Damned cold night …
I stooped down and began to tie the shoe of the old man outside of the nursing home, after all that’s what we do when we have to, when those who have already lived the much anticipated lives that we hope and dream of doing need us.
The old grizzled and bearded man said, ” I can’t even tie my own shoes anymore, son .” Thinking as quickly as I could, I looked up at him and said, “That’s okay, we all get to the point when we need a hand don’t we ?” and he smiled, though a bit sadly, making me feel a bit better. I noticed the long blood red scar running up the side of his thigh to a place above the shorts he was wearing and before I thought better, I asked.
“What in the world is that scar on your leg there, my friend ?” For a while he didn’t say anything and I thought perhaps he was going back inside himself as old men sometimes do , but after a moment he said, ” I got that ole’ thing in the Battle of the Bulge in WWII, son. Seems like one of those German boys wanted to slice me end to end don’t it ?” I looked over at him again and his eye’s clouded over for a second before he spoke again.
“A young boy ran his bayonet into me one night in the coldest damned night I believe I’ve ever seen.”
For a moment I didn’t speak thinking and wondering at the same time. Yet after I looked at his face, I knew somehow that he wanted to explain what happened, so I merely waited while he looked me in the eyes before continuing.
“No one ever tells a soldier in training that he will have to fight young boys. I suppose if they did, though, no one would want to go off to war would they ? ……….I was on watch that night when those damned SS troops came out of the darkness and well, before any of us knew what was going on the night lit up with mortar fire all around us and everyone was screaming something different. The machine guns opened up behind us, the rifle fire exploded , ……….just about that time I saw them coming out of the pines. Well, before I could even react I saw that one of them had chosen me as his next victim ……… he came right at me and before I knew it I saw that damned bayonet flash!”
The old man went kind of quiet for a few moments, took another puff or two from his pipe and his eyes misted over. His voice broke as he continued with the memory. I wondered for a moment why I had asked about that scar to begin with. I looked down in shame and as I did he continued..
“Somehow I was faster than he was and although just as that cold steel blade tore it’s way right up through my thigh I thought …. So this is how it all ends …… This is how I’m going to die, right here in his open field , in the middle of winter , on some damned Frenchman’s farm ……you know , it’s one hell of a thing to realize that just in one moment in time as your whole life flashes right in front of your eyes, that all I could think about was I don’t want to die on a night so cold as this. It was twenty degrees below zero that night!”
By this time I was wondering different thoughts and didn’t want to ask any more but he continued.
“Of course , I had never dreamed that I would ever, ever have to shoot a boy either. When we finally got control of the battle we began to check out the bodies , ours and theirs too ……..that “soldier ” that had bayonetted me and that I had killed with my own knife, well he couldn’t have been more than fourteen years old.”
And with that ending I couldn’t look the old man in the eyes for long moments and although now I ‘m sure he has grown used to that reaction from any of those he has trusted that story to, I could still feel his pain. I could still taste his tears and would always have the thought in the back of my own mind . God, I hope I never have to send my son off to a war . With the end of this story though , the old man looked away for awhile and just as I thought that he might be drifting into another world that only old minds seem to fully understand and perhaps drift off into a slumber of old dreams or nightmares, he spoke again.
“Do you suppose you could push this damned wheelchair into the cafeteria for me ? I hear that on today’s menu it just could be ‘Shit- on -a- Shingle’ today. I sure don’t want to miss out on a delicacy like that again!” And with that he laughed softly. I thought “Sure, why not?”
Remember the old soldiers .