A Love Story
Dirt and blood covered Charlie’s face as he reached to hold the hand of his dying brother in arms. Cries of pain echoed in the trenches, sending shivers down the spines of those alive.
It’s cold, Charlie. Fucking freezing. Hansen was turned on his back, revealing pieces of grenade shrapnel that penetrated his skin at various depths. Charlie was the combat medic. Charlie was about to lose his friend.
Relax, Hansen, and sit up. The cold can’t hold a candle to Colebrook. Hansen rested on his cheek with his back to Charlie. Slowly, Charlie began to remove the metal from Hansen’s body, bracing his friend against himself to counteract the sudden jolts of motion.
This is a different sort of cold, Charlie. I’m not going back to old New Hampshire with you. Charlie felt his friend’s cheek beginning to cool as it pressed against the ground. Then, as Hansen’s body stopped writhing, Charlie stopped trying to talk him out of dying. He rubbed his friend’s back and wondered when his own death would come.
Charlie hid there alone, out of ammo, in a fumbling panic for five hours before the bullets finally stopped. He wanted to go home, but new orders stated that they were to give the Vietcong soldiers a good pummeling on the hill. Stay low. Move around. The hill climb would last a week, and then the company would camp and await further orders. Charlie let go of Hansen’s hand. He was the combat medic, and his mission was to march.
Charlie Daniels and thousands of men like him twist the volume knob and the television comes to life:
“GENTLEMEN, THIS MEANS WAR
WHAT SIDE DO YOU CHOOSE?
WHAT DO YOU SAY, AMERICA?
LET’S EAT SOME HOTDOGS AND GO TO WAR”
The voice is loud and familiar; it is the same one that once demanded to not play in the sandbox with niggers, the one that falsely promised our mothers a chicken in every pot, the one that collected the scalps of our fathers, neatly aligning their names across a dark green semicircle of granite.
Charlie does not recognize the voice, but he does want to be a doctor someday. Charlie doesn’t have the money, so he listens to the voice on the T.V., and kisses his mother goodbye, and grabs a gun, and goes to war.
Sergeant Reed was about to give his instructions to the privates. Charlie stood with his hands held behind his back, his eyes front. The Sergeant was tall and rigid like the trees whose leaves withstood the winter. But there was no nature to this man; he moved like a machine, each motion deliberately calculated and then executed. He and a dozen others were arranged in a line facing the Sergeant. All the men could feel their throats squeeze tighter and tighter as their faces shifted shape with fear. As Sergeant Reed’s stone eyes finished scanning each of the young men up and down, he cleared his throat to speak.
To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.
This you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For to-day we have naming of parts.” 1
All Charlie wanted to be was a doctor, and he was ready to fight for his country for that privilege. But as he listened to the Sergeant speak, he realized he was not prepared. The man he knew as himself, as well as a man can know himself, would not last. The Charlie Daniels from New Hampshire that missed his mother and girlfriend terribly would die here. To survive, that boy would have to become a man; the kind of man who could kill, as quickly and naturally as the coming of Spring.
Calling her boy to come downstairs, Mrs. Daniels retrieved her flowered oven mitts from the hook on the side of the cupboard. Pulling them on, left first and right second, she hummed “Stars and Stripes” and waited to hear Charlie’s footsteps.
Running across the kitchen floor, Joanna pulled at her mother’s spotless white house dress. Mrs. Daniels hoisted the toddler up to meet her eyes.
“Does my big girl want some apple pie?”
“You’re making it for Charlie, aren’t you?”
“Yes, but of course you can have some too”
“Can we listen to Charlie talk about his trip today? I bet he has so much to tell us!”
“No, no Joanna. We’ll have apple pie.”
“But he’s been go so long! He needs-”
“No, my dear.” Mrs. Daniels interrupted “We’ll have apple pie.”
He was sleeping when he heard them call.
“Hey, Daniels, you have to check this out.” Charlie was led out of his tent by Milton and Feins, who had him follow them to the top of a rock face that looked out over a clearing. A striped beast glared at a pack of three tiny wild dogs circling her. The dogs were thin and hungry, hungrier, perhaps, than the beast had ever been.
“Those Dholes are gonna jump that tiger.” Charlie nodded at Milton and watched in silence, all three men lying down stomach first. The dogs sauntered around the tiger in narrowing circles, each fighter sinking its teeth in the tiger then dashing away, ready to be succeeded by the next. Every now and then the tiger would swipe its paw across the face of one of the Dholes, and the dog would whimper for a short while, and then get back to the hunt with its brothers. Eventually, they wore down the beast, and fed on it until their stomachs were large enough to survive for at least a few more days.
But the dogs were left with bleeding lacerations that could not be repaired just by licking, and those would get infected and the dogs would die anyway. The men watched as the Dholes limped away from the half-eaten animal. Feins wiped the dirt from his hands and stood up from his prone position.
“Looks like if the hunger doesn’t kill you, your food will.”
Her lips tasted sweet like the lemonade the children made in the summertime. He remembers being thirteen and hearing Penny Williams tell him to close his eyes. She was fifteen, and all Charlie’s friends thought it was real swell for him to be sneaking out with her at night. She told him to close his eyes, and when he did, she gently pressed her lips against his and carried his hand to her cheek. He told her he felt funny inside, but she said that was supposed to happen, especially if you kept your eyes closed. Charlie had never kissed a girl, and went on to kiss Penny Williams many more times, each time a little easier than the last. One day Charlie asked if she felt funny inside when they kissed, and she said she did.
