combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2006

Tomorrows that Sing

BLOCKQUOTE> "A simple child / that lightly draws its breath, / And feels its life in every limb, / What should it know of death?"
by William Wordsworth

          A blind darkness enshrouded the island. His luminescent watch dial glowed indistinctly in the moon's absence and served only to mark where his invisible left hand projected into the great black. With it, as though it were some amputee's phantom limb, he contoured the damp, cold muzzle of his Reising .45 calibre submachine gun and felt its irregular corroded surface. Reising his ass. Out here guys called it the Rusting gun. At least his model had a fixed wooden, not a folding wire stock. Even with its pistol grip, that model was a prime piece of junk.

          Like a blink without his white cane, he traced the muck of his foxhole's perimeter, and his hand slipped down into the elbow holes he'd dug to steady his fire. He cocked his ear to detect any sound – like the bolt of an Arisaka 6.5 mm Type 38 being pulled three or four times, an old Nip ruse to draw your fire and betray your position. "Fire discipline, fire discipline all along the MLR," he murmured. He listened for a twig snapping, the screech of a macaw, or a snake's slithering – but the jungle was still.

          Too still. Just the unceasing buzzing and soughing of malarial mosquitoes. It was as though the centipedes, rat foragers, monitor lizards and scuttling land crabs were holding their collective breath, waiting for all hell to break loose. A baseball-sized spider ambled over his leg. He swore and sucked in his breath. His damp herringbone twill fatigue suit clung to him. The stench of decay shot up his nostrils-not the usual odor of old coconuts, dead shellfish, rotting vegetation-but the smell of whatever he'd killed the night before in the clump of kunai grass ten feet ahead of him. "Stinking payback," he muttered.

          The bastards were out there. He knew that. Last night, while he sacked out for two hours, a damn Nip had crawled into the foxhole and slit his buddy Jack's throat. Tonight they'd be back for him and his K-rations. All he had left was breakfast – a B box – packet of Nescafe, ground-up ham and eggs, chocolate, and hardtack. But the Japs wouldn't be particular. Gato they called Guadalcanal, which in their lingo also meant starvation. And there were rumors they'd taken a fancy to American livers. Jesus. He hoped he was dead before he became the blue-plate special. At least he didn't have to worry about the crabs. He had dragged Jack's body toward the beach, and the crab boys were back there, otherwise occupied. Jack wasn't any rosebud when he was alive, but dead ....

          He cocked his ear again. Then he heard it – a rustling in the undergrowth, followed by silence, then a rustling and silence again. Like the step-pause-step of a land crab, but no five-inch critter was making this noise. He peered to his left just as the infiltrator tripped over a cord beaded with ration and tobacco cans. Amid the clatter, Tojo lurched up, shrieking, "Banzai!" He squeezed the trigger, aiming more at the sound than the figure. A rat-atat-tat burst out, then a vertical flash from a Taisho 14 pistol, and finally a gurgling sound. He listened as the Nip tumbled ass over tin cup into a deep ravine. "Should have kept down, Tojo."

          But then he heard another sound whistling down. Not the familiar 10 cm Model 92 field gun. There were only four of them on the island, but these three-ton jobs – Pistol Petes the guys called them – could send you down the Long Road even at a range of over 16,000 yards. He couldn't figure. The sound was not deep enough for a Type 94 mountain gun. Whatever the hell it was, obviously the short burst from his Reising and the Taisho's flash must have betrayed his position. He was being bracketed. The first one would be long, the second short, and the third – well the crabs would have to play scavenger hunt for what was left of him.

          Suddenly, the terrain began to transform in front of him. The jungle dissolved into a yellow maple planked desktop and the whistling ordnance into an oak ruler inscribed with numbers. At its non-business end stood one very angry nun. In the desk ahead of him, his pal Tommie held a rubber banzaing Jap he'd retrieved from the rolled ravines of his seat. Tommie's mouth flapped open as though he'd taken a sucking chest wound.

          The nun with ruler spoke, "Three days ago I told you not to bring those rubber soldiers to school. Both of you, please to come to the front." The tone was Bogartian – the killer Roy Earl in High Sierra – only you wouldn't catch Bogart using that prissy infinitive after please.

          He pulled his G.I. out of what had been a foxhole but now was only a blue-stained inkwell in the upper right hand corner of his desktop. Across the S-curved laminated bench attached to his desk he wriggled. Its sticky varnish clung to his shiny two-dollar blue gabardine trousers. For a moment he hesitated by the desk, gripping its cold black ornate wrought iron side with his left hand. He arranged his frayed white shirt with two small iron burns into the snug Hollywood waist of his trousers and adjusted a checkered bowtie. Behind, a breeze from the river murmured through the window screen's corroded zinc, and a yellowed shade flapped.

