All, in the previous post today, I spoke about how my current project is progressing. Well, I decided to release a non-spoilerrific sample today in my alternate history; some of the pure hell our ancestors dealt with in World War One, both in our history and in my alternate one.
Here goes, fresh off the presses.
Bill tried to scream underwater; he could feel that his feet were stuck in the sucking mud. He panicked and twisted. His struggles were rewarded by the sensation of the muck releasing his boots. He bobbed upwards. He stroked with his arms as if he were a bird taking flight; he kicked with his ungainly, booted feet.
“AH!” He broke the surface. Bill vomited the hole’s corrupted effluent from his lungs; after a few heaves he could breathe again. He doggy-paddled in place, then he picked the closest point in the mud at the bottom of the crater and swam towards it. He puked again as he swam, he had to stop as he heaved.
Mother of God, he thought. There were at least three bloated bags of skin in the hole with him. German, Allied, who fucking knew. He paddled some more in the flare light, after some indeterminate length of time he reached the muddy slope. He tried to crawl out, his knees braced against something kind of solid underwater. He rested against the mud, he panted and retched some more.
For fuck’s sake, he thought. He had breathed in a lungful of corpse water. When he thought about it, he vomited again into the slime. He was wrung out, he couldn’t move. He could barely lift his arms, let alone struggle to the top of the pit. He panted, then the solid thing beneath his knees, perhaps a rock, shifted.
He slid back into the water, screaming. His hands shot out and he tried to grab something, anything. It was for naught. He settled back into the yellow dead man’s pond, his feet scrabbled once again for some type of purchase. This, he decided, wasn’t his fucking day. He resorted again to doggy-paddling, something rotten, soft and stinky bumped against the back of his head.
Oh fuck, he thought. He steered towards a different part of the shore and prayed for a rock, a root, something. He made it just as his arms stiffened and gave out. With a heave he threw himself upward. His hand shot out and probed for something, anything, to grab as his legs thrashed about.
He was rewarded when his hand grabbed something sort of round and hard, his body began to slide backwards once more. The movement into what could have been Bill’s watery grave was arrested by a protrusion in the muddy object that Bill had ahold of; after a few seconds his fingers identified the jutting-out bit on the object he held on to for dear life.
He held onto the front sight ears of a buried Enfield rifle; a dead man’s dropped weapon had saved him, at least for now. He panted, his chest heaved. Another flare shot heavenward. Bill finally had a second to look around at his environs. The bodies in the sluggish, stale water drifted about, probably as a result of his struggles. Their blackened uniforms and equipment strained against the bloat of decomposition gasses pressing to be free; one man’s eternal vacant and eyeless gaze pointed to spectacle overhead as if in awe at the light show.
Bill looked up, too. Tracers streaked overhead, along with a blue flare. The artificial light lit the hole with a frigid touch. Speaking of which, thought Bill, he needed to get the hell out of this water or he would die of exposure. He shook his head and tried to control his breathing. Hyperventilating would do no good, and it robbed him of his dwindling strength. He pulled on the rifle some more, and prayed it was jammed on something solid.
Alright, so you’ve seen this picture before. Not a big deal; it only serves to illustrate my broader point with today’s post. The fact is that I’m in a serious groove with my writing right now, I am dishing out two to four thousand words a day, every day. No stops on the weekends. In fact, the weekends are some of my most productive times. I haven’t deciphered why that is, but it is so.
This latest streak started back in December, maybe late November as I recovered from an illness. I wrote a fanfic for John Birmingham, this was the first thing I had written since concluding an unpublished series last May.
I started to feel it. I wrote three commissioned shorts, and the bug hit.
It was time to write. But what, I asked myself, should I do? As you all know, I lost my indie publisher a few years ago, I have published nothing in my name since Immolation in 2017. However, I had left a one-off, still classified alternate history in the stack.
Perhaps, I wondered, I could turn it into a trilogy. Even better, I could plan the entire trilogy in advance and write it all at once, some planned 270,000 words strung together, hopefully in one cohesive whole.
I’ve learned the hard way that the first thing you need is a detailed outline. Now, when I say “detailed,” I don’t mean a blueprint that shows each and every interaction. That’s not how I roll. How I do it is I write out my chapters according to a three act structure, where Act I is the set-up, Act II is the body of the work, and Act III is the finale. Basically a 1:2:1 structure, where Act II is twice the length of I and III. Then for each chapter I write a sentence, maybe two. Sometimes I describe POV shifts, but often I do not. In any case, as I write, I have the original outline to return to. It keeps me on track.
So I did exactly that in mid December. I wrote the outlines for Books Two and Three, and made sure they formed a cohesive whole with Book One, whose manuscript has been sitting in the slush pile for nearly two years.
Once the outlines were done, it was time to sit down and write.
A quick note. One of the joys of writing is that it costs exactly nothing. Nothing. However, getting your pride and joy in front of readers can cost A LOT, especially if you want to produce a quality indie product.
Trust me, I know. I’m still underwater on my original sci-fi trilogy, The Valley series. I loved those books, but they blew a hole in my wallet.
But I digress.
So yeah, I started to puke words onto paper in my bridge novel of the series. Where does the effort stand as of right this second?
