Saturday, December 10, 2011

BuglerBoy

Just wrote this one
Crafts
x
Edgar Valderrama

Aug 30

to Mark, Carlos, Laura, Anita, Bill, Bill, Estelle, Dante, Robert, Hal, John, drew

Bugler Boy
I was a good bugler during Basic Training and again after the war had ended and I was chosen to record the bugle calls so they could be played over the camp loudspeakers. “Ta ta ka tat ta ta ka tat, tat ta ta kat tat, ta ta ka tat.” My jazzed up rendition of first call woke the whole camp up every morning. I memorized every call in the bugler’s manual and was ready to play any required call.

Once I saved face for the whole band and even the band leader was grateful to me.

The (pardon the tautology) “Idiot General” (I swear) got his jollies off by calling out the whole Division, including Artillery and all other dependent units and contemplating the vast sea of loving GI faces spread out before him at his beck and call. I could sense he felt himself a real general on these occasions. As a matter of fact, he was known for having been sent with some troops to Alaska, where they arrived in the middle of winter still dressed in summer tans from their stay in the tropics. His excuse was that the operation was so secret that furnishing winter uniforms would have tipped off the enemy, or some such silly excuse. This wasn’t something that would daunt a “real general” and we inherited him - fortunately after the war was over. I hate to think of our fate had he commanded us in battle.

I was third trumpet in the band, but my shady past as a bugler was known to the leader and to the first Sargeant, who happened to be first trumpet.

Our ecstatic general’s visions of grandeur had no limits. Now he decided he wanted all the officers at his feet, as in an old Regular Army ritual initiated by “Officer’s Call.” He directed the band leader to “Play Officer’s Call.”

Mr. Croteau, the Warrant Officer that led the band, quickly called for the First Sergeant to play “Officer’s Call.” He didn’t know it. After all, he was the band’s First sergeant, not a bugler. I bided my time, watching how they sweat under pressure and frustration. Sarge finally remembered he possessed a real honest to goodness bugler and turned to me. He inquired in desperation: “Valderrama, do you know Officer’s Call?” I figured it was time for some fun, so I appeared to consider the question for a few moments before answering that “yes, as a matter of fact, I do.” Well play it! Play it! Both the band leader and the First Sergeant desperately urged. I stepped forward and raised my instrument toward the sea of faces: Tat, ta ta kat tat, ta ta kat tat, tat ta ka tut, I played loud and clear till the whole call had resounded over the field, heard by everyone yet recognized by no one in this post war civilian Army. I was so pleased with my crisp clear rendition that I decided to observe the repeat sign that marks the end of all the bugle calls. Calmly I repeated: “Tat, ta ta kat tat, etc.” The whole division was rumbling in wonderment as to what action was called for. Somehow word got around and first one or two officers and then a little stream of them started walking to the front and gathering at the feet of the great one. Eventually all the officers had gathered where the general could address them directly. I lost interest in the proceedings after my thrilling intervention, so I have no recollection as to how the general derived his satisfaction from the proceedings or what further stunts he came up with.
There was a favorable (to me) repercussion to the incident. A few days later, during an inspection, an officer restricted the whole band to its barracks for the weekend because his white glove got dirty on the rafters. I wasn’t about to stay in camp for the whole weekend while my new wife waited for me in town so I hitch hiked into town. Who else was riding in the car but Mr. Croteau, the band leader. He did the decent thing and ignored me and the fact that I was technically going “AWOL” (Absent Without Leave) and could have been in a lot of trouble for having so blatantly ignored the restriction.
Robert Hilliard Aug 31
Ed, > > Another excellent vignette. It took me 50 years after the war to fina...
6 older messages
Edgar Valderrama Sep 15
not sure I sent this Yeah, more or less.
Edgar Valderrama

Sep 15

to BILL
resending in case I didn't send.

I had radio training in Ft. Benning Ga. and if I hadn't broken my glasses I would have been sent to Fort Hood in Tx with my class for integration into a new division that never left the States because the War ended. I was left behind while my glasses were being replaced. That made me a loose replacement and I arrived as cannon fodder during the Battle of the Bulge. I've got a couple of stories written about my misadventures at the front and will try to write some more. I joined the band as third trumpet and became regimental bugler after playing "Officer's Call."