          For a moment, the room seemed like some long held family legacy, part of an ancestral estate. His grandfather attended school in this same room, and his father too, less than twenty years ago during the Great Depression – his father, the marine who had died in the Pacific, on that small volcanic island called Iwo Jima, five years ago, when the boy was six. For three years now, he had been trying to form a clear picture of his father in his head. His grandmother, his mother and the letters his father sent home from the Pacific had furnished some information. After exhausting those sources, he drew on others – the stories of other vets in the neighborhood, books, old Life magazines, photos, films. He'd gone through them all until the obsession in his head seemed on the point of exploding like a spigot mortar with all the details he'd accumulated.

          The weapons, the maneuvers, the troop formations of the War – he mastered them all. If a Jap Aichi D3A21 or a Douglas SBD-3 dive-bomber ever showed up over his mill town, he would have been able to discuss every identification point of their profiles. But the sharper the background, the more out-of-focus the central image of his father became.

          From his grandmother he gleaned some personal particulars. One afternoon on her front porch, she told him, "When Frankie decided school was over for the day, he'd just leap through the back window and slide down the drainpipe. Always had to be the first one out when he was a kid – always the first one out of school, out of the house, out of church." Then she looked through him at something far away. She took one long swig from her beer bottle, removed her silver-rimmed glasses, brushed back her gray-streaked hair, and wiped her eyes. "Sometimes I think that's what got him killed in the War." She tapped the bottle against the rattan chair's arm as if she were sending out Morse music to someone far away. When he asked her how his father had died, she used to shake her head and say, "It was never clear. In '47 they started bringing the boys home that died on that island. But Frankie – they never found him. He's still over there somewhere."

          But everything had changed last weekend, and now that he knew the truth, he felt more prideful but also more hurt than he ever had in his life. From up the aisle by the desk, the boy sensed a small figure breezing through him and darting out the back window thirty feet down. No matter what waited up front, he wasn't that nuts. His father must have possessed a kind of edginess, craziness that made him one hell of a marine. But he knew that already from the stack of medals that rested in a cardboard box under his bed.

          A draft from the river to the north blew up a cloud of dust from the chalk tray and he coughed. Beneath the tray, pictures of the Fourteen Stations of the Cross flapped rhythmically. The entire Passion of Christ stretched along the wall, turning the aisle into the Via Dolorosa, now his own personal Way of Sorrows.

          Directly opposite him was the First, Christ is condemned to death. Perfect, he thought. At the end of the aisle, was the Fourteenth, Christ is laid in His tomb. That should have been it, but Sister was fixing to add a Fifthteenth, Tommie and Jimmie get their come-uppance. He pushed a shock of thick black hair out of his left eye and headed down the aisle. Halfway down, at Station Seven, Christ falls the second time, Dick O'Meara stuck his foot out and tripped him. He glared at him and muttered, "Later, Dickie bird, later." "Sure, Jim, sure, if you're still breathing," Dick whispered drawing a finger across his throat. Two girls giggled.

          He came up beside Tommie who was trembling and leaned his shoulder against him to steady him. From the chalk tray, Sister had drawn a thin wooden pointer. She turned to Tommie and said, "Palm up." Not so bad, Jim thought. Palm down, right on the bone, now that could take the edge off a fine sunny day. Tommie stretched out his hand and the pointer came down with a twack. He took the Lord's name in pain. "What did you say?" "Jeepers Creepers!" Again. The pointer came down. Tommie let out a yell. "They were Jimmie's men. He brought them to school, not me." "Sit down, Judas," she muttered. She turned to him. "Palm down." The day had lost its edge.

          When he was six, he'd stuck a metal fork in an electric outlet. The pointer produced a similar effect, sending two sharp parallel jolts of pain up to his shoulder which passed upwards into his neck and downwards into his stomach. A wave of nausea came over him. She raised it again. He was scared, not so much of the pain, but that he'd decorate his shoes in front of them all and be humiliated. There was only one thing worse than shooting your cookies, and, if he did that, no problem. He'd just nose-dive out the window and aim to hit the pavement head first.

          The pointer came down again. He had to get to the cave. If he could get to the cave somewhere under the plateau, he'd be all right. He focused his mind. His classmates were dissolving now, transforming into grinning Japs. Little Georgie Miller in front with his buck teeth and goggle glasses – he transformed into a Jap major easily. And now as he concentrated, the rest followed suite. He felt the pain again but this time up to his elbow. He concentrated more, and the next blow dissipated in his wrist. They were interrogating him now. He could hear mumbling voices as if he were under water. Although he couldn't hear what they said, he just kept saying no. A fifth time he felt the pain, but he was numb now and again to the question he said no.

