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Nebraska Commando - a World War Two Tale (based on truth)
Machine Gunners, Similar to Grandpa Jim
A Cold Christmas
On with the Dreams
He lay on the hilltop again - the one like an overturned kettle in France. Gunfire all around. Dead bodies, crying men... This was war. This was what Jim had fought to get to, what he had disobeyed his father to arrive at. Silhouettes of soldiers coursed across the bomb-lit night, and a face came near his. A man fell atop him, his mouth open in the terror of dying. Jim pushed him aside, and studied him. The man had no left leg. Jim said something to him - comfort maybe, he did not know what. But then his foot came alive with pain, where before had been only numbing cold. He crawled away from the dying man. He was here to fight. Soldiers died every day - hadn't he written, before he came to France, many letters home to bereft families? Uneasily he crawled, and the man's face shoved into his thoughts. Jim realized he had known him. His name...
He met several more bodies on his journey. Some of them talked to him. He did not talk back, but he could not help looking at them. They were all stricken. Maybe they had not fought to come here.
Jim's foot pulsed with fire and ice, shouting pain at him because of the shrapnel lodged there. At last it overcame his yearning for victory through war, and he found himself on the outskirts of the firing, watching a man thrusting with long strides up the hill. The man's uniform was German. His eyes screamed delight and murder at everything in his path. His rifle butt came down hard on the neck of a man whose face Jim could not see. His hair was blond. His name was stuck somewhere in the void between Jim's memory and speech. Abruptly, other men fell, their wounds coming variously, but all meaning one thing - their day had come. Suddenly blackness filled Jim's mind.
He woke, in his own bed in Nebraska. While he had been in England, his foot split by shrapnel, chasing nurses gleefully down the hall in his wheelchair, he found out that his machine gun squad had been erased. "Taken POW" were the words. What a bland phrase for all the pain of their families!
Jim had gone home, married, gone back to farming, and with his wife, Shirley, had raised five children. The men of his squad had never been heard of again, and where their lives should have been, only guesses remained. "Why was I spared?" he asked under cover of darkness. God had never answered his question. "Someday," vowed Jim, "someday I will know what happened to them."
Meanwhile, it was Christmas again, and the grandkids were coming. Yes, December 25th, 1944 had been his last day of action. His feet had been frozen in Belgium. He had come home on an American Red Cross ship, and resumed life.
Well, it was time to resume life yet again - the sun was getting up.
Tiger Tank, Like the One Which Ruined the Pork Stew
At 11:30 that morning, his children, and their children - even tiny James, his great-grandson - accosted him. His granddaughter Genna glowed with good will. She greeted Jim with a hug and said, "How are you, Grandpa?"
Jim did not know how to answer. He was shaken with memories, that's how he was - so he nodded and smiled.
After the feast, during which he sat at the head of the table like a patriarch, he watched the laughter and ribbing, and could only smile vaguely. Soon he shuffled into the living room. Genna followed him. "Grandpa," she said, "I would like to know more about you being a soldier."
"Well," he said, settling deeper into his armchair, "I was a machine gunner, working with the other men in my squad." He described the gun, then laughed. "A funny thing happened the first time I was on guard duty in Normandy. We had two hours off and one on the gun. There were hedgerows with an opening in them. I was startled by a noise and thought it was the Germans. I called out to 'Come identify yourself,' which was foolish I realized, because if it was Germans I would've been mincemeat. The noise kept coming, and finally - a cow appeared in the opening. What a relief! Then it was time for someone to relieve me.
"Another time, I jumped down in a foxhole, during practice with live fire. A diamondback rattlesnake decided to buddy up with me! Well, I wanted no part of that, so I stomped it to death. Then I must have fainted, because when I remember next, the exercise was over and they were looking for me - thought I must have got hurt. Oh! I hate snakes." Jim shuddered, and Genna smiled.
Suddenly his face darkened, but Jim's voice gave little hint to the turmoil Genna saw in his staring eyes. "My machine gun squad was taken while I was in France. I was in Cherbourg, in a hospital with my foot all split open by shrapnel. It was a place kind of like on M*A*S*H. They moved me to England when they could. And when I was sent back into combat, I learned my whole squad had been taken as prisoners of war the day after I went out with shrapnel." Jim looked at Genna in a way that made her sorry to have his eyes on her. "We never knew what happened to them.
