Belgium, December 1944
Chaos broke in the dead of night. It was around one a.m. and my fellow soldiers and I were wakened by a sneak attack of the Nazis. Rounds of gunfire showered our camp, fiercely echoing its intention to kill. Your first instinct is to scream for your life but you can’t – the adrenaline of fear and anger had taken over. It didn’t matter if we were in the middle of a rough snowstorm with rare thunder and lightning conditions, or the fact the snowfall blinded our way through the trail. Even my baldhead didn’t get spared by the treacherous weather. Yet, none of that matter – survival was all I cared about and to get back to my wife, Louise and my five and four-year-old daughters, Audra and Denise in one piece.
As my unit and I footsteps slush through the trail, I peeped down at the shiny gold band around my finger – my wedding ring. It signified the best four years of my life – wondering for those few seconds if my daughters were sleeping peacefully in their beds? Since Christmas was a couple of weeks away, had the girls started their rehearsal for their school play? Or, was Louise thinking me as she lay beside an empty spot in our bed? Before I went deeper into my thoughts a small rocket flew next to me, engulfing the bed of bushes into a fiery ball. The force of the explosion was so great it knocked me back to a huge log on the wooded terrain. “Come on, Johnson!” called out a fellow soldier named, Richmond. Actually, his whole name was Vernon Richmond, but like all in the platoon, we called each by our last name. It’s just easier to remember.
“Did you hear me, Preacher Man?” He questioned using my platoon nickname. It was a name that had been given to me because I prayed whenever a solider from our unit dies in combat and being a Preacher’s son from Pulaski, Tennessee, it just came naturally.
“Me and other guys found a safe area until all of this blows over, so come on” continued Richmond.
I finally made it to my feet, rubbing my lower back around my rib cage to ease a stinging pain. “You all right?” asked Richmond, while another whistling sound pierced from a distance. I nodded my head in response as I felt my adrenaline kick in. By his body language, Richmond was getting nervous. “Come on, Man! They’re coming” His voice trembled.
Just as I ran behind him toward the woods, I heard someone screaming my name among another ear-popping explosion, “JOHNSON!” I looked over my shoulder and saw an average height, white man fully dressed in his gear, dodging from the rocket grenades as they were showering the burning woods foliage. “Johnson!” the man screamed again.
Usually, I would do anything for my fellow my comrades- regardless of what skin color – but this puny man who happened to be our commanding officer over our Black platoon called us every name out of the book: darkies, jigaboos, and spade. We were animals to him and not soldiers fighting for the same nation, under God, and liberty and justice for all. To First Lieutenant Harold Smith, we were brought here out an entitlement giving by the government – and pitied by General Eisenhower. “You’s darkies are too damn dumb and slow”, He spoke in his southern drawl. “I guess Uncle Sam must be desperate after all”.
For a split second, I’ve wrestled if I should do the Christian thing and go back and saved this hateful man, or follow Richmond to safety. “Johnson, we ain’t got time for heroics” Richmond interrupted my thoughts. “You know Smith wouldn’t hesitate to save any of us. Remember, we’re bunch of jigs to him?”
I nodded my head at his revelation and proceeded behind to safety. Just when I left from Smith’s view, another small rocket fired behind us and created a magnificent fiery ball. “Johnson!” Smith cried out. And yet, for some reason, my body froze. I prayed for fallen soldiers, but not wanting to save one broken soul? I wondered. I sighed in confusion and darted back to the war zone. Smith was still alive but seemed bewildered on which way to go. He held his hand on top of his helmet as he held his machine rifle in the other. The attack by the Nazis went past unbearable but a sinkhole ready to leap into hell.
At that moment, a lone grenade fell a few feet from Lieutenant Smith. I don’t know why but I ran like I never ran before – ducking and dodging from phantom rockets and leaping over a small burning token of debris. Those moments seemed a lifetime. And yet for some reason everything I’ve experience my life popped in my mind: my childhood, my beloved parents who still lived on their farm on the outskirts of town, and the love of my life, Louise. Their faces were vivid as though as they meant for me to see, and I could literally hear Pa’s preaching in his usual sermon tone, “Let go, let God, son”.
Those words only picked up my pace toward Smith and uttered words for the first time since the attack. “Watch out, suh!” I yelled as my large six feet six frame pushed the Lieutenant out of harm’s way. Our eyes met for those briefs seconds as fear was written in the window of his eyes. Everything at that point moved in slow motion and our bodies flew in opposite directions. I’m not sure where Smith landed but the blast rattled all my senses. I felt frozen and unfazed at the Germans at that point and yet numb. My entire body couldn’t move, and my eyes were gazing at the nighttime sky. Strange, my body felt disconnected. The feeling was indescribable.
Suh, you all right? I questioned but he didn’t respond. I figured the grenade took him out. It was not surprising, the force from the blast knocked the wind out of us. So, I did like I would do all the time – I prayed for another fallen soldier. Since all I could see was the darkness of the night, I prayed that Smith would find peace and to heal his heart from whatever had ailed him. A man carries that much hate must have a hurt soul. It just seemed he carried a burden without knowing how to let go.
From the corner of my eye, I saw a figure scampering around the area where I laid. I sensed the presence gazing at me for a moment. I wasn’t sure if it was a German soldier or Richmond coming back to rescue me. Before I could I ask who, it was, I felt a tug on my finger as another whistling of a rocket screeched from a distance. Who are you? The person didn’t acknowledge a word I had said. Instead, I heard their footsteps scurried against the snowy-covered ground. This person disappeared in the Belgium woods and never returned.
All the sudden the horror sounds of war had ended, and loneliness crept upon my soul. The numbness that wrapped my body quickly changed to a tortuous sensation. Ever fiber of my nerves felt it wanted to split open. I tried shifting my eyes to either direction, but to no avail. I believed I was paralyzed from my injuries. Jesus, help me. I kept the one and only focal point my eyes allowed me to see: the nighttime sky. Then a warm tear streamed from my eye, running down into my ear canal. I haven’t cried since my Grandmammy died when I was a boy. She used to tell me crying soothes the soul. And that’s exactly what I did; I let those tears pour hoping it would relieve my soul.
Through the fog of my tears, my surroundings was dimming. Perhaps it was the pain messing with my mind, or maybe it was a hallucination. The experience was unlike I’ve ever felt before. I felt peace swimming upon – enough for me to feel the serenity of everything would be okay. My heart smiled as the snow and what was left of the camp turned black. Jesus, don’t forsake me!
©2014, Imani Wisdom