Characters I have Known.... Henry

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic
A short story about an old World War II veteran and his coming to grips with the memories of traumatic events sixty years ago

Submitted: September 16, 2007

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Submitted: September 16, 2007

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Characters I Have Known

 

 

Henry

 

I was at the library pretty well all day to-day, typing away madly, making typographical errors, and abusing the comma as fast as my pudgy, arthritic, little fingers could move, and decided to stop at the Legion for a couple of beers on the way home. The sign out front told me that a local artist, Anne Banks, and another guitarist who was her singing partner, would be there to entertain me. The marquee told me in no uncertain terms that I had better not miss them, that they'd be there between three and seven. The place was pretty well packed, even that early in the evening - around five-fifteen, but I managed to find a small table in the corner, and settled in to relax and forget about writing, and essays, and the like, for an hour or so.

Well, I have to tell you that after five Budweisers, and eight Hillbilly songs, that I was ready to smash open their display cabinet of W.W. ll war memorabilia, grab an old German Luger pistol in the hopes that there was at least one overlooked bullet still in the chamber, and bring an end to my misery.

There was song after song about guys with cheatin' hearts whose wives had left them right after their best 'coon dog died. They sang of how their pick-up trucks broke down the day after they lost their jobs at the feed mill where they had hard-hearted bosses who didn't understand good old country boys. There were songs about the old fishin' holes they remembered from their youth that had been paved over to make room for strip malls and smoke belching factories. The songs almost brought me to defeat and suicide in about an hour. What saved me was the moment when the artists asked for requests from the audience, and like a shot I yelled out, "Do the Stones' --"Sympathy for the Devil!" But the Muse of music wasn't smiling on me at all to-night. Anne said that they probably couldn't do justice to the piece, so out of respect for Mick Jagger, they wouldn't attempt it at all. Nicely done. If I had been her, I would have simply told the bouncer to "Throw the bum out!"

I decided to relax and try to enjoy the music they were playing, After all, Rock and Roll and Country music both have exactly the same notes, I figured, just arranged a little differently. There was no reason for me not to try and understand the attraction "Country" has for so many listeners. I have to admit that by the time I had two more beers, my feeling of doom was lifting, and my usually stiff right foot had begun to tap out the rhythm of a Stompin' Tom Conners tune all on its own.

When I first noticed the movement, I thought someone else's foot was under my table, and that perhaps the nice old lady at the next table who had removed her dentures, and laid them next to her purse wrapped in tissue paper, was taking a run at me. But that's the healing power of a combination of beer and Grand Marnier for you. It usually brings on a bout of wishful thinking. Oh, yeah. I forgot to mention the Grand Marnier a minute ago.

When I came back from the washroom on one occasion, there were about eight people sitting at my table, which seemed like a good trick because when I went to the john, it was only a table for two. It didn't take me more than five minutes or so to realize that somehow they had managed to rebuild it to accommodate more people in the short time that I was gone. Why they had gone to the trouble when I could have easily moved to the small table next to it in the corner, where someone had hung my jacket over the chair back, I'll never know.

The people at the table didn't seem to mind me being there, and we soon got into a heated discussion about the younger generation. They considered me the younger generation and I didn't know if I should be offended or not. One old timer who had been at Dunkirk as well as Normandy started in on me about how little people my age cared or knew about our own recent past, and that I was lucky to have lived a life of peace, not ever having had to experience the horror of war. I agreed with him, and told him that I would appreciate it if he told me about some of the times he wished he could forget, but was determined to remember.

He thought about it for a moment, then said, "Nah, you probably wouldn't believe half what I told you anyway."

I allowed that he was probably right, and that I wouldn't be able to see the past through the dimming vision of his ancient memories, and let it go. But there was something gnawing at him, that he wanted to get out. His wife, a nice jovial lady with a tad too much blue rinse in her hair, (she put me in mind of Marge Simpson), nudged me with her foot under the table, and whispered,

"Don't get him started. He'll be miserable for a week."

But the damage had been done, and the floodgates of his memories were torn open. An ocean of memories started pouring through, and there was no stopping it. I wouldn't have tried even if I thought it were possible.