Click here to Reply or Forward

Friday, March 5, 2010

VOLKSTRUM KID

I made up a story to satisfy those who insisted I must or should or had to have shot someone in the war. They refused to believe that I never had to shoot anybody and that when I did shoot my rifle it was not aimed at anybody. I told them I had been crouched behind a low wall when a German teen jumped over the wall. He was carrying a rifle with a bayonet, I said, and he saw me and started to lower his rifle towards me. I had been aiming his way all along and had but to pull the trigger to hit him full in the chest. Even in such a stressful situation my humanitarian instincts took over and I deflected my rifle a little, so as to hit him in the shoulder instead; taking the risk of missing him altogether. (I would have probably done it, too) I told of how the impact of the heavy high velocity bullet in the shoulder spun him around in the air, and how he fell to the ground on his back. Some weird atavistic sense of doing what I was supposed to do in war pushed me to search his pockets. I extracted and kept his pen and a few worthless paper Marks. My hands got bloodied during the search, and I was constantly reminded of the incident whenever I looked at my hands for a week or so till I had a chance to wash them.

What really happened was that I came upon a poor German Volkstrum kid. Volkstrum was the Peoples Army, just as the Volkswagen was Hitler’s wagon for the Volks. Hitler was throwing sixteen year old kids and doddering old men against nineteen year old adult warriors in the prime of life like me. The kid was lying in the middle of a street, either dying or in shock. I saw no wounds, and as it was dark, I did not see the blood that marked me. He was ghastly pale under the wan moon light, he looked almost a cadaver. His arms were lying at his sides, but the right forearm was feebly rising and dropping, slowly, weakly; rising and dropping. I did my desultory search and pulled out the pen and the Marks. Worse, there was a pair of German Grandparents standing right over the kid, observing in shock as I was caught in the atavism of war. They reminded me of the farmers in “American Gothic,” except they were Germans clasping their hands and their expression was of concern. I kept the looted baubles as souvenirs for at least fifty years, and the sight of the blood on my hands did reinforce the recording of the incident into my brain’s most permanent synapses.

You know, I figure I must be so ashamed of having consciously yielded to the looting instinct by searching that poor kid’s pockets that I tried to compensate by making up a heroic story about the incident.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

THE SNIPER

THE SNIPER

One in a relentless series of adventures during WWII.

After eventfully crossing the Mosel river, (see MOSEL CROSSING) heading towards Cologne; Co. C, 2nd Battalion, 1st regiment, 5th Division, 3rd Army was walking into glowing rays of golden sunlight through an evergreen forest cathedral. I was a runner; phoning, (also laying the phone lines) radioing and carrying messages from Co. Hq. to the front line platoons and back. In some instances I found myself the communications link for the 1st Lieutenant or the Captain.

The only cloud in our sky was a pesky sniper who was picking us off as we strolled purposefully through the open golden forest. Captain Leasch (yes, he was of German descent) instructed Sgt. Carrick to get rid of the nuisance. Sgt. Carrick was our Platoon Sgt. and a damn good one. He came from the canny sharp shooting Scotch stock that lives in the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee. His race had shrunk and become lithe. I thought of him as a sort of intelligent, all purpose Jaguar; or a Puma. He was a perfect soldier; he could and did carry out the most complex and confusing orders. He could improvise and read German maps and take the initiative. I was a babe in the woods (literally) beside him. He knew what he was doing and what had to be done! Captain Leasch was that way too. They made C. Company a good company. I only wished the Generals were a quarter as good. Rightly or wrongly, the word “General” always brings a picture of a bumbling idiot to my mind. Sorry about that, you military history buffs.

Sgt. Carrick said: “Osburn and Valderrama, come with me.” Osburn also came from the hills, as did a good percentage of the Co. He was lanky and easygoing; and he drawled. We obediently followed Sgt. Carrick to a spot from which we could see the German, way up in a tree. I could barely make him out even with my glasses on, and had to have his position pointed out to me. The M-1 Garand is not considered a sharp shooting rifle but Carrick proved it depended on the man and not the instrument. He whispered to us: “Where do you want me to hit him?” “In the head,” I prompted. “You’re supposed to kill him.” He considered my opinion and waited for Osburn to speak. Osburn drawled: “shoot him through the throat and see what happens.” “Good Idea” answered Carrick. “Kill him.” I insisted. “Oh shut up Valderrama” was all I got for my trouble.