          Finally he felt a hand against his chest shoving him back and a voice telling him to take his seat. He looked ahead. It was a Jap dressed up in a nun's habit holding a pointer. No, it was a nun, his nun, only with a very red face and, more surprisingly, red eyes. He was back in his classroom again. He retraced his steps down the aisle. Dick was staring straight ahead with an angry scowl on his face. The two giggling girls were dabbing their eyes with the backs of their hands. Judas was holding his hand in his armpit, the time-honored way to deal with a whacking. Jim sat upright at his desk, and pressed the hot ball of fire that had been his hand against the cool ornamental cast iron grillwork of his desk.

          Ten minutes later, it was recess. As the students filed out, Sister called to him. At first he figured she planned to have him stand in the trash basket during the play period, but instead she just spoke to him in a quiet tone, "Pride, young man, is one of the seven deadly sins and one of the surest ways of dispatching your soul to the depths of Hell. In committing it, you turn away from God. You must have respect for authority. Someone who always has to have his or her way will come to a bad end." She paused and cleared her throat. "But another deadly sin is anger, the remedy for which is tolerance and patience. During recess, I will say two sets of rosaries, one for your soul and one for mine."

          He thanked her and went out. To an outsider beating the Hell out of you was just a phrase. To a nun it was a vocation, and Hell was always spelled with a great big fat capital H. The nuns all cared deeply for the kids from that shit-ass river neighborhood, wanted something better for them because most of them had come from the same sort of places themselves, and the religious orders had been their way out. If they thought you had something decent in you, they'd set about getting it out, one way or the other. In his case it had mostly been the other, but there was no percentage in holding grudges for your own screw-ups.

          The cool recess of the dark hallway with its Gothic tracery and black walnut paneling greeted him. He breathed in the odor of turpentine and linseed oil that emanated from the wood. Sometimes when he'd messed around, the nuns kept him after school and made him help them clean the clouded shellac on the panels and balustraded stairwell. The turpentine made you dizzy after a while, and the nuns would send him outside for fresh air. If someone ever struck a match in that hall, it'd go up like a Jap pillbox some grunt had just sprayed with a flamethrower.

          At the end of the hallway near the door was an old Italian painted plaster statue of the Sacred Heart. Light from an enameled stained glass window cascaded across it in a spectrum of red, blue, and yellows that shimmered, creating an illusion of motion. He had passed the statue countless times before, but this day he stopped before it. Protestants thought Catholics were idol worshippers, but all the statue did was focus your attention while you made your devotions. It was First Friday but his mind was not on devotions. As he meditated on the statue, every feature reminded him of death and the War.

          Two of Christ's fingers were damaged, and out of the chipped plaster projected u-shaped steel armature, like the steel struts sticking out of bombed out buildings in Berlin he'd seen in a photo of the '48 Airlift in an old Life magazine. Or like the hooks that protruded from Joe Reilly's sleeves – Joe Reilly who had been on the Arizona that Sunday morning in '41 and kept firing his anti-aircraft gun even after it was ablaze. They had to cut him away from his emplacement.

          Now he hawked newspapers out of a crummy little newsstand down on the corner of Water and Main Streets. The boy always stopped to play checkers with him, and when Joe kinged his man with a triumphant slam, the boy said, "Ain't nobody in this neighborhood can king 'em like you, Joe, even the guys with two dukes." And Joe would puff his Lucky, chuckle and say, "Yeah, I sure am one whizbang, ain't I, kid?" Then Joe would turn to some freeloader who was reading his papers, push back his stained porkpie cap, and say, "Hey buddy, this ain't no lending library. Put your nickel down or I'll be putting something up, up your tail." He'd gesture with a hook. And the boy would laugh and say, "He ain't kidding around, buster. Joe's a genuwine war hero." And Joe would puff his Lucky and mutter, "Yeah, that's me all right. I'm goddamned Captain America."

          Below Christ's fingers, over the back of His hands flowed blood, glazed, as a nun explained to him, with innumerable transparent layers of oil paint. There in the arched hallway, he thought of his father again in the cave, surrounded by Japs with his hands covered in blood.

          But now Christ's heart drew his attention. Wreathed and pierced with thorns, it flowed with blood. The heart, which was supposed to be inside His body – was outside, on the surface of his chest. Death and war could distort things like that – rearrange things in ways that weren't right, natural. Pull things apart. Make the inside outside.

          He drifted back to that July afternoon so hot the air was singing. He had wheeled Danny O'Shea down to the Strand to see a science-fiction movie. The sidewalks were cracked, and in spots the roots of Dutch elm trees had forced the crazed plates of concrete up. Danny wasn't that heavy since he'd left both legs at Pearl after being strafed by a Jap Zero, but his old wicker-oak wheelchair pushed like a bathtub-shaped Nash with its emergency brake on.

