The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #59418 Message #3011175
Posted By: Rapparee
19-Oct-10 - 09:45 PM
Thread Name: BS: The Mother of all BS threads
Subject: RE: BS: The Mother of all BS threads
The old Emil Schletter place burned ten years before I was
born. Emil and his wife Leona had both died in the fire, and the property was, in the phrase of the country at that time, "tied up in the lawyers."
It was a marginal eighth section, and poor farming methods hadn't helped the productivity of the soil. All in all, no one was anxious to settle the ownership of the land and by the time I came along it was generally felt that either "the lawyers" now owned the old farm or that it belonged to some cousin in New York city who didn't care about it and only used it for a tax break --opinions differed.
It didn't matter to my friends and me. The thrill of trespassing (if anyone cared about it) added to the zest of playing among the ruins of the old house and outbuildings. It became for us land to settle, war-torn towns to liberate from the Nazi hordes, the landscape of some distant planet, or a place to escape to when school, parents or life itself began to close around us.
Marginal for the Schletters, unwanted by the legal owner, the weed-grown pastures and fields became for a group of growing
children a playground unequaled anywhere.
We smoked our first cigarettes there. We swam in the pond in summer and slid on the ice in winter. We hunted rabbits with our .22s during hunting season, and sharpened our marksmanship against the high clay creekbank year-round.
I'm sure that the deputy sheriff who lived only a half mile away knew what went on. At that time and place he would have done nothing unless a complaint were filed, or if someone were injured. Otherwise, he (and our parents) knew where we were and (usually) what we were doing. I'm also sure that certain of the grown-ups -- especially my Uncle Mathias -- knew when we were doing what we were doing. It was Uncle Mathias, after all, who was waiting for me at the gate the day I started walking home, green and ill, after trying chewing tobacco for the first time.
His advice on that occasion, offered as he walked beside me and I tried to keep up a conversation and keep down my breakfast, was simple: "If you chew tobacco," he said, "it's best not to swallow the juice."
I was a newly-minted second lieutenant, under orders for Vietnam and home for a thirty day leave when I last visited the Schletter place. Of those with whom I had grown and played, two were dead and the others scattered. Visiting, walking along the barely discernible trails and poking among the ruins of the burned house and the tumbled barn was to relive for a moment the joy of the past.
I would never see the place again, for the creek was to be dammed to create a man-made lake for flood control and recreation. When I would return, waterskiers and fishermen would play over where I had once played.
In two days, I had to report to Travis Air Force Base.
In three days, I would be at Tan Son Nhut.
In a week, although I didn't know it then, I would be with the Americal Division at Chu Lai. In a month, I would be operating out of LZ Gator, leading patrols through forests of eternal twilight.
Unsurprisingly, Uncle Mathias was waiting for me, sitting on a rock by the old milk shed.
"Not much doin' out here today," he said.
"No," I agreed. "Not much doing."
We waited there, he on the rock and I standing, for a few minutes, each knowing that the other was thinking of the future and neither knowing whether or not to speak of it.
Finally, Uncle Mathias broke the unstrained silence.
"Yes, I am. I suppose everyone going to war worries."
"Yes." I said it flatly, a statement of fact.
"Good. I'd be worried if you wasn't scared. Fact is, I'd do my damnedest to talk you into runnin' off to Canada if you wasn't scared. Ain't nothin' quite so disturbin' or downright dangerous as a fearless second looey."
I couldn't resist asking: "Do you speak from experience?"
"Fact is, I do. Back in '18, when I was a sergeant with the Big Red One in France, I had a second looey put in command of my platoon who was fearless. I was just a youngster myself, of course, and like all the others in my platoon and all the others of my age, I thought that I'd live forever. Other people got themselves killed -- I was too darn smart.
"We was in the trenches -- near some God-forsaken village which had been shelled first by the Germans and then by the French and then by the British and over and over and over and now by the Americans until it looked like the walls of Jericho must have looked after Joshua finished up. Lieutenant Doaks -- that was his real name, Daniel Doaks -- called me into his dugout late one afternoon and told me that me and him were going to go out with a patrol that night. We were goin' to get some "filthy Huns" for prisoners -- those were his words, 'filthy Huns.'"
