[What follows is chapter one of my novel, Devil’s Gut. Please read and I would appreciate any comments about the characters, the writing, or the story as you understand it from this one chapter. Are the characters interesting and compelling for you? Do the characters and story appear to be worth your time?]
I married the love of his life, a strange disclosure, admittedly. Therein lies a story of what we owe each other.
The first time I encountered Douglas Kean, Douglas Alan Kean – or Dak as his friends called him – was on a train out of Raleigh, North Carolina, in May of 1945. I had separated from the Army only weeks before and found myself heading back to Pineland for reasons only my subconscious understood. Most men in my platoon bolted for their respective home towns and waiting girlfriends. A few decided to make the Army a career: “Make sure the world remains safe for Democracy!” they boasted. Others, I learned, knocked about home for some time, members of the 52-20 Club, unsure of what they wanted to do, and finding nothing that generated the adrenaline rush of combat, or the camaraderie of the armed forces, they returned to the fold; they returned to where personal alliances or relationships had been the strongest. They returned to where they belonged, or were whole.
I couldn’t stay, even if I wanted. A staff sergeant with one hand is of little value in this man’s Army; and, home, for some reason, was not a choice. I was drawn by some unexplainable need to return to Pineland, North Carolina, instead of home in Plano, Texas.
Relationships, especially the personal kind, haunted me; and, recent military partnerships proved to be painful. I grew up with Robert Brody in Plano, where his fiddle and my guitar seemed connected, not only musically but spiritually. We both enlisted a week after Pearl Harbor, and eventually found ourselves in airborne training at Camp Mackall in North Carolina. Why airborne? At the time, it seemed liked an adventure; and Robert and I were no strangers to adventure. Our roadhouse touring youth attested to that thirst for the unknown.
Brody jumped into the predawn blackness over Normandy, and I followed right behind. I never saw him again. We had created our own rhythmic melody with the clickers issued in England. I spent the next week crawling hedgerows and searching medical tents clicking out the melody. There was no response; no answering rhythm-click coming back. I hooked up with another company, since most of mine was lost or missing. I have no idea how much time elapsed or where I had been; but, Corporal Francis Cummings, or Cowboy as I was labeled, rose to a staff sergeant amid furious battles and an incessant push deeper into France, Northern Europe, and then into Germany. My honorable discharge says I survived.
I firmly believe my survival was the product of no relationships. That might have been somewhat delusional because my eventual role as a platoon leader was simply a mask for another form of relationship: the whole. This necessary distancing enabled me to function: a sleight of hand really, because relationships are unavoidable; they are there if we but look for them.
Can’t deny them, pardner.
What we do with them tells everyone who we are. They are our humanity writ large.
My run as a platoon sergeant ended near the Rhine while dragging a wounded soldier to safety. An enemy round freed him from my grasp, shattering my right hand as I stood in shock, motionless and staring at the shredded remains of my life, and soul. A grenade exploded nearby plunging me into a still deeper darkness. When I woke weeks later, my nose itched. Impulsively, I attempted to scratch it with my right hand.
A gauze wrapped stump was hardly an affective tool. The nose continued to itch unabated. A part of me wanted to laugh; but, my tortured brain numbed whatever physical pain my body was experiencing, also short-circuiting any impulse for levity. Apparently, my little episode did not allow me to see Patton pissing in the Rhine a few days later. I would have laughed at that. Instead, my life is now forever defined by dragging another man to safety and losing my soul.
Maybe that is why I headed for Pineland: for closure.
When Robert Brody and I were shipped out from Mackall, we travelled by troop train north to New York City and finally to a troop ship bound for the European Theater. Trains were a vital form of shipping for both goods and people, connecting towns with tracks that ran directly through the center of a community. The tracks, often two tracks, were a lifeline to the rest of the world. Such was the case with Pineland, where a double set of tracks ran through the center of town. Our train stopped for some unknown reason in the middle of Pineland, only a short time away from Mackall. We sat there for no apparent reason, and some men became restless and impatient. Robert turned to me.
“Cowboy! There’s a drugstore and look at those dolls going in!”
Brody had a nose for women; and, they were stunning. The auburn and red hair immediately caught my eye, and something about the luxuriant flow of the hair as they disappeared into the store triggered a tingling in my mind and body. Brody jumped to his feet.
“Come on Cowboy, let’s get us some Cokes! I ain’t had a Coke… well, since yesterday!”
A red flag waved impatiently before my eyes! But, Brody was halfway out of the car, and somebody needed to pull the kid back before the train left: that would be I, Cowboy.
The pharmacy owner gave us free Cokes and Brody regaled the entire store with our “exploits” in training, and how we were going to win this war in six months! What a performer! He held the bewitched patrons with a magical grip, except for the auburn-red haired young lady who gently tugged at my elbow and suggested we might want to leave, since the train seems to be rolling. She was damn right! I grabbed my story-telling friend and pushed him out the door, Cokes in hand.
I sprinted across the road and up the hill to the tracks as the train gained momentum, and when reaching for the rail my cap blew off. Once I had pulled myself onto the train, I turned to see a lurching Brody struggling to keep up with the train. He was blowing viciously out his mouth attempting to summon from within the necessary speed to catch hold of the train. His mouth was a feverish bellow, almost comical to behold. Holding onto the rail, I hung out and grabbed his extended hand hauling him onto the car. Glancing back, I saw the auburn-red haired young lady as she picked up my cap and extended her arm with my cap, as if to say “Wait-.”
Brody and I stood on the train running board between the cars laughing at how close we had come to missing the train. Would Brody be alive today if we had missed the train? Dismissing the consequences of our adventure, we talked instead about the two girls – as if they were ours.
“Hey, Cowboy! Yours was sporting some set of knockers, a real comfy lover’s pillow.”
“Yours was pretty well proportioned, too, pardner-“
“Yeah boy! Those hips are meant to bear kings. And I’m just the monarch to climb aboard.”
I laughed, enjoying this levity with my childhood friend.
“Actually, I think that refers to birthing kings-“
“Either way, you gotta take’m before you can birth’m, and I’m just the one… What happened to your hat?”
When we arrived in New York, we were mustered out of the train and formed a rank and file array while our officers called roll.
“All present and accounted for, sir,” was the happy result. There was the little matter of my hat. When the Captain walked among our ranks, Brody slipped his hat on my head just as the Captain approached.
“Corporal Brody,” he said. “You are out of uniform.”
“Yes you, Brody. Where is your government issued hat, Corporal?”
“I didn’t realize I was-“
“Sir, it’s on my head.”
The Captain shifted his focus instantly to me.
“It is not, sir. I must have left it on the train, you know. I’ve never seen New York City before-“
I pulled off the hat and held it up for the Captain to see. Inside the head band, printed in large black letters the name “Brody” was clearly visible.
The back and forth went back and forth a little longer before the Captain threatened us both with article 15s. He relented with a smile and some stern comments. Before leaving he privately complimented us for covering for each other.
“You would be wise to remember this, soldier.”
When Robert obviously needed me, and my instincts for danger, I was not there; my clicker’s message lost in the darkness of Normandy. I had failed; my instincts said there would be problems, but I didn’t listen.
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