          In the lobby of the theatre, the boy, drenched with sweat, shoved his marine cap off his forehead and mopped his face with a large striped handkerchief he'd pulled from his back pocket. Danny, helped to his seat by two ushers in fancy blue braided uniforms, flipped him a quarter and told him to get the works for both of them. With the two bits, the kid ordered up two cokes, a box of popcorn, and a Baby Ruth.

          In the cool, air-conditioned theatre, he twisted in his seat and unrolled a war comic from his other back pocket. "Hey Danny you gotta see this. It's a terrific story, a real corker. These grunts are dug in on a hill – Siberia Hill they call it – real tough spot. Lots of incoming, so the guys dig bunny holes in the sides of their foxholes. The night before, the slants jumped them – old fashioned cowboy-and-Indian tactics, man-to-man. So they send out a night patrol of two. You know, what they call a zombie patrol. One guy buys the farm, the other comes back, but drops wounded ten feet in front of their position. The North Koreans zero in on him with a spotlight and start firing, blowing him to pieces.gradual-like. Psych warfare to mess up his pals' heads. So this corporal gets on the PRC-6 and calls in a blow-job."

          "A blow-job?"

          "You know, a jet plane. So the blowtorch comes and drops its ordnance, only it gets everybody. Then this skeleton guy comes round with a great big grin and picks up the pieces like a kid in a pennycandy store."

          "Jesus, why you want to read crap like that? Nice little kid like you oughta be reading Mickey Mouse comics. Gimme that."

          "Aw that stuff's for sissies." Jim passed him the comic and Danny studied the panels.

          "Was the War like that, Danny?"

          Danny didn't answer. He tired gray eyes were riveted to the panels. The boy gingerly touched his arm. He came round, as though he'd drifted asleep. "All you gotta know, kid, is two things. Things that belonged together came apart." He glanced down at his tartan coverlet that covered nothing. "And men were turned inside out, so what belonged on the inside, suddenly was outside. And I don't mean just physical things. That's the way I remember the War."

          The lights lowered and they watched the moving pictures. The first feature was about a radioactive brain from planet Xangu that shot out rays from its frontal lobe. If you got hit, you burst into flames and ran around screaming like those Japs who got charred in their caves on Mindanoa. It was a terrific story – beat Mickey Mouse all to hell. A real corker.

          But now, back in the hall, he stared again at the heart that was outside that should have been inside. That's how he remembered the first violent death he witnessed two weeks after going to the Strand with Danny. That noon, Spam crackled away on the stove in his mother's black Griswold skillet. Twice he had run his hand along the rough cast iron handle. Twice his mother yelled at him to get his starving puss away from the pan because the grease was flying everywhere. Then he remembered the sound of brakes – not the screech of brakes. When he recalled that day, he never thought of the brakes as screeching. Screech was the proper name for what came afterwards, from Mikey Flynn's mother, a shrill gut-wrenching howl of anguish, despair, God-curses.

          He slammed the screen door against his mother's yell to stay in. They were all running off their porches and out of their shabby workmen's houses, some with napkins still crammed into their collars or holding forks and knives or newspapers, or babies in their arms. The Great Black Ice Cream truck from Hell had come to town, and everyone wanted a piece of the action.

          In the road sputtered one of the gigantean coal trucks from the factories that daily plied through the neighborhood,, dropping bits of coal which the children gleefully picked up, stuffed in their surplus Army ammo belts, and hurled at one another. From the day you were born, mothers warned you they were Satan's servants, great dragons from the Pit that snatched kids away to Hell. So keep your distance.

          A small baldish coal-smudged man was squeezing his porkpie hat like a rubber dolly and bawling like a baby whose just had his milk-rights yanked. Near the curb lay six-year-old Mikey, on his side, as though he were taking his afternoon nap. But his right leg and arm were wrong They projected from his boy aviator suit all twisted backwards like some action figure's limbs that a kid had pulled too hard on. He came closer. In front of Mikey the grass was covered with blood, and then there were those strange pinkish things like what you saw in the butcher's glass case on white enameled trays – things that should have been inside.

          He remembered his mother coming up behind him, her hands smelling of Spam covering his eyes. Gasping, she dragged him back into the house. And he remembered how she just kept screaming, "Aw Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, aw Jesus, Mary, and Joseph." The crazy repetitive prose of his old Dick and Jane reader pounded in his head. See Mikey bleed. Bleed, Mikey, bleed. Bleed, bleed. Bleed. Aw Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Aw Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. See Mikey's guts. Bleed guts, bleed.

          That noon, all the while they tried to eat their Spam, she just kept muttering out the Holy Family as she nibbled on her sandwich. She swore again and again she'd kill him if she ever caught him playing in the street. Then she'd bury him, dig him up and kill him again. His appetite was largely gone too. He reckoned that was natural. Even Spam lost its attraction with some kid's guts – a kid you chummed around with – displayed curbside.

