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Our feet slopped through the muck and squelched over sodden, dead leaves. Rain came down in sheets and stung our faces like angry wasps. The rifle strap dug into my shoulder, wearing through the fabric of my uniform and chafing at the skin underneath. I adjusted the strap for probably the thousandth time, then dared a glance at the rest of the battalion. Our faces were creased with new lines and we had dark circles under our eyes. Some were swathed in bandages that slowly soaked through with red splotches, but their eyes stayed stoically focused on the backs of those ahead. Arms swinging in unison and feet raised high, you couldn’t pick a single face out of the crowd, just a tangle of limbs and uniforms moving as one.
“Halt!” Everyone froze where they stood. Only their eyes moved, searching for the speaker.
“At ease.” The invisible line that strung us together snapped, and we all relaxed. Our lieutenant colonel rasped a few more words before dismissing everyone, and I shuffled off to find some refuge from the rain.
“Hey, Dave! Over here!” I moved towards the voice and found myself underneath the prickly branches of a pine tree. Sprawled lazily at the base of the tree was one G.I. Peter Ickes, or Pickles according to the guys. His nickname originated from his long, narrow nose that bore a surprising resemblance to the vegetable. It bulged between a pair of watery blue eyes, and had its fair share of the freckles that peppered his face. Pickles was a scarecrow with his lanky frame and his shock of straw-colored hair. He joked that his uniform hung off his scrawny build like clothes off a hanger.
I plopped down on the grass next to him. “How’re you doing?”
“Not too bad, seeing I dragged my skinny a** through the mud for a few days.”
“At least the Germans aren’t shooting at us.”
Pickles flung his scrawny arms in the air. “Motivational speech of the century! But you’re right. This is pretty nice.”
I snorted, “It’ll be nicer when you shut your mouth and let me read in peace.”
He fished his ASE out of his pocket. “Sir, yes sir!” With a sloppy salute, he slouched against the tree trunk and started flipping through the pages.
I pulled out my own ASE, a Zane Grey novel. ASE stood for Armed Services Edition. It was a pocket-sized, paperback book with large print, so large that I could read easily in the darkest hours of the night. I wet my finger and leafed through the pages. Soon, I wasn’t in Northern France anymore. I was in the old American West, riding on horseback through a cold desert night. I saw the silvery stars that reeled past, felt the heaving flanks of the horse beneath my saddle, and heard the throaty howls of the coyotes. I relished being that rider. I was alone with myself and my thoughts.
Then I heard a sound that wasn’t the howling of coyotes, or the snorts of an overworked horse. It was the sound of something whistling through the air.
I dropped my book as the ground shook beneath me. Pickles slid off the trunk and shoved his ASE in his pack, cursing. Explosions sounded in the distance. We looked at each other. We knew what this meant: the Germans were shelling us again.
“See you on the other side, Dave!” With that, Pickles dashed to the left and I dashed to the right. I pulled out my shovel and started digging as another shell whistled overhead. Don’t look up, I told myself. Don’t look up and dig like crazy. I heard the sound of a hundred shovels scraping the earth at the same time. There was an explosion and an agonized cry. Not one shovel stopped scraping, and we didn’t look up.
I finally had a decent-sized foxhole and slid inside. A nearby explosion shook loose dirt off the sides and pelted my face. I curled up into a ball, legs pinioned to my chest and hands over my head. In that moment, I did nothing but mutter prayers to myself. I tried to drown out the explosions and screams with the sound of my voice. It didn’t work, but I sure as hell kept trying.
Then, a blast tore through the air and earth close by, so close that I felt the heat singe the hair off my arms. It rocked the ground and shook me around like a golf ball in its hole. As the ringing in my ears died away, I heard the sound no soldier wants to hear: the groaning of a tree as it started to keel over. I realized the explosion must’ve taken out the base of the tree. I sat there, frozen, as the bark snapped and the branches whooshed through the air. For one heartbeat, I thought I heard a strangled scream.
And then it struck the ground to my left with a thud that rattled my teeth. Pine needles spewed into my eyes and mouth, and I heaved a few watery coughs before I could see straight. I don’t think I’d ever felt so relieved in my life.
Until I remembered who was to my left.
The day after the shelling, we gathered our dead and held the best burial we could. I watched as we lowered one white bundle after another into a gaping pit in the ground, the chaplain murmuring the words as if he’d said them millions of times before. I stood at the very edge of the pit and looked down. They were stacked upon each other like eyeless sardines, their white shapes blurring together into a shapeless, formless blob. I knew which bundle had Pickles’ body only because I’d lowered him into the earth, because my tears were still wet on that bedsheet.
I gripped his ASE, a joke book. His fingers left indentations in the cover, and the page he was reading last was still dog-eared. As the others scooped up handfuls of dirt, something seized ahold of me. I wanted to break that sea of white. I wanted to shake up the uniform and orderly way we buried them. So I bent over and gently, very gently, placed his book on his bundle. My hands shook so badly that I placed it sideways, but I didn’t think he’d mind.
I scooped up a handful of dirt and threw it into the pit, just as the other guys were doing. Pickles deserves better, I told myself. And then, as the cover of his joke book vanished under the growing mounds of dirt, another thought occurred to me.
Hell, they all do.