64,426 words written in MS 2 of the series as we speak, and I am closing in on the finale of Book 2. I would have liked to have reached the planned length of 90K words, but I think this one is going to land north of 80K and it’ll settle there.
This isn’t an issue. “The Captain’s Cauldron,” Book 2 of my original trilogy, stopped at 84K, so these are charted waters. I’m satisfied with a RD that hangs out at ~80K.
So there. I offcially started writing on the 21st of December 2020, and I anticipate that MS 2 will be Rough Draft complete NLT 31JAN21.
This is the internal deadline I’ve set for myself, and it looks as if I’ll meet it.
But when, you ask, will these books be published? So my readers can, well, read? That’s kind of the whole point to this exercise, after all.
I don’t know.
Right now I’m writing on the “Field of Dreams” concept. “Build it, and they will come.” Much as Kevin Costner thought he was crazy for erecting a ballfield in the middle of a corn patch, I have moments where I doubt what the hell I’m doing.
But that’s OK. It’s all part of the journey, I suppose.
“Write it, and they will come.”
Worst case scenario I can start a Patreon page and release the series one chapter at a time.
The image above is a remarkable document posted yesterday, the 12th of January 2021. The document was written in response to the events we all witnessed in Washington DC on the 6th of January, 2021. It reminds members of the DoD about the oath they willingly took when they joined the ranks.
It struck me that this was a fine time to repost a dissection of the basic oath of enlistment that I originally posted on the 8th of June, 2020.
I want to discuss this oath, this basic step, because a lot of people misunderstand the role of the US Military in society. So here goes.
First, the oath of enlistment in its present day form.
I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.” (Title 10, US Code; Act of 5 May 1960 replacing the wording first adopted in 1789, with amendment effective 5 October 1962).
Now I’m going to tear it apart and reveal exactly why a lot of military leaders this week have been hesitant to summon the Regular military to US cities to suppress lawful demonstrations.
First, “I will support and defend…” This refers to the obligation, freely assumed by members of the military, to defend the entire US Constitution against those who would seek to deny its specific rights to fellow citizens or attempt to conquer from without. Some examples would be lawful conflict against Nazis in World War Two, or suppression of the Klu Klux Klan during Reconstruction. The Nazis because they sought to overthrow our system of government, the KKK because they sought to deny the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens.
“I will bear true faith…” This means that you follow the Constitution to the letter and the spirit, and that you are loyal to the Constitution before all else. It’s why this clause is written before the following clause, which authorizes lawful authority to command.
“That I will obey the orders of the President… officers…” A military member is required to follow the orders of the President and officers, commissioned and non-commissioned. The clause means what it says. However, there is an important caveat; and this is raised in the next clause.
“According to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice…” This body of written regulation and law is first subject to the Constitution. A military member may not circumvent the Constitution. After the Constitution follows regulations and the UCMJ, which are partially subject to international treaties (ex: the Geneva Convention). This clause, within regulation, recognizes the difference between illegal and legal orders. This is a concept which was fleshed out by the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-47; i.e. it is why it is never a sufficient defense to say “I was just following orders” in the course of atrocities, etc.
“So help me God.” The capping clause that acknowledges the supremacy of a deity over the laws and actions of man.
There you go. A nutshell class in why every service member in the United States serves as a guarantor of the freedoms enumerated in the US Constitution, and why they must follow orders, but only legal orders given in the spirit of the US Constitution.
By the way, National Guard personnel have a slightly different oath in which they recognize the command authority of a given state’s governor. Look it up, it’s much the same; also, National Guard personnel are frequently summoned to active duty and they function under Title 10 exactly like regulars. Sometimes people get confused by this, but it’s really simple.
So there you have it, the reason why every US trooper is obligated by law to uphold the Constitution.
If a servicemember acts to deny his or her fellow citizen their Constitutional rights, then they have gone against the base principle that they committed themselves to on their first day of service.
The US oath of enlistment.
It is specifically designed to ensure and lawfully oblige each member of the armed services to protect the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens; with their lives if necessary.
OK, why am I posting an image of yet another medal today?
There’s a reason for this. One is that military medals are important symbols for those who know how to read them; they signal a service member’s complete record if you know what you’re looking at. In many cases, they also serve to illustrate the history and choices a nation makes.
The medal above is the United States World War Two Victory Medal; anyone who honorably served in the US military between December 7, 1941 and December 31st, 1946 is entitled to wear it.
This medal represents the moral courage of an entire nation and government; it was issued at the cost of trillions in treasure, hundreds of thousands of young deaths; and millions maimed and traumatized.
Moral courage is the courage to take action for moral reasons despite the risk of adverse consequences. (Wikipedia)
Physical courage is bravery in the face of physical pain, hardship, even death or threat of death. (Wikipedia)
I’ve been up against situations that required both types of courage, and I believe that the harder of the two is moral courage.
The World War Two medal above required both types of courage from its participants, although physical courage was the one most frequently praised and acknowledged.
For physical courage, you don’t have to look far or think hard. This can be divorced from the moral aspects and frequently is. For example, the qualifications for valor decorations amongst the German, Soviet, US, British, etc. militaries is similar. The moral aspects behind the causes was worlds apart.