          That night, he turned and twisted in his bed as he dreamed of monstrous fire-breathing dragons that emerged out of smokestacks and attacked the river neighborhood and with their claws tore everyone and everything inside out. Danny's words about the War came back to him. They had been simple, not like fancy Church language, but they contained just about everything somebody needed to know. Guys like Danny, guys without any high-hatting book learning, knew things about the world, deep things you needed to know to get on in life. He kept seeing Mikey's body on the lawn. That's what happened in wars. It wasn't clean and graceful like the stuff you saw in movies or even in all those Life photos. And thinking about Mikey made him wonder all the more how his father had died.

          Inside, outside. With that those words, he passed out of the school door and withdrew to a far corner of the playground where a rock abutted the rusted chain-link fence. Its granite projected from the reddish purple volcanic stone that composed the playground's surface, an antlered stone that ripped the hell out of a new pair of pants and the skin of your knees – a little mishap which, when you got home in that rundown neighborhood, was one-hundred percent guaranteed to lose you some skin off your ass. Your Ma'd yell while she was using the belt on you, "You think we're the Rockefellers?"

          But worse than the beating was the way your Ma cried afterwards and held the pants in her hands and pushed them together and apart, over and over, as if she were playing some Depression-era onion ballad on a squeezebox, all the while she muttered, "Brand new pants, brand new. Two-dollars. Two whole dollars." Even that Helen Morgan dame sitting on a piano and belting out a torch song couldn't match those blues. Seeing your Ma like that cut you more than the strap on your ass.

          He sat there and smoked a candy cigarette. Then he bent over, pressed his good hand over the coarse volcanic stone pebbles and for a moment envisioned the molten heat in which they had formed, a heat much hotter than the searing ball of fire that was his left hand. How far had the stone come? Was it from some island in the Pacific? Had some Japanese soldier with his pick carved this stone out of Suribachi? Had his father touched it? He sucked hard on his cigarette to still the disquieting feeling he was losing his mind.

          Five minutes later, he heard a crunching sound. Dick came up, jacked one leg up on the stone, and shoved his thick blonde hair out of his eyes. "What she did, Jim, it wasn't right. Even a smart-ass like you doesn't deserve that much knocking around. Sorry for tripping you. Now I'm gonna look up that little rat fink and put the mark of the squealer on him."

          "Lay off, Dick. Leave the squealer to me. It's my beef to square."

          "Ok, Jim, if that's the way you want it.

          Behind the incinerator the squealer peered out, waited for Dick to disappear, and then approached. "Okay, so I turned yellow. Slug me. I got it coming."

          "Forget it, Tommie. It just don't matter."

          Tommie sat next to him. "Why did you do it, Jim? After she whacked you three times, she kept asking you to promise you wouldn't bring any more rubber soldiers to school. You just stood there with your hand out, like you were a million miles away, and kept saying, No."

          "Guess I wasn't paying attention. Or maybe I just didn't have a mind to, Tommie." "Sometimes you got a screw loose."

          "Yeah, maybe you're right. He offered Tommie a cigarette, and they smoked until a student appeared on the back porch and rang a wooden-handled brass bell for end of recess.

          That afternoon, on his way home, he slipped through a hole in a chain-link fence that blocked off a concrete stairway down to the river near the dam. The place reeked of old fish in the late afternoon sun. But rather than being repelled, in some morbid way, he was drawn to the smell. His mind was on death again. He used the stench like a narcotic to focus his concentration, to slip away to the Islands where his father died.

          One of his father's letters came back to him: In the jungle, death and the smell of death are always around you. Every palm tree becomes a potential sniper's post; every bush a snake's lair. The mosquito buzzing round your head may carry the malaria. You want some feeling of space, but there is never any distance between you and an enemy who comes in so many forms, but in the end is one – Death. The stench of rotting vegetation, of shellfish long dead on the shore, of a body in the kunai grass that in pitch blackness you thrust your hand into – you forget after a while what fresh air smells like.

          There, down by the river, he had witnessed his second violent death. In August, eight-year-old Pierre LaDuke had gone missing for six weeks. Then one afternoon, Sean O'Meara, fishing for bass, had seen some strange misshapen thing bobbing up near the dam. The kid's body had finally floated up and got caught in a bridge pylon.

