the plane, causing bursts of light to illuminate our faces in ghastly images, making us appear as corpses. This thought strikes me as funny, aren’t we all corpses, scared boys with no hope of victory sent out to be slaughtered in a foreign land?
“I thought they said there weren’t any guns this far north!” someone screams to my right.
“Well, I guess they were wrong, get ready girls, we’re over the drop zone,” roars Captain Walberg, a massively built man with fiery red hair and a temper to match. As if on cue, the light on the ceiling that had been red since we had taken off, blinks to green. Like the mouth of the grim reaper, the bay doors open, welcoming us into the night.
Cold air hits me hard and takes my breath away. I stand facing the hole, my hand grips the straps of my pack like it’s my last tie to safety; technically it is, since it’s attached to my parachute. Men are in front and behind me, all of them as nervous as I, or at least I hope. There’s an awkward pause as everyone stands, no one wants to go first, but someone has to.
“So which on of you ladies is going first?” yells Walberg, who is in the very front of the bay. Slowly, a man moves towards the hole, McGill, a well built man sporting a Mohawk under his helmet. Apparently, he had been a baseball player and was on his way to the big leagues before the war broke out. Before he can rethink his decision, he hurls his body out of the plane and is gone.
This action seems to motivate all of our inner adrenaline junkies, and soon one by one, the men in front of me follow McGill’s action and leave the confines of the plane. When it’s my turn, I don’t even think about it, I just jump out. Cold air rips past me as I hurtle toward earth, I can barely keep my eyes open against the explosive power of the wind. I keep picking up speed until I feel like my body will be torn apart by the velocity. When the correct time comes I pull the rip cord to activate my parachute, there’s a slight pop, then the cord goes limp in my hand. I keep falling to earth at the same speed, my parachute stubbornly staying in the pack.
A memory flashes through my head, I’m in first grade at school during recess and Susan Burk has declared that a chimpanzee could play second base better than I, after our team had been beaten eight to nothing in a game. Not knowing what a chimpanzee was but having enough sense to know that I had been insulted, I had pushed her to the ground in petty vengeance. It was only later that my friends told me she had muttered, while picking herself up off the ground, “Go jump off a cliff.” I decide at this moment that if I survived I would find Susan Burk and politely inform her that it had been a C-47 cargo plane and not a cliff I had jumped out of.
This random and trivial memory doesn’t slow my fall or offer any other solutions to my predicament though. I try reaching around to my back, seeing if I can somehow pull it loose, but it’s too bulky to get my arms back there. The ground is approaching at an alarming rate, objects are starting to take on more detail, and I know that’s not necessarily a good thing. Too late, at this point even if I had a functioning parachute I would probably die on impact. And with that, my pack explodes open and I experience the sensation of being hit by a truck. My parachute billows out creating a lifesaving canopy above my head. The ground is still rapidly approaching and no sooner does my descent slow than me and my 90 plus pounds of gear, hit the ground with an audible crack.
I’m woken from my sleep by Sergeant Schneider tearing open the barracks door and shrieking at me and the twenty other men to get up.
“The Americans have come… paratroopers… hundreds!” he gasps, trying to catch his breath between words. I snap to attention, instantly jumping from my cot, gathering my gear and weapons. The boom of the AA gun rips through the compound.
“Move you fools! You can’t let them breach us!” He flips an empty cot over to prove how serious this matter is. We all scramble around the room like worker ants, getting dressed and loading rifles, each man praying to whichever god will listen. Fritz nudges me as I load my Mauser, I look up from my task, to see him holding an envelope out to me. It’s worn and yellowed, as if he’s had it for a while.
“I would like you to give this to my mother if I don’t make it out of this one,” he says, in hardly over a whisper, his eyes are glassy and wide with fear. I take the letter and nod, seeing that it has an address neatly written on it.
“Of course,” I say, my voice coming out in a raspy grunt. He nods in gratitude, then shuffles off to prepare for the inevitable violence these airborne soldiers have set into motion. Within five minutes, we’re ready. We rush out of the barracks into the bitter cold, an inch of snow has fallen since supper, and it shows no sign of letting up. We leave the safety of the compound, the drone of engines above us, the boom of the artillery guns releasing thunder. And so begins our patrol, a hunt for an enemy I‘ll never fully realize is human too.