The Sgt. raised his M-1 calmly and deliberately. He rested it against his shoulder almost casually and pulled the trigger the instant his eye made out the target. It was a virtuoso display of shooting and marksmanship with the M-1, done with smooth precision and mountain cunning. The man’s throat burst into a fountain of blood high up in the tree. He fell from his perch and followed his clattering rifle through the branches and towards the ground. A rope he wore around his waist played itself out as he fell, coming to its end a few feet from the ground, in the exposed area just lower than the lowest branch. I didn’t hear his spine crack, but it looked as if it had, as he gently swung back and forth, face up in the golden waning light of the sun, erupting bloody foam from his throat with the regularity of a geyser, as his body struggled to breathe its last dying gasps.

As I wallowed in morbid fascination of the sniper’s fate, a new stimulus presented itself. It was a noise coming from Carrick and Osburn.. I stared dazedly at them and saw they were laughing. They would slap their thighs and guffaw; then point towards the German as he swung and gushed red foam under the tree branches, then another laugh and a slap. Happy as babes they were. I hear the Scott’s have done some pretty wild things up in those hills of theirs in Scotland, too. But did these guys have to enjoy themselves that much?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

RELUCTANT WARRIOR

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that forced the United States into WWII occurred in December 1941 while my brother and I accompanied our parents on a music tour to several Mexican State Capitals. Puebla’s State Conservatory of Music, where my parents taught, sponsored the tour. My father had been my mother’s piano teacher. They had fallen in love and eloped to New York, hoping to conquer the city with their piano playing. Playing piano accompaniment for silent films and as dinner entertainment in New York restaurants didn’t pay enough to raise a family on, so they had to return to Mexico when I was six months old. My parents continued struggling to make a musical living in Puebla and I developed a nearly fatal intestinal infection. My maternal grandparents helped out by taking me into their household where I was nursed back to health. Every time I lived with my father and mother, I would get sick and had to be taken to my grandparents to recuperate. When they moved to Daytona Beach, Florida the family consensus was that I would die for sure if I stayed with my parents, so they took me with them. This was the beginning of a life long habit of commuting between the U. S. and Mexico every two or three years. It was during one of these visits, two months after my nineteenth birthday while the Conservatory tour was in Guadalajara, state of Jalisco, that WWII began and the world changed forever.

I could have stayed in Mexico during the war, but I didn’t. Mind you, I didn’t volunteer to fight, but after turning nineteen and the bombing of Pearl Harbor I came up and turned myself in, so to speak. I decided to come back to the States mainly because I didn’t want my school mates in Florida to think I had chickened out. Long distance peer pressure put me in the Army. I registered for the draft and chose the uncomfortable Army over the relatively comfortable Navy simply because they offered a three week hiatus before reporting for duty. The Navy only offered one week before you had to present yourself. I figured every day of freedom was worth a fortune and my upbringing as a spoiled grandma’s boy blinded me from considering anything else. To me, three weeks in the hand were worth more than a Navy career in the bush. I really enjoyed those last three weeks of beach and sand and surf before surrendering my tender soul and young body to the Army.

I use my family history to illustrate the “degeneration of the generations,” as I call it. Methodist missionaries discovered my father’s father in the silver mining town of Pachuca, Hidalgo, in the late eighteen hundreds. They considered him a diamond in the rough and educated him and developed his talents. Don Pedro Valderrama repaid his benefactors by founding a first class Methodist school in Puebla. It still teaches from kindergarten to twelfth grade. He became a Methodist preacher and a 33rd degree Mason; all in all a prominent citizen. His wife was the daughter of an English mining engineer from Pachuca. They had four sons and three daughters. These uncles and aunts of mine all did fairly well except for my father, who was the musician of the batch. He and my mother were both wonderful pianists, but music is a tough racket and Mexico wasn’t the ideal place for classical pianists to make a living, which explains their futile attempt at conquering New York. By 1944 the Methodist school had gone through several Directors and had degenerated into a shell of its original self. My father was offered the directorship and our family was installed in the principal’s house. My father was no exception to the rule that musicians are notoriously bad administrators. He barely managed to keep the school going till his death at sixty from a stroke, only a year after my mother died of cancer at forty two. Compared to his father’s brilliant performance in founding a flourishing school, his achievements seemed, and were, quite lackluster. The last of our line to make his mark at the school was my brother. He cut up, caroused and disrupted so much that a later director expelled him from the school our grandfather founded! It went from founder to being kicked out in three short generations. Makes me sad, but it illustrates how a family can quickly slide into mediocrity in a couple of generations.

