We’ve got so many grand ideas to keep track of, we’d all be nearly bursting if such vessels as our minds could be contained. If each of us could manage to remember just a little piece of our ambition and intent, and not necessarily just his own, then together we’d have a good collection of what we wanted to do after the war.
For example, Harrigan wants to expand his pop’s barber shop back home. Seems his little town in Arizona has a lot of ladies’ stores on Main Street, and Harry reckons the fellas there could use a place of their own. Not just another barber’s chair; that was too predictable. Harrigan, we need clarification– pronto!
“Tobacco,” he shouted, as we walked behind an M4 on D-Day Plus Four– that is, four days after we’d stormed the French coast to fight the Germans. Harrigan waved his hand in frustration, as if to say, “Let’s not talk about this right now.” We riflemen, that is, Harrigan, Kendall, Jimmy and me, were passing a knocked-out German pillbox gun emplacement and had to keep alert. Harrigan was itching to lay out his personal post-war plan but kept it to himself as we inched behind the slow-moving Sherman tank.
He didn’t have long to wait for his opportunity to tell us. Our commanding officer passed down word that the immediate area was clear, and we were to pause. Supplies were being brought forward, and causalities brought back.
“Look,” Harrigan said, as we gathered in a small circle not too far from the pillbox. “My hometown Avondale’s got nice shops, girl’s shops, hats, shoes, all that stuff. I’ve spent a long time studying this. The men don’t want to tag along with their women all the time they’re shopping. Sure, the younger guys are lovestruck, they’ll stick with their lady through hours of all that frilly, dreadful stuff,” he said.
“Not me,” piped Kendall, a big soldier at the ripe old age of thirty-three. “Right!” Harrigan agreed. “You older guys have no need of hanging around while your gal shops. Heck, she don’t even want you around.”
“My Mary wants me there, I mean she’d not mind my company,” Jimmy stated. Jimmy The Kid was a bit too big in pride, and a bit too small in uniform. He and Mary had just married last year. He was eighteen years old, with an undented thin gold band on his finger. I’d see him all the time, using his thumb to gently touch that ring, perhaps to make sure it was safely in place. Maybe he felt for the ring to remind him of the day in 1943 when they’d made their vows. I could understand why he’d want to keep her close, on a sunny shopping day.
His dream was her. And starting a family.
“Right,” Harrigan was quick to agree with the kid. “You and Mary will be spending your afternoons together and that’ll be just fine. She will need your strong goofy arms to carry her stuff. She’ll want to talk to you, without having to turn around, without wondering if you’re really there.”
Without worrying that you’re not there. If Harry had been the reckless type, he might have put it that way, but he kept himself just on this side of the line of decency. The good guys don’t destroy their kid soldiers. The good guys want their kid soldiers to survive the wars, as far as wishes can carry.
Harrigan continued: “Guys like Dave and Kendall, you know, older guys, can slip away. Older gals actually don’t mind if their fellas go somewhere. While they are spending money.”
“They don’t want you to know how much they’re spending!” Jimmy said.
“Exactly. So what’s a guy to do, read a newspaper? Nah. We done that in the morning. We done that at night. I’m talking one PM, mid day. You’ve just boughtten her lunch. She’s got the wandering eye, you know, store fronts. I ask again, what’s a guy to do?
“Well fellas let me tell ya. Come to Avondale’s oldest and finest barber shop. My pa knows how to cut your hair and whiskers just right. He has the skills, and he has the tools. Guy talk, we all need it, but where’s the room to gather?”
We huddled closer to hear Harrigan’s plan.
“All right. Pa has exactly one chair, which will soon be two when I get back home. Because I’ve scouted the storefronts to our left, and to our right, and behind us, and even above us. We’re going to expand in one direction, perhaps two. We will make the most opportune choice– when I can assess. And charm. And canoodle. When this war’s over.”
“What’s this all gotta do with selling cigarettes?” Kendall complained.
“Ah!” Harrigan smiled. “Not just cigarettes. I’m talking, fine tobacco. I’m talking– cigars.”
“Oh I like this turn of events!”
“Yes my friend. Cigars. Specialty stuff. Im-ported. Here, Kenny,” Harrigan extended two empty hands. “Let me open the box for you. Let me do you the honor sir. Take a whiff. Umm! You got it, the aroma’s the perfect pitch, even unlit.”
Kendall closed his eyes and nodded. “I like it.”
Harrigan smiled. “A fine cigar, a glass of bourbon, and some friends. A fellow takes that appeal. He wants it. This moment is becoming of him. That aroma, and heck the sight and presence of him with the cigar completes his desired state of being. He relaxes, and he thinks, ‘I am the man I’d set out to become.'”
“Oh!” we murmured in unison. Harrigan was on a roll!
“And then there’s pipe tobacco,” Harrigan continued. “When that flavored stuff is lit, you are smelling sweet, boys!”
“I like it, too.” Jimmy was sold, and he wasn’t even the customer!
“Guys, listen close,” Harrigan said. “There ain’t no such shop within ten, twenty, thirty miles of pa’s place. No sir. We will be the ones. I’ve got the idea, the whole thing planned out. I’ve written to pa. He is slow to understand but he is slow even when he gets a speeding ticket. So he’ll be okay with this. He wants me to stick around town. You know, wants me close to home when I get back. He writes to me, ‘Please boy don’t leave me.’ Okay then poppers, you want that, I want this. I’ve outlined my plan. This is the future for us. This will position us well for the 1950’s.”
The guys sighed. To a man, swear to God. The 1950’s? We were going to love every minute of those years! We’d never given a thought to that decade till now!
