Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Only way to go is up (1 of 2, "Over This Hill")
“Over this hill”
Just flashes, really; uncle Walt passing away, as they say, when I was nine; I first glimpsed the idea that people can leave this life and not come back. David, Mom & Pop, Aunt Viney, the cousins---we sat in a church with little paddle fans, each printed with a Bible verse--- Psalm 34, was it?---and I thought about him coming down to the house every couple of months, how he took a knife and skint some wooden pegs, showed David and me how to cut a notch in the top of them; then he took some tall, tall grass from the field, wedged one end into the notch. We’d swing it around a couple of times, then throw the little missile up into the air, arching out of sight beside the sun. First it would fly its arc, then it would stab the soft clay, spike first, sometimes falling down, sometimes sticking straight up, sunk in deep.
Beside me, the ground blows apart with a dull sound of the air, the peace, violently forced away. You don’t appreciate the serenity of a given spot in the woods until you’ve seen it interrupted with a bombshell---tranquil one minute, a piece of body-destroying hell the next.
So here in the snows of the French countryside, there are only two ways to find peace. You die in rifle fire accompanying these shells into the gulley, or you fight your way over that hill.
Quickly I fall back under the cover of a fallen oak. My eyes scan for our entire platoon, including my brother David, who I watch crawl over collapsing ice just five yards shy of a steady line of machine gun fire, ripping out clots of the frozen dark Alsace-Loraine soil. David, we should still be coon hunting three miles past the creek, in woods an ocean away. But brother, we’re pinned down, hiding in plain sight at the bottom of a dizzying hill, topped with German machine gun nests.
“Winslett! How many nests do you make out?”
“At least two; it’s hard to tell with the shelling. There’s random riflemen in between.”
“Yeah. There’s fire at one o’clock and ten. You still have that mattress cover?”
“I ripped what I could out of that rubbish heap. White as snow.”
Another shell blasts the gulley behind us, already smoking from the hammering of a spot that seems no bigger than a rabbit trap for my platoon.
A voice bellows behind me. “Sir, they’ll get lucky with those shells any minute now!”
I nod. “Only way to go is up.”
I check my uniform pockets, brushing down a dozen hand grenades and a dozen clips of ammo for my carbine, stubbornly caked with snow from my dive for cover. I slap it clean against my boot, three times.
It’s no more heroic to die with a gun in one’s hands than to submit courageously to an overwhelming evil. I am a farmer. I am a son. I am a brother. I am no warrior. But I am a soldier. Now.
“Captain wants a prisoner,” I shout. “But don’t hold back, men.” I pull my knife-tailored robe ripped from the mattress tight around my shivering body, hiding a jackhammer heart. “Die here. Die on the hill. Or kill them. My bull’s eye’s the nest on the left!” I swallow. “If not now, never.”
“Sarge is charging the hill!” I hear Winslett shout. I don’t register him after that; the core of my being consumes every slippery step towards the enemy.
With my white mattress cover gathered round me from head to toe, my boots crush a path winding from tree-to-tree. It’s nearly a football field, a little less, all of it steep. I am a hunter again, smelling the soil, clinging to my disguise to approach my unwary prey.
With burning thighs, lungs sliced by the January cold, I crawl now up the middle, until I am in range to draw a bead on the rifleman dead ahead, reloading beneath a broken branch. As I wound his shoulder, his partner spurts a red gusher into the cruel air, felled by the cover fire coming behind me. A shell nearly shreds me in two; I rise, I trip as I hear its warning whistle, hard to judge from the ringing, throwing a snow drift like parade confetti not five yards to my left.
Amidst the fluttering plume, I crawl, knees and elbows grind slowly, flattened beneath recurring torrents, their recoil popping a staccato chorus of doom.
Then I know they have not two, but three entrenched gunners. There’s the other machine gun nest, about fifty yards right of the one o’clock position, set behind them, further up the hill.
I’ve got to get clear...but I can’t, not in time. The sting in my back shatters my concentration, a red world setting a fire trail up to my brain. I tumble clumsily to the side, the animal in me scurrying to pull away from the attack, the man saying “hold this position!” as I fight for the life of my platoon, against my fear.