CAMP BLANDING
The first day at Camp Blanding, Florida was a little like a recurring dream I had as a boy. I would stride down the street in Daytona Beach. Suddenly, I would fall through the side walk to a lower level where there was a new and different world to explore. I fell from my comfortable "Grandma’s boy" world into a completely different mad and topsy-turvy under world ruled by people in tan uniforms with little chevrons on their sleeves, yelling orders that HAD to be obeyed; promptly and smartly, or else... My first day in the Army, I was awakened before four AM to go on KP (Kitchen police) duty. When I finally got to go to bed again a good 19 hours had passed and I had to get up early again next day. I have not, to this day, been able to find my way back to the normal and orderly world I used to know. Things just went from bad to worse. We had to crawl in the sand under machinegun fire. That wasn't too bad except for the story about a pair of recruits, who happened to come face to face with a rattler while crawling in the sand. They allegedly jumped up from the fright. Too bad, so sad; the machinegun was just then sweeping over them and practically cut them in two, or so goes the camp legend. A Captain was demonstrating the use of explosives. Watching him embarrass himself in front of the class by accidentally blowing himself up didn't help restore my sense of reality. Digging holes to lie in while tanks pass over you might be all right in some places, but our little nests in the Florida sand did NOT feel unsquashable. That slide into the surreal continues unabated, as you can verify by the daily news. “Don’t think. React!” was the memorable phrase our second lieutenant tried to drill into our brains. Although his reasoning was impeccably correct when it came to diving for cover versus conducting a mental debate in the presence of incoming artillery shells, the lieutenant’s little phrase opened my mind forever to questioning authority and its pronouncements.
ON BIVOUAC:
Trying to spear wild pigs by throwing a bayonet equipped rifle at them while on "pig guard" provided more work cleaning rifles than it did entertainment. Those damn pigs would stick their snouts into the tents and rip open our duffle bags so they could eat the soap, toothpaste, shaving cream, candy and anything else they could find. They would even dig the trash out of ten foot burials. My compensation came one night as we camped and slept in tents among the trees. I felt an “expansion” while looking out of the tent over my feet at the sky one night. I felt my being expand into the heavens till the very stars became atoms of my body! Ever since I occasionally dream I am in a space ship on a never ending trip through infinity.

Monday, November 30, 2009

WELLCOME TO THE ARMY

An alternative view of service

My first day at Camp Blanding, Florida was a little like a recurring dream I had as a boy. I would stride down the street in Daytona Beach, where I was the only Spanish speaker. Suddenly I would fall through the ground to another level where everything seemed identical to the world I had just fallen from. I fell from my comfortable "Grandma’s boy" world into a completely different and topsy-turvy under world ruled by people in uniforms with little chevrons on the sleeves yelling orders that HAD to be obeyed; promptly and smartly, or else...

I was awakened before four AM to go on KP (Kitchen police) duty. When I finally got to go to bed again a good 16 hours had passed and I had to get up early again next day. I have not, to this day been able to find my way back to the normal and orderly world I used to live in. Things just deteriorated from then on. There was having to crawl under machinegun fire. That wasn't too bad except for a pair of black recruits, who happened to come face to face with a rattler. They jumped up from the fright. Too bad, so sad; the machinegun that was just then sweeping over them practically cut them in two. (or so goes the camp legend) There was the Capt. demonstrating explosives. How he managed to embarrass himself in front of the class by blowing himself up didn't do much for my sense of reality. Digging holes to lie in while tanks pass over you might be allright in some places, but our little nests in the Florida sand did NOT feel unsquashable. Today’s headlines are to me, simply a continuation of that first slide into the surreal.

A second lieutenant drilled the phrase: “Don’t Think. React! into our brains. Though his reasoning was impeccably correct as far diving for cover instead of conducting a mental debate when you heard approaching artillery shells, and even though I had always wondered “why anything exists at all, rather than nothing,” he opened my mind forever to questioning authority and pronouncements.

