This short story was initially published in 1999 as a "christmas story." With so much in the news today about our veterans, I decided to post the story here this Memorial Day (2017).
This story is dedicated to my uncle, Sargent Herman Zerrell. Sargent Zerrell, born in 1895, fought in France during World War I. He remained in France for a year after the war was over, taking care of German prisoners of war.
Interestingly enough, Herman’s father emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1871, so Herman was very much a German, himself. I wonder if he ever thought about that.
As with so many soldiers when they return, he was both loved and despised and not without good reason. He was definitely a wounded soldier. He was, in fact, never the same after the war. In a sense, our Uncle Herman never did return from the war. Miraculously, he lived to the ripe old age of 88. He died in 1983.
This story was inspired by many different people and many different events and experiences. But the creation of this story literally happened after listening to John William’s sound track from Saving Private Ryan for several days in a row. I thought it was important to acknowledge how the Spirit works.
I also want to thank all of the combat veterans who have so graciously and so bravely trusted me and allowed me into their experiences.
The Gifts Of War
I never thought that life would or could be the same again.
I never thought I would wake up in a bed again.
I never thought I wouldn’t be crawling on my stomach somewhere or ducking behind trees.
When I was out there crawling around, trying to stay alive, I had frequent flashbacks. They were surprisingly pleasant and sometimes I would laugh out loud. Sarge would growl at me, “What the hell you laughing at, Soldier?”
There I was, eleven years old, playing war in the field behind my buddy, Rollin’s house, throwing those dirt clod grenades and carrying my wooden rifle handcrafted by Rollin himself–certainly not an M1, but a damn good rifle.
As the days turned into months, Sarge would bark, “this ain’t the field behind your house, Soldier....those aren’t dirt clods they’re throwing, Soldier.”
Gruff as he was, I liked Sarge. He was like a big ol’ dog who was always there. I don’t think I would have survived without him.
Sometimes, I was just grateful that I hadn’t joined the Navy. As terrible as my experience was on the ground, I could not imagine diving into that cold water and swimming through the midnight of the sea perhaps to my death. If I was going to die, I wanted to have my feet touching the ground!
I remember one night seeing God coming for me, and I just asked him not to send me to hell for all the awful things I had already done.
The smell of another man’s blood never awoke in me any desire to be a vampire. I kept watching to see if anyone else was throwing up, and finally, I just didn’t care anymore if they did or didn’t. I just let myself throw up when I had to. Sarge warned me that I was letting myself get into a bad habit. I never argued with him, but I wanted so badly to tell him that I felt free after I threw up.
It reminded me of when I ran track back in high school. At the end of a race, I would almost always run off to the side and puke. I thought I was a little strange, and of course, I developed a reputation. I always wondered if it had anything to do with my winning so many races. No one wanted to be too close to me at the finish line! But I learned later that it is not that uncommon. I guess it’s a combination of the nerves and then pushing the body to the limit. On the battle field, it was pushing my soul and my FGT to the limit. I pronounce it FiGiT. FiGiT–it’s my own original acronym. Made it up myself. It stands for fucking gag threshold! I learned to smell a lot of things out there, and Sarge told me that I would get used to it all, but I never did.
Oh yes, I was telling you about the time I saw God coming for me. I am hardly religious, you know, but the truth is it happened more than once. In fact, I saw God many many many times. It was the strangest apparition, and you are only the second person I have ever told. The scary part was seeing him come and take my buddies on either side of me or the soldiers fifty yards ahead of me. Sometimes God would look at me, and I thought for sure he was telling me that I was next.
You want to know what God looked like. I couldn’t begin to describe what I saw. I know there was a fuzzy, hazy kind of light. The presence was powerful. I remember one night seeing a hundred soldiers come out of the sky. This ghostly unit swept down on our division like a cloud. As always, the incoming mortar shells were absolutely deafening. I thought for sure it was my time. It was almost as if God was snatching us up before the enemy had a chance to snuff out the life from our burning souls.
For some fucking strange reason that I will never comprehend, I was never snatched up nor my life snuffed out. I always came out alive. I never lost a limb, not even a finger. I never broke a bone. Of course, my heart didn’t survive. It was slaughtered. Slaughtered. It’s out there somewhere. Well, I do remember clearly. It stopped beating the first time I killed another man. For the life of me, I could not pull the trigger--till I heard his bullet ricochet off my helmet. I never did learn to kill another human being. I just started pulling that trigger for shear survival. It’s frightening to me that I may have killed some of my own buddies. And then there are so many other...Well, I still can’t talk about those. It is incomprehensible what we think we have to do and what we actually do to survive. When you come across a farm house and see little ones with limbs blown off and you’re not sure how that happened. You try to convince yourself that it was the enemy who killed their own in friendly fire or you just feel bad that these innocent civilians somehow got caught in the crossfire. You see I can’t even talk about them as real people, only as innocent civilians. And when I asked Sarge about it, he just looked at me with those piercing court-martialing eyes and told me “You will never talk about this shit, soldier! Do you understand, Soldier?”