I wake with a snap, the world comes in and out of focus, slowly my body starts to register the fiery pain coursing through my leg. I lay in the snow, my back firmly concreted into the earth. The sky resembles a light show created by the Devil, blades of fire, fly towards the heavens wrecking havoc on our planes. Explosions litter the atmosphere, hundreds of pounds of metal sent up by the Germans in an attempt to bring our birds down. I can almost hear the screams of the men in the planes which were hit by the projectiles. Their cries for mercy snuffed out as they plummet to earth, tucked away in their metal coffins the American government was so gracious to supply us all with.
I tear my eyes away from the Armageddon above, I have my own problems to deal with. I start by attempting to stand up, I find my rifle strapped to my pack, I plant the butt of it into the ground and use it to stand myself up. My right leg is unyielding in its constant desire to torment me, though. It’s definitely broken, I don’t really know what to do with the broken body part, so I finally get myself standing, leaning heavily on my rifle. I’m located in a small field, about a quarter mile across, surrounded by trees. I hesitantly start hobbling toward them, not sure if I’m headed toward the rest of my unit. I need to get out of the open for now, I’ll find them when I’m less exposed.
My eyes scan my surroundings as I jog, trees jut out of the ground left and right of me. Cold wind whips past my face as I search for any kind of movement in front of me. I come to a clearing in the forest, my eyes strain against the dim light of the moon, trying to make out any figures. Then I see it, at first I think it’s my sleep deprived brain simply playing tricks on me, inspired by my hope of finding someone. But sure enough, a man is limping toward the trees to my left, about three hundred meters away from where I stand. With my training taking over I unsling my rifle and then give the identification bird call we were taught early into training. The figure doesn’t respond or even slow down. With this I level my rifle on the man and prepare to end his journey.
I’m almost to the tree line, it’s slow going since the terrain is slick with snow and uneven ground. At that moment, two things happen at once. A gunshot rings across the field and I fall into a hole. I’m honestly not sure which startle me more. The hole is about eight feet deep and is in the shape of a 10 by 12 foot rectangle, what’s left of the cellar of a cottage, if I had to guess. I land at the bottom with a heavy thump, my leg explodes in a wave of fresh pain, I let out a muffled scream. I grit my teeth and try not to pass out as I scramble around, searching for my rifle, not forgetting that I have just been shot at.
I think I hit him, after I pull the trigger the paratrooper falls and lets out a shriek. He then disappears, seemingly becoming invisible. I start walking towards where the figure fell, rifle raised, my finger hovering over the trigger, prepared to defend myself if he’s not dead. I keep walking forward, my eyes straining against the dark and my head buzzing with adrenalin. Before I can stop myself, I tumble headlong into a pit, falling about ten feet before I hit the earth, my breath leaving my body in a violent explosion. I right myself and then stay completely still, I see a man squatting in the corner of the hole, which is about eight by eight meters, his rifle is lowered, the deadly end pointed at my chest.
The Nazi falls into the hole. Finally, after years of waiting, I had found someone even clumsier than I, and now I would have to end his blundering existence. He looks at me in a comical look of utter shock, his eyes growing to the size of golf balls. I probably look just as surprised as he. He clambers backwards from his position on his hands and knees until he hits the opposing wall from the one I lean against. His rifle is between us, lying there, screaming to be picked up and used. His eyes lock on it.
“Don’t go for it, buddy.” I say, my voice coming out as a growl. The German looks toward me, on his face he wears the look of knowing that he’s been beaten, at least for now. His facial features don’t concern me though, what makes my blood run cold is the grenade clenched in this hands.
The American sees the explosive in my hand, realization dawns on his face as he yells something at me in English. I assume it’s something to the effect of “Put that down you stupid son of a *****, you’ll kill us all.” I’m tempted to do as he says, the thought of a grenade exploding in my face is a terrifying one, but I realize that this is the one thing keeping me alive, the threat of both of us dying in the blast. I clutch it all the tighter, making my resolve known. He lets out an exasperated sigh, as if I’m a naughty child who isn’t complying to his authority. He sets down his rifle and starts rummaging around in his pack, meticulously setting medical supplies out. Once this is done he starts bandaging his leg, which appears broken.