There is nothing to admire about the German cause in World War Two. Nothing. But it took real moral courage to oppose Nazism and fascism at the time.
These days, eighty odd years later, one may think that this is no longer relevant.
Allow me to explain how the moral courage of President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill still matter.
Both had to deal with isolationist sentiment, as well as large blocs of the population that were sympathetic to fascism. It is a myth that the British Empire and the United States went into World War Two united and motivated. Not true at all, and this reluctance to engage ascendant fascism is easily perceived upon any type of study whatsoever.
In terms of the subject, moral courage, President Roosevelt had to make a clear policy stand to prepare the US for war; he had to define an enemy that many Americans didn’t see as a threat. It is well known that isolationist sentiment in the US opposed Roosevelt’s proposed military buildup; celebrities such as Charles Lindbergh were staunch proponents of the America First movement. He was an open admirer of Adolph Hitler; many Americans shared his views.
These days this may be inconceivable for many of us. But it was true. Millions across the United States and Europe thought that the Fascists had the solution to the economic woes of the Depression; millions also could have cared less about the plight of the Jews and other oppressed minorities.
Sad but true.
Roosevelt had to use every tool at his disposal to get the US to prepare for war; in the end it was only the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s ill-advised declaration of war on the US that really got the “arsenal of democracy” turning.
The stress and strain of his prewar stand and the conduct of the war killed President Roosevelt on the job.
Roosevelt was a real, no kidding profile in moral courage.
Brought back to the personal level, I don’t have many opportunities these days to exercise physical courage. This is a good thing. Physical courage implies danger either to me or my family. I don’t think many of us have to confront real enemies at the gate.
But all of us have to make choices that require moral courage.
Moral courage is hard. Draining. It’s the constant drive to do the right thing; in the service we would have called this “living by the Army values.” I know I constantly put things into the paradigm of what I did in the past. It can be a problem. But the past applies here, in this discussion.
Let me show you the Army Values, and you will understand.
Loyalty. Duty. Respect. Selfless Service. Honor. Integrity. Personal Courage.
I guess this still means something to me, even after seven years of retirement. These values aren’t just hot air, and they aren’t just for soldiers. This is moral courage in a nutshell; and trying, and occasionally failing, to live up to these values has cost me. I am certain that I am not alone in this; all of us face difficult life choices. It’s the decisions we make that represent something else of importance; character.
Johnny stood on the serried line, to his right and left were seemingly endless soldiers in blue, with light blue trousers. His regiment stood, the Rebs were coming. He could hear them scream; it was the Rebel Yell that echoed over this accursed field of green.
The scream said “we are here, and we are coming for you.”
The Napoleons opened up, BOOM, BOOM. He gripped his Springfield, he waited for the command. As he had been trained, as he was told. He watched as the Johnny Rebs closed on his regiment; they grew closer. Closer.
He had to piss in the worst way. His hands rested upon the steel and walnut of his rifle; in it rested a Minie Ball; nearly three-quarters of an inch of dying nestled in his barrel.
Waiting. Like he did. Like he did with his regiment; thousands of young men strong. Men sound of body and mind; they waited for the axe to fall. For the Rebs to come. To close with them, to kill them.
His grip was sweaty upon his piece. His mouth was dry; the sun beat down upon his dark blue coat. He swore he could feel the sun build heat in the brass bugle upon his bummer cap; he was a man of line; an infantryman.
His mission; to close with and kill the enemy on this accursed field.
“Thou shalt not kill;” the preacherman said.
But today he would.
He’d kill Rebs just like him; children of the same God. How could he figure that right? How could he ever be clean?
ROAR. They screamed. They trilled; it was the Rebel Yell.
They meant to leave him cold and splayed-legged upon the field. With the bayonet that pierced, the ball that killed. Grapeshot to smear him across the bright green grass.
The hell with that. His mouth was dry; his vision narrowed into a tunnel. He saw the running Rebs in their butternut and gray. Oh Lord, he thought.
His Lieutenant screamed.
“Hold, Boys! Hold!”
The man held his sword along the line of troopers; straight-across as if to hold them back.
Zip. Phweet. Snap!
“Uh,” said the man next to him. Ephraim. He fell as if his strings were cut.
Johnny pissed himself. He would hold. On the grave of his father, on the spirits of his ancestors, he would hold.
The Rebs had their own artillery; a gap formed in the line of blue.
“Close ranks! Close ranks!”
Johnny moved. It was automatic. The Rebs closed upon the hill. They were close. Close!
Johnny brought his rifle to his shoulder.
“Full cock and aim low!”
Johnny ran his hammer all the way back and sighted on a shouting man with a dirty blonde beard.
“First rank, fire!”
Johnny smashed his trigger. The yelling man, the bearded man, disappeared behind a dirty puff of smoke. Had he just killed a man? He was too busy to care.
Johnny automatically kneeled, he pulled a paper cartridge out, bit off the end and dumped it in his barrel. He rammed the ball into his barrel, ran the hammer to half-cock and placed a cap upon the nipple. He was ready.
Right by his ear, the second rank fired.
The Reb’s advance faltered. So many of them fell.
The third rank fired.
The Rebs screamed, their charge fell to pieces.