At first, he just sat there, unaware of anyone else at the table, as he traveled back sixty years to that time when his soul had been so mortally wounded. The only signs of his pain were the small tears welling up in his eyes, and slowly running down his wrinkled, leathery face. He sat, unmoving and mute for a few minutes, oblivious to his family and friends and their celebration going on at the table. They were used to his distant moods, and partied on in the belief that, as was his custom, he would shake off the blues, and be back with them soon. It happened all the time.

"I'll tell you something, son. I've never told this to anyone, not even Emma, my wife of fifty-five years." Emma, who was sitting to my left, was whispering a confidence to one of her friends at the table behind her, and had no interest in her husband's revelations, whatever they may have been.

He didn't quite know where to start. I could tell he was trying to organize his thoughts, not so much to be accurate in the telling of it all, but more to feed me the details in little bites that I could chew on and digest easily, sort of the way a squirrel rolls and nibbles at a big chestnut in his mouth before running off to stash it for the winter.

He started with the disaster at Dunkirk, and the successful landing at Juno beach in Normandy. He gave a few details, more to see my reaction than to inform me of anything I might not already know. It was as though he were testing me, to see if what he really wanted to tell me was something I could comprehend, or if I would ask th e stock question, "Did you kill any Germans?". or "What was it like to kill someone?" He was probably testing himself too. Like a batter coming to the plate, he was taking practice swings at the little bits and pieces of the story, getting ready for a home run instead of the base hits and strike outs he was used to making.

He told me of the first time he had held a friend in his arms, while the young man whose future was suddenly passed and gone, coughed up his life's blood and died, his wife's name on his lips. He told me about a young soldier, hysterically running past, clutching his right arm to his chest with what was left of his left arm. He had found his right arm in a pile of rubble fifty feet away from the booby-trapped body of the dead German soldier he had rolled over, looking for souvenirs to sell when he returned to Canada. He was desperately looking for a medic to sew it back on for him. He ran around for about five minutes, and then just fell down and died, all bled out from the effort.

He told me stories, haltingly at first, and then with greater and greater passion, as though he were becoming comfortable with the telling of them for the first time. I waited, and thought of the parallels in my experience, but said nothing. This was his moment to set himself free, and I didn't want to take it away from him. Telling him of the things I've seen and done would only have tended to create the impression that such things that he spoke of were common place, and nothing to feel such passion about. Besides, I haven't reached the point where I have the courage to speak of some of my memories yet.

He went on for about an hour, becoming more and more animated with each passing moment. He was confronting his ghosts, and found that in doing so, one at a time, he conquered them, slowly but surely, one ghost at a time.

He talked about establishing a beachhead at Normandy, and the struggle to Germany, fighting house to house, and village to village through France. The Germans with their backs to the wall made futile last stands to stop the onslaught against the Fatherland and all that was left of the Third Reich. And slowly, as slowly as they made their way across France into the German heartland, he made his way to what it was that he had seen or done that he wanted so much to tell me about.

He made a trip to the washroom, and I noticed that on his way back to our table, he stopped at the bar and got a double rye straight up that he downed with a quick toss of his head before coming back and picking up with his story. He was steeling himself to confront that final ghost that had been haunting his waking and sleeping hours for sixty years. It was a moment when patience was needed, and I sat motionless so as not to disturb his thoughts or distract him from the path he had chosen to take on his quest for the peace that had eluded him for so many years.

He started to talk of the final march to Berlin. The push was on to beat the Russians to the city. The Russian Army was bogged down east of Berlin, though, and because of an agreement between Stalin and the other Allies, they would have to wait for them in the end, so that they could make the final conquest together. His unit pushed on and rolled over the collapsing German Army with breathtaking speed.

They passed thousands of refugees streaming out into the countryside, fearful of being in the area of the final onslaught. He and his squad had become separated from their unit, and for three days struggled to regroup and rejoin them. Resistance from the Germans was fierce and their supplies were gone. They hadn't just become separated from the main battle group of the Allied forces, they had outrun them by three days.

And that's when it happened. It was dusk, and by the fast failing light they made their way to a tree line about a half mile from their position in the hopes of setting up a bivouac for the night. There they would find shelter not only from the elements, but from the few marauding German patrols that remained in the area. As they neared the trees,

they caught sight of a small campfire, flickering in the gloom of the trees. They approached cautiously, not sure if it was a German encampment or hopefully, their own unit, finally caught up with them.

