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A Midnight Clear William Wharton A reissue of this classic World War II novel.Set in the Ardennes Forest on Christmas Eve, 1944, A Midnight Clear is the story of Sergeant Will Knott and five other GIs ordered to establish an observation post in an abandoned chateau close to the German lines. Here they play at being soldiers in what seems to be complete isolation-until the Germans begin leaving signs of their presence. WILLIAM WHARTON A Midnight Clear To those ASTPRers who never Reached majority … We need you now. FEAR I gasp in the still of one breath; A wisp of bird feathers burning, The smell of death in a flower. Nothing to see and nothing to say; Afraid to look, I can’t turn away; My blink of emptiness pearling gray. I watch myself watching me watching me. The names in this wintry Christmas tale have been changed to protect the guilty … —W.W. Table of Contents Title Page (#u431d1f15-5df1-5b91-8487-587c725a4248) Dedication (#u059abfc1-d2b6-5101-adfa-7598a6b74cd4) Epigraph (#uead3049f-f898-53fa-b1cb-85efc322d410) 1 Briefing (#u2760febc-cdf3-5653-a338-c33cc05b3140) 2 The Longest Night (#ua4ecfb22-59dc-544d-85cb-8dcb522b3aa1) 3 Foo Kit Lur (#litres_trial_promo) 4 Throw Me a Why Not (#litres_trial_promo) 5 Don’t Tell Mother (#litres_trial_promo) 6 A Statement of Charges (#litres_trial_promo) Also by William Wharton (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) 1 Briefing ‘Holy God, Mother! What’s the matter?’ He pushes me back hard against my shelter half. He struggles, elbows, presses himself to his feet, boots sinking ankle deep in mud and melted snow at the bottom of our dent. He stands there, looming over me, staggering, slipping, not saying anything; staring into the sky. Then he unslings his M1, grabs it in his right hand, arches his lean body into a tight spring and tosses that rifle, like a javelin, out of our hole, in a long, twisting arc at least a hundred feet downhill. He throws so hard his metal-rimmed GI glasses fly off his face, bounce against my chest and slide slowly into mud and water. They’re going to get smashed for sure. He doesn’t look at me. Without his glasses, Mother’s face seems empty; he probably couldn’t see me anyhow, even if he did look. We’ve been squatting in what could be a leftover one-man trench from World War I, but is probably only a root hole from a rotted, blown-down tree. Over the past two and a half hours we haven’t said much. We’re on for four. Sometimes I think Mother might be crying but I don’t look; I’m so close to it myself, I don’t want to start anything. Mother’s scrambling now, rifleless, up onto the edge of our hole. He’s pulling at his webbing equipment, trying to unhook it. Normally, the band would be standing this perimeter guard, but they’re in town with the officers entertaining Red Cross ladies. The Red Cross battled its way up to our regiment yesterday and sold us doughnuts, ten cents apiece, two lines, enlisted men and officers. I didn’t peek to see if officers paid. I bought one and shat it half an hour later. Squatting there with Mother, I’d been watching one of those little buzzing L5 artillery observation planes circling over us. The motor has a peaceful sound like an airplane on a summer day at the shore dragging an advertisement saying PEPSI – COLA in the sky. Only now it’s winter and it isn’t peaceful. I lean down, carefully pick up Mother’s glasses, then shove myself off from the bottom of our hole, pushing against my muddy shelter half. The frame’s twisted but nothing’s broken; the lenses are thick as milk-bottle bottoms; they’d be hard to break. But they’re slippery, gritty, wet and smeared with mud. Mother’s up on the lip of the hole. Now he’s crying hard but isn’t making much noise. I start scrabbling my way out; I want to pull him back down before someone sees us. We’re on the side of a hill at the edge of a forest. In fact, we’re surrounded by hilly forests. It’s snowed a few times but green’s showing through today and mostly everything’s either thin hard-crusted snow or mud. I know it’s somewhere around mid-December, but that’s about all. Even though we’re in reserve here, for some reason neither mail nor Stars & Stripes has been getting through. Now Mother takes off. He’s gotten himself unhooked and slings his ammo belt, his pack, entrenching tool, bayonet, canteen; the whole kit and caboodle, looping, twisting through the air, downhill. Just before he disappears into the trees, he flips his helmet, discus-style, off in the direction of his rifle. He acts as if he really is quitting the war! I’m torn between running after him and not deserting the post. After all, I am sergeant of the guard; can you believe that? I don’t. First, I run down to get the rifle, helmet and webbing equipment. Then I run after Mother, picking up his things as I go. When I reach down to snatch up his field jacket, I peer back; nobody’s watching. Everybody with any sense is sleeping, taking advantage of all those missing officers. I know both Ware, that’s our platoon leader, and Major Love, our S2, are off playing ‘hero’ for the ladies. We still don’t have a new platoon sergeant, either. I prop my rifle against the first tree, with Mother’s things, and run after him. He’s speeding like the wind, not looking back. Without his glasses he’s liable to smash into a tree. There’s no use hollering, so I squeeze tight and keep on. Who knows, maybe he’ll run us both right on out of the war, through division, corps, army, the whole rear guard. Maybe we’ll find a French family with a lovely daughter and they’ll hide us. If we get caught, I can always say I was only trying to catch Mother, trying to salvage government equipment, picking up Mother’s clothes. The trouble is we’re going the wrong way. He’s headed south; all we’ll do is run into the perimeter guard for some other tired, mixed-up regiment. We’re all so scared we’ll shoot at anything, especially some bare-assed, bare-eyed skeleton in boots. From what I’ve scooped up so far, Mother is down to boots and socks. I almost caught him while he pulled off his pants, but when I stopped to pick them up, he scooted away again. We’re playing a unique version of Hänsel and Gretel with strip poker overtones; or maybe something of Atalanta’s race. Because of the exertion, I’m having my usual problem; the stomach’s turning upside down; soundless, burning squirts are slipping out. I’ll smell like a portable latrine when I catch up with Mother. Big headlines: POISON GAS USED IN ARDENNES! Mother’s definitely outdistancing me. I determine to grit it hard for another burst of two hundred yards, then I’ll have to give up. Christ, what’ll I tell Ware? The next time I look, I don’t see Mother anywhere. We’re still in forest but we’ve gone down a steep hill. Then I spot him. He’s flopped into a streambed and is digging in it, throwing rocks left and right like a dog searching a bone. I slow down, stunned, and stop, staring, while I catch my breath. I start moving slowly downhill toward him, wondering what’s next. What happens now? What sergeant-like thing am I supposed to do? I’m sliding and slipping on a combination of iced snow and pine needles. My entire body’s shaking. These days, I’m so shaky most of the time I need to wait for a good quiet moment to draw or even write a letter. I’ve taken to printing in capital letters, short quick strokes; not much chance for a wild, erratic, uncontrolled twitch to give me away. I squat at the edge of the stream beside Mother. That water’s got to be ice cold but he’s kneeling in it on naked, white legs. I know I’m thin, what with my GIs and all, but Mother’s so skinny it’s hard to believe he’s even alive. I stay there quietly, watching him toss stones, concentrating between his knees. I’ve got to do something. ‘Here, Mother, I have your glasses. You forgot them up there in our dent.’ He turns and stares blankly at me, stops digging, kneeling in that fast-running, cold, clear stream. I hold the glasses out. Slowly he crawls toward me, takes hold and slips the glasses across his eyes, carefully hooking behind his ears. He’d stopped crying but now he starts again. I help pull him out of the creek and we don’t say anything. I can’t think of a single word I can possibly say to make any sense and I’m not sure Mother could talk if he wanted to. Piece by piece, I hand him his clothes and he puts them on. He dresses slowly, taking deep breaths, as if he’s in a barracks on a Sunday morning. His boots and socks are soaking wet, but after he buttons his field jacket, he looks almost normal; except for his blue-white face and the crying. ‘Mother, I’ve got your rifle, helmet and webbing stuff back there at the edge of the forest. How are you feeling?’ Mother looks into my eyes for the first time since he started running. Snot and tears are smeared across his face. God, it’s so weird seeing our Mother Wilkins like this. We call him Mother Hen Wilkins because he’s always hounding us for being sloppy, bugging us about leaving things around or not cleaning out mess kits and canteen cups. Once Fred Brandt complained how Wilkins would sneak up on everyone after breakfast and give the sniff test to see if we’d brushed our teeth. Mother’s one of the oldest in our squad and he’s married. He had his twenty-sixth birthday two days before his baby was born dead. Mundy told me that. Some birthday present! Mother’s still staring at me through his fogged-up glasses. He’s leaning slightly forward with his arms dangling in front of him, a puppet waiting to be used. He starts talking in his slow, careful way, thinking out each word, every phrase, sentence, as if it’s going to be engraved on platinum. ‘You know, Wont, I don’t know if I have combat fatigue or not. One whole part of me knows everything I just did, from tossing my M1 to scratching in this frozen creek. One part of me knew and wanted to stop, but another part kept going, wanted to keep running, throwing off things, doing any kind of crazy business it could think of. That part was definitely bucking for Section Eight. That part, the deepest inside part of me, will do anything to get out of all this and go home with Linda.’ ‘Want me to turn you in, Vance? I could write up the most beautiful Section Eight certification evidence anybody ever heard of. Between the actual wild things you just did and the stuff I’d make up, you’d at least get back to some psychiatrist in a hospital.’ Mother lowers himself cross-legged onto the ground. He props his head in his frozen hands, his elbows on his knees. He’s thinking about it all right. ‘No, I’d never make it. I’m still not scared enough. I’m too scared of them and not scared enough of myself. I couldn’t fool anybody. Part of what let me go through all this shit was it was only you there and it didn’t really count.’ ‘You sure fooled me, Mother; I’ll tell you that. You also broke a squad rule.’ He lifts his head off his hands, straightens up. ‘What rule? What squad rule did I break?’ ‘You said “shit.” What would Father say? Don’t let them get to you, Mother. No matter what happens, don’t let them get you.’ There are many peculiar things about our squad. I’ll start out with a few. First, we almost never call the Germans KRAUT or JERRY or HUN or NAZIS, any of the usual army names. At the most, they’re ‘the enemy.’ Only Stan Shutzer, our professional Jew, calls them anything he wants. Father Paul Mundy gave him a special dispensation. Yes, we have a squad father, too; Mother Wilkins, Father Mundy. But that isn’t the second squad’s second peculiarity, it’s only an accident. Father Mundy invented our squad ‘no obscenity’ rule. We want to make it clear we are not actually part of this army. We’re princely orphans left on the wrong doorstep, maybe bastards of the blood. It helps. This might well be one of Father’s greatest coups. For a guy who acts so dumb sometimes, he can be shrewd. Mundy’s twenty-six, a dropout – but not fallen – almost priest. He and Mother are the old men in the squad now, the rest of us are under twenty. We pick up our equipment at the edge of the forest and are back in our dirt dent before the next guard comes on. Mother’s got himself fairly well in hand. It’ll be Bud Miller, our mechanical genius, crossword-puzzle inventor and child poet, along with Stan Shutzer, Jewish avenger and aspiring millionaire advertising executive. Both Bud and Stan have jewelers for fathers, but I think it’s about the only thing they have in common, except being smart and at the same time dumb enough to be in an infantry I and R squad. They’re on the next four, from two to six. Edwards’s squad’s got the night part but then there’re twelve of them so they can keep it two hours each, and it shouldn’t be bad. After the ball is over, the musicians will take their usual guard duty again. Mother and I straggle back to our bivouac. He and I are tenting together now. Before the Saar, he was with Jim Freize. Jim was definitely a close second to Mother in the neatness competition. They’d fuss around getting their area cleaned up, everything neatly packed away; then they’d meander down to the motor pool to wipe and shine their jeep. Neither of them knew the first thing about how to keep a jeep running, but theirs was always spic and span, even in the damned Metz mud. Miller, the mad mechanic, won’t let the motor pool jocks near any of our squad jeeps, but he’d only laugh at Jim and Mother puttering around. I crawl into my sloppy side of our tent and pull out the book we’re reading right now. It’s called A Farewell to Arms. I have pages 215 to 310. Wilkins is ahead of me and Shutzer behind. Shutzer’s been hounding me all day to hurry it up; Wilkins finished last night. It’s just my luck being caught between two of the fastest readers on our side of the Siegfried Line. We rip books apart so we can read them together. The book before this was All Quiet on the Western Front. We talked it over and voted as a squad to quit the war first chance we got. We were still together then, outside Saarbrücken. Father Mundy didn’t realize, until we told him, the characters in the book were German. But he might have gotten skipped over with some pages. We usually leave Father until last; he reads each word as if he’s licking it. I finish my pages and put them at the opening of our tent for Shutzer. This chapter is called briefing. There is a typical military briefing coming up soon but I think I should give our real briefing here while I’m supposed to be drifting off to sleep. Briefing, in the army, means explaining. The army mind wants everything short and simple, except wars. Maybe that’s why they call it briefing. But sometimes it’s hard to be short and simple. Probably, in a certain way, this whole book, not just this chapter, is a briefing; but I’m not quite sure for or about what. Our squad is half of the I and R platoon, the second half. The I is for intelligence, the R for reconnaissance. The I and R platoon is part of the regimental headquarters company of the Umpty-eleventh Regiment, of the Eighty-tenth Infantry Division. A regimental headquarters company is basically a lot of nothing. To give an idea. We have a bird colonel, his adjutant and assistant; all and each with orderlies. There’s the S1, S2, S3, S4, S5, and so on, each a major, each with an assistant, all with orderlies. An orderly in the army is a low-paid military servant. Then, we have cooks, cooks’ helpers, cooks’ assistants, permanent KPs, supply clerks, mail clerks, file clerks, typists, messengers; a plethora of personnel people, plus the motor pool crowd. The motor pool is where they park the vehicles, almost exclusively jeeps, staff cars or two-and-a-half-ton trucks; nothing very warlike. Actually these vehicles mostly only carry people and their junk from one place to another. The drivers of this hauling fleet are T4s and T5s; that is, sergeants and corporals who aren’t expected to shoot anybody on purpose. We’ve also got the regimental band: thirty of the most unlikely soldiers to be found on the wrong side of division. As I said, they usually stand perimeter guard for the company. I’ve never heard them play, but then there haven’t been many parades. We liberated a violin at Rouen and Mel Gordon wanted a tryout but was told there’s no room for violins in a military band. But wouldn’t it be great, hearing taps or reveille – better yet, retreat – played on a violin? Last and least comes the I and R platoon. There are twelve in a squad; squad leader’s buck sergeant, assistant corporal; no orderlies. Our squad is down to six. Mel Gordon became corporal to our squad the same time I made sergeant. It wasn’t for much we did except stay alive. He hasn’t sewn on his stripes yet, either. I and R is the eyes and ears for S2. S2 is regimental intelligence. Our S2 is Major Love, both name and job gruesomely inappropriate. Love was a mortician in civilian life. He’s ‘eyes and ears’ to Colonel Douglas Sugger, regimental commander, usually referred to as ‘the Dug Sucker.’ The Dug’s a past master at war costumes and heroic jaw thrusting. Major Love has a slight talent for jaw thrusting, too. Love’s main passion is generating business for his professional colleagues, the grave registrars. His most available target has been the I and R platoon, with which he has had some sporadic but notable success. Whistle Tompkins always claimed that any living, moving human body was an insult to Love’s sense of propriety. It’s thanks to Love and his military-mortuary skills I’ve made my recent headlong leap to three stripes. We lost half our squad in the Saar, attempting one of his map-inspired, ill-conceived, so-called ‘recon’ patrols. You can’t imagine how meaningless and stupid this was. It’s so bad I won’t tell about it; I hope. When I say lost, I mean killed. Nobody in the army ever admits someone on our side is killed. They’re either lost, like Christopher Robin; hit, as in batter hit by a pitched ball, take your base, or they get ‘it,’ as in hide-and-seek, or, maybe, ‘get it,’ as with an ambiguous joke. Our squad leader was Max Lewis, twenty. His assistant, Louis Corrollo, nineteen. We called them ‘the Louie [like Louie, Louie, You Gotta Go] twins.’ The other four of us who got ‘it’ that day were Morrie Margolis, Whistle Tompkins, Fred Brandt and Jim Freize. Morrie was my tentmate. We shared shelter halfs, buttoned them together to make a pup tent, shared other things, too. Not one of those six had an AGCT (AGCT is another inbuilt military paradox, an army intelligence test) score of under 150; each, intellectually, one in ten thousand. But that’s all another story, a story even more stupid than Love’s patrol. I’m liable to tell that one. I have a penchant for telling true stories no one can believe. My being squad leader is also another story. It’s another story the way Peter Rabbit is another story from Crime and Punishment. Our division took a mauling outside Saarbrücken. We gained a few miles of European real estate and lost the beginnings to untolled (much more than untold) generations of very bright people. I think the U.S. Army considered this a good deal. So now we’ve been moved north into the Ardennes Forest to rest and wait replacements. This is supposed to be a sector where nothing’s ever happened and nothing is ever going to happen, a kind of high-class halfway house; a front-line position for adjusting makeup, straightening out nerves and general refurbishing. I’m not sure if I myself am recuperable. I’m scared all the time and can’t sleep, not even on a long guard. I’ve already had two crying fits but nobody saw me and I gave them every chance. I hung around Mel Gordon, our unofficial squad doctor and psychiatrist, moaning, but he didn’t even notice. Nobody wants to look. My biggest immediate trouble is an absolutely historic case of GIs. Thank God for olive drab underwear. The medics here have marked me down as a paregoric addict and won’t give me any more. Yesterday I walked to my old company, Company L, and begged two doses from Brenner, third platoon medic. I shat five times going and only three coming back so it must’ve helped. I’m eating K ration biscuits and K lunch cheese almost exclusively; but I’m too gut scared for processing food. Making me squad (try squat) leader might be one of the greatest impractical jokes of the war. With this jolly thought, I end our briefing and drift off into what passes for sleep these days; Mother is snoring beside me. In the morning, Lieutenant Ware pulls open our tent flap; the pages are gone; Shutzer got them, I hope. ‘Sergeant Knott, Major Love wants us at the S2 tent. You chow up, then I’ll come by at o-nine-hundred.’ He waits to make sure I’m awake, then he’s gone. I lie back and try to think of some appropriate non-obscene word to express my feelings. I’m not awake enough. ‘Shit!’ is all that comes. Father says we are succumbing internally if we think in their terms. I admit it; inside, I’ve succumbed. Maybe that’s why they made me squad leader. Maybe that’s why I have the GIs, too; I’m polluted. But it’s better this morning. I can even lean over to lace my boots without feeling I’m squeezing a balloon filled with sewer water in my stomach. While I’m getting dressed, wriggling in a pup tent, trying not to wake Wilkins, I should explain something about my name; more briefing. Our family name is Knott. My parents wanted to call me Bill or Billy, but because there’s no Saint Bill or Billy, I was named William. They insist no joke was intended. By third grade at school, I was Will Knott. I learned to live with it, my private martyrdom. So I was more or less prepared to grit it out again in the army, Willingly or Knott (Ha!). What I wasn’t ready for was the conglomeration of certified wise guys and punsters called the I and R platoon. They decided my nickname must be Wont or Won’t; only the spelling was contended. All through basic, the controversy raged. Max Lewis was leader of the apostrophe group, claiming I’m a natural radical, troublemaker and guardhouse lawyer who Won’t do anything I’m told. Mel Gordon headed the no-apostrophe crowd, insisting I’m too nice, and Wont to do anything I’m asked. They called themselves ‘the apostates’ and ‘the antiapostates.’ Father Mundy says it’s all in the mind of the beholder. So everybody calls me Won’t or Wont and it’s up to me. That is, all except Max, who called me W-O-N-apostrophe-T right up till he got IT. I’m dressed now and sliding out of the tent, mess kit and cup in hand. I see Mother Wilkins has cleaned out the bottom of my cup again. I wonder what he leaves for his wife to do at home? I mention all the above nonsense about my name to give some idea of the wheel spinning that can go on when you have too much brain power concentrated in too small a place. Our squad has one hell of a lot of intelligence but not much reconnaissance. We’re a covey of nit-picking Talmudic Jesuit Sophists continuously elaborating one unending bead game. I decide to take the big risk and eat some regular, scrambled hot eggs and one sausage. I know better than to try coffee. Coffee works like castor oil on me. I’m not sure if it’s coffee itself or all the coffee I’ve drunk scared; but the smell, the taste, the feel of coffee makes me jumpy, shattery, scared shitless, to be precise. It still does today. I take my mess kit and climb into one of the communications trucks, slink down and try to eat carefully, quietly, in peace, chewing each mouthful twenty times and swallowing slowly. I’m almost finished when Lieutenant Ware finds me. He’s standing looking over the tailgate, his helmet pushed back on his head. He’s Van Heflin playing Van Johnson in a war movie with Marlene Dietrich as the Nazi spy. A word here about Ware while I’m trying to get down the last two forkfuls and mediating my stomach into some kind of operational order. Ware was in the Aleutian campaign. After that, he was reassigned to the Eighty-tenth Infantry Division, and more or less retired from the army. As Mel Gordon puts it, ‘He says he’ll do anything and then does nothing he says.’ Stan claims that when he starts his Shutzer Surefire Advertising Agency after the war, he’s going to hire Ware; talent like his shouldn’t be wasted. Colonel Sugger brought Ware into headquarters company to form the I and R platoon. Ware caught the I part. He had the regimental records sifted until he came up with the twenty-four people in the regiment with the highest AGCT scores. This was a wild idea in itself, but what made it even more bizarre is the way this goofy division was put together in the first place. Two years ago, that original National Guard division Love worked out with between funerals, was spruced up and prepared for combat. But before it was shipped overseas, a maneuver with two similar divisions was held across the states of Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana. This was an overwhelming catastrophe. How can all three divisions lose in a war game? They did. In the aftermath, someone realized that somehow the average AGCT for these particular divisions was in the mid-eighties. When it came to brains, they were on the down side of the second standard deviation to the left. Everybody with ability had been picked off by the air corps, the signal corps, the tank people, artillery and so forth. This was the sludge. The military solution was shipping off to the South Pacific, as replacements, all the privates in these three divisions. This left cadres of not very bright officers and noncoms. Meanwhile, back in civilization, another scenario was being played out. In the year 1943, most U.S. male graduating-high-school seniors were tested for entrance into what were called the A12 and V12 programs. Those selected would be sent to universities and trained in engineering or medicine. A12 was army. Their idea was to train us and rebuild our world after the nasty war. Several thousand were selected and, upon duly enlisting, sent to universities. Since many of us had in the course of our scholastic careers been double promoted once or twice, we were too young for enlisting. At that time, the accepted age limit for being allowed to kill or be killed in a war was eighteen. So we were placed in the ASTPR, or Army Specialized Training Program Reserve. We were sent directly to universities, and were to be given our basic training when we came of age, then sent back to the university. It was sort of an early kindergarten arrangement. However, while we were in infantry basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, the ASTPR and most of the ASTP were disbanded; taken off the drawing boards by the powers that be. We were sent to various infantry divisions to play at being real soldiers. It was like being super promoted from nursery school to grad school. We ASTPRers have many outrageous theories about what actually happened. We’re strong on suspicion. The theories go all the way from selective genocide (to make the mediocre feel superior) to the idea that the whole ploy was a rather clever recruiting device. Many of us were plugged in as replacements for those privates of the National Guard divisions who had been sent off to die in the South Pacific. This did boost the average AGCT and so solved that slight quantitative problem. A large group of very young, arrogant almost soldiers unwillingly joined the Eighty-tenth Division in Camp Shelby, Mississippi, to help form a strange topsy-turvy organization: moron officers and noncoms trying to lead a disgruntled group of smart-ass privates. In retrospect, it wasn’t actually such an unusual situation. So when Lieutenant Ware pulled us from the regimental records, he was wittingly, or unwittingly (if he had a whit of wit), tiptoeing through the tulips, culling the called, the chosen. Except for Father Mundy and Mother Wilkins, all our squad is, or was, ex-ASTPR, all with impressive AGCT scores. ASTP is an unpronounceable acronym. However, Whistle Tompkins insisted it was easily pronounced; that the TP was a Babylonian diphthong pronounced as ‘S.’ Shutzer counterclaimed that the TP went with the AS for wiping purposes. That’s a lot to squeeze around two bites and some stomach settling, with Ware standing there tilt-hatted, watching me. I either chew exceptionally slowly, or I think very fast. ‘Come on, let’s go, Knott! Love’s waiting.’ He looks at his watch. Everything in the army is run by the clock, o-five-hundred and all, but they don’t issue watches. In our squad there are now three watches; there were once five. I don’t have one myself. In the world I come from, having a watch or a telephone is a privilege of the upper classes. We move off toward the S2 tent. I do the usual thing, like an old-time Japanese wife, or a dog well-trained to heel, walk beside and about a step behind Ware; it’s part of the conditioning. He stops and looks around at me. ‘Jesus Christ, Knott! Haven’t you gotten those fucking stripes sewn on yet?’ ‘The supply sergeant says he doesn’t have any buck stripes in right now, sir. They’re waiting for a new shipment.’ ‘Hell, get some staff stripes and cut off the rocker.’ ‘That’d be destruction of government property, sir. I suggested it to Sergeant Lucas.’ I’m hoping that’s ambiguous enough. What happened was Lucas tried to push off staff stripes on me to be cut up and I suggested it would be destroying government property and we’d need to make out a Statement of Charges. This scared Lucas; he’s from the original division and somewhat slow. ‘Well, I just hope to hell that son of a bitch Love doesn’t notice.’ You’d be surprised how much profanity goes on in the army when you’re tuned to hear it. At first, stopping cold was like going on a crash diet. For a while there, Father Mundy was running his private Profanity Anonymous Therapy Clinic. At the S2 tent Ware goes in first. Just inside the flap, we snap to attention. It’s the usual setup. In the center, by the tent post, is a field table with a map covered in celluloid. At the rear tent wall is an extra-large cot and a down sleeping bag, already neatly arranged by one of Love’s orderlies. On the left wall of the tent, Major Love is shaving in front of his portable sink and portable mirror. He’s wearing his tailored trousers (no other kind, even his fatigues) and a tailored OD undershirt. We stand there at attention; I know he knows we’re there. Pfc. Tucker, his first orderly, is playing altar boy, standing beside him, holding out towels and a soaping dish. Tucker tailors his uniforms, too; he does this on his own and gets away with it, thanks to Love. Finally, after we’ve watched some rigorous efforts to get a few last hairs from under the nostrils, Love glances at us, first using the mirror, then turning his head. ‘At ease, men.’ Ware and I slouch, giving correct submission signals. Tucker hands Love a steaming towel from a bowl. Love sinks his face in it, rubbing strenuously. He continues to the top of his head, massaging with even greater vigor, then hands the towel to Tucker and takes a fresh, dry one. All our towels are army OD, so you can never tell if they’re filthy or clean, except by the smell; but these look fresh off supply. Next, we have the privilege of watching Major Love comb his hair. First, he rubs in a few drops of Vaseline hair tonic. He has the kind of hair in which the mark from each tooth in the comb is left like a plowed clay field. I think of the latest Squad Spoonerism Award. Gordon took it. Question: What’s the Bible? Answer: A fine couth tome. How in Saint’s name am I ever going to make it as sergeant with a mind that’s scattering all over the landscape like this? I’ve got to concentrate! Now Love slips his fresh, orderly-ironed, tailored shirt over his sagging shoulders and turns to face us in his combat pose, shined combat boots about two feet apart, rocking slightly on his toes and buttoning. The tucking of shirttails is a prolonged ritual. Lord, he’s got on his ‘recon patrol’ face. We’re going into combat, yes, sir, stand up to the Huns. My slouch gets easier to hold. I can feel that sausage where my heart’s supposed to be. Love walks around behind the map and leans on it. It’s angled slightly toward him. He looks up at us and smiles. Here it comes. Three of us on a tiger patrol sneak behind the Siegfried Line and take a prisoner – preferably an officer of staff rank, one who speaks English. Love picks up a marking pencil and points at the map. We are in for one of Love’s briefings. It’s usually a rehash of what’s been funneled down from division which some creative soul dreamed up at G2 or army intelligence from aerial photos taken fifteen months ago. I must admit, though, Love has the dramatic flair; probably comes from selling all those expensive coffins to grief-stricken little old ladies. ‘Lieutenant Ware, Sergeant Knott, as you know, here in this sector of the Ardennes, we have a fluid and, at the same time, static front.’ He looks to see if we’re comprehending the big words. ‘It’s fluid because of these large forest tracts, virtually without roads.’ He circles some fuzzy parts of the map with his pencil. ‘It’s static because nothing has happened here for several months. ‘We’re here. And they’re there.’ Again some pencil twirling to show the lines. ‘Neither side wants to set up a line without clear fields of fire, and nobody’s moving.’ He snaps off another of his Robert Taylor glances up from under the eyebrows. By God, that’s it! I knew Love looked familiar; he’s a sort of faggy Robert Taylor. I need to check this with the squad; it could be only personal prejudice. ‘Right here is a five-hundred-acre forest.’ He traces, again on the celluloid, the forest. This time he makes real marks, so we’re getting serious. My eggs have put themselves back together and are a whole egg, shell and all, just behind my belly button. ‘There’s an intersection of two tertiary roads, not paved, almost in the center of the forest. At the intersection is a château. ‘At the eastern end, here, is a hunting lodge.’ He gives us another conspiratorial – up from under eyebrows – steely glance. ‘We strongly suspect Jerry has an observation post or outpost there.’ Oh boy, the plot sickens. Just snuggle up behind those guys and capture a few. I think I’ll faint here in the S2 tent. Or maybe I’ll dash over and tear at Tucker’s fly, while working up a proper drool. Sorry, Father Mundy, I know not what I do; just testing out a possible quick Section Eight. ‘Sergeant Knott, I want you to move into that château with your reduced squad. Take two jeeps, one with the fifty caliber mounted; also a week’s rations. Take a 506 radio and keep in contact with us here at regiment.’ Is this it? Is Love telling me we’re going to live in a château? I wait. ‘Lieutenant Ware, you maintain radio contact with Sergeant Knott. We’ll hold the other recon squad here at regiment for any additional patrol work. ‘Sergeant Knott, your squad will either be relieved by the end of the week or additional rations will be sent out, according to operational conditions.’ Ware sort of halfway pulls himself to attention. ‘When do you want these men sent out, sir?’ ‘Tomorrow morning at o-eight-hundred. They’re to keep an eye on any enemy outposts in the area and man posts to surveil the bridge and road going past the château.’ Love turns to me. ‘Well, Sergeant Knott, your squad can’t complain about this one. The Whiz Kids can live like kings.’ ‘Yes, sir. Sir, is there any evidence of occupation at the château?’ ‘That’s one of the things you’re to find out, Sergeant. Here’s a chance to use our “intelligence” in a little “reconnaissance” for a change.’ He smiles his undertaker’s smile, ghoulish anticipation. ‘Yes, sir.’ Always a hooker. Six guys in two jeeps rolling up to a château in the middle of somebody’s (nobody’s sure whose) forest and inviting themselves in. We can always dog it if things look bad. Most of us have wagging tails, floppy ears and the mange from dogging it during times like this. We are not the best choice for I and R work. Love’s finished with his after-toilet before-breakfast military operation. We go through the whole saluting dismissal routine and I break clear of Ware fast. I need advice from the squad. Maybe this might be the chance we need to quit the war. A whole week with nobody looking. That’s rot! We’ll do it. For sure, we’ll baby-sit Love’s château in the middle of a frozen forest filled with people trying to kill us. I don’t know what makes us think we’re so smart. Just because we can take tests, do crossword puzzles, play bridge, chess and other games; just because we read too damned much, we think we’re something special. Shits like Love or Ware are the real smart ones if you look at it objectively. They stay alive. That’s intelligence! 2 The Longest Night It snowed during the night, but lightly; temperature’s dropped at least ten degrees. The first snow fell in the Saar for my nineteenth birthday. I was on a full-day artillery observation post with the squad twenty-power scope. I’d spent the morning peering through drifting whiteness, trying to keep from breathing on the lenses. It was beautiful, even the black blossoms of mortar; they were far enough away. I’d pick a spot and wait till it happened; you can do this when you get to know the patterns. Now, when I look at the Brueghels in Vienna, I remember my nineteenth birthday. Here, this morning, going out, there are frozen leaves and pinecones on the ground when we pass through K Company and drive into the forest. The road’s just two hard ruts; the light, new snow’s blown into them. No sign of other traffic; rough riding, slippery, cold. Miller’s driving our jeep; Wilkins and I, in back, take turns on the fifty caliber. I’m up; it’s miserably cold sitting there in the icy wind. As we go deeper into the forest, huge pines loom dark on both sides. Some light is coming into the sky. We drive along not saying much; absolutely beautiful sniper targets. Gordon’s driving the other jeep, with Father Mundy and Shutzer; I look back to see if they’re still with us. Wilkins taps me and I slide down. He uses the handhold to climb up and crouch behind the sights. Wilkins looks scared, but we’re all looking scared most of the time. We haven’t said anything about our cross-country jaunt through the woods. Maybe it’s because we can’t figure out who won. Wilkins is acting as if it didn’t happen. That’s OK; just thinking about something like that scares me. Mother has a piece of blanket cut into a long scarf; he’s tucked it under his helmet like a burnous, then wrapped it around his neck and stuffed it inside his field jacket. It gives him a sad Lawrence of Arabia look. Thank God Sergeant Hunt isn’t around for this. Mother’s glasses have slipped to the end of his nose. I’m not sure if he can actually see anything through those sights, anyway. His nose is long, bright red against his face, but he looks all right: maybe it was only a bad moment, something to forget. ‘I’ll tell you, Wont. I feel exactly like a target being towed across a firing range.’ ‘Don’t sweat it, Mother; pretend we’re going for a winter Christmas stay at the family château. Imagine yourself a member of the old European élite.’ I look ahead, over Miller’s shoulder. The road’s tough, twisting, narrow. We’re winding along switchbacks now, working our way deeper into the forest. I’m just checking the map again to see if we’re on the right road, going the right way, when the world seems to explode. The jeep jumps so only Miller could’ve kept it from turning over. I think at first we’ve hit a mine but then realize it’s Mother firing off a long burst. He’s shooting past Miller’s left ear at something on that side of the road, so the jeep’s reared up on its two right wheels. I’m already clambering out before it gets settled back on four. Miller cuts the motor, grabs his M1 and dives, crawling under the jeep. Half our junk we’d piled in back, behind the gun, is spread along the road. I’m hunched in the middle of it. Jumping out, I banged a knee on that damned handhold and my stupid mind is more wrapped around this pain than on keeping me alive. Wilkins is still up behind the gun. He’s not firing but continues sighting down the barrel. I can barely get my voice together for a whisper. I’ve crept behind the right rear wheel, away from the direction Mother fired. ‘What is it, Wilkins? What’d you see?’ There’s a moment before he answers. He stands up from his crouch behind the gun. He pushes his glasses farther up his nose and leans forward. ‘There was a German soldier standing behind a tree – there. I think I got him; he’s lying on the ground. I don’t see any others.’ ‘You’re sure. Mother? And you can still see him?’ Mother takes off his glasses, wipes the lenses with the leather fronts of his woolknit gloves and peers again. ‘Yeah, he’s there. You can see him yourself if you stand up.’ This is not the kind of thing anybody who likes being alive does. But if it’s an ambush why aren’t they shooting Mother off the jeep? Bolstered by this slight bit of hasty logic, I scurry into trees beside the road. I look back and see everybody’s dispersed from the other jeep; the motor back there’s still running. God, I’m scared, I’m expecting the BBBrrrRRRppppPP of a burp gun any minute. I sling my rifle and take a grenade off my jacket. Anything close, I’m better off with a grenade than a rifle. I slide my finger in the ring and move up two, then three trees. It’s a German all right and he’s sure enough dead. About one minute later, after I’ve carefully snuck up in good infantry manual procedure on our ‘dead German,’ I look down on something I’ve seen in dreams at least a thousand times during the past thirty-seven years. He’s been dead a while and is frozen with one arm over his head and the other twisted across his stomach. He’s lying on his back but he died on his stomach with his head turned. One side of his face is iced and flaked so pieces of frozen flesh hang from the bones; this flesh is bluish green and there’s no sign of blood. I see where one of Mother’s fifty-caliber bullets went through his neck just below the chin, a perfect unbleeding fifty-caliber hole. I’ve seen the dead and the dying but I’ve never seen anyone dead, shot. They call a sharpshooter a dead shot, but this is a real one, shot while dead. It seems to me, then, like the final violation. Miller comes beside me. ‘Jammed dog tails! What happened?’ ‘Somebody must’ve stood him against that tree, Bud. They hauled him from somewhere and propped him there.’ I reach down and pick up a typical German bolt-action Mauser balanced beside him. There’s also a piece of white paper with holes in it, no writing or printing. ‘They maybe even had this rifle balanced on his hands, sticking out, leaning against the tree. That’s what Mother saw.’ Except for Wilkins, the rest of the squad’s drifting over now. Boy, am I ever the great leader. ‘Come on, everybody, let’s bunch together so we can be mowed down easily.’ Wow! Father Mundy kneels by the German. He tries closing the one open eye with his thumb like a real priest, but it’s frozen open. The other eye is only goo, frozen goo. Father pulls off his glove, jams his thumb into the bolt of his M1 and rubs it around. Then he makes little crosses on what’s left of the German’s face: his forehead, his eye, his ear and his lips, then the backs of the stiff decaying hands. He’s mumbling prayers to himself in Latin. I kneel down on one knee beside him, as much to keep from keeling over as anything. ‘That isn’t Extreme Unction you’re doing there, is it, Mundy? I thought you had to be alive to get it and a priest to give it.’ Mundy stands up slowly, still praying. He’s functioning, but he’s in almost as much shock as I am. ‘Right, Wont. But those were the best prayers I could think of. I asked the angels to help and the devils to leave. What else?’ He pulls off his helmet and his head’s sweaty. We start moving back to the jeeps. Mother Wilkins, like the only good soldier in the pack, is still sitting up there behind the fifty caliber covering us. Mundy reaches into his helmet liner and pulls out a wad of toilet paper. ‘Is it all right, Wont, if I go off into the bushes for a minute? Something like this turns my insides out.’ I wave everybody our private ‘piss call’ sign, and Father Mundy goes deeper into the woods. I move back to the jeep. Miller’s sitting in the driver’s seat, his legs hanging over the sides. He has his helmet off, and is pounding on his ears. ‘Look, Mother, could you give me just one second’s notice before you start that thing up again? I have a flock of mockingbirds doing a duet with a squeaking oil well in the middle of my head.’ Miller turns to me. ‘Won’t, is it OK if I take a smoke while we’re waiting for Mundy?’ ‘Sure, but I don’t approve. I have to live with Gordon, too, you know.’ I look down the road at the other jeep; Shutzer and Gordon are leaning against it. Melvin Gordon is squad health nut; he intends to become a doctor if he lives through the war. (He actually does; both those things.) He’s taken on the personal responsibility (unasked) for the state of our bodies. Mundy works on our souls. In today’s terms, I guess Mother’s our ecologist, Miller’s our mechanic and poet, I’m the artist and Shutzer’s our business manager. Gordon has gotten all of us who smoked to stop, at least in front of him. It can be an enormous nuisance. Miller resists Gordon most, the way Shutzer resists Mundy. About then, Father Mundy comes dashing from the forest at half mast. He still has the toilet paper in one hand flapping along after him and he’s holding on to the belt of his pants with the other. His rifle has slipped down to the crook of his elbow so it’s swung in front and is thumping against his knees with every step. ‘Mother of God, save me!’ He looks back over his shoulder. He feels for his head with his toilet paper hand and realizes he doesn’t have his helmet. He stops dead in his tracks. ‘No, Lord! Don’t make me go back!’ Father Mundy’s trying to buckle and put himself together. He keeps tangling in the toilet paper. We’ve all sprawled in the snow again except Wilkins, who’s swung that fifty caliber so it’s aimed just over Father’s head. ‘What in the name of heaven is it, Mundy?’ Mundy shambles over and flops beside me. He’s about six three and better than two hundred pounds; on the edge of being soft. His usually white skin is even whiter and his Irish upper lip is covered with beads of sweat; quivering. ‘You won’t believe it, Wont.’ The rest of the squad has scrambled, sprinted or crawled over to us. Maybe nobody could ever lead this bunch of gregarious genii. The trouble is they always want to know. Wilkins leans down from beside the gun. ‘What was it, Mundy? What’s in there? Is there a German patrol?’ ‘It’s OK, Vance. Only I wasn’t expecting it. I don’t know what’s going on, but you all ought to go look. I’m not exactly sure what I saw. I was so scared I took off without looking much.’ Shutzer pushes himself up, wiping the frost and dirt from his knees and elbows. ‘What’d you see, Father, a little grotto with a mysterious light coming out of it and this lady dressed all in shining blue and white who talked to you? Come on, tell us!’ Mundy gives Shutzer one of his ‘forgive them, Father’ looks. ‘OK, wise guy, what would you think of a German and an American soldier dancing together in the woods there; without music yet?’ Shutzer’s climbing up to take Wilkins’s place behind the fifty caliber. He should really be squad leader. That’s the kind of thing you’re supposed to think of. He slips into place while Mother Wilkins lets himself slide off the side of the jeep. He must be frozen. Gordon shakes some snow out of his glove. ‘What’s this? Father Mundy bucking for Section Eight? Well, fan my jawbone. A little counseling might help, Father; my office hours are two till five. I think I can squeeze you in.’ It’s time to play sergeant. ‘OK, Mundy, let’s see whatever it is. Shutzer, you stay here and cover. Miller, you give us cross fire from behind the other jeep.’ I figure Miller can get his smoke in up there while we’re gone. We start into the woods, rifles at the ready. We get to the spot; Mundy picks up his helmet and points to the left. I’m almost ready to believe anything; but I have a hard time with this. They look like a statue. They’ve been standing long enough so the last snows have sprinkled helmets and shoulders like powdered sugar. We advance slowly, Gordon in the lead. Somebody’s propped an American and a German soldier against each other in the final of final embraces. Their arms and legs are cocked so they look like waltzers, or ice skaters about to move off into some intricate figure. I stop; I don’t want to look. Mundy and Gordon go on, with Mother behind them; then Mother turns around and comes back. ‘I don’t understand, Wont. What’s going on? Who’s standing up these corpses? It’s crazy! This whole war’s gone off the track somehow!’ I shake my head. I’m afraid if I talk I’ll start bawling. It’s not so much I’m scared; more confused, disgusted, discouraged. I stand there, rifle at the ready, pretending I’m doing something military, while Mundy and Gordon untangle the bodies and lower them to the ground. Mundy does his ersatz Extreme Unction thing, Gordon hovering over the bodies. I have time to pull myself together. Gordon and Mundy come back and we move toward the jeeps without saying anything. Even for a bunch of self-proclaimed smart asses with a wisecrack for almost anything, there isn’t much to say. Shutzer and Miller won’t believe it when we tell them. They’ve got to go in and see for themselves. We tell them they aren’t ‘dancing’ anymore, how Mundy and Gordon let them down, but they want to check. Faith is going out of style, even in our squad, despite Mundy’s heroic last-ditch efforts. We get the rations, grenades, camouflage suits and other junk, including twelve mini chess sets, packed tight in the jeep; Mother climbs in with me behind the fifty. Gordon starts the other jeep and rolls close behind ours. When Shutzer and Miller come back, Shutzer’s like a lunatic. ‘Those filthy, Nazi, Kraut-headed, super-Aryan, mother-fucking bastards. Only pigs would even think of a thing like that. That whole Goddamned country doesn’t deserve to live with human beings. We should shove them in their gas ovens and wipe them all out. I personally would be glad to supervise the entire operation. ‘And don’t give me any crap, Mundy! You tell me why anybody’d do something like that to anybody else! What kind of God lets things like that happen?’ Mundy’s sitting in the other jeep. He’s quiet. Then he looks at Shutzer climbing in beside him. ‘Yes, it’s a terrible thing, Stan, a horrible way to treat the temple of the Holy Ghost, even if the immortal soul has departed. But we don’t know for sure the Germans did that.’ Miller turns over our jeep and guns the motor so I just pick up what Shutzer says. ‘For Chrissake; who else, Mundy, gremlins?’ We go along slowly, twisting, turning; up and down hills, around cuts in mountains, under snow-covered trees. I stay behind the fifty, head ducked tight into my shoulders, trying to follow on the map where we’re going. It’s a small sector map of the one Love had, a contour job, an inch to a thousand feet, so it should be reasonably accurate. But we’re making more twists and turns than are shown. ‘What’s the mileage, Bud?’ He looks down at the odometer. ‘We’ve come about six and two-tenths so far, since K Company.’ We go through a narrow defile and suddenly there’s a bridge over a small stream, the bridge I’ve been looking for, the one we’re supposed to watch. Up a steep road from this bridge is the château. I mean it’s really a château, not just a fancy house. It isn’t all that big, but this is something from a French fairy tale. Miller glides to a stop; I hand-signal back to Gordon. We turn off both motors and listen. It’s quiet except for winter birds, running water and the sound of wind through pines. Slopes of forest come down behind, close to the château. Looking at the bridge, I can see there’s no vehicle or foot traffic marks. It appears the place really might be deserted. We scramble out of our jeeps. Gordon takes the scope and inches forward to a tree nearest the château with a good view and some cover. He leans the scope against this tree and scans everything for maybe five minutes. Nobody’s saying anything. All of us are staring at that château. It’s built in pinkish-gray stone with a blue-gray slate roof and white shutters. All the shutters are closed. It’s three stories tall and has a mansard roof. It doesn’t look real. Gordon comes back. ‘I don’t see anything, Wont: no smoke, no movement, no tracks. The windows and doors are all closed; there are no vehicles and no smells.’ ‘What do you think, Mel? Send in a two-man patrol or just charge up that hill with the jeeps?’ ‘I thought Shutzer and I could ford the creek downstream a ways and approach from that side. We can look around back, then come on down the road in front to the bridge and check for mines. How’s that sound?’ ‘We’ll spread out and cover for you.’ If Mel hadn’t gotten trench foot in the mud at Metz, he’d sure as hell be squad leader and that’s the way it should be. Or maybe he’d be dead. He and Shutzer start down through the trees. I pass the word for everybody to spread out and be ready to give covering fire if they need it. I slide down to Gordon’s tree, where there’s a good field of fire. I watch as they ford the narrow stream on some rocks. Shutzer slips and dunks one foot up over his boot top. They clamber uphill on the château’s left, keeping the hill between themselves and the windows. It’s like watching a war or cowboy movie, actually more a cowboy movie with the good guys sneaking up on the shack where the cavalry colonel’s beautiful blonde daughter, in total décolletage, is being held by a bunch of wild-eyed bandits who sweat a lot, wear black hats and two-day beards. Then they disappear. I figure they’re behind the château. I wait. Waiting is 99 percent of soldiering. Sometimes it’s only waiting for chow, sometimes it’s waiting like this; but definitely too much waiting. Then Shutzer comes around the other side of the château. He leans forward and peers through one of the shutters. Gordon slinks along behind him and is swinging his head back and forth like some bird dog trying to pick up a scent. Gordon and Fred Brandt both claimed they had the best schnozzolas in the world. They insisted they could pick up smells other people don’t even dream about. Once at Shelby, out on the firing range, we had a smelling contest using a pair of Jim Freize’s socks as bait. Freize could stink up a pair of socks in two days so they stood by themselves. His feet were like a dog’s tongue; it was the only part of him that sweated. And some sweat. It was a treasure hunt. I went into the woods and hid a pair of Jim’s socks; then Gordon and Brandt had to search them out by scent alone. Both of them were remarkable. They’d find those socks faster than it took me to hide them. Fred won in a best of ten series but it was close. I think the difference was mostly a matter of luck with the wind. Now Mel has it to himself. We called him Mel the Smell for a while there, but he objected to the double meaning. Actually, Mel’s on the neat side, not in a class with Wilkins, but way ahead of me or most of the squad, even Morrie. Gordon and Shutzer start down the hill. They both take a side and are peering carefully at the steep road. Once Shutzer leans and carefully scratches at a spot with the tip of his bayonet. They cross the bridge, then the road on our side of the bridge, and come up toward us. I step out from behind my tree. ‘How’d it go?’ Shutzer sits on the ground beside me. ‘Nobody home. Looks like nobody’s been there for a while, either.’ Gordon hands me back the scope. I should’ve asked for it before they left. Chalk off another two points. ‘Can’t see what’s inside. There are curtains or drapes inside the shutters. I checked the doors and there’re no signs of boobytraps. It looks as if we’ve got ourselves a château.’ Of course everybody’s dribbled in from the spots I put them and are gathered around. Shutzer’s pulled off his boot and is wringing out his sock. ‘Well, it isn’t the good old University of Florida with fifteen hundred acres of orange trees growing under Spanish-moss-covered oaks around an Olympic-size swimming pool, but it’s a step in the right direction, I’ll say that.’ When Shutzer gets his boot back on, we climb into the jeeps and roll uphill to the château; no mines, no machine-gun bursts, no snipers, nothing. We force a front shutter and window with a bayonet. It’s a French window-door and, as Gordon predicted, no boobytrap. We sidle in the door and stand just inside, letting our eyes get used to the dark after all the glare outside. My God! What a room. It looks like a ballroom or a very fancy small gym. There are parquet floors and on one end is a gigantic fireplace, big enough to walk into. Long golden damask curtains go from floor to ceiling over the windows. The windows must be fifteen feet high. Everybody files in so we’re all standing there staring. None of us has ever seen anything like this before. And what makes it so eerie is there isn’t one piece of furniture in the room. I know it’s time to play sergeant again; somebody has to. We need to unload all the rations and crap from the jeeps and set ourselves up. But we only stand there, overwhelmed. I’m definitely feeling like Cinderella who was not invited to the prince’s ball. I feel very disinvited. Shutzer’s the first one who moves; he sashays out to the center of the floor. Shutzer’s about five six, round but not fat. He’s loaded down with all the military furbelows: bulging field jacket, two bandoliers around his neck, ammo belt filled with M1 cartridges, bayonet, aid kit and canteen. He wears camouflage netting over his helmet, the only one in the squad. Gordon says it makes Shutzer look like an escapee from the South Pacific. Shutzer claims he wears it so he’ll recognize his hat; helmets are too much all alike. Shutzer’s OD pants are stiff with greasy dirt; we’re all the same, even Wilkins; there’s no way to wash them and no others to change into. The wool soaks up grease and gets darker until the fronts are stiff and almost black. Shutzer steps out onto the floor and gazes around; then he starts singing, grunting, humming ‘The Jersey Bounce,’ and breaks into a jitterbug routine by himself in the middle of that huge room. They call it the Jersey bounce, The rhythm that really counts, The temperature always mounts Whenever they play … ‘Come on, Mel, let’s show ’em how we did it at the old USO.’ Gordon comes out, rifle slung on his shoulder. He starts dancing with Shutzer. The two of them, bayonets clanking, canteens bouncing, bandoliers swinging, try some of the classic hand-over-head jitterbug maneuvers but their rifles get in the way. I watch those crazies, working it out in the middle of the Ardennes, and I remember Shelby. In those last days, when we finally believed they really were going to ship the Eighty-tenth Division overseas, we went into a mild state of panic. Shutzer insisted this was proof that, despite all the propaganda, we were losing the war. Sending this outfit to fight anybody must be a desperate last resort. But the thing bothering us most is that in our squad, with the exception of Wilkins, we’re all virgins, eleven unwilling, unready to die, virgins. I don’t know if all this virginity was only a normal factor of the times or if there is some negative correlation between sexual precocity and what we call intelligence. Maybe it was only an accident of space and time. Who knows. We’d spend evenings trying to coax details out of Wilkins. His wife was in town and he’d do anything to make sure he got his weekend pass. If his KP or guard duty happened to fall on a Saturday or Sunday, we were all willing to jump in and sub for him, a vicarious pleasure. None of us ever met Linda, but we all knew her. In a sick, sex-hungry, Biblical sense, we all knew her. Of course, Mother was very reluctant. He wasn’t about to satisfy our puerile salaciousness. To all our entreaties, questions about how often and how much, his only reply was a sly smile and bashful ‘Oh, it isn’t like that at all,’ or ‘You guys are sex maniacs.’ So, it got to be less than three weeks before shipping out. I think it was Morrie who came up with the idea, or maybe it was Shutzer. Four of us managed a weekend pass and headed into town to hunt a nice, complaisant whore who could put us out of our misery, initiate us into the rites of manhood, emancipate us from the lonely compassion of our five-fingered widows. All together we had fifty dollars. Ten was for a room at the Jefferson Hotel. This was for two but we knew a back way to sneak in the others. It was Gordon, Shutzer, Morrie and I. We figured any more would be some kind of gang bang and we had more romantic aspirations. The rest of our money was to go into the ‘investment’ and a bottle of bourbon. Forty dollars was a lot of money in those days. There was much speculation and discussion on the kind of woman. I think each of us was scared we’d get involved with a real woman and wouldn’t be able to manage it. We agreed pure chance, not game skills, would decide the ‘pecker order,’ so we matched coins. Morrie won, Shutzer second, me for sloppy thirds and Gordon on the tail end. (Think of that, a quadruple pun!) We settled into the hotel. Gordon and Shutzer had been nominated for the search, the recon part. We knew better than to hustle girls at the USO. We’d all tried that at one time or another, but the forces of morality were greater than our tactical skills. The B-girls in the bars were generally too much for us. None of us could make the grade with a genuine soldier-town whore, and none of us was willing to get a case of clap or syph. We were well-conditioned by the U.S. Army VD films. These films of festering mouth and cock sores were usually shown just before chow. Thank God they were in black and white. Morrie was convinced they showed them when the quartermasters were running short on chow allotment. Jim Freize insisted it was only a priori population control. The war was, by common consent, ex post facto birth control. Probably what we wanted was some girl who would resemble the girl we took, or wished we’d taken, to our high-school prom. Morrie and I knew we could never make any kind of approach under any conditions. I personally had decided to sacrifice my contribution to the cause if it looked impossible. I don’t know what I actually thought could bring together my absurd romantic notions with, what seemed then, my pressing physical demand. Gordon and Shutzer left the hotel all slicked up. They were wearing fresh underwear, had rubbed in enough Mum to make a smeary mess in their armpit hairs, splashed themselves with after-shave lotion. It was early summer, and muggy hot in Mississippi. Morrie and I had decided to enjoy the privacy of the room. We each had a book from the post library. We stripped to our skivvies and jumped into the beds. We luxuriated in the quiet; it was accented by the sound of a huge long-bladed wooden fan hung from the ceiling rotating slowly. In turn, and on schedule, we took baths, timing ourselves as the water heater recuperated. It was a fine evening and great contrast to the streets outside roiling with other soldiers, MPs on the prowl and glaring townspeople. The feeling of civilians in Shelby seemed to be ‘What the hell are you doing here when you should be out there fighting Nazis and Japs?’ It’s past midnight when Shutzer and Gordon come back. I’m asleep; I’m sure Morrie is, too. After the baths and the quiet reading, I’m not even nervous anymore. I’m convinced Shutzer and Gordon aren’t going to find anybody, anyway. But they have; they sneak into the room and a young girl comes in with them. I can’t believe it. I sit up in bed and look over at Morrie. He’s sitting up, too, his OD undershirt dark olive drab against the sheets. This girl fulfills my wildest dreams. She can’t be much more than twenty and she’s beautiful. Shutzer and Gordon are giggling nervously. It must have been some fun smuggling this girl through town and up these hotel back stairs at this time of night. After the last bus has gone back to camp, the whole area swarms with MPs. The girl’s standing just inside the door, smiling at us. I know right then I won’t be able to go through with it. I’m glad I’m third down the line. It doesn’t seem possible it’s happening but it is. It’s about here I realize Shutzer and Gordon have been drinking, probably trying to boost their flagging nerve. Gordon has a bottle in a paper bag; it turns out our bottle of bourbon is almost a third down already. None of us is much at drinking; in fact, we class drinking, along with cussing, as army pseudo heroics, to be avoided. With nothing said, I slip from my bed. I’m embarrassed wearing only GI underwear, large unbuttoned slit in front, like the back of a hospital gown. I scurry into the bathroom. Gordon and Shutzer come in after me. Shutzer’s picked up the pillows from one bed on his way in; he locks the door behind him. ‘We might’s well make ourselves comfortable; never know how long a guy like Morrie’s going to take.’ Shutzer’s playing big shot but his hands are shaking and he’s sweat through his suntans under the arms and in the small of his back. Gordon sits on the toilet with the seat down; he slides one pillow under him. I climb into the bathtub and tuck a pillow behind my neck. The tub’s ice cold and hard; I get out and start filling it. Who knows when I’ll have a real bathtub to use again; besides, if I’m going to be awake at one o’clock in the morning, I might’s well be doing something; I’ve finished my book. Shutzer looks at his watch, pulls out a cigar and tries to light up. Gordon glances at him disgustedly. Shutzer starts undoing the buttons on his shirt. ‘You know, she says she’s doing this for nothing; “anything for the boys overseas,” or almost overseas, anyhow.’ He pulls off his sweaty shirt. ‘Won’t, you wouldn’t believe it. We went into every bar and joint, up and down every creepy dark street, arguing all the way. When we’d finally agree on one, the price’d be something astronomical like twenty bucks a throw, no cut rate for groups.’ He drops his shirt on the floor and looks into the mirror over the sink. He squeezes a pimple under his ear. He tries to light his cigar again. He doesn’t even know enough about cigars to trim it. ‘Ya mind gettin’ off the toilet a minute, Gordon; I gotta take a piss.’ Mel stands with his pillow clutched against his chest. Shutzer lifts the lid, pulls out but can’t do anything. He stands there, looking down, puffing on his uncut cigar trying to keep it lit. We’re quiet; we can hear Morrie and the girl talking in the other room but can’t hear what they’re saying. Shutzer buttons up and looks at his watch again. He undoes his pants and slips them off. ‘Might’s well be ready; never know how long ol’ Morrie Margolis is gonna take; might come right off without knowing it. No sense wasting time.’ He sniffs his armpits, then takes some after-shave lotion from his toilet kit and rubs it in. I try the water in my tub; too hot. I turn on some cold. ‘We’d just bought the bourbon and had almost given up when we found this girl. We were all the way down by the Greyhound Depot. She was in there sitting on one of the wooden benches. Gordon here goes over and starts talking to her. Before we know it, we’re telling her about what we’ve been doing all night; how we’re looking for a whore to defoliate four overripe virgins. We’re laughing and then, right there, out of the blue she volunteers to come back with us. God, you never know! I thought she was kidding, but she’s serious and it isn’t costing us a dime.’ Gordon sits down on the toilet seat again. The tub’s full to overflow so I turn off the water, ease myself in. ‘Stan, I have a rubber and a pro kit you can use if you want.’ ‘I have my own. Don’t worry me, Won’t; you’re getting bad as Wilkins.’ He searches the pack out of his pants on the floor. I’m glad I said it. Shutzer starts pacing; that is, if you can really pace in a hotel bathroom with two other people. He’s wearing his shoes, socks and underwear; the cigar’s clenched in his teeth and he’s clutching a packet of three rubbers in one hand. He’s balanced his pro kit on the edge of the sink. He looks at his watch. ‘Should’ve known Margolis would take forever.’ ‘Ever try one of those pros, Stan? I did once just as an experiment. It doesn’t hurt but feels peculiar, like rubber snakes squeezing up the end of your prick. Just relax.’ ‘Don’t worry, I’ll figure it. What the fuck could they be doing in there?’ ‘Watch the language, Stan, we have gentlemen in the gents’ room. What would Father Mundy think?’ ‘Fuck Father Mundy!’ Gordon shakes his head, puts my pillow on his lap along with his own and lowers his head onto it. Shutzer looks at his watch again; he leans against the door to the bedroom. ‘Hey, Morrie, how’s it goin’ in there, huh?’ No answer. Shutzer puts his ear against the door. ‘Maybe she rolled him and slipped out, knockout drops or a blackjack. Could be anything.’ Shutzer knocks on the door, first soft, then hard. ‘Hey, Margolis, give us other guys a chance, huh? At least say something.’ Still nothing. Shutzer slowly, quietly, unlocks, then opens the door, peeks, goes in. He closes the door behind him. I stand up in the tub and dry myself off. Shutzer doesn’t come back. Gordon and I look at each other. I slip on my skivvies and we go in after Shutzer. The three of them are sitting cross-legged on the bed. Shutzer and Morrie are still dressed, that is, if army OD underwear can be classified as dressed. The girl’s in a slip and crying. Gordon and I stand at the edge of the bed and listen. I’ll give a quick version of the story. It’s not what this book’s about anyway, or maybe it is. Her name is Janice. She was engaged to a boy named Matt. Matt was killed in the Sicilian invasion. Janice only heard a week ago. She came down to see all the last places Matt had been in his short military life. She’s a junior at Penn State but isn’t going back to school. She’s twenty. She came down here to kill herself but didn’t have enough nerve; all she has now is a ticket back on the bus. So what do you believe? She and Morrie got to talking because they were embarrassed. They began kissing; then she was crying and that’s how it came out. We wind up pushing the beds together into one big bed and start drinking the rest of our bourbon in the paper bag. Five people on two-thirds of a fifth. There might be some mathematical sense there, but it would be the only logical part of that night. It was like an X-rated version of a classic unmade war film starring Shirley Temple with Audie Murphy. Janice has only made love with one person, Matt, just before he left. Now she’s volunteering herself to all of us. She’s insisting it’s what she wants to do. Of course, this brings out the contemplative, cantankerous, contentious ASTPR in each of us. We’re also guilty, scared. This idea, this simple, lovely idea, must be subjected to every kind of spurious rationale. We wind down before dawn and sleep; tired, medium drunk, intimately wedded in our double-double bed. As the springing light of the new day grays the room, Janice comes, quietly, privately, half in our dreams, to each of us: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny. We cry and giggle, passing through the mythical barrier between boys and men, men and death. Janice takes us with her. At ten o’clock, after a luxurious mass breakfast in bed, Mel escorts Janice to the bus station. We don’t talk about what happened. I don’t think any of us can put it together with anything we’ve known. I personally have always had an eerie feeling about my first sexual experience, masquerading as a dead boy named Matt. And I still, to this day, have the lingering sensation that any woman with whom I make love has some other ideal person in her heart and mind. Once more we’re up against my weakness for the true but unbelievable. Mel and Janice correspond through the war. Mel goes back home and they marry. They have three children and are divorced after fifteen years. Perhaps because it was a mixed marriage, or maybe only an ordinary marriage, subject to the pressures of our times. Perhaps Matt could always have been there. Shutzer and Gordon finish dancing. We haul in the rest of our supplies. I have Miller back our jeep with the fifty caliber up against one side of the château so its barrel can traverse the entire road along with the bridge. Our other jeep we bring around behind the château. I drag in the snowsuits, the whitening, a box of grenades and the 506 radio. Mother helps me with all the schlepping. I also break out the field telephones. Miller begins untangling them. I struggle out our two big reels of wire for the phones. They’re still caked with mud from when we pulled them up in the Saar. When I’m finished, I stop to get my breath and look over the situation. From in front of the château, we look down across a series of terraced fountains almost to the stream. This is the stream under the bridge we drove over up to the château. There are statues of dolphins and different fish in the fountains, with verdigrised copper piping coming from fish mouths for spurting water. The statues look like cast cement: spotted black, green and yellow with clots of hardened moss. The basins of the fountains are filled with frozen leaves. I decide I’ll set up two guard posts; one downhill on the other side of the fountains, behind a retainer wall to the right of the bridge; the other up on the side of the hill behind the château, just higher than the roofline. I scramble uphill to locate a spot where we’ll have a good overall view of the road, both directions, and still cover the lower guard post. I can’t think of any way to protect this higher post from infiltration behind. Still, someone climbing on this steep slope in frozen leaves and dead branches isn’t going to have much luck sneaking up on anybody. It’d have to be a goodsized attack patrol charging in, and if anything like that happens we’re goners anyway. I find just the right position and clear a space with my foot. I break off a branch from a tree and jam it in the cleared space. My innards seem to be behaving themselves, even after the climb uphill. Maybe just getting away from Ware, Love and all the chickenshit will help. I slide downhill to the château and pick up one of the wire reels. I unhook the tie and knock off more mud. The guard’s going to be a drag. Days, it’ll be one in a hole; that’s two on and four off. Nights will be tough. We’ll need two in each hole so that’ll be four on and only two off. We’ll have to do our sleeping daytimes. But I don’t see any other way. I could try it with only one guard post, up on the hill; it could cover everything. Maybe after the first few days, if nothing happens, that’s what we’ll do. Or maybe just one post down by the bridge. We’ll figure something; the squad will have ideas. Mel comes out and helps me carry the reel of wire downhill to the bridge. I explain my idea for posts and he agrees. We find a perfect place about twenty yards right of the bridge. The retainer wall is shoulder high and makes an ideal firing parapet. With cover from the other post, it should be safe. That is, if anything is safe in a wood, in a war, with other people trying to kill you. I tie the wire to a ring set in the wall and begin backing uphill to the château. Gordon says he’ll take the first guard and stays down there. I struggle uphill, laying wire alongside the road and looking out at the hills around. I could be under observation by somebody out there. Some guy in field green could be sitting with a gun and a scope watching me. I turn my head to see how much farther there’s still to go and start hurrying the wire, dropping it off in loops. I’m already shaking; laying wire isn’t all that hard; my nerves are just shot. When I get to the château, I run the wire through a window to the fireplace. Mother is arranging rations and equipment. He’s started his homemaking routine already and this is some home he’s got to play with. I’m sure we’re all going to get lectures on the statues, the architecture, the wood walls, the fireplace; the whole thing. Wilkins can’t help but turn any place into a nest, and here he’s got a palace. He seems to be making it fine; just a little too tense, too conscientious. Once, on a sixty-hour nonstop convoy from Rouen to Metz, Mother rigged a sleeping hammock in the back of his jeep. That was the jeep he and Jim Freize shared. It was named Linda, of course. I painted the name on it with a picture of a rabbit. Mother calls Linda Bunny sometimes. Nothing seems to embarrass Mother; it’s as if he’s immune to all the things he should be embarrassed about. Mother also had a sort of altar along the front of that jeep next to the instrument panel. There was a picture of Linda and cutout phrases from some of her letters glued around it. Sometimes I used to think Jim was as in love with Linda as Mother was. He’d better have been, because with Mother that’s all you get to talk about. When Hunt saw this whole affair, he blew his top and made them rip everything out. Hunt got ‘it’ near Ohmsdorf, under a cross by the side of the road. It was just into Germany; we had the distinction of being the first American troops to penetrate into what the Germans called German territory at that time. This lasted all of three days and we were pushed back. I tried smuggling a message home to tell where we were. I asked Joan, my sister, to give my love to Gertrude, Moe and Jack. I knew she’d figure it out and she did. I also knew Glendon, the assistant S2 who censored our mail, wouldn’t catch it, and he didn’t! Hunt picked that cross for the platoon CP. Hunt was a noncom from the original Umpty-eleventh Regiment, and not very bright. Gordon insists guys like Hunt, Ware and Love are the real enemy; that is, if there is an enemy. Inside the château I check how Miller’s doing with the phones. He has them untangled and we tie in the wire I’ve pulled through the window. ‘Would you check out the 506, too, Bud? I’ll roll wire up to the other post. Gordon’s taking first guard by the bridge.’ Shutzer and Mundy meander over. ‘Stan, would you take one of these phones down to Gordon and tell him to hook it in? Then bring this other phone up to me at the post behind the chateau? You’ll have the first two hours on, so bring your rifle and a couple grenades.’ ‘OK, Sarge.’ I look quick to see if he’s kidding, rubbing it in; but it came naturally. I’ll never get used to it. I tie wire to the handle of the window-door with enough slack to reach the central phone, then start rolling it up the hill. The smart way would be to unroll wire from the top down but I’m not thinking well. I struggle up the slippery hill with the wire reel, holding on to trees to keep from sliding on down into the back of the chateau. I finally work myself to where I’ve marked the spot, and stop for breath. Below Stan and Mel are hooking up the other phone. While I’m watching, Mel cranks the handle and puts the receiver to his ear; it must be OK because Stan starts climbing uphill toward me without heading to the château. I tie my wire to a tree; sit down and wait for him. I pull the twenty-power scope from my field jacket pocket and scan the hills around for a quick look. I don’t see anything particularly suspicious: no smoke, no sign of movement or glints on metal. Stan comes puffing up beside me. ‘Phone’s working fine down there. Miller says he’s got the radio tuned in and warming up, too.’ We hunt for a good place to dig the hole. We want a spot showing the fewest roots. But with pines all around like this, there’ll be roots, no matter what. Stan isn’t enthusiastic about digging but I stick it out. I’m not thinking so much about protection from bullets or shrapnel as from wind and cold. At night, two guys can keep warmer in a hole. One can sit down in while the other watches. Nights here are ungodly long this time of year. I leave the scope with Shutzer and tell him to take a look around every fifteen minutes or so; give him a rest from digging. I scramble on down the hill. Miller’s started hooking the wire to the other phone while I begin the crappy army call business on the radio. ‘Able one to Able four, over.’ I get Leary, one of the few radio people at regiment who’re even half human. I forgot communications when I listed the nothings in regimental headquarters company. They’re so nothing they’re easy to forget. Leary says he’ll get our message to Ware. I say we’ve occupied the château and are digging in posts. That sounds military enough. I also schedule a call back at twenty-two-hundred; that’s ten in the evening, army talk. Mother says he’s ready to cook lunch if we’ll go hunt wood. He wants to light the fireplace, warm up the room and cook over it. We have two primus stoves with us but Mother is wound up to make a real cooking scene. There’s a kitchen opening onto the back wall along with a pantry, but it’s cold and there are no pots or pans. Wilkins says it’ll be better cooking out here in front where we’ll sleep. I don’t know what to say. If we have a fire with smoke coming out the high chimney over the château, it’ll be no secret we’re here. At that point we’re distinctly not a recon patrol; we’re some kind of occupying force. Then again, we’ll freeze our asses off at night if we don’t have heat. Father Mundy and I go around in back of the château. In the space between the château walls and the hill there’s a woodshed and a stable for two or three horses. We break open the door to the woodshed but there’s no wood. We go into the stable. There are some armfuls of dry hay still in the loft and we pry loose a few good-sized, worn boards from the stalls. If we do run a fire, wood’s going to be a problem. The trees and everything on the ground around here are wet and impossible to burn. Even if we could burn it, there’d be regular clouds of smoke. The Germans will think we’ve got Indians out here making signals. When we get back, Mother has a little flame going from D ration boxes. We add the hay and some smaller pieces of wood. But the fireplace isn’t drawing; the smoke’s pouring into the room and drifting to the ceiling. Miller looks up the flue and finds it’s been plastered closed. He uses the butt of his rifle and knocks out some plaster; a few bricks fall, then the smoke starts going up fine. I go outside to see how much comes out. There’s a twisting snake of pale blue. It’s bad but not bad as I expected. It’s a chance we’ll take. D rations have assorted goodies such as number ten cans of jam or fruit cocktail, so Mother whips up a tasty lunch. We finish off with coffee and I’m praying my stomach will handle it. For some reason, I’m not scared as I should be; maybe having a fire burning and being inside help. Mundy finds a hand-pumped well beside the château; he and Miller prime it. They bring water back in worn wooden buckets and it looks clear. We might even be able to keep our mess kits clean for a change. This could help my insides stay where they belong. I’m trying to work out a fair guard schedule. Gordon, Shutzer, Miller and Mundy will want time off together in the daytime so they can play their crazy, four-man, cardless duplicate bridge. Also, I don’t want anybody getting stuck with straight-six overlapping day and night shifts. It’s almost as complicated’s making their handmade bridge hands; that’s another thing needs doing before tomorrow. Maybe Mother will help; he’s better at it than I am anyway and it’ll take his mind off things. Shutzer and Gordon come in. Mother’s kept chow hot, dishes them out some, then leaves for the bridge post while Father Mundy pulls the one up top. This squad practically runs itself; anybody trying to lead it only gets in the way. I probably don’t even need to make any guard schedule. Miller’s also found some empty wine bottles and is cutting up feed sacks from the stable into strips with his bayonet. He’s making flambeaux, using gasoline from a jerry can on his jeep. That way, we’ll have light tonight. It’ll get dark before five, so there’ll be one more turn before night double guard starts. We’ll stick it out for now; then tomorrow, if nothing’s happened, we’ll drop to one post. Nobody said we have to defend this place, just keep an eye on the road and bridge. I crack out new grenades and issue two extras all around; we’re each carrying bandoliers, plus the clips on our belts. Our fifty caliber is loaded with armor piercing, every sixth shell tracer. We can’t do anything against a tank, even with AP, but maybe it’ll slow down a weapons or troop carrier. Hell, nobody’ll be rolling through here with anything like that; I should relax. Miller comes in with a ring of rusty keys. He found them hanging on a hook inside the well when he took off the cover checking to see if it looked polluted. There’re about twenty keys, all huge and ornate. Gordon lights one of the flambeaux. He, Shutzer, Miller and I go on an exploration. We’re finally doing some recon; Major Love would be proud of us. We find stairs to the cellar outside on the back wall and work our way down winding eroded steps to a dirt floor. It’s warmer here but humid. The ceilings are arched in stone and festooned with dirt-heavy cobwebs. If it gets really cold, we could live down here, but we’ve had enough sleeping in cellars. I’m looking for another entrance from inside to use in case somebody comes charging through the front door up-stairs, but there are only three small rooms, a dead end, and nothing but the outside stairwell we came down. Miller’s working out the permutations and probabilities for twenty keys and three doors; finally he gets them open. In one, there’re eight bottles of wine. From the straw and empty racks it looks as if somebody’s already ransacked most of it. In another cellar there are two crates of canned sardines. The last cellar is empty except for rusty old tools and some broken chairs. We gather up the wine and sardines; they’ll give some zest to the D rations. Miller hauls along three of the broken chairs for burning. We stash the cans of sardines and bottles of wine beside the hearth; Miller cracks the chairs and throws some rungs on our fire. Next we climb a stairway on the far wall from our fireplace. It curves upward to a landing, then turns back along the rear wall. We open a tall, wooden door onto a hall running the length of the château, almost like a hotel hallway. Miller’s fooling with his keys again. He’s marked off the cellar keys so he’s down to seventeen. It turns out one key opens all hall doors. The first room has three walls lined with books, including a recessed spot for a globe of the world. Most of Europe on it is German. The floor is carpeted and there’s oak wainscoting up about three feet. I pull aside the curtains on the fourth wall, open a window and push out the shutter. I’m looking down from the front of our château and see Mother by the bridge. Maybe I should make the upper guard post in here; be a hell of a lot more comfortable. But somehow it seems wrong, turning a beautiful room like this into a guard post. Wilkins probably wouldn’t let me anyway. Also, if anything happened, whoever was up here would be trapped. I go around looking at the books. They’re all French or German, no English. I’m not exactly sure which country we’re in; could be Belgium, Luxembourg, France or even Germany; we’re at a place where they more or less come together. I don’t know what time it is, what day or what country. I’m not even sure of my own name. Next thing they’ll be making me a general. The other rooms are bedrooms, five of them. There are furniture marks on the floors but the rooms are empty. The biggest room has full-length mirrors along one wall, the wall away from the windows. God, we’re ugly; dirty, gangling, baggy; shuffling in a hunching crouch like animals. We’re walking, talking Bill Mauldin cartoons or van Gogh potato eaters. We look as if we’re holding things in, at the same time, keeping things out; a permanent state of negative expectation. I stop in front of one mirror, straighten, try to recognize myself; who is this, who am I? Gordon’s up close to another mirror, inspecting his teeth. Miller and Shutzer are laughing, posing; pointing at each other. Shutzer gives himself the finger. I don’t think we’ve been seeing ourselves the way we look in these mirrors; it’s hard to accept. We look like the enemy. At the end of the hallway are two doors. One opens onto a gigantic bathroom with more mirrors along the walls. In the center of the room is a strange-looking copper bathtub shaped like a giant shoe. It looks something like the house for the old lady who didn’t know what to do. It also looks like the kind of bathtub Claudette Colbert would use to take a bath with lots of bubbles, steam and Clark Gable. She knew what to do. Miller wants to make a bucket chain, haul water from the well and take a bath. But it’s so cold there’s frost on the insides of windows and the mirrors are steaming up with our breath and the heat of our bodies. There are closets behind the mirrors, all empty; and in one corner is a sink without water. There’s also something like a footbath, which I now know was a bidet. We go out and open the other door in the hall. It leads onto a narrow turning staircase. We tromp up in a row. At top is a small door; Miller gets it third try. The attic’s divided into small rooms and these rooms are stuffed full with furniture. Things are piled King Tut tomb-style, helter-skelter. It’s fantastic: musical instruments, rugs, satin-covered chairs, beds, paintings in big gilt frames. We poke our way around. Wilkins is going to go ape exploring all this. He’ll probably be cataloguing the whole shootin’ match before he’s finished. But we have some needs right now. We carry down four mattresses and satin quilted covers. The second squad of the regimental I and R platoon, Umpty-eleventh Infantry, Eighty-tenth Division, will be living in luxury for a few days. Downstairs, we square our mattresses around the fire and spread the quilts over them. We put fart sacks on top. We’ll always have at least two on guard so this should work fine. I spread out on one and enjoy the softness; it’s been a long time since I’ve slept in an honest-to-God bed. Shutzer, our kosher gourmet, hungering for the smell of fish, opens a sardine can with his bayonet. Miller, the man who has everything, even a corkscrew, works the cork from a bottle of wine. This could well be the coup de grâce for my stomach, perhaps my entire digestive system, top to bottom. We pass the wine and sardines around; wine’s sour but cold, sardines float in thick oil; some writing on the can’s in German. Maybe this is the German secret weapon; maybe we’ll all wind up in some nice American field hospital with a gaggle of Purple Hearts, victimized by the terrible Huns and their secret weapon, poisoned sardines. I sit there trying to work out bridge hands for the maniacs. Soon as I’m on duty, it’ll be Gordon, Shutzer, Wilkins and Mundy locked in mortal combat. Concocting hands is more fun than playing. Sometimes I watch and count tricks. For me the game is guessing what the contract will be and if the hands will make. Each day, I’m getting better at playing this inside-out, bass-ackwards kind of bridge. The secret is making the hands as Machiavellian as possible. Before that Saar patrol, the squad usually played ordinary duplicate bridge. Once a week at Shelby, we’d nominate a team to play against the first squad, Edwards’s squad. We always won. If you don’t count Wilkins, Morrie and Gordon were our best players. At Shelby, Wilkins would never play; now he only plays once in a while to make an emergency foursome. Morrie, Fred and Jim were regulars, too. Max Lewis would play sometimes. Now, when the maniacs want a really good game, they beg Wilkins to sit in; but poor Mundy’s stuck with it most of the time. He never played before he joined the squad and he’ll never be any good. He’s not devious at all, and doesn’t care enough about winning. It drives Shutzer mad. When we lost half the squad, we also lost our only decks of cards. They were on Morrie, and he was back with the medics before he could pass them to any of us. We weren’t thinking much about bridge right then. He died in the field hospital. With his right hand gone and his face the way it was, I don’t think he tried hard to stay on. I wouldn’t. Gordon and I wrapped him; it looked as if his eyes were empty; the side of his head was spongy soft. We’re continually writing home for playing cards, candles, pencils and dictionaries but not one of us has gotten any. We get warm, hand-knit socks, too thick for our boots, or boxes of cookies mashed into crumbs. Corrollo used to get hot Italian peperone sausages and hard Italian cookies uncrushed. Corrollo also would steal sausage off dead Germans. He said it was good but not so good as he got from home. Father Mundy’s mother packs each of her cookies in a separate wrapping of waxed paper, then stuffs shredded newspaper tight around them. She’s been sending packages to relatives in Ireland for years, so she knows how. Father considers those cookies an act of love. They are. He’s the one guy we never hound for seconds but he passes them out anyway. It’s almost as if he’s giving communion; one at a time, carefully unwrapped and handed to you directly. They’re usually tollhouse, with lumps of real chocolate and deep in butter. One of Mundy’s mom’s cookies is something to be eaten slowly with much concentration, almost worth reconverting for. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/william-wharton/a-midnight-clear/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.
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