Johnny’s heart hammered away. The rebels fell. His heart pounded hard; he screamed. Something squeezed his chest; it was as if a great weight pressed upon him. He fought to breathe. He couldn’t. For the love of God, he couldn’t.
Johnny fired. The Rebel’s charge stopped. Johnny sagged to his knees. They got me, he thought.
On the 21st of August, 1931, Private John Buckmaster fell at last. His daughter found him; he looked peaceful.
They listed “heart failure” on his death certificate.
So a friend of mine generously supplied me with an unusual little book of poetry, it’s called “The Nest and the Turret,” by his late wife Melanie Farquharson Goddard Brose.
It’s a collection of musings that spans a four year period, 2015-2019, and they are a reflection of an unusual mind. There are thoughts about nature, the future, society, and keen observations into things that many of us would gloss over in our maybe not too-busy, but certainly less-studied lives.
She speaks of growing moss. One hundred days of rain. Kids filing into a museum. Featured below, a time paradox; reprinted with permission from her husband and featured in her book.
Enjoy; I did. Then give the book a look. It’s quirky, full of odd corners and unforeseen paths you’ll be glad you went down.
LOOKING TOWARDS SPACE + TIME
I can imagine your shiny silver metal rocket ship
skipping through the stratosphere
with endless elemental energy
I hope to hear your stories of decades
gone by in unexplored space at
unexplored time windows of gold, pinks, and blue…
wrapped in black cylinders.
Out bursts your rocket ship from a black cylinder in its descent
to a launch pad waiting to be built
for your launch decades ago.
This type of thing appeals to me, what a shame her writing is done. She obviously adored her little patch of heaven, a handsome old brick estate in the rolling Virginia hills, although her thoughts didn’t stay there. She skipped around, she had a wide range of interests. This is clear from her prose.
A statement that she makes:
“Writing is very powerful as it can project thought from beyond where one can physically reach one’s body and the current moment.”
This echoes what was said by another poet, Robert Browning. “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”
Favorites of mine, really. This book is full of little nuggets like this. I never had the chance to talk this collection over with her. A missed chance to engage with a smart and observant lady.
The best I can do is make my circle of readers aware of this work.
Painfully, the final entry is followed by the simple words “Undated, final poem.” This somehow reminds me of the remark Rudyard Kipling made when he learned his only son had been killed during the Great War. “The boy made a good end in his first action.” The grief that is hidden behind a few sparse words.
“The Nest and the Turret.” A life celebrated in print.
I liked it, you can inquire about it here:
The Nest and the Turret, PO Box 147, Waterford VA 20197, USA.
Well readers, friends, it’s pretty safe to say that 2020 has been a rough year for all of us.
Speaking for me, not the worst year of my life, but definitely in the top five.
So as we go to close this dumpster fire out, I thought to share what I’m up to as the New Year approaches.
I’m writing a lot. This started in earnest on the 21st of December; I’m working on a new, independent project. It’s an alternate history, the second book in a trilogy.. No, the first book has not been published. If it was, you all would surely know.
Here’s my tentative plan.
At some point in 2021 something will happen with this mystery project; when it does, I’d like to have three rough draft manuscripts ready to go. A complete rough-draft trilogy. I’ve never done anything like this, and I am unsure if other authors approach projects in this manner. The technique has the strength that all at once you can plan the complete arc of the trilogy; and because I have the time I can make this happen.
I’d like to be done no later than the end of March. This is feasible.
My planned word count for each of the RD manuscripts is about 85K; this leaves me room to develop and tweak the works as necessary. At some point an editor will step in; when this happens I’ll nip and tuck.
It would be nice for each novel to be somewhere north of 90k words, this is where my first trilogy ended up. It’s a book length I’m comfortable with, although my last completed project ran to about 110K.
So call it no less than 85k, no more than 100 odd. Once again, this is dependent upon feedback from my editing team.
In the time since I began the creative process on Book Two, I’ve banked some 17 odd K. This is me working at my average sustained rate of about 2k per day, or a rough chapter. Now, there are days when my rate is 0. There are other days when I freak out and write 6k. I try to avoid both extremes, 2 seems about right. Of course, with the demands of the holiday season, it can be tough to squeeze in a couple of thousand words.
I guess my secret sauce is my shot to hell irregular sleep patterns.
Don’t try this at home, is all I can say. Even with a steady diet of VA pills, I still sleep for shit. Why do you take them, you say. Well, if I didn’t I’d never enjoy more than a few hours uninterrupted sleep. And then you can’t do anything but stare at the wall. Been there, done that.
To get back to the subject, it’s a left-handed gift, these strange nights. None of them can be called typical, but I suppose that on average I wake up at twoish, grab some coffee, check email, etc. and start to write. There are no distractions at three in the morning!
It’s been my experience that I need four clear hours to get anything done. If my block of time is less than that, I don’t even start. Don’t know why that is, but these days I accept it and try to mold my work day around this four-hour window, crunching out 500 words per hour, approximately.
It’s important for me to set goals, so a goal that I have is to have Act I of book two in the bank by New Year’s Eve.
Happy to report that I am on track with that; I’m going through the beta process as we speak.