"What happened?" I asked.
"We left the trench about moonset. Lieutenant Doaks had told me that he wanted only 'fearless warriors' (that's what he said, too) on his first patrol. I was green then, but I did want some of the old salts along -- Narbeth, or Smith, or maybe Oltanger. Fact was though, none of the experienced people volunteered and I was too green to order them to go along. I know now why they didn't want to go, but back then I just put it down to funk.
"Anyway, like I was sayin', we left the trench after moonset, which was about midnight or one a.m. We crawled out to the wire and passed through, closing the wire after we left. About fifty yards out into no man's land, we reached a shell crater which we had marked as an assembly point and the final jumpin' off place for our little raid.
"Right away, the looey started to screw things up. First thing he did was that he had brought a telephone with us and unrolled the wire as we walked. Nobody did that sort of thing in those days, 'cause the phones were not at all like the ones you have now -- and radio was limited to Morse code with a telegraph key. Now, as we were sittin' in the shell hole tryin' to look like nothin' was out of place, the damned phone rang.
"It was the Captain, and he should have known better. The looey took the call, and all I could hear was what was said at my end. The looey told the Captain that yes, we were in the shell hole, our first point, and that yes, we would be going in right quickly to get the prisoner, and no, nothing had gone wrong, and finally one of the boys whispered to me, 'Yes mother, I'll be home directly" and it was all I could do to keep from laughing.
"After he hung up, he gathered us together and repeated our mission. Of course, by this time I figgered that the Germans not only knew that we were there, but had figured out who we were, what we was goin' to do, when we was goin' to do it, and probably knew the maiden names of our mothers to boot.
"But the looey wasn't afraid! No sir! Not him! He was going to lead his men into battle with the Hun and save Western Civilization with this one raid.
"Then the mortars hit.
"We were about as safe as we could get right then, bein' on the reverse slope of the front wall of a pretty damned deep crater. But the looey, he jumped up, drew his .45, and shouted "Follow me!" at the top of his voice.
"He jumped up on the lip of the shell hole and looked just like that statue at Fort Benning -- the one at the Infantry School.
"Germans saw him up there and came close to cuttin' him in half with a machine gun. He fell back into the hole and died in my arms.
"The brouhaha was gettin' wilder. The Germans had now brought in artillery fire, and flares, and me and the boys in the hole were seriously thinkin' about leavin' the party and goin' home. Problem was, there was a hundred and fifty feet to our wire, a short eternity to open the gate in the wire and maybe another seventy-five feet to our trench. Say maybe two hundred and fifty feet, it could be done in maybe eight minutes walkin' and that time includes openin' the gate in the wire.
"Crawling, and every inch of the way seemin' to be already occupied by a piece of unfriendly steel or lead, it would take considerably longer. Maybe forever.
"And the Germans, they weren't fools. There might be a patrol right now gettin' ready to come out and catch us instead of the other way around. They knew that nobody went out into no man's land alone; they knew we were there.
"And I had the highest rank in that hole. Six other guys were depending on me to have the right answers. And I had never been in such a predicament before -- hell, I'd only come under fire in training, just like the others.
"Two of the boys messed their pants. I didn't, but it took some control, let me tell you!
"A fifty-nine shell lit real close to the right; it tore up the lip of our shell hole. I figgered that another wouldn't land there (don't believe that, 'cause it ain't so), so I carefully peeked out around the newly rearranged dirt.
"Sure enough, there was a patrol of about twenty Germans at the German wire, about two hundred yards in front of us. And we couldn't back up, go forward, go sidewise, shit, or go blind.
"I slithered back down into the hole and told the others what I'd seen.
"They were unhappy with the news, you might say. I must admit that I'd had better myself in my time.
"Then I banged my knee against the telephone the looey had dragged along.
"I picked up the handset and rang the crank. I thought that the wire had probably been cut by the shelling, but it was just possible that I was wrong.
