“You two are late.” Stan barked as two bright-eyed boys walked into the modest kitchen at the back of the house.
“Better late than never grandpa,” Dominic said with a grin. He and his younger brother David, both winded, shoved each other before grabbing chairs surrounding a square table tucked in the corner of the tiny room. They spun them around and hopped up onto the shiny cushions.
“What the hell are you jumping around for? Goddamn it! Just sit,” their grandfather demanded.
Stan took a deep breath. He moved his attention to the half-gallons of vanilla ice cream and vitamin D milk. The reliable Oster blender with the orange buttons awaited its prey.
“Grandpa, when you called and said you were making us milkshakes, we ran as fast as we could. I beat Dominic running from the cigar tree to the door. He’s slow.” David inhaled deeply, still winded from the race. He stretched his arm across the table and laid his head on it.
Dominic butted in. “I jumped up and picked a cigar off the tree.” He held a seed pod resembling a foot-long green bean hanging limply in his squeezed hand. Grinning, his arm raised triumphantly as it struck hard on Dave’s wrist like a whip.
“Oww! You jerk!” he wailed, tucking his arm into his stomach and covering the expanding streak of reddening skin.
“Damn it, you hambone! You don’t hit your brother! Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! If you don’t want milkshakes, you can go home!”
“No, no. Grandpa, we’re so sorry,” both boys pleaded.
“I’m done. I swear to God,” Dominic conceded.
“Sit there and quit messing around, now. You two make me nervous!” Stan yelled. He waited for his heart to slow down before reaching for the ice cream scooper.
There was a constant noise in his head.
“Good job,” David said, glaring at his brother.
“You shouldn’t be such a baby,” Dominic said.
The two boys argued back and forth as Stan prepared another dose but stopped himself. They are just boys, he thought.
Stan never had a milkshake in Ginger Hill, a patch town where company-owned houses plastered the rising ground surrounding the coal mine which employed its residents. The backside of the hill, covered in the trees leads to the meandering Mingo Creek—Stan’s eternal playground. Laughing and playing with his friends, the days lasted forever covered in dirty coveralls and the innocence of non-consequential youth. This memory calmed his restless mind as he drifted to that time despite the harshness of the actual circumstances.
Stan turned to the little kids in their matching Spider-Man shirts, blue shorts, and bare feet, and watched them whispering insults and blame back and forth at each other. He smiled and dumped four scoops of vanilla into the blender, poured milk over them, and said, “Cover your ears. This will be loud.”
The boys immediately stopped talking. Grinning, they cupped their ears with their hands and prepared for the finished product.
Stan held down the high button and the blender screamed. The white contents swirled around as his hand gripped the lid. His eyes focused on the ice cream and milk whipping around like a treacherous, blinding snowstorm. He tried to go back to the images of the creek, his friends, the houses of Ginger Hill, but his comfort vanished, replaced by a blizzard, winds sharp and penetrating. He can feel it biting at his skin. His body tensed as his mind drifted to the place he most feared to go.
“Stan, where the hell are we?” came the voice of Geo, his friend and one of three others in his mortar crew.
Stan looked around, pulling his jacket as tight as he could get it. “I think we are in goddamn Germany.”
“Are we supposed to be in Germany yet?” another member of the company shouted.
“These damn fools in command... We’re probably too far ahead. We’ll end up facing half the Nazi army, and here we are with two damn companies. There’s not seventy-five men between all of us. Damn idiots.” Stan’s optimism came in the form of a too-angry-to-be-scared mentality. This got him promoted to sergeant and gave those around him hope.
The wind began to ease for a moment, but finding shelter was still the goal. The second week of December in the northern Hurtgen Forest was just as deadly as the Panzers and 88s. Malnourished, freezing troops pressed forward, wading through wet snow and mud. He’d been cold before, but nothing like this. He cringed with every footprint he made in the white blanket covering the rolling fields. He knew something was wrong. The soldiers hadn’t a chance to stop and change their socks or dry out their boots in a fortnight.
Hitler’s army had recently broken through the old Maginot Line in a last-ditch effort, creating a bulge in the line in hopes of crushing the Allied forces now contending with the brutal German winter. Allied forces were struggling to hold them back.
“Stan, there’s a town up ahead,” Geo announced.
“Probably filled with Krauts. Be ready. These bastards don’t want us to get warm.
The remaining men of Companies K and L of the 330th Regiment, 83rd Infantry, were approaching Strasse, Germany, a small crossroads a few clicks beyond the trees of the forest they had just spent weeks fighting through. The weary men, draped in tattered uniforms, hadn’t eaten a hot meal since Thanksgiving.
Stan cupped his hands to his mouth and blew warm air into them, praying for some relief. His eyes gazed upon the men surrounding him, young boys mostly from the Midwest, with unshaven faces, and frostbitten fingers rendering some of them unable to use their weapons. Others marched with frozen tears stuck to their cheeks.
The soldiers reached a small gravel road. Stan lifted his head to look over the valley to their north. Bare trees, naked of leaves, caught the blowing snow with its branches, casting shadows across the landscape. That is beautiful, he thought. It looks like back home. For a single moment, he tolerated Germany and was almost glad for the experience.
“This remind you of home, Geo?” Stan asked as they passed a small farm right outside town.
Geo looked back at his friend and said, “Elkhart’s flatter than this. Those rolling hills don’t make it to Indiana. You get all those. I have cornfields. Technically though, I have crowded houses and steel mills.
“Speaking of quiet, it is quiet. I don’t like this,” Stan replied, his eyes focused on the cluster of houses and churches that was before them. The town had seen better days, the Air Force bombings having taken their toll. Buildings hundreds of years old now sat in piles of loose brick, broken glass, and destroyed possessions.
The Americans fanned out through the streets, rifles at their shoulders, eyes fixed on any potential enemy position. They made as little noise as possible, signaling to each other, maneuvering from one building to another, clearing each as they went. Stan looked for a place to set up his mortar crew. His heart was racing. He already accepted the possibility that he would not make it through the war. Within the first couple days of arriving in France, he had seen enough horror to not want to be part of this cruel world, anyway. However, human instinct and his brothers in arms pushed the need for survival and an end to this nightmare. He was across a rubble-strewn street from Geo and a lanky fellow from Company L he didn’t recognize. The two men squeezed next to what used to be a bakery but was now a first-floor shell of brick. Geo admired the structure for a moment, thinking of home and his life as a mason.
“This is beautiful work right here”, He whispered to the lanky soldier, who was crouched down, his hand pinned to his helmet.
“Yeah real damn nice work. Why in the hell are you talking about the bricks anyway? We need to get across the street.”
“Slow down there, fella, you need to wait for the right time.”
“And when is the right time?”
“The time you cross the road and don't get killed, that’s the right time,” Geo replied.
“And how do we know that?”
“Well now, that’s the great mystery of war. You figure that out, and winner, winner, chicken dinner. We all get to go home and kiss our sweethearts.”
The soldier from Company L shook his head as he lifted up, his hand coming off his helmet, and looking around. He leaned forward, “Well, I guess it’s time to find out a little something about time. Winner, winner, chick...”
“Crack!” The sound of a high-powered rifle shattered the silence. The bullet exploded through the soldier’s eye, cascading blood and brain over the side of the brick facade. His long body crumpled to the cobblestone.
Geo looked at Stan, with pure terror on his blood-spattered face.
“Medic!” Stan screamed, knowing Geo couldn’t get out the words.
Stan kneeled down, praying for the quiet again. Instead, all hell broke loose. German troops gathered in force and were coming at them from every direction, meeting the fire of the unsettled U.S. troops. Mortars whistled down from the sky, shattering any pockets of protection, throwing bricks and debris in every direction. Stan made the sign of the cross and unleashed as much fire as he could. He waved his arm to Geo to move to his right to set up the M2.
Geo tucked low and sprinted across the melee and around the obstacles and slid himself in next to Stan. Geo pulled the launching tube off his shoulder and slammed it to the ground. With two quick movements, he was ready for a 60-millimeter shell.
“Where the hell is our ammo carrier? Where in the hell is any ammo carrier? Goddamn it!” Stan yelled as he set the trajectory for the mortar.
“Over here!” Geo yelled to a young PFC draped in 60-millimeter shells. The young man nodded and ran toward them. Stumbling on a fallen light post, he met a 5-centimeter Granatwerfer shell from a German three-man team who had ammo already there. Stan and Geo dove back, the heat pulling at their skin, demanding its price. Escaping the grip of the encapsulating fireball, the two men smashed themselves into the sharp ground. The surreal moment washed over them with the smell of burning flesh.
“George!” Stan yelled in Geo’s ear. “These goddamn Krauts don’t want us to go home. I’m tired of these sons of bitches.”
“Give ’em hell, Stan. Give ’em hell!” Geo yelled as he rolled to a firing position and took aim.
“You damn Kraut bastards always interrupting us when we’re trying to forget this damn war! Set up the tube!” he yelled. “We need another ammo carrier!”
A young man hunched under the weight of the projectiles and bullets. He leaped over the smoldering body of the fallen soldier, took two steps, and dropped to his knees, sliding towards the position. He pulled a cartridge and handed it to Geo. Taking the cold shell with steady hands, he held it above the top of the muzzle and waited for Stan’s order to release.
Stan set the coordinates with the sight he carried on him at all times. He found the target: a machine gun nest beside a church. Forgive me, Father, he whispered to himself, adjusting the tube to the position. “Drop it in, Geo! Fire!”
Metal scraped on metal as the missile slid to the firing pin, propelling round’s launch high into the air, whistling through the air toward its target. The crew’s senses shifted when the explosion scattered two German bodies into pieces and sent the machine gun into the side of the church.
“Another one! Let’s get another one!” Stan shouted.
“All right, Sarge, that’s how you line ’em up. No Kraut lives in Stan’s sights!” Geo yelled, grabbing another cylinder.
Stan located another target: a sniper in the bell tower of a small, stone church. He hated having to blow up a church but the sniper was a lethal killing machine. And he knew he could be the next target. Him before me; that is war. Stan set the coordinates and nodded to Geo.
With a nod and a wink, Geo released another projectile and covered his ears, and turned his head.
In a fiery explosion of bricks and splinters of wood, a sniper was eliminated in a cloud of black smoke.
Remaining a hot contest in the snow, a pair of companies slugged it out with German forces for two days. The American commanders spoke of the resilience and bravery of their men but were unable to get them any relief. With heavy casualties, the men remained steadfast in their resolve, not wanting the war to take a nasty shift right before Christmas.
Come the morning of the third day, the rising sun cast a glow across the Bavarian countryside, and the German forces drove harder than ever.
Stan had little ammo left and did his best to make every shot count. There was nowhere to go, just more chaos. He reloaded twice, spending every shell in his M1. He threw the empty rifle down next to him, pulled out his Colt sidearm, and fired it dry. His heart sank as the last casing fell, smoke wafting from the chamber and the empty shell ringing off the street. It was like being in slow motion. Gone, it was all gone. Here they come, swarms of gray uniforms like bees to honey. How sweet the taste of victory for them, Stan thought.
With little to no ammunition, the exhausted G.I.s watched the German resurgence carry the wrath of the Reich. Nazi soldiers poured through the town, weapons drawn, barking orders in their native tongue. “Kapitulation! Kapitulation!” they yelled, grabbing Americans by their arms.
Stan watched a kid he knew from Basic Training Basic yank his arm away from a Kraut soldier before reeling back and punching him in the mouth. The sharp-jawed German stumbled back while two others threw the American to the street. He winced and twisted, but made it quickly to his knees, puffing out his chest, glaring at the man he hit. The Nazi, rubbing his jaw with one hand, placed the barrel of his pistol point-blank at the determined, grizzled face of a once innocent farm boy. Innocent no more; all of it lost to the unimaginable horrors he had witnessed since landing in Europe in June. The German repeated his last order. “Kapitulation!” The G.I. looked up at him and said, “Kapitulation my ass. I’ll never surrender.” He spat in the soldier’s face.
A single shot silenced him forever, and the rest of the squad for that moment.
“Jesus Christ,” Stan said to himself, forcing back tears as he reluctantly raised his hands in the air. He and Geo rose from behind their cover.
Captured by an army out to destroy the world, 7,000 miles from home, starving and frostbitten, Stan had every reason to show emotion, but he refused. He learned to hide his feelings through years of unpredictable rage and instability at his father’s hands—the brutal hands of alcohol abuse, degenerate gambling, and unwarranted self-loathing fueled by long hours in the coal mine.
A German soldier pressed the end of his gun’s barrel into Stan’s back. His fear was subsiding, his anger returning, but he needed to be smart. The brave soldier didn’t need to be buried in some unmarked shallow hole in Strasse, Germany. You’re either alive or not; there’s no in-between, he thought and used every ounce of willpower not to react.
Maybe I’m just glad that the fighting is over for me and I didn’t end up like the ammo carrier or the young guy from basic. Stan’s thought truly scared him. He felt sadness for the mothers who would receive knocks on their front doors. But as of this moment, for Stan and the rest of his company, hope was dwindling fast.
Stan winced as he stepped forward. Each step, like walking barefoot on shards of glass.
The two companies of prisoners marched six grueling kilometers to Kreuzau, where they’d meet the nearest rail line. Large, wooden train cars awaited the depleted men of Companies K and L. Wide gaps between the boards told the G.I.s there would be no comfort on this ride. A broken box carrying broken men to an unknown fate.
Stan didn’t want to live through this cataclysm anymore. He wanted it to be over. His muscles barely pulled him into the icy confines of the dark car. He took a deep breath and collapsed to the floor. Stan closed his eyes, not caring if they ever opened again.
“Grandpa, you going to tell us about being a POW?” David asked, bouncing on his chair, awaiting his milkshake and a story from his grandfather.
“Yeah, Grandpa,” Dominic chimed in, “tell us how awesome World War Two was.”
Startled, Stan shook his head like he just stepped out of a space shuttle, not sure what planet he crash-landed on. He forced his thoughts back to the blender and the cure that brought him back from the grips of starvation. He smiled, filled three tall glasses with the creamy slush, and set them down on the table.