On bivouac:

Trying to spear wild pigs with a bayonet while on "pig guard" provided more work cleaning rifles than it did entertainment. Those damn pigs would stick their snouts into the tents and rip open the duffle bags so they could eat the soap, toothpaste, shaving cream, candy and anything else they could find. They would even dig the trash out of ten foot deep burials. My compensation came when I felt a sense of “expansion” while looking out the tent over my feet into the sky one night. I felt my being expand into the heavens till the very stars became part of my body! Ever since then I occasionally dream I am in a space ship on a never ending trip through infinity.

The first time I shot a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) it became alive and jumped up and landed on its side. My finger was still clamped on the trigger so it kept shooting and swiveling towards the firing line. I managed to let go before shooting anyone. (My brother shot the thumb off of a guy who stuck his hand out while holding up a target)

Talk about a white man! A Pole from New Jersey was as white as it is possible to be. He shouldn't have spent the whole day at the beach in nearby St. Augustine. That evening he began to scream till the ambulance took him away with third degree burns. We never saw him again.

We did see Friedman again, though. He was of the age limit, 45, and he didn't think his enlarged heart allowed him to do the strenuous exercise we had to do as radio operator trainees, carrying our handie talkies and light carbines while we ran and drilled for hours every day, so he wrote to his friend the congressman back home. Sure enough, a letter showed up from the congressman asking the nice Camp Commander to pretty please consider his friend Friedman and transfer him.

Always eager to please a congressman, the commander complied and Friedman disappeared from our sight for about a week. We were trotting along with our nice little carbines hanging from our shoulders when we were overtaken by another company trotting along right past us! It was a "heavy weapons" Company, carrying machineguns and mortars at a breakneck pace. You can guess who galloped by with a heavy mortar base-plate strapped to his back... Poor Friedman didn't have enough strength to wave at us as we choked in the dust his company raised in its mad dash towards combat readiness.

My musical training helped me compete successfully for top speed Morse code manual operator and got me sent for advanced radio training at Fort Benning, Ga., land of the paratroopers. That was quite a fancy place after basic training, as can be inferred from it being labeled “Fort” rather than “Camp.” We practiced Morse code on different shifts and I only remember one outstanding incident from the whole six weeks training. I was sleeping comfortably around 10 AM when "Frenchy" (he used to sell porno postcards in Chicago) shook me awake and asked me what time it was. I reacted properly, springing out of bed and whacking Frenchy as fast and as hard as I could. He appeared surprised and retreated rapidly but without dignity. All I ask is to not be woken up except for life and death situations, that's all. I also remember the luxury of a fancy potato peeler that scraped the skin off the spuds with a rotating granulated cast iron disk.

Three of us passed the highest possible hand written Morse speed, but I outsmarted myself at the end of training. If I hadn’t broken my glasses, necessitating my staying behind till they were replaced, I would have lost the thrill and privilege of being in the Battle of the Bulge as an infantry replacement. Instead, I would have been sent to Fort Hood, Texas with the rest of my class, where I would have wasted taxpayers money training as a radio operator in a brand new armored division rendered useless by the end of the war.

Then there was Camp Miles Standish somewhere around Massachusetts. I thought the commanding general had a garbage fetish until someone explained kickbacks and pay offs to me. The pig farmers got the edible garbage and the general got the glory and the money. The first Sgt. would give a spiel about Don't (or do, I don't remember which) put egg shells and coffee grounds in the edible garbage. Put the edible garbage in the edible garbage can and the inedible garbage in the inedible garbage can, etc. etc. It sounded like a religious litany with edible and inedible reverberating back and forth the whole time.

My big day came when an olive drab limousine with little starry flags on the fenders stopped in front of me just as I was dumping the garbage. I stood at attention facing the car with my garbage lid smartly at the ready as the general dismounted. He noted the label on the can, (edible) and peered into its depths to see if the contents matched. They did! The general congratulated me and even saluted smartly. That was one of the high points of my military career. Even the Sarge was proud of me and the whole unit felt I had upheld the company honor. If I had known then that in the future medals were going to count points towards getting discharged sooner from the army, I could/would have probably wrangled one then; maybe just a Bronze star.