"I was wrong. The Captain answered on the first ring.
"He was glad to hear from us, and told me that they were being shelled. I told him that I knew that, and that we had been getting shelled for some time too.
"He asked to talk to the looey, and I told him the looey was dead. He asked me if I was sure. I told him that I felt that being ripped up with machine gun bullets probably did that to a man. He told me that I'd better come back and that I'd better bring the looey's body with me.
" I mentioned to him that we would probably be leavin' the shell hole soon, but that we'd be goin' the other direction due to the approaching German patrol.
"Man was pretty excitable, for an officer. He asked me where the Germans were and how many there were and told me to tell him quick so that he could call in some artillery on them.
"So I told him. And then he hung up or we were cut off, because the line went dead.
"I slid back up the slope and peeked out again. The Germans were through the wire and about fifty feet inside no man's land. Soon, unless something was done, we were going to have visitors."
Uncle Mathias stretched, and stood up. He filled his pipe, lit it, and blew a great cloud of smoke skyward.
"Just then," he continued, "Our artillery arrived. Only it was targeted on where the Germans had been instead of where they were now. Just the same, it made them take cover.
"But the thing was, the Germans had been in those trenches in that sector for a long, long time. They were veterans, and fine soldiers. They knew every gully and hummock like I know my backyard. They just started to move out of the impact zone of the artillery, and towards us.
"Now, remember that during all of this the mortar, machine gun and artillery fire from the German lines was goin' on. They were out to get us, and they wanted us bad.
"I knew then what a tennis ball feels like.
"I tried calling the Captain again, but it was no go. The phone was damaged, or the line cut, or something.
"There was nothin' else to do. I gathered the boys together and told them that we'd either have to fight or run, and that either way it was touch-and-go about makin' it.
"We put what was left of the poor lieutentant on a gas-cape, what you'd call a poncho today, which somebody had along, and pushed him up the slope of the crater and dragged him toward our lines. We left the phone.
"About twenty yards away was another, smaller, crater. We pulled in there and regrouped.
"The seven of us were unhurt, but scared to our toenails.
"Then I had an idea, and put it to the group that we were in a good position to ambush the German patrol who was out looking for us. They'd be coming pretty soon to the crater we'd just left, and from where we were now we'd have a good shot at them. Might even be able to take a prisoner or two back, which was the whole reason we were out there in the first place.
"Three of the boys said that they felt that it would be just as well if they continued to mosey on home. I said that that was fine, but would they leave those of us remaining behind most of their spare ammunition and grenades, take the looey's body with them, and tell the Captain where we were and that we'd be late coming home and so not to leave the porchlight on.
"They quietly left us, and Bill Reynolds, Alvin Sharp,
Fred Wood and me slowly pushed our '03s over the lip of the crater and into the direction we'd just come. For luck, we each put Mills bombs where we could get them quickly.
"Then we waited. We knew that the Germans would come slowly, and that the shelling would probably lift just about the time they reached our old hole.
"The shelling did lift, suddenly, and the silence was as scary as the falling shells.
"A flare went off right over our old crater. It threw the whole thing into sharp light, just as if it were day. And it also showed a patrol of twenty Germans suddenly leap up and surround what was now an empty hole.
"They tossed a grenade into the hole, and we started shooting and got at least half of them with our first volley. Sharp grabbed one of his Mills bombs, pulled the pin and threw it. He was a good pitcher, and it landed right where it would do the most good. They were hurt, no doubt of it, but they were good veteran troops, like I said, and they ducked down and began to return fire.
"It was just a matter of time before the Germans in the trenches figured out who was who and started dropping things on us.
"I signalled, and we each grabbed a Mills bomb, pulled the pins, and threw them together.
"The four explosions sounded like one, they were so close together. We jumped up and charged, no command or anything, just that it was the right thing to do and the four of us were readin' each other's mind.
"To tell it quickly, we took four of the Germans back with us to our lines -- one apiece. They were so rattled from what turned out to be our crazy charge that all the fight had gone out of them.