There are few things that are more enjoyable than to post your work on the cloud and get near instant feedback from a crew of dedicated readers. This. This is what makes retirement tolerable.
Or quarantine, for that matter.
Let’s not even go there. I was sick most of November, and have had the pleasure of watching my immediate family fall sick this month. So fantastic! Awesome sauce.
As you can probably imagine, it’s a great time to write, to stay busy.
At two thousand words per day, I’m making it happen.
To all of you who follow my work, thank you. To those of you I communicate with, double thanks.
Well, this morning I sat down to write some people an email to wish them well this holiday season. As I wrote, I realized that there were a lot of folks I could address such a letter to.
So I decided to write a web post instead.
As I sat down to work on the next installment of my latest novel, it struck me that my Australian friends would wake up to Christmas morning today at about three o’clock my time on the 24th. So maybe it would be a good idea to wish you all Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas in whatever tradition, if any, that you follow.
You all know it’s an odd holiday season here in the States; some 326,000 families, including my own, have lost someone to the plague this year. My immediate family will be quarantined until next Wednesday, so far I’m the only one who has visited the hospital. Hopefully it stays that way.
You’d think I’d be pissed at something. There are solid reasons to be unhappy, and some obvious targets for blame.
I’m not. This house is warm and dry. My bed is comfortable. I like my family. We have internet. Tomorrow we will exchange gifts and feast. Also, while I dare not visit my parents, they are alive and we can FaceTime. And oh yes. I have a rewarding occupation in retirement, and interesting and helpful friends as a result thereof.
So thanks. Seriously.
Even in this dumpster fire of a year, surrounded by social, economic, medical and political wreckage, there’s reason for hope.
Strangely enough, I take hope from the lessons of our ancestors. 1918 was bad. We survived it. Within my family, the bitter winter of 1944/45 exists still within living memory. An awful time. Let alone such years as 1348, or for Americans, the terrible spring of 1865.
We are way ahead of our forebears. As we speak, millions worldwide are being vaccinated against this plague. Our medical professionals, who have taken on the brunt of this disaster, are first in line for the shot. As it should be.
So to all my friends and readers worldwide, stay strong and thanks again.
OK, so yesterday’s post was doom and gloom, blah, blah. Lemme get away from that and share something about what I’m doing right now.
I’m contemplating writing the second book in an unreleased trilogy codenamed RIFLES. Part of my preparation is re-reading the first manuscript so that I can get back in the “mood and mindset” for the series. As I was reading I rediscovered this early chapter where we meet the guys in our hero Bill’s squad.
I like this chapter and I decided I’d share it with you all. It’s not spoilerrific, it doesn’t give away the game. The chapter does its job in propelling me forward in the narrative; I’m falling for my own trap.
This is good.
So without further ado, here is the sample chapter from RIFLES.
Private Bob White, known as Shadow to Second Squad, ran his hand along his rifle in the dark. He knew everything about it. The weapon’s serial number was Y1511, its wrist band was stamped with a stylized crown with the letters GR beneath it. Furthermore, the chunk of steel and American walnut had been produced in the Royal Remington Arms factory in 1914, and it was a “SHT LE Mk III*”
The weapon was blunt, functional death in the hands of a skilled marksman, which Bob was. Like much else, he kept that knowledge to himself. Growing up in a tiny two room cabin in the coal town of Crescent, Bob’s job was to bring home squirrels, groundhogs or rabbits, whatever he could bag to help feed his family.
He spent endless hours in the dense forests with a .22 rifle; to miss was to go hungry. Bob rarely missed.
When he was conscripted, he took to the Enfield rifle as if it were an extension of his body. What he aimed at got hit. He wasn’t showy about it; he rarely spoke. In training he was infrequently selected for punishment or details because the sergeants seemed to always forget about him. Bob was fine with that.
He perfected the art of being invisible so well that he remained behind in the replacement depot twice when the barracks were emptied out, only Bob remained behind. He would enjoy a day or two in relative peace until the new crop came in, and then he would fade back into the woodwork.
The third time was a charm, as they say. And now he was here, at the front. To be at the front was to be exposed to fellows like him, killers who could knock off your hat at 500 yards. With a healthy splash of brains inside, of course. Bob’s invisible trick didn’t work with Corporal Crawford for some reason. Since he had arrived with Second Squad, he had done his fair share of mess kit scrubbing or water fetching. Bob sighed. He had known a few Crawfords before. They were usually mine foremen or village bobbies, nothing escaped their notice. And now he had the misfortune to have such a person as squad leader.
Bob looked out over the dark field through his barely visible sights. He knew he couldn’t be seen, he had dug his hole beneath a bush, even in broad daylight he would be in the shadows.
And that’s how he liked it.
In the next hole over was Private John Smith, or Jitters. He was shaking like a leaf, he needed to pee, again. Since he heard that they would face the enemy tonight, he had urinated about every ten minutes. He wondered what weird trick controlled his bladder, John knew it was all in his head, but damn it, his bladder felt full.
They said in training that moving around a lot at the front was a bad idea; it caught the eye. So he dare not stand up and relieve himself. Some sharp-eyed Hun would pick him out and he’d die, penis in hand.