I'll tell you about the weekend in New York getting drunk with my brother and going to Carnegie Hall with a hangover some other time. Shipping out from Boston also provided some action. We were on standby to ship out and couldn't leave the camp. That day a German sub was spotted INSIDE Boston harbor. This delayed our departure so I was among those that jumped the fence and headed for Town. All the others wasted their time bar and girl hopping. Not me, though, young Mr. Goody Two Shoes went to the Boston Symphony and heard the premier of "The Miraculous Mandarin," also witnessing one of the last appearances of Bartok, the composer. You might get a kick out of the story the music describes. This Mandarin, you see, pays a prostitute for her services but her confederate stabs the Mandarin in order to rob him. I guess Mandarins usually insist on getting their money's worth. This one does, so he chases the girl all around the apartment with his tool at the ready, refusing to die before getting his money's worth.

I pulled one worthy of a "most embarrassing moment" video. I wanted to take a leak during intermission but darnn if I could find the latrine. I spotted this young fellow in a fancy uniform, so naturally I thought he was an usher. Wouldn't you have? I eagerly asked him to point me the way to the bathroom. I noticed he seemed self conscious and a bit confused, you might even say bothered, but he pointed vaguely in a direction and I happily ambled off. I turned around to observe the whole scene. The poor guy was a West Point cadet talking to his girlfriend and her mother.

I managed to get back to camp in time to listen to the adventures of "Silver Tongue" (self named) and Perdikes the Greek, etc. with all the nasty girls. I didn’t believe them then. We shipped out next day on the USS Washington, a formerly beautiful cruise liner converted to a troop ship.

Talk about a weird feeling! There was no horizon to separate the gray sky from the gray water. I rode a ship full of lost souls heading out into gray endless space, wending day and night towards Hell. Our passage through the Gulf Stream stirred the plankton and made it fluoresce. It was as if we were rocketing through the sky, leaving a shiny wake, as we left behind everything we had known and loved. We were sailing through the unseen and into the greatest unknown of our lives.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

FIRST DAYS
As a Reluctant Warrior
Sergeant Barret

Sgt. Barret and I met in the back of an uncovered army truck on the way to the front. We were replacements en route to the Ardennes; slated to take part in the Battle of the Bulge. Hitler had made his last desperate gamble of the war, hoping to alleviate his situation by pushing us all the way back to the sea.

It was supposed to be a two hour trip but our convoy was as lost as a goose in a snow storm, or maybe the drivers knew which way the front was but they wanted to stay as far from it as they could for as long as possible. The trucks were open to the snow so as to facilitate our frequent dives for cover. Whenever an occasional low flying German plane passed over us, the convoy would stop and we would all jump out and dive into frozen ditches by the side of the road. Our hands were stiff with cold and our feet felt frozen. Sgt. Barret and I whiled the endless uncomfortable time away talking about whatever came to mind. During those long hours, despite the really freezing cold and the many interruptions, he told me about his family in California; showed me pictures of his wife and kids. He said he had been stationed in Hawaii, where he had been a radio operator, same as I had trained to be. He had felt guilty about having it so good while there was serious fighting going on, so he (really) requested a transfer to "the front!" He got it pretty fast.


Underground
After riding for over 12 hours, we finally arrived at our destination. This turned out to be an underground bunker in the middle of the Ardennes forest. Our day ended in that bunker. The Germans had meticulously dug it out and roofed it with logs covered with dirt; it was much better than the dugouts we made, but then, by the time I got there, it was all attack and advance. We only dug in during an occasional counterattack and then it was not for long. Fortunately for me, the German resistance had been weakened by the time I got there. (With one exception: when we were almost pushed back into the Rhine after having crossed it without casualties) The Germans had been chased out of that area, then they had retaken it during Von Rundsted's attack; the one that created the “bulge” in the first place. We had re-retaken it during the slimming down of the Bulge. This was the battle during which English speaking German soldiers infiltrated our lines dressed as G. I.’s. Their orders were to do everything they could to misdirect us and sow confusion by moving and altering road signs so we would get lost. They would even expose themselves, brazenly standing in the middle of a crossroad and pointing us in the wrong direction, away from the front. Our big counter offensive was about to begin and we were right on the front line, just as Barret had hoped for when he turned his back on sunny Hawaii.