It has taken me a long time to even begin to entertain the notion that any of us could ever be forgiven. Of course no one ever talks about that part of it, and we convince ourselves that it was for a good cause. I guess otherwise we would all go crazy. But at my age, I figure maybe it is okay to take the chance to look at the possibility that it was not a good cause, and I am no better than any of those guys on death row.
For a long time, I felt almost nothing. It’s a cliche, I know, but it’s true. I was numb. I was always shocked when I caught a glimpse of myself in store windows–the deformity of my body and the way I walked. When I looked into a mirror, I couldn’t help but notice the vigilance and the fear in my eyes. I knew that something wasn’t quite right, but I also began to think that it was all just normal.
I am seventy-nine years old. I am going to celebrate my eightieth birthday in the year 2000. I have only recently begun to look back on all of this because until three years ago, the war was always today for me.
I’ve been sober now for three years. Not a drop for three years. The alcohol is just like the war itself. I have somehow survived it without serious damage to my body. I do not know how I managed that. I should be dead from alcohol. I should be dead from combat. And for that matter, any of my friends or loved ones, my wife especially, could have easily and justifiably killed me over these last fifty some years. I guess I need to be totally honest. My ex wife.
During all those years, I was not able to have a good argument with anyone because every argument would turn into a bitter battle. Even worse, I never allowed anyone in my circle of friends or loved ones to make or forget a mistake. I detested that bumper sticker, “Shit Happens.” In my book, shit is caused by carelessness or stupidity, and I always made sure you knew which one you were. I am not totally sure why I took your mistakes so personally, but pretty soon, no one wanted to talk to me about anything. I have been one hell of a son of a bitch to live with. I have lost many a friend and many a loved one in that war that I fight every day, inside me and around me. Looking back, I realize that during the war, I fought for my life. Since the war ended in 1945, I have been fighting for my freedom.
I think what kills me the most is not holding my children and my grandchildren when they were little. I could not do that. I knew that, and they knew that. Sometimes I was even afraid that I would snap their necks if they didn’t stop crying. I am trying now to coax my great grandchildren to sit on my lap, but they are afraid of me too.
I look around at other men in my Thursday night group. It is amazing to me how many of us fight the same battles and have the same battle scars even though I am the only one in the group right now that has actually experienced combat. The rest are just guys, other men, some young, some middle-aged. I am the oldest.
The other night, one young man, about thirty, shared how his father used to “whoop” him with a belt. He told his story with almost no emotion. I was not sure why I was crying when he told his story. My father never “whooped” me, and I never “whooped” my children. I was afraid to.
Then it hit me. His experience of his father’s “whoopings” reminded me of dodging those incoming mortar shells. As he described his father’s bellowing voice, “This hurts me more than you, Kenny,” it was like the terrible howling of those shells, and I just knew at any moment I was going to get hit.
When I looked into the mirror this morning, I wondered if it’s not too late to stand up straight or walk without a limp. Somewhere deep below the crust, I have always suspected and now I know that this pain in my bones is not arthritis.
I do not want to bore anyone or make people sick with the gory details. I guess in some way, I am trying to spare you from experiencing the war for yourself. I only remember one other time that I thought I could share something of my experience. It was some kind of Veterans Day celebration at one of the local colleges, and someone talked me into manning a VFW booth. I remember there were about ten people standing around, and I began telling them what the weather was like on the battle field in November, and before I knew it, I was telling them about this one particular patrol.
It was a very cold night, and we were crawling across a wide field toward a large mansion which we had been told housed an enemy command post. Between us and the mansion were several small sheds. As we approached the first shed, we could hear someone moving around inside, and I volunteered to check it out. As I ran toward what I thought was the entrance, I was expecting to see machine gun fire, but there was none. As I entered, I could barely make out a shadowy figure hunched in the corner. In what little German I knew, I shouted several times words that I was told meant Surrender! When it was apparent that my opponent was not surrendering and instead was moving toward me like a defensive tackle, I lunged with my bayonet. I had never heard the sound of a pig being run through before or afterwards, and I ran out of that shed as fast as I could and returned to my unit. They all laughed at me, except for Sarge.
“I didn’t hear any of you dickless men laughing when I asked for a volunteer,” Sarge scowled.
