By William March
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 1989 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
PRIVATE JOSEPH DELANEY
WE have had supper and my wife and I are sitting on our porch. It will not be dark for an hour yet and my wife has brought out some sewing. It is pink and full of lace and it is something she is making for a friend of hers who is going to be married soon.
All about us are our neighbors, sprinkling their lawns, or sitting on their porches, as we are doing. Occasionally my wife and I speak to some friend who passes, and bows, or stops to chat for a moment, but mostly we sit silent....
I am still thinking of the book which I have just completed. I say to myself: "I have finished my book at last, but I wonder if I have done what I set out to do?"
Then I think: "This book started out to be a record of my own company, but I do not want it to be that, now. I want it to be a record of every company in every army. If its cast and its overtones are American, that is only because the American scene is the one that I know. With different names and different settings, the men of whom I have written could, as easily, be French, German, English or Russian for that matter."
I think: "I wish there were some way to take these stories and pin them to a huge wheel, each story hung on a different peg until the circle was completed. Then I would like to spin the wheel, faster and faster, until the things of which I have written took life and were recreated, and became part of the wheel, flowing toward each other, and into each other; blurring, and then blending together into a composite whole, an unending circle of pain.... That would be the picture of war. And the sound that the wheel made, and the sound that the men themselves made as they laughed, cried, cursed or prayed, would be, against the falling of walls, the rushing of bullets, the exploding of shells, the sound that war, itself, makes.... "
We had been silent for a long time, and then my wife spoke: "I'd take out the part about shooting prisoners."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because it is cruel and unjust to shoot defenseless men in cold blood. It may have been done a few times, I'm not denying that, but it isn't typical. It couldn't have happened often."
"Would a description of an air raid be better?" I asked. "Would that be more humane? Would that be more typical?"
"Yes," she said. "Yes. That happened many times, I understand."
"Is it crueler, then, for Captain Matlock to order prisoners shot, because he was merely stupid, and thought the circumstances warranted that, than for an aviator to bomb a town and kill harmless people who are not even fighting him?"
"That isn't as revolting as shooting prisoners," said my wife stubbornly. Then she added: "You see the aviator cannot see where his bomb strikes, or what it does, so he is not really responsible. But the men in your story had the prisoners actually before them.... It's not the same thing, at all."
I began to laugh with bitterness: "Possibly you are right," I said. "Possibly you have put into words something inescapable and true."
Then my wife reached out and took my hand. "You think I'm hard and unsympathetic," she said; "but I'm not, really, darling."
I sat silent after that, watching the Ellis children across the street shouting and laughing and playing on their lawn. It was early June and there was a faint breeze carrying with it the smell of spiced pinks and Cape jasmine. Gradually it got darker and my wife put away her sewing, yawned and rubbed her eyes. All about us were the green, well-kept lawns of our neighbors, with flowers in bloom and shrubs banked against walls and fences. The sight of this green, flowing smoothness made me think, somehow, of old battlefields which I have seen....
You can always tell an old battlefield where many men have lost their lives. The next Spring the grass comes up greener and more luxuriant than on the surrounding countryside; the poppies are redder, the corn-flowers more blue. They grow over the field and down the sides of the shell holes and lean, almost touching, across the abandoned trenches in a mass of color that ripples all day in the direction that the wind blows. They take the pits and scars out of the torn land and make it a sweet, sloping surface again. Take a wood, now, or a ravine: In a year's time you could never guess the things which had taken place there.
I repeated my thoughts to my wife, but she said it was not difficult to understand about battlefields: The blood of the men killed on the field, and the bodies buried there, fertilize the ground and stimulate the growth of vegetation. That was all quite natural she said.
But I could not agree with this, too-simple, explanation: To me it has always seemed that God is so sickened with men, and their unending cruelty to each other, that he covers the places where they have been as quickly as possible.
PRIVATE ROWLAND GEERS
IT had snowed steadily, and the Virginia countryside was white and still; close-order drill was impossible that day, so Captain Matlock took us for a long hike across the hills. Coming back, our spirits were so high that we began to double time of our own accord, shouting at the tops of our voices and hitting each other with snowballs. We came to the top of the hill and looked down. It was almost dusk, and below us, in the valley, lights began to show in the barracks. Then Ted Irvine gave a shout and ran down the hill, and in a moment we had all broken ranks, rushing after him, pushing and laughing and piling into the bunk houses.
