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Four Years Ago
I cannot see anything, my eyes are pressed into the muddy earth beneath me, and I can feel the foul substance seeping into my mouth, but I cannot move. Everything is dark, and the concept of being is almost surreal. I am not sure how long I have laid here; the darkness deceives my perception of time. There is a disconnection from the shrill cries and smells of smoke and blood that surround me, as if I am experiencing it from outside the realms of reality. But the shattering eruptions of grenades and gunfire continually bring my impending subconscious back. I try to roll back on to my side, but a flash of pain streaks through my back. I let out a yelp, which only thrusts my face further into the muck of blood, earth, saliva, and waste. “ I cannot believe I am laying here so helpless like this,” is the only constant thought that keeps circulating through my head. Sure I had been injured before, but a bullet in the leg, an accident with a bow knife, and enough cuts and bruises for a life time had not brought me down like this before. All it had taken was a second of unawareness for a bullet to find its way into my back. But I am not worried, at least not yet. Dying was never something I had ever given entrance into my thoughts; it was something that happened to old men and foolish people. If you wanted to live you had to have that mentality, “I will survive.” Yet four years of watching innocent, unsuspecting young men with wives and families and dreams just cease to exist from one moment to the next can bring you to terms with the reality of death. Something, as I lay here my brain still struggles to comprehend. When they drafted me I had been so foolish as to think dying was never something that could happen to me. I had been nineteen, young and naïve to life; and of course its counterpart. Lying here in the dank darkness I try to see myself four bright years earlier on the train platform anxiously awaiting the train that would send me to Europe:
The couple embraced, tightly wrapping each other’s arms fervently around one another as if they would never let go. The young man lifted his hand to her pretty face and pushed a toffee colored curl out of her eyes, then whispered to her tenderly, making a tear sparkle in her opaque green eyes. They embraced yet again; this time pressing their lips softly to one another’s while tears streamed down the girl’s cheeks as if there was not a soul in sight. But there was someone else there. I looked away and slammed my trunk against the cement; really did they have to be so obvious like that? Fred was only going off to war it was not like they would never see each other again, I thought contemptuously. Just a mere month ago the girl with pretty toffee curls had been in love with me… or so I had thought.
Elene Taylor was her name, and she was the most beautiful girl in the world in my opinion. She had a smile that could light up a room, and a laugh more contagious than measles. I had watched her all through high school, but had been too timid to ask her out, until senior year I had finally mustered all the courage I’d had and asked Elene out to a movie. We had hit it off right away, love at first sight we’d called it. Every Saturday after that night I had saved my money to take Elene out again. We went to restaurants and had picnics in the park. We had gone to the beach where I swore I could have watched her toss rocks into the ocean spray for the rest of my life. Life had been fantastic, all a nineteen year old boy could have asked for. Then life took a turn, four months ago my easy teenage life was gone. December 7, 1941 the Japanese had done the unthinkable and bombed Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt had called for a second draft, and I, barely out of high school, had been called. I was excited, ready and willing to fight for my country. At the time the thought of dying and not ever coming home had not even been concern, I was young, naïve and confident. By February I was informed that by April I would be sent to the German front in Holland, to fight the Nazis. I had been excited just like every other adventure-seeking guy my age. But my world had apparently not had enough drastic changes, one night I decided to go over to my buddy Fred Hartly’s place, another draftee. He had not known I was coming over; big mistake. When I arrived I found Elene and Fred together in Fred’s bedroom. Shocked and angry I had smashed my fist straight into Fred’s face, letting my knuckles yield a flow of blood from his mouth. But all the fighting in the world could not have fixed things. Elene admitted to having been with Fred for the last month and a half and that she was very sorry. But apparently not too sorry, because Fred and her had been very happy together ever since. So for the last month I had had to deal with the fact that the only girl I had ever loved preferred my friend, and she would never come back to me. The scandal had made me just want to leave for war already; I wanted to lead take it all out on as many Nazis as I could find. I was going to leave and never look back. But unfortunately Fred and I were being drafted together, which left me there on that train station platform holding a heavily packed trunk, watching the girl I had loved and the friend I had trusted kiss through the throngs of people on the busy platform.
“Raymond, make sure you write as often as possible dear,” sniffed my mother through her curtain of sobs, “Try not to forget your old family back here,” she said, a smile cracking through her tear stained face.