As I was telling my story, I noticed a crowd gathering and it became very very quiet as I spoke. I began to feel some relief telling my story, and I kind of liked being the center of all of these people’s attention. But then when it came time for lunch, it seemed anyway, that no one wanted to sit with me or even near me. And finally, thank God, a student came up and told me how much he enjoyed listening to me talk. He told me I should host a program for the college radio station, and then he started asking me questions about the medals I was wearing.
I do not know what would have happened had we not gone to war in 1941. Those are questions far beyond me. What I do know is that I have never been the same, and I am beginning to resent the price I paid. I am no longer sure if it was worth my freedom, because I have not been free for fifty-five years. I am beginning to feel free now only because I decided to walk into that church there on the corner of Broadway and Fortieth.
When it comes to religion, I don’t know if I am really anything! I just remember Father Mike, one of our chaplains. He would hear confessions, and I remember once asking him if he could hear my confession even though I wasn’t catholic. He said sure. I remember the clean feeling and the incredible relief. It only lasted for about a half ‘a day. But I always remembered it.
I have no idea really what moved me to walk down to St. Charles three years ago. Maybe it was remembering that feeling.
I walked into the church as if I were walking back in time. I felt like I was twenty-five years old. I felt like I was turning myself in for what I wasn’t sure. When I walked into the confessional room, it wasn’t like they show in the movies where the priest sits behind a screen. He was just sitting there in a chair and there was a chair for me to sit in. Now I really felt like I was before the judge. I kept looking down and never really made eye contact with the priest. As soon as my butt hit the chair, I just started weeping uncontrollably. I could not even speak. The priest scooted his chair up to mine and grabbed a hold of me. I heard him pulling Kleenex from the box and the next thing I knew he was wiping the snot from my face like I was a little kid. When he did that, I was no longer afraid. I somehow knew that he knew. And when I looked up at him, I saw for the first time that he was an old man. Had to be at least my age. Then he told me with tears running down his face, “I understand. I was there too.” That is all he said. Then he drove me to the hospital where I stayed for almost a month.
After my stay in the hospital, I felt like a new person. But soon I found myself hunkering down again. The front line was clearer to me in that I began to know the difference between the real war and the war inside and around me. But it was war all the same. As much as I wanted to escape the combat and go home, I was held back by a shit load of fear and paranoia. I am still so paranoid that just the other day when I could not find my check book, I imagined that a burglar had somehow stealthfully invaded my house and stole only the check book. Left everything else in the house untouched! How such a sniper could enter my house without a key or without breaking in entry was not an issue. It had happened. When I realized just how preposterous that was, I then began to think that my wife must have snuck into the house and stole my check book to teach me a lesson. She never lets me forget that I am the worst at all the things I harangue and blame other people for.
I did find my check book. I had, myself, carefully hidden it under a pile of bills on the kitchen table. I was in a hurry and even though no one else lives in the house, I wanted the check book out of sight, hidden from any and all prospective intruders!
So you see, as much as I have literally craved my freedom, especially in these last three years, as much as I have been able to taste my freedom at times, I still for some ungodly reason strive to be as gallant as Captain Queeg. I am always dressed for war. It is in my bones, in my blood, maybe even in my soul.
But several months ago, I realized that I must be shedding some of this alligator skin because I was able to look into the eyes of a homeless man standing at the end of a freeway offramp. Ordinarily, I avoid eye contact with such miserable creatures or I look at them with as much disdain as my eyes can fire. But on that day, I was not afraid to acknowledge this person’s presence outside my passenger side window. I looked over at the old soldier. I caught his eye, smiled, and waved as we proceeded on home. My son was driving, but he was not aware and I didn’t say anything to him. He didn’t notice the shed skin on the seat as he helped me out of the car. But boy, I did. I could feel the change in my heart. I could breathe past the weight of that fear and paranoia that ordinarily huddles around my heart cavity like the smell of cooked broccoli.
I started looking forward to Christmas sometime last August. It was a very hot evening. I was driving home from my Thursday night group and believe it or not, there was an ad about Christmas shopping on the radio. I began to wonder if perchance, by being with my grandchildren and great grandchildren as they opened their gifts, I could make up for all the lost Christmases. I wasn’t sure if I could tolerate the emotional pain of it all, but I began to look forward to the possibility that someone in the family might chance it and let me spend Christmas Eve or Christmas morning with them. But as each day got closer to Christmas, I had this nagging fear that God would come to take me for reals this time. It’s like hanging up the armor is a cruel hoax. It’s like there’s no room up there for armor, and so once you get it all off, then it will be your time to go. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s been my biggest fear lately. The old priest told me that God does not work that way. He is not a trickster. The old priest kept reassuring me that I would have this Christmas with my family.