His teeth chattered. He could see the letter as his young wife read it. “For King and Empire,” it would say, “Your husband died with his cock in hand.” John suppressed an enormous laugh. Dying with his hand on his cock. They wouldn’t write that, would they?
The manic moment passed, but he still needed to piss. Bad. With a sigh, he unbuttoned his fly, rolled to the side and added a trickle to an already soggy patch of earth. Within seconds, it was done. He buttoned back up, and rolled back behind his rifle. He would do anything, anything at all, not to be here in this nameless field beneath the pretty, swaying trees.
He looked toward the distant, indistinct village and the black expanse before it. His hand shook upon the stock of his Enfield, his face vibrated upon the stock as his jaw danced about. He tried to control his body. Hard. But he couldn’t.
John felt his bladder filling up again.
In the next hastily dug hole was Lance Corporal Tom Bailey. He was dreaming of home, again. His mother’s apple pies. His girl, Lucy. Her caresses. Everything that he missed. As usual, he cursed himself for a fool that he had volunteered for this shit. If he would have waited to finish University, maybe this stupid war would have been over and he wouldn’t have this responsibility, this madness.
His little bit of University time had earned him the stupid stripe on his sleeve. But what good Plato and plane geometry did him in the trenches, he didn’t know. At first he had been dazzled by military service, and he had let that puny stripe go to his head. Men like that old salt Joe had noticed, and they hung his hated nickname around his neck. Medals. He had grown used to it, but it still stung a little. These days he could give two shits about some piece of ribbon and silver. Too often he had seen men die, good fellows who didn’t deserve what they got.
As he looked over the flaxen field, he knew more men would die tonight. Tom was resigned to the bullet that would take his life, a bullet if he was lucky. Maybe a choking mouthful of mustard or chlorine. A whizzing patch of steel. A shovel. He had seen it all.
He would take deep breaths, and let them out slowly. He checked his pistol, a captured Luger, again and again. Tom felt the handle of the trench knife that stuck from his belt, he made sure it would draw easily. His little trench shovel was stuck in his belt as well, along with Mills bombs. He looked back across the field, he felt a little electric pulse when he saw the shadowed houses.
Death was there, waiting. He knew it. And he knew there was nothing he could do to stop the dying, the screaming. The assault would go in and Medals was ready. What good was his mastery of Latin now, he wondered.
The lessons of plain steel were the only ones that mattered.
Private Clarence Turtle wished he had dug his hole just a little bit deeper. Maybe that would keep Crawford from noticing him when the flares went up. He looked across the dim field and could see it heaving with explosions, tracers, and the crazy dancing light of flares. For two months Muds had been telling himself each day that this one would be the last, that he would never see the rising sun again.
For now the field was peaceful, quiet. But Clarence knew what a bullshit illusion that was. On the other side the goddamn grey lice waited, their Spandau cocked and ready. He didn’t doubt that they had their sectors of fire laid in and locked, with some trench mortars, maybe artillery in support.
He wondered if the Germans had wireless or field telephones with a battery of howitzers on standby. Muds hated artillery, he received his nickname when a nearby explosion had caused him to soil his pants back in May. He swore that if he was ever tasked with escorting captured cannon-cockers to the rear, that they would “try to escape” instead.
Clarence ground his teeth; his right hand shook. It was always the right, his trigger hand. He shivered. For a moment he saw that boy, the surprise on his face when Clarence ran him through with his long bayonet. Again and again, it was always that boy on the trench raid in June.
Muds covered his eyes, he pinched his nose. As a child, he had heard plenty of yarns about the spirits in the forests, the ghosts in caves, the spectral flights of owls. He believed in that stuff. Or he had. Not anymore, because he hadn’t seen one single ghost in France, which should be flooded with them.
He balled his shaking hand into a fist. It helped, a little. Then it came to him. There were ghosts; they were there. He saw the boy, felt the bayonet pierce his soul.
The ghosts lived in his head.
Private Andrew Little held his Enfield close, but what he really wanted was Chief’s BAR. He was qualified on the automatic rifle, he was a little pissed when Chief came back from headquarters. Rumor had it that he would be sent to the rear for sure. But he wasn’t so Spanky got his rifle back.
And here he lie in this damp hole in the ground, waiting for the flares to go up. Andrew was excited, back at the replacement depot the rumor had been that the war would be over before they got to the line, that the Germans were running and the fighting was over. Many were not so secretly relieved at the news, but Andrew had been deeply disappointed.
He wanted to fight, to prove himself. Maybe he would lose his hated nickname, and they would call him something swell like “Viper,” or “Killer,” instead. His mouth twisted downward in the dark. Spanky. What was a bloke to do, cooped up in a replacement depot with no dames? So what if he stroked it in the latrine and got caught?
Bastards. He’d show ‘em. He was every bit as tough as arseholes like Crawford, or old farts like Joe.
When those green balls of flame shot heavenward, it would be his moment.
Private Blair Whitacre had a hard-on, it was pressed against the dark earth. He was thinking about some girl, he couldn’t remember her name. But he remembered how sweet she was. It was the party he attended before he left; his mother had thrown it. There were a lot of people there; Blair didn’t know many of them. Friends of the family, or people from church, acquaintances. A blushing young girl had caught his eye, they spoke, laughed and disappeared.
