Story copyright 2005 by Terry Pierce
(This story hasn’t been beta’ed, so forgive me if you trip over anything…)
His feet hurt. They’d begun smarting last night but were really aching now. He wished Vanden Ecker hadn’t dumped him, his medical pouches, the haversack, and three cartons of ten-in-one rations out of the jeep. But Doc supposed he couldn’t really blame the guy for not driving farther into the woods. With all the recent rain and the mud everywhere, it was just asking to get stuck.
Or maybe ambushed by the you-never-saw-‘em-‘til-they-hit-you Krauts.
Doc peered left and right, licking perspiration off his upper lip. As far as he could tell, none of the enemy was around. None except for the eerie forest itself, that is. He chanced a look down past the load he carried, to survey his worn, heavy-as-lead boots, and saw they were coated up to the ankles again in thick, Germanic mud. And they’d probably stay that way as long as the company remained bogged down out here, swamped by the weather, defeat after defeat, and the nearly endless barrages of enemy ordnance.
He grimaced, his legs churning in the gooey soil, his chinstraps snapping against his dirt-streaked cheeks. His arms trembled under the weight of the goods he’d acquired in Aachen. He squinted at the engineers’ tape tied from tree to blasted tree and stretching on into the gloom, and tried to stay close to the guideline. A wrong step off to either side of it and there’d be no more worrying about the onset of trench foot. The bouncing bettys lying in wait under every bush, every downed tree limb, every soggy clump of leaves would take off everything below the hip.
He stopped a moment to catch his breath. Maybe he shouldn’t have decided to mule in anything more than the fresh stock of medical supplies. After all, too many days passing off most of his rations as extras to the other guys and then going without sleep had left him dazed, drained, and demoralized.
But he couldn’t eat and couldn’t sleep. He’d seen too many horrors these weeks spent in the thick, dank woods to stomach food or dreams. The nightmares of GIs being beaten and stabbed in hand-to-hand combat, soldiers getting cut down in murderous shellings, dying men writhing under his hands and bleating in pain as he stuffed gauze into fist-sized shrapnel and bullet wounds…
He shook his head as though the action could dislodge his thoughts. Despair pulled at him much like the mud sucking at his boots. He struggled not to fall despite his burdens and wondered, if he lost his way, how he’d be able to make it through all this.
And irony of ironies, Sergeant Kurowicz, back in Aachen, had passed him a cigar, telling him it was November 23rd – time to celebrate Thanksgiving. But how could anyone even think about a holiday, trapped in this never-ending bad dream?
Doc stumbled and nearly fell. Twisting left, he danced right, almost breaking through the tape before regaining traction on strips of bark underneath a skinned tree. He paused, tears springing into his eyes since he’d bitten his tongue, and jerked the haversack and rations back in toward his chest.
No, there wasn’t a single, solitary thing out here to be grateful for.
He glanced behind him at the shadows haunting the early winter twilight and forced himself to push on past the disfigured bodies still lying where they’d fallen in the Krauts’ assault last night. He didn’t look at them, having already seen the waxy-faced dead this morning, but he knew they marked K Company’s right flank. Hearing the challenge of the perimeter guard, he gasped out the countersign. Receiving an invitation to advance and be recognized, he moved up, then angled left to ascend the wooded slope leading to the 2nd platoon’s most forward position.
Spotting PFC Mike Jackson from 3rd squad, Doc tottered to a stop and wheezed, “Jackson…”
Jackson, hauling a helmet full of brackish water to wash his socks, dropped it and twisted around. “Whazzat?”
“Can you…can you gimme a hand?”
“Oh, it’s you, Doc.” Jackson squinted into the late November gloom. “Sure, I can help.” He glanced mournfully down at his overturned helmet. “Whattaya want?”
Doc staggered up to him, swaying precariously beneath his overloaded arms. “You think you can take two of these ten-in-ones and pass ‘em out to your squad and the 2nd?” His voice was muffled behind his tilting stack of cargo.
Jackson shrugged and reached for the top two boxes of rations. “No hot chow coming today?”
“Not today.” Doc heaved a sigh once he was saddled with a little less. “Sergeant Mahoney said the supply line got hit again yesterday. To top it off, the Krauts wiped out the kitchen trucks. Looks like we’ll be eatin’ cold stuff the rest of the week.”