Throughout this whole ordeal, he barely pays me any attention; once he’s done with his work he pulls out a canteen and drinks deeply from it. I lick my lips subconsciously at the sight of the liquid. He glances at me and raises it in a questioning manner, it takes me a moment to realize that he’s offering me a drink. I dumbly nod my head, he tosses me the canteen and I catch it with my empty hand. I drink greedily from the vessel, only now realizing how parched I was. I nod in gratitude and toss the bottle back to him.
“Duncan.” the paratrooper says in a scratchy whisper pointing at his chest. I realize with a snap that that’s his name, good God, I think to myself, the enemy is introducing himself to me. I contemplate whether or not I should release such information as well, but then shrug and think it can’t hurt.
“Ralph” I say, in not much more than a mutter. He gives a wry smile and says something I don’t understand, but it sounds like it’s directed more to himself than me. People always said I had a knack for making new friends easily.
I see the morning light beginning to shine on the trees above us, and with the light comes a new wave of frustration directed at my current predicament and my unwilling companion. I consider picking my rifle back up and blowing a 2 inch hole in his chest, but I know that the grenades lever would spring up, cause the device to explode and turn our hole into a grave. In a split second decision I push myself up and toward the German, his attention seems to be impaired though, since his eyes stay locked on the avocado shaped weapon in his hands until I’m practically on top of him.
His eyes flick to me and he roles to his right in an attempt to keep it away from me, but it’s too late, both of my hands clamp down around his like a vise. We crash into the wall behind him, fighting over the grenade in a desperate battle for power and control over the situation. His knee bucks out and makes solid contact with my injured leg, I let out a guttural roar of pain and rage, I whip my elbow around and put all my weight behind it; it crashes squarely into the side of his skull, his eyes roll back into his head, but his arms jerk out and the grenade escapes my grasp as well as his, it soars across the pit and thumps to the ground, the pin is gone and the lever is up, it’s about to do what it was created for.
I wait for it, the heat, the deafening boom, the pieces of shrapnel that will rip through my body at any moment. At least you won’t die alone, a little voice in my head says. But I can’t die, not like this, not with a boom, a puff of smoke and then nothing. I stand there, waiting for the inevitable wave of hell fire and shrapnel, but it doesn’t come. I start counting, 10 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute. Finally I reach 5 minutes, and the grenade still hasn’t gone off. In a bought of what seems to be madness, I rush over to the bomb, pick it up and throw it as hard as I can out of the hole. I’m not greeted by an explosion, simply a tiny plop as it falls into the snow outside.
I turn and grab my rifle and then his Mauser as well, I then see that the German soldier is still lying on the ground, utterly motionless. I limp over and nudge his side with my good foot, no response. He’s on his back, his eyes staring motionlessly at the dawning sky above. I bend down and put my ear next to his mouth, listening for any signs of life. I find none. My elbow must have connected harder than I thought. I scramble away from the body in a sudden rush of horror. I have killed a man, a man I shared a drink with not an hour earlier.
I can’t think about that now, I have to get moving, I have to find my unit. I load my gear and start climbing out of the hole, except I can’t. The walls of the pit are steep and slick with frost. My leg is also useless, simply adding extra weight to my climb instead of being a helpful appendage. I begin to get desperate, scrabbling and clawing my way up only to fall again, like a trapped animal. Each time I fall, I’m greeted by the glassy, unseeing eyes of Ralph, his slack face welcoming we to share his grave, plenty of room after all.
I sit down, exhausted, physically and emotionally. Then the laughter comes, at first more of a giggle, but then evolving into an explosive machine gun chatter of chuckles, I keep on laughing, at the broken parachute, at my shattered leg, at the clumsiness of Ralph and the stupid grenade. I laugh at myself the most though, for the fear that I would die quickly, now I’ll die of other slow causes, hypothermia, starvation, exposure. Whichever comes first.
My eye falls on something lying against the wall though, I thin tube of finely crafted metal and wood. A soldier’s best friend.
“Yes,” I say out loud as I reach for it, “Yes you are.”