It was an hour before supper, so Walt Webster and I decided to have a bath, but when we got to the bath house, we found there was no hot water there, and for a minute we stood with our clothes off, shivering. Then, we held our breath and ran under the cold shower, jumping up and down and hitting each other on the chest, until a warm glow began to flow through our bodies. "This is great," I said. "This is great, Walt!"
But Walt who was singing senselessly, at the top of his lungs, merely because he was young and full of life, stopped suddenly, and picked me up in his powerful arms, carrying me to the bath house door, trying to throw me into a snow bank. But I locked my legs around him and held on, and we both went into the bank together. We floundered about in the snow wrestling and laughing. The other boys in the bunk house saw us and soon every man in the company was naked and wallowing in the snow, shouting with exhilaration.
Walt stood up, slapped his thighs, and began to crow like a cock. "Bring on the whole German army!" he shouted. "Bring them on all together, or one at a time. I can whip them all"
CORPORAL JERRY BLANDFORD
SITTING next to me at the counter was a sweet-looking girl, or rather she was a grown woman, twenty-eight or thirty years old, and we got to talking. I reached over and took her check, but she put up a kick. "I think I ought to be the one to be paying the check," she said laughingly. Then we went out of the drug store and walked down the street. I told her how I had looked forward to my leave and how disappointed I was. It wasn't much fun when you didn't know anybody. I didn't have any place to go in particular, so I was walking in her direction, but finally she said she had to turn. "Well, good-by," she said, and held out her hand.
"Don't leave me," I said. "Come on to the hotel and stay with me. I'm not insulting you," I said. "I respect you. I'm not trying to insult you."
She thought a minute and then shook her head.
"I just want you to be with me," I said. "I want to smell cologne on a woman and I want to see her with her hair down. I won't do anything that you don't want me to do. I won't even touch you, unless you say it's all right...."
"You must have a very poor opinion of me, to think I'm the sort of woman you can pick up on the street."
"No," I said, "I respect you. If I didn't respect you, I wouldn't ask you to come. If I wanted a street-walker, I could get fifty, and you know it. I respect you," I said; "I really do."
She stood there, looking at me. Then she shook her head. "I'm sorry," she said.
"I'm going across next week," I said. "I may be killed in a month. I may never have a chance to be with a decent woman again.... "
Then suddenly she made up her mind. "Very well," she said, "I'll come. I'll stay with you every minute of the time until your leave is up. Go get your things and we'll go to another hotel and register as man and wife."
"I'll be careful not to embarrass you. I won't make any breaks, or let any of the boys know."
"I don't care," she said. "I don't care who knows. I wouldn't come at all if I cared about that." Then she slipped her arm through mine and we walked away.
CORPORAL PIERRE BROCKETT
WE knew they wouldn't sell to soldiers in uniform as a rule, but this bar was out of the way, and we figured we might talk the bartender into it. So all three of us went in and lined up.
"Well, what will you gentlemen have?" asked the bartender in a polite voice.
"Give me a rye straight," I said.
"Give me rye with a beer chaser," said Bill Anderson.
"I'll take Scotch," said Barney Fathers.
The bartender picked up a bottle and then put it down again. "Are you boys in a big hurry?" he asked.
"No," we all said together, "oh, no, we got lots of time!"
"All right, then," said the bartender; "just stand there until war is over and I'll be glad to shake up them drinks."
PRIVATE ARCHIE LEMON
THE fourth day out was a Sunday, and that morning the Captain held services on deck. It was December, but the sun was shining on the surrounding water, its light reflected blindingly in the ship's brass. It was almost too warm, in the sunlight, for the heavy overcoats we wore. We stood there for a while, and then the services began. They were very simple: a hymn, a prayer and a short sermon. Then, at the end, a benediction in which the chaplain asked God to give our hearts courage, and our arms strength, to strike down our adversaries. He said we were not soldiers, in the accepted sense of the word: We were crusaders who had dedicated our lives and our souls to our country and to our God that the things we revere and hold sacred, might not perish.
When we got back to our quarters, we were all silent and thoughtful. We lay on our bunks thinking of the chaplain's words. Sylvester Keith, whose bunk was next to mine, gave me a cigarette, and lit one himself. "The chaplain has got the right dope," he said: "I mean about saving civilization and dedicating our lives to our country."
Bob Nalls had come up, and joined us. "I've been thinking over what he said about this being the war to end injustice. I don't mind getting killed to do a thing of that sort. I don't mind, since the people coming after me will live in happiness and peace...."
Then we sat there smoking our cigarettes and thinking.