Kendall nodded. “It’s a good plan Harry. Of merit.” Then: “This war’s gonna settle the world for sure. There ain’t no way we’re going to leave it open for any more of this mad nation crap. Dictator fascists, no more. We’re making a clean sweep of it boys, is all. I’ve never seen such advanced mobilization to wipe these louses out. The whole world’s involved. They are with us. The side of Good has said, ‘No More’. We are doing this nasty bit now, disrupting everyone’s lives, and people are going to learn from it. We will never allow it again.”
“Amen,” Jimmy said, his thumb working fast on the base of his ring finger. He said, “So Kenny, what do you want to do when the war’s over?”
“What do I want to do?” Kendall spoke quickly, then paused. He spoke fast and stopped to reserve the air. He was commanding the moment as his and his only, as was granted to him by the kid nearly half his age. I took Kenny’s pause as something quite special. Because him unfolding before us was going to be immense.
Most things Kenny did were that way. We were the ones who were going to hear his plan for the first time.
“I’m a rifleman in France,” he started. Not one of us said, “Well, we all are.” No one was on par with Kenny.
“I’m a United States Army rifleman in France and after this war I am going to do something that no one that I know has conceived of doing. Which is, I want to rebuild this country.”
“Come on,” Harrigan joked. “I was expecting something bigger.” But Kenny was serious.
“I want to help, just like I helped–” Kenny choked up and stopped. Then the good soldier plowed forward: “Five days ago I was tapped to be advanced eyes, directing fire to a bridge and then a line of buildings. I was so good at spotting, battleship gun crews and artillery captains wouldn’t release me. I called fire on French structures, all of them, but we of course called them German targets. Which was the truth. Make sense of that, boys. Can’t be done.
“In essence, I destroyed those structures. We can say, I helped destroy them. They’d been around for ages, and now they are rubble.”
Harry wanted something bigger from Kendall, and he was getting it.
“I spent D-Day Plus Three breaking more shop windows than the Hurricane of ’38. Davey you know all about that one,” Kenny said to me. He knew I was a Massachusetts guy, and that storm killed us.
“And I spent this morning doing the worst thing I could do to men. I looked them in the eye.”
That was too much for our Jimmy; he cupped his hand over the upper half of his face and wept, without a sound. I’ve seen him do it before and it tore me up each time. The kid thought that by hiding his eyes, he was covering ours too.
I didn’t say a word. Kendall reached over and touched the kid’s arm, and continued: “Y’all did it too, when we passed those farmers and their wives. And when we passed those kids. You looked them square in the face. Toughest thing you could do. Why do I say that? Because you’re moving on. You’re a change agent. You’re in control. You are part of a working system. They are not.
“You looked at the young Frenchies. Kids whose body movements were slower than their grandpa’s. How was that possible? The answer is– this is Upside-Down World. We, the four of us, looked at those wrenched people and they looked at us and what did we do next? We kept advancing. Not to make it better. To make it worse. Upside-Down World.
“That ain’t right. This ain’t right. What am I doing here? I’ll tell you. What I’m doing is not what my mother birthed me to do. And I ain’t gonna go back to the States– forgive me Harry– and resume my Main Street life. The tobacco smells sweet and I hope you sell a ton. Forgive me Jimmy, start your family, and get back to your life just as fast as you can, kid. You too Dave. This is no disrespect to you three.
“And it’s all the respect to the French people. DAMN IT ALL, I cannot, I will not leave this land as it is. If we have the strength and fortune to march thru to Berlin, by God’s will I’ll come back right that moment to right this moment. Meaning, to right this destructive moment in time. To work with the French to rebuild what’s been done here. Fix what we’ve done. What I have done.”
We were silent. Our circle of four.
Nobody asked me what I wanted to do when the war was over and that was fine with me. Kenny kinda shut down the mood. As I said, that was okay. He had a goal like the others. His was the last stated, and the most noble. We sat with our thoughts.
I was sure that one day I would tell them that I wanted to paint. Well, maybe not paint exactly, but to convey the beauty I couldn’t help but see in everyday life. To share what I perceived, to those who just saw what was in front of them.
Because everything I’ve ever seen, since I was a kid, has come alive as something artful. I happen to view my surroundings in brushstrokes, and I hear in musical tones. Even this battlefield we’re resting in, has a beauty– forgive me, a certain happiness– that only I can see.
I wish others had the opportunity to appraise the world in this way.
Where the guys see a knoll, that’s been ripped jagged with shellfire, I see a hill that’s a patchwork of many colors. Not necessarily a wide-range mind you, but a sympathetic pallet with a focus of theme. A quilt of sort, that I can use as a cover. I can take what’s being presented and register it in a soothing way.
I don’t just see wonderful things, I can spread this wonder, too.
I can sit with someone who’s done damage to their life, or gone astray, and I can begin to see courage. The person may still be on the down, but now there’s something growing inside, just from us talking. This is not something that’s shared, but given.
Maybe one day I’ll tell the guys.
We four soldiers sat in a circle. Our plans have been added to the war gear we carry with us. Our dreams are the lightest of things. They ask nothing of us. In fact, the thoughts we carry actually lighten our load.
It’s D-Day Plus Four and our commander is calling our group to action again. It’s D-Day Plus Four and the Germans have much fight left in them. Harry, Kenny, Jimmy and me, the casualties continue to mount, casualties, killed by a mortar shell, dead center in our circle. Casualties plus four, because it’s D-Day.
CAPTION: We remember the service dead on Memorial Day.