"We left the other Germans, the dead and wounded, in the hole. We figured that their stretcher bearers or someone would come to help those who could be helped.
"Captain was mighty proud of us when we got back. Apart from scratches and bruises, nobody except the lieutenant got hurt, which was a pure miracle considerin' the effort which had gone into trying to do just the opposite. Sharp and Reynolds and Wood and me each got a medal out of it. And a weeks' leave in Paris!"
"Uncle Mathias," I said, "what medal did you win with this engagement? I have never before heard you speak of this." Uncle Mathias, you understand, was not above making a long story out of a short one.
His eyes grew lonely, deep and very, very sad. I would see eyes like that later; we called it the "thousand meter stare." There is a photograph in which I have it.
"Those who have been there seldom, if ever, talk about it," he said slowly. "Reynolds was killed; he took a large fragment of metal in the stomach. Wood lost both legs to a mine. Sharp, the best pitcher I ever saw, bled to death in the Argonne when a shell ripped both of this arms off. I was with each of them when they were wounded or died. I still write to Fred Wood, but I don't think that he'll be with us much longer.
"I received, for my part in this minor engagement, the Medal of Honor. Each month, I receive from the government of the United States the sum of one hundred dollars. If you doubt the truth of this, you will find it easily checked at the public library or by reading the orders you will find in my sea chest at home." Uncle Mathias, who could speak as correctly as I, did not forego his regionalisms unless he was quite annoyed. And he was annoyed with me.
I tried to apologize, to tell him that I had never doubted him. Orally falling all over myself, I tried to make amends for a slight I never intended to someone I loved.
Suddenly, his face lit up in a huge grin. "Oh hell," he said. "If somebody told me the story I just told you, I'd think they was lyin' too!"
"But I didn't walk out here today just to tell you stories. I got somethin' to give you and somethin' to tell you before you go to war.
"When I came back from the war, everything was changed. Our old house was too small and the town was, well, tiny. I had to leave again, only this time I wasn't forced out but was leavin' of my own free will.
"That's what I wanted to tell you. When you come back, nothing will be like it was when you left. This place will be under water, and you'll find that everything is a whole lot smaller. Maybe you'll have to leave like I did, and if you do I'll square it with your mother for you. And one more thing: if you ever find that what you went through was more than you can take alone, I'll listen to you. What I didn't tell you just now was what I haven't told anyone else, except that Sharp knows it, of course. It is this: when we charged those Germans, they were dead, wounded, or in shock. Except one. One grizzled old Sergeant, I guess he was, popped up in front of me and knocked my '03 away. I don't know how I did it, but I grabbed him, wrestled him to the ground and choked him to death with my bare hands.
"And I still relive that, some nights.
"If you need to talk, when you get back, to someone who's been there, well, I'm here. Your war'll be different from any of mine, but killin's the same. And that's what it is about, when you come down to it."
Uncle Mathias sighed and stood up.
"Here. Got a couple of presents for you. Keep 'em to yourself."
He reached into his jacket pocket, took out a small automatic pistol, and handed it to me. "It's only a .32, but it'll do for a backup if you need one. This was mine, I carried it in Europe during the last world war."
From inside his jacket he took a knife with a blackened metal handle and a double-edged, diamond-sectioned blade. "This was your father's. He got it during the War; it's called a Fairbairn-Sykes stilleto and it was issued to the British commandoes and the OSS. He sent it along to me in the last package I ever got from him. He said to save it until he got home. Since he didn't make it back, I kinda thought that you should have it now. You might need it."
I was very close to tears.
"Now you listen," Uncle Mathias continued. "Both of these are mine. Your daddy gave me this knife, and your Aunt Thecla bought me the pistol when she found out I was in Europe the last time. She sent it over with a friend of ours, thought that it might be handy to have since I was at war again. So, you can have these two things as a loan. Use 'em, but you've got to bring them back.
"Right now, if you will please put those items in your pocket or somewhere else out of sight, you and me can stroll over to the house and see if Thecla's still got some pie and coffee around."