Where’s Barret?
Our cozy underground home was lit by gasoline filled wine bottles topped with smoky rag wicks. They barely lit but definitely fouled the air of our catacomb. Our lungs were filled with soot. Lights out was at ten O’clock. Barret and I were buddies by then, having spent the day and part of the night in conversation. Early in the morning, when we went a little ways through the woods to pick our breakfast up from the chow truck I noticed Barret was nervous; he even spilt stuff from his canteen and plate on the way back to our dungeon, simply because German mortar fire exploded all around us, splitting and snapping little branches and twigs. In my blissful ignorance, I saw them as interesting special effects not worth worrying about. I did notice, though, that the soldiers that had been the most gung ho before arriving at the front seemed to be the most worried and nervous once we were there. I thought Barret should feel satisfied to finally find himself at “the front” he had longed for back in Hawaii. We were barely finished licking our plates when our little hillbilly Sergeant (great soldier, but I can’t for the life of me, remember his name) came by and hauled Barret off on patrol towards the German line. Less than an hour had passed when I see the sergeant walking past my home in the forest all by himself. "Where's Barret?" I innocently inquired. "He got hit," was the answer. "What do you mean, "hit?" I wanted to know. "Was he wounded or what?" You know, said the sergeant, "he's dead." I did some quick math. If two of us arrive together and one gets killed first thing in the morning, the other - me - is subject to being killed the next or on any subsequent day. On one level I understood this, and even wrote farewell letters, which the censors returned to me so I "wouldn't worry the people back home." I told the censors my folks wouldn't be half as worried as I was, but they still made me omit the farewells. Even so, my letters would arrive with pieces cut out where I revealed too much.

Another part of me was, and still is, dissociated from reality. In fact, things were so topsy turvy, absurd and ridiculous that I couldn't believe they were true or real. I suppose my search for reality began when, as a little boy, I wondered why there was something instead of nothing. I'm still wondering, and events are still so absurd as to make it difficult for me to accept their reality. If you don’t know what I mean, imagine you are an alien and are looking at the TV or reading our newspapers for the first time. If you still don’t know what I’m talking about, I advise you to take it as a sign you’re probably taking too much for granted.

Missing in Action
Oh yes, as soon as it was dark the little Sergeant came by our dugout again and took me on patrol with him. He was using up his new replacements fast. By that time, I had already cut strips off a blanket and wrapped it around my freezing warmth loving feet and was wearing my overshoes over the blankets – without my socks or boots. This, I discovered, made walking in the snow rather difficult, and I was soon falling behind the relentlessly fast walking Sergeant. Pretty soon he walked right out of my life and I found myself all alone in the dark, flopping around in my overshoes in the middle of the Ardennes forest. I wondered if Hansel and Gretel had felt the way I did. I don't think the Sergeant ever looked backwards. I’ve never retold this little chapter since I told it to an uncle and he wouldn’t believe that I had oriented myself by walking in one direction till I approached the sound of men talking. Careful listening told me they were talking German. Of course I immediately knew that the way "home" was in the opposite direction. When I approached the American lines, I was afraid someone would ask me a stupid question as in the movies, to make sure I was friend, not foe. I figured I was a dead 19 yr. old if they asked me the standard question as to who was the pitcher for the Dodgers, so when I got near and was sure they were Americans; I cupped my hands and yelled out my half of the password before they had a chance to shoot or challenge me. I eventually made it to the 2nd Lieutenant’s bunker. He seemed bothered by having me show up. He said he had already written his report and it showed me as “missing in action.” I think he wanted me to feel guilty for making him work extra, writing an updated version, having to delete me as a casualty.

Runner

The officers must have realized I would be worthless in actual combat. I was assigned to Company Headquarters, which was hell compared to the quartermasters, but heaven compared to the very front line, a whole few yards ahead. They gave me a little “handie talkie” radio to carry around and made me Platoon Runner. I still had to “run” back and forth between Co. HQ. and the front line all day long, but even with the exposure that gave me to all kinds of flying pieces of metal, it was still one hell of a lot preferable to being stuck in the front line all the time.