It turned out to be civilian refugees from Berlin, fleeing to the relative safety of the countryside in anticipation of the upcoming onslaught on their beleaguered city. There were about twenty of them from very young children to the very old, and the one thing they had in common was that they were defeated, clinging to life and hope not because they believed there was any hope, or much of a chance for a life, but because that's what people have done since the beginning of time, even when there was no hope at all.

Their clothes were in tatters, and the few possessions they had were tied up in bundles with old curtains or bed sheets, and rugs. They were thin and gaunt, and the small children had the swollen bellies that are a sign of malnutrition and starvation. They had a crackling fire going, and in an old stock pot, were cooking a few potatoes, onions and parsnips mixed with small chunks of meat. A bombed out farm nearby had provided them with their first real meal since leaving the bombarded city of Berlin.

The soldiers approached cautiously, and through a combination of sign language, bastardized German, and pigeon English made it known that the civilians had nothing to fear, that the soldiers would just camp near by for the night, and move out the following morning at dawn. They passed out what cigarettes and chocolate bars they had to spare, and the grateful refugees in turn offered them some of their food. They explained that they had all eaten their fill, and were about to cook up the rest of the meat or dry and salt it for what they knew would be a harsh winter in the months ahead.

The soldiers hadn't had a fresh or hot cooked meal in weeks, and just the sweet aroma of the cooking pot was enough to make them realize how hungry and in need of sustenance they were. A few of the women in the group were placing skewers of meat over the fire, standing the metal rods laden with chunks of meat at the edge of the burning coals, and leaning them all together to form a teepee of roasting meat, sizzling as the fat dripped into the flames. The men settled down to eat, ravenously at first, and then when their hunger had abated somewhat, at a slow, relaxed pace. They even began to socialize with the refugees as best they could.

The ancient soldier paused for a moment and a shudder passed through his tired old body, which seemed to sag and become smaller and more frail with the telling of the story. He took a deep breath and started to say something and then stopped, mouth clamped shut to stop the terrible flow of words that was getting ready to burst out, whether he wanted them to or not. He started again, then stopped once more. I sat. I waited. I would rather have dropped dead right there, than make the slightest sound or movement that I knew would have broken his faltering resolve in an instant.

"You have to understand, son. I was just a kid from the farm back then. Never even heard tell of some of the things I saw before I actually saw them for the first time over there. Truth be told, we were all pretty much green, 'though in those few months we grew up a lot, and fast. I guess I didn't grow up fast enough though, 'til that night."

"You see, son, when I was done eating my fill, and was stretching my legs while I had the day's last smoke, I wandered to the edge of their camp where they had an old blanket hanging from a piece of cord stretched between two trees. I figured they hung it there to give a sense of privacy when they were doing their business, if you know what I mean. I decided to relieve myself back there before turning in for a few hours sleep. I had the watch from mid-night 'til dawn. And that's when I saw them."

He stopped, and his tired old shoulders shook as he sat and cried quietly to himself. His wife's looks had the power to kill me on the spot. I didn't move or say a word. I knew the horrible truth that was coming, but there was nothing I could say or do to make it any easier for him. I waited.

"You see, son, when I looked behind that blanket, I didn't find no latrine or such. What I found was a big pile of uniforms and what was left of five German soldiers, all butchered right down to the bone. I grew up on a farm son, and I've seen a lot of animals, large and small, slaughtered and butchered for their meat. This wasn't like that at all. What happened there behind the blanket was no less than the insane frenzy of starving people. No method at all to their madness. Just a slaughter. Blood and guts every where. Looked like they had been clubbed to death where they stood."

He pauses for a minute, savoring the moment of making it past that hurdle in the retelling of the story. And then he takes a deep breath and goes on, talking fast, as though it's all down hill from here.

"I was too stunned to think clearly. I was sort of frozen to the spot. It took me a moment to realize that I had just eaten another human being, and I just lost everything in me right there and then. I got the shakes real bad, and started crying. I fell to my knees and was sick all over again. Just the dry heaves by then. I got to my feet and started to run and tell the other men, but then I thought, Why would I do that to them. I couldn't. It would drive some of them mad. And what would they do to the refugees? What could we do? "

‘We set up our camp a few hundred yards away and posted guards. In the morning the refugees were gone with all their belongings. We hadn't heard them leave in the night. I went over and checked the area out. The camp was stripped bare, including the blanket that had hung between the trees. I could just make out a pile of clothing. I couldn't bring myself to walk close and look, but I knew they hadn't tried to cover up what they had done. Just took that terrible carrion and their few belongings and moved on."