CORPORAL WALTER ROSE
GOING across in the transport, I was picked for a special submarine guard. Each man in our detail was given a pair of glasses and assigned a certain angle of water to watch, so that the entire horizon was constantly observed. My angle was 247 to 260 and in the tower with me was Les Yawfitz, whose angle joined mine. There was a telephone by each of us which communicated with the engine room below and the gun crews standing by on deck.
Late one afternoon, when it was cold and raining, I saw a tomato crate floating on the water. I looked at it for a long time, trying to make up my mind if it was moving with the tide. Then when I'd about decided that it was, I noticed it had moved backward a foot or two, contrary to the direction of the waves. I grabbed my 'phone and reported to the gunners, and the engineers, that there was a periscope concealed under the crate. The transport swung to one side quickly, and at the same moment the gunners began to fire. Immediately we saw a submarine come to the top, flounder, and turn sidewise in a burst of steam.
Everybody gave me the old glad-hand and wanted to know how I could tell that the tomato crate camouflaged a periscope. I didn't know, as a matter of fact, I just guessed right; that's all: So I was an intelligent hero, and got the Navy Cross. If I'd been wrong, and there'd been nothing under the crate, I would have been a dumb bastard, a disgrace to the outfit, and, like as not, would have been thrown into the brig. They're not fooling me any.
PRIVATE SAMUEL UPDIKE
IT felt good to be on solid land again after fourteen days on a crowded transport. Our hobnailed boots clattered on the cobblestones, as we marched at ease down the main street of the town and up the hill that led to the barracks. It was cold, but the sun was out, and everybody was in high spirits, and full of fun. We laughed and shoved each other about. Then Rowland Geers passed his pack and rifle to Fred Willcoxen and began to turn handsprings, and clown. But the French people stood there looking at us, with their mouths open, a surprised expression on their faces. They weren't at all like an American crowd: We tried to joke and kid them, but they wouldn't answer. They just looked at us like we were crazy, and turned their heads away.
"What's the matter with these people?" asked Tom Stahl. "Where's their pep? Where's their spirit?"
"Everybody is wearing black," I said. "You'd think they'd just come from a funeral."
Then a woman in the crowd, standing near the curb, answered me in a broad, English voice: "The people wearing black are in mourning," she said, as if she were speaking to a child. "We're having a war, you know."
"Oh, I didn't realize!" I said. "I'm sorry, I really am!" But the English woman had turned and walked away.
I've thought many times afterwards what clowns we must have seemed.
SERGEANT MICHAEL RIGGIN
ONE thing that puzzles me about these new men is why they are always writing letters home, or getting packages from their mothers or sweethearts. You didn't see much of that in the old days, when I came into the service. Most of the boys then didn't have any people to write to, and the only letters they got were from strumpets they'd met while on liberty. But, as I said, these new men are always writing letters and sending letters off. I can't understand that.
I was raised in an orphan asylum, myself. No chance of anybody who was raised in an orphan asylum, under Mrs. McMallow's care being homesick.... I'll never forget the old Tartar. She had a long, bony face and yellow teeth. She pulled her hair back as tight as she could, and pinned it to her head. She talked in a sharp, worried voice. She wasn't very good to any of the kids, but she used to pick on me more than the others.—Well, I guess I gave her more trouble than the others. She said she'd break my stubbornness, and I guess she'd a-done it, too, if I hadn't run away when I was fourteen, because I couldn't stand it any longer.
I don't mean she beat me. She never done that. (Unless I damned well deserved it, of course, and then it didn't hurt much.) She was just mean.... This'll give you an idea: When I was nine years old, I cut my foot on a piece of glass and the doctor had to sew it up. That night Mrs. McMallow came to the hospital to see how I was getting along. (Oh, she always done what she thought was her duty, all right.) She had made a bowl of soup with macaroni in it, knowing that I liked macaroni soup better than anything else. When I realized she had made the soup just for me, I put my arms out and pulled her down on the bed beside me. I wanted her to take me in her arms, and kiss me, but I didn't know how to ask her to do it, so I reached up and tried to kiss her, but she pulled her face away quickly and took my hands off her arm. "Michael Riggin," she said, "how many times have I told you to keep your finger nails clean!" Then I picked up the bowl of macaroni soup and threw it across the room. I wouldn't have eaten a spoonful of it to save my life....
That's what I mean about these fellows writing home all the time. I can't understand it. That's all a bunch of hooey. Anybody who cares for anybody else is a God damned fool, if you ask me! I don't care a hoot for anything there is: Take all you can get, I say, and don't give anything in return, if you can help it. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Company K by William March. Copyright © 1989 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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