I wasn’t sure if I would try to get together with my wife this Christmas. She considers me dead. She left me finally about five years ago. She could not take it any more. I never beat her. Well, she would say I browbeat her. But I never laid a hand on her. Well, yes, that was oddly part of the problem. I never touched her.
I was not drunk all the time, but I was off somewhere else all the time. I was definitely not here, and I have no idea what gave her the courage at age seventy-three to leave me. It’s hard for me to talk about this and to be totally honest with myself. I don’t like looking at her picture of me, but looking has been an important step for me. Courage or not, the fact of the matter is she had good reason to leave.
We do see each other at family get togethers many of which I have avoided until recently. But it’s a long distance and silent meeting. She sits on one side of the room and I on the other. We avoid conversation so as not to ruin the family celebration. But I am feeling somewhat hopeful about us after today. Well, at least I am feeling the courage to be hopeful. Perhaps she does see that I have changed enough, and may be there is still some of that young handsome guy left inside of me.
I would never in a million years have dreamed that last night and today would unfold the way they did. I spent last night with my son David and his children and his two grandchildren, and then this morning with my daughter and her children and her grandchild. It is hard to believe that we are all so old. My son is fifty-four and my daughter is fifty-two. I have another son who is forty-five and a daughter who is forty.
David was somewhat nervous last night when I told him that I wanted to read The Night Before Christmas before we opened presents. I saw that look in his eyes. It was probably the same look he had when I used to rant and rave when I had too much to drink. When I was drunk!
At first, when I saw that look, I felt hurt and almost said, “Forget it.” But something made me stay with it, and I was able to touch David’s shoulder and I simply said, “just let me know when you’re ready for me. I promise I’ll read fast.”
Then the most phenomenal thing happened today. During Christmas dinner, my ten-year-old grandson started his own congressional inquiry.
“Grandpa, Mom says that you were in the war.”
His mother quickly put a firm hand over his hand and almost like a warning told him, “Grandpa doesn’t like to talk about the war, Danny.”
Everyone stopped breathing for a moment. Most of the adults looked down at their plates as if they were waiting for their heads to appear. But the kids were all looking at me with great curiosity.
“How many Christmases did you spend in the war?” my sixteen-year-old grandson asked.
My son David got that nervous look again and quickly said, “Hey, it’s Christmas. No war stories on Christmas.”
“No,” I said. “I think Christmas is a good time to talk about war.” I could sense David bristling and getting ready to do battle with me, but I beat him to the punch. “But let’s wait till after our pumpkin pie. Whoever wants, we’ll gather around the fireplace, and I will tell you all about the war. Well, as much as I can remember.”
“So is that story about the German and American soldiers singing Christmas Carols together on Christmas eve true?” pushed Brad.
Brad was fourteen and his father looked at him with a smile and then to his brother, David, and laughed. “I think we’re outnumbered, Dave.”
So I answered Brad and just continued talking. We never made it to the fireplace.
It seemed like I talked but for a few minutes, but when I glanced up at the clock, I realized I had been talking for an hour. I told them what it was like being so far away from home on Christmas day. I told them that war is a terrible thing and that I hoped that none of them would ever have to spend a Christmas day at war. I knew they probably did not catch the full meaning of my hope for them, that I did not want them to be at war in any way on Christmas day, not even at war with each other or their wives or children.
I shared with them about some of my buddies. I told them all about Sarge and how he made us pretend we were eating an enormous turkey even though we were scraping the inside of a tin can. I must have talked about Sarge a lot because Brad finally said, “Did you ever see Sarge again?”
Without giving it much thought, I simply said “No, I didn’t see Sarge after the war.”
“Do you know what happened to him?” Brad persisted.
I paused for what seemed like a hundred years. I knew I was walking a thin line, but I decided to pass on to my heirs everything I knew about war. As I heard myself begin to speak again, I thought for a moment that I was Walter Conkrite.
“Three weeks before the war ended, Sarge stepped on a booby trap. It did not kill him, but he lost his legs and what he thought was the most important part of being a man.” I tried to say it differently than Sarge would. But ten-year-old Danny didn’t miss a trick and started to laugh and giggle. “He lost his dick!” Danny shouted and then laughed uproariously like ten-year-olds do. His mother rolled her eyes and scolded him.
But I looked at Danny and shook my head in affirmation. “You’re right, Danny. And Sarge felt so bad that on the way home on the Queen Mary, he shot himself. He damned near shot the soldier sitting next to him.”