"I was a commando, Genna. We had special missions. Once we were ordered to take a castle in France. It was a German headquarters. We understood our orders, but my commanding officer said, No, we weren't to blow it up, we were just supposed to go inside and take prisoners. I guess he was more interested in architecture than in winning the war. Anyhow, when it came time to do something, he was still contradictory. So, Genna, we whopped him on the head, and we took that castle. But I tell you, the worst part of it was having to haul that sorry man back!"
Suddenly Jim laughed, low and with twinkling eyes. "I want to tell you about another thing that happened in France. We'd had nothing but K-rations for weeks. Cheese and crackers, crackers and cheese! So one day, we caught a pig. We made him into a stew, and we cooked that stew in a nearby building. Suddenly, a tank came down the street - a Tiger tank, and that means German. The rumble of that tank broke the ceiling plaster, and down it fell into our stew. Well, boy, were we mad. One of the boys, he righted the situation, and took a bazooka out and blew up that tank. But we still couldn't eat the stew."
Abruptly Shirley entered the room. Her eyes flashed. "There you go again, Jim, glorifying war!" She flung her attitude into the room and marched out.
Genna looked at her grandfather. His lips were tight shut. His eyes were dark with thought. Suddenly he spoke without looking at her. "Don't you ever forget, Genna - the hardest thing there is to do is to kill a man with a knife. And never look a man in the eyes before you shoot him."
Jim said no more, and soon Genna left him to find her cousins, who had bolted outside after dinner. They were working together to roll balls for two huge snowmen, and a snowchild . Genna helped stack the balls, then dismantled an old mop, to make one of the snowmen into a woman. She jumped to flop the raggedy mass of strings on top of the head, and stood back to admire the "hair".
Behind the Dreams
That was the last of the holiday conversations. A week after, Jim overheard Shirley talking on the phone. He listened to the phrases she used, to her tones of voice, and determined Genna's mother was on the other end of the line. "That's right, Mary. Well, I can't do it anymore. His Alzheimer's has gotten so bad...I just can't take care of him."
Jim shuffled back to his chair and thought, Was he such a burden? Yes, his mind was preyed upon daily, but...enough to warrant his going to a home? God forbid. "Redeemer," he prayed, "You own my mind and you know my heart. Convince Shirley of what is right, and let her ask for a portion of Your strength."
That night in Jim's dreams, his squad visited him. He heard them calling as he went through the night, carrying his commanding officer who had resisted destroying the French castle. They called again, his name - and like a knife-wound in his mind came the face of a German with hard, bright eyes. The German held a pistol carelessly, and smiled as he put it to one of the soldier's heads. Jim winced as the man fell and was still. The German shot another soldier. Jim hurried under the weight of his commanding officer, then tried to throw him down and run toward the shouts, the fighting, the misery in the barn by the road ahead. But the officer would not be thrown down - and Jim woke.
The next night the squad called again.
Jim saw them in a big room this time, perhaps a house, or a church. The woodwork was bullet blasted, and sunlight streaked down on a kneeling soldier through the bombed roof. The German standing near squeezed the trigger, and the soldier collapsed. He shot a second man. Suddenly, a young blond man with an awkward expression said, "Herr Milton, no more." Milton turned and looked at this young German. His eyes seemed perplexed, his jaw angry. But his gun hand became limp at his side. Jim saw the remaining three captives lined up along the wall, silent. "Milton Shalechezee!" Jim startled at his own voice, shouldering himself out of the dream.
He woke to find his room-mate watching television. He didn't remember coming to this place - this nursing home in... He sighed, trying to remember which town he was in. Oh well, here came a nurse to take him to supper. "Milton Shalechezee," he told her as she pushed his wheelchair down the hall - "he took my machine gun squad. I've got to find him."
"Oh, you will, Jim," said the nurse, and parked him at a table. But in place of supper all he could see was Herr Milton's face. Suddenly he knew that this man was a traitor, even to the Germans. He loved the war, for it suited his plans. He wanted to rise above Hitler. He wanted to be the Antichrist. He was the man in Jim's Christmas Daydream, running up the hill with the air of a victor. Jim looked at the potatoes on his tray, and saw there the words of a letter, which Milton carried in his pocket, and which became evil in his hands. This letter had been stolen, before it could reach Milton's commanding officer, Heinrich. From Heinrich's young wife it came, detailing some insight she had been given into Milton's plans. In the same pocket of his coat, Milton carried a grenade pin, which was a relic of murdered school children. Jim choked and felt his cheeks wet with tears.
