Tuesday, January 10, 2012

I Saw My Boy at the Front

I Saw My Boy at the Front

He was my son, but he might have been yours.

That’s why I want to share with you the pride

and anxiety, the joy and bitterness, the impressions

I brought away with me. — Anonymous

We stood in the dark, snowy woods in Germany, this tall young soldier and I. Somewhere below us, out of sight beyond the naked forest, a famous American infantry regiment was jabbing at the Germans across a frozen stream.

Behind us, over the shoulder of a little hill, ammunition trucks grunted past, bringing up the night’s shells for the 105 and 155 guns. We could hear ambulances, too, heavy with double loads, panting up the grade from the dressing stations.

A German 88 dropped somewhere off to our left, and I must have started, for the soldier put his hand on my shoulder.

“It’s okay, Dad,” he said. “They’ll come a lot closer than that.”

The solder was my only son. He was 19, a battle-hardened veteran. He had left the lines only a few hours ago; in a few more he would be back. He was my son, but he might have been yours. That’s why I’m writing this. Because I am one father whose military duties took him for a few hours to where his son was fighting. I want to share with all fathers the pride and anxiety, the joy and bitterness, the impressions I brought away with me.

How did the boy look? How was he equipped and trained? What was he thinking about? What did he need? What were his future plans? Had the war changed him? These questions and a thousand others any father asks himself in a wakeful night.

They boy looked fine. Tough, capable, alert. Thinner than when I last saw him. Taller, I believe. Straighter, I’m sure. He carried his shoulders back, and his rifle, strapped across them, seemed to be a part of him. He was wind-browned and clean shaven. He wore his helmut just off the regulation position. He’s not a parade soldier. He’s a fighter.

One night six months before, I’d said good-bye to this boy. We had met the hour of leaving with a sort of noisy, spurious gaiety. There was no gaiety left in him now. He was dead serious. He stood there in the snow with his feet apart, head tilted slightly forward, and I had the impression that he was listening constantly for sounds I did not hear. All good soldiers get the cautious habit of listening. What was this one thinking about, this boy who, like your own boy, always had liked to dabble in thoughts too big for him; who, like your own, had the independent, exploring, questioning mind of modern youth?

He wasn’t thinking of the Four Freedoms that night on the front. He wasn’t thinking of a happier, better postwar world. He wasn’t making any plans for himself even. Maybe men can do that in the back areas. Here in Monschau Forest this boy was thinking of the only important thing on earth for him at the moment, how to keep himself and his friends alive and how to kill the enemy.

He had met the enemy close up, not thru the headlines of the morning newspaper. He knew them as tough, determined, skillful soldiers. He hated them, as all his mates did. He hated them for what they had done to his own friends. His squad had been hit hard last month.

The big guns rumbled, off to the south, and an ambulance groaned on the steep grade over the hill.

“Cigarette?” The boy pulled out one of those small oblong boxes that come in the K ration can, four cigarettes to a box. But when he saw my own pack, he put his own box away. “Thanks,” he said, “I’ll save mine.”

“How’s the family?” he asked.

I told him all the details I could think of. Then he asked, “How’s Bob?”

Bob is his dog. Bob was fine, I told him. “Ed, up at the farm, tried to put him on a scale and weigh him the other day,” I said. “He got bit.” And for the only time in that hour and a half I heard this boy laugh. He sounded like a kid again for that moment. Then he stopped. It’s hard to laugh when the ambulances are puffing up the grade from your own sector. I quickly changed the subject.

“What’s your outfit like?”

“Great. Best regiment in the Army. Know our record since Normandy? Since Africa? Not many of those first ones left and they’re getting pretty tired. But they know how to make the best of things. You pick it up pretty quick from them. How long do you think this will last, Dad?”

“No one is trying to guess.”

“Well, I know it won’t be Germans we’re fighting next Christmas, anyhow.” He inhaled deeply. “My guess is that we’ll have this job done by the Fourth of July. That’s what we’re all hoping. If we just had more ammunition, big stuff, a lot of 155 . . . ”

I asked him about the food. It is swell, he answered. Hot meals right on the line twice a day, with hell popping all around. “Sometimes I think once a day would be enough,” he said. “We get some casualties handling the steaming kettles up to the foxholes. We could take K ration instead, one of the meals.”

He wasn’t very happy about the few magazines from the States he had seen. “The ads are pretty bad. Particularly the pictures. The fellows get sore, looking at them. Pictures of war, all prettied up. No mud. No stench. Just heroics and attitudes. It gives the people at home false ideas.”

He took another of my cigarettes, and again I watched his face in the flame of the lighter . . . so old for his 19 years, wise, tired, wary but calm, determined. I found that he wasn’t interested in the gossip of Washington. The quarrels between management and labor, rationing, books, plays, songs, all these belonged to a world of which he was no longer a part. His mind was concentrated on this little strip of woods.

“We’ve got to blast them out of the dams,” he said, pointing east. “Going to be tough.”

He mentioned the wonderful nurses in the hospitals, the medical corpsmen working under fire.

“They’re heroes, for my money,” he said. Heroes. It was the only time he used the word. He talked about the fact that he hadn’t been paid for two months, but no, thanks, he didn’t need any money. About toilet paper and what a blessing it was, coming up with the rations. About his rifle and his shoes. The things that counted.

And then the door of the command post opened and a young office called, “Time to be going.”

My son hitched his rifle higher on his shoulder. He stood for a moment and then reached out his hand.

“Good night, Dad. See you at home,” he said.

“Sure,” I answered. “See you at home. Good night, son.”

He saluted and turned on his heel and stepped off into the darkness, toward the little valley where his regiment was fighting Germans across the frozen stream.

I Saw My Boy at the Front was taken from the May 1945 issue of Better Homes & Gardens magazine.