My great talent was soon recognized and I became the captain’s radio operator and runner. This was one fast moving captain. Name was Leasch, German descent, and again I have to beg for belief, because that same uncle wouldn’t believe this either. (He had been in the Signal Corps, safe in the Philippines as an M.P.) When th Company was in attack mode, I had to practically run to keep up with the captain. He would wear me out and I had to jettison weight to be able to keep up with him. The first thing to go would be the useless gas mask pouch. The gas mask had been long gone, but I threw the pouch away with my toothpaste and brush and shaving equipment. I swear to God that I could feel the drag of an extra toothbrush or a pen and felt greatly relieved when I got rid of them. Imagine what I felt when I threw my WET (and cold) OVERCOAT away! For a moment I almost felt happy in the middle of the war. Please tell me you believe me. (about the difference a tooth brush made, I mean)

Post Script. There was a whole Quartermaster Regiment following us when we were on attack. They would pick up all the gas masks and equipment we threw away and collect and order it. Once we had reached our objective and stopped for a day or two, they would reissue all that equipment back to us real formally, like we were assuming responsibility of valuable government property. Of course we’d drop every bit of extra weight all over again on the next attack.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

FOXHOLE ATHEIST

FOXHOLE ATHEIST

WWII

As I crouched in one end of a shallow coffin length foxhole, an older GI (I was 19) sat on a box at the other end concentrating on reading the bible. Unfortunate childhood interactions with religions and some bible reading of my own had culminated in my having lost respect for the book so I chided him saying: “Why are you wasting your time reading that?” or words conveying that sentiment. He responded gravely, "you know, Valderrama that we are liable to die at any moment. We should be prepared for that." I thought or said something to the effect of "Oh baloney."

The cigarettes handed out by the pretty Red Cross girls when they occasionally caught up with us during a lull in the fighting partially assuaged the nervous tension we were constantly under. Most of us smoked quite a lot. The nearby explosion of a German artillery shell shook me so that the cigarette I was smoking slipped from between my fingers. I leaned deeper into the hole to retrieve it. At that precise moment another German artillery shell exploded near our little home in the Ardennes; some fragments zipped over my head, whistling and whining. The bible reading was still on my mind, so as I resumed my original sitting position with the recovered cigarette again safe between my fingers I began to comment: "Are you still reading that....." trailing off when I saw that my holemate wasn’t listening because he appeared to be freshly dead. He was, with a neat hole through his helmet and a piece of shrapnel displacing parts of his brain.

I could have decided the newly departed had been doing the right thing by reading the bible, or I might have come to the conclusion that smoking (and dropping one’s cigarette) saved lives and was therefore good for me. I did not garner an immediate lesson, though, as my whole army career was carried out in an unfocused daze that began with two days of fourteen straight hours Kitchen Police duty the moment I fell into the army’s tender jurisdiction.

We have not reached the point of this story. That comes further on, after another incident took place. I realize it is hard to believe, but the next incident was so like the first that although I am completely sure there were two of them, they are blended generically in my mind as one; the bible reading, my comment, the falling cigarette, (I must have dropped a lot of cigarettes in foxholes) rising to discover the sudden forced departure of my holemate’s life essence.

Several people I've asked agree that they would have taken this as a sure sign that "it pays to be ready," and they would have embarked on a bible reading marathon. If they had strong faith in a personal God with a fixation on the details of our lives, they might have even taken the repetition to mean God was singling me out with a personal warning message. Never mind expending two other soldiers to save one soul, the bible is replete with innocents sacrificed for the benefit of the chosen. Why not imagine myself as one of the fortunate few?

I wasn't able to squelch my contrarian streak. Instead of being impelled towards bible reading and preparations for death, I concluded that bible reading and being ready to die would be followed by little holes in my head through which the life essence would be forced to escape.

I was offended by this constant pressure to expect a big daddy in the sky to solve our problems and all the transpositions and juggling of facts necessary to explain his tender mercies while all around me human beings were dropping like flies. I resented the craven attitude of humbling oneself to beg for mercy from above and saw it as a debasement of what little human dignity was left in the world.

I became an anomaly. According to common wisdom, there was no such thing as an Atheist in a Fox Hole. I even resented the well known declaration by WWII news icon Ernie Pyle and assorted chaplains that went: "There are no Atheists in a fox hole." Whenever I heard it I wanted to shout: "Here's one!" or “Don’t speak for me, speak for yourself.”