One day someone came to visit him - a woman and her daughter. He struggled to remember them, and finally got the woman's name. Virginia. "I am Mary, Dad," she corrected him. Well, whoever she was, she had interrupted his cemetery board meeting. It was over now, though, and he still had a stack of papers he couldn't decide what to do with. "Virginia," he said, "you don't think we need to keep those old papers, do you?"
"No, Dad, I'm sure you don't," she said, laying her hand to his shoulder.
He tried to think how to tell her about Herr Milton. She could come and go from this place at will - she could help find Milton. But she couldn't understand what he told her. Finally, she patted his shoulder and left, taking her daughter with her.
Jim dozed. Herr Milton was captive this time, with the three left alive from the squad reaching for rifles. One of them fired, left-handed and awkwardly, but Milton burst up running and managed his escape.
"You will not escape in the end," promised Jim while waking. His room seemed changed. A radiance like the comfort of music filled it, and people stood about him. Their greetings embraced him, and Jim found that he knew them. His brother Norman came forward - Norman, who had gone down in the Pacific after his transport plane ran out of fuel. His mother, father, several friends - they all came near and Jim felt himself strong. His body seemed well, and he knew suddenly that his mind was healed. There came then a Man Jim had never seen, but whom he knew well. He beckoned with hands strong yet not whole, as deep scars ornamented them.
"Come with me," said the Man, "I have waited long to show you some things." Then, Jim didn't quite understand how he saw himself looking into a church, bright with flowers and glorious with song. He saw Mary, standing before the filled pews, telling about the snake in the foxhole. He saw two of his grandsons, grinning, and keeping time to the music with their fingers. Then, the scene changed, and his friends, the men of the legion, performed a twenty-one gun salute, the shells falling into the green grass of a the cemetery on whose board he had served. "Do you see how proud they are of you?" said the Man at his side. "Do you see how excited they are that you are free from that which they put in the ground? No, you won't be needing that broken body any more.
"And now something else you must see." They walked to another place, and Jim felt the strength of his limbs and the straightness of his mind. "Herr Milton," said the Man, and gestured. Jim saw the German, in a wheelchair, fingering the letter Jim had seen before. "He thinks," explained the Man, "that he will succeed. He is proud of that letter. Men he has murdered, alliances he has formed with Turkey and other countries...he planned these things long ago. He waits for a drug to be perfected - a drug that will reverse the effect of his sin and make him young long enough to carry out the schemes I told you about in your dreams. But see his soul. He is already well fitted for the place where he has chosen to go." As the Man spoke, Jim saw Milton's body shrivel and decrease, until it seemed skin stretched over dead bones, bound by invisible cords into a crouch. The Man with the scarred hands sighed. "Do you think he will succeed? Others I have given dreams to, and visions, and knowledge. They will not let his work come to completion. See? - I have instructed them -" Jim saw Mary, and Genna, praying side by side in a bedroom in their home."And him, and others." A Chinese man, his face line with care, bowed his head in spite of his police uniform. "A family I have prepared to receive a diary, written by the woman who wrote the letter. From this they will learn how to carry out Milton's demise. Come," said the Man, "and meet the men of your squad."
"Fictionalized" is a loose word that often leaves me wondering...so what crucial points were messed with?
Well, in case you're wondering the same thing, I'll say that everything that Jim told Genna during their Christmas Day conversation, is true. Every word, and then some. Of course, I could not fit my grandfather's whole memior into the story, nor would I want to.
Genna is fiction. She is a composite of my cousins, siblings, and I, and is in every way plausible, in spite of being only a tool to simplify the story.
All of the placenames are accurate, in that Jim really did serve in the given positions, and really was there. All of the dates are accurate. Jim's Alzheimer's progression is accurate.
And Herr Milton? Who knows? Maybe, like General Woundwort [grin], he is fighting his fierce battles somewhere else, and really is waiting for a wonder drug. He would be well over 100 by now, it is true...but he wouldn't be the first.
Jim's machine gun squad really were taken POW, and it is true that no one I've ever talked to has heard of them again. They, too, were not the first to go missing. I believe that, whether it be Milton and his men, or someone else, their murderers will indeed get their recompense...and I believe that Jim now knows why he was spared.
To the machine gun squad, and to "Fish", Jim's foxhole buddy who was killed (not in this story, but for real)...rest in peace.