“Cripes.” Jackson’s homely face split in a gap-toothed grimace that cracked the dried mud smeared across his cheeks. “Not much of a feast for the holiday.”
Not much of a holiday, Doc thought.
Jackson looked forlornly at the cartons. “Where’d you get these?”
“Kurowicz, huh?” Jackson frowned. “Okay, Doc. Well, thanks. They’re better’n nothing, I guess.”
“That’s what Kurowicz said.”
“He would, wouldn’t he?” Jackson’s frown twisted into a scowl, and balancing the ten-in-ones on his shoulder, he leaned down to collect his dripping helmet.
Doc tucked the haversack under one arm, wrapped his other arm around the remaining box of rations, and turned to continue his long hike up the slope toward what he considered to be the crackerjack combat unit of the 361st. Somewhere in the distance, sporadic gunfire sounded, and he hoped it wouldn’t increase. As he stepped around the stinking slit trenches sheltering the unshaven, unwashed, bleary-eyed dogfaces of 2nd and 3rd squads, he only nodded to the occasional calls of the few men with enough energy to acknowledge his passing. He promised himself he’d get back to them as soon as he could…to check on Bennington’s toothache, Kelly and Johnsons’s hacking coughs, Marcus’ worsening flu symptoms, Nielsens’ broken finger, Hick’s jumpy nerves, Gormley’s chronic case of homesickness…
Right after he collapsed in a heap somewhere, that is.
He limped to the top of the rise, splashing through a murky puddle that announced his arrival to the BAR man of Saunders’ 1st squad.
“It’s okay, Kirby,” Doc panted. “It’s only me.” He sloshed forward the last few yards to the soldier’s trench, trying to avoid stepping into any of the places where Kirby emptied his helmet after a bout of diarrhea, and dropped into the mud beside him. “Doggone it, can’t you empty your helmet in front of the platoon, down the hill?”
Kirby, settling back into a corner of the dugout and propping the BAR against his shoulder, was unapologetic. “What? You want it maybe hittin’ the listenin’ posts? Besides, if a Kraut sneaks up on me, I figure he’ll get what he deserves.”
Exhausted, Doc set down the ten-in-one and haversack and pulled off his damp, knitted gloves. “Well, I’m not sure even a Kraut deserves that.” He stuffed the gloves into a pocket while giving Kirby a quick once-over. The soldier looked pale as a corpse, his eyes dull and sunken in, his skin gray and drawn sharply over pronounced cheekbones. Lean and as well-muscled as a whippet before entering the Hurtgenwald, he looked nearly skeletal now.
Doc tugged at one of the two medical pouches harnessed at his waist. “Where’s Caje?”
“He couldn’t take the crappy field sanitation no more, so he moved into Corey and McBride’s old hole.”
Doc recalled Corey and McBride being killed in an ambush Monday night. “Well, I can’t say I blame him. You look like you’ve gotten worse since this mornin’.”
“I feel like it.” Kirby rubbed a grubby index finger across his teeth. “But it ain’t all bad. A couple more days of this, an’ I figure there won’t be much left of me for the Krauts to shoot at.”
Unable to summon a smile, Doc opened and poked around in the bulging pouch instead. “I just hope the next time a pretty gal offers you a cup of milk, you’ll listen to your friendly aid man when he tells you fresh milk over here ain’t pasteurized.”
“Yeah, next time.” Kirby shifted around, another cramp seizing him. “But you don’t gotta worry about me no more, Doc.” Kirby slashed a hand through the air, then laid it solemnly over his chest. “‘Cause from here on in, as far as the babes is concerned, I’m only takin’ kisses.”
Doc squinted at the tightly packed tourniquets, compresses, tapes, salves, and medicines, and finally pulled out some paregoric. “Well, I want you to take these now.” He passed Kirby two pills and capped the rest. “With any luck, you’ll start feelin’ better soon.”
Kirby closed his hand around the pills and reached for his dented canteen.
Doc turned from the medical pouch to the haversack. “I got somethin’ else for you besides.” He flipped open the haversack and fished out a sizeable wad of genuine toilet tissue.
Kirby, swallowing the medicine, nearly dropped the canteen. “Wow,” he gurgled, wide-eyed and sitting up straight. “Where’d you get all that?”
