“In the army, I was a foot soldier. After basic training, my regimen was sent to North Africa to fight against Rommel. It was insufferably hot. The sand scorched our feet, and it blew sand in our eyes, noses, teeth. Everything was gritty–the food always tasted of sand. The sun was white hot and the earth shimmered in the heat. We could hardly fight in the day. There was never enough water. When it wasn’t scorching, it was raining, no, not raining, there were torrential downpours.
At night, we waited to die.” Fear was everywhere, emanating off of Dad’s body. I could smell it. He’d started to sweat. There were beads along his forehead and his upper lip. He licked his lips, like thirst was a constant and dread had made his mouth dry as dust. “Our first lesson came with cigarettes. Although cigarettes were plentiful, matches were harder to come by. So, one guy would light a match and pass it around. Some of the guys in my unit were on guard duty within the first week we were there. One guy lit a match, passed it to a second, who passed it to a third. Before the third guy took a puff, he was dead. That’s when we knew–they saw you when you lit up, they focused on the second cigarette and shot the third fellow. No one ever lit more than two cigarettes with a single match again.” He winced, pained by the recollection.
“We fought across Africa. It was horrible. It seemed to me that it went on forever. The people in charge, especially Patton, were idiots. The choices they made! Damn, it was unbelievable how little they valued the lives of their troops. Hell, human life generally.” He paused, cursing under his breath. Rigid with anger and real hatred, the color had drained from his face.
“I don’t think I’ve ever hated anyone as much as I hated those commanding officers. After, I don’t know eight or ten months, new guns arrived. No instructions came with them. We left the guns in the crates because we couldn’t use them. Then a month or two later, one of the guys got a care package from home. It included a Life magazine–a Life that showed our new guns, and how to use them. The damn commanders didn’t show us, we learned from a Life magazine!” His eyes flashed with anger. His jaw was set so hard; I knew it had to hurt.
“Eventually, we made it through North Africa and began moving up into Italy. We marched on Rome and continued up in Northern Italy. You know,” he said, looking into my eyes, “that is the only time I ever saw Rome or any of Italy for that matter. I never wanted to go back.”
“My unit went from Italy into Germany. Someday I’ll tell you about the atrocities we saw.” The emotions were raw, electric in their intensity. It pained me that he couldn’t talk about it. I knew that the day would never come when he would be able to tell me about it. Although I truly didn’t want to know about the atrocities, each time I was faced with the reality of Dad’s death, a fresh wave of hurt rolled over me.
“In Germany, the fighting was fierce, more intense than any fighting I’d know in the two and a half years I’d been in the war. It was clear that the German troops were determined to try and win, and if not win, defend their homeland by killing as many of us as they could.”
He paused and looked away, lost in a previous time filled with a pain I didn’t even want to imagine. Then suddenly, he scooped up Coco and started petting her. “It had been a really long day. We’d been fighting since about five a.m. and it had to be four or five in the afternoon. We were all exhausted. Also, it was muddy. The weather had been grueling. Our commander issued an order to advance forward. In an instant, I was face-to-face with a German soldier.” Even in the retelling, I was terrified. I couldn’t breathe even when I tried. Part of me wanted to stop him, but this was a small part of why I’d come. Learning the hard things was a huge part of truly knowing the person.
“I still remember–he was a kid. He had blue eyes and a zit on his chin. We were both startled. He lunged first and sent his bayonet into my left lung. The adrenaline was pumping so hard through my body that it didn’t even hurt. He pulled it out, but I caught him with my fist. My martial arts training kicked in, and I killed him with my bare hands–a blow to the neck. Finally, I grabbed his Lugar and shot him–just to be certain. It was then that I realized the blood everywhere was mine. I tried to run, but I stumbled. One of the other guys in my unit picked me up and threw me over his shoulders, like a rag doll.” Trying to let out the breath I’d been holding was impossible. I couldn’t breathe, let alone speak. My father was as rigid as a piece of wood. Sweat poured off of him, his shirt was soaked. Veins were popping out of his neck.
I tried to picture this. My father was about six feet tall, two hundred pounds of muscle; the other guy must have been huge or maybe adrenaline really did let you do amazing feats. I gagged, forcing the vomit back down into my stomach, yet tasting it in the back of my throat.
“He ran me all the way to the medics, in the Salvation Army tent. That is why I’m sitting here today. Because that man carried me to safety. The nightmares have lessened over the years, but I guess I’ve always been afraid that I could come face-to-face with my nightmare again.” The last few words were barely above a whisper. Dad was white, ghostly. Every bit of energy had been sucked out through the telling of this tragedy.
**This is an excerpt from my novel, Wings of Hope (https://www.createspace.com/3685529)