Junior stirred at the memory. Back behind the stables he had lifted her skirts and they coupled quickly, vigorously. It was good. For a brief moment, Blair was happy. Then he looked back across the field, and remembered why he was here. His penis shrank and intense fear held him in its grip.
Jesus, he thought. He couldn’t talk his way out of this fix. Some German was going to try to kill him, the Hun didn’t care if he was the football team’s captain, their bullets would shred him as well as that arsehole half-caste Chief.
Being honest with himself, he thought Chief would be more likely to survive.
Junior had treated military training like a joke; he had a knack for getting out of onerous duties. He had pretty much skated through training, and he treated the boat ride to France like some sort of steerage-class vacation. It wasn’t really real to him until he got to the replacement depot, and he saw the sick fear on the faces of the men headed up to the line.
And then it had been his turn, and he was stuck with Crawford, who was immune to his charms. Life had taken a downward turn from that moment on, and now here he was, in some shitty field in France.
For the first time in his life, he meant it when he prayed.
Private Pete Townshend was in the next hole over, and he always meant it when he spoke to the Lord. That’s what he was doing right now, he said the Lord’s Prayer over and over. As he held his steel and wood killing machine, he beseeched a higher power for deliverance, for Pete was no fool.
He knew that a little slug of copper and lead could take his life and deliver his soul to God. And he wasn’t ready to go yet. He wished more than anything to be back home in his Victorian cottage, with his wife Helen and two girls.
As he lay there smelling fresh dirt and gun solvent, he thought about how the girls played in the grass, how they chased butterflies and petted the cat. His eyes watered at the memory, he wiped a tear from one. It burned. He cursed his stupidity; he had bore cleaner on his hands and hadn’t washed. Crawford had insisted that each man should clean his weapon before sunset; they would be used tonight.
Could he do it, he thought. Could he put a man in his sights and pull the trigger? A child of God, blessed by the spirit? So what if God had decided to put that other man in a grey uniform, and he was in khaki. It didn’t make any sense to him, nothing did. No-one had been more displeased to get a conscription notice than Pete. He didn’t feel he should be here, he didn’t want to be here with these dangerous kids. They called him “Pepper” on account of his salt and pepper hair, and he let them. He didn’t mind. He’d do his duty.
But damn he didn’t want to.
Private Sam Wordsworth, “Sweetie,” held the letter from his wife in his hand and wept. He couldn’t read it; it was too dark. But he knew what it said, almost by heart. He could see his wife’s plain cursive script, how it told of his son, the crops, and the weather. As usual, it said nothing of the hole his absence made, the work left undone, the problems with his humble acres. But he knew those things were there, left unwritten between the lines.
And Sam knew he would never go home again. He’d never feel the corn tassles between his fingers, the smell of black Ohio earth, the babble of the nearby creek where he’d rest after ploughing. Kitty would bring him lemonade, and he would look across his land, his patch of heaven. Never, he thought, to be seen again.
Sweetie felt rage. He swore violently, he hated a black hatred. For King and Goddamn Empire, he thought, I’m in some other farmer’s field halfway around the earth waiting to die. He gripped his rifle in his meaty hands, it looked like a toy when he held it. But he knew damn well its bullets would shred even a giant like himself.
Sam had never shot a man, as far as he knew. Oh, he fired, along with everyone else. But he didn’t want to know. Sometimes he would close his eyes when he pulled the trigger. It was all just too much, and he hated it. There was only one time he was certain he had killed or badly hurt a man. A German was about to shoot Joe, and Sam struck him with his shovel. He didn’t look down, but he could still feel the crunch when his little spade struck home. Like splitting a tough log.
As he lay in his hole, Sweetie felt sick. He probably had killed the German. For his sin, he would never go home. Tears ran down Sam’s face, one dripped upon his Enfield.
He put away the letter.
Private Joe Magyar heard a hiccup from Sweetie’s hole; he knew the man was crying. He always did that before an attack. Joe, he wished he could light his pipe. He chewed a plug instead. An attack against an unknown enemy. Fantastic, he thought. A battalion minus night assault, they’d probably shoot each other in confusion.
He didn’t like it. He would have been much happier with some artillery support, or maybe a few of those Fords. Joe sighed and chewed the sweet plug. He spat. How he got balled up in this damn war, he didn’t know. All he knew is that he had received a letter from King George V, and his choices were taken away. Again.
In some ways, this was just like the Philippines. People trying to kill you at random times, the dry-mouthed fear. The misery. The headache-inducing pure stress.
In other ways, it wasn’t. The climate was completely different, and so was the enemy. But the Germans were still the enemy; and they were damn good killers. Joe had lost track of how many close calls he had. A shell fragment in his rifle’s stock. A trench shovel that missed, the blade cutting the air before his nose. The phweet of close bullets. The cough of a trench mortar, the silent explosion that killed.
He knew his luck would run out, his soul belonged to God. Since the Philippines he had been living on borrowed time, anyway. For a second he watched as his very first Lieutenant took a bullet to his white pith helmet, a gout of blood splashed out and the man went down like a sack of potatoes.
