When you’re in command, life is supposed to be pretty soft. You get the better pay, better housing, better recreational stuff, and so on. You don’t charge the enemy lines; you order others to do that. You don’t sleep in a muddy foxhole, other do that. My Dad commanded a unit in North Africa and Italy, and he had a couple times when being a commander was not so great.
In Italy, in an open grassed field ringed by trees on three sides, he and the convoy he led pulled over and stopped for lunch. As he and his buddy Kane broke out their C-Rations, Kane groaned and grumbled, and dreamed of all the food he’d eat once he got home: fresh milk, Kentucky bourbon, a steak, and so on.
Then there was an explosion, off in the field. Sean, one of the new enlisted men sat slumped on the ground. He’d wandered into a minefield. Dwight, Sean’s buddy was frantic. Of course he wanted to go rescue his friend. My dad moved to the back of his truck and started to pull out a stretcher.
“Robbie, what y’all doin’?” Kane said, keeping his voice low. “You can’t do this.”
“He’s one of my ‘kids,’ Kane,” Robbie snapped. “I can’t leave him.”
He pulled out the stretcher and headed for the edge of the field. Dwight stepped up next to him and offered to help. My Dad was unsure about that. He knew that the field was full of what were known as Johnny Jump Ups: anti-personnel mines, which were spring-loaded. You hit the trip wire, the spring releases, and the mine shot up into the air to about waist height. Then it went off, and the shrapnel could take out an entire squad.
Entering the field, Dwight was full of nervous energy; he pulled my Dad along. My Dad chose his steps carefully and tried to hold Dwight back. Tiny wires dotted the ground around them as they moved toward Sean. Getting near him, Sean’s wounds became more apparent. His left leg was shattered, flesh torn, and bones protruding. He used his bloodied hands to try and hold his intestines into his slashed lower abdomen, with limited success. My Dad took in the scope of the injuries. He slowly shook his head, even as Dwight remained anxious and upbeat. A wire was in his path. He didn’t see it, or the rock right in front of him. A trip, a stumble, and he fell directly on the wire. The mine tried to pop up, but only managed to lift his abdomen up a bit.
Boom! The mine exploded. Splat! Dwight was torn in half, and my Dad was drenched in blood and guts. He was shaken; he stumbled and sunk to his knees, using the stretcher as a support. Sean raised a shaky hand, and waved at my Dad as his head trembled. He slumped to the ground and died. My Dad hung his head and sobbed. A tear ran down his bloodstained cheek. He wiped it away.
“Stop it!” he ordered himself. He reached out and patted Dwight’s leg. “I’m sorry, kid.” He put his hands together in prayer. “Heavenly Father, I pray you accept the souls of these two fine boys, who died much too soon. They gave their lives in service to their country, an honor I wish on no man. May the warmth of your love ease the pain their mothers will soon suffer? Amen.”
He got to his feet and slowly made his way cautiously out of the field, and back to the others. The men gathered around as he stripped off his bloodstained shirt, grabbed a canteen, and washed his face.
“Robbie, what happened; another mine?” Kane said.
“Yeah; come on, mount up, we’re leaving,” he ordered.
Edward, another of the new soldiers, stammered. “What? B-but Dwight and–”
“They’re casualties of war,” Robbie said, trying to sound commanding. “We can't stay here. The Krauts or Italians may have heard those explosions. I’m also not risking any more men. So, come on, move!
My Dad pulled out a clean shirt from the back of the truck and put it on. He headed for the cab of his truck, even as the men looked at each other, dumbstruck. He could hear them whispering: heartless, soulless, and other similar comments. He said nothing; he didn’t even let on that he’d heard a thing.
Later, in the lead truck, Kane drove as my Dad wrote a letter, sorrow cutting into his heart. Now and then, Dad dabbed the paper to keep it dry. Kane, ever the true buddy, kept his eyes on the road and whistled a spritely tune to cover the sounds of my Dad’s…consternations.
“How many of them has you wrote?” Kane finally said.
My Dad sighed and cleared his throat. “Too many,” was all he could choke out, barely above a whisper.
Such is the true burden of command.
Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.
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