“Compliments of Sergeant Kurowicz.” Doc passed him the tissue and pushed his dinged-up helmet farther back on his head. “You know he’s a wheeler-dealer when it comes to requisitioning.”
“He’s a dirty, low-down, chiseling creep.” Kirby, joyfully clutching the tissue, began unbuttoning his grimy pants.
“Well, maybe, but…hey, wait a minute.” Doc jerked up a hand. “I got somethin’ else for you too.”
“Somethin’ else?” Kirby froze, his fly half open.
“I thought you might like this.” Doc eased a still-fragrant Vollkornbrot the color of roasted chestnuts out of the haversack.
Kirby nearly stopped breathing. “You mean real food?” He was overwhelmed by the sight of the dense, chewy loaf of fresh German bread.
“It’s doctor’s orders not to share it. I want you to get somethin’ in your belly that’ll stay there more’n five minutes, so you can put some weight back on.” Doc handed him the bread, then leaned forward, dragged up the ten-in-one, and passed him a portion of its meager supply of toilet tissue along with a share of rations. “Take this stuff too, but don’t eat the chopped pork and egg yolk ‘til you think you can stomach it.”
“Okay, Doc.” Kirby still sounded as though he couldn’t believe his eyes. “I’ll wait on the ‘baby poo’.”
Doc winced at the nickname his fellow GIs had come up with for the pork and eggs. He wasn’t sure he’d ever get used to it…or the meal either, for that matter. “Listen, I’ll be back later to see how you’re doing.”
“Okay.” Kirby stowed the bread and rations, grabbed the toilet tissue, and reached again for the buttons on his pants. “You’re all right, Doc. You know?”
“Sure, Kirby. I know.” Doc picked up the haversack and ten-in-one and, hoisting himself out of the hole, staggered to his feet. He decided he definitely wouldn’t want to be a sneaky Kraut and stepped gingerly around the rim of Kirby’s dugout. Picking his way to another one a half dozen yards away, he leaned over its edge, peered inside, and said, “How’re you guys?”
Billy and Littlejohn, huddling side by side on thin, wool blankets and their folded ponchos, lowered their M1s.
“Doc,” Littlejohn said. “Glad you made it back. I’m okay, but Billy here’s still got that sore throat.”
Billy, his dirty face flushed, perspiration dotting his forehead, swallowed, grimaced, and put a hand to his neck.
“Better lemme take a look at that again.” Doc hunkered down, his lower legs protesting against his shifting weight. He slid into the trench, the pouches, haversack, and rations bumping along at his sides, his helmet rattling over its liner, the back of his jacket bunching up at the base of his spine. Gritting his teeth as his feet crashed into the floor of the dugout, he paused to recover, then squeezed between the two men and put the palm of his hand against Billy’s forehead. Next, he placed sensitive fingertips along both sides of the soldier’s neck, moved them in a circular pattern, squinted, and pulled his hands away. Looking into Billy’s red-rimmed eyes, he said, “You think you can open wide?”
Billy opened his mouth and Doc peered inside as Littlejohn leaned forward to see what he could too. Doc hmm’ed and uh-huh’ed, then sat back and promptly bumped into the bigger man. Summoning all his patience, Doc tipped his helmet back into place and dug out a thermometer he’d “borrowed” from a field hospital.
He slipped the thermometer under Billy’s tongue, looked at his watch, and slid the thermometer out. Tilting it to find the endpoint of the mercury line, he read its markings, Littlejohn’s breath tickling the back of his neck. He cleaned and stashed the thermometer, wearily flipped up his coat collar, and pronounced his diagnosis.
“Doesn’t seem like you got anything serious. A mild fever and run-of-the-mill cold.”
“Not something that’ll get him pulled off the line?”
“Sorry, Littlejohn, but unless his temperature passes 102, he’s stuck here.”
Billy gave Littlejohn a weak smile over Doc’s shoulder while Littlejohn frowned.
“Well, can’t you do anything for him? Give him something to make his throat feel better?”
Doc realized that not only did Littlejohn feel bad about Billy’s discomfort, the guy also missed his buddy’s chattering between firefights. The big soldier wasn’t emotionally needy like some of the younger replacements, but he’d probably grown used to Billy’s familiar – although at times exasperating – companionship.