"I never said anything to the other men. There were times though, in the next few weeks, when they talked about that night, and how they ate so good, and I wanted to scream out at the top of my lungs, "Those were dead Germans we all ate!" But I never told a soul, not ‘til this very moment. Old Bill over there at the far table with his wife and grand kids was there that night, but I never said a word to him. , Look at him, carrying on and having a good time. He didn't need to know then. and he doesn't need to know even now."

I looked across the crowded room to where Bill and his brood were trying their level best to sing along with the band. The old man was right. Bill never had to know the truth. Sometimes it’s better if only one person carries the load.

The old soldier sat quietly for a few minutes. He seemed to relax, as though he had just put down an enormous burden that had been weighing on his shoulders for a lifetime. He pulled himself erect in the chair, and a smile came over his face. "Hey Emma, they're playing a slow one. Would you like to dance?"

Emma with the blue hair stared in disbelief, mouth half open, trying to remember how to say "Yes", because it's been so many years. "Why, yes Henry, I believe I would. Are you sure you're up to it? You haven't danced in over fifty years. Not even at our daughter's wedding. What were you and this nice young man whispering about for so long, anyway? Was he bothering you? I guess I should have been paying closer attention. Are you all right? I've never seen you talk so much at one time before in my life."

"Emma, if you don't stop your yapping, the damn song will be over, and I won't ask you again." Emma stops her yapping and they thread their way through the crowded tables and make their way to the overflowing dance floor. The song ends a few minutes later, and Henry calls out, "Play another slow one for me and my gal!" They danced another slow one, and then another, holding each other tightly and with total love and devotion for the first time in decades.

I guess that's the way catharsis works, at least some of the time. The burden of guilt had been lifted from his shoulders after sixty years with the simple act of telling a story about that night from so long ago, and its horror for him. Maybe the Catholic church isn't far off the mark with their emphasis on the confessional after all.

As for me, it'll be a while, I think, before I'm able to take the plunge and talk of things from the past. In the meantime my ghosts still come to me in the night. There are times when I greet them like old friends, and reach out to them, one at a time, until they're all accounted for. There are other times when I can barely make them out, but instead of being relieved, I do my best to focus and remember them all, finding sleep when they've all been accounted for and their names and deaths remembered.

Henry and Emma were still dancing as I got up to leave. I made my way through the crowded bar towards the door, but was only halfway there when Henry's voice rang out over the music.

"Hold on a minute son!" I turned, and old Henry was making his way from the crowded dance floor, headed my way. "I want to thank you son. Or should I say, Marine."

I started to ask him how he knew I had ever been a U.S. Marine, but he brought me up short. "Your dog tag son. When you went to the john one time I noticed it on your key chain, and took a gander at it. I guess you have some ghosts of your own to deal with. I just want to tell you when the time comes, you'll know where to find me. And forget what I said about the younger generation and all that. That was just a bitter old man talking. I'm doing a whole lot better now, thanks to you." Old Henry finally stopped yapping like his wife. I guess they have that nervous trait in common.

"Don't thank me, Henry. I should be thanking you and your friends here. If it weren't for you I'd be speaking German and wearing lederhosen or some damn thing now. And I promise, when I decide it's time for the ghosts to go, that I'll be in touch.

Henry heads back to Emma, doing a lively little two step as he moves onto the dance floor. n his mind, he's a young man now with no burden of guilt to carry. In the morning, he'll be an eighty year old with a hangover and aches and pains everywhere, but tonight he'll sleep the sleep of the young and innocent. I head for the exit, already wondering about sleep, and if it will come easy for a change. But I know the answer to that.

I decided on the short walk home that I would sit down for a few minutes and tell you Henry's story, and well, here it is. I've recalled it the best I can, under the circumstances, what with the beer and the Marnier and all, but sleep is still a long way off. Stompin' Tom is still pounding away in my head, even though I have two radios on, one tuned to an all night talk show from Kansas City, and the other one to a classic rock station. Maybe if I turn on the TV too, that'll help.

It's only two short blocks from the Legion to my place, but I thought of something else on the way home that I want to tell you about, so my ghosts will have to wait a little longer, while I tell you the story. I'll just put a fresh piece of paper in the typewriter, grab a cup of coffee, and get right on it.

 

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