(Copyright KingTwo. All Rights Reserved. Not for distribution.)
a bridge north of San Pietro
The sound of distant bells provided a counterpoint to the ratchet of machine guns and rifles. His BAR drowning out the clanging, Corporal Saunders was among the last to halt firing. Shivering in the cold moonlight, Americans and Germans alike listened quietly to the church bells tolling peacefully in the mountains.
A voice called from across the ravine, "Amerikanner, freulische Weihnachtsbaum." The Sarge looked to each of his squad members, seeing if any knew what the German was saying. Corporal Saunders just shrugged. He wouldn’t know if the German was asking them over for tea or demanding that they surrender. The Sarge cautiously looked over the barricade. Nothing in sight. Hey, kraut. Merry Christmas."
The Christmas cease fire. Saunders had forgotten what day it was.
Across the ravine, a German waving a small white flag stood up from his protected position behind a similar barricade. He stared at the Americans entrenched on the railway bridge, waiting for the next move. The Sarge, lacking anything white to use as a flag, simply stood and gazed back at "the enemy." The German was no poster boy for the Master Race. He was small, with dark hair. A captain, he looked no older than Saunders.
The Sarge saluted across the distance; the German saluted in return. Thus, both wordlessly acknowledged that they would honor the temporary truce. "Miller, keep watch on our friends," the Sarge ordered. "Saunders, over here." Saunders started to crawl over. "Get up, they’re not gonna kill us for at least twenty-four hours." Saunders felt odd exposing himself in front of soldiers that just minutes earlier were tying to gun him down. A German guard sitting on the opposite barricade waved at him. Feeling completely foolish, he waved back and hurried to the Sarge.
"Saunders, get me a headcount." The full moon cast a cold white light on the Italian countryside, making easy targets of the Americans’ haphazard defenses. Saunders passed quickly through the squads scattered about the bridge, calling the medic over as necessary and collecting dog tags when medical help was no longer needed. Across the ravine he heard German voices calling to each other—probably a corporal doing similar services for their troops.
"Saunders," Coker asked as he came round, "if we’re done killing each other, can we grab some shut-eye?"
"No resting merry, gentlemen. Wait for orders."
The chaplain also moved among the men, offering prayers and comfort and, when necessary, last rites. The chaplain had been trapped here by the surprise German attack on the bridge. His transport lay overturned in the ravine and he was wounded in the leg and chest. But that didn’t hinder him from performing his duties.
"Crown, Smarelli, Bird, and Marks are hit bad," Saunders reported to the Sarge. "Nine more with minor wounds. Five dead." The Sarge silently took the dog tags from Saunders, making no comment as he read each of the names. "Sarge, how’s the Captain?" Wordlessly, the Sarge removed a tag from his pocket and added it to Saunders collection.
The series of shivers that threatened to loose his grip on the BAR caught Saunders off guard. After seeing the slaughters in North Africa and all the senseless losses as they slogged up the Italian peninsula, he’d honestly thought death had lost its horror to him. But staring into the sightless eyes of his CO was like looking into the great void for the first time. The brand new captain’s bars had lost their sheen, as lifeless as the man himself.
Saunders couldn’t begin to count how often the "old man" had saved his skin. He was a good man. Between him and the Sarge they had done something that all the training at boot camp had failed to accomplish: they made a soldier out of Saunders.
This wasn’t real — death always swirled around the old man, but never touched him. He was supposed to live forever.
No, mustn’t think. Just keep moving.
The Sarge fixed his bayonet to the Captain’s rifle, dug it into the ground, and placed his helmet on it. Seeing the Sarge set this marker for the burial detail, the Chaplain hobbled over. He knelt beside the Captain’s corpse and started to pray in Latin. "Father, don’t," the Sarge said. "The Captain’s Jewish."
Putting away his vestments, the chaplain rose to his feet. Saunders couldn’t identify the words the chaplain chanted as he covered his eyes and swayed before the body. At first, the Sarge seemed angry, then a kind of wonder seemed to possess him. He, too, stood up and covered his eyes. He responded to the chants in the same odd language that the chaplain spoke. Saunders thought he saw tears rolling down the Sergeant’s cheeks as the ceremony continued.
Saunders added his own silent prayers. He noticed most of the squad also saying their final farewells to the Captain, each in their own way. Some were kneeling, some standing looking up to heaven, others with heads bowed. The church bells continued tolling.
As if planned, the bells stopped just as the chaplain finished his prayers. The silence was chilling, but it lasted only moments. From farther up in the mountains another church took up the music. Instead of the single bell tolling, a carillon began playing carols.
"Saunders," the Sarge said as he again signaled Saunders over. "help the chaplain down the ravine. He wants to see if his driver made it." Before Saunders could offer to go alone, the Sarge added, "He wants to give him last rights."
The German guard jumped up and called for his Captain when he saw Saunders coming from behind the barricade. "Saunders, move slowly," the Sarge spoke calmly. "Keep your arms where he can see them. Put your rifle down — slowly. Leave it behind. You’re going to look nice and harmless." The guard relaxed when it became obvious that Saunders wasn’t trying to launch an attack.
With the chaplain leaning on Saunders for support, they climbed down into the ravine to the overturned truck lying on the edge of the precipice. The light Saunders flashed inside the ruined cab revealed the soldier’s broken body pinned beneath the wreckage. Saunders helped the chaplain crawl into the cab. When the chaplain reached the helpless body of the young soldier, the boy’s eyes fluttered open. "Saunders, he’s still alive. Help me get him out of here."
"No, I … I waited," the driver had little of the breath of life left to speak. "Waited for you. Hear my confession before I die. Father, forgive me for I have sinned …"
Saunders looked up into the mountain ranges towering above the dark ravine. He
wondered if it was day or night back home. Would Mom be looking up at the same
instant? Was the same light shining down on Papa’s grave? Before the war, Christmas Eve had always been a family time. Leaving the Christmas goose still baking in the oven, they would attend candlelight service. In the darkness of the small church, to the simple refrain of "Silent Night," the light from a single candle would pass from person to person until the room was alight in the glow of a hundred small candles. Saunders would stand with one hand firmly clamped on Chris’s shoulder, so his kid brother wouldn’t burn down the church, while Louise’s unashamed soprano sailed above the other voices. And Mom would beam with as much pride as the holy mother herself.
He told himself not to think. To keep his mind here in Italy, not a thousand miles away. But his thoughts kept going to the family he’d left behind.
What was he doing so far from home? It was Christmas and he was half-way round the world from the people he loved, shivering in the darkness keeping watch as a young boy died. Even the bell carols reminded him that he was a stranger in this foreign land. Saunders guessed the carillon was playing Christmas songs, but he had yet to recognize any of the Italian melodies.
As if to completely mock Saunders, the bells ceased playing. Between the chill winter wind and his homesickness, despair threatened to consume the young corporal so very far from home.
The chaplain struggled out of the cab. He carried a small diary, a bible, a wallet, and a dog tag: his driver’s personal effects. Not a pleasant Christmas package to send home. Saunders shut down the part of his brain that suddenly imagined Mom’s hands quavering as she held a black-bordered telegram, of his sister Louise carefully opening a small package from Europe that held her brother’s meager possessions.
Stop it! Don’t think.
"Let’s go, Father." The weight of the chaplain leaning on his arm seemed to lay heavier on him. Together they struggled to crawl out of the darkness of the ravine. Up to the stalled conflict.
"Corporal, we can’t hold out once the fighting resumes, can we?"
Why would he ask such a thing? An officer shouldn’t ask such questions. Especially not of a corporal. Especially not of a corporal who doesn’t want to think. Especially not of a corporal who doesn’t want to think about how he’s going to be dead come morning.
"Father, it would take a miracle."
Continuing up the ravine, Saunders heard a familiar sound. Coming from on high, voices raised in singing "Silent Night." He hurried, wanting to join his fellow soldiers, hoping to recover some of the feelings of home and safety that the song always brought to him. But as he rushed up into the light cast from the distant moon, he realized the singing was coming from the other side of the ravine, from the German side.
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft, einsam wacht
And as he listened, Saunders heard American voices joining in the common carol,
yon virgin, mother and child,
Holy infant so tender and mild.
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh.
Within a day, these soldiers, these "enemies," would again be striving to kill each other. But on this night, their voices blended in perfect harmony.
It wasn’t a miracle. But it was Christmas.