Doc extracted himself from between them and sat against the opposite wall of the trench. “I picked up some stuff this mornin’ that I think’ll help.”
He reached inside a medical pouch again and pulled out a bottle of merthiolate and some aspirin. He tapped two of the aspirins onto the palm of his hand and put the rest back. Next, groping around inside the haversack, he retrieved a can of Sterno and a tiny tin of salt.
“You got a spoon?” he asked Littlejohn.
Littlejohn turned to the battered pack lying by his side, dug out a spoon, and solemnly held it out.
“That’s good. But keep it. You’re gonna mix up a gargle for Billy once I leave and you’ve got a little more room.”
“A gargle?” Littlejohn said.
“To soothe Billy’s throat.”
“You mean like my Ma used to make.” Littlejohn smiled at the thought of one of the comforts of home.
Doc wished his feet were home in a pair of dry slippers. “Your Ma’s concoction probably tasted better than this one will, but this oughta work just fine.” He coughed, wiped his face on his sleeve, and began passing the ingredients to Littlejohn. “First, I want you to fill your canteen cup about halfway full with water. Then take your spoon and crush the aspirins and put them in. Next, put in a good-sized pinch of the salt and six drops of the merthiolate – which I’ll need back when you’re done with it. Stir everything together and heat it over the Sterno ‘til it’s nice an’ hot. Then give it to Billy and make sure he uses all of it.”
Littlejohn nodded, handling the ingredients with the same care he gave newborn animals on his farm back home.
Billy, worried about the gargle’s taste, appeared uneasy.
“It won’t be too bad, Billy,” Doc said. “Just make sure you gargle it way back in your throat and that you breathe its vapors into your nose. All right?”
Billy nodded and put his hand to his neck again.
“And one more thing.” Doc reached into the haversack. “After you’ve gargled, suck on these. They oughta coat your throat some and take the gargle’s taste outta your mouth.”
Billy’s eyes widened at the sight of a small paper bag brimming with peppermints.
“Wow, Doc,” Littlejohn said, his own eyes wide. “Where’d you get those?”
Doc gave the candies to Billy. “From Kurowicz.”
“That guy?” Littlejohn rolled his eyes now. “He has to be running the black market.”
“Maybe so.” Doc dipped into the haversack and extracted a Look magazine, a copy of Stars and Stripes, and a Superman comic book. “These are for you.”
“For me?” Littlejohn, his hands still full, watched Doc tuck the items into the combat pack. “Gosh, it’s not even my birthday.”
“We can all be glad for that,” Doc said under his breath. He slipped two rations out of the ten-in-one and set the half-full carton between the two men. “And here’s some food. Make it last as long as you can. I don’t know when we’ll next be getting fed.”
“Okay, Doc,” Littlejohn said, sheepish since he’d reminded Doc of the last disastrous birthday he’d had.
“And one more thing.” Doc stood to leave. “Don’t forget to hold a poncho over the Sterno when you burn it. You don’t wanna give the Krauts anything to zero in on.”
“That’s right, Doc. And thanks. Thanks for everything.”
Billy, clutching the sack of candy, mouthed, “Thank you.”
Doc dragged himself from the hole, hauling up the remaining rations and haversack, and limped toward the next trench. Looming over it, he spotted Caje inside, pointing a Luger at him. He hoped Caje recognized him as a friend instead of foe and breathed easier once the soldier tipped the pistol’s barrel skyward and then laid it aside.
Caje, an unlit cigarette hanging out of his mouth, returned to field stripping his rifle. He had the metal butt plate off the M1, and the combination tool, oil, and thong case stored inside the Garand already lying on a handkerchief spread over his lap. Since he’d cut the fingers off his issue, knit gloves – telling Saunders they hampered his sense of touch – his oily fingers moved stiffly as he lifted out the trigger housing and separated the barrel and receiver from the stock by slapping upward on the stock’s comb. Normally, he handled firearms the way a virtuoso would play a piano but twice, as Doc watched, Caje picked up the combination tool and dropped it.
Doc lowered himself into the trench to sit beside him. Having seen Caje’s dexterity further diminished, he decided to approach things diplomatically. “You know how you told me yesterday that your hands were giving you trouble when you were trying to take care of a stoppage?”
