Friday, October 19, 2007

A Soldiers Story by Duke Liddell

A Soldiers Story by Duke Liddell

The day, August 25th, 1943, the time 1400 hundred hours, the place North Africa..

A wounded soldier lies by the roadside, propped against the wheel of his disabled jeep. Two casualties, one mechanized, the other human, both have paid the price of war. His left leg is outstretched, twisted and broken. Its mate blown off at the knee, wrapped in a make-shift bandage, slowly oozing blood into the sand beneath, while hungry flies dart about congregating on the feast of human carrion. Jealous buzzards glide above, looking down with envy at the possible repast, which for now is unattainable. Instinctively they know that time is on their side, they are patient creatures.

His mind wanders back to a few short months ago, at home on the family farm in Kentucky, where he and his younger brother would sit astride the old John Deere, plowing the one hundred acres for spring planting. His brother leaps from the belching machine into the clods of black dirt, pretending to be a paratrooper, while their dog Jesse barking with excitement, runs alongside the smoking machine, chasing the field ice who were unceremoniously being evicted from their winter habitat. He smells the perfume of the earth, as the tractor blades release the dark clumps, awakening them for another season. He recalls the cool early morning mist that would bite his cheeks and the thermos of coco his mother prepared before dawn. What he would give to return to that way of life.

Long, hard days and wonderful happy nights around the kitchen table. He remembered, how when visitors came for dinner, his father would begin tugging on his suspenders, signaling that another story was about to be told. His favorite was the one about old, Mrs. Higgins whose one legged chicken saved her blind cow from a fire. No one believed it, but everyone had a good laugh. Life was simple, there was love and most of all there was family.

He closes his eyes as a gust of wind whips the sand stinging his cheek. The tiny grains bounce off the metal, echoing sounds of miniature gunfire, reminding him of the battle that took place hours before. His rifle barrel is sunk into the sand, serving as a hanger for his battered helmet and as a crutch on which he steadies himself to adjust position.

A cigarette dangles loosely from his parched lips, glowing brightly as he takes each thankful drag, sucking in the nicotine, hoping to ease the constant throbbing. His dog-tag hangs loosely around his neck, slightly bent and covered with grit. The number 44700 U.S Army and the letter J are all that can be read. His short black hair mixed with sweat, lies matted to his head. The dark eyes that once housed the look of fear have grown dull with benign detachment.

He is not alone. Spread around him, just twenty yards from the main road in the desert infirmary lie his wounded comrades, some conscious with minor wounds. Others, more seriously hurt, stare blankly skyward from their resting places on the sandy floor, as each hour pecks away another young life. Cries of pain ring out across the arid air, calling names of loved ones far away. Harried medics move from man to man, like robots on an assembly line, injecting morphine, packing wounds, applying tourniquets, wiping brows, holding hands in final prayers Supplies are short, blankets and ponchos provide some scant shelter from the searing rays of the pounding sun. They have been here for five hours, waiting for ambulances or anything with wheels to carry them back to the base hospital in Algiers. So far, the rear command has been unable to get support to them as the war against the Germans escalates.

The Germans, led by the illusive General Rommell have taken on a super human persona, fueled by news reports of the dramatic out maneuvering of the allied forces. Dubbed by the was correspondents as the desert fox, he strikes without warning and Just as quickly is swallowed up by the rolling dunes, leaving behind a swath of destruction. He has managed to keep the allies in check, along a hundred miles of barren desert. The Americans and British troops have pushed dangerously beyond their supplies, in the fruitless attempts to catch the wily commander. This afternoon is no different, as the allied forces continue their manic drive forward, as if being pushed by some invisible force, leeching them into the arid, windswept sands. They must find and destroy this human ghost; they must kill the fox and his fast growing legend. The enemy can have no heroes.