          He had been walking across the bridge that day and stared down as a hook-squad dragged him ashore. Pierre's face was all swollen up, and there was a white froth around his mouth and nostrils. His right ear had signs of bleeding. His neck was a dark greenish color. His right hand was still clutching grass as though he had tried to break his fall. He was like one of those walking stiffs in an Ec comic book. And where his abdomen had bloated and split, enamel tray time – inside, out. The water moved his left arm in a beckoning gesture. The boy stumbled to the opposite side of the bridge and vomited into the river three times. He thought of the men who had died getting off their landing crafts, floating out there in the Pacific, their hands moved by the ocean's rhythms, as though they were beckoning others to join them.

          But now his own hand, still burning and throbbing. pulled him back to the present. He thrust it into the cold waters that purled round the dam, and the pain subsided. The water swirled round his hand and the image of records spinning came to mind. He thought now of that afternoon on the porch with his grandmother. They had been playing 78 rpms on old wind-up Victrola – old scratchy records with bright labels in red and blue, one with a white devil playing a trumpet, all from the twenties and thirties with curious labels marked Peacock, Harmonograph, and Black Patti.

          As he drew out a record from the Victrola's slotted oak cabinet, it slipped from his hands, and the fragile shellac disk shattered on the planked floor. He looked anxiously at his grandmother, but she just smiled. "That used to happen to your father all the time. Lucky I got any records left. Let me see your hands, boy." She set her beer down on a frayed wicker table, and he put his small hand in hers. "You got your father's hands. Short, stubby little fingers. Not like your Uncle Mike's. His were long, artistic. He could play any musical instrument. But if any boys ever teased his brother about being musical, Frankie took after them with his small, hard fists and taught them musical appreciation quicksville.

          "I never thought of Frankie as deep, as a sensitive boy, but all those letters he wrote me during the War – he had a gift too. Maybe it took the War to bring it out of him. But you've read all those letters – over and over. You know what I mean. He made you feel like you were right there in the jungle next to him. He wrote me once how he was out on the line, and there was this red-feathered macaw. He was the last of his flock – all the rest had been killed by artillery fire. And yet every morning at dawn he'd screech out a flock cry – that a bird's way of saying Anybody out there? You guys ok? And of course there never was an answer. But still every morning .... Well, the way men were dying all around him, Frankie told me when his turn came round, he figured his soul'd end up in that bird and he'd be out there all alone calling out every sun-up for all his buddies that died, but they'd never answer. "He was a storyteller that boy. Got it from our Irish side. Frank was deeper than Mike, but I just ... just never saw it. And now .... She coughed and rubbed his hand again. "You've got your father's hands sure enough." She passed him her bottle, and he took a swig with both hands. "You grip that bottle just like him. Now put on Wandering Boy Blues. If you drop that one, I'll skin you. That was his favorite. Make sure you eat a peppermint before you go home. If your mother smells your breath, you're gonna end up looking like you tried to carry a moose head through a revolving door."

          "I'll just tell her you gave me a great big kiss."

          "Yeah, that'll do, boy. One smack from Grannie'd make you one-hundred proof."

          A week later, at eight o'clock on a Saturday, the phone rang in the kitchen as he was bagging trash to burn in the rusty steel oil drum in the backyard. A man's voice he did not recognize asked for his mother. As she talked, he tin-eared, dawdling over the trash. "Frank's buddy? With him on Iwo .... Yes, next Saturday would be fine." When she called his grandmother, it all became clear. "Yeah, Evelyn . A buddy of Frank's- they were on Iwo together. Been living in Hawaii for six years. Just came stateside again. Wants to tell me how Frank died. Come over about two o'clock."

          The next Saturday, he straddled the porch railing spiraling his legs around the balusters. With his nails he peeled the flaking white lead paint off the softened pinewood. Then he jabbed his Hopalong Cassidy jackknife into the rotting railing as though probing for something beneath. A yellow checkered cab with a bad muffler pulled up, and a man in a light brown double-breasted suit and tan panama emerged. He saluted the boy from the curb and then paid his fare. With a broad smile, he came up the steps and just said, "You must be Frank's boy." They shook hands, and a few minutes later, they were all in the kitchen. The adults were smoking and drinking beers while the boy drank a coke and sucked on a candy cigarette.

          Mr. Green began, "I got some things to say, and some of them are hard things. I don't know if the kid should hear them all."

          His mother stared at the boy. "He's been searching and wondering for a long spell. Sometimes I think he's going to drive himself out of his skull with his questions. Better he know."

          "Iwo was shaped like a lamb-chop, not much more than seven miles square."

          "Eight miles, mister," the boy quietly corrected. Bill looked at the boy amazed. His mother spoke, "The boy doesn't mean any disrespect. He reads everything about the War he can get his hands on. It's his way of remembering, of paying his respects."

          Mr. Green nodded. "Frank and I were in Easy Company together, and on D-day in February, '45, just after nine in the morning, we came in in the same amtrac. We were halfway back in the craft. When we hit our spot, Green Beach One, around ten o'clock in the morning, Frank started scrambling over the other guys as though he wanted to be the first one out." The boy and his grandmother exchanged glances.