Caje flicked his gaze at him but didn’t say anything.
“And how I told you that you had what my Grandma called ‘frost nip’, or ice crystals beginning to form on your tissues?”
Caje returned his attention to the M1. “Yeah, I remember.
“Well, the next thing that happens is your fingers turn red and itch and swell up, and then you’ve got yourself a case of first degree frostbite. And frostbite means that you’re gonna have real trouble working that rifle.”
Caje continued removing the fouling in the Garand, using the combination tool’s brush.
“I think somethin’ oughta be done about it,” Doc said.
Caje remained silent, but his lips compressed into a thin line.
Doc knew the scout was gearing up to protest what he suspected would be a trip back to battalion aid and leaving the other guys behind, so he said quickly, “I think you oughta wear these.”
Caje glanced up again and then he looked surprised. He blinked, laid down the rifle barrel and brush, and pulled the cigarette out of his mouth. “Those are for me?”
Doc held out an exquisitely tailored pair of leather gloves. “To replace the ones you’re wearing now.”
Caje seemed unsure. “Doc, what did you…”
“Try ‘em on. They have a lining that oughta keep your hands warm, but they’re thin enough to let you handle the M1.”
Caje hesitated. Doc could see the soldier didn’t like the idea of accepting a pair of gloves he knew the man holding them could probably use. But Caje also knew he did need them. Doc turned the gloves to show off their lining, and Caje, putting the cigarette back into his mouth, finally wiped his fingers on his pants and accepted the gift.
“How did you get these?” he asked.
“Kurowicz. You know he’s a champ at supplying us guys.”
Caje began peeling off the tattered knit gloves and easing his hands into the supple, new ones. “He’s an extortionist.”
Doc shrugged, knowing better than to mention the gloves had cost him twenty bucks and the promise of one of his Purple Hearts…something he suspected Kurowicz would use to jazz up his war record when he talked to the folks back home. If Caje ever got wind of it, Kurowicz would likely end up with a broken nose and – considering the sergeant’s penchant for fast talking – a Purple Heart of his own.
“Just make sure you keep your hands tucked up into your armpits whenever you can, like I told you yesterday,” Doc said, hurriedly changing the subject. “It shouldn’t be long ‘til your fingers feel good as new.”
“All right, Doc.”
The soldier seemed pleased with the fit of the gloves, and Doc thought he caught a glimpse of what Caje had probably once looked like, on a Christmas morning.
Doc pushed away the thought of the holiday season and said, “I got this for you, too.”
“What is it?” Caje began flexing his fingers and testing his sense of touch on the disassembled pieces of the M1.
“A newspaper…Le Monde, I think Kurowicz said.” Doc slid the paper out of the haversack. “He got it straight from a resistance fighter who picked it up in Paris a couple days ago.”
“A resistance fighter?” Caje glanced over, his eyes narrowed at the thought of how Kurowicz put the bite on everyone, but he took the paper and scanned the front page. “Looks like it’s the premiere edition.”
“So I’ll leave you to it.” Doc set down one of the last two rations and stood.
Caje raised his eyes. “I appreciate what you’ve done, Doc.”
Doc picked up the haversack and willed himself not to topple over despite the pain in his feet. “By the way, pass the paper on to Kirby when you’re finished reading it, so he’ll be able to…measure up to the Armed Forces’ standard of cleanliness when he’s run out of proper government issue, hygienic aids for field maneuvers.”
He saw Caje smile for the first time in weeks.
Doc turned to go, leaving the scout to read all about how De Gaulle had liberated France and, dragging himself out of the trench, set off to make his last house call.
He mucked his way through more puddles and hobbled over the spent .45 caliber shell casings that led to Saunders’ trench. The sergeant, inside the hole, had him covered with his Tommygun but lowered it when he saw who was making an approach.
“You just get back, Doc?”
“Yeah.” Doc eased himself, grimacing, into the trench. Noting the map jacketed in celluloid lying on the sergeant’s lap, he shook his head and sighed. “You goin’ out again?”
Saunders scanned the impregnable gray sky. “As soon as it’s dark. S2 can’t get a handle on the Krauts’ MLR.”
