A Little Story
Was thinking, this morning, about a couple of movies Hollywood made about Congressional-Medal-of-Honor recipients (Alvin York, in Sergeant York, and Audie Murphy, in To Hell and Back). They were obviously made to glorify patriotic self-sacrifice, but were a tad too jingoistic for my taste (even though I liked my namesake’s laconic performance in Sergeant York).
Yes, I was named after Gary Cooper. My parents had been expecting a girl—and had already decided to name me Linda Mae. When this unexpected little boy-baby appeared, they just grabbed hold of the first name that came to mind.
But I digress.
Having come of age in the Viet Nam era of peacenik protests, pro-war stories don’t really suit me. Consequently, I wrote the one, below, about an hour ago. I’ll probably include it in some future collection of short stories.
Jesse looked up from his algebra homework. His father was coming down the stairs, and his grandfather was right behind him.
“Going to another anti-war rally?”
Jesse’s question was unnecessary; the only time his grandfather wore his old army uniform was when he was going to a protest.
“I’ve always wondered, grandpa...” Jesse asked, “...you’re so adamantly anti-war, and yet you joined the army in World War Two.”
“I didn’t join; I was drafted.”
“Couldn’t you apply as a conscientious objector?”
“That option was only available for religious reasons. And—if you got a CO—you still had to go, usually as a medic.”
“You didn’t want to do that?”
“It meant that I would still be supporting the war—and I’d still be a target, but an unarmed target, with no way to protect myself.”
“Why didn’t you just run away?”
“Believe me I considered it—until I found out that they shoot deserters.”
“Got it. No one likes getting shot.”
“When I was in England, I learned that the British also shoot deserters. Same in France. I figured there was only a possibility of getting shot in combat, but deserting would have been a sure thing.”
“So...” Jesse reasoned, “...you went to war to avoid the chance of getting shot? You don’t see the irony in that?”
“Believe me, I do. And did.”
“And, somehow, you succeeded in avoiding bullet holes in your anatomy? How’d you manage that?”
“Mostly I hid in out-of-the-way places when things got nasty.”
“Love it! That kept you safe... and you didn't have to shoot at anyone else either!”
“That was the plan.”
“And you got through the whole war that way?” Jesse looked puzzled. “Wait a minute...” he was staring at his grandfather’s chest. “...what about all those medals on your uniform? Are you proud of them?”
“Hell no! I only leave them on my uniform to give me more anti-war credibility as a pacifist protestor. I wear them to prove that I know what I’m talking about.”
“But one of them is a Bronze Star—that’s serious. You must have done something heroic to have gotten that.”
A sheepish look slipped across the old man’s face. “Not exactly. Things are not always what they seem. Especially in the fog of war.”
“What do you mean? How did you get a freakin’ Bronze Star?”
“That’s a long... and mostly unpleasant story.”
“What do you mean?”
“Did you ever hear anything about The Battle of the Bulge?”
“There was something about it on TV... it was winter, right?”
“Bitter cold, snowing, deadly, no visibility in the woods, no way to know where the bullets were coming from.”
“What did you do?”
“I found a little cleft in some rocks, crawled in, and pulled snow around me to hide.”
“Hours and hours. I have no idea. There was machine gun fire and mortar bursts all around me, so I just kept my head down. I could hear the screams of wounded men, men who were in my own company. For the first time, I was ashamed... but not so ashamed that I was willing to climb out of my secure makeshift bunker. Eventually, it got quiet.”
“What happened to your friends?”
“All killed. Almost all.”
“That’s horrible. Wait...” he looked up, eyebrows pinched together, “...what does ‘almost all’ mean?”
“When the shooting stopped, I crawled out to survey the scene. It was horrible. Men lay in twisted heaps everywhere, the snow churned slushy with blood and torn-off body parts.” He turned away from his grandson, “I threw up.”
“What else could you do?”
“Nothing. At first.”
“I found a corporal who’d been hit, probably by shrapnel. He was unconscious... but still breathing. I did what I could for him, then slung him across my shoulders, and carried him down the hill to our lines. I must have looked a horror, my uniform stiff with vomit and frozen blood.”
“Did he make it?”
“Fortunately—yes, he did. Of course, he knew nothing about my part in his rescue—at least until the medics told him about it.”
“And you got a medal for that?”
“Yeah. There were no witnesses, alive, to reveal the truth of my cowardice. The army just knew that I’d saved the only other survivor of our company. As far as the officers were concerned, I was a hero.” The old soldier looked toward the door, tired of reliving his story. He was anxious to get into the fresh air of the anti-Vietnam protest with his peacenik son.
“Some hero,” he muttered.
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