”I know I know mom, I’m pretty sure none of the other guys have to write to their mothers every week,” said I shrugging my mother’s hand off my shoulder.
”Of course they do!” she interjected. “John please tell your son that he needs to write to his mother at least twice a week or she’ll be worried sick!” pleaded his mother looking to my father.
”Son please write your mother or it’ll be my head,” quipped my father as he tried to sound upbeat, but the words came out distressed instead. I looked at my family for what would be the last time in a while .My mother stood there sobbing into her handkerchief, my father keeping an impending awkward smile plastered to his face, and my eight year old sister Charlotte sniffling behind my mother.
”Don’t worry Lotte, I’ll be back before you know it,” I said kindly to her. Charlotte did not say anything at first all she did was shake her head seemingly biting back tears. “It’s ok champ, don’t cry,” I said squeezing her wrist.
”I don’t want you to go,” came her tiny voice, and reaching out she hugged me tightly. I had anticipated boarding that train and getting rid of all the things in my world that made me feel inferior, but right then the only thing that made me feel substandard was having to tell my little sister goodbye.
Now I wished I could have told my parents that I loved them, or that “Yes mom of course I’ll right you every day, twice a day if you want!” I remembered being so young and excited to prove myself, not completely aware that war was so much more than glory and bravery. My perspective had changed since then, not just towards war, but my attitude, especially toward Fred and Elene. After it had happened I had had nightmares about it for months, it was not an easy thing for me to revisit.
I remember the haze of smoke and gunpowder hanging thick in the air, and the echoes of shots ringing out amongst the trees, each one making your skin crawl with anxiety that that might be the last thing you hear. It had been the winter of ’44, deep in the snowy Ardennes Forest. Shells were exploding right and left, and Fred and I were stacked behind a tree reloading. Our hatred had long since dissipated after Fred had saved my life during an air raid in 1941.
“S*** Ray, my fingers are freezing, I can’t even reload the damn gun!” yelled Fred rubbing his frozen hands together.
“Damn its so cold! Good thing we have those first class accommodations back at base Sergeant was talking about,” I joked. Fred laughed leaning back against the tree out of breath.
“Yeah good thing we have other means of staying warm, was that girl from Brussles any good last night?” Grinned Fred deviously. But before I could make some quick witted response there was an enormous explosion, I was momentarily blinded by flames and debris as I threw myself from the tree into a snow drift. Behind me the explosion engulfed the tree and the last grin etched across Fred’s face. Snow and ruble exploded into the air and I could see Fred’s body lying limp on the ground where the tree had just erupted. I ran to the spot, and clutched his head in my hands yelling at the top of my lungs,
“Help! Somebody help! Fred can you hear me!” He let out a slow moan, and I let my heart beat again. “Freddy! Buddy! Can you hear me?” I screamed. He tried to utter a noise but blood was suddenly gurgling from his mouth. “Please, Freddy, just hang on.” I whispered gently, trying not to cry. Soldiers do no cry.
“Ray…I, I…I’m sorry,” he whispered as blood drooled down his chin, and then his head became limp in my arms. He was gone.
The next morning mail had delivered a letter, one from Elene, telling Fred she loved him and that she had exciting news, their son George, had just learned his alphabet. I cried for a week.
The pain in my back lurches through my every nerve, and I know there is no way I can get up, “please please let someone find me,” is all I can think. This cannot be the end, I won’t let it. After everything I will not die lying here face down in the mud. But the pain is almost unbearable, and I can feel my legs going numb. “I just need somebody to find me, and then everything will be ok,” I think. All around me are explosions, and the familiar yells of men. Somewhere far off I can hear Frank calling for more ammunition and Davy cursing at the top of his lungs as he reloads. Is this the moment when my life flashes before my eyes? Will I see the pearly white gates of heaven any moment here? Another grenade explodes somewhere nearby, and yelps echo from every direction. I start to worry now. “This can’t be it.” The once deafening noises of the battle now only sound like faint muffled whispers. Somewhere I hear the stifled sound of my name, “Ray! My God somebody help him!” It is all going dark. Then the blast comes, hard and penetrating, and I am once again standing on the Raleigh Train platform, my face hard and worn.