The main line of resistance – as far as Doc was concerned, that was the entire forest.
“And since everybody’s stretched out thin,” Saunders continued, “we’ve gotta run a contact patrol to I Company pretty soon.”
Everybody’s stretched out thin, all right, Doc thought. He reached down and pushed his fingertips against the toes of his soggy boots.
Saunders glanced at his watch. “But you’re not coming along with us. Walinsky’s going.”
“He’s up to it?” Doc asked, referring to the other company medic.
“He finally got some sleep this afternoon.”
“Oh. Well, that’s good.”
“How’s Lieutenant Collins?” Saunders asked.
“He’s gonna be all right. The shrapnel passed right through his left buttock, so he should heal up fine. But he probably won’t be sitting down for a month.”
Saunders scratched at the stubble caked with dirt that covered his jaw. “Any new word on Lieutenant Hanley?”
“He’s still recovering. A few more weeks to let that wound in his calf mend itself and he’ll probably be sent right back to the front.”
Saunders dropped his hand and, lowering his head, shifted his eyes away.
Doc knew that being sent back here was a virtual death sentence. Maybe it would’ve been better to say something else. “How ‘bout you?” he asked, trying to change the subject. “You doin’ better?”
Saunders picked up the map. “I’ve been worse.”
Doc studied Saunders’ face, noting the man’s black eye was beginning to fade and his split lip was healing. The swelling along his left cheek had lessened too. “You’re lucky that Kraut’s rifle butt didn’t take your head off.”
“Yeah, Doc. Lucky.”
The sergeant sounded used up. After nearly fifteen days of clashing with a mostly unseen enemy and losing seven men to the mazes of spruces and balsams, vicious tree bursts, brutal mortar attacks, interdicting machinegun fire, and relentless exposure, he, along with the few remaining officers and noncoms, bore a heavy weight on his shoulders. If things continued the way they were, it was likely the rest of the squad…along with the entire 4th Infantry Division and its attached units…would be annihilated.
Without a thing he could do about it.
“The guys all seem okay,” Doc offered, wondering if that would encourage him. “Kirby’s still sick and so’s Billy, but I got ‘em some stuff that I think’ll help put ‘em on the mend.”
“I checked on ‘em a little while ago. They didn’t look too good.”
“Well, a couple days and they should snap right back.”
“Okay, Doc.” Saunders rubbed his bloodshot eyes. “Let’s hope so.”
“One more thing, Sarge.”
“I think you oughta take this.”
Saunders turned his head.
“To celebrate when we get outta this place,” Doc said.
Saunders saw the cigar Doc was holding out, but he didn’t move.
“We will get outta this place,” Doc said quietly.
Saunders shifted his eyes away again, but after a moment he looked back, leaned forward, and pulled the cigar from Doc’s fingers. “Okay,” he agreed. “When we get out of here.” He sat back, closed his eyes and, putting the cigar under his nose, inhaled its rich, pungent fragrance and allowed himself to enjoy the brief moment of indulgence. “Is it domestic?”
“I heard it’s from a German major’s private stock.”
Saunders opened his eyes and smiled. “Doc, you just made my day.”
Doc set down the last ration and gathered up the haversack. “It’s time I get goin’. See you when you get back.” He crawled out of the trench and, limping toward his own hole, scuffed through pine needles and tried to wipe clods of sticky mud off his pants.
Doc, you just made my day.
Doc came to an abrupt halt. He paused, then glanced back over his shoulder at the curves of helmets barely showing above the trenches. For someone who’d been trained to quickly and accurately assess critical situations, he’d sure done a poor job of it.
He’d made Saunders’ day. With such small things as a little encouragement and a cigar liberated from the enemy, he’d actually made a difference. And maybe, in equally small ways, he’d made a difference for the other guys too.
Which meant that there was something out here to be grateful for. Something beyond the denied trappings of the holiday, the warmth and security of home, and the beauty and bounty of a world not at war.
Maybe a clean pair of socks could wait just a few minutes longer while he checked on 2nd and 3rd squads.
He turned his eyes skyward, past the sheared-off trees, and whispered, “I get it, Lord,” as a heavy weight seemed to lift from him. “And thanks.”
This story is dedicated to all our combat medics who are each blessings to
our fighting men and women.