He introduced her to his mother, who always thought the Williamses were good, God-fearing people and it would be just fine if Charlie went with their daughter. He started to help move baskets and harvest apples on her father’s orchard, and when Mr. Williams was out, Penny would go out on the porch and stare at Charlie as he worked. He would glance back and she would blush as she chewed her fingernails and fixed her long, blonde hair. Charlie liked that Penny read books and that she always read them around him to show how much she liked them. He read too, but would never admit to Penny that his favorite thing was how each first letter of the chapters were big and bold as if the author thought those were the most important letters. Penny used to talk about all of the words in the books that she liked, but Charlie thought she was like him. She may never admit it, but he thought Penny secretly liked the big, bold, first letters too. They talked about marriage sometimes, and she smiled the whole night through when they did. Charlie thought they might get married one day, and that would be all right.
Before the war, before he was in the shit of it all, Charlie thought that he would be cleaning the barrel of his gun or something like that. Then he would close his eyes, and imagine he was kissing Penny Williams in the apple orchard that her father had him working on. He felt so good sneaking around the trees with her. He thought he go back there anytime, as long as he closed his eyes.
An uncomfortable darkness consumed the camp, the layers of vegetation intercepting the moonlight. It was the third day of hill climbing. The VCs had just killed Brant and Garfield, and none of the men in the company saw them in the trees. The two men had been talking about how the prostitutes working the last station reminded them of their wives, and suddenly it appeared that the ground had been ripped out from underneath them like a table cloth. Charlie turned from his watch-post to see the grass absorbing blood from their motionless heads. The company hid in the bushes for two hours, walked over slowly, and buried the bodies.
There was something final about the way Charlie stood over the holes he and the company dug, as if, in one way or another, this war would be the end of all of them. After paying their respects, the men talked in a circle about how swell it would be to go home. The food, the women, the cleanliness. It all seemed so sweet. Charlie was silent as they played their game.
“What’s the matter Charlie?” one of the men asked “Don’t you miss your momma’s cooking and your girl too?” They all glanced at Charlie for his answer. He unscrewed his canteen and downed a swig of water as they waited.
“I guess. Home may not suit me anymore though, or maybe I won’t suit home. I don’t know, but it’s been a long time coming now. I’m starting to think my momma won’t recognize my face.”
The men stopped nodding and laughing, knowing the game was over. None of them looked at each other. They took one last look at their dead friends, filled up the holes, and continued their climb.
Charlie was buying spring water from the general store when he saw Penny walk in, tickling the little bell at the top of the threshold with her entrance. He went down an aisle to avoid her gaze. He was nervous because he was different now, and he wished he had thought about her more. Charlie didn’t think it was fair to her if she still loved him. He thought she had waited for him, that she missed him and wanted him to come home just as his mother did. He wanted to want to marry her, and thought that if she did, it would make coming home a whole lot easier. Charlie thought that she might be able to listen to him, to listen to the things he had to do while he could not think about her so that he could survive, and be a good soldier. Then it would be alright, and his mother would stop praying for him because he would not feel so sick to be home.
He craned his neck to see her face, to see if it was her, but as he turned the corner he saw a boy he remembered named Jimmy Parsons holding her hand; and she was smiling. When Charlie’s eyes met hers, he put the spring water down and quickly exited the store. He thought she might have called his name, but he kept walking because it was not loud enough. She was not loud enough and Charlie knew then that she would never listen to the things he had to say about the war. They would never get married and could never go back to the orchard ever again.
Charlie looked at the rear-view mirror as the reflection of the general store slowly disappeared. Perhaps she really did only like the words in the books she read, and maybe, Penny had been kissing him with her eyes open the whole time.
Charlie later heard January 23rd, 1973 over and over again, but on the actual day he could not guess for his life what the date was. All he remembered was that he was tired. And he had been tired. And he had been tired so long that he may be tired for the rest of his life. He still could remember the eyes of his mother and laughter of his little sister, but he felt that those were no longer his memories. The Charlie that left for the war was a boy he knew long ago, and each shot that was fired and every friend that died demanded a part of his soul in order to make it through.
Charlie was at a big station when he heard the news, and dozens of men around him cheered and cheered until they no longer could. “It’s about time!”, “Thank God!”, “I have to see my kids!” were among the many exclamations he heard. One of the jolly men tapped Charlie on the back and told him the news. Charlie tried to smile, and then walked away to clean his equipment.
The war is over, he thought as he began to clean his boots. But he already threw too much of himself away in order to do the only thing a man could do in the dozens of situations where he could have been killed. There was nothing left.
The war is over, Charlie thought as he hopelessly scrubbed at the mud that permanently stained his boots, but I’m already dead.
“Yes, dear. I thought you might like some pie.”
At least he’s home, Mrs. Daniels would often say to herself. Charlie never got that money from the government to pay for school, Mr. Williams had hired Jimmy Parsons to work on the apple orchard, but those things were okay because at least he was home. She was still trying her best to convince herself that her boy was back, that he was unchanged by the things he saw. She could not hear him talk about it. It would kill her. So she never let him.
Quietly though, she hated herself for it, and while the whole house was asleep she would go downstairs and smash dishes over the counter, screaming and crying until she was sick. Sharp pieces of broken plates would cover the hardwood floor and she would be thrown to the ground by her pain, left there to writhe in agony for her son.
She thought the war was about dramatic, bloody combat and watching honest men die. She thought those days were over, that life could return to normal again because the young men could come home, and all the war stories that would ever be told began with a bold, capital letter and ended with happily ever after.
But when Charlie could not swallow her apple pie
and the homemade ceramic shrapnel left scars up and down her body
she thought that,
the war had just begun.
1. The quote from Sergeant Reed is the poem titled “Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed. Citation below:
Reed, Henry. “Naming of Parts.” New Statesman and Nation 24, no. 598 (8 August 1942): 92 (.pdf).