          "It was quiet at first, but at 10:30, all hell broke out. Real turkey shoot. Instead of white sand, this soft black ash was everywhere, and when you dug, it just filled back in. There's no sense talking much about the beach. The dead were all around. Not like the jungle. Dead disappear there. And the smell when gunpowder and blood and vomit ...." He paused and took a long drink from the bottle as if he were slaking some tropical thirst from a long dead past. Then he continued describing the capture of Suribachi and the flag raising.

          "After Suribachi, our Company moved east. Along the west coast, the terrain was all irregular – rocky plateaus jutting up against straight-up cliffs which left you perfectly exposed, Hell with its fire out. That's how a war correspondent described it. And while we were moving across that area, Frank and a guy named Buzz, who were up ahead, disappeared. We couldn't figure. Turned out they had fallen into one of the underground tunnels the Japs had dug and were captured. We found out later there was something like sixteen miles of those defensive tunnel-caves on the island.

          In the cave the Japs stuck Buzz in a corner near the entrance. He had a bad leg wound. But Frankie, they trussed him up and fixed his hands to a board. They started questioning him about the number of men in his patrol. All he said to them was No. He paused, cleared his throat, took a swig of beer and swirled the bottle round. "So one of them set to cutting his hands between the fingers with his knife."

          He heard his Ma crying now and his Grannie, but he fixed his look on Mr. Green and pressed the back of his hands against his eyes as they watered. Mr. Green coughed. "After a while they passed through the webbing of his hand right back to his wrist, but Frank just got all red-faced and kept yelling no to them. The boy had his jackknife out now. It was closed, but he pressed it against his left hand.

          "The Nips tried to disguise the entry point but we scouted it out. We broke in and shot the place up. We dragged Buzz out, but the Japs started hurling grenades and setting them off against their own guts. You saw a lot of that on the islands. Death before dishonor – Code of Bushido and all that stuff. The whole shabang went up, and Frank and the Japs – well everything just came down on top of them. Buzz told me the story, but he died three months later. Broke his neck climbing down a rope ladder. He was a brave man, Frankie was, and that's the way he died."

          There was a profound silence, like when the priest held the consecrated Host up at Mass. The mystery was revealed, and there was nothing more to say. His grandmother, though she was now clearly under the influence, set her third Budweiser on the gray Formica table. It was a gesture he would always remember as elegant – even when he was an old man in his eighties,and had seen much of the world outside that river neighborhood – elegant and fine, as though she were some grand lady at a great banquet lowering her wine glass. She rose, pressed down the front of her yellow dress.

          It was a cheap dress, loud with huge tropical flowers. Once the two of them had been downtown shopping, and he had heard some teenagers say, "Look at that old floosie. If that ain't High Yeller, out for a trick." But that afternoon her loud yellow dress, for him at least, was a great lady's gown decked with gold. She moved without her usual stagger to the parlor. There she wound up the Aircastle graphaphone, and played an old 78rpm of Kate Smith singing God Bless America. Some of the kids thought the song was cornball, but from here on they never better say that to him. Every scratch, every skip in the groove, seemed to cut something deep inside him, scarifying his insides, leaving some marks there that would never disappear.

          After dinner, the boy and Joe hauled the kitchen chairs out onto the porch and sat together waiting for the taxicab. From under his bed, the boy retrieved a cardboard Campbell soup box that held his father's medals and newspaper clippings. His cigarette dangling from his lips, Joe studied everything carefully as though he were reviewing a battle plan.

          "Remembering those who died is important for you and for all of us. Sometimes when we fought on an island, we had to bury our pals there. When it came time to leave, we'd stand by their graves. We'd feel real lonesome for them and sad, like we wanted to stay there, make sure the jungle didn't overrun their graves, like we were Death's gardeners. We knew we had to go on. Otherwise their deaths would have had no meaning. But we wanted to stay there, keep the jungle off, call out their names and what they did every once in a while, so people would never forget what they sacrificed there. 'Dick Anderson lived seventeen years in this world. He came of age in the Depression, never drove a car, never saw a television set. He just fell on a grenade, so two of us and all of you could live. Don't you ever be forgetting that. If you do, damn you to Hell, damn you all to Hell.'

          "In the end we moved on. That's what you have to do, boy. It won't be easy. I had a grandfather who fought in the Civil War, toughest old bird you ever did see. Way back in the twenties, he'd tell me stories of the war, about Antietam and the Battle of Bloody Lane and about all his comrades that died in the Irish brigade. He'd fill up with tears, the way you don't see men do often. He'd smile at me with his big red eyes and tears streaming into his white beard and say, 'War has a right powerful affect on a body, boy, and it ain't likely ever to pass, not until they put you in the ground.' He talked funny like that, but then you have to figure he was around when Lincoln was president.