The soldier watches the road from his lowly perch beside his vehicle, as the columns of new young, fresh faces march along. Some with thoughts of God and glory, their jaws set with determination, others think only of survival, unable to hide the look of fear; the same look that once crossed his solemn face. They know their mission is right and just, as their boots pound a rhythmic cadence along the hard hewn road. Many wave to him with thumbs up, letting him know that they will carry on where he has left off. Others glance into his dark, painful eyes, at the mutilated leg and begin to understand that he was once one of them. They look past him at the sorrowful scene of wounded dying men, then swiftly turn away, as their youthful banter drops into silence. He understands only too well that he has become their reality, their look into the future. Before today, their reality was from, “Uncle Sam Wants You,” posters and Hollywood propaganda movies, where Americans always won, bugles sounded valiant charges, crowds cheered, homecomings were beautiful and even funerals were grand. Everything was white, guns shot blanks, blood and guts were paint and props, pain was faked. Handsome actors played soldiers, beautiful actresses their sweethearts, always waiting faithfully, for, ‘Johnny to come marching home.’ With each boot step forward they begin to realize, that perhaps what they saw in the movies was no where close to the truth, but rather one big lie. Each man in his own way begins to understand, but it’s too late to turn back. Some can still hear their old drill Sergeant shouting out his familiar phrase, “Remember war is hell, he who kills first lives to kill again.” Today those words take form in the mind of many as they march into the unknown.
The soldier’s head jerks up into consciousness as the static from the walkie talkie crackles across open space, carrying the sound of a broken voice far away. A few feet away a medic kneels, hunched over the radio, his pleading voice desperately asking for help and supplies. He has a list of items that he repeats over again into the microphone, hoping to make sure there’s no mistake. The list is short, water, bandages, plasma, penicillin, stretches and in sotto voce, he asks for body bags. The voice comes back stating that vehicles are being dispatched from a division close by and should arrive before nightfall. After a moment the distant voice asks the medic to repeat the stretcher and body bag count. Aggravated, revealing days without sleep his reply is wavering and tense, as he watches death march through his camp. He is suffering wounds of a different kind, a kind that will bury themselves in his soul, for as long as he is lucky enough to live. He shouts into the speaker, “Thirty stretchers and six body bags.” There’s no point in being quiet, he just wants to get it done. He realizes how foolish it is to try and hide death from the dying.

The soldier tries not to listen. He reaches back into his clouded mind, to find a better place. He’s standing on the porch with Leslie his childhood sweetheart, their hands held together like two young vines. Her dark eyes look up at him with her dimpled smile, the smile that melted his heart from the first day they met. A red ribbon neatly tied, holds her long chestnut hair, as the wind gently caresses her brow. This good bye is painful, there s no more time left. In one last moment of passion he embraces her tightly, feeling the dampness of her tears on his cheek. From the street comes the blare of his buddies’ car horn, reminding him it’s time to go. He steps back taking one last look, then turns away towards the waiting car, watching her grow smaller in the mirror, as he drives away.
He no longer stirs to the crackling sound of the radio. His head rests back on the wheel of the jeep. There are no more drags on the cigarette, as it smolders down to the butt end, singeing his lips with its final grey ash. His dark eyes, orb like, stare ahead with an emptiness that comes with death. The only sign of life is from the reflection of the marching parade and the distant thumbs up sign, held in their glassy stare.

In a few minutes, the walkie talkie comes to life as the medic orders one more body bag for 44700.

“A Soldiers Journey” is copyrighted exclusively by R. Duke Liddell 2006/2007


At 3:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great Story - My Dad is gone many a year. When we cleaned out the house there was a treasure trove of pictures and memories of him and his buddies in WWII. We had an insight into things he would never talk about. The pictures of him as a young soldier... War is war and it is never pretty. But thank you for bringing my Dad back to me, if only for a little while.

At 6:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a beautifully crafted narrative about a bygone era that most of us haveonly read about and yet it is universal. Until there is peace in the world,there will always be a soldier's story to be written and perhaps to learn from. Thank you Mr. Liddell for sharing this poignant one.

At 12:45 AM, Blogger Barbara said...

Beautifully written-very universal. Could be any war, anytime. I really felt the soldier's thoughts on his impending death & about his life and all that will never be. Made me very sad to think that we are in the same position now as we were in past wars. Nothing seems to have changed. Wasn't it Santyana who said 'That those who forget history are doomed to repeat it?'

At 1:01 PM, Anonymous J R Turek said...

Poignant and profound telling of a soldier's story, with just enough details to keep the reader standing right beside him, physically and emotionally. Strong, compelling, and realistic insights will remain with me long past the last sentence.
Great writing -- thank you for sharing it!

At 1:21 PM, Anonymous bev k said...

wonderful story. beautifully told. the details of the setting puts the reader right there on the battlefield. the internal dialog puts the reader inside the mind of the hero. gripping fast paced and leaves the reader with a lump in his throat because he has become emotionally involved.well done and well worth the time spent reading it.
bev k


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