Finding Billy Rudd (part 4)

March 16, 2016

One Foot, Then Another

It was Ray, who now pushed me into this wilderness area, my body wracked in conflict. Told me it was a form of therapy, whatever that meant. My war wounds were healed; my pain and nightmares had not, the former not always manifesting itself in the physical. Ray called it depression, shell shock; he had a bunch of other words for it, which didn’t matter to me, since I didn’t understand any of them. As brilliant as he was, he never made me feel stupid; I admired him for that. There were a few wounds that bothered continued to remind me of their presence; I still had pain from the abdominal wound, parts of my insides not completely healed yet, not even in the right place, according to Ray. It gave me a jab once in awhile, reminiscent of the bullet that could have killed me if it hit me a few inches lower. The other injuries didn’t bother me, only a few scars. The army doctors said I could live out my years without complications; that didn’t include my tormented my brain clawing away at me from the inside.

Withdrawal from morphine was no picnic. My addiction caused me to spend what small amount of money I had on the drug, unable to function normally. It wasn’t that hard to get and a lot of vets suffered the same problem. I had tried over and over again to beat this unseen enemy, the pain too horrible to describe; I failed many times before I gave it a fair chance, thanks to Ray. Though it was illegal I tried other drugs to combat my addiction; they just complicated everything and got me arrested several times. The cops didn’t have much sympathy, rousting me about like some bum on the street; I guess I was when I think of it. Ray put an end to it all by kidnapping me and tying me to an extra bed in his house. The rest of the story was a blur.

Ray hadn’t been in the war. He wanted to but the army would not have him because of his poor hearing. He was almost completely deaf in his left ear, damage from a high fever as a child. Instead he worked as a civilian doctor on the hospital ship patching up guys like myself and eventually in military hospitals stateside. I didn’t see him during those years but he never failed to write. He and Liz were my only connection to the real world, a touch of reality. I never realized how much we plant ourselves on a piece of earth and call it home with no understanding of things in the world. Home was a house, a downtown square with a Methodist church, soda fountain on the corner and people we all knew, everything predictable, never changing; it was real, safe. There was no reality in an ever-changing landscape war provided; filled with collapsed buildings and the smell of death around every corner. I needed something solid, something that wasn’t crumbled.

Liz never wrote much in her letters, mostly about the hardships at home, gas rationing, food rationing and the civil defense blackouts. She lamented about the shortage of butter, cheese and stockings; she had great legs for them, too. Now I look at those inconveniences and think of how small they seem after witnessing the hunger and devastation in Europe. Women and children begged for anything they could get. We were usually moving pretty fast at times, I couldn’t give them much. To be honest, I was more nervous about being killed; I never told Liz because I didn’t want her to worry.

There are some things best never to tell your wife. In England they warned us about that.

“Ya’ll need to write your mommas and your wives,” bellowed the sergeant in his southern accent. “Your folks at home get worried, otherwise. Don’t be makin’ it hard on them. They’s your kin.”

It sounded like good advice and I stuck to it.

On the other hand, I did write to Ray about my firefights and the times when I was so scared, I couldn’t stop crying. He was the only one I thought could understand my feeling. I told him about the first dead person I saw during basic training, a soldier. It had been at the grenade training ground. We didn’t always practice with live grenades; it was too costly and dangerous. In the final part of our training we did toss live grenades, familiarizing us with the sound and feel of the explosion. One soldier released the handle, counting off a few seconds before throwing the grenade; this delay was designed to detonate the grenade before the enemy could toss it back. The trainee waited a second or two longer than instructed, lofting the grenade as it exploded a few feet into the air. He didn’t duck soon enough, getting a fragment of the pineapple grenade in his neck, causing him to bleed out in a matter of seconds. The training was stopped for part of the day, resuming, later in the afternoon.

Ray always had the right words; he understood the shock associated with the accidental training death, a life gone in a matter of seconds. Most of us had never seen a dead man or the mechanism, which might create it. It wasn’t as bad as things I would see in later years, though most of us were pretty shaken up by the growing pool of blood. Ray put it in simple terms the army would have appreciated.

“Ours is not to reason why,” he wrote to me. “The man’s spirit will live beyond this world, his body just a shell, Billy. If you don’t believe there is something beyond living flesh, a God you might say, it will consume you in the end.”

If I didn’t believe there was a God, I knew Ray would provide one for me. His wisdom drew from real life. How could I doubt him?

The disturbing part of the accident, most of us didn’t even know the man’s name. How terrible it would be to die without anyone knowing who you were, another serial number, nothing more. I found out later, though knowing names was not always a good thing when you are about to depart for war. Anonymity stripped away any personal relations; your fellow soldier was one of many that might not live past one day or another.

Soon after, we were assembled for the inevitable lecture from our company commander. We got these lectures every few days but this one was different.

“Pay attention; you don’t listen, you die,” shouted the lieutenant standing on a wooden box, his height challenging his command. “You don’t pay attention, you die, simple as that. You don’t take this training serious some Kraut will gut you like a fish. And if he doesn’t, so help me God, I’ll shoot you myself for being an idiot. There is no room for a human deficit in my army.”

He reached into his highly starched trousers removing a flat metal dog tag, tossing it in the dirt in front of the assembly for effect.

“This man is dead,” continued the lieutenant. “Am I happy about it? No and you know why? He wasted my time. Better he dies here than be a burden to the rest of us on the battlefield.”

He swiveled on his heels, stepping down and walked off without ceremony.

I thought it callus the way he treated the death of another human being. That morning, the man was alive, assuming he’d eat lunch at the mess hall in a couple hours; we all did. It did amuse me that the commander referred to it as ‘his army.’

The commander, First Lieutenant Albright was an educated man with a streak of hostility a mile wide. Whether it was the war or his general being, the man was as hard as nails, giving no quarter to slackers. The way he drove us, it was hard to decide who the enemy was. Extra duty and physical exercises were simple punishments when compared to what Albright might dream up. Albright’s way of life was a personal vendetta of making men out of boys by whatever means he felt right. Rumor had it he’d been kicked out of West Point, failing to meet the standards of the academy. Resentful of his dismissal, he endeavored to beat his troops into the ground lest they be less than perfect, a reflection of his commitment as a training commander. Given the opportunity I believe some of our own guys would have been glad to bayonet the lieutenant.

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