Just like that, it was over. What did it matter that the man had a fancy double name and lands in England? Nothing, as far as Joe could tell.
This attack would be like any other. Joe would live or die, and at the end they’d see who made it, and who did not. He raised his eyebrow, worked his chew and sighed.
Whether he was one of the counters or the counted, well, he figured he’d see. He didn’t dare think of home, or Imogene.
Down that path lay madness.
Corporal Daniel Crawford was a ball of nervous energy, his hole was set back from the line, catty-corner from Joe and Bill’s. He knew damn well what it was like to be under fire, he had faced his first Mausers and Krupp guns in Cuba. It seemed at times to be forever ago, and then at other times yesterday. He had taken the King’s shilling when he was sixteen to escape from the rough cabin that was his childhood home.
He remembered the sultry, stifling heat, marching into battle wearing that lousy, good for nothing white pith helmet. The shock of the first bullets, the screaming of a wounded horse. The dead, laying willy-nilly with oddly twisted forms. Their expressionless faces. The flies.
Shortly after Cuba he had mustered out, for a time he had enough of a soldier’s life. Then he found that he actually missed the regimentation, the secure lines of a life spent in service. So he wandered into a bobbie’s job, he helped police the little town of Cambridge. When the war started, he wanted to sign up immediately, but his Chief wouldn’t let him go.
So he sat and stewed while the losses mounted. And then he got his draft notice, and even the Chief of Cambridge Police couldn’t ignore that. Daniel returned to the colors. He wouldn’t say he was eager to return to combat, because he wasn’t. But being back in the service felt like coming home.
And home at the moment was this shitty field, and his family and responsibility were ten men.
In the last hole, so that he could cover his squad’s sector, lay Private Bill Strohmeier. Everything was ready; he would do his part, he knew that for certain. As usual before a fight, he felt watched, weightless, as if he would blow away in a strong wind. The minutes stretched, his eyes hurt with the strain of his vigil behind the sights of the BAR. His right index finger tapped the trigger guard, he had a round in the pipe with the safety off. He breathed in and out, and wished for a last smoke before battle. But there was no safe way to light up, so he didn’t. The plug tobacco he had gotten from Joe a couple of hours earlier was chewed into a tasteless mass, he had no idea what time it was.
He imagined he could hear the ticking of a clock, his right shoulder throbbed. In the dark, he heard the small noises of men making last minute adjustments to their gear. He spat out the useless chunk of plug tobacco, his mouth was dry as a bone anyway. He pulled out his canteen and took a little sip, he swirled the water around.
As he put his canteen away, he heard a series of small pops. Green streaks raced heavenward, the flares pierced the night. Vickers guns and the three inch battalion mortars spat death and ruin.
As all of you are no doubt aware, we denizens of the United States are getting hammered by this @#$% disease. Of course, we are not alone. Europe is having severe issues as well, along with other parts of the world. This is not a uniquely American problem. Some of the dysfunction in dealing with it has been, but state-by-state some regions have had better success than others.
I am glad to say that I’m convinced that Ohio has done their best.
Over the past nine months I’ve been watching as this pandemic has hit closer and closer to home. It’s like someone else walking artillery fire toward your position. Someone hostile. The first hit way off in the distance and off to the side is no big deal. A puff of black, and a few seconds later the sound of the explosion.
“Right 200, add 400.”
Uh-oh. This time you want to duck, the round goes off behind you.
You’re being “bracketed” and you know it.
“Left 100, drop 200.”
The round drops right in front of you. For what we are about to receive, you think, may we be truly thankful.
“Fire for effect.”
Well, that’s where we’ve been for the last six weeks. In the trench with rounds detonating all around. A few times the damn things have gone off in my face, such as last month when I spent weeks in bed with a mystery illness that sure looked like Covid, but wasn’t confirmed. Maybe it was pneumonia. Who knows. Negative test, but maybe taken at wrong time and tests only 70-75 percent accurate. Sickest I’ve ever been, for sure.
In any case, we’ve done our best to stay safe and not to contaminate our friends and family; not all of my household has the luxury of isolating like me, the retired writer and confirmed hermit. Like a medic, a lieutenant or a runner, they must move and expose themselves to blast and shrapnel.
Crump. Whump. Thump. The explosions are maddening, draining. A chunk of steel buries itself in the mud in front of me. I look left and right, my family is still OK… and then…
WHAM. Dust and mud flies, a terrible ringing blocks out all sound. It feels as if someone has struck my head with a board, I fly through the air and land somewhere in a heap. I hurt all over. My mouth tastes of blood; have I lost a tooth? My hand shoots toward my balls, they may be shrunken, tight, but they are there.
Who got hit? We ate that one. Shit.
A close family member took a confirmed hit from the Corona; the blood drains from my face. What? How?
I no longer hear the exploding ordnance, it has become irrelevant. What matters is that a loved one is stricken; the damn disease scored a direct hit.
The Health Department, notified of a positive test by the hospital, calls. We are under a mandatory quarantine order.
Now we wait. Tomorrow it snows, today I’ll read in preparation for another writing task. What can you do? Wail and run in circles? Hide beneath your sheets?
Nope. Life goes on, even in mandatory quarantine.
So to all my readers out there- God bless, and stay safe.