Saturday, May 26, 2012

98. Memorials

It was Memorial Day weekend and I looked forward to a peaceful time at the farm. My wife was off baling hay and I wandered into the back yard to enjoy the shade and a rum and tonic. As I rounded the giant fig tree, I stopped.

There, under a drooping catalpa tree sat C.W. in the form of a Prussian private of the World War I era. He sat tall and straight in a garden chair, his blond hair trembling in the breeze. He held a pointed helmet covered with heavy cloth. He saw me, drew in the late spring smells, and nodded.

Herr Gro├čer Dope,” he said.

“C.W.,” I said. “What’s up?” I couldn’t wait to hear. “You making a movie?”

“I am your distant cousin Gustav,” he said. “From Bremen.”

“Gustav from Bremen?” I said, playing along.

“I appear briefly on your family tree,” he said. ‘Geb. 1900, Gest. 1918.’ No kinder.”

I had nothing better to do than pretend. “Died young?”

“In my bloom,” he said. “I had the misfortune to be the last soldier in our company killed in the Great War.”

“On the last day?”

“November 11th, at the 11th hour,” he said. He turned and looked quietly across the field and into the trees beyond. “Reminds me of the French countryside, before the bombs came down and the trenches went up.”

“Tough break,” I said. “Buying it on the last day.”

“A dubious honor,” he said. “But far from the saddest.”


“No, there were worse. On the American side. Our armies had ceased warring two days earlier,” he said. “We settled in our bunkers along the Meuse River and thought we were safe. We had no casualties for two days straight.”

“What happened?”

“Your General Pershing didn’t follow the lead of the other commanders. He wished that my country would suffer as much as possible. So he kept attacking until the 11th hour.”

“After everyone else had stopped?”

“Charge after charge,” he said. “We had translators on loudspeakers yelling to them to stop. That the war was over.” He shook his head. “But they kept coming. The Americans suffered 3,500 casualties the last day.”

“Sad,” I said.

“Some were Schwarzen, from the Black 92nd Division,” he said. “We thought perhaps your side deemed them dispensable. But then a white soldier from the 313th Infantry, I learned later his name was Henry N. Gunther, came through the fog firing at us.”

“What did you do?”

“We had no choice,” he said. “He was the last on your side.”

“And on yours?”

“They sent me out to retrieve the body of a dead comrade,” he said. “A lone sniper from the American trenches took his revenge as the clock struck 11:00.”

I didn’t say anything, just imagined the scene.

“Know how many American generals died on that last day?” he asked.

“No, how many?”

“None,” he said. “Know how many colonels?” Without waiting, he answered, “None. Lieutenant Colonels?”

“None?” I guessed.

“Same for majors,” he said, his voice rising.

We sat in silence for a moment as he subdued his anger.

“I suppose …,” he said. “I suppose it was worth it.” He stopped and composed himself again. “After all, our sacrifice did, as they say, ‘end all wars.’”

I turned. “Are you making some sort of joke?” I said.

He moved toward me. I looked into his eyes and, as I did, they grew larger and became two black orbs, large and empty. Then I saw movement. My eyes remained transfixed as scenes moved across like gray horses passing through the mist.

I saw a hospital room in Manila filled with Japanese soldiers laughing and playing baseball, using infants as bats.

I saw a field of frozen soldiers at Stalingrad, their arms bent at grotesque angles and with questioning looks on their faces.

I saw Marines dead on the beach at Tarawa, a picture withheld from publication for fear it would spoil the public’s appetite for war.

I saw a line of skeletal faces peering through a fence at Dachau.

I saw a line of soldiers being calmly machine-gunned in the wasteland around the Chosin Reservoir.

I saw a group off teenagers hugging the jungle floor in terror as mortar rounds fell into them in a lonely piece of Hell near DaNang.

I saw a mob of young Iranian boys, holding plastic “keys to heaven” and screaming “Allah is great,” as they charged through a minefield to clear it for their soldiers.

I saw the murdered inhabitants of an entire village in Bosnia piled like cordwood, awaiting burial.

Hans Leip, a lonely German soldier,
wrote a romantic poem during WWI that
was destined to become a popular song that
would endure for decades, Lili Marleen
Enjoy! - C.W.
 I saw a father running for cover, carrying a young son who was soiling himself from fear as the bombs began dropping on Baghdad.

I saw an Afghan bride and her groom explode into a bloody mess, spraying their ghastly remains among their guests, as a drone-bomb exploded in their midst.

These went away and the eyes became blank again. He turned back toward the green fields of home.

“Please don’t tell me,” he said. “That my species is the one making the jokes.”

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