          "I reckon if I live to be eighty, I'll still remember those days in the Pacific and carry all that hurt and loss with me to my grave. The men who died, the men I served with and cared for, they'll always exist for me. Some of them pay a call on me in my dreams. Other times I'm in a bar and a guy gets in a fight with two punks, and the way he swings a right hook makes me think it's my old Pal Tommie O'Shea who took a bullet in the face on Tinian. Before I know what I'm doing, I'm in there helping him slug the hoods that jumped him. The pain'll always be there, gnawing away deep inside – for all of us, you too, kid. Time doesn't heal the hurt of war. You'll always have some hurt in you from what happened out there.

          "But you have to move on, like we did. In the end, it's not just your father you've been searching for. Some day you'll understand that it's for yourself too, for the man you will be and can be because of what he and all those other guys did out there.

          "There was a story I read in Time magazine during the War about a French hostage the Gestapo captured. Just before they took him out to be shot, he said, Je vais preparer tout a l'heure les lendemains qui chantent. You know French?"

          "The nuns taught us a little. It means something like I go out to prepare for tomorrows that sing."

          "Tomorrows that sing. That's what we were all fighting and dying for out there. Sure we fought for big ideals too – the Four Freedoms and such. But we fought for other things too – keeping the guy next to us alive and for all the little things that don't seem like much till you lose them, like long cool summer nights out on the porch with the neighbors."

          The cab drew up to the curb, and Joe extended his hand and smiled, "See you in Tokyo, kid." The boy grinned and shook his hand. It was the way soldiers in the Pacific parted company in the War. He was one of them Joe was telling him. He reckoned no one would ever take leave of him in such a fine way again.

          So his father had died that way. He thought of the nights he played patrol with the other punks in the neighborhood. He'd lay on a hilltop with a bleeding chest wound, gazing starwards, waiting to die. How grand and glorious it had all been. His deaths had always been clean, like John Wayne's in Sands of Iwo Jima. But the War had not been like that. The War had pulled men apart, turned them inside out, in their bodies and in their minds, created ghostly presences in their minds and in the minds of those who lost them.

          Now down by the dam, he drifted back to the present as the water swirled around his hand. When he drew it out, the pain had disappeared. Sure it had. After all, he had his father's hands. And for now, for now at least, that was enough. He realized they were both storytellers – the way he could take his father's stories and phrases and weave pictures of the islands and the war in his head. Maybe some day he'd write them down.

          Though the hurt was still there, he flushed with pride when he thought of his father in that cave and of himself this morning in that classroom. Then he remembered what Sister had said about pride landing you in Hell. But that was ok too. If half the stories his grandmother told about his old man were true, he guessed he knew where he'd have to go to look him up when his own time came.

          He came up the crumbling concrete stairs away from the swirling waters. A fresh breeze from the east swept in, and the smell of death lifted. He felt as though he had aged, as though the trip down the stairs had not just been in space but in time as well.

          He still felt sad for the way his father had died, for all the pain he suffered. But then he stared back at the bridge. Around the pylons the current flowed free and unimpeded. The waters rushed ahead like his father who had hurtled through life not looking back. Hell without fire. That was how the war correspondent had described the plateau where his father died. And he – where was he? Living in a world without something he could name. But that something had to do with moving on.

          He looked down at the bank where he'd stood. He saluted as if someone were standing there. "See you in Tokyo" he said and imagined a marine waving and disappearing into the dense jungle-like greenery that hedged the river. With these four words he bonded and separated, moved on. Maybe, just maybe he'd have to go down those stairs again some time, but for now he'd shove off.

          It was Friday night. The way he was feeling now, he'd have to be careful. The next thing you know, he'd be stopping at Boyer's and buying one of those sissy-ass Mickey Mouse comics. But today, he'd just head home and ask his mother if he could bring a six-pack over to his grandmother's. He'd show Grannie his swollen hand, and she'd make a big deal of it and maybe, just maybe, let him have a bottle of his own. Then they'd sit on the porch and sing. And maybe some of the other folks on the street would come over and sing with them.

          After all, it was partly for nights like that that all those guys out there had fought and died. And living them, enjoying them, he knew now, was really just another way of remembering and honoring those men.

by David J. Ladouceur
... who is a teacher and historian, with some of his creative writing having been previously published in this magazine, as well as non-fiction in professional journals. He is currently working on a novel, After the War, set in the early 1950's which deals with a veteran who returns from the conflict and shares not only his stories but his ghosts with his son. Born into a military family, Dr Ladouceur is the son of a jungle scout who served in the Pacific Theater from Pearl Harbor through the end of World War Two.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones