Men of War, Wheel of Peace
by Michael Hutchison
Notes: Thanks to Scott McCullar for the WWII info and the proof-reading. I'd like to apologize to Chuck Dixon for contradicting his official account of where Sgt. Rock was on December 25, 1944, but I don't feel too bad about it because Sgt. Rock's probably fought all of World War II several times over in his 40+ years of stories!
Words In The Dark
The bitter cold seemed to find every crack and opening in Hazard's army-issue winter uniform as he trudged through the Ardennes. He cursed the snow and the mud, sticking to the Jeep-worn trails and tolerating the uneven footing. One more time, the chill got the best of him and he removed his helmet to put the ski mask back on. He disliked wearing it, as the eyeholes interfered with his peripheral vision.and Hazard was staying alert for any sign of an enemy sniper. Of course, this was all Allied territory, but the dark Ardennes forest was so thick with trees that an entire squad of Nazis could be hiding for all they knew! A hundred steps later, he pulled the mask off again.
The rough terrain of the Ardennes, bordering Belgium, France and Germany, had become the focus of the war for the last few months. This "battle of the bulge" (as some were calling it, due to the odd shape the troop movements made on the war maps) was the first major counteroffensive by the Germans since the Allies had landed at Normandy on June 4, 1944. Now it looked like the Nazis were being beaten back once again, but there was little cause for celebration. Only a few days ago, the Nazis had captured 140 American soldiers near Malmeddy and slaughtered most of the prisoners. The resulting shock had horrified the Allies, who fought even harder now that surrender was not an option. Some over-optimistic Allied leaders had hoped to be in Berlin putting an end to Hitler by Christmas Day, but such wishes were not to be granted.
Captain Ulysses Hazard, who operated under the codename of "Gravedigger", wanted to rest. His Jeep, which had seen better days, had gone kaput when he was three miles from his destination. Carrying his trusted Browning Automatic Rifle, plus supplies, the files and other essentials, he tried to ignore the accumulating snow and pushed through the snowdrifts that blocked his way. Ordering one foot in front of the other, he slowly plodded along and shook off memories of his years of physical therapy.
"Whistling!" came a shout from the trees ahead.
"Dixie!" he shouted back, hoping that the lookout wasn't trigger-happy. There should still be enough daylight to see his uniform and the captain's bars on the helmet.but Hazard prepared to dive for cover nonetheless.
"Good evening, Captain Gravedigger, sir!" came the shout. The greeting stunned Hazard, who had expected the standard "advance and be recognized" order. No one at Easy Company knew he was coming. Hazard squinted, until the glint on a pair of glasses told him that it might be Four-Eyes functioning as lookout. The man's keen eyes were legendary.and now that he thought of it, it didn't take a Sherlock Holmes to identify a brown-skinned officer with a big, red, cross-shaped scar on his face.
"I have orders for Master Sergeant Frank Rock of Easy Company!" Hazard responded. Ulysses Hazard knew that Sgt. Rock ran an informal outfit, but he wasn't about to relax until someone else did first.
"Hang on. I'll get a guard to escort you, sir!" Four-Eyes shouted back, grabbing his walkie-talkie. By the time Hazard reached Four-Eyes, the headlights of a Jeep were racing in his direction. "Private Gap will take you to our temporary H.Q."
"What's it been like out here, Four-Eyes?" Hazard asked, resting on a nearby log. "Any sign of Nazi activity?"
"No, Captain Gravedigger, sir, they've been in retreat. I think they heard Sgt. Rock was moving in and they decided to stay alive, instead!" Four-Eyes snorted, though Hazard could tell from his eyes that the man wished it were true. After three years of action, there wasn't a Nazi in the army that didn't know the name of Sgt. Rock. The German feeling towards Rock mirrored the American attitude towards Enemy Ace in the First World War. Everyone wanted to see him defeated, but no commanders were thrilled to hear that Sgt. Rock was their opponent!
"It's 'Captain Hazard', Private, or 'Gravedigger'. I don't mind if you call me just Gravedigger." Hazard muttered.
"Sorry, sir. Here's Gap. He'll take you the rest of the way," Four-Eyes offered, lunging for Hazard's equipment and throwing it in the back of the Jeep.
Gravedigger savored the meager warmth of the covered Jeep as the private whipped the vehicle around and began speeding back to camp. He took off his gloves and rubbed his hands together. Then he glanced at the driver. He appeared to be as large as Corporal Nichols, Rock's right-hand man whom he'd nicknamed "Bulldozer", but appeared to be only 18 years old. Gap seemed to be wearing a helmet that was several sizes too small, as it sat atop his shaved head like a tiny derby on a cartoon character. Gap cheerily drove along, navigating the treacherous road, oblivious to the blizzard of flakes hitting the windshield. Hazard finally cleared his throat and spoke. "So, Private Gap. A nickname, I presume? Why do they call you G--WHOAH!"
Gap had turned to him and smiled, revealing a straight gap between both of his upper and lower incisors. Gap chuckled, smiling even wider. Upon closer inspection, Hazard saw that the gums around the space appeared damaged. Gap crooked a finger back towards his mouth and proudly proclaimed, "Got it at Normandy!"
Gravedigger was still flabbergasted at the sight of it. "How.how did.uh.did you come by that?"
"Easy was one of the first to storm Utah Beach. You probably heard about the resistance we met. Well, I took a bullet in the shoulder and two more in my leg and another in my right arm.all pretty much minor but the pain all at once was just too much. I was just getting off the landing craft, and I rammed my head into something metal as I fell."
"That's how you got the gap?" Hazard asked, still puzzled.
"Naw," Gap said with a shrug. "Near as I can figure, I just lay there on the beach leaking blood until it came time to count the bodies. By then, I was far gone. I got counted for dead; either I was dead, or the medic was doing a rush job so that he could get to all my other buddies dead beside me. So the corpsman grabs my dogtag, puts it in my teeth and whacks my jaw with the hammer!"
"OH MY GOD!" Hazard shouted, his hand instinctively slapping over his mouth in sympathy. "Oh my God."
"You ain't kidding! Well, the sheer overwhelming pain of it must have shocked me, because he says I shot straight up and tried to scream as loud as I could, only my jaw was stuck together."
"Ooooooh!" Hazard moaned, pained at the idea.
"Well, the corpsman panics 'cause he's got a friggin' dead soldier screeching at him. He and this other soldier finally pried my jaw apart, bustin' it up in the process. They put a mess of stitches on my gums and then moved me on. I got evac'd to a hospital in England, where they finally get my jaw fixed and my gums repaired, mostly. And me, I'm just feeling lousy 'cause it hurts like hell, but I don't deserve the attention. All my buddies are getting shipped home missing whole sections of their bodies and learnin' to hold silverware with a hook, and they're fussing over my jaw. So they ask me if I'm feeling okay, I say 'Yeah, show me some stinkin' Nazis and give me a gun again!' an' they ship me back to Rock." Gap chuckled during his story, but Hazard saw him rubbing his jaw.
"So.you're okay?" Hazard finally asked.
"Well, the doctors say I'll always have this slight speech impediment. But I should be grateful! It looks all right and my mouth moves and I can talk, right? What's a little pain?"
"You're saying it does hurt?"
"OH YEAH!" Gap growled, with gusto. "Does it ever! All day long, there's this constant pain just throbbing, throbbing, throbbing. It NEVER goes away. Sometimes just talking hurts like hell. And meals.forget about it! I have to take a bite, then scream, then chew, then scream. No one likes sitting near me when I eat. When it's cold out, I get headaches like I just ate twenty malted milk sodas.and it's been cold here for months! Sometimes the pain is so overwhelming that I can't think straight. And even when I try to sleep, my head pounds and throbs til it wants to split like an egg. I just cry like a baby to relieve the pressure. And then there'll be an hour where I'm feeling okay and I think this whole painful ordeal is finally over, and then, from out of the blue, it's like God Himself used my skull for a round of golf with the biggest set of clubs you ever seen. I'll just have to hold my head, curl up on the ground and shriek until it ends."
"For God's sake, man!" Hazard blurted, aghast at the story, "Why don't you tell the medic and get some morphine?"
"Oh, I don't like to complain."
With that, the Jeep skidded to a stop in a clearing surrounded by tents. The Allied camp was a reserve location, where the men could rest on a cot in a tent with heat and electricity instead of huddling together in foxholes on the front. Easy Company, after a particularly daring battle against the Iron Major, had earned the three days' relief just in time for Christmas.
A few soldiers clustered by fires, and lights in the tents indicated where people had gathered for warmth and protection. Gap pointed, and Ulysses Hazard hustled to one of the largest tents. Inside were rows of tables, chairs and a gathering of about a dozen men around a stove at one end.
"Good evening, Sgt. Rock! Captain Ulysses Hazard. I have urgent news for you," Hazard said from the entrance to the mess hall, for that was obviously what it was.
Master Sergeant Frank Rock appeared as he always appeared: never clean-shaven, never fully bearded. Somehow he always had two days' growth of whiskers. Despite being one of the most lauded commanders of the War, he was as rumpled as a child's bed and as severe as a strand of spaghetti. In action, he was a sight to behold.but when it was time to relax, Rock was never one to stand on pretense.
After a post-Normandy "Stars and Stripes" interview with an inspiring photo of Rock had been reprinted in every rag coast-to-coast, the American public had speculated that this amazing war hero would return home and run for president. General Eisenhower had promptly sent off a short memo to the effect that Rock wouldn't even be eligible until 1950. Looking at him, it was hard to believe he was a young man, not even thirty yet. War had aged him; he was easily mistaken for forty-five.
Sgt. Rock was resting himself on the edge of a table while his men were seated around him, obviously trading stories. Rock waved him in, his other hand holding a mug of coffee. Heads snapped towards Gravedigger as he approached.
"Well, what kind of 'Urgent' is it, Gravedigger?" Rock asked as a way of greeting. Having met the man before, Rock saw no reason for formality. "Is it 'Nazis are outside the door' Urgent? Or is it 'We have work to do but I can sit down with Easy Company and have a cup of joe while we talk' Urgent?"
"It's 'Look inside this folder while you finish your coffee' Urgent, sergeant," Hazard shot back, flipping the classified envelope around in his hand and proffering it towards Rock. "And I'd be obliged for a cup, thank you."
Sgt. Rock took the envelope and broke the seal, withdrawing a folder marked 'Top Secret", as he spoke. "Coffee's in the pot over there. Help yerself to a mug."
"How is it?" Hazard asked, knowing that few batches of Army coffee ever tasted the same. He headed for the kitchen.
Rock never glanced up from the folder as he began reading. "It's been kept heating in that pot for two days straight. It's watery, yet sludge-like in places. It tastes like swill that got sent to the Army because it couldn't meet code for over-the-counter swill. I wouldn't drink it black, mind ya, but we ain't got any sugar and we certainly ain't got any cream. But it's hot, at least."
Hazard felt his mug-full of alleged coffee. "Um.no, it's not."
"Okay, it's not, but I never like to deprive a man of all hope." Sgt. Rock turned a third page and then a fourth. "Gravedigger, you familiar with what this says?"
"Yes, sir. In fact, I've been involved in this affair for some time now."
"This is all very disturbing. Why don't ya take a load off and give me a couple minutes to finish. I'm gonna want to brief Easy on this." Rock continued to the last few pages of the folder.
Gravedigger began making small talk with the gathered group of men, and he saw a few faces he recognized. Bulldozer, Little Sure Shot and Wild Man were hard to miss, as the hulking frame, Indian features and red mane of hair, respectively, tended to stand out. Gap had just joined them. Three other faces struck Hazard as familiar, but it took him a few more minutes to finally recall the nicknames of Long Round, Short Round and Worrywart.
Hazard was glad to see that Private Jackie Johnson was still alive and serving. Not only was he a famous heavyweight boxer whose death would be a loss to America, but he, like Hazard himself, was one of the few Negro officers permitted to serve in the racially segregated army. Hazard didn't know Johnson's story, but it was most likely a combination of Johnson's fame and Sgt. Rock's request, both of which carried a lot of weight.
Hazard wondered whether a celebrity like Johnson would even understand his own story. Ulysses Hazard had not only suffered the indignities of being a poor black man in Alabama, but he'd had the added pain of being crippled by polio. Told he'd never walk again due to the ravages of ascending poliomyelitis, he'd pushed his body to overcome the injury to his legs. Over the course of six years of intense therapy, he not only walked again but eventually ran and swam and drove himself to become a superb athlete. Nonetheless, when the War began, his medical record and skin color landed him the menial service of grave-digging detail. Knowing he was meant for better things, he had finally deserted the army and demonstrated what he was made of to the top brass by breaking in to a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Impressed, they promoted him to Captain and gave him the codename Gravedigger.
"Where's Ice Cream Soldier?" he asked Jackie. "He must be lovin' this weather."
"Ice Cream Soldier bought it a few months back," Bulldozer interjected. The sad faces on the others made it clear that the loss was still felt by the team. Easy took casualties all the time, but friendships formed fast in Easy and no one was ever forgotten. They often used nicknames to keep from becoming too personal, and yet they were as close as brothers. In his interview, Rock had put it simply: "Every day, you have to forget.and you have to never forget."
Hazard bit his lip and chided himself for assuming that the man would be alive. It was a foolish thing to do in this war. "I'm sorry to hear it. Back when we teamed up to take Nickname Hill, he impressed me a lot. All of you did."
Rock's voice cut through the uncomfortable silence. "We should all'a us write our moms as often as Ice Cream Soldier wrote his. Wish we could have returned him to Minnesota safe and sound." The lighting suddenly cut out. Rock cursed, pulled a match from his shirt and lit a nearby lantern, muttering, "Damn it, that generator has gone out half a dozen times today. Short Round! See if you can get it going again."
Rock went back to his reading by lantern light, and there was another long silence. Then Hazard chuckled. A few members of Easy shot him a nasty look. Hazard clapped a hand over his mouth and waved at them to try to dismiss their anger. When his laughter subsided, he explained: "I'm so sorry, it's just.when Sarge said his name, I finally got it. It just never made any sense until I heard Sarge pronounce it. I can't believe it took me over a year to get it. 'Ice Cream Soda' - 'Ice Cream Solja.' It's so obvious, now." There were a few chuckles and murmurs at this.
Little Sure Shot shook his head and responded, "THANK you! I'm glad someone finally explained it to me!" At that, Easy laughed all around. Little Sure Shot groaned, realizing the kidding he'd be taking for a while. "Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, ya. what can I say, there weren't a lot of soda shops on the reservation."
"Hey, Gravedigger!" Wild Man hollared over the others, "You never did tell us how you got your nickname!"
"Gravedigging's the last job I did for the Army before they made me a special agent."
Bulldozer began laughing all over again. "HA! Glad that isn't a rule, or my code name would be 'Latrinedigger'!" At that, the men of Easy Company busted a collective gut, hooting and guffawing.
"'Dozer!" Sgt. Rock shouted, stunning the group back into civility, "Assemble the men on the double. I want to hold a meeting here in five minutes. And someone get some fresh coffee going!" Sgt. Rock closed the folder and met Hazard's gaze for the first time. It was difficult to tell what Rock was thinking.but if it was anything like what was going through Hazard's mind, at least part of it was well-disguised fear.
Soldiers began entering from several flaps in the tent, always taking great care to close the flaps behind them as soon as possible. They hurried in, some still lacing their boots, some buttoning jackets, but all shivering from the cold. Coffee was passed around, more lanterns were lit.and soon Sarge faced all of Easy Company.
"Men, this is Captain Ulysses Hazard, but many of you know him as Gravedigger. He's been working in enemy territory and crossed back over just to get us this important information. Gravedigger?" Sarge turned to Hazard, handing him the folder. Sgt. Rock stood off in a dark corner, giving Gravedigger the meager spotlight from the few lamps in the tent.
"I wish I could say that I chose you for this special misson because you're the best there is. That would be true," Gravedigger began, ".but I'm not the one who chose you. The Nazis did. They're headed straight for this position. According to our latest reconnaissance, they will be here within a day.and they're coming in this!"
Gravedigger flipped over a 9x7 b/w photo and held it up. There was a sharp increase of breath all around.
"It's called a War Wheel. No doubt you've heard of it. It's a kind of tank, although that's certainly a poor description. The vehicle is as big as the tire from Paul Bunyan's Ford.so big it can pancake a small village in only a couple passes. Instead of a tread, the outer surface is one thick, solid piece of rotating metal. It spins just like an ordinary wheel, with huge spikes and an internal stabilizing system to keep it upright. The stabilizer is an entirely new form of technology, and one we're anxious to get our hands on.'cuz it's so powerful that an airplane kamikaze'd into it's hull won't tip it over, as one of the Blackhawks found out."
"There have been several War Wheels, all of them prototypes. The Blackhawks managed to defeat them on separate occasions by luring it into quicksand and by electrocuting the occupants and other traps. Each new version of the Wheel has taken the previous vulnerability into account and improved to avoid it, so those means won't work again."
"Those of you who've seen pictures of the captured prototypes will notice several key differences in this new one. The obvious one is the size. The previous devices were King Kong-sized monstrosities. The Nazis had devoted an immense amount of materiel to the construction of the first few because it was believed that just one would crush the opposition and win the war for them. The same amount of metal could have made 100 tanks and countless bullets.and in the end, they did.for OUR side!" There were chuckles around the room. "The previous Wheels were damaged when they were captured, and Allied command saw fit to turn the metal into an aircraft carrier or three."
The men laughed with glee at this. In the ruckus, somebody in the back of the tent sang a few lines from the song "Any Old Iron" before being elbowed to stop.
"All right, all right, settle," Gravedigger warned, "because it stops being so funny now. The Germans have changed their strategy. The new War Wheel is no bigger than seven stories tall, including the spikes. That's still imposing. See, the Nazis' new idea is to create a number of smaller War Wheels and hit us on every front. You think one of these is bad.I was recently in a factory where the Krauts had dozens of these damned things almost assembled! Enough War Wheels to roll over every Allied tank in Europe and Africa!"
The only sound in the tent was that of the cold air whistling like the breath of a fierce dragon.
"That's right," Gravedigger continued after a suitable pause. "You'll be relieved to know that the factory has been destroyed. I was sent on a top priority mission to make sure none of those War Wheels saw action. I was joined by some of the Allies' top operatives, including the Viking Sgt. Valoric, the Creature Commandoes and some members of the All Star Squadron who are able to operate beyond Hitler's barrier. Together with some targeted bombing raids, we managed to blow up both the War Wheel factory and the super-zeppelins that transport them. I also managed to gather documents and design plans from the offices there. Now that much has already made it back to the Allied press, but there's one thing that hasn't gotten in the papers: we failed to destroy every single War Wheel. One of them was almost finished and was driven away before we could destroy it."
"The remaining Wheel was driven deep into armed territory, where we could not pursue it. Knowing that the Nazis would finish that Wheel as fast as possible, we hustled back to Allied territory and got word to command.and then waited for the Wheel to strike. Word has come at last."
"At 1000 hours today, the Wheel appeared approximately 120 miles east of here. Our front lines spent a few hours slowing it down with various attack-and-hide maneuvers, but it finally pushed through and continued west. It bypassed several villages but destroyed two military camps. All of this has led us to a few useful conclusions."
"First of all, we know that the previous War Wheel was used for targeted destruction. It was dropped off by zeppelins, did its damage, and was then spirited away. But this one is doing all the hard transportation work, too, and there's no chance of relief by zeppelin. Therefore, it's on a one-way mission. And instead of merely causing destruction and terror, we think it has a specific agenda: to draw our forces away from the front. One moderate-sized War Wheel can't win the war for the Nazis, but we can't exactly leave it free to level every town between here and Paris.and stopping it through firepower would require such an army that it would divert our troops and give the Nazis an opening. If we lose the push for Berlin.who knows how long this damn war may last. Indeed, this may just be the break the Krauts need."
"No way," Sgt. Rock intoned from the darkness, "no god-damned way. We have fought for this too long and too hard and lost too many fine men to lose it all to one hunk of spinning metal. No way." The red ember of his cigarette lit Rock's chin, and all of his men saw the grim sneer which tugged at the corner of his mouth as he spat out, "I don't care what the Blackhawks say.that Wheel is vulnerable. It has weaknesses. We just have to find them. But it's not getting past Easy Company!"
Murmurs of assent had grown throughout Rock's short speech, and when he threw out the last sentence the men roared with fury. Gravedigger was annoyed at the unnecessary interruption.but when he saw the willingness to fight in the men's eyes, he realized it made his next job easier.
"Here's one more thing that'll stoke your fires, men," Gravedigger began again. "The War Wheel does indeed have weaknesses. Not all of them are readily apparent. The Wheel is big and terrifying and hard to stop, its hull darned near impenetrable and nearly impossible to tip over through force. At first glance, it's fearsome. But look again, and think about what it takes to move the thing. It needs almost constant oiling throughout the outer hull. It picks up mud and moisture, and our reports tell us that it is NOT handling the cold winter at all well. There are no lights, so it's not traveling at night. Biggest problem? The weight of it. Think of the fuel it takes to move a machine that size. Turns out the central hub is practically 3/4 fuel tank! And to keep this doomsday weapon from just going up like the world's largest shrapnel grenade, they had to put on the thickest, densest armor hull they could manufacture. Which, of course, just makes it that much heavier and increases the fuel consumption rate."
"But here's the lynch pin for our attack. Remember that the previous War Wheels were almost totally enclosed. No portals, no windows, no smokestacks. Navigation and gun sighting were done totally by the use of complex periscopes, while exhaust was pumped through small holes near the turrets. Needless to say, there were numerous problems with visibility and breathability inside the Wheel. That's been changed." Gravedigger pulled out the diagram of the current War Wheel and pointed with his pen at the turrets, saying, "Notice the small slits in the metal above each gun in the new turrets. These are covered with thick Plexiglas, so the guys inside are still somewhat secure. But here's the clincher: they're removable. And these fellows are pulling a cross-country trip in a stinky, unventilated, cramped, humid gunport in a vehicle that was intended for short search-and-destroy missions of only a couple hours. Word from the front is that, even in the pitched battles earlier today, they've taken the Plexiglas off and are enjoying the air."
"That's our lucky break, gentlemen. Now here's my plan."
"Tomorrow morning we bug out. Strike the camp and drive the equipment and supplies to a safe distance, with the exception of a few trucks to serve as bait. The key to our success is the local geography; there's a steep, narrow valley, almost like a ravine or a canyon, just two miles to the southwest of here. There's a dirt road through the center of it. We lure the Wheel into this crevasse, where our men are staked out in the walls of the hillside. Take out the gun turrets on both sides with bazookas. When that's done, I'm going to climb the Wheel and descend to the turrets. I'll attach a rope ladder for you men, then I'll enter through the hatch. We get into the main chamber and take out any remaining Nazis.and it's ours. It'll be a lot harder than it sounds. We'll have time in the morning to go over the plans. Rock?"
Sgt. Rock finally rejoined Gravedigger before the men and addressed them. "Before it gets any later," he said, in his gravelly baritone, "I need to get men over to the motor pool. Take plows and half-tracks to the crevasse and get that road cleared, packed flat and sanded. If we're luring the Wheel there, it needs to look like we use it a lot or they'll get suspicious. Plus, I don't want Jeeps getting stuck when they have a Nazi death machine rolling down on top of them! So let's work through the night if we have to, but get that road packed! Bulldozer, make the assignments. Dismissed"
As the men broke and scattered, Rock turned to Hazard and said, "I'm sorry, Captain Hazard, but we don't have any officer's quarters. You'll have to bunk with me tonight. I'll see if I can rustle up an extra cot."
"Thank you, Sarge, but I'm not above bunking with the men if there's a spare bed. My rank gives me what I need to get things done, so I don't complain, but I don't need special treatment. All I ever asked of Uncle Sam and the good Lord was to put me in the fight where I was needed," Gravedigger said with pride. He glanced around to see that the men were gone, then continued, "By the by, I never got to tell you how sorry I am for ruining your Christmas. I know Easy was rotated off the front lines to this camp so you could take a well-deserved break-"
"It happens, Captain, it happens. Don't bother apologizing for things you aren't responsible for," Sarge said, lighting another cigarette. "The war calls its own shots. We can only struggle to survive it."
Spirits and Snowballs
Sgt. Rock heard the sharp cry and ran from his tent while still tugging on his clothes. He glanced around, trying to get his bearings. There was snow everywhere. The biting wind blew it in all directions, until it looked like it was snowing sideways. He didn't know where the blizzard had come from. Turning around to use his tent as a placemarker, he was shocked to see that it was lost in the spinning snow.
Again, the anguished cry came from the darkness. Rock struck out in the direction of the shout, ignoring fears that he would get lost in the black night. Faint moonlight illuminated the snowdrifts with an eerie blue as he stumbled and shivered. The snowfall tapered down to a mere flurry, and finally dwindled until only some fat snowflakes lazily drifted across his path. Still, he was lost in the night. The vast snowdrifts and fir trees seemed to extend in all directions.though he could not see too far in the bleak darkness.
"Sarge! Over here! I'm here!"
The shout was close this time. Sgt. Rock ran as fast as he could. Finally, he could see an American soldier's silhouette standing in the distance.
"Sarge, it's good to see you again," came the voice, eerily familiar, as the soldier waved to him.
"It's.it's you," Sarge stammered. "How can you be here?"
"Why wouldn't I be here?" Ice Cream Soldier said. "I love to play in the snow. Besides, you led me here."
"I don't understand. Where is here?"
"You know. Where we all go. Where you led us." The voice came from Rock's right. He turned to see Farmer Boy, who had also been with Easy until just a few months ago.
"Where I lead you? Oh my God." Sarge said, his voice breaking.
"It's okay, Sarge. You know us mid-western boys. We love playing in the snow!" Ice Cream Soldier scooped up a snowball and beaned Farmer Boy in the helmet. Farmer Boy laughed and began packing a snowball of his own. As he reared back to throw it, a hailstorm of snowballs hit him in the chest. Farmer Boy fell backwards as though dead, then jumped up and laughed.
Sarge turned around to see who'd thrown the snowballs. Behind him were dozens of men. He recognized them as the joes of Easy Co. that he'd led into danger and death for the past three years. Tiny Tiger. Hairy Man. Joe One and Joe Two. Potato Flanagan and his dog, Spud, whom the company had adopted on an abandoned road in Italy. Private Butter and Private Wurst. Short Fuse. Tall Drink'a Water. Heads Bronson. All of their nicknames came rushing back to Sarge as he realized these were the men whom he tried to forget and to never forget. These were the dead.
Stunned, Sarge watched as they cavorted and laughed, hurling snowballs fast and furious. They were like schoolboys playing cowboys and Indians, enacting a war with the seriousness of afternoon recess. When a snowball hit Short Fuse right in the chest, he clutched his heart and spat out a loud gurgle, keeled over backwards and chortled. Then he got up and hit Hairy Man in the elbow, yelling "I got you! Yer dead!". Hairy Man shouted, "Ah! My arm! Ahhhhhhhh!" and then began a long, dramatic death wherein he thrashed about and quivered before giving out a final, loud gasp.