“Oh, gross,” twelve-year-old Melissa shrieked.
“Have we had enough war stories for one Christmas?” David began to bristle again and stare at me.
Danny continued to giggle and he said one more time out loud. “He lost his dick!” The other kids giggled and laughed. The adults also finally laughed as they watched Danny roll around in his chair. Well, except for David. He got up from the table and walked into the kitchen.
I knew I had been a booby trap for David all these years, and that somehow I had robbed him of part of his manhood. So I followed David out to the kitchen where he continued to fire at me. “I think you were better when you were drunk. At least you didn’t talk about this shit.”
I wanted to tell David that he was wrong, that I was better off now talking about this shit, and had I been able to talk about it all before that maybe I wouldn’t have had to go to war with him. But in my old age, I have learned the wisdom of silence. Well, at least some times I know when to keep my mouth shut.
I just stood there next to David and put my arm around his shoulders. I started to rub the tight muscles at the base of his neck. “It’s been a wonderful day for me David. I am grateful that you allowed me to be here today and last night.” In my fantasy, David began to cry and he let me hold him, but in reality, he just stood there emotionless and then walked back into the dining room. I knew it would be awhile before David and I could connect without our bullet proof vests. I like to think that I have already discarded mine, but sometimes pride keeps even an old man from recognizing his crusty old defenses.
“So when did you meet Grandma?” Brad asked. I looked across the table at my wife of almost fifty-four years. She had been here the entire evening, but as usual, we spoke not a word to each other. I was surprised to see her looking at me with a hesitant smile. Before I could answer Brad, she started talking.
“I met your grandfather at our senior prom. He was dancing with Susan Wilson, and I was dancing with Bruce Willis.”
“The movie star?” Melissa shouted.
“No sweety. Another Bruce Willis. But he could have been a movie star. He was very handsome, but not quite as handsome as your grandfather. I just kept staring at him and finally he noticed. He started blushing when he realized what was happening. I remember thinking that he was blushing because he was falling for me too. He wanted to marry me the week before he left for overseas. But as much as I was in love with him, I told him he would have to wait till he got back. I wrote him every day for the three years he was gone.”
“Did he write you every day, Grandma?” Melissa asked.
“Yes he did, Melissa. He kept a diary of every day and of every battle. I still put that old musty book under my pillow every night, hoping that he really will come back home some day.” And then she began to cry. I sat there filling up with so much pain, I thought I might be having a heart attack. I did not know if it was the right thing to do to let it all out or if I would even survive such an event. I mustered up all the force I could and put my finger in what was once a small hole in the dike, but was now a gaping hole yearning to break open--full blown. I walked over to her and picked up that little old woman in my arms, and she screamed and all the kids laughed. Then the adults all screamed as I stumbled and almost dropped her!
Then leave it to Danny. He shouted again, “Look at Grandpa kissing Grandma. They’re frenching.” He laughed hysterically and his mother swatted his behind. But Danny was right. I was frenching my beautiful bride who thought I was dead.
It’s a terrible thing to live so many years a prisoner of war, but it is a wonderful thing to become free and to enjoy finally the spoils of war. I wish I wouldn’t have had to go through this experience in the first place, but I did, and as the old priest told me, “there’s a reason for everything.” I don’t know if I believe that.
I don’t know what might have happened had I not gone to war in 1942. I don’t know what kind of person I would be today. I do know what kind of person I am having been there. I know I have paid a very high price and so has my family and loved ones. I do not know how to make any good sense of it all. And this part sounds almost as incomprehensible as war itself. I can only be grateful that at this very late moment in my life, I have finally discovered the gifts of war. I am not even sure what I mean by that. I could not even tell you for sure what the gifts are except that I am finally on the verge of being free. Free in a way that I could never be, without having gone into the depths of hell. It’s only a miracle that I ever saw hands reaching out to me, no, down to me, and I was somehow able to reach back and little by little climb out. I’m not one for letting other people help me, at least not in that way. Well, maybe that’s not totally true. Maybe I was that way once, a long time ago, when I was puking after races instead of after slaughters and when figit wasn’t an acronym but something I did when I was little and afraid.
I noticed another old man like myself the other day hobbling down Fulton Avenue. We looked at each other from across the street. I nodded and he nodded back. We old soldiers who never die can spot each other a mile away, as they say.
I am not any better than him. Know that. But he is still there. He is still there.
I can only hope that perhaps through some miracle of his own, he too received the gifts of war this Christmas.
The Gifts of War: A Christmas Story Copyright © 1999 by Vernon R. Bradley. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this publication may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, write to Vernon Bradley, P. O. Box 48, Yucaipa, CA 92399.