Sgt. Rock knew he was dreaming. He knew these men couldn't be here. Yet all he could do was stand and watch as these dead men played a pretend war.
"Stop it! Stop it, all of you!" Sarge finally shrieked, running towards them. "What's the matter with you? How can you make sport of war and bullets and death?"
The men of Easy Co. all stopped rolling and tumbling over each other in the snow. They all stood up and faced Rock, and all the smiles vanished. The sight made Rock stop short, and he came no closer to them. Finally, Ice Cream Soldier walked from the front of the group and approached Rock.
"What do you expect of us? We're just playing, Sarge. Like we should have been. We shoulda been home, working our farms, going to college, playing football, kissing girls.we weren't supposed to be dying halfway around the world from our families. We're still young. We were still young."
Rock looked at the young man, with his pale white skin, blonde hair and light freckles.and saw him for the first time as the boy he was. The realization shook Rock. Ice Cream Soldier was right. So many of the dead were a decade younger than him. He had signed up when he was 26, but these men were right out of high school. By the time he got them, after boot camp.heads shaved, muscles honed, toting guns and knives and artillery.he never saw them as boys. For a moment, Ice Cream Soldier's boots, helmet and gear disappeared, and Rock saw him as he may have looked back home. Now he stared at a boy wearing overalls and a hat, face washed and unruly hair combed, carrying some flowers for his date to the local square dance.
Frank Rock felt the tears at the corners of his eyes as he struggled for something to say to this man whose life had been snuffed out while following him into battle. "I'm.I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Ice Cream Sol-"
"Roy," Ice Cream Soldier said.
"It's Roy. Roy Wilkerson. You never learned my name, you just called me 'Ice Cream Soljah,' but it's Roy. You never learn anyone's name. Maybe it's easy for you to bury us all if you never learn our names!"
Frank Rock wanted to object, but he knew there was at least a bit of truth to it.
"Good bye, Sarge. Maybe we'll see you someday," Roy Wilkerson said, as he turned and walked off into the darkness. The soldiers all turned and, without a word, walked away from Sgt. Rock.
"Don't go!" Rock called, as the dead of Easy Co. began to disappear. He wanted to follow, but his feet wouldn't budge. Then more soldiers appeared at his side and began to walk towards the dark woods. "Wait! Who are you?"
The soldiers turned, and Sgt. Rock gasped. It was Bulldozer.and Wild Man, Gap, Four-Eyes, Longhorn, Jackie Johnson, Shoeshine Collins, Squinty and the rest of Easy Co.!
"We're going." Bulldozer said, ".to play in the snow."
With that, the rest of Easy Company disappeared into the blackness. Rock's legs finally started moving, and he ran after them. "Wait! You aren't going with them! You can't play in the snow yet! Stop!"
Then Rock heard a rumble, and the squeaks and grinds of heavy equipment. He turned to see the stars in the sky disappearing as a black shape came closer and closer until it blotted out the sky.and crashed down upon him.
Sgt. Rock awoke in his cot, breathing quickly. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and swore. Unfortunately, restless nights were the norm for him, and disturbing dreams were common. He thought nothing of it.until he heard voices laughing outside in the snow!
Rock jumped into his boots and threw open the tent to see Gravedigger and Private Longhorn running around in the moonlight. Gravedigger was waving one arm and talking, while Longhorn was dodging in front of him. Were they having a snowball fight?
"What are you doing?!" Sgt. Rock thundered with as much indignation as he could muster. He meant it for both of them, although he directed it at Longhorn.
"Sorry, Sarge!" Gravedigger said, lowering his arm. Rock could now see that he had a rope in his hands. "I'm getting in some practice for tomorrow. Longhorn here was giving me some of his roping tricks from back home."
"Well.we'll be getting up soon. You're no good to us if you're dead on your feet!" Sarge grumbled. "Besides, you may catch pneumonia."
"Don't yuh worry, Sarge," Longhorn drawled, "there's no harm in just playin' in the snow!"
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This story is © 1999 by Michael Hutchison.
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